Exclusive Interview: Daniel José Older (Author, “Bone Street Rumba” Series)

Daniel José Older is an author you need to know if you’re a lover of sci-fi and fantasy novels. Older is the author of the Bone Street Rumba, series; the first part, Half-Resurrection Blues is already available for purchase. Also exciting is the news that hit earlier this year; Anika Noni Rose has optioned the TV and film rights to Half-Resurrection Blues, which will bring an even more diverse and richer aspect to fantasy entertainment.

I was excited to speak to Older about his writing, how his past life as a paramedic influenced his work, and how literature should provide the answers it needs to people who are in crisis, especially children. Stay on the lookout for his upcoming young adult book, Shadowshaper, as well as his short story on Tor.com; information is below. 

How does it feel to have Bone Street Rumba optioned by Anika Noni Rose?

It’s really exciting. It’s already amazing—just the idea of having your work optioned is an amazing thing. But having it optioned by somebody like Anika, who is such an amazing artist, thinker and actor and has a good feel for the material and industry? It’s all somebody could ask for, really. Whatever she does with it, I know it’s going to be amazing. I just can’t wait to see it.

I’m excited to see it, because being a fan of sci-fi and fantasy, it’s great to have a voice that I feel represents me and my point of view and is also dealing with all the things I like reading about. 

Yeah, absolutely.

I read that you were first a paramedic?

Yeah…It definitely had a big influence on my work, seeing [New York City] from different perspectives and…being in all types of elements within the city and…[dealing] with…sometimes life-changing [crises], all of that has fed into my work as a writer.

The storytelling aspect of what went into your former job—what kind of ways did it affect you or help you with telling stories?

Paramedics tell great stories, so I take a lot of inspiration from the spoken voice. As much as I love reading books, I think it’s the way we tell stories to each other is amazing. And beyond that, I think just the idea of not bearing witness to but actually being part of the process and in the midst of trauma has been an important thing in my own process as a writer, to experience that and be a part of that and considering the idea of being active in society, in literature and in all these different forms.

With my next question, I’m getting into some of my issues with fantasy. As I said, I really love sci-fi and fantasy, but there are a lot of non-white voices in those two genres. Even though I love it, I feel like the stories aren’t speaking to me, especially with fantasy. I have to find a different way to get into them instead of just reading about the characters. 

Right.

So, how does it feel to be one of those voices that’s actually showing a different side to fantasy and representing people who usually aren’t represented in these kinds of stories?

That’s kind of exciting. I think it’s an exciting time. As much as what you just said is very true, especially in fantasy and sci-fi not having been welcoming to non-white voices, right now I feel like there’s a renaissance of people of color writing fantasy and sci-fi. I feel excited to be a part of that. There are so many writers out there and it’s amazing to see that happening. So, I mostly feel excited. There are trolls, and there are moments that feel ridiculous, but I just take them as they come. I knew that was going to be true going into it, so that’s not really surprising to me, so I just move forward.

That goes into my next question, which starts with an example of what I don’t like about fantasy, particularly with The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit; I like the characters, but with some of the fans, there’s an element of white supremacy. I had written an article a while ago about the inclusion of non-white people in The Hobbit and I got some comments saying how there aren’t supposed be any people of color in The Hobbit and one of the people who had written a comment like that had a website that looked like fantasy for the KKK. You kind of already discussed how you deal with the trolls, as you say, but how do you deal with the vitriol that’s out there when a person says, “This person shouldn’t be in this story”?

Mostly I ignore it. There’s different reasons I might actually engage in it; if I’m in a particular mood, I might or if I think it’s worthwhile to use to demonstrate a choice. Like, the other day, I was talking about Game of Thrones and how the few black people that they cast in that show, they made some of them slave-owners, and I thought that was a gross misrepresentation. I made a snarky comment about that and someone was like, “The historical period that it depicts, there weren’t many black people,” and I was like, “What?”

There are so many things wrong with that statement, I don’t even know where to begin. But [to start] with, it’s a work of fantasy that takes place in a fictional realm. Westeros is not the earth, so there’s no need to be historically accurate. Second, there’s never been a time when black people did not exist. There’s never been a time when black people weren’t present! They were in medieval Europe, in most times in European history, black people were there. I just hate poorly-thought out arguments [laughs]. Sometimes, that just annoys me.

But mostly, that’s in that wing of science fiction and fantasy that’s dying out, literally and metaphorically…There’s a small group of…very racist trolls, and there’s a much bigger group that needs to be engaged with more, the majority of science fiction. There’s been a lot of white folks who won’t necessarily raise a finger to stop any kind of racism that’s going on.

Science fiction has been racist since its inception without many people raising their voices[.] Largely, we’re looking at an industry where all kinds of horrendous acts of erasure and dehumanization for decades without censoring. Those are the people I think we need to address on some level because they kind of slip through the radar because there are some really racist people out there. But we need to talk about [the majority] too; you [the majority] let this go on all this time under your watch, and now that we are are in a fight to get diversity to be a part of the conversation, everyone’s just like, “Oh yeah, diversity, yeah.” No! Let’s look at what’s going on, the struggle to get here!

