In her opening notes for Mojo: Conjure Stories editor Nalo Hopkinson tells us that "mojo" can mean any magic "imbued with African flavor and with the need of indentured peoples to take some control over their lives," and that "it's tricky, powerful, and dangerous if not used wisely." Nineteen writers have taken the risk of playing with this risky magic—some more successfully than others—in this original and thoughtful anthology. They all seem to have taken Hopkinson's words to heart. To read the anthology is to gain an understanding of both the power and price of "mojo."
The settings and styles vary widely. Nnedima Okorafor's "Asuquo, or the Winds of Harmattan" reads like a tribal campfire story, while devorah major's "Shining through 24/7" has elements of cautionary near-future science fiction. Despite the mix, the anthology maintains a very steady connection to its theme of oppression and power. The African slave trade is rarely mentioned, and most of the tales seem to take place after the American Civil War, yet the repercussions of African slavery are a significant undercurrent in almost every story. The anthology also succeeds in avoiding the pitfall of turning into a soapbox. Oppression comes in many guises.
Like many anthologies, the stories are somewhat uneven—some brilliant, some less so. There are no true clunkers between these covers though. Each story has its own valuable message, its own worthy reason for inclusion. A number of stories remained with me long after reading.
Kiini Ibura Salaam's "Rosamojo" is perhaps the most haunting of the bunch. In it, oppression comes in the form of a father's sexual abuse of his daughter. Rosamojo's magic, the results of that magic, and the author's choice of endings were highly affecting. Magic, or more precisely "mojo," isn't about formulas and patterns here—it's about will and connections. Rosa gathers what she needs: "I don't even know what I'm looking for until I see it: Daddy's favorite harmonica" . . . "On the floor next to Daddy's side of the bed is the sports section. His hands left black ink fingerprints all over the paper" . . . "Then I see Daddy's toothpicks." . . . "Beneath the sink is a big burlap bag full of Daddy's favorite coffee." . . . "I stick the toothpicks in the harmonica holes. Then I wrap the harmonica in the newspaper." . . . "Words come spilling out of my mouth quickly. It's a protection prayer that I didn't even know I had in my head." As with all magic in these stories, the price and repercussions are not quite what was intended, though wholly appropriate in a cosmic sense.
Likewise, Nisi Shawl's "The Tawny Bitch" also struggles with sexual oppression, this time the oppression of a woman held by her greedy cousin from returning to her female lover. A mysterious animal companion appears as protectress and guide to freedom. Belle's oppression is two-fold—due to the color of her skin and due to her relationship with a peer at a women's school. Belle is subjected to horrendous psychological treatments by a respected medical professional, and put in a position where she may have little choice but to marry her cousin—her jailer. Belle's letters to her lover, written in her own urine for secrecy, are a pleasantly different story style—and Shawl's inclusion of a historian's analysis of the recovered letters at the end of the story add an air of legitimacy that resonates well.
Eliot Fintushel's "White Man's Trick" is almost certainly the most disturbing of the tales. In it, we discover a horrible secret about the slaves and the white men who captured them, and how it has affected relations between blacks and whites since. Fintushel's story asks us, is it truly possible for us to move beyond black versus white, to be one? In the world of his story, the answer is a frightening one.
That's not to say that all of the stories in Mojo are heavy, thought-provoking moral pieces. In Andy Duncan's "Daddy Mention and the Monday Skull" we witness the tricky maneuverings of Daddy Mention, part criminal part folk hero, as he tries to get himself out of a Florida swamplands jailhouse. Daddy Mention's deal with a power, a god of sorts, is a two edged sword and we watch as he tries to find a way to use the power without being cut by the sword's other edge. Magic skulls and swamp magic and the black minstrel images of the early twentieth century mix to delight in what amounts to an American folk tale.
Another strong story, Barth Anderson's "Lark till Dawn, Princess," was both riveting and amusing in its use of the underground drag culture. Honey Deux's search for identity when youth and beauty have left her behind, and her ascension of courage in memory of her mother figure Magnifica, was tremendously uplifting. In Anderson's tale, magic comes in the form of a favorite brand of lipstick, and the right dress.
In A. M. Dellamonica's "Cooking Creole" the problem is nothing more earth shattering than a directionless young man who wants to learn to be a Creole cook but who learns a bit about using all of the talents the powers-that-be give you. What happens when you squander the gifts of the gods, and how do you ask for just one more gift in a modern urban culture? Dellamonica's magic, the preparation of a meal as a price for the gift of cooking, was wholly appropriate and rather different.
Unlike Hopkinson's own work, which often integrates significant use of the speech patterns and language of her Caribbean roots, the language here is fairly straightforward. Readers will not need to struggle with unfamiliar vocabulary and dialect—instead, these stories capture the attention with their characters and situations. The wonderfully diverse types of magic make for a well-rounded and gripping whole.
In the end, we are left with an understanding of oppression and fear, of courage and conviction: there is no price too high for the freedom of a soul. Fans of Hopkinson's own work will certainly enjoy Mojo: Conjure Stories, as will anyone with a desire to conquer oppression. In addition, those tired of traditional western culture magic or looking for something different will find, in these pages, some refreshingly original mojo.