Nebula Shorts: Phenderson Djèlí Clark – The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington

Our second contender in the Nebula short story category is The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington by Phenderson Djèlí Clark. The story rests on an entry in the journal of the manager of Washington’s Mount Vernon property:

‘Lund Washington, George’s distant cousin who managed Mount Vernon during the Revolution, made a notation in the plantation ledger books for May 1784: “By Cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acct of Dr. Lemoire.” This “Dr. Lemoire” was almost certainly George Washington’s dentist, Dr. Jean Le Mayeur, who corresponded with George Washington about his visit to Mount Vernon that summer.’

http://gwpapers.virginia.edu/george-washingtons-false-teeth-come-slaves-look-evidence-responses-evidence-limitations-history/

The story opens with the same journal entry by Lund Washington and from there launches into speculation about the people from whom these teeth were taken. The idea of some being stealing teeth for their own purposes already has an edge of the supernatural and the folk tale. Slavery is inherently abhorrent but there is an additional horror to the forced intimacy of the taking of someones teeth.

Who were each of these someones? Djèlí Clark takes us on a strange journey of speculation. The first tooth we learn:

“came from a blacksmith, who died that very year at Mount Vernon of the flux. The art of the blacksmith had been in his blood—passed down from ancestral spirits who had come seeking their descendants across the sea. Back in what the elder slaves called Africy, he had heard, blacksmiths were revered men who drew iron from the earth and worked it with fire and magic: crafting spears so wondrous they could pierce the sky and swords with beauty enough to rend mountains. Here, in this Colony of Virginia, he had been set to shape crueler things: collars to fasten about bowed necks, shackles to ensnare tired limbs, and muzzles to silence men like beasts.”

https://firesidefiction.com/the-secret-lives-of-the-nine-negro-teeth-of-george-washington

From there we learn in turn about each person whose tooth was stolen. Each vignette spins a short but rich picture of wonders. Collectively they show another world of magical events and beings and portals to other worlds. We glimpse mermen and fantastical cities and people raised from the dead.

Each tooth in turn has a different impact on George when he wears it in his mouth.

“When George Washington wore the tooth of his runaway cook, it was strangely at dinner parties. Slaves would watch as he wandered into the kitchen, eyes glazed over in a seeming trance, and placed drops of some strange liquid into the food and drink of his guests. His servants never touched those leftovers.”

https://firesidefiction.com/the-secret-lives-of-the-nine-negro-teeth-of-george-washington

This is a beautifully written piece that bursts with magic. Nine very short stories the collectively describe an alternate 18th century America bursting with magic but full of the same evils and oppression as our own.

However, for readers who want a short story with a single narrative this piece will be less rewarding. Not every short that dispenses with a conventional narrative structure works but personally I found this to be an excellent example that plays with form and structure but which is grounded in the personal and the in the art of storytelling.

Genuinely exceptional.

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62 thoughts on “Nebula Shorts: Phenderson Djèlí Clark – The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington

  1. There was a danger that the structure could have left the individual stories disjointed but I thought it was perfect for the piece. Between them the mini-stories build up a world with tantalising glimpses that make you want to know more.
    PDC does great world building – his recent Haunting of Tram Car 015 and The Black God’s Drums have also been great for that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The title is great. Good choice to talk about one of the nonslated storys second.
    I said it before I like two other storys better, but this is the strangest, most ambigious story from a point of view you don’t often see.
    I am happy to read this story and I think that the Nebulashortstorylist is a strong one (at last 4 storys are)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This story would’ve flunked Composition 101. There’s no plot, characters, arc, etc. It’s just a bunch of vignettes.

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    1. Well it is certainly a bunch of vignettes but it is not JUST a bunch of vignettes and I count at least 10 characters. What it isn’t is a narrative with a beginning-middle-end structure. I don’t know what is taught in Composition 101 (my learning has tended to the numerical rather than the lexical) but I suppose if there was an assignment to write a story with a clear narrative arc then this would flunk that assignment. Not sure where that gets us though. “Not the kind of short story to write in a beginners class” sounds a feature not a bug 🙂

      Liked by 4 people

    2. Possibly composition 101 isn’t the be all and end all of writing? Perhaps in composition 102 they teach them to break some “rules” for good effect?

