Many writers have tried to put words to the New Orleans experience. This has netted us a diverse pool of work that spans from the plays of Tennessee Williams to the writings of activist Alice Dunbar Nelson. The latest notable addition to this vivid legacy is Mixed Company, an ongoing small-press fiction anthology edited and compiled by writers Jeri Hilt and Kristina Kay Robinson.
Every detail of Mixed Company, whose first issue was published this past March, is carefully chosen in order to emphasize its central mission: to bring to the forefront the artistic work of New Orleanian women of color, “to assert undeniably that WE REMAIN.” In a literary moment when the political ramifications of visibility and representation are clearer than ever, Mixed Company reminds us of what exactly is at stake when we talk about the poisonous and limiting effect of white supremacist patriarchy on our ability to share and read each other’s stories.
Though the anthology’s five short stories and four art pieces are centered on New Orleanian women of color, the city and its famously Babylonian milieu are not so much grounding principles as they are phantoms, appearing at times as a memory, a specter, or background fuzz. If anything, one of the defining aspects of New Orleans in the new millennium is its absence: felt keenly in the post-Katrina exile of its inhabitants, its aspirational and threatening quality to the small-town folk of the South, and its transformation into an uncanny version of itself as gentrification has taken hold in recent years. Within this context, the editors’ assertion—“WE REMAIN,” we’re here, and our stories matter—takes on even more urgency.
It can almost go without saying that alienation is an inevitable theme of this kind of work. This is made startlingly clear from the title of the book’s first piece, “An Abomination,” in which author Addie Citchens tackles a young man’s sexual identity crisis and humiliation with the kind of bold strokes and brutal imagery one would expect from a Richard Wright novel. The story’s protagonist, Wonderboy, strongly resembles Wright’s Bigger Thomas (of Native Son), from the poetic dissonance of their names to the way the paths of their anger are perfectly traced through their interior workings. Like Bigger, Wonderboy is trapped by his Mississippi small town and by the masculinity and heterosexuality it enforces, and the only way he knows how to navigate his own incongruity with it is by violently lashing out at anyone who notices.
Faggot faggot faggot punk sissy punk sissy punk. He was all those words, and he hasn’t even known it. He had never sweated another nigger’s jock in the locker room, nor had his eyes sneaked to caress the shape of a hard ass, but none of that matter. He had kissed a man, so he was a punk.
For him, the possibility of being an outsider is a death sentence, and his reaction to that private revelation dramatizes the psychological violence of sexual conformity. Citchens’ handling of the subject matter is graceful, inspiring sympathy and frustration with her protagonist as he attempts to reconcile his desire with his circumstances.
In Kristina Kay Robinson’s story “Drive Slow,” those themes emerge but go in a different direction as the protagonist, Kaloneeka, tries to make sense of her post-Katrina life of exile in Atlanta. Her sense of being an outsider manifests in internalized pain: stomach pangs, traumatic flashbacks, and a persistent disassociation with everything around her.
Outside on the porch, I waited. Stared down at the houses located lower in the hills than my father’s apartment. The distinct feeling of being perched rather than tucked down deep made me shiver. Georgia was old in the winter. Cold and no water.
Robinson takes her protagonist on a journey through a Southern Oz, recasting people and images from Kaloneeka’s past life in new roles that dazzle her in their strangeness. She spends an enchanted evening with a her favorite rapper; along the way she has a playful encounter with a stripper who used to flirt with her deceased ex and follows the rapper back to his mansion, a child’s dream house replete with a home theater and wall-to-ceiling Disney murals. Despite it all, however, the beat-up donation heap cowboy boots she wears are an insistent reminder that, in the end, there’s no place like home.
Ruby's Golden Bridge — A collage by Soraya Jean-Louis
That collapse of time and space echoes on in “Ancestral Alchemy,” a collection of Afrofuturist collage art by Soraya Jean-Louis McElroy that provides a visual art addition to the collection. In McElroy’s collages, references to the recent and not-so-recent history of the African diaspora are juxtaposed with each other over paint-flecked patterns that visually evoke Hubble telescope images of faraway galaxies and starscapes. In one piece, a fashion model lies prostrate underneath a misty red skyline. Underneath her are a compass, an inverted pastoral road, a woman balancing a basket on her head, and the famous woodcut of enslaved Africans lying below the deck of a slave ship.
