Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Valjeanne Jeffers

Last week I had some very interesting conversations with Violette Meier and Aziza Sphinx. If you haven’t checked out their posts, or the previous posts in this Women in Horror Month/Black History Month series, please do so.

Today, Girl Meets Monster has the pleasure of welcoming Valjeanne Jeffers.

Valjeanne Jeffers is a speculative fiction writer, a Spelman College graduate, a member of the Horror Writers Association and the Carolina African America Writers’ Collective. She is the author of ten books, including her Immortal and her Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective series. Valjeanne has been published in numerous anthologies including: Steamfunk!; The Ringing Ear; Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. ButlerFitting In: Historical Accounts of Paranormal SubculturesSycorax’s Daughters; Black Magic Women, The Bright Empire, and, most recently, All the Songs We Sing, Bledrotica Volume I, and Slay: Stories of the Vampire Noire.

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Valjeanne. What projects are you currently working on? Is horror your primary genre, or do you write in other genres? If you write in other genres, which do you feel most comfortable writing, and why?

VJ: Hi Michelle, thank you for having me. I’ve just released the 3rd novel of my Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective series: The Case of the Vanishing Child. It’s a horror/steamfunk novel based in an alternate world, and the main character, Mona, is both a sleuth and a sorceress. I’m also working on a screenplay of my novel, The Switch II: Clockwork.

Horror isn’t my primary genre, but it’s one of my favorites. I write under the broad umbrella of Speculative Fiction, so I also write science fiction/fantasy, which is also described as Afrofuturism. I feel comfortable writing in almost any genre, and I tend to mix them. The Switch II: Clockwork, for example, is a steamfunk novel, but it is also Afrofuturistic.

GMM: When did you first know that you were a horror writer? How did you develop an interest in the genre? What initially attracted you to horror stories? Which writers influenced you then? Which writers influence you now?

VJ: I actually didn’t think of myself as a horror writer until author Sumiko Saulson featured my writing in 100+ Black Women in Horror. Sumiko told me that my readers had approached her and asked that she include my Immortal series. I was both amazed and honored. That’s when I decided to add horror to my writing menu, and I went out of my way in my Mona Livelong series to scare my readers.

I’ve always enjoyed reading and watching horror. I can remember watching horror movies with my parents (for example, The Shining), and as a little girl, I was addicted to Dark Shadows. The first horror writer I fell in love with was Stephen King. Of course, when I first began reading horror there were no writers that looked like me. All of this changed in the 1990s. I discovered Octavia Butler, and later Nalo Hopkinson, Brandon Massey and Tananarive Due. These are writers, along with Richard Wright and James Baldwin, that I credit as my earliest influences. They continue to impact my writing, as well as Keith Gaston and N.K. Jemison.

GMM: The documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019), explores Black horror and the portrayal (and absence) of Black people in horror movies. As a definition of what Black horror means begins to take shape, Tananarive Due says “Black history is Black horror.” What do you think she meant by that? Can you give an example of how this idea shows up in your own work?

VJ: I’m sure she meant that African America history is one of trauma and violence: from our being kidnapped and dragged to American shores, through the Jim Crow and the Civil Rights era, our history is filled with tales of horror. Our stories are often those of pain and trauma.

Richard Wright, in Black Boy, says, “This was the culture from which I sprang, this was the terror from which I fled.” Yet our stories are also those of incredible victories because we refused to submit, to give up. Instead, we pushed on. We blossomed, and we continue to blossom like a garden of black roses.

As a black woman, I am grappling with issues of those that came before me, and those that we face in present times. This may find its way onto my pages. But I write with optimism and hope. And I always strive give my readers an exciting tale they can sink their teeth into.

GMM: As a WOC writing horror/dark speculative fiction, do you feel obligated to have a deeper message in your stories? Can writers of color write stories without broader messages about identity, class, and racism? Is it possible to divorce yourself from that ongoing narrative within our culture when you set out to write a story?

VJ: I don’t feel obligated to include a deeper message in my stories, and some of my favorite authors write without doing so. I’ve certainly never started one with this intent. Sometimes a story is just a story, meant to entertain and nothing more. But I do find myself writing about flawed heroines and heroes, men and women who are fighting to save themselves and their worlds. Often the demons they’re fighting are personal ones; life is always in session. There are no perfect people, and so my characters are imperfect as well. Who you are, and what you’re battling, will always find its way onto the page, and this is where I find myself writing, too, about larger issues of race, gender and class.

GMM: What are your top five favorite horror movies, and why? Top five horror novels? Which book or movie scared you the most?

VJ: My top five horror movies are: The Shining; Tales from the Hood; Get Out; Dr. Sleep, and When a Stranger Calls. I like horror movies with well-developed plots and characters, and layers of suspense that build to a nail biting crescendo. I also prefer horror flicks with a racially diverse cast of characters, which is a lot easier to come by nowadays.

