Oppression and Freedom in ‘An Unkindness of Ghosts’



The first few elements I was struck by in reading An Unkindness of Ghosts were the themes of systemic oppression and the resulting struggle for freedom in a people who have been dominated.

The world of the novel takes place entirely on a spaceship, that is supposedly headed with the last of humanity to a new world, now that Earth has been destroyed. The ship is divided into the upper decks, where the wealthy, white, and privileged live, and the lower decks, inhabited by poor and brown residents. To make matters even more stark and hierarchical, there is a lettering system from A to Z defining the decks. So the top and most privileged deck is A, and Z is the lowest and least privileged deck.

An Unkindness of GhostsThe protagonist, Aster, has some social capital (through knowing a high-up official named The Surgeon) that allows her to flow between decks — as long as she has specific, written approval and doesn’t miss any of her many work obligations in the process.

The threat of violence is everywhere, including sexual violence. But one thing that I really appreciated from the author, Rivers Solomon, was that they were able to expertly communicate to the reader the places in the book where sexual violence had happened or was likely to have happened, without actually taking us through the trauma of it. Yet, somehow, we still feel the weight and fear of these assaults and threats of assault.

I also appreciated that Solomon challenged the gender binary through An Unkindness of Ghosts. Default gender pronouns for all children change based on what deck one is on, and (SPOILER ALERT) Aster and The Surgeon come to experience their respective genders on a spectrum by the end of the book.

It’s striking to me how revolutionary it still is to express gender in this way, especially when talking about science fiction, where the use of imagination should push against constrained tropes and thinking. Yet, so much of science fiction and fantasy has the challenge of being stuck in similar prejudices and dynamics as the real world.

Another form of representation I was happy to see was mental illness, as expressed through several characters, most notably Aster’s close friend Giselle. Giselle’s character isn’t airbrushed. She’s not conventionally “nice.” She causes herself and others harm. She struggles with demons. She’s violent. And yet, she gets to be just as much of a full-bodied character as everyone else, with her own needs and desires and relationships as the plot moves along.

Finally, there’s the story itself. The ship, The Matilda, has supposedly been hurling through space for 300 years on its way to the new planet, and some strange things are happening aboard the vessel — a power outage, a poisoning, changes in leadership, and an uncovering of hints left by Aster’s mother.

Underneath it all is the suppressed, but powerful desire of the lower-deckers to have better living conditions, to be free. It’s a theme that has played out endless times throughout literature and film history, but the take in Soloman’s book feels just as fresh as any.

It might sound cliché, but I felt a lot of resonance with Octavia Butler works in reading Solomon. I thought of Butler’s Lilith’s Brood collection, where an alien race is not constrained by two genders. And I also remembered Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, where oppression and the burning desire for freedom constantly butt heads. I’m hoping that works like Soloman’s will get the recognition they deserve as being on the vanguard of modern science fiction.


The Strange Reality of a Burning State



2017 was the year that climate change became real to me.

I don’t mean that I didn’t believe in it before. I’ve worked on local climate change policies. I trust the science and the scientists who have been telling us that the earth is warming. I’ve read my Octavia Butler. And I’ve been exploring fiction of my own that examines what our future environment could look like.

What changed recently was my intimacy with climate change. Last year was the first time I thought about it as something that could tangibly impact my life.

I started out feeling sympathy, but not personal concern, the October morning when I learned of wildfires in Northern California. I idly scrolled through Twitter, seeing images of bright orange flames and reading about the dry and windy weather leading to their spread.

Later, I saw a tweet that mentioned the city my grandparents live in. I started Google searching to see where the fire was expanding and realized that it was only a few miles from the neighborhood where they are.

I thought about the grassy, dry hills just behind their development, where cattle range and spindly trees perch in small clumps thirsting for water. I thought about how quickly a fire could rage and cover those miles. I thought about how dry the summer had been. I spent the next day repeatedly checking the fire perimeter, searching the name of their neighborhood on Twitter, hoping nothing bad was about to happen.

They were worried too. Though outside of the evacuation zone, they voluntarily left their house for a few days until firefighters had the border more under control. Fortunately, they had the connections and resources to temporarily relocate. And in the end, the fire never got to their area. But, there were people who lost to that fire. Homes. Livelihoods. Loved ones.

Watching and hearing about the experience from afar was surreal, and reminded me that there are limits to the ways in which we humans can protect ourselves against natural disasters once they’ve begun. That the earth in its backlash cannot always be contained.

In December, a round of fires hit Southern California where I live. It was the time of year when my East Coast friends started to talk about snow and cozy nights and how cold it was outside. In contrast, my social media was again filled with flames.

