What Was, What Is & What Will Be: A Cross-Genre Look at Afrofuturism

>>Robert Casper:
Hello everyone. Thanks for coming out on
a rainy Tuesday afternoon. My name is Rob Casper. I’m the head of the Poetry
and Literature Center here at the Library of Congress. And I’m delighted to welcome
you to our kick-off event. What is, what was, what
is, and what will be. A cross-genre look
at Afrofuturism. Part of Celebration of
Afrofuturism that will go into the evening and
across the street. Over to the Folger
Shakespeare Library. Before I go further, let
me tell you a little bit about the Poetry and
Literature Center at the Library of Congress. The Center is home to the
Poet Laureate and Poet– . Poet Laureate Consultant
in Poetry. The only federally-funded
position for a literary artist
in this country. It also hosts, hosts a range
of programs such as this one, mostly here at the library. But also at the Hill
Center and around town. And really, around the country. If you want to find out
more about our programs, you can go to our website,
www.LOC.gov/poetry. You can also sign
the sign-up sheet which is outside in the foyer. And we have surveys
on the chairs. We’d love to have
you fill them out. I’ll remind you at the
end of the program. But please do so. You can hand them to me. You can leave them on the seats. You can leave them on the table. Wherever you leave them, we
will find them and report on what you have to say. It seem like eons ago when
dear Teri Cross Davis, the force behind the
Folger Shakespeare Library’s [inaudible] Poetry Series
contacted our office with the idea of
celebrating Afrofuturism. And for those of you who
now Teri, that’s no surprise that she had a visionary
plan in mind. As she often does. Much thanks to Teri,
who’s been so much fun to work with over the years. For all that you’ve done. For all your behind-the-scenes
work to make this happen. There was a lot of negotiating, figuring out and
what made sense. And how we were going to do it. And I couldn’t be happier
at what we have in store for us this afternoon
and this evening. As I said, there’s an
event at 7:30PM just down the street at the Folger. Featuring our presenters. You should note that
advance tickets are sold out. But especially because the
weather is not so great, there’ll be a standby line. And when tickets, should
they become available, you can pick them up. That stand, standby
line starts at 6:30PM. So if you don’t have
tickets, I’d say try your luck and hopefully your
luck will be good. I also want to thank our,
our other presenting partner, the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. And in particular Programs and Logistics Director,
Shahenda Helmy. Where is she? There she is. Thanks, Shahenda for all that
you did making this happen. I’m very excited now to introduce the foundation’s
new Executive Director, Gwydion Suilebhan. [ Applause ]>>Gwydion Suilebhan:
Hi, everybody! Nice to see you all. Yeah, the rain did
not stop this crowd. That’s great. My sincere thanks to the Library
of Congress and to the Folger for making everything happen. We are really honored to be partnered tonight,
today and tonight. At, at PEN/Faulkner, we
work to ensure that stories and storytellers of
all ages flourish. Both in D.C. and all
over the country. We give out the PEN/Faulkner
Award for Fiction, one of the top three literary
prizes in the United States. And the PEN/Malamud Award
for the short story. We, also here in D.C., we, our
Writers in Schools program. We bring free books and
authors into D.C. public and public charter schools to
inspire the next generation of readers and writers. And then we also host
events like this one. In which we invite
writers to help us. In the words of the
great performance artist and playwright Taylor Mac, to help us “dream
the culture forward.” We’re going to be hearing from three very inspiring
artists tonight. And the conversation they
kick off will be incomplete. Unless you all help us
carry it forward from here. So ask questions during the Q&A. Talk about what we
hear tonight, today. With the people you
came here with. And better yet, talk about it with the people you’re sitting
next to who you don’t know. Let’s make it a robust
conversation that leaves this room. And goes out into the world. So now I want to introduce
tonight’s moderator. Or today’s moderator,
Sheree Renee Thomas. Thomas, thank you. She’s an award-winning
fiction writer, poet, editor, and her worth is, work is
inspired by myth and folklore. By natural science and conjure. Her roots in Memphis and
the genius culture created in the Mississippi Delta. Thank you so much,
Sheree, and welcome. [ Applause ]>>Sheree Renee Thomas:
Thank you. It’s so wonderful to be here. And thank you to Teri
who is a fellow poet. And a magic woman,
in her own rights. So thank you so much. I am honored to introduce
these fabulous writers. This is a cross-genre
conversation that we’re going to have. These writers write
science fiction, fantasy. They write horror,
they write in stories, they write novels,
and they write poems. And new forms that we haven’t
quite given a name to, as well. So the first writer I’m going
to introduce is Tananarive Due. [ Applause ] Tananarive Due is an author,
screenwriter, and educator who is the leading voice in black speculative
fiction and in horror. Her short fiction has appeared
in the Best of Year Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Almost every single year. She is the former
Distinguished Visiting Lecturer at Spelman College. And she teaches Afrofuturism and
Black Horror in the Department of African American
Studies at UCLA. She also teaches in the
Creative Writing MFA Program at Antioch University,
Los Angeles. And in their Screenwriting
program, as well as Santa Barbara. And she had the great
distinct honor of having Jordan
Peele visit her class. Which she documented as well. You can see that online. It was amazing. Due is an executive
producer of Shutter. Which has a wonderful new
black horror documentary called Horror Noire. It debuted, The Streaming
Network on February the seventh, right? So you need to subscribe and
check it out immediately. She is the American
Book Award winner and NAACP Image Award recipient. And then author or co-author
of at least a dozen novels. She’s working on some
new work as well. In 2010 she was inducted
into the Medill School of Journalism’s Hall
of Achievement at Northwestern University. She also received a
Lifetime Achievement Award in the Fine Arts from
the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. And her short story collection,
Ghost Summer, Ghost Summer, which you can see right
over there on the table. Won a 2016 British
Fantasy Award. She has been named to
the [inaudible] 100, and to the Ebony Power 100. Due also co-authored
a Civil Rights Memoir with her late mother,
Mrs. Patricia Stevens Due. It was called Freedom in the
Family: A mother/daughter memoir of the fight for civil rights. Patricia Stephens
Due is historic. Because she took part in
the nation’s first jail-in which happened in 1960. And she spent 49 days in
jail in Tallahassee Florida. And this was after a sit-in at
the Woolworth Lunch Counter. Freedom in the Family was named
2003’s Best Civil Rights Memoir by Black Issues Book Review. Her parents, including her
father, attorney John Due. Were recently inducted into
