I've been an avid Dungeons & Dragons player since the sixth grade. Even wrote my own grimoire in 9th that included age appropriate spells like Great Balls of Fire, which the caster could use to attack their opponent with twin fireballs that homed in on their opponent's...well, never mind. The point is I'm OG. One key world and character building component of D&D was the distinction between clerics who received their power from their deity, and wizards who achieved it through years of study in the mystical arts. In Burkina Faso however, like much of Africa, that's a line so smudged and smeared as to be functionally nonexistent. A whole lot of multi-classing going on. Also, and more to the point, magic on The Continent is not a game.
I've come to Burkina Faso during the rainy season. Torrential storms sucker punch you all summer. Though everybody has smart phones, the weather reports is similar in many respects to a bad joke, like Rush Limbaugh caught in a Florida hurricane flood; either they're laughed at, or ignored. Yet, here we are forty minutes outside the capital-Ade, her father, the Big Monster, and I- and somehow not sitting under a tarp while we wait for Chief Titinga to start the ceremony anointing a new village chieftain.
Burkina Faso politics are a tangle very much worth unraveling. We'll tease apart one such knot to put this ceremony into context. When West Africa was colonized, the Europeans-in this case the French-would often choose indirect rule over direct rule to cut down on the number of rebellions and the cost of occupation. To that end, they would choose (or more accurately, create) "strong men" within majority ethnic groups to determine the workaday fates of the African colony. Post independence, much of the indigenous, consolidated power structure remains intact, though changed by the inevitable post-occupation throne games.
So while there is a democratically elected president of the country, there is also a king of the Mossi people who make up at least 51% of the population. Modern day Burkina Faso doesn't function without dealing with King Mogho Naba Baongo II. The king in turn chooses chiefs, similar to bishops, responsible for administering large swaths of the country. They will often install village-level chiefs. We were there to witness the replacement of the deceased village chieftain of one of the most powerful villages in the area.
"What kind of power?" you might ask.
Theirs was the power to control the weather.
More next week.
On my first day and a night in Burkina Faso, the birth place of my partner Adé, we witnessed a lunar ellipse. I can't speak to the eclipse's meaning elsewhere in the world beyond our goat-haunted neighborhood, but right then, in the heart Ouagadougou, the eclipse heralded joy and drums. Homemade or homefound drums made from tin, plastic, wood, and calloused palms; struck by sticks, rocks, swinging legs, smacking hands, stomping feet, baby rattles, the femur of a goat. Thundering hearts on beating chests.
The kids came out from the dark like little bits torn free from its edges, animated with flashing grins and eyes in the island of yellow light created by the street lamps over the sky-blue door to Ade's family compound. You heard them before you saw them, an army gone hunting for the great cat that eats moons.
They seek to drive it out.
Youūng yonk kiougou, bassa ta loogé!
They dare to drive it off and demand it let her go.
Bassignè ta toudga sooré!
Even when the moon reappears, the children don't stop playing. There's really no telling when or if the hungry cat will come back. It's best to be thorough. Finally, one child-the girl on the right, I think-decides she must be the leader. The others follow her deeper into the night, chasing the cat back through his hole under the fence. From there, who knows where the wild hunt will take them. But we can hear the drums long after our camera has stopped recording. This is Adé's homecoming.
My love hasn't been back in her country for over four years, and then it was only for a week (the last eclipse she witnessed here was almost seventeen years ago). I suspect this trip is hitting her a thousand different ways. Or maybe hit is the wrong word, too violent.
Enveloping. Feeding. Nourishing.
For me, it was also a kind of a homecoming, but in the African-American-returning-to-the-motherland fable kind of way. It was fabulous, fantastic even, but in a way more in line with the speculative uses of those words. A narrative of suspended belief the meanings of which are still distant: about 400 years deep and 4,800 miles wide. Writing this blog is a way to help me process the experience. I'll make it mine by sharing it with you.
I have the pleasure of moderating a panel on Afrofuturism at Readercon with guests Terrence Taylor/@vamptestaments, Romie Stott/ http://romiesays.tumblr.com, Phenderson D. Clark / @pdjeliclark , and Readercon guest of honor Nisi Shawl/ @NisiShawl.
Phenderson and Terrence are old friends, and hopefully Nisi and Romie will become new ones.
In this post, I've attached a very brief background document for those who plan to attend but are a little hazy on exactly what Afrofuturism is all about. The document includes a link to Mark Dery's term-coining essay as well as a quote from Ytasha L. Womack's book on the subject, Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture. Also included is a reading list of authors currently working in the genre compiled by Milton Davis. Author Troy L. Wiggins (@Troylwiggins) has graciously sent me another reading list. Troy's includes both contemporary fiction as well as nonfiction texts. Finally, there is a Nisi Shawl's book review of Nalo Hopkinson's Midnight Robber.
