What I did on my summer ‘vacation’

Rather a lot, as it turns out!

I joined Samuel Montgomery-Blinn for a radio interview with the folks at WUNC 91.5, North Carolina Public Radio.

About a week later, I had another interview/discussion with Sam and the hosts of Carolina Book Beat.

I posted in advance about the readings at various libraries and bookstores and my week as Amazon Writer-in-Residence at Shared Worlds, but I have yet to post about how they went. Short version – brilliantly! Long version … that will take time and separate posts. I’m still winding down from all the travel, and I have to ransack my overstuffed memory to come up with a coherent and chronological account.

And it was a vacation, at least partly. I got to hang out with old friends and newer friends, and I also made new friends, some of them in unexpected places. I encountered children who love to read (and I owe two of them a list of recommendations!) and discovered new books and new authors in a wide range of age levels. I saw four states and several cities/towns and a whole lotta interstate. I ate a lot of good food, and drank good wine, beer and smoothies (yes, smoothies. Karen Burnham makes the best breakfast smoothies). I encountered a ridiculous amount of chocolate but kept in control (sharing is key). I packed, unpacked and lifted so much luggage that my right arm is now noticeably more muscular than my left. I learned to do a proper cartwheel. I listened to authors – they made me laugh, they made me cry, they gave me chills.

In time, in time. There is much to do here, but I will post again soon.

Guest Post: Not another black Superman story, by Robert Sandiford

It’s been far too long since I spoke about the Caribbean literary scene, but fortunately today (on Canada Day!) I have a great guest post from Bajan-Canadian Robert Edison Sandiford. In this post, he tells us about how his early visions of Caribbean superheroes inspired him to write the novel And Sometimes They Fly, published this month by DC Books,

Draw him, colour him, dress up as him—I think every kid remembers the first superhero he created.  Not that first ideas are always the best.  My concept, at age eight or nine, was awful.

The character was wealthy Reginald Van Buren.  His sidekick was his muscular manservant—whose name I can’t recall—and very British.  Their alter egos: Black Butterfly and Brown Derby.

Years ago, on safari, Van Buren discovered a giant black pearl that gave him, when rubbed, the powers of a butterfly, including wings.  I hadn’t fleshed out an origin for Brown Derby, whose name came from the kind of hat he wore.  (As I said, first ideas.)  I got two or three pages of very rough colour pencils done in a blue Hilroy exercise book before I moved on to my next comics project: Lieutenant Laser Eyes!

These dreams of a grade school comics creator were derivative, built on conventions of the genre: wealthy hero, able sidekick, fateful adventure, mysterious powers.  The ideas behind the characters needed converting or embellishing.  Where the characters had true merit was in my aspirations: all the lead heroes mentioned above were black, with traits and speech drawn from people I knew, people who looked, sounded and acted like me in Montreal’s West Indian community, my community.

Throughout high school and university, this trend/inclination/artistic choice (I’m not sure what to call it since I wasn’t conscious of it at the time) continued.  My character Bobcat, leader of a Canadian superhero team, was black.  Safeguard of the North—my answer to Captain Canuck and Guardian and Northguard—was black; or at least not as white as the great northern country he represented might expect him to be.  Despite buying comics where the main heroes were usually white—or maybe because of this—it never occurred to me how unusual my choice was.  I was a black boy creating black heroes.  What was so unusual about that?  Seeing myself in them was about making reality more real, more complex and complete.  Still, it was a decision I should not take for granted.

I teach research methods and research paper writing to BFA Graphic Design students at Barbados Community College.  A number of my students are into graphic novels.  They read them and write them and draw them in their spare time or as part of their major and minor graduation exhibition projects.  According to the 2012 Census, eighty percent of Barbados’ population is black, and sixteen percent is of mixed black and European ancestry.  My students’ environment is, therefore, visibly black. When these students enter the programme, however, many of them show work that is heavily inflected by anime and manga; their panels are not populated by characters who look like them or the people they are most likely to meet in their neighbourhood.

One of my students shared a story in class about creating a character in high school that was a protector of Barbados.  The hero’s familiar was a water dragon.  When one of his teachers asked him why his hero wasn’t black, or why the character didn’t reflect its creator’s own culture in other ways, he told her these thoughts had not occurred to him.  At all.  Another student in the class, fairly well-read and also an aspiring graphic novelist, said he could never find the epic in Caribbean stories, that spark to fire great works.  The cartoons from Japan he and his colleagues followed, the comics from that country they absorbed, seemed more resonant than anything their history or reality might make possible.

The crime—let’s call it that—wasn’t that too many of my students couldn’t see the epic in their own people’s stories, which included the Middle Passage, slavery, colonialism, post-colonialism, neo-colonialism, indigenous mythologies and folklore.  The crime was—is—that they had never thought to fan the fire themselves: to create what was missing, to suggest what was possible, to write the stories about their own people that they wanted to read.

Part of the problem was the social engineering they had undergone as Barbadians, which I examine in my new novel And Sometimes They Fly.  My students and many Barbadians like them were raised to believe other people’s heroes saved the world, not their own.  Who would these worthy men and women be anyway?  Their politicians didn’t call in the good guys when the going got tough; they considered themselves the good guys, and had put commemorative plaques on buildings and open spaces all around the island that essentially said so.  Coupled with a decline in oral storytelling not redressed by a more active publishing industry, this belief in the outside hero has spelt the demise of the fantastic in much of Barbadian Literature.

