MAKE BELIEVE is the only reason I’m here right now.
— The Bone Man in “Because of the Bone Man”
I recently participated in an astrobiology symposium involving scientists, novelists, philosophers, historians, and theologians at Princeton University. Astrobiology, to paraphrase NASA’s Carl Pilcher, is the interdisciplinary quest to understand the potential of the universe to harbor life. One of our tasks at the symposium was to consider the function and the power of literature in this marvelous cosmic quest. Given the possibility of discovering microbial life on Mars, Europa, or elsewhere in our solar system and of discovering an exoplanet with biosignatures, what might the literary imagination contribute to the astrobiology endeavor? What do our stories tell us about the significance of the search for extraterrestrial life or about encounters with the (alien) other? What insights can storytellers offer NASA about our ethical responsibility to, say, indigenous microbes on Mars? NASA spends a great deal of time, creativity, and money to avoid contamination of microbial life that might never evolve to “conscious intelligence.” Is this a waste of resources? And how does all this relate to expressions of life on Earth?
For over 40 years, I have been asked to justify the arts, to explain why stories are important and useful, to argue for the time and money writers and musicians and dancers need to get good at what they do and realize their dreams. Despite the miracle of stardust making music, dance, and poems, the notion persists that the arts are fun but not essential, an enjoyable luxury but not part of the core curriculum for our continued existence in the universe. And although I have been championing the dispossessed my entire life, speaking for microbial life forms as the subjects of their universe is a more recent engagement.
At this symposium, as I argued for the significance of sacred/mundane play, I had the good fortune to be reading “Because of the Bone Man,” the final novella in Kiini Ibura Salaam’s When the World Wounds, a collection of speculative short fictions. I thanked Salaam for the Bone Man’s inspired response to a wounded child in New Orleans who quit engaging in make-believe at seven. Standing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation and facing the selective neglect of black and poor communities, Bone Man tells the young cynic: “Make believe is the only reason I’m here right now.”
After the levies break, Bone Man hangs at the edge of life and death, confused, uncertain, despairing. Yet in his imagination he lives beyond devastation. To heal the children and decolonize the future, Bone Man calls up the spirits of the living and of the ancestors for carnival, for Mardi Gras. Bone Man doesn’t have any answers, and he can’t figure a cure for despair, but he believes in the power of people coming together to make sense out of catastrophe. Bone Man feels that performance is a chance for the devastated to recover and rediscover themselves. Mardi Gras is an embodied understanding of life as a grand cosmic improvisation. Look at all life does with dirt, water, and sunlight. We are bacteria. Making it up as we go along, wounding and healing ourselves, falling over cliffs and reaching out for the stars, life invents passions and possibilities that devastate and surprise. Bone Man knows natural disasters and socially engineered neglect do not define us. He believes in his bones and ghostly spirit that carnival is a communal performance of who we mean to be. Mardi Gras celebrates the potential of the universe to harbor life.
In When the World Wounds, Salaam writes stories to let you feel life’s philosophical, theological, and cosmological potential in your mind/body. Centering on the dispossessed, she writes an ode to the imagination and the arts. In five short stories and one novella, Salaam explores hope and life after the apocalypse. She speculates on the wounding of life forms that are often deemed insignificant, like those microbes who might never evolve “conscious intelligence.” In “The Malady of Need,” she writes of a prisoner on a (space?) shuttle, hands shackled yet imagination zooming to arousal and orgasm. This character is trapped in electrical restraints and perhaps also trapped in hopeless desire. But when his captors come to exploit his bodily riches, he remembers the contour of lips, the scent and feel of skin. Tortured to the edge of consciousness, he defiantly recalls the taste of tongue against tongue and freedom. “Touching him, you would have remembered what the sky looked like, the taste of fresh fruit, the feel of water on your skin.”
