Reviews: Rebirth, Truth-with-a-Tea, and FIYAH

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by Erin Roberts

Erin Roberts has always loved telling stories, but has only recently gotten into the habit of writing them down. You can find her publications, story notes, and musings on life, the universe, and all things writing at writingwonder.com and @nirele.

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Two brothers searching for a cure to a deadly “police magic” born of hatred and brutality. A Nigerian ex-pat embracing life on Mars while coming to terms with the meaning of home. A woman kidnapped and held captive for her magical heritage, struggling against all odds to be free. These are just three of the powerful stories from FIYAH: A Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction, created to highlight the work of black science fiction and fantasy writers.

When I started reading FIYAH, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. It’s a fairly new publication, launched in January 2017, in part as a reaction to last year’s BlackSpecFic report from Fireside Fiction Company, which noted the near-absence of black writers among the authors published by major speculative fiction magazines in 2015. FIYAH is working to give these writers a place to publish, but the editors also seek to, in their words, “combat the marginalization of black speculative fiction” and “celebrate the black imagination.” This mission shines through from cover to cover — each issue opens with cover art by black artist Geneva Benton and ends with an “Indie Spotlight” promoting the work of a self-published black novelist. For the stories in between, FIYAH’s submission guidelines ask for writers’ “bravest, blackest, most difficult to sell” pieces. But what does that mean on the page?

For me, a black writer, it means seeing familiar themes and experiences in stories full of creativity and craft. It means discovering new writers to fill my inbox and bookshelf. And most of all, it means feeling a deep appreciation for the opportunity to read about worlds that take the black experience to the stars and beyond.

The first issue of FIYAH, titled Rebirth, alludes to the magazine’s status as the spiritual successor to FIRE!!, a 1926 cutting-edge black literary magazine, but every story in the issue is also about its own type of rebirth. These range from the alien and possibly destructive pregnancy of a woman on a faraway world in Wendi Dunlap’s “Revival” to the literal cycle of flame and renewal of the phoenix-like protagonist of L. D. Lewis’ poignant “Chesirah.” Most also feature characters trying to move forward in the face of oppression or brutality. To transform themselves, they must decide whether to forgive or retaliate, start over or strike back, accept the present or bring about a new future. Will the outcasts in DaVaun Sanders’ “The Shade Callers” strive to achieve some measure of acceptance from the society that barely tolerates them, or jump headlong into a new and unknown path? How will the embattled survivors in V.H. Galloway’s “Sisi Je Kuisha (We Have Ended)” and Brent Lambert’s “Police Magic,” one hunted down as the last of his kind and one feared as something altogether new, choose their path forward after facing unspeakable atrocities?

Some of the choices made in these stories are surprising — I gasped more than once while reading this issue, though I won’t spoil the fun by noting where — and most feel like they are the beginning of some new journey, a morsel of story leading to a book not yet written. They are also often personal choices, made against a backdrop of an unwelcoming world, like the exploitive future Chicago of Malon Edwards’ “Long Time Lurker, First Time Bomber,” where all options for survival are equally tainted. When the personal is all you have, this issue of FIYAH seems to be saying, the smallest decision can make the biggest impact.

FIYAH’s second issue, Spilling Tea, takes a slang term for sharing gossip and turns it into a collection of stories that all center on finding or facing the truth. The stories’ styles vary widely, from the clever humor of Russell Nichols’ nursery-rhyme-meets-crime-noir story “The Hard Shell” to the languid and beautiful magical realism of a young girl exploring a hidden and forbidden world in Christopher Caldwell’s “The Beekeeper’s Garden.” But no matter the style of the writing, the main characters seek the truth — Humpty Dumpty searches for a chicken’s killer in the former, while in the latter a young girl struggles to find out about her past and her people so she can be free. The title character of Eden Royce’s “Graverobbing Negress Seeks Employment” even shines a light on long-hidden truths beyond the grave.

Truth, in this issue of FIYAH, is transformative. It can be a personal truth, like a woman grappling with the reality of what home means for her and her sister in Wole Talabi’s “Home is Where My Mother’s Heart Is Buried.” It can be a new truth, like the discovery made by two female scientists in Barbara Myers’ “We Laugh in Its Face,” one that ultimately changes both the world and their lives. It can even be a truth that is already known, but still must be accepted. The high-tech military missionary of Maurice Broaddus’ “Vade Retro Satana” struggles with her religious faith; the woman who can speak cancer in and out of existence in Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali’s “Talking to Cancer” must come to terms with the ramifications of her powers. No matter the truth, they each must find and deal with it in order to move forward with their lives.

As universal as the themes covered by both issues of FIYAH are, I personally loved seeing how much of the black experience each writer brought to their work. Even the touchstones that had nothing to do with my personal experience felt grounded and familiar. The conflict between the young girl in “The Beekeeper’s Garden” and the woman she lives with plays out, at first, over the woman’s straightening of the girl’s hair with a hot comb. The gossiping and god-fearing salon women of “Long Time Lurker, First Time Bomber” advance the plot and help to give the story its future Chicago flavor. In story after story, the characters also deal with the echoes of issues that communities of the African diaspora are often all too familiar with — corrupt governments, police brutality, colorism, lynching, the power of religion for good or for ill. Still, they find a way through. Even in the sad stories. Maybe especially in the sad stories. In the end, no matter the struggle, there is hope in these issues. There is progress. There is rebirth and truth and a hell of a lot of amazing writing. I can’t wait for the next issue.

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