My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Critics and fans tend to divide the work of Samuel R. Delany into two periods: pre-and-post Dhalgren. The argument is that Dhalgren marked a change both stylistically ( non-linear narrative, postmodern techniques) and subject matter (eroticism, power differentials, and liminality).
While Babel-17 does have a more straightforward, genre-cognizant plot, the trippy, mind-fuck aspects of his later work are very much in evidence. The story concerns a poet/linguist/starship captain(!) and her attempts to decipher a mysterious language. The prose is dense and beautiful, full of poetic images. The multicultural cast is peopled with colorful characters, and many of the trademarks of Delany’s post-Dhalgren work are very much in play: sexual and societal outcasts and complex theoretical frameworks—this time, about the effect of language on the cognitive process.
This story was commissioned for a young adult anthology that never came together. The anthology editor called me up with an idea to write an essay about an influential African American figure. I volunteered for Zora Neale Hurston for a couple of reasons.
First and foremost, she was a fascinating, larger-than-life figure. You know the cliched stories about people who “run away and join the circus”? Zora actually did run away and join a traveling “Negro Follies” show! In addition to being a brilliant novelist, she was an anthropologist and her scholarship on Hoodoo (African-American folk magic) and Haitian Voudon is considered to be seminal. She had a humorous streak, evident in her letters. She was a fixture in the Harlem Renaissance/“Negro Arts” movement, and an artist whose talent only became appreciated posthumously.
The other reason I chose Hurston was this: the house I live in now is directly in front the house where she boarded as a student at Howard University. In other words,I live in the same house (even the same number), but on a parallel street. The coincidence was too strong to ignore. The story I wrote was one of those rare “channelled” pieces that rarely spring forth (most of my writing is hard work).
“Zora’s Destiny” is a completely fictional piece that imagines Hurston’s childhood and foreshadows her life’s work and legacy. I can only hope that Hurston might have approved of this tribute.
Over at Elisa Reviews, Felice Picano, a multi-awarding winner author and member of the influential Violet Quill group (a collective of important gay male writers), had this to say about Skin Deep Magic.
“These are wonderful, fanciful, fantastic stories in their nature and yet oh so real in the truths they convey. My favorites are “Mauve’s Quilt”, “Zora’s Destiny” and “Death and Two Maidens,” but they are all intriguing and fresh and totally individual. “Lyes” is probably the funniest of the lot. It had me and my friends howling with recognition and laughter!”
–Felice Picano, Author and Historian, 2010 winner of the Lambda Literary Foundation’s Pioneer Award
What a way to begin 2015!