Geographically, these fires were much less of a threat to me than the others had been to my family. I had no real fear that I wasn’t safe. But I still jumped at that emergency alert that everyone in LA County got on their phones. Maybe I’m a dramatic person, but I still spent a minute imagining what I would take if I woke in the middle of the night with an order to go.

It was unsettling to see videos of people driving past smoldering hillsides on their early morning commutes, even though the LA fire itself was relatively small. The massive 405 freeway was shut down in one direction. You could see smoke billowing from the north. You could hear sirens.

I kept texting my friend who lived closer to the Thomas fire, the one that became the biggest in modern California history. He said there were people dancing in the ashes raining down and pretending it was snow. We talked about the perversely beautiful sunsets you get when the surroundings are burning down.

Now that we’ve finally been doused by a some much-needed rain, the areas that the fire went through have been host to deadly mudslides. The plants that held the soil together have been burned away, and not enough of the water can get absorbed.

Climate change is almost undeniably a factor in all of this. The percentage of forest that burns every year in California due to wildfires is up by 1000% compared to 1984. Seasons have been getting hotter. Drought is intensifying. And all the while, we’re living under an administration that is hellbent on putting profit over the environment and our need to coexist with it.

As I said, I’ve long-since been someone who believed in climate change, but now I understand the urgency of it.

We are too quickly hurtling toward the point of no return.

Header image: by Andrea Booher, from the FEMA Photo Library, via Wikimedia Commons.


Q&A: ‘Drapetomania’ Explores Blackness and Social Justice through Poetry

Drapetomaniawho do we charge with arson?
the one who cooks the crack
or the one who smokes it?
who do we blame for all of that blaze?
-from “3rd degree black” in Drapetomania by Sami Arlenis-Frederick

Black poetry is a rich field, with so many luminaries to light the way. Yet, often when I read black literature, I experience a feeling of trying to “catch up,” to read everything that has come before me and understand all the ways that blackness has shaped and been shaped by this country.

With newer waves of poets, it seems there is a beautiful bridge building between older generations and younger ones, between twentieth century experiences of blackness and twenty-first century realities.

In Drapetomania: All of the Ways in Which I am Black by Sami Arlenis-Frederick, I found a new poetic voice sharing her truths of race, gender, and more.

Sami pitched me her poetry book with its opening words:

in 1851, American physician Samuel A. Cartwright
determined the negro slave’s desire to flee captivity
was due to a mental illness in which he titled

I was immediately ensnared by the idea of a collection of writings interrogating this idea, and asked her to send me the full review copy.

In Drapetomania, I found poems that are presented simply, yet dive deep and cover so many current issues in blackness, from gentrification and violence to kinship among black women and beauty standards. The progression of the poems is a bit like a slow burn, and in fact fire imagery comes in multiple time throughout the collection. There are also little doodled illustrations that go along with several of the poems, adding to their fullness.

Sami herself speaks so much more eloquently about her work that I ever could, so I wanted to share an interview between us, where she talks about her inspirations for the collection and the importance of poetry in her world, as well as for social justice.


Q&A with Sami Arlenis-Frederick, author of Drapetomania:

Sami Arlenis-Frederick

Where can people find you and your work online?

Drapetomania: All of the Ways In Which I Am Black is currently listed on Amazon, and I have an Author’s Page on Goodreads.

I have to admit that I read more fiction than poetry, but something about the description of your collection really hooked me. What draws you to use poetry as a medium for exploration and expression?

I’ve always been extremely fond of poetry — traditional and spoken word alike. I started writing short poems when I was about 11 or 12 years old, and then I started writing pieces to enter poetry slams when I became a teenager. My mother and grandmother were storytellers. They were always able to express a sentiment, or articulate a point of view to me using words, by putting life lessons into stories and poetry, and I believe that is what inspired me to attempt to use poetry as my own form of expression.

I love that you start off with information about the word “drapetomania.” Where did you first encounter that word, and how did it come to inspire your book of poetry?

My stepfather mentioned the word Drapetomania to me when I was about 15. Its meaning struck me so hard that I wrote several poems titled Drapetomania all throughout my teenage years. I lost a couple of the poems and some of them I felt were too mediocre for such a powerful title. I held onto the word for years, I incorporated it into so many of my conversations and my writings. I wanted everyone to know the word and know its meaning. I wanted the world to know that once upon a time, a black person’s desire to be free was considered to some a form of mental illness. And when writing this anthology of poems titled Drapetomania, I wanted the world to know that we still currently face the issue of being classified as mentally ill or “crazy” or “odd” as black people who strive to free themselves from stereotypes.

