November Read of the Month: “Milk Blood Heat” by Dantiel W. Muniz

In Milk Blood Heat (Grove Press, 2021) Dantiel W. Muniz serves up a savory, delicious stew of short stories in an outstanding debut collection. The stories are set in the steamy cities and suburbs of Florida centered on Black residents and their communities. Female voices and themes predominate. This collection is a rare gem in that there is not a single weak story included, each one beautifully told in straightforward prose with strong, authentic characters.

The first story features two girlfriends, Ava and Kiera, perched uncomfortably on the verge of womanhood: “Ava is the prettier friend but much browner, so she is often overlooked.” At thirteen, Ava feels lost in her own body, thinks “empty was a thing you could carry.” The girls play “what if” games related to dying—but what if they aren’t just games? At what point do games become dangerous?

“Tongues,” an exceptionally fine story, contrasts the open attitude of Zey’s favorite high school teacher with her repressive pastor. The pastor tells Zey “how to be a woman—soft-spoken, subservient, devout, and clean.” He insists on a biblical version of history, says all the world’s problems stem from Eve. He convinces Zey’s brother that she is possessed, that the Devil “came in many forms, most of them shaped like women.” Small wonder then, that Zey prefers the history she has learned in the library: “real history—slave ships and witch trials and women kept in bare feet. The books she borrowed were full of words like pay-gap and redline, and she noticed that in all genres, no matter literature or biography, men’s fury stained the pages, sowing lies like white seeds inside of people’s hearts.”

Another standout is “The Hearts of Our Enemies.” Frankie has fallen out of her teenage daughter’s favor and struggles “to remember what it was like before her daughter despised her, the small years when she was revered as a Mother-God.” An indiscretion has damaged Frankie’s reputation and Muniz nails the catty gossipers who relish her fall from grace: “They gathered to pierce Frankie with their eyes whenever they could—another’s shame being the truest spectator sport—and wonder aloud how a woman getting so large in the middle could keep a first man, let alone catch a second.” The body-shaming rings so true.

In “Necessary Bodies,” Billie is debating internally whether to have a baby or an abortion because “she didn’t know if it was responsible to bring new life into this world.” It scares her to think that “this would be a whole person, one you would be responsible for keeping that way, and what if you ruined it?” On the other hand, she considers the wonder of a “soft cheek, open to touch, and the reassurance of someone needing you. Someone you would come to need right back.” Her mother would really like to have a grandchild—the gift she really wants for her fiftieth birthday. But is that reason enough to have a child? It’s a dilemma that Billie has to solve.

“An Almanac of Bones” features a mother whose frequent absences is resented. Yet it becomes a hopeful story when the mother takes her daughter to a gathering of women dancing in the forest. In a mystical experience, the daughter sees “the true shape” of herself, “a glorious creature, spare and glowing.” She sees her connection to other women through the ages: “I sat among them, enraptured by their stories, realizing for the first time that every one of us was a link stretching back, mother to daughter to mother, in an unbroken chain from the center of time, connected by milk and blood.” Readers will be enraptured, too, by this gorgeous collection of stories that distill what it is to be a woman in a world of divisions—and connections.

Dantiel W. Muniz is the recipient of the Alice Hoffman Prize for Fiction, the Cecelia Joyce Johnson Emerging Writer Award by the Key West Literary Seminars, and a Tin House Scholarship. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in the Paris ReviewTin HousePloughshares, the Yale ReviewJoylandMcSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, and elsewhere. Milk Blood Heat is her first book. Moniz is an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she teaches fiction. She lives in North Florida.

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