Long Hidden and my own uncovered story

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[Note: Initially I got a few details wrong about which actual side of my husband’s family some of this stuff is from; they’re corrected now]

Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History is out today. You should get it, so here’s where you can:

Print ($19.95) ISBN-13: 978-0-9913921-0-0

Ebook ($9.99) ISBN-13: 978-0-9913921-1-7

I just finished reading the last story this morning (Sabrina Vourvoulias’s “The Dance of the White Demons”, which totally gut-punched me in the end) and I can say with absolutely no reservations whatsoever that this is one of the finest anthologies I’ve ever read. I would be saying that even if I wasn’t in it. It’s beautiful and wrenching, it’s sad and angry and horrifying and hopeful, and above all it’s necessary. You say you want diverse speculative fiction? Here you go. Buy it. Read it. Support it. Let it transport you.

By the way, another anthology that’s gotten somewhat less attention but which I think is a perfect companion to Long Hidden is We See a Different Frontier: A Postcolonial Speculative Fiction Anthology (in which I also have a story). It takes a different but very complementary approach to marginalized peoples and forgotten histories, in part because it also turns an eye toward an imagined future. It’s fabulous. Get it.

So let me talk a little about my story, “Across the Seam”. Because how it came to be is a story in itself.

Some time ago, my husband started doing some genealogy work on both sides of his family. His maternal side has roots in Sicily. Both his maternal and paternal side have roots in the coal mines of McDowell County in West Virginia – now the most profoundly impoverished county in that state but a place of astonishing strength and endurance in spite of that, and also a place of startling, stark beauty. Here’s a post that deals with our trip there and our exploration into some of that family history.

But it yielded an even more fascinating story.

The child of working class South Philadelphians,  my husband has always been told that his paternal family was Ukrainian in origin (also “Austro-Hungarian”, which means absolutely anything), but when he started digging deeper into that history, the truth he uncovered was a good deal more complicated – and certainly fits the definition of hidden, or at least lost to displacement and trauma and time. It’s a long story and I honestly still can’t keep all of it straight – I very much hope that someday he’ll compile it into a single narrative volume – but essentially, my husband’s paternal family originally hails from a small village on the Polish-Ukrainian border. It was predominantly populated by members of an ethnic group called the Lemko, a people who have long been inhabitants of the Carpathian Mountains. They were farmers and herdsmen with deep ties to their land, and like many minority ethnic groups of that kind they were – and are – fiercely proud and protective of their culture.

Nothing remains of that village now. It was destroyed after World War II as part of an ethnic cleansing campaign called Operation Vistula that resettled – often forcibly – undesirable groups along the border into the “recovered territories” of western and northern Poland. The members of my husband’s family who had not already traveled to America were loaded into boxcars and transported to bombed-out cities in the north of Poland. The same happened almost everywhere. If you’ve never heard of the Lemko, that’s by design; they were intentionally scattered as part of a concerted effort to destroy them as a distinct ethnic group, as these things always go. Their stories were erased along with their homes, buried along with their people.

But now we know this story, my husband and I. So when I saw the call for stories of marginalized people that had been lost and hidden, it seemed imperative to tell it.

In the end it was a combination of family histories, as well as my own personal biography. From the paternal side of my husband’s family I drew the story of a Lemko immigrant in a foreign land, in many ways as hostile as the one they fled. From the more recent history of that side I drew the story of a coal miner and the fight for rights and dignity into which miners threw themselves at the turn of the century. This is not confined to West Virginia; Pennsylvania itself was flooded with immigrants from Eastern Europe seeking the plentiful but profoundly dangerous jobs that the mines offered. From myself I drew the story of someone struggling with identity and the loneliness that comes from that struggle, the desire to know oneself and the anger of being made to suffer for that self-knowledge.

I needed a final time and place to tie it all together, and that time and place was the Pennsylvania coal town of Lattimer in September of 1897, when a sheriff’s posse opened fire on a march of between three and four hundred unarmed striking miners. Nineteen were killed and scores more were wounded. In 1972 a small monument was erected on the site, which reads:

It was not a battle because they were not aggressive, nor were they defensive because they had no weapons of any kind and were simply shot down like so many worthless objects, each of the licensed life-takers trying to outdo the others in butchery.

I opened “Across the Seam” with that inscription, as well as a short verse by a Lemko poet that expresses longing for the land of his ancestors. And then the story was finished.