You cover a lot of themes in your work, including family, gender, self-image, violence, drug use, and gentrification. Did you know when you started writing the poems that you wanted to cover those issues, or did it happen naturally?

I definitely feel it happened naturally. I decided to finally let myself speak honestly about all of the things I’ve personally felt in my black skin and I believe as a result of this, each topic naturally found its way into this anthology.

What is your favorite poem from the collection and why?

“3rd Degree Black” is currently my favorite poem within the book. While writing it, I felt I was able to speak about so many personal fires I saw so many of the black people in my life set, and the ones they allowed to burn them down. I wrote this poem and wept.

Which other writers/poets/historical figures do you most admire?

I absolutely adore Maya Angelou. Lucile Clifton, Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde are a few of my forever favorites in terms of poetic inspirations. Living in Harlem, there were also black people to discover to inspire me and I grew up reading quotes and writings from members of the Black Panther Party, Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, and all of these other people who were constantly helping to shape shift many of my ideas and the ways I viewed myself as a black girl. I’m always stumped when asked who I admire the most because I feel so many people, both living and dead are directly responsible in many different ways for the person I currently am. It’s become so hard for me to try to measure my admiration.

Do you see poetry as a medium for social change? Why or why not?

Definitely. I feel the many different genres of literature each hold unique responsibilities regarding their role in evoking social change. With poetry, I feel its sole purpose is to bring social change. People do not read poetry just to find out what happens to a character at the end or to learn the reason behind why some birds fly South for the winter. People often read poetry to feel someone else’s ideas — to think about other people’s feelings. You read poetry or you listen to it and it causes you to think about the things people feel and it causes you to feel a certain way about the things people (poets) think. Poetry puts you in a position to understand. I think that is the driving factor behind any social change — executing a sense of understanding amongst people that helps bring about things such as empathy and compassion and respect.

You chose to close your book with mwisho, the Swahili word for “end” — was there a special significance to that decision?

One of the first books I ever owned was a children’s book titled, Furaha Means Happy: A Book of Swahili Words, that was given to me when I was around six or seven. This was my first solid introduction to Africa, the continent. I had always heard of Africa in a way that often made me think of it as a country. So to learn about Kenya and Swahili, and to learn that they were only one of the many countries and languages of Africa, it blew me away. I started writing poetry a couple years later and I titled a lot of my poems Swahili words I learned from different books. Incorporating Swahili at the end of this book acted as a quirky personal remembrance of the Swahili I started so many poems with when I first started writing poetry.

Anything else you’d like to share about your work?

This collection of poetry elicited an incredible amount of courage from me to share with the public. As a black woman, I never want to misrepresent black people, whether it be black women or black men. So when I’d write about being black, I’d constantly ask myself, Am I representing my people in a negative mannerism?I asked myself that for so long that it got to a point where I silenced myself and lost my voice in an attempt to speak only glitter and gold about black people. It took me a long time to realize that the only responsibility assigned to me when writing about the black experience was to tell the truth. When I finally let myself talk about things like colorism and violence and drugs, I felt emancipated. I learned how to critique all that I praise with this collection of poetry.







‘The Queue,’ Illuminates Barriers to Liberation and Community-Building

I wanted to start with a quick shoutout to PodCastle, which won Best Fiction Podcast of 2017 from the Academy of Podcasters last month! As the only local editor, I somehow ended up onstage accepting the award on behalf of the full team. In many ways, I am just getting started in my role at PodCastle, but I’m incredibly impressed by the commitment of the lead editors to uplift diverse writing voices, both on the editorial and submissions side.


I recently finished The Queue, a book where both physical and internal barriers have dramatic impacts on the communities described.

The Queue is a sci-fi dystopia, written by Egyptian journalist Basma Abdel-Aziz, and translated by Elizabeth Jacquette. It follows a man named Yehya, who was shot during an uprising that the repressive government denies ever happened. Because the government denies the uprising — referred to only as “The Disgraceful Events” — Yehya can’t legally get the bullet removed that lodged into his body when it happened. Instead, he must wait in a miles-long line with all the other citizens who need permission for something from the government. Along the way we learn about the lives and motivations of Yehya’s doctor Tarek, and other people from their city as well.

The queue ends at a giant gate that seems never to open. The government, referred to by the gate that symbolizes it, remains a mystery on the other side. Over time, The Gate gains more and more power over citizen’s lives by forcing them to get permission and pay fees for all sorts of everyday activities, including even window shopping.

The QueueI have to admit that I’m woefully undereducated about the events of the Arab Spring and its aftermath, which the narrative is in some ways based on. But, I deeply appreciate that literature is coming out about the day-to-day realities of political turmoil in Egypt and countries like it. (With a speculative twist, of course.)

