|Art by Trevor Fraley|
"With These Hands: An Account of Uncommon Labor" by L. H. Moore (3132 words)
No Spoilers: A free black man named Simeon helps to construct the President's mansion in the late 1790s alongside two slaves who undergo a change while working on the project. The story uses a subtle speculative style, implying much more than explaining, all the while exposing just how foundational slavery was to the building of America, literally part of creating our most recognizable institutions and monuments—a fact that is often left invisible to the casual observer of history.
Keywords: Slavery, Construction, Freedom, Bargains
Review: This story unfolds in the shadow of the work being done. The plot involves the building of the President's mansion, the very seat of power for the new United States. And for as much as America is supposed to be this beacon of freedom and enlightening for the world, the story reminds everyone that at the heart of the union was the institution of slavery, was the mass exploitation and torture of pretty much an entire group of people. The story is framed as a written account of something strange that happened while the narrator, Simeon, was working construction on the mansion, involving a pair of brothers and something...different. A force. An entity. I love that the story never really answers what, how it implies what's going on without ever fully showing its hand. The point, for me, then is shifted away from the speculative question of "what kind of magic is at work here" and becomes more about the non-speculative history that the story evokes. The reality of this situation, of these people, of this place. The piece centers the question of what Simeon is going to do, what he wants to do—the freedom that he has to decide what to do after the project is done contrasting the reality of the brothers he works with who will just go back to their owner. Except that doesn't really happen, and Simeon has to come to terms with what he learns and what he feels about that. It's a complex story about history and what happened, and how important it can be to acknowledge what happened, to see what people endured. It's a wonderful read and a great way to kick off this issue on alt-historical blackness.
"Bondye Bon" by Monique L. Desir (4807 words)
No Spoilers: A young woman, the daughter of a revolutionary who lead a successful slave rebellion that freed most of the southern United States so they could form their own nation, finds her mother hiding a rather huge secret, and has a choice to make. The piece is steeped in violence, but I think challenged the idea that resistance or revolution should be bloodless. Most revolutions are bloody, after all, and in order to right the enormous wrong of slavery, in order to fight for freedom, the story asks what is just, what is right. It's difficult, but powerful and unflinching.
Keywords: Revolution, CW- Torture, Walking Dead, Revenge
Review: This is a rather difficult because of the violence it deals with—the violence of revolution and in some ways the punitive violence of addressing grievances. The main character, a young girl, is both too young to have participated in the revolution that led to the formation of a new nation in the former southern United States, and definitely a product of it, that violence her legacy as much as the violence that led to the US War of Independence touched those who came afterward. And really, for me, the story is about challenging notions of romance and justice in how we talk about how America was formed. The violence here is supernatural and also visceral. The goal was freedom, and that meant wide scale death, because that was already the stakes. People have a tendency (or I've noticed, at least) to imagine revolutions against the US as somehow unlawful and barbaric, while America's own revolution was completely justified, for all that it was about taxes rather than literal freedom from slavery. And here we are treated to a story about the breaking from tyranny, from bondage, and finding a way forward from that. Not by forgiving what had happened, but by refusing to be defined by it. For the main character, the story (for me) becomes about moving on, about letting the wounds of revolution try to heal but without caring about the plight of the former slave owners. To me, it's a story about rejecting their narrative and starting over, starting fresh, not putting the comforts of the oppressors above the lives of the oppressed. And it's a punchy read with action, politics, and hard choices to make. A great read!
“Survival Lies” by Irette Y. Patterson (8189 words)
No Spoilers: Cynthia, her marriage over and her career in shambles, decides to spend the summer at her ancestral home in the South and try to write, but stumbles on something of a family mystery instead in the form of a ghostly visitor. About difficulty and the deep wounds of history and the lies sometimes necessary to survive, the piece maintains a lightly weird feel while it explores the power of family and the hope of healing.
Keywords: Ghosts, Lineage, Divorce, Family
Review: This piece, for me, does an excellent job of complicating the idea of the truth. For Cynthia, things seem so straight-forward, so cut and dry. The truth is the truth, and a lie is a lie. And obviously no one wants to believe a lie. Only the more she digs into the history behind a strange ghostly visitation she gets at her family’s ancestral home, the more she has to confront the lies she’s told in her own life, and the vulnerability that still exists for her and her family. From the beginning the story is something of a mystery, this ghost a piece in a puzzle—not just who she is, but why she’s revealing herself to Cynthia. I like how in some ways the two seem to need something from each other. For the ghost, someone to really see her for who she is, and Cynthia, a way to connect back to her family’s history in order to realize that what she’s lost, while not insignificant, isn’t enough to destroy her. For me, the story becomes about the way that Cynthia is pulled to these narratives that promise a truth but really only wrap a sheen of authenticity around a different kind of lie. Because for many, the lies that are told to survive are their own kinds of truth. For Cynthia’s family, no amount of blood tests or town historians can shake what they know, or erase what they’ve been through. And I feel the story does a great job of showing Cynthia working through her own fears, of being honest with herself and showing others just how much she’s struggling. It’s about complexity and about personal truth, and it’s a powerful piece showing the strength that family and history can give. A fantastic read!
“The Epic of Sakina” by Shari Paul (10415 words)
No Spoilers: Sakina, a djeli of the Niani Empire, finds herself in the middle of a complicated plot when a foreign man washes up on shore near her village. Wonderful world building meets amazing character work, with supernatural threats, action, and lots of quick thinking on Sakina’s part. Fun with an edge of darkness, and a fearless drive that makes for an exhilarating read.
Keywords: Werewolves, Libraries, Longing, Monsters, Ancestors
Review: This piece shines with the strength of its characters, utilizing a large cast to craft a tightly paced story that twists and turns and, ultimately, satisfies. Starting with Sakina herself, slightly put-upon by her gifts that allow her to hear the voices of her ancestors, who goes about life as directly as she can, not running from problems and trying her best to work around the good intentions (or not-so-good intentions) of the men around her who seem like they’d very much prefer she stay out of the way. Her immediate family, the men who seem to more know and trust her, are away during the events of the story, something that fills Sakina with a sadness, a longing, even as she doesn’t hesitate to act when crises arise. It leaves her less immediate family (uncles and in-laws) to deal with, something that requires a bit of delicacy, especially if she wants to avoid the destruction of her village. But everyone has a distinct voice and personality, from her uncle and his grudging reliance on her skills to Sakina’s friend Naima, who is crass and curious and constantly trying to get into Sakina’s business. There’s a great mix of cultures at work in the story, as well, each one distinct for all that they share space in a place that is a melting pot of sorts, tolerant and accepting as long as trade and peace reign. It makes for a spellbinding story, where different folklore mingles as well, werewolves and creatures strange still all lurking the shadows. It’s a juggling act I feel the story excels at, and it ties everything together with gusto, creating a story that for me is about the strength of diversity, of that tolerance, of promoting openness as opposed to the closed and nationalist/religious extremism trying to push in from the Christian nations. And, really, it’s really fun read that you should check out immediately!