Through the process of telling this story, I learned this story. There was a great deal that I didn’t know when I started. There’s still a great deal that I don’t know. Part of the task of uncovering hidden history is learning how much you don’t know and how much you have left to learn. So the telling of these stories is not a final word on anything but a door that we open, through which we must have the courage to walk.

The rest of the anthology gave me other stories, each of them precious and each of them vital. I’m grateful for them, and for the fact that my own story – which is not even entirely my story – gets to stand among them.

Here’s a piece of it.

~

The low mountains of western Pennsylvania are greening now, coming out of a winter so brown and barren and long that he had wondered if it might end at all. A few times there had been snow—which at least was familiar—but there was much more ice than snow, cold rain that leached into the bones and settled there, and everywhere dead vegetation like the earth herself was dying. At first, looking at the mine, seeing the dark scar of it and the black hell inside, he had wondered if its poison was seeping outward and infecting everything.

What have I come to, he had wondered then. God.

He no longer believes that God cares about him.

So now green life is creeping back into the mountains, but in his dreams, perhaps to torture him, Baba Yaga sits him behind her on her spoon and they fly across the ocean and back to the rolling green mountains, dear and distant—and his heart aches as if it wants to burst from his chest and bury itself in the soil of his birth.

You have to remember, Baba Yaga says, no mocking laughter in her voice now, where you came from. Such things can sustain you when nothing else does.

He shakes his head, in his dream, in his sleep, on his flat boarding house pillow, his thin blanket gathered around his shoulders. I have nothing now. Not even this. Why are you showing this to me?

Baba Yaga does a little jig, more to prove a point than out of any personal glee. She lowers her spoon and scoops up the earth, pours it into his outstretched hands. It is nothing like the coal. Iwanka, you are soft and deep like this here. And you can be hard like the mountain into which you dig. You must be both in order to survive.

* * *

On the worst nights he dreams of the ship pulling into the harbor, the great statue lifting her torch over everything, the cold look in her eyes. Everyone else leaned over the deck and chattered, excited, and he thought of little birds flitting through his dense forests. She was welcoming to them, or they thought she was. But he looked up at her and he saw no welcome at all, and began to wonder if he had made a mistake.

The same coldness in the man with his many papers spread out in front of him.

Name? Place of origin? Are you literate? Where are you going? Is anyone meeting you there? He had stumbled through it in broken English, the little he had managed to scrape together in the passage. Iwan Charansky. Austria-Hungary. No. Lattimer.

No.

I am alone.

It was like confession. He hung his head and felt his cheeks burn.

* * *

The warmth of the stove in the early mornings. The lowing of the cattle, the soft jangle of their bells as he takes them to the fields. The sun rising over the mountains. Fresh paskha and pirohi with cheese. His father fixing prosfora and seed inside his pouch as he goes to plow the field, without which a good harvest will not be assured. Candlelit gilt and wood in the church, the knowing eyes of the saints in the ikonostas. Trying on his mother’s best dress alone in the house, the terror of being caught. A scatter of grain in the sunlight like little beads of gold. Ice silvering the trees.

Screams. Fire—fire to consume a family that to others were always strangers, fire to consume the worrysome and the unwanted. Fire to consume the world.

Baba Yaga hands him this fire, like a fist, like a little burning heart in his cupped palms, and he understands that he has carried it with him from the green hills and across the ocean, and it is part of him now.

The seam, dochka. Give it to the seam.

This place is almost ready to burn.

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3 responses to “Long Hidden and my own uncovered story

  1. What a fascinating story behind the scenes, Sunny! It’s amazing what can spark a question to find out more, and where that can lead. I love how you wove the details into the story.

    I love this: “Part of the task of uncovering hidden history is learning how much you don’t know and how much you have left to learn. So the telling of these stories is not a final word on anything but a door that we open, through which we must have the courage to walk.” <– yes, so much to this. Looking for those stories to tell can really open your eyes to the ones that have been long hidden. PUN TOTALLY INTENDED.

    These stories and many more deserve to be told. I'm going to get WSaDF as well, been meaning to for ages!

  2. Wow, really looking forward to this anthology – and reading the REST of this story! Thanks for the sneak peek.

  3. Just got Long Hidden and We See a Different Frontier. I’m looking forward to reading these. Thanks for sharing the excerpt.

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