Words for Thought #107 min read

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Welcome to March’s Words for Thoughts. This month’s stories are apt for the current political climate, portraying tension between the self and the other, suspicion, distrust, but also healing and hope.

Black Like Them by Troy L. Wiggins, published in Issue 39 of Fireside Fiction, is told as a series of interviews centering on a woman named Fallan Pierce who bankrolled the creation of a ‘Dolezal Drug’ that makes people appear black. The drug is meant to be temporary, but in some rare cases it turns out to be permanent, including in the case of a senator’s son, sparking protests, lawsuits, and sending Fallan into hiding in a compound protected by guards and an army of lawyers.

My son went into the offices of Fallan Pierce and company as Huffington Spence-Shilling the third, and came out as D-Money Brown because of some strange juju that Pierce somehow slid past the review boards of the FDA, the Health Department, and the Department of Agriculture!

Wiggins gives voice to Fallan herself, her R&D team, the senator, his son, and others connected to or affected by the drug. The variety of voices paint a picture of the racism underlying everyday life in America from multiple angles. Contempt drips from the senator’s voice in the quote above, and elsewhere in the story, Pierce’s assistant rightly points out the hypocrisy among the media that “never have a fuck to give about broke-ass, fat-ass, black-ass girls any other timeuntil they want something from them. Wiggins tackles the complexity of race and privilege, and the idea of blackness as a costume and a commodity, holding up a mirror to the reality of our world where privileged white people will happily consume black culture, while remaining protected by their white skin. The story also touches on the idea of blackface, and  as hinted at in the nickname of the ‘Dolezal Drug’, explores race as something that is more than skin deep. Huffington Spence-Shilling the third – a name rife with privilege – wants to explore blackness as a fun weekend activity. He dips his toe into the shallow end of the pool, living out a fantasy lifestyle straight out of a music video, going to clubs, and hooking up with a different woman every night. When he learns he can’t change back, he has to face the reality of living in a black body that is subject to violence, suspicion, and devalued by society. At the same time, he’s called white boy by many members of the black community who know he clearly doesn’t belong. “Black Like Them” is a complex story, one well-served by the stripped-back interview style that uses a neutral standpoint to look at complicated and painful issues through multiple lenses.

For the Best by Alexia Tolas published in Black Girl Magic Lit Magazine issue 5 offers another take on racial identity mirroring our current political climate. The story opens with Dr. Fotoula Galanis taking her grandmother for genetic testing in preparation for moving back to the Bahamas. New laws require people living in Great Britain to be at least 80% Caucasian, with everyone who doesn’t fit that profile being sent “back where they came from.” Rather than being upset, Toula looks forward to leaving as she no longer feels safe in Great Britain. However the simple DNA test quickly becomes complicated. Toula designed the mecha clerks who work at the testing center (think DMV); she’s considered a celebrity among them, and they jump her to the head of the line. After that initial awkwardness, even though her results come back well under the threshold of “acceptably Caucasian”, a doctor offers her a job along with a false certificate saying she meets the criteria. Toula is enraged, but when she refuses the offer, the doctor threatens her grandmother, saying she won’t be safe in the Bahamas because of her fraction of Caucasian blood, her too-straight hair, and her green eyes.

Tolas presents a scenario that feels all too plausible between Brexit and the threatened Muslim ban in the US. The story also tackles the idea of being “the right kind” of minority, one who is useful to white people, similar to the way Wiggins’ story deals with “acceptable black culture” that is palatable for mass consumption. It’s a painful story, full of justified anger, but it’s not simplistic. Toula has reason to feel complicit, or at least conflicted, having designed the mecha clerks. While it’s clear she doesn’t agree with the laws and wants to wash her hands of everything, does she bear any responsibility? She is portrayed as a woman who did her job and did it well and takes pride in her engineering prowess. There may be an element of willful blindness, not seeing the potential human consequences by being lost in the excitement of tech advances. At the same time, as a woman of color in a STEM field, not claiming her accomplishments or using her gifts in the first place comes with its own set of problems.

Tolas gives us engaging characters who feel real and true to themselves. There is both a sense of pragmatism and naiveté about Toula and her grandmother. They understand the ways of the world, but also don’t want to believe it will impact them and their family. Mama in particular remembers a better time when people fought for love and acceptance and the world was making progress toward a better future, which makes her role in the story even more heartbreaking.

The Wretched and the Beautiful by E. Lily Yu, published in February’s Terraform, comes at the theme of suspicion through the lens of an extra-terrestrial encounter. An alien ship crash lands on a beach in a resort town. Humanity’s first response is violence, shots fired and weapons drawn, until they hear hammering from inside the ship and surmise the aliens may be trapped. The ship is cut open and the aliens emerge, crab-like, bedraggled, some with children, asking for refuge. Everyone wants the aliens to be someone else’s problem. They just want to enjoy their vacations and not have anything taken away from them personally even if it means helping those in need.

Most of us averted our eyes from that picture of unmitigated misery and admired instead the gemlike sky, the seabirds squalling over the creamy surf, the parasols propped like mushrooms along the shore. One or two of us edged close to the wreck and dropped small somethings—a beach towel, a bucket hat, a bag of chips, a half-full margarita in its salted glass—then scuttled away. This was no longer our problem; it belonged to our governors, our senators, our heads of state. Surely they and their moneyed friends would assist these wretched creatures.

Everyone is relieved when beautiful, palatable aliens show up claiming the first aliens are war criminals; they will take them off humanity’s hands. Only one woman speaks up, and she is shouted down. Everyone else is willing to look the other way as long as the aliens aren’t their problem anymore.

Like Tolas’ story, there is an element of the “right” kind of alien/refugee, ones who look like us, speak like us, who aren’t “too foreign” or “too strange.” Yu gives the piece extra power by using the collective we. This simultaneously implicates all of humanity in the crime of looking the other way while absolving them of guilt. No one person is responsible for the aliens’ ultimate fate, but we all are.

How Bees Fly by Simone Heller from February’s Clarkesworld shares many similarities with Yu’s story, using the meeting and tension between alien species to explore themes of prejudice and fear. It makes a particularly effective companion piece to Yu’s story in that it is told from the perspective of the alien-to-us species, making good use of the “the real aliens/monsters are the humans” trope in the process.

The protagonist, Salpe, is a midwife who also cares for her society’s bees. The environment is a harsh one, prone to poisonous chemstorms which force people to shelter for days. There’s a post apocalyptic feel to the world, with people living with tech they don’t fully understand. People also live in fear of “demons” who can poison and kill with a touch or a look, or so the stories say. While preparing for a storm, Salpe encounters two such demons. When she realizes one is pregnant, she chooses not to kill them, but does report them. She is exiled for her trouble, considered tainted, and must face the storm alone. Weakened and wounded, she’s rescued by the same demons. At first she retains her mistrust, but it’s slowly worn away and finally broken  in a particularly lovely sequence where they discover common ground through music.

It was impossible. Of all things, demons were not supposed to dance. They were not supposed to be harbingers of joy. And yet that was what I saw: Their movement was slow and solemn, no ritual at all, but pure affection and delight. I could see it in the way their faces relaxed, the way their bodies melted into each other. For that short moment, they were one with the music, one with one another.

Salpe helps delivers the demon’s child, and in turn they help her understand the technology of the bees, solar-powered creatures whose “juice” powers other devices. While the world is bleak, this is a story about taking the first step, forging an alliance out of necessity, which may hopefully lead to greater understanding in the future. In the end, hope is what carries people through trying times, believing in a better world for the next generation even as the current one struggles.

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