“Cinderella Is Dead” Offers an Engrossing Twist on the Classic Fairytale

"Cinderella Is Dead" Offers an Engrossing Twist on the Classic Fairytale

Two hundred years after Cinderella found her Prince Charming, the girls of the city of Lille in the kingdom of Mersailles are now required to attend an annual ball to find princes of their own.

Those who are not chosen or who refuse to attend face consequences, while those who do attend risk being paired with a husband who will mistreat them. In the midst of all this is Sophia, a sixteen-year-old girl who is in love with her best friend, Erin. When Sophia decides to flee the ball and hide in Cinderella’s mausoleum, she discovers that there is more to Cinderella’s story than she has been taught.

One of the most intriguing things about Cinderella Is Dead is the world-building. By setting the story in a post-Cinderella world, author Kailynn Bayron shows us the legacy of Cinderella’s story, her descendants, and those who were around her. Since Cinderella’s story is held up as an ideal, the women of Mersailles are expected to marry young in order to provide a better life for themselves and their families. Men aren’t bound to this and are heralded as princes and knights in shining armor regardless of how they act toward women. Those with rich families in positions of power can give their daughters an advantage at the annual ball that the less privileged don’t have. Not to mention, being straight is expected of both men and women.

Yet next to no one notices how things are wrong in Mersailles. They see only the glamor of Cinderella’s story—or they are too afraid to fight those in positions of power. One bit of spoken dialogue goes something like, “By repeating a lie often enough, people believe it to be true.” Since Cinderella’s story is held up to be as sacred as religion, it is impossible for many to question it. In fact, the only people who end up questioning it are those who don’t fit the expectations of heteronormativity or submissiveness.

With a complex world comes a complex cast of characters—another strength of the book. It is particularly notable that nearly all of the characters are Black or mixed race Black, resulting in a narrative where race isn’t an issue. Almost all of the characters also have some degree of marginalization: protagonist Sophia is a lesbian, and secondary character Luke is gay but also, as a young man, someone who isn’t required to attend each ball. There are also characters who serve as a twist or extension of established characters, such as the prince, the fairy godmother, and the evil stepsister. Of the upended or legacy characters, the prince and the “evil” stepsister end up being the most interesting and creative.

Protagonist Sophia is someone who wants to make a change and fight social expectations but isn’t sure how to go about it. Due to living in a city with unrealistic expectations of women, Sophia is also unsure of her true potential. It doesn’t help that Sophia’s first love interest, Erin, is too scared to upend the rules of Lille to believe in or help Sophia. Thankfully, Sophia finds Constance, the last living descendant of Cinderella’s family, to help her form a plan to defeat King Manford. Constance is a little impulsive and brash, but she also is also a tender love interest and a thoughtful teacher. Constance telling Sophia some of the truth about Cinderella’s story and teaching Sophia how to use a dagger are some of the best scenes in this book.

The novel’s dialogue is another strong point that enhances its depiction of the characters’ emotions. One memorable conversation happens between Luke and Sophia when Luke dispassionately says, “People who don’t fit nicely into boxes the kings of Mersailles have defined are erased, as if our lives don’t matter. Have you ever heard of a man marrying another man? A woman being in love with another woman? Of people who find their hearts lie somewhere in the middle or neither?” To which Sophia bitterly replies, “Only as a cautionary tale.” This dialogue is reminiscent of how real queer people such as Oscar Wilde and Ma Rainey were criminalized for their orientation and sexual activities.

The budding romance between Sophia and Constance depicts how queerness is marginalized both in this novel and in real life, and it is endearing to read. Sophia initially admires Constance’s beauty and physical features and then begins to find it hard to concentrate or hold things whenever Constance touches her or is nearby. Meanwhile, Constance is keenly aware of Sophia’s budding feelings, and her initial flirting is amusing to watch. Sophia’s and Constance’s honest thoughts about their feelings about each other are especially sweet. I particularly liked when Sophia is admiring Constance and thinks, “Under the glinting moon, her hair is like a smoldering ember, her face so much like the splendor of the stars in the sky above us.”

