A Phoenix First Must Burn edited by Patrice Caldwell

March 9, 2020

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A Phoenix First Must Burn

by Patrice Caldwell
March 10, 2020 · Viking Books for Young Readers
Science Fiction/Fantasy

A Phoenix First Must Burn is a remarkable, uplifting, and interesting anthology of short stories by Black authors about Black women and non-gender-conforming people. The story styles range from Weird West to epic fantasy to dystopia, and many reflect the systemic challenges Black people face. However, the stories also give us characters who are triumphant, finding the best truth and self-actualization possible within circumstances that range from intensely constrained to sky’s-the-limit. Several characters are LGBTQIA and many stories feature intergenerational relationships, giving elders a voice within a collection that focuses on the empowerment of young people.

Some of the stories are meditations on larger issues. There’s a beautiful story on colorism and what some would do to escape the trap that is their skin color–what witchy powers they are willing to sacrifice and what societal powers they think they will gain from lightening their skin–and another that is a literal interpretation of the Zora Neale Hurston quote ”All my skinfolk ain’t my kinfolk”. There are beautiful stories about the beginnings of love and the end, some about queer love, some about family.

CarrieS: I love that so many sub-genres are represented. My personal favorite was the Weird West story (because I like Weird West). That story, “Wherein Abigail Fields Recalls Her First Death and, Subsequently, Her Best Life” by Rebecca Roanhorse, tells a familiar tale of revenge with a life and love-affirming twist. I also loved “Tender-Headed” by Danny Lore, which had minimal fantasy elements, for its generational aspects and the empathy it displays towards its characters.

The wide variety of stories allows for different kinds of strength from the protagonists. There are characters who are “strong” in that they are trained warriors, and characters who are “strong” because they have super powers, and characters who are “strong” because they are clever and resourceful and empathetic.

Maya: I loved so many of the stories! One of the standouts for me was “When Life Hands You a Lemon Fruitbomb” by Amerie (yes, that Amerie), which opened up the anthology. It’s a science fiction story with aliens, wormhole travel, and a classic time travel paradox. But all those standard science fiction tropes are in service to a larger question of the treatment of the other and when, exactly, is the other seen and treated as equal. It doesn’t take much work to see why this question is so perpetually resonant for Black folk and we, as lovers of romance, don’t need to look far to see the effects of demanding that Black people perpetually relitigate and justify their humanity.

I don’t necessarily agree, Carrie, on all the protagonists being strong, if only because I see this collection of stories as intentionally trying to move away from the three stereotypes that Black women are generally bound by in most pop culture spaces: strong, angry, and/or hypersexual(ized). For example in “Kiss the Sun” by Ibi Zoboi, which is the story about colorism mentioned above, the protagonist Solange is simply not strong enough to prevent one of her fellow soucouyants (fireball witches) from stealing the skin of the light-skinned Stefanie. Solange wants to intervene, but she cannot. She can only be confident in the power her black skin gives her, that the darker her skin, the stronger a soucouyant she is, making it even easier for her to be able to fly up and kiss the sun. She can only watch as some of the women around her reject that power for something they see as more desirable, even if it means they are weak soucouyants and may never be able to greet the sun the way they used to. She can’t stop these women, her sister soucouyants, from fighting over the skin of one particular woman and she can’t stop the larger cultural systems that place value on people based on the color of their skin. She can only love herself.

What did you think about the story about DRAGONS????

Carrie: That’s a really good point about strength, although I don’t always equate “strength” with “success.” A better word would have been “complex and compelling” (those are two words).

Also: I LOVED the story about dragons (“Melie” by Justina Ireland), including but not limited to the fat mermaids. It was a highlight for sure, in how it put so many subversions of common tropes into such a small story. It had a relatively light-hearted tone despite containing within it a massive and well-deserved sense of female rage and systemic oppression.

Maya: Definitely! The tone of “Melie” reminded me of one of my most favorite series, The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia Wrede. The fat mermaids and the murderous unicorns were so fun and I loved the ending

Show Spoiler
where, after Melie saved her kingdom from a treacherous sorcerer who had also denied her magical talents and systematically denied her access to any further education, the townspeople were suddenly like “she’s the chosen one!”

