Imagining different histories

P. Djèlí Clark on history, fantasy, and how racism creates monsters

Last year, after a summer filled with news of racial violence and protests, I picked up P. Djéli Clark's novella Ring Shout, a short, Lovecraftian horror thriller about a monster hunter who fights against otherworldly creatures known as Ku Kluxes that have found some welcome allies in the form of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915, and work to prevent our reality from being taken over.

It's a spectacular read, one that's remained on my mind ever since I put it down. I'd read his work before: I was entranced by his novella The Black God's Drums when that came out in 2018, and earlier this summer while painting houses, I blew through two of his other recent stories: his novella The Haunting of Tram Car 015 and his debut novel A Master of Djinn.

Those stories introduce reader to a fantastic alternate world where magic reentered the world following an event in which an inventor named al-Jahiz pierced the veil between our reality and a magical one, turning our world into a far stranger place. Djinn and other creatures and steampunk robots populate the world alongside humans, and in Egypt, at the focal point of the transformation, the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities helps keep everything in line and from spinning out of control. Think the FBI's X-Files department, but in Cairo and with quite a bit more flair.

The books make for some fun worldbuilding and adventures, but at the core of Clark's worlds is a deep-seated understanding of history and how colonialism shaped the world we life in today. That comes as no surprise: Clark has his doctorate in history and studies slavery and emancipation around the Atlantic.

He got his start writing short fiction in 2011, and began publishing short fiction in places like Daily Science Fiction, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Lightspeed, and others. His novelette 'A Dead Djinn in Cairo' (which introduced his fantasy world) was a finalist for the 2017 Locus Award, while in 2019, he won a Nebula and Locus Award for his Fireside Fiction story 'The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington' (as well as a Hugo nomination). Ring Shout earned him the 2021 Nebula, BFA, and Locus Awards, as well as nominations for the Shirley Jackson, World Fantasy, Hugo, and Ignyte Awards.

Earlier this summer, I spoke with Clark about his work, history, and building fantastic worlds.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


My background is in military history, and something that I'm keenly interested in is how your work as a historian intersects with speculative fiction. But to start off with, what was your entry point for studying history?

I always tell people: I think everyone is fascinated by history, even if they claim they're not. I can tell because looking at genealogy craze that's sweeping the country; I think everyone is somewhat fascinated by history, even if they may not like how they've learned it. Everyone is somehow fascinated with the past — human beings are the only known creatures on the planet who like to look back at our past and figure out what we've done.

And so, I want to say I was always interested in some aspects of history, but I didn't think I knew I wanted to be a historian until really well into my college career. I did not enter school to be a historian: it wasn't until my my senior year that I was taking more history classes than I needed, and a professor there gave me a brochure, and said, "Have you ever thought of my grad school?" And I was like "grad school? Why would I do that?"

What was it that you originally went to college for?

I was pre-med.

Oh!

Yeah, exactly. I was pre-med, I got all the way through organic chemistry, and I had a lot of biology and chemistry classes on my docket before I realized that's not what I want to do. So, I switched my major to history and political science. But even then, I didn't know what I want to do with those. I was interested in them but I was basically graduating with no sense of career path when someone said, "Hey, what about [grad school]?"

It still took me a while before I went to get my masters. And then I laughed and was like "you know, now you can go into the world and work now that you've gone to school for so long.' So I went out to New York and worked on Wall Street and hated it. I shouldn't say hated it — I just knew that this was not what I wanted to do with my life, absolutely no way. And I thought, "why don't I go back and go to school? I like that history thing."

So I went back to get my PhD. So it was an unorthodox path, and it was spread out over many, many years, but ended up being where I was heading.

Was there any particular moment or topic in your senior year where it just sort of clicked for you?

I wouldn't even say it happened in my senior year — I make it sound like I got that brochure and then I knew. [laughs] No, it was totally like two more years after I'd finished, fiddling around trying to figure out what I wanted to do.