Not entirely, of course.  Barbadians—and their stories—are more tenacious than my students might think: more entertaining, more epic, and hence more enduring.  Try, as Bajan or world critic, to dismiss writers like Kamau Brathwaite, Geoffrey Drayton and Timonthy Callender.  You’d be missing out if you weren’t aware of others like Glenville Lovell, Ronald A. Williams, Karen Lord, and Matthew Clarke.  It takes cultural consciousness to resist the drag of negative foreign incursion; the kind of cultural consciousness that can conceive of anything, including a black Superman.  But not a black Superman.  Despite successful renderings of, say, a black Green Lantern or a Latino Spiderman, I never wanted coloured-in versions of my favourite heroes.  I wanted originals of my own, fighting battles people rather like me would fight.

And Sometimes They Fly

When I came to write And Sometimes They Fly about fifteen years ago, it was not as a literary fantasy novel but as a superhero comic about a group of young people who fought to save the world.  At some point over the years, I decided to tell the story in prose instead, yet I, too, was still missing that sense of the epic: Who were these young people, meaning where did they come from, and whose world were they fighting to save?  The tragedies of 9/11, which seemed to touch on everyone’s life everywhere on this planet, provided the necessary perspective, as metaphor for cataclysmic conflict, and moment for godlike redemptive intervention…if one so chose.  Yet it was the folklore of the Caribbean, of Barbados specifically, that provided contemporary context, the proper symbols, and an ongoing socio-historical discourse out of which the story could emerge.

The epic in any work comes from the writer’s understanding of his people and their place in history, what we might call Time, here; even if his people are embodied in an individual or their place is no larger than a village.  His people, regardless of their number, race, faith or colour, are inevitably humanity itself, or his conception of it.  Events in Egypt or Syria can have magic or tragic consequences for a family or woman in Barbados or Trinidad.  The epic reveals the possibilities of a grander world, one made up of the worlds we already know and of others we still struggle to explain.  To imagine ourselves onto that boundless landscape, as writers and readers, is no privilege, then, nor should it be viewed as a burden.  It is merely our right, and our responsibility.

*

Robert Edison Sandiford is the author of eight books and co-founder with Linda M. Deane of ArtsEtc Inc. His novel And Sometimes They Fly will be released in July by DC Books.

Preparing to resume podcasting

The mid-season break for SF Crossing the Gulf will soon be coming to an end, and in recognition of that, I have done what I should have done long ago. Look above, way above, at the top of the website! It’s a link to a new page, titled of course ‘SF Crossing the Gulf‘. I’ve added information and links for all Season One episodes, the links for the first half of Season Two, and a list of upcoming works.

We resume 5 June 2013. Hope you’ll read up, tune in, and enjoy!

SF Crossing the Gulf, Episode 12: Till We Have Faces

This week’s episode of SF Crossing the Gulf focuses on one of my favourite books: TIll We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis. I discovered it late, less than a decade ago, and it is often overlooked when readers talk about his books. I strongly believe it should not be overlooked. If you have any leanings towards reworked myth, many-layered stories and strong, complex female protagonists, this is a book you should read. And when you have read it, check out my discussion with Karen Burnham.

SF Crossing the Gulf, Episode 11: Star Maker

Very belatedly, I give you a link to episode 11 of SF Crossing the Gulf in which we discuss some classic sci-fi: Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon. This proved to be a rich and profound work, and it felt as if we had barely skimmed the surface after more than an hour. However, if we can inspire you to pick it up and read it for yourself, our job is done!

The Next Big Thing Meme

Charles Tan, the Bibliophile Stalker, tagged me for the Next Big Thing meme. Every Wednesday, a different set of authors (and sometimes editors) talk about their upcoming work. I’ve answered the questions, but I’ve failed miserably at finding people to tag. You’ll find out by the end just how miserably, but for now … on to our questions!

What is the working title of your next book?

The title is The Best of All Possible Worlds.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

After the Boxing Day Tsunami, I was particularly moved by news articles on certain fishing communities that lost almost all of the women and children while the majority of the men survived because they were at sea. The reports of the individual and community reactions to this kind of crisis added to what I already knew about less dramatic (though still significant) instances of gender imbalance in contemporary and historical societies. I didn’t have a story in mind at the time, but that was the foundation.

There’s an accidental link to another disaster. The 1755 Lisbon earthquake and tsunami was a devastating event that provoked Voltaire to challenge the idea that this is ‘the best of all possible worlds’. That phrase and its associated theodicy are from Leibniz. But I did not have any of this in mind when I came up with the title. My brief mention of Leibniz in the book is also accidental and is entirely to do with calculus rather than philosophy.

What genre does your book fall under?

Science fiction with some light background romance.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

The story is carried by a core group of characters, so I’d need a great ensemble cast. For the leads, I think Angel Coulby would be perfect as Grace Delarua. Dllenahkh, the male protagonist, has been harder to cast. The ideal actor would be a middle-aged Pacific Islander who could convey a lot of gravitas with a hint of humour.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Refugee aliens on frontier planet seek genetically compatible brides for the purpose of post-genocide repopulation; bureaucracy, culture clash and hilarity ensue.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Sally Harding of the Cooke Agency sold the manuscript to Jo Fletcher Books/Quercus in the UK and Del Rey/Random House in the US.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Three months. A lot was changed in the third month, and there were significant additions about a year later.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

The size of the mission team and their visits to small, rural communities as well as larger towns is reminiscent of The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. The romance has been compared to Jane Eyre. The sociological and anthropological focus has been compared to the works of Ursula LeGuin.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

After the Star Trek reboot came out, I read a hypothesis that the Vulcans might now have a skewed demographic because their offplanet occupations appeared to be very male-dominated. That resurrected my earlier thoughts on gender imbalance in societies and further inspired me to use a sci-fi framing for my ideas.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

There are Elves in it. Sort of.

I was supposed to tag five more people but a) it’s late in the meme and a lot of people have already been tagged, and b) it’s December and people are Christmas-busy as well as deadline-busy. But I did find one person: Karen Burnham. Look out for her blog post this time next week.