The stories featured in Kiini Ibura Salaam’s collection When the World Wounds encompass a variety of styles and approaches to the fantastic and the speculative. Some explore familiar settings and relationships, while one opts for one of the most challenging feats in science fiction: accurately conveying a set of alien perceptions in terms that come off as both lucid and not overly expository.
At times, the tendency of this collection to move from milieu to milieu means that the full scope of Salaam’s work is somewhat obscured; after finishing it, though, the full breadth of Salaam’s range becomes clear. This is a collection in which the most challenging of subjects are taken up, handled deftly, and turned into the stuff of compelling drama.
In “The Pull of the Wing,” Salaam tells the story of a group of young, insect-like alien beings who go in search of knowledge hidden from them by their elders. Over the course of the story, Salaam convincingly describes altered perceptions, including references to “feeling hands” and “the lenses in the back of her head,” which go a long way towards making the characters here feel like honest-to-goodness aliens as opposed to humans with a few different appendages. She’s tapping into plots both familiar–youthful rebellion against seemingly arbitrary social conventions–and less so. Specifically, there’s the life cycle of the species described here, which includes a number of metamorphoses over the course of their lives. It’s a welcome and unsettling description of something both familiar and strange–two poles between which Salaam navigates over the course of this book.
Several of the collection’s other stories juxtapose the supernatural with familiar history. “Because of the Bone Man,” the book’s longest single story, involves a tour of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. There, personifications of the city’s neighborhoods and traditions converse and conflict, leading to some incredibly vivid and haunting imagery.
Along with her hushed wailing, a mist began to emanate from the girl. The man scooted backward, watching the mist seep from beneath the bowl of the mask and crawl over the child’s skin. He was wary as the mist covered the platform until he could no longer see her.
Here, past and present blur, as do the lines between life and death. When the title character is asked about his nature–if he’s human or a ghost–his reply is telling: “Can’t say. Don’t make no difference to me. The storm ain’t left none of us the same.” Reading this, there are echoes of Nick Antosca’s uncanny and powerful ghost story Midnight Picnic (also set, in part, in New Orleans) and Neil Gaiman’s frequent use of personifications of different concepts. These are stories of the supernatural in which the world’s underlying rules remain mysterious, but Salaam’s work exists in its own territory, difficult to pinpoint but deeply resonant in its imagery.
The power of the intermediate state evoked by “Because of the Bone Man” is revealed gradually, as the story accrues more and more resonance over time. The use of New Orleans as a setting adds yet another layer to the story, tapping into a very real (recent) historical drama while also making use of the city’s rich and evocative history.
It isn’t the only story in the collection to venture into traumatic moments in history. “Hemmie’s Calenture” follows the title character as she escapes from slavery. Soon, though, she’s found herself in the midst of a long-running supernatural conflict between immeasurably powerful beings, which dovetails with the waning days of the War of 1812. Juxtaposing the fantastical with real-life historical atrocities can be difficult to pull off, but Salaam does so here, creating a context in which the two can coexist. If there’s one flaw in the story, it’s that it can feel more like a prologue to a much larger work than something entirely self-contained. “The adventures of Hemmie the Swamp Witch have been lost to history,” Salaam writes in a note following the story and providing some historical context–but given that she’s created a compelling protagonist and an interesting setting here, it left me hoping for a return to this character and this location.
The six stories that comprise When the World Wounds take on difficult subjects, powerful themes, and complex settings. Salaam’s skill in placing the reader into these worlds–whether they’re alien realms or violent periods in our own history–makes for an immersive experience. And in the process, When the World Wounds shows off its author’s range, and her ability to turn the familiar into the fantastic, and turn history into a dangerous and unfamiliar territory.
When the World Wounds is available from Third Man Books.