a visitation of spirits

Notes on Imagined Places: From Tim’s Creek to Santo Domingo

by | September 3, 2021

A place real or imagined – what’s the difference? I was born in a city in the Caribbean so old it has become more myth than fact. So much and so little has been said about this city and there exists a deafening hum over its storied buildings and sun bathed hills. In it, one hears echoes of the slave trade, of genocide, of dictatorships, of unseated presidents, of love affairs, of cheating scandals, and of joy as loud as bachata booming from a constellation of corner stores. Writer and artist Johan Mijail aptly said, “Santo Domingo me roba las palabras. Y sin palabras yo no puedo vivir.” Some places are so big and harrowing that they force you to invent new ones capable of cupping your imagination, mind, and language. 

I first came across Randall Kenan’s Tim’s Creek while reading A Visitation of Spirits. This imagined town in North Carolina, where all of Kenan’s stories take place, is home to preachers, farmers, Black and white people, the rich and poor. In this town lives a queer Black boy, Horace Cross, whose life is being shrunk by the social boundaries delimiting his desire, the same machinations of shame and disregard that turn many young Black queer people into ghosts of themselves.

Kenan writes, “Where will it end? Will it end? He thought of his family, of what they wanted of him; of his friends and what they offered him; and of himself… what did he, Horace, truly want? Suddenly life beneath the ground had a certain appeal it had never had before. It was becoming attractive in a macabre way. No more, no more ghosts, no more sin, no more, no more.” 

I hesitate to read works that portray Black queer trauma. Many of our collective narratives focus on pain and spiritual isolation, with very little room for much else. But there is a difference between a book that reduces us to our pain and a book that opens up the world by exploring the repercussions of being made to feel unclean, undesired, unkept, unhoused, unloved. That is what A Visitation of Spirits does: it expands the Black queer universe by taking us out of this world and into a fictional town in North Carolina. 

What is the use of fiction for Black queer and trans folks in this country and across the diaspora, when we face so many systemic political and social barriers? What more than escape can imagined places, imagined people, and their imagined lives offer us, when our real lives seem so heavy at the loss of another community space, another anti-trans bill passed, another life lost? More than escapism, and beyond the tired ideology of empathy, fiction can offer Black queer and trans folks alternative iterations of the world where we can feel, think, and explore beyond our current constraints, in hopes that we can use everything that we imagine for ourselves to benefit our lives here in this world, where it matters most. 

In my own work, I have used the literary imagination to explore alternative versions of queer Dominican life. I wrote a story titled “You’re the Only Friend I Need” about friends who meet up to attend a queer party in Santo Domingo. Though queer spaces in the city are growing today, I do not know that such a space existed in the 1990s, when the story is set. 

The story was an imaginative leap, my own desperate attempt to understand the interiority of a queer Dominican boy grappling with the gender binary in an unforgiving city. While the Santo Domingo in my story stayed true to it’s real world landscape—where queerness is criminalized and brutalized—in my mind, it grew wings. And on the page, instead of the history handed to me, the city became a zone of queer possibility and potential. 

My characters Fabio and Noel dress themselves in feminine clothes, and find in this transformation that the world opens up before them. I write, “Now, look at them. Girls, or adjacent to them. Girly boys, maybe, gliding through the streets of Santo Domingo, protected by the night. Soft as feathers. Quick as shadows. Hiding, but filled with a gust of pride for everything they’ve made of themselves, what they’ve managed to take from the corner of the mind or a dream. A fantasy materialized.” 

Kenan’s Tim’s Creek is a necessary fantasy. It is a bridge to an imagined Santo Domingo, to imagined versions of all of our homes. To his legacy, I add my work and hope it will serve as a bridge for queer Black folks, in Santo Domingo and everywhere, to imagine our lives beyond the cities, towns, and neighborhoods that aim to rob us of our language. Here is a golden coin on the scale for fiction and all it can offer to the expansion of a queer Black universe, real and imagined.

Alejandro Heredia is a queer Afro-Dominican writer and community organizer born in Santo Domingo and raised in The Bronx. He is a 2018 VONA/Voices fellow and 2019 Dreamyard Rad(ical) Poetry Consortium Fellow. Myriam Gurba selected Alejandro’ s chapbook, You’re the Only Friend I Need, as the winner of the 2019 Gold Line Press Fiction Chapbook Contest. The book was published in summer 2021. Alejandro’ s work has been featured in Auburn Avenue Magazine, La Galeria Magazine, No Dear Magazine, and elsewhere. He is an MFA candidate at Hunter College.