Monday, July 18, 2016

Flash Fiction Monday - The First Pitch


Good morning everyone! I missed flash fiction friday last week, so I'm giving it to you on a Monday. Once again, it's an image prompt from Bliss Morgan's "Prompts and Circumstance" project - this time without attribution because the source is unknown. So far as I can tell, nobody else has done anything with this prompt yet.


The First Pitch
by Leonard C Suskin

"Never swing at the first pitch."

That was the first  lesson your father drilled into us in little league. It's the lesson his father taught him, that his brothers taught your cousins. And your learned it.

After a time, you came to never swing at the first pitch.
Ever.

When you were very young, it was take a pitch or face the belt. After a while it wasn't even about the belt anymore. It was about how if you got a fat fastball down the middle of the plate and smoked it into the gap for a double you'd come back to the bench to see a stern frown. The next day, the crack of the bat would still be echoing in your hears,  your father would cooly say, "We need to work on plate discipline", and that was that. The joy

It was as if it didn't count, not to them. Not if you didn't follow "process".

There were other lessons, of course.

"Count your change twice."

"Always push for a better offer. Even if it means losing the deal."

"A steady job with a steady paycheck is better than chasing a dream."


It took you years to realize that all of the lessons were the same lesson.
That all that mattered is not to take the first pitch.

Years later you'd read about the new focus on statistics in baseball, as opposed to instinct. About the value of on-base percentage. On seeing more pitches. You'd realize your father was right.

Now that you have kids and a house and suburbia with a white picket fence it's time that you get to be a little league coach.

The first lesson you teach will be on plate discipline.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Flash Fiction Friday - Ambience

It's Flash Fiction Friday again. Today we start with an image prompt from photographer AlexStoddard, leading to a quick discussion of a pre-construction report.

I'll try to be better about posting flash fiction for those of you who like this sort of thing.

As is often the case, writing community-builder extraordinaire Bliss Morgan started the ball rolling on this. If anyone else takes on the same prompt, you can perhaps find links to their responses here.


"Ambience"
By Leonard C Suskin

I know not to clean it out too thoroughly. It's what sets me apart from the other guys.

Oh, I can clear'em all out. The full Murray we call it. In my experience that's best for office buildings. Especially government. You see, they want those places to feel a bit dead, and if we do the full Murray, that's what you get. As dead as the arctic. Soulless places, as if never inhabited before.

Well, there's two problems with that. First is that too empty the place feels dead. A place with no ghosts is to the soul what an anechoic chamber is to the ears. It feels empty and wrong. Ask your acoustic guy if you want no echo.

Second is if we leave the place too empty there's no telling what'll come in. I know it's an island, but I've seen leakage from the sea. Drowning victims are unsettling, nasty ghosts. Leave a wet, cold, scared feeling. You don't want to leave it too empty for a drowner to come in.

What're you building here anyway? Condos? It's usually condos. A hotel? Nice. Maybe I'll walk the room afterwards. Maybe.

Anyway, did you read the report? What we used to have here, obviously, is a sanitarium. Most of the people here were mentally ill. Violently so. The first section of the report list the poltergeists, your noisy spirits. Those we need to get rid of. They're the ones who'll bang around the pans in the kitchen and rattle the plumbing. Yeah, even if it is new. We'll clear all of them out. I promise.

Don't worry; we're doing them a favor. It's a kind of living death to be stuck here afterwards. I'm not a priest, but I always figured after we cut'em loose and get 'em out they'll go on to wherever they were supposed to go. Anyway, there's more.

The ones in the next section seem angry.  They won't manifest as loud as the poltergeists, but might give an overall sense of unease and a desire to be outside. We'll need to clear them out too.  Especially in a hotel. You don't want to push people to leave, right?

