We're closing out Black History Month with one last feature from our Spring intern Robin! We asked each of our spring interns to write a short piece and select a poem from a recent or backlist BOA author. Robin chose to read Alien Stories by E. C. Osondu and Tenderness by Derrick Austin.
The title of Alien Stories grabbed me immediately. I love science fiction and fantasy, especially when the writer has something to say with it, and this collection did not disappoint. There are stories about alien adoption, abandoned spaceships, and strange discoveries. Some are tragic and some are whimsical. Some are both. Sometimes they’re frustratingly short, opening a world in front of you and then closing it again, leaving you with unanswered questions.
I was especially fascinated by the way Osondu explores the concept of alienation and what it feels like to be othered–whether you’re an extraterrestrial or earthling, explorer or immigrant. Many of the characters we meet have very complicated relationships with their identity, and often, culture is commodified.
The narrator of "Alien Enactors" has a job reenacting African culture for wealthy guests. He’s found the best way to get good ratings is to embody the stereotypes guests expect of him:
“I started my enactment with the obligatory proverb about how it took a village to raise a child – popularized by a female politician. Allow me to make a little confession here: in all my years growing up in Africa I had never heard anybody use that particular proverb. Oh well… different strokes and all that, but it is a cute proverb all the same and my guests lapped it up.”
On the other hand, the protagonist of "Memory Store" is an immigrant to America with such a desire to fit in and experience American culture that he’s willing to sell his memories of home to buy a large screen television. This snippet about American doughnuts – from early in "Memory Store" – really captures for me the hopeful, and vulnerable, desire to fit in:
“Even in matters that did not appear so straightforward, he still admired America. He loved the fact that in America there were a dozen different kinds of doughnuts. There were even doughnuts without holes. Back home, he had grown up knowing only one kind of doughnut: light brown with a hole in the center. He recalled his first time in an American doughnut shop.
“I want a doughnut,” he said to the sales clerk.
“Which one of them do you want?” she asked.
He had pointed vaguely in the direction of the glass display case. The sales clerk looked at him and began pointing out and reeling off the names of the different kinds of doughnuts that they had.
“Glazed, Chocolate, Vanilla Frosted, Powdered Sugar, Old Fashioned…”
Looking at her, he had pointed at the light brown doughnut with a hole in the middle.
“Honey, you mean Old Fashioned? Why didn’t you say so instead of messing with me?
She sounded relieved and laughed.
The coffee-laden atmosphere had lightened. He too had laughed. He had repeated the words “Old Fashioned” and had vowed to commit it to memory.”
I’m a sucker for poets who have fun with their writing. In this lovely collection, Austin plays with format, incorporates song lyrics, and makes many allusions to other media, from Paris is Burning to Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. But in addition to art, these poems are about the important people in the speaker's life: the strained attempts to connect with family, the lovers that didn’t last, and the friends who did.
Austin doesn’t shy away from the bad parts–the racism and homophobia he’s had to deal with in his life. But through it all he perseveres with an unquenchable joy. For me, this poem beautifully captures the feeling of security and acceptance that healthy friendships can give you:
"To Friendship"After a stress dream, I hallucinated a large, hairy spider on the wall.
More and more lately, I wake up to a hairy spider.
I close my eyes and a weight presses on my chest.
I drink Prosecco from a paper cup.
From the futon, my view is a stand of pine trees and the luminous lake.
My friends sleep in other rooms.
We pooled our money for a weekend cabin.
We breathe together.
On our trip, we ask for what we need without fear;
we refill each other’s cups–
I didn’t know I could choose any of this.
Robin Weeg is a Creative Writing student at Finger Lakes Community College and a spring 2023 intern at BOA.