Welcome to another edition of Women to Read: Where to Start. This month’s stories deal with families, ancestors, superheroes, and ghosts, among other things. Four short stories by four wonderful authors – away we go!
Alexis Pauline Gumbs is primarily a non-fiction author, but my recommended starting place for her work is BlueBellow, published at Strange Horizons. The narrator, Serena is flying to London for work. In the airport, she catches a glimpse of a woman who looks a lot like her sister, and in fact a lot like Serena herself. She passes it off as a coincidence, and boards her flight, but the strangeness only continues in London. Gumbs unfolds the narrative in a dreamlike manner. Time feels fluid, with Serena at some future point relating events that have already happened, but which also feel as though they’re happening in an eternal now. The voice of the piece shifts throughout as well, from first person, to third, to the collective we. Rather than being a distraction, these shifts add to the liminal feeling of the story, existing on the border between the real and the unreal.
First you think it’s jet lag. At some point you make a joke to yourself about how you have finally internalized their thing about how “all black people look alike.” At the beginning a lot of us just tucked it away along with everything else that didn’t make sense about our lives. And we moved on. As always.
Serena is not the only one who has seen her ‘twin’. In London, she discovers a group of others who have also experienced the phenomenon. Specifically, a group of black people whose ancestors crossed the water on slave ships, from Africa to the Caribbean, to America, and Europe. These ghostly twins, who some think of as mermaids, appear in reflective surfaces – mirrors, puddles, glasses of water. They want something, but it isn’t clear what. The shifts in time and voice also help connect the story to a chain of history. Horrors happened to the present day narrators’ ancestors, and horrors are still happening to the black community here and now. Gumbs also weaves in contrasts between black Europeans and black Americans, along with questions of diaspora, identity, and family. The story is gorgeously told, even when the subject matter is painful. It’s an uneasy story, one that doesn’t offer answers, making the point that the story is still ongoing, and there’s a long way to go. It’s a beautiful and effective piece, and an excellent starting place for the author’s work.
Next up, my recommended starting place for Kathleen Kayembe’s work is the novelette You Will Always Have Family: A Triptych, from Nightmare Magazine. Isobelle is staying with her uncle while she goes to school. There are strange noises coming from her cousin’s old room – a cousin who disappeared a few years ago – which her uncle claims are made by a dog.
But dogs don’t bang on doors with the sound of a shoulder or a fist. Dogs don’t rasp obscenities in jagged French with a voice as sweet as sugar cane. Dogs don’t make fear rise up in your bones from somewhere so deep you didn’t know it was there. They don’t make you afraid to turn away from whatever space they could inhabit, or to sit with your back to the door they are behind, or to close your eyes—even to blink—for fear they will be in front of you when your eyes open again. They don’t fill your chest to bursting with a haze of adrenaline and sluggishness. The whispers of dogs are not meant to haunt our dreams.
Even though Isobelle is content to let the room be and not meddle where things are clearly not right, the thing in the room has other ideas. One night Isobelle hears noises outside the room, and when she investigates, she and her uncle are attacked by something wearing the skin of her cousin who disappeared, Mbyui, now a tattered, rotting corpse. Mbyui means older twin, and as a child Isobelle always asked her cousin why there was no Kanku, no younger twin. What unfolds from here is a complicated story of family, love, betrayal, and loyalty, told in three voices – Isobelle, Kanku, and Mbyui. Once upon a time, there was a younger twin, but Kanku and Mbyui’s father believed Kanku to be a witch responsible for their mother’s death. As a result, he abandoned Kanku to die in in Kinshasa and took Mbyui to America. Kanku learned to possess other bodies, spending years moving from one to the next, waiting for revenge. The rotting corpse is not the real horror of the story. The true horror comes from the betrayal of the father against his son. The idea of a child left behind by a parent, the person who is supposed to love and protect him, is heartbreaking. While Mbyui never gives up on his brother, the love between them is complicated, twisted by what their father did. Ultimately, it is a story of reconciliation and forgiveness, one that just happens to have the supernatural woven through the family dynamics that ultimately bring the brothers back together. It’s a beautiful story, and often painful, but does end on a note of hope, and it’s an excellent starting place for Kayembe’s work.