All in all, Cinderella Is Dead is a dark, engrossing take on the Cinderella fairytale that challenges the reader to consider their role and the stories and history they have been taught to believe. It empowers queer women while also showing how queer and straight women can become a part of an oppressive system—and how men can become too entitled and privileged in this system, even as they are also marginalized. With a compelling cast of characters, magical dialogue, and creative twists, Cinderella Is Dead brings new life to a classic fairytale.

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

Top photo by Brian McGowan on Unsplash.

Pride Spotlight: Black Queer YA

Pride Month Spotlight: Black Queer YA

June is Pride Month. With the pandemic still affecting the economic situation of LGBTQ people and current legislation negatively affecting trans youth, it may seem we don’t have much to celebrate.

Yet the fact that we continue to survive, fight, and triumph in small and large ways is worth being happy about. One of the most notable things is the rise of Black LGBTQ+ authors in young adult fiction.

A decade ago, the only Black queer author I knew of who wrote teen fiction was Jacqueline Woodson. Now I can name at least a dozen authors. From verse novels to fantasy, Black LGBTQ+ authors have been leaving a colorful mark for a new generation to see. Check out some of the Black queer YA books I’ve enjoyed over the past few years.

The Black VeinsThe Black Veins book cover by Ashia Monet

Nothing says summer like a road trip, even a world-saving one. This is what happens to Blythe Fulton, a Black bisexual Elemental Guardian, after her family is kidnapped and taken to the Trident Republic. Of course, she can’t rescue her family on her own, so she must recruit other Elemental Guardians to help her.

In addition to the magic and action, I really enjoyed the downtime the characters experience in this book. The friendship is so fun and heartwarming, especially because there is some flirting but no romance whatsoever.

Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

Not only is this book set during Pride Month in NYC, but it is also about a Black trans demi boy learning to have pride in himself. After his pre-transition photos are leaked, Felix Love must find the culprit while reexamining who he is and the kind of love he wants from others.

Felix’s personal journey is poignant because it shows that one’s gender identity isn’t necessarily set in stone after coming out. Furthermore, it demonstrates the importance of standing up for who you are, even if it means having hard conversations with friends and family.

The Summer of Everything by Julian Winters

Spending summer working in a bookstore may seem like a lot of fun, especially when it’s a safe space. But what if the bookstore is in danger of closing? Eighteen-year-old Wesley Hudson deals with this with the used bookstore Once Upon a Page. Not to mention, he is struggling to plan his older brother’s wedding, figure out his future plans, and confess his crush on his best friend, Nico Alvarez.

All of these things are a part of something that Wesley has been avoiding: adulthood. As Wesley deals with a lot over the course of the novel, he manages to figure out what is most important to him with the help of a colorful cast of characters.

Let’s Talk about Love by Claire Kann

Being in college is difficult, especially when your girlfriend breaks up with you for being asexual. On top of that, Alice is also trying to figure out her career path. Things become even more complicated when she ends up with a crush on her new library co-worker Takumi. What’s a Black biromantic girl to do?

This book lives up to its title as Alice figures out what she loves to do in order to identify her future career and redefine what love means, both romantically and in terms of friendship. Not only does this book show how complex love can be, it also shows that it’s worth discussing and exploring with others.

Magnifique Noir by Briana Lawrence

College-aged everyday young women by day. Magical girls by night (and sometimes day too). This is the basic premise of Magnifique Noir, a book series about a Black queer team of magical girls. The first book in the series focuses on gamer girl Bree Danvers and boxer Lonnie Knox as they take their first steps as magical girls alongside baker Marianna Jacobs, who is the most experienced of the three.

The second book copes with the aftermath of the first and demonstrates the importance of mental health and taking care of yourself. Both feature short comics and colorful art that enhance the narrative and give the sparkly antics extra shine. They also tackle certain experiences in a mature manner, such as misogynoir, difficult parents, and online trolls.

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta

My favorite definition of poetry is “imagination written in verse.” When this definition is applied to verse that tries to define the poet’s self, the verses themselves become a source of power. This is the case with The Black Flamingo, which tells the story of Michael Angelis, a Black British gay man with Greek-Jamaican heritage.

