In this episode of the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast, taped live at the inaugural Wordplay in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Marlon James and Daniel José Older speak with hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell about the politics of literary categories. They talk about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the history of queerness in Africa, the importance of plot, the Wookieepedia, writing violence and respecting readers, and the details of dinosaurs.
To hear the full episode, subscribe to the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast through iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app (make sure to include the forward slashes when searching). You can also listen by streaming from the player below.
Readings from this episode:
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James · Dactyl Hill Squad & Dactyl Hill Squad: Freedom Fire by Daniel Jose Older · Hollywood Wives by Jackie Collins · Buffy the Vampire Slayer · The Iliad by Homer · All the President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein · Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert · Octavia Butler · The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien · 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez · The Stand & It by Stephen King · Shogun by James Clavell · Avatar: The Last Airbender · Star Wars: A New Hope · The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling · Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls · Pokémon Detective Pikachu · Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson · Jesmyn Ward · Nicholson Baker
Whitney Terrell: So, Marlon and Daniel, we’re excited to feature your latest books on this episode. Both of them have prompted a lot of conversation about the meaning of genre. Sugi and I both teach Creative Writing—I do in Kansas City, she does here, at the University of Minnesota. So students asked me all the time, what in the hell is genre? Does it have a meaning for you? How do you define it?
Marlon James: God, if I was if I was talking to those students, I’d say it’s that thing creative writing programs don’t know how to teach. [laughter]
I mean, it’s a loaded term. It is a way in which we distinguish certain types of books, but it’s also a way in which we exclude them. And I think the argument for excluding them is that so many of those books are formula. But we have literary fiction formula all the time. I mean, how many more middle-aged white men who suddenly rediscover their libido are we going to get? You know, or suburban housewife experiences ennui? It’s pretty much a genre.
WT: It’s been going on since at least . . . Madame Bovary.
MJ: At least Mrs. Caliban gives us a really sexy amphibian. Which is why that book is a classic. If she was dating Chuck, and Chuck shows up, it wouldn’t be the same thing. Yeah, it can be a term that can distinguish and identify, but it can also be a term that is too often used to restrict and limit and draw conclusions about.
Daniel José Older: Yeah, I agree with that. And I think it’s important that we recognize that it’s a conversation on the one hand about marketing, and publicity, right, that publishers are having within themselves and in how they project a book out into the world. But it’s also a conversation about process and craft. And in that sense, I think it can be really interesting. It makes me think a lot about rhythm and narrative priority. And I say that as someone who writes both genre and “literary.”
Because they do have a lot of exclusionary elements to just that term, literary, right? If it’s not literary, it’s not literary, but it’s a book. So what is it? What are we really saying? All of our characters have daily lives and go through the drudgery of dailiness and what that means. And in a genre book, typically, that . . . I always think about, they put up the series of two albums, that were Duke Ellington albums, and one of them was called Piano in the Forefront. And one of them was called Piano in the Background, right? And that’s how I think about some of these terms. It’s like, if the plot is foregrounded, if most of the time that we see them, they’re on their mission, and they’re trying to solve the crime or get the bad guy or do what they have to do, that’s going to feel, rhythmically, like a genre novel. Now, if we’re seeing them more in their everyday lives, going through that particular drudgery, having ennui, whatever it may be, that’s going to feel more literary. And that does matter. Because we pick up a book, it tells us about itself, through the cover, through the way it’s marketed. And it’s going to change how we process it as what we’re expecting when we read it.
The fact that you suck at plot. “This largely plotless novel.” It’s fine, we can call it boring, right?
MJ: Well, I think that also creates something I think I always have problems with. Something that’s basically inability looked upon as a virtue. The fact that you suck at plot. “This largely plotless novel.” It’s fine, we can call it boring, right? People bring up things like Beckett. I’m like, Beckett is a master plotter. What are you talking about?
DJO: Right. And I think that’s what people misunderstand about a lot of literary books. The best ones are really well plotted out.
MJ: Absolutely well-plotted.
