Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Sci-Fi for the 99%

By Phillip Bannowsky

by Franetta McMillian

With monks who channel voudoun spirits and bisexual scientists who heal the earth, Franetta McMillian’s Love in the Time of Unraveling confronts our current dysfunctions as few post-apocalyptic works dare. Mad Max and The Road more escape our world than expose it, abandoning their heroes to a feral struggle in an empty landscape. We may enjoy vicarious bloodletting or lament our Hobbesian fate, but either way, the life we know is over.

In McMillian’s future, set in the latter part of the present century, the power structure that preceded the collapse is still holding on. One-percenters luxuriate beneath an air-conditioned Dome while we ninety-nine percenters wheeze through short and brutish lives in a toxic “Outside,” texting and sharing videos from hermetic abodes. We don hazmat suits to commute, often on ferries, given the high sea level of our iceless world. The smog that choked 2013 Bejing and Mexico City is ubiquitous now and getting worse. October swelters but the sun never shines. Beauty fades before it ripens, and we die young of disease or crushed in collapsing mines.  Protest is permissible, but only in “free-speech” zones, just like 2013. Adding insult to injury, Domer do-gooders slum in the Outside. The press gossips, but rarely reveals. The market is up, while prosperity is down. Yet spiritually and sexually, our world is very much alive.

The first in this collection of interrelated stories concerns Magdalena Ocunto, a seven-foot former hacker and black priest-in-training in the Knights of the New Star, a monastic order of the “New Catholic Church.” When the environmental cataclysm split the Church, it also unraveled Cartesian reality. Ocunto can read thoughts; the voudoun demigods will speak through her. Her first big assignment is to write computer code to crash the stock market during the G20, still doing mischief at century’s end. Her church, in the borderlands between politics and spirit, calls this a “deep act of conscience.”

Then we meet billionaire scientist Lillian Ruby, whose androgyny in name and orientation re-enforces the borderlands theme. Lillian, who came from the “Deep Outside,” a now uninhabitable part of Louisiana, gathers fellow prodigies to heal the earth. One of his recruits is David Grove. Over red wine and marijuana (Lillian’s preference), their collaboration grows to love. Love is the healing alchemy in this work.

For example, Allison Flowers, a Domer and revolutionary graffiti artist, has the power to heal with touch or, for more serious maladies, with sex.

Love, both sacred and worldly, binds Morian Watts and his mentor, Father Allen, who trains him to release the souls of the dying and perform exorcisms. Though he hates the super rich, Morian exorcises seven-year-old Caitlyn Traynor, a mine baron’s daughter, who is haunted by the workers who died in her father’s mine, called Destination Hill.

This echo of the 2010 Massey Mine disaster is not the only place where McMillian confronts our contemporary calamities. The Upper Ninth Zone, setting for much of the action, is located in a region known as the Crescent and suggests the inundated Ninth Ward of New Orleans, the “Crescent City.” There is Great Mountain Security, a Blackwater-like private army that protects the barons from the growing revolt. There is even a super hurricane called Kali, sounding like Katrina and Sandy and named for the Hindu goddess of time-doomsday-death. Accompanying all these disasters are End Times Signs and Wonders. Of Kali, Morian Watts says, “Sometimes an event is so unthinkably horrible that it actually blows a hole in time and everything becomes unsettled.” He adds that the outcome, unlike that of Tim LaHaye’s Armageddon, “is malleable. It could all turn up roses or it could all go to shit.”

The extraordinary cast includes members of the Richard Corey Club, teens planning suicide by the supernatural psychedelic Blue Sky; Mei Ling, a Beijing transgender hooker-cum-weaponized HIV terrorist; and various members of the families Traynor, Flowers, and Storm: Innesto Storm, an Outsider and Allison’s summer fling; his estranged wife Angie, a psychic and devotee of voudon; and son Zaden, a prodigy who declines to join Lillian Ruby’s firm. By the time we get to the final episode, a letter by Lillian Ruby to Allison Flowers, we are invested in these characters and their struggles, not only because they are so gripping, but because they are our own. Happily, Lillian’s letter suggests a sequel.

