Since it’s Black Speculative Fiction Month, it seems only appropriate that this month I spotlight some awesome new work by Black writers. First up, we have “Every Good-Bye Ain’t Gone” by Eden Royce, which appears in Strange Horizons‘ recent Southeastern USA special issue. It’s a séance story about family and food with a couple delightful twists. I also enjoyed “The Unusual Customer” by Innocent Chizaram Ilo, which appears in Fireside Magazine Issue 58 (August). It’s another story about family and food, except this one has more to do with women fighting off magical bad guys rather than summoning spirits. For a powerful, genuinely disturbing story about toxic masculinity informing a patriarchy, check out “Maria’s Children” by Tobi Ogundiran, which appears in The Dark Issue 40 (September). Lastly, I recommend “Running” by Itoro Udofia, which came out in August from The Book Smugglers. It’s an insightful, immersive meditation on the experience of being first-generation Nigerian-American.
Since we’re talking short fiction, I also want to recommend The 2017 #BlackSpecFic Report, published by Fireside Magazine in August. The report assesses the state of Black representation and inclusion in short genre fiction. Fireside has also published several accompanying essays that are well worth checking out. In general, while Black representation in short genre fiction has more than doubled since 2015, Black writers remain underrepresented in the field at large, and most of the progress made toward better representation and inclusion has come from a few select publications, such as Apex, Book Smugglers, Fireside, and Strange Horizons. Given the field’s unfortunate segregation and in “an effort to keep this progress from stagnating,” Fiyah Magazine has recently introduced the Presence of Blackness (POB) Score, a tool designed to give Black writers an “at-a-glance reference point for which markets will be most receptive to their work.” POB Scores are also useful if you want to read and support Black writers and you’re looking for magazines committed to representation and inclusion. Of course, if you want to read and support Black writers, you should also check out Fiyah Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction, Nightlight (a new Black horror podcast), and Omenana (a tri-monthly magazine featuring writers from across Africa and the African Diaspora). Now, on to the stories!
“Every Good-Bye Ain’t Gone” by Eden Royce
Sometimes, adding one twist to an old trope can make a story feel brand new. That’s the case with Eden Royce’s story “Every Good-Bye Ain’t Gone.” It’s a satisfying, well-executed séance story. The twist? There’s no crystal ball or ouiji board; rather, Mixie Upshaw’s Mamma summons spirits to the dinner table with her cooking. Mamma labors all day in the kitchen preparing the spirit’s favorite dishes, and then Mixie, her brother Benjamin, and Mamma bring the food over to their client’s house, sit down for a nice family meal, and call down the spirit for supper. As the spirit gobbles up their favorite dishes, the client can ask their departed loved one a few questions.
Royce’s story also has another fun twist: the Upshaw’s latest client wants to summon Mixie’s ex-husband. This makes for an engaging, character-driven plot centered around a trope that feels brand new. The prose is both punchy and descriptive, and fittingly features some juicy descriptions of food. Lastly, I just want to note that this story features some truly gorgeous artwork by Geneva Benton.
“The Unusual Customer” by Innocent Chizaram Ilo
Adaku’s mama Iyawo runs a restaurant, a tiny shack where all the customers are men. Adaku helps out in the restaurant, and while Iyawo works, she sings sad songs that always seem to involve magic. There’s no papa in the picture. Indeed, Adaku has learned to not even ask about papa.
“The Unusual Customer” is an imaginative piece that almost feels like a fairy tale. It’s a short and fast read filled with lovely descriptions and a fair bit of mystery, so I’ll keep my review short and succinct so as to avoid spoiling the story’s mysterious elements. The story is told through Adaku’s perspective. Like the best child narrators, Adaku is smart and observant yet also uninformed about much of the world around her. Adaku thinks her life is filled with mundane work, but over the course of the story, Adaku discovers unexpected magic all around her. In my mind, it’s a story ultimately about chutzpah in the face of adversity, and I quite enjoyed it.