DJO: But you don’t see it coming. I was thinking of Another Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson, which is just one of the greatest literary novels of all time. And it’s really kind of a murder mystery, if you step back and look at it, but it’s told in such a way that feels very literary. So that’s the category that it goes in but it’s beautifully plotted out. Jesmyn Ward knows how to plot. That’s part of why we love her books and then her language also carries us away.
MJ: Yeah, Nicholson Baker knows plot. A Nicholson Baker plot could be: Old man sits down in armchair. The end. That’s a brilliant novel. I used to give this joke about plot, I called it my Robert De Niro line, which is Robert De Niro can do a lot of things, but he can’t do sexy and he can’t do funny but he’s managed to convince you neither is important. Which is kind of how some people are with plot. I think that also can be a signifier again that we’re in genre territory. Plot again is so you know when my students are struggling with plot and they want to find a way to fix it, I go, your problem is that you think your plot problem’s a plot problem. Your plot problem is a character problem. You know it’s like your back pain is usually not your back.
Plot is not like the sort of stepchild of lit. That’s my rant for today.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: I hope not. I hope there are more rants! That was a great rant. We’re big fans of rants on the show. So, the title of this session is “Against Genre Snobbery,” and snobbery of course, you know, gets at all of those things about power that you were saying: the power of one set of readers or critics to determine what is worthy storytelling and what kind of reading is respectable. And genre has also been a home for writers were denied equal access to literary publishing new, Jewish writers and American comics, for example, or science fiction. The feminist writer Alice Bradley Shelton, who wrote as James Tiptree, Octavia Butler, of course, and Samuel R. Delany. But power isn’t just about who gets to write, it’s also about which characters get to have agency and power. And that was one of the things I was so interested in when reading your books together and thinking about that. Daniel, you’ve written historical fantasy, the Civil War plus dinosaurs, and also put black and brown children at the center of the story with real power. How did you think—both of you—about power among your characters and in the history of so-called genre, as you conceived of your series?
DJO: Well, first of all, I would say, you know, I always look to Octavia Butler as like the patron saint of writing about power, period, particularly in fiction, obviously. But she really led the way for me and for so many of us in terms of thinking in really complex and layered ways about the way that we’re interconnected, but not in the hippy dippy way, but actually in the really fucked-up ways that we’re interconnected, between gender, and race and class and all these different levels. And she did it while telling these marvelous and amazing stories that were fantastical and exciting and all the things that you’re not supposed to be able to pull off while you’re also having a conversation about power. Octavia Butler really showed us that that’s possible on another level. So I always look to her.
Because she is slaying demons and vampires, the gut truths in that show have to ring more true.
And for Dactyl Hill Squad, it was on the one hand about understanding that that was a time and this is still a time when black and brown kids are living through a very particular relationship to power. The book isn’t about slavery. We don’t see slavery ever. But it’s a book that takes place in a world where slavery still exists. And that’s something that they have to grapple with. We live in a world where slavery-adjacent things are still happening. That’s something that we have to grapple with, including and especially kids, you know, so I think we do our kids an injustice when we deny them those difficult conversations and a way to have them, but also, we can’t constantly just push them down with the heaviness of the world all the time. And I think that a book can do both. I think a book can multitask. And that’s what I really try to do, is also tap into the joy of my characters. Because if they’re just walking around, feeling oppressed all the time, it’s really hard to have a fun adventure story too. And I believe that kids, kids of color especially, deserve a fun adventure where they can see themselves as the hero. So as they’re navigating the different levels of power in their world, they’re also riding pterodactyls over Brooklyn, and looking down on the different neighborhoods that they can see and they’re finding ways to fight racists in creative ways, with pterodactyls and with lots of different dinosaurs and pteros. And and so to me, it’s about that creativity of resistance and including joyfulness.
MJ: Daniel just reminded me that one of the big turning point narratives for me, in terms of how to structure a story and how to have all of that, thrills and spills, but also get really, really to gut truths, was Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
VVG: So good! So good!