On a far lighter note, my recommended starting place for Kristen Brand’s work is How Lady Nightmare Stole Captain Alpha’s Girlfriend published in Luna Station Quarterly. I’m a sucker for superhero stories, and this one has fun with the trope of the girlfriend kidnapped by the supervillain to get the hero’s attention. At the same time, it adds depth to the scenario, and some genuinely sweet moments. The story opens with Sara being tied up by Lady Nightmare who then places a call to Captain Alpha, delivering the standard “if you ever wants to see your girlfriend again…” ultimatum. The story could easily be cheesy, or paint by numbers, but it’s neither. As Sara waits for Captain Alpha’s arrival, she immediately beings worrying about the state of her apartment.
Sara didn’t drink, so no, but she couldn’t say anything as Lady Nightmare strolled into her kitchen. Oh, crap, her kitchen. There must be at least two days’ worth of dirty dishes in the sink, and when was the last time she’d taken out the trash? If Sara had known someone would be breaking into her home today, she would have cleaned.
It’s a nice touch, humanizing her, as does her interaction with Lady Nightmare. It quickly becomes clear that Sara isn’t exactly Captain Alpha’s girlfriend. They went on one date after he rescued her from an armed robbery because she was too polite to say no. He spent the entire date talking about himself, talking over her, and when she tried to indicate her lack of interest, he brushed her off. Everyone is interested; he’s Captain Alpha after all. The title of the story gives away the ending, but the point of the story is the journey, not the destination. The story makes a point about a certain kind of toxic masculinity, and the kind of men who believe they are owed something by women, as well as the pressure on women to be nice, play along, and not make a fuss. To counterbalance the darkness, there are sweet moments between Lady Nightmare and Sara, whose chemistry and genuine interest in and concern for each other is evident from the start. The characters, and their ultimate humanity, are what carry the story, and make it a worthy starting place for Brand’s work.
Finally, my recommended starting place for L.D. Lewis‘ work is Chesirah from the debut issue of Fiyah. Chesirah, the title character, is a fenox, constantly burning and being reborn from the ashes. She’s spent most of her life in captivity, a curiosity for rich men. Her current captor is Nazar, a dollmaker who wants her to be his muse. He alternately beats her and tries to bribe her with gifts, claiming to love her, while refusing to let her go. She’s been plotting her escape, and makes it, but once she does, she finds herself on the run with few options. She’s a murderer twice over, and there’s almost a sense that she never expected to escape and thus didn’t plan too far beyond getting out of her cage. While trying to come up with a plan, Chesirah encounters a mysterious woman named Esperanza, and her companion, a man named Vannish, performers from the Cirque Nocturna who invite her to join them. There is something otherworldly about them, and Chesirah doesn’t entirely trust them. She’s determined to make it on her own, hoping to stow away on an airship. When she’s recognized by someone who has seen one of the dollmaker’s carvings of her, and is cornered and threatened, Chesirah is left with no choice but to burn. She fears for the fate of her ashes, but she wakes on a airship under the care of Esperanza and Vannish, and decides to give the Cirque Nocturna a chance after all. The worldbuilding and descriptions are rich and lovely, and the story feels like a a first step in larger tale. While the story is perfectly self contained, it’s easy to imagine Chesirah’s life of adventure with the Cirque Nocturna. Underlying the sense of adventure and fun however, the story has a lot to say about freedom and captivity, different kinds of power, and those who use and abuse others, claiming all the while to be doing it for their own good or protection. There are chillings parallels to domestic violence situations, however the power of fiction is to give us hope and offer better endings where those who have been abused regain power, agency, and freedom. It’s a wonderful story, one which I hope may have a follow-up one day with Chesirah’s continuing adventures, and either way, it is an excellent starting place for Lewis’ work.
That’s it for April’s Women to Read. I’ll be back with more recommendations in May, and in the meantime, please leave your own suggestions for women to read in the comments!