|Art by Olivia Stephens|
A new issue of Fiyah Literary Magazine brings out four new stories and three new poems, all exploring the theme of Hair. It’s a complicated theme, one that grows out of the ways that black hair has been politicized and policed. But like all hair it’s also a source of identity, expression, and pride. The works explore how hair brings people together, through magic and through care, through defiance and through rebellion. How people suffer when they are dehumanized by those who want to control their hair, restrict and legislate their hair. The works run from contemporary fantasy to second world heroics, and feature characters very much battling against systems of oppression trying to define what beauty, value, and power should be when it comes to hair. To the reviews!
“In That Place She Grows a Garden” by Del Sandeen (5290 words)
No Spoilers: Rayven James is a junior at Queen Mary Catholic High School, on scholarship, and very good and holding onto her anger. Which is why she isn’t very sad to hear that her principal has died, because he wasn’t exactly a nice person. She’s also rather proud of her dreadlocks, which she’s cultivated and grown for the last four years. Which she would have gladly had longer if not for the complication of the new principal, who decides that she’s going to enforce the school’s dress code against “distracting hair styles” and offers Rayven a choice—give up her hair, or get expelled. In the end it’s not that much of a question, but what happens next turns this tragedy into something else, and makes room for resistance, beauty, expression, and a hint of magic. It’s a read that features a lot of the powerless of having to deal with systems that are designed to oppress you, and dealing with that and trying to succeed by everyone’s metrics even as you’re being hurt.
Keywords: Hair, High School, Flowers, Catholics, Sacrifice
Review: There is so much here about the ways that systems, and especially school systems, are designed to disadvantage black students. How society at a larger level and all of its systems (governmental, healthcare, employment) recreate the same aggression, the same harms. And what Rayven James wants to do is just live her life, get through school. She expects what everyone else (who is white, at least) has, which is a sort of respect that means no adult is going to try and alter their bodies to meet some sort of decency standard. That means she doesn’t have be told that what is natural for her is distracting the other students. And yet this isn’t new to her, either, and she makes the decision to comply, in the hopes that it will be enough and she can still get through school, at least. But then the flowers start growing from her head, and I absolutely love where the story takes that, especially with how it makes the flowers painful if touched too roughly. The story just does a wonderful job showing how no one wants to believe her, that no one wants to actually think that she feels pain. Black people facing the consequences of not being believed about their pain is a huge problem, not just in healthcare (though there it’s perhaps more easily linked to their deaths) but also in what they are expected to endure. Rayven is expected to submit to being altered, to the pain of having the flowers removed, for no other reason than she will probably survive. For the principal that is enough, despite the fact that she would never try and pull the fingernails off a white student. It’s a visceral and upsetting sequence, but it’s powerful as well and it rings true. The story shows just how much Rayven is expected to accept, and how she must navigate this world and these systems, hoping for and working toward a better future. An amazing read!
“My Snakes” by Frieda Vaughn (2693 words)
No Spoilers: The story follows the unnamed narrator through her life, through her rather complicated relationship with her hair. Hair that her mother always sought to tame, to make “presentable.” Which were feelings the narrator, in turn, internalized, learning to think of her hair as something she had to hurt in order to be accepted. There’s another aspect of her hair, though, that the story explores, and it goes much farther back than her childhood. It stretches to creation itself, and the snakes that have always lived in some women’s hair. It’s a story of the pressures to conform and the power and beauty that can be found by embracing rather than seeking to contort a big part of how the world sees her, and how she sees herself.
Keywords: Snakes, Hair, Family, Pain, History, Myths
Review: I love the scope this story gives to the struggle of the narrator, the sense of time and history. The snakes here are creatures who have been demonized in much of Western mythology, from Greek myths to the Bible, and it makes a great parallel to the way that black hair has been demonized as well. Sexualized. Made into something that people are encouraged some sometimes forced to conceal or otherwise shape into more “acceptable” forms rather than what comes naturally. The narrator here seems to be particularly vulnerable because she seems multiracial and her mother doesn’t have the same hair and so views the narrator’s hair as messy and bad. As something that needs to be changed. Which damages the narrator in profound ways, not just with the chemical treatments she uses to straighten it, but by teaching her that she has to hurt in order to be accepted. That pain isn’t something she’s supposed to run from, whether it’s her hair or her relationships. Again pain is something she’s told she must accept, that it will make her better, and it’s only the snakes who whisper how false that is. That she is powerful and beautiful as she is. It still takes a long time, but I love the way the story brings her to finding joy in her snakes, in their song, in the words they tell to empower her to live her life. It’s a moving, at times sensual piece, and it’s very much worth spending some time with. A great story!
