by Nisi Shawl
Though I continue to edit, review, and read professionally, and though I enjoyed many of the books I came across over the past year, music’s where my heart and attention are caught up at the moment.
To take care of the literary side of things, at the end of my essay I’ll append a barebones list of pleasure-evoking books and their authors. A couple of notes to accompany it: I chose Sorcerer to the Crown as the best book I reviewed in 2015 for the Seattle Times. But actually, the best book I read this year won’t be published (or reviewed, at least by me) till February 2016: Matt Ruff’s audacious Lovecraft Country, a tale of the horrors facing its six black viewpoint characters during the mid-1950s. I can’t wait for that one to come out so you, too, can read it and go, “Day-um!” Also, I’ll include in my list of recommendations the anthology I co-edited, because I am truly proud of what Bill and I and our contributors and supporters have done. So far four of Stories for Chip’s stories are included in Year’s Best anthologies. See if you can figure out which ones.
Mainly this last month, though, I’ve been listening to music. Listening is of course related to reading, and music to prose. Since 2007 I’ve sung a song at every public appearance I’ve made. While writing each story I consider which song I’ll sing to accompany it.
As I wrote my essay “I.G.Y.” for the new magazine Shattered Prism, I listened repeatedly to its inspiration, the Donald Fagen tune of the same title. I watched the I.G.Y. YouTube video several times. Then the video for “New Frontier,” from The Nightfly, the same album “I.G.Y.” is on. Then documentary clips about Fagen, Walter Becker, and their protean band Steely Dan. Those long Fagen fingers on the keyboards, crossing the diamonds of stacked fourths and transposed fifths with the pearls of classic blues progressions. Those wry lyrics, dense as the dark cores of the science fictional worlds to which they allude, twisted as the lost lives of the ironic outsiders populating them....Usually when I’m in this deep the only way out of an obsession is through it. So I hunkered down to navigate the pages of fan sites, aggregated concert review pages, and clueless anonymous online nattering about what those major dudes really meant to say.
In the end, Christmas came to my rescue. I had created a Pandora station I call Black Christmas that plays seasonal songs by artists such as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, The Jackson 5, Tony Bennett and Vince Guaraldi (race is a cultural construct, don’t forget), and so on, and so forth. Gradually my Steely Dan infatuation gave way to a fascination with William Bell’s Every Day Will Be Like a Holiday (When My Baby Comes Home). The original is a STAX single by the man whose biggest hit is the true and mournful “You Don’t Miss Your Water.”
First I was entranced by the recording, the arrangement: the crying guitar, the fat horn chords, the rocksteady piano, the prayerful vocals. Could I sing it myself? Yes I could.
Then, imaginer that I am, I started wondering why. Not why William Bell had so utterly entranced me with this tune; that was an easy one to answer: He had soul. Soul is an ineffable, ineluctable quality. Once soul enters the equation, that equation becomes impossible to reduce any further. It is unanalyzable.
Here’s what I wondered: Why were black men singing about the absence of black women in the 1960s? On this same Pandora channel I heard various versions of “Please Come Home for Christmas,” a much less compelling ballad of approximately the same burden and period. Contemporaneous songs in which black women mourn the absence of black men always seem, unlike these two examples, to provide an explanation for said absence. In “Message to Michael,” for instance, Dionne Warwick’s lover has gone to seek fame in far-off New Orleans--and besides, it was originally sung by a man as “Message to Martha.” In the afeminist era of Eisenhower and Kennedy, shouldn’t women have been sung of as hearth tenders? Weren’t these the years of koffee klatsches and competitive floor-waxing?
Not for black women. I realize when I look back on my childhood that both my parents worked. Sometimes only my mother--black women were often more employable than black men. They rarely had the luxury of staying home; their financial contributions were essential. When working as maids they might have to mostly live away from home. As I croon William Bell’s chorus I picture my Aunt Nora sleeping in a garret at the Gilkey’s--the white family she served--while Uncle Lloyd smokes a lonely cigar and drinks a bottle of whisky, waiting for her weekend off.
Of course my explanation is made up. Like the song I keep singing. Listen....
• Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
• Three Moments of an Explosion by China Mieville
• Uprooted by Naomi Novik
• Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
• Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
• The Just City by Jo Walton
• The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord
• Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman
• Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany edited by Nisi Shawl and Bill Campbell
Nisi Shawl is the author of Filter House, which won the James Tiptree Jr. Award and was nominated for the World Fantasy Award, Something More and More, her WisCon GoH collection, and, with Cynthia Ward, the co-author of the celebrated Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, and the editor of The WisCon Chronicles, Vol. 5: Writing and Racial Identity, all of which are published by Aqueduct Press. Aqueduct Press has also published Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler, which Nisi co-edited with Rebecca Holden. She is also the editor of the widely and wildly acclaimed anthology, Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany. She reviews science fiction for the Seattle Times, is a member of the Clarion West board, teaches writing workshops at Centrum in Port Townsend, WA., and is the reviews editor of The Cascadia Subduction Zone. Her first novel, Everfair, is forthcoming from Tor in 2016.