the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame. So she comes from
an amazing family. IN 2013, Due co-produced a
short horror film: Danger Word. With her husband Steven Barnes
and director Luchina Fisher. Due and her husband, science
fiction pioneer Steven Barnes, also co-wrote The
Short which was based on their novel, Devil’s Wake. It starred Frankie Faison
from The Wire, of course. And Silence of the
Lambs, and Saoirse Scott. Danger Word was nominated
for Best Narrative Short at the [inaudible] and Pan
African Film Festivals. Due has also collaborated on the Tennyson Hardwick
mystery series with Barnes. And in partnership
with the actor and author, Blair Underwood. Due also wrote a historical
novel about the life of Madame C.J. Walker,
The Black Rose. Which was based on the
research by Alex Haley. She has a B.S. in Journalism
from Northwestern University and an M.A. in English
Literature from the University
of Leeds, England. That is Tananarive Due. Thank you. [ Applause ] Our next author is Nora Jemisin. Her pen name is N.K. Jemisin. [ Applause ] N.K. Jemisin, Nora is the first
author in the genre’s history to win not one, not two, but three consecutive
Best Novel Hugo Awards. And all of them for her
Broken Earth Trilogy. Her work has also won the
Nebula, the Locus Award, and the Good Reads
Choice Awards. Her speculative works
range from fantasy to science fiction,
to the undefinable. Her themes include resistance to
oppression, the inseverability of the liminal, and the
coolness of stuff blowing up. [Laughter] She is
currently a review for the New York
Times Book Review. And she has been an
instructor for the Clarion and Clarion West
Writing Workshops. In her spare time, she is
a gamer and a gardener. And she’s also single-handedly
responsible for saving from King Ozymandias, Ozzie. Her dangerously intelligent
ginger cat. And his phenomenally
destructive sidekick, Magpie. Magpie. Her essays and fiction
excerpts are available of course on her website, NKJemisin.com. That’s Nora. [ Applause ] Our wonderful poet
is Airea D Matthews. [ Applause ] Airea D Matthews is the author of the poetry collection
Simulacra. I knew I was going to
do that: Simulacra. One of the 2016 Yale Year
Series of Younger Poets Prize. The New Yorker has described
her work as , “Fugues, text messages to the dead. Imagined outtakes from
Wittgenstein, tart mini operas. Fairy tales. Matthews’ virtuosic, frantic,
and darkly, very darkly funny.” Matthews’ work has appeared in
Callaloo, Best American Poets, Harvard Review, American Poet,
and in many other places. She was awarded a 2016 Rona
Jaffe Writer’s Foundation Award. The 2016 Louis Untermeyer
Scholarship from Bread Loaf Writers’
Conference. And a 2015 Kresge Literary Arts
award as well as fellowships from Cave Canem Foundation. Callaloo, and the
James Merrill House. Her current projects include
a second book, Underclass. Which seeks to lyrically
deconstruct the accepted narratives around
poverty and class. She is an assistant
professor at Bryn Mawr College where she directs the
creative writing program. That is Airea D. Matthews. [ Applause ]>>Sheree Renee Thomas: So our
conversation today is going to be about a field of work which seems new to
lots of people. But has been evolving since,
basically since we’ve come through the Middle Passage. Since we, I mean,
literally it has. [Laughter] It’s a part of, it’s
a body of work that has come out of colonialism, post-colonialism,
neo-colonialism. As well as in the African
American experience of slavery. And it is now a, a body of work that have evolved
around the world. It is global in its
conversation. It takes on many, many forms. I think of it as
a moveable feast. A moveable feast in
which there are lots of different afrofutures. And one of the things I
would love for us to talk about today is what is each
author’s experience of the word? Because I wouldn’t assume that
everyone embraces it equally. Because there are a lot
of spaces it covers. And in some spaces that it
leaves, unseen and invisible. That we still have to explore. So we just want to take each
author and have a chance to describe what Afrofuturism
is or is not to them.>>Would you like me to start? I view Afrofuturism, borrowing from Alandrine Nelson’s
essay some time ago. Where she talked about the
ontology of multiplicity. And I believe that as we
kind of consider afrofutures, the black body, both
in present-future-past. We have to consider
the ways in which we as authors can make the
space/time continuum collapse. How we can look back,
look forward, and be present at the same time. And I’m very interested in
that inside almost any text. It doesn’t have to be poetry. Any test, prose, poetry. How do we think about
identity as something that dissolves rather than
something that hardens? And Afrofuturism at least for
me allows that opportunity, the opportunity to
be many and one. The opportunity to
be forward and back. And also the opportunity
to think about, at least my person, myself. As something other
than what currently is. The imagination as a powerful
force in, in oppression which is what the black
experience in America has been.>>That was beautiful. [Laughter] Wow .I’m thinking a
lot about how I use Afrofuturism in terms of processing
trauma as a horror writer. And that’s something
I got from my mother. So I co-signed to all of that. So beautifully spoken. Yes, that is true. That piece of it that most
attracts me is how to take evil for lack of a better term. Interpret evil however you may. [Laughter] It’s very
tempting as we’re sitting here in Washington, D.C. to be
very specific about it. But interpret it as you may. But how to take evil
though and, and create sort of a fun house, mirror-image
of it. That is not the thing itself. But a visual or written
expression of a thing that is frightening
or frightful. And creating survivors,
you know? I think of Octavia
Butler’s work, and her work is not
largely considered horror. And your work, you know. There are — bad
things happen to people. It’s not considered horror,
but there are lessons. Even in that trauma. As we watch characters
undergo trauma. It helps us perhaps
[inaudible] our trauma. And you mentioned my
mother, Sheree, you know. She wore dark glasses her whole
life after she was tear-gassed in 1960 during a
non-violent march. And she was the first
horror-lover in my life. So I’ve really learned,
as I’ve gotten older and my trauma was losing her. So I’ve really learned as
I’ve gotten older to see that aspect of Afrofuturism. The aspect of it
that’s in the shadows. That’s poking in the spaces
in the basement, right? The things that are frightening
that you don’t want to look at. That aspect has been
very healing for me. And hopefully is for others. But I really want to echo
this idea of a conversation between the past,
present, and future. Because that’s also something
that’s very deeply woven within the way I address
trauma in my work.>>I am painfully
aware, all of a sudden. I am the only non-academic
up here. So I don’t have anything
super-eloquent to say about ontologies and so on. I’m not even really
sure what that is. [Laughter] But, but as, I
guess as a practitioner. Which all of us are. Which, which everyone who
is living and surviving in this country today is a
contributor to Afrofuturism. I don’t sort of traffic
in labels and names. That, for me is a
thing of academics. I write what I write. People put whatever label
