I remember reading Kai Ashante Wilson’s work for the very first time and feeling like I’d been struck by lightning. There is a breadth and a depth to his work, an underlying passion which is enhanced by mastery of narrative, language and form.
The Devil in America, which was published on Tor.com in April of this year, is a masterpiece of writing. I will admit to putting forward this story for a Nebula and I certainly hope that it will get well-deserved recognition.
Kai’s previous works, Legendaire (published in Bloodchildren, an anthology of stories by Octavia Butler scholars) and Super Bass, reveal a writer who does not shirk from complex themes.
Publishing this interview and bringing attention to the work of this important writer is a joy and a privilege. I hope you enjoy this process interview with Kai Ashante Wilson.
I’d like to start by asking you about The Devil in America which was published on Tor.com on the 4th of April. Would you like to talk about what it was that inspired you to write this story?
Ten thousands things have to spark all at the same time, and cohere into a good hot flame, before a story results for me. I can still count the stories I’ve begun and finished on one hand. But I suppose I might date the precipitating spark of “The Devil in America” to an interview I caught with Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother. The love of parent for child has been an immense preoccupation of mine for a long time, and in the most receptive state of mind imaginable, I sat listening to that television interview: My son was walking back from the convenience store…
I began to follow the news. I read enormous quantities the social and political commentary, among which, for example, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog at the Atlantic. Explicating the vagaries of Florida law, he and other wiser heads warned that George Zimmerman would almost certainly go free. And so he did.
On the one hand, Trayvon Martin’s murder was only the latest iteration of a very old pattern: someone in America, black and innocent, killed by someone else, white and manifestly guilty of unjustified murder. Of course I’d seen it before, and we all know how this thing works. White kills black under dodgiest of circumstances, and oftentimes there may be witnesses, video, audio, the works—but it doesn’t matter. Guy(s) get(s) off, probably never charged. Before, I had mostly glanced at such stories and then away with a wince, getting my head right back down into the grind of my own life as quickly as possible. I didn’t I feel equal to the endless raging grief and outrage these constantly-repeating crimes call for, and I still don’t.
On the other hand, from the moment I first heard Sybrina Fulton speak, right through the aftermath of Zimmerman’s exoneration, my heart happened to be fully open at the same time that my attention was acutely focused. Truths that had always been before my eyes, and to some degree “known,” came home with unique urgency.
The maddening crux of the discourse around this crime was, for me, how so many of the smartest people kept applying the tools of the Enlightenment—measured reason applied to juridical exegesis—to the murder of Trayvon Martin, even though American jurisprudence in fact works along science fictional—or diabolical—principles. Here, you can never say: “The law says this, and so the consequences will be thus.” In America you must always ask first: “Well, who did it? And what color was the victim?” Any law can magically bend or break around pale enough skin—even cold-blooded murder can slide off—while those same very laws somehow tauten up into their most rigorous interpretation when the alleged perpetrator wears black skin. Reason can’t help you follow this process.
All of a sudden I felt as if I were directly perceiving some non-Euclidean distortion of the American time/space continuum, or the countrywide effects of an ancient curse, which others were resigned to, or kept attempting to explain using the ordinary science, or were even entirely blind to.
In that bad time, an image came to me of a woman bending at a cast iron stove. The woman pulled out a smoking hot pan. Then, I only knew that she’d borne things far beyond my endurance or imagination, and knew that, although my hardest times have tended to weaken or break me irremediably, hardship had pushed her the other way: into greater and greater strength. Altogether unclear what this isolated image had to do with anything, I wrote down the first few sentences of “The Devil in America,” and then more sentences came, and so on.
The stories, I’ve read from you have been very much concerned with history and how events in history have a huge impact not only on the characters themselves but also on the generations that follow. Would you like to share a little bit about this part of your work and what you feel your role is as a writer in keeping the memory of what took place in history alive?
I’m pretty sure a full answer to one question will see the other addressed as well, so I’ll just lump these two together if that’s all right.
I had to give these questions some thought! Until you asked, I hadn’t considered history a particular concern of mine. But I can see now that the ramifying consequences of personal choice on others, those living and yet-to-be-born, is indeed a theme that appears over and over in my writing. Now why is that?
Partly, I can say that my need to show historical context owes straightforwardly to how I conceive of story—that is, what makes a story compelling for me in the first place. There’s no tale I’d care to tell which didn’t give as ample attention to “how we got here” as to “events themselves,” and furthermore, attention to the “consequences of these events.” I need for there to be a sense of the run-up and the aftermath if the events themselves of the story are to really engage me. Some of boredom I feel with otherwise excellent writing often lies in the fact that the author has chose to exclusive address “what’s happening and to whom?” but doesn’t care so much about “how did all this start, and how did these particular people come to be in the place and time where this could happen to them?”