Then there's these last few. These are the ones I'd keep. They're mostly quiet, and felt as if they were waiting for something. That's why the ghosts linger sometimes. I know unfinished business is a cliché, but sometimes a soul can get so used to waiting for something that they keep right on doing it after they die. There's a woman here who gives that off especially strong. You can feel it when you walk through the shell of the old building, especially by where the windows used to be. There's longing, a feel of heaviness, but a faint whiff of hope. The sadness might be a little strong, but taking away the old walls will mute it. She'll still be there, but quieter. They'll still be that longing, and just enough melancholy will filter through to make the place feel tranquil, a bit introspective. People will like having been there and won't know why.

Anyway, that's the recommendation. You'll find it all in the report.

Like I said, it's easy enough to clean 'em all out. What we do is better. The ones that remain will be a part of what you build here, as much as the glass and stone and wood.


What we do is not just cleanup.

What we do is art.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Happy Fourth of July - On Love of Country and Redemption

What is patriotism?

This question came to mind after a Gallup poll, a new low of 52% of Americans are "extremely proud" to be American.  So what on this day, I ponder: what is patriotism? Should we be proud or extremely proud of where we live, or is that misplaced  pride in an accident of birth or the piece of land in which we live? Is it more?

Those who follow me on social media may have noticed a bit less of me over the past week. That's because it was, for the Suskin family, vacation week. Appropriately enough on the eve of Independence Day, we traveled south to Colonial Williamsburg and environs, where we spent several days immersed in a facsimile of eighteenth-century America on the eve of revolution. We also spent some days riding roller coasters and waterslides, but that's less germane to the discussion.



I'll start with a particular event we attended at Williamsburg. Between demonstrations of eighteenth century crafts, stirring political speeches and musket demonstrations there was a play in one of the outdoor theaters: Redemption and Remembrance, about both the lives of slaves and, afterward, a discussion of the experiences of reenactors portraying both the enslaved and slave owners.

The play was surprisingly powerful and well-done, interweaving the stories of several slaves, including a carpenter, a house slave, and a field-slave. There was one stunning moment of violence when one of the slaves was branded on the hand for being [falsely] accused of stealing a sheep, and of human emotion in which a childless slavewoman and her childless owner were physically held apart by the other actors, forbidden from finding comfort in their shared experiences by the places in which society had put each of them. Other characters included a schoolteacher who educated young slaves in an attempt to Christianize them. A wealthy man, proud to have inherited several slaves from his parents and their parents.

After telling their characters' stories, the actors stepped out of character to talk about their experiences playing these roles for visitors, day after day. One of the things about which I'd never thought was the hatred the guests would sometimes feel toward them. The actor who played a wealthy woman - a character in which she very much immersed herself - described the changing attitude in those following a tour she gave of "her" house when the inevitable question about slave ownership was asked - and she responded that she did own slaves and that it was the natural order of things that she do so. Another spoke of feeling a wall of hatred as he answered a question about slavery in character. He was initially hurt by this, as anyone would be, but later realized that people SHOULD hate him for it, that giving face to the villain is important work.

But it isn't really about the white people.

One of the African-American reenactors recounted a story of a guest seeing him in character and, in what was meant to be a sick, nasty joke, asking "Isn't there someplace you're supposed to be, boy?" Shocked, he had to ask the guest to repeat himself to know that he even heard it correctly. His response, "In what realm is that supposed to be funny?" elicited a muttered apology, the offending guest not meeting the reenactor's eyes. Was this just a poor attempt to be funny? A "safe" chance to voice the racist impulses he already felt? Complete ignorance to the history about which he was speaking? In any event, it was an ugly and painful thing. Afterwards, I reflected that it must be fun for a reenactor to play the role of an eighteenth-century blacksmith, or carpenter, or even a weaver. It must be fun to portray an eighteenth-century politician.  It cannot be fun to spend ones days pretending to be a slave.

Afterwards, the audience broke into groups for a question and answer with the reenactors about the play, about the topic, and to share our thoughts about it. I ended up the "scribe" for our breakout group, taking some notes on a a wide-ranging discussion from the actual performance to how the world - even if it has changed - can still be an ugly and hateful place. We also discussed horrors more subtle and nuanced than the obvious cruelty of a slave owner or even the knuckle-dragging troglodyte with the "where are you supposed to be, boy" crack. The schoolteacher, for all of her piety and supposed kindness, wanting nothing better than to make them become more like us. After the group discussions, the scribes from the various breakout sessions took the mic and addressed the larger group, I appreciated the chance to share a few words on what we'd discussed, particularly about that schoolteacher, and how the bigger horrors of the past can leave us feeling smug about the progress we've made, while not seeing the distance we have yet to go.

