Ancient, Ancient is a strong collection. I love how the stories in this collection explore themes of sexuality and gender as well as power dynamics and consent. In this interview, Kiini Ibura Salaam talks about the process of putting together a collection, the inspiration behind stories and what we can look forward to.
What process did you go through in selecting the stories that would go into this collection? Were there stories you had to leave out? Did you have to write new ones?
Publishing this collection was a very practical move on my part. It was–in a way–an act of survival. I have been battling to write a novel for years and have not yet succeeded. Back in 2011, sick of hearing myself complain about what I haven’t done, I decided to look at what I had done. I realized I had written a collection of speculative fiction stories. I gathered them up, edited them anew and sent them out for publication. (I did not include my non-speculative erotic stories in the manuscript, thereby keeping the collection genre specific.) Originally the collection contained only 10 stories, all of which had previously been published, but once the manuscript was accepted for publication, my pride got the better of me. I literally thought, “I can’t go out like this.” I put on my big girl pants and completed and/or edited three new stories that had been in the works over the years but had never been finalized. I wrote a little bit about the process of shifting my thought process from what I can’t do to what I can do here: http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2013/05/guest-post-james-tiptree-jr-award-winning-author-kiini-ibura-salaam-on-doing-what-we-can/
Rosamojo and Desire strike me as stories that are complex and grounded in reality. What was the inspiration behind these stories and what challenges did you face in writing them?
Backstory! You wan’t to talk about backstory? Okay, for “Rosamojo,” I had written a brief story about a black woman who was passing. She goes to the bathroom and a black doll pops out of her purse–one of her treasured childhood toys. She doesn’t know what to do. When she comes out of the stall, the bathroom attendant confronts her about her past. That story ended up splitting and morphing. The woman who was passing became Marie, the title character in “Marie” from the collection. In the current version of the story, Marie is not really passing, but she ends up in these default situations where an identity is assumed for her and she doesn’t correct anyone. You read the collection, so you know that I kept the element of confrontation and made the story a meld between a horror story and a tale of the crossroads. Well, Rosamojo is that bathroom attendant as a child. I asked myself what is the backstory of this woman whose office–for all intents and purposes–is the bathroom of a glitzy club and confronts people with the truth of themselves. What resulted is the story of Rosamojo. When I finished “Rosamojo,” I had planned to continue on into adulthood, but I realized I had finished an arc and stopped there. It was published in Nalo Hopkinson’s anthology Mojo: Conjure Stories. After the story was published, I brought the story to be critiqued in my first semester of my MFA program. I wasn’t ready to present my novel and had nothing new to workshop. I didn’t tell anyone it was published, because I didn’t want to sway anyone’s critique. Something really telling resulted from the critique–I had left a hole regarding the mother. Did she know what her daughter had done? What did she think of it? So the scene between Rosamojo and her mother after her father dies did not exist in the original story and isn’t included in Mojo. I realized I really had missed an opportunity and went back into the story to fill in that gap. The challenges with Rosamojo was the same as I always have–I often write in dialect, but then when I read it, I have biased reaction to the characters because I think society generally devalues people who don’t speak standard English. So I was challenged to put in enough so that you would read it in the characters, but not so much that it would be a barrier to your reading or that you would read the characters as ignorant. This story was really just me channelling this woman’s story and feeling my way through her truth.
With “Desire” I was making some conscious attempts. I wrote it at Clarion West where the instructors were challenging us to try different approaches in our writing, and also where I was exposed to what the other members of my cohort were writing. For “Desire,” I thought I’d try to write a fairytale–except I don’t really vibe with fairytales, I have a deeper connection to folktales. I used an Afro-syncretic pantheon of gods as my basis for the gods. I made the animals they are associated with part of their physical bodies. I love how those gods are not holier than thou, but flawed and emotional, even as they are immensely powerful. I remember one of the members of my cohort was annoyed with the form of the story. He thought it was pretentious, but honestly, that was how I heard it as I started writing it. [On the page, the two storylines are represented with different margins. The human story goes all the way across the page, while the story of the gods is in brackets and right aligned.]
This rhythm of Faru, running through the bush, while all was quiet and well in the human world, just before all hell broke loose. I was challenged to find a way to keep the story moving with the two story lines without duplicating or pulling away from either story. I also just wrote too much with that story. During the critique, my fellow writers recommended where I could cut and I ignored them. Well, I entered the story into a contest and got a handwritten rejection saying it was a close contender, but ultimately it was just too long. I decided to go in and do some cutting, and what did I cut?–Exactly what my cohort recommended cutting. I find it interesting that as a seasoned writer, I’m much more willing to take on critiques than I was when I was a newer writer. One teacher–I think it was Nancy Zafris at the MFA program at Antioch LA–said that when you get a critique, the critique is probably right, but the solutions are probably all wrong. In other words, never do exactly what someone tells you to do with your work (unless it completely resonates with you), but do take every critique under consideration because–unless it’s complete hateration–there’s probably some valuable truth there.