What I found most chilling about the book was the portrayal of an unfeeling government represented by the physical, inanimate wall. The characters experience the ultimate sensations of powerlessness at being stuck on the other side of it, wondering what is going to happen next.

It’s actually a theme that comes up in my short stories fairly frequently. I’m obsessed with big institutions like the military or government bureaus, and with how they are experienced by the individual people both within and outside of them.

Another theme that really intrigued me from The Queue was the demonstration of how people accept their circumstances of oppression, even when there are hints that they have an ability impact the current situation by acting as a community.

We see the hints in the daily activity that happens in the queue. People talk to one another constantly to convey information, rumors, and encouragement. There grows a complex, informal system of how to reserve your place in the queue, dependent on how well you interact with those ahead of and behind you.

One woman, while waiting her turn, even starts an impromptu coffee business serving those who spend all day waiting in the line. Marriages are formed from the queue; people live, grow sick, and die, all while in the queue. Yet no one really questions whether this is the way things have to be or stops to take stock of the community assets that are being developed while they wait.

You can’t help but wonder, could the people in queue have liberated themselves and taken back their sovereignty if they all worked together, using their individual strengths, resources, and systems of communication?

Part of the brilliance of the book, however, is that you understand why the characters don’t do this. Abdel-Aziz makes you understand the settling-in of the paralysis preventing a stronger uprising from happening. When you are in pain or in fear for your life and the lives of those you love, it’s pretty tough, if not sometimes impossible to see beyond that to a bigger whole.

To do so would also require a deep faith in humanity — a belief that if you take that first step, throw that first rock, build that first block of a new vision, that others will move with you. Because if they don’t, then you are dead in the water.

I want to say how much I appreciated reading a translated work. Far too often, I ignore literature from other countries, because it’s not in English. But there are amazing works of speculative fiction out there in all sorts of places, from China to Romania to Russia and more.

If anyone has recommendations for more translated speculative fiction I should check out (I’ve got my eye on Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem), let me know here or on Twitter: @stefanicox.


crow pose

Navigating the Body Through Roxane Gay’s Hunger

crow pose

Trigger warning: This post discusses harassment, sexual violence, body image, and disordered eating.

I already knew this situation.

I heard his heavy footsteps behind me, his gruff voice calling at me, demanding my attention. He shouted for me to turn around, and he grew angrier and angrier that I wouldn’t, that I wasn’t stopping for him, wasn’t acknowledging his interest. My body was a lighting wire of tense energy.

It wasn’t the middle of the night, but it wasn’t the middle of the day either. There were people out, yet no one was taking up the sidewalk on the last stretch to my apartment building.

He followed me around the final corner, and I sped up, hoping to put distance between the two of us. My keys were already out of my bag and clutched between my fingers, ready. For what? I reached the glass door of the building and hastily swiped my key fob. I entered and walked toward the foyer stairs that would take me up to my apartment. I heard the front door close. Then, I heard the buzzing sound of the gate mechanism stop. I let out a breath. The door was locked.

I heard a loud thud.

I whipped around to see that the man, still outside, had thrown himself bodily against the door in an effort to get my attention. His angry eyes burned through the glass. All I could see was pure rage at being ignored. He banged his fists again with demanding force.

My heart jackhammered in my chest, as I went upstairs and bolted my door. I did not sleep well that night, though I had no real belief that the man would stick around, or be able to find me even if he got in. It was his eyes that wouldn’t let me fall away from consciousness, the frenzied possessiveness I saw there from someone I had never even met.


I understand how lucky I am that this is the way that story ends. Too many people, especially women, have stories that end differently. Roxane Gay is one of those women.

Her book Hunger is a lot of things to me. On one level, it is a book about sexual trauma, and the many difficult methods that hurt people use to cope with trauma (overeating being a main one in Gay’s life).

It is also a book about ownership, namely what it means to try and own your body in a world where so many people will judge it, make comments about it, and compare it to other bodies—again, particularly if you inhabit a female shape, or a fat shape.

I was blown away by Gay’s honesty in exploring these topics. She lays out her story simply, without embellishing or minimizing the shame she often feels. I think it takes a lot to share in that way as a writer and a human being.

Hunger mattered to me, because the pursuit of owning my own body is intrinsic to who I am as a woman of color, as a feminist, as a writer, and so much more. It’s part of why I look to meditation and body-oriented practices like yoga to center me in life. Every time I tune in to my physical sensations I learn something new about who I am, what I’m feeling, and what I want.

Trying to be with our own bodies is a lifelong journey, but thanks to Gay, at least we have some snarky tweets to keep us company along the way:

Roxane Gay tweet_small

Header image: Dave Rosenblum via Flickr.