      More seriously, the whole point is that yes, it’s a set of vignettes, but ones that build together to create a whole picture. Certainly it won’t be to everyone’s taste, but even if you don’t like it I don’t see how you can deny the writerly skill involved.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. A sense of wonder about the world being revealed by the little details in each story. A sense of curiosity about the real world history being drawn upon. A sense of sadness from the human tragedies in the stories being told.

        Liked by 2 people

      1. Race doesn’t make anyone immune to criticism or make criticism of them automatically racist. What kind of weak minded idiot are you? And don’t stalk people on the internet. It’s creepy.

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      2. No, criticism doesn’t make someone racist, but racist comments certainly do.

        Checking out the bona fides of a strange commenter who shows up just to post criticism isn’t “stalking”, it’s a perfectly acceptable way to find out what sort of person you’re dealing with. How bizarre, that you wouldn’t expect that people would do this.

        Liked by 3 people

      3. 1. Criticism you don’t like appears.
        2. Address it? No.
        3. Google fu and find something unrelated that you can use to invalidate #1.
        4. Don’t address criticism.
        5. Spike football.

        You are a very weak minded individual.

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      4. 1.people engaged politely and in detail to your initial comment. Your criticism was addressed
        2. Incorrect-your point was addressed
        3. Your past behaviour on other comment sections/book reviews is pertinent.
        4. Your criticism was addressed but you then started lying about what people are saying
        5. I don’t really understand that idiom
        6. Insulting people doesn’t help your case

        Liked by 3 people

      5. John Margolis:
        1. Criticism you don’t like appears.
        2. Address it? No.
        3. Google fu and find something unrelated that you can use to invalidate #1.
        4. Don’t address criticism.
        5. Spike football.

        I didn’t say I didn’t like your criticism, you’ve just assumed that. It made me curious as to who you were, and why you’ve shown up here out of the blue to criticize a random story (you’re probably not aware that this blog has a regular commentariat; we’re all acquainted with each other, and a strange commenter sticks out like a sore thumb).

        It didn’t take any “Google Fu”. It literally took one Google search and 10 seconds.

        Oh, look at result number 4. It’s a comment on a review of a book written by one Richard Fox, a 20BooksTo50K author who happens to have a story gamed onto the Nebula ballot in this very category, and who recently showed up in another one of the posts on this blog and repeatedly made a horse’s ass of himself. This comment is certainly not “unrelated”. You have a history of attacking people who don’t like your buddy’s stories.

        And it’s not just any comment, it’s a racist, abusive comment aimed at a reviewer who didn’t like your buddy’s book. Et voilà, your motivations become pretty clear: you’re here to try to diminish the other stories in the category, to give your buddy’s story a better chance at the trophy.

        And I did address your criticism, right here. But I guess if you don’t bother reading it, then you can falsely complain that I didn’t address your criticism.

        Liked by 2 people

      6. “Don’t stalk people on the internet?” Well, that’s a completely ass-backward statement, considering you’re the one popping into the middle of a (formerly) pleasant conversation to spout some “criticism” that doesn’t even make any sense. Especially since you completely ignored Kat Goodwin’s comment that pretty much answered all your questions. But then again, anyone who uttered the abusive comments you did on Goodreads is not interested in intelligent discourse.

        Liked by 3 people

      7. Not judging people by their race is now a bad thing? Damn. MLK must be turning over in his grave.

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      8. “Not judging people by their race is now a bad thing?”

        That’s .. not actually a thing that I said. But you knew that, didn’t you John?
        I’m rather regretting giving you the benefit of the doubt and some honest replies earlier – and I notice that you’re now giving up any pretence of being here to talk about the story. I’ve met much cleverer trolls than you, so I’m afraid your C-list antics won’t get you anywhere.

