This week, Gawker Review of Books is running interviews with three authors from the world of speculative fiction, discussing their work and their place within the evolving genre. Our final interview is with Daniel José Older, author of the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series, which debuted in January with the release of Half-Resurrection Blues.
An essayist and a musician, Older is also author of the ghost noir short-story collection, Salsa Nocturna. Older, who has been pushing for a more diverse publishing landscape, will release his next novel, Shadowshaper, on June 30. We recently spoke about the creative process, the diminishing relevance of the Hugos, and the responsibility of urban fantasy writers.
What are some literary and real-life inspirations for your work?
Daniel José Older: I like how you phrased that because there’s definitely growth—literary and real-life, and I think usually authors are just asked: “what book do you love?” For me so much inspiration for writing comes from conversation. It comes from listening out in the streets, from talking to people around my neighborhood. Even before that, when I was working on the ambulance, the way we told stories as paramedics was so alive and colorful and fantastic, and full of all the great things that literature should be full of. It always reminds of how much literature today is rooted in oral history, and in oral storytelling. That’s part of why I write in the first-person because I love that voice, that casual poetic vernacular voice.
That’s probably hard to pull off.
It sort of feels natural to me because I started out writing blogs about ambulance work. I was just writing what happened. That’s literally how I got into writing fiction. I was just writing blogs, writing about what happened the night before and it would just take me twenty minutes. I would write it as if I were just talking to another medic, except I would just add in little bits about medical information. All I’m doing is writing a story, I’m just telling a story. If I made up a story, it would be fiction. One of my mottos of writing has become, Just tell the fucking story. Which really makes it easier, because it cuts through some of the bullshit.
Yeah, I definitely recognize the blogging voice in your work.
To answer the second part of your question, Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins stuff, Junot Diaz everything, and Octavia Butler everything. I would say that’s the trifecta. There was one year of my life where I read all of them. On the strength of that, I couldn’t not be a writer. It’s so powerful to read them and the honesty of their voices while still telling a bad ass story. That’s really what I got from it, like, Whoa you can tell an amazing, adventurous imaginative story and still talk in all these different voices and keep the voice honest in a way that I hadn’t realized.
Great writers give us permission, usually permission for something we didn’t even know we were waiting for permission. Octavia, for her, the way that she talks about power and uses sci-fi and fantasy to talk about power blew my mind. Because I was already doing community organizing work and thinking of dealing with power analyses of the city with race and gender, and I love sci-fi and fantasy. But those two had never come together in the way they did until I read Octavia.
The concept of an “inbetweener” reads very similarly to the concept of a double-consciousness, like a two worlds lived and perceived experience of people of color. Is that something that you were going for?
Oh, absolutely. I was really interested in talking about the experiential level of it and the emotional level of it, more so than trying to create a construct where the living people equal the whites or and the dead people are people of color or vice-versa. That’s not interesting to me, because that’s a very facile way of approaching a larger analogy. More so, I was thinking about my own experience of being half white and half Latino, and sometimes passing for white—being a very light-skinned Latino—but being very aware of what those things mean in moving through my life in the city and my vocation. Just sort of picking on various times when that experience has come to the surface for one reason or the other. Especially being someone that is active about anti-racism and talking about race. So, it’s both the idea of double consciousness that all people of color have to deal with—just living in a white world and being someone that has the privilege of moving between those worlds.
Do you consider decisions like that in your work to be political, whatever that entails?
I do. Well, I consider all books to be political. I think if you ask authors on any side of the spectrum whether they meant to write a political book or not, most would tell you that they just went into it to write a book and a great story and didn’t intentionally include politics, but I would like to call bullshit on that. We are always including our politics. You can actually not do that, and we do ourselves an injustice when we pretend to not be conscious of it. I’m very strategic in how I choose to bring politics into my writing and I can’t think of any other writing advice that tells you to not be conscious or strategic about stuff. There’s this idea that if you don’t think about politics, it’ll just seep through. And for some people that’s true.
