About a year ago, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination published my article titled “A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction.” In the spirit of Charles W. Eliot’s 51-foot shelf of Harvard Classics, I listed 42 short stories and novels that I deemed essential reads for students of Black science fiction and fantasy. This new column will delve more deeply into each of the titles on that list in turn.
My original list is chronological. But I’m going not going to begin this series of columns at that list’s beginning. Nor am I simply going to reverse the list and back up on those 42 titles from its end. Time is not the point here. Meaning is. I give Mama Day (1988) primacy of place in this series because it means some very personal things to me.
WHAT GOES ON:
Mama Day is the third novel by recently deceased African American author Gloria Naylor. Though never categorized as fantastic literature by its publisher or critics, it depicts myriad magical events–hexes, hauntings, concerts of singing flowers–as well as focusing on the magical aspects of events we typically regard as mundane, like weather, birth, death, and love. The title character, Mama Day, lives on the peculiar coastal island of Willow Springs, which lies off the Georgia/South Carolina border. Admired and respected for her legendary healing powers by the island’s inhabitants, Black descendants of antebellum freedmen, Mama Day knows secrets she often wishes she didn’t. Her great-niece Ophelia grows up protected from being caught up in the family’s recurring tragedies by not one but two nicknames: Cocoa and Baby Girl. As an adult Ophelia leaves the island for New York, where she finds, loves, and marries the pragmatic engineer George. When George accompanies his wife on an ill-fated visit to Willow Springs, he’s soon forced to watch her rotting slowly away before his eyes. Mama Day tries to educate George and recruit him as her helper in the battle for Ophelia’s soul, but even her wisdom fails to reconcile him with the mystic forces she has harmonized with for 80-plus years.
HOW IT HOOKS IN:
My younger sister is nicknamed Cocoa. On my birth certificate I’m listed as Baby Girl. And though I’ve never put moss in my shoes prior to entering a graveyard, though I’ve never celebrated Candle Walk on December 22 with ginger tea and kerosene lanterns, these and other elements of the island’s mythic atmosphere resonate with my world. For Mama Day’s jealous neighbor Ruby and Ruby’s sloppy drunk husband Junior, substitute my sweetly spiteful Aunt Pearl and handsome, dissolute Uncle Carl. For the slanting floor of Grandmother Abigail’s spare bedroom substitute the soft, creaking boards beneath my Gransie’s parlor carpet. For the baskets of peaches, grocery bags of pawpaws; for hurricanes, blizzards. Many times no substitution’s needed, as with the body language of hands on hips, or the default assumption that any of your hair left in a brush or comb after a styling session will be gathered and burnt “so that the birds won’t find it and weave it into their nests.” Because if that happens you go crazy.
Black culture is full of these near-equivalencies and exact parallels. Generally, they strengthen connections between its various subgroups, and the connections between my personal experiences and those depicted in this book make it particularly poignant to me. My interest in and practice of African-derived religious traditions also yield plenty of fruitful connections. Mama Day doesn’t pray as I do, doesn’t make the offerings to the orisha I make, but she’s rooted in the natural world my deities spring from, and the ancestors I revere whisper in her open ears.
WHY ELSE IT’S SO GOOD:
Apart from the book’s ringingly authentic depiction of the Black fantastic, Mama Day deserves to be deemed essential Black SFF for two more reasons: its ambitious structure, and the permeable boundary it places between science and magic, mirroring the way that for this ethnicity, at least, the distinction between science fiction and fantasy is difficult to draw.
Near the novel’s end, Mama Day brings down lightning to strike the same spot twice. First comes a passage showing a ritual in which Mama Day casts silver powder in a circle around an enemy’s house, banging her walking stick against its walls with a sound like thunder. After the storm hits and fire from heaven burns the place down, George muses that while unlikely, what had happened was at least theoretically possible. All that was needed was the distribution on the spot in question of materials that could hold both positive and negative electrical charges. Which rational explanation casts other occurrences in the light of possibly being similarly explicable. Which then undermines the classification of this story and others like it as either fantasy or science fiction.
The back cover of my copy of Mama Day, and of the only copies I’ve ever seen, proclaim it to be “FICTION”–in all caps. No compromising modifiers included. SFF is a community, and members of the African diaspora were for a long time left out of this community; but genre is also a marketing tool. Gloria Naylor did not come up in SFF fandom’s ranks. Perhaps her agent and editor and publicist were fine with that.
At least part of the reason for Mama Day’s absence from our SFF fold is because of mainstream literature critics’ favorable reactions to the aforementioned ambitious structure. Reviewers have identified at least three different narrative threads. There’s the haunting first-person plural voice used to ground readers in Willow Springs’ historical background, evoking ancestral knowledge. At times it shifts almost imperceptibly to what academics call “free indirect discourse.” This means that the third-person narration includes not just what the text’s subject does, but what they think, and how they feel.
Most moving to me are the passages narrated by George and Ophelia. Critics characterize these passages as being written in first person, but because they’re addressed to one another, I call this technique mirror second.
“You were sick and I was totally helpless,” George writes about the weeks when a hex threatens Ophelia’s life. “You’re never free from such a loss,” she later responds. Though much of what these mirror second passages describe is the story as experienced by their “I’s,” it is aimed at their “you’s.” We’re reading love letters over their authors’ shoulders: twinned tales of discovery and acclimation and grief, reflections of reflections echoing in ghost-filled halls.
This is a book with many ways of telling itself and being told. In the end what comes across to us from it depends on us, on Mama Day’s readers. We are the first plural, the matching halves of the mirror second, the freedom of the indirect third. “Think about it,” the collective narrator of the foreword advises us; “ain’t nobody really talking to you…the only voice is your own.”
Nisi Shawl is a writer of science fiction and fantasy short stories and a journalist. She is the author of Everfair (Tor Books) and co-author (with Cynthia Ward) of Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction. Her short stories have appeared in Asimov’s SF Magazine, Strange Horizons, and numerous other magazines and anthologies.