In Short: Fiyah Issue Two: Spilling Tea
Fiyah Issue Two: Spilling Tea (art by Geneva Benton)

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice. And I give absolutely no fucks.

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April 13, 2017

Fiyah Issue Two: Spilling Tea (art by Geneva Benton)

“Spilling Tea”, by Geneva Benton

After reading the first issue of Fiyah, I knew I was going to have to buy the second as soon as it became available—and luckily for me, I only had to wait about a week. For once, my slacking ways have paid off! Now, though, I get to wait along with everyone else for the next one. I clearly need to rethink my strategy here. Or invent a time machine.


I liked the second issue a lot (theme: Spilling Tea), but I don’t think it was as strong as issue one; however, issue one set a very high bar and it’s to be expected that not every story will hit its mark.

The stories that really stood out for me were Maurice Broaddus’s “Vade Retro Satana”, Khaalidah Muhammed-Ali’s “Talking to Cancer”, Christopher Caldwell’s “The Beekeeper’s Garden”, and Eden Royce’s “Graverobbing Negress Seeks Employment”. I didn’t find the stories from Russell Nichols and Wole Talabi especially compelling and while there are things to like about them both, but I felt that neither was as fleshed out as it could have been—Nicholls’s story in particular.

But much like the first issue, the second issue of Fiyah is very much worth your money and time.

Note: spoilers live here.

“Vade Retro Satana” by Maurice Broaddus

Maurice Broaddus’s “Vade Retro Satana” is a story about faith and duty. Lieutenant Macia Branson is a soldier in a religious order whose purpose is to keep the peace while the indigenous inhabitants (the Ouje) are forcibly converted to Christianity. She’s partnered with a man named Rhys who has nothing but contempt for the villagers and their religion and culture.

Macia is a lot more compassionate, in part because she herself was once in their place. When the church came to her planet, they weren’t even sure Macia’s people had souls (my face: o_O) because of the language barrier—but because her parents had a facility with language, they were brought to capital and rose to a certain degree of prominence. And when her parents were killed on a mission trip, she was raised by a new family and eventually, entered The Order herself.

This all comes to a head during a violent confrontation between The Order’s peacekeepers and a local guerrilla group—and Macia is put in a position where she has no choice but to choose whether the rebel leader lives or dies.

I found this to be a compelling story about the corrosive effect of colonization—not only on the targets, but also on the perpetrators. In this story, it’s very clearly a cyclical process—those who were colonized and converted now colonize and convert others. I also really liked the way Macia’s faith is portrayed—it’s not a certain and sure thing, but rather unsteady as Macia sees the violence that conversion is doing to the Ouje people. There’s an ambiguity to this story that I found quite evocative and made me want to read more about Macia—not only her history, but her future as well.

“Talking to Cancer” by Khaalidah Muhammed-Ali

“Talking to Cancer” is a gorgeous and haunting story by Khaalidah Muhammed-Ali. The narrator, Layla, can talk to cancer—literally. She has a clinic that takes the worst cases, the people for whom all other treatments have failed and she talks to their cancer and asks it to stop—and it usually does.

In this case, the woman who comes to see Layla is her husband’s lover. Layla tells her that her cancer is stubborn and as Hiba comes week after week she becomes weaker and weaker.

Interleaved between Layla’s interactions with Hiba are other scenes in her life: when she discovered she could talk to cancer, when she met her husband, and her unlikely friendship with a man she gave metastatic lung cancer to in a moment of rage. Layla has a tremendous power and at time she struggles with it—she only gets one chance to talk to a person’s cancer and if that chance is used up, there is nothing she can do.

I really loved this story. Muhammed-Ali has a way with words that is clear and direct, and even while Layla is lost in her sorrow and rage, I never lost the sense of her as a complete human being. She’s complicated, as all people are complicated. The emotional journey that Layla takes through this story, from anger to forgiveness is powerful and I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to read it.

“The Hard Shell” by Russell Nichols

Russell Nichols’s “The Hard Shell” is a surreal mashup of nursery rhymes and noir. It’s told from the point of view of Humpty Dumpty, a down on his luck private detective. He accepts a lucrative assignment from Mother Goose—pop star turned nun—to find out who killed Hickety Pickety, a black hen.

As Dumpty investigates, he runs into nursery rhyme character after nursery rhyme character—after a while they start running together, to be completely honest. I felt as if the pace of the story was overly frenetic and that Nicholls wanted to cram in as many puns and allusions as possible—this weakens the story.

There’s some great thematic stuff going on in it that I really wish had been fleshed out more. There are so many details just thrown out there—the banned intermixing of birds and eggs, the four and twenty blackbird pie-bomb are two that really stick in my mind.

Then there were two plot points that really rubbed me the wrong way because of the shallow way they were included: Humpty’s wife’s affair with Hickety Pickety and Tom Piper’s mental illness. Both these things are not explored in the way they really needed to be to not read as being there for shock value. It comes off a bit exploitative, which is a shame, because there was so much good about the rest of the story.

Ultimately, this story needed more room to breathe and develop depth as my main takeaway was that it was a clever conceit and not much else—the authorial intent appears to have been an allegory of sorts and if I stretch I can see it, but it just doesn’t work.

“The Beekeeper’s Garden” by Christopher Caldwell

Christopher Caldwell’s “The Beekeeper’s Garden” is a sweetly scented and floral punch in the gut. This is a good thing. It’s about a young girl, who is called Sarah by the other character in the story, an older woman who asks to be called “Mother Bea”. Sarah isn’t the young girl’s name and she refuses to call the older woman mother, so calls her “Other Bee” instead.

