Last week, Girl Meets Monster talked with Glenn Rolfe about the challenges of writing Splatterpunk. This week, R. J. Joseph is here to talk about what it means to be a woman of color writing horror.
R. J. Joseph is a Texas based writer and professor who must exorcise the demons of her imagination so they don’t haunt her being. A life-long horror fan and writer of many things, she has finally discovered the joys of writing creatively and academically about two important aspects of her life: horror and black femininity.
When R. J. isn’t writing, teaching, or reading voraciously, she can usually be found wrangling one or six of various sprouts and sproutlings from her blended family of 11…which also includes one husband and two furry babies.
R. J. can be found lurking (and occasionally even peeking out) on social media:
Facebook official: fb.me/rhondajacksonjosephwriter
Amazon Author Page: amazon.com/author/rjjoseph
GMM: As a woman of color writing about black and queer characters, what obstacles have your faced when writing within the horror genre? When did you decide you were a horror writer? What influenced or inspired you to write horror stories about women of color?
RJJ: I’ve been a lifelong horror fan. I was a small child devouring horror comics, Twilight Zone, and Stephen King novels, well before I could understand any of the themes these stories presented. The horror genre appeals to my naturally dark nature, which was apparent and already well entrenched by the time I was 6 or 7 years old. I always questioned why the folks in the genre I loved so much didn’t look like me, from the writers to the actors to the characters in the books. I wanted to be the monster. I figured creating the monsters was the next best thing, so I had to write them. I started then, even though I didn’t always embrace that part of my writing persona. I couldn’t imagine not writing about the world I inhabited and navigated, a black female experiencing life through this lens. I wasn’t seeing these stories and I had to fill the void.
I wanted to be the monster.
I appreciate that you frame this question in a way that shows you know we have obstacles. They aren’t a figment of our imagination or a quest for race-baiting and creating issues. One of the biggest problems I have is in always wondering why stories are accepted or rejected. I know my writing isn’t perfect and I still have so much growth to experience within my craft, but sometimes I get rejections that just don’t offer any clarity, not even the blanket forms where the spaces between the words don’t reek of any additional interpretation. Sometimes, though, what isn’t said speaks volumes. I get that editors don’t have time to give personalized rejections all the time. But I always go back and read the publications I submit to so I can see which stories made the cut. Reading what was ultimately accepted can be excruciating. So many times, I wish the editors would have just said, “We don’t know what to do with you, blackity black woman, or your blackity black characters with their blackity black fears”. That would make me feel so much better.
I once had an editor explain to me at a book launch for an anthology one of my stories appeared in that he didn’t want me to feel as if my story was a token acceptance because I’m a black woman. He made it a point to let me know he had read some of my previous work and thought my story for the anthology was great. I had to be professional and put on my Appreciative Writerly face, but I really wanted to hug him and cry. That meant so much to me, especially coming from a white male professional in the field. Unless the project is strictly for writers of color, I’m always wondering if the acceptance was just a diversity checkmark or really based on my story.
GMM: I wrote a supernatural slave narrative as my thesis novel at Seton Hill University, and I struggled with figuring out where it fit within a genre. The novel is due to be released sometime next year and I still struggle with that idea of where it belongs. What makes it a horror novel? The violence of slavery? The fact that my narrator is a witch and that her companion is a vampire?
How do you define your chosen genre or genres when you begin with characters that may not typically appear in those genres? Is there an absence of women of color in horror?
RJJ: First, I gotta read your novel! I need to know when pre-orders open. I absolutely love historical horror. That it has people of color and witches? Super plus. My answer to what makes this horror really loops back to another obstacle I try to navigate and that is not knowing where our work fits; really, not knowing where we fit. I would say your novel is an all-around horror novel because it’s rooted in the abject terror of slavery and there is a vampire. I don’t think all witches are necessarily monsters, though, so that’s debatable. Even without the supernatural characters, slavery is horror. Yet, there’s a clear hesitance to categorize this experience in this way because that would require owning up to the facts that 1. Slavery really happened; 2. There was nothing good about it; and 3. The repercussions are still felt today. Stuffing these topics into other corners like literary fiction (the way Beloved was first categorized) or creating a whole new category like urban fiction takes some of that responsibility away. If it isn’t called horror, then the events cannot be deemed horrible. So then when serial killer novels fill the horror shelves, I’m left to wonder why lynchings or slavery aren’t considered serial killings, too…
Black women horror writers have always been around, but there hasn’t always been a willingness of the industry to see us. I think we’ve just had our writing either flat out ignored or placed in different genres because we’re women. I’ve seen industry leaders say publicly that readers only want a certain kind of horror, or that every story/book acceptance is based solely on merit. Both of these prevailing responses mean gatekeepers are fine with keeping certain stories and writers out of the genre. The only thing that might help increase visibility is more gatekeepers of color and black female writers continuing to kick the doors in and create anyway. It’s astounding that the first black female horror anthology wasn’t published until 2017. A second followed this year. How is it that both books managed to locate numerous black female horror writers and yet other anthologies/magazines/publishers can hardly ever find any? What is not genuinely sought will never be found.
GMM: When I write about monsters, I have a habit of turning the relationships between monsters and my main female characters into romantic interests even though I write about dark subjects. Is there a connection between horror and romance in your mind? Do your characters fall in love with monsters? Why, or why not?