Science fiction often projects a limited notion of the future. Whether it is gee-whiz-bang gimmickry or dystopian nightmares, it tends to repeat our dominant ideology of individual entrepreneurs discovering exotic natives. It is blind to the humanity not only of the natives that dwell in the future, but of the natives that struggle in the now.

If you are one of these natives, this book is for you, for Love in the Time of Unraveling is about now, where now is heading, and how we may prevail. Franetta McMillian peels off our time’s blinkers and lets us look outside the lines, in the borderlands between genders, classes, and races and between Cartesian reality and the spirit world.

As Lillian Ruby asserts in his missive to Allison Flowers “You lived in the borderlands, outside the lines, and there is a wealth of power there.”

You can order Love in the Time of Unraveling at Amazon.

Sci-Fi for the 99%

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Was a Story Set in Wilmington Among the Earliest Influences on the Literature of the Harlem Renaissance?

Among the earliest literary figures who lived in Delaware in the early 20th century was Alice Dunbar-Nelson. She was born Alice Moore in New Orleans on July 19, 1875. Her first husband was the American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar who died in 1906, about three years after she moved to Wilmington where she had family. Probably the best and most recent example of her influence on Paul Laurence Dunbar and about their the stormy relationship can be found in Eleanor Alexander’s 2002 book Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow (New York University Press). Her own literary career did not end there. Her literary work showed up, both before and after her marriage to Dunbar, in places like George Jean Nathan’s and H. L. Mencken’s Smart Set as well as in Crisis when it was edited by W. E. B. DuBois. While in Wilmington she married Robert Nelson and is better known today as Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Later she worked as an educator and social activist as well as publisher of the local African American newspaper, The Wilmington Advocate, during the early 1920s, making her a pioneer of local Black journalism. Her literary and journalistic works inspired many who participated in the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s. 

One of Dunbar-Nelson’s early short stories, “Hope Deferred,” is among her most anthologized. Two anthologies where the story can be found are: Ebony Rising: Short Fiction of the Greater Harlem Renaissance Era, edited by Craig Gable and published in 2004 by the Indiana University Press, and “Girl, Colored” and Other Stories: A Complete Short Fiction Anthology of African-American Women in The Crisis Magazine, 1910-2010, edited by Judith Musser and published in 2011 by McFarland & Company, Incorporated.

“Hope Deferred” was first published in 1914 in Crisis 8, the main publication for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The story was most certainly written in Wilmington and gives clues regarding its locale. Early on in the story, Dunbar-Nelson states that the city in the story is,  “if not distinctly southern, at least one on the borderland between the North and the South.” Later on in the same story she divulges that the protagonist, Edwards, is serving time at the “county workhouse.” The “Workhouse,” during a little more than the first half of the 20th century in New Castle County, was the name given to the county penal institution then located at the intersection of Greenbank Road and the Newport-Gap Pike (Route 41) near Price’s Corner. The “Workhouse” was also the place from which an uncharged inmate, George White, was kidnapped by local white citizens and lynched nearby in 1903, the year that Alice Dunbar arrived in Wilmington. The “Workhouse” was also the location, where about two weeks before the lynching of George White, several men were publicly whipped and made to stand in the pillory. Delaware finally outlawed the pillory in 1905, but the state did not abolish corporal punishment until the late 1960s. One of the guard towers of the ‘Workhouse” still remains in the Park at Price’s Corner.

Alice Dunbar-Nelson wrote “Hope Deferred,” which is most probably set in Wilmington, at a time when the Dupont Company was about to make an obscene fortune from profits from World War I, when the United States occupied the impoverished country of Haiti, when the Ku Klux Klan in Delaware was at the height of its power and influence and when both major political parties heard racist views. Even though the Progressive Era was in full bloom in places like New York City, and the Modernist Movement was making significant cultural advances, hope seemed to be waning for Wilmington’s African-American community. It was a bleak time in Delaware to be writing for social and cultural progress. In spite of this, Dunbar-Nelson wrote a story that was echoed in a refrain attributed to Langston Hughes when “hope deferred” became transferred into a “dream deferred.”

