Wednesday, January 18, 2017

BlueBellow, by Alexis Pauline Gumbs

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(Horror) Serena comes to London for a set of business meetings, but is haunted by mermaids calling to her from the mirrors. Or are they zombies? (4,896 words; Time: 16m)

Rating: ★★★☆☆ A very difficult read.

"," by (edited by Niall Harrison), appeared in issue 01/16/17, published on .

Mini-Review (click to view--possible spoilers)

Pro: Serena is a successful black woman, but inside she seethes with resentment. She attends a cookout with friends/coworkers/acquaintances but privately belittles her hosts, saying “New England people do whiteness like they invented it.” She calls herself a realist, but the “real world” she sees is an evil place. Several elements of the story appear to exist solely to emphasize the point that she (and other African Americans) are carrying too much hate/anger/evil. (E.g. the blog post about how black Americans are rude when they “ghost” other black people in London.)

Her sister Sandra is, in Serena’s eyes, an idealist. She teaches school, and believes in people. She’s not deluded; she knows people let you down, but she always assumes the best. She appears to be immune to the hate/anger/evil though.

The first morning after Serena gets to London for her meetings, voices from the mirror command her attention, demanding urgently that she do something. Overwhelmed, she calls her sister Sandra, who tells her this is happening to other black descendants of slaves who have gone to Europe recently. There’s even a support group. (Sandra is so practical about all this you have to smile.)

The support group is pretty funny—a caricature of support groups, in that different people are very passionate about very narrow issues. E.g. the one trying to get a recording of the mermaids speech, on the theory it’s how they sound underwater. Or the one who wants it to all be about police brutality. Everything but the actual problem at hand.

Serena brings everyone back to earth when she demands the face the mirror together and try to learn what the mermaids really want. (Are they really mermaids? They sound more like drowned zombies.)
Their message seems to be that the Middle Passage divided people in two. Some drowned and some survived, but, in a way, everyone was partly drowned. Everyone still carries around the weight of what happened. The mermaids want them to fix that.

And so they do. By walking into the sea together. We see it through Sandra’s eyes, and she says it’s beautiful, so she must not think they’re going to their deaths. The key to what it all means is probably in that last text. “Meet me in the middle.” Not the middle of the Atlantic, but find a place between being full of anger that eats you up vs. being a victim who makes excuses for the people who hurt you.

Con: Or it might mean something entirely different. It took two full reads through the text just to figure out the point of view in each section. The above interpretation of the ending is on particularly thin ice.

The story recommends reading “Ocean,” by Phillis Wheatley, who supposedly had a similar experience. It's a fine poem, but I don’t see how it clarifies anything. I'd be very interested in other interpretations by other readers.

Other Reviews: Search Web, Browse Review Sites (Issue 01/16/17)
Alexis Pauline Gumbs Info: Interviews, Websites, ISFDB, FreeSFOnline

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3 comments (may contain spoilers):

  1. I think that's a good point that the phrase "meet me in the middle" can mean reconciling a split between two opposing positions. I enjoyed listening to the podcast of this which had the author herself reading the story.

  2. Did you come up with a better interpretation for what it means?

  3. Not really. I agree that it could be a compromise between the sister who is too idealistic and the sister who is too much of a realist. The sisters meeting in the middle perhaps representing a healing of the two sides of their enslaved ancestor: the part who joined those who jumped overboard (seen in the mirror) and the part who survived to have them as a descendants. Like you, I feel a bit on shaky ground trying to interpret it.

    There are some funny bits though -- like the black Brit complaining of ghosting from black Americans. Then we learn that it was actually because the Brit had wall to wall mirrors!