When I was in fifth grade, we studied Greek Mythology . The text we used was Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. I think the teacher cleaned-up the myths up, taking out all the naughty bits, but she sparked my interest in mythology in general. Because of this interest, I got another, more comprehensive salacious book at a yard sale for 25 cents. That was the birth of my obsession.
What cemented my obsession, though, is an obscure children’s novel, called The Gods in Winterby Patricia Miles. The teacher read the novel aloud to us a couple of times a week. It’s set in 1950s Britain and retells the story of Persephone and Demeter. The POV characters are kids, after their parents hire a mysterious nanny who always seems to be looking for her lost daughter. The mythic echoes in the story are full of wonder and terror, I remember being haunted by expertly invoked angst of the nanny (who, of course is Demeter/Ceres in disguise).
“Inscribed” is a kind of skewed homage to that book. It’s set in the present-day, and concerns the esoteric research of Byron Davies, a kind of Robert Graves-styled academic, and the legacy he leaves for his son, Simon, who isn’t interested. It’s a kind of Oedipal tale about fathers and sons, betrayal and alchemy. The figure of Hermes—as psychopomp, magician and trickster—is woven throughout the story.
Nina Simone (who I’ve written about before) was probably the inspiration behind the eponymous character, Coalrose, the final novelette in my collection Skin Deep Magic. The story is in the form of a chorus of vignettes—all recounting their encounters with Zoe Coalrose, who is a kind of dark muse/patron saint for outcasts. The cast includes: a lesbian junkie, a casting director for the Negro Follies, a tattoo artist, and gay widower. The piece is influenced by Geoff Ryman’s novel, Was, his fugue-like narrative that uses The Wizard of Oz as a touchstone. Ryman was an instructor during my time at the Clarion West Workshop in 1996, and he read and critiqued the first draft. Coalrose was immensely cathartic to write. I don’t know how to classify it—magical realism? paranormal? historical fantasy? Though it has darkness, I view it as a hopeful piece. It’s a homage to survival.
Beauty standards, when they intersect racism, are something more than shallow aesthetics. The black body, particularly in the European imagination, is othered, and dehumanized. Our skin, the texture of black hair, the shape of bodies and features has been made undesirable.Blackface depends on exaggeration of African-descended features. Saartjie Baartman’s body was presented as a curiosity, and used as a discourse on the primitive strangeness when she was cast in the role as the Hottentot Venus.
There’s a whole slew of products currently that offer to ‘tame’ natural hair and ‘correct’ skin pigments. ‘Lyes’ is a surrealistic, somewhat humorous take on this issue.The protagonist finds herself face to face with the purveyors of the ‘lie’ that that her body is defective. It’s humorous, but there is definitely a sinister undertone.
The third story in my collection, “Mauve’s Quilt” is a kind of quilted narrative, weaving two story strands together. The quilt titular also serves as functional art: an (abstract) expression of an interior landscape and a sanctuary.