But there were some classes that I took that I was interested in. I'd taken a lot of classes about the American South; I was in school in Texas. Simply learning about the antebellum south and reconstruction, those kinds of things really interested me. And then I realized that I was really interested in studying the history of slavery.

I think that kind of pulled me towards history and ended up being what I got my degree in. Even though it's interesting, if you'd asked me when I first started out what I was interested in before I was even on the path of history, I'd tell you I liked ancient history — get me some Babylon, Rome, or Egypt and I'm there. It ended up being not at all what I would end up getting my degree.

Image of P. Djèlí Clark
Image: Le Image Photography | Brooklyn

You grew up in Trinidad and Brooklyn and Houston. How did that influence how you viewed history?

You know, I don't think I appreciated it until studying history a bit longer, especially when I started thinking about the history of the South and those kinds of things.

I think at first, my interest was very much looking at the American South and the antebellum and reconstruction eras. Then as time went on, I became really interested in enslaved women in the American South, from the ex-slave narratives and their discussions of their lives. It was sometime in doing that that I started thinking about my own background, my family from the Caribbean, and notions of Caribbean slavery. That actually came later and I guess the two things sort of merged after a while; looking at what now people consider Black Atlantic or diaspora studies, looking at comparative slavery across those regions.

So it's also to say that it was always a process; it was never like, I know immediately what I'm going to do. I took some classes, I got interested in things I happen to read in a journal article, or a book here and there, and here I am.

With the understanding that one's origins as a fan are pretty nebulous, how did you get interested in writing speculative fiction in the first place?

I think I was always interested in science fiction and some forms of fantastic, long before I knew I want to be a storyteller: I was just that kid. I can't remember a time of where I was not that way. When I was in Trinadad, I was listening to people talk about folklore or watching interesting movies with stories from Hindu cosmology (because we have a large South Asian community in Trinidad) or, watching whatever science fiction was on the BBC. I think I was always just drawn to it; something a bit more fantastic that was something beyond our mundane world.

When I came back to the United States to live with my parents, my mother introduced me to old black and white episodes of Twilight Zone and to Star Trek, my father introduced me to Godzilla movies and Boris Karloff, both of which he liked when he was younger. My mother would take my sister and I to the library, and the books I chose tended to always have some kind of speculative element. So I've always been interested in it, and my friends always were, and people I knew were.

But I didn't think I would write it. That's a different story. I may have dabbled in doing little writing as a kid. But that was for my friends, my sister, what have you. I didn't really think about "oh, I can seriously write science fiction like these men and women I read." It never clicked in my head that that could be a thing.

How did that start for you?

I can't honestly say; it was like, I would always play around and write things, and at some point, I was reading novels. I was thinking, "what if I had a story like this?" And it really moved from there, where I just started writing.

But at that point, I knew nothing about the market, I knew nothing about the industry. I just knew I wanted to write. How it will get published, I had no idea. Elves? I didn't understand about agents or anything. So it would take maybe another 10 years before I like okay, "let's be serious and learn what it's like the published."

You published your first story in 2011 — 

Wow, was it that far back? What story was it?

According to ISFDB, it was 'Shattering the Spear' in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly.

I would have thought it was 'Wings of Icarus', but yeah, that might be right! I think I sold [Wings] earlier.

Images: MVmedia 

It looks like they were both in the same year, along with 'Skin Magic'.

Interestingly, I think 'Skin Magic' was probably the one that brought me back [to writing].

I'd been so interested in writing, that I actually sat down and wrote a whole novel. It was a huge fantasy novel, like several — I wanted to be the next Robert Jordan. And so I wrote a massive fantasy tome, I had no idea how to get it published, had no idea what to do with it. But I did manage to land an agent who knew nothing about science fiction, they just liked the story. And as you know, from knowing about agents now what I didn't know then, yeah, that's wasn't gonna work.

But they tried to sell it. It didn't sell, but it came close to being sold to an imprint, but they had no idea how to quote-unquote (how they put it) do fantasy with black characters, and they told me they didn't know how to market it. So it went nowhere.