Other Bee wants to make the young girl over in her image—she uses a straightening comb on her hair, and as it burns her scalp and hair, it also burns away her memory. The young girl can’t remember her name and she’s written a few names in blood on the wall of her room—these opening scenes are heart-rending and I found myself completely pulled in.

After stealing some of Other Bee’s honey, the young girl asks if she can go outside. Other Bee agrees but tells her that she should talk to the bees who are good and industrious and not the flowers, who lie. So naturally, the young girl chooses to talk to the flowers and ask them their stories, with which they readily oblige. As the young girl listens to the flowers’ stories, she slowly remembers who she is—and it is as she’s making her way to the gate that Other Bee appears and tries to stop her.

This is a story about reclaiming an identity which has been taken away from you, about assumptions that have been made about you and your life based on nothing more than appearances, and coming into your own and claiming your power. It’s an incredible piece of writing. I have a feeling that this story will be particularly resonant for people whose identities and stories have been stolen—as was done to Black people when they were enslaved—but even as someone who hasn’t had that degree of lived experience, I found “The Beekeeper’s Garden” to be extraordinarily moving.

“Home is Where My Mother’s Heart is Buried” by Wole Talabi

The first thing I noticed about Wole Talabi’s “Home is Where My Mother’s Heart is Buried” is that the green-skinned shapeshifting empathic alien has the same name as a character from Final Fantasy VIII: Quistis. My mental image of the character is a severe light haired woman in a pinkish outfit wielding a whip. This was not helpful as I tried to immerse myself into the story.

Tinu and Arin, originally from Nigeria, are immigrants to Mars. Tinu’s much older than Arin and took care of her after their mother died in a freak accident and their entire support network dissolved. Arin wants to go back to Nigeria for an extended visit, but either wants or needs Tinu’s permission—this may be an aspect of a familial dynamic that I’m not familiar with: the text makes it clear that Arin is a self-supporting adult, so this tension read oddly to me—not so much Tinu’s disapproval as much as Arin’s apparent willingness to give Tinu that degree of power.

As Tinu has talks over the situation with Quistis, she comes to realize that while she’s feeling trapped by her history, Arin is also feeling trapped. This realization is facilitated by Quistis and her empathic abilities.

I really struggled with this one: it starts off with an infodump and the infodump never really seems to stop. The descriptions of the setting and of the people—especially all the people at the spaceport—are wonderful, but there really is very little story happening. It’s punctuated with conversations Tinu has with her lover, Quistis, and with her sister, Arin—but all the movement in this story is internal. This is not my favorite sort of story—it’s well-written, but I just didn’t find it engaging at all.

“We Laugh in Its Face” by Barbara L.W. Myers

“We Laugh in Its Face” is a creepy and incredibly well-executed story from Barbara L.W Myers. The speaker is one of the scientists who developed a vaccine to cure death and she’s basically obsessed with her co-developer, a woman named Annie.

They met in high school and went on to college and grad school together and everything was going their way—all the funding they needed, promising careers, everything. Their lives seems to be charmed and they are achieve their goal: to defeat death or, rather, to stop senescence. This is one of those unintended consequences thing, because it soon becomes clear that not dying is not the same as not aging or losing parts of your body—in some essential ways, this is a zombie story from the POV of a zombie.

At the beginning of the story, I found myself quite sympathetic to the narrator, but by the end, they were making my skin crawl: their sense of entitlement to Annie and her life, the fact that neither she nor Annie thought about the ethical impact of such a vaccine—this is laid bare near the end of the story where the narrator muses that it wasn’t for them to decide if such a thing should be developed but whether or not it could be developed.

Despite my dislike of the narrator—which I’m fairly sure was intended, she is not at all sympathetic—this is a story with a lot to recommend it. The language is evocative and the contrast between the easy successes and the horrible consequences is well worth pondering. I’ll be thinking about this story for a long time.

“Graverobbing Negress Seeks Employment” by Eden Royce

From the very first sentence of Eden Royce’s “Graverobbing Negress Seeks Employment” I knew I had to read more—it’s that compelling and the voice is just that good.

Miz Prosper is a conjure woman who does rootwork and she specializes in raising the dead. Not permanently, but long enough so the families can get closure and bury their loved ones on hallowed ground. Most of Miz Prosper’s work deals with victims of lynching—she sees a tremendous amount of pain and suffering in the world. What she brings their families isn’t justice, not by a long shot, but peace.

When she’s offered a job to retrieve a boy who disappeared many years ago, she takes it—even though she knows it’ll be dangerous. The man who owns the property is more likely to shoot first and ask questions later, but Miz Prosper has a pragmatic outlook and she needs the money, so she takes the job.

What happens, next—well, you’ll need to read the story. It’s about finding that which has been lost to violence and returning the lost to their families. It’s about an African-American folk magic tradition and the importance of those traditions to the community—the knowledge and wisdom that is their alone. And at the same time, there’s nothing precious about it—this is a story about people who struggle to get by and do what they can to survive. I’d love to read more about Miz Prosper—that job at the blacksmith’s sounded as intriguing to me as it did to Miz Prosper.

It looks like the next issue of Fiyah will be out this summer–the theme is Sundown Towns. I’m very much looking forward to it.

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