Tuesday, January 6, 2015

artifact

What can I say in addition to what I've already said? We clamor for the right to opacity for everyone.

A friend writes to me that Ben Okri's Guardian piece may have been "a cry for help." Yes, perhaps. A cry to be read otherwise, to become something other than artifact. Artifact, with its archaeological connotations: an object indicating a world that has disappeared. A thing that means "something is missing." Absence. Lack. I've said before that this is how African literature is received globally, as the literature of nothing. This process is not random. An artifact is "something created by humans for a practical purpose." The literature of nothing is created for the practical purpose of keeping black literature and thought in the realm of zero.

I think this has to be fought everywhere. Blogs, universities, magazines, your school, your street.

The literature of nothing is not created by writers. This zero of a literature arises when the work is read in a particular deadening way, when it's reduced to certain desired content (war, poverty, etc.) and kept strictly within that boundary. There is a reason that it is easy to read War and Peace and say well, yes, it's about war, but really it's about character! and not so easy to say the same thing about Half of a Yellow Sun, not easy to say this is a love story, this is a story about passion.

There are different ways of reading. We learn them, repeat them, pass them on. We learn to read Tolstoy for character. We learn to read Adichie for the history of the Biafran War.

Some people are mad at me for blaming readers. "How dare you!" But well, I do, I blame the professional readers most of all, the creators of study guides and reading group guides and guides for teachers, the summarizers, the marketers, the critics. I blame them, and I wish I could just stop, and say, who cares? After all, they touch so little. This subset of black and African literature we're arguing about--the literature of nothing--this literature that is nothing'd out of existence--it's only that tiny amount, that handful of books, that gets promoted to a wide, Western-dominated audience, that gets reviewed in places like the Guardian. Who cares?

But I do care, because to be made nothing in a global context, to be the nothing of the literary world: this is to be made less human.

It's when you're exhausted by these debates that you sense the bitter vitality of Yambo Ouologuem's Bound to Violence (Le Devoir de violence), a book crammed with overwhelming subjects, conquest, slavery, mass murder, a book that, far from downplaying these subjects, rushes at them, seizes at them, devours them. How I hated this book the first time I read it! I thought it was horrible. Now I find it more alive than most other books--rich, confrontational, dazzling. It's a book without piety, a book that observes no niceties of any kind, a book that holds nothing back, that attacks, cheats, and steals. What is the future of such a book? Will it endure? And how? I think of Ouologuem's sneering send-up of the artifact-collecting anthropologist "Schrobenius," a figure of bumbling power, both duped and duping, and I think of the cover of the novel, in French and in English, yes, there it is, the artifact.


Saturday, December 27, 2014

my 10 best reads of 2014

Citizen
Claudia Rankine

Read an excerpt. Read Rankine's interview "Blackness as the Second Person." Now read the book.



Humanimal: 
A Project for Future Children
Bhanu Kapil

Like Citizen, this book is a hybrid, thriving somewhere between poetry and prose. Appropriate, as its subject is the "Bengali wolf girls," human sisters raised by wolves and discovered/captured/kidnapped in 1921. Missionaries tried to rehabilitate the girls. Kapil, working on a documentary film about them, gives us far more than a documentary in this fierce, harrowing book. Humanimal came out in 2009, and I read it this year for the second time. Still one of my best reads. "Each feral moment is valuable."



In the Time of the Blue Ball
Manuela Draeger

translated by Brian Evenson

I wrote about these post-apocalyptic children's stories, which still haunt me. Those strange, cold-hearted, happy flying girls! The book came out in 2011, from Dorothy, A Publishing Project. Everything they do is magic.



Things We Found During the Autopsy
Kuzhali Manickavel

I wrote a review of this one. Angels, voluntarily homeless youths, drugs, sex, Indian dads in cold foreign countries, vomit, boys, girls' hostels, girls, and more. Weird, cruelly humorous, scalpel-sharp.



White Girls
Hilton Als

"I see how we are all the same, that none of us are white women or black men; rather, we’re a series of mouths, and that every mouth needs filling: with something wet or dry, like love, or unfamiliar and savory, like love." Read an excerpt from this provocative and dazzling collection of essays. If you don't want to read the whole book, I can't help you.



