NIGHT ROLL: Gentrification and Urban Fantasy

Map courtesy of the Detroit Historical Society

I’m a country mouse, I need trees to live. I never thought I’d write an urban fantasy. I haven’t gone in much for the bare-midriff-plus-shotgun kind anyway—but I loved Wizard of the Pigeons, Brown Girl in the Ring, The Folk of the Air. Even Little, Big has some deeply urban magic in the middle of it. Those books were a huge influence on me. I just couldn’t imagine mustering the authenticity to write anything like them.

Thanks to the urban parks systems of Boston, Columbus and Detroit, I’ve survived on the outskirts of three cities. I’ve seen how cities can be magical. How they can be alternate worlds. The great complexity of human culture, concentrated and compounded by artifice and time, is the heart of their magic. But it’s too easy to poison that heart by othering. To a country mouse, the city is exotic, alien, full of unimaginable lives. Aliens, the trope assures us, can hide in the city in plain sight. Easiest to dupe, one assumes, is the suburban tourist.

I grew up in the outer-ring suburbs of Boston, looking away, to the woods, for magic. Yearning for the wilderness. But all roads lead to the city. Now I’ve been a drop in the bucket of gentrification. A drop in the flood. I’d like to think I made myself as much like that drop as I could, malleable, adapting to the shape of my surroundings. Not without heartache, I learned to get what I needed of nature from Boston’s wooded graveyards, edgelands, the Arboretum, and still pay attention to the human wonders, the Cuban torta shop, the Dominican grocery and the Irish pub all on the same block. But the way the city taught me to love it, to be in awe of its complexity, its unimaginability, didn’t teach me to make myself part of it.

I’ve been fascinated by the idea of what nature looks like to people who grow up without access to it. Exotic and alien, I presume. And I’ve tried to make magic out of that, to tell stories centering what the woods has to teach us about what’s wild in all of us. This is what I think speculative writing is for: instill something with awe, with the uncanny, and it’s harder to dismiss or to look away from. I’ve thought of it as what I have to offer, what I’m good at. To an extent, that process works the same way in the other direction, from the country to the city. But the values aren’t remotely the same.

Part of New Yorkers’ disdain for the people of Boston is about their presumption, thinking their experience of Boston is at all applicable to the exponentially more dense and diverse New York. No—no, that’s wrong, it’s Bostonians with the chip on their collective shoulder. New Yorkers could care less what we think of them. (I was born in Boston; I still think of it as my home city despite having lived on the edge of Detroit now for ten years.) The point is, we fetishize the city. It’s gritty, it’s real; grow up there and you’re ready for anything, or so you’re led to think growing up in the suburbs. Dominant culture encourages this, pushes on suburban white kids the metaphor of the urban as wilderness. You’re in the jungle, baby. You’re gonna die.

Brave the city as a teenager, return to regale your friends with tales of your adventures. Use the word “ghetto” as a pejorative without the slightest historical awareness. Driving on the Jamaicaway past Dorchester and Mattapan, roll up the windows and lock the doors. Never take the Orange Line south of Mass Ave.

This same phenomenon exists among Detroit’s suburbs, perhaps even starker because Boston is still majority-white, and Detroit hasn’t been for a long time. I’ve met people from Detroit suburbs who’ve gone their entire lives without setting foot in the city except for Tigers games and the Renaissance Center, a 70s-futuristic skyscraper mall that actualizes its isolation from the 80% Black, 36% poor city around it by suspending its curvilinear concrete galleries amid hundreds of feet of negative space.

I can’t feign access to a high horse about this, because see above about Boston, segregatedest city in America. But I can try to understand. I am allowed to try to figure out how to tell stories about this that encourage and hopefully help others do the same. It was living in Boston, ethnicities passing each other like ships in the night, that convinced me I needed to. It’s a responsibility for a writer working in an urban setting not their own to do that work, the same way it’s a responsibility to write the other with compassion and earnest attempt to understand, the same way it’s a responsibility for someone making a home in a new place to respect and learn the history and culture they’re trying to become a part of, to resist the colonizing and gentrifying inertial forces that come with privilege and wealth, to be a force for social justice. Especially now.

I wrote an aspirational novella, NIGHT ROLL, about how an individual instance of gentrifiying experience could possibly go okay. It’s no coincidence that to do that, I felt I had to take away the main character’s entire support network and cultural context and build new ones for her consisting entirely of Detroiters. It’s no coincidence that she’s the token non-evil white character. But I couldn’t bring myself to make Aileen really desperate, to take away her privilege entirely. It’s too far outside of my experience; I wouldn’t know how to make it believable. How was she supposed to do the work of listening, learning and adapting, becoming a part of this place, without that safety net? People do it every day, others try and get locked in cages for it. But for all my efforts, I can’t access that intimately enough to tell that story. It’s not mine to tell.

