“You Will Always Have Family: A Triptych” is a lyric, dark exploration of family, magic, and the meaning of fear. Tell us a bit about the inspiration behind the story.
This story drew inspiration from a number of different places. I’d read an article about children cast into the streets for being witches in Congo, and realized being a witch there meant something entirely different from stories I’d read and heard growing up. I wondered what that was like not just for the witch child, but for the family that expelled them. My sister also told me a story about the suspicious death of a set of Nigerian twins around that time. Being half-Congolese but raised primarily American, my point of view is different from someone who spent childhood in Congo, and theirs from someone who lived to adulthood there. So I wanted to explore those perspectives and twins and witches in a Congolese ghost story set in America.
I loved how the sensory impressions lent themselves to the story’s atmosphere, pulling me into the shadows: the wobbling of the black twisted railing; a voice as sweet as sugar cane rasping obscenities in French; a smell so bad that it curled the face when the door opened. How conscious are you of creating a vivid sensory impression to carry your stories along? Do you feel the rich descriptions add to the narrative?
I certainly hope they do! During first drafts I try to let the story dictate what gets put down. After reading Stephen King’s On Writing and learning how he approaches description, I became more aware of my own descriptions and how they function in my stories. Now, in successive drafts I’m more conscious of whether the sensory details evoke enough of the scene and atmosphere to do what the story needs in those moments. A good description can put you in the sensual world of a story, and readers can learn a lot about characters based on the details they notice, the descriptions they give. In a story of ghosts and the fantastic, I also think sensory description keeps things grounded in the real and familiar in a way that makes the horror more plausible and horrific.
For all the horror stitched into the prose, in the end I feel this is a story of hope. Mbuyi does not condone Kanku’s actions, nor does he condemn his twin to suffer the torment of loneliness. Often, horror allows readers to explore their relationship with what it means to be human, to touch those places both dark and light they might not have otherwise known existed. What is it about horror that appeals to you as a writer?
Hm. That’s an interesting question, since I don’t like straight up horror movies—I don’t like watching people suffer, and often their portrayal of evil-made-flesh stays with me for years in a vividly terrifying way. That said, I love horror mixed with other genres, and hearing ghost stories, and people’s experiences with the supernatural. I also think reading and writing are a good way to explore scary things in a relatively safe environment. Octavia E. Butler wrote “Bloodchild” in part to explore her fear of the botfly. I thought that was so cool: we can write stories to explore what scares us, and write stories to try to understand other perspectives, even if we disagree with them. Something that’s fascinated me since catching the end of Pumpkinhead 2 on TV was the idea of the wronged monster, one created by their community rather than intrinsically evil. Horror was perfect for exploring how a wronged child might become a monster, and understanding his perspective—and his family’s—while acknowledging fully the creature he’d become.
Representation and the recognition that stories exist outside the Western gaze is a vital component of storytelling. Many in the genre community have decided that SF/F/H stories should be defined by a narrow set of character and plot requirements. If you could reach out and address these writers, what would you say to them about what makes a story?
From a writerly perspective I’d say, “Why limit yourselves?” There are stories everywhere, fascinating stories in every culture, and there is so much to learn about beyond the scope of Western culture that is riveting and “will show you how some people live.” If you’re not open to new experiences, perspectives, and storytelling techniques, you’re not growing as a writer. Why would you do that to yourself? Why would you do that to your readers? How aren’t you bored rehashing the same old thing? And finally, why bother grounding your fantastic stories with details of our world when you’ve left out most of the population, most of what makes people fascinating?
From a representation perspective, “Why are you erasing me?” I’m something my friends and I refer to as a “minority trifecta,” and while it’s been wonderful to read more stories lately with people who at least look like me over the past few years, it’s more rare to see the entire trifecta in action, especially in a main character. Before I read Octavia E. Butler, I didn’t see people like me in speculative fiction—as writers or characters. After reading her work, I could see people like me in both roles because a role model was there. It’s harder to aspire to things without a role model, and representation is important if only for that reason. (Not just for that reason.) I have a rant about why I stopped watching movies with queer protagonists in the early 2000s. I was sick of watching gay characters made perfect or sympathetic only for them to die and their stories to end unhappily. The lack of a competing narrative—gay people can live happily ever after—was depressing and sent a message to an entire generation of kids looking for hope that they could have a good life, and it simply told them, “No.” One of the good things about equal representation in fiction is competing narratives: a variety of role models, the presence not only of tragedy, but of romance and comedy in the lives of all characters, not just those of a certain race, sex, orientation, belief, or physicality. Spec fic is able to show us how to be better people, how to create a better world, the danger of continuing in a given direction. How can you do any of that well if you purposely ignore most of the world to do it?
Not only are you a writer, you also co-host Write Pack Radio. How did you come to the microphone?
In 2010 or 2011, I started inviting a group of friends from St. Louis Writers Guild to write-ins at Wired Coffee, an ideal writer’s cafe. We met pretty often to write and hash out plotlines, and when I moved to Colorado they continued meeting even after Wired closed. When I got back to town I found out David Alan Lucas and Jennifer Stolzer had kept them going: they had a regular weekly write-in with a sizable group, and called themselves The Write Pack. As happens when a group of writers meets and discusses their work, the conversations at write-ins were wonderful and bizarre, but also informative enough that David decided to start a podcast to discuss writing-related topics and share the collective knowledge everyone brought to the table. Write Pack Radio recorded its first episode in January 2014, with David at the helm. After the episode he asked if I’d co-host; I guess I asked good questions and helped wrangle conversation in constructive directions. I’ve also been told I have a good voice for radio. So that’s how it started. We’ve discussed all manner of things, from pet peeves about female character tropes, to writing characters with mental illness, to deciding whether a big house, small press, or going the self-publishing route is the right choice for your work. It’s a lot of fun for us, and we try to keep discussions fun and informative for our listeners as well. We’re @WritePackRadio on Twitter, and you can listen in on iTunes, Blog Talk Radio, WindingTrailsMedia.com, and on YouTube under Winding Trails Media.
You attended the Clarion Writing Workshop in 2016 as the Octavia E. Butler Scholar. What did you take away from the workshop, both as a writer and a person?
I had three goals for the workshop: write a lot, get better at craft and critiquing, and foster community so we’d all want to stay in touch after Clarion ended. While I didn’t have as much time to write as I wanted, I definitely managed the other two. I learned a lot about craft from my teachers, and have been reading their book recommendations since then and continuing to learn and improve. Clarion offered a lot more than what I expected, though. I got to take away relationships with our teachers, people from Clarion West 2016, the Octavia E. Butler scholar community, the wider Clarion community, and opportunities and advice from people in the writing field who took time from their busy schedules to speak to us. Clarion opened doors in a way I never imagined. I understand a lot better now why Butler wanted to send people of color there, how it can help bring people into the spec fic community in a fast-track sort of way. I think the scholarship is more important than ever now. It changed my life.
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