Living with Music: Ralph Ellison's Jazz Writings
Ralph Ellison

Ellison's writings on jazz were collected and published in 2001, and I read them this year. What a rich, surprising, wonderful read! The essays on music are here, along with letters about the subject, and short stories and excerpts from the novels that show how Ellison engaged jazz and blues in his fiction. There's something really exciting about seeing the essayist, letter writer, and fiction writer, all living with music through words, all in the same volume. Ellison is observant, critical, passionate, absorbed, bewitched. The introduction by Robert G. O'Meally is also a treasure.



Kalpa Imperial: The Greatest Empire that Never Was
Angélica Gorodischer
translated by Ursula K. Le Guin

This book was published in 2003 by the inimitable Small Beer Press. I wrote about it at Tor.com and honestly just go there and read the first sentence.



Get in Trouble
Kelly Link

Freaking Kelly Link. What do we even say. Well, for starters, read this story from her new collection! "When the sex tape happened and things went south with Fawn, the demon lover did what he always did. He went to cry on Meggie’s shoulder." I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads giveaway even though I never win anything, and I read every word even though, when I was halfway through, my cat peed on it. There is something about winning a book and then having your cat pee on it that feels like a Kelly Link story. She will get into your life. She'll get you in trouble.



2500 Random Things About Me Too
Matias Viegener

You know that "25 Random Things About Me" thing on Facebook? Well, this guy did it a hundred times and now it's a book and it's really great. Published in 2012, it's been described as "possibly the first book to have been composed entirely on Facebook" (which please where are the other ones?). Naturally, it provides insights, simply through its form, about life in the digital age, but what struck me most about it was Viegener's worry, at different times, that he wasn't being random enough. It's hard to be random. We really are creatures of narrative. The desire for randomness, which reads as a desire not to be a constructed Facebook self, a "brand," is as poignant as anything in the book.




I don't have a cover image for this one BUT you can click the link and read it! This is Allison Parrish's NaNoGenMo project--NaNoGenMo being the programmer's version of NaNoWriMo, in other words omg this book was written by a computer. The text comes from a dream dictionary by Gustavus Hindman Miller (1857-1929; according to Wikipedia, "a prominent merchant, manufacturer, financier, capitalist farmer, author and public spirited citizen of Chattanooga, Tennessee"). It is immensely strange and poetic. It's best for dipping into, rather than sustained reading--I enjoy it most when I read a few lines that feel dense and concise, like the memory of a dream. This is probably because Parrish's computer was able to do what Viegener could not: create a text that is, or at any rate feels, truly random.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

towards a grand unified theory of female pain

For a long time I have hesitated to write my thoughts on Leslie Jamison's essay "Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain," which appears in one of my favorite books of the year, The Empathy Exams.

The essay is about wounds and wallowing and the iconography of gendered pain. Most importantly, it strives for "the possibility of representing female suffering without reifying its mythos," of acknowledging the pain of girls who get their period, have abortions, cut themselves, etc., without becoming creepily fascinated with the pain and falling into the danger of perpetuating it. I am completely on board with this project. My problem is that the essay uses the word "women" to indicate white women.

"Women have gone pale all over Dracula," Jamison writes. She quotes Susan Sontag on the development of the image of the suffering woman in the nineteenth century, an image linked to tuberculosis and melancholy: "a racking cough, a wan pallor, an emaciated body." During this same nineteenth century, bell hooks tells us, the image of the black woman was being developed precisely in opposition to this (yes, very messed up) "ideal": black slave women, doing "men's work" in the fields, were viewed as "masculinized sub-human creatures." We could also talk about the broad body of the mammy figure in contrast to the narrowness of the corseted southern belle, but I'm sure you get the idea, because these images, as Jamison shows in the case of the consumptive white nineteenth-century heroine, are still with us.