onto that they want. And that has happened
throughout my life. And sometimes I don’t
like those labels, and sometimes I just
kind of go with it. So to me, Afrofuturism as I grew up with it was music,
was visual. Was, were things
experienced with the senses. It was not so much,
there were things that impacted your
thoughts through visuals and through, through ideas. But not so much kind of
like directly engaging with the future. Not so much directly, a
story set in another world, another past, another
life that could have been. Parliament Funkadelic
was Afrofuturism. Brother From Another Planet. These days [inaudible]
is Afrofuturism to me. I’m still coming to
a place of acceptance that now Afrofuturism
is texted, is textual. And I am, I am not
really 100% there yet. Because for me, there’s,
there’s certain power in visuals and imagery. That I, I know that text can do. Since I am not a person
who visualizes my own text. It’s hard for me to put
those things together. So, you know I’m,
I’m accepting it. I’m slowly going to
do so at some point. Not there yet. But I am also deeply and
painfully mindful of the fact that once a word reaches Library
of Congress-level mainstream. At that point, that word
has transformed beyond its intention, its original
intention. And maybe is no longer
a useful word. So you know because I will
share a simple anecdote. Of I got a call from
a production company that was interested
in my writing. Something Afrofuturistic,
they said, for, for some film that they were going
to do or something. And first off then I was like,
“I don’t write screenplays. I don’t know why you called me.” But anyway, so they,
they asked me to do this. And then I was like
well, so what, what kind of topic were
you thinking about here? And they were like, “Well,
we want something set in Africa in the future.” [Laughter] And I was like, well,
I’ve never even visited Africa. So maybe you might want to find
someone else who’s from there. You know, there are lots of
writers out there from many of the countries in Africa. You might want to have
a conversation with them about what they would
con– consider doing. But to them, Afrofuturism
was this incredibly limiting and super narrow lane that
they wanted me to stay in. And I don’t drive in that lane. I’ve never been there. So, so I’m mindful of the fact that maybe we should
start looking for the next word to come. Maybe Afrofuturism
is not the word that we should be
trafficking in anymore. But for now, I’ll take it.>>Sheree Renee Thomas: It’s
so interesting that you talk about music and other
forms, performing arts, visual arts as being
your initial experiences with Afrofuturism. And how that’s really
been a journey for you, about text work as Afrofuturism. I would say the same
for me as well. I think one of my earliest
experiences with music as well. That I would think
of as Afrofuturism of course was George Clinton, Parliament funk,
all of those things. As well as Alice Coltrane and
John Coltrane, their music. Sun Ra, of course,
being from the South. Was very fascinating to me. How does a man, you know
from the Deep South. The Bible Belt reimagines
himself as an Egyptian god of some sort? An alien that’s come
to, to the planet. When we think about the
experience, the experiences with an S, of being black on
the planet, wherever that is. Whether it’s in the America
or on the continent of Africa or in, in numerous
places of the, other parts of the diaspora. You realize that you’re
already in a dystopic reality. You are already a part of that. You know, [inaudible] a
black [inaudible] who wrote about this deeply
in the nineties. Talked about the first
ships, the first contact, close encounter story was of. You know us being taken
from our home in Africa. And being brought to this other
place for a whole other context. And it’s sort of an
alien UFO experience. And how do you, how do
you write about that. Airea, I know that you have
been writing poems in the voices of Egyptian goddesses. You know, how did you come to write your Sekhmet,
Sekhmet poems? Talk about that.>>Airea D. Matthews:
Sekhmet came to me actually as I was trying. I’m interested in visitations,
like spiritual visitations from other things that are. May not be in this dimension. I know that sounds odd. But I’m open to it just, if it gets to the
writing, I’m open to it. So Ann Sexton makes
a show in the, in the book as does Sekhmet. And I was interested
in what they might have to say about the subject. As whatever I was
writing about at the time. So Sekhmet I’m writing
about addiction. And so Sekhmet makes a show
because Sekhmet, they gave her. She was going to
destroy a whole army. And then these kind of male
gods came forward and like. “Maybe you can just
give her some liquor.” They gave her some wine,
thinking and had her believe that it was blood
that she was drinking. And that would kind
of calm her down. And she would move away
from wanting to destroy. And I just kind of thought
about all the ways that we try to calm, try to calm
our natural natures. Try to house our natural
natures inside of something that is not what we want. So someone offers you something that is not exactly what you
want, but you take it anyway. And so Sekhmet came
to fore for me. I started thinking about what it
is that she had to go through. How she, she was probably. They have documented in
myth that she drank a lot. And so as did her revelers
and her worshippers. And so I was interested in that, and how do you get
that story out? We have convenient myths. There are things
we want to remember about these mythologies
that we follow. But we don’t actually
get down to the root of the story of the myth. Like what was the very
human nature of the god? What was the very human nature
of the entity that makes itself, [inaudible] itself in
any kind of mythology. Whether it’s Greek mythology
or if it’s Egyptian mythology. They’re told in, in order to give us some sort
of lesson from it. And we can’t get to
the lesson until we get to the humanity of
the god itself. And so I try to drive for that. And I’m interested in
all sorts of mythology. But Egyptian mythology does
come to the forefront for me. Primarily because
those aren’t the myths that are typically
told in the West. We don’t know those myths. We know Zeus and Hera. But we don’t know
about Sekhmet and Ra. And why is that? So I write about
them because I care. I’m trying to make those come
forward a little bit more in the work. Than have them recede
to the background.>>Sheree Renee Thomas: I know
during the Black Arts movement, there was a conscious,
deliberate effort by artists, [inaudible], Ishmael
Reeve, Sonia Sanchez. Other artists like Alice Walker,
to go back and reclaim some of the mythologies of the world. And also tell our folk tales. Our stories as well. And give them the same type
of seriousness that Greek and Roman mythology
had been taken. Would you say that this effort
that, that’s happening now. That we’re seeing, in the body of work we’re calling
Afrofuturism. For want of other
words, [laughter]. Is also a continuation of that? But it’s almost like a
[inaudible] experience. Where you’re looking. You’re trying to understand
where we are right now. By looking at that
past and claiming it. To talk about where we possibly
want to go for the future?>>Airea D. Matthews
: Absolutely. I mean, and the other thing
