Black History Month : The State of Speculative Fiction: Why Race Matters

The State of Speculative Fiction: Why Race Matters

by Valjeanne Jeffers

Why is race, why is diversity, important in speculative fiction? Why is it important, why should it matter, what race one’s characters are?

As a child, I devoured YA fiction, filled with ghosts and goblins. My TV interests were the same: I gravitated toward the weird, the fantastic, so much so I often had to look under my bed to make sure Dracula hadn’t found his new resting place there.

But there were, with few exceptions, no characters who looked like me. There were no characters from neighborhoods like mine. What was far worse was that many of the characters who later came, and are still around today, didn’t act like me or anyone else I knew. I wonder if my life would have been more enriched if there’d been a brown-skinned girl or boy who starred in the fiction I so greedily devoured? If he or she had walked across the TV screen of my youth? Of this I’m sure.

Diversity is important because we, people of color, need heroines and heroes to people the landscape of our imagination … to point the way, to help us dream, to help us see something better in our tomorrows. We need characters to help make us proud of who we are and where we came from. In short, we need characters to identify with. Characters who are coming from the same space. We need role models, most especially ones who don’t die in the first fifteen minutes of the story, ones who aren’t caricatures and stereotypes.

Now don’t get me wrong. I continue to enjoy literature and films created by white authors. But I still need, I’d venture to say we still need stories that emerge from the Black experience. And we aren’t the only ones who need this. Diversity in speculative fiction is important for folks of all races.

If you want to know what’s going on in my neighborhood, if you want to know what moves me politically, and socially, if you want to know what I dream, who better to ask than me? In other words, SF/fantasy/horror written not just by Black folks, but by Native Americans, peoples of Latin descent, written by the full racial spectrum, goes a long way toward making folks more intelligent, more tolerant … to moving our world a little bit closer to global humanity and understanding.

Racial inclusiveness, diversity, is just as important in speculative fiction as it is in every other aspect of our lives. And in 2019 it is becoming an everpresent reality. 

I’ve always hated it when folks overgeneralize and paint everyone with the same broad brush. So here’s what I have to say: to those white creators who are trying so hard to be racially sensitive and accurate. We are not talking about you. I myself, create Native American, Asian, Spanish and White characters based on folks I’ve been fortunate enough to meet in my lifetime. As I’ve said before, I hope that I do a decent job. Only my readers can answer that.

The authors and screenwriters we’re trying to move forward are those who have no idea how to create a nonwhite character and don’t even try to learn. Who just dig in their bag of stereotypes and throw something together. Personally, I’d rather be portrayed as a White woman with a deep tan, not perfect mind you, but better, rather than a “Yuk, yuk missus … I’s a-comin’” myth.

As writers, we’ve all heard of publishing companies that strong-arm authors into making their characters white or racially ambiguous, so they can attract white readers. Again, all publishing companies are not equal. But these stories have made me glad I decided to self-publish. I’d also like to say, since I have white readers, to these companies (you know who you are): you aren’t giving your readers enough credit. You should stop treating them like children. Folks will read good writing, no matter where it comes from, and who writes it.

And now to Hollywood. Oh man, don’t get me started!  On the stereotypical characters that make us all cringe, the people of color (yes, not just black folks) who die fifteen to thirty minutes into the film, to the scores and scores of films made with no people of color at all.

So what do we do? We keep on keeping on. In 2019, the speculative fiction landscape is filled with more films, books and animation created by folks of color than I have ever seen in my lifetime.

Our numbers will continue to grow. We are coming. We have arrived. We are here. 

And we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

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Valjeanne Jeffers is a science fiction writer and the author of Immortal, Immortal 2: The Time of Legend and Immortal 3: Stealer of Souls. She is a graduate of Spelman College, NCCU and a member of the Carolina African American Writers Collective (CAAWC).

Black Horror Month : Sugar Hill/A Blacxploitation Gem

 

Sugar Hill: A Blaxploitation Gem

Review by Valjeanne Jeffers

Sugar Hill (1974) is a cult classic, a gem of the Blaxplotation era, and among a small cadre of flicks, such as Blacula, that combined horror with commentary on racism and oppression. Movies of the 1970s were resoundingly pro-black, and nothing if not conscious.

