The Liminal People

 February 21, 2012  for City Lights Books
“You’re a king playing the role of vizier to sycophants and insignificants.”
These are the first words that Taggert, the protagonist of Ayize Jama-Everett’s The Liminal People (Small Beer Press, 2011), hears from Nordeen, leader of the death and drug-dealing African cartel known as the Razor Necks.
Taggert has a special power; he can heal people with his touch.  Nordeen has even greater powers and is willing to take Taggert under his tutelage in exchange for his undying devotion. Soon after, Taggert is wearing their trademark razor on a chain around his neck and is in service to Nordeen as both muscle and healer from a pirate utopia on the coast of Morocco. When Yasmene, Taggart’s only love, reaches out to him from London to find her missing daughter Tamara, he begins a hectic quest – at break-neck speed – through the underground world of squats, raves, and curry-houses; falling into his past, stumbling into his future, and trying to gain his freedom from Nordeen; symbolized by the razor that digs into his flesh.
The Liminal People can be read in several ways.  Told in a hardscrabble-gritty-noir style, Jama-Everett spins a surprisingly plausible tale of empaths, telepaths, telekinesis, and inter-dimensional travel through Tantric sex to scintillate and intrigue any skeptic to the genre.
As a straight-up espionage thriller, complete with diplomats, assassinations, safe-houses, and conspiracies, Jama-Everett could give Ian Fleming some fierce competition. It can also be read as an extension of the “mutant-strain’ of science-fiction, found first in comic books like Marvel’s X-men, where genetically mutated humans are endowed with many of the powers Jama-Everett utilizes in his main characters.  Taggert’s self-healing ability, for instance, is reminiscent of the X-men’s tough-guy, Wolverine.  Of course, there are twists. He can also crush your heart like a fig with his mind, make you allergic to your own skin.  I suspect that most will enter and exit Everett’s world through this portal.
But as with the X-men comics of the early 80s, The Liminal People can also be interpreted as a grand allegory to contemporary issues around identity and personal power.  This “close reading’ is often overlooked in literature coming from what Samuel Delany calls “The Golden Ghetto” of graphic novels, science and speculative fiction.  This seems particularly true with marginalized authors within this marginalized genre.
Without telling too much, Jama-Everett intentionally begins the story in Africa with an encounter with the Dogon, a people who had knowledge of planets on the other side of the sun several centuries before they were discovered by modern science. Due to his healing abilities he is turned away.  They tell him, “Healers are death of the warrior’s spirit.”
It is atmospheric asides like this that call the reader to dig deeper than traditional supernatural fantasy for wonder, and to reach further than science for the limits of human potential.  Each manifestation of a power from a character is surprising, and a big part of the thrill is the jack-in-box reveal of a power triggered by cliff-hanging danger.
Unlike many books of this kind, the characters and settings are deeply rooted in the post-apocalyptic present of gun-running, famines, and child-prostitution, navigating a fully inclusive world of the darker peoples of the earth, and brimming with edicts for those coping with gifts in an ever-increasing world of mono-cultural mediocrity.  Lines like, “Tamara is either a cool-girl or a freak.  All of our kind are.  We either lead the pseudo-outsiders or we truly live the outsider experience,” speaks to the weird, youngster in us all.
When Nordeen recruits Taggert with the opening line of this review, itself a metaphor, Taggert acquiesces saying, “If you don’t have powers, then you probably wouldn’t understand why I stayed.  The best analogy is, imagine you’re a gorilla living amongst chimps. They’re kind of like you, but lighter, smaller, less substantial.  They run around afraid all the time, screaming and barking at the slightest sound. You can throw your weight around and get whatever you want.  So when you finally come across another gorilla, not only another gorilla, but an older, stronger gorilla that has a crew of chimps doing his bidding without doing much weight throwing, you want to figure out how it all goes down.”
Reading the story this way puts a compelling spin on what might have been an amusing, but easily forgettable yarn in the wrong hands.   As exhilarating the story of Taggert’s quest to find Tamara is, much the exterior and interior dialogue that reveals the author as not only a disciple of Octavia Butler, but Nietzsche as well, is where the book truly shines.
“The norms don’t know, can’t perceive the world around the way I can,” Taggert laments while having a drink at a trendy single’s bar. “They don’t see the old powers of darkness, the one that make such grand machinations and movements seem predestined. I look around and I see the bloated ignorance of the lumpen proletariat; roly-poly, sausage-fingered, ginger-topped fathers of at least two illegitimate children trying to massage the asses of waif-like, peroxide-scarred students who are themselves trying to navigate adulthood with their new-found freedom from outdated parenting…In truth, all permutations of this life bore me.” Underneath all of the tricks of the tongue and mind that the book conjures, dwells a black radical, shape-shifting for change.
The Afrosurreal are border-crossers, edge-dwellers who work from within the margins with a serious intent, “Kings playing the role of viziers,” as they travel with a list of aliases, being paid in bundled envelopes, and actively resisting classification.
From within “The Golden Ghetto” Jama-Everett has created a book that resists classification, joining the Afrosurreal Pantheon of writers exploring this new-found freedom.  He calls the gifted ones Liminal People, people “Always on the borderland, the threshold, the in-between.” He has Taggert explain.  “I learned what I know by walking the liminal lands.”  I trust that many people will relate, or will want to.
The Liminal People
Ayize Jama-Everett
Small Beer Press (2012)