that I think people tend to look for is they try to look
for representation. I think it’s important
to have representation. And if you can find those
African mythologies, or the African philosophies
that cater to what it is you’re
interested in writing about. You can see a mirror
in some way. What you were talking
about earlier, earlier with the mirror. How important it is to see some
sort of reflection of yourself. I could see a reflection of myself inside of
the Egyptian myth. I don’t necessarily
see a reflection of myself inside of other myths. I see other people
inside those myths. But they always feel
outside of my experience. I do try and dig a little
deeper and find where I can. The myths that are
important to me. And representative of who I am. And what I happen to be
writing about at the moment. So yeah, I do believe
that’s important.>>Sheree Renee Thomas: When
I was looking at your work. I was reminded of Audre Lorde’s
work a bit, The Black Unicorn. The Black Unicorn. I was thinking like what other
speculative poetry tradition do we have? You know what other poets are
writing these kinds of works? Thinking of Robert
Hayden’s American Journal. Or even some early poems by
Countee Cullen, whatever. Then I’m also thinking of
maybe Phillis Wheatley, like the whole ideal of
imagining yourself free. Or imagining yourself outside of a white supremacist
culture in itself. Is an act of futurism. You are, it’s an
optimistic hopeful act, as well as a creative
act as well. Nora, in your work,
you have decided to create your own gods
and to critique them. To, to really expose them
as, as Airea was saying, the human parts of them. To make that real for readers. Can you talk a little about what
your journey was coming to– . How did you come to,
to building that work? And I know you have a new,
she has a new collection that she hasn’t, we
haven’t talk about.>>N.K. Jemisin: Well, I
mean, a lot of the stuff in the collection is, is
protoforms of the novels that. [Inaudible] Yeah,
the collection, my, my latest thing that’s just
come out is a collection of short stories called How
Long Until Black Future Month? Thank you for the show-and-tell.>>It has such a
great cover, too.>>N.K. Jemisin: Yeah, it does. With the cover image is made
by Creative Soul Photography. The guys who did the series
of black Victorians that ran. They’re an Atlanta-based
photography group. It’s kind of awesome stuff. Anyway though. So the, the journey that I
came to write my own gods. Was probably similar
to what you were doing. Because I was enamored of
mythologies in general. All mythologies kind of beyond
what I was taught in school. Which was just sort of
basically Christian. Which is, has its
own mythos form. Although we didn’t learn
too deep into that. We, I grew up, I was
educated in Alabama. So we got the Protestant flavor. That we did not get a
whole lot of Catholicism, Judaism, or any of that. But so and, and Greco-Roman. And so for fun, I read
mythology as a kid. I read about the Egyptian gods. I read about American,
Native American, indigenous people’s gods. And the thing that always
fascinated me was the ways in which gods reflect humanity. And, and hold up a
mirror to humanity. There was a mythic
tradition there of using god, you know to explore yourself. And that was a thing that I
was just kind of fascinated by. And the ways in which those
mythic traditions impact people. What you can imagine
is what you can become. And so, in order to
imagine new worlds. If I’m writing things set
in worlds other than earth. I’ve got to reimagine what those
people are capable of imagining. And so you know you
end up kind of writing about imagination itself. By literalizing it that way. I don’t know if that
answered your question.>>Sheree Renee Thomas:
Yes, it does. [Laughs] Because the whole act
of, of science fiction, fantasy, horror is world building. The creation is asking what if? All writers ask what if. But in our genre, we get to
play with the answers more. Do a lot more. Tananarive, can you talk
a little bit more about. I will say this. My very first introduction
to Tananarive’s books was when I was working
with Cheryl Woodruff, an editor at Random House. And she knew I liked
the scary stuff. And she said, “You like that
dark, scary stuff, Sheree.” So she pulled out your
novel, The Between. Which is her very first novel. And I was blown away. One, because it was Southern. Two, you weren’t just
telling a ghost story. But you were telling a story,
it seemed, about our people. About what it means to be
the spectre in society. And to have those
shadows haunt you. To be haunted by that, and
people think that you’re crazy. Because you one, can see them. And two, you are
fighting them, you know? And I wanted you to talk
a little bit about horror and this, this, this experiment
that we’re doing here. Right now, living in the
age that we’re living in.>>Tananarive Due: Yeah, right. Whew! Where do I begin? But I want to go
first to that question of world building
and what that means. And especially when you can
sort of see so much fraying and so much crumbling. Right before your eyes. The idea of world
building becomes so much more literal
and important. And there’s this idea that you
want people to read your work and then put it down
and do something, right? I mean, it’s not that there’s
anything prescribed in the work. It’s like how do we,
how do we do this? So for me, a lot of
that, you know self-care. Or really world building
begins with self-care. Let me put it that way. My parents’ civil rights
generation taught me, looking at their friends. The people who are my
parents’ peers from the 1960s. So many of them were burned
out, were traumatized. When we wrote that civil rights
memoir, it was hard to get some of them to even talk about it. They hadn’t told their
families they were arrested. One woman who was in
Mississippi with my dad, at night he still reminisces
about almost cheerfully. She never went back. You know, so different people
had different experiences. And I began to realize, you know
this is like PTSD, you know? This was like, these
were veterans of a war. But it was an unspoken war,
and it was happening right here in your own country,
supposedly, right? Unaddressed. So yes, I think she did bequeath
to me sort of this sick delight from creating stories
that scare people. I mean, I love, when
people tell me. “Oh! I read your book. I couldn’t sleep!” I’m like, yes! [ Laughter ] Join the club! No. Pardon me. But I do think it’s not just
you know being mischievous. I think there’s, there’s
actual value in it. Not everyone has to like horror. Okay, I totally get it if– . I like comedy too. Sometimes comedy is your way. Just release it through a laugh. I have to laugh every day. I listen to stand-up every day. But I also like one
great example. There’s this great novelette by a writer named
Kai Ashante Wilson, called The Devil in America. If you haven’t read
it, go read it now. It’s free, it’s online. The Devil in America.>>It’s on Tour.com.>>Tananarive Due: Tour.com. It is scary as heck. And what makes it scary
is American history. And what I said in this
documentary, Horror Noire, is black history is
black horror, okay? I mean, not exclusively. We’ve had triumphs. We’ve been able to MacGyver
beauty out of scraps, you know? The spiritual– Linea Denise
was the first person who woke me up to this idea of the, the slave spirituals