Through performance and verse, Michael blossoms beautifully as we read his story from childhood to burgeoning young adulthood. By using a flamingo as a metaphor to figure himself out, Michael learns to stand out and be proud.

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

Top photo by Anete Lusina from Pexels


“Every Body Looking” Dances with Verse and Self-Expression

“Every Body Looking” Dances with Verse and Self-Expression

Candice IIoh’s verse novel Every Body Looking begins with Nigerian American teen Ada graduating high school and taking account of how she wants her upcoming college experience to be.

Raised by a strict, religious Christian father and separated from her alcohol-addicted mother, Ada wants to take her life into her own hands but isn’t sure how to go about it. Due to past trauma and her shaky upbringing, she is so focused on other people’s expectations of her that she hasn’t really considered what she wants for herself.

One of the best things this book does to illustrate Ada’s personal journey is include poems that present the standard definition of a word before Ada expresses her own feelings about it. An early example uses the word “safety,” showing how the standard definition of the word applies to the definition of safety that Ada’s dad wants for her as she prepares to go to college. It’s a creative way for Ada to literally define herself by examining what she has been told in order to figure out what she really wants for herself.

Another way the book delves into Ada’s personal journey is through flashbacks to her younger years. Some of these flashbacks are vulnerable and harrowing, since they deal with how people inside and outside of Ada’s family made her feel like her body wasn’t her own. In one painful scene, Ada’s aunt comes to visit and ends up fat shaming Ada and reading her private diary. Another scene shows the police coming to Ada’s door when she is home alone blasting loud music. Although these flashbacks might be triggering to trauma survivors, Ada’s experiences of fatmisia, misogynoir, sexual assault, and parental verbal abuse show just how many systemic forces work to destroy Black girls’ sense of self.

Although these flashbacks might be triggering to trauma survivors, Ada’s experiences of fatmisia, misogynoir, sexual assault, and parental verbal abuse show just how many systemic forces work to destroy Black girls’ sense of self.

At the same time, these flashbacks also show glimpses of a young Black girl with dreams of wanting to dance like no one is watching. One prominent image throughout the book is young Ada drawing a Black girl dancing, who she names “Magic.” Ava’s passion for dance is shown when she remembers being awed by church dancers during a service and how she worked jobs to pay for dance lessons without telling her Dad. The image of the “magic” Black girl dancing is strong because it represents Ava’s hopes and dreams for herself.

It is these dreams that allow the reader to root for Ada as she takes the first steps toward achieving them during her freshman year of college. Like anyone at that age, Ada does make a few mistakes. She settles for a Black guy named Derek who only cares about sex because she doesn’t know she can do better. She takes an accounting course she hates because her dad wants her to. These mistakes are part of Ada’s exploration of her sexuality and her personal goals, and it is interesting to watch her stumble through things, especially since she doesn’t have many people to turn to for help.

In fact, I found myself wishing Ada had more people on her side during such a formative time. The only character who really helps Ava start to figure out what she wants is Kendra, another Black girl with an even bigger passion for dance than Ava. Kendra is delightful to read about because she has a no-nonsense, driven, and confident air about her that ends up having a positive influence on Ava. While Ava and Kendra have a memorable friendship, Ava is also shown crushing on Kendra a bit, too.

Given Ava’s upbringing, there aren’t many moments that allow Ava to explore her orientation other than some interactions with Kendra, rumors that she might “play for the other team,” and secret interactions with another girl that took place when Ava was in second grade. Given the way that heterosexuality is always implied and expected from others, it is nice to see that Kendra is even considering the possibility she might not be straight. Kendra never labels her own orientation, but it isn’t necessary for her, since she is still exploring who she is.

While Every Body Looking was mostly enjoyable, the ending fell a little flat. Without getting into spoilers, we see Ava make a few decisions for herself and for her future at the college, but we don’t clearly know what the results will be. Maybe this open-ended conclusion represents Ava finally putting herself first, even if she doesn’t know where she will end up.

