Review: Black Girl Magic Literary Magazine #1

black girls are magic lit mag 1

There are quite a few venues that specialize in the publication of short-form speculative fiction, but the Black Girl Magic Literary Magazine is rather unique among them. The Editor-in-Chief, Kenesha Williams, has a pointed mission:

Black Girl Magic Lit Mag is a literary magazine created to address the lack of diverse, non-majority voices and characters in speculative fiction, especially Black women’s voices. Black Girl Magic Lit Mag believes that by showcasing stories featuring Black female voices and characters we can create a reflection of ourselves in the literature that we love, in a world where our images are constantly controlled, shaped, and distorted by those outside of our experiences.

The Black Girl Magic Literary Magazine isn’t the first short fiction market to focus on black voices and characters, or women’s voices and characters, but it does seem to be the only one that focuses on work by authors and featuring characters at the intersection of these identities. I’d heard about the magazine on Twitter, and was initially excited. A magazine helmed by a black woman focusing on publishing stories for and by black women was and is very necessary. There is a lack of collected black voices at many publications, despite constant discussions on diversity and the need for a multiplicity of cultural experiences in fiction. Black people exist in these spaces, but our presences–both in editorial and as contributors–are scattered and sparse. The Black Girl Magic Literary Magazine, on its face, seeks to change that.

Literary magazines thrive on publicity. Publicity breeds support, which brings necessary resources: money, visibility, subscribers, and authors. The Black Girl Magic Literary Magazine suffered from a fair bit of negative publicity at its inception, and I think that this publicity may have harmed what could have been of the magazine’s impact and reach. My intention is not to come down as supporting either side of the controversy that surrounded the Black Girl Magic Literary Magazine’s launch…but as a black author of speculative fiction, I do understand the importance of having a market for short fiction helmed by a black woman with a specific mission of hosting stories written by black women and about black women. I am not an especially powerful presence in the speculative fiction community, but I do have a platform from which to speak, and I choose to dedicate this platform to speaking about this literary magazine. Even though I believe in the magazine’s mission, I also believe in objectivity and craft; this will be a fair and honest review with the aim of bringing visibility to the magazine.

I will be reviewing the first issue of the Black Girl Magic Literary Magazine this month. Issue #2’s review will come next month, and hopefully, I will be able to catch up with the magazine’s quarterly releases schedule in time to review issue #3.

The five stories in the first issue of the Black Girl Magic literary magazine are not arranged around any particular theme, except for the one that is obvious: black women deserve to have their stories taken seriously in this universe and the next. The pieces in this issue reflect that. Some of them deal with creative searches for justice, some with finding one’s place in a world that they don’t seem to belong to. These are not safe stories. They are messy, violent, emotional, true. Collected, the stories issue illustrates a breadth of experience that is rarely afforded to black women. That is why this magazine, and these stories, are necessary. The stories do not have word counts (to my knowledge). Succeeding each story is an interview with the author that discusses the piece. I will not be discussing these interviews here. Now, who’s up for reviews?

Black Girls are Magic Lit Mag Volume 1 Issue 1

Stories

“Nautical Dawn” by Miri Castor

Miri Castor’s “Nautical Dawn” is about acceptance. Acceptance of new surroundings, acceptance of fate, acceptance of change, and acceptance of responsibility. The main character, Opal Charm, finds herself in possession of a gift that must be used for one thing and one thing only, and the thing that it has to be used for has world-shattering implications. This is a fantasy story that shifts its character between worlds, and we are struck by the need for her to adjust to her new life, and the solemness of her longing for the old. When she finally does adjust, it mirrors real life–forceful, violent.

I love the care that Castor has put into her world (we all know that I’m a fan of fantasy systems, right?). There are large things afoot, and the characters all know of the import. I’m of mixed opinion on the way that magic is handled. “Nautical Dawn” opens with an explanation of the magic that girds Charm’s world, and it is an interesting explanation rooted in a sort of scientific subversion, but we don’t see that subversion when it comes to the magic’s depiction. I also found myself a bit confused at the presentation and motivations of the character who serves as Opal’s trainer, though he confused Opal as well. So perhaps that presentation was on point?