Of the dominant images of black women Melissa Harris-Perry analyzes in her recent book Sister Citizen--comforting Mammy, lascivious Jezebel, aggressive Sapphire--none is glorified in her pain. Mammy cries for others, for her white charges when they scrape their knees or go away to college. Jezebel and Sapphire do not cry at all. These figures have none of the glamour of the wounded white (and, as Jamison does add, aristocratic) idols of the nineteenth century, nor are they "post-wounded"--a term Jamison uses to describe the world- and self-weary, sardonic girls of Girls (Season 1). The black figures do not possess enough interiority to be either wounded or post-wounded. I mean think of the bewitching wreck that is Caddy Compson in The Sound and the Fury (I thought of her when I read Jamison's essay, because Jamison is excellent on the misogynist ethos that makes Caddy so immensely interesting). Now think of Dilsey.

IT IS A PROBLEM.

My point here is not to trash Jamison's essay or accuse her of "white women's tears," in fact I have hated that expression for a long time, because people throw it around without any consideration for what Accapadi was talking about in that article, and mash it up with the idea of "white people problems" or "first world problems," also hateful terms, so that it becomes a way of dismissing tears out of hand, and even worse, reinforces the pernicious idea that women of color in general, and black women in particular, do not cry. My point, rather, is that there might actually be a grand unified theory of female pain, but it would have to consider different ways of being female. This is something I've barely even started to touch here, though I hope I'm pointing toward it. While the slave economy makes the black/white opposition in American culture really formative, there are of course other female images to take into consideration (the fiery Latina, for example, or the submissive Asian woman) and the problem with Jamison's essay is that it doesn't even open the door to that kind of work, it leaves the door shut and hangs a curtain over it so you can't even see it, and this curtain is called "women."

It's upsetting. It hurts. It wounds.

I'm thinking of Ani DiFranco, one of the "damaged sirens" Jamison grew up listening to ("More than anything I wanted to be killed by Ani's 'Swan Dive'), and how DiFranco was going to hold a retreat at a former slave plantation last year, and there was so much pain over it.

To separate these histories is to wound. The history of white. The history of other.

I think of the narrator of Sapphire's Push, a young black girl who is raped by her father. The way her idea of the suffering female, the girl who feels pain, is white. "My fahver don’t see me really. If he did he would know I was like a white girl, a real person, inside."

Jamison quotes Simone de Beauvoir: "For a long time I have hesitated to write a book on woman. The subject is irritating, especially to women; and it is not new." Well, the claim that women of color have been left out of the definition of "woman" is not new either. Lots of people have made it before now. When will it be old?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

what i wrote & how i'll vote

It's the most wonderful time of the year: when all the SFF writers put up lists of their awards-eligible stuff! So if you vote in the Nebulas or other SFF awards, here's my eligible work from 2014:

Stories

How to Get Back to the Forest, Lightspeed
Ogres of East Africa, Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History
A Girl Who Comes Out of a Chamber at Regular Intervals, Lackington's
Walkdog, Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories

Poetry

Long-Ear, Stone Telling
The Death of Araweilo, Tor.com
Make the Night Go Faster, Liminality

And here are some things I'm voting for:

Novel

The Angel of Losses
Stephanie Feldman

I'm a judge for the Crawford Award this year so I read A LOT of debut fantasy, which is great, but it also means I didn't get around to reading some of the fabulous-looking non-debut fiction from this year. (I still have not read Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy. I haven't even read the first one--that is how fast he writes. Chill, Jeff. I haven't read Genevieve Valentine's The Girls at the Kingfisher Club either, which is The Twelve Dancing Princesses AND THEY ARE FLAPPERS. Station Eleven? Haven't read it. The Bone Clocks? Currently listening to the audiobook. I'll catch up! Eventually!)

My novel vote, then, is a debut: Stephanie Feldman's The Angel of Losses. It's a lovely, complex family story about inheritance, immigration, and faith, with strong Jewish folklore influences and an academic treasure hunt! I tore through it almost in one sitting.

Novella

Mary Rickert, "The Mothers of Voorhisville," Tor.com

The things you have heard are true; we are the mothers of monsters.

Mary Rickert is one of my favorite writers. She's completely terrifying. Small town, multiple voices, multiple versions, winged babies--a tale of motherhood and mass possession.

