You Are Not Alone: An Interview with Sheree R. Thomas
Editor of Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora
Sheree Thomas is a hip mama, a writer, a southern girl, and a bibliophile. Truth be told, she's awful nice and very pretty. But of greater consequence, she is responsible for bringing to light the truth about a long held misconception: that the realm of science fiction (sf), along with ice hockey, is one of the last white male holdouts. A few of us have known this to be otherwise, but bearing this knowledge was often a lonesome task until now. Thomas is the editor of Dark Matter, a four hundred plus page volume that proves not only do Black folks read and write sf but we've been doing it since the 1800s.
Thomas spoke to coloredgirls.com about books, black folks and the future.
coloredgirls: What was your introduction to the sf genre?
Sheree Thomas: I've been a sf reader for a long time. My parents had those types of books in our home so I kind of gravitated to it naturally. I enjoyed the imagination and the courage I found in a lot of the writing. When I became a teenager, though, things changed and I started wanting a lot more out of my reading. In hip-hop, Public Enemy was talking about fight the power and people were getting interested in the Nation of Islam because they were trying to figure out how to be Black in a society that didn't value blackness. I realized that in a lot of my reading, people that look like me or talk like me did not exist. When we were included, it was usually in a sidekick situation and somehow the good of all mankind always depended on our death and that just wasn't working for me so I stopped reading the genre for the most part and began looking at Black literature. I needed to read Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Gayle Jones and all these different writers to inform myself as a young person and as a writer. And I started writing my own stories. Some of them were speculative but I didn't think of them in that way.
cg: Could you explain what you mean by speculative fiction.
Sheree Thomas: I use the term broadly, it includes the retellings of folktales, creation myths, magical realism, and horror. I realized that the book did not have to be reprints of Octavia Butler's, Steven Barnes' and Charles Saunders' short stories. There were other writers that we normally don't think of as sf writers, who had written novels that weren't exactly mainstream and had not been brought to light. And I know there are a lot of young bloods out there writing stories who aren't necessarily sending them off to [Isaac] Asimov's magazine. With Dark Matter, I was hoping to put a face to the intricate diversity of our writing. There is no one theme. It's a really different and fascinating work in terms of storytelling and the styles and the periods we choose to explore.
cg: When did you first come across Black sf writing?
Sheree Thomas: It wasn't until I got to college. A professor assigned Octavia Butler's Kindred to read in a course exploring representations of slavery in literature. She also assigned Charles Johnson's Middle Passage.
cg: What was the inspiration for Dark Matter?
Sheree Thomas: I started working on Dark Matter three years ago. I was in a bookstore looking for something new to read and I was looking for something specifically of color. I came across a collection of Japanese sf. Which shouldn't be a big surprise, we are inundated with Japanese technology, anime, etc. It's definitely a sf culture. But in terms of the fiction, I only knew one writer. So to find that they had taken ten Japanese stories, six of which had been translated into English, was fascinating to me. I took it home, read one or two stories and went to bed. I woke up at 3AM and thought, you know they translated theses stories so I could read them and you mean to tell me there aren't enough stories to comprise one volume of Black sf?
cg: Why do you think DM has been met with such success?
Sheree Thomas: The time is right. Octavia Butler and Samuel Delany have received the genre's highest awards, multiple times. Octavia Butler's name in particular is really getting out in the community. Academic feminists have really embraced her. Octavia Butler had attempted to do a collection on race and ethnic issues and was told by publishers it wouldn't sell. Charles Saunders also tried to pull together a Black sf collection - but also to no regard. I did not anticipate doing a second one -- but the first collection was just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much work.
cg: What informs your own writing?
Sheree Thomas: I've been writing since I was a child. I was the kind of kid that if you wanted to punish me you had to keep me out of my room and away from a book. Being a woman and a mother really colors how I spend my time. I am most concerned with passing information to generations and very interested in how women are either cut off or reconnected with themselves. I am very concerned about the politics of language because being southern, being from Memphis, from my particular family, Id say English is a second language for me. In my own mind, I tell stories the way my grandfather told me stories on the porch, the way my grandmother told me stories while she was fixing another kick ass meal. That was the language I lived and breathed in and that's the language I want to put on the page.
cg: As far as Black folks and people of color are concerned, what does the future look like?
Sheree Thomas: We are always presented with other people's images of the future. Whether it's Star Wars or Star Trek or whatever, they always speak in this language, somehow they have British accents, somehow they all look a certain way. Too often, the whole [Black] community never makes it to the future or it doesn't exist. We're rarely together. We're either one Black man or one Black woman, alone. I envision a future where we are together and where our communities remain intact. Our culture is legitimate, is valid, is important, should be cherished and continued and I think our language, Blackspeak is what I call it, is a part of that.
cg:Who are you reading now?
Sheree Thomas: Right now I'm reading Robert Farris Thompson's Flash of the Spirit: African and African-American Art and Philosophy, a book about Ma Rainy by Paul Olivier and I'm working through Nalo Hopkinson's Whispers From the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction.
cg: What advice do you have for aspiring and new writers?
Sheree Thomas: You've got to read! Not only must you read the work that you like, but you've also to read the work you dont like. Be able to critically explain what it is that this writer is doing that you don't want to duplicate in your own work. Be able to read more critically what you do love and try to understand why the first paragraph captured your attention. Read non-fiction. I know it may sound elementary, it may sound obvious, but it's not. The best advice I can give is to read.