The First Colonists en route here
At the very opening they placed, in a heavy-handed but effective bit of symbolism, a rope was stretched across the front of the stage, standing for the lines we have to cross to move toward an uncertain future beyond the prejudices of the current day. At the close of the performance, the actors stepped symbolically [and literally] across the line together. After the discussion, they invited the remaining audience to join them on stage, and take the step with them together, into the future. After the group discussion, the audience was invited on stage to take the same step together, hand-in-hand. Friends, family, and strangers.

Earlier, I spoke of patriotism, about pride in our country. and what it means. This country is the place where Thomas Jefferson wrote stirring words about freedom and independence. It's also the country that maintained the practice of slavery well into the nineteenth century, and Jim Crow laws for a century after that. It's the country which took until this century to elect an African American president and has STILL never elected a woman as president.

It's also a country with many people who WANT to be better. The country of Martin Luther King. The country that, even if it took far too long, DID elect an African American to be president, and is [I sincerely hope] on the cusp of electing a woman. It's home.

Is patriotism telling a pollster one is "extremely proud" of the place in which one lives. Perhaps for some. For me, it's about caring enough about the place to try to make it better.

It's about joining hands with strangers and family to cross the line together, towards an uncertain future.

Happy Fourth, friends.


Wednesday, June 22, 2016

On Fallen Heroes - Thoughts on Reyes and Wright

I've talked here about Matt Harvey, about the act of watching baseball, and how the game is, in many ways, not merely a story but a part of our uniquely American mythology. In Babe Ruth and Ted Williams and Ty Cobb we have organically grown what L. Frank Baum tried to deliberately create - a uniquely American set of folk stories. Total we'll talk about the left side of the Mets infield, and the fall of two of New York's heroes. Will either have a final act, and what will that act entail? That we don't know yet.

Wright and Reyes. Reyes and Wright. Two young Mets going the team in the early 2000s, full of promise. Reyes was always the spark. Ebullient, enthusiastic, joyous. He ran like the wind, once completing an inside-the-park home run in just over 14 seconds. Reyes of the elaborate post-home-run handshakes, he of the "Learn Spanish with Professor Reyes" vignettes on the big scoreboard. He was youth, he was fun, he was life.

Then Wright. Where Reyes was all twitch and speed and flair, Wright was all business, class, quiet confidence. A smooth swing, an easy smile, a quiet demeanor. He's the closest the Mets had to what the Yankees had all those years in Derek Jeter; a comforting, steady presence both in the line-up and in the clubhouse. He was front and center with a grin after a big win, and front and center again to say the hard things after a loss.

Wright and Reyes. Reyes and Wright. In 2006, as young men, they'd lead the team deep into the post-season, coming one game - one out - even one PITCH from an appearance in a World Series which the Saint Louis Cardinals would eventually win.

Two Thousand six was a long time ago. It felt like the beginning of something grand, although we now know that it wasn't. The years which followed were full of disappointments, struggles. Through it all, Wright and Reyes, Reyes and Wright, until that fateful day after the 2011 season in which Reyes was seduced by riches (and, in fairness, was outside the Mets budget) and took his talents to Miami.

Reyes wandered the wilderness, trading from Miami to distant Toronto after just one season and, when Toronto was finally poised to achieve success, traded again to Colorado.

Wright stayed, remained the one link to 2006, started to grow old before his time, still a Met for his playing life, however long that may be.

Wright and Reyes, Reyes and Wright. Now both at a crossroads, Each fallen in his own way. Wright, laid low by a failing body as he was diagnosed first with spinal stenosis, and now with a herniated disc in his neck. He'll get surgery and may or may not someday return to the field. If he does, it will be as a diminished athlete weakened by the ravages of time - as we all are.

