|Art by Dustin Bolton|
A new year means a new issue from Fiyah Literary Magazine. Which comes with some news. Namely, that co-executive editor Justina Ireland is stepping down and leaving the publication and DaVaun Sanders is stepping up into that role. The issue also steps back from the tradition of centering around a specific theme, though that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few that sneak in. Namely, a lot of the works look at infection, disease, and affliction. They map the devastation that pandemics create, whether the plagues are medical, magical, or moral. And they find characters who are faced with the sicknesses draining their worlds and have to decide what to do about it. Fight back? Seek a cure? Flee? Or weather the storm as much as possible? It’s an issue full of defiance and strength, though it recognizes that sometimes even that isn’t enough. There’s four short stories, one novelette, and two poems to get to, so let’s dive right into the reviews!
“The Ishologu” by Jonathan Kincade (3617 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is something of a fixer, called in to deal with problems of the supernatural variety. Along with a spirit linked to a bangle that he carries with him, he faces down both monsters and those who dabble in the magical arts. Most of the time, those are two separate things—this time, however, that might not be the case. After a series of deaths, he’s been called in to investigate what’s going on...and put a stop to it. Of course, under the weight of the history he’s always carrying, dealing with the unexpected twists of the case prove to be challenging. It’s a piece that builds up a vivid world of magic hiding just beneath the surface of the world, where magical protectors hold the line between unimaginable horror and the mundane masses. It’s intense, brooding, and action-packed.
Keywords: Monsters, Magic, Ancestors, Blood, Hunting
Review: I like the way that the story builds up the voice of the character and his mysterious past. He enters into this problem with a confidence that seems in part an attempt to cover up how much he’s struggling. He’s experienced and talented, but he’s also got one hell of a chip on his shoulder and isn’t above getting himself into deep trouble and trusting his magic to get him out of it. His magic, though, has a mind of his own, and I love that relationship between the narrator and the spirit he carries along with him. That this spirit is a reflection, is what the narrator could himself become, but only if he’d live so long. They’re both successful and failures, trapped by the ways that they didn’t add up, that they’ve left something of a swath of destruction behind them, either professionally or personally. The narrator is dealing with his own past, his own disappointments and thwarted hopes. He’s still very much coming to terms with the job, with the responsibility and the life. It’s something that the spirit can help him with, if only the two got along at all. So instead the lessons are learned in pain and blood, in bumbling into danger and having to fight for their lives to get through it. The story doesn’t really tie things up with a bow, but I appreciate that, too, that it shows how the narrator isn’t really ready for neat endings. He’s flying by the seat of his pants, making mistakes and trying his best, but in his business that just means he’s leaving even more unfinished business for later. It makes for a setting and a character that feel real, flawed, and are very much worth checking out. A great read!
“Gloss” by Kola Heyward-Rotimi (3356 words)
No Spoilers: Ace is an avatar in a video game, where he’s the proprietor of a club that’s more a glitch than anything, funded by his ability to create and monetize in-game merchandise that everyone wants. The club is a haven, a glorious mess where people in the game can come to be a little dangerous, completely separate from whatever the game is supposed to be about. Except, of course, a massive update to the game has “fixed” a number of things, leaving Ace and his boyfriend zeal reeling. It’s a piece that embraces aesthetic and feeling and freedom over a strict adherence to plot and rigid structures. And it shows just how eager the powers that be are to shut down people who get too much power thumbing their noses at authority, to don’t care to play by the rules of the game.
Keywords: Video Games, Avatars, Glitches, Updates, Queer MC
Review: I love this story for so many reasons. Mainly, I love how the story looks at how pockets can be formed within communities that were never supposed to form or flourish. Here, this gay black man has carved out a space for himself and the rest of the players more interested in breaking shit and having fun and using the game to escape what might be the tragedies of their lives. I love that Ace never played the game for the reasons he was supposed to. Never fought, never took a quest. How his way was to express, and then through other people loving what he did, he was able to build up his empire. To make decisions based on his tastes, his desires, just because it was pretty and fun. Which is exactly what games can offer, perhaps what they should offer people. Only for the designers of the game, for the developers, it’s all wrong. It represents someone taking what they wanted and refusing to play by their rules. Despite the fact that he’s doing nothing wrong, it’s obvious that the developers don’t like him, don’t want him in their space, and so did an entire massive update to take away his fun. To take away his power to make this space for people to enjoy themselves. They’ve reinstated the rules as they were intended by the creators, who never wanted him around in the first place, and it’s heartbreaking because it’s exactly how these things work. How racism seeks to coopt what black creatives make and then exclude those very creatives. Because they had to use the system to try and make something for themselves, but the system is loaded against them. And all that is left after the dust settles is for Ace to decide what to do next—to cling to what he created and play more by the rules, or to go out with a final act of defiance. It’s a heartbreaking read, emotional and devastating and just so so good. It’s so sharp in how it shows how spaces are weaponized to destroy communities and movements. How the game is always rigged, and how there’s really nothing for it for Ace except to follow his heart, and make sure he’ll be remembered. It’s a wonderful story!
“The Daemon King of Engim” by Rafeeat Aliyu (7370 words)
No Spoilers: Saya is a skilled magician, having graduating her training well ahead of the rest of her class. Having succeeded in that arena, she turns her skills to another—combat. Though it’s supposed to be the province of butchers (and men), she is told that it hasn’t always been that way, and like a light going off she decides that she will be a fighter. Even when her family forbids it. Even when it seems hopeless. With the help of a god, though, and even more help from some new friends, it might not be as impossible as it seems. Fun and flowing with shades of myth, it’s a story with plenty of twists and turns and a hero using her wits to contend with gods, kings, and a whole slew of traditions.
Keywords: Combat, Magic, Bargains, Rivers, Traditions
Review: I like that so much of the story deals with the sort of duality of the words by which Saya’s family tries to live by, “Flow wherever the tide leads.” To most of the family, it means going with the flow of what is popular. To do what is in favor politically and otherwise, to not make waves. And it certainly can be applied at that level. But on a personal level it seems to mean something a bit different, about going where your heart leads you, where fate takes you. When Saya decides she wants to be a fighter, she’s following the flow of the tide in her heart, not going against this desire which has found her so strongly. And at first it might seem that she is punished for it, following a god and getting trapped in a strange place where she is told she must kill the wicked king in order to go back home. But really she’s just moving to where she needs to be in order to help a rather mischievous god get out of a jam that they themself caused. And I love the feel of the piece, the way that there is danger and there are powers at work that might seem to go beyond Saya, and yet she knows herself and her abilities, and doesn’t hesitate to act when she feels she must. She wants to go home, and so she puts herself in harm’s way again and again. She doesn’t let people talk her out of what is in her heart, and as a result she leaves joy in her wake, friends who she can meet again. It’s an easy and magical story, with a world that feels much deeper than revealed here (and a story that seems to continue even after the piece reaches its end). What’s here, though, is delightful, and definitely recommended!
“Notes on the Plague” by Shamar Harriott (3119 words)
No Spoilers: The unnamed narrator of this story is living in a time of plague. Transmitted by touch. Tearing through the black men of the country. Of the world. And the narrator, black and queer and surrounded by friends and lovers, becomes something of a witness to the death. It is a gutting story, full of a numb quiet, a horror that only grows and grows as the disease spreads and how targeted it seems. The piece’s conflict is the disease itself, the arc a spreading stain like someone spilled water on a chalk drawing, the erasure spreading, spreading. It’s heartbreaking, raw, and difficult as fuck to read, but also beautiful, alive, and oh so human.
Keywords: CW- Disease, CW- Suicide, Queer MC, Touch, Death, Infection
Review: S-shit. This story is hard to read, thanks in large part to how well it cuts through my defenses and evokes epidemic and disease, loss and fear and intimacy and devastation. It parallels to HIV and builds a new, future history where a new illness begins to cut down black men. And the story captured just how helpless the narrator feels, the numb horror of having to live through something that takes person after person in very painful, very public ways. That makes them into criminals, because the CDC will come to quarantine people, burn their property, burn them. And it’s set in the near future, in our world that has already gone through something like this, showing just how cycles repeat and deepen trauma. How the vulnerable can be targeted again, made to lose all over, even when they thought maybe they’d have a future better than this one. One where they could live. The piece is an emotional bomb, completely rending and raw and obliterating. The narrator’s shock and pain is palpable, and the reader is brought into this perspective where the only thing to be done, the only power to exercise, is to just keep on going. To be there to watch it, to remember it, because otherwise it is truly gone. And as much as it’s a piece looking for hope, it’s also one that knows that some things aren’t about hope or despair. They’re about memory, and love, and all the emptiness left behind from a plague. And oh glob I’ll go off and cry now and you should definitely read this story!