MJ: It’s my favorite TV show of all time, and I’m not being ironic. But the thing about a show like Buffy that wouldn’t happen in say—all the ’90s kids will get my allusions—with a show like Felicity is that because she is slaying demons and vampires, the gut truths in that show have to ring more true. That show has to try even harder to convince you of the perils of teenagehood. That the guy who you give up your virginity to turns out to be the mother of all assholes. Okay, that’s a terrible allusion for Mother’s Day and my mom’s gonna hear this. And she’s gonna call—
WT: There goes the explicit marker on the podcast.
MJ: She’s gonna call, and say, “That’s your allusion on of all days, today?” Sorry, Mom. Anyway, the father of—but, because of that the gut truth about being connected to a world that refuses to connect with you rings so hard in that. And that’s something else, I remember. I’m writing about monsters, and thrills and spills and all these battles and so on. But the desire to make these characters even more grounded in reality, whatever that might mean, was even more.
All fiction is speculative. We’re making stuff up.
WT: We have a friend, David Naimon, who has a very good podcast out of Portland called “Between the Covers,” and we listened to you on there and you talked to him a lot about how Tolkien’s work was important for you as you were conceiving Black Leopard, Red Wolf. Obviously you’re no genre snob and neither was Tolkien, but it also seems to me that there can be snobbery within genre, and the idea that in fantasy that white guys are always good guys, and everything has to look like Game of Thrones, or vaguely European. How did you think through your decision to set Black Leopard, Red Wolf in what would seem to be a sort of Middle Earth Africa and to draw on African myths and histories?
MJ: See I thought “genre snobbery,” meant people who say “speculative fiction,” okay, because I really hate that term.
WT: Maybe it’s good that I did not use that term.
MJ: All fiction is speculative. We’re making stuff up.
WT: I speculated that you would not like that term, Speculative Fiction.
MJ: The thing that influenced me most about the Tolkien Universe is realizing I had to give myself fully over into it. Sometimes you can tell these are people who are dabbling in sci-fi, they still have one leg out, one foot in and one foot out, because they don’t want to fully commit to that world, don’t want to fully commit to that belief system. It’s almost like when people write about witchcraft, and you can tell they’re still writing it from a sort of Anglo Saxon Protestant view, because the witchcraft never works. Which is so false.
WT: Always in Massachusetts, yeah.
MJ: I got some witches I can introduce you to. But it’s still a refusal to believe in the very world you’re creating. The thing I got from Tolkien is you have to commit. For me it was very important that there’s no part that’s betraying my Christian upbringing, that the witch’s powers aren’t really real. And that monster is really as much your imagination as a monster. No—he’s a flippin’ monster. And this is where genre snobbery comes in, where I think, “but I have to drop these literary touches.”
WT: Oh right, yeah. Right. So people know I’m just playing around. I’m not really doing this.
MJ: “I’m writing speculative fiction. You know, I’m still in Camp Literary.” Yeah. You know, it’s ridiculous. It’s funny. This is why nobody realized that Hemingway and Faulkner were ripping off Dashiell Hammett all their lives. It’s not like they were hiding it. But the cloak of genre snobbery or a sort of literary high-mindedness is the type of thing where a lot of people didn’t even realize that.
DJO: That’s true. Exactly that. For me, Tolkien was a definite influence. But it’s like a like a two-legged strangeness, like a double-edged sword in that I remember one of my earliest memories of being fully sucked into a novel is with Fellowship of the Ring. And I remember it being a beautiful day, I was visiting my grandparents in Florida, and I and I was reading the book, and it was sunny outside, but in the book, it was pouring rain, and they’re setting out on their journey. And I looked up and I was shocked that it wasn’t raining outside. And it was that moment of being so sucked in. And then Tom Bombadil happened.
It’s held up in the literary canon. But it’s a book about a family full of magic, dealing with revolutions, and war and all kinds of other things that genre deals with.
MJ: So the first time I was sucked in was Hollywood Wives. Oh, yeah. Jackie Collins. Oh my God. I read that novel in one sitting. I read it when I was 13. The next morning, I went “I’s an adult now.”