Ultimately, where “Nautical Dawn” suffers is in its status as a piece of Castor’s larger universe. It is very obviously pulled from a longer piece of story, and it took a bit of effort for me to make some of the lore and character connections without having that larger work to lean on. I would have liked to see some tighter editing on this story, because there is a definite gem inside of it, but I was bogged down by having to try and guess at what kinds of connections to a larger world I was supposed to be making. Also–and this becomes a bit of a theme throughout the magazine–the piece could have used a solid round of copy edits to get rid of pesky grammatical and spelling errors throughout. Overall, this is a good read, but I hope that it’s part of a serial (which it does seem to be, as we get a story about one of Castor’s more compelling characters from “Nautical Dawn” in issue #2) so that the reader can see more of Castor’s world and make those important connections.  

“Bang and a Whimper” by Satya Tara Nelms

There is only one world that can correctly describe Satya Nelms “Bang and a Whimper”: Intense.

Most dystopian stories take place in ruined worlds full of white characters, but Nelms tackles that head on by giving us a story of resistance, survival, and ultimately, of holding on to hope in the face of great adversity–something that I think black people know a lot about. The story follows Maia, a survivalist in a world wiped nearly clean by humanity’s selfishness. Like in any good dystopia, humanity has devolved into primal factions, and Maia finds herself captured by the worst of these. As I said above, this story is intense, and we see Maia subjected to many horrors while in captivity. Her captors are men, and they use all of the torture methods at their disposal: bondage, psychological terror, and ultimately, sexual violence. Maia fights against all of these–including the women who have given up fighting. In fact, her most pointed act of rebellion is against a prisoner who she finds a connection with, a character who Maia feels did not adequately prepare her for the horrors that she faces.

We are then treated to Maia’s decision to provide for someone else what was denied to her: safety in the form of a warning. And we are forced to watch as Maia’s treasured companion takes her life into her own hands, which manifests itself as a suicidal attack on her captors. The piece ends on a hopeful note, just as we think that Maia may have given up on resistance.

Characterization is where Nelms shines. Each of the women in her story acts based on their personal convictions, which they’ve held on to in what seems to be an untenable situation. It hurt me to see Maia unable to grieve the death of her friend because she’d already lost so much. Again, however, the story is impacted by a lack of an editorial eye. We are treated to long stretches of exposition at the beginning and in the middle of the story, and I found myself rushing through what should have been compelling parts to get back to the immediate stories of the women, who were the most interesting things there. Also, I didn’t find the Fringe, as a faceless mass of rapists, particularly well-rounded antagonists–though it seems like the intent was for them to stand in for the baser nature of humanity in dystopia, which is a thematic bit that has been wearied a bit, I think, by things like The Walking Dead. A good read overall.

“A Song of Vengeance” by Andrea Stanet

Allow me to shed a bit of objectivity here: I am absolutely in love with this story. Andrea Stanet’s “A Song of Vengeance” is a story that tackles the United States’ history of (and dedication to) racial violence, and does it using magic, technology, and a troubled legacy. This is a very, very black story, with callbacks to Orishas and slavery and ancient, ancestral magic. And through all of that, it is cathartic, timely, and hopeful all at once.

“A Song of Vengeance” begins in turn of the 20th century New York, where we are introduced to Annabelle, a wonderful singer who is on the run from an unruly mob of racists. Annabelle is killed, and her death, and the reactions of the characters around her it is the crux of this story. Annabelle’s father is somewhat of a tinkerer-wizard, and with the help of a not-too trustworthy friend, we learn that he has created a set of super-weapons to deal with the specter of racial violence: mechanical suits of avian armor that are powered by ancestral necromancy. It is here that we are introduced to Annabelle’s sister, Josephine, who opposes their father’s decision to reanimate her dead sister.

Things, obviously, don’t go as planned, and we follow Annabelle’s spirit as it descends into longing, confusion, and retaliatory violence. Annabelle is a whirlwind of destruction, armed with a tainted version of her singing voice, razor-sharp talons, and enhanced senses. Josephine’s POV sections give us a glimpse into what it’s like to have to doubly mourn a loved one, while hoping that their spirit can truly be saved. The story ends with a lot of dead men and a tender reconciliation.

