Daniel José Older, Shadowshaper, Scholastic Inc, 2015
The following is part of a cluster on the Futurities of Latinx Speculative Fictions. To read the editor’s introduction to the series, click here.
For Ned Stuckey-French
In her incisive meditation on black culture in the long afterlife of slavery, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Christina Sharpe asks “What does it mean to defend the dead?” (10).1 Sharpe stages this question among personal reflections on the intimate details of deaths of members of her family to illustrate how “Racism, the engine that drives the ship of state’s national and imperial projects […] cuts through all our lives and deaths inside and outside the nation, in the wake of its purposeful flow” (3). Sharpe turns to the autobiographical to un-discipline her study, validate the quotidian lived experiences of black and brown people, and illustrate the numerous, labor-intensive manifestations of defending the dead from all manners of neglect and mistreatment—from the anodyne, slow violence of bureaucratic negligence, to outright, state-sanctioned murder by police and military forces, to the symbolic oblivion of erasure.
In response to these various modes of violence, tactics for defending the dead take different forms throughout the African diaspora. This essay interrogates recent strategies for defending the dead in the neo-colonial context of Puerto Rico through close readings of Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper Cypher young adult (YA) urban fantasy series and the #RickyRenuncia protests that led to the resignation of former governor of Puerto Rico Ricardo Roselló. I read the shadowshaping of Older’s novels and the protests of #RickyRenuncia as forms of “wake work”—what Sharpe defines as “a mode of inhabiting and rupturing this episteme with our known lived and un/imaginable lives,” (18) an analytic to “imagine otherwise from what we know now in the wake of slavery” (18), and a method to “attend to physical, social, and figurative death and also to the largeness that is Black life, Black life insisted from death” (17). In Older’s Shadowshaper Cypher series and the #RickyRenuncia protests, wake work cultivates an active, symbiotic, cyclical relationship in which the dead empower the living to defend the dead; this interdependent and dynamic relationship of the living and the dead alloys cultural production and political protest suffusing popular culture with historical import and communal purpose.
Protest and political activism figure prominently in contemporary Latinx YA and play a central role in Shadowshaper (2015) and Shadowhouse Fall (2017), the two novels of the Shadowshaper Cypher series currently in publication (Jiménez García 231). Consider, for example, shadowshaping, the supernatural power of the series’s protagonist—Afro-Boricua Brooklynite teenager Sierra Santiago. In Older’s fantastic New York, to shadowshape is to animate, quite literally, one’s art, music, dance, or poetry with the spirits, or shadows, of one’s ancestors. Older credits “the power of memorializing people not memorialized” through murals, music, and other vernacular, communal forms of cultural expression as inspiration for shadowshaping (Irizarry 213).2 Through this supernatural reimagining of common popular cultural forms of eulogy and memorialization, Older draws into stark relief forms of wake work already present in black and brown communities. The titular superpower of the Shadowshaper Cypher series thus reveals the potential of Puerto Rican and Afro-diasporic popular cultural practices to act as sites of protest against the systematic destruction and erasure of black and brown lives.
The diasporic cultural dynamics of shadowshaping take on new significance in the wake of Hurricane María and #RickyRenuncia. Since the storm hit the island on September 20, 2017, Puerto Ricans have performed wake work on multiple fronts to respond to Sharpe’s vital question of what it means to defend the dead. When a May 2018 Harvard study in collaboration with Puerto Rican researchers revealed that Hurricane María caused 4645 Puerto Rican deaths—a number that far surpassed the US government’s original estimate of sixty-four (Hernández and McGinley)—Puerto Ricans took to social media using the hashtag #4645 to share the untold stories of their dead and to protest the lack of US governmental aid after the storm. When, on July 13, 2019, El Centro de Periodismo Investigativo published 889 pages of scandalous private chats between former governor Ricardo Roselló and his inner circle of bureaucrats and lobbyists, Puerto Ricans on the island and in diaspora used the hashtag #RickyRenuncia to organize and document historic protests calling for the governor’s resignation (Valentín Ortiz and Minet).