And Melie was like, remember when y’all were very fine with operating within a system that oppressed and marginalized me?

[spoiler]

I love that both she and her new dragon friend were quick to catch how toxic the whole system was, regardless of whether it was lionizing her or ostracising her, and chose to leave the kingdom rather than accept that nonsense as necessary.

For me, some of the stories felt like folktales and they were extremely resonant if only because it seemed like I already knew them inside my bones. The quickly disintegrating heart of a woman whose soul mate leaves her in “Hearts Turned to Ash” by Dhonielle Clayton and the cursed Dunn women, beautiful and ageless until they fall in love in “The Curse of Love” by Ashley Woodfolk engage with the same central theme of the dangers of love, and feel like the kind of warning passed down from older aunties and cousins to girls coming into womanhood.

Carrie: Above all, I loved that Black female or gender-fluid characters were centered in these stories. Science Fiction and Fantasy are genres that historically prioritize white men and I’m happy to see more Black writers and other people of color gaining popularity. The broadness of the sub-genres (magical realism, hard sci-fi, comic book/dystopia, fantasy) and story tones (tragic, triumphant, romantic, funny, violent) just highlights how deep that exclusion runs and how vast the storytelling opportunities are.

Anthologies like this are important for every reader to experience. As a White reader, these stories build my empathy and understanding (also these stories are FUN). There’s a quote floating around that points out that representation matters not just because people need to see themselves be the hero of a story, but that people need to realize that it’s possible and acceptable for others to be the heroes of stories. This anthology feels to me like a whoosh of expansion, the telling of stories from a new angle, avoiding the threat of staleness when stories are told about the same people over and over again.

Maya: I must read this book in the context of the recent dramas we’ve borne witness to. From the racist outright declaration of war against the essential concepts of equality and equity by the still mostly anonymous racist white women within the RWA which has resulted in likely collapse of that entire organization, to the racist agenda of Flatiron in both its promotion of American Dirt and its handling of the controversy that followed their publishing of that mediocre and racist book, to the Columbusing of rage baking by two White authors who managed to remove so much of rage baking’s essential racial justice context and responded to their controversy in an incredibly ignorant, blithe, and privileged way, it all reminds me of the concept of “masters of small worlds” introduced by historian Stephanie McCurry.

In many ways, the publishing world is small, insular, and, if we are talking about profit generation, fairly inconsequential. And so what we have are individual actors–the racist White women of the RWA, American Dirt’s publisher, the authors of Rage Baking–doing what they can to control their small worlds through the exclusion, oppression, and silencing of others whose humanity they have never contemplated. The historical lack of support for many authors of color and their stories generally extends from that same reflex, one that ultimately arises out of white supremacy.

This results in many, many stories that exist in universes with POC characters that are inconsequential, flatly written, laden with stereotypes, or entirely absent. For some authors, it is apparently easy (and preferable) to imagine a world filled with only White people. And for many readers, it’s hard to imagine a world where you can’t find books that reflect you. For some of us that has been our daily reality, one which we have accepted because it was impossible to imagine anything else.

I hadn’t realized how deeply I had thirsted for stories starring women that could look like my mother, my many aunts and cousins, or my grandmother, until I read A Phoenix Must First Burn. I’ve visited many other worlds through books and yet I’ve often felt a stranger tasked with applying herculean amounts of empathy in a desire to connect with a new world. And I’ve often visited worlds that feel like carbon copies of each other, with the same type of characters, the same type of problems, and the same resolutions wrapped together in a bland monotony that reflects the anemic nature of self-imposed isolation and segregation. While the publishing world continues to be overwhelmingly white, I can’t help but be encouraged by books like this one, by the many romance AOCs empowered by self-publishing, and by movements like #DignidadLiteraria. I can’t help but dream about what might be possible if those masters of small worlds are rendered powerless, if we truly reckon with the poisonous inheritance of the systems that uphold white supremacy.

Which, honestly, takes me all the way back around to the central conceit of the first story I mentioned in this review, “When Life Hands You a Lemon Fruitbomb” by Amerie–who knows what worlds are possible if we simply recognize the humanity in each other?

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