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Interview: P. Djèlí Clark

Born in New York and raised mostly in Houston, P. Djèlí Clark spent the formative years of his life in the homeland of his parents, Trinidad and Tobago. His writing has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Lightspeed, Tor.com, and print anthologies including Griots I and II, Steamfunk, Myriad Lands Volume 2, and Hidden Youth. He currently resides in a small castle in Hartford, Connecticut, with his wife, Danielle, and a rambunctious Boston terrier named Beres. Follow him on Twitter at @pdjeliclark and visit his website: pdjeliclark.wordpress.com.

Congratulations on the publication of The Black God’s Drums! This is such an exciting debut novella!

Thank you! I’m very grateful and excited to be published by Tor.com. I’ve mostly published short stories and a novelette or two, so it’s good to range out into something broader.

The Black God’s Drums of the title is a cannon that causes low-altitude atmospheric modification with powerful storms. We find out that it’s named for the orisha Shango, who’s associated with thunder, lightning, justice, dance, and virility. How did you come up with the idea of this kind of artillery?

Storms play such a devastating role in the history of the Caribbean—and more recently in Haiti. We ignore those most of the time, thinking of the Caribbean only as spaces of tranquility ready-made for our consumption. In the same way, we also ignore what shaped those geographic spaces: the destruction of its indigenous inhabitants and then the forced labor of millions of African slaves. We like our idyllic vistas of rum and sandy beaches, without remembering the horrors that formed them. I wanted to find a way to harness the terrible power of the storm (in its multiple meanings) and make it the focal point of divergence in this world. There’s also a history of early Europeans charging that African obeah and magic may have been responsible for calling down storms as retribution. It seemed a fitting choice.

The novella takes place in an alternate New Orleans during the Civil War. Thirteen-year-old Creeper has had her fill of the city and wants to earn a spot aboard Captain Ann-Marie’s airship Midnight Robber. To do this, she plans to earn the captain’s trust with information about a kidnapped Haitian scientist who’s invented the Black God’s Drums. What was the inspiration behind this fast-paced adventure story?

I’ve always been struck by the fact that steampunk is de facto alternate history, where a certain technology’s dominance changes the course of world events. I like to take that further and imagine spaces in these counterfactuals where the political and social power dynamics have also shifted. The Black God’s Drums has its origins in my attempts to imagine a steampunk Black Atlantic, one that cuts across traditional boundaries of nation-states and uses the skies as an alternate conduit of exchange comparable to the waterway. In this story, New Orleans is imagined as a transnational space, a port city tethered (as it was historically) both to the North American mainland and the larger Caribbean. In fact, the point of divergence in this world from our own is located in perhaps the most seminal event in the Black Atlantic: the Haitian Revolution. So, the story brings together the Age of Revolutions, African spirituality, Caribbean folklore, and the hybrid Afro-Creole cultures of New Orleans to weave a story of anti-slavery, resistance, airships, and orishas.

Would you say The Black God’s Drums is political because of all these elements you’re bringing together? I ask because you wrote in a blog post (bit.ly/2K8Z8ZY) that all your stories are political. This was in response to the Sad/Rabid Puppy calls for SF/F to return to “traditional storytelling.” Translation: “Depoliticize genre fiction by removing issues of race, gender, and sexuality.”

It centers the Haitian Revolution, so often silenced. That’s political in and of itself. I have no idea what “traditional storytelling” the puppies-with-the-sads are going on about. There’s nothing new or non-traditional about Ann-Marie’s having a queer identity, Creeper as a daring heroine, or diverse metropolitan spaces. That’s the world and storytelling as it’s been for-ever. So, part of the politics in my story is to really “trouble” these falsities of what the past looked like.

And looking at how you’ve woven African spirituality, Caribbean folklore, and the hybrid of New Orleans’ Afro-Creole cultures into the story, I see that the novella’s major theme is the African diaspora experience: slavery and the transport of African cultures to the Americas. It’s embodied in a line Creeper says at one point when calling out for help to Oya, the orisha she carries. “We change you gods wherever we bring you, make you into whatever we need . . . [Your people] remember you, even if they don’t always call you by name.”

