Afrofuturist and horror writer Tananarive Due: “Invite more Black creators to the table”
The award-winning author discussed her work as a pioneer of horror, how she got her start, and the future of Afrofuturism.
“I've always been a scaredy-cat,” Tananarive Due tells Inverse.
Due is also an Afrofuturist and horror writer with deep roots in the civil rights movement by way of her activist parents, Patricia Stephens Due and John Due.
She has written award-winning short stories and novels and is also working in film and television. As a professor at UCLA, she teaches a fascinating, popular course called “The Sunken Place: Racism, Survival, and the Black Horror Aesthetic.”
We spoke, via Zoom, about her work as a pioneer of horror, how she got her start, and the future of Afrofuturism.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Roxane Gay: You got your start in journalism?
Tananarive Due: I did. Back in the day, journalism was considered a stable field. My parents knew I always wanted to be a writer. But it was this idea that you have to have something to fall back on which is almost laughable because now journalism is so unstable. Back in those days, the recruiters were coming out. They were seeking Black candidates.
Journalism always felt a little bit like writing with my left hand, and I'm right-handed. It was a little more awkward. It was a little more effort. I was always terrified of making mistakes which, of course, I did on a fairly regular basis because that's just the nature of journalism. It’s such a different feeling than writing fiction, which is more of an escape down a rabbit hole.
RG: When did you first come to writing?
TD: Really, it was like writing came to me. I was four.
RG: Me too!
TD: Yes, it was typing paper folded in half and scrolling. For me, it was scrolling pictures. I don't know where you were at 4. At 4, I was scrolling little stick figures and writing captions. My first book was called Baby Bobby. They say write what you know. So, Baby Bobby is in his crib. And I was spelling “baby” wrong.
But what's most significant about that book besides the fact that my mother so embraced it and made copies for all the church members is that I was familiar enough with books to know what to write on the back. I said, “Baby Bobby is a book about a baby.” And then I wrote, The author is Tananarive Due.
RG: Tell me about your parents.
TD: My mother, Patricia Stephens Due, and my father, John Due, met while they were both students at Florida A&M University. They are both in the civil rights, the Florida Civil Rights Hall of Fame. My mother posthumously, because in 1960, my late mother was a part of the first jail-in in Florida. She and her sister organized sit-ins in Tallahassee and as a result, the two of them and other students from Florida A&M ended up spending 49 days in jail. It was a big deal then because they had refused to pay their fine. They had chosen jail. They got a telegram from Dr. King congratulating them on the bravery of their decision.
When they got out, my mother and her sister went on a speaking tour with their mother, a chaperone. Eleanor Roosevelt hosted a fundraiser at her home. She met Harry Belafonte. While they were in jail, Jackie Robinson sent them diaries to keep track of their experiences. He printed a letter from my mother that was smuggled out of jail in his column in the New York Post which really helped raise awareness of this burgeoning civil rights movement that was starting to really take fire around the country.
“They got a telegram from Dr. King congratulating them on the bravery of their decision.”
My father is an attorney. He calls himself a freedom lawyer. The basis of their courtship was activism. They did not have a traditional courtship. It was all about shared vision for change. Throughout their marriage, they were basically co-soldiers. My mother was still lying down in front of sanitation trucks in 1968 during the Poor People's Movement. She was still very active even when she had two toddlers. But ultimately, she did become a full-time mother.
I always looked at it as a sacrifice she made. She never gave up her battles. But that very active arrest record really went by the wayside when she had me and my sisters. She dedicated herself to being an amazing mom. My dad was more still out in the streets, still kind of a free spirit although he always came home. We had two parents, basically middle class, moved into a newly-integrated neighborhood kind of upbringing.
RG: You have this seemingly idyllic upbringing with both of your parents, loving family, surrounded by books. How do you develop an interest in writing horror?
TD: That's also my mother. She was a huge horror fan. It's only in recent years really since her loss, ironically, which has been the biggest trauma of my life that I'm thinking, “Ah, I wonder if her love of horror had a lot to do with the trauma she suffered, first growing up under Jim Crow then being subjected to state violence as a civil rights activist?” That monster on a screen, whether it's Frankenstein or the Wolf Man, can represent the real-life trauma you have to stand up to. And you watch characters stand up to it even when they don't understand it, even when they don't know how to fight it.
“It never occurs to us that we can see ourselves in our own work.”
I hadn't quite discovered that I wanted to write horror while I was enjoying it as a young kid, but a Stephen King book my mother gave me, The Shining, really flipped a switch in terms of how I might express my interest in horror creatively. By the time I got through four years at Northwestern University and then a year at the University of Leeds, I was writing White characters. The canon had so narrowed my vision of what a writer was that it looked like a person who writes about White men doing White men stuff and having small epiphanies.