as Afrofuturism. Like you were saying. It’s like yes, utopianism. Picturing something
better, and a road map. So okay, we can both fantasize
about something that isn’t real. But also draw a road map
for something that is real. And with horror, if
you can heal yourself by visualizing that trauma. Kai Ashante Wilson did it in
his way in The Devil in America. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense that
someone would go into a church and shoot nine people to death. Nine strangers. I cannot wrap my
mind around that. But I can wrap my
mind around a demon. I can wrap my mind
around a curse. And I can vanquish
that demon maybe. Maybe that demon
has rules, okay? And even if I can’t, I
can create a character who shows me how to walk. When I’m facing a demon, whatever version of
my demon will be. So I think that’s what
attracts me to horror. And I think that’s
the value of it. And I very much do like to weave in those horrific aspects
of American history. So people can first
of all, look. This happened, you know
because so often now. We’re, we’re having
this cultural amnesia where people don’t remember. When I was a child, the
whole country stood still, and we watched Roots
as a miniseries. I can’t even imagine that today. So yeah, this happened. But also, this is how you fight.>>Sheree Renee Thomas: Wow,
so much to unpack in there. You have all those
amazing references toward that common course. Where lots of wonderful
writers are being published. Online is absolutely free. So definitely check
those works out. But also this idea about
demons being vanquished. This you know horror
encapsulating the things that we’re afraid
of in our culture. Horror, whether it’s
zombies or whatever. What is that really about? You know, is it a
fear of homelessness? Is it a fear of biological
disease that is becomes epidemic? Is it afraid, is it a fear of the underclasses taking
power, taking control?>>See, that’s what I think. I think, I start to
look at zombies now as like that fear of other.>>Sheree Renee Thomas:
That fear of other. There’s a beautiful quote,
actually that Nora had. And you talked about– let me see if I can find it in my zillion notes
I wrote for this. This idea of why, why you write. And this, this idea of what
it’s supposed to be doing. “So here is why I
write what I do. We all have futures. We all have pasts. We all have stories. And we all, every single one
of us, no matter who we are. And no matter what’s
been taken from us. Or what poison we’ve
internalized. Or how hard we’ve had
to work to expel it. We all get to dream.” And when you’re writing
about these things. Whether it’s science
fiction, fantasy, horror. Or whether it’s in, you
know story, a novel, a poem. You are re-dreaming the world. You are looking at in. but in order to re-dream
it, you have to gaze at it with [inaudible]. You have to really
tell the truth. And what I love about these
writers here is that they, they have all this
truth-telling in their art. They don’t shy away
from the hard work. Of telling the stories
of that past generation that was broken up. They, they, they sacrificed
all of this to be activists. To, to try to make present, to be the change in
the world, right? And then they were spit down on. And then they, dogs
were sicced on them and their bodies were broken,
and their vision was damaged. And some of them
lost their lives. I’m from Memphis, so we’re
constantly, you know, reliving that wound of Dr.
King’s murder, you know? But this ideal, out of
all that, that fear. All of that trauma. Whether it’s Trayvon
Martin or Sandra Bland. We can re-dream of what
the world should look like. And how, as you say, how
we might walk that walk. You know? How we might model. Even if we fall down. Can you all talk a little bit
about what you do as artists to sustain yourselves in
the falling-down process? You know sometimes on the outside we see
the beautiful books, the, the beautiful covers
and everything. And it seems a crystal stair
of an experience for an artist. But there’s a lot of
darkness in that, too. How do you take care
of yourself? How do you sustain? What are the models? How do you build community?>>This is the thing I’ve
been struggling with. So I will, I will share the fact
that that is a struggle for me. My writing is the means
through which I process all that I’m experiencing. You know I, I have this
really vivid memory of a really hot summer day. While I was working
on The Fifth Season. And I was reading Twitter
where Ferguson was happening. And it was the pictures of
the young man facing a troop of American– they were cops. But they looked like soldiers. And they were wearing
body armor. And they were carrying
uzzis or something. And it was just some guy in a
t-shirt that they were facing. But they were treating him like, like he was the biggest
threat in the world. Because he was a black man. And, and I remember seeing this. And around the same time,
the whole report was coming out that the city of Ferguson
had basically been preying on its majority black
population for the longest time. You know sucking money out of
them, and giving tax breaks to its middle class
white population. And, and had built an
entire industry around this. And you know it just
kind of hit me. That this is what, this
is what it’s all been. This is really what
it’s all been. We exist in their eyes
anyway to be soaked. To be used. To be discarded. And I just had this
utter, utter rage. You know and as I’m writing
this story, you know the, the, the Broken Earth. I think started out being
a little bit more mild than it was. Then I was just like,
burned it down. And then I destroyed the planet. [Laughter] But you know
I mean, this is, this is, this is the catharsis. Is when you’re writing
science fiction, you can smash the
moon into the planet. You can wipe out
humanity and, and it’s. It is a form of therapy. [Laughter] And then of course
you remind yourself, no. You don’t want all
of humanity to die. You remind yourself. You rewrite the scene
that you wrote. So that people do survive. So that’s for me.>>You know, when, when
you mentioned Ferguson, I think of my first
moment of that realization. Like oh, wait. Black lives don’t
matter, you know? I was about 14, and there was
a group of police officers who had been acquitted after
beating a motorcyclist to death. And then they tried
to cover it up. And pretend his motorcycle
had crashed and there was a big
journalism expose. But even with all that
couldn’t get a conviction, and Miami burned. You know? And I was sitting in
my junior high school cafeteria. They were playing muzak
to try to calm us down. It was a tri-ethnic school. So really, it was
just making it worse. But anyway. [Laughter] I started
writing this like utopian sort of prose poem. You know I want to live. The first line was I
want to live in a society where Jew is no longer
a dirty word. No one remembers what
nigger used to mean. And I just went on
and on and on and on. And I could breathe. I could breathe. And my mother said, “You’re
so lucky that you have that. That you have that writing.” Because that’s why,
because I had asked her why. But why, why are people burning? That’s their own store. That’s like, that’s why. They’re afraid first of all. But you know fear. Anger is a mask over fear. So, so there was that. And absolutely, it
is very powerful. Now I have to say, I’ve