Yeah, that’s it right there. Two-thirds of those who crossed the Atlantic during the formation of the “New World” were Africans. With the exception of the Spanish, all the European empires settled more Africans in the New World than Europeans until the nineteenth-century. That’s staggering when you think about it. It’s why you can find people of African descent and their influences from Canada to Argentina. Those who survived the voyages brought with them varied tongues and cultures, including religions. But none of that is static. Their cultures were changed by their experiences and adapted to their new lives, creating wholly new philosophies, cosmologies, technologies, music, and more. And it’s bi-directional. You look at something like Jazz, or Samba, or Calypso—all created in the “New World” by African descendants. Those same cultures later travel back across the waters, helping form things like Highlife or Afrobeat. That’s the Diaspora.

Let’s talk about your protagonists. I got a real kick out of the dynamic you set up between Creeper and Ann-Marie. Both carry orishas, they’re both headstrong and stubborn, and they’ve got something to learn from one another.

As the captain of the airship Midnight Robber, Ann-Marie embodies the spirit of Black freedom, mobility, and possibility in this alternate Atlantic. Creeper allowed me to explore New Orleans as an altered metropolis up-close, through the eyes of someone young, someone who wandered its streets and buildings, and was intimate with its many histories. It’s obvious that Ann-Marie knows the broader landscape of this world in ways that thirteen-year-old Creeper isn’t yet capable. Still, this is Creeper’s city. She’s had to struggle and grow up in it. She knows its many informal economies, conduits of information, and powerbrokers. And Ann-Marie needs her to succeed. Their similar traits, along with the orishas they carry, often lead them into conflict; but when you put them together, they’re unstoppable!

The protagonist in your Tor.com novelette “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” is named after early Egyptian feminist Huda el-Sha’arawi. And “The Mouser of Peter the Great,” your story in the anthology Hidden Youth, is inspired by Abram Gannibal, the great-grandfather of Alexander Pushkin. Is Ann-Marie based on a historical figure?

Ann-Marie is, in many ways, a composite of women in my Afro-Caribbean family—even the name. But if I had to give a historical figure that most inspired her, I’d say Sanité Bélair, a heroine of the Haitian Revolution who was a co-leader in a military rebellion against occupying French forces in 1802. She was executed along with her husband, but remains a folk hero of the Revolution in Haiti, where she’s even featured on a banknote.

I feel like another major character in this story is New Orleans. It’s as lively and dynamic a presence as Creeper and Ann-Marie are. What kind of research went into creating this alternate city flavored with West African mythology?

I spent time investigating historical and interdisciplinary scholarship that’s been done on the Black Atlantic and Haiti’s role within it, as well as the dynamic cultures that African slaves brought with them: C. L. R. James’s classic work The Black Jacobins (1938); Laurent Dubois’s Avengers of the New World (2004); Rashauna Johnson’s Slavery’s Metropolis (2016), to name a few. Also, don’t underestimate the usefulness of old city maps! Though I now live in New England, I have a Caribbean background and some familiarity with New Orleans. Fleshing out lots of the world came from those personal experiences as well as questioning family and friends in the region.

Why did you want to set the novella in New Orleans during the Civil War?

New Orleans, because its history forces you to disassociate preconceptions of it only as a city in “North America” and more of an entrepôt to the wider Caribbean. And it’s one of those spaces in the Black Atlantic most tied to Haiti, by history, culture, and people. The Civil War, because in this country it never seems that we’re ever over it.

I like how your New Orleans is a nonaligned territory where everyone across the political and racial spectrums coexists. We see this in the brothel Shá Rouj, where Creeper’s mother worked and where Confederate and Union soldiers are welcomed. And we see this in the convent The Sisters of the Sacred Family, a place of refuge for all women regardless of caste or color. I was wondering if you were imagining New Orleans as a multicultural, metropolitan utopia.

