Earlier this year, I was looking for a new short story collection to read. I’ve been trying to expand outside of the usual speculative fiction arena and read authors from other cultures, ethnicities, and genders. I feel it allows me insight into others that I might not otherwise have.
I’ve already read speculative fiction collections from Japan and China and found both to be amazing. This time, I picked up a copy of Dark Matter – A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora. It’s a collection of stories that range from the late 1800s up until the mid-1990s, all written by Black authors and compiled and edited by Sheree R. Thomas. A few I’ve heard of or previously read, like Octavia E. Butler and Samual R. Delaney, but the rest were all new to me.
I’m not sure what I was expecting when I started reading. I know I was concerned that I might read with a biased eye. I mean, I’m a white, middle-aged guy reading stories from a Black point of view. I knew I would encounter topics that would be uncomfortable. I think it’s understood that stories about the Black experience, whether it be modern or from one hundred years ago, is going to focus on injustice.
What I found, however, were stories that were much deeper, more profound, and more meaningful.
The twenty-nine stories in this collection pull from a wide array of the Black experience, and many of them hold surprises. For example, “The Goophered Grapevine”, written by Charles W. Chesnutt in 1887, follows a well-to-do man and his wife as they search for a farm to purchase in the Carolinas. It’s an interesting post-slavery tale that introduced me to a different perspective on that time period. For example, I didn’t realize that Black families could own land in the post-war South. Reading about their search and the eeriness they encounter was eye-opening.
There are also some fun stories, like the opener, “Sister Lilith”, which is an alternate take on the creation story told from the perspective of Lilith. It’s a feministic tale, told with humor and a large helping of attitude. As a side note, years ago I was inspired after reading about Lilith and wrote a short story about her. You can find it in my collection, Dark Journeys.
There are also heart-rending stories. “The Woman in the Wall” follows a woman and her family after their small plane crashes in a war-torn African nation. I felt rage and pain reading this story. It shows the power of the human spirit and the lengths one will go to in order to protect the innocent.
But this collection is more than just comedy and pathos. There are insights into Black culture over the century, both rural and urban, as well as folklore, history from a different perspective, and yes, racism and its impact on the community at large. The stories also take place in different environments. There’s the post-Civil War South in the United States, Africa, the Caribbean, and a few other interesting locales. They incorporate different dialects, different nationalities, politics, all mixed together with aliens, spirituality, vampires, androids, and some things that can’t be described.
There was also beauty. Not just the stories and characters, but the writing. With a wide variety of authors writing from different points in history, I was exposed to an amazing variety of narrative voices. I’ll admit there were three stories that didn’t do it for me, but that’s to be expected. Overall, though, the writing was fantastic, a mixture of literary and poetic stream-of-consciousness.
There was actually one line that I fell in love with. It’s in the story, “Future Christmas”, during the first meeting between a man and a woman that turns into a bit of cat and mouse flirtation and interrogation. The author, Ismael Reed, describes her as the man first sees her, writing, “She was wearing a bit of rouge on her cat cheeks, and her eyes were the color of nightclub smoke, which was fitting because there was jazz in her walk.”
I absolutely love that line. It doesn’t just describe the woman’s face, but also her overall sensuality. Just brilliant.
The collection wraps up with five essays that are also worth reading for more insight and perspective. The first, “Racism and Science Fiction”, by Samuel R. Delany, is an autobiographical narrative about his experience as one of the first Black authors in the field. He shows how much has changed over the decades, and how much hasn’t.
The second essay, “Why Blacks Should Read (and Write) Science Fiction”, by Charles R. Saunders, is a great call to arms and shows how much the Black community can contribute to, and get from, the genre.
The other essays, by Walter Mosley, Paul D. Miller, and the amazing Octavia E. Butler, are also thought-provoking.
Dark Matter is one of the top short story collections in my bookcase and has been added to my re-read list. I highly recommend picking up a copy. It was published over twenty years ago, but you can still get it from the link in the second paragraph above.