Andrea Hairston is the author of Master of Poisons (out September 8, 2020). Her other books include Will Do Magic For Small Change (finalist for the Mythopoeic, Lambda, and Tiptree Awards, and a New York Times Editor’s pick), Redwood and Wildfire (Tiptree and Carl Brandon Award winner), and Mindscape (winner of Carl Brandon Award). She has published essays, plays, and short fiction and received grants from the NEA, Rockefeller and Ford Foundation. She is the L. Wolff Kahn 1931 Professor of Theatre and Africana Studies at Smith College.
I read that when you conceive of a novel or a play, you start with an idea or a question or a character talking to you. What idea, question, or character sparked the premise of Master of Poisons?
In December 2014, I was reading about honeybees and colony collapse. Parasites, pesticides, and poor (monoculture) diet stressed the bees. They got jobbed in for this or that crop and then got transported long distances. More stress. Neonicotinoids were short-circuiting their memories and navigation centers as they slaved for our almonds and apples. Bats were dying off, too. Chunks of Mississippi Delta wetlands, as large as a football field or Central Park, were disappearing every day. These images haunted me. But the denuding of the land, of flora, fauna, and culture was just how it was, regrettable but inevitable—Empire Normal.
So many people were in denial or talked about climate change dystopia as inevitable—with nothing for anybody to do. Not only had we colonized bees, bats, and the Mississippi Delta, but the future was also colonized in our stories, in our imaginations. I wanted to write about impossible change, about how we could decolonize our minds, our stories, our futures. I wanted to conjure a way out of no way. So I wrote the first paragraph of Master of Poisons as a challenge to myself, as a call to action and change.
In the novel, poison storms are sweeping across the Arkhysian Empire and making the land uninhabitable. The emperor’s council dithers about solving the problem. Djola, the titular Master of Poisons, has tried to warn the population for years, urging them to save their homeland, and they do nothing. Instead, the council exiles him, forcing him to travel with pirates. This made me think of our own real life existential threat: climate crisis and climate denial. Are the poison storms commentary on how slow we’ve been to act on minimizing the damages of climate change?
This was indeed on my mind!
I went to the March on Washington with my mother in 1963. I experienced the crowds coming together to demand justice and freedom. I felt Dr. King’s passion and the power generated from all of us coming together. I participated in Earth Day in 1970. At teach-ins and marches, I felt such passion, power, and commitment. I knew we were onto something. And we made great changes! However, a half a century later in 2020, I was hoping to be talking about something else.
Change is hard. Some abolitionists in the nineteenth century gave up sugar so as not to participate in the slave economy. Sugar was more than a luxury: in the time before refrigeration, it was essential to canning and curing food. Consider how we are complicit in slave labor—remember the bees and also the folks who do hidden labor for all of your conveniences—and how our habits contribute to the climate crisis. However, despite how hard it is, we have to pick up the pace!
Aspects of the poison storms remind me a bit of The Nothing from The Neverending Story. You’ve translated plays by Michael Ende from German into English. Any conscious connection between your novel and his?
There isn’t a conscious connection to The Neverending Story. I have read all of Michael Ende’s novels and plays. I also had great discussions with him about the plays and about the grey men in Momo who roll our precious moments, our time, into cigars and smoke away our days. He was, like me, a fan of Bertolt Brecht. Michael’s writings and perspectives are definitely part of who I am as an artist.
Going back to what you said about wanting to write about how we could decolonize our minds: Does that include decolonizing the mind from the social constructs—and limitations—of gender? During the scene where Djola joins the Emperor’s council to discuss turning back the poison desert, the absence of women is very noticeable, even before Djola’s half-brother, Nuar, makes note of it. One of the councilmen says that a woman at the table is a sign of weakness. And then there’s Yari, the griot of griots training the other protagonist, twelve-year-old Garden Sprite Awa. Yari is a veson, someone who is neither male nor female.
Denial is critical to Empire. Normal is the secret weapon of Empire. Normal gets us to deny who we might be or could have been. Normal allows us to deny the humanity of those who are “not normal.” Decolonizing the mind is about getting at what we take for granted, what goes without saying. Empire Normal is a stifling monoculture that limits our spirits and renders us vulnerable to disorder and disease, but we’re barely aware that it is operating in and on us.
Societies around the world and throughout history have not organized gender in the same identical way. Normal is not everywhere and not always a riff on the late Victorian rigid binary. That is reflected in the cultures I created for my secondary world.
We’re on a tiny rock hurtling through the void, sharing the mystery and wonder with all life forms. Denying this is lethal. Our diversity makes each other possible.
For this novel, you researched West African, African American, and Indigenous theatre artists who have struggled to realize their artistic and personal dreams in the US from the 1800s to the present. Could you tell us a little about a few of the theatre artists you researched, and how you wove this research into the story?
