I was lucky enough to be asked by the Horror Writers’Association to sit down with Tananarive Due for an interview that will be featured in the souvenir book for Stokercon, the HWA conference, where Due will be a guest of honor in the spring of 2017. The HWA is a non-profit organization of horror writers and publishers around the world that is dedicated to promoting dark literature and the interests of those who write it, and to fostering budding horror writers of all ages.
They needed only 1200 words, but I had an hour with Due and we talked about a lot more than could fit into that space. We spoke the week after the Trump groping tape was released, before this presidential election was decided, so we were fired up on a few topics. We spoke again after the election and, aside from one addendum, we agreed to leave the interview frozen in time: we discussed things that are just as, if not more, relevant in this new reality.
I had just finished teaching American Horror Story: Horror and Speculative Fiction for Antioch’s BA program and Due is currently teaching a class on Afrofuturism for UCLA.
Due is a writer, teacher, and activist. She is a former Distinguished Visiting Scholar in the Humanities at Spelman College (2012-2014), where she taught screenwriting, creative writing, and journalism. She also teaches in the creative writing MFA program at Antioch University and in the BA program at UCLA. The American Book Award winner and NAACP Image Award recipient is the author of twelve novels and a civil rights memoir. In 2010, she was inducted into the Medill School of Journalism’s Hall of Achievement at Northwestern University. Due’s novella, Ghost Summer, received the 2008 Kindred award and her collection of the same name has been nominated for the NAACP Image Award. She is a leading voice in black speculative fiction and is currently teaching a six-week Live/Evergreen Online course in Revolutionary Art: Writing for Social Justice.
During our discussions, Due and I talked about finding your writing voice, writing for social change, genre and social justice, racism, feminism, Afrofuturism, and how to look at the swirl of political vitriol in a positive light. In other words, it was a very Antioch conversation.
Kate Maruyama: When did you start spinning stories and how did you end up writing horror?
Tananarive Due: At the age of four, I wrote a book called Baby Bobby, and by book I mean I took typing paper and folded it in half and drew pictures on the pages and even drew pages on the back cover. I wrote liner notes; I said, “Baby Bobby is a book about a baby and the author is Tananarive Due.” I spelled “author” wrong…
I knew I loved writing, I knew what an author was, and I was self-identifying from the age of four. Probably because of my exposure to books from my parents, but in terms of when I knew the life-saving power of writing—which is even separate from horror—was at age fourteen. It was 1980 in Miami, Florida, where I grew up, and there was a widely publicized police killing and it was my first Black Lives Matter moment, way before Black Lives Matter. It was my first moment where I was like, whoah, we don’t matter. That awakening was so rude.
It was a pretty clear-cut case where a black motorcyclist named Arthur McDuffie, who was a former military police officer, for some reason while he was on his motorcycle, would not pull over for police officers. I wish I could ask him why. But instead he led twelve officers on a merry chase, and the adrenaline building up . . . and he gets to a freeway onramp and he stops. He could have gotten on the freeway, but for whatever reason, he thought, “This has gone far enough,” and he stopped and the cops were apparently pissed off and amped up and they pretty much beat him to death with flashlights, whatever they had. He didn’t die right away, but he did die from the injuries and the police officers kind of panicked and they’re like, “Oh, hell, what do we do now?” So they also beat up his motorcycle to try to stage it as if it had been an accident. Imagine this case today. They would have gotten away with that, actually, except for a reporter named Edna Buchanan, who wrote for the Miami Herald. It all came to light: that they had beaten him to death and tried to make it look like an accident. There was such overwhelming evidence it actually went to trial. It was only a manslaughter trial, but all of the officers were acquitted, because the jury said they didn’t know which officer had dealt the death blow. Meanwhile there are people in prison now who were just sitting in a car in an armed robbery. It sparked this huge riot in Miami, a very devastating, awful riot, and I was sitting in my school cafeteria just full of rage, emotion, and hurt. Hurt, really, because it was like we don’t matter, and the school cafeteria was playing Muzak to try to keep everyone calm, with a black, white, Hispanic school. I don’t remember racial problems at school growing up.
I started writing an essay, I had a knot in my stomach and I was full of rage. I wrote what started out as an essay poem, “I want to live in a society where Jew is no longer a dirty word, and no one remembers what nigger used to mean.”
