Tananarive Due’s Work in Horror
by Kenesha Williams
Tananarive Due is the spirit child of Zora Neale Hurston and Steven King. If those sound like big shoes to fill, not to worry because Ms. Due does more than fill them. Her stories overflow with soul and wisdom all while they keep the hairs on the back of your neck standing up. Tananarive Due brings us horror infused with Black history, ancient Africa, and a post-apocalyptic future where the Black guy (or in this case, girl) doesn’t die.
This love of Black history seems to have been imbued in Ms. Due from her parents, civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due and civil rights lawyer John D. Due Jr. Tananarive Due received a B.S. in journalism from Northwestern University and an M.A. in English literature from the University of Leeds, England, where she specialized in Nigerian literature as a Rotary Foundation Scholar.
Tananarive Due is a former Cosby Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College, where she taught screenwriting, creative writing and journalism from 2012 – 2014. She also teaches in the creative writing MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles and has taught at Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA), the Hurston-Wright Foundation’s Writers’ Week, and the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. Among her honors, Ms. Due is an American Book Award winner, NAACP Image Award recipient, and was inducted into the Medill School of Journalism’s Hall of Achievement at Northwestern University in 2010.
I first read a Tananarive Due novel in my senior year of high school. I’ve always had a voracious appetite for books that was fed happily by a bibliophile mother. She had just read a book that she knew I would love and it was My Soul to Keep (1997). My Soul to Keep was the first book in the African Immortals Series by Tananarive Due. I had never read anything like it, a horror story with an all Black cast of characters from Africa.
I was instantly enraptured. I devoured the entire series as each subsequent book was published, The Living Blood (2001), Blood Colony (2008), and lastly My Soul To Take (2011). While I waited on each new story in the African Immortal series my appetite was whetted with other stories of the supernatural, The Good House (2003) a completely fresh take on the Haunted House trope and Joplin’s Ghost (2005) about a musician being possessed by the spirit of ragtime musician Scott Joplin. The magic of Due’s writing is that each work is infused with history, black culture, and the supernatural. In fact, I learned more Black history in her books than I did in all of my high school History classes.
Reading Tananarive Due’s books stretched the limits of what I believed was possible as a Black writer. Before reading her books, in my experience there were white books and black books. And while white books could be about anything, it seemed like black books were squeezed into a few genres; romance, folklore, “black issues”, but not the supernatural. The books I read by Black writers that weren’t the classics, i.e. those by Walker, Hurston, and Morrison, were contemporary novels by authors like Terry McMillan, Connie Briscoe, Tina McElroy Ansa, and Bebe Moore Campbell. Due has said:
“It’s ironic, I don’t think the publishing industry would have been knocking on my door for black horror novels if not for Terry McMillan. Although I guess she doesn’t write horror — although if you are dating you might consider it horror — but she opened the field for commercial black writers. That’s why publishing industry was willing to take notice and say let’s give this book a chance.”
I believe that if not for Tananarive Due and Octavia Butler, there would have been no L.A. Banks, Nalo Hopkinson, or Nnedi Okorafor. Personally, without first reading My Soul to Keep, I doubt that I would have felt that I had the agency to write a story about the strange and the fantastic with a main character that looked like me.
For further reading, Tananarive Due’s works in Horror:
The Between (1995)
The Good House (2003)
Joplin’s Ghost (2005)
African Immortals Series:
My Soul to Keep (1997)
The Living Blood (2001)
Blood Colony (2008)
My Soul To Take (2011)
“Like Daughter”, Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000)
“Patient Zero”, The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Eighteenth Annual Collection (2001)
“Trial Day”, Mojo: Conjure Stories (2003)
“Aftermoon”, Dark Matter: Reading the Bones (2004)
“Senora Suerte”, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (September 2006)
The Lake (2011)
Devil’s Wake (with Steven Barnes) (2012)
Domino Falls (2013)
Ghost Summer (2015)
CNN Sunday Morning Interview with Tananarive Due October 30, 2005
Kenesha Williams is a multi-genre writer and lover of speculative fiction. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of speculative fiction literary magazine, “Black Girl Magic Mag”, which specializes in fiction with Black female main characters. You can read more from Kenesha on her website Kenesha Williams, her Black Girl Magic Lit Mag site, Black Girl Magic, or twitter @Kenesha_W