As a writer, adrienne maree brown is wholly herself. Her nonfiction work about social change and social justice is grounded in speculative fiction, and her speculative fiction is grounded in social justice. Her latest book, Fables and Spells: Collected and New Short Fiction and Poetry, continues in the same vein, weaving together fiction about futures near and far with poems that engage with social justice in the present.
In the introduction, brown describes the through-line of these stories and poems as a practice she calls witching, “engaging the essential natural world with magic and supernatural intentions” (p. 1). Witching includes such practices as tarot, astrology, spell casting, and, for brown, writing. Her witching practices are intended to create change in the world in collaboration with the unseen or the divine. She distinguishes writing in its witching form from other types of writing. She says: “I am surrounded by people I think of as real poets. I see the labor they put into each of their choices, and I respect, I honor it … The labor I put into my work is clearing everything out of the way until I can listen” (p. 2). This quote places the difference between her work and the work of other poets within the labor of choice, of shaping, as compared to listening.
The writing process isn’t necessarily important to the reading experience. A stanza scribbled on the back of a napkin can be as impactful as one crafted and revised over days or weeks. But the process brown describes speaks to a private quality in this collection. I don’t mean that the writing is obscure or that the meaning in the stories and poems is opaque. Rather, the collection reminded me of a writer’s journal or an artist’s sketchbook. Though a journal or sketchbook can be published or displayed for others, the first purpose is for the writer/artist to work out their ideas, to test technique or explore how an image evolves on the page. In a journal or sketchbook, the same image might be worked out in a hundred different ways, sometimes in sketch form and sometimes with elaborate details. So, too, do images and themes recur in Fables and Spells as brown explores, works through, and tries to manifest ideas about love, community, grief, and anti-racism.
The stories, or fables, collected here are like anatomical sketches of radical futures, sometimes closely entwined with our present and sometimes jumping off from the present into distant possibilities or from the present into the past. They shift between technology and magic, utilizing ideas and tropes from science fiction and fantasy alike. “I’m Rare” is a monologue from a hybrid between humanity and AI, while “The Limits of Blood and Flesh” depicts the comedy and tragedy of errors that ensue when a beginner witch conjures up a goddess and asks the goddess to rid the world of racism. In “The Virgoans,” an alien race devoted to “the right way to do everything” attempts to communicate with humanity, while in “A Portrait of Saffronia” a witch gifts three girls with the direct experience of their ancestors’ lives.
The first three fables are emblematic of brown’s approach. All three are stories of women encountering water as a powerful supernatural force. In the first two, the water engages with and acts against bureaucracy and racism in Detroit. Here, as in brown’s recent novella Grievers, the complicated pain and pride of long-time Detroit residents, especially the Black community, is depicted with care. In “The River,” the focus is on the tension around the newcomers, who take advantage of opportunities unavailable to longtime residents:
She heard entrepreneurs on the news speak of Detroit as this exciting new blank canvas. She wondered if the new folks just couldn’t see all the people there, the signs everywhere that there was history and there was a people still living all over that canvas. (p. 15)
That ignored history becomes manifest in the river as a supernatural force, sweeping away recent arrivals to the city.
In the second story, “Call the Water,” the forces of bureaucracy and oppression have taken control of the water. Fresh water is dwindling and in this Detroit only those with money have running water in their homes. Everyone else has to buy bottled water and are fined if they don’t buy it from the officially sanctioned source. But Sinti, the main character of this story, is a water witch and she can feel the water below ground, fresh and clean and far from the control of permits and fines.
The third fable in this trilogy of water stories is rooted in the same water magic as the first two, but the focus shifts from community trauma to interpersonal trauma. “Harness the Water” opens with an unnamed girl being beaten by her mother. Like Sinti in the second story, the girl in “Harness the Water” is a water witch. The story takes the reader to those moments in which her magic manifests as she grows up, which coincide with points of conflict with her mother. “Harness the Water” is only seven pages in length but feels much longer because of the depth with which brown observes the hurt that forms between mother and daughter, the good intentions taken over by terrible routines: “Her mother would sometimes call her, meaning to invite her home. The anguish of missing her, the confusion of a child so far beyond her control, would take Tanya’s tongue; she would begin to say things she didn’t mean and then get lost in anger …” (p. 38). Water is both the force that drives them apart and then, ultimately, the force that heals them.
The crux of these three stories is in how water magic intersects with, and counteracts, systems of oppression—whether that oppression operates through bureaucracy or through intergenerational trauma. In other stories in the collection, it is technology, or aliens, or blood magic that interfere with oppressive systems. Intercessions from supernatural powers are not always successful. One can sense brown testing out possibilities as she imagines one intercession and then another.
If the fables offer visions of radical magic and technology, the spells—or poems—call out toward possible futures from the present moment. They are “liberation spells,” as brown writes in the introduction to a series of haiku. In particular, they are grounded in Black liberation. They include direct political statements, such as in “abolition spell,” which includes an incantatory list: “abolish ice / abolish slavery / abolish prisons / abolish borders / abolish colonialism / abolish our addiction to punishing everyone who needs healing” (p. 269). They also include existential explorations, such as in “in the dark i see fireflies” (p. 148). This poem, as is common in the collection, begins with one image and then repeats and modifies the image, exploring it from multiple angles. In this case, the first image is of fireflies seen in the dark, with each subsequent stanza introducing a different thing seen in the dark: longing, memories, dreams, and the moon. The stanzas describe the apparent contradictions in each object, as the dark reveals them more clearly than the light. For example, the stanza about dreams describes the gap between who the speaker of the poem wishes to be and who she is:
in the dark i see dreams
and the long distance
between the constant fire
i yearn to be
and the brief flashes
i can pull off (p. 149)
Though the “brief flashes” seem lesser than “constant fire,” the tone of the poem is not one of despair but of acceptance, of the darkness revealing truths and beauty. This is particularly evident in considering the poem that immediately precedes it, “tomorrow is the new moon,” which is a paean to darkness: “the darkness grows everything you love” (p. 156). In this way, the poems in the collection build on each other, teaching the reader how to read them.
The allure of a sketchbook or a journal is the opportunity to see the scaffolding behind an artist’s work, the process by which they develop their ideas and how they think on the page. This is what I found most intriguing about Fables and Spells. Through the collected stories and poems, brown imagines love and community in a hundred different ways. Sometimes other people are loved from a distance; sometimes love means a literal merging between two or three people. Sometimes community is a place of joy; sometimes it is a place of grief. Sometimes the future is within reach; sometimes it has to be brought into being through an impossible, magical spell.