Review: “Red Dirt Witch”, by N.K. Jemisin (and people of colo(u)r destroying more things)

When I finally downloaded my copy of People of Colo(u)r Destroy Fantasy, I sped through most of the stories in half a day. One in particular I was really excited to talk about was “Red Dirt Witch” by N.K. Jemisin, for a few reasons. First, well, look at the author. Think about it. Second: southern magic.As a black southerner I don’t really need anyone to tell me why the southern United States might get a bad rap. I mean…I know. I think at this point almost all of us know. But fantasy authors do love picking our bones when they need voodo0 or other such non-European mystical elements. And you know what? That’s okay. I’ve reviewed a couple of novels and short stories that handle that topic well and, yes, they’re all set in Louisiana.

But what about the folk magic of Appalachia? What about old slave traditions that toe the line between common sense and otherworldly? Jemisin brings us an eerie supernatural story where this is daily life. Visions. Midwives and healers. Average tools accessible to everyone who needs it. No pedestals or altars here. Magic for the people!

“Red Dirt Witch”, however, isn’t just about that. I debated on how to approach this. It wouldn’t be fair to dismantle it down to “this is what this really means”–yes, it’s commentary on a specific conversation that has popped up in these days of black and brown murdered bodies constantly on the news. The old guard says stand down, the new guard says stand up. In that sense, you could say it’s a changing of the guard trope. But it’s more than that. It’s about sacrifice, the action of choosing and growing into your own power, and truly seeing the future–a future that is NOT good and still very hard, but there are parts more than worth fighting for. But to distill this story down to mere symbolism is a disservice. It was a very emotional experience for me that evoked the question, “what would I do for a future I can’t even participate in?”

I felt like this was an insular conversation and maybe only a few of us are privy. Some are eavesdropping. But does that mean you shouldn’t read it if you’re not “in the know”? Of course not. This southerner’s heart soared with many references I understood and related to, in fact I bet many of us of a certain age probably can.

I would say the only downsides of this story was that it was a little…too on the nose for me. Whether that’s bad or not is kind of up in the air, but there were times when I didn’t like it. The White Lady was interesting and devious, but I wasn’t always sure how she fit in. I felt like if this got expanded to a bigger story it would provide a lot more context. Maybe I just want to read it forever? If you want to as well, bind yourself to People of Colo(u)r Destroy Fantasy here, and pick up the previous issues as well!