“No Late-For-School” by Shari Paul (4914 words)
No Spoilers: Delilah is a sewing blogger who has a Story to tell. About a boyfriend who seemed too perfect, an order of costumes covered in feathers, and a secret that is almost too sensational to believe. The piece is told as a blog post, complete with descriptions of the pictures that go along with it, and it’s a perfect form to tell this story, conversational and funny and just enough over-the-top to make the darkness of the piece more manageable. Because it is a rather dark story, about betrayal and the way that people prey on other people. The narrator is no fool, and it’s hard not to feel for her just wanting something as good as her Samson seems. It’s a piece about empowerment and affirmation, and how some can seek to corrupt that for their own gains.
Keywords: Sewing, Blogs, Hair, Feathers, Magic, Transformations
Review: Okay this is a hilarious story, full of voice and character that makes the narrator really come alive. I love the way the story progresses, the hook at the beginning that something Isn’t Right and then the rolling explanation culminating in a rather thrilling and satisfying ending. Just wow. And I love how the story builds rapport with the reader, bringing them in as if they are a follower of this blog, as if they’ve been a part of the narrator’s online life for a while now, witness to her ups and downs and now having this story revealed and it is a doozy. And it really circles around hair, around the way that the narrator is trying to take control of her life in part by taking control of her hair, freeing it from the relaxers she was using and trying a whole bunch of different styles to help her express herself. Only waiting for her it seems are those that look for that kind of confidence, hoping that they won’t look too closely when a man who seems way too good to be true comes along. Not that he doesn’t have problems, but it’s great the way the story builds up how the scheme works, how the narrator falls into this trap, this scam that Samson is running with the help of his friends. And how it almost consumes her. How she almost overlooks the abuse and the red flags entirely. But it’s also a story about trusting yourself and knowing when you need to act to protect yourself and not trust someone who has obviously not been trustworthy. And it makes seeing it all play out, all the drama, all the more tense and captivating. And it’s pulled off with a great tone and humor that just fits so well, underlining how delightfully the narrator manages to escape the trap that nearly caught her, and also turn the tables on those seeking to hurt her. Just a fantastic read!
“While Dragons Claim the Sky” by Jen Brown (10032 words)
No Spoilers: Omani is a coif mage, a person who can shape hair and the very fabric of the world in order to do magic. And while most specialize in healing or darker pursuits, she has discovered kind of magic that works around wishes. Around hope. And her own hope is to use this talent to attend a prestigious university where she can maybe get into a position to earn money for her family, and freedom for herself. Only...she can’t really afford tuition, even if she has been accepted into the school. So enter Myra, a young warrior hoping to become a knightess in order to help protect her home and people. The world building in the piece is expansive, revealing not only an interesting and detailed magic system (that is fucking awesome) but also setting up a situation where dragons have been used for centuries to help protect humans from various threats and are now seeking to leave, to retire to be on their own without the obligations of humanity’s drive for conflict. The piece weaves this all together and styles a slick and fun adventure that quickly and intensely escalates, but is always grounded in hope.
Keywords: Magic, Hair, Dragons, Combat, School, Family, Wishes, Queer MC(?)
Review: This story manages to fit a lot in, and I love basically all of it. The relationship between Myra and Omani is great, both of them young and away from home for basically the first time, both of them wounded by the ways they’ve had to disappoint their families in order to be there, in order to go, but both of them feeling that they have to, that they have to try to follow the dreams and wishes that their parents didn’t. And it makes for a compelling dynamic, the two challenging each other and falling into this easy trust with each other, something that might be romantic as well (though that part is fairly light and it might be a different kind of relationship, too, friendship or something just as strong). The piece also explores, though, what happens when the wish you’ve been working so hard to achieve turns to dust in your mouth. When you try so hard to move the universe to get something only to find that when you look at it up close, you don’t want it. You want something else. Something that you might have been able to see but for the desperate want to change things, to fix things. And so it takes a confrontation with utter disaster in order to really see what your wish is and start working to making it real. By saying it. By trying to move the subtle strands of existence in a way that will allow it to come closer. it’s a story that really gets hope, that it’s a changing thing, and that having a wish doesn’t mean you’re locked into that. That things can change, people can change, situations can change, and so too can wishes. And it’s fun and exciting with lots of action, sharp tension, and amazing character work. A fabulous way to close out the original fiction of the issue. Go read it!
