Special Guest Post: Ibi Zoboi, "The Other Bodies in Space"

For as long as I could remember I would imagine the very beginning of humanity. I’d be eight or nine years old giving myself a headache wondering what human beings were really made of. It was a conundrum--I’m human, in this body, thinking these thoughts. Wait. Then, I’m human, in this body, thinking these thoughts. A cat chasing its tail. Who does that at such a young age? An immigrant.

Two things I know for sure as an immigrant: my body and the space that it occupies. My earliest memories of Haiti were of thick warm air, pastel colors, laughing out loud, old men playing dominoes, sweet wet fruit--what any self-respecting Caribbean island ought to be. I remember the excitement of having to get on a plane and then space and time bending itself to transport me to what seemed to be a whole other planet: 1980s crack-era Brooklyn, New York. I was four. I was mortified.

There was that strange puppet on Solid Gold and too-long nights and too many clothes to put on at one time and these things called jobs that kept my mother away for long hours at a time. My little body had experienced two polar opposite realities mere hours apart. I must’ve napped on the plane so the transition felt instantaneous--teleportation, of course.

The immigrant experience has got to be the most otherworldly, mind-bending phenomena that can happen to a human. Enter the immigrant woman’s experience and what we have is a space opera super heroine. If I could actually name some of them, I’d say they’ve got nothing on my mama.

In Haiti, and many other places in the world, there isn’t a word for feminism. Whatever ideas surrounding women’s lib are simply stuff women must do in order to exist in any given third world country. And there are the proverbial “a better life for my children” and “to help support my family back home” as to why some women leave their native lands in order to pursue the American dream. So upon entry into this planet where strange customs abound, there is a constant fight to preserve cultural identity, memory, and ultimately, the body.

I was introduced to feminism in college. And when I first learned of Audre Lorde, The Feminine Mystique, Gloria Steinem, Alice Walker, Naomi Wolf and The Beauty Myth, and bell hooks, I vowed never to shave my legs, ever. I let my eyebrows grow thick, frowned upon nail polish, and insisted that stilettos were the ultimate phallic symbol created to wreak havoc on women’s spines and wombs. It was a reclamation of my adolescent body.

Then I’d have to come home every night after my classes since I didn’t live on campus. There was my mother and her friends, other immigrant women, who were the hardest-working people I knew. Single mothers. Homeowners. Nurses (it’s the go-to gig for most Caribbean women). Women who in mere months had to learn a whole new language to be able to read and study chemistry and anatomy textbooks while working overnight shifts at hotels, as home attendants and nannies, and in factories. Women who kept tidy homes and cooked meals from scratch because it was the only way they knew. Women who loved hard but would cuss and hex the men who betrayed them. Then they’d put on their foundation, blush, lipstick, heels, and jewelry and kept it moving--their way of reclaiming their bodies.

While my only battle was debating patriarchal and racial hegemony in the classroom and pontificating veganism as way to heal the collective wombs of women. There was my crazy mind at work again. I’m human. No wait. I’m woman, I’m black, in this body, thinking these thoughts.

Feminism and all the ideas that came along with it happened in the objective mind. I was in academia learning about history and the roles of women in society. At home, there was the very subjective reality of my body and the space around it. In my neighborhood, women—black women—held down the community. Women were, for the most part, the heads of their household. There were no discussions around why this was. It just was. It was the acceptance of the body you were born into—black, woman, immigrant, loved, feared, betrayed, and if you listened to the echoes in the spaces around you, not so beautiful.

Writing was the only way to make sense of it all. There was the cerebral part to writing--the grammar, the plotting, structure, and metaphors. And then there was the part that came from memories and experiences. I remembered that I came from a culture known for its Vodou and there was a whole world of shape-shifting, trance, teleportation, magic, and myth. This was part of the oral tradition I inherited.

I was writing this kind of stuff (not very good at all, of course) before I knew there was a fantasy and science fiction. The feminist sci-fi book that first rocked my worldview: LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness. There were all these layers of politics, sex and gender, love and war whose metaphors made sense of my world. I’d come from a country whose dictatorship was on the verge of collapse at the time my mother and I left. And we’d entered a nation with a deep history of racism and sexism, where single mothers were both mother and father, and myths of lifelong love, wealth, and stability.

Left Hand of Darkness is an examination of dualities. I always interpreted it as the left hand representing right-brain thinking--feminine, holistic ideology. Darkness being the yin of the universe. And in my mind’s eye, I’d literally envision a left hand, without its body, just hovering within a dark void. A useless left hand searching the space around it for something to grasp and attach its broken part to some larger whole.

These are the stories I want to tell. Of broken women. Dismembered women who needed to remember themselves. Their bodies made whole again by the stories.

Black women’s bodies have historically been vehicles for both magic and science. The magic of resilient bodies who’ve survived traumatic voyages across huge expanses of space and time. In one instance having complete ownership of themselves and the space they occupy, and then in another, losing all forms of identity, serving as mere instruments for sex, labor, and birthing other bodies doomed to the same fate.

There’s the science of the perplexing body of Henrietta Lacks, whose “immortal” cells continued to replicate long after its soul had made its transition to the netherworld. And the science of black women’s bodies in outer space--Dr. Mae Jemison’s bone density and cell research experiments on the Space Shuttle Endeavor. Given these realities, it’s no wonder that the late, great Octavia Butler’s characters were fierce black women caught between spaces--that of aliens and a newly imagined Earth, body inhabiting immortals, and the curse/gift of hyperempathy in a world coming apart at the seams.

The legendary witch named Tituba was fictionally portrayed by Maryse Condé in I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem and Arthur Miller in The Crucible . This Tituba, who embodied the magic and traditions of her homeland and the her foremothers, ultimately invaded the puritanical space of Salem, Massachusetts. And it was mere tales--whether real or imagined--that shifted history at the expense of other women’s bodies. And then there’s Sethe of Toni Morrison’s Beloved , whose body birthed a child into the gruesome space of slavery where black bodies were disposable. What if those bodies continued to live on in some other world, and at a moment’s notice, come back to us?

These stories were never classified as fantasy or supernatural horror. It was the reality or re-interpreted history (with an added bit of magic) of the lives of black women. But given the audacity to push past the boundaries of the tangible world, we have authors like Nalo Hopskinson, whose The Salt Roads captures the spirit of the Vodou godess Ezili, who travels to inhabit the bodies of different women throughout time. And Nnedi Okorafor’s Onyesonwu, whose magical, power-wielding body is the physical manifestation of rape.

Still, there are more stories to be told of the other bodies in space--the carriers of history, ancestral memory, and collective trauma. The bodies at the bottom of the hierarchical ladder deemed so by arbitrary science. The bodies of immigrant women; displaced women; stolen, bought and sold women who occupy the spaces of myth, magic, science, and technology.

Ibi Zoboi's stories have been published in Crossed Genres, Haiti Noir, and Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, among others. She's a recent winner of the Gulliver Travel Grant from the Speculative Literature Foundation.