The movie begins with a Voudon dance performance, and an introduction to Diana “Sugar” Hill (Marki Bey), a photographer who is engaged to club owner, “Langston” (Larry Don Johnson). Unfortunately, a local gangster “Mr. Morgan,” (Robert Quarry) has his heart set on buying Langston’s popular Club Haiti. When Langston refuses to sell, Morgan sends his thugs to murder him. Sugar asks the matriarch of her family, “Mama Maitresse,” (Zara Cully) a Vodoun Priestess, to help her take revenge. After much pleading, Mama Maitresse agrees and calls upon the powerful Loa, Baron Samedi. Together Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colly), Sugar and an army of Zombies slaughter Sugar’s enemies.

Sugar is a sexy, charismatic heroine. The Baron himself is surprised by her boldness, “You’re not afraid of me!” It is this fearlessness that sways him to grant her wish for vengeance and place an army of zombies at her disposal. She is the original Blaxploitation feminist. Strong, and self-possessed: a butt-kicking mama, who is ready and willing to take care of business; even if it means spilling blood. Yet, as was often characteristic of 1970s movies, Sugar is all too willing to give her heart to the right man. When her former lover, appropriately named “Valentine” (Richard Lawson) gets too close to solving the murders, Sugar tells Baron Samedi, “Stop him but don’t kill him,” for she’s already falling back in love with him. 

This movie is rich with archetypes of the African Diaspora. Morgan and his cronies are virulent racists who throw around the word “coon,” and other racial slurs. His only black employee “Fabulous” (Charles Robinson) accepts their treatment with a tolerant grin; although ironically he is second-in-command to Morgan. Destroying Morgan and his men is a symbolic blow against oppression.

Sugar’s slain lover’s name, “Langston,” subtly alludes to the famed African American writer and poet, Langston Hughes. Baron Samedi is a powerful Voudon Loa, usually found at the crossroad between the worlds of the living and the dead, with a taste for tobacco and rum. In Sugar Hill, he’s artfully portrayed, right down to his cigar and top hat. Beside the Baron, stands Mama Maitresse. Mama Maitresse is over 100 years old. She depicts the honored elder: ancient and revered. The zombies Sugar commands, are actually slaves, who have been resurrected from the dead. There are repeated references to slavery throughout the movie. 

And Morgan’s men don’t just go after black folks. They bully and exploit anyone that stands in their way—black, white and Latina. Thus, Sugar Hill portrays a struggle between the powerful and powerless. During a scene when one of Morgan’s men extorts money from a group of seamen, “You’ll pay for your jobs,” he bellows, “or starve!” Baron Samedi stands nearby, looking none too pleased. Moments later, Sugar is there. “Hey!” she says, “you and friends killed my man! I’m passing sentence. And the sentence is death.” At her command, the zombies chop him up—with machetes no less.

Sugar Hill holds its own among the best Black Horror films of the70s, films like Blacula and Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde. The chemistry between the characters, excellent typecasting and acting, make thoroughly enjoyable viewing, even beside the slick special effects of the 21st century. Filmmakers of today could take a page or two from Sugar Hill, and others from the 1970s. Especially if they want to create a thriller with a message.  

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Valjeanne Jeffers is a graduate of Spelman College, a member of the Carolina African American Writer’s Collective, and the author of eight books. 

Valjeanne was featured in 60 Black Women in Horror Fiction. Her first novel, Immortal, is featured on the Invisible Universe Documentary time-line. Her stories have been published in Reflections Literary and Arts Magazine; Steamfunk!; Griots: A Sword and Soul Anthology; Genesis Science Fiction Magazine; Griots II: Sisters of the Spear; Possibilities; and The City. Book I of The Switch II: Clockwork was nominated for the best ebook novella of 2013 (eFestival of Words), and her short story Awakening was published as a podcast by Far Fetched Fables. Preview or purchase Valjeanne’s novels at www.vjeffersandqveal.com

Black Horror Month : Warmth / An Unforgettable Journey

WARMTH by Sumiko Saulson

Review by Valjeanne Jeffers

In her third novel, Warmth, horror writer aficionado Sumiko Saulson weaves a supernatural labyrinth peopled with Afflicted beings or ghulah: Creatures who live by drinking the blood and eating the flesh of humans. The ghulah are intelligent meta-humans who go about their unusual lives … loving, eating, and always seeking warmth. For their transformation has rendered them unable to sustain body heat. And then there’s the second breed of preternatural creatures. The Dead: Lethal walking, breathing corpses with no other desire than to kill and eat. 

