Welcome to our latest book club! Our current book is Ancient, Ancient, a collection of short stories by Kiini Ibura Salaam which was the co-winner of the 2012 James Tiptree, Jr. Award. Strange Horizons reviewer Richard Larson described Salaam's world as one "full of harsh and beautiful things," and claims that the stories "are imbued with the urgency and expansive scope of imagination that we've come to expect from the best of science fiction." In her introduction to the collection Nisi Shawl describes Salaam's work as "simultaneously unsettling and enticing." ("I had had to look unflinchingly. I'd had to grasp what she was saying. I'd had to feel it, to know it. Feeling is more powerful than fear. Knowledge is joy.")
We hope you'll join us to discuss the stories further in the comments, but to kick off this discussion, the participants are:
Keguro Macharia, a writer and editor based in Nairobi, Kenya. He blogs at https://gukira.wordpress.com/ and http://thenewinquiry.com/blogs/wiathi/.
Maria Velazquez, who received her doctorate in American Studies from University of Maryland, College-Park. Her dissertation focuses on belly dance and its use as an embodied political rhetoric post-9/11. She writes for The Hathor Legacy, a feminist pop culture blog.
Maureen Kincaid Speller, a critic and freelance copyeditor. She has reviewed science fiction and fantasy for various journals, including Interzone, Vector, and Foundation.
Ethan Robinson, a blogger.
I'm not convinced that Nisi Shawl's intro helps to frame the collection properly, but that's also because I'm not yet convinced that the collection works as a collection. What connects these stories? Is "Ancient, Ancient" The Title Story or is it just a story with a title that's good for a book? Does this title bring out a unity between these stories that might otherwise be lost?
Maureen: Gosh, where to start with this.
a) I'm glad this question mentioned Nisi Shawl's intro because I had one or two issues with that, but also had a debate with myself as to whether the intro was up for discussion. Much as I wanted to play the paratext card, I wasn't sure it would be appropriate. I've decided now that it is.
b) These questions also raise the issue of whether we should seek or expect unity in a collection of stories, or whether "collection" means just that: a series of stories that happen to have been brought together. That is, should we expect to see a connection beyond the fact that they are written by the same author, and what sort of connections might we expect to see. And that, bearing in mind that each of us as readers finds our own connections anyway.
I linger on the fact that Shawl calls her introduction "Annunciation," invoking the biblical and the prophetic with that "Be Not Afraid." Googling the phrase takes me back to Isaiah 41:10—Isaiah 40 gives us "Comfort ye my people," and "Prepare ye the way of the Lord," foreshadowing the birth of Jesus in the New Testament. John the Baptist's prophecies refer back to this. (I'm not a practising Christian, but I went to a typical English church primary school, and had all this drummed into me at an early age, so it stuck. That, and I am very fond of Handel's Messiah. Be not impressed.)
So, I guess we read Nisi Shawl performing as the prophet of Kiini Ibura Salaam. Which is what an introduction is supposed to do. And yet, and yet . . . there is a level on which I'm uncomfortable with Nisi Shawl represented as a voice in the wilderness, proclaiming the wonder that is Salaam. Not because I necessarily disagree with the notion that Salaam is an interesting writer, but . . . I don't know, there is something about the way this is being framed that I can't grasp.
On the one hand, we're told over and over about Salaam's "serene steadiness," her "poise of a poet," the "quiet calm," which sets us up for the revelation (I use the word advisedly) of the "surprises" in her fiction. On the other hand, we have Shawl talking about her own perception of changes to come in SF, as a result of the "influx of Afro-diasporic writers," the influx of sexy, with the implication that Salaam fulfils this prophecy, naturally.
Maybe it is that I feel I am being heavily primed to look at the stories in a particular way that isn't always entirely appropriate to what's there. Or perhaps to focus on the sexuality/sensuality as a Good Thing, without considering the stories as story artefacts. Mostly, I feel I'm being told to be amazed by the stories (also, to not fear them) when they don't seem to be that far out of my experience as a reader. I don't know. Maybe I am just an experienced reader, but surely no more than anyone else who's likely to pick up an Aqueduct book.
Which I guess leads to b), and the notion that as a collection, this maybe should be a unity, and isn't. Or if it is OK for it not to be a unity (and I don't necessarily mind that if a writer has a fairly broad output), I feel as though I am wandering blind because I have been given a very specific map that doesn't fit what I have here. I think Keguro is on to something in suggesting [ed: prior to this discussion] that the central group of stories are worth more investigation than, say, the WaLiLa stories, which seem to me to be variations on a theme, enjoyable but more familiar than they might seem at first glance.
Keguro: I'm wondering if part of what "Ancient, Ancient" does is announce (thanks for writing about annunciation, Maureen) the range of formal techniques at play in the collection—the shifts in perspective, the deviations from story, the play with the page—while also foregrounding what happens to various actants in the stories—actant is the closest I can get because I think "agency" and "agent" are estranged concepts here. (Ethan does the formal stuff really well, so maybe he'll chime in to think about the formal stuff happening?)
Many of the stories are about instinct or, if you're Freudian (as I am), drive. The first three stories, for instance, are driven by something external to the central figures—this depends on who one considers the central figures. The pregnant (this pregnancy matters, since generation, which I'm using instead of reproduction, recurs in the collection, even in "Ancient, Ancient") Sené is overwhelmed by a drive from Faru, and it's not clear how much Faru controls this drive, though it's clear Faru will die without this drive. Others want this drive, though they don't need it. In fact, Faru might be the only one who needs this drive to exist. The drive is for pleasure—though it's not clear why Sené (described as 24 but with wrinkles?) should direct this drive toward her husband (one of many weirdly normative aspects of the collection).
WaLiLa is similarly driven by need (drive): "WaLiLa is a jitterbugging ball of need about to pop." She (a single person, a corporate being?) is on a biological mission except it's not parasitic (similarly, Faru's gift is not parasitic—it leaves Sené better than it found her). The unnamed being in "Ancient, Ancient" is not as nice—it consumes to exist.
Because I'm an unreconstructed Freudian, I'm wondering if need/drive (not desire, necessarily) is a useful way to think of "Ancient, Ancient" and many of the stories in the collection. That is, I'd like to think away from "agency," though not away from the "actant." My very bad actor network theory tells me that actant replaces the human/humanoid/animal attached to agency and envisions, instead, a wider range of objects, environments, elements that act. The little SF I know tells me this is not new, but I'm not wedded to innovation. By this measure, all collections hold together as expressions of actants.
Mostly, I'm trying to come up with keywords that I can use to think with: drive, need, agent, actant, pleasure, symbiosis, insect/oid, generation, reproduction, genealogy, transmission.
Ethan: (I do the formal stuff really well?)
Maureen asks whether we should want or expect a collection to possess a "unity" and I have to say I've never really understood why we should. (I don't understand why we should expect any work to possess a unity, honestly, even a single short story.) It's especially perplexing to me when people say it about multi-author anthologies. Of course context and curation matter, but why their goal should be unity is beyond me. On the other hand this is all, bar the introduction, the work of one writer, and most—not all, but most—good artists have recurrent concerns, particular things they glimpse during their work and try to bring to the surface. And it is our experience with this aspect of the work, I think, that the title and the introduction are trying to influence.
And not just the title and the introduction. Embarrassingly I forgot until I just went back to re-read the "Annunciation" that before it is a dedication: "This collection is dedicated to humanity's ancient urges, and to the ancient truths that reside in each one of us." Ancient, ancient. Interesting then that these urges (I'm a Freud ignoramus, but thinking of these as drives seems right from what little I know), and these truths, so often here reside elsewhere than in humans—in gods, in aliens, in legendary beasts. I'm not quite sure what to make of that, now that I've said it. Of course they reside in the humans as well.
I guess I'd say that these drives (and, sometimes, specifically, their ancientness), the "sexiness" Shawl announces, these are major threads running through Salaam's work. I think they're intimately tied (sexy threads, get it?) to both what I love here and what perplexes me. Much of the latter has to do with the movement of bodies in space—all these gestures and dances, this running around, falling, rising, sliding, climbing, it bewilders me to read about, sometimes in ways I can appreciate, sometimes in ways I try and fail to find a way to appreciating. (Meanwhile the occasional teleportation gives me no trouble at all!)
And here's one place where the "formal stuff" Keguro mentions—particularly the "play with the page" as he puts it—becomes very important to me. Several of the stories (including "Ancient, Ancient") physically move the text from place to place on the page, now left justified, now right. Of course all writing asks to take control of our bodies to a certain extent, as we move our eyes across the page, and Salaam's play does not actually ask much (or any) more bodily involvement than more "static" writing, but it does force us to be more aware of our eyes' dance across the page, the sensual relationship (Shawl tells us that the sensual is the sexual—perhaps, perhaps) between our bodies and the words, not as meaning (yet) but as physical presence where there could be, and sometimes is, absence. This means a lot more to the-reader-who-is-me than—for example—all this description of movement in "K-Ush":
Sheya lifts a hand, and four seekers rise to the ceiling. They pull K-Ush into a prone position and, without looking directly at her, hoist her onto their shoulders. Just as Sheya waves her hand to lower K-Ush and the seekers to the ground, K-Ush whispers, "Wa-Sheya, I saw another wero."
Sheya dips down to K-Ush with a speed K-Ush did not know the old wero still possessed. Sheya hovers horizontally over K-Ush's body. (p. 103)
Salaam spends so much time on this kind of language-of-movement, and it's obviously important to her, but it gives me a great deal of trouble—I glaze over, have trouble following, have to either read it a hundred times to follow it or just skip it and hope I can make sense of the story without it. In a sense I suppose this aligns me to some extent with WaLiLa and her distrust of language, its limitations and untruths, as opposed to the truth of the body's movements—but I wouldn't want to go too far with this! I'm not sure I buy that distinction at all! (And I'm not sure Salaam does, either.)
In what I've just written I've come at these formal issues from the direction of the sexual urges Shawl tells us to look for, but I don't think that's how I come at them as a reader—I come much more from somewhere further in the direction I've just moved towards (that is to say, my movement as a reader is almost the reverse of the movement I just made in writing), these questions about the adequacy of language. And to be sure my concern with these questions probably over-influences my relationship with any work (when I first read Ancient, Ancient, a year or two ago, my interest in the moth stories' distrust of language overshadowed everything else in the book, to the point where, at least in memory, that was the book), but I have to say that the priming we get here risks doing the same.
Maria: I'm just still marveling at the seeming vitality of every being in these stories—even WaLiLa, a creature/collective defined by her constant movement, seems so passive in contrast to her hunter-self, the light around her cocoon, the music/rhythms governing her arrival to Earth. There's such a lovely contrast here between WaLiLa's sudden mortality (and possible move from the instinctual?) and Rosamojo's waffling between the spiritual/instinctual/intuitive and the deliberately aware.
Not sure I find this sexy though . . . Embodied, for sure, but the sensuality here is all tied up with need and absence—Faru will die without his lust, WaLiLa's people will die without nectar, and the mischief making ghosts in "Debris" feed off the "moist succulence" of fear. Even in "Battle Royale," the seeming promise of freedom as the right to exult in one's body is seemingly negated by the narrator busting their head open the locked cellar door.