Alice Dunbar-Nelson only has a small citation in Alain Locke’s monumental tome, The New Negro: Voices of the Harlem Renaissance, published in 1925. Perhaps she might have had a greater part in Locke’s anthology and commentary had she gone to Harlem and played a greater role in that flowering of modern African-American culture. She chose instead to remain in Wilmington, and in her later years in Philadelphia, writing and struggling for social progress. Alice Dunbar-Nelson died on September 18, 1935. She is interred at the Wilmington and Brandywine Cemetery.  

Sunday, March 10, 2013

After All those Happy Endings

One writing idea I've had, but won't be using because I'm no longer writing literary art, is to continue the story after those happy endings from popular American cinema. A variant might be to recount incidents behind the scenes, which we don't see, that occur in those films. I played around a little with this idea in my novel UNTIME, but since I won't be taking the idea into any new writing projects it's an idea that maybe others might find useful.

Here's an example of one specific idea I've had of the continuance of the storyline from a fairly well known American movie. See if you can guess which one:

The story begins in Wilmington in October 1948. Frank and Nora McCloud have just gotten off the train at the Wilmington train station. They are on a honeymoon trip to New York City. Along the way from Nora's home in Florida where they had got married, they departed the train at several locations to see the sights. Among those have been Savannah, Washington D.C., and Wilmington, Delaware. Nora's father-in-law, James Temple, came from a long line of hotel owners, so they decided to visit hotels her father-in-law had told her about to wile away the time during the war when her husband had been overseas. One of those hotels had been the Terminal Hotel in Wilmington, which was conveniently across the street from the Wilmington train station.

Frank McCloud was a World War II veteran. Before the war he had been a newspaper reporter. He had served as a major in the army during the Italian campaign. One of the men in his unit, George Temple, had been killed during the battle of Cassino. Frank had promised George that if he didn't survive his wounds he would pay a visit to his wife and father-in-law at their home in Florida.

Frank McCloud's trip to Florida after the war proved eventful. While there, just as the tourist season had ended, a group of mob figures headed by Gianni Rocco showed up and commandeered the hotel. They had arrived by boat from Cuba with a stash of counterfeit money they planned to sell to some underworld figures from Miami. Next a major hurricane rolled in.

After waiting for an opportunity to get the drop on Rocco, Frank could make his move. Gianni appreciated a good hot bath while smoking his best Cuban panatela, the ashes falling in the sudsy water. He was surrounded by his goons. It wasn't 'til it was time to go after the hurricane subsided, that Frank could make his move. With the help of gangster moll, former singer and ex-chorus girl Gaye Dawn, who slipped Frank a pistol, he could get the drop on each of the gangsters where Nora and Mr. Temple were out of danger. It would be a story Nora would tell 'til her dying day because the incident would lead to their getting married.

After their honeymoon they returned to run the hotel because George Temple had bequeathed it to Nora unconditionally. James was infirm and getting older. They had many happy times through the remainder of the 1940s and the early years of the 50s. They had had a son, but new crises had hit all at once in the mid 50s.

Nora's husband and father-in-law died within a year of one another. Frank had terminal cancer. After James Temple died of a heart attack, Nora became sole owner of the hotel. Nora, still a young woman with a son to raise, hung onto the hotel with an enterprising local Seminole named Jay until 1968 when he died. That same year, her son was old enough to leave home to roam among the guests and the gangsters in Miami, and even though he made a lot of money, Nora was still dismayed and worried over her son's choices. 

With her son gone and her business partner dead, Nora decided to sell the hotel. The hotel was still turning a dollar, so it was a good sale. Afterwards, Nora retired to Key West, bought a nice but modest house, and became a parrot head. Every now and then her son would visit. He'd become a "businessman." He'd bring his buddies from Miami, mostly rough trade. Thugs, Nora would think. They reminded her of Gianni Rocco.

Nora was not surprised to learn about her son's sudden demise in a room in the Terminal Hotel in the late 1970s. It had become a dive where dirty deals went down. One of those deals had cost her son's life.

