ARTS & CULTURE
By Pamir Kiciman
CHAPEL HILL — Chapel Hill author Anise Vance’s debut novel, “Hush Harbor,” is longlisted for the distinguished Center of Fiction’s 2023 First Novel Prize. Available on September 5, it’s the story of events that unfold after the murder of an unarmed Black teenager at the hands of two members of the police force.
Vance, who works full-time in a non-literary capacity, told The Local Reporter that he completed the book in about six years, by working on it in the predawn silence before his kids woke up.
“I started writing my first novel when I was ten,” said Vance, who is from the African and Iranian diaspora. “I finished a couple of not-good novels in my mid-twenties before finally beginning “Hush Harbor.””
The semi-speculative novel takes place in a parallel present where an earthquake has incapacitated the West Coast and most of Southern California remains uninhabitable. Although there are brief references to Chapel Hill, Durham and the two universities there, the action occurs in New Jersey’s fictional Bliss City and its predominantly Black Aggy’s Island.
Kemba Jefferson, aged 14, with 14 bullets that hit him within four seconds, is memorialized by a rose garden 14 feet by 14 feet at Hush Harbor, the community of an armed uprising now in its sixth month, sparked by the killing and housed in an abandoned housing project called Hamilton Heights.
Hush Harbor, so-called after secret locations where enslaved people would go to freely pray and worship, is introduced to readers by Malik, a new young recruit for the movement.
As Zahra, his college mentor, crush and recruiter tells him about Hush Harbor: “Its only purpose is to uproot white supremacy wherever it exits and plant down something entirely different.”
The uprising has two thoughtful, caring and brilliant leaders, the Prince siblings Jeremiah and Nova who have established a still emerging yet functioning society. Breakfast is served for 100s of residents, teachers are assigned to makeshift classrooms, there are counters that inventory everything from food to crayons, maintenance crews to change light bulbs, farmers, guards and more.
Every Tuesday and Friday is market day based entirely on a barter system with no currency exchanged. In Malik’s estimation, 500 people participate, including those from surrounding neighborhoods. Logistically complex, Malik marvels at how well it works and that a group of only ten is responsible for organizing it.
As Jeremiah explains to Malik: “The key is trust. In a neighborhood, you trust people because they live right next to you … Here, the trust is built on a shared set of ideals.”
Every revolution must have its heroes and iconography and this one does too in the form of murals made and directed by Nova. The buildings at Hamilton Heights are named appropriately: Baldwin Building with its James Baldwin mural and Kendrick Lamar on the side of the Lamar Building. And Zahra’s favorite, depicting a Faith Ringgold quilt on the Ringgold Building.
All the main players of the collective are educated. This is not a revolution missing its intellect or heart. It isn’t designed for revenge or chaos. It is purposeful and has moral authority.
Brother and sister Prince enroll in gifted programs from third grade on. Jeremiah has a Harvard master’s in divinity and a PhD. in history from UNC. He’s a servant leader because he chooses to teach middle school history prior to becoming a national figure.
Young Malik is a scholar: “How could he, a Black scholar in the making not query the world?”
Zahra, a legal intern writes a report with Quinn, another protagonist, who is the mayor’s senior aid.
Nova — Quinn’s lifelong friend, high school and college mate recommends her. Done a month before Kemba is murdered, the report is: “Police Misconduct in Bliss: Analysis and Paths Forward.”
Nova is the most ardent follower and communicator of the revolution’s moral center: “We are always just. We are always humane. We are always kind.”
The only time violence is justified or is to be initiated is in self-defense.
But all things aren’t equal in the novel. There’s a lot of hate. One of the officers who shot Kemba has branched off from the white supremacist group named the Originists and formed his own more radical cell intent on violence. Bliss City’s Police Chief Baker has ties to the groups and is determined to replace Mayor Clarence, the city’s first Black mayor in decades, as well as bring a bloody end to the revolution.
Despite its highly charged social issues, what the novel does particularly well is that it remains a literary work and manages to be non-inflammatory.
Certainly, there’s a meta-narrative about America’s reckoning with racism and race-based violence. Bliss City has become a dystopian place with its security patrols and protocols, and the two police officers involved in Kemba’s killing haven’t been made accountable.
Yet readers are left to have their own feelings and thoughts about the larger concerns. Vance doesn’t preach and doesn’t editorialize.
Instead, he demonstrates solid storytelling that’s character and plot-driven, deepened by the relationships between the protagonists and polished with succinct, punchy writing.
This is a book that reads like a thriller fit for a movie screen. At the same time, it sensitively and incisively addresses historically racist systems.
There are yet other layers of connections within the relationships of the novel’s characters than what’s described here. It is this rich tapestry that holds the reader’s attention, becomes the container for the narrative and brings all the truths in the book home, as well as its pain.
Vance’s characters are real and not representative or just types. While some have knee-jerk reactions, the core group is fleshed out in beautiful detail with unanticipated responses to a pressure cooker situation that reveal the serious inner dilemmas and moral questions they keep struggling with.
Nothing in this story is predictable.
“I really had to write my way into the characters and their relationships. At a certain point, I made a conscious choice that the book was going to be very “physical.” By that I mean, there was going to be a lot of description of characters’ movements, facial expressions, tics, and habits. I started calling this ‘writing to the bone,’” Vance explained.
“That enabled me to start to get inside the bodies of the characters and, in so doing, feel
their emotions, their thoughts, their rhythms. Only then did the characters and their relationships start to flourish in my imagination.”
His subject matter could easily fill 100s of pages, but “Hush Harbor” clocks in at under 300 and yet covers enormous ground, both in encapsulating real societal events and the lives of the people who populate the book.
“I’ve come to understand that writing is how I understand the world; for me, it’s not so much a professional pursuit as it is a way of living,” Vance said.
The events he describes in the book are personal to him.
“The novel is a response to the ongoing violence experienced by Black bodies at the hands of the state,” he stated. “I am most centrally interested in how to create spaces of justice in a deeply unjust world.”
Vance will be in conversation with Daniel Black at Flyleaf Books on September 5. Find out more about the event and order “Hush Harbor” from this link.
Pamir Kiciman is a creative who has been a photographer and actor since the age of five. The longtime writer is now returning to the theater and acting. He has spent most of his nearly three years in the Triangle writing arts and culture features. To learn more, visit https://my.visualcv.com/pamirkiciman or contact him by email: email@example.com.