I am a black woman and I write horror.
When I write it here, when I hear those words reverberate in my head, it’s very powerful for me. Very magical. I like the idea that maybe I can be the first black author of horror, if that’s not too arrogant (a girl can dream, right?). I feel like that combination is a complete winning ticket, because it’s not a genre that we are known for.
It has been my experience that black people don’t write horror. We write about love, sex, gangsters and drugs. We write about our crumbling social structures, about our broken families, our lost opportunities. We write about women looking for “one good man” to help them see it through. We revisit the plight of our history, in this country and in others. In word, we wonder about our future and our destiny. We write about our churches, our faith. We write about hope–our own president, Barack Obama, has cornered that market ideal pretty well.
Yes, black authors write about a lot of things–except horror. As a category of fiction, it’s not really our thing.
So when I say that I am a black woman and I write horror, it’s actually a big statement.
And why not? Why shouldn’t it be? Why not make the proclamation and embrace it? Exalt it? Trumpet it?
Because, as I am learning, it sends black people running in the other direction, and ironically, in fear.
Today I did a book signing in an independent book store that specializes in books by black authors. To say that it was a bust would be an understatement, and I have to stress that because it’s the second time in a week that I went there for a book signing. When I finally packed up my wares and got ready to go home, the bookseller very kindly offered me this advice:
“You know, when people come up to you to ask you about the book, don’t mention that it’s horror. Black folks tend to shy away from that.”
I decided then not to point out that right there on the cover of my book as a subtitle it says “Short Tales of Horror”. I mean, let’s be clear, they may not read horror, but they can read, right? People can see, can they not?
That aside, why wouldn’t I mention it? It’s what I chose to write about. Short Tales of Horror.
But for people of color, it is a stretch. It’s a difficult concept for them to wrap their heads around. Not everyone, mind you, but for the large majority, it is.
What’s my point? My point is that when I write, I want to move beyond the norm, and as a writer, I can do that. I can envision worlds and realities that are very different from my own, and I can create and bring to life a story that can touch any range of emotion I want it to. So why would I limit myself? Why would I say that because I’m black, I can only write the about, say, “a good woman looking for a good man”?
Let me be clear: I am certainly not belittling authors who choose to write about such topics. I have my own favorite black authors whose books have transported me through time and space: Alice Walker, Lawrence Hill, Zora Neal Hurston to name a few. When I read A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah I learned the horrors of civil war and the price many young, innocent children had to pay as a result in Sierra Leone. In Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, I was engulfed in the saga of Okonkwo days and weeks after I finished reading it. In Kindred by Octavia E. Butler, I was forced to wonder what I myself would do if I was transported back through time to be a slave. These authors have all touched my spirit with stories that have spoken about the black experience, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I applaud them and their works. But beyond the black experience, there is also the human experience, of which we as black people are also a part of. As such, we can and should be able to identify with the range of emotions that all people share, fear being among them. It seems counter-intuitive not to write about these things.
And as readers, I think black people do themselves a disservice by only reading a certain kind of literature. Historically, we as a people have been very quick to say to others “Hey, don’t deny me because I am black. Don’t tell me what I can or can’t do because I’m black.” So why would we then, in turn, say to each other: “Okay, well, as a black writer, you can only write this or you can only write that.” We don’t serve the full nature of who we are as a people when we dictate what we as artists can or cannot do. Obviously, one always has to account for taste and preference in reading material. I get that. But let’s not dismiss a whole genre because it’s “not what we do” or it’s “not who we are”. We are the total sum of all our experiences, and I don’t think we should discredit that because some of those experiences are not as comfortable or familiar to us as others. You never know where a literary journey will take you, how it will broaden you or open your eyes, so why not take the chance to read and explore? The merits of such a journey certainly outweigh the cons.
And so, as I make plans to prepare for my next book signing, I’m not going to apologize. I’m not going to hide what I do or what I write about. And I’m not going to lose faith. I took one on the chin today, but the bruise is already healing and I’m ready to move on. I’m going to go forth and push my book as best I can. Horror is my thing, and to all my black brothers and sisters out there, I’m inviting you along for the ride.
Trust me, it’s going to be a good one.