Zitkála-Šá (1876–1938) was a Yankton Dakota Sioux writer, musician, educator, translator, feminist, and activist. In 1913, she collaborated with William Hansom (son of Dutch immigrants) on The Sun Dance (Wiwanyag Wachipi)—a “romantic Indian opera” based on Ute and Sioux sacred cultural performances. The Sun Dance had been outlawed in 1883 along with other so-called heathenish dances and ceremonies. (It wasn’t until 1991 that Indians got full religious freedom.) However, Zitkála-Šá had access to people who continued doing underground performances or who performed where agents looked the other way. Relying on these sources, she created a Pan-Indian opera that refuted the stereotypes running buck wild on stage and screen, and in the pages of dime novels. She used traditional stories, customs, dress, songs, and ceremonies. The performers were from the Ute Nation and they performed at Orpheus Hall in Vernal, Utah. When the opera was performed in NYC, Zitkála-Šá was not credited, only William Hanson. However, we have uncovered/recovered her story.
Other early theatre artists who inspired me were:
Aida Overton Walker, African American dancer, actress, and choreographer who performed with Bert Williams and helped to create the American musical comedy. Aida Overton Walker performed Black men and women characters who were not from the blackface minstrel character warehouse.
Lillian St. Cyr, aka Princess Red Wing (Ho-Chunk), and James Young Deer (Ho-Chunk), actor and director. They were a Hollywood power couple of the silent cowboy era who also made films referencing their communities.
Lillyn Brown, African American and Erie Iroquois blues singer and actress who, like Aida Overton Walker, frequently performed in drag as a dapper, elegant man. This was at a time when Black men were portrayed as buffoons and Native men were wild savages.
In the late 1950s, Lorraine Hansberry, of Raisin in the Sun fame, wrote Les Blancs, a speculative play set in a near-future fictional African country on the verge of revolution after years of brutal colonization by a fictional northern European nation.
Georgina Lightning’s 2008 ghost film, Older Than America, chronicles the healing experience of a contemporary community in Minnesota’s Indian Country that uses the Sun Dance and other traditional rituals and wisdom to heal from colonization and genocide.
These theatre artists drew from their communities to challenge the dominant Empire narratives and create alternative story-possibilities for their audiences. Their performances proclaimed, “The way it is isn’t the way it has to be.” The colonized are often seen as casualties of progress, like bees or the Mississippi Delta. Our marvelous present seems to depend on the demise of the “natural,” the “natives.” They fall victim to the forward movement of history, a regrettable but inevitable trajectory. I am grateful to writers who have interrupted this Empire mythology.
The Arkhysian Empire is a secondary world setting. Is there any folklore or historical reference that informed how you laid out the geographical and societal landscape being ravaged by the poison desert?
I didn’t draw on specific landscapes, but connecting to the previous question—researching and experiencing theatre artists has offered me rich cultural/historical references.
In pre-colonial times, if Igbo men (in what is now southeastern Nigeria) got careless and let goats chomp precious harvests; if undisciplined young men ran amok in the village and elder men only sniggered; if a man abused his wife or if men made unreasonable demands of their wives; if anybody endangered the community with reckless, greedy, or foolish behavior, Igbo women gathered for a mikiri, or ad hoc meeting, and worked to resolve the problem with their collective power. If men ignored the mikiri’s resolutions and persisted with the bad behavior, the mikiri women would “sit on the men.” In the grand style of griot praise singers, women sang and danced, or “made war,” ogu ndem in Igbo. Women warriors performed day and night in front of the offending men’s homes or chased after them wherever they went. They highlighted transgressions and weaknesses and questioned limp manhood in satiric flourishes that parodied male griot style until the men agreed to the mikiri’s resolutions. Or the women refused to cook or left a village en masse. The men were forced to plead for the women’s return and give in to their demands.
Reign of Wazobia (1988) by Igbo playwright Tess Onwueme is set in Anioma, a mythical Igbo kingdom that is simultaneously past, present, and future. Wazobia, a woman, has been crowned king. She brings peace, prosperity, and justice and refuses to uphold so-called “traditions” that grind women to dust. Wazobia refuses to step down after the traditional three-year reign. Male chiefs want to depose her and reinstate an abusive power structure. Wazobia defeats them, and her power comes from a mikiri of women: traditional elders, Western-educated youth, wealthy elite, and poor women. Onwueme’s characters are contemporary Africans who embrace the wisdom of their ancestors and the tradition of change.
I’ve seen Master of Poisons classified as action fantasy and sword and sorcery on Amazon, but would you classify it as a work of what you and your writer group call Folk Weird? Because the damage wrought by the poison storm juxtaposed with conjure powers of your main characters reads a lot like climate science combined with magic.
