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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Diabolical Plots #21, November 2016

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Diabolical Plots #21, November 2016

"The Banshee Behind Beamon's Bakery" by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

Reviewed by Dave Truesdale

Review

At 547 words, this story tells the tragic tale of a young man, a bakery employee dumping the day's trash into the alley behind the bakery one night, who is mistakenly taken for a burglar and shot and killed by a police officer. The banshee of the title is the young man's mother who is also now dead; some say she died of grief, others that she took her own life. She now inhabits the alley and defends it as her own, driving away any transient who may come there to sleep for a night. The final line of the story attempts a summation of the story's point: "On this night, the alley is an archive of injustice and the banshee is the chronicler."

As far as this specific scenario goes, the author has shown the grief a mother feels at the loss of a child, especially due to a fatal mistake that has led to her child's death, but then undercuts the theme with the final line, as it fails to support said theme by shifting focus onto the act itself and not the mother's sorrow.

Commentary

The author tacks on the following Author's Note at the end of the story: "The unjust violent death of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer was the specific impetus for this story. I tried to imagine what his mother must’ve been feeling upon learning about her son’s death."

In this specific instance I have a problem with this appended Author's Note and believe it to be a mistake. As a general principle I have nothing against an author's brief little How This Story Came To Be, or The Inspiration For This Story Came From, notes. We see them from time to time (most often in collections of reprints, but not exclusively), and we find them amusing or interesting, letting us into the author's thinking as to how a story came to be. In this case, however, it reveals a social (and political) agenda as the true focus of the story, one the author obviously felt the story didn't make clear and therefore the point needed to be driven home in no uncertain terms—in essence doing the work her story failed to do, at least to the degree she might have hoped.

On the level of technical craft the story suffers from a shift of focus from the mother's grief (as stated in the After Note: "I tried to imagine what his mother must’ve been feeling upon learning about her son’s death.") to the injustice of her son's killing as given in the final line of the story, the alley being "... an archive of injustice." This reveals her true motive in writing the story, that being the injustice of the act and not the mother's feelings about it. Another flaw is the use of the word "chronicler," also in the final line, for the mother—now a banshee—does not chronicle anything to anyone. The story tells us the banshee merely frightens anyone from the alley but does nothing further, much less "chronicle" anything. Much better would have been something along the lines of "mute witness," rather than "chronicler." This final line, the all important "take away," the final impression the author wishes the reader to take from the story, is about an injustice and not the mother's grief; this grief we are told being the supposed purpose of the story. The final all-important line is also weakened by the imprecise choice of "chronicler" when the mother/banshee is chronicling nothing, just marking her territory by frightening away transients.

Perhaps the most damning error made in choosing to add the Author's Note rather than to allow the story to speak for itself, is that the author tells us the driving force for the story was taken from the Michael Brown case, in which during bright daylight a Ferguson, MO (white) police officer shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black man. After numerous eyewitnesses (at least three of which were African-American) supporting the officer's report of the shooting, numerous autopsies, and an investigation coming from no less than the African-American Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder, the case against the officer was dropped. Even the person claiming that Michael Brown had his hands raised and was shouting "Don't Shoot!" was found to have lied, by his own admission.

And yet...and yet, there are those who wish to perpetuate the meme, the lie, to advance a false narrative, even unto a piece of fiction. In this case, the author rigs her scenario to have a police officer (presumably white, remember the Michael Brown shooting was the impetus here), shooting a young unnarmed man (presumably black, though not explicitly stated, but when his name is given as "Mikaheel," a not very cloaked version of Michael, the purpose is obvious), and at night and not during the day as with the Brown case, the true thrust of the story is crystal clear. It is not the mother's grief at the heart of this story, but the advancement of an agenda. That the author framed her story around a lie—the "unjust violent death of Michael Brown"—and then gives the reader a scenario totally different than that of the Michael Brown case, is nothing short of intellectual dishonesty. "The Banshee Behind Beamon's Bakery" fails on literary grounds (the shift of focus in the final line, and the misuse of "chronicler" also in the final line), and from an error in judgment in supplying the personal comments follwing the story, which not only reveal the weakness in the story itself, but highlight how the author's strong prejudice in the matter clouded her thinking, and got in her way when it came to a professional expression of her true beliefs regarding instances African-Americans being shot by police. The author allowed strong emotions to bubble over, to overwhelm her desire (and ability) to pen a professionally written story with her obviously heartfelt message. Instead, we are given a weak and severely flawed story (again, theshift in focus, wrong word choice, and ill-advised post-story comments).

Stories with diverse themes and viewpoints should be encouraged in any literary genre, especially when dealing with hard-hitting or controversial material—especially so in science-fiction—and by any and all practitioners. The more the merrier.

Unfortunately, this amateurish effort should be quickly forgotten (or perhaps used as an object lesson is what not to do), and the author will live up to her obvious potential in future efforts with more skill and sophistication than shown here. The scalpel cuts cleaner than the axe.


Dave Truesdale has edited Tangent and now Tangent Online since 1993. It has been nominated for the Hugo Award six times, and the World Fantasy Award once. A former editor of the Bulletin of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, he also served as a World Fantasy Award judge in 1998, and for several years wrote an original online column for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Now retired, he keeps close company with his SF/F library, the coffeepot, and old movie channels on TV. He lives in Kansas City, MO.