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Andrea Hairston's novel Will Do Magic for Small Change is a celebration of the power of storytelling, the connection between past, present and future, and magic - the everyday magic that comes from such acts as taking a step into the unknown, opening your heart or trusting your sense of yourself - and how these things can heal, can make something that was broken, scattered, whole again.

Hairston gives us two narratives interwoven by magic, imagination and love. The first, set in 1980s Chicago, centres on a young black girl, Cinnamon Jones, child of poverty, myth and art. Her father is in a coma, shot while trying to help two lesbians. Her brother has died of a drug overdose that may have been suicide. Her mother, a city bus driver, is increasingly unable to cope. But in her blood is the magic and mystery of her grandparents, a hoodoo woman and a medicine man. What pulls Cinnamon forward is a love of theatre, the friends she meets at an audition - Klaus and Marie - and the gift from her brother of a mysterious book that writes itself, the story of an alien wanderer come to earth.

The second narrative is the story of this Wanderer. Starting in the late 1890s, the alien is caught up in the flight of a Dahomey ahosi, or warrior woman, after her defection from the Dahomeyan women's army. The warrior, Kahinde, names the alien after her dead twin brother Taiwo, for whom she left the king's army. Joined by Kahinde's sister-in-law Samso and her infant daughter, they travel to the new world of America seeking a place where they can write new stories of their lives.

Intersections of past and present, love and fear, the deep truth of storytelling, theatre, art - the tale of the wanderer becomes the tale of Cinnamon's life and as it finds completion, the path to Cinnamon's future is woven together and unfolds before her.

A magical book, with layers of meaning I'll be contemplating for some time to come.

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Mindscape, Angela Hairston

This in a demanding book. However, if you give in to its demands, you will be well rewarded.

The publisher’s synopsis – which gives away no more than what’s in the first few pages, says this:
Mindscape takes us to a future in which the world itself has been literally divided by the Barrier, a phenomenon that will not be ignored. For 115 years this extraterrestrial, epi-dimensional entity has divided the earth into warring zones. Although a treaty to end the interzonal wars has been hammered out, power-hungry politicians, gangsters, and spiritual fundamentalists are determined to thwart it. Celestina, the treaty's architect, is assassinated, and her protegée, Elleni, a talented renegade and one of the few able to negotiate the Barrier, takes up her mantle.
And that is indeed as good a brief introduction as any, and is at the same time only peripherally what the book seems, to me at least, to be about.

Human activity is centred in three Zones (there are also free zones, in which no human appear to live, or if the do, they live apart from human society), each of which has been influenced by a different blend of human culture and values: Paradigma, where science and technology appear to have taken a stronger hold, New Ouagadougou, where a culture rich in philosophical, mystical or perhaps magical traditions has developed and Los Santos, where production and consumption of sensory experience is predominant. There are a number of ways to parse that trio – mind, spirit, body. Praxis, theory, creation. Europe, Africa, North America. Add your own at will. And of course, there are outlaws, renegades, people who do not fit, the other. And here and there, there are rumours of aliens, too. And there is the Barrier, which is in many ways a character, or at least a chorus, all its own.

There are wars and rumours of wars, and political wrangling, and the quest for a way to control the Barrier so that it can be traversed at the will of the one who has control, rather than by the rhythms that cause the Barrier to open up corridors in itself, or by the actions of the few, rare, and in some, perhaps all, cases, partly mutated people who can carve corridors in the Barrier with their own will. There is trading in human lives and crushing poverty and hopelessness. There is hidebound tradition and fear of the new and the different and the unknown. There are questions of identity and reality and truth. There is love and loyalty and hate and death – and possibly rebirth. There are issues of culture and language and assimilation and appropriation and cultural preservation and multicultural evolution. There are reflections and illuminations on sex and desire and gender and preconceptions and assigned roles.

Mindscape is, as you can see, a big, sprawling novel with a lot of people, a lot of viewpoints, a lot of ideas, a lot of mindscapes, and as in life, they come at you all mingled together and messy and hard to figure out and parse and analyse because there is a human reality underneath this most artificial of circumstances, established by fiat, by some unknown force for some unknown reason – or maybe this is just something random that happens to planets sometimes, and it’s happened to this one, and so humans had better deal, or die.

As I said, it’s a demanding novel. For the first third, I was mostly just floating with the currents, trusting that anything that was written this powerfully in the microcosm of sentences and images and conversations and scenes would eventually coalesce into a larger picture that I could make some sense of. And, slowly, for me, it did. It also helps, I think, to keep in mind that Hairston is an acclaimed playwright, and that there are some ways in which the structure of Mindscape transmutes some of the styles and conventions of that form for use in a novel.


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