RJJ: I envy that you can blend romance and horror so effectively! My thesis at Seton Hill was a romance novel, and while I write in both genres, I’ve not yet mastered blending the two. I do think romance and horror exist on the same continuum, in that both genres evoke such extreme feelings in readers. My favorite series ever is the Vampire Huntress series by L. A. Banks. She intertwined horror and romance so expertly that I’ve never seen anything else quite like it. I make attempts. But I tried to submit a romance short story to a major market once and the editor replied that the story was well written but it was too dark. The monsters in my stories tend to be those created through no act of their own, so they are sort of tragic creatures for whom at least one other character has an affection and some sympathy. Full on romance, though…I still aspire to that.
Left Hand Torment (excerpt), by R. J. Joseph
I was on door duty that evening, although we found we did not really need a protector. Most passersby tended not to notice our nondescript entryway in the worn down building. Even those who did notice it were deterred by the dark cloak of misery in our eyes. Despite my queerness and my race, those doorways to my soul that broadcast unspeakable rot allowed me kinship with the men inside. Her eyes held the same blackness, despite their light gray color, and it announced her as kindred, served as her password into the club. I let her in and followed her up the stairs, as my shift was done.
There was more to her life story than her eyes, apparently. The foulness of whatever tortured her spirit bubbled just underneath the surface of her being. Her dusky colored skin shone with determination and…fury. She glided ahead of me up the stairway and into the parlor, removing long white gloves as we walked. Severe burns covered both hands, the puckered skin reflecting in the lantern lights.
Even Whitson, the resident playboy, did not set his flirtations upon her. He simply asked her what she was drinking, the same as he did the rest of us. He often told us that he did not seek companionship with fellow sufferers. He said their beds were already too full with them and their demons.
“Bourbon, please.” The rich tones slid from her throat and escaped into the quiet murmur of the fifteen of us. She accepted her glass gracefully and settled herself into a chair close to the fireplace.
Not forgetting our Texas manners, we quieted down and allowed the lady the floor. I watched her take a sip from her glass.
“Merci.” She accented the appreciation with a brisk nod to the side. When she gazed back at us, the flames from the fire flickered around the shadows resting beneath the smoky orbs of her haunted eyes. She pulled her bonnet off and placed it on the table next to the chair. Kinky curly strands spilled down to her shoulders and the room gave a collective gasp as the flames caught the sandy tresses. This was the only acknowledgement we gave to her beauty that night.
Without preamble, she spoke, in accented tones. “My name is Dominique Aimee Beaulieu and I was born and reared in New Orleans. I had an ordinary childhood, if that as the daughter of a placee` on Rampart street could be called such. Papa and Maman loved me very much and I was a rather spoiled child. They loved each other, as well. I know Papa loved her more than he loved his wife. But he could not stay with us all the time. I once asked Maman why he had to leave and stay away so often and she explained to me that we could not be selfish and keep him all to ourselves. He had another family with whom he had to stay most of the time, but he was always thinking of us.
“Maman had a picture of a beautiful woman with blond hair and she often gazed wistfully at it when she thought Papa and I weren’t looking. I would ask her about the woman, whose features I saw staring back at me in the mirror, albeit through darker skin. Maman would evade the answer until I turned sixteen. When I finally got my answer, I also got the explanation for our way of life.
“‘This is my sister, your aunt. Papa’s other wife. He met me as he courted her and wanted me for his left hand wife. She knows about us but cannot acknowledge us publicly. But she must accept our existence. You are of courting age now. Papa will arrange for you to attend The Quadroon Ball next year, to find you a wealthy, white husband. Do not waste yourself frivolously on any colored man. Even if he has money, he can’t elevate your status or guarantee that your children will be free men.’
“She grabbed my hand. ‘Just take care to always respect your husband and do his bidding. Love and honor him despite the feelings of jealousy that will come when he takes another to wife. We are the wives they choose, when their other will be chosen for them through making familial alliances. These arrangements are our only way to freedom.’
“I didn’t understand why she beseeched me so dramatically on these points. Our system of placage was shocking enough to discover without her telling me I had to accept it, that I had few other choices. I knew nothing of love between a man and woman, but I could see the love between Maman and Papa. If it meant she had to share him with her sister, did that make it of any less value? Did that make me, the product of their left hand union, any less valuable? Of course, I would love my husband, legally bound or not, because of all the things I did not understand, there was one thing I knew and never wanted to change: my freedom.
She paused her story here, seeming to look at us for the first time. She turned her fierce gaze on each of us, one at a time, her fellow beasts of demonic burdens. She settled her gaze finally on me, the lone other woman in the group. I did not know how I understood that she knew my secret. My fellow club members knew and did not care. “You understand when I say fighting for one’s freedom is a frantic battle when losing means losing your personhood and often, your very life.”
I nodded in acquiescence. I did know what a constant fight for freedom to simply exist required. Dying was preferable to giving in to bondage of any kind, hence my membership there. These, my brothers in terror, did not make anything big over my masculine clothes and obviously feminine body. My haunted heart bore witness to more important things to them. The rest of the world did have problems with me, as soon as my “charade” was discovered. Explaining that this was who I am did nothing but result in a trail of bodies. Thus far, my own body did not increase those numbers.
Do you have a fragment of fiction you’re dying to share? Send it my way at firstname.lastname@example.org. See you soon!