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Book Review: Buffalo Is the New Buffalo by Chelsea Vowel

September 13, 2022 Leave a comment
Image of a digital book cover. Two people stand on either side of a mystical ravine. the shadow of a buffalo is in the ravine between them.

Summary:
Inspired by classic and contemporary speculative fiction, this collection of eight short stories explores science fiction tropes through a Metis lens: Nanites babble to babies in Cree, virtual reality teaches transformation, foxes take human form and wreak havoc on hearts, buffalo roam free, and beings grapple with the thorny problem of healing from colonialism.

Review:
This collection contains nine short stories by Indigenous (Métis) author Chelsea Vowel. The Métis are a recognized Indigenous people with a unique culture descended from the pairings of Indigenous with European fur traders (usually, but not always, First Nations women with French men). Most of the stories are set in the same region of Canada, and all of the stories are speculative, containing some fantastical element, whether they are set in the past, present, or future.

The author is queer, and queerness is clearly present in five of the nine stories. These include: a historical woman figure who identifies as a woman, is interested in women, and dresses in male clothing; a woman character who becomes interested in a fox presenting as a woman; a woman character who is in lockdown without her girlfriend who ended up trapped in another town after she went to visit her family; a queer poly family raising a child together in a collective; and a nonbinary femme-presenting character who uses Métis gender-neutral pronouns.

My favorite story of the collection is “Maggie-Sue.” This is the story where an Indigenous woman becomes interested in a beautiful Cree woman she sees but realizes is actually a fox disguised as a woman (this is revealed very early on, so not a spoiler). I loved everything about the fox woman, the mystical adventure the main character goes on, and the ending was a delight to imagine. I also really appreciated the play on words in the title (which I won’t reveal, because it’s more fun for you to realize it when you’re reading it yourself). I thought this story also offered solid critique on the difficulties of being a survivor of ongoing colonization on your ancestral lands, without that criticism ever feeling like telling instead of showing or like academic language sneaking in where a character wouldn’t use it.

The latter is my main complaint for the story I liked least – “Unsettled.” There is a scene where five characters, none of whom are established as academics, sit around having a highly academic conversation for many pages. The story felt more like an academic thought experiment than a story with unique characters and perspectives. I also struggled a little bit with the first story in the book, “Buffalo Bird.” its pacing was slow, which is a challenge for me. I think I would have liked it more further into the collection. I personally need to kind of “know” a writer to trust that a story will ultimately go into an interesting place if it has a slow start.

Something else interesting about this collection is that it has footnotes throughout, where the author explains things or gives historical context. I enjoyed these and felt they added to the stories. They’re not used all the time, sometimes you as the reader do need to figure things out from context for yourself if you’re not Métis (which I, to be clear, am not). But I thought the footnotes struck a nice balance.

The other thing is after each story there’s a short reflection from the author about the story. On the one hand, I liked these because I learned more from them. As an author myself, also, it was interesting to hear from the author on what her goals were and compare them to my actual experience as the reader. On the other hand, I could see some readers not enjoying this aspect of the book, wanting to be left with their own experience with the story and leave it at that. But you can always skip over these essays if you prefer not to have the inside story.

Related to the essays, I do also want to note one additional thing. I do think that an author’s beliefs and politics tend to make it into their writing, whether they intend that or not. I’m not saying every character reflects the author’s worldview, absolutely not, but the more you read an individual author’s work, the more you come to see how they likely see the world. This is even more clear in this collection where each story is paired with a nonfiction reflective essay by the author. The author is an academic Indigenous queer woman, and definitely leans very left. I’m not saying this is a good or a bad thing. But I do think it shows through more clearly in some stories than others, and is very present in the essays. Only you, the potential reader, can know if this would be a plus, negative, or neutral for you.

Overall, this is an interesting collection of speculative short stories from a queer Indigenous woman author. I’m glad I took the time to read them and see a different way of storytelling and views on the world within the speculative framework I personally enjoy.

Please note, I calculate a rating for a short story collection by individually rating each story then reporting out the average. This came out to 3.7, so I rounded up to 4.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 272 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)