        Liked by 4 people

      9. Oh god, the total lunatic spewing idiocy regarding Sweden is fascinating. What hole do these trolls crawl up from?

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      10. Campaign for Real Trolls: like CAMRA but instead of trying to get rid of insipid beer, we try to get better quality trolls.

        Way back in prehistory when the internet was new and shiny the trolls were at least entertaining. We DEMAND a better class of troll!

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      11. @Hampus
        “What hole do these trolls crawl up from?”
        You’re the Swede, Hampus, so you’re in charge of trolls. You tell us.

        (I’ll take responsibility for Bigfoot, if he ever turns up here.) 🙂

        Liked by 3 people

  4. It’s definitely a tour de force. For an award, though, I really want to see something with relatable characters and an engaging plot. Perhaps someone should give an award for “Best Unconventional SFF Story.”

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    1. Whereas I’m quite happy to see a short story depart from what you might expect in a longer story in order to concentrate on using some elements to achieve a strong effect in a short space.
      Why are 9 characters sketched quickly but memorably automatically inferior to one character concentrated on?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. “I think there is a credible distinction between short prose and a more specific sub genre of writing evoked by the term “short story”. ”

        Yes, although I’m not sure how to describe it.

        I think that below 4-5,000 words you really struggle to use the space to express a “standard” story, in the sense of what you’d recognise from a conventional novel with plotting that covers some time, character development, world/background, etc.

        One or more elements generally has to be truncated or short-changed at that length, and so I take the view that as a reader, expecting that “standard” story is unrealistic and for an author it’s unambitious. (Not to say I’ve not seen some gems of short but concise plotting, but generally they use some sleight of hand in the staging to keep it efficient, e.g. a good reason why it’s just two characters talking or whatever).

        At this sort of length you can really play with elements and just concentrate on one to the exclusion of others, or as here play with structure to sketch out an effect rather than narrating it conventionally. It’s even more visible at flash lengths.

        (I’ve lost the thread of my thought so I’m going to hit post and see if it comes back)

        Liked by 2 people

  5. Best-seller Annie Proulx did a very interesting novel called Accordion Crimes which follows the path of a Sicilian accordion as it goes from immigrant owner to immigrant owner in the U.S. with each of those characters having their own story involving their culture, music and immigrant experience through different points in American history. It was an Orange Broadband Prize nominee for Fiction. This is essentially her riff nod to The Red Violin and other, similar stories, which use objects as carrying vehicles for a wide scope look at developing history and culture. It’s a very old and established fictional structure.

    This story is doing a more condensed version of that, using magic realism and African folklore techniques, both areas in which this sort of structure is quite common. The teeth are the carrying objects and through the teeth, the author is taking a very quick tour through the experience of black culture, history, African folklore and of course slavery, where by stealing the teeth of the slaves for his own use, Washington, their ultimate oppressor as slave owner and first President of the pro-slavery U.S., spiritually faces them and experiences them as real people and their history as a force.

    So it’s actually a pretty classic narrative structure, but it’s ambitious to try it in a fantasy short story, rather than a novel or a connected collection of stories. However, it is very much in the mode of what Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany played around with in various stories, but the style may be different. Since it’s Fireside, I’ll try to get a look at it later.

    Liked by 4 people

      1. It’s a variation on the picaresque story — traditionally, that classic structure followed a person (say, Candide) through episodic adventures in order to create social commentary. But ever since about the 15th century, a variation has followed an object (say, a coin) from place to place, again in order to create social commentary.

