The OF Blog: Rose Fox and Daniel José Older (eds.), Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History

Friday, July 04, 2014

Rose Fox and Daniel José Older (eds.), Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History

1.  Apul Apul 

A male ogre of the Great Lakes region.  A melancholy character, he eats crickets to sweeten his voice.  His house burned down with all his children inside.  His enemy is the Hare.

[My informant, a woman of the highlands who calls herself only "Mary," adds that Apul Apul can be heard on windy nights, crying for his lost progeny.  She claims that he has been sighted far from his native country, even on the coast, and that an Arab trader once shot and wounded him from the battlements of Fort Jesus.  It happened in a famine year, the "Year of Fever."  A great deal of research would be required in order to match this year, when, according to Mary, the cattle perished in droves, to one of the Years of Our Lord by which my employer reckons the passage of time; I append this note, therefore, in fine print, and in the margins. ...] - from Sofia Samatar's "Ogres of East Africa," p. 11, iPad iBooks e-edition)

A little over a year ago, there was a Kickstarter campaign for an anthology of speculative fictions devoted to the theme of covering those groups, ethnic and sexual for the most part but not strictly limited to those, who have been pushed to the "margins" and have had their stories, set in our world, pushed aside in favor of other, more dominant narratives.  I contributed to this campaign, curious to see what sorts of stories editors Rose Fox and Daniel José Older would select.  What I discovered in reading it is that nearly two months after reading it is that it is a mixed bag, with some stories that appealed to me, yet the whole being less than the sum of its parts.

The expressed theme of Long Hidden, that of telling speculative stories from the perspective of those whom others have labeled as "minorities" or as "outsiders," is very broad and the 27 contributors rightly take different approaches toward exploring this theme.  The opening story, Sofia Samatar's "Ogres of East Africa," takes the most direct approach, writing two stories within one, a narration of a white hunter's catalog of ogres hunted and killed in East Africa, as well as the Indian-born transcriber writing in the margins his thoughts about the expeditions and his own treatment.  Samatar's use of a dual narrative reminds me most of Nabokov's Ada and she does an excellent job in illustrating the complex interplay between the hunter and his transcriber.  It is my favorite story in the anthology and the one that I believe takes the most chances in terms of narrative structure.

Unfortunately, there are relatively few others that are as adventurous in utilizing narrative style as another means of discussing the diverse characteristics of their characters.  Often I found myself experiencing expository writing in too great of length within the majority of the stories.  Exposition is often necessary in order to bridge certain narrative gaps, but too frequently I felt it was relied upon in order to clue in readers to the cultural backstories.  This is exacerbated perhaps from reading Teju Cole's Every Day is for the Thief and Rivka Galchen's American Innovations, as both writers explore issues of identity and cultural interaction without resorting overmuch to exposition in order to explain things to readers.  Sometimes short story writers, particularly speculative fiction ones, depend too much on explaining things in detail.  Occasionally, and I believe this would have been beneficial to several stories, any dissonance that would have been created as a result of WASP/Western/male/straight/etc. readers not immediately grasping the import of what is transpiring could have been more than made up with this increased sense of difference.

This criticism does not mean that these stories were actively "bad" by any stretch.  However, I do believe stories like Thoraiya Dyer's "The Oud" could have been stronger if the first-person narrators could have "spoken" their tales without seeming to be providing another, more whispered, aside to a supposedly non-comprehending audience.  When authors cast aside this, such as in Troy L. Wiggins' "A Score of Roses," the stories resonate much better because the authors trust the readers to read between the lines, to take these tales in as conversations between the marginalized and not as stories in which the dominant group(s) are also to be witnesses.

For many readers, these concerns will seem minor in the context of the narratives themselves.  Certainly there are several praiseworthy stories, such as the ones I've already mentioned or stories like L.S. Johnson's "Marigolds," but I was left with this sense that Long Hidden could have been tighter, more focused.  Yes, there are some tales that may be chosen for "best of year" lists or anthologies, but as a whole, the anthology felt flat to me after reading several other novels and collections by PoC, albeit more realist than speculative in nature, that cover some of the same topics and themes in a deeper, more substantive fashion.  This is not to say that Long Hidden is a poor or even mediocre anthology, but rather that it was underwhelming in comparison to some of the other work that PoC writers have put out this year alone.


Anonymous said...

It seems to me very fair to criticize a story for being overly expository, but it seems incredibly unfair to criticize how deftly a short story deploys exposition, and how deeply it develops its themes, in comparison to whatever novel you just read. There's abundantly more space in a novel both to show and not tell, and to elaborate themes with subtlety and depth; all this is much harder--and not even possible, to same extent--in a short story. Like complaining that a spoonful of ice cream didn't give you the same experience as a 30$ fudge sundae.

Kai in NYC

Lsrry said...

Yeah, but in my defense, the two works I chose were a novella and a collection, and the novella is episodic in nature, which lends itself to being broken down into short story-sized fragments.

But I disagree that short stories cannot display subtlety and depth of theme, unless Alice Munro or Lydia Davis's stories, for example, do not possess these. I just demand a lot out of stories before I consider them to be very good or excellent. This anthology has a few that are so, but the majority just do not and I wished that it was not so, that the majority of the anthology, if not all of it, could have been as excellent as the ones I cited. Those do possess the qualities of the two other books I cited.

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