Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Sumiko Saulson

This past Friday, I chatted with Nicole Givens Kurtz, one of the first recipients of the Horror Writers Association’s Diversity Grants. Today, Girl Meets Monster welcomes another Diversity Grant recipient, Sumiko Saulson. Sumiko provided me with multiple versions of hir bio and there is so much interesting information in each one that I felt like using only one would somehow rob you of knowing all the cool shit ze has done and is doing. As a woman of color who writes speculative fiction that often crosses the lines of genre and gives my readers a glimpse into my various parts that make up the whole, I can completely respect and wish to honor all aspects and intersectionalities of a fellow woman of color who writes horror.

So…here are all the bios Sumiko sent me. Bask in the glory of hir muliplicities.

50 Words
Sumiko Saulson is a cartoonist; horror, sci-fi and dark fantasy writer/blogger; editor of Black Magic Women and 100 Black Women in Horror. Author of Solitude, Warmth, Moon Cried Blood, and Happiness and Other Diseases. Author/Illustrator of Mauskaveli, Dooky, Dreamworlds and Agrippa, writes for Search Magazine and the San Francisco Bayview Newspaper.

100 Words
Sumiko Saulson is a cartoonist, science-fiction, fantasy and horror writer, editor of Black Magic Women, Scry of Lust and 100 Black Women in Horror Fiction, author of Solitude, Warmth, The Moon Cried Blood, Happiness and Other Diseases, Somnalia, Insatiable, Ashes and Coffee, and Things That Go Bump In My Head.  She wrote and illustrated comics Mauskaveli, Dooky andgraphic novels Dreamworlds and Agrippa. She writes for the SEARCH Magazine and the San Francisco Bayview column Writing While Black.  The child of African American and Russian-Jewish parents, a native Californian and an Oakland resident who’s spent most of her adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is pansexual, polyamorous and genderqueer (nonbinary).

100 Words (but different)
Sumiko Saulson is an award-winning author of Afrosurrealist and multicultural sci-fi and horror. Ze is the editor of the anthologies and collections Black Magic WomenScry of LustBlack Celebration, and Wickedly Abled. Ze is the winner of the 2016 HWA StokerCon “Scholarship from Hell”, 2017 BCC Voice “Reframing the Other” contest, and 2018 AWW “Afrosurrealist Writer Award.”

Ze has an AA in English from Berkeley City College, and writes a column called “Writing While Black” for a national Black Newspaper, the San Francisco BayView. Ze is the host of the SOMA Leather and LGBT Cultural District’s “Erotic Storytelling Hour.”

150 Words
Sumiko Saulson is a science-fiction, fantasy and horror writer and graphic novelist. She was the 2016 recipient of the Horror Writer Association’s Scholarship from Hell, and 2018 winner of the Afrosurrealist Writers Workshop Short Story Award. Sumiko Saulson is a cartoonist, science-fiction, fantasy and horror writer, editor of Black Magic Women, Scry of Lust and 100 Black Women in Horror Fiction, author of Solitude, Warmth, The Moon Cried Blood, Happiness and Other Diseases, Somnalia, Insatiable, Ashes and Coffee, and Things That Go Bump In My Head.  She wrote and illustrated comics Mauskaveli, Dooky andgraphic novels Dreamworlds and Agrippa. She writes for the SEARCH Magazine and the San Francisco Bayview column Writing While Black.  The child of African American and Russian-Jewish parents, a native Californian and an Oakland resident who’s spent most of her adult life in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is pansexual, polyamorous and genderqueer (nonbinary).

Ten Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster and thank you for being part of my first Women in Horror Month series, Sumiko.  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?

SS: I have three works in progress. The one I am currently focused on is Akmani, which is the fourth book in my paranormal romance / horror erotica series Somnalia, which begins with Happiness and Other Diseases. I promised Mocha Memoirs Press, publisher of my anthology Black Magic Women (and another anthology I am in, SLAY: Tales of the Vampire Noire) the first option on it when it is completed. It’s about 85% there at this point. I also have a manuscript for Disillusionment, the sequel to my first novel, a sci-fi horror story called Solitude, about 75% complete, but that one is tabled for now. And finally, I have a file I put all of my poetry in (I write quite a lot of it, on my blog and social media) which is called “Emotional Side Chicks.”

Horror is definitively my primary genre, but I do a lot of crossover into other genres that are combined with horror. Sci-fi horror, monster porn, paranormal romance and horror erotica are some of those, and my Afrosurrealism and Afrofuturism tends to be dark and essentially horror. I have a significant amount of erotica in my short story portfolio now, and some of it isn’t horror, but is fantasy, or sci-fi erotica. Poetry is the only genre I work in which isn’t usually horror flavored, as I am a beat or spoken word poet. However, I do have a poem in the current Horror Writers Association Poetry Showcase.

