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 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 SilverGirl 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.
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.
Portaging celebrates new writing from the Midwest with a particular focus on experimental and hybrid work from small presses.
When I first learned about Bethany C. Morrow’s A Song Below Water and how it featured Black mermaids, I couldn’t help but think of mythology, especially the Yoruba orisha Yemaya and the water spirit Mami Wata. Depending on who you ask, some people interpret them as mermaids. I thought of them because I’ve wondered what a modern interpretation of a Black mermaid would be like. A Song Below Water managed to answer my question in a thought-provoking and touching way.
Tavia Phillips is a siren who must hide her powers in order to keep herself alive. Her best friend, Effie, is struggling with a painful past and strange happenings in the present. While they are trying to navigate their junior year of high school, a siren murder trial shakes Portland, Oregon, to the core. In the aftermath, Tavia and Effie must come together and come to terms with themselves.
One of the most notable aspects of this book is how it blends fantasy and reality almost seamlessly. Mythical creatures such as sirens, elokos, and gargoyles exist alongside humans, albeit not peacefully. Sirens (and other mythical creatures) have always been interpreted as an allegory for a dangerous woman, but this is especially noticeable when applied to a Black female protagonist. Tavia Phillips’s experiences as a Black female siren parallel what real Black women deal with every day, especially when it comes to police brutality. Not only are they considered dangerous for simply existing, but their voices are often silenced and dismissed when they try to speak up.
In fact, I found this book hard to read sometimes because it is a reminder of how difficult living can be for Black girls and women. Tavia is physically and emotionally scarred by a desperate attempt to get rid of her siren abilities as a child, while Effie is battling anxiety and nightmares as a result of a traumatic experience with mythical creatures. At one point, Effie even states, “Black and female and a siren is just layers upon layers of trauma. One time I said she’s [Tavia’s] too young to deal with this, and she said we don’t get to be.” Yet what kept me reading the book were the moments of joy that Tavia and Effie experience together and by themselves.
When it comes to Tavia and Effie’s friendship, they are close enough to be sisters. Sometimes I forgot that they weren’t related by blood because their interactions with each other were just as beautiful and memorable as those I’ve seen between real and fictional siblings. A particularly memorable scene is when Effie and Tavia are gushing over fan fiction written for Euphemia, the fictional mermaid who Effie plays at the Ren faire. Scenes like this show that despite the hardships they are dealing with, Effie and Tavia still create moments when they can enjoy their youth.
Tavia and Effie’s individual character development is just as powerful as their sisterhood. Over the course of the book, Tavia learns to embrace her siren abilities and use them as a force for change. The potential of her siren abilities is explored further as Tavia realizes just how powerful she can be. Meanwhile, Effie comes to terms with her past and learns that what’s “wrong” with her can be something that is wonderful, even when the world says otherwise. The mystery around Effie’s past and present keeps the plot intriguing and develops into a wonderful coming-of-age story.
As much as I appreciated many aspects of the book, there were a few I didn’t like. The lack of explanation for what an eloko was resulted in me doing my own research and doing my best to imagine what they looked like in my head. It might be difficult for other visual readers like myself to “see” what elokos are without a fuller description.
Another aspect of the story that made me a little uncomfortable is how Tavia uses spasmodic dysphonia as a cover story for her siren abilities, as well as how she sometimes uses American Sign Language when she can’t speak without exposing her siren abilities. Her use of ASL is understandable, but the author’s decision to have Tavia pretend to have what is a real muscle disorder is problematic from the point of view of disability advocacy.
It’s not clear whether A Song Below Water is a standalone or the first book in a series. Either way, it’s a compelling read. While the portrayal of police brutality and Black trauma doesn’t make the book easy to digest, the sisterhood and magic are major payoffs. A Song Below Water encourages Black girls to embrace their power, stick together, and never let themselves be silenced.
A new year means reading new books. While I don’t have a reading goal per se, I do have a long To Be Read list to get through. For every book that I already own, there are also yet-to-be-released books I want to read — not to mention books I won’t know I want to read until I hear about them! As you might imagine, there are a lot of books that I hope to read and review this year. Here are my most anticipated 2021 reads.
This book came out on January 5. It combines poetry and visual art to spotlight and pay homage to the lesser known Black women poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Using the poetic method known as “The Golden Shovel,” Nikki Grimes takes one line from poems by Angelina Weld Grimké, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, and others and then uses them to create original poems of her own. These poems are complemented with artwork by Black women such as Vashti Harrison, Ebony Glenn, and Nina Crews.
