Over a year ago, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination published an essay by me called A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction. Since then I’ve been asked to write individual monthly essays on each of the 42 works mentioned.
This column’s subject, Virginia Hamilton’s The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl, is a children’s novel about a child goddess come to Earth. From her heavenly home on top of Mount Highness in Kenya, Pretty Pearl journeys to America beside her brother John de Conquer. Their plan is to investigate the cruelties of chattel slavery. In the form of albatrosses they follow a slave ship to Georgia, but on landing they lie down in the red clay rather than jump right into interfering. Interference has a habit of backfiring, the grown-up god informs his little sister. But divine time runs differently than human time. The siblings take a short, two-century nap, and soon after the Civil War ends they’re ready for action.
Interracial cruelties are by no means in the past even then. The two gods face Reconstruction’s dangers separately so that Pretty Pearl can prove her full goddess-hood; she falls in with a community hiding away in the backwoods and joins them as they emerge to migrate north and west, re-entering the wider human sphere…which at this point largely comprises the countryside.
THE BREATH OF NEWMOWN HAY
There’s a school of thought that equates African-descended people with all things urban. Sure, we’re a people of cities, new and ancient—of both Memphises, arguably. Also, though, we’re not; we’re a people of farms, gardens, forests. The wild frontier. The hamlet and trading post. These ruralities are brought to loving life in Pretty Pearl. Ginseng hunters haunt shady groves, hidden lookouts send warning messages to their friends via fawn-and-twilight plumed passenger pigeons, and poplar leaves shield innocents from hate-filled would-be lynch mobs. I can literally relate, because while my mother’s side of the family is from New Orleans by way of Chicago, my father’s side is from sleepy little Vandalia, which consists of nothing but a cemetery, two churches, and a picnic shelter.
Hamilton’s own family history forms the hazy background into which the end of Pretty Pearl’s story blends. Bridging the gap between mythic and modern chronologies with our lives is a common tactic among those of us who belong to displaced and deracinated peoples. Where did we come from? Our origins, like Pretty Pearl’s, are mysteries.
The author depicts several figures from African, American, and African American folklore, including the Fool-la-fafa, the Hodag, the Hide-behind, John de Conquer, John Henry. She tosses around chapters and incidents with a casual air, belying the concentration needed to keep juggling her plot and characters in nice, manageable arcs. That casual air fits oral storytelling traditions to a T.
So does Hamilton’s dialogue. It’s natural. It flows in the patterns of the people. Pretty Pearl and John de Conquer speak African American Vernacular English before they ever arrive on American shores. Pearl spies on slaver gangs and tells her brother how they “grab holt” of their victims; John explains, “What you see be subtraction….subtract de life, you got no kind of freedom. Subtract de freedom, you got no life.” Divine elocution mimics that of the “lower classes” so as to elevate the immiserated past—or rather, to point out the fact of that past’s elevation, those ancestors’ transcendent power and wisdom. The diction of Maw Julanna and the backwoods community’s “chil’ren” is never rendered unintelligible with overabundant phoneticization. Instead, syntax and culture-specific references (words like “dayclean” and so on) give us the context essential to hearing what’s said.
In contrast, Old Canoe and his fellow Real People, aka Cherokee, use the Standard English of Hamilton’s narration. “I speak the language of the whites, but,” Old Canoe cautions his audience, “I am not white, remember.” Not all difference is audible in everyday conversation. Sometimes it must be marked deliberately.
Is this really a book for children? A book about hiding out from murderers and mutilators and corrupt, race-based systems of punishment? A book about people wandering in the wilderness sans homes or possessions of any sort, dependent on the kindness of complete and total strangers?
Yes. Children need to know about these things. They need to know about the aches and wounds afflicting the giants’ shoulders they stand on. They need to understand that the world is full of dangers—dangers many of the people who came before them escaped.
Fantastical literature written for children often lures its readers on to look for its adult equivalent. And seeing ourselves early on in the way Hamilton portrays black people—as magical beings at the centers of stories—trains us to expect to find ourselves in the speculative worlds and imagined futures we encounter later in life, performing miracles, saving the universe, living happily forever after. Pretty Pearl and other Afrodiasporic Middle Years and YA fantasy, SF, horror and so forth create an expectation in their audience that there’s going to be more. Which is extremely important work. That expectation gets us hungry for more of these kinds of tales, hunting for them, ready to write them ourselves if our hunt comes up empty-handed or we run out.
PRICE VS. VALUE
At a recent party, another guest told me The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl is a hard book to find. Apparently, scarce cloth copies in top condition are priced over $100. My battered paperback is probably worth a lot less money. But it’s worth something else: for me this book has been an ever-expanding portal into a marvelous possible past. Through that portal I can see the roots of stories I want to hear and tell. As a reader (and maybe a writer, too) of black science fiction, how much would you pay to feast your eyes on that?
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.