I had a knot in my stomach and I was full of rage. I wrote what started out as an essay poem, “I want to live in a society where Jew is no longer a dirty word, and no one remembers what nigger used to mean.”
That was how it started. And it went on and on and on about this sort of Utopian society I wished I lived in, and that knot in my stomach went away and I could breathe, and I showed it to my mother and she said, “You’re so lucky that you have your writing. The people who are out rioting in the streets, they don’t have that.”
That was when I got it: that writing was going to be something more than just the fun I had sketching stories in class instead of paying attention. It was something more important than that: It was going to be something that would potentially save me, heal me. Actually, heal others, because I performed it as part of an NAACP competition for teenagers like an academic Olympics ACT-SFO. I recited this poem and I won prizes. It was my first time I thought that maybe I could heal myself in my writing and maybe I could heal others.
As to the horror part, my mother loved horror movies. [She] had this whole civil rights history behind her but she wore a lot of scars from it. [She was] a civil rights activist who was very angry about her experience, because she’d been arrested many times and wore dark glasses after a tear gas attack when she was in college. An officer threw it right in her face and said, “I want you,” because she was leading a protest march. She spent forty-nine days in jail with her sister and a few other students from Florida A&M University because they wouldn’t leave during a sit-in. They just ordered some food. They refused to leave jail and pay a fine because they weren’t going to pay for the Jim Crow justice system. And it became a big thing. They got a lot of attention and Jackie Robinson sent them diaries.
I think one of her ways of dealing was horror, honestly. When we look at how popular horror is with blacks in particular—I can’t speak for Latinos, but it’s also very popular, and when the numbers come in, those groups always score high. I think it’s a way to give some form to actual chaotic fear, so that it can be overcome or at least exorcised. Because you’re feeling the fear on maybe a more constant basis, or in a way that you can’t even acknowledge, you spend your days in fear, so watching a really scary movie gathers it all up and puts it in a harmless form and you can deal with it. Toward the very end of her life, she couldn’t watch as much horror, but then it was getting mean.
KM: When do you feel like you really started writing like you?
TD: I was intrigued and moved and my characters tended to be black, but honestly, the older I got, the whiter I got. The more I was introduced to canon, the more I lost my face as a writer, so I really was struggling with some identity questions. I wanted to write horror, but I didn’t know any black writers that wrote horror, and I didn’t know if it was okay to write horror, because there are more important things to write about. But when I tried to write about inner city youth, I couldn’t find my voice in that and I wasn’t from a rural tradition like the writings from Alice Walker or Toni Morrison. I grew up in the suburbs, in air-conditioning, going to integrated schools. As a young woman, between seventeen and twenty-two, I was really struggling to find my voice. My question was: If I write black horror will I be respected, because I wanted to be respected, right? As a writer. I grew up where my family name had weight and I wanted to live up to that expectation.
I’d been writing a lot of short stories, I’d started a couple novels that were stopped and started. One I got two hundred pages in, handwritten, about a gay white playwright, male. By the way, who’s diagnosed with leukemia and wants to see his brother, from whom he was estranged. They want to rekindle their friendship. Now, admirable premise, but I knew nothing about my subject matter.
And why I was trying to write everyone but me, I don’t know. I don’t even have a brother. That’s how little connection I had. It was influenced by canon and I was trying to find a story and I wasn’t worried whether or not I was in the story. I had never lived in New York, I had never been a playwright, I had never had leukemia. It was a breakthrough novel in a sense because I found paragraphs at a time that sounded like professional level writing. And I found those lessons in bouncing between dialogue and position and creating themes. I learned a lot, but it wasn’t me, it wasn’t my voice. I was so invisible in my work.
[In interviewing Anne Rice for the Miami Herald, Due had asked her about the criticism she’d been getting for vampire novels. Rice pointed out that her vampire novels were being taught in universities and allowed her to talk about life and death and mortality and love. Due recounted that this, and reading Gloria Naylor and Stephen King had given her the conviction to write horror.]
After the Anne Rice interview, I started writing The Between, which was basically about me, except I made myself a black male instead; I was still not quite writing me. This was in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, which was just devastating in Miami. So the premise was affected by the hurricane and was basically about a guy who was supposed to die when he was a kid but he didn’t, so he was in a series of alternate realities where death was trying to catch up with him.
My father would talk about his stories from his side of his family. Freed slaves who farmed their own land and were attacked by jealous neighbors but stood up and fought back, and my mother was always telling the stories of the activists she knew. Black and white.
And he’s just figuring that out in the course of this novel, and he’s the only one who can see it. Seeing a city devastated is a really interesting experience as a writer. Worlds that were crumbled and reassembled showed up in that book and it was like me, set free. It was a suburban family, two professionals, he’s a social worker, she’s a judge. These were the people my parents knew, the people I grew up around, upwardly mobile suburban black people. Not even people who happen to be black, because they were very politically black. But other than that, it’s a horror novel and I just sort of closed my eyes and hoped I’d find an interested party. I wrote it for a screenwriting contest—even though I didn’t consciously want to be a screenwriter. I lost the contest, the first agent I sent it to rejected it, so I gave up on it very quickly and stuck it in a drawer for nine months.
I was halfway through writing my second novel, My Soul To Keep, and I was under some mental strain and I realized I’m not living up to my promises to myself as a writer, I’m not submitting. I have a novel that I’m not submitting, what the hell? So I started submitting and I sold it like three weeks after that. Terry McMillan had published Waiting To Exhale and publishers were like, “Oh, black people read.” Seriously, that was the conversation. So they were buying a lot of stuff. Back in the nineties, there were a lot of movies getting made: black crime drama, black romance. Black commercial art really took off at the time I started trying to sell my book. I was so lucky for the timing and really blessed to find that audience both among horror readers and black readers. You know my current editor for Ghost Summer, Paula Guran, is someone whom I met back in the day when I first started publishing. She wrote a review of The Between where she was like, remember the name, so it’s been a nice full circle experience, because publishing is such that you’re marketed in a very narrow way.
I was never really marketed in the beginning as a horror writer. The horror community found me, luckily, and I got nominated for a couple of Bram Stoker awards early on for The Between and My Soul to Keep, but beyond that, the marketing team was really mostly concentrating on black readers because there were enough black readers that they didn’t need to specifically extend that to horror.
KM: Do you think that maybe you brought more readers to horror because you were being marketed to a black readership instead of a specifically horror readership?
TD: I do not know. That is a good question. There was a time when, as a black writer, there were just enough black horror writers who were touring around together and running into each other, that we thought that there was this black horror renaissance. But, I don’t know the impact of bringing more readers in general into horror. Maybe so. Or maybe it’s just that we’ve always loved horror and we were willing to buy Stephen King, we loved him.
KM: You grew up in this house that was steeped in social justice. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how you think your writing is informed by that? The stories that you write?
TD: They gave me an example of world-building in this world. My mother was not as active, once the three of us were born, as she had been earlier. She wasn’t getting arrested, for example. I never remember her getting arrested; her last arrest was 1968. But whether it was the PTA or making speeches in front of the school board, she was always out organizing and trying to make a better world, and my father always was, in his way. He’s an attorney. He’s still living and he worked for an agency in Miami called the Community Relations Board, so it’s all about building relationships, and he was always out at meetings and as a result we were always out at meetings. I was a youth council president for the NAACP and I got in the habit of going to meetings.
Just as importantly, they were storytellers. My father would talk about his stories from his side of his family. Freed slaves who farmed their own land and were attacked by jealous neighbors, but stood up and fought back, and my mother was always telling the stories of the activists she knew. Black and white.
The civil rights movement was never about black vs. white to me. Because our godparents were white and the stories about the whites and the impact of the movement on them were just devastating. She knew one young man who committed suicide, he was so disillusioned that the U.S. wasn’t what he thought it was when he came south. This was a white friend of hers. It was about people who hated racism working together to create civil rights, black and white, Jewish and Christian. That is what it looked like to me.
KM: That’s what’s missing now. There’s this silence now from white people on very obvious infringements on human rights. Silence from white people about police shootings. It’s so strange to me. When I was growing up it was, “This is wrong for humanity, let’s fight it together.”
TD: Right. I came to the conclusion after working on the book with my mom [Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights], that the white students tended to be a little more radical. Most people weren’t putting themselves at risk. Even my mom’s stepfather was disapproving of her activism.
The fact that Trump has even happened, shows us that we’re in that time. Not just because of him personally, but because of what his rise represents. What we’re facing in our schools, with our police departments, throughout our system. Our voting system, there’s just a lot being exposed.
