This column, featuring some of my favourite short fiction reads from the second quarter of 2020, is being published while people worldwide are gathering to protest police brutality, racism, and the systemic, structural violence aimed at Black people.
There are many ways to help and support this movement. As a reader and/or writer of speculative fiction, you should read and support Black writers. The reasons are many, but one reason is simply this: that some of the best speculative fiction in the world is being written by Black writers.
Three SFF zines I want to spotlight in this context are:
Omenana is a tri-monthly magazine featuring work by speculative fiction writers from across Africa and the African Diaspora. For a taste of Omenana’s fiction, you can read “The River Doll” by Tariro Ndoro and “Sin Eater” by Chikodili Emelumadu. The magazine’s first anthology, Omenana To Infinity, is part of StoryBundle’s awesome African Speculative Fiction Bundle.
Fiyah has consistently published outstanding speculative fiction by Black writers since its first issue in 2017. Pick up a subscription if you can, and if you want to sample the kinds of stories they publish, you can check out “The Last Exorcist” by Danny Lore and “Chesirah” by L.D. Lewis, both reprinted at Podcastle.
This horror podcast features work by Black authors, read by Black narrators. Support them on Patreon if you can, and if you want to sample their work, you can start off by listening to two of my favourites: “In the Beginning” by Tyhitia Green and “Sorry, Wrong Number” by Tonia Thompson.
10 Short Stories
The unofficial theme for this edition of Short Fiction Treasures is “family.” Family has been on my mind a lot this year, with the COVID-19 pandemic changing the way we spend more time with, or are thoroughly separated from, our loved ones. Family relationships are a crucial part of all our lives, but these relationships can be both complicated and conflicted, something that is explored in this selection of stories.
“Kikelomo Ultrasheen” by Dare Segun Falowo in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction March/April 2020
When Kikelomo is born, her mother (a hairdresser in Lagos) rejoices because the baby has an auspicious full head of hair. But that joy is tainted when her mother also finds a “perfect circle of coal-black skin” in the center of Kikelomo’s scalp: “A black moon against your skull means you will not belong to her long enough.” As Kikelomo grows up, her mother teaches her the trade of hairdressing, and we find out that there is a magic in that craft, a magic that goes deeper for Kikelomo than for most others. At the center of the tale is the deep relationship between Kikelomo and her mother, and Kikelomo’s growing realization of her own destiny. This is also very much a story about hair with every section title in the story a Lagosian hairstyle. Falowo’s compelling prose draws you in and holds you fast. In an interesting interview with F&SF, Falowo talks about his own experience helping out in his mother’s hairdressing salon and describes this story as, “a birth into power based on my relationship with hair.”
“The Air in My House Tastes Like Sugar” by ZZ Claybourne in GigaNotoSaurus
Two witches, a young girl called Amnandi, and her mother, Khumalo, have just settled into a new village. Khumalo is teaching her daughter the ways of using, and hiding, their magic since they live in a world where witches risk drawing the ire of people who fear and misunderstand their powers. Amnandi and Khumalo are hoping for a fresh start in their new home, but soon find themselves caught up in a dangerous knot of old, buried secrets. I love the way Claybourne builds the details of this world, tying old witch-lore and history into the story and hinting at connections to fairytales like Hansel and Gretel. The relationship between Amnandi and Khumalo is an absolute delight. They are fiercely loyal to and protective of each other as a family, and the story also explores the deeply trusting teacher/apprentice relationship between them as Amnandi learns the ways of magic and the world from her mother
“Thunder Only Happens When it’s Raining” by Endria Isa Richardson in Anathema
“But I don’t like the way the air crackles when I pass through it. It feels like I’m slippers and the air is carpet. It’s tired of holding everything in. What if it lets go of me? What if it pulls me in and I never come back out?”
With exquisitely wrought prose, Richardson captures the feeling of hot, slow-as-molasses summer days perfectly in this evocative story. Richardson also perfectly captures the almost claustrophobic yet intimate bond between siblings stuck together with nowhere to go and no one to turn to but each other. Beneath the surface of the tale lurks an undertow of darkness, family secrets, a father’s rage, and strange magic, all of it mingling with the precipitation and lightning.
“Under the Corn” by Emma Maguire in Verity La
Three sisters are home alone on their family farm when an old woman comes calling, asking for a traveller’s right to stay three nights. Reluctantly, the sisters allow her to stay, but it soon becomes clear that the woman knows more about them than they suspected and that the secrets hidden in the cornfield, in the house, and in their own memories will soon start wriggling loose. It’s a suspenseful and harrowing tale about familial love and strife and terrible deeds, and Maguire captures the tortured minds and the complex relationship between the sisters with devastating skill.