These are the stories Nora's still repeats, sipping her Piña Colada under a broad fringed umbrella, in the cafés of Key West. An aura of Hemingway hangs in the air. She is famous but keeps her distance. She only loosens up when Jimmy Buffett holds a concert. She still knows how to sway those hips.

You've guessed the movie by now. Next is to write.   

Monday, January 28, 2013

Letters to You: The Second Fame of Douglas Morea

Douglas Morea has just published a breakthrough collection of poems, Letters to You, with Broken Turtle Books. Written with an “epistolary pretence,” these poems address the memories, persons, events, places, and moral preoccupations of Morea’s life. Breakthroughs are thought to be the province of youth, yet Morea has developed a new language of poetry, more intimate, but no less daring than the verses of Keats.

Douglas Morea was publishing poems in The New Yorker in the early 1970s when he was about the same age as Keats in his glory. Douglas and his then wife Kass left the literary limelight of New York for the moated enclave of Delaware in the late ‘70s. Douglas remained productive, releasing short run chapbooks, essays, and cartoons, and reading at local venues his longer poems, typed on sheets pasted end to end somewhat like a scroll. I have long proclaimed Douglas to be Delaware’s finest poet. Letters to You demonstrates, I believe, that Douglas Morea’s craft and power have grown since his youthful successes at The New Yorker.

I had been speaking recently with Douglas about John Keats, who had been so clever and daring, before he died at 25. Douglas, who has a wide knowledge of science, said it was even common for folks in the sciences to peak in their youth. I thought of Einstein, who published his Special Theory of Relativity when he was 26.  So what’s new with Morea since his day in The New Yorker sun?

Morea’s growth can be measured by comparing “Having Children,” a brilliant poem he published in the September 16, 1974 New Yorker, with “Hey Canada Geese, How Come Your Babies Almost Never Get Run Over Anymore?” from Letters to You.

In his earlier treatment of procreation amid life’s vicissitudes, Morea’s dominant metaphor is a scene where “brazen summer/wilts weeds in a city lot.” Describing the struggle of the weeds to thrive amid “gobs of tar, old tires,” Morea demonstrates youthful pyrotechnics of imagery, sound figures, and word play:

These growths are pale pith,
sweet and rank, piped in green fibre;
leaves ladder up them:
footholds gouged in the face of sheer cliff-air.
Sun pounds down on raised fingers branching
upon the ledge of bloom;

With such precocious flair, he was good then, but he’s even better now. In “Canada Geese,” he mutes the fireworks so we can hear a more intimate voice, one that tells a subtler tale. Noting how subsequent generations of geese have learned to protect their offspring from traffic, Morea, with defter music, work-play, and apostrophe, laments

While most of you arise by wise adults, seasoned on many seasons,
we get raised by raw near-children.
Humans mostly have but one shot parenting, then
we're shot.
Like you, we learn to keep them off the road, but often
not in time. Like yours, our wisdom grows, but ours grows only old,
and with us dies.

You can read the entirety of both poems at Letters to You Samples.

Some suppose that after his Theory of Relativity, Einstein’s production was restricted to thinking deep thoughts at Princeton until he died in 1955, although he published over 300 scientific papers.

Since his last piece for The New Yorker, Morea has published six other collections of poetry including How About Meet Me Where Nothing Has Ever Happened in the History of the World and Not Sterilized but You Won’t Die From It/The Even Newer Testament. An essayist and cartoonist, Morea wrote The Andrist: a Sexual Political Essay and Book of Crosses: A Thematic Cartoon Collection. His works have appeared in numerous literary magazines including Dreamstreets and The Mickle Street Review, which awarded him the Doris Kellogg Neale prize in 1984.

Like Keats, Morea achieved youthful fame. Like Einstein, his later works are famous to but a few. May the publication of Letters to You provide a second and wider fame for Delaware’s finest poet.

Morea was born in 1945 in Queens, New York City, and grew up primarily there, marrying and moving to Delaware in his late 20s, where he with their mother Kass raised two daughters to successful adulthood. He remains here now with his second wife, Karen.