        Here, we follow the teeth from character to character. It’s a nice variation upon (yes) a classical structure.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. Just because you are so poorly read that you don’t understand that it is a classic story structure doesn’t make it not so. If you weren’t so busy trying to white-knight for your buddy, you might actually learn something useful.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Yes, there are many classic narrative structures and techniques, many of which have been used in SFFH. There’s the classic parallel timelines structure, one in the past, one in the present or future involving two different characters. There are the split plotlines — always popular for fantasy — where different main characters follow their own plotlines in the story which may or may not eventually connect and sometimes are on different timelines. There are the epic time stories such as the classic post-apocalyptic SF novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller Jr., which consists of four parts with different protagonists, each jumping further ahead in time after a nuclear devastation, and Asimov’s Foundation stories, which also use multiple parts (stories) set in different time periods. There are unreliable narrators who are suffering from partial amnesia or mental illness or confusion that turns out to have an unexpected source, which causes jumps in time and focus and strange phenomena — Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren, the horror film Jacob’s Ladder, etc., and then there is the family saga structure which follows the members of a family through generations, similar to the epic time stories but with more connections between main characters.

        Obviously, the longer the text, the more complicated a structure or timeline you can have, but there are ways to use them in shorter fiction, where the focus is not necessarily following the journey of one character’s perspective through events, but instead the concept of a journey itself, of the passage of time and what that changes, or of a passage through related, thematic experiences, such as this nominated story does. Some folklore regularly does this as well, creating a tradition that many writers have mined. And one of those is the cursed, enchanted or simply symbolic object that acts as the transitional vehicle for looking at particular and varied times or circumstances, and/or a framing story holding other tales — a tale of tales, (Pentamerone by Basile, Decameron by Boccaccio, Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights, which may be a bit of an influence for this short story.)

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Yet you don’t name the ‘classic’ structure this story is supposed to have followed. Vignettes aren’t a story.

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      5. John Margolis: Yet you don’t name the ‘classic’ structure this story is supposed to have followed.

        I’m so sorry to hear about your reading comprehension problem. There are free courses you can take on the internet which will help you with that.

        delagar: It’s a variation on the picaresque story — traditionally, that classic structure followed a person (say, Candide) through episodic adventures in order to create social commentary. But ever since about the 15th century, a variation has followed an object (say, a coin) from place to place, again in order to create social commentary. Here, we follow the teeth from character to character. It’s a nice variation upon (yes) a classical structure.

        Kat Goodwin Some folklore regularly does this as well, creating a tradition that many writers have mined. And one of those is the cursed, enchanted or simply symbolic object that acts as the transitional vehicle for looking at particular and varied times or circumstances, and/or a framing story holding other tales — a tale of tales, (Pentamerone by Basile, Decameron by Boccaccio, Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights, which may be a bit of an influence for this short story.)

        Liked by 5 people

      6. Are you sure you mean “linear” here? I was using that term my first few months writing reviews until someone told me it usually means a story where the hero encounters no problems and just sails straight to the objective. (I just meant the plot only had one thread.)

        I’d agree it’s a bit of a stretch to call this a classical structure, but it depends (I guess) on how flexible you are. I’ve read “The Arabian Nights” as well as “The Decameron,” and I wouldn’t really compare this story to either of those. I liked “The Red Violin” too, but in that tale, there’s a single violin being passed around. In “The Nine Negro Teeth,” there are, well, nine different teeth.

        I can see the connections. I just wouldn’t have classed those things together. Partly because there’s almost no framing story. The other three all have strong framing stories.

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      7. Gah! Sorry about that. Cam, can you deep-six that partial?

        Greg Hullender: someone told me [linear story] usually means a story where the hero encounters no problems and just sails straight to the objective.

        I think whoever told you that is wrong. A linear story just goes in a straight line; it can have all sorts of complications.

        The Seattle Post-Intelligencer says:
        “Linear narratives present stories in a logical manner by telling what happens from one point in time to the next without using flashbacks or flash-forwards and then returning to the present.”

        Liked by 2 people

      8. Linear in narrative just usually means sequential in time and events. The amount of conflict in a story is usually not an aspect of the term. It’s used to mean a straight timeline in which events are presented in the order that they occur.

