“Continuum” by Zak Waweru


A swift gale passes and the pages of my writing flutter. I look to the sky and see the clouds receding. The sun will be here soon, finding its way back. I wish I could find my way back too, to where I belong. It’s cold here in the Colony. The sun has hidden its face for the longest time now. The clouds gather low; casting gloom across the sky, then recede. Hazy memories swirl in my mind and I think of home. It’s has been twilight for a fortnight and everything has stalled.

On regular days, when the sun is up and the solar panels are lighting up the Colony we have a wakeup call at five in the morning. We always go to bed at midnight. Everything follows a pattern, a repetition of similar tasks every other day. We line up at the assemblies for a roll call, after which we take our specimen with us to the workstations. We have a stimulating session where electrodes are connected to the victim’s heads. A series of inducing procedures are then carried out that leaves them in a hallucinatory state. It’s hard to think of all the data being programmed, which as far as I can gather gets activated as soon as the victim is ready.

We teach here in the colony, erasing everything the victims once knew. We feed and program them such that they inevitably acquire our will. We can and routinely take away what we want from them, their emotions and feelings are substituted for signals and reception. The only thing we can’t take away from them is what they hold in their hearts, but their free will is in our hands.

I wonder how I had let myself into this. It’s now almost a year since I left home. The black suited agents had accosted me several times hinting on an opportunity that was soon to open up. When they gave their suggestion, I couldn’t refuse. It was too tempting, too convenient. A year had passed since I had made it out of engineering school and I was eager for new things.

“Here is a shuttle ready for its maiden voyage to Space.” They said. “Your expertise will be greatly appreciated.”

“And when is this voyage?” I asked.

“We should be ready for set off in November, we are recruiting in the meantime.”

“I will think about it.” I said.

It was July, and with the instant smile in the lead agent’s face, I knew at once that my voice betrayed my anticipation.

“The earlier you join us the better.” He said.

They were no letting go that easy. “Have time to get familiar.”

Back in the countryside, I would just lazy around, but with these agents, I had the chance to see the wide world. I had nothing to lose.

The lead agent motioned me and whispered, “You will be absorbed back into the firm at the end of it all. And don’t forget about experience, nothing equals that. Consider this your offer of internship.”

For many days I had desired to go away somewhere. When he went away from me the very life in me ended. And letting go without a fight tore me in halves. I craved for anything that would erase him from my mind. With these agents, I had found my destination.

In the beginning of September I picked up the phone and called the agency. The very next morning a sleek black limo packed outside my house. The rule, as they said, was that no one brought any personal items.

“Not even a photo?” I asked.

The lead agent smiled, shook his head very briefly.

We made the journey across the border into a vast wilderness, and I was completely unaware of what lay ahead of us. I waited for a shuttle, and a voyage and a reward but nothing was offered. We took to training on thought control and coercive persuasion. We could have been a military base for all I cared. There were drills each day and trainers emphasized on endurance and mind control. The task before us, as explained by the black suited gents, was to prepare and carry out advanced research. Our subject was humanity, the extents to which it could be stretched.

My past memories fade as the days go by. And with my mind now programmed to entice, suffers, resulting to a broken will and psyche. Rain triggers fond memories here. The smell of it on dry thirsty earth reminds me of the aroma of sweet smelling cocoa, just like Mama used to make it. At times like these I walk in the rain and get myself soaking wet. I like my hair loose and wild, my blouse with the buttons undone and I relive my days with him. He loved the rain too and it was in it that he took my virginity against illumination of thunder. I had had my legs parted wide, his hot breath on my face and his voice whispering my name Isadora, Isadora…

Sedation, seduction and seclusion are the order here for each of the two hundred and thirty seven men and women who arrived later. The more they are here, the more we make them all look the same, same bald heads, same manner and pattern of speech. I have a man I handle here; I rarely get to speak to him. My commands and instructions to him are relied telepathically. There is a chip at the back of our heads that enable us connect via infrared waves, a request from my head gets accepted as a command from his end. I can also control what I want him to do from a computer anywhere. I always want him to do this or that. Sometimes I want him to dance. Other times I want him sad or destructive, breaking everything before him. On occasion I want him to do himself harm, banging his head on the wall. Sometimes I want him for myself; other times I bring him visitors whose cunts I want licked. And when I want to watch pain, I have him on the electric chair, prodding and shocking till he passes out. He can barely grasp anything other than know that whatever is being done to him is not right at these times.

We restrict conversation among the specimen to the minimum. We prefer to have them isolated, locked up in cells. In their isolation, we coerce them to tell us all they recall. Should they remember much of their past life, we threaten to hurt the ones they loved. Fear is instilled till they blank out and no recollection can be achieved.

Of the two hundred and thirty seven hostages brought to us only a hundred remain. The rest, having been turned into non-thinking automatons, have successively progressed through the programme. They go back to the society totally unaware that they were once a part of it.

The people held captive here have no idea where in the world they are in. The captives here include the hostages and us, their handlers, for we are no better or safer than them. Virtual walls seem to keep everyone in. No one guards us, but everything blackens at the edge of a signal’s range. A buzzer goes off in our heads. It suddenly turns dark before our eyes and a continuous pounding starts in our heads. I have checked this with several of my colleagues and they too have experienced similar things. We barely speak enough with each other to relate in more familiar ways. We are under the surveillance of the invincible who have all the controls on us within their reach.

Maybe we will have all we gather here erased from our memory then be let back into the society. Maybe I should be afraid of what becomes of us. I think of how much damage I can do to those I’m directed to. What would matter if the past keeps on fading away and the future holds illusions and a mirage?

At times like these, I have lapses of memories that terrify me. What if what I do is being done to the ones I care about, what if the people we work on are sent to terrorize our neighborhoods?

I look back and I realize that I was not eager for anything. I couldn’t tell it then. At that moment when I made up my mind to leave, I was running away for I was heartbroken. He was leaving me for no one, he had told me, just that things were not working between us. I had begged him to stay; but he didn’t want to share his life with me anymore. I couldn’t stand to see him go and the thought of him in another’s arm weakened me.

I love and hate him in equal measure. I want him back and I don’t want him anymore. He had loved and seduced me then hurt and bruised me. He was my first love. Then he left, making me cry for the second time. It hadn’t been bad the first time, when I had let him inside of me. They were tears of passion. The second time he had broken my heart and no amount of tears would wash down the pain. When I contacted him before I left, he told me that that is what life was about, tears of joy and happiness and tears of bitterness and pain. I wish for rain now for it’s the only thing that lifts my heart. No tears would do on life’s sickening scene where am strung like a marionette.

Zak Waweru is a student of life from Nairobi. He learns from observation and prefers to write his thoughts and mould together sense and story.

“Rebel Music and the African Country” By Richard Ali


I have often thought about the role of an intellectual elite and I have come to believe the role of such an elite is to provide definitions. This belief came to me early, in a three point maxim by some thinker whose name is now forgotten—the purpose of the great man is to decide what the ambitions of his Age are, to tell the Age what its ambitions are and, to achieve them. Of course, the intellectual is the great man, the man of letters and ideas shapes reality, is a votary of the God speaking in Genesis, of the same God who asked Mohammed to read. In my theology, there is God, and after Him, there is the Intellectual. My background, should this prove instructive, is that of a second-generation-off-the-farm lawyer in half a century old postcolonial Nigeria.

I decided on this title for my Synopsis Feedback earlier this week while driving into the city with my principal at Wadata Chambers. We were in a reggae mood and amongst the songs we played was Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” (1976). The refrain “Police and thieves in the streets/ Fighting the nation with their guns and ammunition” led me to thoughts about the enduring relevance of rebel music, particularly reggae music. The sentiment behind the lines also reminded me of a more recent reggae act, Luciano, who sang—

500 years of oppression
The books of Babylon that spread separation
We’ll break the chains that have bound us for so long
We’ll come together and be strong.
(United States of Africa: 2010.)

At some point, my Principal observed that perhaps these reggae songs have helped sustain the belief, in the West, that “Africa is a country”. At that point, I stated that I did not mind any belief in the West, even the belief that Africa is a country and, more, that I had no problem with Africa being a country. Of course, our Mercedes promptly became an arena of heated debate of the sort possible only between an older lawyer and a younger one. I wholly took up the duties of a contrarian, but I shall spare you the details. What is important from this episode is three things—the genre and substance of Junior Murvin’s line in 1976, the lines from Luciano’s 2010 song it reminded me of, and the significance of the contemporary Africa-Is-Not-A-Country trend of thought. I wish to compare these and make some returns.

I recall a curious submission made by Oyinda Cole, central character in the novella The Triumvirate [Olatoun Williams, Malthouse Press, 1992]. Oyinda stated that the distinction between academe in the West and here came down to Africa being intellectually bankrupt and, in consequence, “our academics [intellectuals] are merely acadas. People who gather information just to disseminate it”—archivists of other people’s research, harriers after this footnote or that endnote referenced in someone else’s paper, mimics simply. Without agreeing with Oyinda’s implication of a lack of an indigenous Black intellectual culture, I find myself in sympathy with her. Nowhere do I feel justification for this sympathy than in the very convoluted, sometimes cool and other times shrill, always convincingly dishonest proposition, popular over the last decade and a half, which goes by the name Africa-Is-Not-A-Country. No drawing room conversation, or the conference panel discussion that has replaced it, is complete without a question around this and the distinguished participants going on with little persuasion to present their deductions.

The central thesis of this trend of thought is that there are 50+ odd countries in Africa and to this I ask: So what? The supporting thesis is that valuations, discussions, discourse should be centred on each of these components and to this I reply: Why? Both the central and supporting thesis of the Africa-Is-Not-A-Country trend of thought are of course reactions to perceptions of the continent by the West and the irony of this seems to have escaped its proponents. It is not a cause, definitely not a definition. And it is precisely this sort of reactive thinking, with the leprous hand of post-structuralism and the ruin of postcolonial thought visible, that Oyinda dismisses, uncharitably, as a non-existent intellectual culture. I will return to this.

The idea of rebel music came to me in the early 2000s, from a TIME Magazine essay. I have mused on it ever since. Rebel music is music that speaks up for the weak and disenfranchised while still speaking, for music is oracular, “the truth to Power”. We imagine, immediately, Bob Marley and Fela Kuti—Redemption Song, Zombie and Sorrow, Tears and Blood and Junior Murvin’s song, Police and Thieves, fit perfectly into this intellectual trend called rebel music. Rebel music and rebel musicians have looked at our postcolonial reality and seen that our states, with borders foisted by European colonial powers, are hideously misgoverned. The borders are false, drawn for someone else’s convenience and what they capture is, in consequence, inherently exploitative and corrupt. Rebel music and rebel musicians, in further consequence, reject these artificialities in favour of the individual African who supersedes lines drawn on maps.

When Junior Murvin sings police and thieves in the streets fighting the nation with their guns and ammunition, he is clearly on the side of the common people who are “the [oppressed] nation”. He is on the side of those bereft of the means of terror, state sanctioned or not. Rebel music is precisely rebel music because it is wary of the mainstream that privilege the narratives of cop or robber, of Robin Hood or the Sherriff, false binaries. Rebel music allows for feeling above rhetoric, because its pulse is found in the people in general. When Fela Kuti returned to Nigeria from his world tour in 1970, he immediately set up the Afrika 70 from the sinews of his old Koola Lobitos band and gradually perfected the Afrobeat sound. He had looked over the possibilities of classical music and said no, looked over even the potentials of the then reigning Highlife music and said no, instead choosing a type of music that would, in the imagery of Junior Murvin, speak for the “nation” at the mercy of both the police and the thieves. Fela was singing rebel music when he sang—

Suffer suffer suffer for world
Na your fault be that
(Shuffering and Shmiling: 1978.)
. . .

My people sef dey fear too much
We fear the thing we no see. . .
We fear to fight for freedom
We fear to fight for liberty
We fear to fight for justice. . .
We no wan die, we no wan wound
We no wan quench, we no wan go
So policeman go slap your face
You no go talk
Army man go whip your nyash
You go dey look like donkey
(Sorrow, Tears and Blood: 1977.)