Right. I think you sum it up perfectly. In this world, New Orleans posits itself as neutral territory, because it can lay claim to all these different cultures and people who arrive within its borders—both by choice or force—and must now cobble together some semblance of co-existence. In a way, the New Orleans I’ve created is as imaginary a utopia as the one that is sold to us in tourist brochures. Shá Rouj may be this space where everyone can forget the outside world for a while, but there are still all these roiling conflicts beneath the surface. Joseph Roach, a scholar of performance studies, names New Orleans one of his “Cities of the Dead”—forged by these disparate strands into something fascinating and beautiful, but also tied to violent and destructive histories.

I’d be remiss for not mentioning that you have a background as a historian. Could you tell us a little about your doctoral work and how your area of study informed the writing of your novella?

My focus is on slavery and emancipation, as well as the Black Atlantic. So, lots of my exposure to research on those topics was highly informative in writing The Black God’s Drums.

For you, what are the similarities between speculating as a historian and as an SF/F writer, and what are some differences?

Speculating in history is still controversial. I mean, as historians, you have to do so. Yet it’s often the degree to which you carry it out. There’s a more traditional school that demands that hard concrete evidence. But that’s difficult if you want to get into the voices of marginalized people, like the enslaved. The archives are biased, often constructions of the colonial past. So, you have to turn to speculation. Not based on whims, but on what intersecting sources might reveal, what might be left out between the lines.

As a speculative fiction writer, of course, I’m allowed to unfetter those skills to a much greater degree. I recently wrote a story called “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” (bit.ly/2K9CKPV). It’s based on a notary in an account book by George Washington’s cousin, recording that the founding father “paid Negroes” for nine teeth in his possession. That’s it. Everything we thus far know about those nine teeth has to be drawn from our understanding of George Washington’s dental habits; the nature of teeth procurement in eighteenth-century America; the role of Black people in this enterprise of human body parts; etc. As a historian, that’s as far as I’d be allowed to speculate. As an SFF writer, I allowed my imagination to roam much farther, blending elements of the fantastic and the histories of slavery to get at the possible lives of the nine unnamed people to whom those teeth belonged.

When did you know that you wanted to write SF/F, and what do you enjoy about writing alternate history? What draws you to the genre?

I tried my hand at it when I was really young. I would always write stories here and there, for myself, my sister, my friends. But I didn’t really think I could do more until much later in life. My first forays were into secondary world fantasy. But I was always fascinated by alternate history. And it’s how I always thought about genres like steampunk. So, it wasn’t too much of a leap for me to merge the two. My fantasy background shows up in the fact that these alternate worlds I create almost always have some element of magic.

What are some of your favorite stories of alternate history or historical fiction? And who are some of the authors who inspired you to write The Black God’s Drums?

Steven Barnes’s Lion’s Blood series probably had the strongest influence. Before that, the alternate history I’d read was the baddies-take-over: “What if the Nazis had won” or the like. But Lion’s Blood was the first time I’d seen alternate history used to both rewrite the racial and social power dynamics of our world, and as a lens into our traumatic histories. Not alternate history, but Nalo Hopkinson’s short story “Fisherman” in Skin Folk was an inspiration of sorts. For reasons.

Are there any upcoming writing projects you can tell us about?

New projects? Like Johnny Tight-Lips from The Simpsons said: “I ain’t saying nothin!”

But seriously, I do have some contracts signed for short stories that’ll be announced when I can announce them. Plus, there’s another novella due out by Tor in 2019, The Haunting of Tram Car 015, this one set in the same world as “A Dead Djinn in Cairo.” In the meantime, I have a literary fantasy story out in a summer issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies called “A Tale of Woe” (bit.ly/2KlFkS9) readers might enjoy.

Is there anything else you’d like your readers to know about The Black God’s Drums?

It’s available on Amazon and other sellers for readers. Please take time to check it out. And thanks so much for this interview! Give a historian and writer space to ramble . . .

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Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.