Kim Wells, Editor

Summer 2002

Tananarive Due

Since I started "studying" for my preliminary exams and preparing to write my dissertation, it's been fairly amazing to me how many novels I stumble upon that deal with women/magic and slightly witchy sorts of worlds. They all have different meanings, ulitimately, but they have this common theme of women gaining power (or struggling with it) through some supernatural elements. One that I encountered recently was Tananarive Due's The Living Blood-- which I found while browsing in the horror section of the bookstore. I was drawn immediately to its cover art-- a creepy look to be sure. The second thing that intrigued me, and one of the issues that got me looking at the book's blurb and ultimately deciding to buy it (even though I REALLY ought to be reading Judith Butler or Susan Bordo again) was that Due, as an African American woman writer, is forging ground that is not frequently thought of as African American woman's genre. Yes, we think of Terri McMillan, and Maya Angelou, and Alice Walker-- but writing in the dark corners where folks like Stephen King grinningly lurk? I had to read it. I wasn't dissapointed with the novel; I stayed up several nights reading it and dreaming about the world its main characters inhabit. They were fairly creepy dreams. It didn't even really matter that I had stumbled upon the second in the series, which will probably eventually have at least a third; usually I HATE getting the second or third in a series and getting all out of order, but this time, the plot and characters were so strong on their own that I didn't feel the lack of the initial narrative. (But you should read all of them, still).

Her name is pronounced tah-nah-nah-REEVE doo, as her website succinctly spells out. Her website will also tell you that she"has a B.S. in journalism from Northwestern University and an M.A. in English literature from the University of Leeds, England, where she specialized in Nigerian literature as a Rotary Foundation Scholar. Due has taught at the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop at Michigan State University, the University of Miami, and the summer Imagination creative writing conference at Cleveland State University. She is a former feature writer and columnist for The Miami Herald. A former lifelong Floridian, she now lives in Longview, Washington, with her husband, novelist and television writer Steven Barnes." You'll find that she also wrote a novel on Madame C.J. Walker, titled The Black Rose, which I have had on my "to-read" list for a long time (I'll get to it someday!). I realize that many writers have such diverse interests, but it seems to fill out my picture of a woman who is stretching her creative muscle at a start of what will hopefully be a long and distinguished career. If you like reading contemporary, thoughtfully done, carefully constructed literature, with a slightly creepy edge sometimes, try her out. I think that you'll be as happy as I was with the work, which is both literary and gripping.

Extra note: The Living Blood is winner of an American Book Award for 2002-- so don't take my word for it-- it's critically acclaimed!

Photo above copyright Roger Werth. Reprinted with permission.


Interview

Q: When I first picked up your novel, The Living Blood, I noticed the comment on the cover by the Boston Globe which said "Due has become a modern-day Octavia Butler"-- I thought, that's ridiculous, Octavia Butler is modern day, and the comparison makes it seem like they're just drawing on the only other modern African American woman writer they know of . . . but then when I read the novel, it did in some way remind me of Butler. The difference seemed to be in attitude-- where Butler ends up drawing a fairly negative view of human nature (often) you seemed to reinforce something else. I found your book in the horror section of the bookstore, but I also didn't really think of your book as "Horror"-- yes, there were some pretty grim elements, but it felt more like some sort of category all it's own, which we may have yet to name.

So I guess this means I have several questions for you: how do you feel about the comparisons that get made about you to other horror and African American writers? Mostly I ask this second part because it seems that horror readers might be looking for something a little more grisly and/or grim than what you have in this book, and the category itself might not be helpful for getting your writing into the hands of its audience. Do you think you're a horror writer, or is there some category that fits better?

A: My only concern with the Octavia Butler comparison on my paperback novel is the reference to a "modern-day Octavia Butler," as if she were part of an earlier era -- when, in fact, she is still writing incredible fiction. But she is also a pioneer, and I've entered the writing scene in her wake, so that's probably why the reviewer worded it that way. Of course I'm honored at any time to be mentioned in the same breath as Octavia Butler. The similarities are obvious: We are both black women in speculative fiction who often write about black characters. I remember while I was writing My Soul to Keep (the prequel to The Living Blood), someone asked me, "Have you read Octavia Butler's novel about the African immortal?" -- and I gasped. I didn't know about the book, which was Wild Seed, and for a long time I was afraid to read it. I waited until I'd finished My Soul to Keep, and then I was profoundly grateful to realize that her book and mine vary greatly. It's amazing: Two writers with such a seemingly similar premise can write very different books. As writers, I think Octavia and I have different world views and different thematic preoccupations, so I'm no longer concerned about the possibility of similarities. And once there are many more women of color writing speculative fiction, that comparison will happen much less frequently. As for the "horror" label, I have little patience for labels whatsoever.