You have your homework. It is my hope that this will make your experience at the panel more enjoyable and help focus any comments or questions you may have. The panel will be on 7/13/18 at 7:00 p.m. in Salon 6.
You can find me @cprwords on Twitter.
P.S. For those who have more time, I've attached another PDF. Ground breaking essays in the journal Social Text on AfroFuturism
Today, I can proudly proclaim that I am now represented by Barry Goldblatt. This feeling
that I am most definitely feeling can only be expressed by multiple interpretive dance gifs.
Take it away, y'all!
4/17/2017 0 Comments
A couple of months ago, I had the distinct pleasure of curating and hosting a NYRSF Reading at the Brooklyn Commons where Phenderson Djèlí Clark, S.A. Chakraborty, and Haris Durrani read from their latest speculative fiction stories and engaged in a discussion around the topic of otherness in America.
One of the strengths of speculative fiction as a genre is that it takes difficult topics and makes them a little safer to discuss. Bigotry, racism, climate change, cultural appropriation, war, they all become a little less scary relative to the red dragon swooping down to destroy your village and send you on your quest. In this case the, the big scary thing is "the other."
Who is it that decides what is American? Who gets to wear the cape? Who gets to sit at the table and tell its stories? This election has really put these questions front and center as America gropes around blindly for a new villain. They found brown immigrants and Muslims. While that isn't surprising, it is no less disheartening, considering the demographics of our country. Which brings us to these authors.
Phendersan, Shan, and Haris are all current or former academics. All three have a deep knowledge of history, America's and the worlds. All three are in some way interstitial. To become the people they are now and tell the stories that they do, they needed to cross at least one border. Their stories and those like them allow for interchange of ideas, perspectives, understanding. They allow one to breath, so are more like skin then concrete and barbed wire.
Their stories are outstanding and for some, possibly life changing. For many, possibly life saving, because a living breathing country that tells stories only of the past is sucking on dead air and that can't last very long without obvious consequences.
Please, buy their stories and follow them on Twitter at @pdjeliclark , @SChakrabs , and @hdernity
The "trending" preliminary autopsy results of the 2016 election of Donald Trump is best summarized in one sentence: "Liberals live in a bubble."
Relatively speaking, this is bullshit.
Of course there are self-serving narratives and truthiness on all sides of this debate, but it's not as if we didn't know that already. A bubble implies that there's a barrier to understanding. The left's barrier is significantly thinner. The problem wasn't our bubble, it was the rights.
The conservative bubble was well fed and re-enforced for years (there's a reason why Googling "Hillary Clinton" and "corrupt" gets you quick results, but it has nothing to do with the validity of the claim). During Obama's presidency the anti-liberal narrative was scaled up, outsourced and targeted. But during this election cycle, the problem became epidemic. In this case the term viral defines both the speed at which misinformation spread and the nearly fatal impact it (has) had on the body politic.
Conspiracy theorists, the unholy alliance of Nazi-KKK (fuck this Alt-right bullshit), apolitical capitalists, and even liberal-minded programmers trying to prove a point (and make that $$$), fed this beast. It got to the point where even Google and Facebook either couldn't tell the difference or didn't care to (the jury's still out and the two are not mutually exclusive). Now, if they couldn't tell, then media consumers already in the bubble had little to no chance. Their water suddenly became extra watery, practically orgasmic in its water qualities. The right's phobias and insecurities were magnified, confirmed, and fetishized in the totem that is Donald Fucking Trump.
So, I will freely admit that the DNC made damaging, strategic errors, including playing dirty with Bernie (he still wouldn't have won, so it was an unforced error). That's true and can be discussed separately. However, when going up against the Great White Whale that is the bloated conservative narrative, there simply hasn't been invented a harpoon capable of penetrating that blubbery hide.
I'm a story teller and liberal (officially registered independent). I'll certainly continue having conversations about how to change minds and hearts. I believe art can do that. I believe stories that we tell can affect change by subverting the place of the other and providing succor to the toxic masculinity that is such a part of our culture (including sub-cultures. It's a huge problem for African American communities). I believe there can be integration of ideas and peoples. This conversation has already started and will continue.
However, stories and political activism are not silver bullets. This cannot be done without mass media markets going on a strict no-bullshit diet. In other words, the internet has to grow up.
(New paragraph, so as not to mix metaphors) Clean the water.
