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Grievers coverIn Grievers, by adrienne maree brown, a mysterious illness sweeps through Detroit. Those afflicted are interrupted in the midst of daily living and stand, or sit, frozen in place. They don’t respond to the people around them. They won’t care for themselves. They wear expressions of horror or terrible grief. Nothing physical seems to be wrong with them, even when examined by physicians, and yet they are no longer present. This illness is the catalyst for a story that twines together the brute dystopic politics of racist America and the awe and mystery of death and dying.

First, to address the pandemic in the room, the illness in Grievers is not COVID-19. Its symptoms are very much not the same and it doesn’t spread like COVID-19. There are moments in the novella that feel familiar from the past two years in world history: overwhelmed hospitals, bureaucratic responses that shift between avoidance and control, contradictory explanations that fill the void of understanding, shared anxiety, and pools of isolated grief. But to focus too much on these similarities, and to try to read Grievers as about the current pandemic, is to miss the particularities of this story. More than anything, this is a novella about grief, communal and individual, rooted in the Black history of Detroit.

The novella focuses on a young woman, Dune, whose mother, Kama, was the first to be afflicted by the mysterious illness. The doctors weren’t any help. They were confused by Kama’s apparent health and, without insurance, it proved too expensive to keep Kama in the hospital. Dune brings her home and cares for her until she dies. Distrustful of the systems that wouldn’t help care for Kama, Dune cremates her mother’s body in the backyard. After a brief prologue, this is where the novella opens, with Dune maneuvering her mother’s body through the house. The reader meets Kama as a body, both absent and overly present: “The body had a strange odor; ripe compost, late summer. In the last two weeks it had been impossible to keep the body clean as it died, impossible to acknowledge that the body was dying, even though the face was already frozen into a mask of grief” (p. 3). While Dune says goodbye to her mother, the reader meets Kama in reverse: first the body without life and then the memories and stories that, combined with the body, made Kama who she was.

Because of the lack of context, there is an initial shock from the dead body, a moment reminiscent of body horror. Those shocks recur as Dune begins to seek out others taken by the mysterious illness, called H-8. Those taken are frozen in physical expressions of grief, their bodies still alive but their minds no longer present. In a genre context, they are reminiscent of zombies, though the comparison feels inapt. Typically, zombies have to be defeated. They are a source of violence, hunting the living, and they are a cause for violence, a justifiable reason for mayhem. In Grievers, though, the reader hews close to Dune’s more quotidian experience as she does her best to care for those who are sick, within the limits of her own ability. She can’t cure them, but she can try to make them comfortable and try to honor them.

This inexact comparison between zombies and those taken by H-8 is useful, however, when talking about the bureaucratic response to H-8. That response alternates between abandonment and oppressive control. Without health insurance, Kama is sent home from the hospital without any assistance for Dune. It’s mentioned more than once that H-8 sufferers with money get hooked up to life support while everyone else is left at home to be cared for, or left behind, by their loved ones. Otherwise, the official response to H-8 is a curfew that turns into a citywide quarantine, its border held by the National Guard. The people left in Detroit don’t get a choice whether they stay or leave: healthy children are evacuated by Child Protective Services with or without their parents; eventually, soldiers in vans are picking up adults, too. Those in power see H-8, and the fear it creates, as a justifiable reason for violent control of Detroit. In other words, the authorities think they’re in a zombie movie.

Of course, we don’t need a comparison to zombies to explain the response of those in power. There is an entire real-life history of those in power seeing the actions of Black communities, or even their simple existence, as a justifiable reason for violent control. Grievers is written into this real-life history of organizing and activism, of Black freedom and white supremacy, of gentrification and bureaucracy, of racism and capitalism, and of outsiders claiming to know what’s best. Dune is from a family of Detroit organizers. She lives within the vestiges of her parents’ organizing: her mother’s office files, “really just all the flyers and print-outs ever brought to any meeting in Detroit” (p. 85); her father’s model of Detroit in the basement, where he tracked buildings going up and torn down, businesses opening and closing. Her paternal grandmother lives in the house, too. Mama Vivian is a formidable leader, who worked in partnership with her second husband Wes and then continued that work after his death. [1]

adrienne maree brown is an organizer and activist herself. She is perhaps best known for nonfiction works like Emergent Strategy (2017), which draws on the works of Octavia Butler to directly engage with social change and organizing, positioning community as integral to both. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that Grievers is set within a family of organizers. It’s interesting, though, that the focus is on Dune: organizing and social theory might be the backdrop to Dune’s experience, and her family’s work offers resources that help her survive; but Dune doesn’t engage with Detroit’s upheaval through leadership or organizing others. She contrasts herself to her parents and her grandmother. She describes herself as a loner, her energy turned inward. As a child, she was “perfectly happy with minimal contact, coming home after school to do her homework and then reading epic science fiction sagas, briefly interrupted by dinner” (p. 55). She is the listener in a family of people who talk, who “filled up all available space with words, analysis, cutting each other off to get their points across” (p. 75). She holds on to that identity even though her family has changed. Her father died suddenly years before and, in grief, Mama Vivian stopped talking. Then Kama dies and Dune and Mama Vivian are on their own—both engaged in the hard work of grief, and Mama Vivian silently engaged in the hard work of a slow death as well.

