Ancient, Ancient by Kiini Ibura Salaam
Reviewed by Richard Larson
05 October 2012
The stories in Kiini Ibura Salaam's debut collection, Ancient, Ancient, from feminist science fiction publisher Aqueduct Press, are imbued with the urgency and expansive scope of imagination that we've come to expect from the best of science fiction. Salaam takes us to distant places but makes them familiar in unsettling ways, ably transforming the fantastic into a mirror through which we can examine—and reckon with—our own struggles.
In the opening tale, "Desire," the titular force is owned by a god, Faru, and his sister, the goddess Quashe. Another god, Laloro, is hunting Faru to claim desire for himself, so Faru passes it on to a human, Sené—a woman tired out by life, passionless and exhausted by her responsibilities—for safekeeping. She is thus rejuvenated, awakened to the power of sexual desire and its ability to refresh her life, as well as her relationship with her husband. She becomes caught in a struggle between the gods, and after Quashe takes back the power of desire from Sené, her husband at first can think of nothing but Quashe—he follows the desire wherever it goes—but Sené doesn't see herself as having lost something yet: "She held her hands to her face. They looked just as they always had: dry, cracked, swollen. Yet today, they had done new things. They had stained themselves with berries, lured a husband away from a goddess, and painted the walls of her dwelling with the juices of her own coming" (p. 12). Her hands—these hands newly imbued with desire—bring Sené's husband back from the paralysis that Quashe leaves him in. This story describes sex as a life force, and when Faru, restored in the end to his former power, goes to take revenge on Sené, he sees her and her husband making love (on their own terms, without the "power of desire") and is paralyzed in wonder: "How could they be touching each other in that way?" (p. 17). What he thought was only his is now theirs as well. Desire isn't such a secret power after all, but something we can all tap into.
The universality of desire becomes one of the themes to latch onto when navigating the stories that follow. Following "Desire" are three linked stories about a group of "unimaginable beings . . . among the flaming gases of the stars," who float, "cocooned and comatose" (p. 54) until they receive assignments from the ancestors to come down to Earth and drain nectar from certain unsuspecting humans. Salaam doesn't lay the ground rules for us, expecting us to do some of the work, which is a refreshing approach to worldbuilding. "Of Wings, Nectar, & Ancestors" introduces us to WaLiLa, one of these unimaginable, floating beings, on what seems to be a typical assignment: seducing a man and extracting from him what she needs before returning home to the ancestors. This story is at times a meditation on difference; WaLiLa is confounded by how human cultures can be so separate from one another, so isolated from humanity's general diversity, speaking so many different languages, both literally and figuratively: "i can say i from part different in haiti & he not know difference" (p. 25). There's a reverence for the ancestors as a unifying force. When WaLiLa’s assignment is providing her with the nectar, he feels "like he was having a spiritual experience . . . his thoughts, his very being, was flung out into the cosmos. He was transcending his plane, transcending even WaLiLa's plane, & communing with the elders—his ancestors—& it felt good" (p. 27). The extraction is clearly likened to the sex act, that which ultimately furthers our lineage, allowing us to even have ancestry at all.
"MalKai's Last Seduction" capitalizes on the seductive nature of the act of extraction through the story's languid, sensual style. Cori, the object of MalKai's seduction, is a tightly wound, closeted gay male, who worries that if he succumbs to MalKai's advances, "everything I have done up to this day will be called into question" (p. 46). The narrative explores how much of our identity is tied up in our sexuality at the same time as it contemplates the nature of seduction, the power of desire to influence the way we look at our own lives: "The seducer stares ahead toward the end of the road, with his head cocked at a devious angle, calculating how long it will take to get there. The seduced looks behind at the beginning of the road and, with his brow creased in concern, wonders how it slipped so far away" (p. 48). Cori is at a crossroads between his old life and the possibility of a new one, and sex is a particularly illuminating forum to illustrate the many complexities of his situation. "Certainly he could live life without knowing what it's like to be fucked under an oak tree by a velvet stranger" (p. 50)—sure, but who would want to?