After that, I kind of got a little depressed and was like "I'm just not going to write again." I was giving up right? ['Skin Magic'] was actually me coming back to writing, and it's when I started to take it bit more seriously. I joined an online community called Black Speculative Fiction Society and it was just fun to meet all of these other Black people from across the diaspora who were also interested in science fiction. I was like, "I didn't know you guys were out there!"

While I was on there, I started saying "hey, what if I got back into writing?" and so I started writing a short story called 'Skin Magic', which is a fantasy story set in a mythical version of Western East Africa about a thief who had these tattoos that has monsters come out of them. I basically wrote the story online, and the next thing I knew, I caught the attention of indie author Milton Davis, who was putting together an anthology with the now-late Charles Saunders.

He read the story and was like "I love this, I'd like it in the anthology." That's what brought me back to writing: Charles Saunders. From there, I started writing, and after that is when I went back and started researching: how do you actually write a short story? What is the word count on a short story? So I went back and read a lot of short stories.

That's how 'Wings for Icarus' and 'Shattered the Spear' came about: me actually studying the industry itself, studying and seeing what is published, reading other authors, which I hadn't bothered to do too much of. That was in 2010, but things started to get published in 2011.

Had you read stories by Charles Saunders before?

I hadn't — or I should say, I was just reading about him by being on the Black Science Fiction Society website. The most I knew about Black science fiction writers was Octavia Butler, and I didn't learn about her until college. Growing up, I'd never seen her books, as much as I was in the library. And so he was someone I learned about late from being on there, and it was being in the middle of reading all of that stuff, that was the inspiration to write 'Skin Magic'

So you were starting your career in science fiction and continuing your education by getting a doctorate, how did your work as a historian inform what you were writing?

I think what I began doing (and I don't know if I was consciously doing it) was pulling on the tools of history to do my writing, whether I was doing research, or an idea would come from something I've come across in history.

I figured everybody just gets their ideas from somewhere, mine just happen to be something I've studied or read. I think that started happening a bit later [for me], but I can see in some of those early stories that I was definitely injecting some aspects of history, or something that I'd learned or come across into my writing.

Were there situations where you were researching somebody or event and began speculating out?

Normally it would be that I knew about an event, and I may not have a story at the moment, but I might be thinking to myself, "huh, this might be interesting." I've done that once or twice, but sometimes it was simply knowing about the event and then later on, I would start thinking "oh, what if I added this kind of element to this?"

Early on, it would be that I was writing a story, let's say 'Wings of Icarus' and within the story, I mention that the protagonist's father was an inventor who was inspired by the black inventor Elijah McCoy. That was me doing a little history drop in there, or in 'Shattering the Spear', is pulling from certain wars that would take place between Southern African ethnic groups like the Zulus or others, and I'm pulling on that because I read something from a book, and I'm just using that for a bit of inspiration.

I think the more blatant things like when I wrote 'The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,' that was me knowing about that, but when I first knew about it, I didn't think "oh, speculative fiction story" — that came later.

In actually thinking and researching, sometimes I don't know how — it's something that came into mind, like "what if I illustrate the story, irrespective of the respective of length?" And I would do alternate history, but early on, I don't think I was doing much of that at all. I'd say that history became much more directly relevant to my writing as time went on.

I read The Haunting of Tram Car 015, and then moved on to A Master of Djinn. I'd read that you'd visited Cairo at one point, and I'm curious to know what about the city fascinated you and how did it grow to become this vivid world you created?

I want to make sure that I don't make it sound as if it's like it was one event, like I visited it and went "oh yeah!" — I visited Cairo a long time ago, and so I pulled on it again when I was writing it, but certainly the city stayed with me.

It was a bustling city with so many different parts, absolutely modern parts, and others that are so old and ancient. Giza is right outside of it with the pyramids, and you can get ancient, medieval, and modern in one city. There are so many different cultures and people in Cairo. Just watching Cairo traffic is its own metaphysical thing, because you're wondering how people aren't getting hit. how are you learning to do this? I was warned not to try this unless you're from there. So there were a lot of different things that were probably going to be more fascinating to an outsider who's goggle-eyed, watching everything from the outside than a local. So I would say in some ways, Cairo, and the rest of Egypt stayed with me. I also went to Luxor, Alexandria, and these other places.