Keguro: My reading as a reader vs. reading as a critic selves are fighting over this book. The first self reads for pleasure and recommends books to friends (I rarely recommend fiction or poetry, because I think that's obnoxious, but I will happily recommend critical and theoretical stuff). My reader self didn't like this book. I think my question about it as a collection comes from that. I don't hinge enjoyment on formal innovation—and, frankly, a lot of work that sells itself as innovative bores me to tears—and, of course, the short story is not a novel: it will not offer character development or great world building. At best, it offers concentrated glimpses—the epiphanic not as grand revelation or realization, but as a strategy.
The critic self—I'm trying to strangle her, but she will not die—knows how to make anything interesting. That's the training. If I think about this collection as a critic, I can find many ways to admire it and discuss it, but never to love it. Perhaps the problem is that once I was done taking classes, I swore never to discuss or teach anything that I could not love.
None of this might be useful, but since I claim to care about affect, I'd like to find a way to balance the reader and critic.
Maria: (Perhaps you're like WaLiLa, ignoring her message-center to drink deep of smoke tainted rose petals? 😉 )
But seriously, I feel you on this. There's a lot here I should be all over—as a theorist and reader—but then just as me, Maria, I'm like, wait what did I just read a story where someone's granddad sent them "back" to slavery as punishment for showing off to a girl? Why . . . Why is historical knowing here a poison? IS IT LIKE THE DESPAIR SMOKE IN CUBA??? Is knowing/becoming imbued with history why WaLiLa became mortal???
The words are so pretty but the theory (and the politics?) are so amorphously articulated. Or maybe I'm missing something? As a reader, this made me think more of my times sloughing through Ray Bradbury and The Martian Chronicles. For me, I think I'd enjoy each story as a separate thing—complete on its own. All together and I'm like, how do these fit together? Is this one world or . . . ? Are we building a readerly writerly Afrofuturistic cosmogony together? With Bradbury, I had the same feeling because I wanted the stories to reconcile internally, in terms of the collection as a whole.
Funny you use epiphanic and strategy; I'd use pessimistic and moribund. Freedom/embodiment appear throughout this collection, but not only are they ephemeral, they're actively hurtful.
Maureen: I think I'm testing something that is rather too often presented as received wisdom in reviewing short-story collections, in that word length usually precludes story-by-story reviewing (which is understandable), and we're thus encouraged to look for themes and threads (which is not unreasonable), but this has somewhere along the way transformed itself into this search for—actually, I might use the word "desire"—for this mysterious quality of "unity." It seems to haunt us—Keguro is breaking down the constitutive stories into groups, and I seem to be looking for a particular, unspoken, undefined "shape" in this collection, some sort of unspecified overarching narrative. I'm not sure that takes us anywhere but I'm grateful to have untangled it a little in my own mind. Curation, recurrent concerns, are not, should not be, cannot be the same as unity.
I can't help feeling at some point we need to take a closer look at the role of the paratext, as at least two of us seem to be . . . not exactly ignoring it, but not engaging with it in the same way. (And how does the structure of an ebook affect this? I missed the dedication entirely because it's literally the first thing I found in the book.)
The mention of Freud has started a rather complicated thought in my mind that I don't really understand myself (I know a little about Freud, but have tended to focus on his essay on the Uncanny, for obvious and inevitable reasons), but I wonder if it ties in with the sense of unease I notice in some of our responses to these stories. Historically, we may recall that one of the great complaints about attempts to "modernise" SF was the move towards writing about characters as realistic entities, with feelings, desires, relationships; indeed, having women influence SF in any way was seen as being distinctly icky and sloppy (see famous letter by young Isaac Asimov, denouncing any such shift; and he wasn't the only one).
It's just struck me that a) in much of older SF, and fantasy, sex, emotions, etc. are invariably othered (beautiful aliens, malevolent female-shaped fantastical entities), and b) even though we've all variously argued against this there is something nonetheless disconcerting, uncomfortable about fiction in which sexual desires and emotional expressions are so full on, even if it is what we've argued for.
I'm struck by Keguro's comment, "My reading as a reader vs. reading as a critic selves are fighting over this book," because I feel somewhat similarly about it. Part of me is not enjoying this collection at all—the part of me that seeks narrative structure, some sort of plot thread, whatever—while the other part of me is beginning to actively enjoy deconstructing the text (and I'm probably not using "deconstruct" in a full-on Derridean sense, but maybe, sort of—actually jouissance is a damn good word to apply to much of what's going on in here.
And I suppose I'm wondering if in part I'm too old, staid, something or other, to full appreciate what's going on here, and am engaged in a struggle with my own conditioning.
Ethan's comment on teleportation makes me wonder whether to invoke Delany et al. on how we learn to read SF, etc. Teleportation presents no problem because it's a concept we understand, but we struggle with the other stories because we perhaps don't have an internal protocol for reading them. In which case I guess we're trying to work one out as we go.
(Tons of other stuff on the language-of-movement I need to think about a bit more, but I wonder if Salaam is in some way reflecting on the problem of language as a means of conveying what we do. She's like the most extreme counter-example of those writers (ok, Robert Jordan) who tell you where everyone is, how they come into and leave a room, what they do while they're there, in exquisite detail, and you still don't have a clue what happened.)
Maria, "embodied" is a great way of describing what's going on. We might think too about the evanescence of, for example, insects, given how moths pervade so many of the stories. I'm thinking too about the hive motifs of the final story, and the delineation of roles. I must admit that "Battle Royale" made me think of that sequence early in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, when the narrator gives a speech to a group of prominent white men, and is given a scholarship, but has to participate in the battle royal as well. I might be reading too much into it but both sequences seem to imply that physical action (violence) makes one visible in a way that words can't, which is interesting given that this collection is so very much about words.
What do we make of Salaam's use of language? There are cascades of words, especially in the moth stories. Do they facilitate or obscure the storytelling?