(As an aside, this is my issue with another American mythology: superheroes, especially as portrayed in cinema; we get the beginning of the story, but too rarely the end. Peter Park is always a young man. Bruce Wayne is always donning the cowl for the first time after his parents' murder. Before they can age, mature, move to a different part of their story -- the universe resets and Parker is again bitten by a radioactive spider, Wayne again orphaned. We tell half-stories, never getting to the point in which Sherlock Holmes meets his nemesis at the Reichenbach Falls, or Ajax falling onto his sword after realizing that his time has past. We don't even get Kirk at Veridian III. I'll speak more on that in another post, but I wish we would learn to tell full stories)

Reyes' story could have been a classic - heroic figure leaves, wanders the figurative desert for a time, returns triumphantly. His fall, however, was of a different kind in that he spent fully the first third of this season suspended from baseball under MLB's new domestic violence policy after throwing his wife into a glass door while vacationing in Hawaii. He's since lost his starting job to a young rookie and been essentially cut by the team, who will pay him the remaining nearly forty-million dollars owed on his contract for the service of going away and never being seen there again.

After Reyes' domestic violence incident, the story changes. Now the story becomes not only about a hero whose fall is a moral issue, but it becomes part of a larger societal story about abuse of women in the world of athletics and the lack of repercussions. It's a story that includes Ray Rice initially suspended only two games after hitting his wife. Brock Turner given a minimal sentence after raping an unconscious woman. Aroldis Chapman pitching for the Yankees after firing a gun during a domestic dispute with his wife. Santonio Holmes returning to the gridiron after beating his wife. It's Fransisco Rodriguez continuing to close baseball games after domestic violence, including assaulting his then-girlfriend's father at an actual ball game. 

The story or Reyes can become part of another myth - the myth of professional athletics and the import of success on the field. The story that the safety and health of the women surrounding athletes are less important than success on the field. A story we tell every time Chapman dons the Yankee pinstripes and which Reyes would tell if again wore the orange and blue. This is why - after years of missing his on-field ebullience - I'd be furious to see Reyes again don a Mets uniform.

Is what he did forgivable, and can he have a path to redemption? Perhaps. That forgiveness cannot takes place on the baseball diamond, lest we reinforce the message that women are less important than sport. That we cannot do.

And of Wright's future? He's in pain. He's played in pain all year, and all year last year. IT takes hours for him to prep his injured back before each game. Later? After neck surgery? Perhaps he'll be able to come back and the story will be that of overcoming hardship. Perhaps not and the story will be about how time finally defeated him. As it does everyone. 

Wright and Reyes. Reyes and Wright. Two stars, beloved by Mets fans from their youngest days. Neither on the field at present. Wright's story is in its last pages. Reyes' - at least for me - is over. I won't watch him again, won't cheer for him again. 

One may never play again due to age and injury. One should never play again for the message his return would send.

 It's not the way any of us wanted or expected either story to end. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

Book Review - The Fireman, by Joe Hill

Had anyone else written The Fireman, I'd be tempted to compare it to Stephen King. We have an implausible global disaster treated as if real, tight focus on a decent and resourceful group of survivors, even a New England setting. It's a comparison I fought against making because it isn't, in the end, fair. King is King and Hill is Hill, as obvious as it is that the former influenced the latter in as many ways as possible. For the nonce, let's set comparisons aside and talk about the novel itself. Expect minor spoilers herein, but not too much to preclude your enjoyment of the book when you choose to read it (and you should. Trust me on this).

