Performance as truth-telling in Andrea Hairston’s SFF Writing.
Content Warning: at one point this paper uses historical terms as used by characters within the novel being discussed, that are now offensive. I have chosen to use them once to make a point that I hope is appropriate. My apologies in advance for any offence I may inadvertently cause.
Andrea Hairston is a playwright, theatre director and more recently novelist working in a sub genre she and her friends or fellow writers have dubbed ‘Folk Weird’. This paper aims to look at some of the ways Hairston incorporates performance into her novels, and a handful of short stories. Through this I hope to open up aspects of her work that utilise formal and non-formalised performances to demonstrate formulations of identity.
Her second novel Redwood & Wildfire (2011) is a historical fantasy set in the turn of the 20th century backwoods Georgia and Chicago. Redwood Phipps comes from a line of conjure women and dreams of the stage; Aiden Wildfire is part Seminole Irishman wracked with guilt over his failure to prevent the lynching of Redwood’s mother. When Redwood too is assaulted he helps her flee and she joins a minstrel group playing the ‘coloured circuit’ and eventually heading to Chicago where they become involved in the theatre there.
The wonderfully titled Will Do Magic For Small Change (2016) is a sequel of sorts to Redwood & Wildfire, set in 1980s Pittsburgh where teenage Cinnamon Jones also dreams of acting like her grandparents. She acquires a strange book that only reveals its words in stages, when appropriate. It is the story of an alien or goddess from elsewhere, and her companion, a Dahomean warrior woman in the late 19th century.
Her debut novel Mindscape (2006) is a complex of narrative scenes crossing times, locations and multiple view point characters. Set in a world mysteriously divided by an alien energy field into three zones, (Paradigma, Los Santos, and New Ouagadougou) at and just after the time of a peace treaty between zones. Travel between zones is via tunnels that occasionally appear in the barrier, or are created by the song spells of a few barrier griots. Amongst the cast of protagonists are griots, actors and politicians all chosing or forced into different roles.
Although I intend to focus here on Redwood & Wildfire and Will Do Magic For Small Change, there are aspects of Mindscape and short stories such as ‘Griots of the Galaxy’ and ‘Saltwater Railroad‘ that also relate to the topic.
In each of these novels an ensemble cast portrays both their inner self and the public personae they adopt, often alongside their additional stage persona. Between them they allow Hairston room to explore what W.E.B. Du Bois called the Double Consciousness of the African-American existence, and in the vein of Le Roi Jones to depict the historical cultural identities therein.
W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about the African American individual sensation of feeling as though your identity is divided into several parts, making it difficult or impossible to have one unified identity.
“One ever feels his twoness, – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” – W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folks (1903)
– W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folks (1903)
It is no coincidence that a self-contained variant portion of Mindscape published in Marleen S Barr’s Afro-Future Females is re-titled ‘Double Consciousness’. In this section the Healer Thandiwe Xa Femi shares spiritual secrets and poison with her partner Robin Wolf and is condemned then to share a single body with his consciousness. The expectation is that nobody can survive this dual existence but together Thandiwe/Robin share another 75 years. Hairston makes literal DuBois’ argument. In the novel itself other characters experience a double consciousness in a literal sense through a haunted sensation or in formally attempting double roles. Mindscape is a carnival of voices where every significant character plays double roles as Hairston approaches her subject theatrically.
It is in Redwood & Wildfire that this is really opened out, leading to Will Do Magic’s expansive exploration of the storification of African-American experience, and an attempt at a retelling of the ‘lost’ histories therein. Both novels are stories of love, unconventional love throughout, but they are also stories of grief and loss. There is individual, personal grief: the first begins with the lynching of Redwood’s mother, the second with the funeral of Cinnamon’s half-brother and its parallel strand with another death. But there is a broader grief in play too, a cultural grief post-slavery and subsequent racial oppressions. (Mindscape also begins with an assassination of a spiritual leader and important political figure, Celestina Xa Irawo, and her spirit haunts events to come for some of that novel’s cast too.)
The eponymous Redwood has inherited her mother’s hoodoo abilities, but as the novel progresses she becomes reluctant to use them. Only with Wildfire does she feel able to be something of herself, whilst simultaneously he is unable to be hisself and drowns himself in whiskey. At first music binds them, his banjo and her voice, along with storytelling and books. They intermittently join with a bunch of travelling musicians to sing and party, so when Redwood kills a white man in the act of raping her, Wildfire helps her flee to join the musicians and he covers her tracks.