Because what parent wants their kid to risk getting kicked out of school and going to jail, after all you sacrificed you can barely hold onto your job now? So these black parents were not. It was a radical act on the part of these young people to become involved and I think for whites to become involved there was just this one more ounce of radicalism. That it would take more to push. Maybe they were just a little more… visionary?… than their family members and friends.
KM: Or the risks were lower. Because they were more likely to get a slap on the wrist, you know? Not get thrown in jail.
TD: The risks were lower, but the incentives had to be higher, I think, because nobody likes to give up comfort. It’s really difficult. Now there are people of all backgrounds who are very, very comfortable. That’s how mass incarceration snuck up on us. Because even the Civil Rights movement was sleeping on it for a very long time. Civil rights organizations. I think that in part that was because my generation, Generation X, if you were lucky enough to have a middle-class income, there were scholarships available, there were job opportunities available. Even with all of the history and the storytelling in my home, I walked away with this false sense of progress because my parents had seen white only or colored only signs. I had never seen white only or colored only signs. So there was this curtain between them and me and my generation. A lot of us—too many of us—felt like we had gotten over racism. Without understanding how many had been left behind and how entrenched these attitudes were systemically. And it was going to emerge in different ways. So yeah, you’re going to get your integrated schools, but you’re also going to get teachers who expect less of you. Or schools that are more likely to throw you in jail. So there’s a big tradeoff.
I think people are starting to wake up a bit more.
KM: I know I came out to Hollywood thinking feminism was: “mission accomplished!” My mom had fought on the front lines as a woman reporter in the 1950s. So now I can do anything! And that just wasn’t true. And now it feels like we’re going backwards. There’s a lot of stuff this week. It’s a hard week to be a woman. [We held this portion of the interview the week of Trump’s groping tape.]
TD: To what you were addressing: Is feminism done? I remember not long ago that there was this conversation of what impact gender was going to have on the election and we were all like, “We’re not sure.” Well, guess what? Gender’s a huge part of the election. For much the same reason that race became so much of a conversation after Obama. Because when it’s in people’s faces, they can’t help being jerks.
KM: Also the events of this past week have stirred up all of these conversations about… all of us, every woman I’ve talked to, we’ve all been mauled or molested or cornered or…
TD: Oh, yeah.
KM: I think there are a lot of guys who seemed kind of awake, who are now actually hearing this from their relatives and loved ones. And they’re like, “Wait, crap, this is a real thing.”
TD: Ultimately it will be a good thing that all this was exposed. Although too many people will be too quick to pretend all of this never happened. But it’s a good thing and good will come of it, ultimately. I really think so. Just as I’m really in some ways grateful that the anti-Obama backlash has been so obvious. [TD ADDENDUM]: Post-election, the backlash went so far, however, that many gains will be threatened and lost. It’s terrifying.
KM: How do you decide which project to work on next? Does one jump out at you or are you always working on more than one thing at once?
TD: This is the most difficult part of my current lifestyle. Between teaching, not just one place but two places, and then trying to introduce Hollywood into my life in a marked and consistent way, and short stories and what-not, my novel, which used to be a priority, is less and less a priority. And it’s taking forever to write this book… It doesn’t feel like I’m deciding, so much as certain projects jump up and prioritize themselves if I’m not careful. And the novel just never has that because it’s also the first time that I’ve written a novel without a deadline. Deadlines are enormously helpful to me. I was a journalist, I was trained on deadlines, so deadlines always have the priority. And the novel not having a deadline? Not so much.
KM: I always tell my agent I’m going to deliver something months ahead of time and that gives me the deadline. He doesn’t pay any attention or care, but my word binds me.
I would love to know your thoughts on Afrofuturism. Was it a movement before it was named, and how do you define it in terms of your work? Have your thoughts changed as you’ve learned more about it?
TD: I think it was a movement before it was named, but it was named at a point when it was becoming more obviously a movement. There were a lot of us who were writing Afrofuturism who did not self-identify that way.
Even if Trump won, or maybe even especially if Trump won, it would be such a ripe time for artists to raise their voices for change.
Because we didn’t know that was what we were doing. But to put it together, I’m teaching a class on it and the definition is so difficult, but what I would say is that it is a combination of literature, music, and visual arts that depict an African future, usually with ties to the past. I also like to include horror and fantasy in Afrofuturism (even though they’re not specifically futuristic), or alternate visions of African-influenced lives. Whether it’s black characters or an aesthetic for black horror, which I think will emerge more in film in years to come.