My top favorite horror novels are: Wild Seed (Octavia Butler); Into the Dark (Brandon Massey); The Good House (Tananarive Due); It (Stephen King) and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (N.K. Jemison). I’d have to say Into the Dark scared me the most.

GMM: How do you feel about white-identifying writers who write stories about non-white characters? What problems have you encountered? What potential issues do you see with white-identifying writers telling BIPOC stories? What advice would you give those writers?

VJ: There are some white authors who are very skillful at creating “flesh and blood” non-white characters. One writer in particular, who is also one of my favorites, is Tad Williams; his Otherland series is brilliant. What I mean by “flesh and blood,” are well rounded characters, who black and brown folks can identify with. In contrast, there are other white authors I’ve encountered, whose non-white characters are cardboard cutouts, overlaid with stereotypes.   My advice to these authors is: if you don’t have black and brown friends, real friends mind you, perhaps it’s best if you don’t write about people of color. This might sound harsh, but one of the first pieces of writing advice that I received was: “Write what you know.” Every character I’ve created is a compilation of diverse men and women I’ve met, studied, or both, and myself.

GMM: All writers have experienced some form of impostor syndrome. What has your experience with impostor syndrome been like? Did you ever have a particularly bad case of it? If so, what caused it and how did you manage it?

VJ: I have experienced feelings of self-doubt and feelings that I don’t “measure up” as a writer. But when I’m at my lowest, my readers, and other writers, often help me get through it. I’ve received uplifting emails from folks who love my latest project, and sometimes even a post on my Facebook page. I think I speak for most authors when I say: we write for ourselves and for our readers. I cherish every one of them.

GMM: Tell me about Mona Livelong. What or who inspired this character? Without too many spoilers, can you give some insight into her backstory, and why she became a detective? Why a paranormal detective as opposed to a detective who solves basic human problems?

VJ: Mona Livelong sprang from the same inspiration as Karla, the main character of my Immortal series. Both characters are based upon Carla, a young woman who babysat me when I was living in Los Angeles. Carla’s mother, as well as her youngest brother, died and she was raising her two surviving siblings while attending college. I remember her as an intelligent, compassionate young woman, who was determined to achieve her goals.

Mona is cut from this same cloth. She’s strong, but also vulnerable, and she’s known tragedy. She was born a sorceress and decided to use her gifts to help her community, solving cases regular detectives can’t solve. As to why she’s a paranormal detective, when I create a character, he or she will almost always be supernatural. I love Speculative Fiction just that much.

GMM: Some writers work best in silence, and others prefer to listen to music when they write. How has music influenced your work? What kinds of music do like to listen to when you’re writing? How does it help with your process?

VJ: I can write in silence, but I prefer listening to music when I write, especially if I’m working on character or plot development. If I’m doing either one, I usually listen to jazz or R&B (for example, WAR and Barry White). If I’m writing an action scene, I’m definitely listening to Hip Hop or Classic Rock. I’ve actually acted out action scenes while listening to music; it helps me visualize what’s happening to my characters, and if the scene will “work.”

GMM: If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your younger self? How would you have approached becoming a writer? Would you have done anything differently, or would you have followed the same path?

VJ: If I could give young Valjeanne any advice I would tell her, “Keep writing Speculative Fiction, sweetheart, and don’t stop. No matter what anyone says.” I began writing poetry and stories as a young girl. My only regret is that I took a hiatus and didn’t dive back in until years later. This is the only thing I would change.

Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective III: The Case of the Vanishing Child. (synopsis) The threads of a blood chilling mystery … A world torn in half. A young black man desperate to avenge his murdered brethren. A white supremacist with the terrifying power to alter reality. And a little girl trapped in the eye of the storm. Detective Mona Livelong takes on her most dangerous case yet, as she races to save the life of an innocent child, and countless others hanging in the balance. Cover art by Quinton Veal.

Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective III: The Case of The Vanishing Child (excerpt)

Breath brings word
Nappy Dusky Longing Song
Song like my own
—Maya’s Kwansaba

A solitary cafe au lait-colored man with freckles, his thick hair tied back with cords, walked to the lot behind the Constabulary Station. Keeping his head down, Richard Starks moved silently through the rows of steam-autos parked there. He walked past them, looking carefully at the numbers painted on the auto doors. When he found the one he sought, he crouched on the other side of the steam-auto and waited.

He didn’t have to wait long. Minutes later, a burly white Constable exited the station and walked through the lot. He hunkered down before the auto and started turning the crank.

Richard drew a dagger from the folds of his shirt. Moving swiftly, he crept from the side of the car. As the Constable rose from his haunches, the black man sprang— stabbing him over and over. The Constable fell to his knees and then toppled over, twitching and bleeding at Richard’s feet. Moments later, he was dead.