DJO: I had two favorite books when I was a kid. Way too young to have these two favorite books. But it was The Iliad, and it was All the President’s Men. And I was obsessed with it. Total nerd. Yes. And I really did love it. I wasn’t just like, look, The Iliad, it’s bigger than me!. But The Iliad is genre. Like, absolutely, 100 percent genre. And it’s the beginning of so much. I don’t want to say it’s the beginning of it all. But it’s certainly the beginning of so much of the tradition that we write in.
WT: Well, I didn’t know what genre was when I was a kid reading. I didn’t know. I picked up, I could pick up Dostoyevsky off a shelf and read Crime and Punishment. I could also read C.S. Lewis and be like, oh, Narnia, that’s great. These are the same thing. They felt like the same thing to me. And there wasn’t later that somebody said, Oh, it has to be different.
MJ: Yeah. The thing about genre for me is, I just couldn’t afford it. Whichever book I could borrow, and I would not tell the person I borrowed it. Or whatever was lying around. I mean, 100 Years of Solitude, I read that because somebody from the previous class left their book behind. I’m sure you’re gonna come back in a minute for your book, right? I’m sorry.
DJO: Do you consider that genre? Because it kind of is. It’s one of those books that’s very slipstream, right, it’s held up in the literary canon. But it’s a book about a family full of magic, dealing with revolutions, and war and all kinds of other things that genre deals with.
MJ: I just read whatever book was around, right? Or whatever I could get. And sometimes I run to the big ones because I want it to last longer. Because I don’t know where the next book is going to show up.
VVG: Yeah. One of the first genre books that I loved that I didn’t know was genre . . . my mother—Happy Mother’s Day to her—she forbade me to read Stephen King. I don’t even know if she would remember this. And so The Stand and It were in my brother’s room, and I must have been nine. But you know, the book was forbidden! So I immediately went into his room the second everyone was gone. And read them. I just read them in little snatches. It was like Dickens had serialized them, you know. And they were so gloriously long. And there’s something about genre and time. You both decided to write these books, and they’re parts of series. And there’s a different way as a writer, that you must have to think about time and plot. How was that space different for you as you wrote these books?
MJ: I think it comes back to reading. I think, I write books the way I read books. I want to spend forever with them, I want to go through turbulent change and, and sweep and so on. And I want characters who are irrevocably changed. I mean, you can be changed in an afternoon and if that’s not necessarily it, but again, I remember the first book I had to commit to was Shogun by James Clavell. So problematic now.
So I was researching on the Wookieepedia on one hand, and then doing Civil War research, on the other hand.
VVG: Oh my gosh. Really?
DJO: That’s hilarious. Problematic fave.
MJ: But after that I read Tai-Pan, and so yeah, I was on a James Clavell kick for a while. But yeah, it’s the type of book where you will accidentally glance outside and go, “Where did that galleon go? Oh, wait, it’s the 80s.” And I always wanted that. I think Terry Tempest Williams, she may have said it, or somebody said it, that she writes because she wants to have more than one life, and that is primarily what I’m doing, I’m still playing make believe when I’m writing and I don’t want it to end. I like when stories lead to stories. That was also part of the doing the research as well, that a lot of African storytelling is so unending. A story opens into a story. Indian storytelling is a lot like that too. Like a Vikram Chandra novel like Red Earth and Pouring Rain, where stories open up stories that open up stories. Some stories never even get completed. But that’s not even the point. It’s almost, the idea of unlocking story is its own end. And that could go on forever.
DJO: That’s something that always appealed to me about Star Wars, the world-building aspect. And I wouldn’t have known how to phrase it at the time when I was a kid loving it, but just seeing in the background on Tatooine, like those dewbacks, which are those big dragon-lizard creatures walking in the background. It’s literally like a half a frame that just it just pans past them. This is before they added in all the crappy, new CGI bullshit. But you just see them and you’re like, what the fuck was that? And then it goes on with the story. But it’s such a magnificent example of world-building, because they took the time to put in these whole other creatures that stormtroopers are riding around on, so they’re functional, right? So it tells us all these things about the world. And I just found that so inspiring. On some level, that again, I couldn’t name at the time. But coming into Dactyl Hill—at the time, I was also writing a Star Wars novel, so I was researching on the Wookieepedia on one hand, and then doing Civil War research, on the other hand.
WT: Yeah, I want to know about this.
MJ: It’s called the Wookieepedia?
DJO: Yeah, you guys didn’t know about that?
VG: It’s so great!
DJO : Yes, it’s amazing. The Wookieepedia, it’s unofficial. It’s not canon, but it’s very, very accurate. Fans go on and update it all the time.
WT: Not canon! Speaking of snobbery within the genre.
DJO: There’s a canon section and a legends section. Anyway, it’s fascinating. So I was using that. And I was doing deep dives into the library system into archives doing all this complex Civil War research that took me to all kinds of places. That was fascinating too, and I really just recognized at some point in the process, this appeals to me so much, this world of the Civil War with dinosaurs, because it does open up endless stories. As soon as I basically set out Magdalys, who’s the main character who has a psychic connection where she can actually talk to dinosaurs with her mind and control them—and then there’s black Shakespearean actors, there’s Civil War generals, there’s resistance fighters, there’s evil Confederates there’s so many characters there and so many different places to go and journey, that it just can go on forever. And, and that was the appeal. It never felt like one book. I knew it was a series and beyond from jump, and that just felt like I felt like a kid. I felt like I could just go run around and play in this series for good.
You’re not gonna catch me out there looking like an asshole on a school visit, talking about a pterodactyl is a dinosaur when everybody who’s 11 knows damn well that it’s a pterosaur.
WT: One of the things that I like about the metaphor of the dinosaurs being there reminds me of the Faulkner quote, the past isn’t over it is even past yet. There’s the past not being over. Right? So I love that. But so did you also have to research dinosaurs in part? Did you go visit the archaeology department?
DJO: There’s a wiki for dinos. I did, but I mostly did because I knew I was going to be dealing with 11-year-olds who know more than anybody else on this planet about dinosaurs. You’re not gonna catch me out there looking like an asshole on a school visit, talking about a pterodactyl is a dinosaur when everybody who’s 11 knows damn well that it’s a pterosaur. I’m not gonna be that asshole. So I did that research, mostly for my own well being. But there’s more that we don’t know about dinosaurs that we do know. So that was my fantasy element, right? I don’t know if the inner monologue of it of a pterodactyl is fubba-fubba-fubba. But in the book, no one else knows that either. So in the book, that’s what it is.
I gave myself a lot of room to play there. And it’s funny because I originally brought in the dinosaurs as almost like a mechanism for me to be able to push off when people try to challenge me on the historical aspects. Like if I was doing an event and someone’s like, well, Gettysburg actually happened three weeks earlier than that. I could be like, Yeah, but there weren’t Triceratops there, right, motherfucker?
I considered it an out. But then the joke was totally on me. Because I ended up like getting so fascinated by Civil War history, that the book is extraordinarily well researched, and very, very grounded. And every book has an afterword section where it explains what’s real and in boldface letters, there were no dinosaurs during the Civil War. But there’s so many amazing stories. And this is the heart of this project, of Dactyl Hill Squad, is that there’s so many amazing stories of people of color resisting, and finding different ways to fight for freedom throughout, whether in New York, or all over this country, in Mexico. And it’s fascinating, and we don’t talk about them because of white supremacy. And kids aren’t growing up learning about them because of white supremacy, and it’s hurting us. And they don’t get to see themselves as heroes or protagonists, either in history or in fantasy. And this is a way of bringing those stories to life.
VVG: So I just want to mention a special detail for Twin Cities readers that I noticed when I was looking at your work. There is a dinosaur in these books named Lil Calhoun, and you should see what happens to that dinosaur.
Let’s just say, I was—um, yes. Anyway, I won’t say more. But I was so happy.
And Marlon, I want to hear about what you did to research your work. You’re talking about these genre readers—they’re so committed to the world that you’ve built, they’ve invested in it. How do you make a mythical past authentic? Which is a word I don’t always love. But how is that important? Or is it?