The collection also includes J.R. Ramakrishnan’s “Nina Karmila,” a work about a little girl heading off into an uncertain future. The titular character, Nina, is like so many tween Disney Channel girls: dreaming of stardom and belting Heart songs into an invisible microphone, so full of life and energy that she breaks your heart just by existing. We see Nina through the eyes of Boomba, a boy who admires her so much he’s willing to steal ice creams from his father’s shop for her, even though she used to bully him. From the vantage point of their small Malaysian village, getting the chance to sing on the radio in Kuala Lumpur is a surefire ticket to stardom: Nina insists in her naivete, “From there to Hollywood is not that far.” By situating the reader in Boomba’s perspective, Ramakrishnan makes sure that we fall in love with Nina, too, so that when we realize that this dreamy girl is heading straight into a pit of vipers, it hurts. Boomba’s repeated desire to convince Nina to follow his narrative — to marry him and become the honored wife of the village shopkeeper — sounds less and less dull as we learn more about what’s in store for her in Kuala Lumpur. Just as the image of Ruby Bridges frozen in time aches, Nina’s final moments of childhood ache, but dazzle in their beauty.
Ambata Kazi-Nance’s story “Rahma” has a similarly limited scope and perspective, but this time it focuses on the fallout of the titular character’s departure from her grand narrative. From the first sentences, the physical toll of Rahma’s guilt and shame is made clear:
Where most of her fellow worshipers placed their hands over their chests lightly as they whispered their fatihahs, Rahma gripped her forearms tightly in a desperate struggle to hold herself upright. Her body tipped and swayed, trembling like a weak branch on a tree.
Rahma’s thoughts while praying aren’t of Allah nor His will; her body invades her meditation with its urgent otherness, its unwillingness to follow the script of the flock’s muscle memory. The regulatory functions of practicing salat and dhikr, fine for her day-to-day neuroses, fall short of absolving her of the great sin she’s committed: getting “rid of” her unborn child. Too wracked with guilt to address Allah directly, Rahma instead confesses everything to a bland yellow legal pad, then burns it to embers in her kitchen. This is, in a sense, a writer’s origin story. Out of all the stories in this collection, “Rahma” is most direct in addressing the importance of storytelling to our mental well-being.
The collection concludes with editor Jeri Hilt’s story “Shelter,” which sheds light on a story that the American consciousness has tried desperately to shunt into obscurity: that of the New Orleanians forced to take refuge in the Superdome in the troubled days following Hurricane Katrina’s rampage. As six young siblings trudge from their flooded streets to one of the Dome’s upper sections, they’re struck by how the signifiers of their everyday lives—household objects, familiar faces, other children, city landmarks—have been transformed for the worse by the disaster.
With every step there was the crushing or crumbling of things beneath our feet: trash everywhere. Baby bottles, clothes, toys, whole bags of stuff people lugged out of their houses thinking the stuff would make the one night’s stay more comfortable. None of it had been helpful for longer than the first day of sitting and waiting. So eventually, people just sat the stuff down…. They sat down blankets, heavy pillows, each other—anything too heavy to keep carrying around.
Defying disaster logic, the children pick up a discarded infant, a squalling bundle of responsibility that will surely tax their limited resources. In a move that echoes the themes of P.D. James’ Children of Men and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the infant represents the old way of life stubbornly asserting itself despite the dystopia, serving as a reminder that the end of the world is not, in fact, the end. Within the terrifying, upended context of the Superdome and society’s abandonment of the people within, there is still room for kindness, for love, for the assertion that every life matters.
Mixed Company ends with a paragraph-length epigraph by poet Langston Hughes, which begins, “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.” Speaking from 1926, the zenith of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes prioritizes the expression of young artists of the diaspora above all other considerations. The same holds true for the editors of Mixed Company, who have included stories that capture both the ugly and beautiful in the lives of people of color, respectability be damned. All they require is that the reader serve as witness to these stories, to agree that they, in fact, remain.
Mixed Company may be purchased directly from the creators.
Related Reading: Cut & Paste — Five Creations from Black Zinesters.