All in all, Candice IIoh’s Every Body Looking dances with verse and self-expression that will surely encourage readers to keep trying for their dreams.

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels.

National Poetry Month Spotlight: Novels in Verse

National Poetry Month Spotlight: Novels in Verse

April is National Poetry Month, so I wanted to celebrate it with some Black YA novels in verse.

Novels in verse are my personal favorite YA subgenre because they combine poetry with narrative storytelling to enhance the thoughts and experiences of the characters. As a teen, the first novel in verse I read by a Black author was Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes, which was about a diverse poetry club at a high school in the Bronx.

Two decades after its publication in 2002, there are now a plethora of middle grade and YA novels in verse by Black authors old and new. Maybe it’s because I’m a poet, but I get excited whenever I see a new novel in verse. I love reading them and seeing different poetry forms used and experiences told. Here are some of the most compelling Black YA and middle grade novels in verse.

Legacy by Nikki Grimes

This is more of a collection of poems and visual art than a novel in verse, but I’m including this book because it’s become one of my new favorites. Using the Golden Shovel poetry form, Grimes takes one line or short poem from a Black female Harlem Renaissance poet and uses it to make her own poem. The book itself is formatted so you read the Harlem Renaissance poem first and then the poem it inspired Grimes to write. Each set of poems is also accompanied by visual art by Black women, including Vashanti Harrison and Shada Strickland. As a whole, the poetry and illustrations work together to bridge the past and present.

Catching a Storyfish by Janice N. Harrington

A novel in verse aimed at a middle school audience, this book tells the story of Keet, a young Black girl from Alabama who loves talking and tellling stories. When she moves away, she isn’t sure how to cope until a fishing trip with her grandfather teaches her how to listen before speaking. However, her grandfather suddenly has a stroke and that makes him feel further away from her. In order to reconnect with him, Keet must find her voice again through stories.

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

In an elevator, a teenaged Black boy named Wil is on the way down with a gun in his waistband to take revenge for his older brother, who was murdered by someone in the neighborhood. But each time the elevator stops on a new floor, Wil is visited by ghosts who make him question everything he thinks he knows about revenge and emotions. Through a true-to-life cast of characters and powerful verse, Reynolds delivers a poignant tale of gun violence through both its victims and those left behind. This book lingered in my mind long after I read it because of how skillfully Wil’s conscience is represented and questioned through the characters and words.

Solo by Kwame Alexander

Filled with both music and poetry, Solo features the tale of Blade, the son of a washed-up rock star named Rutherford. When Rutherford’s legacy threatens to overwhelm him, Blade finds a letter about his parentage that leads him to Ghana. From there, he undergoes a journey to find out who he can become outside of his father’s influence and whether he can live up to the expectations he has for his life. I really appreciated how Alexander wove together various cultural influences, such as rock music and Ghanaian culture, to shape Blade’s character development.

Every Body Looking by Candice Ihoh

A coming-of-age story starring a first-generation Nigerian American female protagonist, this book explores the impact of heavy familial expectations and the desire to break free and express your true self. When Ada attends a HBU, she finds herself following her passion for dance while exploring her sexuality. At the same time, she also comes face to face with past issues as she tries to claim ownership over her body and future. It is rare to see a YA novel set in a college space, so finding one that is also in verse is extra special.

The Afro YA promotes black young adult authors and YA books with black characters, especially those that influence Pennington, an aspiring YA author who believes that black YA readers need diverse books, creators, and stories so that they don’t have to search for their experiences like she did.

Latonya Pennington is a poet and freelance pop culture critic. Their freelance work can also be found at PRIDE, Wear Your Voice magazine, and Black Sci-fi. As a poet, they have been published in Fiyah Lit magazine, Scribes of Nyota, and Argot magazine among others.