Another quintessentially rebel musician is Bob Marley; he took a Jamaican form popular amongst the urban poor around Kingston to the world and became the very first third world superstar. Marley had little illusions about the state of the people, nor about the purpose of his music. As with the lines from Junior Murvin that set off this essay, Marley saw clearly that oppression did exist and, as with Fela, identified the perpetrators of this oppression the better to stand for the oppressed. Listen—

We refuse to be
What you wanted us to be
We are what we are
That’s the way it’s going to be
You can’t educate us
On no equal opportunity
Talking about my freedom
. . .

The Babylon System is the vampire
Sucking the blood of the sufferers
(Babylon System: 1979.)

Emancipate yourself from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our minds
. . .

How long shall they kill our prophets
While we stand aside and look
Yet some say it’s just a prophecy
We’ve got to fulfil the book
Won’t you help me sing
These songs of freedom
It’s all I ever had
Redemption songs
(Redemption Song: 1980.)

I shall suffer you one last example of rebel music, Tupac Shakur, the tragic American rapper. His formulation of the “’hood” as both metaphor and place of oppression, the denizens of which he gave a voice to in his raps, resonates as deeply as Fela’s “Nigeria” and Marley’s “Babylon”. His very first rap to hit the mainstream was Brenda’s Got a Baby and its first lines set the tone of communal responsibility for the emancipation of the victim of an oppressive system, the tragic girl Brenda—

I hear Brenda’s got a baby
But Brenda’s barely got a brain
Damn shame
The girl can hardly spell her name
But that’s not our problem
That’s up to Brenda’s family
BUT let me show you how it affects our whole community.
(Brenda’s Got A Baby: 1991.)

Rebel music remains influential, its prophets stay large than life even in death, because they have provided definitions. Clear. Prescient. Positive.

The absolute poverty of our present intellectual elite is eloquently demonstrated in the Africa-Is-Not-A-Country trend of thought. They have failed, in contrast to the rebel musicians, to tell us what Africa is. What it is not is quite besides the point. It is true that a tiger does not declaim its tigritude, to borrow Wole Soyinka’s famous quip, but neither does it go on long drawn out fits of barking over its non-dogitude, or squawking about its non-chickenitude, or similar concessions drawn on the true roar of a tiger, made in favour and in honour of the deprecations of anyone who says a tiger is a dog or a tiger is a chicken respectively. To follow the present intellectual elite down to their own kennels and coops, they have failed further to tell us what the countries Nigeria or Algeria or the ethnicities Motswana or Kikuyu mean either. In the supreme snobbishness of negation, in the same breath as the giving up of the very agency of definition, they fail to define anything. It is in this West-centric lockstep that my sympathy with Olatoun William’s character, Oyinda, finds itself firmly ensconced. We have no reason to have a bankrupt intellectual account, no reason to excuse our intellectual elite being merely acadas, yet here they are, not observing and experimenting with ideas, not applying ideas to lives, not inspiring any material culture. For so long as we are reacting to what the West says, for so long as we refuse to DEFINE, we are merely mimics of other people’s voices, moons to suns, adjuncts to predicates.

Africa is a country, and Fela, in the naming of his Africa 70 band, knew this just as clearly as Bob Marley did when he sang Redemption Song. Africa is a country because there is a single thing that happened to all of us, all 13% of the world population living in a quarter of the world’s land mass of us. In 1885, the entire landmass and population of this continent was placed on a German table, then formalized and cut in colonial chunks amongst European powers. None of the intellectual predecessors of the Africa-Is-Not-A-Country trenders was there in Berlin to make their arguments. None of them, I daresay, was aware that such a conference had been called. It is this catastrophic event, and the subsequent colonisation, that made all Africans one—one tabletop drawing carved with one kitchen knife, one people, one country.

The correct intellectual response to the Berlin Conference should not be a privileging of the chunks drawn by Europe but a statement on the indivisibility of Africa and of the African. Negritude and African humanism were correct intellectual responses led by Senghor and Soyinka—they sought to formulate a broad based response to a broad based assault. But to argue today for an emphasis on component units, as the Not-A-Country trenders are doing, is to have lost the field even before the first shot is fired. It is to not even understand the fight at all. You do not counter depredation with a rationalizing of aspects of it, you bodily throw it out. That our intellectual elite have not done this is symptomatic of the “mental slavery” Bob Marley called out in his music. And the effete nature of this intellectual elite is reflected in the “My people dey fear too much” line in Fela’s song. Where are the bannermen? Where are the stadholders? Who will lead the charge against “the Man”, “Babylon”, against “Police and Thieves”, stand strong for men and women, “rastas” and “the nation”?

The books of Babylon, and this is where the lines from Luciano quoted in the first paragraph come in, “preach seperation”—how can we then stand against Babylon and yet practice fractionizing and uphold differentiation amongst the commonly oppressed as an intellectual and ideological ideal?

500 years of oppression
The books of Babylon that spread separation
We’ll break the chains that have bound us for so long
We’ll come together and be strong.
(United States of Africa: 2010.)

There will be no long winding, elegant final paragraph to this Feedback—I will end in numbered points, addressed to the African intellectual elite, my peers—

  1. Africa exists.

  2. The role of an intellectual elite is to provide definitions.

  3. Africa-Is-Not-A-Country, so far as it is the definitive trend of thought of the present intellectual elite, is a cop out.

  4. Until the agency of defining is re-taken over by today’s intellectual elite, furthering the attempts made by the first generation of thinkers from the 1950’s to 1970’s, abjuring the confidence trick that is post-structuralism, such an elite can only be a client elite, an elite-so-called only.

  5. The enduring popularity of rebel music and the prophets of rebel music lies in their identification with the victims of oppression and charting ways of reassertion, as against theorising definitions foisted by oppressors and generally chasing the footnotes of others.

  6. Identity does not need to be simple, it can be nuanced, but it must be coherent. The African identity is such, nuanced but composite. It must be understood, sans pretence and rhetoric and problematization, as being complementary of its components.

  7. African countries and ethnicities are complementary genes in the social organism called Africa. Rebel music understands this—from Fela to Murvin to Marley to Luciano to Tupac Shakur. Our present intellectual elite need to understand this.

  8. An intellectual elite that is irrelevant is unnecessary. One rebel musician is more valuable than a hundred of these.

  9. Africa is a country. Africa is a continent. Africa is a biscuit. Africa is a name. Africa is a coffee mug.

  10. Get to the issues.

I thank you for your time.

Richard Ali (@richardalijos) is a Nigerian novelist, poet and lawyer. He has participated in various writing workshops across the continent and in 2012, he co-founded Parresia Publishers Ltd, which went on to publish great African voices including Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and Helon Habila. He was former Editor of Sardauna Magazine and of the Sentinel Nigeria Magazine. He currently serves on the EXCO of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) and on the Board of the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation. He is a member of the Jalada Writers Collective.

“A Brief History of Nonduality Studies” by Sofia Samatar

nondualitystudies_Sofia Somatar

The study of nonduality as we know it can be traced to the sixth century A.H., when the griot Balla Fasseke, the Bard Without Longing, adjured his pupils to “study the After which is not after the Before.” The melodic information service of the griot’s apprentices carried this doctrine into the most far-flung reaches of the Sahel, until even the bats of Khufu, as reported by Ibn Abu Hamran, the Stretched Scribe, could repeat it with perfect clarity, although in Dyula. The bat-speech, which took place in a curious register, so that it made a sound like a thousand knights simultaneously scratching under their greaves, was interpreted for Ibn Abu Hamran by a lone traveler called Aminata, who was making her way eastward in the company of her goats. “Knifed by the winds,” wrote the scribe in his compendious work, The Anklets of Obsolescence, “dried to a husk, glittering with forty layers of sand, this indomitable shaykha delivered me from separation and initiated me into the Before of After.” Overcome with gratitude, he offered to spend what little he had—a sleeping-mat and two plates of beans a day at the door of a mosque—to reunite the elderly oracle with her family. Aminata recoiled in horror. “God save you! I’ve come all this way to escape those sons of bitches.”

The Stretched Scribe, so called because his striking emaciation made him a familiar figure in the streets of Cairo, was responsible for the growth of the eastern branch of Nonduality Studies, a school preoccupied with the problem of time. “Was time created before or after creation, or simultaneously with it?” was the question he most often put to his students. The relentless heat or cold of the porch where he sat and the empty bellies of those he addressed ensured that their answers were listless and few. (I am reminded of poor Sylvia’s lectures, conducted in a graveyard.) Without the patronage of a certain Ibn Barzakh, known to his intimates as Frog-Eyes, it is doubtful whether the Eastern School would have survived the scribe’s premature death of the hacking cough known as “the Claw.” Fortunately, Ibn Barzakh was the son of a wealthy merchant. His elegant topknot was decorated with pendants of green jasper, and his waistcoat had been so thickly embroidered by his sister Radwa, “the Snub-Nosed Beauty,” that it could stand up by itself. Ibn Barzakh opened his home to students of nonduality theory, and his sister served cakes soaked in enough honey to make a buffalo dizzy. If only they had known that some two months’ journey to the south, Deng Machar Deng had solved all their problems with the dictum: “Creation is Time!”

It was in the marshy country of Deng Machar Deng and in the forests south of it that Nonduality Studies flourished most vigorously. (We would argue about this later: you maintained that the Eastern School was more inventive and lively, while I cited the vast gains of the Southern School. Our sincerity was equal; the shop windows reflected us both.) Deng Machar Deng, who encouraged his disciples to fish while he lectured, was most often to be found in water up to his lanky thigh, perhaps bending down to retrieve his net, perhaps singing, at all times carrying in his eyes the reflected radiance of the wetlands. Adherents of the philosophy spread by the griots traveled for months to hear him speak. “Creation is Time” was repeated as far as the Maghrebi coast. In the Congo River forests the musician class habitually inserted his lyrics into their songs, which made the trees grow faster. At his death, he was mourned all the way to Zimbabwe. A group of forest musicians appeared at his funeral, bearing a straw litter on their shoulders. On this conveyance tossed an old man, lashed by fevers and grotesquely swollen with mosquito bites. It was Ibn Barzakh, who had come too late.

(Later, you would weep over this tragic misstep of history. A single tear, like a tapioca bead. Afterward you laughed. I was proud of your fortitude: Sylvia had taught us to suspect that such accidents, failures and losses composed our true field of inquiry.)

Now came the golden age of Nonduality Studies, a period of such richness that it could not be fully explored in a single lifetime. In Cairo, Radwa bint Barzakh, “the Snub-Nosed Beauty,” now over eighty years old, continued to support the Eastern School. She reportedly slept on a copy of The Anklets of Obsolescence, which she kept in a padded case covered with her inimitable embroidery. Tita, King of the Azande, sent her leather bottles of shea butter by carrier pigeon, and she sent him philosophical lyrics in exchange. These notes were interpreted for him by an Arabic-speaking retainer, known as the Lost Turk, who was neither. Scores of Azande youth, fired by the promise of Radwa’s wisdom, traveled north in hopes of gaining an audience with her. At the end of her life her skin became so fragile that she had to be turned over every half hour, like a bird in the oven. This service was performed by her lifelong companion, a woman called Khayriyyeh, who could slice offending glances to pieces with her steel-colored eyebrows. Although few of Khayriyyeh’s sayings have been preserved, she is credited with the words that secured Radwa’s immortality on earth.

“Oh God!” cried a visitor on the day of Radwa’s death. “She’s smiling! Is she alive?”

“Who’s smiling?” Khayriyyeh snapped. “Radwa or the lips of Radwa?”

“Radwa or the Lips of Radwa” became the rallying-cry of the Eastern School, while the Western School, building on the cryptic love lyrics of Deng Machar Deng, burst into life simultaneously in Dakar and Dar al-Baydaa, which would be known ever afterward as the Twin Cities.

(“These are the Twin Cities too,” you muttered the night we met. Muffled in greatcoats and scarves, we flipped through albums in a near-defunct record store. “Who the hell listens to records anyway?” you said, accusing.

“You’re here too,” I said.

You didn’t blink. “I just like the pictures.”)

