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Interview: Zin E. Rocklyn

Zin E. Rocklyn is a contributor to Bram Stoker-nominated and This is Horror Award-winning Nox PareidoliaKaijuRising II: Reign of MonstersBrigands: A Blackguards Anthology, and Forever Vacancy anthologies and Weird Luck Tales No. 7 zine. Their story “Summer Skin” in the Bram Stoker-nominated anthology Sycorax’s Daughters received an honorable mention for Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year, Volume Ten. Zin contributed the nonfiction essay “My Genre Makes a Monster of Me” to Uncanny Magazine’s Hugo Award-winning special issue Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction. Their IGNYTE award-nominated short story “The Night Sun” and flash fiction “teatime” were published on Tor.com. Their debut novella, Flowers for the Sea (bit.ly/2TFs69q), will be published by Tor.com in Fall 2021. Zin is a 2017 VONA and 2018 Viable Paradise graduate as well as a 2022 Clarion West candidate. You can find them on Twitter @intelligentwat.

First of all, thank you so much for joining us here at Nightmare! We’ve been fans of yours for a while now, and have been excited to see things start taking off for you. For our readers who haven’t yet had the pleasure, though, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you write?

Hello, World! I’m of Trinidadian descent, which informs a lot of my work. I write anything within horror, from weird to supernatural to even fanfic of slashers! I love the dark and love exploring the creatures within it.

To help ease those newer readers into the world of Zin E. Rocklyn, is there a particular story or other piece of writing that you think is an ideal entry point?

“Summer Skin” was my second story published and remains my favourite. It helps that it’s in an exceptional (and Bram Stoker nominated!) anthology, Sycorax’s Daughters.

That’s interesting, because from looking at your bibliography Sycorax’s Daughters appears to have been a key moment for your early writing. Sycorax’s Daughters was an anthology of stories by women of color who write speculative fiction, edited by Kinitra Brooks, PhD.; Linda D. Addison; and Susana Morris, PhD. Can you tell us a little bit about that project, and what it was like to be part of that assemblage of voices?

It was incredibly uplifting to be part of a project that amplified the voices of Black women in the field, voices that tend to be ignored, passed over. Growing up, I didn’t see faces like mine in the genre I loved or when I did, they were killed off quickly while underdeveloped. Literature was worse, because if it wasn’t a struggle song, we’re subservient to white people or monstrous in a way that denotes clear good vs evil. This collection broadcasts that Black women aren’t your mules. We are fully realized human beings.

Going back to your story in Sycorax’s Daughters, “Summer Skin”: although it was one of your first publications, it attracted much-deserved attention. It also contains certain threads that you’ve seemingly continued to develop, such as the centering of Black women and refusing to shy away from their bodies and skin. It also featured a main character whose condition puts them apart from other people, which is in tension with a desire for connection. Looking back, what do you see when you reflect on “Summer Skin”? Do you see elements of that story that you later developed more or moved away from?

When Black women are not in control of the narrative and are portrayed as monstrous, there is especially important nuance missing from the story. Having grown up always feeling like an outsider, I wanted to bring humanity to the monstrous. As a genderqueer Black woman, I can’t help but notice the lack of humanity we’re granted in the overall narrative, so my stories will always feature Black women with elements of the monstrous we’re painted as, and just why we are brought to this level.

As we talk about beginnings, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that one of my first memories of meeting you in person was that you had a shirt which said: “Support Black Women Who Write Weird Shit.” This is a great ethos, so I was hoping that you could tell us a little bit about this mantra and what it means to you?

I started it initially as a hashtag when I saw yet another list with nothing but white authors and became frustrated. Then I thought, “This would be dope on a t-shirt.” Someone else replied to the thread stating the same and I ran with it. The reason is simple: if your list consists of white, white-passing authors, your list is lacking and incomplete, and it shows that you’re not as well- or widely-read as you think you are.

As we’re thinking about the unwavering boldness of that call to action—”Support Black Women Who Write Weird Shit”—there is also a bravery in your work. As we discussed, there’s a lot of very powerful writing about the body, particularly Black bodies and women’s bodies, often accompanied by frank depiction of sensuality and sexuality. How do you see your work dealing with these themes? Are these areas you’ve consciously chosen to focus on, or is it too ingrained to ignore?