Disgusted & Enthralled & In Love: A Review of Louder Birds by Angela Voras-Hills

Disgusted & Enthralled & In Love

A Review of Louder Birds by Angela Voras-Hills

In her poem “Splendor,” Angela Voras-Hills writes, “I am disgusted and enthralled and / in love.” The poem has just described the untangling of a mangled worm, half-eaten by millipedes—the millipedes deprived of their lunch, the worm (semi-rescued) but not long for it. After this hinge line, the next is, “The baby grows too big for my womb.” As the poem continues, the reader meets more bodies: flies, a spider, a fourteen-year-old son, an infant daughter. The poem closes, “The difference / between the moment of being and a moment of being. // When there’s a body and when there is none.” Here, each of these bodies is a notion of home—fragile. Hopeful, requiring tending. Throughout Louder Birds (Pleiades Press), Voras-Hills constructs notions of homes and tears holes in them—thin skins and ribs, wombs, papered layers of rooms & structures, old barns, traceries of farms & crisscrossed land.

The world made in these poems is stitched together by fragile associations—half made, tenuous. The language is incantatory, impressionistic. In “Preserving,” the form of the poem moves stanza by stanza with a word or image occasioning the next. The first, “I can spend a whole winter / in the summer of these lemons / if they’ve covered in enough salt,” leads to the next, where “Trucks are salting the roads / so I can drive . . .” An image of walking leads to an image of falling. Although this form is not as pronounced in other poems, overall the poems are made of these associations. Half-starts & skips. They are juxtapositions—a setting side by side of notions of the poet’s imagination (for better or worse). Sometimes, they offer a snapshot of worst-case scenarios or the kinds of ingrained knowledge that accumulate in small towns or rural areas of what could happen—because it’s happened before.

The opening poem of the collection, “Retrospective,” describes a girl holding a sign that reads “Zucchini / and God.” She’s barefoot and bare shouldered. There’s a gray sky, and a cat, and a corn field, and “the boundaries between home and the road // are insecure.” There are signs, and there are signs—sirens, it seems (and if you don’t know what that means—it’s a warning for a likely tornado or terrible storm). “We’ve all been in the presence of something dark // and have chosen not to seek shelter.” This poem, coming before all the others, is a warning of sorts—and it’s borne out in the following pages: in these poems, things will turn quickly. What seems to be only a roadside scene can quickly become something else, something dangerous. There will be loss, the evidence of something awful come before.

“Chateaubriand” is one of those poems that turns quickly. It begins:

Love me here, a tangle in the wire, complicate
my limbs with your mouth. Like the trail,
we’re a handful of breadcrumbs . . .

In the second stanza, “A girl / from another town was pinned against a fence / with the grill of a pickup while jogging.” I thought I was reading a love poem—but here’s brutality, and it’s not random. It’s personal, a neighbor “the guy behind the wheel, a stranger, lived / on her street.” And the poem addresses the reader then, with a “you,” reminding me of the intimacy of the page, the small space I’m caught in: “one day, you’re eating Chateaubriand, / the next, you can barely pronounce tender.” Those notions of home return, complicated by the imagining (?), remembering (?), of that complicating act—the one that twines with the imperative to love. The body that “keep[s] / our organs safe” like the skin of a grape, “making a home of your darkest, inside spaces.”

The cover of the book, featuring a bird carcass arranged over dried flowers, as well as a number of the poems, invoke dead animals, and the bodies of “the beasts / we’d run over along the way.” In “The Rabbit in the Road,” a blood tide rises over the curb, coating feet and leaving tracks all the way home. In “Home (IV),” a coyote eats her young. In “Unfurling” (a poem that ends with the beginning of labor), there is a poisoned opossum, a blanket of glistening cricket bodies. The displacement of human pain onto the witnessing of other pain—often the close examination of animal pain—a kind of alchemic dissection, as if to engage with these safe bodies, at a distance, with some sort of critical analytical eye—is a recognizable strategy. This displacement makes for powerful poetry: close looking, and capturing that on the page in indelible detail, and then snapping the reader back to the real true thing.