I didn't even let myself see any of myself in that work. I wasn't Black girl or magic. Looking back on it now, it's shocking to me because I grew up again in that house not just full of books but Black books, full of Black history. We were practically homeschooled Black history. That is a testament to how powerful the canon is and how that erasure is to students when they literally can't see themselves in their own work. It never occurs to us that we can see ourselves in our own work.
RG: When did you give yourself that internal permission?
TD: I read Mama Day by Gloria Naylor and that electrified me on so many levels because she was such a respected Black writer. But she was writing with these metaphysical elements. And then as a reporter for the Miami Herald, I was assigned a feature story to interview Anne Rice. I read one of her Vampire Lestat novels. In my research, I came across a magazine story excoriating her for writing about vampires. I was like, “How do you respond to criticism that you're wasting your talents writing about vampires?” She just laughed and said her works were taught in colleges. It was like ding, ding, ding. You can be respected in writing about vampires. You can have cultural impact writing about vampires. She talked about the big themes she can write about in horror and I was off to the races.
“You can have cultural impact writing about vampires.”
After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, I got an idea for a novel called The Between. I let myself imagine a Black man who had a near-death experience. Every time he has a nightmare, he wakes up in a slightly different reality than the one he left. And he's being stalked in his suburban home by a White supremacist. The Between was my first publication.
RG: How did you develop the career you have now where you are a prolific writer, you are getting into film and television? You teach.
TD: A piece at a time and certainly without much intention. I just wanted to publish my books. And I was so lucky that I came along when I did. Octavia Butler had blazed before me although I was not familiar with her work. It was a White male science fiction writer who even told me about Octavia Butler because she wasn't getting her roses at that time.
If you didn't know, you didn't know. You know what I mean? But it was the 1990s, Terry McMillan had published Waiting to Exhale and just lit a fire under publishing, the same way this fire was lit in Hollywood. I was like, “Oh, we can have Black people in movies.” Within publishing, it was more, “Oh, Black people read.” It was a revelation.
RG: Which is crazy when you think about it because the biggest readers I know are Black women.
TD: Exactly, and this is what publishing discovered. I mean, not only did they read but they were going to have book club meetings and cook a great meal like some of the best food I've ever had in my life. I'm still thinking about a piece of cake from a meeting. They would gather back when we had more independent booksellers like Marcus Books in Oakland, which is thankfully still there, but many are not. But between the book clubs and the booksellers, there was a lot of media. Back in those days, they would give you a tour for the hardcover and a tour for the paperback. They gave me a credit card for expenses on the road.
There was this bubble of excitement. I had written my first two novels while working full time at the Miami Herald. And then I wrote Freedom in the Family with my mom and took a leap and hoped I could stay but I ran out of money. I had to go back to the Miami Herald for a little while, but then I got married in 1997. I haven't had a full-time job since then. It was not a straight line in the slightest.
“The answer is just invite more Black creators to the table.”
RG: How do you define horror? What is it to you? And does Black horror have a different definition?
TD: The great thing about horror is that it's just an emotion. There was a debate on Twitter not long ago about whether Alien was horror because it was a science fiction movie set in space. Like, you guys are missing the point. Was it scary? If it was scary to you, then it was horror. Horror in general is literature, cinema, music that creates a feeling of dread and fear. And for different people, they will have vastly different definitions. Eve's Bayou, to me, that's horror. Some people might say, “Well, isn't that a family drama?” “Yeah, it's a family drama.” But, A, it has just a little dab of the metaphysics and voodoo in there. But also, that family dynamic is so horrific.
“If it was scary to you, then it was horror.”
That's what makes it horror is that the monster is in the house. The worst monsters do tend to come from right inside the house, inside the family, and sometimes inside ourselves. What Black horror does is not always about racism as the monster, but sometimes it's just that we exist in the movie and we're not a trope. That's amazing. That's still rare, frankly.
RG: Interesting how low that bar is.
TD: You would think that after all these years filmmakers would have learned this lesson. But ironically, I find that in the wake of this era where everyone's trying to be more inclusive now and they're adding Black characters and other marginalized characters to their scripts like seasoning, they're falling back into those old bad habits again because they don't know Black people.
We're sacrificing ourselves again. We're dying first again. The answer is just invite more Black creators to the table, have those Black creators in the writer's room. Instead of taking the script by your White friend and making the lead character Black because you think that's going to make more money, which is what we see happening now, actually let a Black screenwriter rewrite this script. Or here's an even better idea. Why don't you read this script that this Black creator has been trying to get you to be interested in?