Among the many racist, misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, and ableist comments included in the leaks was a record of Christian Sobrino Vega making a crass joke about feeding the cadavers of victims of Hurricane María to the crows (Associated Press). Sobrino Vega was chief executive officer and president of the Puerto Rico Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (AAFAF) and the governor’s ex officio representative to the Puerto Rico Fiscal Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) established under the federal Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA). In other words, Sobrino Vega often served effectively as the lone representative of the Puerto Rican people in the neo-colonial bureaucratic structures unilaterally imposed on the island by the US government. One of the few Puerto Ricans in the halls of power with the platform to speak for his people instead ridiculed and disrespected their dead. Sobrino Vega resigned the same day the transcript leaked. On July 24, 2019, after eleven days of massive protests, “Ricky” Roselló announced his resignation as well.
These recent events in the aftermath of Hurricane María provide powerful examples of possible manifestations of wake work. The research that revealed the actual number of Puerto Rican deaths caused by Hurricane María, the social media campaign to memorialize the dead, the investigative journalism that uncovered the leaked chats of Puerto Rican elites desecrating the memory of the dead, and the protests that eventually ousted Roselló all constitute strategies for defending the dead and reveal the capacious temporal and spatial scales of Puerto Rican and circum-Caribbean wake work. While Puerto Rican intellectuals such as David A. Colón and Yarimar Bonilla identify Hurricane María as the transformative moment that laid the groundwork for #RickyRenuncia, other thinkers such as Dominican writer Rita Indiana and Puerto Rican scholar Beatriz Llenín Figueroa frame the recent Puerto Rican protests within broader temporal and spatial scopes. Rita Indiana links #RickyRenuncia to Puerto Ricans’ successful resistance against the imposition of the English language on the island in the early twentieth century and the successful campaign to remove the US Navy from the island of Vieques at the turn of the twenty-first century. Llenín Figueroa proposes an even broader scope arguing that the #RickyRenuncia protests are the culmination of “a Caribbean-wide history of maronage (sic), resistance, and endurance that travels and unites us, as Brathwaite famously declared, submarinely. We honor the submarine corals made from the bodies of our enslaved, our migrants, our poor, our women, our queers, our dispossessed, our freedom-seekers. In and through them, we, Antilleans, islanders, Caribbean peoples, stand united. The maroons are deathless. We are deathless.” Llenín Figueroa identifies marronage as the template for resistance in the circum-Caribbean and lists the marginalized dead—those who historically have defied hierarchies of race, class, and gender, those who often remain unrepresented in the historical archive, and those whom Roselló, Sobrino Vega, and company ridiculed in their leaked chats—as foundational figures of this regional tradition of resistance. Further still, Llenín Figueroa claims deathlessness for all Caribbean peoples, living and dead, and thus effectively defines the Caribbean community not only across time and space but beyond the boundaries of mortality.
Llenín Figueroa borrows this concept of deathlessness from the lyrics of Ibeyi’s “Deathless” (2017). French-Cuban musicians Lisa-Kaindé Díaz and Naomi Díaz of Ibeyi—twin sisters and daughters of celebrated Cuban percussionist Anga Díaz—composed “Deathless” in response to an incident of racial profiling Lisa-Kaindé experienced in the Paris Metro at age sixteen (Younes). Yet despite the song’s bleak topical origins, Lisa-Kaindé explains the song’s title and chorus—“Whatever happens, whatever happened, we are deathless!”—as a profound, joyful, and defiant optimism rooted in their Yoruban faith: “To be ‘Deathless’ means that there’s no end. […] It means there’s no end to love, there’s no end to joy, there’s no end to music” (Edes). Ibeyi’s video for “Deathless” figuratively stages deathlessness through the repeated, cyclical emergence of the twins from the garments of one another’s prostrate bodies. In the video, Lisa-Kaindé and Naomi Díaz provide an embodied performance and visual representation of the empowering, symbiotic, cyclical relationship between the living and the dead cultivated through wake work in both Llenín Figueroa’s genealogy of circum-Caribbean resistance and Daniel José Older’s shadowshaping.
It would be a naive oversimplification, however, to pretend that Puerto Ricans and other Caribbean people are unique in celebrating their ancestors and claiming justice for their dead. Older makes this point both in interviews and in fiction (Irizarry 213). In Shadowhouse Fall when Sierra’s friends and family organize a protest against police brutality, Sierra’s brother’s band Culebra performs for the crowd. In the midst of the performance, Izzy—the lead singer of Culebra and a fellow shadowshaper who infuses her lyrics with the power of the dead—gives an impromptu speech particularly relevant in light of recent protests against white supremacist monuments to the Confederacy across the United States: “We get the day off for Columbus Day, y’all. He dead. We celebrate Christmas! Jesus ain’t die? They got statues up for dead guys that owned people. Name buildings after ‘em. Entire colleges that they bully us about getting accepted to. America don’t worship the dead? C’mon now! America worship the dead! It’s cool when white America do it, but we can’t worship our dead?” (Older 306-7).3 Izzy’s speech mounts an effective critique not only of how slavery is monumentalized, celebrated, and normalized in the cityscapes and educational institutions of the United States, but also of the hypocrisy of portraying black and brown people as monstrous for venerating their ancestors or as criminals for claiming justice for their dead.