been working on a novel in progress for about
five years. Which is a long time for me. And even with teaching,
there’s no excuse for it. And mostly it has
to do with the fact that it’s just a
difficult subject matter. You know sometimes that place,
your happy place gets invaded. And in this case, I
wanted very much to write about my mother’s uncle. My great uncle who
died in reformatory in Florida called the Dozier
School for Boys in the 1930s. Right? And I visited the site. My son was there when they
were exhuming, you know? And he got to sift through
soil and discover things. And it was a real– – . My mother never knew that
she had this uncle, right? And these, there were
so many boys who died at this reformatory that
it has its own cemetery. And actually Colson Whitehead
has a novel coming out about that reformatory
this, this July. Which I’m sure is wonderful. You know, it’s like well
that, that’s what you get. [Laughter] But I,
you know as much as I wanted to burn through it. I, the research made me cry. You know the survivors have
written books about it. I, I talked to survivors
on the phone. I went to meetings. It’s like it’s hard
sometimes to go where you want to take yourself. So yeah, sometimes in
terms of what do you do? What’s the self-care? Stepping away. Writing a short story. I’ve written several. Writing a script. Just step away. But always remembering
to come back.>>For me, I think I
take cues from my kids. I have four children,
and the oldest is 20, the youngest is eight. And they have these rich, all four of them have these
very rich imaginations. And I take joy in stepping
inside of their world. When I feel that mine is
a little bit unbearable. And how do I do that? So I taught them
very, a long time ago, starting with my oldest. Whenever you have
problems with people, try to re-write their
narrative right where you are. It teaches empathy, actually. Like right where you are, try to
understand where that person is. It’s a lot of work, right? But try to understand
where that person is. And re-write their narrative. So we used to practice doing
that by going to parks. And watching people who
were perfect strangers. Who were doing, either
doing things that were odd. Or doing things that
seemed slightly off, off center, if there
is a center. And I said, “Okay, let’s
re-write their narrative.” So we just start
coming up with things. Retreating into our
imaginations about why that person may have done
the thing that they had done. And it trained them to always
view other people with empathy. But also get out of
our own narrative about what the person,
who that person is. And by doing that, that
actually helps me a lot. I rewrite people’s
narratives all the time. I’m very interested in
imagining people with, with a lens toward empathy. With a lens towards trying to understand what makes
them do what they do. Particularly when
they hurt and offend. So that’s one way that I do it
is I retreat to my imagination. But I also have become
increasingly aware of the merits of uncertainty. And just learning how
to live in uncertainty. So when I start a
poem, I don’t know how that poem’s going to end. I just don’t. I just know that I’m writing
something toward an end. But I don’t know how
it’s going to end. And I’ve come to live and
be at one and at peace with that degree of uncertainty. The poem will figure out
where it wants to be, and I’m just along for the ride. And so I think once I started
doing those two practices with regularity. On not just my writing life,
but just my everyday life. There was a certain
calm that comes over me. That helps me care for myself,
and for other people as well.>>Sheree Renee Thomas: So
what we’re hearing is part of this process sometimes
taking a break, stepping away, to
recenter yourself. Sometimes going, diving
into the work, creating it and doing that hard thing. Blowing up the planet. And then figuring out your
way, how to be compassionate and loving and optimistic about
it all over again, you know. And then also, just being
a witness as well, right? Being a witness and
observing as my friend, poet, editor [inaudible] Harris says. Those “experiments of joy.” Watching the experiments of
joy that are taking place all around us at the
same time, you know? That’s part of it, too. All of that’s in the
Afrofuturism, okay? Alright? All of that
is the practice. We need to do a handbook. [Laughter] On how to survive
this current apocalypse that we’re in. And how to get to
that other future. One of the things that
I’m always curious about. Is why we have so many
dystopias versus utopias. Like we know that
we’re living in, you know some challenging times. And, you know we always thought,
okay, it was worse then. Everything is better now. And then you look up again,
and you’re like wait a minute. It’s a– you know, we’re going
back and forth in time here. But it seems like the idea of
writing a utopia seems to be like the, The Black
Unicorn of the genre. There aren’t very many. Why do you think that is? And what can we do about that? Because in order to
build the future, right? Don’t you, you have
to imagine it? Can we not imagine
it working out?>>I don’t actually
have an answer to that. [Laughter] But I
jumped to my microphone. Because I was on a, a program with Angela Davis a
couple of years ago. And she spoke to this, this
question of Afrofuturism. And how even if you’re not
going to live to see it. You have to believe in that
future to do the work, right? So I think on one level, even
when we’re writing dystopia. And I’ll use Octavia
in this example, because I think Octavia
Butler and so much of her work was like wake up! Wake up! You know? If she didn’t think that
would help, why do it? Why, why shout? Why, why try to bring
attention to behaviors? Like if we continue along this
path, this is where we’re going. I don’t know the last time
you read Parable of the Sower. But it feels closer and
closer every time you read it. Some of us are already living
in Parable of the Sower, right? And, and, it, it’s this desire
to create something better. And the seed of utopianism in there is this religion
earth seed that she created. That some people actually do
use as an actual religion. So it was helpful enough. It was something that could help
people move toward something better than what
she was depicting. And I think that’s a piece of it that sometimes our utopias
are disguised as dystopia. And I’m in a, I’m in an anthology right now
called A People’s Future of the United States. I think you have a story
in there, too, right? Right, yeah. And I’m reading these. I’m listening to the audio book. I’m an audio book junkie. And it’s like all these
stories are absolutely, unflinchingly looking at you
know this moment in time. And where we’re headed. And all of it. But there’s a hopefulness
to a lot of the stories. Someone said there was a
hopefulness in my story. I was like really? But, but I think
yes, because we do. We do believe that
it can be better.>>I want to piggyback off
of you saying that a lot of our utopias look
like dystopias. But I, I feel like that’s because there tends
to be a perception. Excuse me in the
[inaudible] whatever where utopias are just
straight happy times. You don’t depict ugliness. You don’t depict people
as they really are. Which to me is doing a
disservice to humanity. That’s not an honest utopia. That is, that is avoidance. That’s, I don’t know. Denial. And so in order