Maria: I would say neither and/or both? I'm not trying to be clever here.
I think part of this text being embodied is that it luxuriates in its language. At the same time, one of the consistent themes that I see is sinking into the flesh/affective/feeling is both pleasurable and has unforeseen consequences. In WaLiLa's stories, she feeds when her lover-victims are at their most vulnerable emotionally and physically, in "Rosamojo," her weight gain is linked to both her vulnerability as a child survivor of rape and her precarious safety at her grandma's house, and in "Under" a particular kind of embodiment (being a deep sea scavenger) is both liberating and generationally divisive. I think the way language works in these stories is by placing so much of an emphasis on the physical and the emotional that the material events of each story's' internal timeline become obscured. I think that's one of the reasons why the dense language in "Marie" feels so panicky to read; it's visually overwhelming for the reader and reflects Marie's own sense of rising anxiety.
Ethan: "Cascades of words" in the question could mean a lot of things. I wonder if it might be referring to passages like this one, which opens "Bio-Anger":
rattling. rattling snaking around my ears. echoes of rattling erupting in my temples. i hear a pop like the little explosions of air that punctuate my ear canals when i'm nearing the ocean floor. reflex. by reflex, i try to turn toward the sound, but my head is tethered in position. the rattling dies out with a slithering hiss. sharp parallel bands of light cut across the room. my head jerks back when light hits my eyes. behind me, somebody lets loose a low, raspy laugh. (p. 113)
. . . which has a lot of rapid-fire repetition: of specific words, of broader meanings and conceptual categories (rattling, snaking, slithering, hissing, rasping), and of sounds; it's also a bit reminiscent of the way Vonda N. McIntyre often begins her short stories with a contextless coming-to-awareness—what Joanna Russ called The Dislocated Reader and The Dislocated Protagonist merging with one another momentarily.
Or it could refer to passages like this one, from "K-Ush":
"The le-ish has been set K-Ush, you cannot change it. Now go take ho-resh-li."
"I don't want to be a wero anymore."
"It is not a choice," Wa-Sheya says through gritted teeth. "You will take ho-resh-li now."
"But if all we have to do is be gathered in the same hola . . . " (p. 105)
. . . which is a cascade of unfamiliar names and words—I believe these are all science-fictional coinings? Apart from the Wa in Wa-Sheya which puts me in mind of Gikuyu, if any of them are meant to suggest real-world languages I'm too dense to pick up on it. (Which is not unlikely! But if so it's a density probably shared by a good chunk of the book's anglophone readership.)
Or, since the question mentions the moth stories, a passage like this one from "Of Wings, Nectar, & Ancestors":
air night feel good to me shoulders naked. me & malkai dance to beat merengue. malkai spin me half circle. i can see d.j. i smile to d.j., i want to him—song nice play me. i feel hand malkai on me waist. he spin me in circle again. over shoulder malkai, me eyes see george. i close eyes slow & smile. (p. 27)
. . . which at first seems totally unstructured in the face of WaLiLa's disinterest in learning to use language "properly," though it very quickly asserts its own logic (e.g. "hand malkai" is grammatically consistent with "shoulder malkai"), if not ever a settled logic (there's also "me waist").
There's no need to limit discussion to these three, or to the terms I've just used to sum them up (of course!), but they strike me as fairly representative, at least of the stories that do have such overt play with language (several of the stories here do not, at least in my estimation).
The word "storytelling" in contexts like this often strikes me as begging the question—it might help to clarify what we mean by "story"? If we mean, the straightforward relation of incident, then yes, these sorts of passages do obscure the storytelling, in some sense; I'd say of course that that's the point and it often works very well. But then for me I'd say that these linguistic events are the storytelling, in which case the word "facilitate" is inadequate; the language, and its frequently odd behavior (or maybe the rhythm set up between the odd behavior and the more ordinary behavior), these are the story.
Circling back to some earlier comments, I have to say the experience the rest of you have mentioned of being split between critic and reader is . . . almost incomprehensible to me? (Though I recognize it from academic criticism I've read, which when it's Being Interesting about things the writer doesn't care for or about always seems alien to me in a very distressing way.) I don't think I have those separate selves. (Perhaps I have my lack of education to thank for this—I didn't get the training.)
And I'm surprised at the generally negative assessment, too—I think the collection is a mixed bag, definitely (some of the stories, like "Debris," feel half-baked, some like the work of a promising writer who hasn't quite arrived yet; and yeah, some of the philosophical and/or political assumptions—the Cuban Despair bit Maria mentioned, say—are, uh, questionable). But one thing that keeps coming up in the best of these stories, something I truly love, is a kind of disorientation (whether explicitly linguistic like in the above examples or, to the extent that these can be separated, more "plot"-based like some of the later stories, "Ferret" for example—but Russ's dislocations all), a severing from ordinary experience that retains just enough of the ordinary, or is in productive enough dialog with the ordinary, to recontextualize it and revitalize it. That's the story this book is telling, in its finest moments.
Maria: I thought that the first paragraph you quoted was a place where the use of language was really extraordinary—it read to me like a panic attack, in a very satisfying way considering the story's title and events.
I wouldn't say my assessment is negative; I'd say more that I came in thinking, Oh snap, this is going to be erotic as in eros and fun sexy times! And instead it was disquieting and strange (disquieting is not a dealbreaker for me). But "Bio-Anger" in particular has been sitting with me, as has "Rosamojo."
I think if we were to talk about these stories as an erotics of power or spec fic, I'd be stuck on the fact that for me they don't climax. The prose itself resists the easy closure of a clear ending. By that I mean the stories, particularly "Pod Rendezvous," end a moment or two before I'm quite ready for them to be done, a moment or two before I as a reader expect them to be done.
