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Interfictions Reviews – "Black Feather"

April 14th, 2007

“Black Feather”
K. Tempest Bradford

I don’t know if Tempest is actually Ms. Bradford’s middle name. If Tempest was my middle name, well, I’d probably affect it for my pen name too. On paper, however, it strikes me as trying too hard–like Storm Constantine’s completely fakeass-sounding name. Of course, I’m being superficial. Deciding whether you’re going to like a piece of writing based on how you like the author’s name is worse than judging a book by its cover. A picture, at least, is worth a thousand words; a name is worth three, four at most. I guess I’m only bringing up the matter of her name because it’s indicative of a problem I have with this story, at least in this anthology: I don’t think it’s interstitial. I think it’s in here more because of the author’s interstitiality than the story’s. The story, as I see it, is straight-ahead urban fantasy in the style of Gaiman, using all the tropes you’d expect, and no real surprises: ravens, dreams, the obvious dichotomy of black and white, plot structures lifted straight from myth, implausible premises such as the existence of a patch of actual wilderness on the north end of Manhattan. Not that it’s a bad urban fantasy, but any means. It just doesn’t live up to the demands she seems to make of it.

From K. Tempest Bradford’s author bio:

“In response to a question I don’t remember (probably about whether there can be interstitial artists as well as interstitial art), Ellen Kushner said that she didn’t think that a person could be interstitial. I raised my hand and replied ‘I am.’ I have always felt in-between. In-between races, in-between sexual orientations, in-between cultures.”

It comes back to the name: with a name like Storm Constantine, you’d be hard-pressed to sell anything but epic fantasy. To get in under the interstitial umbrella, is it enough to identify yourself as interstitial?

“Black Feather” does briefly acknowledge an in-betweenness in race: the main character, Brenna, is of African, Irish and Native American descent. Yet in a story that is about ancestry, about being defined by one’s past, she passes up a lot of opportunities to engage that in-betweenness. The myths she treats with are all drawn from the usual European roots. At one point we see Brenna make an actual physical retreat from her Algonquian heritage. And her blackness…well, I don’t really get a sense of that at all. She’s almost an everyperson, except for these giant overshadowing mythical intrusions that drive the plot.

I guess I could be asking too much. I generally demand a certain depth from my reading or I get bored. Depth isn’t a characteristic of all genres, and interstitiality seems designed to accommodate all genres, or at least fragments of them. I’ve never cracked a book by Storm Constantine, which would be pretty asshole of me if it were just because of his (her?) name—but there’s also the fact that I just don’t read contemporary straight fantasy anymore from anybody, ’cause I don’t enjoy it.

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12 Comments »

  • Matt Kressel says:

    “…implausible premises such as the existence of a patch of actual wilderness on the north end of Manhattan…”

    I haven’t read the story, so I cannot comment on its contents, but as for wilderness at the tip of Manhattan, you don’t need to a read fantasy novel to find it. It’s called Fort Tryon Park (among other places in Inwood), and is just about as beautiful as anywhere on the Hudson. Address: Manhattan proper.

    • mjd says:

      Heh. You know, I was afraid I might walk into just such a mistake. I even went and looked at northern Manhattan on Google Earth. Guess I didn’t look hard enough.

  • Hi Michael!

    As long as I’ve known Tempest, she’s always gone by Tempest, so I suspect she’s using that name because it’s the one she actually goes by, the one people know her by personally.

    When I read this story, it didn’t remind me at all of Gaiman, and I never thought of it as urban fantasy, since the city actually has very little to do with the story. For me, it was a story about identity, about finding one’s self both in one’s personal history and in the mythic history that we all share, which comes down to us in myths and fairy tales. Like “Rats,” the Veronica Schanoes story, it is a retelling of a fairy tale, but in a way I’d never seen before, a way that seemed to me new and interesting.

    That’s part of my pitch for its interstitiality. But of course, these are the stories that the writers, first, considered interstitial, and that Delia and I, second, considered interstitial. They were included not to create a definition of the term, but to start a dialog about it. And, of course, because we really liked them . . . So, anyone is welcome to read the stories differently!

    • mjd says:

      Hi Theodora! Thank you so much for commenting here.

