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François Bereaud's review of "For What Ails You" by Ra’Niqua Lee

“Spring break meant a trip south of Atlanta to Georgia’s fat bottom.”

When I finished Ra’Niqua Lee’s collection of flash stories, For What Ails You, published by ELJ Editions, I decided to play a game: open a random page and look for language.

“The first ghost she meets isn’t dead. He has coke-bottle glasses.”

“Happy as the raisin in potato salad flock.”

“When Ginny aches deep enough to betray her own self, she will invite the wild girl out for drinks.”

“Pretty Women get kissed at 4 AM. Lisa made the mental note as the reassuring smell of sulfur from the chemical plant blew in from down the street.”

In lines such as these which drop into every story, we see Lee’s gifts for magical language and storytelling explode from the page. In “Remedies in Riding” Ginny pushes her bike so as to catch or perhaps run from the wild girl. “The Ghosts of Our Lives” brings us a young asthmatic girl, struggling for breath and caught between an uncertain future and the past which keeps showing up. Lisa, the protagonist in “Skeleton Cat”, learns to live with the sulfur smell, hooking up doggy style with a man who won’t look at her, and her neighbors whom she loves despite their constant noise.

Lee describes herself as a “hood feminist”, her characters Southern Black women struggling and succeeding both in pain and beauty. Their stories are stories of the soil, often blood soaked, whether it be in the burning protest summer of 2020 or a visit to Stone Mountain, a homage to the Confederacy where “the man on the golf cart collecting trash is Black.” In several stories, Lee balances race with the ritual of football including “Saviors, Spells, and American Tragedies”, a flash story with the thematic reach of a novel.

The 48 stories in the collection come fast and furious, some lasting less than a page. Characters such as the Prostitute Nurse, and Grace, a single woman who contemplates her sister’s family and the accompanying advances from her brother-in-law, recur. The reading can be challenging as we try to take in the themes through the dazzle of the language. I often found myself needing to slow down to take in the flash fiction.

Finally, Lee’s tales take us into the supernatural. Besides ghosts, we see a woman fly, felines with no flesh, “Horse man”, and a collection ending mermaid. These characters challenge us to see and think beyond what is, beyond our limited perception, beyond our stereotypes, and into the possible.

With For What Ails You, Lee announces herself as a storyteller for our time, one who gives us an imaginative tour de force while holding a mirror to the sins of our past and present. Grab this collection and anticipate future work from this magical writer.

You can get your own copy of For What Ails You by Ra’Niqua Lee here.

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