Color Commentary

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DRAGONFLY | Marie Manilla

Monkeybicycle.

⇒Today I’m exploring a piece from the always eclectic Monkeybicycle, one of my favorite flash fiction journals.

I’ve labeled today’s subject, “Dragonfly” by Marie Manilla, historical fiction. As I’ve pointed out before, labels and categorizations can be really tricky, and that’s probably why I often opt for the catch-all “mainstream/literary” designation. Certainly, this piece is “literary” (if by literary one is referring to a work’s quality, cultural importance, symbolic depth), but it also takes place in a past historical period (which is to say, not the present). I suppose how I label this piece is arbitrary, since the work can (and should) stand on its own, but hopefully today’s commentary will shed a little more light on this piece than a Barnes & Noble department sign might.

The piece’s historical period is certainly essential to what happens but the ideas it presents transcend era (perhaps that’s what makes it literary?). Just as speculative fiction talks about the here and now through fantastical or futuristic conceits, historical fiction places a mirror to our contemporary landscape in its own indirect way. “Dragonfly” is a short story featuring a very rich historical setting: late-1800s New York City: a place of cure-all “tonics,” post-Civil War race relations, disparate socioeconomic tiers, British operettas (shout out to G&S!), and persistent tensions between the North and South. Naturally, all of these features have their modern-day counterparts.  

The protagonist, Dorian “Doo Fly” Waller, goes from his Southern home (Virginia) to New York City on behalf of his father’s company, a manufacturer of one of those cure-all tonics that were all the rage back then (contemporary equivalents include Red Bull and 5-Hour Energy and those male-enhancement pills they sell at 7-Eleven). So he comes to New York City to buy factory equipment and spends a couple nights at the home of the aristocratic factory owner with whom he does business. The fat cat he stays with has a wife and an African-American maid whom he’s sleeping with. Doo Fly Waller, uncomfortable in his Northern aristocrat setting, falls in love with the maid, Millie. Various things occur.

This is a story about, among other things, mixed identities: hybrids, interstices, gray areas. It says a whole lot about America’s really confusing identity when it comes to such things as race, privilege, and economic class. This is a story about boundaries (real and imagined) and the crossing of these boundaries.

Here’s the thing: Doo Fly is mixed-race (though his mother reminds him he’s white, dammit); he comes from family of slaves. He’s connected to a successful business but he carries the nickname of his plantation origins. He crosses the Mason-Dixon line (another boundary crossed…) and finds himself in bustling, anything-but-rural New York City. He falls in love with a woman who is, per his era, “beneath him,” suggesting he isn’t clear on who he is (as far as society’s concerned). Unmoored from externally defined notions of race, culture, class, etc., the protagonist can depend only on his own internal values (which end up serving him pretty well, it seems).

This story reminds me a bit of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in the way it deals with the slipperiness of identity in America’s melting pot. Since such ambiguities are far from resolved in the 21st century, Doo Fly’s predicament is as relevant now as it was in his time.

Read the story over at Monkeybicycle!

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