weeks months, I’ve been trying to do a Thursday Readin’ post on Nisi Shawl’s short story “Maggies.”
“Maggies,” from speculative fiction author Nisi Shawl’s 2008 Tiptree award-winning short story collection Filter House, will make any self-respecting Sable Fan Gyrl cheer and vomit at the same time. Set in the future-verse colony of New Bahama, the narrator is a young, gender-neutral protagonist sent to live with their father after their mother falls ill.
The story is filled with elements drawn from our history and memory of colonialism and slavery. There is the forced labor of world-building and construction (e.g. terra-forming) performed by the “Maggies.” There is the spectre of a (slave) revolt that occurred some many years ago but which haunts the management of these lifeforms by human beings with the threat of resistance. There are the explorers and scientists (read: drivers, managers, naturalists and colonials) who we may presume are human, making the reader human (and a colonial) by association. There is the diminutive sobriquet tied to these lifeforms, a naming that–like slave or colored or negro or even black or Aunt Sarah or Minny–carries with it the weight of work, surveillance, heavy lifting and perpetual service.
There is also the idle insanity that accompanies the young narrator’s day. You can sense the corruption here. Even as an adolescent, something about this society–where it is okay to subject others and live off of the products of their labor but also erase them and that labor, and claim those items as yours, and do it by force if necessary and maintain it the same way–something about this society is wrong. Something here is rotten.
But I haven’t been able to write much more than that. I haven’t been able to wrap my mind around how much is happening in the piece and not sound like a broken record–or an Afrocentric cliché.
The fundamentals of enslavement, the tropes and stories, the small violences and petty spats and the shame–it is all still here. It hovers over us and around us all the time. Inarticulate but screaming.
I keep trying to think my way into the Moment when everything changed, hoping that will make it easier to explain and write about. That day or night it became okay to use black bodies as insurance, as real estate, as investment, as inheritance. Owning another person’s labor is an ancient endeavor but commodifying other human beings is not. Add African descent–and even more, add blackness to the equation–and all of a sudden you are dealing with a much more recent phenomenon. Historians are trained in the intricacies of contingency. Our charge is to mark time by Moments when Everything Came Together. When things Become.
But even letting my vision glaze and cutting my eyes to the left, I still only see the quickest, gasping shadow of movement. And then its gone. The problem, these tortured texts seem to whisper, is not so easily explained as all that. Which means the solution will not be either. The solution will not be a martyr or a President or a dime to place between my knees or Holy Communion. The solution will demand much more. It will be epic. If we could only find our way too it.
If there is one Moment that can unravel the knot that is this century and a half post-emancipation, then I wish it’d show itself. This maze is long and dark and cold. And we are so tired.
[Sigh. This the goofy sh*t I think about on rainy days. Lawd…..]
The Credits: Besides Filter House, you can also find “Maggies” in Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, edited by Sheree Thomas (which is the sequel to Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora–get this!).