Brown Women In The Ring: Review of Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark
J. Frank Beane
Ring Shout. P. Djèlí Clark. Tordotcom, 2020.
P. Djèlí Clark’s unapologetically Black novella Ring Shout is an excellent example of a book in the fantasy subgenre of Black magic. Other books in this subgenre include Nalo Hopkinson’s Sister Mine and Brown Girl in the Ring as well as Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day. It’s also close to the magic in D.J. Older’s Shadowshaper series and Zoraida Córdova’s Brooklyn Brujas series, the key difference with those series being that the magics are amalgamations of different real-world African and Latinx diaspora practices.
A ring shout is part of the African diaspora religious practices that came over to the Americas with the people forced into brutal labor. It is worship through singing, dancing, and feeling a holy spirit. In the US, it’s usually the Christian Holy Spirit, but, as a tradition started by people stolen from Africa, it is more a syncretism of African and new, adaptive practices than an actual Christian sacrament. That said, the Black magic in Ring Shout is also deeply tied to the Black Christian tradition.
Living in a world where supernatural beings have taken advantage of white supremacy to gain more power for themselves, Maryse and an all-woman crew of monster-hunting bootleggers must fight against both supernatural and everyday evil.. During the crew’s normal duties, they uncover a plan to bring the Grand Cyclops, a powerful haint, into the human world. And, it turns out, the key to bringing this evil into the world is Maryse herself, the champion of all the souls bound up in the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
In a violation of Maryse’s mind, the enemy lays out their plan to bring the Grand Cyclops into the human world. The enemy, using a conglomerated abomination named Butcher Clyde, lays the groundwork for an invitation to join their side and enjoy the power that would come with it.
The best thing about reading a story that is unapologetically Black is how unapologetically Black I get to feel by proxy. Ring Shout is a mix of magic, love, and fight that conjures up something for the culture. You can tell that the storyteller, P. Djèlí Clark, offersRing Shout from a place of love. All of the characters we root for, that have agency, are Black women—and everyone we want to fail is (at least presenting as) an able-bodied cis white man. It also didn’t escape my notice that the Black characters came in many shades. I loved the wink and nod to Mami Wata with the bootleg liquor that Nana Jean makes and blesses, Mama’s Water, and also the name dropping of Mrs. Wells-Barnett, a real-world crusader against white supremacist violence.
There are also three Black women who Maryse calls the Aunties that tut over her, giving her guidance, and also giving her a weapon to wield as their champion. I know those Aunties, you know those Aunties. They are exactly who we need them to be when we need them to be, and we don’t ask many questions about who they are or what their end game might be. This isn’t to say the Aunties fulfill the role of a magical negro—they have agency and their own ends to accomplish; Maryse, and by extension the audience, doesn’t delve too far into what those goals may be. Although Maryse is already at the age of majority when tragedy struck her family, she’s been very sheltered and in a way the Aunties played the role Aunties always play: helping to raise you up but also not sparing you from the truth of what the outside world will do.
One of the cultures on display in Ring Shout is the Gullah-Geechee culture, which shapes the story’s landscape. Gullah-Geechee culture is based in the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina. Gullah-Geechee culture took root under unusual circumstances in the history of American enslavement of Africans, occuring in a socially and economically isolated region where persons from rice-growing tribes were forced into labor and often overseen by other Black folks, rather than by white overseers, owing to the discomfort many whites felt in the near-tropical climate of the swampy region. More so than elsewhere in the U.S. South, the ratio between white people and Black people heavily favored Black people and led to the cultural preservation of African lifeways unseen elsewhere in the U.S. Take, for example, the story of a Mende mourning song that was preserved practically word-for-word for generations in a Gullah-Geechee family.
Another thing about Gullah-Geechee and other African diaspora cultures that Clark draws heavily on in Ring Shout is haints. Haints can have different names or be different things: ghosts, duppies, jumbies, evil spirits, demons. But they all have something in common: in general they ain’t good and you don’t want them around. In invoking haints as white supremacists, Clark refuses to let racism be disguised: there aren’t good people on both sides when one side is malicious monsters. The Aunties are also called haints, so I’m hoping we get more books in this universe so we can see the full breadth of who these women are. I also loved the use of the Gullah language in the form of Nana Jean, who only speaks Gullah.
For all this love, I do have a few quibbles. All of the active savioring falls in the hands of Black women. This may fill you with glee, or it may make you think of the real world, where Black women are regularly called on to save people from themselves (I’m looking at you, recent elections!), and get tired. Moreover, in this vein, Maryse’s last-ditch effort to rally help for her cause requires that she first put her misery on display for the enjoyment of those she’s asking for help. This is exactly how I feel whenever images of harm coming to Black people go viral as a means to help, say, spread the news about racial inequality (as if weren’t already known). Dehumanizing acts that cause Black pain and are put on display for all to see are now an everyday part of our lives; it rarely gets questioned, so perhaps it’s on purpose that Maryse must share her pain in order to (maybe) get the help she needs.
Ring Shout is diverse in its representations: we have cis Black women (running the gamut on skin color and age), a few Black men (love interest and side characters), a few Afro-Indigenous (Choctaw) women, a white woman, and supernatural beings presenting in the forms of able-bodied cis white men. One of the supporting characters is in a same-sex relationship and dresses in a gender non-conforming way, though the pronouns used are femme ones. There were not, however, any trans or disabled people. Although not directly stated, possibly because there wasn’t a diagnosis for this disorder back then, the protagonist definitely has PTSD, and another character suffers from night terrors from PTSD.
There are so few stories that use African diaspora religious practices—especially ones based outside of New Orleans in the southern US—that this story would be important, even if it wasn’t well-told. Thankfully, Ring Shout is well-written, and the ending is satisfying. There’s enough foundation laid to know that there’s way more to this world than the quick tour we got, and I want to see everything.
Content Warning for reading Rings Shout (categories found here and from my own experience):
- dead animal
- parents/families being murdered
- white supremacy
- visuals reminiscent of lynchings
- domestic terrorism, gun violence
- anti-Blackness/Black pain
- untreated mental illness (PTSD)
J. Frank Beane (they/she) is a writer and fan of all kinds of imagined worlds, especially speculative fiction. Although they hold a degree that is tantamount to an English degree, they also find needing that kind of qualification to critique writings leads to wide gaps in the commentary available on literature. They are a cis Black queer woman who grew up in a suburb of Boston and are now lucky enough to live in Boston with their spouse and two adorable jerk cats.
This review was commissioned by editor Sean Guynes in October 2020 following a referral of the author by a friend of the editor. The author and editor were not previously acquainted. A review copy was arranged by ARB from Tordotcom.