Interview with Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks, Horror Scholar
by Nicole Kurtz
Introduction: I sat down with Dr. Kinitra D. Brooks and discussed her approach to academic discourse on black women and why it’s her purpose and passion to not only promote black women in horror, but to engage in analytical discussions of the “Black Women’s Horror Aesthetic.”
Nicole Givens Kurtz, interviewer, [NGK]. Your publications focus on women and horror. Why horror? There’s so much real life violence against black women, why promote and analyze fictionalized versions of horrific acts and situations? Share with us the motivation behind your academic discourse on women and horror, particularly as it relates to women of color.
Dr. Kinitra Brooks [KDB]: Why not horror? Lol! I do not specifically associate the violence visited upon black women with horror. With the horrific? Sure. But that is different from the horror genre. Horror Critic Noël Carroll speaks of what we study and write as art horror. A different thing.
[KDB]: Furthermore, I believe horror offers many of the black women horror creators I study a sense of agency to push back against the horrific. Authors such as Chesya Burke, Kiini Ibura Salaam, and director/activist Bree Newsome use horror to examine the simultaneity of oppressions (race, gender, sexuality, and class) and offer interesting avenues for their black women protagonists to gain control and fight back against these interlocking systems of oppression. “Rosamojo” by Salaam is about a young girl whose only protection against her father’s sexual abuse is through the use of ancestral magic. Chesya Burke’s “Chocolate Park” and “I Make People Do Bad Things” all discuss the supernatural ramifications of the specific vulnerability faced by black women and girls.
- [NGK]: In your research, what are some common stereotypes and representations of black women in horror, and what do you see as avenues to reverse or diminish them? What authors, filmmakers, poets, etc are challenging and demolishing those stereotypes common in the horror genre?
[KDB]: I spoke to some of those authors above but the number continues to grow. I recommend Sumiko Saulson’s 60 Black Women Writing Horror Series–I keep the printed poster on my office door–as an introduction to those fighting stereotypes of black women in horror. In my work, I criticize the construction of black women when others have characterized her.
[KDB]: The black woman is usually seen in roles of monstrosity (Def by Temptation, Vamp) or the strong black women (Michonne, and to some extent, Selena from 28 Days Later) and even the Mammy. Now some of the creators start off with the stereotypes and then allow them to grow–Selena from 28 Days Later–who starts off as this uncaring, unfeeling strong black woman who somehow also embodies the Mammy stereotype to Jim, her co-protagonists. But towards the end of the film, Selena has become a much more complex character. She is part of a family unit in which everyone is working together for survival. She even becomes the damsel in distress–do you recognize how revolutionary that is for a black woman? Our positionality has always demanded our strength, our ability and sacrifice to save ourselves or others–but for a black woman to be the damsel? For someone to risk life and limb to save HER? Extraordinary.
[KDB]: So, folks who are not black and/or woman can and have written complex black women characters–Sanaa Lathan’s character in AVP is another. And I will continue to push for that. But I will also push for black women who are writing themselves into horror and changing the very dynamics of the genre as they do it.
- [NGK]: Tell us about Searching for Sycorax: Black Women’s Hauntings of Contemporary Horror and why you selected the title, the topic, and the subject matter.
[KDB]: In Searching for Sycorax: Black Women’s Hauntings of Contemporary Horror, I use the character Sycorax, the witch from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Critic Sylvia Wynter reads her character as black and I take it and run with it. The play itself deals a lot with colonization and racialized bodies and hierarchies of power. But Sycorax, who is only referred to in the narrative in passing and we never meet (because she has died before the play begins) haunts the narrative and its characters. Sycorax was a witch who occupied and ruled the island before Prospero–the European who now rules it. Her son, Caliban, is now enslaved by Prospero. (Sound like themes we’re familiar with?)
[KDB]: I read Sycorax as an absent presence (to use the language of Bell Hooks). She is invisible, and yet her presence continues to be felt. That’s how I view black women in horror–there is an invisibility there but their presence is continuously felt. Black women are an absent presence in horror. The book is a critical treatment of black women in horror as I use the questions to move towards a theory of Black Women’s Horror Aesthetic. What does black women’s horror look like? What are its parameters? Is there a difference in characterization? Can it only be created by black women? My book delves into a lot of these questions and begins the conversation of attempting to answer them.