When I first started publishing, Harlan Ellison gave me the advice not to allow myself to be ghettoized as a horror writer, based on his own experiences in science fiction, and I think that's very sound advice. One reviewer called My Soul to Keep "soft-core" horror -- and if that means I don't write splatterpunk or whatever other categories there are in horror, then I suppose that's fine. Whatever helps you understand the work. But the vast majority of my readers do not consider themselves horror readers: They are black women looking for good contemporary fiction featuring black characters, and often that "horror" label makes them think twice before reading my books. I prefer the term "supernatural suspense" or "supernatural thriller" to horror, but frankly, I consider myself a writer, period. I write for horror readers, for black readers, for white readers, for female readers, for male readers, for Hispanic readers, for gay readers, for American readers, for international readers. I hope I write for everyone.

Q: Did you get a reaction from people for your discussion of Christ in this novel? Does it strike a nerve with people, or is it something that seems accepted?

A: Because so many of my readers are black women -- and since my readership is overwhelmingly Christian -- the question of Christ's blood is raised often. I find that I have to explain myself, but that ultimately the more imaginative readers are willing to accept that my work is fiction. I needed an explanation for my characters' immortality, and I thought that explanation would be the most logical.

Q: There's a mention in your acknowledgments of the book being made into a film: how is that going? Are you part of the screen writing team, and if so, how is that working?

A: Blair Underwood has had My Soul to Keep under option for two years, and he shot some lovely footage from the book in Lalibela, Ethiopia in the summer of 2000. (The trailer can be viewed by clicking through from my site at www.tananarivedue.com or by visiting Blair's site at www.blairunderwood.com/mysoultokeep. ) Blair's brother, a screenwriter named Frank Underwood, wrote the screenplay, but Blair has been very respectful in terms of listening to my suggestions. My ultimate hope is that, once the film's casting and financing are final, I will be an official consultant.

Q: Do you have any new books in the works? Are we going to see more from the characters in The Living Blood? (it seemed to end on a "possible sequel" note).

A: My mother and I just finished writing a mother-daughter civil rights memoir entitled Freedom in the Family, which One World/Balllantine will publish early next year. My mother, Patricia Stephens Due, made history in 1960 when she and five other students spent 49 days in jail rather than paying their bail after being arrested during a sit-in at a Woolworth in Tallahassee, Florida. It was the first "jail-in" as part of the student sit-in movement, and it really made an impact -- the idea that people were in JAIL because they tried to order food at a lunch counter. She's always wanted to write a book about the people she knew in the Movement and how they suffered as a result of their activism. From my point of view, I discuss what it was like to grow up as the child of two civil rights activists (my father, John Due, is a civil rights attorney), and also what it was like to grow up in the "integration" generation. I'm very proud of this book.

As for my supernatural novels, I have a novel currently under contract at Pocket Books entitled The Good House, which is a haunted house novel set in the Pacific northwest. After that, I will probably write a third installment in the My Soul to Keep/Living Blood universe, revisiting my immortal child Fana when she is a teenager.

Q: What is the overall message you want your readers to come away with in this novel (The Livnig Blood)?

A: I really want people to think about how precious our health is to us, first of all. And secondly, I wanted to convey the importance of child-rearing, how the things we expose our children to will affect them both in the short term and the long term.

Q: You use the term "The Shadows" for what is essentially "evil"- are you going for a sort of Jungian feel here, since you don't really do evil from what would be seen as a traditional Christian perspective (you don 't call it the devil, and you've got a Bee Lady, etc).?

A: Yes, at one point Khaldun, my head immortal, says "The Shadows" are roughly akin to what Christians consider "Satan," but it's more of an idea of a stream of evil than a literal fallen angel. Though they will not be named, The Shadows are also a powerful force in my next supernatural novel, The Good House.

Q: Is there a question you've been dying to answer, something you really want to explain about your book or writing, that an interviewer has never asked you?

A: I'm just happy to have emerged during a time when black writers are gaining more power and diversity in publishing. I did a reading at a bookstore in Brooklyn last night, and the store actually had a science fiction/horror section, which is something that might have been unheard of a few years ago. Many more writers are emerging with different voices, so there is room for political writers, romance writers, historians, speculative writers, all of us. That's beautiful, because more of us are given the opportunity to define ourselves in our terms rather than having outer society -- or our people's struggle within the outer society -- to define us entirely.

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