For the story itself, the idea for 'A Dead Djinn in Cairo', I always say that it probably came out of the fact that this came much later than the rest of my writer. I was fully a doctoral student and an adjunct, and I'm in my last year doing a lot of teaching world civilization from 1500 to the present. I was doing a lot of anti-colonial history, you know, colonialism and colonial history, showing [my students] Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers and during grad school, I'd read Edward Said like three times, and somewhere in the mix of all that, I just started imagining because beyond history, I like science fiction as well!

What if something had went a little different, and colonialism had been thwarted or something of the sort, as I'm reading about these events, where the maxim gun came along and just makes the playing field completely unequal around the world and allows the European Empire to just go wherever they want and to do whatever they want.

And I'm trying to wonder how might that have been different, especially when I'm thinking about all these anti-colonial struggles and thinking about the "post colonial experience" and somewhere out of that, 'A Dead Djinn in Cairo' was born. I remember the idea of the main character Fatima, the idea of the dead Djinn was there, and then it was like from that I wanted her in the suit. And I asked the question, "Well, why is she in suit?" The colonization happened here and "okay, if it didn't happen, and if Egypt is its own independent place, how did that take place and what can I use the thwart maxim guns, so why not magic?" And the story just grew out from there and formed that first story.

I hadn't intended — when I wrote the story, the whole world hadn't been fleshed out. I have a surface idea in my head — I knew about Cairo and Egypt, Djinn are back, they manage to bring magic in and thwart colonialism, what does this mean for society and technology? I hadn't thought beyond much of that, but I did leave lots of doors open for me to explore later.

Images: Tordotcom Publishing

You've since expanded that out into Tram Car and Master of Djinn. What was the process there, now that you've planted your flag in the sand, so to speak?

Right, because when I wrote it, as I said, I had no intention of writing anything else in this world. At least no conscious intention. I didn't even think that the story would be published. I'd learned how to write a short story, but this story was still way over budget, it's way too long. I had no idea where it could possibly be published at 12,000 words, and I was really about to retire it to the purgatory of my hard drive. And I happen to put out a post on Facebook, where I said "anybody know anyone who would like a steampunk alternate world Cairo with a dapper suit-wearing lady detective?"

Diana Pho [then an editor at Tor.com] said "that sounds interesting!" I had known Diana because I was blogging a lot (another thing I did to get back into speculative fiction) about speculative fiction on my blog, and hadn't made the connection that she was at Tor until she asked me for the story, and that's how 'A Dead Djinn in Cairo' got published.

I didn't have the intention to do more, but to my surprise and my gratitude, people really connected with it. They connected with the character, and by the next year, I realized okay, I'm going to do more here. And so I was in Hanover — it was like something out of Hemingway — I was in Spain in the summer of 2016 or 2017, and I'd just finished visiting some Moorish castles in Grenada. It was just before dinner I just sat down and started fleshing out the larger world.

I've had it in my head for a while, and once I had that larger world down, I did it in the form of a timeline. Once I had that down, it was just a matter of going back and writing stories in this world that I'd created. Right after I did that, I came back to the US, then went out to London for research, and the idea for The Haunting of Tram Car 015 came up. It was my first experiment in this world that I'd fleshed out — a story that was a bit silly, but which expanded on the world a bit. And it turned out that people liked that story too! And so after they liked that one, I said "okay, well, I guess I have to write a novel." And so A Master of Djinn happened.

As I was reading, I read A Master of Djinn in close succession with a couple of other books that have been examining colonialism, like Arkady Martine's A Desolation Called Peace and The Unbroken by C.L. Clark — 

Another Clark! But no relation. It's such a great book.

It feels like there's something of a moment in genre fiction as authors are paying attention to this, of looking back at imperial power in new ways. I'm curious how your approach to it has been.

