Monday, December 21, 2020

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2020, pt. 21: Andrea Hairston

Snatching our Souls Back

by Andrea Hairston 


  Reading always saves my life.

Books and the worlds they conjure provide an alternative, an escape, a portal to possibility. Journeying to some other some other spacetime, I discover the other selves that I and everyone could be. I read in my house on Pocumtuc and Nonotuck land, not far from other indigenous nations: Mohegan and Pequot in the South, Nipmuc and Wampanoag in the East, Mohican to the West, and Abenaki up North. Turning the pages of a good book, I realize yet again, that the way it is right now in December, 2020 isn’t the way it always was or has to be or will be. Might-makes-right illusions abound. However, today was not the result of a regrettable, but inevitable blitzkrieg march of progress to dystopia.

Afro-Futurist Blues Poet and Speculative Tall Tale Teller Sheree Renée Thomas rescues me with each one of her sixteen short fiction gems in NINE BAR BLUES, stories from an ancient future. Her characters have come through catastrophe, stumbling and strutting to the rhythms of ancestor wisdom. The songs of the ancestors are still in their mouths as they wrestle with horror, reach for joy, and map possible futures. Sheree knows how to haunt and enchant the reader, how to channel rage into horror and on to revelation. Black Lives Have Always Mattered, and so in Sheree’s stories, we damn well save ourselves. Her idiom is the Mississippi River pounding out the Delta. Her muse is the Memphis of the future hollering back at us, what y’all doing. Her spirit guides are folks who got snatched trying to figure how to snatch their souls back.

Snatching our souls back is a definite theme of the good books I read this year.

In The Book of Lost Saints, Daniel José Older does recovery/discovery using the rhythms of guaguancó to fashion a genre defying novel—it’s a murder mystery/ghost tale/love story/revolutionary saga. A Cuban-American family faces a past that refuses to be disappeared. A spirit tries to solve the mystery of her death and spooks her nephew into becoming whole. Like Sheree, Daniel writes in the vernacular of our spirits and turns dreams into maps. The questions haunting his characters, readers, everybody: What’s this shadow on your soul? Who do you want to be? Who do you mean to be? How can we be different, together?

In The Blade Between, Sam J. Miller writes a thriller/ghost/horror tale, a page-turner about what happens when you unleash the power of hate in a place where horrific history has been covered over, but it hasn't gone anywhere. Sound familiar? The setting is a whaling town in New York State wrestling with gentrification, with new money and old wounds, but the specters haunting those streets are everywhere in these United States of America. Sam, like Sheree and Daniel, asks what are we to do with our rage? What to do with our dreams? Do you wake up in a rage, gnashing your teeth, imagining death for your enemies and blood running in the streets? Destruction ain’t the only song to sing. Recovery/Discovery—that’s the story I want to tell on 2021!

The other good books that rescued me, that took me on world-altering journeys this year also explored what we do with rage and dreams: Unbecoming by Leslie Wheeler, Attack Surface by Cory Doctorow, and Ring Shout, by P. Djèlí Clark.

In How to do Nothing, Jenny Odell writes about resisting the attention economy. She alerts us to the impoverished communication on virtual platforms and the necessity of full body connection. After too many months in pandemic quarantine and solitary confinement, Jenny Odell was writing what I was more than willing to believe! Usually when I look back over the year, I write about wondrous performances that I attended or the excellent films that I went to. 

But after March 13, there were no encounters for me with live artists or audiences, no breathing together, no syncing up hearts and getting into brain wave flow TOGETHER. But the show must go on! Theatre artists at Smith College were challenged to create a fall production remotely and then get it out to the public. Under the direction of Daniel Elihu Kramer, students, faculty, and staff created a website production. So while we wait for those live experiences with you-don’t-know-what-you’ve-got-till-it’s-gone clarity, check out The Amplifier: You will find verbatim theatre investigating where we are right now; an a cappella performance of a Sweet Honey in the Rock song; a solo dance collage; a puppet adventure; a poem/documentary performance:What does it mean to be Chinese American?”; a virtual love story and much more.

While I was writing this 2020 round-up, I was also reading the final drafts of my students’ one-act plays. My writing classes are always good. As I shift to half-time professor and full-time writer, playwriting and screenwriting are the courses I continue to teach. I’d been on sabbatical in spring 2020, so when we began the semester on Zoom in September, I had no idea what to expect from myself or from my students. THEY WERE STELLAR! Their ideas about theatre and life, their commitment to each other, their perseverance, vision, and spirit was a delight every week. And all of this ended up in the pages of their scripts. And all of this ended up in the pages of their scripts: They wrote about:

  • Love during a pandemic
  • Love in the clouds
  • Friendships unraveling as Zoom highlights unspoken longstanding conflicts
  • Children in hidden regions laboring for the luxuries of the rich and the clueless
  • Postcolonial intrigue on an island paradise, somewhere in the Caribbean perhaps
  • Murder at the Plaza Hotel among the rich and the clueless
  • Iranian-Americans rising from the ashes of 9-11
  • Deals with the devil at the crossroads
  • Might-makes-right alien invaders requisitioning our world for their needs

The class was a diverse group speaking several languages. The writers drew on all the world’s cultures to fashion new idioms, new ways of telling stories, and new ways of performing meaning with one another. Their words, their stories offered me a portal to a tomorrow that I can look forward to. Indeed, they rescued me every week.

Andrea Hairston is a novelist, playwright, and scholar. Aqueduct Press published her first three novels: Will Do Magic For Small Change, a New York Times Editor’s pick and finalist for the Mythopoeic, Lambda, and Otherwise Awards; Redwood and Wildfire, winner of the Otherwise and Carl Brandon Awards; Mindscape, winner of the Carl Brandon Award. Aqueduct also published Lonely Stardust, a collection of essays and plays. “Dumb House,” a short story appears in New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color edited by Nisi Shawl. Andrea has received grants from the NEA, the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Her latest novel, Master of Poisons, came out from and is on the 2020 Kirkus Review’s Best SF and F list. In her spare time, Andrea is the Louise Wolff Kahn 1931 Professor of Theatre and Africana Studies at Smith College and the Artistic Director of Chrysalis Theatre.



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