Although the Harlem Renaissance was my favorite time period to study in school, I only ever learned about Black male Harlem Renaissance poets like Langston Hughes and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. As I am a poetry fan, this book will surely rectify the gaps in my knowledge by bridging the past and present and showing the worth of these words through pictures as well as poems.
This 2020 short fiction anthology was on my wish list for months before I nabbed the ebook at a discount. Taking inspiration from Octavia Butler, this anthology features sixteen sci-fi and fantasy stories starring Black girls, women, and gender nonconforming people. The authors featured include some familiar and others new to me, including Elizabeth Acevedo, L. L. Mckinney, and Somaiya Daud.
I don’t see many Black SFF anthologies by and for Black women and girls, let alone one that looks so inviting to teen readers who are new to the genres. Did I mention that the cover looks spectacular?
Combining magical realism and autobiographical elements, this 2020 novel features Black girl magic occurring amid poverty, sexism, racism, and more. Echo Brown is a teen wizard born and raised on the East Side who uses magic portals to travel to an all-white school on the West Side. However, going back and forth between two worlds has Echo leaving parts of herself on the East Side. Soon, Echo must use her magic to overcome a dark depression that threatens to overwhelm her.
Through family and personal experience, I know that not all magic comes with a letter to a boarding school. There is also magic in making ends meet, magic in personal recovery, and magic in survival. I look forward to seeing how Black Girl Unlimited will embody this.
The third book in the Nightmare-Verse series is set to be published Fall 2021. After the events of the previous book, Alice Kingston is attempting to rest and recover. However, she and her friends start having dark visions of Wonderland’s past and future. When the evil that Alice thought she had defeated stirs once again, Alice thinks she will have to journey into Wonderland once more. However, the evil is already in the real world.
This queer summer coming-of-age rom-com is Claire Kann’s second novel and one I missed when it initially came out in 2019. It tells the story of Winnie, a fat Black queer girl who is unexpectedly crowned Summer Queen of the small town of Misty Haven. With such a huge spotlight on her, Winnie must confront her fears and insecurities to become the best version of herself.
Although I don’t own this book (yet), I would love to read it due to my soft spot for teen summer stories. The premise sounds like a ton of fun and something I’d want adapted into a movie. Besides, I loved Claire Kann’s first book, Let’s Talk About Love.
Whenever I learned about the Harlem Renaissance poets in grade school, I always heard the same names: Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar. While I would grow to enjoy their works, part of me wished that I could have learned about more poets besides them. Now, author, poet, and journalist Nikki Grimes has released Legacy: Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance to fill that large gap in my—and others’—education.
One of the most unique aspects of the book is its format, in which a poem by an unsung Black woman from the Harlem Renaissance is followed by an original poem by Nikki Grimes and an illustration by a Black woman visual artist. Each poem by Nikki Grimes utilizes the “Golden Shovel method,” a technique originating with the poet Terrance Hayes and inspired by poet Gwendolyn Brooks. In this volume, the form involves Grimes’s taking one line from a poem by a Black woman from the Harlem Renaissance and using the words to make a new poem. The result is a wonderful way to pay tribute to the poets of bygone times and bridge the past and present. All the poems and artwork are featured in three sections: “Heritage,” “Earth Mother,” and “Taking Notice.”
In “Heritage,” Black women past and present aim to instill the next generation with Black pride. A particular set of poems I enjoyed from this section are “I Am Not Proud” by Helene Johnson and “Having My Say” by Nikki Grimes. Together, these poems show that Black women can and should be vocal because of their skin tone, rather than in spite of it. A notable line from Grimes’s poem reads, “For me, boldness is a requirement that came / as part of my Black girl package / along with my sass, and bodacious hip swing!” Following these poems is an illustration by Shada Strickland that is just as bold, featuring a Black girl courageously standing on top of a large old-fashioned pink record player as a Black woman in a nearby window turns the handle.
The section “Earth Mother” is exactly as it sounds, featuring poems about Black women’s relationship to the earth and the natural world. One notable set of poems is “Rondeau” by Jessie Redmon Fauset and “Tara Takes on Montclair” by Nikki Grimes. Both poems involve Black women reveling in the beauty of nature, with tantalizing imagery. The line that stands out the most in both poems is, “I joyous roam the countryside / look here the violets shy abide.” These poems are accompanied by a pretty illustration by Daria Peoples Riley that has a Black girl in white surrounded by purple violets.
