Callaloo & Other Lesbian Love Tales

CallalooCallaloo and Other Lesbian Love Tales is an impressive collection of short stories by LaShonda K. Barnett, who you may recall is the author of Jam on the Vine, reviewed on the The BLLC Review earlier this year. All of the stories focus on various aspects of love between women, and the stories are set in various time periods, (some historical), and locales.  A caveat: the collection was written in 1999, so at times it feels a bit dated, but that does not detract from Barnett’s skillful storytelling.

Some of the stories are very short, only two or three pages, but all of them are beautifully rendered. For example, in “Rituals,” only about two pages long, we are introduced to Nella and Muriel, “friends” as Barnett describes them, but then we find out that “Both women were old. Both women had been young once and in love with each other. Their youth had escaped them—their love had not.” Their daily ritual is to think and reminisce, mostly about being young and gay and in love. What a wonderful way to live out a 47-year relationship!

Another favorite is “Meatloaf,” a story about abuse, addiction, and infidelity, and why so many women stay in unhealthy relationships. For those of us old enough to remember the HIV/AIDS crisis of the latter part of the 20th century, “Losing Sight of Lavender” might resonate with you. The story is a keen reminder that at one time, African American women were contracting HIV/AIDS at higher rates than any other demographic in the United States. Barnett reminds us of this, as well as how one woman loses, and then regains hope.

As with any collection, there are stories that you’ll gobble up immediately, and some that you’ll linger over and return to time and time again. There are also stories that may not sit well with you. A few of the stories left me feeling a bit uneasy. The first is “Remembering Hortense,” a story about a forty-two year old woman’s refusal to move forward with her life after losing her “soul-mate” as a teenager. While I certainly understand everyone’s need to grieve on their own terms and in their own time, there is something a bit unhealthy about choosing to live a “half-full” life.  “The Telephone Call,” is a story about a woman in an affair with a married woman. I’m a firm believer that we choose love, we don’t fall in it, so I’m always bothered by stories (fictional or not), that focus on supposed “love” between folks in committed relationships with other people. In this case, internalized homophobia is what seems to be keeping the women apart, as well as all of the lying and deception that goes along with infidelity.

“Miss Hannah’s Lesson” bothered me for other reasons. It’s the story of a slave-owner’s daughter, Hannah; and Sarah, a slave on her father’s plantation. Hannah is teaching Sarah French, and marvels at Sarah’s knack for languages. Hannah is berated for spending too much time with that “nigga-gal,” as well as for her refusal to marry the odious shrimper her father has selected for her. While Barnett creates a somewhat sympathetic character in Hannah, she also comes off as a white savior figure, hell-bent on “civilizing” Sarah with French and etiquette lessons. Hannah is also sexually attracted to Sarah and she to her, but I still can’t help but think that Sarah has no agency here; could she really say “no” to this white woman?

Overall, this is an expertly written collection of stories about Black lesbian love from various time periods and locales, although several of the stories are set in the South. There is a little something for everyone here, and even if you don’t love all of the stories, you will surely love a few of them.

Reviewer: S. Andrea Allen

S. (Stephanie) Andrea Allen, Ph.D., is a native southerner and out Black lesbian writer, scholar, and educator. She is the author of a collection of short stories and essays, A Failure to Communicate, (BLF Press 2017), and is hard at work on her first novel. Connect with Stephanie on Twitter, Goodreads, or Facebook.

Krystal A. Smith on Speculative Fiction and Writer’s Block

The following excerpt is the first in our new interview series where we talk to members of the lesbian literary community. A longer version of this interview will appear in an upcoming issue of our literary journal, Serendipity

A North Carolina native, Krystal A. Smith (i.e. K.A. Smith) is a Black lesbian writer of poetry and speculative fiction. Her work has been described as “lyrical” and “intriguing.” Her poems have appeared in Tulips Touching (UltraVioletLove Publishing 2011) and recent short stories have appeared in Ladylit Publishing’s Summer Love: Stories of Lesbian Holiday Romance (2015) and Lez Talk: A Collection of Black Lesbian Fiction (BLF Press 2016). Her debut collection of short fiction Two Moons: A Collection of Short Fiction (BLF Press) will be released in 2018.

Two MoonsCover-Final copyWhen did you start writing speculative fiction? Who are your major influences in this genre?

I had imaginary friends growing up. Little Bruno, Bubba, Shubby. My older brother was in on it too. We used to have so much fun running in and out of the house going on adventures. A few times my older brother and I made up stories about sacred burial grounds with spirits who called out to scare people. We were always creating things, so maybe that’s my speculative fiction origin story. I don’t think I knew what the genre was called until high school. I think Octavia Butler has had the most impact on my writing. Some other writers include Jewelle Gomez and Nalo Hopkinson.

