MORE THAN ANYTHING, Dr. Andrea Hairston’s collection from Aqueduct Press reflects the force and influence of narrative, even cheesy narratives. Through her essays, her Guest of Honor speech at WisCon 36, and two of her plays, Dr. Hairston shows us how different narratives lend power to different perspectives. It’s not everyday that we get a collection that includes movie reviews and the scripts for plays, but Aqueduct was wise in putting these together. They form a cohesive whole, and illuminate multiple facets of this award winning author. 

With the leading essay, “Disappearing Natives: The Colonized Body is Monstrous,” we’re immediately launched into the whirlwind of intersecting narratives that inhabit even the most trivial of pop culture. Starting off with a poem by Lucille Clifton and a discussion of acting theory, the core of this essay is a review of the movie Source Code (2011, starring Jake Gyllenhaal). Using the movie as a lens, a movie in which the white male hero is a severely wounded soldier who is forced into a project where he will virtually inhabit another body and relive the same vignette over and over in the name of combating terrorism, Hairston examines Haraway’s cyborgs, Empire, empathy, and identity. In a movie that few will remember in a few years, she identifies a complex interplay of narratives in a specific theatrical space, which refuses to be distilled into simplicities.

The same is true when she looks at 1995 Ralph Fiennes/Angela Bassett film Strange Days, and compares it to a one-woman play, Waking the American Dream by Sarah Jones. In the film, Fiennes is a loser who partakes of Virtual Reality voyeuristic pleasures before getting pulled into a thriller plot. Through a cyberpunk science fictional device he is able to inhabit other bodies, but lacks the empathy to do anything other than observe for cheap thrills. Compare that to a play where one actress might play an older Indian woman, a Pakistani TV host, a Chicano spoken-word artist, and a Latina high school student, among others, and although she never leaves her own body she uses imagination and empathy to inhabit them all and bring them to life for an audience.

The overwhelming force of dominant cultural narratives is demonstrated neatly in Hairston’s essay centered on the Peter Jackson King Kong movie released in 2005. She opens the essay by pointing out that you’ve probably never heard of Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor, a man who “put his life on the line to save Liberia’s rain forests.” He won an amazing fight against logging interests, proving to the UN that arm smuggling and ecological devastation were going hand in hand, eventually helping to oust Charles Taylor, the dictator of that country. Unfortunately, men like Mr. Siakor are not what spring to mind when considering narratives of black masculinity — instead those discussions are filtered through movies such as King Kong. Even today Mr. Siakor’s Wikipedia entry is only two sentences long, compared to thousands of words on King Kong the character, and separate extensive entries for each film version. Hairston is critical of the different versions of the movie and also of some of the criticisms that conflate black masculinity with the King Kong iconography (using as an example a poem by Hattie Gossett) — but even in this essay, King Kong gets mentioned many more times than Mr. Siakor. In such a way does pop culture, partaking as it does of Empire, set the terms of the debate even as it’s being criticized.

In her essay that looks at District 9, which was also her GoH speech at ICFA in 2011, she starts out by showing what happens when entirely different cultural narratives collide. She describes ogu ndem, a way of women using satire and social pressure to bring misbehaving men in line.

“As individuals, women had much less power than men in Igbo society. As a group, in communitas with the ancestors, women wielded a collective performative power that men respected, indeed feared. This balance changed when alien ships landed on Igbo shores and invaders exiled the spirits and rewrote the narratives of their lives… in 1929 women too the first collective action to resist the colonizers an their Igbo collaborators by performing ogu ndem… Feeling in mortal danger they fired on women engaged in satiric ritual, killing fifty women and wounding fifty more. The Igbo were shocked and horrified by the barbarity of the British. The colonizers seemingly lacked a fundamental sense of theatre and were unable to tell the difference between ‘ritual’ or ‘play’ action and ‘real’ action.” (You truly have to read Hairston’s whole speech to get a feeling for the depth she brings to this clash of cultures, in which no side ever behaved according to the simplistic narratives that history has assigned to them.)

Moving on to District 9, the narratives of colonialism and the clash of cultures are central to that film as well. However, colonial narratives are challenged and reinforced in very telling ways. The alien who land on our shores turn out to be refugees, not all powerful conquerors, and wind up on reservations. The protagonist is no action hero, but a mid-level bureaucrat who eventually transforms into an alien himself. However, the film almost entirely lacks women — even the main sympathetic alien characters are casually defaulted to ‘father and son’ — and Hairston picks up on Nnedi Okorafor’s criticism of the depiction of Nigerians as such psychopathic thugs that the government of Nigeria took steps to ban the film there altogether. 

“Black thugs are big business. Complex black subjectivity is not. As Danny Glover found out trying to pitch a film to multinational investors about Toussaint Louverture, leader of a slave uprising in Haiti in 1791, there ain’t much international market for black heroes without white buddies. Producers said, ‘It’s a nice project, a great project… where are the white heroes?’” 

We have to pay attention to which narratives drive and demand our attention, and which narratives get repeatedly sidelined. Hairston demonstrates this in the two plays that are included, Hummingbird Flying Backwards and Lonely Stardust. These plays share a rhythmic structure: in both an ambiguous mythic figure is searching for something: a Spirit in Hummingbird and a Traveler in Startdust. In both there is the main action of the play, with characters reacting and interacting with each other, and then interludes where each main character gets a solo moment of introspection courtesy of the questing figure. Both plays have a diverse cast, with ages and ethnicities specified in the Cast of Characters. So we know that Malik is “An African American man in his forties who teaches history at a high school” and that Andromeda is “A 20-something Carribean-American woman living in Springfield. A Singer” right from the beginning. She also places a note in the Cast of Characters reminding producers that “If race is not specified do not simply assume White or African American. Anyone is possible.” 