The poem “A Small Hole Filled with Mud” calls to mind the beginning of Angela Carter’s “The Snow Child,” where the wife’s desire for a child is crystallized by a perfect blood-filled hole in the snow. All desire, all wanting, a stylized image of perfection in the contrast of crimson and white. In Voras-Hills’s poem, desire is cast in the rural imagery of salt licks and bait piles—those heady tastes that lure the animal in us. The way salt almost burns the tongue with its pleasure; the way fruit rots in a late-autumn heat, a dense sweet tangibly heavy. Called, the speaker of the poem has arrived, and is “waiting / for the man to see me through / the screen door.” Instead of that image of perfect beauty, there’s the hole filled with mud, the mud “up to my ankles.” In that field, “children who won’t exist are calling / my name.”

In the notions of home Voras-Hills suggests throughout her collection, as well as the ways she troubles their existence, she names a particular kind of landscape and place, best articulated in her poem “Maps of Places Drawn to Scale.” The poem begins with a car accident, a van flipping on an exit ramp. “In a small town, a priest / knows the man’s name.” The poem muses that at the Chinese buffet (there’s often a restaurant called this in small towns), no one’s fortune cookie says “you will suffer [ . . .] / but it’s implied / in the parking lot.” Throughout the collection’s accretion of imagery, memory, and imagining, a skeletal narrative has formed—one of a relationship surviving losses of would-be children, finding comfort in the world they make together even as that world is threatened. One of looking out windows into the distance at neighbors—people and fields and animals, the barn across the way—and trying to find one’s place there. This poem ends with the comfort and suffocating qualities of living in one of those small-scale places: “But in a small town, there’s one / name for each baby born, and eventually / it’s on the lips of everyone in the street.”

C. Kubasta writes poetry, fiction, and hybrid forms. She lives, writes, & teaches in Wisconsin. Her most recent books include the poetry collection Of Covenants (Whitepoint Press) and the short story collection Abjectification (Apprentice House). Find her at ckubasta.com and follow her @CKubastathePoet.

“Sisters Always Love Each Other the Most of Anybody”: A Review of Leslie Pietrzyk’s Silver Girl

A short interlude chapter entitled “Strategies for Survival #3: Silence” occurs almost exactly halfway through Leslie Pietrzyk’s novel Silver Girl (Unnamed Press, 2018). It’s halfway through the numbered pages of the book, and halfway through the unfolding story. Chronologically, it’s closer to the end than the beginning, but chronology fragments in this narrative, as does the protagonist’s voice. In this section, so does point of view. She begins by telling us, “It was cool on campus to talk about the Tylenol killer.” But this girl hides in silence, her own, made of all the things she doesn’t say. The section ends with her at a frat party apart from others: “. . . the single girl—you, me—standing quietly near the keg.” And someone shows up—some he—and she thinks, or pretends, that maybe he’ll rescue her. He asks about the Tylenol killer, who she thinks did it. And she says they’ll never know, that it’s the perfect crime. But he doesn’t believe in perfect crimes.

You smile at him. Sweet boy. Sweet, sweet boy. Then you fuck him anyway. I mean, I did. I fucked them anyway.

The telescoping of this perspective all at once, mid-story, was a sudden wrenching in my gut, a closing of my throat. It revealed what I’d been suspecting throughout the first half of Silver Girl—built on the scaffold of real events of poisoned Tylenol in 1982, and the deaths of seven people in Chicago: this book also speaks to larger truths that the best fiction attempts. The unnamed college girl protagonist is you, me—other girls and women seeking sisters, escaping home, wanting rescue but discovering only a “sweet, sweet boy” with failures of imagination. That’s not the story anyway—it never was.

Silver Girl coverSilver Girl is told in sections: The Middle, The Beginning, The End, and Where Every Story Truly Begins. Through sections that skip between the protagonist’s college years, her late childhood, and immediately after college, the reader meets her family, her college best friend and roommate (and her family), and contrasts those dynamics. Sisters—their bonds and rivalries—are central to the story, both biological sisters and the kinds of sisterhood that develops when people live together, forced into intimacies by shared spaces and confidences. The protagonist sees college in Chicago as an escape from her Iowa town, from her family, but also as a chance to reinvent herself, to be someone else. At home in Iowa, she takes her younger sister Grace to the mall before Christmas, where she has to explain the bookstore isn’t a library and then beg the salesgirl for a book, pretending to be the family named on the paper ornament hung on the charity tree. All that work for a $2.25 paperback, but they needed every coin for the bus home.