Short Fiction

(5 stories in no particular order, numbers are just to keep track of things)

1. Amal El-Mohtar, "The Lonely Sea in the Sky," Lightspeed

Discovery and exploitation of a possibly sentient substance, scientists, poetry, song lyrics, diamonds, love story, battle between scientific discourse and lived experience, betrayal, journal entries, I love it SO MUCH.

2. Rose Lemberg, "A City on Its Tentacles," Lackington's

First, Lackington's is just a great magazine, my new favorite place for speculative prose. Second, as I've said before, Rose Lemberg is an amazing writer of prose and poetry, editor, and general hard worker on the SFF scene, and somebody you should keep your eye on. Third, THIS STORY. Undersea city, mother-child connection, storytelling that both saves and shapes lives. On some level, this is about the "work-life balance" we talk about all the time, but expressed so poetically you absorb it in a completely different way. As if, instead of telling you their thoughts on work-life balance, somebody played them for you on a cello.

3. Bogi Takács, "This Shall Serve as a Demarcation," Scigentasy

What if somebody wrote space opera, with all its usual hallmarks--distant planet setting, conflict, advanced abilities, technology, literally this is taken from the space opera wiki--and imbued it with deep issues of love and belonging and betrayal and power? OH LOOK SOMEBODY HAS. I especially love the meditation on service that's happening in this story: what does it mean to decide to serve an institution, an underground organization, a lover, a planet?

4. Carmen Maria Machado, EVERYTHING

Carmen is ridiculous. How are we supposed to pick something when she splashes incredible fiction all over the place? Also Carmen, if we can have a quick heart to heart, how are you going to win a Nebula if you're so good that the ballot is peppered with your stories and your votes are all split up? BE WORSE. Anyway, let's try this again, I'm nominating two Machado stories this year:

4. Carmen Maria Machado, "Help Me Follow My Sister into the Land of the Dead," Help Fund My Robot Army; Lightspeed

This was originally published as part of an anthology of stories in the form of crowdfunding pitches and it's so funny and sad and great. Read it! Donate!

5. Carmen Maria Machado, "Mothers," Interfictions

Surreal story about two women who are lovers: it moves from "Thank god we cannot make a baby" to "We made a baby. Here she is." Features a baby that behaves like an actual baby, in other words a pretty bad baby, plus bad mothers, bad lovers, and a lover named Bad. Gorgeous. Oh question, since I'm an Interfictions co-editor, even though I do nonfiction and poetry so I obviously didn't edit this story, was my choice influenced by the fact that it was published in "my" magazine? Yes, duh.

I also could have voted for Carmen's stories "Observations About Eggs from the Man Sitting Next to Me on a Flight from Chicago, Illinois to Cedar Rapids, Iowa" or "The Husband Stitch." Seriously, she must be stopped.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

middle-grade SFF with black protagonists

Recently a friend asked me to recommend some middle-grade speculative fiction with black protagonists. I couldn't come up with much, but when I put the question to my social media circles, quite a few titles came in! So I've put together a list.

Please note that I have not read (most of) these books--I'm putting them out there because they've been recommended to me. If you've read any of them, and want to comment, go ahead! Also, of course, feel free to recommend things that aren't on the list. Finally, if you're interested in this topic, you should know about Twinja Book Reviews and Tu Books. Happy reading!

Ninth Ward
Jewell Parker Rhodes

Zahrah the Windseeker
Nnedi Okorafor

Ship of Souls
Zetta Elliott

The Magical Misadventures
of Prunella Bothistle
Deva Fagan

The Boy at the End of the World
Greg van Eekhout

The True Meaning of Smekday
Adam Rex

Zero Degree Zombie Zone
Patrik Henry Bass

Tangi's Teardrops
Liz Grace Davis

Amber and the Hidden City
Milton J. Davis

Game World
C. J. Farley

The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm
Nancy Farmer

The Offenders
Jerry Craft
(with Jaylen Craft and Aren Craft)

Chronicles of the Red King
Jenny Nimmo

Feathers
Jacqueline Woodson

The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl
Virginia Hamilton

Static Shock
Tracey West
(the chapter book for kids!)

The Clone Codes (Series)
Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick McKissack


Miles Away
Anthony Montgomery
(graphic novel!)

