Tenea D. Johnson
Rosarium Publishing, March 2021, 136 pgs
Reading a few stories in this collection, followed by a cursory search through a few respected SFF sites, would lead any rational person to a singular conclusion: The SFF community has a talent for overlooking seriously skilled storytellers. For whatever mix of reasons, Tenea D. Johnson’s work hasn’t found its way into the pro mags, nor into any of the long-standing, better known semi-pros such as Kaleidotrope or Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. Reviewers have almost entirely failed to notice her. Even those dedicated individuals who track genre careers have let her down.
Let’s set the record straight: Johnson’s work went public in 2002, with four poems posted to the Reading Between A&B site. In 2003, she had short story “Deep Night” in Necrologue, edited by Helen Sandler. In other words, she’s been in the writing game quite a while. After looking through Broken Fevers, which offers an assortment of previously published work and original fiction for a total fourteen stories, I can’t help but feel that recognition is overdue.
First story “Bare” immediately pulls the reader in with good (but not overworked) turns of phrase and an interesting situation. A young girl is out of her comfort zone, as her first-ever girlfriend has invited her to see her at work—in a strip club. But Johnson overturns expectations, offering both surprise and important commentary in the compact space of a flash piece. In one swift move, she excises the male gaze and invokes a wonderful horror sensibility.
Johnson flexes her science fiction chops with pieces like “Foundling.” Petal is one of the best in the world at her job: She works in a center which teleports victims out of harm’s way during disasters. As driven as she is, her perfect record is smeared when her attempt to rescue a child from a collapsing building fails. But Petal knows something is off: She’s checked the vectors, the variables, the Boolean calculus. When she starts her own investigation, she lands in deeper trouble. What’s great about this story is not just the cool application of a familiar trope, but the intense layers infused into the piece, which uses science fiction to explore a complex web of cultural inequities.
As strong as “Foundling” is—and, make no mistake, Johnson is a versatile, intelligent author; there are many strong stories in this book—my favorites are Johnson’s forays into mythic/folkloric narratives. “Lopsided World” is a great, very short story wherein a brother and sister hold up the sky on poles. One day, the brother, Songo, drops his end, leaving Libanja to hold up the sky on her own. Myth meets modern and together they form a vibrant metaphor, delivered with just the right amount of emotional resonance. Ultimately this story accomplishes, in just over a page, the kinds of things many writers struggle to do with thousands of words to spend.
“Sugar Hill” is a definite standout. Ts’ai-Ho is an immortal on the hunt for her missing fairy friend, Doren. Said friend left an ominous message on Ts’ai-Ho’s answering machine, and the immortal has to find him before he harms himself. But the two have been estranged for a while, and she isn’t entirely sure how to find him anymore. This is the kind of modern-meets-myth story I have seen so many people try to write but flounder: filled with awesome ideas, moments of wonder, and sprinkled with just the right amount of bold humor. But because the author is Tenea D. Johnson, it’s also much more than that. The writing is unflinching, it takes risks, and the glittery ideas are part of a deeper story. This piece is a beautiful meditation on friendship, using the truths we share and the things we hide as a focal point. It’s also a thought-provoking treatment of conflicts of cultural identity, especially in terms of reconciling cultural pasts with the not-always-pleasant present. All told, it’s really breathtaking work.
As a community, we should be grateful to editors such as Brandon Massey, who published Johnson in Whispers in the Night; the editorial team of Kinitra Brooks, Linda D. Addison, and Susana Morris who published her in Sycorax’s Daughters; and Bill Campbell, who, working with Nisi Shawl, published her in Stories for Chip. As readers, we should wonder what other wonderful work we might be missing, and if the visionaries who saw the merit in Johnson’s writing might also see merit in other authors equally worthy of reading. More important to this review, Campbell has published Johnson’s work again, and together they offer us the concentrated dose we need, the medicine we didn’t even realize we were missing, wrapped up in a book called Broken Fevers.
Spread the word!