I’m sure, at the deepest level, I feel it necessary to elaborate historical context, past and future, because of my own self conception. If some people feel discrete in themselves, and feel themselves to be basically the singular agents of their own fates, I’ve never felt that way. For me, the pressure of history is always palpable—now as a nearly insuperable headwind, now as a push that carries me along without effort of my own. And what I’m calling “history” here isn’t just “big events of the past”: WWII, the 60s Civil Rights movement, whatever precedent Obama’s election may or may not have set, etc. Nor with those great events would I include only the smaller ones of my own timeline—such as, for instance, of my grandmother’s six children, the fact that my father happened to be her beloved first born, and the unique attention she lavished on him 50 and 60 years ago, quite different from any that his siblings received, had profound consequences not only for his life accomplishments, but also for his children’s (mine, my siblings’), and theirs. But besides all these, I also feel the weight of history entirely present in my immediate next choice. I won’t likely ever make a choice so powerful that it shapes outcomes for generations to come (such as my grandmother’s fierce academic motivation of my father) but I remain acutely conscious that others near and far from me will be nudged for better or worse by whatever I do and fail to do. And that consciousness informs my stories.
I love what you say here about the impact and the ramifications of history. When you look at your own journey as a writer, what are the pivotal points or incidents that made you decide to embrace writing and in particular writing science fiction and fantasy? How have these points/incidents influenced the way you approach writing and science fiction in particular?
Somewhere between learning to read and junior high school there was a stretch of years when I read science fiction and fantasy pretty much exclusively—huge quantities of the stuff! Other people watched TV, had friends, played video games, played sports; I read paperbacks with unlikely covers. At some point I noticed that all the protagonists of all the books I was reading were as far from resembling me or my life concerns as could be imagined. I began to wonder (about 11 years old?) whether there weren’t books out there about, not being powerful, or coming to power, but how someone lives richly though not a king, a hero, a savior. Were there books in which the protagonist and secondary characters were black, or women, or even… gay? So I wandered away from the science fiction and fantasy shelves to see what else might be in the library, and found most of what I’d been missing. (Sula, The Beantrees, The Beautiful Room is Empty; The Joy Luck Club, Querelle, Blood and Guts in Highschool). Ever since, skiffy has been maybe 20% what I read, but I must have imprinted on it, because I sure can’t write anything else. Even though all my inspiration was entirely elsewhere, I spent decades trying to write mainstream fiction and memoir, since those are the places I saw myself represented, the places I thought I belonged. One day in despair (about 35 years old?), I thought to myself, Fuck it, just go ahead and write this unclassifiable hybrid shit no one else is ever going to want to read, simply because you want to.
And that was my breakthrough.
You went to Clarion in 2010, what was your Clarion experience like? What was it like to go as the Butler scholar and how did the scholarship impact you as a writer?
Clarion wasn’t easy (among the hardships I had a terrible, uncontrolled staph infection at the time which forced me to leave early,) but I went to Clarion knowing it would be hard, but determined to get the maximum out of it anyway. I had (and have!) no money; the Octavia Butler scholarship is what made it possible for me to go. I still get teary-eyed with gratitude when I think about wondering, hoping, and then hearing, “Yes! We’ll pay your whole way.”
Before Clarion, I knew nothing about the publishing side of the business, nothing about the short fiction markets. I learned lots: e.g., if you’ve written a science fiction story, is it the sort to send to Asimov’s or to Analog? If you write fantasy, is it the sort to send to Glimmer or to Beyond Ceaseless Skies? Why are you definitely wasting your time sending that type of thing to Fantasy and Science Fiction, and so where should it go? To Strange Horizons, of course.
I don’t think in six weeks, or at the stage of development someone going to Clarion is, you can learn much about the mechanics of writing per se, but still, Samuel Delany managed to teach me some. I’d read About Writing several times cover to cover before Clarion, and I gropingly, half-consciously used to apply “dramatic structure” to my writing. But Delany’s explanation in person galvanized me to apply dramatic structure rigorously, in full consciousness. Another very simple thing Delany said, which ought to have been obvious, but has proved enormously useful for me, is to establish a set of “best practices protocols” which you follow in all instances lacking a good reason not to. (Point of view? Flashbacks? Info-dumps? What sort of information goes where in the sentence, the paragraph, the story?) In this way, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you sit down to write. Wow, has that saved me time and headache!
Dale Bailey taught me my hardest lesson. I was probably the slowest writer in 2010 contingent, the others mostly producing a story a week or at least every other week. I was desperate to participate, but only wrote two stories during my six weeks at Clarion, and the second was the first chapter of a novel. By the third week, I’d only submitted one thing, and my next story just wasn’t coming together. So the aftenoon my submission was due, I pulled out a draft of something I’d written previous to Clarion, a story so ridiculously ambitious only now, six years later, it’s just starting to cohere intelligibly in my head. I ran a quick spell check, and passed it out to the class. I knew that damn thing wasn’t a first draft so much as scattered notes toward a first draft, but, like I said, I was desperate. Dale—and the whole class—tore me to shreds. Dale and my classmates no doubt thought they were critiquing a story, but in fact they were teaching me to respect my writing process. Most writers can produce a diamond-in-the-rough fairly quickly. Not me: I need geological time. Today I know I will only be disheartened, and my beta readers’ time wasted, if I go trying to show early lumps of coal.