MJ: I think the first thing you have to do is not treat it as a mythical past, treat it as an actual past. If somebody who grew up with the Yoruba language reads 100 Years of Solitude, they’re gonna ask, where’s the magic? So that was the first thing. When I talk about committing to the work, it had to be—it’s not a myth. It’s real. It’s not just real, the characters are almost kind of over it. Because one of the things that happens with world-building is that a writer can get lost in it. I can tell they’re pausing to tell you about the fourth sector in planet Eragon or something.
A lot of the history books, particularly if they’re written up to the first half of the 20th century are useless.
DJO: Name names! Name names! No, I’m just kidding.
MJ: Oh, wait, is Eragon a book? I’m sorry. My entire universe is books! I don’t know anything else.
But the characters are over it, and the characters are living in it. Usually in a scene, I’m more interested in how do they keep their teeth clean, than what monster they’re going to fight next. And so on. So the domestic stuff, how characters live in a space, I think is what makes the mythological universe real and makes people connect to it. That said, there was just so much. I did two years of research.
WT: So what sources were best?
MJ: Let’s talk about what sources were worst. History books on Africa. Useless. They’re very good at pointing out white supremacy, though. It’s actually pretty funny. A lot of the history books, particularly if they’re written up to the first half of the 20th century are useless. One of the wonderful things about the historical work that’s been going on now is the work of contemporary historians, and archaeologists. And a lot of that meant not really books, but lots of websites, because a lot of stuff I read was ongoing research. So like a lot of stuff I was checking out is stuff happening in Sudan, like digs right now happening.
WT: How do you find it?
MJ: Well, they’re usually in French, so . . .
MJ: But if you’re going to research, you have to go beyond the books. The second I buy a book, the first thing I go to is the bibliography, because I want to read what they read. Because I may come to a different conclusion from the data than they did. So yeah, I’ll read the boring stuff. I’ll read the tax lot records, I’ll read the ship logs. If somebody found a grocery list from 400 years ago, send it to me now. I want to know, what did pastry taste like? When exactly did they get hit with salt? And so on. I think you have to be interested in that. So it’s not just interest in monsters and laser beams and technologies and so on. I’m also interested in how would people live in that time? What happens to disease?
WT: That hall of records scene in your book—I love that scene. I felt like there, you’ve done a lot of research thinking about how records would be kept, what they’d be written on and all that stuff.
DJO: I’m also a nerd and I love libraries. So I knew I was going to have one in the book. Mind you, I burn it down, but—
WT: It’s sort of like a reflection of your own research.
MJ: So I think that that, to me, is how you end up building that, you just commit to it. And live in it. Doing the research for me was just so eye-opening, Researching things like Benin City or Mali or Songhai or other African kingdoms. For a lot of people of color on this side of the world, ground zero is slavery. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I mean, I wrote a novel about slavery, and Daniel has touched on that a lot. But I wanted to go beyond that, even beyond the context of Africa or these countries. Because a lot of this is also still terms Europeans came up with. Countries are terms Europeans came up with. So unlearning all of that—I study English literature, that’s what I do. So unlearning all of that. And then letting all of that in. Yeah, that’s what it took. It took years.
And there is a lot of homophobia but a lot of homophobia came because American TV preachers went over there and told them.
VVG: Is there a detail in your research that is just sort of the one that surprised you the most or one that was the juiciest?
DJO: The whole project, the seed of it is in research. I got a grant from the Brooklyn Historical Society to write a rock opera.
WT: Okay . . .
MJ: This is not a rock opera.
DJO: I know. Look—
MJ : Do you have some explaining to do?
DJO: I do, I was about to. I was about to. Let me get there! Shit.