The disaster in The Fireman comes in the shape of a mysterious disease called "Dragonscale". It manifests itself in patters of black markings on a victim's skin and is perfectly harmless - with the exception of causing those infected to literally burst into flame. Our first brush with the disease comes through the eyes of Harper Grayson, a Disney-quoting elementary school nurse. Some of my favorite parts of the early chapters deal with the relationship between Harper and her husband, Jakob. Jakob is smart. He's intellectual. He's charming. His talents range from the ability to ride a unicycle to being really good at sex.  However, the more we see of him the more we see an underlying self-centered-ness, a pettiness, a nastiness. When the school in which Harper works closes indefinitely due to the 'scale crisis and Harper is pressed into service at a hospital, it becomes clear that Jakon sees her patients with a pitying disdain rather than compassion. I wish we'd lingered a bit more on the positive side of the marriage before learning that it was a false-front, but learn we do and in a shocking and impactful way. Jakob can be read as every man with a feeling of entitlement, not as much intellect as he thinks he has, and a bitter disappointment with his lot in life. As civilization falls, so too does the veneer of civility Jakob has built around his rotten inner core. The horror in reading this book is not the image of a person bursting into flame: it's that we all know too many Jakobs, and that Hill is showing us what they are like inside.

One of my favorite kinds of moments in any fantastic novel is the moment in which what you think you knew proves to be wrong. We soon meet John Rockwood, the titular Fireman, a conflicted hero with a tragic past and a maddening tendency to set himself apart and attempt to be mysterious.   Rockwood has found a way to control the dragonscale, not only avoiding self-immolation but even gaining control over fire itself, using it as a weapon or a tool. The entire middle third of the book takes place in a sort of hidden commune in which a small but growing infected population hides from the roving quarantine patrols who seek to eradicate the disease at gunpoint. It's little surprise to see Jakob reemerge with one of them.

I'll make a note here on language: Hill does a terrific job working ways of referring to the new infestation into the book's dialog. The quarantine patrols sometimes call themselves (and are called) cremation crews, and refer to the infected as "burners". A bargain-basement talk-radio host gives himself the moniker "Marlborough Man" because he's smoked so many burners. These are lovely touches which add to the feeling of immersion.

We also had an odd, seemingly out of left field reference to Martha Quinn,  rumored to be a leaderof a safe space for the infected. Martha Quinn became an unlikely symbol through much of the book, and a source of hope. As a child of the 1980s, I found the inclusion of a literal voice from our collective past to be a tiny delight.

Anyway, the book is about how people deal with the crisis rather than the crisis itself. We have the Camp Wyndham community dealing with the threat of cremation squads. The uninfected dealing with the fear of infection. Everyone fearing fire. There are breakdowns in social order and, while there are villains, it isn't the villains which most interested - or most chilled me. It was the all-too-real way seemingly decent and reasonable people would follow them, and how quickly a community can slide from communal love to communal hatred. The book is at its best at those points. I do wish, as I said, that we'd had a tiny bit  more of Jakob toward the beginning and, to be honest, a tiny bit less toward the end. His constant reappearance made absolute thematic sense, but ultimately veered into horror-fiction cliche territory.

And there's one moment in which we see a communal act of kindness toward those infected, only to see it subverted into something else. THis is a part about which I thought for a long time. Did the people know the real result of their charity? Were they deliberately fooling themselves? Did they fail morally in giving from a distance, and not following up? Or were they simply doing the best they thought they could? It was a nice, poignant, and ambiguous moment.

Comparison time again:  I've stated in the past that I see an unsavory message in the works of HP Lovecraft in that his central theme - fear of the other - is a mirror of and metaphor for his racism. In one discussion on the topic, someone asked me if that is part and parcel of horror fiction in general. Clearly in my mind - and I suspect in Hill's - it is not. The horror in The Fireman was not the Dragonscale, was not even the fear of self-immolation. It was the moment that a seemingly loving husband showed us the monster within. It's the moment that a community of survivors let fear and anger twisted it into something ugly.


Horror isn't fear of the other; it's fear of ourselves, and what can let ourselves become in moments of fear as we fight for our own protection.