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?

SS: I started out as a poet and a journalist, and hadn’t completed any short stories or novels. I was a published poet as a teenager, and showcased as an upcoming beat poet in the San Francisco Chronicle at the age of twenty. So, the first short story I submitted anywhere was to Phantasmagoria when I was eighteen. They sent it back and said we would love to see more work from you, but this is suspense, not horror. I had sent it to four magazines but only they wrote back. I was easily discouraged and didn’t try again for a long time. I had a half written sci-fi horror novel that I never finished when I was twenty-five called The Chain. I think I tried writing things that weren’t horror, and it just didn’t work.

On my first novel I just gave up on the idea of writing anything other than horror, or trying to not sound derivative because I had consumed so much Stephen King that his voice was ingrained in my mind. So I finished Solitude and was bummed out when Under the Dome (the book, not the television show) came out and I saw that the time bubbles in my book were similar sounding to his dome. They were written at the same time, so it was almost like I had gotten so influenced by him that I was mind reading. Well… after the first book I got really good at having a distinct voice, and you gotta start somewhere.

The more I felt that my voice as an African American was important, the more that I felt my voice as a disabled author was important, the more I had a distinctive voice.

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?

SS: I think that Victorian era horror, Gothic horror, which is at the root of modern horror, is filled with white voices othering people of color, and then expressing fear that the people they oppressed would come back to destroy them. Consequently, American Gothic horror was filled with slaves cursing white people, Native Americans cursing white people, etc. British Gothic horror was filled with curses by Egyptians, East Indians, and people from Romania who had been oppressed by the Empire or the Church. Black horror switches the focus to us, so instead of it being about how we want revenge for all of the horrible things done to us… it is about how horrible things done to us were. Even in Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” where the house is haunted by the child Sethe killed, the visceral horror of the institution of slavery is cloying, overwhelming, and more horrific than the ghost. Sethe’s terrible deed was done to save her child from slavery.

The institution of slavery itself was the stuff of nightmares, I believe, is what Tananarive Due is saying. The horror of our ancestors being stolen from Africa, the heinous deaths aboard the overcrowded slave ships where we were treated like chattel, and the abuse at the hands of the slave owners and slave hunters.  Then, the abuse continued during the Reconstruction, during segregation, through Jim Crow laws, and voter suppression, the birth to prison pipelines, racial profiling, and police brutality.

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?

SS: My horror stories almost universally have broader messages about identity, class, racism, disability, and/or queerness. I don’t think that I personally can easily divorce myself from that narrative when I set out to write a story, but I do think that, in general, writers of color have the ability to write outside of those parameters. I was in a horror writing contest that HorrorAddicts put on, called “The Next Great Horror Writer” contest back in 2017. The runner up, Naching T. Kassa, was able to turn in several excellent horror stories that HorrorAddicts loved. They do not like political horror. That’s a fact. I got sixth place, but the more political my horror has become, the more rejection letters they send me. They probably have more people applying, but the rejection letters express their distaste for political horror. However, some of the most powerful work by authors of color addresses these issues. Toni Morrison refused to stop writing for Black audiences, and frankly, so do I. I have had to find markets that want political horror. Let someone else write for the ones who don’t.

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

SS: Candyman is my favorite horror movie. I am so jazzed for the new Jordan Peele one. Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Bones (yes, that Snoop Dog movie), Dawn of the Dead, and Queen of the Damned (even though I know Anne Rice hates it, so hopefully she won’t read this interview). Novels – gosh, so basic. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Steven King’s The Stand, again Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned, Toni Morrison’s Sula, and Mark Helprin’s A Winter’s Tale. Please don’t tell me you don’t think all of those are horror novels, because I am not trying to hear that. The movie that scared me the most was a sci-fi movie, The Planet of the Apes, the original one. I had terrible nightmares about it as a child. Apocalyptic themes frighten me the most, so naturally, The Stand was the scariest of those books, although, The Bluest Eye was also terrifying.

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?

SS: I think that own-voices are really important, but I know that I am not the only Black horror fan who swooned the minute Akasha showed up in Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned. My love affair with Akasha still has not ended. Even though I love Akasha, it was many years later before Black vampires who weren’t villains showed up in the Vampire Chronicles.  Also, it took years for her to write dark skinned characters who weren’t supernaturally faded by vampirism.