[Earlier, we had discussed her developing Ghost Summer for television.]
Let’s say my show gets on and it’s a black horror show. That could be really important to helping others find their shows. And one thing that comes up a lot in the black horror aesthetic and also the black science fiction aesthetic is this idea that you must look back to history to move forward. And I think that that resonates so deeply throughout the genres, because I think that history has been so hard, and has been so focused on that skin color, that whether you’re Colombian or Kenyan or black American, everyone’s dealing with that. And it’s a kind of commonality—that history of horror related to something you had no control over. Your skin color. Or your background. And we’re all kind of gnawing on that bone in different ways. So that comes up a lot, but it comes up in different ways. So Octavia had her way of dealing with it, and Toni Morrison had her way of dealing with it, I have my way of dealing with it. Nnedi Okorafor has her way of dealing with it and it’s not always black/white-centered either. A lot of that poverty is universal, too, so there are class issues that emerge and gender issues that emerge. So yeah, Afrofuturism is a growing movement and it’s one to be reckoned with. I think it’s about to have an effect on the face of film and television in a way that it has not before, because there have been so few projects. They have been few and independent, but that’s going to change. It may not be me, but in the next five years, you can be sure of that.
KM: In the introduction of Walidah Imarisha and Adrienne Maree Brown’s anthology, Octavia’s Brood, there was a concept of Afrofuturism that I hadn’t heard of before, which insisted that the stories written create a positive future. That was part of the mission of the stories. I didn’t know if you had any thoughts on that.
TD: That’s a good point, too. Absolutely. Some of it is Utopian, some of it is dystopian, and some of it is a combination.
KM: I thought that was an interesting and lovely edict. I don’t know if it’s something that as a writer, I could comply with.
TD: I think that’s it’s so much in the air you breathe as an artist that you don’t have to give it to yourself as a prompt to say, “When you’re working on something.” It’s a voice that comes very naturally to a lot of artists because no matter where you are, if you’re struggling poor or a CEO, you all have these shared stories of discrimination that stay with you on some level. It’s just naturally what we’re gravitating to now.
KM: What advice would you have for any budding young writers out there?
TD: First of all, don’t be afraid to write horror. A lot of people are. Those professors are telling you. Don’t do it for them.
Read excellent fiction of all types, do not limit your fiction to horror. I would say that the majority of my reading is not speculative fiction. I’m always looking for great literature and I have to find that where it is. History novels. Historical novels, you know.
The third thing is find your circle of (beta) readers who will make you a professional-level writer. It’s great to take writing courses, it’s great to get MFAs, but in so many ways one of benefits of getting an MFA is the circle of readers that you met and you need to keep in touch with. You paid for that. And to lose that is tragic. You might get your teaching job, but will you finish your novel? That’s what your circle of readers is for.
KM: How do you keep in touch with your circle of readers?
TD: Well, I’m married to mine. (laughs) I don’t have beta readers like I used to. Beta readers take you to the next levels. For a time I considered hiring one of my former editors privately, because I’ve never written a book without her either. I don’t advise hiring them, I advise keeping in touch via Facebook or having groups or having two or three people you send the manuscript to.
KM: I have a circle and we stop, so it ends up being not all labor for them.
TD: And take supplementary classes. You have to know what it’s going to take for you to keep your integrity to yourself as a writer who’s growing and producing.
It’s not clear how this election turned out. Even if Trump won, or maybe even especially if Trump won, it would be such a ripe time for artists to raise their voices for change. We’re still in that time. The fact that Trump has even happened, shows us that we’re in that time. Not just because of him personally, but because of what his rise represents. What we’re facing in our schools, with our police departments, throughout our system. Our voting system, there’s just a lot being exposed.
KM: My friend Gloria Villegas says that she hopes that what’s happened is that the rock has been lifted on racism, and what we’re seeing are all of those little bugs scuttling out, all those nasty little racist bugs who are down there, but the light is also there. I hope so. It’s just the ugliness is so ugly, it’s very hard to…
TD: He’s doing us a favor ultimately, but it’s a hard time in this culture.
And like that, our hour was up. This was one of those conversations that flips your lid as a writer, and the sort of conversation I hope you all seek out. My advice to budding writers would be: Seek out conversations like these. Talk to people more advanced in your field, ask questions. Exchange ideas. As Due said, this is a time ripe for artists to raise their voices for change.