Published on April 28th, 20150
Talk Blue to Me
Blue Talk and Love: Stories, by Mecca Jamilah Sullivan
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New York City serves as the setting for most of these stories in Mecca Jamilah Sullivan’s first collection, and like the city itself, the characters are diverse, Black, Latino, and often lesbian or gay. In unraveling the lives and desires of her characters, we get a view of the city that makes it an inseparable part of the tapestry. You can’t take the stories and set them anywhere. These are New York stories, Harlem stories, where even the “ruído” of the streets becomes part of the music.
The collection opens with the story “Wolfpack” based on a true incident in 2006 when seven black lesbian friends were arrested for assault after defending themselves from a homophobic rant by a man in the streets of Manhattan. The man, who claims that he was attacked in a hate crime “against a straight man,” starts the confrontation in the story by calling one of them an elephant after the women refuse to acknowledge his crude sexual attention.
The price of defending themselves gets the women up to eleven years in prison.
Like many of the stories, “Wolfpack” is told from multiple points of view, something Sullivan gets away with as the voices are distinct and believable, and the story cannot help but to evoke a bit of rage about injustice against African Americans and the LGBT community.
In the title story “Blue Talk and Love” a rather plain, alienated teenage girl named Ernestine find herself sexually attracted to her pretty classmate Xiamora, and her desire is so painful that it seeps into all aspects of her life. At one point, her father, sensing the depth of her longing, tells her she has “duende.”
In a forthcoming interview on Words on a Wire, Sullivan explains “duende” as the possibility of pain, and there’s a lot pain in these stories, along with love, hope, and sometimes the lack of hope. The characters are full of depth, desire, and, yes, duende.
What makes these stories a pleasure to read are not only the depth of the characters and the vividness of the settings, but the language itself is often lyrical and can take the reader anywhere, as good language can.
In the story “A Strange People” we have conjoined twins, a woman with one body and two heads. The story is told by both heads, We-Chrissie and We-Millie, distinct personalities more complex than the duality of the plain pensive one and the pretty social one. The voices are so distinct that the reader easily enters the landscape of the story and does not question the verisimilitude. These are characters with a desire to survive in a world where they are other. In fact, the story can be read on the metaphorical level, and we can see ourselves in the two-headed body of “We.”
The inner lives, the desires, and the poetry of the language seamlessly carry the reader into these stories, with heartbreakingly beautiful results.
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan is an exciting new voice in American fiction, and this collection deserves to be a classic.
By Daniel Chacón