Stephen King’s treatment of African American characters in The Stand was horrific. He martyred two different major Black characters in a book about the near-end of humanity, and didn’t even bother to show any Black children being born. It creates a creepy inference that all of the Black folks have died off. After many letters from concerned fans, Stephen King started writing stories where the martyring of Black folks came to an end, but there were other issues. Don’t even get me started with Bag of Bones… the black characters in that book are totally objectified, go through horrendous things, and yet are vilified, othered, and made into a backdrop for a story about a four year old white Last Girl.

My advice to white writers telling BIPOC stories is to try to avoid tokenizing. If there is only one Black person, and only one Latina, then if one or both end up dead, or as a villain, then you have no heroic person or even neutral person in that role. A diversity of different kinds of characters of any given race makes it more likely that you will have at least one sympathetic character in that demographic.

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?

SS: Oh gosh, I am having it right now. I have been putting out tons of short stories, but haven’t managed to finish a new novel since 2015. The more political my short story writing has become, the more I worry about potentially problematic things in my novels, which are mostly multicultural and take place in urban settings. I just wrote when I first started, and didn’t second guess myself as much. Now I am like, “Oh wait, I am writing about people who are different than me – did I do it right?”

My experience with impostor syndrome is that the fastest way to get past it is to set aside perfectionism. Sometimes I pick up a book I was told is terrible that got published, and read it and tell myself that I suck less than that. Then I tell myself that all of an author’s books aren’t masterpieces, and it is okay to write a book that isn’t Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. In fact, if none of my books are ever as good as Toni Morrison, that will be okay. I am a horror writer. Then I pick up a really crappy Stephen King book like The Tommyknockers and remind myself of how many mediocre books he has put out. And yet, I am a fan.

GMM: Do you write about characters who share as many intersectionalities as you do? Did it take you a while to develop the confidence needed to tell their stories, or did you simply write the stories you needed to tell without worrying about what other people might think? Have you experienced any backlash for the stories you write?

SS: I am half Black and half Ashkenazi Jewish, am a non-binary femme who is woman-identified, am mentally ill and pansexual. Some of my characters have as many intersectionalities, but not all of them. The protagonist in “The Moon Cried Blood” is a thirteen year old biracial Black/Mexican girl, and the protagonist in “Happiness and Other Diseases” and “Somnalia” is a biracial Chinese/Hawaiian man. There are tons of queer characters in the Somnalia universe, which is based on Greco-Roman mythology. The Roman pantheon was queer as all get out.

I have a few trans and gender noncomforming characters, and X’ashia, the alien in Solitude and Disillusionment is a major one. He is composed of multiple subatomic creatures, and although he is biologically agender (because he procreates through cellular division), he shapeshifts a bunch and eventually acquires a gender identity, as male. There is a transman in“Insatiable but he is not a major character. Flynn Keahi, the main character in “Somnalia,” shapeshifts into a leopard who is female.  Angelo and Shiela are two people who share a body in a three-story arc in the “Scierogenous” anthology – both of them African American. They are a technologically created system. A chip was implanted in Shiela’s brain, which created a new person, Angelo, for a companion. Although they are sexually involved with each other, both are primarily attracted to men.

People in the African American community of writers and in the Horror community have both been very supportive, so not a lot of backlash there. Early in my career, I had a handful of cisgender white men I knew from my twenties get drunk and come at me for trying to write. Trust me they all think they are liberal. One of them drunkenly rage-posted about how women can’t write horror until I blocked him on Facebook. Another bought one of my early self-pubs and then drunkenly rage-posted about there being typos. I have also had to deal with micro aggressive behavior at conventions.

GMM: Tell me about the “Erotic Storytelling Hour.” What’s the backstory of how it began and how have you had a hand in making it a reality?

SS: The Erotic Storytelling Hour is run by the San Francisco Leather and LGBT Cultural District. Our Cultural District is in the South of Market neighborhood in San Francisco, California. We are the world’s first LEATHER & LGBTQ Cultural District. The Cultural District was created by a resolution unanimously passed by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on May 1, 2018 and signed by the Mayor on May 9, 2018. We will have a Cultural Center there in the future, so this is literally bigger than me.

I have been very active in the local leather community since 2015, but did not become involved with the SF Leather District organization until after the pandemic last year.  The original host, Bicoastal Beth, moved to the East Coast. I was a regular participant there, both as an attendee and as a reader. I had no idea they were considering me until they offered me the position. My boss, Cal Callaghan, actually took over Bicoastal Beth’s position as the District Manager. He said he wasn’t an entertainment type, and asked them to hire a separate person to host it. 

