NBWC: Speculative Fiction: Fantasy, Horror and the Supernatural in the Fiction of Black Writers

Moderator: Dale Allender
Panel: L.A. Banks, Michale Boatman, Jewell Parker Rhodes, Cheo Tyehimba
National Black Writers’ Conference
Saturday, March 28th, first panel session

First, all apologies to the panelists.  I was late to the panel because of the glorious “talkshop” I attended this morning with Sonia Sanchez (I’ll be posting about that when I get home tonight).

I’m so happy that this panel is in the conference.  I’m a big lover of speculative black fiction.  I love the way these writers are connecting all the things they’re writing to our history as black people in this country, in the world, connecting the magical and the mystical to us in ways that aren’t exotic or evil, in ways that reference the history of the black church, of spirituality.

Jewell Parker: We need to remember who’s been in control of the narrative for so long.  It’s time for us to tell our own stories.

Michael Boatman (am I the only person who didn’t know Boatman was a writer?): The issue of alienation is big for me, the idea of the outsider, the idea that people are made to be outsiders because they are of color. 

Boatman is talking about his novel The Revenant Road and his character Obadiah Grudge and being at a book signing and having two men come up to him — one white, one black — and seeing them realize that they both identified with Grudge, that both saw themselves and their own experience with their fathers.  “It’s got to be going toward all of us as a human race realizing that there is no essential difference between us.”

Moderator: Think about — maybe the tomb of the slave ship — and give me just one word (other than ‘spirit’) that gets us out of bad spaces, that gets us to the other side.  What gets us through when the levees break?  What gets us out from under the rubble in Haiti?

Cheo Tyehimba: Faith

L.A. Banks: Courage

Jewell Parker Rhodes: Love in all its myriad forms

Michael Boatman: Tomorrow

Q&A:  Do you see others coming up behind you?  This is still an area where we don’t see a lot of people who look like us.   Do you see more writers starting to enter the field?  This gets a resounded “Yes” from the panel.  Michael Boatman referenced Dark Matter and Tananarive Due (which got an enthusiastic ovation from the stage and the audience).

What advice can you give a writer who’s about to embark on the journey of finding a source to publish her sci-fi novel?

Parker Rhodes: I’d say find an agent, or send to university presses, or self publish.  Look at your favorite writers and see who their publishers and editors and agents are.  Look at agents and see what kind of lists they have.  She referenced her own agent and suggested sending work to that agency.

Tyehimba: Tor and St. Martin’s Press.  St. Martin’s Press gave me a break.  There’s a rare case where there’s a young sister at a major house doing speculative fiction.  It’ll sound weird but Romantic Times Annual Conference is a great place.  Supernatural romance is big now, and they search out wrters at that conference.

Boatman: Make sure it’s as tight and polished as it can be.  Editors are always looking for reasons to say no.  Remove as many reasons as you can. 

(Oh dear.  Here’s the same man who felt he had something to teach the panelists is back.  Now he telling us the entire story line of his spec fiction novel.  Feh.  I didn’t think we were here to shop our work.  Is there a question here?  Now he teaching us that string theory and Christ’s teachings are the same.)

About characterization: who are some of your favorite spec fiction characters and why?

Boatman: There’s a character in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. That book deals with alienation and so that really interests me.  The character finds himself transferred into a Tolkein-esque world from his New England home.  That character is still amazingly redolent of a lot the things I write.

Parker: In Left Hand of Darkness LeGuin creates a race of people that shift their gender.  I love the idea that in all of us there is both.  In another novel, they keep a child in the most abject conditions, and that’s their human sacrifice.  As long as the child is suffering, the rest of the village is happy.  And when you come of age, you’re taken to see the child and asked if you can accept that.  And there are alwasy some who walk away, who won’t accept that their happiness is based on anyone’s pain.  The ones who walk away are a metaphor for how I try to live myself.

Banks: A lot of contemporary writers have characters I love, but when I think about what I read when I started, I look back to Ark of Bones by Henry Dumas.  He has a character, a brother who is taken aboard a spaceship, the ark, and he is made to be the keeper of teh arc and comes to find out that the ark is the keeper of the bones of the ancestors from the middle passage.  And the other is Octavia Butler.  And it’s any of her stories, but for me it always comes back to Wild Seed and Anyanwu’s incredible spirit and her love/hate relationship with Doro.