Shaking and crying, Richard stood over him. At length, he calmed himself and slipped the dagger back

inside his shirt. He wiped his face with his arm and stepped over the dead Constable to the side of the auto. He drew a symbol on the steam-auto door with his bloody fingers and spoke the mantra, “Kuja kwangu mpendwa wangu kwa maana ni kisasi mimi kutafuta … Come to me my beloved, for it is vengeance I seek.”

Diaphanous shades smudged into view. In the next instant three figures towered over him, their faces shifting in the darkness … from black to red … green to blue … female to male … It made him dizzy trying to hone in on their features. He realized that perhaps he was not meant to see their faces. Perhaps it would drive him insane. He fixed his vision on a point beyond their huge shoulders.

The one on his left spoke, “You summoned us, little one?”

“Yes,” Richard whispered.

“You know what it is you seek?” said the second one asked.

“We cannot harm the innocent,” the third entity intoned.

For the first time anger crept into the young man’s voice. “They ain’t innocent. They’re murderers.

The spirits spoke in one basso profundo voice, “So be it.”

Rivulets of blood ran down the Constabulary building. The dead officer sat up. His wounds healed, and

his eyes glazed over with a white film. Then they turned blue once more. The blood vanished. The Constable got to his knees, crouching before the auto, and finished turning the crank. The motor sputtered to life. He stood and walked to the driver’s side, got into the auto and drove from the lot.

Constable Burt Phillips, a thick-set white officer, pulled his steam-auto up to the curb beside his flat. Burt put his auto in park, got out and turned the crank on his steam-auto, shutting the engine off. He was feeling good this evening—better than he’d felt in weeks. For awhile, he’d thought that Eddie Plumb, the unarmed black man he’d killed months ago, was haunting him.

He’d been drinking the night he killed Plumb and in a foul mood. I just wanted respect. That darkie needed to be put in his place.

Plumb had walked pass Burt that night, his eyes insolent, his back straight and proud. Something had snapped inside Burt. He’d shouted at Plumb over and over to stop walking, but the young man ignored him. So Burt shot him in the back. When questioned by Internal Affairs, he’d told a different story: Eddie was a robbery suspect, who’d fled when he ordered him to stop.

The DA cleared me. That’s that.

The week of his death, Eddie Plumb had appeared in Burt’s steam-auto and, for weeks afterwards, he’d rode beside Burt—mocking him, insulting him, calling him a murderer. Then just as suddenly he was gone. Burt had dismissed Eddie as a hallucination brought on by the stress of the hearing.

Certainly. he bore no guilt over killing Plumb. Darkies getting out of control. In my daddy’s time they knew their place. That’s one that won’t make trouble no more.

His daddy had been a hard man, and even harder to love. But love him Burt did, through all the beatings, through all the times he’d found his mother bloodied from his old man’s fists.

His father’s most essential rule, THE RULE, was that he should hate anyone who wasn’t white. “Keep ‘em under your boot son,” this was said with the utmost emphasis during the few times he’d shown Burt affection. “For a white man, ain’t nothing more important.” His daddy had hated black and brown folks, and Burt loved his daddy. So, he hated them too. He opened the door to his flat and stepped inside.

——

Richard sat in the darkness. The only illumination came from the moon and the streetlight outside his window. He shut his eyes.

When he opened them, his room had been transformed. Thick grass grew under his feet. He stared into a gold, orange and blue sunset, a half-smile of wonderment on his face. To his right, the walls and door of his flat remained. Straight ahead, camel thorn trees spouted in the brush. In the distance, he could hear the steady rhythm of drums and a faint whisper. Richard cocked his head to the right. Listening.

He nodded and shut his eyes once more. His spirit rose from the chair. He looked back at his body then walked out into the night. Those he passed on the street could not see him … But they felt him as a breeze.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you Friday!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Do the Writers of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow Think We’re Stupid?

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Last night I watched an episode from season one of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow that defied all logic. I’m not talking about the fact that the main story arc focuses on a band of lesser-known “heroes” on a mission to defeat an immortal villain with the help of a spaceship that functions as a time machine. No. I’m talking about the fact that the writers of episode 8, “Night of the Hawk,” expected us to suspend our disbelief enough to accept that the characters were completely uninformed about the history of gender, racial, and sexual orientation politics, and therefore, woefully unprepared for the sexism, racism and homophobia lurking in 1958 small town America.

Really DC?

Here’s Netflix’s synopsis of the episode:

In 1950s Oregon, Professor Stein and Sara go undercover at a hospital where Savage is working, suspecting that he’s behind a recent string of murders.