I think it's themes investigating power in our world — you could say Seth Dickinson's Baru Cormorant novels are very much about exploring this notion of imperialism and colonialism in power. I think N.K. Jemisin's works, the Inheritance and Broken Earth trilogies also have these themes. I think it's just something that we're in an era where people want to talk about those things.

For any people who are marginalized, ever since you were a kid, you've always been like "what if? What if it happened this way, or what if slavery didn't happen?

I'll go back and say that I think we always have been, but as you said, we're doing it differently now, right? Especially when you start thinking about the marginalized or imagining alternate worlds. For any people who are marginalized, ever since you were a kid, you've always been like "what if? What if it happened this way, or what if slavery didn't happen? Or what if Haiti had more power, or what if there was a way to thwart colonialism?" That's just something in your head as a marginalized person — I think now I just have the room to do something with it.

Along the same lines, there's a white supremacy element to this, and I'm interested in your approach with Lord Worthington.

It's funny, Lord Worthington is like my sympathetic character — he was this old romantic, but he'd say cringeworthy things and have these cringeworthy ideas. But the person who really imbued this is Dalton. He was like my ode to every form of scientific racism that you could possibly have — the notion that the ancient Egyptians were these blond-haired Anglo-Saxons. You can actually come across that stuff, actual writing! I tend to approach these things tongue-in-cheek, and that's one of the things I want to say that I wanted to do when I thought up the world of 'A Dead Djinn in Cairo', it was anti-colonialist with a bit of humor. I didn't want it to be completely dour. That would be a different book, and some of those looks great when they're that way.

But this one I wanted to imbue with a bit of humor where it's a lot of little snarks and so Dalton embodies in some ways the white supremacy in the way that the scientific racism is in his statements, and what eventually happens to him was a bit cathartic to write.

Image: Andrew Liptak

I was interested in how these English guys were just appropriating all of these older cultures, but not bothering to understand them. As a historian, it's fascinating to see that that's often the norm — people make so many assumptions based on their own, limited understanding of the world.

For example: Annalee Newitz has a great new book out called Four Lost Cities, and there's a section in there where they're talking about Çatalhöyük in Turkey. Early historians came in and basically said, "this is how this was," based on a lot of those types of assumptions. And as archeologists have conducted more research, they've found that those assumptions were pretty faulty.

Star Trek has an interesting premise that I would see especially in The Next Generation and Voyager. And that was this notion from Morgenthau: that civilizations are all going to move as he saw it, like in these in these states from, "oh, they're going to be savages and they'd be barbaric, right?" And then they'd they'll reach this state, and then they'll be perfect Edwardian or Victorian Englishmen — that this was a natural state that societies decided to move to.

Star Trek buys into that to a T, right? Every time they go through civilization, they're like, "oh, they're in the medieval age, of course it looks something like medieval Europe," or it maybe "they've moved into the Renaissance age." And of course it looks something like the Renaissance here, because it's like they buy into this notion that every civilization they meet is going to up this chain of being, and they'll eventually hit these markets, that all happen to coincide with Western Europe, right?

And I don't think they mean this — I don't think they are like, "oh, we're doing a white supremacist trope." And yet, they've done this very ethnocentric ideology about how the world should work or how the world is going to progress. And in some ways, I tried to make fun of those things, saying that they don't have to follow this exact pattern. We can have different ways of being.

Stargate obviously just stagnates everything and posits no advancement whatsoever.

Stargate does the good ol' "could these quote-unquote native peoples and Eastern peoples have done this? No! It's aliens!"

Image: Andrew Liptak

I want to jump over to Ring Shout. Can you tell me a bit about what inspired that book?

Yeah, Ring Shout is a perfect example of something that's inspired from history, although I have no idea about that at the time. When I was working on my Masters', I was looking at enslaved woman's stories of resistance from the ex-slave narratives taken by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s or so. In there, doing that research, I came across this notion of former slaves describing the first Ku Klux Klan as monsters and ghosts.

