Monday, October 26, 2020

Quick Sips - Breathe Fiyah

Art by Eli Minaya
A collaboration between Tor and Fiyah Magazine, this special Breathe Fiyah issue features eight short stories (entirely flash fiction) by Black writers exploring race, oppression, resistance, and revolution through a speculative lens. The stories are largely (though not completely) contemporary, both fantasy and science fiction (with some horror elements thrown in as well at times), and they create a framework, one that ends up resembling perhaps a structure of kindling. Each piece a small addition that, when put together and struck, sets off a blaze. The stories are about resisting, about surviving a world that is actively trying to erase, exploit, and exterminate you. And the works do indeed spark and smolder, ending with a bang that, hopefully, will shake things up, weakening the racist and white supremacist structures that marginalize Black writers. To the reviews!


“Sela, Thief” by Zabe Bent (1146 words)

No Spoilers: Sela just wants to celebrate moving into a new place with a bottle of wine and some fancy cheese and meats and crackers. She just wants to slip away from the racism she faces at work, the ways being a teacher is complicated by her skin and by the prejudices and hates of others. But when she walks into the store to pick up supplies, the manager in an open book and every other word seems to be a racial insult. To Sela, who has a magic that allows her to see (and alter) other people’s minds, it’s very tempting to interfere, but she knows the power and responsibility she carries, so she waits until she ruins her whole day before acting, because there are some times when action is necessary to prevent worse harms from being done. It’s a defiant, bold piece, tired but not too tired to teach a fool a thing or two and maybe keep a vulnerable mind from being poisoned by hate.
Keywords: Telepathy, Teaching, CW- Racism, Theft, Moving
Review: It’s a strong and defiant way to open the special issues, and I love just the exhaustion that defines Sela’s day. She’s had to deal with so much, has faced so much, and just wants a way to let it down. But put down that weight that she’s carrying. And she doesn’t get to. Not when she’s out, at least, not when people’s racism and white supremacy are on full display. And I love that she’s a teacher, and that her magic works to deeply into that sort of mentality. Because she wins the argument first. She tries to win people over with a smile, and by being a genuinely good person, someone who really tries at just about everything she does. Which is huge, and part of why she’s so tired all the time. Even with the magic, she doesn’t cut corners. It’s only when the logical approach doesn’t work that she has to get a bit more hands on, that she has to use the power her magic gives her to at least make sure that the virulent racists don’t infect others, don’t bend the conversation so much so that even bystanders are impacted negatively. She knows, essentially, who can be taught, and who can’t. Who can’t because they’ve made it a part of their identity to reject reason, empathy, and wisdom. For them, there’s only minimizing their toxic spread. And she does, with style. And I just like the feel of it, the way that this isn’t exactly a victory. She doesn’t get her cheese, her wine, her fancy crackers. But it’s not a loss, either. She gets some bourbon, she maybe protects one of her students, and she makes sure that a right piece of work isn’t going to hurt anyone else for at least a little while. It’s not a victory, but it’s victory-shaped. And in the current climate, in the world as we know it, that can be something to celebrate, something to be proud of. It’s a really fun read, and I love the subtle way the story centers this magic, this power, this very complicated and tricky ability--and shows it being used ethically and careful, but decisively too. A wonderful read!

“Conjurer’s Rites” by Jen Brown (999 words)

No Spoilers: Sid stands in front of her family, a whole reunion’s worth, and...things aren’t going well. There’s supposed to be magic, a conjuring of the dead and their memories, their stories, through a magic that Sid was supposed to have learned. Only she was afraid of it, didn’t know what to think of it, and by the time she might have wanted to really learn, the woman who would have done that, her mother, was dead. So not she’s confronted with the rest of her family and a question, a choice. The piece moves around that, showing what informs it, and what falls out from it. It’s a warm, inspiring piece--one about the power and magic of stories, and the strength of making a choice in the face of grief, loss, and the possibility of failure.
Keywords: Magic, Family, Memories, Eating, Stories
Review: I really like how this story takes on legacy and storytelling and the how big a thing it can be, especially to someone who fears that they can’t live up to expectations, can’t live up to the hopes and wishes of someone who isn’t there any longer. Because for me so much Sid’s fear is that she missed out on this huge thing from her mother. She wants to connect to it, wants to own it, but fears that she’s lost all chance because she didn’t reach out to her mother soon. And while she can’t learn from her mother, I like that she discovers that her family and the family magic extends further than that. And that there is someone else in the form of her aunt who is willing to teach her, who is willing to give her the training she needs and give her access to the magic that her mother wanted her to have. She just has to make a choice. And that’s such a large thing, because it’s a choice she’s been making most of her life. The choice to avoid learning how to conjure. She hasn’t wanted to, and is left now wondering if she’s only interested because it’s what her mother wanted, or if it’s something that she wants for herself, too. Because that deepens the connection to her family, that it's something she’s deciding not out of guilt, not out of regret. But out of this genuine desire to connect with her family and its stories. To not lose out on what can be this deep well of strength of identity. For me at least her decided to step into that power is so huge for her because it does give her back a part of her mother, by tying her to the family they are both a part of. By connecting back to their shared past so that they can see that they have a shared future as well, the family all together, bound by the magic, and Sid finally choosing to be bound as well. Not as a limitation or cage but in part of a braid that’s strong, that cannot be broken. A great read!

