Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, edited by Rose Fox and Daniel José Older
Reviewed by Katherine Farmar
12 May 2014
By one standard, Long Hidden was a success before anyone had had a chance to read it. Funded by a Kickstarter campaign that earned more than twice the editors' initial target amount, it is an anthology born out of frustration with the narrowness of contemporary English-language speculative fiction. In their introduction, the editors express a desire to hear more diverse voices, representing a wider variety of experiences and backgrounds:
We grew up reading stories about people who weren't much like us. Speculative fiction promised to take us to places where anything was possible, but the spaceship captains and valiant questers were always white, always straight, always cisgender, and almost always men. We tried to force ourselves into those boxes, but we never fit. . . . And we began to wonder why some people's stories were told over and over, while ours were almost never even alluded to. . . . Our lives and personalities and voices were shaped by our cultures, our ancestry, and the history of people like us. We wanted more speculative works that reflected those truths.
This is an admirable theme, and the editors' aims are worth celebrating; but having high-minded intentions means nothing unless the end result is good on its own merits. So how does Long Hidden shape up as an anthology?
It makes for a beautiful package. Each story has a full-page illustration, thanks to the generosity of the Kickstarter donors. Most are straightforward depictions of scenes from the stories (the best of these are by Jennifer Cruté), with some aiming for something a little more allusive; Eric Orchard's evocatively minimal drawings remind me of the work of Shaun Tan. As to the stories, enough of the twenty-seven collected are truly excellent, and few enough are outright failures, that I am tempted to count it a success on those grounds alone. Claire Humphrey's quietly moving "The Witch of Tarup" brought tears to my eyes in its depiction of a couple coping with sudden paralysis in nineteenth-century Denmark, as did Sarah Pinsker's "There Will Be One Vacant Chair," with its take on a certain tradition of Kaballah. L. S. Johnson's "Marigolds" pushes boundaries in its depiction of sexuality and politics in pre-Revolutionary France; it is edgy and tense and erotic. Nicolette Barischoff's "A Wedding in Hungry Days" takes a Chinese ghost tradition and turns it on its head, with melancholy and yet delightful results; Benjamin Parzybok's "The Colts" takes an unflinching and yet uncynical look at soldiers left behind by a ravaging war. Rion Amilcar Scott's "Numbers" is simply exquisitely written—here is a taste:
Dredge the depths of the Cross River and how many bones of the heartsick will you find along the riverbed? So many poisoned by illusion. Don't tell me there's no island and no women rising naked from the depths, shifting forms to tantalize and then to crush. I've seen their island and I’ve seen them and gangsters love too; gangsters are allowed love, aren't we?
and from the equally exquisite "Collected Likenesses" by Jamey Hatley:
You, too, love sharp things. Long, slender hatpins tipped with opal or quince feathers. Buttery leather shoes with pointed toes. Fish that can only be consumed by an eager tongue searching for pin bones. Needles that can free an ingrown hair, mend flesh, or stab. Prick, blister, choke. A threat sidled up next to such delicious beauty.
There are no bad ideas here, but not all of the stories are equally well-executed. Kima Jones's "Nine" jumps around between past and present in a rather confusing way that obscures what is really going on, while the main character of Victor LaValle's "Lone Women" has a dark secret that doesn't really make a lot of sense, and also has moral implications that the story skates over in a rather perfunctory fashion. Troy L. Wiggins's "A Score of Roses" features heavy use of phonetic dialect, a literary trick which works perhaps one time out of a hundred—a shame, because the story underneath all the "chil'ren"s and "yo'self"s is charming.
A bigger issue—not necessarily a problem—arises from seeing all of these stories together, as a collection. They are a staggeringly diverse bunch of stories by a staggeringly diverse posse of authors, and the brief the authors worked to is broad enough to encompass the entire world and all of history up to a hundred years ago, other than the paths which are already so well-trodden as to be clichéd. And yet, for all this diversity, patterns do emerge, some of them more obvious than others. There are two stories in this collection that feature young transgender women whose gender identity is recognized by supernatural beings before they fully understand it themselves. They are, I hasten to add, both good stories; Sunny Moraine's "Across the Seam" has a dreamy, feverish quality that lingers in the memory, and Nghi Vo's "Neither Witch nor Fairy" uses the daoine sidhe, traditional Irish fairies, in a distinctive and interesting way without falling into tweeness. But they are similar enough in their themes that it was impossible to read "Neither Witch nor Fairy" (which comes later in the collection) without feeling a sensation of déjà vu. As well as this, there are two stories that feature young children in countries on the verge of being colonised by the Spanish who try to aid the resistance with the help of older magical mentor figures. Again, both of them (Michael Janairo's "Angela and the Scar" and Sabrina Vourvoulias's "The Dance of the White Demons") are good stories. Again, I can't help but wonder whether they suffer from being included in the same anthology.
More broadly, the stories are all, by design, about people who are underdogs or minorities in some way. Indeed, if there is a unifying theme to all the stories of Long Hidden, it might be that a person doesn't have to be powerful to be the center of a powerful story; the protagonists are not merely those who are on the losing side of history, but often those who are so small and overlooked that they don't feature in the discourse of "sides" at all. They are not merely peasants or women—they are conscripts, prostitutes, factory workers, slaves, refugees; the dispossessed, the disabled, the displaced. If they are made powerful by supernatural means, they are keenly aware of the limits of that power. And since all the stories are set over a century ago, and the characters are among those who have been pushed to the margins by dominant powers, there is a sense of inevitability when tragedy strikes, oppression wins, and the old magic proves inadequate to counter the new military force.
But as I said, the presence of this pattern is not really a problem, as such. It is more like a secondary theme, one that emerges naturally because of the nature of the project itself. Again and again, the stories seek out under-explored niches in time and place, shedding light on types of people seldom seen in fiction of any kind. The authors take turns to explore the history that has already been recorded by dominant groups, and they extrapolate, guess, or create events in ways that those groups would not be able to conceive of. This, too, is interesting, they say. This, too, is worthy of your attention.
The subtitle describes the stories as coming "from the margins of history," and the opening story, "Ogres of East Africa" by Sofia Samatar (one of the finest in the collection), takes that description literally. Its narrator Alibhai, a Mombasa-born clerk of Indian descent, has been tasked with cataloging the ogres of East Africa by his white British employer. He writes down their names and characteristics in large writing, and in the margins, in print too fine for his master's weak eyes, he records another story that only he will ever read. It is a small kind of rebellion, but he gains both pleasure and power from what he describes as "this writing and not-writing, these letters that hang between revelation and oblivion."
At first blush, this seems almost too pointed as a metaphor for the anthology itself, but in fact it's not quite that. After all, these are stories written in retrospect, about a history that is long past, and about events that happened (or could have happened) to other people. Unlike Alibhai, the authors are not writing down a history they are living through but looking back at a history that shaped them and re-telling it to make it broader and deeper. Thus their common theme and purpose has less to do with writing in the margins and more with reading in the margins—a necessary and liberating act, because history is always imagined as much as it is discovered. For any reader who needs it, Long Hidden is an education in how to look again at history and imagine it differently. For those already skilled in this technique, it is simply a treasure box of different imaginings. In either case, it comes highly recommended.