|Art by Seth Brown
Four stories and two poems breath life into a rare unthemed issue of Fiyah Magazine. Despite the lack of theme going in, though, a theme might just develop after the fact. For me, at least, most of the pieces deal with traditions, with storytelling. Most of them are about facing a future, whether it’s a future of conflict or movement or rebirth. And they circle around questions of how to honor the past while pushing for something new. Something better, perhaps. But one that builds on the foundations of the past and present. One that takes strength and resilience and integrity. And it’s another beautiful issue from a publication that’s once again having a magnificent year. To the reviews!
“Pimento” by Dean-Paul E. Stephens (5625 words)
No Spoilers: Matti is a chef at a restaurant in Jamaica of enough renown that an emperor from a distant world has singled it out to visit on his travel to Earth. Which would normally not be an issue, except that Matti recently hired an android to work there—one with aspirations of being a chef. The androids are part of a group of awakened ancient AI who lived as slaves and who have been freed by the powers that be on Earth, their restrictive programming removed. For all that, though, there is still prejudice, especially from other worlds (like this emperor's) where androids are still seen as less than sentient. The piece explores freedom and respect, challenging assumptions about equality and acceptance by having this android, Ivan, and the upcoming imperial visit, to make Matti question her own beliefs, and just how much she lives up to her ideals and those of her planet.
Keywords: Cooking, Androids, Freedom, Prejudice, Emperors
Review: The voice of the piece is strong and engaging, using dialect to give more of a feeling of the place, of the person behind the narration. And it’s a careful exploration of prejudice, showing a future where humanity has freed it’s mechanized slaves but not necessarily done the work of viewing them as truly equal. There’s a certain amount of superiority that humans assign themselves when dealing with androids, and it certainly takes the narrator time to sort out her own feelings and thoughts and assumptions. And in some ways it takes seeing the prejudice much more obviously to get her to start undoing her own bullshit. Before then she’s allowed to believe in her own liberal tolerance, yes thinking that androids can’t cook but because it’s backed by a kind of “science,” mostly that androids don’t have the same ability to taste. But this casual and “grounded” prejudice is no less real and in many ways it lets the larger abuses to happen because it’s laid the groundwork for her to see androids, even Ivan who she knows, as lesser. It’s only when she really challenges her assumptions and leaves herself open to the idea that Ivan can cook, that she’s able to really get beyond the ways that she was being awful to her employee. She learns, though, and I think that the story does a great job of showing that a lot of people are completely capable of learning, if only they put themselves in a place where something breaks through the distance of their isolation. By spending time with Ivan, by seeing what he can do and who he is, it’s difficult to not see his value and sentience. It’s only those who do so for a reason, to uphold their own power and dominance, who will refuse to see. And really, fuck them anyway. It’s a fun story, full of flavors and smells and a warmth that is impossible to deny. A fantastic read!
“Ibrahim and the Green Fishing Net” by Omar William Sow (2143 words)
No Spoilers: Maam Iba lives a life of quiet routine. He eats with his daughter’s family, then takes a book to the beach. This repeats for years and year, until one day that’s good for a bit of magic. And then his larger story comes out, the past that he’s been wearing like a weight and the future that’s suddenly bright with hope. There’s a vein of tragedy here, and lost time, but there’s also a joy, and a reaching for something beautiful and magical. The piece is framed as a story told by a narrator to an unknown audience (possibly directly to us, the readers), building it a magic that might be a lie to cover over a crushing sadness but also might be a bit of magic, a bit of justice, slipping free into the world.
