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Taxonomies of Survival in “Reconstruction”

Taxonomies of Survival in “Reconstruction”

In the final story of Alaya Dawn Johnson’s new collection, a soldier in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment expounds a “taxonomy of anger” that grapples with the layers and species of anger living in his fellow Black soldiers, newly and incompletely freed. It’s one of many thorny recurring problems in Reconstruction, a stylistically diverse collection animated by Johnson’s vivid, imaginative, and often brutal prose. Reconstruction is one of the strongest and most enjoyable collections I’ve read in some time; it’s a brilliant and uncomfortable constellation of ideas and absences knotted together.

One of Reconstruction’s most potent themes is the complexity, impact, and fraught ambiguity of life under oppression. “A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i,” the Nebula-winning opening story, takes place a few decades after vampires have taken over the world; its horror comes less from the monsters in charge than in how its human protagonist, Key, has adapted to their reign. It’s a chilling examination of what exactly we’re selling when we sell out, a strangled warning against collaboration. The story also introduces the motif of fruits, seeds, and growing things as morally ambivalent, a tangled metaphor which shows up throughout the collection.

Vampires can stand in for all kinds of things – xenophobia, queer sexualities, necrocapitalism – but they also need to work as vampires. “A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i” figures its vampires in genuinely new and intriguing ways, without allowing that novelty to overtake the story. Vampires show up again in “Our Changing Bodies,” where Johnson flexes a totally different style to amazing effect – imagine Judy Blume writing an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, superimposing coming-of-age comedy and horror. It’s quite the balancing act for a story that features both clearly-coded rape threats and monster-slaying tampon jokes; its teenage protagonists are one of the brightest moments of joy in the collection.

Survival under oppression is further explored in “They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass,” in which ambiguous aliens occupy the planet, with inscrutable rules and seemingly-random attacks that evoke the American occupation of Afghanistan. Again, the story focuses on how survival has scarred the survivors, and on the intersectionality of both collaboration and resistance. Women’s rights and internalized oppression are key here, with the protagonist braving both alien violence and human disapproval to help her sister get an abortion – the local pastor “hates the glassmen just as much as the rest of us, but his views help them just the same.”

Other stories display Johnson’s impressive stylistic range. “A Song to Greet the Sun” blends Middle Eastern and Mesoamerican signifiers in a polyvocal story that recalls the Song of Solomon. “Far and Deep” also revolves around family and murder, in a fantasy elaboration on a Pacific Islander culture – while “Third Day Lights,” perhaps the most outlandish story, explores resistance, persistence, and ephemerality in a post-human world.

I found Reconstruction haunting, not just for its vividness, but also for how Johnson writes around felt and imagined absences. “The Score,” for instance, is a collection of texts and excerpts – police reports, television transcripts, intercepted emails – that paint a fascinating and frustratingly-incomplete picture of state violence and resistance. Built around the mysterious death and ghostly persistence of an Iraq War protestor, it uses this distance to explore – with unusual and uncomfortable honesty – how depression and uncertainty are as much a part of resistance as is hope.

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In her afterword, Johnson notes that these stories were written in a specific time and place (New York City, “post 9-11, pre-President Trump”), but the collection as a whole feels timely, nowhere more so than in its title story. So much of our nation’s present moment can be traced to the failures of Reconstruction after the Civil War: the failure of the victorious Union to hold traitors and seditionists to account, even to bar them from further power, and its failure to commit to the equality and humanity of its newly-emancipated Black citizens. These failures, too, were seeds. Still growing, still bearing fruit.

The historical Reconstruction is present only as an absence in “Reconstruction,” which follows Sally, a Black woman, as she nurses Black soldiers through the final days of the war. The story is dedicated to – and its own reconstruction of – Susie King Taylor, a nurse, educator, and memoirist. Sally has a keen eye and harsh words for the injustices of the world, which are neither confined to the Confederate side nor washed away in victory. Along with the soldiers she cares for, she charts and ranks the species of anger, from “righteousness” and “berserker wrath” to “commonplace indignity which collects in the soul day by day and grows there, like a cancer.” It’s a superb story, blending historical realism with threads of speculation and magic, told in the voice of a character at once courageous and brimming over with bitterness. It’s the signature note of the entire collection – a willingness to look closely at the realities of resistance, to feel deeply the worries, fears, and complexities at every level of survival.

by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Small Beer Press
Published January 5, 2021

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