Learning How to Drown – Cat Hellisen
New Con Press
Review by Samantha Dolan
Learning How to Drown is an arresting title. On the front cover, Hellisen is described as one of the most accomplished writers of African SFF’ by Geoff Ryman and that might provide an insight for some but it did nothing to adjust my expectations. It did pique my curiosity though, what does African SFF look like?
The answer to that begins from page one, with a beautiful introduction into our author and the circumstances that influenced her. She describes her stories as tasting of ‘iodine and salt water’ and the duality of living in Apartheid South Africa. When we begin with The Girls who go Below, the lake I conjure in my mind isn’t the blue/green of Cumbria. The mud is red and clay-like and dense. And it oozes in a way that doesn’t happen this far north of the equator. I might not understand what iodine tastes like, but the world Hellisen builds smells of ground heat, of sea scents and people. Would I have felt the same if the ‘African’ nature of her writing wasn’t front and centre? Absolutely. But I’ll come back to that later.
In Serein, the lesson of the title finally pays of in a very frank way. But where the first story is literally water driven, this one has all the feeling of pressure and feeling emotionally underwater. Have you ever read Kafka on the Shore and wondered what happened the morning after he disappeared? Serein reads like Hellisen had exactly the same thought and used it to provide a potential answer.
There’s also a fire theme that runs through this collection and my favourite is This is How We Burn. This, to me, feels like why we write. It’s a story that searches for meaning in the meaningless and uses water in yet another way. Many of the stories focus on large or deep bodies of water but here, rain is central, waiting for it, needing it, dreading the day it leaves.
There are two niggles for me. First, the marketing as ‘African SFF’. My concern here is that it doesn’t do enough justice to her platform because it lumps all of Africa in together. It’s a massive continent, with voices from the North, the South, Sub-Saharan, the East and West and South Africa. And yes, there are strands that bind them all together but these are the same strands that bind us all together. I’m not advocating for more segregation but I think it brings even more richness to her stories when you acknowledge exactly where they are coming from, exactly what is it that influenced her and how her narrative could differ from someone in the West for example. The strength of her writing absolutely stands up without that generic input.
The only other thing is that fact that each story ends with a little explanation from the author. This reads as a lack of confidence in what she has put down on paper. Readers are used to never really knowing an authors motivation and Hellisen doesn’t need these little footnotes. If anything, I found them distracting when I had discerned another meaning, to be confronted by a completely different one. I found myself skipping them after the third story and found myself much more lost in the stories in the best of ways as a consequence.
Learning How to Drown is an impressive Science Fiction/Fantasy collection, that touches on dozens of themes and just the one, all at the same time. It reads like a personal study. If Hellisen were a portrait artist, this would be her impressionist phase perhaps. The angles she uses to interrogate the questions of being ‘other’ work beautifully and yet the world building is so true to genre, you often wonder how you got there, what could it mean? And you read it again to find out.