This month for Fiction Friday, I’ll be giving the Br’er scenario another try. I’m not sure what people thought of the couple fragments I posted last month, but I wasn’t really happy with them — I think they came across far too “woe is me, poor special snowflake” and less “these are some things that folks like me have to deal with”. Not my best look, fam; sorry about that.
I’m writing a little about what I’d like to do with the idea here, not to prime you to read the upcoming bits of fiction in a certain way, but to hopefully solidify my intentions and use this as a guidepost to look back on at the end of the month when I want to know how I did with them. I know it’s important to let the work speak for itself, right? But this is the first tentative step to more involved and more ambitious stories, and this writing desk here is going to be my workshop for now.
I’m writing Br’ers as a way to dig into my experience as a black man on the fringes of black society. In a lot of ways, my folks can tell there’s something different about me just by looking — either it’s the clothes I wear, or the way I carry myself, or how I speak. There’s this impression that I give off almost immediately that codes me as “other”, and that feeling only deepens once I start talking.
At the same time, I am undeniably black and the rest of the world sees me that way. I’m lumped in with a community that has distanced me from itself by the dominant culture, and there’s not much I can do about that. I occupy this border between the world of black America and the wider one, maybe not by choice, but by simply being who I am. And here, my options are somewhat limited; no one thing is going to be wholly satisfying.
I could forsake the black community entirely and step out into the wider world in search of an adopted people. That’s what I’ve done for most of my life; in my senior year of high school I found Dungeons & Dragons, Changeling: the Dreaming and the furry fandom. I didn’t look back for 15 years. These are the people who understood me, who’ve accepted me as one of their own, whose excitement I’ve shared. I’ve been a geek for about 20 years now; it’s an enormous part of my identity.
But over the past couple of years I’ve felt a calling back “home”. Maybe it’s being in touch with my family again, learning about the first deaths that will signal many more for my older relatives, getting to talk to my nephews on the phone. Maybe it’s knowing that I had an aunt who was a lesbian and never reaching out to her; now she’s gone and it’s too late. Maybe it’s seeing this awful parade of abuse and death to our young black men and women and thinking that it could have been my sister’s children on the news, or even my sister. Either way, something within me told me it was time to reassume this part of my identity, and I’ve been working out how ever since.
Learning about the black geek community has been a wonderful thing for that. These are people who’ve grown up in ways that I recognize, who have experiences that I share, who love the same things I do. What they haven’t done is given up their racial and cultural identity the way I did; they’ve stayed on that border and made a settlement there. They’re influenced by both worlds — the black American culture that I’ve found so difficult to deal with and the bigger, whiter space of science-fiction and fantasy. Their space looks like nothing else, this fusion of a long, painful history combined with wild and unbridled imagination.
The concept of Br’er came to me as I was thinking about how to marry my furry identity with the larger world of black geekdom. I like the idea that someone waking up one day as markedly different forces them to the fringes anywhere they go; no matter where they are, chances are they’re the only one of their kind in the room. A new species borne out of the antagonistic relationship we have with our planet is an idea I couldn’t let go of. Br’ers, just by being who they are, remind us of the awful things we’ve done and force us to deal with that on some level.
I imagine that Br’ers were a sudden and immediate phenomenon. One day, one in twenty people — mostly in the most blighted urban areas — woke up to find themselves some weird combination of human and animal. Because the change seemed to be based on a type of environment, it disproportionately affected minorities and the poor. You know, the kind of people who tend to live in areas of urban blight. What these animal-human hybrids are called varies depending on the culture naming them; in black circles, they’re named Br’ers.
Those who’ve undergone the change feel like strangers in their own skin, even after the six months to a year has passed where our story picks up. They have to rediscover their own bodies, wrestle with strange and different appetites, move through a world that simply has no idea what to make of them. Because of the vastly different shape of their faces, they have no idea how to speak up. They’re voiceless, and any method of communication they can use as an alternative probably won’t really capture what is they’re feeling, what it is they want to say. It’s a frustrating and lonely existence, even if they know that they’re not alone, that there are other people out there like them.
Their families and neighbors are weirded out by them; this is something beyond their experience and they have no idea how to relate to them. The world at large might be more accepting, but there are trade-offs. Chances are they come from minority or low-income backgrounds, without a lot of social or political power; they’re kind of exotic, but kind of dangerous, objects of fascination more than living breathing people. Folks will stop them on the street and ask to touch their fur, or wonder how they manage to do things with their claws, or — only when they’re drunk or feeling REALLY comfortable — ask them if what they’ve heard about their sexual characteristics are true.
The world of the Br’er is one where there is almost no safe space; your neighborhood holds you at arm’s length, anything beyond that might be well-meaning but ignorant at best and downright abusive at worst, and there’s no guarantee even among your own kind that you’ll find kinship for a whole host of reasons. On top of that, it’s a long and arduous process to find peace about yourself and who you are. You may never truly fit in anywhere, and you have to be OK with that.
That’s the experience I want to capture here. It’ll take me a little while to get it right; I’m still a novice at writing fiction and working with subtext is something I’m going to have to learn. But it’s an idea I believe in, and I’ll keep trying to express it until I get it right.
So thanks in advance for being patient with me on this. Any feedback is welcome — even if it’s critical, even if you don’t believe in the idea in the first place. I want to hear from you. I know the first passes are going to be rough, but I sacrifice my ego to the altar of story. I will crash and burn publicly, because I want to forge myself.