I like stories that engage different ways of knowing, experiencing the world. I want haints and aliens dropping into our home dimension. I write conjurers who map the stars, who pull fire and get caught in the magnetic flight of bees, and who read dirt poems on the roots of trees.
Along with science, I think we need magic, our conjure selves, our metaphorical minds to find a way out of no way to make climate change not be a dead end.
Let’s talk about your protagonists. Awa and Djola are on parallel journeys. Both have conjuring abilities and are sent in roving exile—Awa sold to the Green Elders and Djola banished to travel with pirates. Did you devise their characters in tandem with each other or one after another?
The first bit of the novel I wrote is the scene where Awa and Djola meet. I conceived of Master of Poisons as a juxtaposition of their stories—a polyrhythm of their POVs. I wanted to task myself with multiple perspectives and offer that to my readers. Both Awa and Djola love dirt, bugs, bats, and trees. They can appreciate the squirmy slime, the austere rocks, the treacherous rivers. But they are also very, very different. I wanted to play with that.
Speaking of multiple perspectives, you wrote interlude-like chapters from the point of view of animals, like the elephant that befriends Djola in Arkhys City and the behemoths in the ocean that sing with him while he’s ship-bound with the pirates he’s banished to travel with. Was there a particular effect you were going for with these POV shifts? They add such a fun richness to the texture of the adventure narrative.
Besides loving spiders and insects, I am enchanted by trees, birds, mammals, and rivers. I’m a theatre artist, and in rehearsal you’re always trying to go from self to other, trying to get inside the character who is not you. You want to walk with their six legs or fly on their wings; you want to go to another world via their spirit and struggle. Shifting your POV to the other is the wisdom and joy of theatre. That’s what I wanted to do with these chapters.
Awa is accompanied by protective bees that hide in her hair. They’re kind of like her collective familiar. Is there a folkloric reference you’re making with them?
In much folklore, nature and the nonhuman are vital, central, and significant for their own sake. Plus, I have loved bees, ants, and social insects forever. My brother and I had an ant farm when we were young. It was great to watch the ant show. I’m also allergic to bees. I got stung once and my leg swelled up. I also have read amazing stories about beekeepers and their relationships with bees. Bees were swarming in my dreams! They were a big part of the inspiration to write Master of Poisons. They had to be a major part of the story.
Both Djola and Awa can travel to the trippy spirit world called Smokeland. Where did the idea of Smokeland come from and how did you come up with its name?
Awa introduced me to Smokeland—including the name. It’s the realm of imagination that she and others traveled to. They invited me in. I wrote down what they told me. To write, I inhabit my characters like an actor doing an improv and I let them show me who they are, show me the way to their story.
You’ve written about griots, pirates, and conjurers in previous novels: the griot-like character of Elleni in Mindscape; pirates in your novelette “Saltwater Railroad”; the conjure woman in Redwood and Wildfire. What brings you back to these characters? What do you like about writing about them?
Some people write about detectives solving a mystery or folks finding the sweet love of their life (or the sweet love of the moment) or young people coming of age and making a character of themselves in this world. Then there’s the creeping rot/horror that slips into our lives and takes us down. I like all that, but after writing my second novel, Redwood and Wildfire, I realized I write stories about artists—conjurers, griots—sacred storytellers who uncover the past, discover the future, and make sense of the cosmos. These artists also deal in the subjunctive case—the who we might have been and who we would be, if . . . They embody the struggle and beauty of being alive.
Music plays a big role in Awa and Djola’s lives. Awa travels with the Green Elders to become the griot of griots, and her travels include learning to sing and mastering polyrhythms. Djola plays his djembe drums and kora to keep the pirates in high spirits. What’s your relationship to music and how much of it did you bring to the text?
I play balaphon, a gourd-resonated xylophone from West Africa. Most of the plays I have written involve music and musicians. I listened to music from all over the world to write the novel. Music transported me to Smokeland! Polyrhythm—playing multiple rhythms/entertaining multiple perspectives—is key to the music I play and critical to who I want to be as a performer, writer, human being.
There’s a phrase that repeats a like chorus: Basawili, meaning “Not the end, more breath to come.” It’s a recurring statement that brings hope to the story. How did you come up with this?
Djola spoke the words to me, a gift from his mother that he held on to. Basawili is part of the way out of no way.
At the end of chapter seven you wrote, “[Djola] would bring Smokeland to the everyday, conjure truths from illusions, from possibilities and maybe-nots.” Do you see writing as a form of conjuring truths from illusions?
Yes. Carl Sagan said, “Dreams are maps.” To quote Master of Poisons, “With our thoughts we make a world.”
And what’s the next writing project you have coming up?
I am writing a near-future Folk Weird novel based on my play: Episodes from the Continuing Drama of Cinnamon Jones, scientist, artiste, and hoodoo conjurer. Cinnamon hangs with cyborg dogs, Circus-Bots and the baron of the boneyard.
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