There has to be a knife-edge between poverty fetishism and cultural appropriation. I tried to walk it, starting from my own place of privilege. It was hard. I made mistakes, which had to be pointed out to me. I failed, until final edits with my publisher, to account for Indigenous experience of Detroit. There’s a fierce, funny, freestyle MC I namecheck a couple of times, Miz Korona; I spelled her name wrong. I had to be confronted with, and mortified by, my cultural insensitivity. Repeatedly. But how else am I supposed to learn?

Maybe it’s tempting to read the relative ease with which Aileen adapts and thrives as one of NIGHT ROLL’s fantastic elements. She makes friends who take her at face value; they help her find a job, they support her; she supports them. This is not some utopian dream; I’ve seen it happen. When COVID’s over, I’m going to find all the new families I’ve watched take root here over the past ten years and hug them and thank them. Bring humility and reverence and willingness to work and learn to Detroit and that’s what you’ll find.

“The most radical thing I ever did,” said Grace Lee Boggs, the civil rights activist, community organizer and philosopher, who came to Detroit in 1953 and never left, and to whose work NIGHT ROLL owes another huge debt, “was to stay put.”

I’ve also seen people move here, try to hunker down and ignore what this city is, remain what they were, and fail, spectacularly. And then they were gone. I was headed that way for awhile. After my first year here, I came to an inflection point; I could have moved closer in to the city, taken a leap of faith. I could have pulled up stakes and run. Instead, I moved a little further out, towards the wilderness, such as it is here.

NIGHT ROLL isn’t autobiographical. Like I said, it’s aspirational. I sit out here on the far edge of the city, with easy recourse to these post-industrial woodlands that have become my refuge, and I try to understand and convey something true through story. I haven’t set foot in Detroit since March, for the obvious reasons. I miss it, I root for it, I send money. And this question of authenticity, of earnestness, persists. I want to be able to say there’s magic to be had everywhere, in the city, the suburbs, and deep under trees where after a hundred years it’s work to find anything human. (It’s there, it’s always there, everything is human-touched forever, this place is a crossroads, even the trees followed people here, and more are coming.) I want all the other gentrifying urban fantasists to undertake this work of listening and learning and imagining how it feels, to make their storytelling a place where we progress away from the slaveholding, colonizing, genocidal past of which the suburbs are a legacy and a bastion. The magic is in what you don’t understand yet, and then afterwards it’s in what you understand enough to love. This is the work, it’s how we get better. The old stories, and even the new ones whose authors didn’t know to do this work or didn’t want to: they made this what it is, and they’re making it worse. Because stories are how people learn.

I’m no voice of authority here. I don’t want to be. But I’m trying to be better. We’ve got to keep trying until we get it right.

 Night Roll - A Novella by Michael J. DeLuca, published by Stelliform Press

Decay

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It’s funny how things come around.

Many years ago now, fresh off the nihilistic high of selling a series of brutal sixgun-and-sorcery stories about centaurs conquering the West to Beneath Ceaseless Skies, I got the idea for something even darker and more sardonic, a story about horribly downtrodden, poor and desperate human beings, trapped by oppression and circumstance, using the most awful means at their disposal to grasp at a shred of personal agency and self-determination. And I did it. It didn’t make me feel particularly good about myself, but I wrote it. “Decay”, it’s called. This was not like anything else I’d written nor am likely to again. It’s an incredibly dark, bitter story. No, not like chocolate. Let me be completely honest: I wrote a story about shit. Maybe the only shred of lightness about it is a thread of humor so black it’s practically psychedelic.

But, I thought, it’s powerful. So I shopped it around.

And it got rejected. A lot. A few times, for months, years, I pulled it from circulation, thinking this is just too awful, too disgusting, nobody was going to buy it and I wasn’t even sure I wanted to see it in print. But every once in awhile, I’d get in a dark mood and send it out again.

Fast forward to twenty sixteen. Andrew Fuller of Three-Lobed Burning Eye has decided to take a chance on it. And I do think he’s taking a risk; I told him so. He seemed convinced–more convinced than I was. I admire him for that. Me, I even thought about taking my name off it.

So now in this, the first week of November, just when a lot of people are looking forward with dread to the awful, disgusting, unconscionable thing that just might actually happen one week from today, “Decay” is out in the world.

And I went and read the story again, just to remind myself of what I’d committed to. And suddenly, astonishingly, it seems like there just might be a redeeming message in there somewhere after all. I’m thinking in this context, maybe that blacker-than-black sense of humor might actually look brighter than I thought.

There’s a place for catharsis.

Or, to think of it another way: if it’s a choice between helplessness and taking the only other option available to stop the world from turning to shit…as for some of us it seems to be….

Progressive Fiction

(what is it good for? pissing people off
making pissed off people feel better)

I have an idea for a journal of environmental justice fiction. Will I follow through with it? Time will tell, wiser heads will tell against it. Tentative title, Reckoning: a word that means variously figuring out where one is, charting a course ahead, and settling accounts for decisions made in getting here. Also a Grateful Dead reference.