A golden age. And the King of Mali in his gold bracelets observed, among the venerable trees of his courtyard, the shades of unknown philosophers. “I know not whether they are living or dead,” he said, according to Seti’s Lives of the Saints, “but they are my kindred. For this reason I fear neither knife nor poison.” Two minutes later he was, in fact, poisoned to death. I told you this as if it was a funny story, but you didn’t laugh. Ashamed, I offered to buy you a hamburger at a nearby restaurant or, if you were a vegetarian, some French fries.

That was afterward—after the record store. In the record store, where through a mysterious legal oversight one could still smoke cigarettes, I asked you: “Why did you say ‘too’?”

“I didn’t; you did.”

“I don’t think so.”

“You did,” you insisted in some irritation. “You said: ‘You’re here too.’”

I was already talking more softly, as if dreams, like the smaller animals, could be frightened away. “You said, ‘These are the Twin Cities too.’ What are the other ones?”

In Assyrian sculpture, eyes like yours, with the white showing all the way around the iris, connote mystic vision. “Dakar and Dar al-Baydaa, of course,” you said.

Having stumbled onto such a revelation, how could I let you go? I wheedled you into the restaurant’s glare and drank you with my eyes. You licked each of your fingers with equal deliberation. I asked who your teacher was; you claimed to have none. I have no way of knowing if this is true.

“Who’s yours?” you asked with a guarded look.

“Sylvia Fazakas. You must come to her lectures.” (In the Abyssinian highlands, Azazet the Hesitant, one of our discipline’s splendid cranks, greeted her students: “Good-not-meaning-opposed-to-bad, morning-not-meaning-opposed-to-evening…”)

Sylvia, looking half-drowned as always, trailing hair and skirts, welcomed you with a languid gesture. Unaware of her own perfection, she wore high heels because she thought she was too short. You squirmed uneasily onto the bench beside me, chin sunk deep in the lumps of your homemade scarf. The other members of what I cheerfully referred to as the Minnesota School—a medical student and a reformed gangster called Forehead—blew on their hands and slurped hot tea to prepare for the cold night ahead while a fuzzy Qur’anic recitation blared from the speakers of the café.

Sylvia rested her cheek on her hand. “Why are you here?”

“It’s a free country,” you said.

Sylvia waited.

“All right,” you admitted. “I want to see God.”

“That has been deemed impossible.”

“Is she really the teacher?” you asked me. The medical student snickered; Forehead examined the tabletop graffiti.

“You will agree that you can only see what you are not.”

“I can see myself in a mirror.”


“All right. Show me God’s reflection.”

“God’s reflection is not God,” said Sylvia, with what you would later call her Queen-of-the-Fairies smile.

“Christ, lady,” you said. “It’s better than nothing.”

(“To see God,” sang the great San philosopher known as the Child of Moonrise, while the Blue Scribe of Timbuktu transcribed the words with a reed pen, “one would need eyes, but one has no eyes, for one is not a thing, but an act. For we are not the knowledge of God, but the Knowing.” Crickets studded the grass; the Blue Scribe wept indigo tears and dipped her pen in them. In truth, our theory is nothing more than the history of sadness. “We might have eyes, if we were the Nouns of God,” sang the Child. “Perhaps the Nouns are the angels. We are among the Verbs.”)

I never thought you’d follow me home. I talked the whole way, hoping, but I didn’t believe it until your sneakers were trudging up my stairs. Panic struck: the apartment was hardly neat. Later, after you disappeared, it was worse: blood and ashes everywhere.

You threw down your bag in a corner. Of course, I thought, gleeful: That bag. It’s a homeless bag. And it was, shapeless and mended with silver tape. You sat on the couch and picked your chapped lip. “It’s freezing in here.” I clashed about in the kitchen, in plain view of the couch, sweeping the counter clean.

When I turned around, you had fallen asleep.

(A brief flowering in Moorish Spain. Gone in an instant, like the apricot harvest. Ibn Zahir said: “If creation is time, then creation is a constant. The world is recreated every day.”)

Every day you awoke on my couch, miraculous. Recreated. Would it have been so hard to go on repeating this? Cabdi Xasan, jailed by the British, held that we reassemble ourselves every day from the stuff of nonduality, until our strength runs out. I thought this a beautiful idea; you said it was depressing. You seemed to disagree with me whenever you could. Unlike most people, you never asked where I was from. In an inexplicable lapse of intuition, you thought I was in love with Sylvia.

“And that is where we stand now,” Sylvia said, having skipped over the decline of Nonduality Studies as she had elided its heyday, to arrive at our present moment when the investigation of unity is stifled and decayed, a theory in exile. Strands of mouse-gray hair, escaped from her hat, blew about her cheeks. She was lecturing on Ramadhani’s concept of the Transcendental No. “What he saw,” she said, “as the school at Malindi burned, and nonduality scholars were hounded out of their profession, was that the profession itself was an error. In constructing these schools, we were guilty of separation. The events of history, to his mind, constituted a No spoken by nonduality itself. Recall his prophecy: From now on it will be our destiny to arrive everywhere, only one step behind our enemies.”

“What are we doing here then?” you said.

“We are seekers,” Sylvia answered.

Later you said: “She never misses a beat, does she?” But I saw that although she could answer all your questions, she was disturbed, her eyes shifting toward the traffic beyond the graveyard’s blackened fence. When she picked up her snow-damp bag—which was very nearly a homeless bag—settled the strap on her shoulder, and trotted off between the icy gravestones, headed for the home she shared with her daughter, a brusque dog-beautician burdened by the duty of “watching Mom,” my heart ached.

“It doesn’t have to be like this,” you said.

Your eyes startled me. Enraged.

Our fellow students had left us. The wind sang in the trees.

“We can do more,” you said, and there was an echo of Radwa’s lyrics in my head, and then your kiss like a window breaking.

Who were you? You never wanted to know what I had left behind, and you never told me anything about your former life. I wanted to search your bag, but I was afraid, afraid I’d find something there, conclusive evidence that you would not stay. The scholar Lukhele, known to the history books as “Crazy Niklaas,” lectured from the edge of a bore-hole in a country that was now called South Africa, but his words were not collected, only his story, the image of madness like a closed door or a Transcendental No. What might we have learned from him? What might he have given us? Could he, or one of the countless practitioners of our shattered philosophy, have passed on a word that would turn you from your path?

“I’m the next level,” you said, tapping your chest. I have no way of knowing that this is not true.

You didn’t work. When I was out you practiced boxing and Tae Kwon Do. You kicked a hole in one of my living-room chairs. As for me, I changed for work in the restroom of the convenience store, not wanting you to see me in the hideous red shirt.

I brought you pretzels. You ate them from the bag, staring at the wall. You cried one tear for the fate of Ibn Barzakh.

“If we can close the distance between the two of us,” you said, “then we can close the distance between ourselves and God.”

Ghada Mallasi, known as “the Ibis,” was stopped on the way to Qena. She had no pass. She sat by the road for two days, hoping the guards would have mercy. In her bag were a dozen layers of peanut candy and the manuscript of her masterpiece, The Meadows of Happenstance. When she understood that she would never get through, she put her bag on her head and returned to Omdurman. “Roads, roads!” she wrote in her little apartment, which was sinking deeper into the sand each year. “The more there are, the more beautifully kept they are, the harder it is to go anywhere.”

You sat on the broken chair, and I stood before you. The room was dark, but the glow of the kitchen in the next apartment fell on your upturned face. Your look of appeal went through me, not like an icicle or a blade but like the memory of the past, terrible and swift.

I knelt and kissed your smooth cold hands. “Tell me what to do.”

Your courage was boundless. We tried everything: meditation, hunger, dance. Forehead obliged us with a supply of qaat: under its influence we stayed awake for three days, chewing mindlessly. On the last day I saw an angel fluttering on the wall. “Look,” I said, “it’s one of the Nouns of God.” We experimented with matches, bleach fumes, buckets of icy water. The staple-gun, I now see, represented a turning point.

“We’re almost there,” you insisted every time. You could feel it hovering just beyond the pain, a clear space, like the sea.

Onesimo Bondo, attempting to get to Abidjan, where he hoped to perform his verse meditation, What the Thunder Knows, was seized for the mines.

I wish to be fair. I will not omit the contributions of the wider world to our philosophy: the Shoemaker of Bali whose shoes could be worn on either foot, the punk rock band in 1970’s Prague who were called “The Lips of Radwa.” I will not omit your orange laughter after consuming a Slushie. Once you showed me some grainy old-fashioned photographs from your bag: “That’s me,” you said, pointing to an iridescence seated on a tricycle. The closer I looked, the more the dots that formed you drifted apart, dissolving into a vast and alien constellation. Nonduality Studies, it must be admitted, is largely a hidden field, a discipline discredited and in mourning, practiced in graveyards, airports, alleys smelling of “ethnic” foods, video arcades. For a moment, I thought this was going to change.

Then you stood before me, gasping, blood streaming from the cut on your head.

“Did you feel it?”

“Yes,” I sobbed.

“You’re lying.”

You raised the iron again.

“Stop! Stop! I feel it!”

You brought the heavy iron down, this time on your hand… but it is not my habit to dwell on evil memories.

Afterward, the medical student visited my apartment. She brought food and injections, and made a splint for my hand. “Don’t cry,” she said in our mutual, rarely-spoken language, as she completed the sutures. “You’re better off this way.”

She was right, of course. I should have rejoiced when I saw your bag was missing. You were dangerous, toxic. Your presence in the city was like a plague. You wrecked my apartment and nearly killed me. You made me lose my job. You stole my electric razor. When are you coming back?

I wrote these notes only for Sylvia, and she asked me to write them, I think, only for me, in the hope that they would lead me back into the world. “It will help you to dream of the future,” she said, but I don’t. I dream of the present, of the now. Otherwise, what’s the point of being a nondualist? I open the window and press my nose to the screen and smell the spring, exhaust and magnolia trees, and I never dream about you. Like the King of Mali I dream of others, beloved unknown colleagues, a twelve-year-old girl from Rambling, Michigan called Eugenia Czechowicz.

Eugenia is a family name; she dislikes it. She goes by Jenny. She has just understood, in a radiant whoosh of cognitive effervescence, that her best friend forever, a gifted ice-skater, both is and is not herself. In defiance of her parents’ rules, she is riding her ten-speed bicycle over the bridge.

Sofia Samatar (@SofiaSamatar) is the author of the novel A Stranger in Olondria and winner of the John W. Campbell Award, the Crawford Award, the British Fantasy Award, and the World Fantasy Award. She co-edits the online journal Interfictions.

“The Dragon Can’t Dance” by Sheree Renée Thomas

The Dragon Can't Dance

The first time I danced, I hated it. Six years old, skinny as a string bean, shy, observant, the last thing I wanted was to be pulled into my nana’s long, strong arms, and swept onto the makeshift dance floor at her birthday party. My hair was tightly braided, laced with the new gold and white beads Mama bought just for the occasion. My freshly oiled temples smelled like heaven, hurt like hell. Coconut and mango braids throbbed with the thunk, thunka-thunka that thumped from wood veneer speakers sprawled across two wobbly card tables in a corner of the garden. Nana threw back her head and pranced, that’s right, pranced past my two uncles, my sisters, Papa and Mama, past all her old neighbors and church friends, and rolled her ample hips like a much younger woman. I was scandalized! Everyone clap clapped and howled at the vision, bellies full of roti and spicy jerk chicken. Nana wore red. And she looked amazing, a juicy hibiscus blossom in her hair.

“Four score! Four score!” she cried, channeling Lincoln or the Bible. The sparkly eight and zero bobbed and waved on her rainbow crown. In her birthday hat, she looked like a goddess or a ten year old. I could not tell which, before she reached for me, and I was swept into the swirl of sweat and laughter, the deep pulsing music, the mass of warm brown arms and legs, fiercely dancing in her herb garden behind her brownstone in Brooklyn. As she tugged and jerked my freshly cocoa-buttered arms back and forth, a wicked puppeteer, I was mortified. Not like the time I spilled soda on my white skirt at school, and the big girls pointed and teased me, shouting “Sanaa started her period! Sanaa started her peer-ree-odd!” It seemed as if everyone in Crown Heights had gathered to see my humiliation. They say the dragon can’t dance. At six, neither could I.

But that was then.

