Nine Bar Blues: Stories from an Ancient Future by Sheree Renée Thomas, Review
Posted April 24, 2020 4:19 p.m. EDT
Updated April 24, 2020 4:49 p.m. EDT
"Instead of breathing fire, I was the flame."
Nine Bar Blues: Stories from an Ancient Future (Third Man Books, 2020) is a debut collection of 16 short stories by Sheree Renée Thomas.
Sheree Renée Thomas is a griot for the 21st century. Thomas seems to enjoy presenting the reader with the unexpected. Instead of delivering firm unequivocal answers and linear pathways, her stories zig and zag, go off on bright, abrupt riffs, which elicit questions and spark imaginings within the reader about the world around them, both seen and unseen. Thomas herself excels at asking good questions -- the kind that are meaningful and make the reader consider and reconsider their beliefs. When she does put forth a strongly held position, it's likely to be more akin to a backbeat skillfully blended into the phrasing, like true magic capturing the essence without giving too much away to the uninitiated.
Thomas has a fearless storytelling style. She leads us on fantastical journeys across the United States of America, across the African Diaspora, across time and space. She launches us headlong into the stratosphere and beyond with nothing to hold onto except ourselves, leaving us to find our own bearings (or not) amidst the strange and the unknown.
There’s humor here, too! Thomas takes what is scary or sad and twists it into a hopeful thing, with a hint of the bittersweet.
Dark, beautiful, weird, and layered, Nine Bar Blues is a book about truth. The reader will find themselves grasping at the roots of the ideas Thomas presents, hopefully, to come away with a few precious seeds of truth of their own. Collective truths. Personal truths, which could overlap with others’ truths and somehow become shared truths. And finally, existential truths.
In Nine Bar Blues, Thomas has assembled a magnificent collection of future-past tales. Her writing is rich, textured, and moody. Often, there is an edge to it, but at times, softness emerges as well. Thomas grounds the mystical and the numinous in the familiar and the mundane, managing to successfully maintain a sweet balance between those two sides of experience. Magic, music, love, liminal spaces, society and individualism, fear and protection, death and redemption are among the larger themes tackled by Thomas in Nine Bar Blues. Thomas peppers many of her stories with references to famous African-American historical figures integral to the molding and shaping of Black culture as we know it today.
As a person with deep Southern roots myself, occasionally, I found myself smiling when I came upon her colorful use of Southernisms or when I recognized the natural landscape of my childhood growing up in the South vividly described through her imagery.
What I most love about Nine Bar Blues though is Thomas’ keen understanding of the depths and contradictions of human emotion and her ability to convey it. I feel like she wants to make sure that we understand, too. So she takes a nuanced approach to relating the human experience. I felt there was a certain amount of irony in my reading this book with its various dystopic landscapes, at a time when our world is actually in the throes of uncertainty and unrest caused by a global pandemic. Extremely perceptive, if not prescient, Thomas manages in her stories to be spot on about societal and individual reactions and responses during critical moments like these.
Although Thomas delivers solid hit after hit throughout the book, I still have my favorites:
"Ancestries" This story made me think of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. A young girl lives with one foot in the earthbound world and one foot in the Otherworld.
"Aunt Dissy’s Policy Dream Book" A conjurewoman navigates spiritscapes and dreamtime for a living. What must it be like to live and never be “a part of,” but instead to always be “apart from?”
"Child’s Play" The mysterious workings of the Divine Being experienced through a day in the life of a school lunch lady.
"Head Static" A story about yearning and the quest to find music that sings the universe.
"Madame and the Map" Freedom versus captivity. The river is a living entity which can bring blessings and absolution.
"Teddy Bump" A short horror story. Some experiences ARE worse than death.
There’s so much here -- and in the best possible way. I highly recommend you read Sheree Renée Thomas’ Nine Bar Blues. If you like Octavia Butler’s Parable duology, Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar, or the poetry of Sonia Sanchez you’ll love this collection.
I'll leave you with this final poem from Thomas:
Stars come down
Come and walk with me
Stars come down
Come talk with
Tell me a secret
only the darkness knows
inside me, a sun grows
Show me the mysteries
only the darkness knows
inside me, a universe flows
~ from “Stars Come Down”
Sheree Renée Thomas is an award-winning short story writer, poet, and editor. She edited the Dark Matter speculative fiction volumes which won two World Fantasy Awards. She was also the inaugural recipient of the LA (Leslie) Banks Award for outstanding achievement in the speculative fiction field. Thomas lives in her hometown, Memphis, Tennessee.