This book is horror. And it's good horror. I strongly recommend that you go read it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Achilles and Icarus - Matt Harvey and Why We Watch Baseball

Last night Mets pitcher Matt Harvey had another disasterous start in what has, thus far, been a nightmare season for him. As much as it pains me to see him struggling, I do have to take a half-step back and remember that this is why we watch sports - this is, as frustrating as it is, sports fandom at its best. Why? Because the Matt Harvey saga is, at its heart, a classic story. He is the best kind of hero - one whose strengths and flaws mirror the city in which he lives and the fans who wish to love him. He has been at times beloved and maddening, a hero and an anti-hero. Perhaps even, for a moment, the villain. He is why we watch sports.

How it Began

In 2013, a twenty-four year old Matthew Edward Harvey was the undeniable star of a struggling New York Mets pitching staff. After the departure of fan-favorite RA Dickey, it was pretty easy to stand out in the remaining crowd, and stand out Harvey did. Fans greeted each of his starts as "Harvey Day" as he collected strikeouts, earned an all-star game appearance, and took his place in the pantheon of great Mets pitchers. He was a relection of our city - brash and proud, but able to back it up. He felt bigger than the team. He enjoyed the nightlife. He talked himself up on Twitter. He posed nude in GQ. In a near-anonymous starting rotation, he was a rising superstar, replacing the quirkier and more intellectual Dickey. 

Then, as the 2013 season ended, he suffered an elbow injury which would keep him out of baseball for a full year recovering from Tommy John surgery.

A Triumphant Return, and a Plot Twist
After a year away, he returned and returned strong, though sometime wasn't quite the same. Young fireballer Noah Syndergaard joined the team, and "Happy Harvey Day" gave way to "Happy Thorsday" (for his resemblance to the comic-book version of the Norse thundergod). Still, he pitched magnificently, helping carry the team to a national league penant, with sudden hope for a championship. That is where the story gets interesting. This is why we watch. 

In the final weeks of the season Harvey, through his agent Scott Boras, expressed concern about the number of innings he was pitching. Nobody had ever thrown so many the year after surgery, and Boras expressed concern for his client's long-term health. The playoffs beckoned, with what felt like the first real chance at a championship the team had seen in nearly a decade. Here was Harvey, the returning hero, threatening to withdraw to his tent, leaving his comrades in arms overmatched for the battle ahead. It was a moment which crystallized the changes which had been brewing all year: the contrast between the brash, loud, prideful Harvey and the more humble, "aw shucks" Texas kid with the overpowering fastball. We still loved Harvey, but he wasn't the only story.


A Storybook Moment 
After weeks of debate, Harvey's pride won out. He took the ball every fifth day, through the end of the season and into the playoffs, right up until a perfect storybook moment: with the Mets down three games to one in the best of seven series, Harvey was pitching to keep the season and the Mets increasingly slim hopes alive. He did his job, pitching eight shutout innings, preserving a slim lead which Mets manager Terry Collins could then hand to ace reliever Jeurys Familia. This is another moment in which we see pride - his tragic flaw - at work. Harvey demanded that he be given the ball to start the ninth inning. It was, after all, the perfect ending - after injury and absence, anger and controversy the returning hero was on the field of play. It was as a scene from a movie, but better than a movie. It was real. 

The crowd was chanting his name.
The manager handed him the ball for one final inning. 
He was determined.
He was strong.
He was Matt Harvey. 

And he failed, allowing two baserunners who would eventually score, sending the trophy to Kansas City, and sending the Mets home. Defeated.


Onward to today
It's a new year, and something in Harvey seems broken. He's been unable to pitch past the fifth inning, losing control and losing command. There were rumors and whispers that after his LAST bad start he was given the option to skip his next turn. To work on fixing what was wrong. To get stronger. To rest his arm. 

Harvey's fatal flaw is still hubris; nobody who has paid any attention would expect him to willingly skip a start. So he took the ball, against the Washington team who had humiliated him just a week prior.
And he lost.

Again.

This is where the story stands. Harvey is, as I said, like the city in which he lives. Strong, brash, proud, and flawed. He's perhaps reached a crossroad at which he will confront his demons, face whatever weakness has sapped his strength, and return better than ever.

Or not. 