It is with what becomes known as The Act that Redwood’s dual identity develops. As a singer and performer she is drawn into a world of public and private identities. The Act perform as Nigger Minstrels (and a distinction is drawn between black performers in these stereotypical roles, and Coon Shows which are blacked-up white artists aping the blacks.) whilst playing Blues amongst their friends. At the same venues prostitutes work and long-legged beauty Redwood is almost drawn in too, though her height and clothing have her mistaken for a boy at times. Recruited by one such woman Elaine to act as protection by hiding in a wardrobe as Elaine entertains her client, Redwood learns about putting on a performance of another kind. Elaine tells her ‘The trick is to be elsewhere.’ And so eventually she comes to Chicago in 1910 joining both her ambitious businessman brother and his christian wife and a multi-racial theatre troupe.
This section of the novel becomes historically revelatory in exploring the early days of black theatre first and then cinema too. Redwood is taken to vaudeville where “a colored lady was singing His Honor the Barber in men’s clothes.” Such role-playing and disguise on stage echo the dual lives of those offstage. Pullman Porters earn extra money by acting ‘African’ on set, contrasting fake savagery with the equally fake veneer of the Pullman role, Persian acrobat Saeed is called on to play injuns and even the lion used for one scene turns out to be a lioness in a wig.
Hairston recovers the detail of this history, the black directors and actors trying to make tell their own stories. She references near-forgotten black performers (and more famous like Ma Rainey) and authors. Alice Dunbar Nelson’s The Goodness of St.Rocque is one recurrent reference, a writer who was caught between expectations of black and white audiences. Here then is the double consciousness of cutting the fool for public expectations whilst dreaming of telling serious stories. Redwood says at one point “White folk got adventure and romance. Why’re we stuck in the coon academy?”
It’s a question still valid today
“White folk got adventure and romance. Why’re we stuck in the coon academy?”
It’s a question still valid today, as asked recently by rapper Sammus in her track ‘Perfect Dark’ where she demands ‘Black girls wanna have heroes too!’
Aidan Cooper, alcoholic, meanwhile reverts to his Seminole name Wildfire when he finally abandons Peach Grove, Georgia after an epidemic kills half the town. Taking Redwood’s orphaned sister Iris along, he too heads for Chicago. As they are helped on their way by local white Doctor and his black servant another pretense is unveiled. Doc and Clarence are gay lovers.
“Aidan wondered how hard their lives in public must be. Men got strung up for doing what they did. What was their story? How did people like them find each other? Who dared the first touch, the first kiss?”
Hairston shows a variety of mostly successful unconventional relationships in this way. Saeed’s brother is polygamous, Saeed is gay, Redwood’s brother George has a mistress and his wife Clarissa is jealous but aids the other woman in her difficult pregnancy. Redwood and Wildfire themselves have a tortured relationship because of their struggles to open their damaged selves up.
At every turn the black characters are pulled in two or more directions. Clarissa, the upstanding Christian Ladies Club society member, criticises Redwood’s hoodoo history, rejecting the supposedly uncivilised African in favour of American respectability but calls on her to help on medical needs and marital issues with her magic. George the businessman moves hired black men into a house he owns, paying them to behave badly so that white neighbours would move out and George could re-let the houses at a higher rent to black people. But then is persuaded to support Redwood’s film ambitions.
Throughout are those warring, unreconciled strivings DuBois described and the self-imposed weights that come with them. Individually and collectively Hairston’s character strive both in themselves, and as this is a historical novel as much as a fantasy, they strive against history as we know it. Hairston shows positive aspects, progress as Redwood realises her dreams within Chicago’s film industry, in the full knowledge that we readers know what bad comes after.
Seventy years later, Will Do Magic For Small Change opens in Pittsburgh, in 1984, at the funeral of Sekou. Cinnamon Jones clings desperately to his last gift to her, the mysterious book known as Chronicles. “Books let dead people talk to us from the grave!” she shouts. The Chronicles is a magic book to Cinnamon, only allowing her to read at certain times, and so far.
Opening The Chronicles is a Dedication.
“Words are powerful medicine – a shield against further disaster. Writing might help me become whole again.”
The Chronicles are set in Dahomey the old West African kingdom (now Benin) in 1892. A shapeshifting alien narrator the Wanderer materialises in a cave as Kehinde, a warrior woman or ahosi, flees pursuers carrying the dying body of her twin. As the Wanderer forms into a representation of dead Taiwo Hairston regales the reader with the history and politics of Dahomey. The setting is the Franco-Dahomey war which ultimately leads to the colony of French Dahomey in 1894. Kehinde is a Yoruba woman captured by the Fon people and trained as ahosi (sometimes known as Dahomey Amazons). Her double identity is established here. Taiwo the Wanderer, in a way reminiscent of Hairston’s SF story ‘Griots of the Galaxy’ adopts the local form and maintains alien identity too. Together the alien and the warrior seek Taiwo’s widow and unborn child, whilst avoiding rebel slaves and Fon hunters. As a twin Kehinde has a mystical power to go with her warrior strength and an unshakable bond to her other. When they find the widow Somso they eventually take ship to America. In Somso another aspect of the African-American double identity is shown. Like Clarissa in the earlier book, Somso is a Christian but the ifa divine wisdom of the Yoruba still plays on her.