People have put their careers on the line to speak out and get us where we are. Let’s make that a part of the conversation because other people, very definitively, didn’t put anything on the line and saved their spot. The people with power in the industry, that’s where the conversation needs to happen. The other people are vastly irrelevant.

…The other argument I got [about Game of Thrones] was that Africans were slaveowners, which is true of the history of representation, which is what we’re really talking about. Then again, this isn’t an accurate historical depiction, because it isn’t accurate of anything; it’s fantasy. There’s no comparison between any slavery that happens in Africa and what the global [institution] of slavery Europeans have inflicted on the entire world. That’s totally different, it’s on different scales. You barely use the same words for those systems of power. So to say, “Oh yeah, black people had slaves too,” you are intentionally and immediately missing a huge point. Of course, you’re doing it to make yourself feel better about how f****-up your ancestors were. That’s great, but the rest of us are living in the real world, and representation matters.

It excuses the person from doing any kind of soul-searching and acknowledging what it real because that’s another thing I’ve come up against indirectly. When some people say, “Africans enslaved people too,” it’s like they’re trying to excuse the whole notion of slavery in the Western world, and they say that is if to say, “I’m smart, I know what history is.”

When you actually don’t know anything, but okay.

It’s the liberal racism that really gets on my nerves. Moving on—you’ve written before how the Black Lives Matter movement ties directly into literature and the erasure of non-white voices in literature. For someone who might not understand what that means, how would you explain it to them?

I think the erasure piece speaks for itself; all you have to do is look at a bookshelf, look at the literature, and you will find the racism. It seems self-evident to me, but having said that, I know that people find it somehow controversial. I don’t understand how, but it’s a fact…In any genre, you’ll find a huge lack of people of color, or you will find them in very specific…roles, like the clown, the sexualized vixen, or the bad guy. Those are just facts. Sure, there are exceptions, but that doesn’t change the overarching facts of the problems of representation in literature. That’s thing number one.

Thing number two is, the industry being as white as it is, 93 percent white, has resulted in this cycle of when things pop off in a global or national sense, as it did last year and currently still, literature is not prepared to meet that crisis with the truth-telling that it should. I feel like literature has a responsibility to be able to speak truth to power in difficult times. That doesn’t mean in a propagandist way, but in a simple, true way. We need our bookshelves to help us with the things that are going on in the world. That’s the function of literature—to help us get through stuff.

Right now, we’re going through stuff—we’ve been going through stuff for a long time—but right now, protests have made anti-blackness into a national conversation. It’s [also] a global conversation, because right now, protests are happening in Tel Aviv, in Asia…that’s a perfect example of where we see a lack of diversity in the publishing industry causing in the industry in general to have failed on some level. There are very, very few books, especially for children, that speaks to what’s happening right now. Stuff that’s happening right now has been going on for decades. Police killing black people is not a new phenomenon; it’s just that now we’re paying attention to it because of protests, but there’s really no excuse.

There’s no reason for there to be such a dearth in literature on this[.] Black kids are killing themselves at rates higher than what sociologists even know what to do with; the study has just come out and they were astounded. The researchers were blown away by the suicide rates in young black kids. That’s where literature should be able to step in and be like, “Here, we have stories that might have answers to your feelings of alienation or your struggle.” Young adult literature is just now beginning to be like, “Oh, diversity, yeah.” It’s 2015. Where have you been?

Even though we’ve talked about the problems in the literature world and the problems with the lack of diversity, do you see any change anywhere? Do you see any positive movement in the right direction?

Oh absolutely. I think there’s a lot of change happening…I think you can see that most in the different people who are making it as writers right now and getting their stories out there and you can see it in the backlash that happens, whether it’s the science fiction world with the Hugos, or that people are uncomfortable. There are conversations happening on the global level that hadn’t been able to happen before because of social media and unfiltered outlets…it’s an exciting time.

I see a lot of change in the industry, a lot of editors and agents trying to struggle with this question of diversity. I think most are doing it behind closed doors, and I would love it if they’d have this conversation in a way for the rest of us to participate. But, I’m happy that it’s happening at all. I think we’re seeing [the change] on bookshelves already, which is exciting.

But I always remember that it’s happening because writers of color stepped up. I wish it hadn’t happened because of that, but we can’t let that part be erased, because that’s a part of that story. When we look back and we see this period as a turning point in literature, when literature became more equitable with more truth, we always have to remember it happened because writers of color did that work to get it there.

What can fans expect next from you and your work?

That’s a great question. Next month, June 30, Shadowshaper is coming out. That’s my first young adult novel. I’m really excited about it. It’s actually the first novel I ever wrote. I started in 2009 and that kinda started off the whole journey. That’s really exciting. In January, Midnight Taxi Tango comes out, that’s the sequel to Half-Resurrection Blues. Beyond that, we’ll see what happens with whatever project Anika turns Half-Resurrection Blues into. There’s still some stuff in the works, but that’s the stuff ahead immediately. I just had a short story go live on Tor.com. 

Photo from Older’s website

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