Saturday, August 2, 2014

Salsa Nocturna by Daniel José Older - Review

I think it’s fair to say that Daniel José Older was the Protagonist of Midwest Writers Workshop 2014. A lot1 of people responded positively to his presentations on the issues of Writing About the Other, especially in terms of his genre, Urban Fantasy.  His critiques of the genre and its relation to power are sharp, poignant and precise.

What?  You try to find a picture of a
Ghost of Color.  Source.
He asks why Gentrification isn't a bigger issue within the Urban Fantasy Genre, given that it's an actual urban issue, which is why it's a major theme in Salsa Nocturna.  It's marketed as an anthology of ghost stories, and the full title seems to be "Salsa Nocturna Stories" based off of the cover, but honestly it reads less like an anthology and more like a novel with an eclectic approach to narrators, a la Six-Gun Tarot.  I think this may have been a marketing fail, as Short Story collections don't sell nearly as well as Urban Fantasy.  Then again, Older has seen success with Long Hidden.2

Salsa Nocturna has two primary protagonists, Carlos, a withdrawn half-dead ghosthunter and Gordo, a laid-back old Cubano who writes music with the dead.  Their narratives slowly start to intertwine as they and the other characters deal with paranormal trouble in the streets of New York.  The cast is diverse, colourful, heartfelt and often hilarious.

I can't say enough about how much I enjoyed reading this book, how thoroughly attached I was to all the characters or their struggles, or how satisfying it was seeing a lot of characters of color managing to one-up their predominantly white bosses or antagonists.  That old idea3 that race and class power dynamics persist even into the afterlife says a lot about how pervasive these imbalances are in our world.

Which brings me to the thing about Salsa Nocturna that I want to talk about.

The Publisher's Weekly quote can be read two ways, given the dualistic nature of the word "Original." On the one hand, it means that this work is unlike others.  Ghost mammoths, burgundy hurricanes, shape-shifting slave sorcerers, this book is very new.  But Older's origins, as a musician, a paramedic, and a man of color are ever present in the narrative.  It is original in that it has clear origins. This history saturates the narrative, makes these stories about the dead come alive.  Salsa Nocturna isn't afraid of its blatant racial commentary,4 which is why it's very important.

Because here's the skinny: the publishing industry is full of a lot of deeply ingrained racism.5  Writers of color, trying to tell stories about people of color, have a harder time getting published, and when they do they're shelved in their own sections (African-American Lit as opposed to Sci-Fi).
Dealing with this massive problem that haunts the publishing industry is the reason #WeNeedDiverseBooks exists.  People reading, and publicaly talking about, books like Salsa Nocturna will help counter the ridiculous notion that "White people can't connect to the stories of People of Colour."  So when I say "Everyone, go read Salsa Nocturna", this time I'm not just recommending it as a moving, action-packed urban fantasy novel, I'm recommending it as an actual political act.

"Do not, under any circumstances, hurt the ghost pachyderm."

Oh, and watch out for Half-Resurection Blues when it comes out.

Look at that cover.

This cover is gorgeous.

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