Karen Lord: Growing Caribbean Spec Literature
Barbadian author, editor and research consultant Karen Lord is known for her debut novel Redemption in Indigo, which won the 2008 Frank Collymore Literary Award, the 2010 Carl Brandon Parallax Award, the 2011 William L. Crawford Award, the 2011 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature and the 2012 Kitschies Golden Tentacle (Best Debut), and was longlisted for the 2011 Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature and nominated for the 2011 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. Her second novel The Best of All Possible Worlds won the 2009 Frank Collymore Literary Award, the 2013 RT Book Reviews Reviewers’ Choice Awards for Best Science Fiction Novel, and was a finalist for the 2014 Locus Awards. Its sequel, The Galaxy Game, was published in January 2015. She is the editor of the 2016 anthology New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean.
In the introduction to the anthology New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean you mention there is a rich tradition of speculative literature in the Caribbean, but it is “hidden in plain sight.” I think this is similar to the situation in Mexico. Could you tell me how speculative literature has manifested in the Caribbean? And what kinds of challenges does this hiding “in plain sight” pose to writers?
I think there are two aspects to how the speculative manifests in our life and literature. We turn the mundane into myth, and we live the numinous as if it were mundane.
Turning the mundane into myth – by that I mean that when something real but traumatic or taboo occurs (e.g. see the region’s entire post-Colombian history) and it cannot be spoken of directly, it finds expression in parable or folklore. Tell the truth, but tell it slant.
Living the numinous as if it were mundane – this happens in any culture that accepts prophetic dreams, the intercession of saints, the protection of ancestors, etc. as merely part of everyday life. It’s realism, but not the kind of realism that modernity recognises.
I suspect that the first aspect is the fantastic as metaphor, and the second is magical realism, but I am no expert. The boundaries of definition have been very blurry in my experience, and we – Caribbean writers in general and Caribbean SF writers in particular – mostly get placed in the box called ‘literary’ if we’re noticed at all.
I have found that this way of truth-telling and reality-perceiving poses more of a problem for the publishing industry than it does for writers. We can write anything we like, but what will sales and marketing do with our work? How do they promote us? Where will the booksellers shelve us?
We have to demand to be seen even when we are in plain sight. We rely on academics, reviewers and interviewers to see the full scope of our work beyond the restrictions of marketing labels, so we must speak to them as plainly as we can when we can. Our challenge is that after writing the work, we have to defend the work.
It seems this anthology could belong on several ‘shelves.’ How do you even get a project started like this when ‘what shelf does it belong to’ is one of the basics publishers ask you from the get-go?
This is where I thank God for small presses and the people who run them. They’re not afraid to forget about labels and try new things.
In 2012, at the inaugural Bim Lit Fest in Barbados, I had a conversation with Jeremy Poynting of Peepal Tree Press. He didn’t know what speculative fiction was, so I told him. He then said, ‘I think I have a book for you.’ Peepal Tree Press had just published Ghosts by Curdella Forbes. That was when I realised how much SF I might be missing that was hiding under the ‘literary’ umbrella, and Jeremy, I believe, began to realise there might be more to this SF thing than spaceships and wizards.
Jeremy later asked me to write a review of an Edgar Mittelholzer novella called ‘The Adding Machine: A Fable for Capitalists and Commercialists’. I already knew Mittelholzer’s My Bones and My Flute, a horror novel that we were assigned in school, but this out-of-print work (also horror) was new to me. And then in 2015, at the Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad, Jeremy asked me if I would be willing to edit an anthology of Caribbean SF for Peekash Press.
Quick cut-and-paste explanation of Peekash Press: ‘New Worlds, Old Ways is the third publication of Peekash Press, an imprint of Akashic Books and Peepal Tree Press committed to supporting the emergence of new Caribbean writing, and as part of CaribLit project.’
Imagine it – Peepal Tree Press was only just learning that some of its list could be classified as SF, and Akashic Books didn’t publish SF either (not knowingly, though they come close with their noir series). The previous two publications of Peekash Press were an anthology of the best short stories (mostly realist) submitted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and an anthology of poetry from the region’s best new poets. Yet they willingly took a chance on an SF anthology.
Our region is small. We don’t hold too tightly to genre boundaries and the genre vs literary snobbery is less present. We learn from working with each other in a mutual quest for excellence. In the end, we can always shelve it under ‘Caribbean’.
You’ve mentioned literary festivals as being key in facilitating this project. In the past few years, there have been questions in the speculative fiction community about what we can do to promote ‘diversity.’ Do you view the festival as a more effective tool for fostering diversity? Is this even a term you utilize?