Thinking about it now, I cannot believe how much love I took for granted. I’m talking about real love, the kind you can touch with your own hands and feel its arms around you and breathe in. When Nana made me dance at her eightieth birthday party, I was so embarrassed, so afraid I’d make a fool of myself, that her joyful, public love of me felt more like a slap than a celebration. While other kids tap danced and moonwalked over the old ‘children should be seen and not heard’ thing, bucked and clamored for adult attention, any attention, I preferred back then to recede into darkness, to be the silent night that cloaked the bright lone star. Nana wasn’t having none of that. When she pulled me into her arms that smelled like cinnamon, sweet milk and lime, I was angry. I felt exposed, naked. Dancing exposes you. In dancing, your body, traitor flesh that it is, reveals all the things your spirit tries to hide. Drawn from the margins into the center of my big family’s love and laughter, all the vulnerabilities, all the hopes and questions, all the firespark of early, tentative temptations flowed through me, flowed out of me—and I hated it.


Then the drumbeats in my feet, the longing to fly that flamed through my limbs, possessed me. The sensation singed skin, engulfed my anxiety, burnt away my invisible cloak. After that night, dancing became addictive.

Me and my girls, we used to turn up, shut it down right there in Goat Park. While the boys were out on the asphalt, sweating and cursing, checking bricks and trying to dunk in their throwback Jordans, we would be over by the raggedy ass slide, far away from crying babies and fussing nannies cussing in their mother tongues, but close enough for the fine boys to see us, making moves, moving in time, and imitating our favorites. Chanel could fract better than anybody. Her arms and hands flying in precise, quick fast patterns. Her sharp elbows were arrows that pierced the air, even her long spiraling locs swung in time to her rhythm. Bijou’s neck and thighs were like that old school silly putty. She could stretch and slide, whine and grind like she was all water, not bones and flesh. Me, I was the choreographer, always been, always will be. Sanaa, Queen of the Stans. I could do all my girls moves and then some I never shared. Even back then, I dreamed new steps and stands in my sleep, woke up counting beats and wrecking rhythms, even when I brushed my teeth.

To dance was to live.

Other younger girls and little children sometimes watched us from the sidelines, tried to mimic our moves. None of them had enough booty yet, the extra bounce for the ounce that added that special polyrhythm. But I wasn’t stingy. I taught anyone who wanted to learn and have fun, and some of them were really very good.

Back then, I gave my moves away for free.

“Might as well,” Bijou used to say. “They gon’ steal it anyway.”

Chanel disapproved, flinging her locs back to underline the point. “You can’t give away everything, Sanaa. Some stuff you got to keep for yourself.”

It was when they asked us to perform at the Rucker Park Streetball Fest, an annual fundraiser against police brutality, for the families of the latest victims, that it all changed. That’s when Isis first saw me. We couldn’t believe that Ice came to Manigault. Her appearance was completely unannounced, otherwise she and the Goat would have been swamped by fans and paparazzi. She was promoting her upcoming release and would be the celebrity judge for the tournament. Everyone and their mama, folk who know damn well they couldn’t ball or stan, was trying to get up in that competition. It was chaos. Harlem was out of control. There was no way they were going to be able to hold the people back, but we weren’t ordinary people. I had been waiting for a chance like this since beyond forever, and now here it was. I had no idea just how jacked up it would be.

While the seconds counted down before curtains, my stomach filled with a hundred steely butterflies. Their wings shredded my confidence, then my doubts. After collaborating with Isis for so long, I still felt anxious, still felt the nervousness before I was tasked to move the crowd—her crowd. But just like the times when I battled street crews with Chanel in Goat Park on the West Side and with Bijou on the drummer’s hill in Harlem, my nervousness was quickly replaced with extreme focus. When green zeros filled the air above me, I watched our splendid bodies explode into action. As I moved I almost forgot that the force behind Isis’s explosion was my own.

Under my stage lights, my skin glistened like blue-black diamonds. I did the counts in my head, allowing Isis’s music to flow through me, flow with me. Inside my crystal cave, as I called the room designed for my unseen solo performances, I danced with only the barest of clothing. Dark brown threads designed to wick sweat, designed to match my skin, monitored and transmitted my every movement to Isis without hindering my movement. I was the behind-the-scenes choreographer and the spotlit superstar—all at once. As a child, like many girls, I used to dance in the middle of my room, until one of my sisters would walk in. Then I would stop for a moment and giggle, then begin the dance again as if no one was there. As I danced alone, I was the brightest star, the only star in my imagination. In the crystal cave, whose walls sparkled with light and data and pulsed with the music’s rhythm, the illusion was the same. In the cave, I was the puppet and the puppeteer, a tamed dragon.

Instead of breathing fire, I was the flame.

Management wanted to install climate control, to reduce the possibility of my sweat damaging the software and equipment. Under our special contract, “unprecedented” my agent had said, there was a severe gag order—proprietary tech and cloak-and-dagger secrecy—and clause after clause after clause. So many fine points and legalese that I finally signed it when my agent emphasized the number of zeros that would grace my first check. Management was worried about me damaging the equipment, but no one was worried about the equipment damaging me. Climate control for their suit. Ksst! I laughed at this, said I preferred to sweat. Surely they had insurance for cosmic funk. They pushed back. I pushed harder then. It would make the dance more authentic, and Isis, despite her meteoric rise, needed all the help she could get. My dance was born in New York’s streets, channeled fractals from across the nation, adopted traditions from around the world, reimagined Ailey and Dunham, Jamison and Jackson reborn as starship troopers, flinging their black bodies through space. Isis was born in the city of a thousand suns, her voice quickly becoming the anthem of a legion. To deliver, I needed to feel the saltwater beading on my skin, to feel the fire coursing through me.

I needed it far more than Isis and her backup dancers, gifted girls who twirled and stamped in perfect synchronized steps. I watched as the dancers performed my choreography, as Isis, the blazing star, performed my steps mere nanoseconds after my own movements, the delay an unavoidable consequence of the ocean between us.

Mistress of my crystal cave with its vital signs monitors and cords, its wall-to-floor screens reflected the sold-out concert stage and the audience that screamed four thousand miles away in Freetown. I could see the stadium reflected all around me. Each set for Isis was a variation of an ancient Egyptian or other pseudo-African theme. Over the last of our forty city tour, the world had seen Nubians and Pharaonic Pyramids, Dogon masks and references to alien close encounters with the inhabitants of the Dog Star, Sirius. The last show in Paris had Isis lounging on Napoleon’s tomb, surrounded by obelisks and giant replicas of herself. Tonight’s show in Sierra Leone, diamond capital of the world for centuries, was a historical remix of surrounding nations. Our biggest number—my biggest number—would find Isis rising up from a rolling pink lake like the one in Senegal, its waves carrying her up to the base of a skyscraper-sized baobab tree that held her throne. All praise Isis, Queen of Life. For her finale she would appear to break into a hundred pieces, then resurrect herself for the last song.

Even though Isis could not create her own dance, I knew better than anyone how good she was at creating her own myth. Friendships, family, and fans, she hustled them as deftly as a goddess. All were ripe for sacrifice.

“We sisters,” she had said when I had mustered the courage enough to tell her I was gone. Even her voice had taken on my cadence. She could code-switch with the best. “You need me, I need you. Sanaa, Na-Na, they can’t do this without us. I can’t do this without you.”

I guess Management had told her I was serious this time, so Isis made a special live-in-the-flesh personal visit to me. It had been a long time. It caught me by surprise, and I was angry that she could still flatter me, that I still cared so much about her opinion.

I was suited up, the brown fabric covering me like a second skin. She stared me down, watching me hungrily. Like my hips, my skin, my blood she wanted more than food, than air itself. For what it’s worth, Isis had plenty game. I didn’t want to play anymore.

I no longer welcomed her visits.


I didn’t answer. Walked off the set, manually raised the lights in the cave. No illusions now. Just the truth. My heart rate skyrocketed. Management monitoring me could tell I was about to bust a gut. The cave suddenly filled with the hiss of fresh oxygen.


I turned from my wet bar, nothing fancy, just aloe juice and wheatgrass shots and whatever “proprietary” ingredients they stashed in the energy blasts. The nasty taste, like much of my life in the cave, I had long gotten used to.

Isis had completely shaved her head. Only little blond stubble, her new growth, was visible, and the tell-tale tiny cuts on her scalp where Management had implanted nanitic sensors. The old scars still looked like angry red ants. Unlike the dark ones that dotted my spine and every limb. I realized I had never seen the real Isis or her natural hair. When we first met in Goat Park she was rocking a red Afro and Bootsy shades. She looked like Little Orphan Annie and the Mack. I must have looked at her like I was crazy, but how could I not be? I had wanted to be a dancer, but now nearly all of my flesh sang the body electric. Mite-sized robots, nanites translated my thoughts to movements. Management’s processing banks instantly transferred this data to satellites that downloaded it to Isis, wherever she was in the empire star. My dance became Isis’s own. An interstellar duet, imperceptible to the media or her global fans, we were captives of the flame.

And zeros or not, I was losing, had lost nearly everything. When my nana died, Management would not let me go to the funeral. I was furious. Trapped in the crystal cave, I raged for days until my body was spent. Isis was scheduled to perform at a major, international awards show. I could not be spared. The satellites watched over both of us, no matter how far apart we were, no matter how much I grieved.

“Oh, this,” she said and raked freshly manicured pointed nails across her crown. Her fingertips looked like daggers. Manicurists and stylists were sent to me each week, but I kept my nails, my hair simple. Who would ever see me?

“Management wanted me to cut it,” she said. “They won’t tell me yet what they’re going to do to my hair. You know them. Always got some next level plan for me to take over. First music, then the world.” She laughed carefree, the way only white girls could, and walked over to me. She smelled like roses or was it that flower my nana used to wear, the one in her garden. I had to work harder and concentrate to remember, to hold on to where my family and I used to live. To remember their faces, and the foods we used to eat, my friends, Bijou, Chanel, even the fine boys in the park, everyone that Management paid off long ago so they would forget me. I was losing parts of my memory, losing parts of myself.

I couldn’t believe I used to love her.

“We are like this,” Isis said. She grasped my hands, formed a knot. “Sacred. Nothing is more sacred than sisters, than the bond we have.”

I wanted to cry, but I was too exhausted. Did she even care that I no longer remembered my sisters’ names?

“I love the new choreography, love it! Girl, you’re brilliant! With it, there is no way we can’t make history. Not this time. We’re selling out everywhere, and I mean everywhere. So you can’t leave now. You can retire later but not now, Sanaa. And you know I love you.”

Why it got to be like this, I wanted to know. Why can’t nobody want me, all of me, just as I am? I used to have that, didn’t I? I couldn’t remember. I let go. Her hands felt clammy, cold, inhuman. I didn’t want to be near her anymore. We were close enough.

If she noticed my distaste, Isis was too professional to let on. I’m sure management had given her a script. Isis was good at memorizing her lines. She lip-synced better than anyone who ever lived.

“Got somethin’ for ya.” She handed me a box.

Ksst. I didn’t want anymore payoffs from her, no more expensive trinkets and souvenirs. What’s the use when I no longer had a life?

“Go ‘head, open it,” she commanded. There was the Isis I knew. I snatched it from her open palm.

“I don’t need your toys, Ice, I need my freedom.”

I tossed the velvet ribbon and opened the latch. A gold and diamond encrusted ankh decorated with a scarab beetle rested on a white satin lotus flower.

“Thanks.” I walked away. I needed to shower, to sleep before the next rehearsal. It was obvious that neither Isis nor Management cared about me. Something about geese and golden eggs.

As I turned the lights back off, I could see Ice’s face before she slipped out the door. If I didn’t know better I would have sworn she was crying.

“Keep it,” she said before the cave sealed me in. “I have one, too. Just like it. You might need it one day.”

Something about the way she said that, no hustle, no hype, that made me shiver. I walked back from the sauna room and into the main set, raised the lights. The crystal cave hummed quietly. The big screens were turned to a saver mode. Pictures of the past tour dates flickered by. Barcelona, Rome, Munich, Istanbul, Amsterdam, places I might never live to see. So why would I need a gaudy necklace, even if it was worth two mints?