Each of these stories is about communication, likened often to the physicality of a dance. WaLiLa walks onto the dance floor and lets her body "slip into only talking i trust" (p. 31), and the creatures like WaLiLa and MalKai have a form of bodyspeak, their own unspoken language, which is so intensely felt that when WaLiLa watches a woman performing a ritualistic dance, she "wonders if the woman is conscious of the communicative function of her movements" (p. 57). But by "At Life's Limits," more has been revealed of this fantastic world of the nectar collectors, and WaLiLa finds herself faced with an impossible assignment: to extract nectar from someone who knows what she's up to, and who can trick her into becoming human, never allowed to turn into an ancestor, which she has always expected to happen when she dies. She learns that there's more available to her than just collecting nectar for the ancestors; she can live a full life of her own as well. But this isn't an abandonment of desire—rather, she learns that she has much more to discover, as she is promised that "Earth is not without its delights" (p. 80).
"Debris," a very short piece which is also one of the collection's most affecting, shows us a grandmother who wastes away until nothing is left of her but her skull, which her family situates in their living room facing the kitchen, two of the most vibrant sites of domestic family life. Then we realize we are not in a world we know, as the children of the family descend to Earth for the Days of the Dead where they plan to sneak into cemeteries and play tricks on unsuspecting humans. Upon arrival, the narrator immediately begins to tremble uncontrollably, which "happens whenever I find myself in close proximity to humans. They have the best emotions. Their feelings are so sharp and hysterical and self-propelling. Their auras make me vibrate" (p. 83). And then, when she stumbles in the graveyard and is covered in dirt, she becomes paralyzed, and her siblings return home, abandoning their sister to the marigolds that a little girl begins to place around her body. She dissolves, just like her grandmother, and finds that there's "breath beyond the bones"—"We are more—so much more—than elegant skeletal spectacles. I will find a way to whisper it to Grandmother—may your cranium be eaten away. There is something else beneath the bone. Something indestructible. Something nothing, not even debris, can destroy" (p. 84). In these four short pages, Salaam boils down her main preoccupations into a beautiful paean to ancestry and the power of the spirit, human or otherwise, to overcome its previous limitations.
Only a few of these stories are firmly grounded in the world we all recognize. "Rosamojo" tells of a young girl being abused by her father who enacts a final, desperate revenge, and in the process explores the nature of forgiveness—the idea of moving past the crimes of our predecessors. "Battle Royale" is a time travel story in which the narrator bounces around in time to a variety of dangerous places and situations at the behest of his grandfather, who aims to teach him something about the world. "History has been the grace that allows my body—my true body—to remain strong and unscarred" (p. 102), the narrator claims, and history indeed is the central concern of this story which contemplates the nature of freedom, and to whom it's owed. "Marie" tells of a woman who struggles to feel at home in New York City—"some defunct beast that could be dismantled and restructured but never completely destroyed" (p. 165)—and instead succumbs to nostalgia for her Creole origins and the world she has left behind. She hides her blackness, a part of her that she feels only those back home can truly see and understand, and becomes a stranger to herself, someone who "pressed her hair, wore stilettos, and favored taxi cabs" (p. 173). These stories all take measure of race and trauma, past and present, characters learning about who they are by reckoning with who came before them.
The world as Salaam paints it is full of harsh and beautiful things: she insists that we must venture into dark places to emerge as who we are meant to be. The best of her work is imbued with subtle interventions which ultimately provide the reader with sharply felt revelations, the secrets within the text that we must each decipher independently and which speak to each other to reveal a larger project. The stories work from mutual touchstones: the illustration of sex as an act of power; a visceral relationship to the human body as a mode of currency as well as a site of rebellion; and the examination of the struggle to find oneself, particularly as a woman, in a world that offers so few options. Few writers pay such focused attention to a specific set of ideas and concerns, and this accomplished collection provides a vigorous exploration into Salaam's unique vision.