It’s difficult to do justice for a collection like Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. When I first came across it, I knew what I expected: narratives that were non-Anglo in origin, perhaps with some LGBTQ and disabled protagonists. Unto themselves, these are noble and worthwhile goals, because not only does representation matter, but differences in perspective improve the quality and variety of our aggregate reading. And certainly, as a girl who hasn’t gone a week without ranting about the dearth of diversity in fantasy settings — because Europe gets boring after a while — I welcome any speculative fiction set outside the British diaspora.
I expected a lot from this anthology, and yet what I got was so much more than that. Long Hidden is, in the words of its editors Rose Fox and Daniel José Older, …a book of counter-narratives. It is an act of literary resistance. In whispers, shouts, and moans, these stories combine into a collective outcry that is both joyous and mournful, a forgotten praise-song that puts flesh on the bones of our hidden dreams.
Those words in the introduction were my first nugget of a clue what I was in for. These are stories grounded in real-world history told in the voices of the marginalized, from the Hungarian starved peasant turned zombie to the lonely Chinese ghost girl, who both find new families in death; to the West Coast Buddhist miner haunted by his past sins to the East Coast genderqueer miner haunted by a creature from Slavic mythology. A Tamil dream architect turns her back on the forces of colonialism; a Quaker experiences supernatural consequences of conscientious objection to war.
In most of my anthology reviews, I discuss the three or so stories that stand out to me most. For Long Hidden this wasn’t possible; three is too few, five is too few, and more than five would make this a TL;DR nightmare. But I tried to pick a few that showcase both the anthology’s breadth and depth:
Ken Liu’s “Knotting Grass, Holding Ring” opens with Sparrow, a servant of a 17th century Chinese brothel, watching as Green Siskin entertains a client. Sparrow botches the affair as she envies Green Siskin’s grace, and the two reveal their respective naivete and hard-hearted cynicism on the trip back to the brothel, as they discuss the possibility of a Manchu invasion, discuss the afterlife, and rescue an injured bird. When the invasion comes and the whole city is slaughtered, the two characters refuse to abandon each other rather than run or hide, just as they are betrayed by the ones who should protect them; Green Siskin uses her skills and cleverness to save not just Sparrow but as many as she can, and what follows is a meditation on the unsung heroes of war and the nature of freedom and mythology itself.
“The Witch of Tarup,” by Claire Humphrey, is one of the stories within this anthology I found most emotionally evocative. Dagny Jorgensdatter is a new bride who also becomes caretaker when her husband Bjorn has a stroke after just a few weeks of marriage. Adding to the couple’s ill luck, the wind stops blowing shortly thereafter and their grain mill is left without power. Dagny must find the lone witch in this 19th century Danish town to help her cast a spell to make the windmill turn again before the couple runs out of food. Along the way, she befriends her neighbor Kirsten, lamed in childhood, who helps her husband rediscover how to communicate. This story teaches us that luck can be changed, that new families can be formed at any age, and that community is forged in kindness.
Shanaé Brown’s Find Me Unafraid is set in turn-of-the-20th-century North Carolina. Protagonist Charlotte, her family, and her entire town suffer regular attacks and burnings from the Klan. Charlotte’s mysterious friend Booker, who she befriends “like most stray dogs come to be your pet… you’re not quite sure if they’ve always been around or if they’ve just shown up,” saves her from one such burning one day and makes an incredible offer: to escape the danger of the deep South and come up North to Detroit. She learns, in time, that Booker is both less and more than who she thought he was. Skilfully rendered imagery — “terror smells like burnt wood and charred grass. Like hate” — and vivid prose make this subversion of the “magical negro” trope a standout of the anthology.
Many of these stories are conversant. The above story pairs well with Lisa Bolekaja’s “Medu,” African mythic fiction in which a black cowgirl embraces her hair; and in perhaps the best speculative fiction element of the book, her hair has superpowers — it’s a retelling of a myth we’ve all heard inaccurately. And both are well-informed by the background of “It’s War,” in which the women follow the matriarch of an African village to fight the forces of colonalism. These three stories in conversation, along with a handful of other stories set in the African diaspora, were my favorite reading experience of the anthology, for they trace the legacy of colonialism — in which it’s not just bodies and lands being colonized, but images and mythologies. And stories.
Long Hidden tells us that we have the power to take back our own stories.
In the struggle to achieve agency, one’s betrayer is likely to be the one most responsible for your care: your employer, your commander, your father. Those who are least able to afford it are the ones who provide buoyancy. And this is how Long Hidden speaks truth to power, in a world in which the default is spoken of as universal, and that which is not is other: these stories narrate the power to form one’s own destiny. They put faces on the heretofore faceless.
On a pure entertainment level, Long Hidden could be described as Howard Zinn, the science fiction and fantasy edition. But its literary success lies in pushing the boundaries of invention, in showing the ideas that are possible once you remove most dominant lens of the world and try another… whether that’s a socially rejected girl changing the course of the Mesoamerican mythos or challenging the format of narrative to tell a story within marginalia itself. Diversity of perspective leads directly to diversity in ideas — and what is speculative fiction but an exploration of ideas?