I picked the box off the floor and examined it. A typical jewelry gift box, plush, expensive looking. I flipped it open, pulled out the cross-like ankh. I was offended because it was like something Isis’s press crew would hand out in swag bags. Besides the crap ton of diamonds, nothing special. Or was it?

“Music: Ndegeocello, ‘Dance of the Infidel,’” I said. Light trumpets and jazz drifted through the air. I set the box down on a coffee table and sank into the couch in the rear of the cage. The seat cushions molded themselves around my body, enveloping me like a cozy cocoon. The amulet was expertly made, heavily encrusted with jewels, the jewels of aptor. But it wasn’t the jewels Isis wanted me to see. There was something beyond them. Something extra that she hadn’t wanted Management to know.

I traced my fingertips along the curves of the ankh, then noticed that the largest diamond was in the center, below the scarab. I stroked it with my thumb, then pressed down hard. To my surprise, the amulet broke apart. My left hand held the bottom of the cross, in my right was the top of the golden bow with the scarab beetle. I held the dagger in my trembling hand, and sank deeper into the couch. The blade was sharp, lethal enough to pierce skin, slash arteries. Ice said she had one of these, too. Was that her retirement plan all along?

I rejoined the ankh, held it by its glittering bow, placed it carefully on the table. They said the dragon can’t dance. I always thought that wasn’t true. Looking in the mirror that was my crystal cave, I didn’t know anymore.

Sheree Renée Thomas (@blackpotmojo) is a native of Memphis, and lives in Tennessee with her family. She was awarded fellowships by Cave Canem and the New York Foundation of the Arts and edited two anthologies, Dark Matter. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Callaloo, Mythic Delirium, Strange Horizons, Eleven, storySouth, Harpur Palate, African Voices, Meridians, Obsidian III, and in several anthologies, including The Moment of Change edited by Rose Lemberg, The Ringing Ear: Poets Lean South edited by Nikky Finney, Mojo: Conjure Stories, and So Long Been Dreaming edited by Uppinder Mehan and Nalo Hopkinson. She was commissioned by the Studio Museum in Harlem to write original work for the “Bill Traylor, William Edmondson, Modernist Impulse,” Souhern exhibit. Shotgun Lullabies: Stories & Poems, and her first chapbook, is available from Aqueduct Press (Seattle).

“Things to Come” (Transcript) by Aaron Bady

Book of Phoenix

Panel Conversation on Afro-futrism between Nnedi Okorafor and Sofia Samatar

The following conversation between Nnedi Okorafor and Sofia Samatar took place in front of a packed house at the University of Texas, on December 3rd, as part of the Symposium for African Writers. Samatar was fresh from winning the World Fantasy Award for best novel a few weeks earlier—for her first novel, A Stranger in Olondria—while Okorafor was fighting off a cold she caught over the course of the whirlwind tour for her new novel, Lagoon.

Before the panel discussion, Samatar read from her short story “Ogres of East Africa,” which can be found in the anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. Okorafor read from Lagoon.

Aaron Bady: One of the things that struck me, listening to the two of you read, was the way in which—whether we call it Afro-futurism, speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy, there’s a host of words and categories that we could use, but it strikes me that these words are always opposed to realism. It’s always the thing that realism isn’t, or realism is the cudgel that’s used to beat on the legitimacy of the writing you do. But I’m thinking about how intensely realized this is, the attention to realistic details. If you know the archive of historical texts from the early colonial period in Kenya, “Ogres of East Africa” will strike you as intensely careful in its attention to “realistic” details. And Lagoon immerses us in Lagos, in a way that makes me wonder if maybe you don’t really know a city until it’s been hit by an alien meteorite.

Could you talk about realism, and how it relates to what you do?

Sofia Samatar: I think that anyone who thinks that fantasy and science fiction is in this vacuum, and it’s all made up, is lacking understanding not only of genre fiction, but actually of humans. You don’t conjure things up out of nothing. Everything is rooted in something. For me, at least, what’s great about fantasy and science fiction is that you’re often literalizing things that people talk about in metaphoric terms. But those things are realities.

So you can say, OK, let’s imagine an actual invasion, instead of just talking about “colonialism” or, whatever, in the abstract. It actually makes people’s real-world experiences clearer, or it makes them stand out in a different way.

Nnedi Okorafor: Agreed. And then, also, when we talk about “realism,” and, in particular, “African literature,” an interesting issue comes up, because I think that in many African cultures, the idea of the mystical being part of the world—the mystical and the mundane being combined—is a natural thing. So, for me, writing something that was fantastical was natural to me. I never thought of it as “fantasy.” When I first started writing, I was writing memoir, and I was digging into my own past and writing about things that had happened to me, and the fantastical aspects of those stories naturally occurred there. I never thought, I want to see magical things happen, I want to write magical metaphors. For some of us, it’s just the way we see the world. Also, the idea of separating science fiction from realism, it’s like separating the present from the past and the future. Those aren’t separated, those are all combined, so I don’t see how you can look at science fiction and say, oh, that’s not realistic fiction.

I also quibble with the word “realistic fiction,” and “realism” to begin within. Because fiction is fiction, and it just doesn’t make sense. (long pause) It just doesn’t make sense, and I think we should stop using it. (audience laughs). I just came from a festival where someone was talking about science fiction and fantasy, but he kept saying “Well, I write realistic fiction,” like it’s up here (gestures upward) and I was just making stuff up, and everything I write has no bearing on anything. And that doesn’t make sense.

Fiction is… it’s all creation. It’s all creation in some way. Just because nothing strange happens in your story, nothing mystical happens in your story, that doesn’t mean that therefore it’s realistic. There’s a leap in logic there, in my opinion.

Aaron Bady: What about futurity? Would it be right to say that speculative fiction is all about imagining something — an alien invasion, for example — that we can’t imagine now, but then neither could people in 1492. Putting a future into a narrative space that otherwise might be available? After all, so many of the traditional narratives about Africa are very historically rooted, oriented on the past, and a past that forecloses the future in lots of ways. I wonder if there’s something about the radical freedom of this kind of writing, where you’re imagining, that makes futurity possible?

Nnedi Okorafor: It’s interesting that you said that traditional African novels are based in history, and that African science fiction is free to do what it wants. I’m not sure if I agree with that. I think that when you’re imagining the future, the future has to be connected to the present and the past. Unless you’re just making up the present and the past, but even when you do that, I think you’re still bound. I think that there’s freedom in science fiction, but there’s still—I don’t want to say “rules,” I don’t like rules—but there’s still logic and connections that are being made to things that have happened before. It’s imagining a future, but you’re taking it from somewhere, you’re looking at what’s happened and what’s happening, and you’re adding to that, you’re speculating about what will happen after that, so that connection is still there.

Sofia Samatar: I completely agree, and I think when we talk about Afro-futurism, in particular, it has “future” in the name, so people think of it as imagining the future. But Afro-futurist aesthetics, whether you’re talking about music, Sun-Ra back in the day, or whether you’re talking about something like Nnedi’s novel, Who Fears Death, yes, it is “futuristic,” but Afro-futurism has always been concerned with the past. It’s always been… if you look at the role that Ancient Egypt has placed in the imagination of Afro-futurist art and mythology, all of that is so important to these artists, partly because there’s always this question of how to bridge the gap. Speaking particularly for Afro-futurism in its US-American incarnation, there’s always this idea of the traumatic break of the middle passage. How do you draw from the past in order to spring into the future? If you’re cut off from the past, you don’t have the materials to start imagining the future. It’s not like you can only talk about the future.

Nnedi Okorafor: I have a question! I’d like to know what you consider what you do. If it’s ever anything you think about when you’re writing. When you look at everything you’ve written, from short stories to novels, what do you say that you do? Do you have a name for it? Or do you have no name for it?

Sofia Samatar: I love the name “Speculative Fiction” because it’s so broad, that it’s just a big umbrella and you can stick a whole bunch of stuff under it. Whether it’s something that’s just kind of surreal, or whether it’s just… Actually, a lot of my stuff, like in most of “Ogres,” there’s no magic, it’s just people telling stories about these ogres. And it remains full of questions to the end, as to where the magic is, how much is magic, how much of the lives that we’re actually living are magic.

So, I like speculative fiction, because it lets me throw a whole bunch of stuff in there. But I do know that within the science fiction and fantasy community, there are people who will say “well this story was nominated for a Hugo award, but it’s not even science fiction!” So there are definitely these gate-keepers.

Aaron Bady: Selkies?

Sofia Samatar: Selkies, yeah. But let me turn the question back!

Nnedi Okorafor: I say “speculative fiction.” But… I don’t want any category. I want to be open to write whatever I want. I don’t know if I necessarily am, but I know I’m pretty free. I’ve done very well in being able to jump from whatever category to combine things from another category and write whatever I want and not caring. But I can see myself in the future writing something that has no magical stuff in it, and I don’t know what that is, but I’m not going to call it “realism.” I could see myself writing something like that. I have those stories, I even have a title in my head.

I know that if I took that to my agent, he would say “what are you doing?” But I see myself writing memoir. I have written a memoir, I just haven’t had the guts to try to publish it yet. But when I wrote it, I was writing memoir and magic things still happened, because I wrote it. So I don’t know what to call that.

I know what I tell people when it’s convenient, I say that I write science fiction, or fantasy, or speculative fiction or whatever. But I don’t see myself as any of those; I see myself as all of those at the same time.

Sofia Samatar: That’s very recognizable to me as well. Switching gears a little bit: I actually have a question about the World Fantasy Award.

Nnedi Okorafor: Oh, lord.

Sofia Samatar: Did Chip Delany or Octavia Butler or any other writer of African descent, who is not sitting at this table, ever win the World Fantasy Award for best novel?

Nnedi Okorafor: No.

Sofia Samatar: Or is it just us?

Nnedi Okorafor: No, it’s just us. In 32 years.

Sofia Samatar: In 32 years.

Sofia symposium

(audience applauds)

Sofia Samatar: And not that long ago, 2011. I don’t know if people are aware of the controversy. But there’s a bit of a controversy going on right now in the science fiction and especially fantasy community, because the World Fantasy Award, the actual award, the trophy that you get, is a statue of H.P. Lovecraft. It was chosen to honor his contributions to the literature of the imagination.

He was also a virulently racist writer, not only in his letters, but in his creative work as well. I actually first learned about this fact through your blog post, Nnedi, so could you say a little bit about how that post came to be written?

Nnedi Okorafor: OK, so I had won the World Fantasy Award. I wasn’t there for the ceremony, so this thing was sent to me in the mail, and it was… the head of Lovecraft. I… (audience laughs).

At the time, I knew of his racism and anti-Semitism, I knew of it, but I didn’t know the depth of it. I learned the depth of it in the most annoying way: I was showing off the bust to my ex-husband, and he looks at it and said “That’s H.P. Lovecraft! Let me show you something.”

He went on to show me a poem that Lovecraft had written which really demonstrated exactly the depth of this man’s dislike of black people. It was called… What was it called?

Sofia Samatar: It was called “On the Creation of Niggers.”

Nnedi Okorafor: So I read this poem, and as soon as I read it, I knew I was in a position where, OK, I can’t get this and not say something, it would just look stupid, and it would be wrong, I have to say something. So I wrote this blog post, kind of pointing out, in a very polite way, what was wrong with me winning this award and then getting a bust of this man. I also asked the opinion of the writer China Miéville, who had been a past World Fantasy Award winner, and he kind of gave his opinion too.

Nnedi symposium

I basically said that it’s difficult, because some of the writers that you—as a person of color—it’s difficult to learn that some of the writers that you looked up to, hated you. So I wrote this blog post, and when I posted it, it became a very well-read bit of text. It kind of started this conversation about this bust, about H.P. Lovecraft. And that conversation got very heated, because you had the people who were defending having that bust as the award, and then you had the people who were siding with me. That went on for about a year, and then a year later, the awards came around again and nothing had changed. And then… Do you want to continue the story?

Sofia Samatar: Fast forward to last month! I was up for the World Fantasy Award for best novel. So I went to DC, to the convention, and I won. This is now, they have had three years to do something about this, and nobody did. So that meant that I became the first person to address the issue on the stage of the convention, at my first time to be at the convention.