When I awoke, the Dire Wolf
Six hundred pounds of sin
Was grinning at my window
All I said was “come on in”

Environmental justice? It’s where social justice and climate/environmental activism intersect. Indigenous peoples comprise only 6% of the world’s population and contribute basically not at all to climate change but suffer its effects in absurd disproportion; they also do an absurd disproportion of the work to try to stop it. Among industrialized peoples, meanwhile, access to natural resources tends to be a privilege of the rich, polarizing the demographics of climate activism over the long term–another devastating effect of institutional oppression. I grew up hiking, camping, traveling to national parks; I love nature and want to protect it. I grew up with limited access to people of other cultures and backgrounds; I had trouble understanding everything that meant, and I have to work at it constantly.

Indigenous protesters at Iximche on the eve of 13 Baktun
Indigenous protesters at Iximche on the eve of 13 Baktun

More and more, environmental justice seems to me the best way to come at climate activism, because it’s about people. People are part of nature, it’s meaningless without them, people will make or break it.

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Hav of the Myrmidons

I did what Tolstoy did, and jumped out of the train when it stopped in the evening at the old frontier.

When I first read Last Letters from Hav ten years ago, its sequel, Hav of the Myrmidons, had already come out, but I had no idea because I was reading the original edition with the badass expressionist cover from 1985.

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I loved it for the setting, for the incredibly complex worldbuilding, for the conceit of a fantastic city disguised as a real one. Hav itself was the product of thousands of years of real history; Last Letters from Hav was the product of decades Morris spent traveling and writing about real places, real people. And my god, the prose.

At the time I was desperate to find examples of a literary tradition that didn’t conform to “the rules”; I knew that was the kind of fiction I wanted to write, but hadn’t a clue yet what I’d gotten myself into. Last Letters from Hav was everything I’d been looking for: a novel drenched in character and setting, profound in a way I could appreciate but failed to fully grasp, all hanging on the barest implication of plot, an unspoken question to which the text forms only a part of an answer, the balance of which the reader only slowly becomes able to discern by the shape of the holes.

In the intervening years, I would discover Borges, Bulgakov, Calvino, Kelly Link, Angélica Gorodischer, Miguel Ángel Asturias and countless others unto reading bliss. Hav was a stepping stone on my way to all that. But because it was among the first stones, on first read, there were entire populations of subtexts that went right over my head. For example, it was only on second read–blasphemy of blasphemies–that I realized Last Letters from Hav may well be the purest exemplar of that chimera I raved about to such excess back around 2009, the Borgesian novel. Hav is a city built atop a labyrinth; Last Letters from Hav is the labyrinth the traversal of which provides our only means of comprehending that city. The only means, that is, until we find Hav of the Myrmidons.

Ten years later, I finally went out and got the omnibus edition titled Hav, the one with the cover featuring the almost photographic image of the burning House of the Chinese Master. I’d waited this long, and approached it now only with trepidation, because of the dread which accompanies my approach to all sequels: will it stand up to the original, or will its lesser joys only tarnish the memory of its predecessor? Was it written because the author really had something further to say, or because she’d caved under market pressures? I think of Harper Lee.

But even if the sequel’s terrible, I rationalized, it’ll give me an excuse to reread the original, and to give away my old copy and start someone else on this journey.

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The sequel is by no means terrible. It is, heartbreakingly, a different book entirely, which of course is what all sequels must be. And yet, as it cruelly crosses out question after exquisite question left me by Last Letters, as it perfunctorily, exhaustively, mercilessly answers, and in answering destroys, each beautiful, hitherto unfathomable mystery of the old Hav, raising sterilized, Disnified corporate monuments from their ruins, it also raises new questions–darker questions, not so beautiful maybe but just as complex, more honest, more true to the world of which both the old Hav and its distorted modern reflection are themselves reflections, and therefore all the more pressing.

In fact, as I write this I’m realizing that Hav of the Myrmidons is an incredibly apt metaphor for that very process of engaging with sequels I described above, as it is for the process of aging, of losing the idealism of youth, gaining new perspective, nostalgia for that youth but also the recognition that it served its purpose and is irretrievably gone. Hav of the Myrmidons depicts a more cynical, more coldly practical, more efficient city, and the labyrinth that city describes leads to questions we would be irresponsible not to face.

If you’re like me, if you loved Last Letters from Hav and have hesitated, for fear of shattering the mirage it created, to seek out its sequel, let me encourage you to do so. It’s worth reading. In fact, I might even call it essential.

Novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.

–Novalis

De Quincey

Homer is, I think, rightly reputed to have known the virtues of opium.

–Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater

Finally the moment has arrived for me to appreciate De Quincey. I’ve waited years, I’ve namedropped him in stories, I’ve wondered what it was Borges saw in him. But I stayed away until now, when a narrative about the pathologies of addiction carries lessons I’m actually ready to taken in. Serendipity. Fate. The grinding of the great wheels.

De Quincey is a windbag. The book is blissfully short and would be shorter if not for caveats, preambles and convoluted ex-chronological asides. And I’m reading the 1821 original, not the 1856 revision where from even further illusionarily objective remove he added yet more windbaggery. Still, I now completely understand Borges’s fascination. Because De Quincey’s mind–thanks in no small part, no doubt, to the opiates–is a labyrinth.

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