We are delighted to announce that the second title in our Novella Initiative is out today! Reenu-You by Michele Tracy Berger is a Science Fiction novella, about the social and political meanings of hair, female friendships and viruses. The cover was revealed yesterday over at Black Nerd Girls and today we have the author here today to talk a bit more about the story.
By the time I got to graduate school in the early 1990s, I was making more space for a creative writing life. I had been enthralled by Octavia Butler and devoted myself to writing. Around this time, the ‘Rio’ scandal broke out. The World Rio Corporation released a product known as Rio, billed as a natural hair relaxer, marketed almost exclusively to Black women, and as an option to traditional relaxers. Soon women around the country were reporting horrible reactions to Rio including itchy scalps, oozing blisters and significant hair loss. A class action lawsuit revealed that there was nothing natural, at all, about this product. Rio actually contained a number of highly acidic chemicals I was immediately taken with the drama and irony that swirled around the ‘Rio’ scandal.
This story grabbed me and gave me the inkling of the idea for the novella. Over many years, I kept asking myself questions about why and how a scandal like that could happen and how different communities might respond to it. I speculated on the mindset of a company that not only deceived the consumer, but endangered their health. I also thought about the consumer, and what desires and longings Rio tapped into. Although I didn’t ever use Rio, I remember the seductive nature of their infomercials quite well. I, like other African American women, was transfixed by their upbeat, exotic marketing that promised an easy, new and healthy hair treatment.
In watching the events unfold, I thought about how trusting we are as consumers that the products we purchase will be safe. And, also how everyone in the 1990s started to fall for various items labeled “natural”. What if that wasn’t the case? What if a hair product that primarily women of color used harbored something deadly?
I’m also fascinated by viruses. I came of age during the height of HIV/AIDS and remember the terror, fear and stigma associated with the virus. For a long time there were conflicting reports about the transmission of HIV/AIDS and its origins. Often conspiracy theories and popular culture filled in the gap.
In the novella, I wanted to play with the idea of conspiracy and how different communities might respond to a health crisis, especially before the era of ubiquitous cellphones and social media. A virus was a perfect fit.
Viruses are adaptable, disruptive and frequently are medical mysteries. In just the past two decades, we’ve seen Bird Flu, Swine Flu, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), Zika, Ebola, and have narrowly averted world-wide outbreaks.
In Reenu-You, I can play with these ideas by having different characters reflect on the complexity of intimate and yet social choices. I love that I get to explore what fascinates and terrifies me, all in one novella.
Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Gish Jen, Ntozake Shange, Octavia Butler, Charles de Lint, Jonathan Lethem, Ursula Le Guin and Elizabeth Hand are writers that I return to again and again to learn from about voice and craft. In the past decade, I’ve been most influenced by the work of Sheri Tepper, Margaret Atwood, Walter Mosley, and Kevin Canty. Writers that I’m currently obsessed with are Cynthia Leitich Smith, Jeff Vandermeer, Nnedi Okorafor and Joy Castro.
New York City, August 1998. On a muggy summer day, five women wake up to discover purple scab-like lesions on their faces—a rash that pulses, oozes, and spreads in spiral patterns. City clinic doctors dismiss the women’s fears as common dermatitis, a regular skin rash. But as more women show up with the symptoms, one clear correlation emerges–an all-natural, first-of-its-kind hair relaxer called Reenu-You.
As the outbreak spreads, and cases of new rashes pop up in black and Latino communities throughout New York, panic and anger also grow. When the malady begins to kill, medical providers and the corporation behind the so-called hair tonic face charges of conspiracy and coercion from outraged minority communities and leaders across the country.
At the heart of the epidemic are these five original women; each from different walks of life. As the world crumbles around them, they will discover more about each other, about themselves, and draw strength to face the future together.
Michele Tracy Berger is a professor, a creative writer, and a pug-lover. Her main love is science fiction. Her work appears in some notable publications including The Feminist Wire, Ms., and 100wordstory. You can find out more about her at her award-winning blog The Practice of Creativity.
Buy the Book:
We are giving away three copies of Reenu-You in the format of the winners’ choice (paperback or electronic). The giveaway is open to all! Use the form below to enter and good luck!