Lavender-Green Magic
Andre Norton

Above World
Jenn Reese

Saturday, December 6, 2014

reflections on the Symposium for African Writers

I was fortunate enough to attend the Symposium for African Writers last week at the University of Texas at Austin, and it was one of the best events I've been to, quite possibly my favorite! And you can read about it, or maybe I should say around it, at Post45, where Aaron Bady has put together a very deep and careful introduction to the subject of "African Writers in a New World," which was sort of the idea behind the symposium--what it means to be an African writer and also an immigrant or diasporic writer, or "international" in some way, and what are those things even, and how, and does it matter, etc. etc. Naturally the word Afropolitan was used, and right quick too, as Taiye Selasi was there and did a reading and public interview the first evening (if you don't know her famous/notorious essay "Bye-Bye Barbar" you should read it, also if you write about it try to spell it right, it's got nothing to do with a storybook elephant smh).

You should also read Aaron's interviews with Maaza Mengiste and Laila Lalami (who were at the symposium) and Miral al-Tahawy and Tope Folarin (who weren't)--just really great in-depth interviews. (Update: there is also an interview with me.)

My panel with Nnedi Okorafor was rich and strange and I am developing some of the ideas for a future blog post--as much as any of my blog posts are developed anyway. Stay tuned! For now I want to put down some more general reflections, just things that struck me during the symposium: they have to do with strandedness and opacity and sadness which sounds completely depressing! But it's not, or not all of it…

1. A STRANDED PLACE

When Aaron asked Taiye Selasi about Afropolitanism and the (in)famous essay, she said "I wrote that essay from a stranded place." And everyone was sort of shocked, including me, because "Bye-Bye Barbar" has been read by lots of people (self included) as more than a little triumphalist, like here we are, the Afropolitans, multilingual and gainfully employed, zooming around on planes trailing degrees and fashionable clothes! So lots of accusations of elitism have gathered around the essay, and I do think there's room for that critique, but what interests me is that I completely missed any kind of wistfulness or sadness when I read it. And then I went back to the essay, and it's all right there. The lack of a place to be. The self-consciousness, the shame. The need "to forge a sense of self from wildly disparate sources." Getting "lost in transnation."

Admittedly the sad part is bracketed by a carefree introduction and supremely self-confident conclusion: ("And if it all sounds a little self-congratulatory, a little ‘aren’t-we-the-coolest-damn-people-on-earth?’ – I say: yes it is, necessarily"). But it still surprises me that I missed it. It surprises me that I missed the work the word "necessarily" is doing in the sentence I just quoted. That I didn't think about where the writer might have come from, to get to where she was when she wrote the essay in 2005. And no, this doesn't mean we should cry for Taiye ("Nobody," she said in her interview, "wants to ask why the middle-class caged bird sings"), but it does mean we should read her essay with an eye to its complexity, and with the same "refusal to oversimplify" which, she claims in the essay, characterizes the Afropolitan response to Africa.

2. WE CLAMOR FOR THE RIGHT TO OPACITY FOR EVERYONE

Hey, speaking of complexity, can we get some opacity for African literature? Can we please? That Édouard Glissant quote about clamoring for the right to opacity was in my head the whole time I was in Austin! It's one of my favorites. Opacity for Glissant is the opposite of transparency: where transparency means reading an "other" as totally assimilable and thereby rendering them invisible, opacity means recognizing the irreducibility of the other: opacity protects the diverse. I think Glissant is using transparency in the sense of people who say "I don't see color!" and try to make difference just go away, but I've always thought of it, especially in relation to world literature, as that thing that happens when you already know. There's a mass of "knowledge of Africa" you absorb by just being alive somewhere (sometimes even in Africa!), such that when you pick up a work of African literature it's already seen, comprehended, assimilated: there will be no surprises because you already know.

It's all sunsets & acacia trees! (pic via Africa is a Country)

Question: how many teachers have to show Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED Talk "The Dangers of a Single Story" in how many classes to how many students before The Single Story of Africa stops being a thing?

Answer: LOL.