In this way, brown takes the reader into the difficult labor of grief and survival. In her grief, Dune is ambivalent about survival, but also doesn’t want to die. She is primarily driven by questions. What is H-8? Why does it seem to be isolated to Detroit, and specifically to Detroit’s Black residents? Why is it appearing at this specific time? Is it deliberately induced? What started it? Why was Kama the first to come down with it? Why didn’t Dune catch it while caring for her mother? Grievers lives its ways into these questions rather than directly answering them. In a quest to make sense of a city falling apart, Dune first searches out other survivors like her and then begins searching out the people affected by H-8, left by their families to slowly die in homes or on the street. She maps out their locations on her father’s model of the city in the basement, adding notes and photos. What begins as a search for understanding becomes something else—a record of those who have been abandoned. A witnessing.

Dune also bears witness to more private mysteries. A light, like sunlight, shines on the model of Detroit in the basement, even though there aren’t any windows positioned to let in the light. A fuzzy green mold suddenly appears on the model and keeps growing back no matter how often she wipes it away. A similar mold spells out words on a bowl of stones that belonged to her mother. Produce she harvested from a community garden is rearranged and organized on the kitchen table, seemingly on its own. Dune experiences these and other small, odd moments as a kind of haunting: “Mama Vivian was the only other person in the house with her, but sometimes the walls felt full” (p. 129). brown writes these moments of awe with a light touch, grounding them in the everyday. They are liminal—strange and potentially fantastical, but not undeniably so.

It’s the physical grounding of Grievers that I love the most. brown is attentive to the corporeal world, its presence and processes. The novella is conscious of bodies, in life and death. This is evident in the opening scene, in which Dune cremates her mother’s body in the backyard, and in scenes throughout the book as Dune cares for Mama Vivian, changing the pad on the bed and cleaning her up. Dune’s grief has a weight and presence because it operates in her body: “There was no space between thinking of her mother, tearing up, realizing she had tears on her face, moving on” (p. 84). Grief has a physical presence in the house, in the too-large kitchen table that Dune’s mother chose despite its impracticality, in her father’s model of Detroit in the basement, in her mother’s books on the shelves, in her father’s cameras in the closet. It’s in everything that Dune doesn’t want to let go of.

Beyond the house, however, the seasons keep intruding into Dune’s grief, making her aware of the physical world, from a day “unfolding in bruised steel and lilac” (p. 16) to the “heavy brightness” of summer (p. 61), then a gray autumn followed by winter’s cold snaps. But even the geography of Detroit takes on a different tone without the rhythms of life from before H-8 to animate it: the empty barbershop is a memorial to lost conversations, for example, while the community gardens and the boarded-up hardware store become the most important landmarks, especially as winter approaches.

None of these elements stand apart. Bureaucratic power responds to the mysteries of H-8 with fear and control, but it is also the fear and control exerted on the Black community that seems to have caused H-8. The mysteries of H-8 twine together with the mysteries of grief and the liminal hauntings in Dune’s house. In turn, the mysteries of grief are linked to bodily processes, the physical acts of living and dying. Those bodily processes are impinged upon by the control and abandonment of bureaucratic power. Grief and anger and horror slide together as Detroit comes apart. The result is a beautiful and painful speculative meditation on grief and community, autonomy and care.


[1] Mama Vivian and Wes are an homage to real-life activists Grace Lee Boggs and James Boggs. Like their fictional counterparts in Grievers, the Boggs organized in partnership until James Boggs’s death in 1993, after which Grace Lee Boggs continued their work until her death in 2015. Quotes from the Boggs, and a quote from another Detroit organizer, Mama Sandra Simmons, are included within the novella, placed in the mouths of the fictional characters with footnotes for attribution. [return]

Sessily Watt endeavors to embrace uncertainty and the limits of her own knowledge. She often fails, and tries to embrace that failure as well. Her writing has appeared in NonBinary Review and Bookslut. You can find her at and on Twitter as @SessilyWatt.
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