Nnedi and I actually had a conversation over lunch, about the burdens that you take on, when you’re the one who can’t not say something. Because everybody else goes up on stage, all those people, all those white writers, can go up and they just accept the award, and they’re happy. And you’re sitting there, and your guts are twisting, you’re in a panic that you’re going to have to go up on the stage and say this. But I didn’t feel like I had a choice.

We’ll see what happens.

Nnedi Okorafor: Something better happen.

Sofia Samatar: They need to change that award.

Audience member: What did you say?


Sofia Samatar: I said…. So, you know when you give people a writing critique? Where you start out, and you’re nice, nice, nice, and then you put a little thing in the middle, and then at the end, you make it nice again? That was kind of the structure. I started by thanking the board. But then I said, look, I’m not going to get down without addressing the elephant in the room, here, which is how incredibly awkward it is for a writer of color to accept this award. We all know it’s ugly, I said. And that’s the thing! Everybody knows! And nobody says!

So I said that I was just going to put that out there. There had been noises out there, indicating that the board was aware of the controversy. Not that they were going to do anything about it, but just that they were aware. So I said, I’m glad you’re aware. And I hope the board takes this seriously.

Then I went back to being nice.


Audience question: I’d like to ask a question that’s inspired by Nnedi’s t-shirt, because she’s got a Batman t-shirt going. But I was thinking about the intensely visual nature of “Ogres of East Africa,” and the intensely visual nature of Lagoon, and since we’re genre hopping, I wonder if you’ve thought, as an artist, of turning any of your work into graphic media. I think it would just be so spectacular.

Nnedi Okorafor: Yeah, I have one short story that was made into a comic, a comic in an anthology of DC Comics, it’s a story from my first novel, Zarah the Windseeker, which is very, very visual. They had Michael Koluta do it, who did a lot of the Batman comics and has been in the comics industry for many, many years. But yeah, that’s something that I’m definitely looking into; I love graphic novels. I consume them like candy, so I’d love to see some of my work take that route. The Book of Phoenix, my forthcoming novel, is not a graphic novel, it’s a novel—it’s the prequel to Who Fears Death—but within that, we’re going to have several illustrations that are going to be done by a comic book illustrator who’s done stuff for both DC and Marvel.

I’m also really interested in the visual aspect of it, because the visual… there’s an importance to the visual that you don’t get with a text, when you’re writing science fiction with people of color, or fantasy with people of color.


Sofia Samatar: I have actually created this thing with my brother—I did the writing, he did the art, because he’s an artist. He draws monsters, so we’ve done a book together called Monster Portraits. It’s not out there yet. But it’s not that I wrote something and he illustrated it; he made the drawings and then I made a one-page imaginative riff for each. But I agree, the visual is very powerful.

Audience question: I noticed the word “imagination” coming up a lot, and that might be a quality that gets talked about more in speculative, fantasy, and science fiction than in realist fiction. I wonder if you feel like there’s a difference in the way it operates in speculative fiction than in realist fiction?

Sofia Samatar: That’s a really interesting question. I’m actually writing something now that’s not genre fiction, and doesn’t have those markers. It’s about a trek of Mennonites from Uzbekistan in the 1880’s. And what do I know about 1880’s Uzbekistan? If we’re talking about the process of imagining my way into the characters, really, the biggest difference is that when I wrote my novel A Stranger of Olondria, for example, where I made everything up, the whole world, all the cultures, I had those markers, of food, of architecture, whatever it is and I made them up and then I stuck to them. Whereas in this case, I do research, and then I have to stick with whatever I found in research. These are not such different processes.

I always think that what we call “world-building” in science fiction and fantasy is really what you call “research,” if you’re not doing science fiction and fantasy. It’s that background work. But in both cases, I think, the imagination is active, and I would say, for me, it feels like it’s active in the same way.

Nnedi Okorafor: (briskly) Yeah, I agree.

(audience laughs)

Audience question: I was wondering about your short story, “The Magical Negro.” Is that supposed to be… super-funny? To expose this ludicrous thing that’s been going on for far too long? But for both of you, I’m curious how you incorporate humor into your work.

Nnedi Okorafor: “The Magical Negro.” Yes, it’s supposed to be funny. (audience laughs) When I was writing that, I was cracking up. If you don’t know about the magical Negro, um… OK. (hesitating). OK.

Sofia Samatar: Where to start.

Nnedi Okorafor: Where to start. You can google the term, “magical Negro,” you can do that. It’s maybe the shortest story I’ve ever written, it’s three pages, maybe two. It starts off with a medieval setting, a typical fantasy setting. I can’t remember if I changed his name, it was originally “Thor.” But I changed it to “Lance the brave.” So “Lance the Brave” is doing his thing. He’s on this adventure, and has this pendant and he doesn’t know what to do with it, and then this black man comes out of nowhere, and this black man is described in this very… He’s got blown out lips and an explosion of hair and he’s so black and dark and dirty. He gives Lance the answer he needs, and tells Lance what he needs to do to keep the darkness from coming towards him, and then he starts to die.

But suddenly everything switches because the black man kind of stops and says— OK, I’m not going to say what he says, but the black man says “What the F- is this all about?”

It’s like if you have a story going and you hit pause, and then this character suddenly comes alive and says “What is this, why am I dying, what am I here for, what do I care about this Lance character?” And he shoves Lance over a cliff and walks off into the sunset to have adventures of his own.

It’s a very short story, commenting on the whole idea of the Magical Negro. I wrote an essay commenting on the five aspects of the Magical Negro, in which that person has some magical mystical powers, he or she comes from a lower income or is not very smart, but has these mystical powers he uses to help the white character, in a story in which there are no other non-white characters. Then, once that character has helped the white character, he either dies or disappears and is never seen again.

To address the idea of humor, I write with a lot of humor, I was laughing very hard when I wrote Lagoon. When I was writing it, I wasn’t even thinking about publishing, I thought, wow, no one is going to want to publish this.

Some of my writing is very serious, like Who Fears Death, but then I have other things. I love monsters and creatures because nature can do crazy stuff, and that’s also where a lot of the humor works its way in. Humor is something that is very important to me. Even when there’s darkness, there’s laughter.

Sofia Samatar: I think this brings us back to a conversation we were having earlier today, about humor and African literature in general, or literature that has an African context. Very often, you get up and read something, and people are like… “Are we allowed to laugh? Would that be racist?”

You have to tell them, it’s supposed to be funny. So relax, enjoy it. But I think that there are some pressures there, where people are just a little bit unsettled, where they’re not sure if it would be good to laugh at this or not.

As a writer, that’s not really your area, when you’re sitting by yourself. You’re laughing, you’re just doing your thing. Afterwards, when it goes out into the world, there are some negotiations which sometimes involve actually telling people that, you know what, you can laugh, it’s okay.

Audience question: I have a question about how the American reception of Afro-futurism, or speculative fiction, differs from the reception in other parts of the world?

Nnedi Okorafor: Especially with Afro-futurism, one of the things I’ve always had a problem with is that when Afro-futurism is discussed, it is often discussed from a very American point of view. The roots are American, African-American in particular. But I think that’s very limited. Those who are outside the United States, who have a different experience, they experience Afro-futurism in a different way. They don’t see it as being rooted in the United States. That’s the way I see it. I wish that it would be seen more from that standpoint. To see it as just an American phenomenon, as rooted in African-American art, as a whole, is problematic. So I think that, yeah, from other parts of the world, they see the roots being in a different place, and because those roots are in a different place, it manifests in different ways as well. That’s a conversation that hasn’t been had yet.

Sofia Samatar: However! There will be a place where it will be had—or in which you can see it being had—because Jalada, which is a Nairobi-based and online magazine… Is it based in Nairobi? Most of the editors are there.

Aaron Bady: It’s a pan-African…

Sofia Samatar: It’s on the internet (laughter). It calls itself a pan-African writers collective. There’s currently in process an issue on Afro-futures, and I’m one of the guest editors, and it’s exciting to see, because the majority of the writers we’ve received stories about are based in Africa, though there are also some African diaspora writers involved. I think that once we get ourselves in gear and get the issue out, it’s going to be very exciting. I think it’s something that going to be very important as an intervention in the discourse on Afro-futurism, because it’s very much coming from the African perspective.

Audience question: I don’t have a vested interest in terms, but it seems to me that one of the terms that Afro-futurism or science fiction needs to think about—or that I need to think about—is “Magical Realism” and… (responding to Samatar and Okorafor’s expressions) you are making faces, I’m so glad of that! “Magical Realism” becomes this thing that defines writing from the third world, in all sorts of ways that we all find unattractive. I think it’s a limiting category, because people like Gunter Grass don’t count, even though they formally look like it. But I’d like to ask how you know that what you’re doing isn’t that?

Sofia Samatar: I know it’s not magic realism because I don’t really believe in magic realism as a category. Because, as you’ve indicated, when you press on that category a little bit, it rapidly becomes “speculative fiction by brown people.” I just don’t see that as a viable category that you can base things on.

I’m teaching a class right now called Weird World Fiction, which is fantasy and science fiction from around the world, and that was one of the very interesting discussions we had: “What is magic realism, and does it exist?” I find it a very fragile category. If you just go like that to it (mimics flicking it), it kind of collapses.

But I don’t know, it has such an institutional life to it; in terms of literary establishments, it does have a life, and I’m being a little bit dismissive. So even though I think it isn’t really viable, maybe Nnedi will not be so dismissive of it, because it does have a life to it.

Nnedi Okorafor: “Magical realism” is so tricky. I’ve had to use that word to get past a lot of things. When I did my PhD, they told me I couldn’t write science fiction or fantasy, so I called it “Magical Realism” and that was okay.

But I understand the issues around magical realism, but there’s one thing that I still can’t resolve. When you have writers of color who are writing from their cultures, and incorporating cultural beliefs into their works, into their worlds, is that fantasy? Those are the things that make magical realism need to exist as a separate category. It’s complicated. I look at Ben Okri’s Famished Road and he’s incorporating a lot of cultural beliefs, and then he’s got fairies in there, mixed in it.

It’s complicated. I can’t fully dismiss magical realism because of that aspect of it, because most magical realist writers are doing that, they’re incorporating the mystical aspects of their culture into their works, and that’s different than fantasy. Even though the line becomes blurry.

As for the African roots of Afro-futurism, when you think of science fiction, that’s a form of writing that’s very Western. The pioneers of it would be in the West; that’s why you have Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany, and then, in terms of music, Western musicians like P-Funk and Su-Ra. So there’s that, it’s a Western form of writing, and science fiction has to come to Africa in that regard.

But I’ve always believed that the idea of science fiction is just speculating about the future, and imagining. So when “Africa”—I keep saying “Africa,” and I hate saying that, because Africa’s not a country. But in the interest of time, I’ll just say Africa—I believe that when Africans start writing science fiction, from the continent, I like to believe that they write from their own roots, rather than imitating what’s already out there. If that makes sense. And so, the roots would not necessarily be American. They could be the Dogon who were stargazing and speculating and speculating about aliens…

Sofia Samatar: A great example would be the role of Amos Tutuola’s The Palmwine Drinkard in Nnedi’s book Who Fears Death. In a far future, that book has become a sacred text for these futuristic African societies. That, to me, is an example of things to come.

Aaron Bady @zunguzungu is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas and an editor and blogger at The New Inquiry.

“The Red Bucket, Tango and Nahui Xochitl” By Valorie Thomas

The Red Bucket, Tango and Nahui Xochitl

She lost her family, her house and most of her land during The Sorrow, but survived the winter years with four fine horses. She moved into the stable and slept beside them on the barn floor, barely able to buy hay. She continued to clean stalls, comb manes and tails, trim their hooves, let them run in the pasture she had left whenever sun seeped through keloided clouds.

The horses were hardy but thin. None of her neighbors could help: everyone was struggling to hold on to the little bit of little they had. Some resented a woman who would waste effort serving a crowd of raggedy animals. Many observed their ribs and thought about where to get the best wood for barbecuing horse. She understood their thoughts and smiled. She called on Ellegua, Ogun and Shango, conjured mother-of-pearl light around the horses and blue spheres around their would-be predators, set gris gris and folded white cloth in the four directions. The locals sharpened knives.