“Resilience” by Christi Nogle in Pseudopod
Once upon a time, a little girl was the only survivor when the rest of her family was killed in the woods on a camping trip. Now, a woman who was once a little girl, and who is now a wife and mother, is trying to hold herself, her life, and her family together, in spite of the sharp memories cutting her up from inside. Nogle’s story is a tightly twisted, tangled knot of horror and memory, giving us an intense, visceral portrait of a woman who is desperate to hang on to what she thinks she ought to be, while unable to forget what she once was. It’s a story about how families shape us, and how even when we try to break free from that influence, it can cling to us in innumerable ways. Wonderfully narrated by Dani Daly.
“High in the Clean Blue Air” by Emma Törzs in Uncanny Magazine
“I lived only in my human body, a small woman with dark eyes. Even when the northern lights shuddered and sang, even when the clouds were dyed sweet with pink dawn, even when my phantom wings ached to spread, I stayed grounded.”
A tender and profoundly moving story about a shapeshifter who has lived her life both as a human and as a bird. Having made the fateful decision to tell her best friend the truth about herself, she is gripped by both excitement and dread. The relationships woven into this tale, between friends and lovers and families (whether it’s the family we were born into or one we found later) are piercingly insightful. It’s a story about the terrible things we might do to protect our secrets, and to hurt those who hurt us, and how we might regret some choices we make for the rest of our lives.
“The Fenghuang” by Millie Ho in Lightspeed
Candice burns and comes back to life again from her own ashes, again and again and again. Her “condition” cannot be cured, and she is finding it increasingly difficult to deal with the pressure from the people around her who see her as broken and in need of being cured and fixed. Ho's story takes a fantastical premise of a woman living a life of a phoenix, and grounds it in the reality of our own world, of family, of expectations to be “normal” when you cannot be “normal.” One of the story’s most devastating lines is when Candice’s mother tells her, “Do you know what it’s like to have to pretend your daughter is normal all the time, when she’s clearly not?” An intensely moving story threaded through with a fiery hope.
“Getaway” by Nicole Kornher-Stace in Uncanny Magazine
The group of women in this fierce and taut story about a heist gone bad might not seem like a family at first glance, but to me, they exemplify one of the best kinds of family in fiction and real life: the found family. The narrator, hired to be the getaway driver, and her fellow criminals are stuck in a timeloop, reliving different iterations of the heist over and over again. Only the narrator is aware of what is happening, and no matter what she tries, things always end either badly or...worse. As her frustration and exasperation grows, so does her feeling of responsibility for, and connection with, the other women. A darkly funny and original take on one of my favourite science fiction tropes.
“To Balance the Weight of Khalem” by R.B. Lemberg in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
An exquisite novelette about a magical onion, about belonging and memory, about lost homes, lost family, and lost love. Lemberg writes with intimate, piercing tenderness about the deep and abiding sadness of those who have left the places and people they love behind, and there is a quiet power in every word. This is also a story about food—about the nourishment and comfort food can bring us and the memories it can evoke:
“She stirs the soup in its pot: it is verdant and vivid, herbs and secrets ground first between her palms until their scent opens, then lowered gently into the simmering water. --- She does not cook this soup for the crowd that presses and sighs belowdecks. This is a memory that twists my stomach and makes me sway on my feet.”
“Three Days With the Kid” by Tara Calaby in Strange Horizons
In this post-apocalyptic tale, Calaby gives us a wonderful (and very small) found family, pairing up a grizzled oldster with a tough kid. The duo meets by chance as they traverse the arid, devasted wilds of Australia, and together, they must search for safety, shelter, and water while also learning to trust and understand each other. Calaby deftly twists and turns a lot of familiar post-apocalyptic tropes in this story, unfolding the growing relationship between the two wonderfully complex characters.
Two Short Story Anthologies
Weird Dream Society: A speculative fiction charity anthology for RAICES, edited by Julie C. Day
This must-read anthology is a project to raise money for RAICES and includes a scintillating selection of reprint stories by some of SFF’s best and brightest writers, including Sofia Samatar, Nathan Ballingrud, Premee Mohamed, and Sarah Read.
A Phoenix First Must Burn: Sixteen Stories of Black Girl Magic, Resistance, and Hope, edited by Patrice Caldwell
This fabulous anthology features 16 stories about “witches and scientists, sisters and lovers, priestesses and rebels” by authors like Rebecca Roanhorse, Justina Ireland, Danny Lore, and Elizabeth Acevedo. While this anthology is marketed as teen/YA, it was an excellent read for this older reader as well.