‘Deer Dancer’ by Kathleen Alcalá, in ‘New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color’ Nisi Shawl (editor)

I bought Nisi Shawl’s ‘New Suns – Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color’ because I’m already a fan of two of the writers, Karin Lowachee and Rebecca Roanhorse, and I hoped to find other equally talented writers.

I’m always hungry for voices in Speculative Fiction who have the gift of seeing the world – past, present and future – differently and who can help me step out of my world and into theirs.

My first find is Kathleen Alcalá’s ‘Deer Dancer’. This is one of those (very) short pieces of speculative fiction that sparkle in the imagination like a shard of blown glass: bright, unique and with sharp edges.

In eight pages or so, a series of short scenes show me a young woman called Tater and the communal life she leads in a future version of our world, a couple of generations after large scale climate change has forced people to find new ways to live.

Deer Dancer‘ is written with a light touch that brings intimacy without being weighed down by detail. Tater does not see her life as problematic. She is joyous and hopeful and sees herself as fortunate to be living in a community that cares for her. We learn about Tater and her world through small details, like how Tater got her name and how she feels about it. It starts with talking about potatoes being picked for a meal and ends up with a perfect, compact statement of Tater’s hopes.

The grey nubs did not look like much as they sat steaming on the ground, but washed and sliced into brilliant purple disks, they would glow. Tater’s mom had named her after the naturalized Ozettes. Brought from Peru by long ago voyagers, the potatoes had taken to the northwest like, well, no other plant or animal. Tater was proud of her unusual name, and secretly hoped she was like them, ordinary at first look, but gem-like on the inside. Rooted.

We learn about the change in climate partly through Tater reading a poem her aunt wrote in her diary, the only book Tater owns, which talks about the joys of sunlight, ending with:

‘Who can deny the intoxication of sunlight, the touch of gold as it runs down our arms from our fingertips.
Our thighs grow slack as our lips part to drink
in the pearly heat. Our pens rest on their tables as our minds glide
away from the task at hand.’

Tater loves the poem in part because

‘She loved imagining what it was like Before, when the sun was scarce.’

The story itself is not a cosy one. It is filled with hints at threats: from the harsh sun, from old landmines, from the creatures in the forest and from other people. Yet its focus is on the power of ritual and collaboration and Tater’s gift of ‘The Dreaming’ to push back the darkness. This is a world where danger is real but community makes hope possible.

The story ends with Tater, who has a had vision in her dreams that warns of a need to guard their houses, taking up her role as Deer Dancer, dancing the dance the way her people have for many generations. This is a dance of power, an assertion of collective will, of a determination to live and grow.

At its start, we hear that Tater and her House ‘greeted the night with a collective roar.’ Then, joined by dancers from other houses, moving to the booming beat of drums and heralded by descant wails, the dance begins.

‘The dancers made their way forward and back, forward and back, turning sideways in unison to appear larger to the unseen enemy.

Arise, arise fair sun, and kill the envious moon…

Dancers from other houses flanked them, creating a front of noise and light against the Outside. Tater felt vulnerable in her soft doe-skin clothing, conscious of how exposed her throat was each time she turned her head, knew that the bandage on her left hand showed she might be wounded. This is how they took back the world—step by step, song by song. At the end of the night, new fence posts would be pounded into place, new fences strung.’

At the end of the dance, Tater looks to her own future with hope and the story finishes with:

‘Tater’s face shone in the flickering light. It was good to be alive.’

Writing like this is one of the reasons I love speculative fiction short stories. So much is said in so few words. The images are powerful and memorable and give me a view of a possible future that is a projection of my present, strongly linked to our past.

I’ve ordered Kathleen Alcalá’s short story collection ‘Mrs. Vargas and the Dead Naturalist’. This is what Ursula Le Guin said about it:

‘Not one tale is like another, yet all together they form a beautiful whole, a world where one would like to stay forever.’

Author Profile

Kathleen Alcalá is a Clarion West graduate and instructor, the award-winning author of six books, a recent Whitely Fellow, and a previous Hugo House Writer in Residence. Her latest book, The Deepest Roots: Finding Food and Community on a Pacific Northwest Island, explores relationships with geography, history, and ethnicity.

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