RG: A lot of your work is also Afrofuturistic. And when most people hear Afrofuturism, they inevitably think of sci-fi and Black Panther, even though, as you and others have insisted, horror is definitely included in the Afrofuturist umbrella. I know that your own work even at its most sci-fi like the African Immortal series always has elements of horror. What do you feel horror brings to Afrofuturism? And what does it allow you to do or say that a more straightforward sci-fi or fantasy story doesn't?
TD: That's a great question. I've never had that question. I think a lot of the imagination that goes into the big epic fantasy is about societies colliding or traditions having to shift or massive movements that have to be started. Because horror is so personal it tends to be more fixated on literal daily survival, more so than a system.
RG: Do you see Afrofuturism working in opposition to the history of science fiction or is it more of an expansion or a correction?
TD: It's both a rebuke and expansion. I always like to tell the story about how there are no Black people in the original Star Wars. I know George Lucas probably didn't do that on purpose. He is actually married to a Black woman right now. And he probably wouldn't do it now. But when he did, it didn't occur to anybody.
RG: No one in that ecosystem, well at least no one with power raised their hand to say, “Excuse me, but if Jedis are real, certainly Black people exist in this universe.”
TD: It's a visual violence really to look at something set in the future where we've been erased because it begs the question, “Where do we all go?”
RG: You also think about this in terms of disability studies. Where are people with disabilities?
TD: Absolutely. We have to have one eye shut sometimes. And beyond the rebuke part, it is also, to me, leading by example because so much of Afrofuturism is about personal survival when the world falls apart around you, but it's also about leadership. What does it mean to create a community? What elements do we need for a community to thrive?
RG: Do you think it's possible to make a film or to write a book foregrounding Black people and have it not be perceived as political?
TD: Because it's so rare still, the existence of such a thing is even political is the thing. The most non-racialized story with a Black lead I can think of is a movie by J.D. Dillard called Sweetheart on Netflix. It's a monster movie. And the lead who carries almost this whole movie just happens to be a biracial woman. And there's no comment about race in the entire piece. But its existence feels political to me because it's so rare.
“That's where my stories come from — whatever direction that terror is.”
RG: What do you see as the future of Afrofuturism? How does it evolve?
TD: The success of a movement like Afrofuturism might be something like it's not remarkable anymore to have stories of futurism and fantasy and horror with Black creators. It's just considered horror and fantasy and science fiction. Is that what success looks like? I don't know.
There's one component of Afrofuturism, especially in the vein of work by writers like Octavia Butler, which is all about leadership and trying to prevent our society from crumbling. All the things fueling our headlines are the things Octavia was trying to steer us away from. She didn't have the luxury of some of the things I had in my childhood, in my young adulthood that made it possible for me not to think about it. It's because we are thinking about these things that we can, I hope in a way, create a leadership model where we're not afraid to say, “Hey, if we do dismantle this system, what system might rise in its place that is a better, more nurturing, more empathetic, actually democratic system that is moving away from hierarchy, moving away from racism, and bigotry,” period?
I like to say we don't have to convert people along the way because when a leadership model is obvious enough, even people who don't like you eventually will figure it out that maybe we better walk on this path because the woods are burning on this path. Now, there are plenty of folks who will stay in the woods and burn.
That's been one of the most startling aspects of the past couple of years to me is watching the degree to which people will create denial and let themselves burn up in the woods. But artists are trying to write ways out of the burning woods. And I think Afrofuturism is very valuable in that regard because there's a way in which it's easier to see reality through the prism of fiction sometimes just by offering people imagination.
RG: I tend to write dark and I know that not all horror is necessarily that dark, but it does require going to a darker place. How do you get there because you're so charming and so happy?
TD: I'm a scaredy-cat, Roxane. That's why. I've always been a scaredy-cat. Around the age of eight, I was sharing a bedroom with my great-grandmother who had emphysema and was on an oxygen machine. I listened to that hissing all night terrified she was going to stop breathing and had that first confrontation with, “Oh, life is finite.” I could project myself to that future and see myself in that bed. That's where my stories come from—whatever direction that terror is. I'm a hypochondriac so for me, Covid was very motivating.
RG: I love to ask every creative person I have the pleasure of interviewing the same question. What do you like most about your writing?
TD: It feels weird to even engage with that question. I feel like you caught me. I guess it's the idea that people who are minding their business, going around about their lives, confront an ugly discovery of something deadly they didn't know existed before and they find a way to confront it.
That's the thing I love about horror in general. When I let myself reread my work, it's tailor written for me and my own personal fears, but it's creating those characters who are honestly stronger than I am, who've been through more than I have, and hoping that they will be role models for me when the zombies are knocking down my door.
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