"The Front Line” by WC Dunlap (1010 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story starts off in a doctor’s waiting room for her annual checkup. Which isn’t a pleasant prospect, given the narrator is large and black. More unpleasant when the doctor is fatphobic and society at large is racist. Perhaps least pleasant of all when the narrator has a trauma in her past, an event that changed her, and that she was failed through. The exact nature of what happened, though, isn’t ever fully revealed. But it does seem to have left her with a superpower. What that means for her, and what that means for other people, becomes clearer as the story progresses, as the nightmare of her day settles around her. It’s a story with some incredibly heavy and complex elements and it is not an easy read, but it’s also beautifully done, powerful, and shattering. Just wow.
Keywords: Superpowers, CW- Police/Shooting, CW- Rape(?), CW- Medical Fatphobia, Coffee
Review: So yeah, this one has a lot of content warnings because it deals with some very difficult and loaded issues. But it does it in a very compassionate way, carefully building up the narrator’s situation, her life, her abilities. It swirls around this mysterious event in her past that sounds like rape but that has left her with a kind of superpower. She’s bulletproof, and she knows enough how to use that to save people. To save people like the black boy dealing with micro and macro aggressions in a coffee shop, both the racist suspicions of the barista and the murderous intent of two cops who show up. But her body is protective in more ways than being able to deflect bullets. Her size also allows her armor of different varieties, even as she must deal with fatphobia from her doctors and others. It’s a way to withstand the weight of being expected to be a victim. A way of claiming presence, space. Even when it’s inconvenient, even when other people judge her for it. The whole this reveals this very messy, very complicated, very real way that people are policed and harassed, victimized and failed in systemic ways. The narrator is nameless, and it seems by design, as she doesn’t even give the boy she saves her name. Which for me draws her into a larger picture, a community that is further underlined by the last exchange, this image of a network of thicc sistahs creating this shield, this protective web. A front line against the dangers of anti-Black violence. Not perfect, not comprehensive, but still something, still sadly something dearly needed and profoundly impactful. It’s a devastating, visceral story--a bracing and powerful read!

“The Friendship Bench” by Yvette Lisa Ndlovu (1006 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is a Healer, a person who sits on a Friendship Bench in a place where people can come and visit and take advantage of her power, her ability to implant in a person’s mind that can transform their grief, their pain, into something else. Into pleasure. Into resilience. Into strength. For those who live with the weight of generational trauma, institutional oppression, the prospect of relief of that is a powerful draw. How that question plays out for one girl, Khaya, who seeks the Healer out, and what larger implications the Healer’s mission carries...well, those are questions the story doesn’t necessarily answer, but that are unsettling all the same.
Keywords: Portals, Bargains, Family, Pain, Transformations
Review: I love how this situation is so hard to navigate. For Khaya, it seems like a question between honoring her father, who is anti-Friendship Bench, and getting out from under the weight that threatens to crush her. Khaya seems to want...a break. A way to shrug off the constant knowledge and presence of trauma, of history. To her father, that’s something of a betrayal, a turning her back on her story, the story of her family. But it certainly makes sense to want respite, to want to not have to live with that pressing down on her. The Healer seems to understand that, to offer a way out of that. But...well, there’s almost something nefarious about the situation, too, a quasi-seductive/salesperson way that that Healer operates. They benefit from seeming benign, safe, like everyone’s grandmother. But their true nature might be different, because their role might not be voluntary, but rather a situation where they are doing this not to do any favors, but because they are being controlled, are held in service, in bondage, wanting to be free but needing to do that by kinda preying on these people who are in pain and want that pain to stop. There’s a shade of “deal with the devil” going on, and asking if it’s worth it, if it’s ethical, if that matters. For me it’s hard to really see this as a failure on Khaya’s part. She wants something that’s so understandable, and here is this seemingly-easy way of getting it. It’s not her fault, exactly, that she wants to shrug off this weight. But. But this situation isn’t fair. And for Khaya, it’s hard because she wants to escape that weight to realize that the reason it’s there, the reason it’s heavy, is that it’s a warning, too. It’s a map of survival. And if she were examining that rather than running from it she might be able to more easily see why her father doesn’t trust it, why he views the Friendship Bench with suspicion and distrust. Because part of that generational trauma is learning not trust the things that seem too good, too easy. Is knowing that even “free” there are so many ways that people try to slip the chains back on. And the story is full of that kind of anticipation, of wondering how bad this is, how bad this is going to be, and how much of a mess the intersections of racism and history and capitalism are, and how there might be no easy solution, no fairness, no way of escaping the weight of the past. A great read!

