Talk Like a Man
by Nisi Shawl
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted October 12, 2019
Nisi Shawl's upcoming story collection, Talk Like a Man, is the latest in the Outspoken Authors series from PM Press. It will be published next month, November 15, but I received an advance e-ARC from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. It's weird and wonderful, but unfortunately much too short. Only four stories, one essay, and an interview conducted by Terry Bisson. Still good though, and recommended.
The shortest of the stories, "An Awfully Big Adventure," is the only one that is not undoubtedly SF. There is some fantastical imagery, but it's basically the troubled thoughts of a woman who has suffered through several negative medical diagnoses in a short period of time. The others are definitely genre works, even though one could be interpreted as the thoughts of a troubled individual, perhaps falling into the same psychological trap previously experienced by her mother. All of them end abruptly without resolution, but it's easy to imagine what might happen next. "Walk Like a Man" has scenes set in a virtual reality, others set in the "meat" world. It's full of slang, either invented for this story, or maybe it's just slang with which I'm not familiar.
The other stories, the longest two, are tied for my favorite. "Women of the Doll" concerns a mysterious cult, part religion, part women's support group. Josette comes to Detroit in search of a home to buy, which will be a temple for other potential Women of the Doll. With her she brings Viola, the doll she had created, as well as Mr. Bun, Viola's stuffed bunny rabbit. She also carries a "tool" kit, all the ingredients she needs to build her altar and conduct her spells. Either one of the spells animates Viola, or Viola is more than just a doll. Maybe the conversations Josette has with Viola are only in her head? Even though Josette occasionally speaks to Mr. Bun he never responds. He's just a stuffed rabbit. Along with searching for a new home, Josette also entices clients with sex to invite donations to Women of the Doll, and not just money. She also saves their sperm in a cryogenic container. Is that used to create more dolls, or something else altogether? Josette leaves Detroit after losing out on what she had thought would be the ideal house. Based on how much she charges for her services, she thinks she may be able to buy land and build her own home, her temple, from scratch.
At the beinning of "Something More," Allie at first thinks she sees her reflection in a mirror, then realizes there has never been a mirror on that stair landing. Maybe it was just a trick of the light. Yet it brings back the memory of her mother's fall on that same landing several years before, for which her mother had been diagnosed with epileptic seizures, and heavily medicated since. Later she believes her mother might have experienced the same vision, but a coherent conversation with her mother is impossible. Allie quits nursing school to pursue her first love, music. The group she joins finds minor success with gigs at local pubs, even records for an independent label. She is still occasionally plagued with visions of the same woman, who does resemble her, but with darker skin. Is she the ghost of an ancestor seeking help to cross over? Is she a helpful spirit, warning her of another, more malevolent spirit who wishes to do her harm? It can be interpreted several ways. Either the spirits are real, and if so then they are from the future not the past. Or Allie is suffering the same ailment as her mother, possibly schizophrenia. In either case, the battle within her mind, and between her and her bandmates, between her and her lover, the father of her child, is heart-breaking, vividly rendered in exquisite prose.
In the essay, "Ifá: Reverence, Science, and Social Technology," Shawl explains how their religious beliefs in Ifá do not conflict with science, nor with the type of science fiction and fantasy stories they choose to write. The rituals that Josette uses in "Women of the Doll" derive from Ifá. In the interview, Bisson's first question is about dolls, so I assume the story included here is not the first to feature them. I've read Nisi's novel, Everfair, and a handful of other stories and essays, but I need to track down more, including a previous collection, Filter House. Their series on the history of Black science fiction deserves book publication too. The bulk of the interview relates the influences of other writers, and how their heritage and feminism informs all of their work. Work that deserves all the recognition it can get. I do have a question about the title though. I see no reason Nisi should talk like a man. Their voice is just fine the way it is.
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