Black speculative fiction is a literary movement with roots from the past currently branching into black-centric genres such as sword & soul, steamfunk, dieselfunk, and urban fantasy. For a wider look at these genres, I turned to Milton Davis, a writer and entrepreneur at the forefront of this contemporary movement, combining literature and community – stories, cosplay, and lifestyle.
Milton is a full-time chemist and the owner of MVmedia – a micro publishing company specializing in speculative fiction representing people of color in a positive manner. He is the author of eight novels, including the just released steamfunk tale, From Here to Timbuktu. He is co-editor of four anthologies, Griots: A Sword and Soul Anthology, Griots: Sisters of the Spear, The Ki Khanga, and Steamfunk!
WHAT ARE THE ROOTS OF BLACK SPECULATIVE FICTION, AND WHAT DREW YOU TO THE GENRE?
The roots of black speculative fiction are found in the efforts of black independent speculative fiction writers. Black writers in speculative fiction have been around for a long time, but the recent increase in writers due to print on demand, e-books and social networking has increased the number of writers to a point where we can claim a legitimate subgenre.
I came to black speculative fiction like most writers. As a black reader of speculative fiction I wanted to read stories that not only contained main characters that looked like me, but I also wanted stories that included my culture and experiences as well. So I decided to write them.
TO HELP US HAVE A CLEARER UNDERSTANDING, WOULD YOU DEFINE STEAMFUNK, DIESELFUNK, SWORD & SOUL, AND URBAN FANTASY – THE DIFFERENCES AND WHAT TIES THEM TOGETHER?
The one thing that all these sub-genres have in common is that they all contain stories with black main characters, and all include the cultural, historical and contemporary perspective of people of African descent. As far as differences are concerned, Steamfunk takes traditional steampunk trappings (worlds with steam driven mechanics as opposed to electric) while also focusing on stories based on the 19th century Afrocentric cultural experience. Dieselfunk is similar in that takes that same focus to an early 20th century time frame (and uses mechanics based on diesel instead of steam). Sword & Soul is basically sword and sorcery and heroic fiction based on African culture, history, spirituality and traditions. Urban fantasy is a broader term that doesn’t apply directly to Black urban fantasy. It covers most genres that deal with magic in the modern day world.
IN 1974, CHARLES R. SAUNDERS BEGAN WRITING STORIES OF THE JUNGLE HERO IMARO SET IN THE FANTASY WORLD OF NYUMBANI. DID THESE STORIES HAVE AN INFLUENCE ON YOUR OWN WRITING OR ON BLACK SPECULATIVE FICTION AS A WHOLE?
I’m sad to say they didn’t, initially. I didn’t discover Charles’s work until after I began writing. Since then we’ve met online and become great friends. My science fiction and fantasy upbringing was very traditional. I read Herbert, Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke and others. Although I always contemplated writing speculative fiction from a black perspective, it was a historical fiction novel, Segu by Maryse Conde, showed me that it could be done and done well.
WHY IS BLACK SPECULATIVE FICTION AND ITS ASSOCIATE GENRES IMPORTANT IN TODAY’S LITERARY WORLD?
I think it is important for people to see themselves in anything they are interested in. It gives them a sense of being, belonging and engages them more completely. Today entertainment has become a huge part of our lives, influencing us consciously and subconsciously. And speculative fiction has been seriously lacking in black images, especially positive black images.
HOW DOES STEAMFUNK TRANSLATE INTO A LIFESTYLE?
To me, steamfunk is not a lifestyle. It is a literary genre.
HOW DO YOU FEEL THIS BECOMES A POSITIVE MOVEMENT WITHIN THE AFRICAN AMERICAN COMMUNITY?
I don’t see it as a movement. I see it as another opportunity to express black creativity. It think it can and does have a positive effect on black speculative fiction readers, especially African American readers because the way it is currently presented incorporates a lot of our history and culture. I can see it evolving to include Afro-Caribbean, Afro-British, Afro-French and various continental African cultures as well. That in turn will enrich and expand the scope of steampunk.
DO YOU FEEL AN OBLIGATION TO WRITE ABOUT RACIAL THEMES AS PART OF THE BLACK SPECULATIVE FICTION GENRES? IF SO, DOES THIS MAKE THE STORIES HARDER TO TELL?