The heroine of Warmth, Leilana or, as she prefers to be called, Sera, is one of the Afflicted: A ghulah. Like all of her kind, she is not immortal but has an extraordinarily long life span. Sera was transformed and lost an eye when she was attacked by one of the Dead. And she takes great joy in hunting and killing these creatures… well aware of the dangers they pose for the world of the living. 

She looks like a young runaway, yet she is in reality centuries old, and she’s been pregnant since the Spanish Inquisition with a fetus that is also Afflicted. Yet Sera has no desire to be a mother and feels no maternal stirrings towards her unborn fetus— a child that will take centuries to grow to adulthood.  

The reader is first introduced to Leilana during the conquest of America, as she is thrust into the role of both rescuer and hunter. When a zombie attacks one of the men who has offered her shelter, thinking her to be an old woman, Sera quickly reveals herself to be a deadly supernatural being.

“She flew into the front door of the cottage, where the cause of Adolfo’s suffering became immediately apparent. The original Lazaro… the old gravedigger, had him pinned against the wall, and had bitten deeply into the flesh of his cheek, chewing it… eating it. Rotted clothes hung from the rail-thin frame of the Old Lazaro, and in places, purplish, bruised flesh showed through. The whites of his eyes had gone the cloudy yellow color of mucous. The ends of his fingers were caked with thick, wet grave dirt.

“I hate the Dead,” she hissed under her breath, running toward it. She shoved the sharpened end of her pike through the creature’s eye with such force that it went through the back of its skull, pinning it to the wall. A gelatinous mixture of curdled blood, vitreous humor and purulence issued from the ruptured visage, first slowly oozing, then gushing toward the floor.

Lifting the robe and the long skirts below it, she revealed her leg up to the knee—a small ax was strapped to the outside of her calf in a leather holster. She removed the weapon with a single graceful motion and shortly had it level to the creature’s neck.”

Six hundred years later, Sera is still living, still hunting… and still cold. But now she lives in a modern world: Full of new and lethal dangers. She has enemies. The most dangerous one a psychopathic ghula, whom she crossed paths with long ago. This maniac is convinced that Sera has stolen her baby from her womb, and is determined to reclaim the infant.  

Thus Warmth is a story that challenges the notions of womanhood and beauty. When Sera has the opportunity to have her scared face repaired, she decides to keep her visage as it is— scared though it may be. She cherishes her ruined face because it is the only way to preserve her cherished memories. 

When she looked in the mirror and saw her face, Sera remembered so many friends she’d had in her long past who were no longer with her. Perhaps even more so, she liked it because it was the only thing left in the world to remind her of the life she had before her Affliction—a short life, and difficult. It was gone now, faded into the pages of history.

Her marked face and her birth name were all she had left of it. 

Yet throughout her journey, we are reminded of just how beautiful Sera really is … once one looks beyond her face. This is a novel about becoming: Growing, and reinventing oneself when it’s necessary for survival. 

Saulson has spun a rich, multi-layered tale of both dark humor and nail-biting suspense. Along with the tough survivor Sera, we become acquainted with an entourage of characters; some human, some ghulah, and each with their own complicated, twisted lives. Among this cast is Sweet Melana, the brooding Larenzo, and S&M Master Fadriqueallies, foes. And all preparing for a war that may consume both the Afflicted and humankind alike. 

Saulson is a consummate horror writer, and in Warmth she has given us a horror novel that we will never forget.

