I’m really a fan of Ibi Zoboi‘s work. I love her writing, the lens through which she tells stories. I appreciate the way Zoboi juxtaposes the magic inherent in the world with the reality of life as an immigrant, the child of immigrants, and how hard it is to live within that culture while wanting to, simultaneously, “make it”, despite the dual preternatural and grimy lives and surroundings of her characters.
Recently, I came upon her story The Muralist, which is an intentionally colorful trek through the browner side of New York, told through the eyes of a supernaturally powered painter who does a great service for the many spirits that can’t seem to–or dont want to–get a hold on why they’ve been suddently shocked into the afterlife. The Muralist (the character) immortalizes them in his artwork, possessed of a special magical insight that allows him to see what so many others don’t. Usually, his revelation of this ability traumatizes those who behold it, so he keeps it secret…and thus lives a mean life as a vagrant on the New York streets.
Man, let me tell you about the nighttime. A blank canvas. A lame brick wall. Except for the walking dead who traveled with their own colors. It was work to be able to see them. A stroke of my paintbrush fingers in midair would reveal the aura of the closest one. A few more strokes, and the fully formed spook would appear. Crazy-ass nighttime. Like Whodini said. Except it ain’t the freaks. It’s the spooks. Soon as dusk settled like dirt over the city resting its filthy head for some Zs, the spooks came out against the city’s perpetual bright lights. Flashing all that color like strobe lights at the club. Like that stupid spinning disco ball that’ll make you throw all your shit up if you stared at it too long after you’ve had too much to drink.
Now, this isn’t a review of “The Muralist”. Not at all, I loved it completely. This is, rather, an examination of setting.
As I said, “The Muralist” takes place in New York, specifically, in Brooklyn, and even more specifically, in the grimier parts of Brooklyn. The ‘hood in “the Muralist” isn’t just a static setting. It’s a character in and of itself, constantly pressing against the characters, providing obstacles to their climb, hindering their happiness, rubbing them raw. Zoboi captures the actuality of the ‘hood splendidly. As anyone who’s ever lived in the ‘hood (or in the projects) will tell you, the very things that I described above is what the ‘hood does to you. It’s an obstacle. It hinders happiness. It’s a pit of targeted marketing of poison and struggle. It rubs one raw.
Yet, the ‘hood is also possessed of its own magic. There’s a reason why so many radio rap songs reference the ‘hood, why you have 40 + year old enterntainers who can’t leave it behind in spirit, even if they’ve transcended class.
The magic of the ‘hood, the real, actual magic that spills out into our culture, is that of resilience. Kind of like a Bravery/Faith/Protect spell all in one, the hood prepares real life characters, hardens them, tempers them. They gain a sense of combined invincibility and vulnerability.
The magic that we, (and specifically I, as a writer of color) can inject into the ‘hood is monumental. The main lamentation of opponents of Ghetto/Street/Urban lit is that it only highlights those overworked, stereotyped cultural qualities of the communities that we’ve built. But there’s a whole collection of writers, past and present, who have taken the ‘hood and spun it and molded it and kicked it back out as more than just a hotbed of despair.
I’ve just started on a dystopian/sci-fi story that looks at romance across the sweep of time as a connector between two individuals. Of prominent feature in this story, in this fractured America that has, in the words of my main character “..let the South rise again and crush the poor, black, and stupid under its boot”, is the ghetto…or rather, the remnants of it. The grime is still there, the black bottom kind of despair unique to a place that a bunch of bodies have been forced into by sons and daughters of the confederacy, a monument to their historical oppressors writ large. But there’s magic there, happiness there, nonetheless.
I think that the presentation of some larger forces that work against, or outside of the oppression of black/brown folk in the ‘hood is a great thing to do, especially in speculative fiction. To only present the ‘hood as static, a slumbering welfare monolith that only serves as a set of shackles for a protagonist to shake free of, is ineffective and unfair (of course, that’s touching on a lot of intraracial/sociocultural issues that I just refuse to address on this blog). As William Gibson said so famously, “The street finds its own uses for things“, and what is the ghetto but the street, multiplied exponentially by the struggle, the rawness, the magic of black/brown living and culture?
People of Color have proven nothing if not resourceful; I could come up with a million examples of innovations born of necessity and limited availability in my own life. Why not innovations brought to bear by a flux of pangaean life-energies awoken during a particularly keen period of emotion from a young black girl in New Orleans/Houston/Brooklyn/Chicago/North Memphis? The ‘hood’s ready, I’d think. And so are readers.
Let me end on a personal tip: for a long time, I sought to escape the ‘hood I grew up in by imagining myself as outside of it. Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and Superheroes took me out of my ‘hood and far away. It wasn’t until college and sought to reclaim and reaffirm my blackness that I started back writing about the ‘hood. And with college writing came workshops, and smarmy white people. My work was invalidated and devalued. The work of my black colleagues was picked apart arbitratily. “This can only be described as a ‘Ghetto Drama” was something actually said to me, and I was ashamed. “I don’t think dialect is an effective way of transmitting culture in writing,” was something said to one of my colleages, and she was ashamed. It wasn’t until a lot later that I realized that the reality of the ‘hood makes a lot of people uncomfortable, so they shun it. As a result, we shun it. It’s time for us (especially speculative fiction writers of color) to embrace our ‘hoods as what they are, both positively and negatively, and tell the stories that matter to us, without fear of derailment. I think that this would be appreciated by more than just a few.