They pointed out that this first Ku Klux Klan didn't dress the way we think of the Klan. Some of them wore pillowcases, some wore horns to make themselves look terrifying, others blackened their faces, they pretended to have tails, or could do supernatural things like drink gallons of water. I was struck by that immediately — it stayed with me for more than a decade. I had no story to go with it, and hadn't thought of Ring Shout at that time.

But when Ring Shout started formulating in my head around 2015, that idea of the clan of monsters became the linchpin. I knew that was going to be the heart of the story. I went back to the WPA to look target ministration went to look, because I've just been so intrigued by this notion that these former slaves, these three people were were terrorized by the Klan, and this is how they decided to remember them, even though they understood the Klan wasn't supernatural in any way: they knew that that was Judge McKay; 'I've worked for him, I'm his housekeeper. I know he's putting on a Klan outfit and terrorizing people at night.'

But they decided to tell this story using folklore, and I've always been fascinated in the way that people use folklore to deal with the trauma in their lives at the time. And so when Ring Shout itself came to be, when I wanted to write the story, which had its origins in a lot of me watching Beyoncé's Formation video and listening to a few actual ring shouts, and I knew that had to be its heart and so I brought it back into the story.

I'm guessing that the rise of the alt-right and the Trump movement has played some role here.

You know, it's really funny: I don't know if it did. So I came up with the idea of Ring Shout, but I didn't write it until September 2019. I pitched it in April. I just had a bunch of ideas, and you never know what's sitting around in your subconsciousness, but I don't know that I was thinking about that specifically.

I was so immersed in the second Klan that comes about in 1915, which was inspired by Birth of a Nation. I teach a film class called Slavery in Film, and Birth of a Nation is the first film I show. So I'm constantly in Birth of a Nation, and so I think I was I was thinking about that period so much, I was rooting this heavily in that 1920s period, to talk about this violence that happens at that time. I don't know that I specifically was speaking about the alt right, and the rise of Trump and all those things, but who knows what my subconscious was doing?

I guess I was thinking about how these movements are recognizable throughout history and they never really go away. They've just been suppressed and go into hiding.

Yeah, certainly, I'm talking about issues of white supremacy and hate, but I was really thinking about the 1920s. How could I even guess when the story would come out? People would be like, "no, it's the middle of George Floyd protest and you're story's about to come out, did you think of this now?" Like, that's now how publishing works — the story has been done a long time, before any of this happened and is sort of coming out in October of 2020.

So yeah, this just happens to be some kismet and fate that the story came out when it did. But yeah, I certainly think I was talking about things that were universal — the best stories always are, right? No matter when you set them in. Does it resonate with some meaning with me today? Certainly. I think those things were, and I tend to imbue stories — even when I write them in the past — I always tend to pull on lingo or speech patterns or inflections of our present more so as a way to inject a bit of humor and as a way for readers to relate to it.

One of the things that really fascinated me with the Birth of a Nation is this trope in fantasy of where belief creates reality. In Birth of a Nation, you have this film being used to instill and reinforce this belief that then becomes a cycle.

One of the things I do in this class where we look at slavery in film is we do a lot of media papers. One of those great questions is how does media impact us? How much do we bring to the issue itself? Are we just being directly impacted, or are we bringing our own ideas and interpretations to it? Is it a two way street?

My students love these discussions: the quietest students in the world suddenly have everything to say about a bit of media theory and about how about the power of media. Birth of a Nation is a perfect example, because here was something that was books, a play, but when it transferred to this new medium, film, it explodes. It explodes this thing in the white imagination where white moviegoers see this film, and they're literally fainting at scenes. A Florida newspaper says that a man supposedly pulls out a gun and start shooting at the screen, to stop a white man in blackface from chasing after a young white woman. I was talking with my students about this, to get them to think about what was it about this new medium, this new medium of film, where people had never seen anything like that before?

It was so massive and large — what was it about the medium that had that impact, and why did it have that impact on them? What were they bringing? What prejudices what ideas, what anti-black notions were they bringing to the forefront to be impacted by the film in this way?

Because it didn't impact everybody, right? Black moviegoers didn't go and join the Klan, right? So what was it about this film that helped recreate the Klan, which had mostly died out by 1915? It's this movie, literally, by way of an initiation rite on Stone Mountain that rebirthed the second Klan, infinitely larger.