“A Song of Vengeance” was far and away my favorite story in this issue. Everything, from the magic to the characters to even the use of violence and sex just worked. I’d originally been thrown off by the switching of the POV characters, but it comes together beautifully at the end. This is one story that everyone should read.

“Mutts of Kalunga” by Jennifer L. Meacham

Jennifer Meacham’s “Mutts of Kalunga” is a piece that shows how far humans are willing to go to survive. And in her piece, she explores that on several levels. We are introduced to Oya Mossi, a refugee from a ruined earth and a member of a group long abandoned by human allies (points to Meacham for having the fate of these black humans be a nod to the plight of the real life Kalunga). Trapped on a hostile world and bound for an alien’s dinner plate, we follow Oya as she sets a plan in motion to escape her confinement. 

Oya has been captured by an alien race that she calls “mutts,” and that are also known as Biloko. Oya, however, is not one to stay in captivity, and puts into motion a plan to escape. However, we only get to see the first part of her plan, which ends in her gaining access to a tool–a Biloko talon–that will help her in her attempt to escape.

Oya is distilled badass, which she’d have to be based on what we’re told about Kalunga’s environment and the conditions of humanity’s survival there. However, aside from that detail, and the information that we get from her in an exposition-heavy introductory section, we don’t learn much about her, her history (we learn that she’s trained all her life as a “Suk Warrior” but we don’t learn anything else about them), or her goals, other than escape. Nor do we learn much about the Biloko, the other human captives that they are keeping, or about Kalunga itself. This story reads as very unfinished, and is more of a scene than anything else. I would love to read the rest of it, if it is available somewhere.  

“Origin Story” by Dawn Vogel

Finishing up issue one is Dawn Vogel’s “Origin Story,” a tale that blends the zombie apocalypse with the stirrings of superheroes, two things that I’d never thought i’d see mixed up in one story. The story centers on Satchel, a young woman who finds herself up a tree during the height of the zombie apocalypse. She’s rescued by some not-so friendly redneck truckers (a nice nod to the fact that people aren’t even colorblind during the zombie apocalypse) and we see very quickly that something is different about Satchel.

Pete and Keene, the not-so friendly (but decent) redneck truckers devise a scheme to get her through the zombie horde to a doctor, and it is here that Satchel’s abilities are confirmed. She has superpowers, and is willing to use them for the benefit of Humankind. Satchel’s story is one of acceptance as well, and brings to mind the old adage “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility,” a theme underscored by the actions of the characters around her (and also because this is a superhero story).

As much as I liked Origin Story, it suffers from sort of the same drawbacks as “Mutts of Kalunga.” It seems more like an opening scene to a larger work than a fully realized piece in itself. I would have liked to see Satchel in her superhero identity performing acts of heroism, perhaps a year or two into her career, in a deeply different sort of world. “Origin Story” is a great read, but could have potentially been greater.

Overall, the first issue of Black Girl Magic Literary Magazine is a good showing that perhaps could have been stronger with a greater, more diverse selection of stories and some tighter editing. Also, I would be remiss not to mention that two of the stories in the first issue are authored by white women. While this doesn’t hamper my enjoyment of the issue, or the authors’ stories, I was a bit shocked to see stories authored by white women in this magazine. I would love to get a peek at the mag’s slush pile, to divine any submission trends that can be divined after two issues and the end of a submission period (I find myself wondering, is the lack of published fiction from black women in short speculative fiction markets due to black women declining to submit their fiction to markets, or because they’re just not being selected? A question for another day). Still, despite a few necessary fixes, The Black Girl Magic Literary Magazine is occupying a unique space in the mostly white world of magazines that publish short speculative fiction. I, for one, would like to see them grow, and I am as inclined to give them as much support as the magazines that are currently in my rotation.

If you are interested in subscribing to the Black Girl Magic Literary Magazine, or you want to buy back issues (including the one that I reviewed here), click here. Let me know what you think about the issue.

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