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 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.

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.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

world fantasy awards: what did i say?

On Sunday, I received the 2014 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel at the World Fantasy Convention in Washington, DC. I went up onstage, accepted the award, and said some words. Several people have asked about those words, but unfortunately I don't know exactly what they were. (I had written a speech, and was in fact revising it until the last minute, which you know if you went in the women's bathroom where I was scribbling feverishly in a corner--but in the end I didn't even look at it.)

I do know a few things about my speech! It was short. It had three basic parts:

1. WHAT.

I think I started by saying "What is going on" or something like that. This is the part of the speech in which I talked about how honored I am to have won this award, and how as a newcomer I'm pretty overwhelmed by the recognition my work has received from the SFF community. I thanked Gary K. Wolfe for his early review in Locus, because it helped get my book into people's hands. I may have thanked Small Beer Press at this point. I don't know! Write your speeches down and read them! It's not hard!

2. The Elephant in the Room

I think I used those words. I think I said "I can't sit down without addressing the elephant in the room, which is the controversy surrounding the image that represents this award." I said it was awkward to accept the award as a writer of color. (See this post by Nnedi Okorafor, the 2011 winner, if you are confused about why.) I also thanked the board for taking the issue seriously, because at the beginning of the ceremony, Gordon van Gelder stood up and made an announcement to that effect: "The board is taking the issue very seriously, but there is no decision yet." I just wanted them to know that here I was in a terribly awkward position, unable to be 100% thrilled, as I should be, by winning this award, and that many other people would feel the same, and so they were right to think about changing it.

thanks for the pic, Scott Edelman!

3. Small Beer Rules

Then I raved about the amazing Small Beer Press and how Gavin Grant and Kelly Link are the best team in the world. I pointed out that Nathan Ballingrud was also nominated for a World Fantasy Award this year, for his collection North American Lake Monsters, and that both of us are debut authors from Small Beer. Gavin and Kelly have a wonderful eye for fiction AND they take chances on new authors. Huge thanks to them, and to you all! And then I sat down.

***

A few more thoughts

Here are a few more thoughts I'll add because this has now become my post on the World Fantasy Awards controversy.

a) Nobody's post about winning an award should turn into a post about controversy! Everyone should be able to announce their awards with unadulterated joy! And unless the statue is changed, there will be a lot more posts like this. Can we not?

b) I don't think the statue should be an image of any person.

c) I am not telling anybody not to read Lovecraft. I teach Lovecraft! I actually insist that people read him and write about him! For grades! This is not about reading an author but about using that person's image to represent an international award honoring the work of the imagination.

d) I discovered, with a horror I'm sure Lovecraft would share, that we look a lot alike.

trying to make Lovecraft's face & succeeding all too well

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

the leopard princess


I was fortunate enough to get a sneak peek at a children's book, The Leopard Princess by M. O. Hadji, illustrated by Jose Lorenzo Pacheco. It is GORGEOUS. The story of Shabelle, a weaver's daughter who saves Mogadishu with her courage and wit, The Leopard Princess brims with enchantment. There's a riddling giant, a case of mistaken identity, and an invasion of ghouls on menacing green ships--all brought to life in Pacheco's stunning illustrations.

There are several ways to talk about this book. On its own, it's a treasure, offering a resourceful and determined heroine, an engaging story, and pictures you want to get lost in. But when you consider its context, the book becomes even more precious. This is a book for children offering a positive image of Somalis and Somali history. It gestures toward the diversity of Somali culture, invoking Arab influences in the series title ("Book One of the Wonderful Somali Nights") and Somali folklore in the story (Shabelle practices sword-fighting with a stick, imagining she's "the legendary Queen Arawelo"). The protagonist is a young woman who is rescued by her romantic interest, and also rescues him; she loves her parents, but not more than her own future. These things are rare, and we need them desperately. And by "we," I mean not just people with an obvious stake in Somali culture, but everyone.

Let me give you two horrid examples from Amazon dot com. I happened to come across another kids' book called The Leopard Princess, which do not buy it please.

no comment

According to the book description, this Leopard Princess lives "in a beautiful rainforest in mysterious Africa." Raised by leopards, she meets a guy who teaches her English and comes to know God and ok let me just stop. Now, you could say look, this thing is sold by Amazon Digital Services, Inc and has no reviews, so who cares? But the point is not how much traction is gained by this particular piece of rubbish. The point is that the rubbish does not need traction. This book was produced by a dominant narrative, with a little bit of help from Laura Fairman-Powers. Her vision of the world rules, whether anyone reads her book (includes study guide!) or not.

As depressing as that is, my second example is even worse. As I prepared to write this, I did a little search for children's books involving Somalia. My search was in English (necessarily, I'm afraid) so if you have information about kids' books in Somali, please comment! My English-language search didn't turn up much, though along with the expected National-Geographic-style "This Is Somalia" ones I discovered some cool-looking bilingual picture books and retold folktales. However, I also found this:


Murder for Kids

Description: "Shadow Squadron hits the ground running in their first mission, operation SEA DEMON. When well-organized Somali pirates kidnap several V.I.Ps at sea, Lt. Commander Ryan Cross and his men are called upon to put these pirates down before innocent blood is shed." A reviewer comments that the author "keeps the action true to life without the gore (there is killing but it's the clean shot/clean kill variety--shoot the bad guys, they fall down)." The book is recommended for 4th- to 8th-graders. Children age 9 to 13. Nine. To. Thirteen.

I apologize for putting you through that. I feel it's necessary, though, in order to understand the importance of Hadji and Pacheco's beautiful book. Once it's out, there will probably be more critical views than mine: people may wish it had come out in Somali before English, or that it was a contemporary rather than a medieval story, or any number of other things, and that's fine. But my overwhelming impression is simple. I will buy The Leopard Princess for my kids. I wish I'd had anything close to it when I was a kid. It hurts me that I didn't.

There you go. That's my review. Invisibility hurts us. Violent representations hurt us. I thank the author and artist, and hope you'll treat yourself to their work.


The Leopard Princess
M.O. Hadji and Jose Lorenzo Pacheco
Coming November 2014