Tyehimba: It goes back to Octavia and for me it goes back to Kindred and thinking about doing back in time and not being able to change anything, and I think about that and … whew!  And then looking at contemporary writers, there’s Tananarive Due and The Living Blood.

Would any of you write for young adults or children?  All but Banks answered yes.  Parker Rhodes and Tyehimba have YA books soon to be released.

What about manga and anime? I started to write a manga and I’ve been looking for influences.  Do you know any good writers?

Tyehimba:  There’s a conference coming up in Philly, the East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention, and there are some folks doing manga.  So, soon come.

What do you think is the role of conventions for spec fiction?  Should black people go?

Tyehimba: We should definitely go.  I go all over.  In Atlanta, it’s 60,000 people and the first time I went, there were five African Americans.  They had us set up on a panel for vampire fiction and I was vastly underdressed: I was, you know, dressed like I was going to a conference … and other people were all tricked out with prosthetic fangs and antebellum dresses and everything.  I didn’t know!  People were totally into the vampire thing, no one was saying, “You’re a black writer.”  The next year, I had my “Blade” coat on!  Somebody gotta step outside.  We gotta go.  We gotta break in.

Boatman:  It’s also that you go because inspiration can come from anywhere.  To me, it’s the idea of getting out of the intellectual ghetto.  Why not go?  Dress up and do your thing!

I’m starting to have an issue. What do I do with my mostly Caribbean students who look at the spec fiction I bring in and say “Oh, that’s the devil, I can’t read that.”  As a teacher, what books can I bring to them that aren’t so far fetched, but that bring in the supernatural.  I just want something other than Twilight and Harry Potter to open their minds, to put them outside the box, to inspire them.

Parker Rhodes: Give me your address, and I will send you 20 books.  I’ll come to your class and talk to your children.  Maryse Conde’s I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem.  Walter Moseley’s 47.  My editor at Little Brown is a wonderful black woman, and we’ll get a list for you.  She’ll bring me back here to meet with your class.  (No surprise that this got an enormous ovation!  Isn’t she lovely?  Eveyone on the panel was great, but Parker Rhodes won over the whole room with that bit.)

Closing statements

Tyehimba: Thank you for being here.  To have this many people in the room at a black conference … Thank you! This is something we’ve stopped doing that we have to get back to, something my mother would do.  When a major black work would come out, my mother would rush to the store and buy it, even if she didn’t like the writing.  She wanted to support black authors.  We fuss about us only having a voice in one particular area. That’s because that’s what people are voting for at the  box office, so we need to have more people out there, more people reading.  Give the spec fiction folks a break and read our work!

Banks: Not only do we have to be curiosity machines and thinkers, we reflect each other: the energy, the spirit, what we put out is a reflection, and taking it to the other magical level of magical realism. If you’re a writer, be in a writers’ group and if you’re a writer, you write not only because you have to but to tell stories.  Getting a short story collection published was challenging, but you have to work for it. I published independently, and I’ve been pretty successful with it.

Parker Rhodes: I like the phrase that truth is a matter of the imagination.  And imagination has kept me alive>  What we’re talking about is praise-songing speculative fiction.  It’s that we have to keep alive.  There’s something about the engagement of the mind and the spirit and the book.  Keep on having the dialouge and if you have the time, do something to get a book in a child’s hands. so they can see themselves and imagine the future.

Banks: I talked earlier about Obediah Grudge (the character in his novel) struggling with feelings about his absent father and I think about him and how I grew up in Chicago with a single mother.  My father left when I was two. He gave me one gift.  When I was nine years old I saw him and he gave me a book.  He had noticed that I seemed to be interested in reading and he gave me The Hobbit.  I didn’t see him again for another twenty years, but that one gift gave me a life, gave me a career, gave me a perspective.  A friend of mine said recently that most Americans don’t read past  a certain agin because school teaches them that reading is work, but books saved my life.  If you can engourage a child to pick up a book and stay in a book … read, read, read!


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