Collaboration, Mourning, Growth: Review of Grievers by adrienne maree brown
Grievers. By adrienne maree brown. AK Press, September 7, 2021.
Grievers is the third plague story I’ve read during the pandemic. (First was Ling Ma’s Severance, then The Impossible Resurrection of Grief by Octavia Cade.) Though brown began writing her first novel in 2012, before COVID-19 was on the horizon, it’s difficult not to feel resonances between the experience of Grievers’ protagonist, a young Black woman called Dune, and what many have faced during COVID-19: government indifference (or active harm); institutional breakdown; personal and social tragedy. brown’s other work, especially Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (2017), led me to expect a focus on collaboration and collective action, how together people can imagine and enact alternative futures. Collaboration does thread through the novel, but as an undercurrent supporting its main focus: an arresting and lyrical exploration of individual and social grief. Grievers beautifully shows what it’s like to live with grief—and how grief changes you—without really showing what that change might lead to, leaving the possibilities open-ended.
Dune grew up in Detroit, where she lives with her mother, Kama, a famed organizer, and her paternal grandmother, Mama Vivian, also a formidable activist. While coping with the heartbreak of a recent breakup with her girlfriend Marta, Dune’s life is further thrown off balance when her mother suddenly succumbs to an unknown illness. The mysterious disease causes its victims to suddenly stop—stop moving, stop reacting, stop speaking—and slowly deteriorate until they die. The illness, which doctors dub Syndrome H-8, quickly sweeps through Detroit, devastating Black communities in the already struggling city.
As Dune cares for her family, she gradually learns more about H-8. The disease strikes seemingly without warning: people halt in the middle of the street or while doing their shopping. It doesn’t discriminate by age, targeting young and old alike. As H-8 spreads through Detroit, Dune becomes a kind of reluctant archivist of the disease’s spread, “drawn to the syndrome like an ambulance to a wreck”. She begins to record the names and other information of those she finds arrested by the disease in her excursions to find food and other supplies. She keeps notes and turns a model of Detroit, built by her late father and kept in the basement of their home, into a monument to the city and its Black inhabitants.
What becomes clear, to Dune and others, is that Syndrome H-8 is either caused by or an expression of grief and it seems to only affect Black people. When Dune finds this out from a doctor on the front lines of the pandemic, she is unsurprised more than anything: “Of course, Black people were dying from grief”. Despite the apparent newness of H-8, as the doctor explains, “there’s no war here. No disaster. Just an average day in Detroit”. brown uses the pandemic as a prism through which the experiences of Black people facing economic, social, and political disenfranchisement alongside racial violence become crystallized. The compounded griefs of surviving under racial capitalism crystallize into a single moment of overwhelming grief, when those affected simply cannot go on. Through Dune’s journey, Grievers explores how to continue on toward the future in spite of—or alongside—this grief. brown has spoken about how, for her, science fiction is a form of organizing, a “place to practice the future.” H-8 syndrome serves as a catalyst for this practice, an opportunity to imagine other relations with the world. But there are no easy answers, as brown shows; grief is not to be overcome, subdued, or mastered, but gently approached, accepted as a part of (co)existence. The pace of Dune’s story underlines this point. We witness her slow realizations, her gradual adaptation to the new conditions in which she finds herself. However, as brown shows through the novel’s resonances with contemporary Detroit, these conditions are not (only) those of the fictional H-8.
Grievers is also a story of Detroit, “a city that didn’t want to be saved and didn’t want to be abandoned”. Dune’s lineage ties her closely to the city; her parents, grandparents, and family friends are all activists, working in and with the community to carry on in spite of economic hardship, racial inequity, and institutional failure—the slow violence of racial capitalism. At the beginning of the novel, Dune has an ambivalent relationship with Detroit. Though she has the opportunity to leave as H-8 worsens, she decides to stay, more out of commitment to her elderly grandmother and the memory of her mother than devotion to the city. As months pass and Dune begins to interact with Detroit in new ways to ensure her survival, her relationship to the city gently shifts. Remaining becomes less a form of grief-fueled inertia and more an active choice, a fidelity to the place and people that nourished and cultivated her.
As she moves through the rapidly emptying Detroit, Dune encounters more and more people struck by H-8. Some have been abandoned in boarded-up houses or in the middle of the street; Dune “understood the true scale of the crisis in this way, by all of the people she found who weren’t being taken anywhere, hooked up to any life support”. Dune has “nothing to offer but her witness”, which brown reveals to be not only spiritually and emotionally healing, but a material intervention into the world.
Dune continues in her “chosen apocalypse work”, recording the syndrome’s effects and tending to the shrine she’s built in her basement. She transfers her notes into a memorial, marking the people she finds on her father’s model of Detroit. As the memorial grows, Dune notices strange plant-like matter growing on it. First, she dismisses it as mold—the basement can be damp, after all. But the plants keep returning no matter what Dune does. As the model becomes more and more of an altar, it inexplicably grows more “leaftrees”: delicate, green tendrils of life. Here brown reminds us of the weight of witness, the importance of presence, the significance of continuing to “keep knocking” as the “highest level of care”. Not only in Detroit, where disaster is part of the average day, but in “a crumbling age” of the world as a whole, the work of witnessing can be a sustaining practice of care.
In the novel’s final moments, Dune has only a dog for company, a cross-species alliance that holds a promise of mutual support. Though “she knew that there were people, somewhere, people like her parents, like Mama Vivian, people who were making a way out of no way. And she would have to find them, and beg them to let her in, and find a way to let them in”, Dune first must lean into and understand her grief and the changes it has wrought on her. Perhaps that is brown’s view of grief, that we too must not only face it but dwell in it to make way for a future without grief’s causes. That future world does not appear in the book. But Grievers prompts us to consider the labor necessary to bring it about: a vital exercise in the face of this “crumbling age,” asking us what our “chosen apocalypse work” will be.
Shelby Brewster, PhD, is a writer and editor based in Pittsburgh, PA. She received her doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh in May 2021. Her current project, “Planetary Praxes: Performing Humanity under Ecological Emergency,” examines multiple ways of being human emerging at the point of environmental crisis. She also serves on the editorial team at Environmental History Now and the Public Philosophy Journal. Find her on Twitter @bigbookenergy.
This article was commissioned in June 2021 from a pitch from ARB’s calls for review; it was edited by Jake Casella Brookins and copyedited by Misha Grifka Summer. The author and editor were acquainted through previous ARB pieces. A review copy was arranged by ARB from AK Press.