I actually did write the rock opera. All right. This is years ago. But what I ended up with, as I’m sure has happened to you, was a surplus of information. At the time I was living in Crown Heights. And the elders still talk about Crown Heights as Crow Hill in Brooklyn. And I was fascinated by that name. It’s such a cool name. And as a fantasy writer, obviously, it just invokes a lot. So I started researching that, and it turned out that Crow Hill—like Weeksville, which is right now in danger of completely being shut down; by the way, please look it up and give them some money because they have a historical society there—these are some of the earliest autonomous black neighborhoods that people ended up going to because they were escaping racist violence in Manhattan. And as I was learning about that, it just led to so many things. That’s the joy of research. It’s like a fantasy novel that just goes on and on. You get to find out so many incredible things led me to learn about the Colored Orphan Asylum, which was in Manhattan, which was burnt down during the Manhattan Civil War Draft Riots. And as I was researching that, there’s this this one paragraph in this book that talks about these three Cuban sisters who were dropped off at this orphanage by a mysterious man. And then a couple months later whisked off again, back to Cuba. And when I read that I was like, that is some middle grade shit.
And I filed it away somewhere in my head—that really sounds like a children’s book. But the spark didn’t really light yet. But I did have that moment of like, Oh, they were Cubans back then, there we were for a second, and that’s such a powerful moment. And then I started asking myself questions, because those histories are gone. There’s no record of them beyond that moment, because their lives didn’t matter to anybody enough to keep a record. So that’s where imagination kicks in. And then I was like, What if they survive? What if they made it out into the streets? What if they were amazing at riding pterodactyls? And that was the moment. It all came out of that moment, and the world just unraveled very quickly, because there’s so much to do with that.
MJ: That’s the great thing about research for me, you uncover so much that the book starts to write itself. And it goes in directions, at least for me, that I would never have guessed, because I’m very open-ended when I write a book. Maybe that’s why they’re so long. I think I have this idea how it’s going to end, but I really don’t have a clue.
DJO: So you don’t plot at all?
MJ: I plot—I plot exhaustively, and then I promptly ignore it.
MJ: Because I think I just want to get all that crap out of my head.
DJO: Yeah. Yeah. Do you literally just put the plot away somewhere?
MJ: I think I’ll have it somewhere, like under a pile of books, and every now and then I’ll make sure to go back and make sure that that happens. But more often than not, these characters just become people. And they just don’t take shit from you anymore.
DJO: Exactly right. Right. Sometimes you have to wrestle them back.
MJ: Oh God! Characters surprise and disappoint me all the time. I’m like, I had such plans for you.
DJO: And then you died!
MJ: Or you just turned out to be such a disappointment!
Well, you know, one of the things that surprised me an end up being super, super affirmative for me to for me, was just how accepting and how how wonderfully complex queerness and gender identity and orientation was in ancient Africa. I wasn’t looking for that. And to find it, that everybody knew who Shoga warriors were—everybody knew they were gay. Because they were the only men trusted would with brides to be, because everybody know, nothing’s gonna happen here. So everybody knew. Everybody knew the two aunts in the village. That’s not to say everybody was so super open minded and not homophobic. But it was one of those things—it’s like, in black American culture where they go, oh, that boy, he sweet. Doesn’t mean he’s going to be invited to every party. But society has made space for the sweet boy. And to see that and to come across that and to come across things like—some African tribes have like 15 genders.
I was saying at a reading earlier, say, it’s great that you all use “they.” Kudos on catching up. Some people are doing that for thousands of years now. But I didn’t go looking for it. And it was a pleasant and wonderful surprise to find it. Because I also abandoned the narrative I get about contemporary Africa, that it’s super homophobic, and so on. And there is a lot of homophobia but a lot of homophobia came because American TV preachers went over there and told them. Somebody asked this Nigerian writer, will Africa—which is a big ass continent, so be ready to stop saying that—will the African continent ever be accepting of homosexuality and queerness? And she said, you know Africa was born ready, until a bunch of TV preachers told them that they weren’t. So to find that in the research was actually was kind of liberating. Because I also drank the Kool-Aid, thinking as a queer person, oh, it must be something that was introduced, starting to believe the sort of hotep narrative. And when it turns out no, it actually isn’t that there was always that kind of allowance and that plurality, and that fluidity and queerness and all that. It was fantastic. It’s really good. I definitely wanted to move back to the past and live there.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai. This transcript has been edited and condensed by FnF.