Black Queer Magic in Fables & Spells

Reviewing Fables & Spells by adrienne maree brown

Fables & Spells is a collection of poetry and stories that is rich with magic and possibility, but also doesn’t shy away from grappling with the grief and maddening nature of being a marginalized human in apocalyptic times. As always, adrienne maree brown engages with the natural world, collective liberation, and what it means to be in relationships with others through the experience of change. This collection also incorporates her love of visionary fiction and the witchier element of her work with a creative flair.

I found Fables & Spells to very much resonate with other multigenre works I’ve read by women and queers of color who often transcend genre by weaving together different aspects of form, quilt-like, in their writing. This fierce resistance of categorization tends to come across as a more authentic presentation of self in a world that insists on defining, labeling, and boxing racialized folks in. In the introduction to the book, brown describes their writing as part of their “witching way,” typically channeled rather than planned, and notes that “[t]he labor I put into my work is clearing everything out of the way until I can listen. The work I do is to look at the moon, or a body of water, or some creature other than human, and wait until I understand something. The work I do is to repeat the instructions of love that want to be heard, over and over.”

This description of the author’s own work really struck me as someone who channels through writing. When I stumble upon a particularly cutting turn of phrase, something that speaks to someone else or to myself, I’m often a little surprised by it. Those moments of brilliance come through primarily when I’m fully present, able to let some of the mental cruft of simply existing in apocalyptic times be processed and set aside. From that perspective, I deeply felt this description of the labor itself being the clearing, whereas the writing itself simply comes through.

The pieces here are loosely categorized as short stories and poetry, but there’s also a thread of personal reflection that comes through in every piece, in that way that speculative genres often most clearly expose our present anxieties. brown wrestles with a number of interwoven threads—from the pandemic to the greater ongoing apocalypse of racial capitalism to the magic of Black experience and ancestral legacy.

Something that struck me especially is how these poems and stories leave something open-ended, presenting more questions than answers. I tend to find speculative short stories tough, since I’m such a nerd about worldbuilding and almost always want to read a full book in the universe teased by the story, but in a lot of ways I actually found the open-ended nature of these stories to be exactly what I need in these times. Their ambiguity invites participation and reflection, even co-creation. How do we want the story to end? And is there such a thing as an ending in the first place? After all, “the end” is simply a matter of perspective.

So many of our present challenges come from a collective delusion on the part of white America, generally speaking, that places the United States in either the 50s or the 90s (depending on one’s political leaning) at a kind of zenith of modern progress—a viewpoint that suggests we’re basically “done” achieving and should coast for a while, while also harkening back to that zenith point whenever inevitable societal change occurs. While white “progressives” may have a more multicultural view of progress than white conservatives, and criticize the longing for a “simpler time” as a racist fantasy, they similarly cling to neoliberal markets and the Clinton administration while trusting that the federal government is the answer, markets will recover, and incremental reforms are a reasonable approach. I remember reading an article in AP German class in 2002 from der Spiegel titled “das Zweite Rom?” and thinking “oh, shit. We really are an empire that can’t yet see it’s crumbling, aren’t we?” Of course, my Black and brown classmates were probably way ahead of me on that one!

Twenty years on from that moment, Fables & Spells engages with this collective delusion from a Black, queer, emergent perspective and with a point of view that is both critical and hopeful. brown engages with what it means to be the person who is often associated with hope and possibility through her previous work in a time where it’s hard to remain hopeful, and even as she explores the possibilities of the stars and realms beyond the five senses or modern science they also engage with the real struggles of the present and the violations of the past.

A story that I remember being particularly struck by in brown and Walidah Imarisha’s visionary fiction collection, Octavia’s Brood, appears again here in expanded form, recounting the tale of a near future Black Detroiter who witnesses from a boat on Lake Michigan the rage of the water itself turning against white gentrifiers and colonizers, swallowing an imported white mayor. Another story, possibly set in the same continuity, explores the power of a Black witch who is able to call upon the water in a time where Detroit city officials forbid unauthorized water-gathering and turn off the pipes, selling bottled water to poor residents at a steep markup.

While whiteness and the state are fairly cast as villains and antagonists to nature, magic, and Blackness in these stories, this is not without complexity. “Hipsters and entrepreneurs were complicated locusts,” brown writes in the first story. “They ate up everything in sight, but they meant well.” Another story explores the psychology of Miski and Fred, an interracial couple who are separated when an invading alien race provides for humanity’s needs but removes those they call “dominants” to a parallel reality until they can learn to value everyone else’s lives equal to their own. Both Miski and Fred grapple with confusion, denial, and upset as they confront the fact that Fred’s professed anti-racist ideology doesn’t match up to his deepest-felt beliefs.