“UMAKE: the God of Hair” by Tim Fab-Eme
This is a strange poem with a great liquid flow to it, that to me features a narrator being beckoned beneath the water to find a different kind of civilization, a different kind of people, and finding there a populace willing and eager to accept them and even worship them. The piece opens on a shore, where the narrator stand between the world they have always known, the place that maybe they are not entirely welcome in, or where they are ordinary, or where they simply don’t really want to be, and the water, where a voice calls them out to be a part of something different. And I love that it’s not exactly an easy fit there, either, because the ways are strange, and the people there still laugh at them for their mistakes. But they also have a power there, and a status that they can use as an outsider, as someone who can see all the wonder of that place but also see that they can learn things, too. That there are things that the narrator can teach them and show them that reveal to these people a new kind of beauty and joy. And it’s a fun piece, full of dance and song and rhythm, full of this voice who is looking for someplace new and different, where they can belong, and who finds exactly what. It’s strange, and it’s just a bit otherworldly, but in a way that speaks to someone finding a joy and fulfillment they might not have felt before. A great read!
“Bury Me with My Bonnet” by A. Z. Louise
This piece speaks to me of the desire for a hope of something to keep on after death. Not exactly an afterlife for me, it feels more like the hope for ghosts. That the nails and hair keep on growing might be a comfort because it seems that the person that’s been lost isn’t really gone. That a part of them is still going. And the poem plays with that, imagines a situation where the hair of a particular person who lived a difficult life and who probably dies a rather tragic death keeps growing, exactly some measure of revenge, some measure of justice for what happened. And I think that the poem is really getting at that idea of justice, the way that people look for comfort in the thought that the universe is fair and just, and that death brings with it some sort of balancing of the books. That the people who suffered get relief and maybe get to do something about what happened to them. It’s what underlies the stories of restless ghosts and unfinished business, and here it involves hair as well, as if this hair couldn’t rest peacefully because of how the person it was attached to was treated. Like it took power from the woman’s resolve and grew right out of the ground, seeking to make sure that those who profited from her death wouldn’t profit anymore. And to me it imagines an outcome that pushes back on the pressures, sometimes deadly, that push the marginalized toward the grave. That seek to cut them, to tame them, to cage them in a way that the piece seems to argue will find ways to come back. Like hair growing free of the dirt, resisting even the sharpest sheers, seeking to make right what really can’t be made right, but trying all the same. It’s a short, defiant piece, about hope and struggle, and it’s very much worth checking out!
“Unbraided, Clean” by Terese Mason Pierre
This is a beautiful poem about generations, about passing on, and it seems to feature a mother-to-be whose own mother has died. For the living woman, though, the thought of not being able to pass on the knowledge of what her mother could do, specifically here the plaiting of hair. The narrator wants to be able to do this for her child the way that this was done for her, but she hadn’t learned before her mother died. So she asks her back, spending time with her mother, learning, and generally preparing for when the child is born. And it’s this very tender portrayal of grief and community and family. The narrator wants so badly to be able to be a part of this chain of people teaching their children this thing, doing this small bit of magic. And I like how the piece questions in some ways if this is strictly healthy. That maybe it’s a way of not letting go of the dead, not working through the grief because her mother’s presence is still there, still felt. But I feel that this isn’t running from death, isn’t some denial or bargaining with death. It seems to me to be much more about this connection going back, this exchange between child and mother, a way of cherishing this time they can still spend with each other. Grief in itself is not valuable or moral. It’s not better than not feeling grief. The loss is still something that the narrator carries with her, but she also wants to do this thing and seems to understand full well the limitations of it, the costs of it. But I still like that doubt because it seems to get at this idea of what is the better way. Is it better to let this practice go and do something else or is it important to carry on this tradition? For me, I feel what it means to the characters to share this, to be able to maintain a link, because in some ways it will always be a way for them to connect even past death. By the narrator taking on the part her mother played, teaching her child, so that this act of kindness and compassion and love can continue, beautiful and comforting. It’s a fun, lovely poem, and another wonderful read!