Finally, the section “Taking Notice” features poetry and artwork that gives voice to people and experiences that often go unseen and heard. A powerful set of poems from this section includes “Flag Salute” by Esther Popel and “A Mother’s Lament” by Nikki Grimes. Popel’s poem displays the anti-Black brutality present in America’s past, underscoring it with a sardonic take on the Pledge of Allegiance. Meanwhile, Grimes’s brief poem echoes Popel’s sentiment to reflect on the present as she reckons with the ancestral blood spilled in America’s name. Taking both poems to greater heights is April Harrison’s collage-like illustration of a Black women shedding a tear as she watches a slave trip sail away.
Although the majority of the poems work especially well as pairs, there are also some poems that shine well individually. One that stood out to me was “Jehovah’s Gesture” by Gertrude Parthenia McBrown, which likens nature’s turbulence to boisterous jazz musicians. Another, “Seeing” by Nikki Grimes, pays tribute to the resilience and magic that poor and low-income mothers find and provide. Whether you read the poems in pairs or individually, there are many layers and different interpretations to be discovered.
All in all, Legacy is a triumphant collection of poetry and visual art that gives Black female Harlem Renaissance poets a chance to shine. It pulls them out of history’s shadows and into the light of the present day, with Grimes’s poems and Black women illustrators as a beacon. Not only can a new generation of younger readers learn these poets’ names, but adult readers can appreciate them, too.
Created by Briana Lawrence, the illustrated novel series Magnifique Noir tells the story of Black queer young women as they come of age as young adults and as members of the magical girl team Magnifique Noir. Book 2 of the series picks up a few weeks after the ending of Book 1. In the aftermath of a difficult battle, the new generation of the magical girl group Magnifique Noir is trying their best to move on. As they start to balance their everyday lives with their magical ones, the past comes back to haunt them in unexpected ways.
A noteworthy theme of this book is the pressure on Black women to be “the strong one.” Black women are always expected to put everyone else before themselves. Even though they are magical superheroes, the ladies of Magnifique Noir are still human. They have to learn to check in with themselves and each other. This is especially apparent in the book’s first two chapters, in which one of the girls is having nightmares about the team and their loved ones dying — a development that reflects the influence of the Japanese anime series Madoka Magica. The darkness of the situation is softened by the display of concern from her friends and her eventual decision to talk about the nightmares.
Another theme, related to the insistence that Black women be strong, is the expectation for Black women to always be wholesome. Rooted in respectability politics, this expectation denies Black women agency in terms of how they present and express themselves. A later chapter comments on this theme when the ladies attend a burlesque show inspired by Magnifique Noir. Kayla, a Black female burlesque dancer, is slut shamed by a white woman for her sexually charged take on Magnifique Noir’s Cosmic Green. Even though their superhero identities are a secret, Magnifique Noir stands up for Kayla as civilians.
The decision to tackle the expectation of wholesomeness as it applies to Black women sets this book apart from other works inspired by magical girl anime. Given that the magical girl anime genre primarily features schoolchildren and was originally targeted at kids, it is rare to find books about adult magical girls doing adult things like seeing a burlesque show. Yet there are still some sparkly sweet moments could easily fit alongside classic magical girl manga like Sailor Moon.
One of my favorite moments takes the form of an illustration called “8 Bits of Rainbow” by artist Fried Unicorn Rainbow. It is a small yet dynamic and colorful piece depicting an awesome team-up between Magnifique Noir members Cosmic Green and Radical Rainbow. Another memorable illustration is “Rest Well, Magical Girls” by artist coloured_braids. It features three of the ladies in PJs sleeping together in the same bed. It is a tender moment captured well with pink pillows peaceful expressions, and the amusing contrast between the girl’s sleepwear.
In addition to illustrated moments, there is also great dialogue, scenes, and entire chapters devoted to queerness. One highlight features the character Marianna Jacobs figuring out how to define her asexual orientation with the help of Blaze, Magnifique Noir’s leader. The moments that build up to this one sensitively portray Mari’s orientation as something she is new to, but not something that she needs to change. Another notable moment is the romantic tension between Magnifique Noir’s Radical Rainbow (a lesbian) and Prism Pink (confirmed by the author to be a trans woman). Their scenes together capture the nervousness and excitement of having a crush very well.