This is not a pejorative statement. I like science fiction. I write science fiction. But it is a truth that I think is unabstracted from the skin you inhabit, thus sometimes difficult to see unless you've had certain kinds of out of body experiences. Not the type of experience that comes from crystals or chanting, but the kind that comes from trauma, near death, narcotics, or a mind that refuses to shut down after the third day without sleep. Then, you are a satellite collecting data.
The American dream is science fiction because it looks forward to a place carved out of time and space and dense with the illusion of permanence. The American Dream is walled by a blinding white event horizon. But if you somehow make it inside the Dream, you are bound only by the strength of your desires, your own gravity, and you have the power to reshape yourself. Rearrange your being into something upon which histories of the old country bead and roll off into black and white photos and Polaroids of family members whose names you've been told but never committed to memory. This, like most things, is not good or bad, it just is; initially existing beyond judgement in the same way as an asteroid hurtling through space.
If you should be so lucky as to make it into the dream without tearing yourself to bits, you will find that community is certainly an option. It is not something required for survival, but if you've crossed over, social bonds are guided by only two principals: level up to your final form and be as white as possible. White is flexible as the mitten in the snow as all sundry of fauna squeeze in. British, French, Russian, Italian, Catholic, Protestant. You become milk in color, in language, in tastes, in accepted history, in hegemony. I said before that you must have an out of body experience to see my point, that the American Dream is white dependent...unless you're not white. Then it is painfully obvious.
So let's switch gears here. That was a lot of words, some of which were pretty. But my point was rather simple; it is harder for some than others to be American and benefit from it's promise. A simple idea, yet often under-analyzed. I was at panel discussion on Utopian concepts in science fiction this past weekend and one of the panelists held his name card up next to his face and declared, "This is white, I am not white, there is no such thing as race." This argument is an academic parachute and there are fewer of them than there are passengers on the crashing jet.
Whatever your ethnic background, if it comes in a caucasian package, you get to blend in to the mainstreamed American culture that was made with you in mind, and at the same time be more of yourself than you could otherwise. Your stories are the ones told, your language that is legitimized and declared "Good English" (by people who know fuck-all about language), your history that gets first person perspective. There is a very different narrative for those who come in a different package, and really it is all about the narrative, which, for many of them, often crosses genre boundaries, mixing sci-fi, fantasy, and quite a lot of horror.
I try to keep these posts short. To be continued.
If you're still reading, even if you don't agree, that means you're still listening. Feel free to comment, but don't be a dick.
In 2004, I was driving down I-90 from the University of Buffalo's Amherst campus to downtown Buffalo when everything went black. I don't remember it going black. I do remember that the part of my brain that was still aware that I was driving 65 miles per hour in the middle lane between two tractor trailers punched me in the heart with adrenaline. I woke up scared shitless, with a pounding headache, and searing pain in my chest from said adrenaline punch. That's when I realized I might have a problem.
A week later I checked myself into the Buffalo Sleep Medicine Center at 3 Gates Circle in Amherst for an all night sleep study. They placed 21 electrodes on my head, chest, and back then let me sleep for 15 minute intervals the entire night. It was as fun as it sounds. I still have the results.
Normal sleep latency at 7 minutes with normal sleep efficiency of 89.7%. Latency to REM sleep was mildly prolonged at 138 minutes. There were 11.7 arousals (WTF?) per hour, mostly associated with respiratory events (oh, okay). Baseline respiratory rate was 12 - 20 breaths per blah and REM sleep 10 - 18 in NREM sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea was blah blah blah index of 10.3. Events were relatively evenly distributed between REM and NREM sleep. blah, blah, blah between Supine and non blah position.
There's a pretty succinct website that gives the layman a good run-down of the symptoms. One that surprised me was the depression. It comes suddenly and with no explanation, even after particularly good days. Another is a kind of sensory overload. Those started in college (narcolepsy often presents symptoms late). Everything would be too loud and too bright, even my own thoughts. I'd lay on my bed as still as possible with my head beneath my pillow to muffle the world. Haven't had those in awhile.
Another symptom I didn't expect were the hallucinatory effects. I actually like those. I try to ride them like a wave; pen in hand, I wait for the swell. "America is drenched in its own sugary light. You're soaked in it. So, you may not realize we suffer from a kind of cultural diabetes. Which is why I think my tattoo confuses people." More on that later. But you get the point.
Why am I talking about this now? I think I am a writer. I write, therefore I think that "I" should come out from behind secrets. Or, at least make the attempt. Even in failing, the struggle is where the story is. Writers, who are artists, should try to see the world clearly, but through multiple lenses of experience, and be seen doing so. Telling your personal truth makes it easier to write universal truths; flames throwing shadows at the cave wall of beautiful and terrible things.