She set out with the four to see a wise woman she had heard of all her life. “I would love to help,” the wise woman told her, “but, you see, there’s nothing here I can offer you except this red bucket.” The bucket looked older than the ancient woman, but more than that, it was completely empty. The sage lived on water and the small bowl of rice, plantain or foufou that appeared on the table daily, which she offered to share. The horsewoman smiled and thanked her, and led the ponies home. Along the way there was spring grass, and water from newly melted snow in the streams.

When people saw the pathetic bucket back at the woman’s barn, they thought the sage had played a sad joke on their neighbor, or maybe one was crazy as the other. The elder had a reputation for generosity and wisdom, yet there it was: a worthless, splintering bucket.

Something shifted. The neighbors retired their blades with a puzzled sigh that skipped from one end of the settlement to the other.

They began to fill the bucket.

A few handfuls of oats, some salt. Piles of hay. Sacks of sweet feed. The horses soon ran sleek, and bedded on fresh shavings. They bucked for happiness because it was morning, and because it was afternoon, for nightfall, and the full moon. They nuzzled bone-tired shoulders and hands, whinnied at familiar faces and stood quiet alongside those in need of healing. The horses comforted everyone who came to the stable. They poked their heads down and played with dogs. They pointed their ears at deer and bobcat, foraged milk thistle, snorted warnings and quickened at the scent of nearby bear and mountain lion. Through the horses’ eyes people saw the freshness of places they had been but not seen their whole lives. They reminded the people of rivers and clean air. Sometimes, when the horses loped across the pasture, the neighbors saw their wings. They spun time. Every day, when the woman brought the red bucket, heads peered over stall doors and fences, alert eyes wide and soft. Everyone grasped what the red bucket held.

I tell this ancient story because horses are a remedy. Without the presence of unencumbered animal life on the planet, we will never find wellbeing as humans. My devotion to the people I love binds us forever, but I need animals. Not only do they offer grace and balance, but without their gifts I, as a black woman, couldn’t survive well. Water levels rise, pandemics finish what oil wars start, financial empires crash, privately contracted drones police borders and refugees, and superstorms like Oya and Kali pummel entire continents. Animals hold certain qualities of memory and emotion that humans have renounced. We ground through their presence.

For many, it’s plainly impossible that an “inner city” woman seeks the company of horses and finds renewal in the realm of dirt, sweat, trees, sky, water and untamed animals. Yet I am an urban Black person rooted in nature. My great aunt, great grandmother and my mother made sure that came first before all else. They taught me about tides and grunion hunting at midnight, hiking mountain trails, where to pick dandelion greens, reading tea leaves and making up jokes, hand-feeding scrub jays, how to cure ringworm with a penny soaked overnight in vinegar, and how to talk about those who shall be Nameless. They kept horses, mules, goats and donkeys in the backwoods of Tennessee, in Georgia, in Alabama, and in Haiti. I reserve the right to speak with all my ancestors. I am a daughter of Oshun and the family of Orishas. I claim Bridgett Mason, Ida B. Wells, Frances Harper, Mary Ellen Pleasant, Edmonia Lewis, Harriet Tubman, Bose Ikard, Mary Fields, Bill Pickett, Nat Love, Nanny of the Maroons, Chief Joseph, Zitkala-Ša and all the unnamed and forgotten. I am African American and Menominee, among other lineages, and I have a certain inheritance of nomadic horizons. I am from Khemet, Kush, Timbuktu, the Yoruba, Kikongo, Mamaceqtaw, Lascaux and El Pueblo de La Reina de Los Angeles. I am telling it this way: horses are a healing and a calling. They lead by a vibration that pulls us to places unreachable by any other path.

These beings are my relations, not a random pastime. The two I care for are mustangs. They’re nothing fancy, have no pedigrees or papers. They’re mixbloods, like me. They live in the wild in-betweens, and many consider them worthless leftovers.

My sister died of cancer at the age of fifty-nine, after four years’ deterioration. She was a non-smoker diagnosed with lung cancer about a week after we buried our dad, who also died of cancer after waging years of silent war. He was seventy. In the time since, my other sister, ten years younger, died of liver cancer. My mom died of stress, diabetes and heart failure at age fifty-nine. They were not old. When I turned fifty, it occurred to me that I should do as much living as possible. There was a sinkhole in the pit of my stomach, while Death was sitting off in the corner smoking unfiltered cigarettes and synchronizing watches.

A B-movie cowboy named Crash Corrigan put me on a palomino when I was under a year old. That moment is indelible. But, at the time my family began to be stalked by cancer, I hadn’t been around horses for twenty years—since working as barn help at a racetrack in college. I had a horse as a kid, back when board was thirty-five dollars a month and the poor white ranch manager’s five-year-old asked, “y’all niggers?” In 2004, owning a horse again was out of the question: I was a recently tenured associate professor, a black feminist, working class woman, and single parent in a mystified academic zone of thickly layered micro and macro-aggressions. I fulfilled the unspoken and explicit expectations of my joint appointment in order to achieve tenure, contracted to two departments that operated in separate political, racial and social universes. I shopped thrift stores for professional clothing, borrowed money to attend the expected academic conferences and to keep the lights and water on, paid for babysitters while I traveled or brought my daughter along by paying for her travel out of pocket. My future promised to be defined by paying off student debt and fending off the toxins of racism, classism, sexism, PTSD and my own bottomless rage over abuses ranging from sexual assault, to domestic violence, to racial assault in my workplace.

Horses command awareness. They are incapable of dissembling. Drift into distraction, forget to attend to where you are and what is happening in your surroundings and in yourself, and there will inevitably be grave results. Anything can happen at any moment, through no particular intention of theirs for good or ill. They are prey animals, guided by the drive to live. This demand to be present in the moment is the inherent risk of interaction.

I watered and planted my desert of suburban and urban drought with the idea of what makes me happy, even when it was apparent to me there was no reason to expect, realistically, that I would ever be near an actual horse again. My never-used thrift store riding boots sat in the closet for ten years before it occurred to me I might be in a position to go near a barn. Five dollars. Brand new. My size. There was no reason for me to try them on, much less make that purchase.

I knew, though it took years to reclaim clarity about it, that horses were my curative. I began practicing meditation, and to please my own idiosyncratic imagination, I included images of horses in my surroundings. I aimlessly browsed ads. This led me to the breakthrough moment of finding and recognizing Tango from a poem I’d written eighteen years earlier, the being who carried my daughter’s spirit to me.

Praisesong for Alaafia,
astride a strong-backed buckskin horse
My daughter who comes to me through cowries through spirit’s portal

It dawned on me that this dun horse coming into my awareness could be possible. A way presented itself and one by one each door opened. I drove down to the junkyard where the horse dealer had Tango penned. He was one step from the slaughterhouse and needed care. An affordable space opened at a friend’s ranch; one more horse among her buffalo, llamas, burros, pigs, cats, birds and dogs was barely noticeable. That dun horse with the primal buckskin markings, in a split second, brought me back to myself, and unfailingly steadies my journey.

Then came the bay mustang, Two Socks. He loves white peaches, playing tag and rolling in muddy water. The cowboy who adopted him wild from a BLM roundup named him after a fictional wolf who died of love and trusting humans. The cowboy was kind but couldn’t keep Soxi, so he gave him to me. Two Socks has seen more freedom and manmade violence than most of us will ever know, yet remains kind toward humans. He was hunted from the air by helicopter, yet has walked next to one while helping rescue an injured woman; his scarred body bears witness to barbwire and a shotgun blast to the face, neck and shoulder from someone who likely thought they were defending civilization from vermin competing for cattle turf. Rounded up as a five-year-old, Two Socks, permanently numbered by a red-hot six-by-four-inch branding iron at the hip and a barcoded freeze brand serial number above the withers, was transferred from his band into human ownership while his herd was similarly dispersed or butchered. A feral horse with caramel colored eyes, his calm resides in memories that evade capture. He stood in the rain with his mother, slept under open sky curled into her soft flank. Mustangs know what it is to come and go at will, to survive without dependence on human whim. Once domesticated, but roaming for generations, mustangs eke out lives in borderlands and abandoned places. In the roundups, they’re corralled, then shipped out packed on trucks, bound to become pet food, hamburger, or fertilizer, or placed for adoption to follow wherever that road leads. If they’re lucky they’ll be turned out again on open range and left alone. Two Socks put his head on my shoulder and napped the afternoon we met.

Two Socks quickly taught me how souls artfully accompany each other through many lifetimes. He arrived when I needed him most, joining me to the ancestral feeling of risking levitation, flight of bone, muscle and blood, and the aim to live down to the marrow of it all.

The name Two Socks soon gave way to a playful whisper in my ear of the name, Xoxi. This nickname is a reminder of the crossroads and before-time memory, a variation on Xochitl. In Nahuatl, the ancestral language of the Mayans and Aztecs, Xochitl is “water flower.”

Xochitl Xochitl Xochitl

Like the lotus, Xochitl is rooted deep, ever unfolding. The lotus rises above attachment and desire. Xochitl calls forth delicate petals, coaxes flowers from blasted seeds. Like the lotus, my horse is, seen and unseen, watery, a compassionate trickster outwitting death. He is nahui, spirit guide and healer.

Sometimes, we just know something because we feel it, in the space of a breath, past logic and reason. If not for the horses, I would have dissolved into a million pieces, blowing across asphalt inert as soot. They drummed peace into my pulse.

Love your happiness, even in the midst of struggle. My bliss is in the rhythm of hoof beats, the eloquence of equine movement and the horse’s instinctive priorities, their resilience, their trust.

The Anasazi hooves of my spirit guides drum the primordial sound. In love with their own speed and stillness, they become gifts. They shuffle dance to lunar chants and cross dimensions. They graze among lava stones, gallop at the crests of tides. They savor lavender, rose geranium, cardamom and jasmine. Meteor showers trill their evening migrations, steps mapped by glowworms like miniature fallen stars. I smudge their fringed locks with sage and sweetgrass, rub dried flowers over their heads, honor their stories. We walk together. They are a medicine, their steps each one a prayer for the planet.

The horses stride rocky paths and sand dunes with equal certainty. Three ghost coyotes pass single-file between worlds, veiled souls in grey-black mist.

Valorie Thomas (@valoriedthomas) is an LA native with roots in Chicago, Tennessee, Georgia, and Haiti, and is an Associate Professor of English and Africana Studies at Pomona College. Her interests include the Black West, indigenous spirituality, African Diasporic Vertigo and Afrofuturism.

“Black Woman, Everybody’s Healer” by Hawa Y. Mire

Black Woman Everybody's Healer

Blackness was all encompassing, path where there was dark, light where there were brick walls, solace in turmoil, turmoil in silence. She sat separate, determined to forage for a particular kind of sustenance.

She took a breath because she was, moved because she could, but she was forever confined to life without body, without grounding. She lived with vision, seeing the world yet being unable to be seen as whole within it. Even in places where she could stream through, effervescent joy, delighting in the common beats and weaves of the sisters from afar because she had not been granted permission to stay.

She looked for her own face in every reflective surface the elements gave her, a curly tendril in gleaming copper, the curve of lips in dew, cut of body in shadow, eyelash in a puff of air. Blackness was more air than earth, more loose than grounding. Sometimes she lived in abandoned bird’s nests, massive eagles stopping to drop small sticks, some covered with joy, others expectation, still others the fiery tips of resentment.

There are five brick houses facing inwards. Inside live five sisters named Sorrow, Spirit, Displacement, Expectation and Self.

They live lonely and together, separate but connected to the cities determined to eat them alive. Some of the windows on their houses have been boarded up; others are made of stained glass. There are invisible hands, feet, heart and breaths that dictate their lives and occasionally send wind to rip through windows, silently pack up belongings, leaving some empty while others remain too full.

The chronology of time is different here. Ages, eras and narratives change depending on need. Some days their bones are frail, and others there are moments of dance, song, movement and youth, starry eyed wonder.

The sisters face into a shared courtyard filled with ashes, brick, tree limbs, flowers and bees, train tracks at their back. God is the train tracks and the trains passing through, above, around and present. Every rumble, every car, every honk, every beep, every blink of lights is a reminder of the Divine.

