When spoken, language passes through the bodies of both speaker and listener: the breath, the lungs, the larynx, the tongue, the ears. Vocal folds create the sound of speech. Articulators shape it. Talking is hardwired for many of us, but writing and reading are less so, and bringing a body to life through text on a page is a feat. Two new books of fiction, Natashia Deón’s novel The Perishing and Venita Blackburn’s short story collection How to Wrestle a Girl, are notable both for their attention to Black bodies and their use of the potential music of written language to summon physical responses in ways similar to spoken words.
The Perishing considers how a body, with all its memories and narratives, keeps track of history. Beginning in Los Angeles in the summer of 2102, the novel careens across time and space, moving from Los Angeles throughout the West, and revolves around a woman named Sarah Shipley. Or that is her name far into the future, anyway. Early on, we meet her as Charlie. It is 1887. We encounter her again, in 1930, as a character named Lou.
Sarah is an attorney, reborn in bodies of different genders but always Black. Married six times, she reveals that all of her husbands have died, two of them by murder. “We’re all on the verge of somebody else’s violence,” she declares, foreshadowing the novel’s movement. And yet, we also learn that hers is a world where death is, if not redeemable, then at least conditional; she was 40 “when First Husband died the first time.”
The first time? In the world of The Perishing, such a thing is possible, because here, some people are immortal. As we learn, immortal souls hold the losses of earlier lives in their bodies, and the book suggests a comparison to Hollywood, which promises immortality through film.
Of the different iterations of the protagonist, Lou is the most concrete and intriguing. Found in an alley after an accident, she is taken by a social worker to grow up with a new family. She becomes a Los Angeles Times reporter, investigating the deaths of people of color.
The frailty of bodies, perched at the precipice of death and forgetting, foregrounds the immortality of the soul as the fulcrum on which the plot of The Perishing balances. Sarah explains with a blend of nonchalance and wisdom: “Everybody I love dies and no matter. Most people won’t survive everyone who loves them. Our lives are meant to mimic a passing breeze that won’t return.” Although there are hints of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred here, the atmosphere is closer to the film Memento, in which a man with anterograde amnesia tracks his wife’s killer against the clock of his own forgetting. In Deón’s novel, forgetting seeps into the gaps between flashbacks, developing its own presence. Nothing is what it seems, this enigmatic novel suggests, and while piecing together the intricacies of the plot can sometimes be perplexing, they do frame a fascinating whole.
Sarah’s soul may be reborn in different people, but the prose is robust with regard to the character’s embodiment. “The skin on my mother’s hands,” she thinks, “was unusually soft and smooth, but the bones underneath were long and felt brittle. When I’d hold her hand as a child, it was like holding gathered bones, wrapped in wax paper, small as fried chicken wings, her knuckles like knots of gristle.” The author frequently uses techniques, such as alliteration, for nonornamental purposes. “Skin,” “soft,” and “smooth,” as well as “when,” “wrapped,” and “wax,” emphasize the orality of the novel, its insights like sermons vibrating within us as we read.
Venita Blackburn’s How to Wrestle a Girl is similarly concerned with how language represents the body. The stories here are by turns serious and funny, ribald and emotionally honest. They take on subjects such as working out, wrestling, and sex, as well as the social judgments imposed by other bodies. Like The Perishing, Blackburn’s collection intimates the commonality of Black experience across generations and personalities. The stories give speech to private, queer aspects of the body.
At a mere two pages, “Fam” circles beauty standards with unerringly specific linguistic choices and syntax. The story begins with a bit of indirection: “my lil sister/niece/granddaughter/baby cousin doesn’t know that she’s pretty, so she asks everybody, one post at a time.” The character is a woman in the narrator’s family who has had her scoliosis corrected by titanium rods. At the same time, “she used to walk around like a Black Quasimodo: loved and gorgeous.” Such a dichotomy, woven into the center of the narrative, signals a writer who takes nothing for granted.
From sentence to sentence, Blackburn’s viewpoint remains assured. Take, for instance, the repeated assonance in a sentence such as “Her happiness was electric, blinking, a ding, ding, ding, ding.” With the repetition of “ding,” happiness is made hyper-contemporary, imbued with the sound of digital notifications, even as the story hurtles toward a heartbreaking end.
There are formal experiments here too. One story assumes the form of a crossword puzzle, with the action emerging from the clues. But the greater pleasure of the collection is that Blackburn understands how to keep us on our toes. She throws out images that punch one minute, leaving us helpless, vulnerable to the sorrow of the characters, before swerving into humor or even hope. “We had the dusk to ourselves,” she writes at the end of “Halloween,” “and moved exhausted again through time as if the shapes of the night could be anything we wanted.”
Blackburn uses rhetorical techniques more often employed by orators, such as anaphora. In “Ground Fighting,” she describes how pain can slip from the physical to the otherworldly, with each sentence expanding and contracting, as muscles do under stress:
Pain, to me, is a portal, an access point to another world, the smallest of places and those infinite in scale. When I broke my arm, I went to the atoms. When I buried my father, I went to the stars. When I came out to my mother, she told me to wash my hair, then I went to the past. It’s the greatest high when your own body is so wrecked you get to leave it for a while.
The salient beauty of The Perishing and How to Wrestle a Girl is that they grapple with what it is like to be inside bodies in extremis, on the edge of risk. Deón and Blackburn attend to the body as a locus of power or its absence: how bodies relate to objects in space, how they feel, how they are given voice—or not—within a place.•