Why do I watch sports? THIS is why I watch sports. For the story, and because I don't know what the next act will bring. Is it the tale of the brash young hero who overcomes his darkest moment, to arise phoenix-like and again become the hero we expect Matt Harvey to be? Or will he be a modern Icarus, who for one glorious moment soared overhead, almost reaching the sun itself before falling to earth, never to fly again?

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Notes from a reading: An Evening at the Brooklyn Museum

Yesterday the Brooklyn Museum (in Brooklyn New York, of course) kicked off May with their "first Saturday" program, in which the museum features free readings, entertainment, cultural programs, and even museum admission. This also happened to be a Saturday when I was already to be in Brooklyn for my niece's fourth birthday party (at a wonderful old carousel in Prospect Park, giving me an easy opportunity to wander to the museum for the one free event which caught my eye: a reading and discussion with Nnedi Okorofor, N.K. Jemisin, and Ibi Ozoi. This event consisted of brief readings followed by a panel discussion and Q&A. Members of the Brooklyn-based multi-media arts collective BKLN ZULU shared the stage with the writers, proving background music and video for the reading portion.

Nnedi Okorofor
I've mentioned Okorofor earlier on these pages for her younger readers' fiction. She's also written some very smart and very different adult SF novels, including the "aliens invade Nigeria" novel Lagoon from which she read yesterday evening. Her work is hard to classify, straddling the lines between science fiction, fantasy, and "Afro-futurism" (more on that label later). I honestly found the inclusion of the supernatural in what was otherwise a science fiction novel to be jarring at first, but fiction SHOULD be jarring. If it isn't, then it's likely not that interesting, or at least not taking any chances or risks. In the following conversation, Okorofor called out the sharp division between fiction dealing with the supernatural and fiction which is strictly "realistic" to be a peculiarly Western phenomenon, while other cultures have more comfort weaving the mystical and the mundane. The chapters she read involved an encounter between an internet scammer and Ijele, a supernatural  Igboo entity called a Masquerade, reminiscent of street performances but, in this context, all too real. Okorofor had quite a commanding reading presence, and the multimedia dovetailed very well with her work, abstract colors interspersed with the computer-generated text of classic email scams.


N.K. Jemisin
Next to read was N.K. Jemisin, who did not read from her ongoing Broken Earth series of novels because she thought - perhaps rightly - that secondary-world fantasy is tough to introduce in this format. Instead she went to an older work, a piece she wrote for a lesbian steampunk anthology. Hers was the most playful of the three, dealing with the perfectly absurd (yet undeniably fun) assumptions made in Steampunk settings. Eschewing the more traditionally Steampunk Victorian England or American West, Jemisin proposed a world in which Haiti grew to superpower status following a successful slave revolt, defending itself with rum-fueled Dirigibles. Yes, it's insane on its face, but no more so than any other Steampunk futures. Her  reading was the most playful, but there was an edge behind it in the wish-fulfilment of an oppressed people fighting to keep their freedom - and a character recounting the horrors of how slaves were tortured following an earlier, failed revolt. It toed the line between "fun" and "serious wonderfully. Sadly, Jemisin is getting over a bit of a bronchial infection, interrupting an otherwise wonderful reading with periodic coughing. Like the other two women, she commanded a strong presence on the stage. She's quite active and vocal on Twitter (about writing and about politics), but uses the image of a housecat as her avatar, so I've never had a mental image of her. I can report that in person she does not look like a housecat.

Ibi Zoboi
The final reading was Ibi Zoboi, the only one of the three writers I didn't already know. The work from which she read is YA novel taking place in Detroit and featuring a young Hatian protagonist in an encounter with Legba, a mystical person who, like the devil, stands at crossroads and has presence in this life and the next (part of me wonders if the image of the devil at a crossroad is borrowed from this tradition, if they developed independently in parallel, or if the Haitians borrowed from Christians. Either way, the two images are similar, but different). She did a lovely job with the voices of her different characters, and again was supported by multimedia. I found it interesting that Zoboi and Okorofor used similar elements to very different effect - Okorofor's Ijele was powerful, alien (not in the literal "from space" sense, but in the "not like us" sense) and unknowable. Papa Legba, on the other hand, walked in the guise of a homeless man, answered questions, and sang cryptic little riddle-songs which I'm sure will serve to answer challenges her protagonist will have in her journey.