The second Klan is not in the few hundred thousand, but at its height had something like 5 million members. And they were everywhere from Seattle to Maine. There were Klan chapters all throughout the Midwest and everywhere. What was it about this film that could spark that?

So when you talk about what makes reality, there are ways that this movie was pulling on people's already latent fears, and it helped them produce something more. What they saw in the film, they helped recreate in reality the rise of a second Klan who now has new enemies, that doesn't like my people, but also doesn't like Catholics or immigrants or Jews, or Italians, right? It finds all these new enemies to attack.

But I think it says something about the potency of media, but also the potency of what we imbue media with what we bring to it, which is what gives us its power. And I got to use (I try not to use the phrase now) what's basically movie magic, that notion of a power medium and I got to play with it as sorcery.

I want to say that when I read Ring Shout last year, there was something to be said for the way misinformation and disinformation spreads, especially amongst Trump's supporters and the right, because you have this one person lying to everybody and shaping their reality. And we've seen it since the January 6th attacks.

It's a bigger thing. There's a part in Ring Shout where I do this on purpose in a discussion about how the film affects people, where Sadie makes a comment like "it only seems to control white folks, nobody else seems to get controlled by it."

So maybe it's not — what she's hinting at is that it's not just the movie, it's what people want, right? And this is something that Marie says that the movie was terrible, but if people didn't want this, it wouldn't have an impact. They're bringing their own hate there. It's something I definitely play with within Ring Shout, and I made sure of that because I didn't want it to come across as me saying "racism is monsters, that you only have to be a monster to be racist. I make certain to say no, it's the racism that creates the monsters. It's the racism that turns people into monsters, and they have a choice — we all have a choice — which way we're going to go. It's human agency here, that people are choosing these things, and I wanted to make sure I brought that home in the end.

I'm playing with all of those ideas, and when you're talking about misinformation we talk about how this stuff lives on. People thought that it would end when Trump was gone, and it's like no, because it has its own life. I heard someone once say that Trump was just an empty suit for a lot of ideas that have been floating around, or there was an empty suit sitting around and Trump sat in it. A lot of those ideas, people were just waiting for — waiting for a little bit of fascism and authoritarianism, and once they got a taste of it, they were telling us that's exactly what they want.

Are you optimistic for the future? What do you see that brings you some hope or are you in despair for what's ahead of us?

I guess because I'm a historian, I try not to be in despair, because I've seen too much. But as terrible as these times are, I can tell you [of people who] lived in a very terrible time.

What things give me hope, for instance, is — I'm watching all these people introduce these anti-CRT bills and people who don't know what critical race theory are trying to erase things. What brings me a bit of hope is that I think that's going to be harder to do because people know too much. I think that it'd be hard to destroy history, because there are too many different ways to gain information. So you can do all you want to shut out out of the classroom, okay? There'll be a book, or a movie, [the kids] are going to see it on their computer and on YouTube.

In fact, the more you try and hide it, I think people will want to see more. So I think I am made optimistic by the fact that there's a larger group of people who want to resist this stuff, and I think that a lot of the moves that we see by these more authoritarian types is actually the fact that they know they have a weak hand.

That doesn't make it any less dangerous — a cornered animal is always dangerous as the saying goes. But so it gives me hope is that we are at a point where we have the ability to fight back and I think that many on that side are actually have a losing hand. And I think that's why they're lashing out so much.


Further reading


As always, thanks for reading. Other recent Transfer Orbit interviews include James S.A. Corey, Becky Chambers, Martha Wells, Christopher Brown, John Scalzi, and others. If you enjoyed this interview, please consider sharing it on social media, or signing up as a subscriber.

Tomorrow, I'll have a regular weekly roundup post featuring commentary, book recommendations, and links to other reads around the internet. Paid subscribers will get a recap of Apple's Foundation on Saturday, and next week will bring a bunch of other pieces. I hope you'll join us.

Andrew