      I only got around to reading “Rats” today, and I see what you’re getting at. I don’t mean to get ahead of myself, as there are still quite a few reviews to post between here and there, but “Rats” takes fairytale and just rips it apart, lays open its flaws and its self-deceptions and leaves them splattered in the street to get washed with the runoff into the sewers. And even there, I had a good strong bit of skepticism until I recognized that’s what was happening. I guess I’m just personally burned out on fairytale. And that’s my hangup, and it shouldn’t reflect on the quality of either of these stories.

      You know, having already stubbed my toes against the very real and apparently quite lovely Inwood Hill Park, and severely bonked my noggin on the authenticity of possibly the coolest middle name ever…it’s very possible I missed something in this story. The fairytale structure is fairly easy to discern, but from what you’re saying, maybe there’s a specific fairytale being referenced and commented upon that I’ve just never come across? Perhaps I’d better go do a bit of research…

      As to whether this story–or any story–is interstitial or not: like I said somewhere else amid these last half-dozen posts, a dialogue about all this is just what I was hoping for. Part of my reason for going through all the stories like this is in hopes of figuring out where my own writing stands. I do understand and agree with the assertion that interstitiality need not be a definition so much as an avenue for discussion. Anyway, it certainly isn’t up to me to draw the line.

  • Michael–

    I didn’t realize that you weren’t familiar with the fairy tale. “Black Feather” is based–although that’s not quite the right word, I should say rather that it interacts with–“The Six Swans,” which you can find here:

    http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/sixswans/index.html

    But it’s based not only on this version but also several variants of the story. You can find one, “The Twelve Brothers,” here:

    http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/sixswans/stories/twelvebrothers.html

    And woven into the tale are also images from other traditions, like the Hanging Man, which I believe is a reference to the Tarot. One thing that impressed us about the story was how the different variants of the tale, as well as elements of other tales, are woven into a whole, and used by the main character, Brenna, to understand her own life.

    It occurs to me that several of the stories we chose rely on a significant amount of background knowledge–“Burning Beard” and “A Dirge for Prester John” are the two that come to mind, although “Rats” is one as well, I suppose. If you know nothing about punk, I’m not sure the story will make sense. I don’t know how that will affect how readers approach the stories . . .

    • mjd says:

      Sorry about the comment mixup–this is a new blog, I am still learning the ropes. I took the liberty of merging your two posts.

      So I read “The Six Swans”, and I realized I’m familiar with an Irish version, “The Children of Lir”. It’s a bit different, more mythic and distant. Doesn’t have the thing with the shirts. This Grimm version clearly has quite a bit in common with “Black Feather”, and being aware of the reference does alter the interpretation quite a bit–it reverses the color symbolism, for one thing, which is actually a criticism of the fairytale mode. Yay, say I, to criticism of the fairytale mode.

  • I meant and should have written, if ONE knows nothing about punk. You, obviously, know about punk! Sorry for the awkward writing. It’s late . . . 🙂

    • mjd says:

      Heh. I know of punk. I didn’t catch the reference in “Rats” until it was pointed out to me. But I don’t think that detracted as much from the experience, since she explains it just at the time she’s pulling back the curtain on the fairytale. The real hits just at the moment it needs to.

  • Jed says:

    I just happened across this entry. Sorry to comment on something you posted a year ago, but I wanted to add one further correction:

    Storm Constantine is female, and is best-known for her Wraeththu series, which Wikipedia says is about “a sci-fi post-apocalyptic hermaphroditic species which evolved from humanity.”

    So … not really straight epic contemporary fantasy.

    And I’m a little amused in passing that you happened to use the word “straight”; I know this isn’t what you meant, but (to quote Wikipedia again) “many of her novels include same-sex relationships or hermaphrodites or other twists of gender.”

    …I should note that I haven’t gotten around to reading anything of hers yet; this isn’t a comment from an outraged fan. Just thought the info about S.C. was worth clarifying.

    • mjd says:

      I suspect I have never been so wrong about so many things all at once than in this post….actually, scratch that. I’m wrong all the damn time. This was just the first time it happened while so many people I respect were looking.

      Anyway, thanks for the info, Jed. I will try not to be so obtuse in the future.

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