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Fantasy, sci-fi, and horror have much in common. This is lucidly obvious in a new young adult story collection, A Phoenix First Must Burn: Sixteen Stories of Black Girl Magic, Resistance, and Hope. These tales from different authors, edited by Patrice Caldwell, all feature black heroines. And there is lots of magic.
Two area authors, Elizabeth Acevedo and Justina Ireland, focus on that magic. In Acevedo’s “Gilded,” a girl enslaved on a Spanish plantation meets a recently captured boy, different from those born into slavery: They “came here with their feral hearts and unbent spines.” The heroine has negotiated her manumission with her captor; she also has supernatural powers concealed from her white oppressors; she was “born with the ability to bend copper and bronze to my will.” She also communes with metal and knows that the machete in the young man’s hand “murmurs blood, blood, blood.” “Gilded” lyrically conveys the tenor of enslaved life with its reliance on indigenous medicine. Despite much magic, the realism remains believable.
Ireland’s story, “Melie,” recounts a sorcerer’s apprentice’s attempt to secure a vial of mermaids’ tears for a spell. The treacherous high-sorcerer, Hansen, is white, while most of the inhabitants of Melie’s city are black. “It wasn’t until Hansen came to our land, that people began to speak of some folks being better than others.” Hansen disdains Melie and assigns her drudgery rather than teaching her spells. She longs to perform magic to “prove that I should be taken seriously,” as a sorceress and more than “a mere hedge-witch.” So she searches for a dragon, defends her city from an invasion, and unleashes a herd of homicidal unicorns. “Melie,” unlike “Gilded,” leaves realism to the realists. It is pure fantasy.
One sci-fi story’s narrator, in “When Life Hands You a Lemon Fruit Bomb,” undertakes a military mission through a wormhole to bring humanity’s fight against an alien race to its home planet: “What I do out here in the boonies of space means the difference of life and death for my uncle.” As in most of these stories, family figures prominently. In “The Witch’s Skin,” a fantasy about islanders in a post-nuclear apocalyptic world, family drives the young, pregnant heroine to revenge on a murderous witch. Similarly, the fantasy, “The Rules of the Land,” presents a girl whose father is a fisherman and whose mother is the daughter of a sea goddess. The girl is haunted by family memories. “The Curse of Love,” a magic story about a family of beautiful, eternally young women, centers on a niece and her aunt.
One story, about an antisocial teenager who meets a vampire, “Letting the Right One In,” suggests the intersection of race and family psychology. “My therapist, Dr. Freeman, once told me that some people are just sadder than others…that it’s okay…but try telling that to middle-class Black parents, who were one generation away from segregation. One heartbeat, one connected thread, to sharecropping and slavery.” Other stories approach this topic much more obliquely.
“Kiss the Sun,” also about islanders, recounts how an island’s witches shed their human skin nightly to become fireballs that roam the town, devouring souls. These anti-heroes allow a new witch, whom they at first consider too light-skinned, to join them, and though they prey on locals, they are admired. “To the island people we are the sounds of the warrior ancestors who succumbed to the great big revolution that drove out the colonizers centuries ago.” In another touch of magic, these witches love the sun and race to kiss it at every dawn, an activity that darkens their skin.
In this, as in many of the other magic stories, traditional horror monsters—vampires, witches—are heroines. The stories flip the horror story structure on its head, by making the monsters heroic outsiders who find hopeful ways to deal with their social exclusion. Here, vampires and witches are the characters with whom the reader is meant to identify, for whom the reader is meant to cheer, and who, in the end, are the saviors and avengers of their communities, lives, and families.
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