While award-winning creative flutist, composer, and bandleader Nicole Mitchell Gantt is no longer based in Chicago, she has certainly left a legacy. She was the first woman president of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and founder of the Black Earth Ensemble (BEE), “a musical celebration of the African American cultural legacy,” among many other honors and distinctions. Her debut book, The Mandorla Letters: for the hopeful, incorporates her music prowess into an innovative hybrid that’s part memoir, part manifesto, and part Black speculative novella.
The book opens with a description of Mandorla Island, a utopia described as “vibrant, diverse, and technologically adept” that emerges in the Atlantic in 2099 while what’s referred to as “World Union society” decays. The narration operates through two voices—that of Mitchell Gantt and that of Eeye, whom the text describes as Mitchell Gantt’s “inner voice, her invisible backwoods part.” (Eeye in turn prefers to call Mitchell Gantt Uhuru.) We learn about Mitchell Gantt’s love of author Octavia Butler, whose influence is present in these pages; Mitchell Gantt’s mother, who was an Afrofuturist painter and novelist before her untimely death by suicide; and how Mitchell Gantt was creatively nurtured as a young adult by community in the South Side of Chicago, which “has continually transformed consciousness for generations and has long been a home to interstellar beings and expressions of liberation known as Black experimental art.”
The Mandorla Letters itself could be described as Black experimental art. In addition to the text, there are photographs from performances of Mandorla Awakening I and II, paintings, and sheet music. And the narrative—told by both Mitchell Gantt and Eeye—is woven with letters and poems. The work itself blurs boundaries and resists categorization. And it’s fitting that a book urging us to come together collectively would be a merging of different art forms. The pages are steeped in jazz and blues as they lament our societal structures of binaries and hierarchies.
Fusing a utopian world with our, arguably, dystopian one, The Mandorla Letters examines societal problems rooted in power imbalances (racism, homophobia, climate change, limited access to food and education for a critical mass of people, limited economic opportunities, etc.) while showing how our imaginations can be tools to manifest change—actively engaging with hope-filled solutions.
Because despite wrestling with heavy social issues, the overall tone is, as the subtitle suggests, one of optimism. Yet Mitchell Gantt is realistic about the work involved for true substantial (and necessary) change. We must each look at our own privilege because “all of us, whether conscious of it or not, experience specific treatment by others based on our appearance-positionality in the society we live. We also react to others based on our society-influenced judgments about their beauty, color, body shape, smell, cultural gestures, dialect, and/or what they are wearing. Sadly, our reactions to others and even ourselves are too often based on the collective thought-agreement (mainstream ideas) of our community, and in many cases, this is the perpetuation of white hegemony.”
Mitchell Gantt argues that white hegemony—which she says is a more accurate description than white supremacy—is a (collective) mind-made problem; therefore its power can be eliminated by our minds. And while she’s upfront about how the process of decolonizing our minds is daily work, she also shows what is possible if we do.
Anyone who has actively sought out books that address our societal problems will find The Mandorla Letters goes far beyond simply naming these problems—it actively engages in solutions. And it does so more compellingly, and convincingly, because its form is so imaginative, as if illustrating what is possible if we tap into our creative potential. In this way, The Mandorla Letters reads like a guidepost for anyone feeling disillusioned by this country’s current state of affairs—which should be all of us—and offers a path to a world that shouldn’t be utopian: one where everyone is treated with dignity and respect.
The Mandorla Letters: for the hopeful
By Nicole Mitchell Gantt
Green Lantern Press
Published November 1, 2022
Rachel León is a writer, editor, and social worker. She serves as Daily Editor for Chicago Review of Books and Fiction Editor for Arcturus. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, the Ploughshares blog, Fiction Writers Review, The Rupture, Necessary Fiction, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere.