colorful book cover of a woman holding a baby


Winner of the Kimbilio National Fiction Prize

A New Collection from kimbilio Fellow Mary Slechta

Mulberry Street is an African-American neighborhood with a disputed past: is it the result of white flight, a tenuous foothold for southern transplants, or a sliver spun off during the creation of Earth and once ruled by a god named Mr. Washington? The stories, connected sometimes by character and plot and always by geography, are told by and about its residents who, despite not in possession of a definitive history, have, in another sense,“seen it all”: not just the generational damage from forced migration, redlining, gentrification, racial profiling, over-policing, and other aspects of systemic racism, but, like the child in Seuss’ picture book, also the fantastical. Among the latter are children falling off the flat world; a vampire posting himself like Henry Box Brown; the ghost of the “first black meter man” taking credit for triggering white flight; and a husband building a maze to trap the “somethin,” the faceless racism that has plaqued his family and threatens his wife. Several characters reappear at different stages of life, spotlighting the impact of trauma over time on the individual and the community. A central trauma is The Fire, an attack by white vigilantes as seen from the perspectives of a woman with a talking belly, a vampire burned in his casket, a resident blamed for the the fire, and a huckster selling rebrowning cream.The perspectives help explore how trauma awakens the grifter as well as the saint, and how reparations, although important, cannot repair damage to the soul.

Another recurring motif are cracks, in the asphalt and memory, which signal both destruction and hope that a new Mulberry is being born. Beginning with the start of Mrs. Washington’s atonement for the lost children, the collection ends with an ode to Toni Morrison’s project to elevate untold stories. In “A Bench on the Moon,” Marjorie, a southern transplant and griot charged with remembering things exactly as they happened, is in the mid-stages of Alzhemeir’s. Wandering away during a fugue, she is drawn into music spilling from a bar and claims to be a storyteller named Toni. The bartender and patrons, hang on every word of her intriguing tales, one of them resting his hand on her arm “like a penny on the arm of a record player” to keep the disjointed stories together. In this way the promise of a new Mulberry Street is fulfilled.

Mary Slechta


Mary McLaughlin Slechta grew up in a world carved out of rural Connecticut by southern African-Americans and Jamaicans. She received her Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in English from The University of Connecticut and Syracuse University respectively. She is author of a chooseable path book, The Spoonmaker’s Diamond (Night Owl Press), and a poetry collection, Wreckage on a Watery Moon (FootHills). She has also published a chapbook with FootHills and two collaborative chapbooks with the artist Rita Kelley (Feral Press). Her recent work appears in journals and anthologies including Mom Egg Review, jelly bucket, Obsidian: Literature  and Arts in the African Diaspora, midnight & indigo, and Best Small Fictions 2021. A multiple Pushcart nominee and recipient of the Charlotte and Isidor Paiewonsky Prize from The Caribbean Writer, she was a two-time poet-in-residence at the Chautauqua Institution and is a Kimbilio Fellow. She lives in Syracuse, New York with her husband and extended family and stays busy year-round as an editor with great weather for Media.

Five Questions for Mary Slechta

My first thought is dodging housework, but that superpower is only in the service of the second: as the dust bunnies multiply, I can obsess for hours on a single paragraph, line, or word.

I was inspired by my family’s long relationship with magic, a sister’s art, the Dr. Seus book, And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, and Kimbilio. To get to those I first need to explain my relationship with despair. (Nothing unique.)  Watching footage of Black people murdered on television, I feel paralyzed by despair. There are brief periods of “calm” before the witch is riding me again: that southern way of saying that just when you think you’re awake and maybe okay, you slip back into the nightmare.

While violence against Black people has becomed fossilized in America, I counter despair with magic, a component of my family history. Maybe it was our parents’ way of keeping me and my siblings emotionally healthy in a racist environment, maybe it was just them, but both had stories that offered glimpses of the fantastic in Jamaica and U.S. Before my mother died, she said, “The magic is gone.” I promised her, and myself, that it wasn’t and never will be.