While we’re seen as sexual beings, we’re rarely seen as sensual beings. We’ve been used and abused for hundreds of years for the sake of personal slavery to the advancement of science, but never as human beings who own their bodies and their sexuality. Even in contemporary thought, there is the myth of the Strong Black Woman who needs no partner, no love, and it simply isn’t true. It’s a bastardisation of a mantra that means we won’t put up with bullshit. I want my fiction to make that distinction, that we crave and deserve love and nurturing.

In 2018, your essay “My Genre Makes a Monster of Me” was published in Uncanny Magazine’s Hugo-winning issue Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction. It’s a powerful insight into how the tropes and stereotypes of speculative fiction marginalize Black bodies, as well as the disabled and the neurodivergent. In the three years since that essay, do you think speculative fiction at large has made any progress? What areas do you think are still the most pressing?

There certainly has been progress, but it is slow-moving and minimally incremental. After the murder of George Floyd, there was a flood of lip-service support that panned out to nothing in a devastating, yet not surprising percentage. What needs to occur is more representation in the acquisitions arena, and not just by race, but by taste as well. While we can have those of colour in positions of power and it looks good, those same folks can uphold a white supremacist reading style.

In the past, you’ve been quite open on social media about a lot of the struggles that you face in daily life. There’s one school of thought that would say reading or writing horror is a way of coping with real life horror, but do you find that to be the case? Does writing play a part in how you deal with or understand those struggles, or is it something separate?

Writing has always been a way for me to deal with my struggles, whether from outside forces or my own internal issues with depression, PTSD, ADHD, and anxiety. I can’t speak on behalf of others, of course, but horror has brought me closer to understanding outside of the societal norm than most formal education. It’s also shown me that I’m not alone in dealing with these internal monsters.

Along those lines, how much do you find yourself drawing from your own specific experiences in your fiction? Does working primarily in speculative fiction provide you with certain opportunities or possibilities to explore these that more realistic fiction might not?

For a long time, I considered writing my therapy, a way to parse through what has occurred and how it still affects my judgement, my actions to this day. It still is, though I’m in real therapy, too. Writing forces the author to fully examine a character’s ethos, and we tend to draw from personal experiences and/or interactions to express the most genuine perspective. Plus, the shit that happens to me borders on wild sometimes.

Your work comes across so confident and uncompromising, that I was wondering if you’ve always been so bold a writer. Did you come out of the gate with these convictions, or was there a time starting out when you wrote more “traditional” or “safer” stories? Have you noticed your own approach change as you’ve matured as an author?

Oh, wow, thank you! I don’t know that there was ever a time I played it safe. Even when I used to write smut, I would push as far as I felt the story could go. Reading is supposed to be an adventure, so why not be bold? My approach has only been reinforced by other bold writers who play it true, so expect more!

Another significant moment in your career was the publication of your novelette The Night Sun by Tor.com. The Night Sun is a fascinating take on the werewolf story, enriched by its exploration of issues tied to systemic racism, domestic violence, and the power of finding connections to others. Without going into spoilers, could you tell us a little bit about how that story came about?

Viable Paradise [writing workshop]! We were given a prompt and an object and tasked with coming up with a story within the week. While stressful, it’s the most fun I’ve had pulling things that seemed unrelated together to make something cohesive. The themes present are those I struggled with or yearn for in my own life: a sense of belonging, feeling invisible, comfort in a hell we secretly want to be pulled out of, and falling in love with someone who appreciates all that we are, so that was simple to incorporate, to me. I wanted to bring humanity to monster.

The Night Sun was your first work with Tor.com, but you also published a flash piece, “teatime,” on their site during their collaboration with FIYAH Magazine, and now Tordotcom is publishing Flowers for the Sea. Can you tell us a bit about what it’s like to work with them? What was it like making that transition to receiving attention from a much-deserved wide audience?

Working with Tor.com has been a blast! Diana M. Pho is a huge reason why I continued writing in the first place. My editor now, Ruoxi Chen, is incredible! They’ve made the process smooth and as painless as possible. So far, so good!

Going back a little to the idea of finding connections, one of the themes in The Night Sun which seems to recur in your writing is a concern with different kinds of family. Sometimes there’s a direct familial relationship, but often the connections your characters find comes from deeper ties of shared heritage or experience. How do you see yourself exploring this theme? Has your approach to this changed over time?