Which of your characters do you identify with the most? Why?

From Two Moons? I’d probably say Korinthia. She’s doing what she’s always done and she’s not satisfied, she’s not happy. But she’s not sure about next steps and she doesn’t want to let anyone down. So, she’s trying to find a way. I’ve been there. I am there.

If you could sit down with any writer, living or dead, who would it be and what would you want to talk about?

Alice Sola Kim. I’ve been reading her stories lately and I like this idea of monster girls. I’m always interested in other people’s writing processes, so I’d probably ask how she comes up with her stories and how she builds characters.

What have you read within the past year that made you feel differently about fiction or about your own writing?

“Who Will Greet You At Home” by Lesley Nneka Arimah. This story had me from the first word to the last. Like my mouth was literally hanging open as I read it. I was so captivated by its originality, creativity. I felt an immediate connection with main character Ogechi. She is almost a study in character desire. She wants with her entire being. Then when I read it a second time I realized that this is THE type of short story that I wish I had inside me. It’s both the story that makes me want to keep writing and quit at the same time. It’s the best story I’ve ever read with my eyeballs.

How do you overcome writer’s block? If you’ve never experienced it, how have you avoided it?

For me, writer’s block isn’t a “block.” It’s a fear. It’s being afraid that what I write won’t be right, or good, or interesting. It’s falling prey to that mean little voice in my head that makes me doubt myself. “Nothing will ever be as good as the last thing you wrote.” That’s the song she likes to sing in my head. The “block” is the fear of not living up to my own expectations. It can be hard to shake, especially if you’re on deadline. But as someone who has decided writing is what I want to do, what I have chosen to do, I push through. I get up and go outside to look at trees and walk around. I work on other things, talk to my characters, doodle, read. I do anything I can to get my mind off that nagging feeling that the voice is right. Then I write. I sit down and write.

If you could give one piece of advice to an aspiring writer, what would it be?

Figure out why you write and who it is you write for. Know that those reasons/people can and will change from time to time. You can still write what you want to write.

To learn more about Krystal, visit her website or reach out to her on Twitter @authorkasmith.

The Prosaic Soul of Nikki Giovanni

The Prosaic Soul of Nikki GiovanniApril is National Poetry Month so it would seem appropriate to sing the praise of Nikki Giovanni. The force behind classics such as Ego Tripping, Cotton Candy on A Rainy Day, and I Wrote a Good Omelet earned her place in the poetry pantheon many times over. While her poetry creates and celebrates wonderful what ifs, her prose addresses a world of what is.

The Prosaic Soul of Nikki Giovanni is a collection of essays pulled from three of her non-fiction books. Readers are treated to works from Gemini published when the author was in her mid-20s, Sacred Cows …and Other Edibles and Racism 101 written in the midst of Giovanni’s academic career at Virginia Tech University where she currently serves as a Distinguished Professor.

Readers are taken on a journey of Giovanni’s worldview throughout the selections. The first third of the book deals with Giovanni’s early years growing up in Knoxville, creating a career as one of the voices of the Black Arts Movement, which breathed life during the 1960s, and finding her way in the world as an independent Black woman who found time to be a mother, sister, and daughter. It is easy to see how an individual self-described as a terror at the age of four could evolve into a writer who could wax poetic about Lena Horne and the political impact and statement made by Motown.

Prose tapped from Sacred Cows… and other Edibles represents Giovanni as the professional writer, mother, friend, and citizen who sees the beauty and the pitfalls of living in a world not intended for the success of women, persons of color, or simply anyone that doesn’t fit the status quo. The final third comes from Racism 101 and brings forth the experiences and thoughts of a middle-aged woman who has lived and learned but is still not afraid to take a lesson from the world. After all, the author has a Thug Life tattoo on her arm inspired by Tupac Shakur.

For those unfamiliar with Giovanni as an essayist, the collection is a great introduction. To be fair, the selections in the book span from 1971 to 1994, so some read in contemporary times may seem a little leaden. But taken as a whole, the collection offers a time capsule of a poet/writer/activist who has evolved but still maintains the spark of creativity that lead to so many brilliant works.

Reviewer: La Toya Hankins

La Toya Hankins is the author of SBF Seeking, and K-Rho: The Sweet Taste of Sisterhood. She is a native of North Carolina and currently resides in Durham, NC. Hankins considers writer and fellow Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. member Zora Neale Hurston as her role model for her ability to capture the essence of the African American Southern experience and living the motto, “I don’t weep at the world, I’m too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” You can connect with LaToya on Facebook and Twitter.