“The Rat King of Spanish Harlem” by Nicky Drayden (7849 words)
No Spoilers: Alicia is a Latina living in New York with her husband, Javier, at the onset of a strange new disease (or really, infestation) that makes the infected...happy. For Alicia it’s something that repulses her at first at the thought of infection and coercion, but as the infection spreads, her feelings about it begin to shift, because it makes the people in her life who normally are full of negativity suddenly helpful and pleasant. Javier most of all, who goes from someone that Alicia wants desperately to leave to someone who she is falling in love with all over again. Except, of course, larger changes are on the way, and Alicia has to face them and decide what to do next. It’s a strange, moving story of love and fear, of security and choice and barter, haunting and sensual and very interesting.
Keywords: Infections, Rats, Tails, CW- Pregnancy/Miscarriage, Barter, Debts
Review: This is such a strange story, following a woman who is struggling to get by, who is working at a debt collection agency, who wants to have a better system where people don’t have to ruin themselves trying to pay back money. It’s something that this infection seems to solve, because it makes people happy and pleasant, willing to share, willing to accept barter. Which seems to solve so many problems, only it also confronts Alicia with the ways that this new system cuts against her beliefs and what she’s used to. Because as things become more communal, with people helping people, things like sexual norms are changed to reflect that, so that people are less sexually possessive, or at least share in larger groups. And people grow tails, which ends up feeding into this because the tails can become caught with other people, forming rather literal rat kings that exist in a constant state of pleasure and sex and symbiosis while some non-connected people keep everyone healthy and clean. It’s a strange vision that Alicia finds herself slightly drawn to even as more of her rejects it. And it’s strange in part because I’m not sure what to think of that. She rejects the kind of union that the rat king offers, but in part because her problems weren’t exactly caused by her own mental barriers. It’s not that she could think herself better. It’s that other people made her life more difficult. That money made her life nearly impossible. But here she’s still excluded, still on the outside looking in because she seems unable to be infected. So she has to make her own way forward, even if that might be easier now that some of the society seems to have moved to barter and need, with people taking what they need from communal spaces. It leaves a lot of questions about how things might function moving forward in this world, but it’s certainly a captivating look at how, for some, it’s not as easy as upending the ruling paradigm, and that for some there is no shortcut to happiness, but rather a journey toward a better life. Definitely a piece to spend some time with!
“Nest” by B. Sharise Moore
This poem follows an expedition, framed as noted from an ill-fated attempt to observe a mythological bird. And I love the framing as a poetic device, so often reserved for prose, and how it adds to the magic to the idea of a small group of people going out presumably for discovery, for science, and then finding that their aims shift a bit as they’re going. Because as the expedition gets further underway, it becomes clear that the group is being warned, that they are ignoring the signs of danger ahead, not necessarily pushed on by the spirit of adventure so much as the promise of reward. The prospect of capturing something, their mission and tone hungry in the way that scientists can be who do not pause to consider what they’re desires might unleash or wrought. They don’t seem to consider that this mythology is still very much alive and able to defend itself against their probing attemtps to capture something of this magic, of this majesty. And I like the way the piece plays with horror tropes, the found text, the science falling in the face of the supernatural. More, though, I love that the piece exists as an impossible text, a voice that could no longer speak, a hand that could no longer record and yet still recording, still reaching back to show what this expedition has accomplished. The poem asks at one point if something is the end, and it’s not, because the poem continues on. It doesn’t let death stop it, implying for me at least that this is only the beginning, and what’s to come will be bloodier still, and more destructive, and might lead to some greater and more spectacular tragedies. A great read!
"The Basket Weaver” by Soonest Nathaniel
This piece focuses on the titular character of the poem, a woman who weaves basket and who sings as she does it. And what she is singing and what she is weaving is something that speaks of harm and of wisdom. It’s a poem that seems to focus on men and boys, and perhaps about the ways that boys are raised into men full of lust and lies and violence. The weaver seems to be someone who can offer guidance, who can help people to avoid those rocks and shoals. Who can help to guide them with her song to shape themselves into someone who can lave, who can be patient and kind. And I like the flow of the story, the piece divided into three parts that focus first on the weaving, second on the singing, and third on the promise of what she’s doing. To me the piece speaks to the ways that men can grow to be toxic, to be abusive, and here this woman is taking that and creating something that can serve as a warning and a guide. Who can help people to avoid that, by making this art, by showing a different path that men can take. Which is promising even as it is touched by darkness, by the recognition that many won’t hear the song, won’t choose to sprout those milk teeth. It’s a piece that for me lays out the different songs that are out there for boys and men to listen to, and asks which they’d want to heed, to become the men they want to be and not just more contributing to the damage being done. A nice way to close out the issue!