In addition to shuttle prisoners and the New Orleans folks who hold to each other after Katrina, Salaam writes of wolves being tamed with drugs and electricity and young insectoid aliens who defy powerful elders to chase elusive and forbidden mysteries. She conjures up forgotten women who fight slavery in 1820s New Orleans and a sister on today’s mean streets trying to survive that walk home through male predators. Salaam does not write badass superhero characters who save the universe with their special powers. Her mundane characters tap the erotic, creative power of life to defy the captivity and subjugation narratives imposed on them. Her drylongso characters are not disposable objects in the reality fantasy of superior others. Salaam even offers up the perspectives of rocks. “Because of the Bone Man” starts with this: “The rocks loved the touch of air on their sharp points.” These rocks are defiant sensuous beings hunkering at the edge of a canal. They hate it when Bone Man sprawls on their pointy surfaces and smothers their sensibilities. The rocks prefer the grace of empty space.
Salaam’s stylistic choices serve her narrative aims. Her arresting descriptions of sensations, emotions, and the natural environment allow for a bodily experience of the characters and their stories. Salaam speaks from the point of view of the dispossessed and of the rocks, trees, and air molecules. She turns a dead exploitable universe into one filled with lively, sensuous subjects. “Just because I’m a ghost to you, don’t mean I gotta be a ghost to myself,” Trina proclaims in “Because of the Bone Man.” Modifiers occasionally weigh down Salaam’s prose, blunting the impact of a sentence or paragraph. Tighter editing would clarify and enhance her poetic style. Still, When the World Wounds is a healing performance. Salaam posits subjectivity, imagination, and creativity as essential to post-apocalyptic survival. When tragedy strikes, when irreconcilable forces take apart the world, Salaam insists: we need carnival.
In my course on speculative theater and film, I teach Les Blancs by Lorraine Hansberry, a 1960s play about a fictional African nation on the verge of revolution after years of brutal colonization by a fictional northern European nation. I also teach Georgina Lightning’s Older Than America. Lightning’s film chronicles the healing experience of a contemporary community in Minnesota’s Indian Country that uses the Sun Dance and other traditional rituals and wisdom to heal from colonization and genocide. When I ask my students if Les Blancs or Older Than America are post-apocalyptic or dystopic narratives, most say no. A lively discussion ensues. It takes students a moment to perceive Western imperialism and colonization as a dystopic narrative from the point of view of Africans and Indians. The colonized are initially seen as casualties of progress (akin to the microbes on Mars who might be devastated by earthly contamination during our space adventures). Our marvelous present seems to depend on the demise of Indigenous African and American civilizations. The dispossessed “natives” fall victim to the forward movement of history, a regrettable but inevitable trajectory. In When the World Wounds, Salaam tells stories that confer significance to those whose tragedies have frequently been unrecognized. Writing from the perspective of the ordinary women, poor people, plants, prisoners, animals, and the lands that are colonized, she disrupts dominant narratives and asks us to reconsider notions of post-apocalyptic dystopia.
Salaam also begins with tragedy rather than ending in its gloom and doom. She writes tales of survivance, to use Anishinaabe writer and theorist Gerald Vizenor’s term. Salaam is in the SF&F poetic and prophetic tradition that includes Octavia Butler, Jenn Marie Brissett, L. Timmel Duchamp, Sheree R. Thomas, and Vizenor. She writes about impossibility specialists who improvise a way out of no way. In a celebration of life’s erotic, creative capacities, Salaam carries her characters (and readers) from the nowhere of devastation to the somewhere we call up from our imaginations and make real with our bodies. When the World Wounds offers no tragic victims or evil overlords engaged in a post-apocalyptic spectacle, but complex characters reinventing their spiritual and cosmic integrity. Make believe is what we do with dirt, water, and sunlight.
When The World Wounds engages central SF&F questions with power and grace: In this vast universe, how can we (human, alien, animal, tree, insect, rock, microbe, water) survive each other? How can we heal from the trauma of our differences? How can we be different together? For Salaam, our imaginations, our rituals and festivals, our dances and fantasies offer spirit healing and an embodied understanding of life’s miraculous potential in the universe.
This is what art does.