Perhaps that's where Nisi's theme of Annunciation comes from—they're stories on the verge of being and becoming.
The disorientation Ethan describes is the kind you get with solid world building, because all the characters have a sense of the context of their world, but you as the reader are playing catch up. Even in the WaLiLa stories, I question less the world (she draws life source from rose petals but they can get contaminated from bad energy/smoke? Seems legit.) and more the trustworthiness/reliability of the narrator. (Since Delany has been mentioned, this anthology definitely made me think of how his worlds are unapologetically weird—down to the narrative conventions and the use of rhythm and prosody.)
Maureen: Reading this, and indeed reading the original stories, I couldn't help but notice how resistant I feel as a reader to this abundance of language. Which has led me on a long digression as why that might be. I wondered if it is perhaps that I'm reading out of a British and generational preference for minimal prose, but that seems a bit flimsy, so let's say it's a personal preference. Less is more, and so on.
Which led me in turn to wonder about what is it an author does with words (I know Delany is invoked but I'm avoiding looking at that until I've got this straight in my mind—also avoiding thinking about Paul Kincaid's What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction, which goes off into somewhat similar territory). Or rather, what it is I want an author to do. And how the two meet. And I find I am no longer certain. This is not to say that Salaam has on her own provoked a literary crisis, but maybe Ancient, Ancient is the text that's finally opened the cracks in my carefully constructed perception of what literature and I do to/with/for one another so far that I can't any longer maintain the integrity of that perception. Which is probably good, but now I have a lot of wreckage to sift through.
Why do I like minimal prose? I could argue that it's because I like to do the work myself rather than having everything spelled out for me, but while that is not a bad answer (and it's a true answer in that it's what I've said and believed for years), I wonder if that is any longer an adequate answer. I wonder, for example, if a taste for the minimal (which is not to be equated with the downright sketchy or the exceedingly thinly plotted) isn't more to do with evading or avoiding content or emotional representation than simply because I dislike an author using five words when one will suffice (or possibly, that's my internal editor speaking, trained as she is to cut, cut, cut, and cut again).
For me, it's not about the unfamiliar words. I'm used to unpacking context, etc, both from reading SF and from reading what my university calls "postcolonial literature," and what I think may need another term. Or indeed, grammatical constructions, etc. that I have to parse anew. That goes back to what I was saying in my earlier email, which I guess I would characterise as "forensic reading," or "how does this all fit together and work." I think then it is something to do with the sense of language being heightened beyond what I am accustomed to or comfortable with. And it's not just this collection of short stories—I notice something similar and a nervousness in myself as reader in reacting to it in something like, say, Michael Cisco's writing, or that extraordinary story by Eric Basso, The Beak Doctor, in The Weird, places where words are being used in ways different to how I'm accustomed to them being used.
Actually, I wonder if there is something in the dichotomy of "show and tell," in that here words seem often not so much to tell me what people are experiencing as make me experience it. Sort of linguistic virtual reality. This is why I find Maria's take on Ancient, Ancient so fascinating in that it asks me to consider Salaam's words as embodying emotion at a level I've either recoiled from previously or am either suspicious of (editor) or nervous of (reader).
I wouldn't think of myself as a plot-oriented person, in the usual way of things, and I like stories that fold around themselves, move back and forth in time, and so on, but at the same time I can see, thinking about it, that this "liking" is, as much as anything, about appreciation of technique, of "getting it," and less to do with the use of words, the flow of words, the bringing together of words. "Torrent," "cascade," whatever. The moment the words hide the narrative structure, or get in the way of my ability to "crack open" the story, it seems as though I also panic.
I wonder if it is in any way significant that "Marie" is actually one of the stories I like best.
Ethan speaks of disorientation, and oh that is interesting. All those years I've been told/told other people that SF is about jolting oneself out of a perceptual rut, and here I am, I realise, in a perceptual rut of my own. That is, I can accept a certain kind of jolting, but somehow can't quite make the leap to the next kind. And this kind of dislocation is obviously pushing me well beyond my comfort zone. Which is good in that these stories challenge that, but personally disappointing in that I had found my way there in the first place. I didn't intend to bring quite so much of the personal to that, but it makes me think that perhaps part of Salaam's art, intent, whatever we choose to call it is to make her fiction very personal, and to resist that is to produce a very uncomfortable feeling. (On the other hand, to simply accept it . . . where does that take us?)
Keguro: Aha! Maureen has helped me clarify something! Thanks, Maureen! When I was reading your response to "minimal prose" as opposed to "cascades of words," my first response was modernism. At least in poetry, yes? We are all, in many ways, Pound's children—which is terrifying. And, certainly, modernism—and the modern novels produced—move in quite distinct ways from the nineteenth century doorstop. And then I thought—well, that's not quite right. Because Jean Rhys, on the one hand. But what about Gertrude Stein? (I refuse to read Joyce.) (I'll avoid all the MFA agonizing stuff about Hemingway's effect on twentieth-century writing—after a certain point, it really is all very boring.) Even as—even as—there's a certain lushness to many famous people today.
I think I read the word "cascade" and the feeling I got from it was that Steinian effect—the repetition with variation that drives you mad and then a little more mad. In the long prose works, but also short stories like "Melanctha." Especially, the cumulative effect of the cascade—after the madness or along with the madness comes the immense frustration and that can be or lead to pleasure—here, the close link between irritation and pleasure. I suspect that I can't see or experience the cascades as cascades in Ancient, Ancient because I read a lot of trash. I'm not blaming trash romance for everything—I could—but the romance is the place of the gush, the accretion of so much nonsense and rubbish. I really think I've untrained myself to read other works. (But think, also, of Rushdie and Pratchett, two very different kind of gush writers—but perhaps the gush is not the cascade, and I have this all wrong—only, I'm trying to frame my own reading practices, and I think—I think—I know I've been trying not to invoke Octavia Butler because there's a kind of "all roads lead to Butler" thing I'm trying not to do—though given Butler's own preoccupations with generation and genealogy, she haunts so much of my reading of this book, if not the book itself.)