Now, Cal and a very active board member, David Hyman, co-host the Erotic Storytelling Hour (ESTH) with me. Cal and David are behind the scenes running technical aspects of the Zoom call, and David makes announcements for the SF Leather Cultural District. The purpose of the ESTH is to support the members of the Cultural District, so every week we have four community readers and one feature. The feature is usually a name in the Leather community, such as a Leather titleholder, someone who runs community spaces or meetups, or someone who runs safe spaces for marginalized groups within our community. Sometimes the feature is an erotica author. People who attend virtually are a part of our community, as well as people who live here, and people who visit the Cultural District when they are in town. The event also serves to broaden awareness of our historical Cultural District as a tourist destination for people in the Leather community worldwide.

Part of my role and responsibilities is to help ensure that we have a diversity of readers. Because San Francisco’s Leather Heritage District was initially established by predominately white cisgender gay men, this includes making sure that ethnically diverse kinksters, and other members of the LGBTQ Leather District community such as trans, nonbinary, lesbian, bisexual… pretty much any queer person who isn’t a white cisgender gay man… get to read. Straight kinky people are also a part of the leather community.

GMM: What advice would you give to new writers who occupy more than one identity and embody the intersectionalities of race, class, ethnicity, disability, gender, sexuality, etc.? If you could go back in time, would it be the same advice you would give yourself as a novice writer?

SS: If I could go back in time, I think that, as a novice writer, I would have done some things differently. I didn’t find out about Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s “Writing the Other” until after I was well into my novel writing career. I have since become more aware of the fact that a person, while being a minority at many intersectionalities, can still be writing the other. I had some inkling, because I talked to my cousin, Heather, who is a quarter Hawaiian (a really big deal, since Europeans brought diseases to Hawaii that wiped out a lot of the native population) about a lot of things that went into the Somnalia series. Especially Book Three, Insatiable, which takes place in Hawaii, where I lived for seven years. Flynn Keahi, the protagonist of the series, is Hawaiian and Chinese and was raised by a Hawaiian single mother. Asking people to give you perspective on the characters that are unlike you is a good idea, even if you have no one available to do a sensitivity read.

Things I did actually do as a new writer that I would suggest, include getting involved in writers’ groups. I was in school at Berkeley City College, where I got a lot of advice from teachers and critiques from student peers that were useful. I started a Black Women’s Writing Group with a fellow student, and joined another Women Writer’s Group that was not exclusively, but predominantly, Black. As a disabled author, I got a lot of support from the disabled student’s services, and I also joined WryCrips, a disabled women’s writing and theater group. I was not out as a nonbinary person at that time. I started a Writing Group for kinksters after I came out as nonbinary. There were a lot of transpeople and queer folks of every ilk in it. It is good to have both mainstream (such as educational) and community writing spaces, in my opinion. 

I am a firm believer in completing your first draft before getting perfectionist and hyper self-critical. It is a difficult lesson for a lot of first-time writers. You need to complete a first draft in a timely manner to avoid having a metric shit-ton of consistency and chronology errors. While you are sitting there, re-writing the same sentence fifty times, you are losing momentum on your plot points. Rewrites can occur during editing, and the flow is sometimes more critical than the perfect turn of phrase. 

Get other eyes on it after you finish your rough draft. Other eyes during the writing of the first draft, that I choose, are much less critical than the ones I choose to allow to help me after the first draft is done. Hypercritical people during the writing of the first draft give me pretender’s syndrome and writer’s block.

“The Calico Cat” by Sumiko Saulson

“Don’t bring that thing in the house!” his mother shouted, as Joe slipped in the door after three p.m., a raggedy patchwork shadow at his feet. The cat, which couldn’t have weighed more than five pounds, had been following him since he walked off his school playground four blocks back.

“Aw, mommy, why?” he cried. “I was hoping to keep her. Can I keep her?” The cat was too thin. Her patchy fur was infested with angry fleas that bit his ankles when she rubbed up against them, begging for a pet. She wasn’t very pretty, but she was so sweet. She… he knew it was a she because calicoes are almost always female… already acted like he was her human.

“Out, you damned flea-bitten mangy mongrel!” Mom screamed. Could the cat understand English? She hissed at his mother, orange eyes blazed like campfire blazing.

“Come on, Mom!” Joe begged, but to no avail. Mom came running for the door, straw broomstick in hand.  He jumped out of the way so she wouldn’t hit him with it on her way to the cat. She swatted madly at the calico, who responded by hissing, back arched like a Halloween decoration. Her claws dug into the pine stick, but to no avail. His mother struck the cat firmly in the hindquarters, and it skittered out into the yard.

“Mom’s right…” his older brother Stan whispered with a haunted look in his eyes. “We don’t want a cat in here, not that cat, anyhow.”

Joe wondered what was bothering Stan, but his older brother wouldn’t tell.

The next night, the calico showed up in his back window at dinnertime, meowing and begging to be let in or fed.