to truly show a world that could be better. You’ve got to engage with what
the world is actually like. And I found myself struggling
with this not too long ago. I decided that I wanted to write
a story that depicted a, a, a world without bigotry. And I struggled. Because I’m like
how the hell do– like I am the product
of a culture. That has spent hundreds of
years refining how layered and hierarchical
we are going to, to construct ourselves to be. And I, I had a hard time even
imagining it for a long time. And then I ended up writing a, a story called The Ones
Who Stand and Fight. Which is in the, the How Long
Until Black Future Month. Yeah, it’s, it’s
actually me speaking back at an Ursula Le Guin
story called “The ones who walk away from Omelas.” And in Omelas, I’m
sorry, I have to spoil it. It’s been 20 years. It’s too late. Spoiler statute of
limitations is gone. In Omelas, Le Guin imagines
or, or asks us to imagine. A truly amazing and
beautiful society. But then she shows us the worm
at the heart of that apple. Because so much of our society
is amazing and, and astonishing when you really kind
of consider it. We live in the future. And yet for our amazing
smartphones, there are, are children dying
in cobalt mines to, to pull up the materials
that we use to make is. So you know Le Guin
was like basically, this is what we’ve got. This is where we’re
living right now. And so I decided that I wanted
to try and envision and, and ask readers to envision a
world that was bigotry-free. And it wasn’t that I was
trying to show the worm at the heart of the apple. It was that I was
trying to acknowledge that people will
take it right back to the place that it used to be. Even if you do manage to ever
get us to this amazing world that we have such
trouble imagining. It’s going to be a fight. It’s going to require a force
of people to constantly work to keep it as good as it is. And so that’s what I
ended up depicting. And I called them social
workers, but they kill people. And that’s what’s necessary
to keep a world safe. From the idea that some
people aren’t important, and some people are expendable. And it, it’s a constant
struggle. I hate the fact that it’s so
hard for me as a black woman. As a science fiction writer. If I can’t imagine
a future like this, I can’t ask other
people to do that. So I needed to be
able to do this. And it took years. For me to manage that story. And I don’t, I’m not 100%
happy with that depiction. So I’m still working on it.>>I think it’s hard to imagine
utopia, utopias, if you will. Because for so many of us,
joy and peace are conditional. It’s conditioned on a certain
number of if/then statements. That never come to fore. They, they just don’t. So I then resort to thinking
about joy, if you will. As opposed to utopia. But just pure joy, like
joy in small things. And how one gets to that. Because even in these
kind of dystopic novels. There’s still people in there that are living their
lives happily so. Like you know just, they’re,
they’re still living their lives to the best of their ability. I think about my grandmother. She had a fifth-grade education. She worked in, she moved
up in the Great Migration from Alabama to, to New Jersey
to get a job in a factory. By my calculations,
she made 73% less than the lowest-paid white woman at the same factory,
doing the same job. She would come home every day. With a smile on her face. And I asked her why, my
grandmother also drank a lot. So let me just say that. [Laughter] It was– but
she had to find joy. It was self-care, right? So she would come home every
day with a smile on her face. And I remember asking
her one time. Why was she so, why
was she smiling? And she was like,
“I have enough. I’m fine. I have enough.” And maybe utopia is maybe
just enough, you know? Like the best we can
hope for here is enough. And not kind of in
the materialist sense, but in the purest sense. Like I have enough. But also, that she
could look in the faces of her grandchildren
and see future. And so the idea that
you have enough. But still, you can still, you still have vision
enough to see future. And I think knowing that her
grandchildren would have more than a fifth-grade education. And by and, and certainly would
not be making 73% less than some of the lowest-wage workers. I think that brought her joy. And I think that helped her to
live in her own type of utopia. And she again, drank a lot. So that’s what we gotta
do sometimes, I’m serious.>>And, and to your point, contrast that with angry
billionaires, you know [ Laughter ]>>Sheree Renee Thomas:
It’s not enough. It’s not enough. Nor is one lifetime, apparently. All the new science being
dedicated to, towards this path of immortality, you know? One lifetime is not enough.>>And so many of the
forces pushing– . I am 100% in favor
of space exploration. But not so that, I
can’t mention the name. But not so that certain
particular people can go forth and live there away from us. And leave us to die. Because that’s what’s
pushing a lot of these private attempts
at exploring space. Anyway.>>Sheree Renee Thomas: What
do you think about the films that all make that inevitable? That the whole purpose
of space exploration is to create a suburb
for affluent people?>>Suburb! A walled suburb,
a gated community. Where the gate is
literally you’re got to have a rocket
to get there, yeah.>>Sheree Renee Thomas:
You know, I want a movie where we’re already there. Hey! Welcome to the moon! What took you so long, you know? We’re already here, okay? But.>>I mean, this is, this
is the thing that I was, that I was trying
to work through. We live in a society in which
there are multiple systems and multiple organizations. Dedicated to keeping us
thinking the way that we do. Dedicated to making us believe that a better world
is impossible. So of course if we ever
manage to get out of that. We’re going to have
to have societies and systems designed to, to
work against falling back. So you know envisioning those
systems is what I’ve been trying to do.>>Sheree Renee Thomas:
So in this body of work, that we are redefining
every day, we are interrogating privilege. We are revisiting the past. And re-imagining, giving
more voices, people’s voice, people’s history,
the people’s future. You know taking up [inaudible]
work, that monumental project. And forecasting it
into the future. By writers who are
often seen as invisible in the genre, you know? Or have been until history,
until history, right? You know, very visible. We are looking at gender in
different ways, you know? Talking a little bit
about Ursula Le Guin of course and her pioneer work. And the women who were writing
so bravely and boldly then. Thinking of James
[inaudible] Junior. Which– I won’t say
who I thought it was in case I misquote him. But very famous writer, very
famous Golden Age writer. Said he would eat his hat? Is that what he said? If she, if James [inaudible]
turned out to be a woman? [ inaudible ]>>I don’t know about the one
who said he would eat his hat. But he refused to
engage with the idea. If it’s who I think
you’re talking about. He refused to engage
with the idea that it could possibly be– . That [inaudible] could
possibly be a woman. Because there was something
[inaudible] masculine about his writing. [Laughter]>>Sheree Renee Thomas: So
these writers are always. Even just by the act of creation