Moments such as Izzy’s speech demonstrate how Older’s YA novels, like many works of speculative fiction by writers of color today, critique contemporary hegemonic power structures rooted in past injustices. This radical potential of speculative fiction is perhaps most clearly epitomized in how the mythology of the Shadowshaper Cypher series develops over the course of the two novels. In Shadowshaper, Sierra discovers that she is the leader of the shadowshapers, a secret society or house endowed with the power to shadowshape to protect their community from all kinds of threats such as gentrification, police brutality, and ghouls. The discovery empowers Sierra to defeat Wick, a villainous anthropologist whose ethnographic research of the shadowshapers becomes a murderous obsession. In Shadowhouse Falls, Sierra learns that the shadowshapers and the Sorrows, the rival house behind Wick’s villainy, share a common Puerto Rican ancestral origin: Sierra’s great-great-great-grandmother Doña Teresa María Ávila de San Miguel. Doña Teresa’s three legitimate daughters became the Sorrows, while her fourth illegitimate daughter, Sierra’s great-great-grandmother María Cantara fled the plantation and established the shadowshapers in the rain forest of El Yunque. When Sierra learns that she is a descendant and thus a member of both houses, she defeats the Sorrows by accepting the complexity of her heritage, embracing the power of both the Sorrows and the shadowshapers, and establishing a new House of Shadow and Light that combines the two.
Through this unfolding and incomplete mythology,4 Older grounds the Shadowshaper Cypher series in the same Caribbean history of marronage that Llenín Figueroa identifies as the foundation of circum-Caribbean resistance manifest in #RickyRenuncia. Moreover, Older’s mythology subverts symbolism associating light and whiteness with goodness and shadows and blackness with evil. The novels frame the shadowshapers—people of the African diaspora whose magic evokes Afro-Caribbean spiritual practices—as heroic underdogs whose power springs from their community—living and dead. The power of the Sorrows, in contrast, derives from institutions such as academia, Catholicism, and the US criminal justice system.5 Thus, in addition to her supernatural powers, Sierra must enlist the expertise of allies such as Puerto Rican archivist Nydia Ochoa and Jamaican lawyer Desmond Pocket to assist on academic and legal fronts.
These institutional allies and the revelation that Sierra is both shadowshaper and Sorrow mean that rather than simply inverting the power dynamics of binaries such as oppositional/institutional and black/white, the first two novels of the Shadowshaper Cypher series offer complexity, hybridity, simultaneity, border crossing, and coalition building as decolonial strategies of resistance and renewal. Though the future is always uncertain, and Puerto Rico remains a colony of the United States, fiction like Older’s and the success of the #RickyRenuncia protests offer a glimmer of hope in otherwise dire times. These forms of Puerto Rican wake work undertaken through cultural production and alloyed with political protest provide inspirational examples of a circum-Caribbean tradition of resistance increasingly relevant well beyond the (neo-)colonial contexts and tropical climes of its origins as anthropogenic climate change transforms our world. As the September 20, 2019 Global Climate Strike demonstrates, young people—Older’s target audience—already understand all too well the importance of defending the dead, even in the future perfect.
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- Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016. The injunction to “Defend the dead” in M. NourbeSe Philip’s poetry collection Zong! inspires Sharpe’s query. Philip restricts the language of the poetry in the collection to words present in the legal decision Gregson vs Gilbert, the only archival documentation of the 1781 massacre of Africans aboard the British slave ship Zong.
- Irizarry, Ylce. “‘Where I Find Poetry and Tension’: An Interview with Daniel José Older.” Symbolism 17: An International Journal of Critical Aesthetics, (2017): 199-214.
- Older, Daniel José. Shadowhouse Fall. New York: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2017
- The third and final book in the series, Shadowshaper Legacy, is forthcoming in 2020.
- Wick is an anthropologist; the Sorrows’ lair is a Manhattan cathedral, and Walker Garrett, the antagonist of the second novel, is a lawyer working in the NYPD.