“Don’t feed it!” his father warned. The boy ignored him, and snuck table scraps to the calico at the back door. The calico licked her slender, black lips in anticipation as he offered her a strip of bacon. She must have been starving. She leapt up and nipped his wrist with her tiny fangs so hard that it bled. 

“Told you so!” his dad said, shaking his head. “Those things are dangerous.” The boy yelled at the cat, and she skittered over the back fence, disappearing.

 “Why are you afraid of cats?” Joe asked his father.

“Doesn’t she look familiar?” Dad asked him.

“She does,” Joe admitted. “But all cats kind of look alike, don’t they?”

“That’s one of your grandmother’s cats,” Dad told him. “She had about four of them, all but this one black. Last year, she died of a heart attack. We were shocked when we got home and found all four cats eating her corpse.”

“My goodness!” Joe shrieked. “Eating her?”

“Eating her face right off,” Dad nodded. “That one right there is named Amanda. She was eating your grandmother’s eyeball like she thought it was a mouse. And the smell… just awful.”

“Smell? How long was grandmother dead?” Joe asked. “Maybe they were just hungry.”

“Like hell!” Mom yelled. “Those cats are evil. Vile, plotting little things, they are, wicked! And she had the audacity to leave this house to them in her will.”

“She left everything to them,” Dad laughed. “Her lawyers probably think those cats still are living here and we’re giving them all the money. Fat chance of that!”

His brother Stan looked spooked. “Why don’t you tell Joe the truth?” Stan demanded. “Grandma was a witch. She left the house to those cats because they’re her familiars. That’s why they hate mom and dad. And they’ve been trying to get into the house ever since!”

“That’s crazy,” Joe said. But he wasn’t so sure. He’d been away at summer camp when Grandma died. When he came back, they’d moved into this nice house. They used to live in a trailer before that. No one explained where the house came from until now.

“The calico was their leader,” Stan insisted. “You’ll find out.”

Joe had terrible nightmares that night. Amanda had gotten into the house, along with three other cats, all of them black. She chased him to the bedroom, but he pushed her out and locked the door. He climbed into the bed, and hid under the sheets, but he couldn’t sleep. There were terrible screams coming out of the other rooms in the house.

The next morning, he got up and went down to breakfast, but no one was there.

“Mom?”  he called out. Joe walked through the house looking for her, but didn’t find her. When he went to his parent’s bedroom, and opened the door, they weren’t inside. Instead, there were two black cats, sleeping in their bed.

He walked down to his brother’s room, and opened the door. There was a black kitten sitting on his bed.

Thinking he missed them, he walked back down to the kitchen. There, he saw a strange woman. Her black, orange, and white hair was up in a bouffant hairdo. It reminded him of the cat’s fur.

“Hello, Joe…” she purred. “My name is Amanda. I’ve come to take back what is mine.”

“But you’re a cat,” Joe said, his jaw dropping as he took a seat so he wouldn’t fall down.

“I am a witch,” she informed him. “I am your grandmother’s sister. You know, all of our family members can turn into cats. Too bad your no-good parents didn’t know that before they tried to steal my inheritance.”

Joe looked down and saw a bowl of cereal sitting on the table in front of him. In a state of shock, he began to eat it without thinking. He tried not to imagine his grandmother’s sister eating her eyeball while he was doing it.

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.

Fiction Fragments: Jessica Guess

Last week, I spoke with Mexican American expat V. Castro about her erotic vampire fiction and I’m still thinking about that scene in the Irish pub, wondering what filthy delights await her vampire protagonist.

This week, I’m excited to welcome Jessica Guess to Girl Meets Monster. I recently picked up a copy of Jessica’s horror novella, Cirque Berserk (2020) and couldn’t put it down.

Jessica Guess is a writer and English teacher who hails from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She earned her Creative Writing MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato in 2018 and is the founder of the website Black Girl’s Guide to Horror where she examines horror movies in terms of quality and intersectionality.

Her creative work has been featured in Luna Station Quarterly and Mused BellaOnline Literary Review. Her debut novella, Cirque Berserk, is available for purchase on Amazon. You can get weekly content from Jessica by joining her Patreon at www.patreon.com/JessicaGuess

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Jessica. I loved Cirque Berserk, because it captured so many of the things I loved about watching slasher movies while I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. The major difference being that one of your main characters is a young Black girl, and her love interest is Latino…or possibly Native American. Most of the slasher movies I watched didn’t have Black people in them. The ones that did have Black characters usually killed them off right away, to the point that this is now considered a trope in horror films. How did this absence of Black characters affect you as a viewer and reader?