It is challenging to review a play that has been read but not seen — obviously the stage is a visual and auditory art form, and simply reading the words on the page may not bring out the nuances that an actor’s performance might yield. And these plays are more visual than average: each uses multimedia techniques such as a screen showing movie vignettes in Hummingbird that shed light on Spirit’s story. And the Setting section of Stardust makes me sorry that I’ve never seen it staged:

“The set is the Milkyway Galaxy, Universe: a spiral spray of brilliant stars and wanderers—planets trailing in the wake of these fiery giants and their awesome power. The Audience should be embedded in a corner of this galactic wonder. They should be aware of the vastness of the Universe as they watch the local events of the play. Occasionally comets whiz by. Periodic showers of Stardust should be arranged.”

What must the lighting techs think when a play like this comes up on the schedule? 

That said, I was impressed by the humanity on display in each of these plays. Each character gets a moment all to themselves, where they are forced to confront themselves, warts and all. In Hummingbird, Spirit is looking for hope among a random assemblage of people hiding in a video store while a gunman rampages outside. While Malik is dying from a gunshot wound we learn that he is estranged from his daughter because he (once?) hit his wife, and that he identifies with the Malian emperor Sundiata. On the other hand, Franklin, a white gay AIDS activist (the plays are decidedly pre-9/11, having been initially staged in 2000 and 1998 respectively) is also a Republican who doesn’t think too much of the black folks in a poor neighborhood. My one criticism is that while all the characters in Hummingbird are described as middle-aged, except Tangella, a pregnant 17-year-old Black Puerto Rican, they all read to me as much younger — except Tangella who seemed wiser than most (I’m sure by design). 

Similarly in Stardust, the Traveler is an alien searching for sentient life but nearing the end of its own life. When it lands in a run-down post-industrial town, it precipitates many reactions from those around it, changing their lives even as it tries to become more human itself (through observation and communication, and also through spawning Copies who attempt to become more human in a way that I can only imagine must seem very uncanny on the stage). As the Traveler communicates with each person in turn, we learn about their lives and dreams, their hopes and their fears. The fact that a science fiction play back in the nineties featured such a diverse cast and intersectional philosophy is the exact opposite of the canard that sf films almost always lag literature by a decade or two in plotting and sensibility; here Hairston’s plays seem at least ten if not twenty years ahead in the direction that the field seems to be going — with luck we’ll catch up with her soon!

Narratives matter. Concluding this collection is Dr. Hairston’s GoH speech from WisCon 36 which, having seen her speak in person, must have been intense to listen to live. 

“Every bright vision I have, every poetic, prophetic thought I craft, every story-song I sing, whoever I am on page, on stage, wherever I go and shine my light, I pour libation to the ancestors, to the people who didn’t even know me and loved me into being. I pour libation to the humble storytellers, grand conjurers, who believed in me until I was real!”

(Have I mentioned Hairston’s brilliant ability to shift her authorial voice on a dime, to inhabit whatever tone and diction makes her point most dramatically, to appeal to the reader’s inner ear to drive a point home?) 

She talks about the narrative she grew up with in the mid-twentieth century, a “science fiction baby” who believed she could do anything. She was going to make THE FUTURE, and she compares and contrasts that to the FAITH of her Baptist grandfather, who could changes people’s lives by helping them think of different narratives for themselves. And she thought of a different narrative for herself as well: “On the way to the Future in physics or math or as a lawyer of a linguist, I ran off to the theatre.” Disappointing to her family: “I’d be giving up numbers and photons and the arcane esoterica of quantum physics to engage in metaphors and intuitive, magical thinking!” She points out the dichotomy, the asymmetry surrounding “science and the arts: 

“…there are studies that show music training can improve student math scores or if you let them do plays, they’ll be better citizens…But what about — math will help you play that concerto better or be a composer whiz? Or study anatomy; it’ll help with plotting great fiction or drama. Take civil engineering; it’ll make you a kick-ass stage manager or director, a master at reverse engineering your way to opening night.

Yeah. Nobody says that.”

She points out that too often, science fiction doesn’t challenge the dominant narrative of Empire, that it makes people like Mr. Siakor too hard to see. She had to “write myself into the story,” which she has done brilliantly both with her plays and her award-winning novels Mindscape and Redwood and Wildfire. She puts narrative, political action, science, and faith all on the line when she asks her audience: “What will you believe until it’s real?”

Aqueduct Press, both through collections such as this one and through their Conversation Pieces series, have been doing a wonderful thing by combining authors’ fiction and non-fiction in single volumes. Another one I was particularly impressed with was Chris Barzak’s Birds and Birthdays, which took three short stories based on different works of surrealist art by three different women and combined them with a long essay on the erasure of women from the history of surrealist art. So many of the authors we love to read are thoughtful individuals on a wide range of topics, and reading their essays can be immense fun as well as illuminating. People who write for a living often write smoother and more readable non-fiction than traditional academic scholars — Samuel R. Delany is my touchstone on that point. The fact that Hairston is able to get as much meaning and mileage out of an (otherwise forgettable) sf thriller such as Source Code as she does out of the work of Bertold Brecht is the sign of an intellect both wide-ranging and playful. Reading these essays makes me appreciate her storytelling all the more, and I’d encourage more authors to put together collections of this kind.

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Karen Burnham is a physicist and electrical engineer working in the aerospace industry, and a book reviewer and critic on the side.