To bring it around to the Hugos, you’ll see this conversation pop up in the sense of the Sad Puppies folks lamenting that suddenly science-fiction and fantasy have become political, as if Tolkien wasn’t thoroughly writing a political book about the supremacy of western culture. There’s nothing more political than that; it’s just so normalized that people read it as, ‘Oh it’s just another fantasy story.’ You have a message; it’s just a message that’s normalized. People act like only folks coming from the left have a message to give, and that’s bullshit. These are very political books, and they always have been. Fantasy and sci-fi have always been a political project. Look at Lovecraft.
Right, and Tolkien used his works as vehicles for language, which was a political act.
Absolutely. And even today, the Percy Jackson books, some of the best-selling middle grade fantasy books out there, I remember I read the first one and the stated goal of the good guys is to defend Western culture. Of course it’s cool to write that in a book, but can you imagine a book that was like, Our goal is to defend African culture or Middle Eastern culture? That would have been so political! That’s a wild notion, for kids mind you.
So, more about the Hugos and the Sad Puppies stuff. Do you think the back and forth represents something of the larger cultural conflicts going on?
Yes. Definitely. First of all, it represents people who are again so normalized to the idea of their comfort being provided for that they freak out entirely the second that it’s slightly off-kilter. Because sci-fi and fantasy have always been a very white, very straight, very heteronormative, male political project. A very colonial project. In the past couple years, their big complaint is that suddenly people that aren’t them are winning awards, winning Hugos and that is cause for them to, you know, create this great big stir and takeover.
When we’re in a time when we have to proclaim in the streets that Black Lives Matter, literature is one of the first places where we learn what matters and whose life matters and whose doesn’t. And literature has been saying for centuries that black lives don’t matter. By not publishing black authors, by not publishing books about black people, that’s become the message by default. Whiteness being the default has been the message. So, the fact that we now have to fight to just get a fair Hugo ballot because a few people have hurt feelings and want to grasp at relevancy after decades of this really destructive form of erasure from fantasy and sci-fi absolutely speaks to the movement in the streets today, to what’s going on with the police, to what’s going on in politics. Literature is always a reflection of society and society is always a reflection of literature, and when publishing is as white as it is, we have to look at those numbers and understand that they are connected. They are 100 percent connected. There’s no way to disconnect them. But people always want to act surprised.
I did some background research on the Hugos, and I think (very informally) something like 80 percent of all award winners are still white dudes writing about white dudes. What role do you think the three different awards—representing three different ways of voting—play in the validation of cultural shifts and what role do they play in the genre moving forward?
I don’t know if I’m equipped to answer that question. It’s hard to say. My understanding is that they have declined in their importance over the years. It used to be the case that if you won a Hugo or a World Fantasy that was a real quick ticket to making it. That’s not true anymore, I don’t think sales really get affected by it. It’s like what you said, it’s about the industry and the genre itself giving legitimacy to certain voices. That’s not to say that it’s totally irrelevant either, it’s just not what it used to be as far as really being that boost that an emerging writer needs. It’s great, but part of this conversation is that we’re living in a time where authors have unprecedented access to readers.
The idea of gatekeepers standing between us is still very powerful, but less relevant than it ever has been. I can get on Twitter and talk to 15,000 people right now, and that’s never been true before in the history of literature, and there are people with way more followers than me. And that changes the game. It changes the game in a way that makes people really uncomfortable. People are saying things that need to be heard and haven’t been heard. And that’s an amazing thing to happen, because now movements will rise and fall on hashtags. The old guard of sci-fi is not ready for that, and it’s freaking them out.
Anything else you want to leave the readers with?
Urban fantasy presents a tremendous opportunity to talk about what’s going on in the world right now. Whether it’s police brutality or gentrification or black lives mattering or cultural appropriation, all these things are alive in the city. You can’t avoid them. For that not to be central to so much urban fantasy, for that to be basically sidelined by the larger genre of mostly white urban fantasy, is both a literary and a human failure. Why would you pass up an opportunity to talk about such a hugely important and literarily amazing and problematic conversation? All this stuff is great literature and very, very human and tragic at the same time. That’s what we’re supposed to write books about, these moments of history that change the course of things. The city is a crossroads, and so often what we see is the city as a cartoon or the city as a nightmare. But most of all, it’s full of humans, and full of power being taken and given and exchanged and all these things. Why would we pass up on that? Why would we erase all that life that’s happening, all that power that’s going on?
[Photo by Luke McGuff/Flickr]