The Sages live on the moon. They move between the faces of Black women past and present. Their curse is to sit shrouded in kafan constantly awaiting a janazah so they can be moved back against the deep darkness of the stars. They would have never left Blackness but by necessity, honor bound to collect their sisters under the gaze of the night sky. Their blessing is to watch over the sisters: Sorrow, Spirit, Displacement, Expectation and Self. To negotiate with wind, earth, water and fire to tread carefully and gently upon the backs that are littered with Transatlantic trades. To make peace with the souls that still churned deep in the ocean’s belly, to carry their voices as wind, to pull up bones and lay them at the root of elder trees, to set aflame stories that live in whiteness, burn them Black again.

They are observers, sometimes interceders on behalf of those that are them. Watch time fluidly twisting the strings of fate here and there, sniping ends, laying bricks, replacing flowers, whispering songs. They are not healers but are engaged in the work of healing. They are not saviors yet are wretchedly inconsolable when unable to save, throwing themselves between the Earth and Sun in eclipse, desperate to get back home. They are not nurturers yet tend the soils as far as their hearts love, leaving one to guard during wispy moon as the rest descend upon the forests and lay fingertips into the deepest of roots, braiding strands of hair into rakes to till the gentled soil.

They are called by some the mules of the earth, little is known about the brimming cups of potential that they balance inside of the moon. That is their legacy, to be shunned by the very whiteness that they shine upon the seas, to be stripped of their stories even while trembling with sacredness. And when the rains run red with the blood of Blackness, they ask the oceans to gather to weep, pulling tides from every inch of the world together so that no one sits alone in sorrow.

They sit just above the starlit trapdoors in the sky and murmur in unison, There there, cool your burning eyes. And when the rains relent, they drop their hands from beyond the sky, rest them upon fevered brows and whisper, To us, you belong, to us you belong.

Her name was Celeste, named by the Sages for her myth making. She had always been finger deep in fairytales, watching as people loved, painstakingly weaving the threads that attached them.

She dreamed one day of the sisters she watched over finding the kind of love she had only ever imagined because Sages didn’t fall in love. They weathered, and expanded and radiated all that the sisters were instead. She slept with her arms wrapped around her waist imagining fingers that weren’t hers clasping the ones on her hands. Whenever she grew desperately lonely, she tilted the moon just slightly so the others didn’t notice, turning it a light yellow. Lovers in the distance would look up at her and for a moment believe she was the sun.

And when lovers fought, she spun stories, tapestry lined with happy endings. She would drop into lovers’ dreams and whisper away their resentments, fill their minds with all the joy she could muster and in sleep, tangle together their arms and legs so they awoke wrapped in one another. There she would perch until morning, just above the warmth of their slumbering breath.

Her face is wrinkled some days, other days smooth except for the hint of a pimple under her right cheek. It’s the same place where her tongue is often held. She sits outside her home, building fire after fire so all gather round. She shares Womb stories, legacies that filter through the placenta of motherhood, the creation myths of fathers, her stories spurring on the seeds of blossoming life, children whose stories have yet to come to pass.

Slow and unforgiving hands outstretched to fire. She shares one haunting Womb story, recounts her mother, her voice sharpening with age before she is through.

Hooyo told me about a new place where I would have a becoming.
She rubbed the bottom of her belly her fingers touching the crown of my head.
Her heart warned that I wouldn’t be beautiful here, that darkness and big eyes
would only mean boys wanted to fuck you, not marry you. That my thighs would be
too large, my hips too wide. She told me there were places in the world that would still
love me as I was, that she would still want me but she would be cautious of how different I
could become. She wanted me to live with the illusion of belonging,
to not grow too large outside of my skin. She wanted me to be happy,
because a sign of the end of the world were babies that didn’t want to
come out of the womb and she so desperately wanted to greet me.

I was birthed grasping a broken heart completely in love with sadness.

I opened my eyes to a world that was already in mourning.
Hooyo named me Sorrow.

She was woman in feeling, but in body, thread. Her head was mismatched purse strings, her guts laid out for the world to see. Her heart burned about her like sweet smelling incense whose names are too complicated to pronounce. She wasn’t only earth, but air, water and fire. She wasn’t just the elements, but they were bound to her sense of gut weary purpose, carried threads that sparked when she spoke.

She hosted kite making events on the eve of Jummah, celebrating the tendrils of surahs uttered by the faithful. Starry eyed children would spend hours building kites with her, braiding her threads in rows of six and nine, laying down the recitation of Al-Fatiha along the sharp edges.

She would often sit at the uppermost angle of a finished kite, looking down into the houses of her sisters. There, she would sing song after song, about pain, rebirth, strength, love. She would sing always of the kind of love that survived even when she wasn’t there to coax it to life. The wisps of her song would find the tiny parts that were unable to bloom, earth’s threads would spark and they soon would begin to grow.

She didn’t have a mother but she held mothers in her grasp, their longing only amplified by her songs of Spirit.

Displacement spoke in rough syllables, her English only as lyrical as broken stones. She had learned Somali was the language most like water, rippling and wet. It moistened lips too dry to live without the balm of home.

She spent the day taking apart the cartilage of live children, tearing away riddled and scarred flesh, building entire worlds into the grains of their bones. Her favorite part was erasing the borders embedded in their cells and designing new maps, whole systems of cartography that plotted the places of Ayeeyo’s first love, Hooyo’s first kiss, the first time Aabo watched a parent die.

They cried at first the children, they always did, being ripped from home was a grueling process. But coming back to it was like holding fingertips to icy snow, the pain not as bad as the numbing. The silence would ricochet inside their heads whimpering enough enough but there could never be enough. She would reassure them in Somali, the cadences enough to quell misgivings, bringing light to shadow. The cells would knit, broken bones would heal together in maps of the world held by sinew and muscle and joints so filled with stories children would come back to life, full of grace and grounding.

Displacement would weep, there was nothing more to fix. Children would go back to their parents and lament.

Have you ever asked us how we hold both feet in different lands and still stay balanced? Taking step after step carrying you on our backs?

Eedo, it’s hard to belong, sometimes cigarettes and alcohol are the only things that let you in. Frayed pants and sleeveless shirts paired with bare skin is all you need to laugh. Eedo, she still loves you, but this land has stolen something from us too. Can you hear her liver reciting the Quran as it purifies her blood? It is tired too.

Aabo, hear her when she says she doesn’t want to be lawyer. I know this country is hard, you want her to be safe, safer than you could have ever been, but none of the ways you believe will protect her. Let her breathe. Can’t you hear her ears shedding the extra tears her eyes are too tired to cry? Every droplet is formed in God’s name, she whispers Ya Allah every time you threaten to curse her for not loving you enough to let you live through her.

Hooyo, your daughter does not want to be a nurse. She is a mother now and even that reality is too much for her to bear. You wrapped her up in medicine and she is wrung out from your expectations. Her hands and feet still trapped in sheets. She cries when her son bleeds, thinking what he would become, how happy she would be, knowing he isn’t drowning in her pain the way she drowned in yours.

Leave your children to God, the way our grandparents left you. You survived the only way you knew how, you survived. You survived because it was meant. Leave your children to God. We’ve left you to Him.

Expectation squinted and the lights of the oncoming traffic blurred together and danced across her eyelids. Searing reds and blues, light colors she didn’t have words for. Crosses between turquoise and sea green, mixed with tinges of yellow. A rainbow against her skin. She stood there a moment longer, the cars whistling by, the shouts and screams. Her eyes tight against one another, she cracked them slightly open. Her insides, petroleum jelly held together by crocheted yarn, streaming into the wind.

She used invisible gills to breathe whenever the air got too damp for her liking. All kinds of things dampened her air, other people’s tears, fears, expectations, regrets and shame, loves, lusts, giddiness and buoyancy. She wasn’t young by the measures of time, but by the stroke of a pen to page, and since people wrote less than they typed these days, she never aged unless she wished it. She spent her days walking down street after sidewalk, library after shop, path filled with people, breathing in air laden with emotions she could reach out and grab fistfuls of.

She would sit inside a coffee shop without ordering a thing, right up against the foggy windows, wiping a hole just big enough for both her eyes to see through. She would people-watch through the glass. Teenagers at midday, running free through the streets instead of trapped behind steel doors covered in newspaper parchment. A small business man in tapered slacks and an extra few inches on the back of his loafers puffing on a cigarette, then another, and finally another, staring at the rings his breath formed in the smoke. Two small brown children running and shrieking, their mother balancing bags of groceries, a cell phone at her ear. A busker, pimple faced young person poised on the edge of gender, crooning a tune with enough sadness to crack the glass she was sitting behind. And him, him, walking the same path day after day to sit on the bench in a small park across the coffee shop, pulling out a journal from his front pocket, long and ripped on the edges, a dark wooden pencil and a lip balm stick he would roll around his fingers in between the shuffling of pages. She came most especially to see him.

Well, not him exactly, but the dreaming in his eyes that reminded her of the one who had helped her make her gills. The one who had sat her down one day, when she had been younger than she was now, but not by much, and told her everyone loves what they cannot have, and you cannot have me. I’m broken, you know, broken by other loves, other lovers. I’m not fixed enough for you. Maybe no one is fixed enough for you. And she had asked him how he could be so hard, love is supposed to be simple, easy, warm rain and royal colored clothing, bright yellow bananas, cicadas and balm. He laughed then, raised his palms to rub away the faint lines of fear crinkling on the side of his neck, shook his head, listen, you want me to show you how you can stop breathing in this toxic air? Never be hurt again? I mean, look at you, you want me even when I don’t want you.

So she let him, she let him show her how to carefully tweeze apart layers of skin, sharpen the tip of a calligraphy pen. It had to be the calligraphy pens for they were the only ones fluid enough. They were the only ones filled with the ink of resolve, the type of ink that helped one never for-get the pain and terror of vulnerability. She let him show her how to tear through ligaments and bone, slice and stitch together the scales hidden just under her chin.

She came to see men like him to remind her not to forget about women like her. To look at him shuffling, struggling, yearning to be something he wasn’t. She didn’t have that problem, she could sit and watch him all day through, breathe through her invisible gills and avoid the damp emotional air, his damp emotional air.

She was finally free.

Self was the most fractured, the one holding dichotomies like playing cards, inexhaustible in contradiction, shallow and mountainous. She was rigid and soft, breathing thunder and liquid clouds. She loved fire, searching for volcanoes within the deepest parts of earth, building caves using only her palms, putting together small alcoves where she would sit for hours, her feet just above molten rock.

She would call every leap of flame by name, catching them in her lap as they leapt. They would pile, still sizzling, encase her in stone. She would sit in nothing but blessed silence. That was the only place she could be alone. The Sages would look frantically for her, unable to reach her from beyond the rock, sobbing in grief, thinking her dead. She would make herself small holes for her fingertips, palms facing one another towards the sky.

Ya Allah, I let myself shrink because being big meant being alone. I was getting lonely. I was ashamed to carry candles instead of fingers, scared to light anything that had my face.

Ya Allah, my soul is made of lead, it’s what puts grit in my eye, scratches them the murky grey of overcast sky. There is no sun. I thought of you as flames licked away the shame that had pooled in the crease of my thighs, thought about devastation and prayer, wished the ceiling away so I could melt into the stars.

Ya Allah, I thought change wouldn’t hurt, but the moon kept reflecting my light and my dark. Forgive me, I am only trying to breathe without thinking, love without effort, dream without fear, live without expectation.

Ya Allah, protect me from myself, the parts that believe I do not deserve love, I do not deserve peace, I do not deserve to have a full heart. Protect those parts, light those parts, love those parts.

Do you love me?

Should I love myself?

Hawa Y. Mire (@HYMire) is a diasporic Somali storyteller, writer, and strategist who focuses on themes of Blackness, (dis)connection and (un)belonging. Her writing is seated somewhere between oral tradition and the written word, celestial and myth, past and present, ancestry and spirit. Currently living in Toronto, Canada, Hawa is a MES graduate student at York University, exploring the implications of indigenity, oral history, resistance, archival and curation. Her research looks to incorporate traditional Somali stories with discourses of constructed identity: storiesbyxaawo.com