Maureen: Oh my gosh, this is amazing, and I'm not sure how to respond (unpick, deconstruct—it's never occurred to me before how many "destructive" words we employ to talk about something which is supposed to be positive—at any rate, I have argued until now that it's positive).
It seems to me that what we're talking about in a way, reading modernism against science fiction and fantasy here, is in part about ways diverging; for Hemingway or Stein, there is the preference for the data-driven SF of yore set against the extremities of the less adept practitioners of the New Wave's intermittent attempts to get the inside of their heads down on paper. But even those two major highways seem to me to be about recording—exteriority and interiority, if you like—rather than about experiencing.
But the New Wave, the Steinians, are still more interesting (if at times intensely dull) because they are pushing to try to record something different, and in a different way. I think that relationship between irritation and pleasure is a thing to look at, because it is happening here, too.
There is something about Salaam's prose—I know on some level it ought to delight me, that I should experience it as a sensual thing, like velvet: but at the same time, it addresses the puritan in me, who refuses pleasure for analysis, but who is now caught in this everlasting moment of uncertainty as to how to deal.
I wonder, perhaps facetiously, if that moment is caught between gush and cascade; that cascade accepts whereas gush rejects, but I'm not entirely sure.
Ethan: I'm going to bow out of talk about "modernism," but the discussion of minimal prose in and of itself is fascinating. Maureen suggested, and halfway rejected, the idea that minimal prose is appealing to her because "I like to do the work myself rather than having everything spelled out for me." Which is a very good point! But I'd suggest that minimalism is only one way that the reader can be forced (or allowed) to do the work. Indeed something specific to SF (one of whose basic characteristics could be said to be that it goes very far out of its way to require more exposition, more elaborate handling and conveying of information, than most other literatures) is that the reader is often most engaged in filling in the blanks when the story is at its most seemingly . . . maximal, when it seems to be giving the most. I think this is a large part of what Delany's getting at when he talks about the reading protocols that "redeem" SFnal sentences from banality or meaninglessness, and what Russ is getting at with her dislocated figures and her insistence on SF's didacticism, and the fluctuations in the reader's relationship with the work that come with them.
Keguro's introducing "gush" into the discussion puts me in mind a bit of Kate Zambreno on writing and vomit—the places I've seen her discuss this no longer exist, but I think it's vaguely accurate to summarize it basically as, some writers react to the world and to violence and trauma by retaining everything and letting very little out, while others react by rejecting it, vomiting it back out onto the page. (Maureen speculated that "cascade accepts where gush rejects," which was nearly incomprehensible to me until I remembered about vomit.)
Salaam's stories, I think, refuse to just Be One Thing (individually or collectively), also as Keguro says they take part in a wide variety of traditions, and I keep getting the sense that there's a rhythm to their changes, the fluctuations between retaining and giving, vomiting and swallowing, SF-like chunks of information and litfic lack thereof. I can't always catch the rhythm, but whether that's because of the stories themselves or because of who I am, I don't know. (To some extent, in some cases, I'm sure it's both.) Maria pointed out that these stories don't climax, in the erotic sense, which is such a good point, they totally don't (even when there are literal sexual climaxes near the end of the story), and I wonder if this is because they're more interested in living with the give-and-take, the slow or rapid pulse of these differences.
Keguro: (Keep the vomit metaphor—I find that useful—if only because to speak of generation and genealogy and brokenness is also, always, to speak of waste—think, for instance, of the bodies devoured by K-Ush; though, it seems to me, the book is invested in re-generation, making what remains useful, as memory, as spirit, as warning.)
Maureen: I like the way you (Ethan) flip the coin with this discussion of minimalism. I focus so much on absence, paring down and removal that it doesn't occur to me to think about the opposite; that a mass of words and information can also require a similar process of "filling in."
Which makes me think in turn that while I had read Salaam's prose in terms of overwhelming me, I'd be better served in considering it to be much more demanding because of the wealth of words/experience it puts in front of me. (Thought for another day—is minimalism a form of literary laziness after all. I'm joking. Sort of.)
With regard to your last paragraph: we might be talking about a kind of "solid state" fiction rather than, and god forgive me, "big bang" fiction. (That zipping sound was me being hit by lightning, and deservedly so).
But less frivolously, I am wondering, and it slightly pains me to do this, whether it is time to involve Hélène Cixous and The Laugh of the Medusa. It pains me because I have a fraught relationship with it as a piece of writing, in that it has never seemed to me to encompass much of my experience as a woman, writer, critic, whatever, because it makes some very specific assumptions about the nature of "woman" and these are assumptions that I find difficult to respond to.
But insofar as I'm struggling with these stories, I wonder if the whole idea of écriture féminine, and writing with "white ink," i.e. milk, with that dual intent of mother's milk and invisible writing, might be a useful tool, at least in accounting for my own dis-ease.
But that would perhaps tie in with the idea of a pulsing of fiction and language. There is, I think, a lot of that in the final story of the collection. "Pod Rendezvous" is, I realise now, probably my favourite of the stories because of the way in which it explores the issues inherent in doing the right thing when it's so clearly wrong, when everyone else can see that it's wrong and effectively conspires to ensure that the character doesn't do the right thing but instead the thing that's best for her as an individual. I love the complexity of the story, and the way it's expressed in the complexity of the story's structure. (I remember when I first read it, I missed completely what was going on in terms of the pods conjoining and separating—which is not to say that I've got it now, but hey, we progress.)