While many of the stories in the collection are set in the future, some explore the wonders of the Earth itself while others reach for the stars, and brown’s writing explores the depth and the vastness of both. There’s also an engagement with history, particularly through the poetry but also in some stories. There are references to Harriet Tubman and Nina Simone, and even a story where Nikki Giovanni lives out her later years on a space station populated by Black folks. brown’s poetry is often rooted in present struggles, but with an eye towards what might be possible next, as well as prayer and ritual, including some of the lunar verses they originally shared on social media.

I love how the stories here playfully decenter humanity in many cases, focusing on not only alien lifeforms and earth-based spirits but even, in one case, the dinosaur in O’Hare airport. My relationship to place, speed, and movement dramatically changed with the pandemic, as did brown’s. In 2019 I was moving near-constantly, whenever I had the energy against the backdrop of chronic fatigue and unsolved disabilities approaching crisis levels. When I wasn’t sleeping, I was on an airplane (okay, often I was sleeping on the airplane, trying not to feel too guilty about being paid by my nonprofit when I couldn’t bring myself to get any work done in flight), and I developed a strange relationship to the zombie-like transitory spaces of airports, and especially their odd amalgam of public art installations, murals, sculptures, and weird water features.

I used to love the calming feeling of the tunnel between terminals in Detroit, for example, and it was the only moving walkway I’d actually stand still on, just absorbing the slow changing colored lights and being still(ish) for a moment. I’d try to quickly take in the schoolkids’ little art projects as I raced past them on the way to catch a train at Midway, and in Vancouver I lamented not having time to read the little plaques about the indigenous nations whose art was represented there. It never occurred to me that I might never return to one of these hubs again, that the pandemic would deposit me on the West Coast and then bring me to a dead stop, and so I felt very connected to this story where after a series of in-person conversations on the nature of grief, apocalypse, and humanity, brown reaches out telepathically to “Dino” for guidance while in lockdown, terrified that the pandemic might be our “asteroid moment.” “But… isn’t this your thing? Change, apocalypse? The collapse of capitalism? Right relationship to the earth?” Dino asks. “Totally. But I don’t want to lose the people I love,” brown replies. Oof.

Dino has many words of wisdom, but one of my favorite passages is this: “I often think that we are all experiments of an Earth figuring out her destiny. She likes living things. She likes sentient creatures that love and make family and eat. In our experiment, she learned she wanted a species that could look up to the stars, defend her from asteroids.” I love the way this response shifts the perspective, making space for both grief and hope by de-centering humanity and putting us in context, which feels so important for the moment we’re in overall.

This theme of perspectival shift repeats throughout the collection, from a goddess summoned to eat racism to an immortal future-human and a race of underground inhabitants of Mars confused by our tendencies towards planetary destruction. Another of my favorite stories features alien beings who telepathically connect with Virgos on earth, humorously confused about human tendencies and offering advice on everything from the use of bidets and proper sexual treatment of the clitoris to how to load a dishwasher alongside prescient wisdom on truth and collective consciousness. The aliens in these stories are often non-corporeal, so the focus is less on their physical differences than on their impressions of our own species, with a general vibe of “what the fuck is wrong with humanity?”

There’s also a playful queerness throughout, and a delight in the erotic as well as reverence for love of self. There’s a story about a polyamorous transqueer triad, and one about a human who chooses to become a computer partnering with a three-person network. Another features a Black queer couple in a futuristic city where humans are used to a kind of VR consciousness dominated by advertising. Together, they experience a strange kind of resonance through sex that shifts them into another world, programmed by a group of Africans who invite them and other Black folks who’ve similarly travelled to this constructed world modeled on what Africa was like prior to human disconnection from our environment. Their mission is to learn from witnessing what it was like for their ancestors to be in healthy relationship with the planet, and then bring that wisdom back to their dystopian world. There’s an obvious immediacy to this tale, given our present climate crisis and how disconnection from the planet is what’s killing us, hastened by an unwillingness to listen to Black and indigenous folks pointing the problem.

One of the most beautiful and emotionally raw stories in the collection centers on three young biracial women who come to a fabled witch’s home and find healing in a water-magic dreamworld of ancestral experiences, framed around Nina Simone’s “Four Women.” The story is hauntingly tender and simultaneously empowering, and while I can hardly speculate as a white reader, I can imagine that it will be powerfully meaningful to magically inclined biracial readers who share experience with brown herself. The love between the friends and for the women who came before them is palpable, as is is the love each woman holds for herself.

This collection does an excellent job, I think, at holding simultaneously the heartbreaking struggle of survival and the glimmer of possibility within the present moment—and particularly within the creative ideologies that spring from the magic of Black queer women and femmes. It encourages us to wake the fuck up through the mode of story and poetic reflection, using unfamiliar perspectives to make more clear what it deeply wrong in where we are and where we’re going, but also allows for the importance of honoring the little moments of play, humor, magic, and love that we’re able to access inside even the darkest collective moments.

ARC provided through Edelweiss. Purchases using the above link support me, as well as local bookstores!

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