‘Diversity’. Is that even a term I utilise? Is that even a term I recognise? We’re writers; we’re not supposed to do violence to the English language, and yet we do, taking a word and beating it to death.
Conventions and conferences have provided me with opportunities to meet some marvellous colleagues and make some important connections. but I would have to say that festivals have been the most effective for me. They provide diversity of art, not just of people. By some luck, the literary festivals I have attended have always included or run parallel with some other creative aspect – music, dance, film, craft and art. I am more likely to leave a festival feeling refreshed (exhausted in body, yes, and yet refreshed in mind and spirit).
Oddly enough, when the art is diversified, the demographic seems to diversify naturally. I believe it comes down to who the organisers are and what kind of vision they have.
When you first started putting together the anthology, did you have a specific vision about the kinds of stories you were looking for or was it a more organic process? What surprised you about the process and what was the most difficult part of editing this book?
I had no idea what to expect. It was my first time as editor, and my only vision was to get enough stories of a certain standard so we could publish something that looked like a book. As soon as the submissions started to come in, the anthology began to reveal a narrative arc of its own – definitely organic!
What surprised me was the high quality of the work. I knew some of the authors, and I’d seen their earlier work or, in a few cases, an earlier draft of the story. One of the things I noticed, both from my own development and from working with emerging writers, is that there’s often an imitative phase when you stick close to the shape of your favourite stories and the style of your favourite authors. But what they gave me was completely fresh and fully grounded in our home culture. At one stage, I was like … is this anthology really as good as I think it is, or have I fallen into Stockholm Syndrome with these stories?
The difficult part was – well, it was a lot more work than I imagined, and that was mostly my own fault. I figured I would focus on selecting stories with potential, knock a few raw edges off, and then hand everything over to Jeremy and Peepal Tree Press for the professional polish. But when the manuscripts came to me, when I looked them over and saw how they fitted together so sweetly, I got so possessive it was ridiculous. I wanted to give Jeremy the most perfect draft in the history of anthologies so that he would have to agree with me that the stories were amazing. Many of the authors were first-timers, and I felt protective of them too. Being edited can be rough, and although all of them had done workshops or worked with freelance editors and thus knew how to take critique, I wanted them to have a good experience.
I don’t have a degree in English. I don’t have an MFA. I could tell from instinct if something wasn’t working, but it took time and effort to successfully explain why it wasn’t working, and then offer solutions. Offering solutions was key. I’m not writing your story for you. I want to make you think about where you want to take it, and how you want to get there, and ensure that you get there on your own steam. If you can defend your choices, whether or not I agree with you, as author you still have the power of stet.
It’s still very subjective, of course. Jeremy kindly included me in his final editing phase, and some of the Bajan manuscripts were edited pre and post submission by Robert Sandiford. It was interesting to see our differences and our similarities when it came to the fine details. But it doesn’t matter. It’s a dialogue, a collaboration, and the goal is to tell the story. Somewhere between the editor’s corrections and suggestions and the author’s revisions and decisions, we get a result.
Would you be interested in editing another anthology? If so, are there particular themes and subject matter you’d like to explore?
I wouldn’t mind doing a volume two of Caribbean spec fic in a few more years. And, one of these days, I want to edit or help edit an anthology of reprints – several decades-worth of short fiction Caribbean SF that was filed under ‘literary’ and overlooked by mainstream readers.
I don’t want to do anthologies too often. I need mental space for my own writing, and being in full critical mode is not that space.
What do you hope this anthology will accomplish? How do you feel about the future of Caribbean SF, where is it headed?
My hopes were modest, and the anthology has already accomplished more than I imagined. I learned how to be an editor. Caribbean writers were nurtured in an environment that recognised and celebrated their cultural heritage. First-time authors were introduced to the world and people are paying attention to their names. The starred review from PW just was the icing on the cake.
The future of Caribbean SF is bright. There are plenty of strong, brilliant writers … some you haven’t even heard of yet, but just you wait! New works and new projects are in the pipeline. The literary community is amazingly supportive. But that’s regionally. Globally, there’s still a lot of work to do – promotion and marketing on our own terms, networking with other writers in the Commonwealth and beyond, and cultivating and growing our readership. We’re working it out step by step, and enjoying ourselves along the way. I must thank my colleagues Tobias Buckell and Nalo Hopkinson, who make this journey so very worthwhile. And please visit CaribbeanSF.com, a site conceived and launched by Tobias. It’s a work in progress, a beginning, and we believe it’s destined for greatness!