JG: I think that being a huge fan of horror while being constantly reminded of how much the genre disregards Black people created a resentment in me. Don’t get me wrong, I really do love horror. I love the mythologies, and the blood, and the monsters, but for a very long time it has felt like we’re a punchline in the genre. I think it’s like that for anyone who isn’t a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual person in horror. That makes me want to kind of right that wrong in my own writing. I want to see all the things I didn’t see growing up.

NOTE: Jessica told me Rocehelle’s love interest is Native American, but asked me not to reveal his name to avoid spoilers. So, go pick up a copy of Cirque Berserk and find out for yourself.

GMM: I recently watched American Horror Story: 1984, and during each episode I was calling out the names of the movies or characters they were referencing based on the way someone was murdered. What are some of the horror movies or scenes from movies that inspired your work? Are there murders in your book that mimic the tropes of slasher movies?

JG: Definitely Urban Legend. I think that movie has some of my favorite slasher kills ever. I wanted the kills in Cirque Berserk to be as memorable as those and have a type of irony that they did in Urban Legend. An example of that is the opening of when the girl in Urban Legend is driving with an ax murderer in her back seat and “Turn Around Bright Eyes” starts playing. That’s definitely an inspiration for a scene in Cirque Berserk. That scene in particular also takes some inspiration from The Strangers: Prey at Night. I just like the idea of upbeat music playing when something horrific is happening.

GMM: AHS: 1984 uses music not only to trigger nostalgia, but to put us in the setting and create a sense of atmosphere to remind us which time period we’re witnessing on screen. How did you use music in your novella to create nostalgia for the characters and your readers? What other details did you use to give us a sense of the time and setting? Did you rely on any specific horror tropes, or did you try to create something new?

JG: So, the song titles set up the sections of the novella, but they also give a hint to what the theme of that section is. For instance, in the “Rhythm of the Night” section, we finally figure out exactly what is happening, which is to say we’re figuring out the rhythm of this night. It helped me to frame the story while also relying on the nostalgia and atmosphere those songs create. As for tropes, I hoped to take some old tropes and re-invent them. I think that’s what we’re supposed to do as writers, take tropes that could be stale or overused, and find a way to make them new and fresh. I like to think I did that with Rochelle and Brian. I wanted the reader to start out thinking they knew exactly where the story was going and then realize they didn’t know at all.

Karlie, Karlie, Where Did You Go? (Excerpt)

Lisa

I watched Erica’s blue impala through my rearview mirror. I was parked with the back of my car to the back of her car. Why had she pulled in to an orange orchard? Did she spot me? Why wasn’t she getting out of her car? A cold sweat formed on my forehead. What if she told Aaron?

Just then, Erica got out of her car and walked up to the storefront that was shaped like a cottage. Maybe she wanted to pick oranges. Or maybe she was calling Aaron to warn him. My palms were suddenly slipping off the steering wheel from sweat. Should I follow her or just go home? I gripped the keys ready to start the ignition but stopped. I had to find out what happened to my cousin.

“Hello darlin’,” an old gray-haired white woman said from the cash register. “Care to try some orange and peach jam? I make it here myself.”

“No, thank you. I’m uh, just looking around,” I said.

“If you want to pick from our grove, you just come on up here and grab a basket and go on out back. You can take a guide with you. Sometimes people get lost back there you know.”

I smiled at her. “Did a girl just come in here? One with deep brown skin and frizzy brown hair and a red hoody? We’re supposed to meet up.”

The woman nodded. “Said she was pickin’ some orange for her mom.”

“I guess I’ll take a basket.”

“That’ll be a dollar fifty for the basket.”

I gave the woman the money and she offered me a wide wicker basket and pointed me towards the back of the cottage where the wide grove started.

Was Erica really doing something kind for her parent? Did I follow her for nothing? Maybe this was a distraction so that Aaron could hide evidence while I was off chasing Erica. Damn it! Did I fall for some trick?

I walked down a row of oranges and looked for a glimpse of Erica’s hoody. The sun was beating down hard but there was a breeze so the sweat forming on my forehead wasn’t as much as it had been for the past few days. The citrusy smell of oranges invaded my nostrils as I turned and looked for any glimpse of Erica. 

I moved further and further into the grove trying to keep the entrance in sight.

Sometimes people get lost back there, you know.

I moved passed orange tree after orange tree but still, there was so sign of Erica.

“Erica?” I called finally. It was a long shot but maybe she’d answer. “Erica, I just wanted to talk to you for a second. My name is Lisa Yen, I’m Karlie Yen’s cousin. The girl who died? I saw you with Aaron earlier. I just need to ask you some questions.”

Just then I saw a flash of the red to the right of me. I turned. Nothing there. Instead just more orange trees. I moved to where I saw the flash.

 “Erica?” I called, running further into the grove.

