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Dark MatterReading the Bones
Warner AspectCopyright © 2004 Sheree R. Thomas
All right reserved.
IntroductionSince ancient times, oracles and diviners have combined their collected wisdom with close observation of the world. Occupying a unique position in society and often living in the margins, these diviners attempted to gain insight into their personal circumstances and improve the lives of their communities. Whether they chose to cast bones and shells, palm nuts gathered in gourd and calabash, read footprints in the dust, or rely upon a complex system of calculations rooted in sacred works such as the Path of Odu or the I Ching, they drew upon cultural traditions handed down through generations.
And these seemingly disparate practices of ancient cultures that spanned throughout Africa, Greece, Etruria, China, Tibet, and India shared one thing in common: the desire to change and impact the future.
This desire to alter one's path, to understand how things have come to pass, is one of our most basic human impulses, and over the centuries it has inspired and informed much of our creative art forms, including our literature. Speculative fiction writers share this in common with diviners, attempting to gain insight by examining the unique circumstances of our world and questioning it in ways that challenge and critique our fundamental beliefs, social conventions, and assumptions. Their work shares an affinity with these ancient traditions of divination in their desire to gaze into the future in order to anticipate developments, whether social, environmental, or technological in nature, to caution or offer counsel and direction, to identify and expose injustice, to heal, to protect. These various impulses are embodied and expressed in stories that often cut to the quick, through our assumptions to reveal deeper truths, borne in blood and carved in bone.
Dark Matter: Reading the Bones presents works of speculative fiction and nonfiction by twenty-eight writers of the African diaspora. In compiling this collection, I chose not to force the work into a preconceived political, social, or moral framework. Rather, I was interested in providing a more open structure to allow for the juxtaposition of unique and individual voices, ideas, styles, themes, and aesthetics from new and emerging black writers as well as acclaimed writers whose work offers bold and fresh insights for readers. Like the diverse communities and personal histories from which they hail, black writers are not a monolithic community. Their interests are manifold, their expressions and personal rhythms as wide and varied as the land in which their ancestors first gave voice. Their work reflects a vision that is two-headed in view and intent, looking forward as much as looking back, like the diviners of old-and those still among us-to cast a reading, a new vision that illuminates as it engages. I hope that this work acts as a catalyst for discussion and inspires others to explore black contributions to speculative fiction.
The oral tradition is central to Afrodiasporic writing and storytelling, and so I chose to begin with ihsan bracy's retelling of an old African-American folktale, "ibo landing," a work that is as much a testimony of the courage and sacrifice of a people as it is a praisesong to those who did not "fly away" and walk back across the waters to the land of their ancestors. This work, like Charles R. Saunders's "Yahimba's Choice," is an original exploration of the complexity of challenging and questioning ancient traditions such as the practice of female "modification"; it is also historically linked to a legacy of conscious resistance and the African tradition of call-and-response.
The new voices of this collection, notably emerging speculative fiction writers such as Cherene Sherrard, Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, and Ibi Aanu Zoboi, as well as the acclaimed author Nalo Hopkinson, draw upon African and Afro-Caribbean legend and lore to craft tales that are as instructive as they are evocative, even as they deliver powerful critiques, but the tall tales of Douglas Kearney and Tye-himba Jess, that evoke the folkloric trickster Kwaku Anansi, "the Keeper of the Stories," Peter Parker, and a legendary soothsayer from ChiTown called Voodoo Vincent, remind us that the ability to laugh, to "signify," is an ancient skill, a vital strategy for black survival.
Black writers are now, as ever, it seems, struggling as all artists between the political and personal landscapes in their work, and this individual, creative struggle is a strong and recurring theme throughout Dark Matter: Reading the Bones. Three stories, "Whispers in the Dark" by Walter Mosley, "Whipping Boy" by Pam Noles, and "Aftermoon" by Tananarive Due, are strong, literal interpretations of this contemporary and historic struggle, both questioning how individuals- indeed, black communities, whether rural or urban-can hold on to self and their intellectual integrity in a world that is often intensely judgmental, hostile, and threatening, while W. E. B. Du Bois's "Jesus Christ in Texas" and Henry Dumas's "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" offer a dark and haunting meditation on the spiritual and social implications for American society in particular. Historically, "new world" Afrodiasporic writing generally has been overtly political, with little reference to the erotic. Kiini Ibura Salaam's "Desire" and David Findlay's "Recovery from a Fall" draw the African aesthetic through an experimental fabric, creating a new veil of lust and lore and longing, while Kevin Brockenbrough's "Cause Harlem Needs Heroes" and John Cooley's "The Binary" offer tough, hard-edged characters who give as much as they get from the world.
In Jill Robinson's "BLACKout" reparations move from contested theory to a complex reality as Charles Johnson's "Sweet Dreams" and Wanda Coleman's "Buying Primo Time" cast us into a future where even our dreams have become commodities and the cost of living is a price few can afford to pay, while Nisi Shawl's "Maggies" and Samuel R. Delany's "Corona" are two compelling works that reveal that navigating childhood can be a difficult journey, no matter where in the universe the young traveler calls home. Andrea Hairston's "Mindscape" contemplates a future where a spiritual outcast and an "ethnic throwback" must help rechart a world thrown off its course, while Kalamu ya Salaam brings us full circle in his exploration of how a group of black scientists and revolutionaries might use time travel in his story, "Trance."
In addition to these stories, Jewelle Gomez offers a transcript of a historic meeting of some of our most influential black speculative fiction writers, and Carol Cooper and Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu discuss the works of Andre Norton and the late Virginia Hamilton, who made significant contributions to speculative fiction and young adult literature, respectively, in the course of their careers.
In Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, these innovative writers present speculative fiction that reaches deep into Afrodiasporic traditions and push through to new forms. Their words and stories explore the languages of love and lore, oppression and abuse, identity and community, revelations and new frontiers. By bringing together this shared history and the rich diversity of these writers and their visions, I hope Reading the Bones captures your imagination and offers a memorable window into a vital period in the evolution of speculative fiction. Sheree Renee Thomas New York City, 2003
Excerpted from Dark Matter Copyright © 2004 by Sheree R. Thomas. Excerpted by permission.
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