At the symposium, Taiye said: "I wouldn't mind my book being called an African novel if it didn't invite lazy readings." She talked about "the tsunami of ethnographic assumptions" that regularly clobbers African literature. One of the best moments of the group panel was when we talked about literary influences and other stuff we love: I found out that Taiye and I share a love for Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, and that Maaza and I are both sort of obsessed with Charlie Parker, and that when Laila was writing The Moor's Account she read a lot of V.S. Naipaul ("He's a bastard, but he can write!"). Those are the kinds of things you can't guess. You wouldn't already know. They come from the part of a person that's unpredictable, opaque. That's a really basic little example, but you get where I'm going. I mean what is the point of reading a book if you're just going to talk about it in terms of some African something or other that you already know?

This is connected to another discussion we had, based on an email discussion between me and Aaron and Keguro Macharia, about African literature as "the literature that becomes nothing." Aaron quoted my email, as follows:

Not to be depressing but lately I have thought of African lit as the lit that becomes nothing. (This was kicked off when I read Ndlovu-Gatsheni on lack.) We know that all literary works are copies; African lit is a copy in a way that obliterates it (Ouologuem, Camara Laye, whatever, choose your plagiarism scandal). All lit is political; African lit is political in a way that makes it cease to be literature (it's "too political," "didactic," etc.). All lit is produced to suit a market; African lit is produced to suit an illegitimate, inauthentic, outside market (it's always in the wrong language); its market also makes it nothing...

The transparency of African literature, the ethnographic tsunami, the "already-known" quality attached to African creative production--this too is an attempt to make it nothing. Demand your right to opacity!

3. BEING A SCHOLAR IS SAD

This isn't directly related to African literature but I couldn't help thinking about it! Because the symposium was the first event of this kind--the first university event, I mean--that I've attended as a creative writer rather than a scholar, and the difference is HUGE. Yes, there was a moment when the old impostor syndrome kicked in, but it went away as soon as I started talking, because when you go as a creative writer, people actually want you to be yourself, which is the last thing anybody wants from a scholar. I don't know what people want from scholars actually. I mean, when you think about the conditions of graduate school, all that labor, the constant threat of failure, the way people are so contemptuous and attack each other at conferences, and then the culture of hazing all the way through an academic career, from the dissertation defense to tenure review--IT'S MISERABLE. I've read whole books about how miserable it is. As Fred Moten put it: "Why doesn't this feel good?"

Anyway, I have no solution to this. It just really struck me at the symposium, because the whole thing felt good. It was rich and exciting and fun. And we were talking about ideas, in much the same way that scholars talk about ideas (four of us teach at universities for goodness' sake!). So you tell me. Why do scholars have to be so miserable? What is it about our culture--let's say US academic culture, to keep it simple--that creates this desire for the downtrodden, humiliated, suffering (humanities) scholar? Of course we like suffering artists as well… hmm. But artists suffer and are adored, while scholars suffer and are despised. Artists, when they suffer, are ritual sacrifices; scholars are the meanest sort of criminals.

Um. I told you this wouldn't be depressing.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

fairytales for lost children

Diriye Osman's debut collection, Fairytales for Lost Children, won the 2014 Polari Prize, awarded to a first book by a UK writer exploring LGBTQ experiences. British and Somali, he's got a multifaceted identity: being a UK writer made him eligible for the Polari, yet the BBC announcement describes him as a "Somali author" and "the first African writer" to win the prize. Let's go ahead and give him all the labels, because to leave one off would be to miss a key part of the position Diriye Osman writes from. Fairytales deals a lot with labels. It puts them together like a collage. In "The Other (Wo)man," the protagonist, Yassin, is only concerned with which label overlaps which: "He was Somali first, Muslim second, gay third. But perhaps that was only a matter of timing: born Somali, raised Muslim, discovered gay."

No matter how you layer the labels, they add up to a collage that's not always legible or acceptable to others. "He didn't belong to just one society: he was gay, Somali, Muslim, and yet all these cultural positions left him excluded." Once you add all the pieces, your collage might not even be acceptable to you: "The Other (Wo)man" pushes Yassin into deeper explorations of his own identity, into a confrontation with his transphobia, the masculinity he clings to like an anchor, his fear of the fact that he finds "no boundaries between his male and female sides." Yassin, Yasmeen. The story is harsh and uncomfortable and sad. Yassin tears off his blouse in an alley behind a nightclub where caged pit bulls bay for his blood. He's alone; he's rejected his lover. "His interior landscape," we read, "was in transition." The story's epigraph comes from Sartre: "Freedom is what you do with what's been done to you."