One final bit of praise must go to the backstory about the old members of Magnifique Noir. While there are still some questions left unanswered, what is revealed is done in a way that will shock and perhaps surprise the reader. It was also great to see an older woman like Blaze growing a little closer to the girls and becoming more involved in their civilian lives as well as their magical ones. In this way, she becomes more like an auntie spending time with her nieces.
Adding a darker tone and some mature content, Magnifique Noir Book 2 continues to deliver a wonderful coming-of-age storyline with affectionate, powerful, and fun moments. This book shows Black women that they don’t always have to be strong or perfectly wholesome. No matter what you have to work through or how unwholesome you might seem, you are still magical.
3. Barbara Creed’s film theory on “The Monstrous-Feminine,” what it is about woman “that is shocking, terrifying, horrific, abject.” Creed explores the way the female body is coded in the horror film as victim and as monster, as sexual and virginal, as spectacle and agent. And that’s what I am trying to do as well.
8. I’ve become nocturnal lately. My partner works at night and I’ve been adopting his schedule a bit. Last night, when I couldn’t sleep, I got in my car and headed west. I was aimless, just kept driving until I felt moved to stop. There’s this cemetery on the other side of town, and I found myself driving past its gate. My headlights passed over the red tulips sprouting at the low stone wall. I felt drawn to them—the tulips—and decided to park. There was moonlight, and I wandered down the gravel path, my eyes passing over the headstones and shadow.
9. Agnès Varda, French New Wave and documentary filmmaker who passed at the end of last month.
10. Taking the bus every day for work. It demands that I observe and take stock of my surroundings, inside and outside the bus. Looking at my phone makes me motion-sick, so I just look up instead. I get to see what people are wearing, what the traffic and weather is like; I get to say good-bye to this town.
13. The flowering trees at night—the redbud and dogwood. I went for a night-walk recently. The air was warm as bath water, and I just had to slip out the door and try it on. I walked two miles toward the empty cornfield, intending to visit my favorite tree. But I heard this loud, reverberating noise coming from the nearby neighborhood. So I veered left and followed the sound. It was birds—hundreds of them—in this little copse at the end of the drive. The noise was overpowering and ethereal.
14. Paper Mate InkJoy Gel Pens (the 22 pack is very good)
The fanged fairy of Emily Corwin’s forest-mud-stained collection asserts and sings with short rhymes and glitter-spells, and just as you’ve followed her into the deepest and darkest part of the woods, terrified, you’re asked to run away together / and promise to never / do this heart-skipping thing / with anyone else.
Don’t be surprised when you find yourself answering yes, yes, yes.
Confronting and darling, every word a perfect warm circlet of pink blood, My Tall Handsome raids every crystal jar on the lace-topped vanity for truth, poison, and song until you can’t remember why you ever thought pretty was better than powerful, sugar was better than bitter medicine, or dancing needed more music than your own voice.
I sip the goblet down, tip it upside down / wear it as / a hat / I am a new shiny thing / and I steal you away from the hoopla hullabaloo rumpus
You won’t resist this kidnapping into the orchard, into the crabapple abracadabra—it is too crystalline a taking, and there are too many delicious chants to chant along the way.
A Selection from My Tall Handsome
my tall handsome, you are always
hydrangea in my rib, popped open
always dazzle of salt on my punched lip
love of life
the he & me I will devour
we beneath black cherry tree
all fruits and crystals on your chest
you were my first body—now and always
forever and ever, in the pink bed rippling
Emily Corwin is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Indiana University-Bloomington and the former Poetry Editor for Indiana Review. Her writing has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Ninth Letter, Gigantic Sequins, New South, Yemassee, THRUSH, and elsewhere. She has two chapbooks,My Tall Handsome (Brain Mill Press)and darkling (Platypus Press),which were published in 2016. Her first full-length collection, tenderling, was released from Stalking Horse Press in 2018, and she was a finalist for the 2018 Pleiades Press Editors Prize. Her manuscript Sensorium was chosen as an Editor’s Choice selection for the 2018 Akron Poetry Prize and is forthcoming with the University of Akron Press.
BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month
For this year’s National Poetry Month, Brain Mill Press & Voices want to add to your #TBR pile, sing siren songs of unsung heroes, and signal boost living poets we should be reading more. By the end of the month, we hope you will have acquired 30+ new books of poetry and that they continue to multiply in the darkness of your library. Explore new voices & new forms — re-read some old favorites — play if you liked this poet, you’ll like… the old-fashioned way, algorithm-free — just poetry lovers talking to poetry lovers, as the Universe intended. Happy #NaPoMo2019 from Brain Mill Press.