Mocha Memoirs Press : Tell Your Story Regardless

Telling Your Story Regardless
by Nuzo Onoh

A while ago, a lovely literary agent had this to say about my manuscript when I contacted him for representation. It is impressively wrought and fully realized. I am sorry to say that I don’t have a clear vision for how to break it out in a very crowded and challenging market for fiction.

Ouch! Needless to say, I was gutted by the rejection. Without him telling me, I knew without vanity that my story was indeed impressively wrought and fully realised, but just like several other agents before him had stated, they all lacked the courage to take on something so different from the current market trend, that it was simply easier to pass.

Did I sit down and fold my hands and cry, chuck my manuscript into a drawer and leave it to collect dust and wallow in hopeless despair? Hell no! What I’ve done is take control of my writing and my destiny. I knew I had a story to tell, a rich African culture to share with a wider audience through the medium of horror.

Growing up, my earliest African horror influence was a book by Amos Tutuola titled, The Palmwine Drinkard. The book was a brilliant narrative of folklore, told in the authentic pidgin English of the average uneducated Nigerian, and it resonated so much with me that I knew I wanted to write and tell my own story, one laced with African lore but embodying all the modern elements of a good horror story. I wanted to write African ghost stories, supernatural narratives that will induce feelings of dread, suspense, terror, revulsion and shock, stories that are unsettling and unexpected, yet showcasing African culture and lore.

In time, as I started discovering other works of regional horror, from Japanese horror to Scandinavian horror, I realised there was no market for African horror in the literary field, even though there were a few results for African horror film, thanks mainly to the Nigerian Nollywood industry and the South African horror film fest. It wasn’t because Africans weren’t writing horror; rather, it was simply because no African writer had opted to market their work under that genre. Worse, the popular press had already cannibalised the phrase so negatively, that a google search for African Horror inevitably came up with negative results about the African continent, covering stories about wars, famine, Aids and every other evil they could report. Needless to say, similar or worse events taking place in Europe and America were never covered under the heading of American Horror, British Horror or Spanish Horror etc.

So, when I started writing my stories, I decided to reclaim that heading and turn the phrase, “African Horror” into something horrifically positive. Firstly, I set up my own publishing company, Canaan-Star Publishing, UK. I had no idea about publishing. It wasn’t one of the things we were taught during my masters degree programme in Writing. But I was determined to tell my story nonetheless and so, spent endless hours poring over internet articles on publishing and marketing.

My first African Horror book, The Reluctant Dead, was finally published in 2014 and I undertook a vigorous marketing strategy using the phrase, African Horror” for my book’s category. It worked. By the time I’d published my third book, The Sleepless, in 2016, not only was my name coming up in google searches, but other African writers were now using the same category to market their work! I have since been invited several times to either give talks, deliver lectures or contribute to anthologies by people who googled the phrase, African Horror and discovered my name.

My journey is not over yet. My story is not done yet. I still have many characters begging me to tell their stories, to bring them to life in the pages of a book. My stories may not be commercially viable for agents to represent, but as long as I have a story to tell, I will continue writing. The good news for me is that today, almost 6 years since I first wrote and published my first African Horror book, and despite the fact that I’ve not carried out any promotions or published a book in two years due to some health problems, my books continue to sell and my desire to share my unique story remains as strong as ever. This just shows that a good story will always connect with someone, somewhere, somehow.

So, if you have a story to tell, if you hear the voices of those characters who won’t give you any rest till you tell their stories, then just write. Just write regardless of rejections, regardless of financial constraints, regardless of self-doubt and regardless of the commercial market. Just write because if you don’t, you’ll never know what could have happened if you’d taken the risk and followed your dream.


Nuzo Onoh is a British Writer of African descent. Popularly known as The Queen of African Horror, Nuzo is the writer of horror fiction from the African continent. Her works have featured in multiple anthologies and magazines, promoting her unique genre, African Horror. Nuzo holds both a law degree and a Masters Degree in Writing from The University of Warwick, England. She lives in Coventry, from where she runs her own publishing company, Canaan-Star Publishing. Now recognised as the front-runner of African Horror, Nuzo is the author of the bestseller, Unhallowed Graves, a collection of African ghost stories, amongst other works. Her books are available from Amazon.