“Maria’s Children” by Tobi Ogundiran
In a small fishing village near Lagos, a group of young boys play chickenshit when their fathers are away—they go out into the ocean, and whoever turns around for home first is declared “chickenshit” for the next week. One foggy day, Muktar ventures so far out into the ocean that the other boys lose track of him. But then Muktar returns carrying a mysterious box of treasure, containing a hand mirror, a pocket watch, two goblets, pearls, and gold. Muktar soon begins sneaking out each night to hunt for more treasure, and each night Muktar’s little brother Segun hears the pocket watch ticking madly (as if it’s counting down to something horrible), and each night Segun can look into the hand mirror and see an ominous ship slowly approaching through the fog. Perhaps Muktar’s treasures have angered the gods. Perhaps Muktar has messed with something better left alone.
“Maria’s Children” is an unsettling, deeply haunting, and even somewhat disturbing read. On the surface, it’s a horror story about haunted treasure and a looming ghost ship, but the story’s real terror lies in toxic masculinity and patriarchy. The combination of those two is quite literally deadly. This story is amazing, but it is not an easy read. Far from it. I was made extremely uncomfortable by how the story portrays toxic masculinity and patriarchy, even after I realized it was a bitter critique of those. It’s a challenging story with a lot to unpack, and I definitely overlooked a lot on my first read. For instance, it wasn’t until I reread the piece that I realized how subtly beautiful the prose is. The story’s prose is poetic and descriptive while also casual and colloquial. It’s an impressive, powerful balance.
This story honestly could have been titled “Chickenshit,” considering how powerful that word is among the boys. Within this revolting, toxic system of “chickenshit masculinity,” Muktar is the alpha male. He’s the oldest, and he cements his dominance by threatening others with bets and by venturing further out into the ocean than anyone else. As Muktar obsessively hunts for more and more treasure, he slowly seems to lose his humanity, and in one terrifying scene, Muktar momentarily loses control of himself and attacks his little brother Segun. The approaching ghost ship was scary, sure, but for me it was even more horrifying to watch this corrosive toxic masculinity infect and take over Muktar.
Moreover, Muktar’s toxic masculinity is permitted and supported by the village’s patriarchy. For me, this was the most disturbing part of the story. It seems the whole village is populated by men. Segun and Muktar’s mother died many years ago. The only female characters in the story are Taiye, her mother, and her sister, and they all play a relatively minor role. (Be warned: medium spoiler to follow in this next sentence.) After Muktar’s thieving brings a scary omen to the village, the village sacrifices the virgin Taiye to the gods and tells her that it is the highest honor. Needless to say, this made me extremely uncomfortable. As it should—the way the village marginalizes and murders women forms a powerful critique of how dangerous patriarchy can be.
This was a tough story for me to read, but it’s a damn good one too. I think it succeeds on multiple levels at once: it’s a scary story about a haunted ghost ship, and it’s also a subtle, damning indictment of toxic masculinity and of patriarchy.
“Running” by Itoro Udofia
Arit is a first generation Nigerian-American who is haunted by the spirit of Ekpewan, one of her dead relatives from Nigeria. Ekpewan died when she was young, so she’s a friendly spirit rather than a nagging, ill-tempered grouch, although that’s not to say there’s no tension between Arit and Ekpewan. Ekpewan is fascinated by Arit’s American life, and after Ekpewan mentions that she spends much of her spirit-life dancing, Arit wishes that she had Ekpewan’s life.
Udofia’s prose is simple and accessible, and it sucks you right in. Although there isn’t a ton of action in the story, or even much dialogue, the story is told in Arit’s strong first-person voice, and it’s totally accessible, gripping, and immersive. I usually don’t like overly reflective stories, but I really enjoyed seeing the world through Arit’s maturing, insightful perspective and watching her negotiate heritage, obligation, and identity. This is a coming of age story that covers a lot of ground: family, food, dancing, religion, domestic violence, education, and work.
“Running” reminded me of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, another story about a woman navigating the space between being Nigerian, being American, and being Black. Both stories are littered with absorbing details and insights about race and culture in America. I enjoyed this story a lot, and I imagine it’s probably even more powerful for first-generation readers of color.