- [NGK] You’re a native of New Orleans. How has such unique cultural influence your work?
[KDB]: New Orleans is such a place of promise and excitement for the future while being grounded heavily in the past. It is a shapeshifting city oscillating between its African, European, and Indigenous roots. It’s an American city and yet not. It’s a European city and yet not. It’s a Caribbean city and yet not. It’s a liminal and interstitial space. My hometown just opened so much up with me in terms of the many different possibilities of being and existence that was open to me.
[KDB]: Most importantly, New Orleans is a magical place for me and a place that has an understanding and a celebration of death as a transition–not an end. We have this sort of peace with death that is very non-Western in its perspective. We casually discuss death, talk about when we die, what colors we want our family to wear to our funeral. For me, it’s green. For my mother, it’s purple. My grandmother had her entire funeral program written out long before she died. We see death as a natural part of life and that shifts a lot of understandings of horror for me. Because being surrounded by death in this way is not necessarily a bad thing, or something of which to be afraid.
[KDB]: New Orleans, as a port city, was integral to so many peoples throughout the centuries and has been battled over, sold, and traded so many times it’s ridiculous. That reality enriched our culture–but it has also soaked our land with the blood of our ancestors. New Orleans was also the last stop of being sold from the South–to the Caribbean. The trade of enslaved Africans was integral to the economic development of this city. And it is here where the words of Jean Marc-Ela come into play–“The Dead are not Dead” in New Orleans.
- [NGK] This month, Horror Addicts is celebrating Black Women in Horror. When you hear that title, what comes to mind? Who comes to mind?
[KDB]: Joy. Excitement. I mean, we have supposedly been missing for so long from horror. Though, I suggest that black women have always been writing horror–it simply manifests differently. There are so many talented women out there and I can’t wait for more to join the ranks and do the work. The creative aspect is so important to me because if you don’t create–I have nothing to work with! That is what we are trying to combat with the double volume–Towards a Black Woman’s Horror Aesthetic: Critical and Creative Editions. Both are working together–as well as interweaving visual narratives from some black women artists to be interspersed throughout the volumes–to articulate, ponder, and imagine the possibilities of black women in horror.
[KDB]: I’m co-editing the project with Dr. Susana Morris from Auburn University and Linda Addison, multiple Bram Stoker award and winning horror poetess. We are really trying to do the work to get more materials out there.
- [NGK] Black women writing horror is a marginalized group of a marginalized group. What do you see are effective ways of moving from those margins and into the mainstream?
[KDB]: I believe that is looking at the margins as a place of deficit and not opportunity. We are in the ghetto of an already ghettoized genre. One thing the mainstream is very good at is ignoring the ghetto–and maybe that’s how we want it. We may just get free while everyone else is looking the other way. Wouldn’t that be something?
That concludes our interview, but read on to discover how to reach Dr. Brooks, discover her amazing works, and stay engaged in the conversation at http://www.kinitradbrooks.com/home.html.
Additionally, Dr. Brooks, along with Dr. Susan M. Morris, are editing a series of scholarly work for Ohio State University Press. The series is titled, New Suns: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Speculative Fiction. Book Proposals are open now.
Bio: Kinitra D. Brooks is an assistant professor of English at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Her research interests include contemporary African American and Afro-Caribbean literature, black feminism, and horror studies. Her monograph, Searching for Sycorax: Black Women Haunting Contemporary Horror, is forthcoming at Rutgers University Press. Currently, she is working on a book-length exploration of black women writers and genre fluidity tentatively titled, Nalo, Nnedi, & Nora: Contemporary Black Women Writers Challenging Genre Normativity. She is also coediting a volume on black women and horror entitled Towards a Black Women’s Horror Aesthetic: Critical & Creative Frameworks with Susana M. Morris and Linda Addison. She has published articles in African American Review and FEMSPEC Discover.
Bio: Nicole Givens Kurtz is an educator, a writer, and a publisher. She’s the author of the cyberpulp mystery series, Cybil Lewis. Her novels have been named as finalists in the Fresh Voices in Science Fiction, EPPIE in Science Fiction, and Dream Realm Awards in science fiction. Nicole’s short stories have earned an Honorable Mention in L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future contest, and have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. Join Nicole on other worlds at Other Worlds Pulp, http://www.nicolegivenskurtz.com.