and publishing in the industry that says it wants diversity. And then does many things
to try to undermine that. At the same time. We won’t go there though, right?>>You know, I was, I
was in Toronto last week when we were doing a
screening for Horror Noire. And a woman raised her hand. And said, “I’m so
glad you did this. Because I write speculative
fiction.” That was a young black woman. “But I’m always having to
defend my creative choices. Even making the character
black, okay?” So while we’re talking about
the progress that we’ve made. Let’s remember that there
are writers, like I did. Who are struggling to even put
themselves in their own stories. As though there has to
be some overriding reason for a character to be black. Right? Or that if
you’re a black writer, it can only be about
a social issue. And it can’t just be a
black girl with a dragon. Which is what I told her write. And you know yes, and I. By the time I got through
college and grad school. I had started writing
white male characters. And I, it was The Between,
The Between that was the first and major effort of mine. To say I’m going to write me– . And even then I was
writing a man. But still, I was closer. I’m going to write me,
I’m going to put me in a story and see what happens. And thank goodness I did. That’s when I found my voice. When I gave myself permission to write myself into
my own stories.>>Sheree Renee Thomas: Giving
ourselves permission to write. I mean, that, and
to write ourselves. You talked a little
bit about Twitter. And of course you have
[inaudible] Tweets. In your, in your collection
where you’re always, as Carl Phillips says, “You’re
engaging with new media.” In your poems. You are challenging this ideal that traditional poetry
is text-based only. You know. So you’re doing
some very innovative work in your writing. But there’s an interview. So when we post it for the
zillionth time, Toni Morrison, like laying waste
to a journalist who did not intend, I guess. Necessarily to get
slaughtered in that interview. [Laughter] But this
idea basically when are you going
to write about– .>>That was glorious. It, it was clip from
some interview. I don’t know when this
interview happened, or what the context was. But basically the, the reporter
who presented as a white woman. Asked Miss Morrison,
I’m sorry, Dr? Morrison. Asked, basically
was kind of talking around it, but basically was like. Well, when are you going
to write white people in a substantial way
into your fiction. And was basically like when
are you going to grow up and start doing the real stuff? She didn’t say that,
that’s my interpretation. Let me not, let me not–
that was my [inaudible]. But like the tone,
facial expression. All of it was like, well you
know, you’ve done very well at writing this, this,
this nice black stuff. So but you seem to
be a good writer. So why don’t you
do some real– ? That was my interpretation.>>Sheree Renee Thomas: The
term she used was mainstream. When are you going to
write the mainstream.>>And she, and Toni said
back, “I am the mainstream.” You know, she tore
the woman apart. She was just like, “You
don’t even realize how just unbelievably racist that was. The, the question that you
just asked me just was.” You would not ask white
writers, “When are you going to write somebody black?” So you know I am the mainstream. She had re– she had
flipped that whole thing. She had flipped that script. The woman was trying
to catch up. So anyway.>>Sheree Renee Thomas:
Yep, trying to catch up. Toni Morrison said, “I,
I stand on the margins and I claim the center
as my center. I am the mainstream.” You know and it’s just an
amazing, amazing interview. Are there any last thoughts
that you want to share with our audience
about your journey through the area we
call Afrofuturism?>>One thing that comes
to mind, this idea. I mean yeah, we are
the mainstream. But at the same time, we’ve
also been pushed to the margins. And there’s something about
observing from the margins that gives you a different view. And it’s so valuable. You know it’s a valuable
contribution. When someone who hasn’t
been invited to the party. Can write about what’s going on outside while y’all
are at the party. And it creates a
leadership potential. So that when the lights go out and the music stops
and everyone’s like. Whoa, where did the party go? There are these people
who are already out here saying,
“Yeah, we knew that. No here’s where you go. Here’s the path.” And, and there’s a lot of leadership potential
there in, in Afrofuturism.>>Sheree Renee Thomas:
It creates space. Yeah. Creates space.>>And direction.>>Sheree Renee Thomas:
And direction. Thank you.>>I want to go back to the
question you didn’t bring it up. You brought it up, but we
didn’t go forward with it. Which was about publishing. I know from, because of
the content that I write. The types of things
that I like to write, It is often very
difficult to get my work in mainstream publications. In mainstream poetry
publications. It just is. I am the only Yale Younger who’s
never been in Poetry Magazine. Why? It’s because they don’t
understand what I’m doing. And I’m okay with them not
understanding what I’m doing. I’m okay with them having
that degree of uncertainty. Because that makes me think
that I’m on the right path. If I am moving in the direction
of, of being completely and universally understood. Then that goes against what
I’m actually trying to write. I don’t write for
universal understanding. I write so that I
can understand it. And make sense of the
world that I live in. And that is my form
of Afrofuturism. I’m making sense of
the world that I live in according whatever criteria
I lay down on that page. And which brings up the point
that you were talking about. Afrofuturism can
be, it can be joy. It can be about oppression. It can be about any topics. It can be about new
world politics. That we haven’t even imagined. It can be about any
of those things. I think the, the definition
continues to widen. Which speaks to your
point, Nora, about really probably
needing a new word. Because it’s not
actually all-encompassing. In terms of what
Afrofuturism seeks to do. It seeks to deliver a future. Futures come in many
different forms. So I just encourage
anybody who’s thinking about writing speculatively
or thinking about writing in a different way
than other people. To continue to do that. Write what you like to write. But also broaden your
definition of what future means.>>Sheree Renee Thomas:
Thank you, thank you so much. Thank you all. [ Applause ]>>Robert Casper:
Thank you on behalf of the Library of Congress. I would like to note that
American Journal is the title of the anthology of our
current poet laureate based on that poem. For sale in our bookstore. But what you should
do before you go off to get American Journal and read
about the great poems in there. Is to get books by our
authors in the back. Have them sign them. And hopefully come
to the event tonight. As I said, it’s sold out. But there’s a standby line. I’m sure you likely want to
hear each of our authors read from the works they’re
talked so eloquently about. So until then, thanks so much. Please do sign, fill
out your survey sheets. Sign up on our sign-up
sheet in the back. We’ll let you know
about future events. Thanks so much!

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