Following the reading was a discussion on writing, on the place these writers hold as African-American women in the SF world and publishing at large, and a bit on classification. Okorofor gave the most personal about herself, opening the discussion with a digression to recount masquerades in Nigeria where, as an American-ibo  visitor, she was often a target of the masked figures chasing kids through the streets. She pointed at one of the members of BKLN ZULU (the one in the grass-looking outfit) and said that the one she remembers looked just like him! There was also a personally (to me) shocking moment when she recounted the beginning of her life as a writer as needing the activity to keep herself sane after being (temporarily) paralyzed following spinal surgery to correct severe scoliosis. Those of you who've followed me know our recent history with that issue; while our experience wasn't hers and I don't know first-hand what it is like to live with back pain and surgery, I DO know something from seeing it up close. It gave me the absolute deepest sympathy for Okorofor and left me thankful that she was able to channel that difficult experience into a flourishing career as a successful and acclaimed writer. Jemisin told of being sent off on "adventures" when she was a child, with a subway token, a few dollars, and a destination. Later, in the Q&A section, she discussed "living a life" as the one thing writers don't discuss enough. She thinks "write what you know" is poor advice, especially for a fantasist writing about a world in which there are people who can control earthquakes. Her advice is to live, experience, and learn what you want to write about. Unlike Okorofor, she's always seen herself as a writer, binding little books with cardboard and yarn as a grade-school student.

In another note from the discussion, the panelists didn't much care for the term "Afro-futurist". Jemisin isn't that interested in labels overall, and wants people to read her work regardless of what it's called (and would write whether or not anyone read her). For one thing, it's a term which predates "Afro-futurist" literature, originally applied to a musical genre. For another thing, it's seen by some as an American term, marginalizing actual African artists. I'm in agreement with Jemisin on this, in that I'm not a huge fan of genre labels. I'm an unapologetic fantasy and SF fan, but I'm fine getting literature in my SF and SF in my literature. That Okorofor mixes fantasy elements in her SF and that Jemisin's work has fantasy elements but can be read as SF are not only fine with me, but really positive developments. We should think about how fiction makes us think and how it makes us feel rather than squabble over which box into which it should be put.

Finally, there was a Q&A. I'd like to speak to my fellow audience members for a moment. First, "I have a comment...." isnt' a question. It's a comment. I showed up to listen to the panelists, not random audience members. Second, "I have three questions...." is not a question. It's three questions. If there's a line of six people at each of two microphones then you're not doing anyone any justice by asking three questions at once. Finally, I know that the panelists were African American SF writers. I know that Octavia Butler and Sam Delaney are African American SF writers. That doesn't mean you have to ask about them! It strikes me as slightly reductive to bring in Butler every time there's a discussion of African American women in SF. (That said, all three writers had interesting answers regarding Butler, so what do I know? I was especially intrigued by Zoboi admitting her disappointment on finding that the Butler  was not as  "black liberation" focused as she expected her to be. I still think it was a silly question).



Quibbles about the Q&A aside, it was a wonderful evening and a great chance to hear from some of the most interesting writers in SF today and, as an added bonus, have a few free moments to tour the museum. I've not talked about "diversity" in this piece, but it IS noteworthy that these are not only three African-American women, but that two of them are among my favorite writers. Without taking some effort to do otherwise, many of us only read those who echo our experiences, who fit what we expect, who feel easily relatable. This is a disservice to ourselves more than to the community at large, and a trap into which I've fallen at some points in my life. The point isn't that you should read these women because they're African-American women; it's that you should read a broad section of everything available to broaden your context and your experiences. To be a complete person, we need to experience more than one kind of book, more than one kind of thinking, more than one culture. 

As I said, this was a wonderful and special evening. Hats off the the Brooklyn Museum for hosting this event and to Okorofor, Jemisin, and Zoboi for their participation.