 A feeling of dreadful realization rose inside of me. No one knew where I was. I didn’t tell Travis where I was going. That woman in the cottage thought I was here with a friend. This grove went on for acres. I looked back to try to see the entrance but all I saw was more orange trees.

“Shit,” I whispered. I tried retracing my steps to find a way out. My heart was beating loud and fast in my chest and sweat poured down my neck.

 My bra was noticeably wet now and uncomfortable. I had only been in the grove for a few minutes, but I was lost and drenched and starting to get scared. I tried to take a deep breath but couldn’t.

 “Fuck,” I whispered as I frantically checked my pockets for my inhaler.

I must have left it in the car. I forgot how bad my asthma got in Everpeirce. Orlando was a little better even though the air was dryer there. The problem with Everpierce was that there were more swamplands, dust mites, and pollen from all the different citrus orchards in the air here. And here I was in the middle of a field of oranges, with no inhaler. Smart girl.

“Shit,” I whispered trying not to panic. I stopped walking and managed to slow my breathing a bit though knew I still needed my medicine. I walked in the direction that I thought I came from, but nothing. No entrance, just oranges.

Just then there was another flash of red just to the left of me.

“Erica? I just want to talk!”

“Is that why you were following me?”

I turned around and there she was. Her hoody was pulled over her head and her sleeves pulled all the way down to her wrists despite the overwhelming heat.

“Erica?” I said stupidly. I was out of breath again now. The heat, orange blossom pollen, and fear not doing my asthma any favors. Erica on the other hand looked fine, cool, and not scared in the least.

“Why are you following me?” She stared at me, her hands in her hoody pocket.

“I-I just wanted to ask you some questions,” I said, hands on my knees.  “Hey—do you—know the way—out?” I said between gasps. “I’m—lost”.

Erica stared at me silently, not moving. Her face was expressionless and unreadable, but it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention. Her dark brown eyes moved around, seeming to look if anyone else was in the orchard with us.

“It’s r-really hot out here,” I said gasping a little. She turned back to face me but remained silent. “Aren’t you hot?”

Her eyes narrowed in on me, her face still unreadable.

“E-Erica,” I said, starting to get dizzy. “Can’t breathe—please—help.”

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 next week!

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

Black Like Me

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Family photo taken in the early 1990’s with my friend and classmate, “Vampire Liz.”

Just over a year ago, something happened to me that made me question my identity. In fact, since the election results came in and I woke up in Trump’s America on November 9, 2016, I’ve been thinking about identity a lot — mine, my son’s, my friends’, my neighbors’, my co-workers’, and complete strangers’. I’m not 100% sure what made me think about the incident that caused me to question the very nature of my own “blackness,” but it might be any number of news stories you can read at your leisure online dealing with the shocking reality that blatant racism is back in style.

At any rate, whatever resurrected this experience for me, I started thinking about it a bit more deeply. During a meeting I attended about a year ago to discuss the qualifications of candidates applying for a social equity position at a state university, a topic related to current events came up. Bill O’Reilly had said some stupid, unprofessional, racist bullshit about Congresswoman Maxine Waters’ appearance.

I could launch into a tirade about that alone, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about. Not today. What struck me about the topic of discussion, was the fact that the white woman who was upset about O’Reilly’s statements (even after his apology, he wouldn’t shut up and continued harassing Congresswoman Waters), managed, in the same breath, to commit her own act of unconscious racism.

The same woman who was talking about how upset she was because Congresswoman Waters had been attacked/criticized/mocked/marginalized for being “culturally authentic.” And then, she looked at me and said, “That’s the right term, isn’t it?” She committed an act of unconscious racial microaggression.

Now, to be fair, we were a group of faculty and staff working together at a university and engaged in friendly conversation about something we all took issue with, but then suddenly I was assigned the role of Black Person Expert. This wasn’t the first time, and I assure you, it won’t be the last time I get asked to put on that hat.

When I was younger, I operated under the misconception that if I was one of the only people of color in the room, it was my responsibility to speak for All Black Folks. I assumed it was my responsibility because it was an expectation of white people. Each time I was asked to speak for All Black Folks, it made me uncomfortable to be put on the spot by a room full of white people who were expecting me to educate or enlighten them on the mysteries of “blackness.” It made me uncomfortable for several reasons, including the fact that I worried I would say the wrong thing. The “wrong thing” was a double-edged sword, because I was either going to misrepresent black people by giving my opinion as an individual who had very little access to other black people growing up, or I was going to disappoint white people by not saying what they wanted to hear. These situations became even more uncomfortable when other people of color were in the room, but weren’t being asked for their input. By the time I was done speaking, I was almost 100% guaranteed to have enemies on either side of that one-sided conversation.

