The lead story, “Search,” in Krystal A. Smith’s new short story collection, Two Moons, reads like an invocation. It’s haunting, riveting and magical. “Take careful steps, make your body in each one, leave nothing behind in five hundred moves,” she writes. And later, “Ask for love, for knowledge, for safety, for sturdier bones, for more flesh. Whatever it is, grant yourself the ask.”
“I was afraid it was going to get rejected” from the collection, Smith says, “but it feels so right.” Despite questions from beta readers, Smith’s publisher, Stephanie Andrea Allen of BLF Press, fought for “Search” and its flagship placement. Indeed, it’s the pitch-perfect introduction to the assemblage of 14 Afro-futuristic tales. The author will present her book at Malaprop’s on Sunday, June 10.
Smith studied with author Ron Rash (one could say the polar opposite of Afro-futurism) while working toward her master’s degree in English at Western Carolina University. Though Smith’s style has little in common with that of the Serena author, who often writes historical studies of white folks and their trials in the Appalachian mountains, “he really wanted students to write whatever was at the top of [our] heads and hearts,” she says. “He let you go as your own writer.”
WCU proved fertile ground for the Greensboro-based author. There, Smith says, she was able to connect with world-class writers, such as novelist Pamela Duncan, through the university’s writing program and its annual literary festival. But she also discovered her unique voice, inspired by the likes of African-American science-fiction writer Octavia Butler and Native American and LGBT-focused author, poet and playwright Jewelle Gomez.
Of Gomez’s work, Smith says, “You’ve got black vampires and this whole idea of world building. Some of those stories are just examples of experimentation, like, ‘How do you come up with this stuff?’ It encourages me to [think], ‘Well, I don’t know if this is going to work, but let’s try it.’”
That’s not to say Smith always feels fearless when she sits down to write. “Some days I’m like, ‘Nope, not gonna do that. People are gonna think that’s crazy,’” she says. “Sometimes it’s like, ‘Just get it down on the page. Let’s see what happens.’ … It takes a lot — it’s a back-and-forth with your own mind.”
But trusting her intuition and taking risks has paid off with results such as the title story from her new collection, in which a mystical young woman dreams of not only being close to the moon but also being a moon herself. In “Catch Me If You Can,” a woman shape-shifts into a fox. And in “A Rose for Brescia,” the protagonist’s lover appears in the form of a tangle of flowers.
In each of Smith’s tales, the romance (and there is plenty of tender emotion) is between two women, and the characters are of African descent. “Mercury gray eyes, a wide nose with a mole nestled in the corner, and honey brown lips,” is how Josie in “Any One Out There” is described.
“I’ve read tons of literature, and it’s always a given that the characters are not people of color,” Smith says. “I don’t want there to be any doubt, whatsoever, that [my] characters are black. I want it to be clear as day. I want you to assume that the characters are black. I want you to feel it in your bones.”
A fan of Beverly Cleary’s Beezus and Ramona Quimby books as a child, Smith was disappointed that there was not a single black character in the quirky sisters’ adventures. “If I get to a place where I write something for young adults or kids, I want them to be like, ‘That’s my hero. That’s a black girl riding her bike to Mars.’”
For now, there are plenty of heroic (and antihero-type) adult characters in Two Moons. “Speculative fiction is so cool,” Smith enthuses. “It’s a whammy and another whammy and ‘Oh my god, I have to finish this book.’ It’s magic intensified.”
And, though it’s such a good fit for Smith’s style, she didn’t start her writing career in the speculative fiction genre. Her romance stories have appeared in the Ladylit Publishing anthologies Summer Love: Stories of Lesbian Holiday Romance and Lez Talk: A Collection of Black Lesbian Fiction.
“I was playing around with this idea of ‘What would happen if someone fell in love with the moon, and the moon fell in love back?’” Smith says. It was Allen of BLF Press who encouraged her to go for it, saying, “Your mind is a little bit different — what other stories can you come up with?”
And that, says Smith, “sparked the flame.”
WHO: Krystal A. Smith presents Two Moons
WHERE: Malaprop’s, 55 Haywood St., malaprop.com
WHEN: Sunday, June 10, 3 p.m.