In her first conversation with Jess, the woman who will become her best friend, she refers to herself as “the devil’s daughter.” It may be a rare moment of honesty, but Jess is attracted to her bravado—the protagonist is only trying to distract from her cheap trunk suitcase, her threadbare clothes, the imitation pearls that don’t shine when compared to those of the rich girls in the dorm. Jess who wears “winter white,” and gifts her a plane ticket to London, and teaches her to spray perfume on her wrists, and knees, and the inside of one thigh only. Jess whose entire family calls each other “Lovey.” Throughout the novel, the protagonist works to conceal her identity, always wary of being found out. The unkindest thing Jess can do is let her know she knows she’s poor.

The protagonist has other secrets, too—these are revealed in bits and pieces throughout the story. She loves her sister Grace but cannot take care of her—that would mean having to stay. Boys and men are ways to hide, but also maybe ways to escape—she’s trying to figure that out. Her high school friend Janey resents and hates her. There are other family secrets no one is talking about. As her relationship with Jess grows, the protagonist ends up taking on Jess’s secrets also: the ones Jess talks about and the ones she doesn’t. The story is built on secrets, and it’s often unclear how self-aware the characters are—they are unknowable, unreliable, but dearer because of this. I deeply love stories about sisterhood, about girls and women navigating the complexities of their desires for intimacy: failing each other, and needing each other all the more. As the character we inhabit, the protagonist seems so clear-eyed about everyone but herself. I ache for her, want to walk up to her standing alone by that keg and talk to her about the things she thinks—make a list with her (one of her pastimes) about those stupid, sweet boys—and point out all the other girls at the party just like her who are only better at pretending, but no different, not really, than she is.

Ultimately, Silver Girl is a rule-breaking book. The narrator breaks rules and wonders when she’ll be caught. The storytelling breaks rules: we readers try to piece together clues to create a coherent picture of what made the narrator who she is—but in the end, there are shadows that remain, so we guess, and our guesses reveal more about ourselves than what’s explicit in the story. In this column, I try to focus on new writing from the Midwest, so writing about Silver Girl breaks a few of my own rules—although set in the Midwest, Pietrzyk no longer lives here, having left Iowa City, Iowa, years ago for Washington, DC. And the book came out a few years ago, but I just discovered it. I think we need to sing and celebrate the writing that speaks to us, that brings us out of whatever silvered-over thickened skin that’s interfered with our creativities during COVID isolation. For the last few months, I’ve had trouble reading much, and my TBR stack has grown and grown. The fractured narrative of Silver Girl broke through; the sharp eye of the protagonist that berates herself while seeing others so clearly made me want to telescope through time, talk to this fictional woman, tell her she’s seen.

A couple of months ago I was talking to dear friend—a sister—and she was telling me about my astrological sign. We were in our cups a bit, and I turned to her and said, “You’re only telling me the good things . . .” We were side by side on a couch, shoulders touching, and she turned her face toward me and said something so true—it could have been painful, but it wasn’t. It was a moment of recognition. There’s a moment like that when the protagonist and Jess are shopping, and rediscover composition books at Osco. It’s another interlude chapter, “Strategies for Survival #4: Lists.” They talk about list making. Jess says, “Like a diary, but quicker.” There’s recognition:

Her eyes locked on to me, into me, like I had breathed a secret out and she had breathed it right in.

My stomach did that thing it did when I read the perspective switch. Sisterhood, an intimacy of secrets—not only our own. Seen, and so sharply. Clear-eyed about everyone except ourselves.


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About the Author

C. Kubasta writes poetry, fiction, and hybrid forms. She lives, writes, & teaches in Wisconsin. Her most recent books include the poetry collection Of Covenants (Whitepoint Press) and the short story collection Abjectification (Apprentice House). Find her at ckubasta.com and follow her @CKubastathePoet.

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Portaging celebrates new writing from the Midwest with a particular focus on experimental and hybrid work from small presses.