SF Novella of the Month, November 2021: & This is How to Stay Alive

The #sfnovellaofthemonth for November 2021 is & This is How to Stay Alive by Shingai Njeri Kagunda, recently published as part of the 2021 novella series from Neon Hemlock Press. Kagunda published a short story of the same name and themes in Fantasy Magazine last year; reading her interview for Fantasy’s Author Spotlight added to my understanding and appreciation of both story and novella, and I recommend both story and interview to those who plan to read the novella.

The first thing I must say about & This is How to Stay Alive is that Kagunda’s prose is absolutely stunning. Her deliberate, decolonial choice to write in the English spoken in her Kenyan communities and not the English defaulted to in North American publishing—the choice, that is, to write for a home audience before any other readers—results in syntax and sentence structures that glow with the poetry of love, empathy, art that carries the familiar into the transcendent. (As a reader who does not hail from or have any experience of the country or communities centred in Kagunda’s writing, I want to be careful to avoid imposing too much of my uninformed opinion on this work—and yet, for all the author’s admirably evident care to centre specific communities, there is also much here that feels universal, or else that she describes so tangibly as to offer at least some small, clear view to readers from outside.) Kagunda’s artistic skill is evident in every turn of phrase, and on the basis of language alone her novella is a joy to read.

Perhaps “joy” is an imperfect word to use in describing a novella that reckons with intergenerational trauma, the suicide of a queer youth, and the grief of those left behind, and yet this story is so beautiful I cannot think of a more appropriate word. Perhaps it is only that, for all it grapples with death and loss, this is a story about life, a story for the living. The love its characters feel for one another, and the love the author showers on both her characters and the communities for whom her story is most intended, are so pervasive in the text that it was impossible not to feel something of joy even while experiencing the grief that also pervades each part of the book. This is a novella that, much to its credit, resists any attempt to oversimplify and flatten its themes in trying to straightforwardly describe what it is about.

Another particularly striking feature of & This is How to Stay Alive is its inclusion of time as a point of view. The depth and complexity added to the storytelling by using time as a character is, at least in my personal experience as a reader, something truly unique. I don’t want to spoil the story by going into detail here, but again I recommend reading the interview in Fantasy, where Kagunda talks about “understanding that time is not a thing that controls us or that we can control, but an active participant that carries us through our story.” Everything about this novella carries its readers through its story, its wash of well-chosen words so fluid and fluent as to be an experience of feeling as much as reading. This story may be brief, but its impacts will surely linger long after the last page is turned.

The brevity of the novella format seems perfectly suited to this story. A short book is easily reread; & This is How to Stay Alive strikes me as the kind of story that continues to reveal itself over time and to share new facets of itself on each new reading. A perfect match between form and content is most certainly among Shingai Njeri Kagunda’s many accomplishments here, and I am looking forward to the next time I am ready to take this gorgeous little book down from the shelf.

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