Why would I be chosen as the spokesperson for All Black Folks when other people of color were present? Well, because I’m not really black. I mean, unless it’s more convenient for me to be black.

When the white woman looked at me for confirmation that she was using the appropriate, politically correct terminology for…I don’t know…black people in their natural state of being, a few buried memories and neglected emotions came to the surface of my mind. But first, I laughed out loud at the absurdity of her question and the fact that she was using the term incorrectly.

Before I delve into what this one seemingly harmless question awakened for me, I just want to make something perfectly clear, just in case you didn’t know, THERE IS NO MONOLITHIC BLACK IDENTITY.

You can’t point to one person’s experience and say, “that’s culturally authentic.” Also, “cultural authenticity” is a literary term used to measure how well a book depicts a specific cultural group regarding language, everyday life, etc. So, I’m not sure you can even use the term to describe real people. And, even if you could, the woman’s use of the term in relation to Bill O’Reilly’s comments and the reality of Congresswoman Waters’ hairstyle doesn’t make a lot of sense. What distinguishes Waters’ hair as being culturally authentic?

To satisfy my curiosity and to make sure I wasn’t spouting bullshit like Bill O’Reilly, I Googled the term, and the only hit I got that referenced actual people was in relation to tourism and the practice of “performing” cultural authenticity. I think this is also called staged authenticity, in which an indigenous culture creates a version of their culture for tourists that may not match the actual lives of people living in that culture.

Even after confirming my suspicions about the term and its correct usage, it still struck a chord with me, and I felt the need to explore how I was feeling about it being used to refer to non-fictional people. People who don’t necessarily fit into the misconception of “blackness” being one identity. So, I Googled “what does it mean to be black in America.” Go ahead. Google it. I’ll wait.

A lot of people are talking (and have been talking) about the meaning of “blackness” and how we view ourselves and others. Now, this is a subject I could really sink my teeth into. I realized that reading about other people’s experiences would help me unpack my own feelings and reactions to that white woman’s question and expectation that I had the answer.

FYI, I don’t have the answer.

After searching for “what does it mean to be black in America,” I felt validated, comforted, empowered, and relieved to know that I wasn’t alone in dealing with this identity issue as a woman of color who doesn’t always fit people’s world view of “blackness.” I especially enjoyed reading a Washington Post article that looked at the experiences of three women and what it means to be “black enough.”

“According to Jelani Cobb, a historian and writer at the New Yorker, defining “blackness” is inherently complicated — because race is an invented category dating back to slavery, and the category can encompass a range of identities and cultures. People identify as black, African American, African, Muslim, Native American, biracial and sometimes more.”

Identity can be a slippery slope when you don’t fit into one checkbox. And, as most people who aren’t completely clueless realize, the shaping of your identity is more complex than simply belonging to one racial group of people. This is especially true if you don’t belong to ONE racial group of people, but rather two or more. And, don’t even get me started about the intersectionalities of class, gender, sexuality, political views, religious beliefs and economic status that make the complexities of race and ethnicity even more complex.

Just like there is no monolithic blackness, there is no monolithic whiteness (although, the implication/belief of its existence is the foundation of so many problems we’re all facing in the world today), no monolithic femaleness or maleness, no monolithic gayness or straightness, or any monolithic version of any identity. That’s right angry fascist Americans, like it or not, we really are all a bunch of snowflakes. But, that’s a good thing. Our differences make us stronger and more interesting at dinner parties.

My entire life has been about finding a place to fit in. Wondering how I will ever be enough — black enough, feminine enough, pretty enough, smart enough, financially stable enough — which really boils down to being loved for who I am and who I am not.

Who am I?  I am a college educated middle-aged woman of color who writes dark speculative fiction. I am a divorced single parent of a tween boy who can pass for white in the right setting. I am the daughter of a white woman and a black man. I was raised in rural Pennsylvania by my mother’s working-class white family who were not actively racist, but culturally bigoted.

As a teen I experimented with drugs and attended hardcore shows in Central PA with skinheads, skaters and punks. I identified with Goth culture, dressed all in black, and read every piece of vampire fiction I could get my hands on. Hell, I even met Glenn Danzig.

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Me and my BFF.

My best friend is a white man I have been friends with for over 30 years and we have family dinners and celebrate certain holidays together each year. We’re family. And, speaking of family, I’m really fortunate to be so close to my cousins who make me laugh and remember not to take myself too seriously.

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Cousins make the best friends.

So, if you’re hoping to put me into one monolithic category, good luck. The color of my skin does not determine the unique and diverse nature of my life experiences. And, it certainly doesn’t make me an expert on “blackness.”