In that quote, freedom is a collagist's art: you've got certain materials at your disposal, and no, you didn't pick them, but you shape them and combine them and try to make something that works. In "Watering the Imagination," a woman's silence toward her daughter's love for another woman is supportive rather than hostile. In "Tell the Sun Not to Shine," a man runs out of a mosque rather than confront the imam who was once his lover. In the gut-wrenching "Shoga," the narrator repeats "Insha Allah, everything will work out," repeating the phrase "until it created an incantatory effect," in an effort to overcome the loss of love, family, and his adopted homeland, Kenya. Sometimes you don't have a whole lot of material you'd even want to make into a collage. Sometimes you just have words.

And there's an exuberant love of language here, a playful use of scissors and glue. "But I've missed a beat, my bambinos." "I'm just a middle-aged ragamuffin who loves his junk food." "C'est énigmatique? Hakuna shida." Security forces in Nairobi round up Somalis in a "walalo witch-hunt." A kindergarten teacher, also in Nairobi, tells a new version of Rapunzel, which concerns Rehema, "a fly gabar imprisoned in Fort Jesus": "Rehema had an Afro that grew and grew. Her Afro grew bigger than her body and she looked bomb. The Afro became so strong that it burst through the ceiling…"

In that same story--the title story--a child teaches his friend a new word: "refugee."

"Hirsi," he asked, "what does 'refugee' mean?"
"It mean no home, fighting, death."

You make what you can out of what you've got. If necessary, you make it in a foreign language.

And language makes you. It haunts you. It breaks into your head. How much the stories "Earthling" and "Your Silence Will Not Protect You" remind me of Bessie Head's A Question of Power! The way Head's character Elizabeth hears voices attacking her identity: "You are inferior as a Colored." Zeytun in "Earthling" and Diriye in "Your Silence Will Not Protect You" suffer auditory hallucinations that attack them for being queer. "Sick sick sick sick dyke," hears Zeytun. "[T]he voices I heard in my head when I was unwell," says Diriye, "were always shouting homophobic slurs at me."

In these stories, mental health is a question of power. Claiming power means confronting family (Diriye recognizes that his voices "didn't belong to strange, nebulous creatures" but "to my family"). The confrontation brings "sadness and trauma." These stories and drawings are dearly bought. It's tempting to describe the book as "brave."

And it is brave. But as soon as I say that I feel protective--protective of the community represented, in these stories, by the disowning father, the cold grandmother, the traitorous sister. In the stories, these people are fully realized characters, and the protagonists love them. The statement "What a brave book!" threatens to take all of that away: to reduce the family to the savages in Makau Mutua's "savages-victims-saviors" model of human rights rhetoric, and the queer protagonists to victims. This leaves a particular kind of reader--most often a white, western reader--in the position of the savior, and well, it's a gratifying position, I mean who wouldn't want to be there, and there's a real passion for that savior position around queer issues in Africa right now, and there's all kinds of white saviorism around subjects having to do with gender, sexuality, and Islam, and this passion for the savior position has real effects, it contributes to the demonization of Muslims, it makes it hard for people in the west to care about the Somali communities Diriye Osman writes about with such tenderness. And when I say this book is "brave" I can see all those saviors perk up their ears. I really can. They're like those pit bulls in a dark alley, hungry for Yassin. They want to get out and seize this lonely young person and make a trophy of him. To get that trophy, they'll tear him limb from limb.

So I guess in conclusion I'd say that I hope people read Fairytales without tearing up the collage. I hope they make the effort to look at all the pieces at once. I hope they see the deep, painful love for family and community that runs through the book, the way that it is, in some ways, an ode to families inherited and found. Here's Yassin again, from "The Other (Wo)man": "It was Somaliness, the pure beauty of being part of a proud, distinctive culture, that glued all his other selves together." Here, Somali identity isn't just a piece of the collage. It's the glue itself.