Rita Kelley, the cover artist and frequent collaborator, is one of my sisters. I was inspired by the surrealistic elements of her collage that visually weave family history and magic. Rita and I are pulling water from the same well. “Collage” also turned out to be a helpful idea when organizing the stories.

The Dr. Seus book was an inspiration in so far as it got me angry then got me thinking: if anyone has seen it all, as the young white narrator claims to do, that would be Black Americans. I enjoyed co-opting a book that is emblematic of what has too long passed for imaginative fun in “American” culture: self-indulgent foolishness with a dose of racism. (I borrowed the name of the cross street, Bliss, and Officer Mulvaney, to my own ends.)

Finally, I have to say that I’ve been writing a long, long time from a place that was often very lonely and increasingly confusing, and by 2017 or so, when I learned about Kimbilio, I was about out of steam. The very idea of “safe haven” was a light when I needed it and meeting founders David Haynes and Diana Napier, along with the incredible 2019 Fellows at the Retreat—and knowing there were Fellows before us and would be more to join!!– was like being welcomed into a new universe.

Setting first. I live on a street that was once alive with kids, house parties, and chatty neighbors, the oldest reciting neighborhood history. Of course, the neighborhood, as all neighborhoods do, is constantly changing. Lockdown just hastened the process and reminded me of other neighborhoods I’d been a part of and which are now lost to time.

Setting inspired characters. When I wasn’t writing, I was sitting at a street-facing window, wondering what was happening inside the silent houses. Where were the children? When I learned that there had been a death, I knew that another family had suffered without the support of home visits and food. Just as awful, someone known and treasured had left us and we had none of the usual rituals to remember and celebrate their life. I found solace in imagining that the cracks in the street were indications of past and future neighborhoods and lives coexisting forever with ours. Those cracks became part of the links between the stories.

Walking and talking (with a friend) and window watching.

During lockdown, and masked, I took regular 4-5 mile walks with my friend Joan Bryant, a professor of African-American Studies at Syracuse University. As we walked, we talked about, among other things, her love of the 19th century “Race Men,” her zoom classes, and my stories. Her stories and her interest in and encouragement of mine made me brave. Two examples: her mention of “pickled negroes” mysteriously found in barrels aboard a ship in 1838 inspired me to write “The Pickled Negro” and a photography show she curated just before lockdown gave me the title of another, “Negro Girl’s Ritual for a Miraculous Cure.”

Between walks, I meditated on the empty streets outside my second-floor bedroom window. I admit to wanting to impress Joan with a new story. I also admit that my husband Matej prepares lunch and dinner every day, so my musings were accompanied by delicious smells wafting up from the first floor of the house.

This is not a fair question because three is way too few. That said, there are three at the top:

Lorna Goodison and From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her Island. In Goodison’s poetic telling, every story has another story behind it and a single page of the memoir sometimes tells several stories at once. There is magic in these stories and “characters” enough for a library of novels. I love the way she seems to do this so effortlessly.

Shirley Jackson and The Lottery and Other Stories. I loved “The Lottery” in high school but was really impressed as an adult when I discovererd it was part of a collection. The presence of a malevolent spirit that runs through the stories is, for me, pure delight. Jackson’s collection is an example of how a subtle connection among stories can be layered into the whole and how secrets can be hidden below ordinary life.

Rion Amilcar Scott and his collections about the Cross River community, Insurrections and The World Does Not Require You, which I first learned about at a Kimbilio Retreat in 2019. Reading Amilcar’s stories was life changing for me as a reader, writer, and plain old Black human being. The community born from his incredible imagination and developed with great craft, tells us that anything can happen, it already has, and more is possible. And the other wonderful thing Scott does is place them somewhere that is both fictional and non-fictional. I needed to learn his lessons in order to find balance for Mulberry Street, a place that exists both “outside my window,” with direct references to Syracuse, New York and in my imagination. I’m still learning.

I greatly admire the ability of all three writers to tell fantastical stories with a clarity that doesn’t sacrifice musicality.

(Can I please add NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth Series and How Long ’til Black Future Month and everything Octavia Butler?)