Frequently in these stories ancestry has been split or ruptured in some way, even as the stories are intimately concerned with generation (like sex) and generation (like family and time). How does this connect to the idea of annunciation in a postcolonial work of fiction?
Keguro: I'm on the fence about "Marie," which Maureen says is one of the stories she likes best in the collection. It reads as a variation of the passing narrative—the narrative in which the woman always suffers—she loses her life or her family or her children or her sanity (generation and genealogy). Also, maybe "Marie" is the closest story to an "annunciation," albeit, a much altered one: you shall lose a child. Even as it reaches back to familiar fairy tales—the woman who makes a deal that costs her a child: you shall have whiteness but it will cost you a child. This is familiar—reproduction is a profound place of anxiety in the passing novel—will the child betray its passing parent? (I've yet to read a passing novel where both parents are passing—there's always a lie.) But, maybe, that's also part of what we're wrestling with in this book—these stories that build on a variety of formal traditions and we're trying to figure out how they build on and deviate from those traditions (I seem to be stuck in the obvious today).
I think I'm trying to bridge this question and the last—the place of annunciation in postcolonial fiction, which is, I think, the place of beginnings and announcements ("when is/was/shall be the postcolonial?"), except the postcolonial can only ever be belated and never arrive—because it signals a certain belated entrance into a modernity that can never be shared. For some reason, "Debris" helps me think about these temporal folds—also what counts as generation and genealogy if we move past blood (as it's often framed) and think of bone. Bone given to strangers. But also beyond bone, which is "spirit." But then the postcolonial is also, always, about scale—place, region, nation—and I'm not sure I know how to think of those with this work.
(I'm feeling like a very drunk great aunt who has totally missed the point.)
Maria: Maureen's idea of show and tell is very interesting to me here in terms of constituting an/Other linguistic and epistemological framework. I think one of the things I like about the prose is that it's like the antithesis of that old bit of writing wisdom that Anglo Saxon words are better "real" writing, and that Latin or Latinate words are affected and jargon. But here it's not necessarily Latinate words, it's Latinate sentence structure—the I as direct or indirect object with the verb and its modifiers the focus of the sentence itself. It's an indictment not just of the genre but of the role of language in constituting genre conventions—we don't get a straight up hero or a "Chosen One," we get a weird, chaotic world whose characters are acted upon even as much as they are actors. To me that's one of the ways this collection departs from much of the SF I've read recently. Faru is a god, but he's one of many; he's not special. WaLiLa isn't the only moth on a mission for nectar. What makes these characters extraordinary in the worlds of these stories isn't something innate to them, but instead something thrust upon them.
Ethan: I don't know that I can speak to the "postcolonial" at all—I'm familiar with some of these concepts through talk with friends and through undirected reading (and to a certain extent through just living in this world), but it's neither something I've studied nor something I, white American, live. In terms of the generation and ruptured ancestry that the question asks about, I suppose the key story really is "Marie." Unfortunately it's the one story in the book that I hate, and I'm not sure that the reasons for my hate are relevant—or, I'm sure they are, but I don't know how. Briefly put, it has a degree of intimacy I find deeply inappropriate to its subject—the narration claims the right to just up and expose the contents of this woman's mind, somehow, including things she keeps private, and even as relates to events she doesn't remember! "Third person limited" point of view —I'm bad at this, is that what it's called? the one where the disembodied narrator somehow has access to all of one character's thoughts —almost always bothers me to some extent but it seems completely unacceptable here: voyeuristic and far too emotionally invasive.
Possibly related to postcoloniality, rupture, and generation, I'm intrigued by Maria's observation about the stories' occasional rejection (?) of Latinate sentence structure—I'm thinking of the multiple layers of imposition here, where Latinate grammar was imposed on a Germanic language by an elite, then this language itself was imposed on the world by empire, capital, force (not that either of these were singular events). Language is always continuity, a connection to some past, but it also obviously can be a powerful tool of rupture (which past, whose past is it a link to?), and in the history and contemporary structure of English there's a great deal of both. (Then of course there are the many millions who use Englishes with other structures than the so-called "standard.")
The disdain that WaLiLa (for example) expresses is for language in general (and there's that kinda great, kinda cheesy bit [p. 31] where she's upset that this language has no word for "time," this language has no word for "saudade," this language has no word for "chillin". . .) but I think we can probably read some of it as chafing against all this history, trying to find a way out of it.
Maureen: Ethan's discussion of "Marie" gave me pause for thought, because, well, yes . . . I think, perhaps, I respond to the evocation of panic in it, as noted by Maria. Not because of the circumstances of what is driving Marie, which are nothing like my own, but on a more fleeting visceral level of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, of knowing the need to get out, get away, do something different, and the bargains, sometimes false or unwise, that are made in order to effect that escape.
I never did get back to the idea of annunciation that has threaded its way through all this. Though oddly enough, a thought came to my mind this morning, about Othello calling Iago his ancient, which prompted me to look up meanings of ancient. Beyond the usual meanings of old, or old person, ancient is also a corruption of "ensign," which is a military title, which carries with it an underlying meaning of flag bearer, which brings us back to the idea of signalling an entry. So, we have the collection multiply signalling an arrival, through title, foreword and content . . . but what kind of arrival?
I guess we could say simply, straightforwardly, naively even, that it is signalling a new kind of science fiction, as Nisi Shawl proposes in her introduction. But of course, that's far, far too easy, so let's not go there, at least not in so many words; on the other hand, "there" suggests that there is a place to go.
And insofar as I feel able to talk about postcolonial fiction, I think here I would choose to refer to Gloria Anzaldúa's theorising of a borderlands identity, not because of specifics but because in the course of theorising about the new mestizaje, she talks specifically about finding a space of her own (echoing, I belatedly realise, Virginia Woolf's idea of a room of one's own). "[I]f going home is denied me then I will have to stand and claim my space, making a new culture—una cultura mestiza—with my own lumber, my own bricks and mortar and my own feminist architecture."