Then, of course, there’s all the intangible learning that takes place at Clarion. You’re immersed in a community of peers at a similar point of development, who’ve read many of the same books you have, and among whom—admiring them—you learn to take yourself seriously. My favorites are stories that richly evoke a sense of place, whose characters seem to have real, living bodies that believably experience the specifics their particular environment. Kali Wallace is a virtuoso of such stories, and I learned so much, and keep learning, reading her work. I love the prose of a writer who has the sheer mastery of language to express the subtlest shades of experience. Gregory Norman Bossert wrote a story at Clarion with eccentrically punctuated dialogue; the colons, full stops, commas and semicolons sprinkled not according to the usual syntactical rules, but like musical notes, and you could somehow hear the idiosyncratic pauses and intonations as different characters spoke, this one breathless and quick, that one measured and sententious. That story blew my mind, and I still read his work with great attention and pleasure. These kind of lessons and connections can’t easily be quantified or expressed, but by far they make up the most significant part of Clarion.
Would you share a little more about your writing process? How do you approach a new project? (Do you outline? Are you a pantser? Do you have particular rituals?)
I do something on the farside of pantsing. I spelunk in total dark, grab rocks at random, and then arduously climb back out to the light, to see whether maybe it’s a handful of gold this time. I’m lucky to have been born in the time of computers; I’d definitely never have finished anything without them! Usually I write a couple discontinuous scenes from the story straight through, always including the last scene. Then, for months, I write evocative words, fragments, lines of dialogue from scattered parts of the story, until with constant rearrangment, oceans of tears, and brain-busting thought, these sketchy patches begin to cohere into storylike shape. It’s by no means a stress-free or efficient process, and wouldn’t work at all without word processing.
Are there writers whose work you trust and return to for inspiration or simply because you know you can trust them? Would you share some of these writers or some of their work with us?
One immense advantage to being a black writer is that you can borrow, steal, and adapt copiously from other writers, but never have to worry about being called out for it, since you’re only ever going to be compared to other black writers, and (in my particular case, anyway) your greatest inspirations happen not to be black. So, I’ll talk about a couple writers who are extremely important to me, who have a kind of totemic value for me, while omitting to mention some others who influence me much more on the level of style, technique, etc.
I love Tananarive Due’s novels whole-heartedly. She’s already done something very well I’m still trying to learn, which is weave specifically African American passions and concerns with gripping supernatural drama. Nobody does that better than her. She’s the master and I grab each one of her novels as they appear. The Good House and The Living Blood stand out in particular among her work.
Chip Delany, among a whole lot else, addresses queer male concerns with a ferocious lack of apology, and a peerless command of aesthetics. Now what I hope to accomplish in my writing, and he in his, are nearly orthogonal to each other; nonetheless, he’s always been a model of fearlessness and artistic rigor for me. I recall, as a freshman in high school, first reading Tales of Nevèrÿon and having my mind blown insofar as the limits of fantasy: they were much broader than I’d previously understood them to be; indeed, they might not exist! He doesn’t much like the book himself, I’ve heard, but I’ve reread Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand… five times? Six? More than any of his other books (except About Writing, of course, and “The Tale of Old Venn”…)
What is your vision of Science Fiction?
I don’t think I have one. As far as I can tell, I just write whatever’s in me to write, and there’s no (conscious) vision beyond what arises in the particular story I’m working on. Or perhaps I do have one, but since ‘the author is dead’ (i.e., by dint of being the writer, my own deepest concerns are obscured by sheer proximity), it’s not for me to articulate. Maybe when I’ve produced a large enough body of work, someone else will be able to tell me what my vision of Science Fiction is!
What are you working on right now?
I just finished reading Damon Galgut’s most recent novel, Arctic Summer, and in it there’s a scene where the protagonist, E. M. Forster, is being read a poem by C. P. Cavafy. He (Forster) grasps nothing of the poem; it’s all just nuance, allusion and passing image—incoherent—until everything resolves into clarity once Cavafy, having read the poem through, gives the title: “The God Abandons Anthony.” It came to me then how much useful work a title can do. Although I have a working title for the long short story I’ve currently got in progress—and I really do like this title—nonetheless I can’t help but note how much headache I could save myself, as much as ten pages of subtle incluing and so forth, if I just picked something less ‘arty’, something much more on-the-nose: for example, “Boi, in the Country of Superwomen”. So I’m considering it.
Where on the net can we find you?
I haven’t proved capable of a social media presence; I’m just too shy. But I do have a couple stories up at Tor.com.
**I’d like to thank Kai for his generosity and patience. Do take the time to check out the links to Kai’s work.