As a first-generation American, I was caught between three worlds: my Trinidadian roots, being Black American, and an expectation of being “proper.” My parents moved at a vital time in my life, one where I felt the most vulnerable. I couldn’t move with them, so finding family on my own was important to me. I approach this theme a lot in my work because I’m still discovering it myself. So far it hasn’t changed all that much, since I’m still in the exploration phase in my own life.

Speaking of found family and connections, I’m going to ask you now to make some connections to your own artistic family. Where do you see your creative influences coming from, either within speculative fiction or outside?

My Dad, first and foremost. N.K. Jemisin, Nathan Ballingrud, Paul Tremblay, Chesya Burke, Kinitra Brooks, and many others who are incredible people, just kind and open and supportive along with being an influence in my work.

Moving on from your forebears, what current crop of creatives do you see as your creative siblings? For those readers who want more like Zin E. Rocklyn, where would you point them?

Well, I must say there’s none other like me, lol, but for creative sibs, definitely WC Dunlap, Eboni Dunbar, Brent Lambert, LH Moore, Courtney Givens, and plenty of others who I shout out every once in a while.

A number of your stories have been set in roughly contemporary settings, but there have been a few that step well outside of those constraints. For instance, your story “The Loyal Dagger” in the Brigands: A Blackguards Anthology is, as you describe it, “a retelling of Cinderella, if she were a Black Queer mercenary.” Do you find yourself wanting to write more in fantasy settings, and if so, what is it that draws you there? Is Flowers for the Sea a move in that direction?

Flowers for the Sea is definitely a move into a more fantasy setting. I enjoy dark fantasy quite a bit, and think I’ll be exploring the world a lot more. I enjoy the language and feel of fantasy and want to take it over! I think fantasy is such a lush and open world, ripe for change and colour.

Speaking of Flowers for the Sea, what can you tell us about your debut novella from Tor.com? It’s described as a “lush, gothic fantasy” and “Rosemary’s Baby by way of Octavia E. Butler,” which are incredibly enticing, but what else can you tell our readers about the book? Can you give us some insight into how it was created?

The whole thing really started from a prompt I saw on Twitter (I follow a few prompt bots) and snowballed from there. I wanted to explore just how traumatic pregnancy can be for a birthing person, physically and mentally. And Iraxi is no joke! She’s pregnant and unhappy and makes no secret of it. I wanted a character people would be divided over, a Black woman who tends to be dismissed as having an attitude problem, whose anger is never seen as righteous. Anything else will be a spoiler, lol!

When writing in secondary-world settings, how much of a drive do you feel to incorporate and address real world issues, like you do in your stories set in something recognizably closer to our reality? Does fantasy offer you an “escape,” or do the same artistic concerns follow you?

Fantasy does offer an escape, but not too far. I enjoy working within worlds that do not have our contemporary issues, but by writing without them, I’m confronting them still, because it is noticed that these themes are missing or are being subverted. For example, a Black woman finding love will always be revolutionary.

At the time we’re conducting this interview, advance copies for Flowers for the Sea are just now going out and the praise is starting to roll in. Lots of fantastic speculative authors are publicly lauding the book, and I think it’s fair to say readers can’t wait to get their hands on it. How does it feel to be in this position, and what are you eager to do next?

To be real? It feels weird! But it’s definitely exciting at the same time! I just hope folks enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it. I’m eager to jump into some gothic horror and hope to produce something in that arena.

Finally, now that Flowers for the Sea is upon us, what’s next on the horizon for you? In addition to any upcoming projects or releases, are there any new areas of work that you’re just beginning to explore?

I’ve got some works in the pipeline that I’m super excited to tear into! Stay tuned!

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Gordon B. White

Gordon B. White

Gordon B. White is the author of the collection As Summer’s Mask Slips and Other Disruptions (Trepidatio Publishing 2020). A graduate of the Clarion West Writing Workshop, Gordon’s stories have appeared in dozens of venues, including The Best Horror of the Year Vol. 12 and the Bram Stoker Award® winning anthology Borderlands 6. He also contributes reviews and interviews to outlets including Nightmare, Lightspeed, Hellnotes, and The Outer Dark podcast. You can find him online at gordonbwhite.com.