Book Review: Ancient, Ancient by Kiini Ibura Salaam

After paneling with this Tiptree-winning author at WisCon this year, I knew I needed to bump Ancient, Ancient to the top of my reading pile instead of just making a note to read it ‘soon.’ That proved to be both a good and bad decision: good because it’s a fantastic book, and bad because I read almost the whole thing at one sitting to the detriment of all other responsibilities such as feeding cats, meeting deadlines, and other petty needs. This is radically different from how I usually read short stories, and what I usually appreciate about the format.

The thing about short stories is that they typically offer a beautiful opportunity to read discrete, neat, elegant pieces of writing that don’t draw you in to a prolonged reading. You can read one, or a few, and then put the book down to return to it later. You can turn the stories over in your head and think about them, and you can digest the book slowly over the course of several days. Sometimes I even break my ‘one book at a time’ rule and read multiple books of short stories at the same time, or intersperse a full-length book with short stories.

Short stories are normally, for me, refreshing dips in the river on a hot day. They lie there waiting patiently for you, knowing you’ll be back when the heat on the bank gets to be too much for you. And when they’re well-crafted (which these are, but more on that in a moment), they draw you in and make you feel totally cleansed and renewed. They’re tight, crisp, and amazing. They remind you that storytelling of any length is an art, and that short stories are their own creatures, to be respected and explored in their own right rather than treated as lesser siblings of novel-length works.

Except Ancient, Ancient wouldn’t let me stop reading. Not just because some of the stories were interconnected, but because they were so good that I kept wanting to guzzle down more of them. I tried to force myself to pace my reading, to take my time, to linger, but I was seized with an almost fugue state of desperation, hungry for more and more and more. These were stories that grabbed me and did not let go. It wasn’t until a second or in some cases third reading that I was able to calm down, to exit my frenzied state, to slow and actually read instead of just inhaling in a panicked rush.

In her introduction, Nisi Shawl notes that many of these stories are deeply sensuous, a theme she sees rising within Afrodiasporic writing in general, and discussed her initial discomfort with saying in a 2004 interview that we could expect things to get ‘a lot more sexy.’

Sexualised stereotypes of African-descended people abound. Was I internalizing and validating our exoticization? Was I glorifying our oppression?…Despite its degradation, despite censorship, despite denial, sexuality is holy and powerful. Sexuality is ours. As African-descended people we possess it—without stealing it or depriving anyone else of their own. It is our divine right.

Her words rang in my memory as I read through these stories, many of which are deeply sensuous and sexual. Sometimes literally; these are stories about congress between gods and men, about women pleasuring themselves, about sexuality and bodies and stickiness. But Salaam’s writing is also deeply sensuous even when she’s not writing about sexuality; she weaves a web around you that you don’t even struggle to get out of because it’s so finely wrought, and because you are so captivated. Her words are like thick, rich honey on the tongue and the brain, and her craft is exquisite.

These stories run the gamut from short snippets to longer pieces, written in a variety of styles and voices. They showcase Kiini Ibura Salaam’s dramatic and formidable range as a storyteller, and they linger long after you close the covers. You will be up fevered all night long after reading just one offering in Ancient, Ancient, so you can imagine the exquisite torment you’ll be enduring after reading the whole thing. But it is the best sort of torment, that of a mind stimulated into an explosion of thoughts and meanderings.

Ancient, Ancient illustrates the tremendous potential of speculative fiction, and the awesome power it can invoke when wielded by the right hands. This is not a collection of short stories for someone seeking a casual read that can easily be put down and picked back up again. This is serious reading that will demand your full attention, and you’re going to be really glad it did because every inch of it is compelling and delicious, complex and rich.

Race, identity, sexuality, gender, and so much more run fiercely through these pages and balance elegantly with the storytelling and narratives; it’s easy to see why this book was a natural pick for the Tiptree, and why Kiini Ibura Salaam is definitely a writer to watch. If this entry blew me away this much, I can only imagine what she’s going to bring out next, and which distant worlds and souls she’ll take me deep into the heart of, only to fling me back out again, reluctant to join the outside world.

This is the best kind of fiction, and among the most outstanding books I’ve read this year. Go read it.