I don’t feel obligated to write about racial themes in black speculative fiction, but at the same time I don’t shy away from them, either. I think this is one of the hallmarks of black speculative fiction. We can go there. Mainstream speculative fiction rarely deals with racial issues from a black point of view, which mean the story is incomplete. In black speculative fiction we can deal with an issue in a way that is true to us because our audience is mainly black and will relate to how we present it.
ARE THERE HISTORICALLY RACIAL STEREOTYPES YOU CHOSE TO PLAY AGAINST WHEN PLOTTING OR CREATING CHARACTERS?
The main thing I do in my stories is create strong black main characters, which I guess is playing against the mainstream fiction black stereotype of black characters being sidekicks, sacrificial Negroes or ‘Magic’ Negroes.
WHO ARE THE CURRENT WRITERS BRINGING THESE TALES TO LIFE?
There’s a long list of writers; Balogun Ojetade, Alicia McCalla, Ronald Jones, Alan Jones, K. Ceres Wright, Carolle McDonnell, Valjeanne Jeffers, Cerece Renee Murphy, William Hayashi, Davaun Sanders, Maurice Broaddus and many more. And, of course, you have the icons – Octavia Butler, Charles R. Saunders, Samuel Delany, Tananarive, Due, Steve Barnes, Nalo Hopkinson, Nisi Shawl, Nnedi Okorafor, N.K. Jemison and David Anthony Durham.
WHO IS YOUR CORE AUDIENCE AND WHAT DO THEY LOOK FOR IN YOUR WORK?
My core audience is black speculative fiction readers. I think they look for themselves and their culture in my work. Like most writers, I write for myself, but it’s very good to know my stories resonate with so many of my people.
HOW HAVE YOU SEEN BLACK SPECULATIVE FICTION BECOMING A POSITIVE FORCE?
Yes, especially among young black readers. That’s been the highlight of this journey. To see the happy faces of black girls and boys when they see my book covers and to hear the excitement in their voices when they talk about the books makes it worth it. I’ve also see it change people’s historical perspective, especially with Sword & Soul. I often base my writing on historical subjects not often talked about, so when we discuss the books we end up sharing information of which most folks aren’t aware.
HOW DO YOU TAKE BLACK SPECULATIVE FICTION TO A WIDER AUDIENCE?
Exposure. Doing cons and interviews like this one. It’s a slow process but it works. Since access to the big box bookstores is virtually impossible, we have to work outside the norm. Social networking has been a particularly strong force in spreading the word. My book sales increase in double digit percentages every year so I know the word is getting out.
A big thank you to Milton for taking the time to share the world of black speculative fiction. You can find Milton on the web here:
The year is 1870. As the young country of Freedonia prepares to celebrate fifty years of existence, a young bounty hunter by the name of Zeke Culpepper is hired by a wealthy businessman to find a valuable book. In the kingdom of Mali on the continent of Africa, veteran warrior Famara Keita has been assigned to find that same book and bring it back to its rightful owner. And in the newly formed nation of Germany, an ambitious Prussian officer seeks the book as well for its secrets that could make Germany the most powerful nation in the world. The result is an action adventure like no other!
An exciting Sword and Soul tale by Balogun Ojetade, Once Upon a Time in Afrika Tells the story of a beautiful princess and her eager suitors. Desperate to marry off his beautiful but "tomboyish" duaghter, Esuseeke, the Emperor of Oyo, consults the Oracle. The Oracle tells the Emperor Esuseeke must marry the greatest warrior in all Onile (Afrika). To determine who is the greatest warrior, the Emperor hosts a grand martial arts tournament inviting warrior from all over the continent. Unknown to the warriors and spectators of the tournament a powerful evil is headed their way. Will the warriors band together against this evil?
A witch, more machine than human, judges the character of the wicked and hands out justice in a ravaged Chicago. John Henry wields his mighty hammers in a war against machines and the undead. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman rule a country of freed slaves that rivals – and often bests – England and France in power and technology. You will find all this – and much more – between the pages of Steamfunk, an anthology of incredible stories by some of today’s greatest authors of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Steamfunk – African and African American-inspired Steampunk.
Editors Milton Davis and Balogun Ojetade have put together a masterful work guaranteed to transport you to new worlds. Worlds of adventure; of terror; of war and wonder; of iron and steam. Open these pages and traverse the lumineferous aether to the world of Steamfunk!