Keywords: Fishing, Routine, Seas, Queer MC, Mer-people
Review: I love how this story keeps its distance from the main character. Maam Iba is the focus of the piece, but the reader is always kept from really getting inside his head. Instead we get the voice of the narrator, who tells his story with an almost mythical quality. His is a fairy tale of sorts, a fable. He’s something of a tragic figure, after all, old and spending his days on the beach waiting. Waiting for the return of his lover, the man who he spent so long at sea with. Who was lost one day that marked Maam Iba’s transition from his younger self, Ibrahim, to the figure that the story introduces. Slowly the weight of what has happened is placed on the reader, so that we gain more and more insight into the significance of his action, until it seems like it will be too much, that the loss and the time will take too high a toll. There’s a sense of waiting, at least for me, that I carried along with Maam Iba, waiting for something to happen, for the promised magic to come and maybe, just maybe, offer him the kind of happily ever after that is so often denied characters like him. He’s supposed to be old and queer and sad, is expected to be tragic because the idea that older queer person can be happy and with their love is just not seen. And it’s like the narrator knows this and is weaving a spell for him, is breathing this ending out into the world, giving it voice so that he can finally take action and plunge beneath the waves, so that he can be transformed, slipping from of the constraints of the queer tragedy to achieve happiness beneath the waves, in the freedom and joy he can find there, his laughter returning with his hope, with the prospect of erasing the loneliness he’s been shackled with. It’s beautifully rendered, luminous, and so worth spending some time with. Just wonderful!
“When You Find a Dragon, Name Them for Me” by Tamara Jerée (5125 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is on a quest—one that has already claimed the lives of everyone else accompanying her except Nihla, who is about the last person the narrator wanted to be alone with. The two are looking for a dragon to replace the aging protector of their home, because in this world dragons hold memories, stories, and without them the people begin to forget who they are and what’s important to them. The narrator is a poet, one tasked with feeding stories to dragons in order to preserve those memories. The stories are supposed to be true, because when they aren’t, the consequences can be...severe. It’s a story anchored by need, finding the narrator having to navigate their own fears and griefs as well as her prickliness with the last of her companions. It’s heavy but vividly rendered, magical and dark and nearly disastrous.
Keywords: Dragons, Memories, Quests, Stories, Magic, Lies
Review: I like how this story approaches the idea of stories, of histories, of desperation and need. The narrator is a poet dealing not only with the potential slow loss of their home, but the much more acute pain of losing their second mother, who is dying as she leaves on this quest. A quest that hasn’t gone well, which is where the story opens, with the narrator and Nihla burying another friend. And I love the decision of the narrator to bend the truth in their story, to commit to page what is basically a lie, because she believes that telling the truth will turn any potential dragon away from helping them. Because she knows that the truth is hard, and painful, and full of setbacks and pettiness. It’s filled with people being people, the bickering between her and Nihla, the fear and the doubt that they will never find a dragon, that their home will be lost entirely, that their second mother will...well, I feel that the story is getting at the pressure put on people to...sanitize their stories. How there’s this expectation that people who have struggled and suffered, who are often bitter and angry, to put on this happier face, to pretend they believe in the justice of the universe, when all they’ve been taught is struggle. And how having to do that, having to write those stories because you feel that that’s what people want to hear, want to read, is toxic. It gets into the narrator as it gets into any poet, any writer who is trying to erase their truth. The piece puts the importance on living and writing authentically, and does so in a wonderfully realized setting where memory and dragons and poets are all linked in interesting and complicated ways. It’s a great taste of the world and hits a lot of strong beats with the relationship between the narrator and Nihla, rivals who seem to be slowly realizing that they should be friends instead. A fantastic story!
“Doll Seed” by Michele Tracy Berger (11615 words)
No Spoilers: Chevella is a black toll who wakes in the human world in an upscale toy store where the other dolls tell her how things work—how dolls have a special part of themselves that allow them to choose potential humans. From the start, though, the color of Chevella’s skin makes her the object of ridicule and scorn from most of the other (white) dolls. The piece takes place in mostly the 1950s, and Chevella becomes part of history even as her time on Earth is mostly defined by misery and pain and loss, with trying to find ways of choosing that will bring about something good, not realizing until the end that for her it was never about choice, but rather about the system that was always trying to tear her down. It’s not a happy read, but for all its sorrow it also carries resilience and hope and a seed of magic that might yet grow into something wonderful.
