Karen Burnham reviews Kiini Ibura Salaam

In her introduction to Kiini Ibura Salaam’s debut collection, Ancient, Ancient, Nisi Shawl mentions her response to a question about the effect of the Afro-diaspora on genre literature: ‘‘Everything is going to get a lot sexier.’’ The very first story in this collection, ‘‘Desire’’, proves that right out of the gate. A delightful folkloric tale, it tells of a pregnant woman, who normally thinks more about work than about sex, being infused with the power of a god’s desire. The story is told in alternating sections, with Sené’s sections in normal text and the god Faru’s sections set off in brackets. There’s a lovely sense of two independent tales colliding suddenly then veering off again, leaving each confused in the other’s wake. Sené reconnects with herself and her husband, and Faru ends up restored but slightly humbler. It’s a real charmer of a story to open the collection.

The most interesting thing, however, is how different all the stories are from one another. Salaam moves easily between genres, themes, and voices. Her stories work in a variety of different registers. Immediately following the opening fable, there are three linked stories (‘‘Of Wings, Nectar, & Ancestors’’, ‘‘MalKai’s Last Seduction’’, and ‘‘At Life’s Limits’’) that take a science fictional tone. Aliens come to Earth in secret to feed off the life energies of certain targets. In the first story, WaLiLa is a fairly young alien on her mission, and her point of view is represented in all lower-case. She doesn’t speak grammatically, and acts intuitively. In the final story she is more aware and accomplished, and her narrative takes on a more authoritative tone, with proper capitalization to boot. And while I started to worry for a bit that the stories were privileging heterosexual relationships over other possibilities, ‘‘MalKai’s Last Seduction’’ allayed my fears.

One of the only problems that I have with the collection is manifested in ‘‘At Life’s Limits’’, the final story in that loose trilogy. It feels more like the beginning of a longer story than the end of a cycle, opening out into a new realm of potential without exploring the new territory. A few other stories here struck me as story fragments rather than fully fleshed-out tales, including the title story ‘‘Ancient, Ancient’’ and ‘‘Ferret’’, both less than six pages long. Looking at the publication history, these are also two of the earliest stories in the volume, appearing in 2002 and 2003 respectively, while the stories here run from 1996 to 2008 of the ones that aren’t original to the collection (ten of the 13 stories have been published elsewhere).

In keeping with Shawl’s pronouncement about things getting sexier, Salaam also tends toward a very visceral mode of writing, and when her stories turn towards horror they get very nightmarish. ‘‘Battle Royale’’ is a story that skips across different scenarios as a grandfather tries to teach a wayward grandson a lesson. In each vignette you get a very tactile sense of the feelings and landscapes, whether it is Aztec vs. European combat, dying of exposure in a desert, or hanging on as a mutant on a far future space transport. The blend of fantasy, history, and SF is very well done.

Another story, while more conventional in genre, stood out to me as the best of the collection. ‘‘Rosamojo’’ is a story about incest and child abuse, from the point-of-view of the victim. She is abused by her father but calls upon magical protection in order to prevent a repeat occurrence. However, though empowered by her magic, she is in no way unscarred by the experience, and the consequences last a very long time. It’s one of the most focused stories of the collection, and I found it to be an excellent examination of several dimensions of abuse.

Overall I was impressed by the range and command of voice shown throughout the stories here. Whether tackling far-future SF, generation starships, oracular magical women, child abuse, or hidden aliens, the voice of the narration and the characters always seemed spot on. The stories also hit me on an emotional and visceral level. If some of the stories seemed incomplete or fragments of a larger story, that’s easy to forgive. It’s better to wish that a story was longer than to think that it has overstayed its welcome.

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