In Pittsburgh Cinnamon’s mother Opal calls The Chronicles nonsense yet is also cognizant of the power of story. Her husband Raven lies in a coma after a shooting in a gay club. As the novel progresses her anger at his being there is balanced by realising he was protecting two lesbians. The story she tells in desire to protect her daughter changes like The Chronicles do.
Cinnamon herself is tall, awkward and unconventional even at thirteen. She wants to be an actress like her famous grandparents Redwood & Wildfire. Through a theatre group she befriends two other actors, Marie and German male lead Klaus, in what becomes a magical triumvirate on a quest to explore The Chronicles and to save Raven somehow. Their lives seem to grow together to reflect The Chronicles as new pages become legible, fluorescent pictures flow on the page that seem to tell what Seckou’s ghost calls a “perspicacious and intrepid crew” both what has just happened and what is happening. Meanwhile, amidst snowstorms and hospital crises, the ancestors arrive. Redwood and Aidan and Great Aunt Isis drive through closed roads and traffic to lend support. Note by this point if we follow a literal chronology Aidan is 105 years old, Redwood around 98.
Note by this point if we follow a literal chronology Aidan is 105 years old, Redwood around 98.
Note by this point if we follow a literal chronology Aidan is 105 years old, Redwood around 98.
Opal at one point alleges that the Chronicles were actually made up by Iris and Cinnamon shouldn’t take them seriously. She also suggests that they are Seckou’s fantasy that led him into trouble. In both novels there are conjure letters from Redwood and Iris which read differently to their intended recipient, but Cinnamon and crew believe what they read to be real. Magic and real.
This brings me back to Hairston’s definition of Folk Weird from a profile on Lightspeed magazine:
“My work is about putting aliens and haints in the same story, or spirits and wormholes, supercomputers and the Baron of the Boneyard. So characters who are trying to find what is love, truth, and possibility for them in a complex world.”
These novels in particular bring together history and myth, grief and hope, into a variety of performances. Hairston also quotes Brecht
“Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.”
So when Redwood argues with film directors about the need for Black shows of love and adventure, Cinnamon and the crew fight for a roles in theatre that fits their visions and desires and reflects their lives. “Cutting edge theatre isn’t a moribund art form.” Cinnamon challenges rich donors, “It’s effervescent.” They hammer their future into shape.
“Cutting edge theatre isn’t a moribund art form.” Cinnamon challenges rich donors, “It’s effervescent.” They hammer their future into shape.
As a theatre writer -director -performer Hairston is fighting her cause here, but in tying this all to untold history she is fighting for African-Americans too. Taking the hidden building blocks of that forgotten Chicago film industry (as one review notes, who knew?), that forgotten African empire of powerful women, that hidden historic context Hairston shapes an afro-future of creativity and power.
Not for nothing are these novels each subtitled “a novel of what might have been”
She takes Brecht’s hammer to Dubois’ double consciousness and acknowledges LeRoi Jones historification to offer imaginative truths up for a visionary future. In Blues People Jones describes in detail the way field songs evolved from West African communication forms and thence into the Blues. He wrote in the early 60s but the further rise of this form into rap is also clear, and Will Do Magic also hints at this.
“Cut your chains and you become free; cut your roots and you die.” says The Wanderer in the dedication to The Chronicles. There is a recurrent peripheral character in the Cinnamon strand, a homeless person with a trolley and a sign saying Will Do Magic For Small Change. It seems this may have been the person who gave Seckou the book in the first place. The Wanderer reaches Pittsburgh 90 years after meeting Kehinde in the spirit cave of Dahomey. For Cinnamon here are roots and chains, her future is based on magic from her Seminole and conjure woman ancestry, and her budding polyamorous bond with Marie and Klaus. Like her grandmother Redwood she plays roles to shape her world, uses her magic and her love to create a world to live in. Performance and storytelling are the tools for overcoming the double consciousness, for maintaining the roots and adapting them to the new future rather than rejecting them to conform to the culture enforced upon them. Reflected by the various trio relationships the differences combine to form a third, stronger consciousness. What might have been?
What might have been? What might become?
Andrea Hairston’s novels are published by Aqueduct Press along with Lonely Stardust a collection of essays, plays and a speech.