Family and Community in ZZ Claybourne’s “The Air in My House Tastes Like Sugar” (GigaNotoSaurus, March, 2020)

Y’all, I read this awesome story, and I want to tell you about it. It’s about a mother and daughter who are witches, tired of having to move from town to town to hide their identities. They finally say, no, and decide to push back on all the rumors, fake stories, and prejudice so they can stay in community with the town. They’re happy there, to an extent, but negative rumors about witches and children and ovens are spreading in the city about them, so they have to take action. Mother takes her daughter into town to confront those rumors head on! And she is not someone to be messed with. Does she use witchcraft to get her way? She does not. She uses reason.

Along the way, she discovers a bigger secret hiding in the town, and must be the witch the town needs in order to survive.

I loved this story for many reasons.

Yes, it has a trope I love—family. I’m a sucker for brothers and sisters, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, mothers and sons, any combo of family. So I’m already biased going in. Family for me comes with its own stakes already in place. In nearly every family story there is a question of “how do we keep the family unit intact?” How do we survive together? The characters are not just strangers, or friends, or a D&D Party (all good groups!), but have shared history together that an author can explore, and a familiarity with each other that can really aid a story. I think Zig Zag Claybourne uses all these positives to his favor in this story.

See how the dialogue between mother and daughter show how close they are, how many shortcuts and unsaids are already there, thick on the page. See how much weight gestures have between them, and how much trust is there. I like how intimate this story is. How much love there is between the two main characters, and how this is their problem, not just Amnandi (the daughter) or Unina/Mother’s problem, but their problem to tackle togther.

Is it even better when in the second section you discover the tie in with Hansel and Gretel? Yes, it turns that fairy tale into something based in a possible reality—how a story comes from facts that have been twisted. And how dangerous rumors and half truths and stories can become if wielded like blunt instruments against someone in your community.

I love how Unina and Jobam, the father of Hansel and Gretel, talk to each other on these languid, summer days, trying to negotiate some peace between them, how they watch the children play. In a world of stories where We Must Get To the Action, Claybourne not only shows us how rich the dialogue and moments in between can be, but how they can be just as full of tension as any chase scene! You can tell Unina is holding back, leading and guiding with her discussions, working fucking hard to give her and her daughter a place there, but without giving an ounce of her personal power and her autonomy away. She will negotiate with these people, but she will not bend to what they want her to be.

When she gets to the basis for the rumors–and realizes that the town has a much bigger problem, the pace of that slow-burning story leaps. I don’t mind a slow burn story at all, but for me the tense beginnings just helped the last third of this story ignite! You want a chase scene? You got one. You want kids in danger? You got it!

This story appears in Giganotosaurus, which publishes stories that are longer than your regular short story, which gives more space to good character building and story development than you may get in shorter works. I think Claybourne’s story really showcases the strength of fiction that finds itself in this liminal space between short story and novel. This fiction can be hard to get published (limited room in a magazine, short attention spans of readers online, not long enough to publish in a hard copy) and so it’s a good thing Giganotosaurus is here. It catches stories that might otherwise be lost, or which might be pared down to fit into a smaller space, or bulked up to make into standalone novels. Sometimes, like in the world of fairy tales, there is a size that is just right.

“The Air in My House Tastes Like Sugar” is that just right.

Claybourne is also a black fantasy author and so this story resonates from this perspective too—of the rumors about black families in a community, the stories that are used to hurt them, marginalize them, and how they must fight so hard just to stay in community with people who are, at first, afraid of them, subject to wrongheaded rumors and fake news.

This story comes at a time when the black community, especially, —bolstered by black women– is fighting for peace, and propelling positive change in America—from the protests of Michael Brown’s murder by police in Ferguson to the protests of George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s murders by police today. They are fighting to feel safe, to stay in community, fighting for their families and friends, fighting not to be hunted by those whose prejudices stem from wrongheaded fairy tales. So many strong black women–mothers and daughters– protesting and speaking out and leading in the streets and on the national stage. It is Nina Turner and Bree Newsome and Briahna Joy Gray and Cori Bush and countless others. And they need us to join them.

There is that same powerful strength in Unina Khumalo–like you know she is at Defcon 5 but she can go to Defcon 1 if you aren’t listening to her. And she does later in the story. But she never backs down, and she is constantly applying pressure to the stupid acceptance of rumors over facts; she never really lets up, calmly, powerfully making her points. Then, when she is most needed and listened to, she is a force to be reckoned with.

The story came out in March of this year, but I suspect it has a much longer life ahead of it. The story does not outwardly reference anything in today’s news, but it still resonates with that news, and will continue to resonate till everyone can rest safely in their communities.

About the illustration: this is how I pictured Mama and Daughter, in the front of their home, in front of their doorway. They hold masks that are important to the last third of the story. They are blocking you from coming in, protecting their home, and you can tell Unina is wary and strong.

I love this story, and I hope you will read it, and nominate it for all the good things! For more of Zig Zag Claybourne’s writing, follow his blog, Write On, Right On !

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