As you might guess, the synopsis does little to prepare anyone for what ACTUALLY happens in the episode. So, here’s my synopsis. And, um, as usual, spoilers, Sweetie.

Michelle’s more realistic synopsis of the episode:

True, Professor Stein and Sara do go undercover at a hospital to track down Vandal Savage. What the synopsis fails to mention is that Sara is shocked and openly annoyed by the fact that a doctor in 1950s Oregon makes sexual advances toward her while dressed as a nurse. Has she never seen an episode of Mad Men?

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Later, Sara flirts with another nurse who magically turns out to be a closeted lesbian. Sara tries to convince her to come out of the closet and again is shocked that the other woman has reservations about being out.

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Do you expect us to believe that a young, attractive white woman, regardless of the fact that she’s a former member of Ra’s al Ghul’s League of Assassins, has never had unwanted sexual advances from men? She’s never been discriminated against for being a lesbian? She has no knowledge of the Stonewall Riots that are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year? She’s never encountered a discussion of Queer Politics, gender identity, or the history of the LGBTQ+ movement?

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While Sara is attempting to seduce Nurse Betty, Professor Stein, who was in college in the 1970s, somehow fails to realize that bringing Firestorm along to investigate the disappearances/murders of locals in the small mainly white town in Oregon might cause some problems.

But, what really confused me was the fact that Firestorm takes it upon himself to sit at the counter of a white-owned restaurant and begin a conversation with a white girl he’s never met before. Equally confusing, is her almost immediate acceptance of the situation as if strange young Negroes talk to her every day.

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Do you really expect us to believe that a young black man living in 2016 America has never encountered racism? Never? And, that as a person of color living in the United States, he’s never heard of the history of oppression and racism that stems from slavery, Jim Crow Laws, and the deaths of people seeking freedom during the Civil Rights Movement? He’s never heard or seen people’s disapproval of black men talking to white women in social situations? Horseshit. It is dangerous to be a person of color in America and not be tuned in to your history. I find it highly improbable that his mother, a widowed single parent, never had The Talk with him.

While we’re on the subject of segregation (which was omitted from the episode), let’s take a look at the burgeoning romance between Atom and Hawkgirl. In 2016 interracial relationships are common. But, in 1958 they were illegal. So, when this gorgeous couple shows up to purchase a house together as husband and wife, you can imagine the realtor’s confusion. At least, you should understand it if you have a clue about America’s history of segregation and Jim Crow Laws.

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Not only was interracial marriage banned in all 50 states (Anti-Miscegenation Laws), but people of color were not encouraged (that’s an understatement by the way) to move into white neighborhoods. Oddly enough, this didn’t occur to either character. Now, to be fair, this may be Atom’s first interracial relationship. Still, he’s supposed to be an incredibly smart dude. He’s never read a book or seen a film about 1950s America with black characters? I mean, it’s possible, but unlikely.

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And, while we’re one the subject, DC also wants us to believe that a woman of color who I assume has dated, or at the very least found herself attracted to other white males, has never experienced racism because of her choice in lovers. DC also wants us to believe she isn’t aware of the fact that interracial marriage was illegal until 1967 when the Supreme Court struck down all state laws banning interracial marriage as violations of the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment in the landmark case Loving v. Virginia.

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Seriously?

While this episode drove me nearly insane, I’m going to keep watching this ridiculous series. Why would I continue to watch a series that negates the realities of people living (and dead) in the United States who deal with racism, sexism, and homophobia? That’s a great question. And here’s my ridiculous answer.

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I absolutely adore John Constantine, and was heartbroken when NBC canceled the series starring Matt Ryan. So, when I discovered that one of my favorite DC Comic heroes (portrayed by an actor who is perfect for the role) returned to TV as a recurring character in this series, I signed on to watch.

Is it irresponsible of me to continue watching this absurd series given the unbridled whitewashing and heteronormalizing of the characters? Most likely. Am I going to stop watching the show because it is personally offensive and insults my intelligence? Probably not.

Honestly, if I stopped watching shows for those reasons, I’d have to stop watching A LOT of TV shows. I am almost ashamed to say that I will continue to watch this train wreck simply because John Constantine is back. Will I continue to examine the narratives and be completely aware of how flawed they are in recognizing the struggles of people of color, women, and members of the LGBTQ+ communities? Well, of course I will.

As a woman of color who has had a life-long love affair with speculative fiction, this isn’t the first time I’ve been offended by the absence or misrepresentation of specific identities, including my own. And to be perfectly honest, I doubt that experience will end anytime soon. Occupying certain identities while loving a particular genre can be complicated at times. Writers like the ones creating the narrative of DC’s Legends of Tomorrow aren’t the only voices telling tales about superheroes and other speculative fiction characters. Even if you continue to enjoy the stories that don’t include your lived experience, you can also seek out stories that do.