Keywords: Dolls, Toys, Experiments, Choice, Racism
Review: What happens when you’re born a misfit toy? For Chevella, it’s a situation that she never really asked for, and there’s very little assistance available to her. She’s isolated by who she is, by the deep racism that runs through the world she enters into. And she must face the often viscerally upsetting reality of that world, without knowing why she faces so much hardship. But the story does a great job of showing how she internalizes, how she is hurt by it, how she tries and tries to find a place where she can be accepted and loved and instead ends up in pain, those she chooses dying hard in a world that would not let them be happy. And I like how the piece works history in as well, looking at the psychological experiments where white and black children were asked to describe different dolls, showing how Chevella ended up inhabiting this space, absorbing all of this hate and fear and injustice. How the system pushed them into participating in the very system that was hurting them, that was requiring their pain and death. It’s what makes Chevella want to pick a white person instead of a black one, brilliantly flipping the script on the experiments she participated in, and showing how toxic this becomes, how it shows that there’s no real winning. Because it’s not saying that things would actually be better if she had chosen the black girl. The pain is so pervasive that that choice probably would have led to some heartache too. And tragedy. And the story shows just how it weighs on her, how they try and try and try and yet can’t break free until they do, until they choose to jump and see if they can’t head back to the drawing board. It’s a difficult story, visceral and at times unsettling, taking the child-focused elements of dolls and toys and using them to show the ways that for many, childhood is never innocent, is never blissfully ignorant of the evils of the world. Definitely a piece to spend some time with, and a great read!
“A Song for Midday” by Maz Hedgehog
This piece speaks to me of light and heat, of stars burning, alive and aware, fueled by those stars that have gone before and who have added their voices into the great chorus. The piece for me builds up this idea, the narrator speaking to someone else, telling them to burn bright, to outshine the hate and the hunger directed at them, to resist the urge to shrink and dim in the face of scrutiny, in the face of those why look at light and stars and think only of exploitation and profit. And I really like how the poem builds up this idea of people-as-stars, as poets-as-stars even, because for me it captures this feeling of being a part of something larger than a single moment or form or poem. The poem itself taps into the song that it mentions, becomes that song, that voice trying to tell others not to burn out, not to disappear. For me, the poem pulls that meta turn, entering into the same space that it describes, becoming the song even as it evokes it. Which is really neat, and I love how it implies this is a cycle that repeats, that the poem is in effect taking its own advice, being the change it wants to see, and how it pulls strength from the tradition it participates in, the history that has made it possible. It’s seeking to and I think at least successful in tapping into how inspiration works, how it becomes a kind of song growing and growing, a field of stars opening its welcoming arms. And it is a lovely, invigorating read!
“Ọ´jí Íjè [Kola Journey]” by Uche Ogbuji
This is a fantastically imagined poem about a trip through space, built around Igbo proverbs and kola trees. The piece stars Úgó, one member of a crew taking turns waking and going into suspended sleep on the long voyage, transporting these trees that are integrated into the technology of the ship, that meld the organic and synthetic, the natural and the artificial. The piece focuses a bit on the ritual of the exchange, Úgó waking up his replacement and getting ready to enter into his own sleep. And I love the way the piece imagines this future, vibrant and alive and not forgetting these very deep cultural roots, not losing sight of the Earth even when going out into space. For me it really rests on this idea of bringing and receiving, this way of remembering the past in the act of pressing forward into the future. And I love that the kola tree is there, is still a part of this interstellar hospitality arrangement. By bringing the kola to other worlds, these people are bringing life and peace and bounty, yes. They might be making it possible for people to live so far away, so far from the home their ancestors knew. But they are not just bringing this for the practical elements. They’re also bringing the memories, because people remember who brought the kola, because it points back to this long tradition, to this set of beliefs and shared values. And that is just as important to the bringing of life and peace as the sustenance that can be had from the tree and its fruit. It’s a very fun poem for me, building this future in vibrant lines, filling it with this small cast and their small mission that still has such large implications and that links them to something much larger than a single act. It carries the past forward and keeps a culture alive in the face of those who might think that interstellar development might cause humanity to lose its roots. That can only happen, after all, if they don’t bring any roots with them. A great way to close out the issue!