“Here Sits His Ignominy” by Tobi Ogundiran (733 words)

No Spoilers: Framed as a letter from one ruler to another, or perhaps from one people to a ruler. The ruler in question is a king, an imperial power with his eyes on Africa and its riches, its peoples. He’s already made a campaign there, already destroyed, already committed atrocities. And the story is a response to that, from a place where giants have already been defeated. The letter begins on an almost mocking tone, what with the insults and such, but rather than mocking, I feel like the story reaches more toward a bit of poetic justice. The letter and the actions of the letter writer’s people are a retribution, are a retaliation, are a reflection of the violence and intended violence directed toward the African peoples and nations. It’s a spark and direct story, one that doesn’t shy away from a evoking violence of its own. Rather than revenge fantasy, though, I feel like the story acts more as a reclaiming of history, and a reality that has been erased by colonization and empire.
Keywords: Letters, Invasion, Retribution, Statues, Ships
Review: There’s a lot more going on here than I think it seems at first, because at the shallowest level this story is about revenge, about a past that never was where Great Nubia was able not just to defeat colonizing forces but able to send destruction on the invaders in their homes, a reminder that might have prevented generations of pain and loss. More than that, though, I feel like the story is a reminder that Africa as a continent was never a blank canvas, that it always had nations, great cities, centers of trade, powers that in their time surpassed anything in the world. But that those cities were lost, those people conquered, those cultural centers dismantled and poisoned. And, perhaps worst of all, their history was rewritten, made just a footnote in European history, maybe a regrettable time but also one steeped in romance and adventure. One that no one feels the need to actually apologize for, because what’s done is done, despite the wealth that countries stole, the ways that they continue to benefit from unjust resource rights and the like. The story seems to be about reclaiming that, about revealing the vibrant and complex and wonderful world that was lost. Here, the past is fractured. And we on our end are on one fork. Down the other, though, is this story. Down that road, the colonial powers were thrown back with magic and with science. And an example was made so that it never happened again. And that’s a path, a history, a future worth imagining, because it recognizes what’s been lost, the scope and scale of it, and reminds people of the debt of empire, the one still owed to the places that were destroyed and continue to be exploited. A wonderful read!

“We Come as Gods” by Suyi Davies Okungbowa (909 words)

No Spoilers: Told in the first person plural, we are caught in a cycle, a progression, a sort of generational shift. The we of the story start out as warriors, as fighters, praying to their gods to give them power to defeat their enemies. To fight against the people looking to do them wrong, to bring them victory. And with victory comes a change in roles, from warriors to oversees, to tyrants. And even that is temporary, as those who rose fall in the same turn, defeated by those they oppressed, overthrown, only to be come something new again, to become ghosts, and that’s not even the end of the transformations. The piece looks at cycles. Of violence and oppression, and the price of it, and the trajectory that resistance can take when it’s built on the same foundations, the same structures.
Keywords: Gods, War, Cycles, Ghosts, Death
Review: I really like how the story examines the way that cycles move, the interplay between people and heroes, heroes and gods, gods and ghosts. The piece builds up this progression, this rise...and the prospect of a fall. There’s a lot of power here, too, both in the way the people rely on their gods and the way that they kind of supplant them, losing sight of where they started, falling into the traps of power, and corruption, and becoming the very force that needs to be defeated, only to in time become the source of power that future people will call on to defeat the next in the chain. The piece finds that interconnecting chain of history, the way that gods are lost, the way that people are elevated, the ways that it all sort of feeds into itself. For me, it speaks as a kind of warning. A call not to fall into the same patterns, the same mistakes. A call to not, in claiming power, fall into the same corruptions as those you were trying to overthrow. The problem here I don’t think is the inevitability of corruption, of power’s influence on people all mapping the same road over and over again. Because I just don’t want it to be that bleak. Rather, I think it’s about recognizing the patterns, and having to actively break them. And maybe it’s also a caution about what gods to pray to, what blessings to ask for, and from whom. Because here it only reinforces the same old hurts, the same old injustices. Again and again, red hidden behind white, people are led down the path of their destruction. Here, there is no break from that, no escape, just the cycle unbroken. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. A fine read!