        Having nine objects instead of one is definitely a bit more unusual when it comes to transitional objects, but sometimes it’s three objects. George Martin uses six dire wolf puppies in Song of Ice and Fire. Charles Dickens uses three ghosts of Christmas. I’ve now had a chance to look at the story and he sets the story as a fable, a history, the framing being a folkteller explaining nine different paths of black slavery, each connected as a part of the fable, visited on Washington, who lives in a world of symbolic magic realism. There are bits of satire and a few outright jokes in the magical aspects, with the darker presentation of slavery and it cursing the slave owners, mixing both traditional folklore and modern symbolism. It’s maybe a little arch in spots, but overall it forms a tapestry mythology, centered on Washington, the protagonist who is forever controlled by the lives of people he controlled — “when you make a man or woman a slave you enslave yourself in turn.”

        So really nicely done, poetic and fabulistic. Its odds of winning, though, since it’s taking a drier approach, probably depends on the emotional power of the other stories in the category.

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      9. The first example in Strange Horizons’ famous “Stories We’ve Seen Too Often” uses that definition for “linear plot.” Searching the web, though, I see the majority use of it is for what I now call a single-threaded plot. Gee. Maybe I didn’t need to go back and edit all those older reviews! 🙂

        There still needs to be a good term for stories where the protagonist encounters no significant problems though.

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      10. There still needs to be a good term for stories where the protagonist encounters no significant problems though.

        Does “kindling” work for you? Who would want to read something so boring?

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      11. JM: As JJ noted, I did say what the structure is called — tale of tales with a transitional object. As Delagar noted, it’s a variant on the picaresque story (that’s getting us more into academia on literature,) that has been in use in fiction for over 600 years. I also gave examples. (Usually people complain I give too much information, not too little. 🙂 ) This particular story is also presented in classic fable style (see Aesop’s Fables,) with a fable telling omniscient narrator. Some people don’t like that, preferring stories with a third person limited or first person viewpoint format. But third person omniscient has a long tradition in SFFH.

        A vignette is a type of story, often called slice of life. You can bundle vignettes together as sub-stories/plots to a framing story, as this author has done. Some people will not like that style because it’s focused more on structure and symbolism than on the psychological development of one character, but it’s still a kind of story. It is also a rather inventive sort of ghost story, with Washington being haunted by the slaves whose teeth he uses. That is very symbolism heavy and again not all author voters will enjoy that style over others, but heavy symbolism is very common in short fiction, in part because it conveys information more quickly than say action scenes in a short narrative format.

        Greg — Ah, that explains it, they’re adapting the word to a different meaning. But linear has traditionally meant a narrative in chronological sequence — no jumps in time. Sounds like some are trying to give it a second meaning of also being sequential in space — no jumps in place from one storyline to the next. Sometimes that happens, that people start using a word enough to give it another meaning. Which is why genre fiction is called genre fiction even though they are categories, not genres. But now that’s become the second meaning of the word genre. Also the use of the word trope, of which I dislike immensely. It’s actual, first meaning is a repeated figurative symbol, image, metaphor, used as a pattern or expression (figure of speech.) But people kept using it to mean common elements and/or stereotypes found in types of stories and that’s now its annoying second meaning.

        I do not get the use of linear to mean no conflict in a story. Linear means sequential. There are very few stories in existence that do not have conflict of one kind or another in them, and most of them would be short fiction. But I’m guessing they only mean action conflict/obstacles — suspense elements. If you want to read a really interesting novel without any direct conflict and with entertaining footnotes, try the famous The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker. It is a short novel about an office worker who goes out to buy food and a replacement pair of shoelaces during his lunch break. He’s also reading a paperback copy of Aurelius’ Meditations — Camestros might like it if he hasn’t read it already. If you’re a Proust fan, you’ll likely enjoy it and it’s much shorter.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. A lot of short stories and novelettes don’t do much for me, because I’m really big on character development and plot, and the format just doesn’t provide enough room for that, at least for me.

    But this story really grew on me. The author has managed to create nine very vivid little stories working within the limitations of the length, which is a really big accomplishment. I enjoyed reading these deftly-drawn vignettes with details about things with which I have little or no familiarity. And I thought that the ending was perfect.

    Liked by 1 person

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