I like how your central characters in Of Wings, Nectar and Ancestors, Malkai’s Last Seduction and At Life’s Limits come across as being not exactly like us even if they wear the face of humans. Was this a conscious choice? In At Life’s Limits, I found it interesting that Walila eventually transitions into human. Would you share some of the motivation behind this?
The trigger for writing “Of Wings, Nectar and Ancestors” was feeling like an alien in a foreign country, so yes, that was a completely conscious choice. I was fascinated by the barriers of language and culture–how as humans we are exactly alike, but at the same time completely unknowable to each other in some strange ways. Obviously “Of Wings, Nectar and Ancestors” isn’t factually true, but it is an accurate emotional rendering of my experiences in the Dominican Republic where I couldn’t be my true self because I couldn’t communicate across boundaries. I wanted to demonstrate how constricting it can be when your true identity is not known.
You’ve written about traveling a lot. How has travelling influenced your work as a writer and as an artist?
I love to travel. I have done a LOT less of it in the past few years as my daughter has reached school age and I’ve been putting my money and my attention into my career, but I feel like traveling opens you up, allows you to get to know new facets of yourself. This is essential for an artist. I remember when I got the Thomas J. Watson fellowship and travelled for 12 consecutive months–I realized at the beginning of the trip that my choices heretofore (or thentofore–that should be a word) had been completely influenced by the people around me. A large part of my identity was being the social glue in my community. I would make sure everyone always knew what was going on, everyone was up on everyone else’s lives, and then I was in another country and I didn’t know what it meant to get up and go out without calling people to make sure they knew what was going on. Being alone wasn’t an issue, but I realized I spent a lot of my time taking care of bonds. So now that I didn’t have anyone to do that for, what would I do with my time? An artist needs to be able to make choices outside the box as well as to know the veils we all wear as humans. Traveling takes what you think you know is fact and turns it on its head–it opens up the gates of possibility and also frees you from your own life so that your creativity and imagination is free to travel far and wide. It’s been a huge part of my life lessons and many of my stories capture an experience in a certain country.
Do you have a favorite destination or a place you’d still like to visit? If it’s not too personal would you like to share it and why you like that place?
Hmmm, I’ve not been to Africa or Asia. I really love people and I really love culture and I really love just wandering through new landscapes and finding ways to fit myself into different surroundings. So in my fantasy, I would continue traveling, selecting places depending on where I am in my life. I’ve fallen in love with places and visited three, four, or five times. Other places, once was enough. For long trips, I tend to like to go places where I can fit in and flow around unseen. On the other hand, I spent a year in Oaxaca, Mexico, and absolutely fell in love with it even though my daughter and I stood out like sore thumbs. I just don’t want to go anywhere cold, give me a plane ticket to a warm or moderately-temperatured place and I’m there!
If you were to pick someone from your collection, who is the character you’d like to have most as a travel companion and why?
Travel companion. At the risk of sounding completely insane, I’d like to travel with the woman I’m writing about now–Ava, one of the main characters from my forthcoming novel “Fate.” She is insane, which is why I would be insane to travel with her, but at the same time, she is aggressive and unafraid to be confrontational in a way that is interesting to me. I think I could probably learn a lot from her.
What’s up next for Kiini Ibura Salaam? What projects are keeping you busy?
Life keeps me busy. I’m an artist with a day job and a child. That means I cram a lot into very tiny pockets of time. Right now I am writing a short story set in Barataria, Louisiana, dealing with a swamp witch who wants to build a black utopia away from slavery, but she can’t get anyone to follow her. More specifically, right now I am slacking on editing that story. It’s due at the end of August, but I am having a hard time staying focused on the edits because I am also moving into the beta phase of my novel. After years of being unable to complete any novel, I got into this warrior mindstate and rewrote my novel in four months! This is incredible for me who has dragged her feet for years and lacked the focus to complete a novel. I’m editing that book for publication and working with beta readers to identify areas that need work (very exciting). As I said, it’s called Fate and it’s about one transformative year in the lives of four women who are thrown together in one house. It’s set in pre-Katrina New Orleans and it involves a lot of drama! Oh, and I just released “On the Struggle to Self-Promote,” the second book in my Notes from the Trenches series. It’s a nonfiction ebook series of my musings on writing–written from the perspective of someone who is in the trenches, rather than someone who has already succeeded.
Where on the internet can we find you?
My website is kiiniibura.com. The site features some of my essays, some fiction, as well as the posts about writing that I’ve been penning for over ten years now. My twitter handle is kiiniibura and I share some of my missives from the trenches, as well as interesting posts I come across about writing on my Facebook page at: www.facebook.com/kiiniibura
We want to thank Kiini for her time and for her generous responses. We hope you’ll take the time to check out Ancient, Ancient. It’s a fantastic collection.
**Photo credit: Regine Romain