“teatime” by Zin E. Rocklyn (848 words)

No Spoilers: Sophia’s aunt was followed home by a boy. She took him in, but he refuses to eat her food and so she’s come to Sophia because Sophia makes sandwiches that her aunt looks down on. That might be “unrefined” enough that the boy, who only grunts, might enjoy. It’s a strange story, the boy and the relationship between the two women hard to explain, hard to measure. Only as the story explores them, explores Sophia’s connection to the boy, to what he’s doing, do the full implications of his presence come clear. And it’s a grim story heavy with things unsaid, with a threat, a history, and the feeling of something buried finally clawing its way to the surface.
Keywords: Sandwiches, Manners, Tea, Prayers, Family
Review: This story carries so much in this very brief window into these women’s lives. Sophia, who can obviously never do enough, be enough for her aunt, who is very concerned about appearances, about manners, about that kind of thing. And Sophia seems to feel this keenly, the way she anticipates a blow, the way she’s been hurt and hurt to the point where she’s prayed to something that maybe shouldn’t be prayed to. Something that takes the form of a boy, who proves the aunt’s cruelty, and might do something about it. The piece is grim in that way, sticky with blood, nearly claustrophobic with the atmosphere of Sophia starving herself, trying so hard to please a woman who won’t be, who seems more interested in the abuse, in the control, in being better than. And the story for me finds Sophia finally rejecting the world that the aunt has imagined and pushed, the world of manners and hunger, of being proper, having restraint. Sophia seems to embrace something different, something powerful and untamed, and in the end seems to go out in search of a place she can be, in search of way to be that isn’t so painful, so much focused on denial as a moral action. The piece dips into horror, into blood, and resolves into a kind of descent, but one that’s also a way out from an impossible place, from a place where she Sophia could not live. It’s a story about answered prayers, and the terror of them, but also the hope and power of them as well. It’s weird and chilling, but also a wonderful read!

“The Mystical Art of Codeswitching” by Sydnee Thompson (1044 words)

No Spoilers: Omar should probably get off of social media. Alone at home, exhausted, and upset by what he’s seeing, by the never ending doom scroll, he should probably do something nice for himself. Eat something. Drink some water. But there is a gravity to social media, especially when things are blowing up (metaphorically and literally) and it effects you. Is about you, in part or entirely. And the constant stream of Black people killed by police, the Discourse about it, the need for change and the way people talk back and forth, the way every march, every protest becomes necessary and impossible all at takes a toll. And the story seems to ask what would help. What would make meaningful change. What would help to dampen some of the impact the online toxicity of social media holds for marginalized people? I do like the answer the story finds.
Keywords: Social Media, Exhaustion, Language, Codes, Revolution
Review: I love the way this story captures a feeling of exhaustion, depression mixing with despair mixing with the inability to look away. The simultaneous need to self care and the absolute inability to do that because it requires safety that is beyond reach. Omar wants so much to be able to just work and succeed, to help his family, but despite how much that’s supposed to be possible, that’s supposed to be the attainable dream, it’s not. It’s a carrot on a stick that’s always out of reach. And the only way to get it is with some help. And I love this as a way to close out the project as a whole, because of both the promise and the reality of the call. One born out of a moment of an attempt to approach racial justice. One step that could easily be a one-off, the first and last of its kind. That ending, that idea of starting a revolution, of sparking something, of spreading like fire. It’s an alive and complicated thing and very much what the project seems to be in conversation with. But if it’s a start, how can will continue? How, when some will say the work is done now? That this was enough, or at the least enough to make them feel better, enough to make allies think they can relax now. The story seems to capture the idea that this might only have been the start of a conversation, but that conversation should continue. Needs to continue. And needs to continue in a way that doesn’t center the allies. That gives space for that revolution to foment and gain power. Allows people to find resources, to target action, to cooperate and lift up and organize. Knowing that there will be those who want to stop it, who will stand against it, who will try to deflect, derail, defame, and coopt. The story stands against that, a kind of promise that as long as people keep talking, keep sharing their knowledge, their skills, their passion, then the burdens they are feeling can be shared as well, their loads lightened. And I love that as a way to close out this special issue. It asks allies to examine their feelings surrounding exclusion, their resentments in the context of racial justice, because for there to be justice, people need ways to talk that does exclude whiteness. And that’s not a bad thing. Indeed, that’s often a very necessary thing. So yeah, a fantastic close to a stunning issue!


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