I wonder if that is what we see in Salaam's writing—words as lumber, an underlying focus on architecture (literally in the case of those pods), and a new kind of structure.
Keguro: I had another thought, but then Maureen and Maria (blame yourselves) directed me elsewhere. So a few final thoughts. Because, despite all my protests, I was still trained primarily as a modernist and then trained to think about formally innovative poetry (naming my positions), I have a very vexed relationship with the "new." And here genre might be the problem. Or not. Let me take up two terms. First, the postcolonial and specifically postcolonial fiction. It is, one must admit, a category that must have a vexed relationship to newness as it describes everything written by every group that's ever fought a conquering force, on the one hand, and, more specifically (if that's possible) everything ever written by any group now considered subordinate. The claim is only slightly extravagant, but see how the category of postcolonial writing, not just fiction, is used to describe all writing from Africa or India (see those geo-historical designations) so that even something like the Mahabharata gets lumped in (now, perhaps, as "world fiction," but the line between "world" and "postcolonial" is always fuzzy). So that to think about "postcolonial fiction" as new is always a temporal problem or, more specifically, a problem of position: new to whom?
I have not read enough science fiction—which, surely, must be a contested category—to know if what Ancient, Ancient is doing is genuinely innovative. Certainly, the stories of the symbiotic and the parasitic, the sacrificial and the spiritual, , the magical and the vengeful are not new by any stretch of the imagination. And I get uneasy when ideas I know from reading, say, Amos Tutuola—who has been on my mind as I read this—are discussed (in the paratext) as "new." One could also name a whole other series of Afro-Caribbean and African writers interested in the lives and afterlives of the flesh and the spirit, bone and blood. So, then, we're faced with the question of how to think about stories as they travel from geohistory and genre to geohistory and genre. This is not, I think, to refuse to recognize newness or innovation in genre—surely, that happens. Only, to think about what genre demands. Lauren Berlant has a great definition of genre as a horizon of expectation. I think this conditions much of my reading—what does it mean to be reviewing this for Strange Horizons? What does it mean to come to this as a work of science fiction? (Notice the names we've used, the writers we've invoked, the writers we haven't invoked. Toni Morrison, for one. Unless I missed that? But we could just as easily jump centuries and talk about Mandeville.) If those parameters did not exist, how else could this work be read? Where else could it be placed? This is, perhaps, an unfair question, but it's one that I think our discussion has wrestled with in various ways, especially, I think, because this work is so interested in myth and folklore (blood and bone and spirit and generation and genealogy and magic). And would, I think, fit just as well in the myth and folklore section of the bookstore. Also, some stories, especially the first, would fit very well into supernatural erotica. (I can't stand most stuff written in this genre, but it exists, no?)
Finally, I was thinking today about the weird life of the short story—it begins in the world as a kind of stand alone, published in a magazine or a multi-author anthology; sometimes, it's assembled into a single-author collection; but then the collection breaks up, inevitably, as readers (and teachers—I really blame teachers, but also publishers) try to find what can be extracted, what can be anthologized. I really can't think of any single author short story collection that is not represented by one story. Which is to say, I think as we've been doing this, I've been wrestling with the question of the story that represents this collection, the story that can be anthologized beyond initial anthologies, maybe the story that is teachable and, in that case, what is teachable about it. This leads, I think, to really practical discussions about length and readability—we really haven't spent much if any time on any of the longer stories. And I'm really such a slow thinker about stuff that most of what I've been doing is throat clearing—I might have a real thought in about a year or so.
I'll end with the tedious, tedious, tedious thing that queer theorists do: I absolutely dislike that so many stories are invested in heteronormative futurity. Absolutely dislike it. It marred my reading experience. So, there's that.
Maria: I don't think it's tedious to bring up the heteronormativity of certain stories in the collection—I think I found the handling of queerness especially weird in "Pod Rendezvous," where the narrator is bi but the mothers are sensually asexual. The paths offered for her move to adulthood were unsatisfactory for me because of that—she either enters a sham marriage with a rich playboy whose mother still dominates him or she becomes one of the mothers, w/holy maternal and belonging to every body.
A final thought on Ethan's reading of "Marie" and its voyeuristic point of view; it's fascinating especially because it's the voyeurism that Marie herself objects to when she's forcibly brought to the surface! We're complicit in this, and that meta/paratextual aspect is what makes it such a wiggy story for me.
- In the moth stories there is a recurrent distrust of words, language, as against the less restrictive, more honest communication of the body (which seems to be considered an entirely separate entity from the language of words). How, basically, do we feel about this? Is this concern limited to the moth stories, or does it appear (in similar or different forms) in the other stories?
- Why multiple moth stories and not, say, about the wero and the ki-ra-he? Or the kind of deal Marie makes? Or any of the other stories? Is there something intrinsic to those stories that requires more exploration, the special kind of attention that the science fiction short story series can bring to it, where the others do not need this attention?
- Richard Larson's review of Ancient, Ancient notes that "Salaam takes us to distant places but makes them familiar in unsettling ways, ably transforming the fantastic into a mirror through which we can examine—and reckon with—our own struggles." Do these stories need to be fantastical in order to explore those themes? Or might Salaam be sidestepping/distancing herself from "our own struggles"?
- In the first three stories, the POV characters are written as though they are the recipients of the sensuality and vitality of their surroundings. Even when they act as agents in the story they don't vibe as agentic till they embrace the sensuality that's infusing their environment. Does that mean you have to accept the base sensuality of your self and the world before you can truly have agency? Because if you don't have agency how can you have consent?