How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? (2018) by science/speculative fiction writer extraordinaire N.K Jemisin is another title that showed up in my Amazon recommendations this past December. The title itself had me hooked; it amazes me that the title had not been snatched up before now!
And that cover!!! holy smokes!!
Because I teach what I do, Black History is not relegated to the shortest month of the year; I (and my students, whether they know it or not) live it EVERY DAY—as we all should. It’s the cure for what has ailed this society since Europeans first landed here.
Jemisin is a New York Times bestselling author. She is the first one in the genre’s history to win three consecutive Best Novel Hugo Awards as well as the Nebula, Locus, and Goodreads Choice Awards.
How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? is Jemisin’s first collection of short stories and is a much-needed contribution to our understanding of and imaginings about the past, present, and future of this country and this world as well as our relationship to other worlds (and lest you think we are it, I’m here to tell you, we are not).
Jemisin is a master storyteller. So, even though I am not what I call a “hardcore scifier”—my imagination only extends so far—I stuck with the more far-reaching narratives because I knew, in my bones, that there were lessons to be learned from her words. My hunch was right. For example, “Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows” is a window into a future dystopia comprised of screen names and blog posts—a world with which we are all too familiar ;).
For most of the narrative I felt like it was treading water, trying to get a handle on where the characters were located, when they were. My patience paid off. The last couple of pages provided necessary closure while leaving me profoundly haunted. Another story, “The Necromancer”, about a different time and place, is a beautifully haunting tale of dreamers and healers, hopes, and futures.
I had several other favorites: “Red Dirt Witch” is a brilliantly understated commentary on the prices that have been paid for the “successes” that we witness amongst African-Americans contemporarily. While reading “Pauline got married, dreamt of fish, and made her own daughters to carry on the legacy. After a few more years, she ran for city council and won, and nobody strung her up. Then she ran for mayor, and won that too. All the while she turned a tidy profit from her sideline barbeque business” (56) I thought about the record-breaking number of women of color who have been elected to political office in just the past year (in the age of Trump) and the brilliant speech by the incomparable Congresswoman Maxine Waters at this year’s NAACP Awards ceremony (spoiler alert: she and her family have been threatened with bodily harm and death numerous times by white, scared conservatives).
Close to the beginning of “Red Witch Dirt” the story hints at the role that hate plays in the nation’s many ills. The author: “And late one cold winter’s night, Pauline dreamt again of the White folk. She saw how lean and poorly they were looking these days, deprived of their prey, and as the hate of the world dwindled and left them hungry” (57). Not only does this line reflect the fear that keeps waaaay too many white people hostage to violence—that they will end up lean and hungry if others “succeed”, but it also provides a glimpse into the otherworldly contributors to events that reveal the devastating effects of racism and white supremacy. A prime example of such an event was the debacle that was the (absence of) governmental response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Louisiana in 2005. In the final story of the collection Jemisin takes up the hurricane, hovering between what we might consider the real world and the otherworldly.
The story, “Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters” is another one that haunted me long after I finished the last line. “Sinners” is about a young man, Tookie, one of thousands of African-Americans who did not have the means to leave New Orleans, despite Mayor Clarence Ray Nagin’s mandatory evacuation announcement, left to fend for themselves. Illustrative of the kind of community commitment that saved countless lives, Tookie rescues his elderly neighbor, Miss Mary, from sure death by, if not drowning, starvation.
The otherworldliness of the story can be found in the noble talking lizard-like character who helps Tookie. This symbiotic character is countered with an adversarial underwater creature or “haint”, as Miss Mary calls it, that represents hatred, white supremacy, and disregard for others’ humanity that made the horror of the U.S. government’s shameful response to poor, mostly people of color, possible. These otherworldly elements are intoxicating in and of themselves, but the many levels of commentary that they provide on the history of this country, its troubled contemporary reality, and its uncertain future make the whole story magical, and dare, I say, enchanting.
The whole time I was reading the story I found myself recalling one of my favorite films: Trouble the Water, a documentary that was initiated by a young woman, Kimberly Rivers and her husband, Scott, who when they found themselves unable to flee Hurricane Katrina like their wealthier, mostly white New Orleans counterparts, grabbed their handheld camera and started filming. Where in Jemisin’s story a mystical underwater creature is to be feared and avoided, in the film, the “haints” are found in Nagin, President George W. Bush, head of FEMA turned motivational speaker Michael D. Brown, the police, and military officers who first abandon, and then vilify the survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
Another favorite narrative was “The Effluent Engine” about a young Haitian woman who is on a secret mission to New Orleans shortly after the Haitian Revolution has made the United States’ acquisition of New Orleans possible. The young woman, Jessaline, is looking for someone to turn the “effluent” that she has brought with her into methane that can be used to power dirigibles, a kind of airship to be used for travel around the Caribbean region. But more than a story of espionage, “The Effluent Engine” is a love story; one that literally left me clapping my hands in joy at its conclusion.
N.K. Jemisin’s How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? is 400 pages of imaginative genius. Several stories beyond those mentioned will stay with me: “The Alchemist” about an elderly jaded chef who discovers new life in unusual ingredients, is great fun, “The Valedictorian” brought back memories of The Matrix (red pill or blue pill), and “Cuisine des Mémoires”, an homage to the incredible Marie Leveaux and a cautionary tale about the importance of letting go of that which no longer serves us left me nodding my head in agreement; a timely reminder.
I absolutely loved these stories and would recommend them to both lightweight sci/fi/ speculative fiction writers like me and the more hardcore of us out there. Whichever your thing, you’re in for a treat.
I recently heard one of my favorite storytellers, LeVar Burton read one of Jemisin’s stories and interview her afterwards, solidifying my awe. Check out the story and interview here: