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#RetroReview: When Waid and Jones fed us strange but fresh fruit

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Things went Boom! as far back as 2015 when the publisher teamed up with Mark Waid and J.G Jones to tell a strange but refreshing story. Here’s another look at a criminally overlooked masterpiece.   

By Abdulkareem Baba Aminu

Way back at the 2015 Comic-Con in San Diego, there was a bit of buzz about a certain project. OK, maybe a lot of buzz. But what would you expect from a book written by Mark Waid and J.G Jones? (Oh, and by the way, Jones painted the whole thing). As if that wasn’t enough of a selling point, the comic — called Strange Fruit, strangely — is set in a famous, historical period of American history, the Great Mississippi flood of 1927. After reading it in floppies, I finally snagged a hardcover when it came out. And boy was it a beauty!

Back to the premise, the fact that it is set in the Jim Crow South is where ‘normal’ or ‘regular’ ends. Beastly plantation owners? Check. Angry, overworked slaves? Check. Torch-wielding, blood-lustin’ Klansmen? Check. Strange, black, absolutely naked, and possibly super-powered being? Uh…check. The stage was set perfectly by the writers, who establish the characters pretty early, showing from the beginning that this is obviously an unusual comic book.

“In the fictional, rainy town of Chatterlee, Mississippi, a strange, silent giant makes an appearance whose nature angers the local KKK. Now, he’s a super-strong colossus of a man whose skin is black, so you can imagine the resulting drama.”

Based on characters and events in the fictional, rainy town of Chatterlee, Mississippi, a strange, silent giant makes an appearance whose nature angers the local KKK. Now, he’s a super-strong colossus of a man whose skin is black, so you can imagine the resulting drama. By the time I tore through the pages, I was breathless. Or at least I thought I was until I saw what the aforementioned mysterious, major character used the second Confederate national flag for. I mean, this is the same flag known as ‘the stainless banner’ in reference to the white field that comprised a large part of its design elements, which designer William T. Thompson now infamously declared symbolized the “supremacy of the white man”. Also, the N-word is tossed around casually like a greeting.

But hey, in Waid and Jones’ defense, you’re reading a book which has rich dialogue like: “White folk ain’t much gonna cotton to yo running ’round with yo Johnson hangin’ out!” And that’s just one moment, of many, during which a reader would be reminded that he or she’s not simply reading a blockbuster book by heavyweight, big-name creators but something special.

Having been longtime friends, Waid (Superman: Birthright, Daredevil) and Jones (Y: The Last Man, Wanted) had been trying to find the perfect duet all these years. With both of them being Southern natives who grew up during the Civil Rights wars, they certainly had a personal story to tell. They had actually begun work on Strange Fruit a long time ago, having discussed it one way or another since Jones shared the basic idea with Waid. The writing duo was born and while it took a while to put the project together, they utilized the waiting time to get contracts finalized and ruminate on what direction they were heading.

The wait paid off, big time. Even today, the book stands firm in its brilliance and strange topicality. Jones’ painted work — with the spot-on American-ness of Norman Rockwell and the gorgeously detailed power of Alex Ross — has its own individual style and energy. And does it sizzle! Ordinary bar scenes are elevated to things of beauty while conversations come positively alive. And don’t get me started about the action scenes. The settings are all well-realized, as evidenced by the obviously painstaking research done on clothes and buildings of the ’20s.

“If you find the name of the comic book ‘Strange Fruit’ familiar, it is because it is a song first performed by Billie Holiday in 1939, written by teacher Abel Meeropol as a poem. It protested – you guessed it – racism.”

The creators, also, had experienced the racial clashes firsthand as youngsters. Jones says while he finds it sad and infuriating that the issues within remain topical nearly a century after, it shows the nation has not traveled as far down the road as hoped. If you find the name of the comic book ‘Strange Fruit’ familiar, it is because it is a song first performed by Billie Holiday in 1939, written by teacher Abel Meeropol as a poem. It protested – you guessed it – racism, particularly the lynching of African Americans, and is considered a classic.

Both Waid and Jones have admitted that their story was a tough one to tell, which they do in this book, without – ahem – whitewash, and with what they described as a fair share of rough imagery and language. Racism, particularly the violent kind, is a major issue in today’s headlines and a rereading of Strange Fruit has never been timelier. So much so that way back in 2015 when the series debuted, I felt it was sure to provoke thought. Plus it’s a damn good yarn they’ve spun, one that I daresay, was Eisner bait then. But that wasn’t to be, and while many might have forgotten it exists, I strongly feel it is time for it to be revisited. It will be strange, yes. But it will also be fresh. 

BOOKS

Four of Nnedi Okorafor’s books are finalists for Locus Awards

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As the awards and nominations keep piling up for fan-favorite writer Nnedi Okorafor, four of her books have been announced as finalists for the prestigious Locus Awards’ 2022 edition.

By Abdulkareem Baba Aminu

The Locus Science Fiction Foundation has announced the top ten finalists for this year’s Locus Awards, and the final winners will be announced on June 25, during the virtual Locus Award Weekend. Four books by Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor are on the list. Her books on the list of finalists are Noor (DAW) for Best Science Fiction Novel, Remote Control (Tordotcom) for Best Novella, The Black Pages (Black Stars) for Best Novelette, and the graphic novel adaptation of After the Rain (Abrams ComicArts/Megascope) by John Jennings, with art by David Brame.

Okorafor is a leading writer of science fiction and fantasy with a breath-taking body of work spanning close to two decades. She is also known for coining the term ‘Africanfuturism’ and defining the subgenre itself.

Okorafor is a leading writer of science fiction and fantasy with a breath-taking body of work spanning close to two decades. She is also known for coining the term ‘Africanfuturism’ and defining the subgenre itself. An unapologetic champion of diversity, inclusion, and originality in SFF, her works are often praised for inventiveness and innovation.  

Over the years, Okorafor has won some of the most prestigious awards, including three Hugo nominations, one for each of the books in her well-received and critically-acclaimed acclaimed Binti trilogy, which the first book won in 2016. She has also won a Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa, three Nebula Awards, as well as an Eisner Award and Hugo win (with artist Tana Ford) for the LaGuardia graphic novel, among several others.

Founded in 1971, the Locus Awards are conferred by the Locus Science Fiction Foundation. The 2020 awards are spread across 16 categories, with winners determined by polling magazine readers.

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BOOKS

Poems about gagged lips and lone voices: A review of Peace Longdet’s ‘Enablers’

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A look at the new poetry collection ‘The Enablers’ reveals a work that is at once layered in a most subtle way, as well as powerfully effective.

Title: The Enablers | Author: Peace Longdet

Genre: Poetry | Pages: 67

Publisher: Sevhage Publishers | Year of Publication: 2022

Reviewer: Bizuum Yadok

Every poet has a responsibility to communicate feelings, experiences, fears, aspirations, values and dissatisfaction on behalf of herself or her society. This form of communication is usually aimed at either creating awareness or igniting a radical solution. Whichever way, while at it, the poet always entertains and extracts emotion from her audience. Many scholars agree that the bulk of African literature, from colonial times (and especially in writing), is essentially a response to wide-spread tragedy, and as such it is usually characterised by protest; protest against colonialism, protest against the megalomaniacal claims of independence, protest against military juntas, protest against mammoth corruption colouring democracy, and protest against terrorism or other forms of man’s inhumanity to man.

Dr. Peace Longdet is ushered into the league of protest poets by her significant debut collection of poems, Enablers. Her poems are not just relevant but timely in a presently deteriorating society like Nigeria where dissenting voices are gagged, if not silenced permanently. It has reached a point whereby any person criticising the lackadaisical attitude of the government, especially with regards to insecurity, nepotism, and corruption, is hastily termed as a saboteur. Freedom of expression has now become a mere rhetoric and quite far from practice. However, poets like Peace Longdet have refused to be hushed. If their voices will not be heard, then their agitation will find expression in print. Her Enablers comes as a worthy example of artists’ weapons that are meant to cure societal ills while confronting social injustice at the same time.

The first poem in the collection, “Thoughts in Print”, aptly welcomes the reader to a potpourri of thematic concerns mostly tilted towards protest against ineptitude of leaders and collaboration of followers marked by complicitous participation, herd silence and ignorance. The 9-lined poem reads:

Treading, yet knowing

The ground is unholy,

Giving, yet knowing

The gift is abominable,

Taking, yet knowing,

The gift is temporal

Dreaming, yet knowing

The morning breaks

At Last!

Nearly all who conspire to create an ailing society are present in the poem above. Ironically, they are in the full knowledge of their contributions whether by treading on unholy grounds, giving abominable gifts (e.g bribes) or taking fleeting gifts. In any of the cases, they are always in the state of “knowing”. It is rather absurd that the same set of people are dreaming – perhaps for a better place – yet still “knowing” that “morning breaks” when their secret acts come to light and the end result is an anarchical society. The poet’s projection of effect, from the cause, using the principle of economy, is nicely captured in the brief poem which lays a good foundation for string of angry poems such as, “Gagged”, “Hallowed Gong”, “Terror”, “Few”, “Killings”, “Blessed Yet . . .” among others.

In some of the poems, the poet doesn’t just expose injustices but also firmly resolves to meet her obligation as a person. For example, the poem, ‘My Pledge’ offers a more radical, even militant, perception of herself in the sense that she uses the ‘Tigress’ as metaphor for her self-concept. She reiterates, “I am a tigress” in lines 1, 12, and 18 to assert her manner of confronting any factor that seeks to subjugate women, using the weapons of her physical, mental and emotional strength represented by claws, teeth and speed of the tigress. Consider the first six lines of the poem:

I am a tigress

Armed to breathe with my claws

My claws the pen

To speak with my pen

To drum with my claws

The rhythms are coals of fire

Pouncing in the direction of the hunter

A tigress has been proven to be more vicious than the tiger. From Longdet’s description though, we do not see the poet as a wild animal but a mentally armed and ready-to-fight phenomenal woman. Thus, she shifts from the semblance of the prey to become the predator. At this point, it doesn’t matter who the hunter (enemy) is, but that tigress is willing to launch an attack to protect her cubs (hapless women and children) as seen in lines 8 & 11, ‘The cubs depend on my razor-sharp teeth/ . . .For the cubs must know the myth of the hunter.’ She restates her point in lines 18-20 with her emphasis on attack as a form of activism which is quite necessary in a jungle-like nation:

I am a tigress

My passion is my weapon

To speak up in the land of the dumb.

A similar conviction like that of the above can gleaned in lines 17-21 of the poem, “Wandering Loner”, where she says:

This fire must burn!

It is a quest like an enchanted Diva,

Prowling with the words of fire

To wake them from sleep

To give them a voice

The reoccurrence of the word “fire” in this poem, just like in her other poems, connotes the fury or righteous anger that the poet is filled with and it is employed in the pursuit of justice. She doesn’t just create awareness but lends her voice to the voiceless so that more voices of protest could be heard. In the same vein, the poet makes loud her commitment to positive change in lines 21-30 of the poem, “The Voice”, by saying:

I do not possess the power to stop the carnage but

I will stand high on this space;

To utter

To oppose

To shout

To protect

To heal

To reawaken

All that I am and all that I can

There is an inexhaustible list of the violent killings across Nigeria prior to and especially during the tenure of President Buhari, who had earlier promised to put a stop to all kinds of terrorism orchestrated by Boko Haram, Fulani Militia also known as bandits, and Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). He fails woefully in tackling terror and almost all other arms of government combined are reluctant to point accusatory fingers at him. However, Peace Longdet bravely holds the government by the balls, reminding it of its fake promises in poems like, “Deceit”, “Haribu”, “Sleeping Shepherd”, “Double Standard”, and “Quest”. Her fearless confrontation of the powers that be are not even encrypted in the poetics of modernists, rather it is concise and readily accessible to every reader. In this regard, I concur with the literary critic, Paul Liam, in his statement that, “Longdet is a poet for every reader.”

It would be unfair to state that Longdet’s collection is all about protest as some poems are private and they depict supposedly personal or second-hand experiences. Poems like, “Memories”, “Unleased”, “Son of the Wind”, “You Drank”, “Entagled Wind”, and “The Vow”. This collection of 57 poems offer a variety of societal topics in dire need of an elaborate discourse and sometimes follow-up action. The poet pays little attention to sound devices but the optimal imagery makes up for the spice the sound devices might have rendered. Most of the poems are short and captivating as though the words were calculated before each poem was composed.

Like Lebanon’s Khalil Gibran, Nigeria’s Niyi Osundare, or South Africa’s Oswald Mtshali, posterity will keep making reference to Peace Longdet as a phenomenal poet who supplied her intellectual arsenal to fight against all forms of oppression and injustice. Enablers is a book of poetry that will require very little effort of salesmen because it will sell itself by the quality design, print and content therein.

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#7Questions: How I settled on Africanfuturism – TJ Benson

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TJ Benson’s first book, a collection of short speculative fiction called ‘We Won’t Fade Into Darkness’ (Parresia, 2018), crept into readers’ heads about four years ago. Since then he’s had a second book published, with a third one on the way. Here, the writer/artist/photographer answers seven questions in the way only he can.

By Abdulkareem Baba Aminu

Your first book, the novella ‘We Won’t Fade Into Darkness’ divided readers, causing many to try and force a label on it. How would you describe it?

TJ Benson: I started writing the stories with the intent of making an African sci-fi world, but when I was done I realized I had created something different from that. My characters used indigenous technology, which is regarded as witchcraft today. They also mostly never leave the continent. I didn’t have words for it until I came across the term ‘Africanfuturism’ coined by the celebrated writer, Nnedi Okorafor, and had an ‘aha!’ moment. So, Africanfuturism.

“I didn’t have words for it until I came across the term ‘Africanfuturism’ coined by the celebrated writer, Nnedi Okorafor, and had an ‘aha!’ moment.”

Your sophomore effort, ‘The Madhouse’ (Masobe, 2021), is causing similar reactions over genre. Where would you place it?

TJ Benson: I fought against the category ‘Magical Realism’ right up to the month of publication, because I felt the supernatural governs the lives of many people who share a country with the characters. Yet the spiritualistic elements in the book weren’t of any specific culture which would have made it African Spirituality, like Ben Okri’s ‘The Famished Road’, so ‘The Madhouse’ is definitely Magical Realism.

What can you dish to us about your upcoming novel ‘People Live Here’?

TJ Benson: Not a lot, I’m afraid. It’s a much smaller novel than ‘The Madhouse’, and more linear in structure, even if I admit it has a lot of twisty turns. It’s me, after all (laughter). All I can tell you is that I’m really excited for it to come out.

You’re also a visual artist, as well as a photographer. How do you approach that aspect of your creativity, and does it feed into your writing work?

TJ Benson: There was no intersection between the mediums I practiced until the global lockdown of 2020 when I lost all language. I started drawing on my photographs and realized I draw from the same well in my spirit that I write from. One pulls the other. Pure photography on the other hand is like speaking an entirely different language for me.

“There was no intersection between the mediums I practiced until the global lockdown of 2020 when I lost all language. I started drawing on my photographs and realized I draw from the same well in my spirit that I write from.”

While it’s too early, what’s your next project, after ‘People Live Here’?

TJ Benson: Another short story collection with a little bit of magic, and a little bit of science fiction. That’s all I can share for now.

At what point in your life did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

TJ Benson: To be honest, I decide every year. But the earliest was when I showed an aunt a novella I had handwritten when I was eleven and she told me to make sure I kept the exercise book safe.

What are you reading – and enjoying – these days?

TJ Benson: Unpublished manuscripts (laughter).

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