Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Black Women Horror Writers: Interview With Rasheedah Prioleau


Rasheedah Prioleau is a super hero. I don’t know how she does it. She’s a self-published writer of dark fiction novels, a ghostwriter, a scriptwriter and filmmaker. After working in the corporate world for several years, she left and became an unpaid intern for a literary manager. She hasn’t looked back. Since then, she’s published three novels and written several screenplays for TV and the big screen. One of her TV pilot scripts, URBAN DYSTOPIA, won BEST Urban Action Script at the Urban Action Expo Film Festival this year.

She is also, like me, a descendant of the Gullah-Geechee people and includes the culture in her work, aiming to bring focus to our heritage using the medium of dark fiction. As such, I felt an immediate kinship with her and decided to reach out and ask if she’d be willing to do an interview. I was pleased to see she was not only willing, but also open, friendly, and eager to chat about her inspirations, our shared heritage, and horror as a genre for people of color. As she does so much, I’ve broken my discussion with Rasheedah into fiction and film.

When did you start writing and what drew you specifically to dark, mysterious fiction?

I have always been a writer, even as a child. I have found my early writings in shaky elementary handwriting about finding treasure with my brother and sister. So, I was born this way. I think real life is what drew me to the dark and mysterious. I grew up thinking I knew everything and then one day I realized how untrue that was. I left high school with a strong idea of self and the world and came back from college more confused and conflicted than I care to admit.

I created my first real character Amullette Shaundy, after my freshman year of college and she journeyed with me all the way through marriage, childbirth, and divorce. I feel a little bad sometimes about all the things I put that child through; she lost her kingdom, lived in poverty, became an outlaw, went to prison, married her captor, had a baby on the run… but really, it reflected life’s struggles and the human condition.

When I began American Specter, I wanted to do something a little less dramatic, dark but not too dark. People are dead but they come back. Not zombies or vampires, but ghosts. I thought it was a dark and sexy idea. Then I thought about all of the complications surrounding a situation like that and writing it has been challenging and still so much fun.

We’re both descendants of the Gullah-Geechee people. What inspired you to write about them in your novel, Everlasting: Da Eb’Bulastin?

There was just so much I didn’t know and still don’t know. I wanted to find a way to claim what belonged to me but what hadn’t really been preserved for me. Learning about my Gullah ancestry was much like inheriting a dilapidated house that I knew was more than what was on the surface. I wanted to try and salvage what I could and make it more personal to me.

I didn’t know anything about Gullah/Geechee until I was in my early twenties. I’d never even heard the term before that. However, the one thing that became extremely clear to me the more I learned about it was that it’s a culture that simply cannot be summed up or pigeon held in any way. Gullah/Geechee culture is as diverse within itself as the number of people that make it up. Everlasting: Da Eb’Bulastin was a way to create a mythology around the truth of my own story. Beginning with the number of children. There are five of them. I, myself have five brothers and sisters. My mom has seven siblings and my dad has four siblings. So, right away the idea of a big family was important.

In the story Aiyana and her siblings are quintuplets, but they are all very different. Showing Gullah/Geechee diversity within the tight knit group was also essential. One won’t speak Gullah. Another one only speaks Gullah. One has more attitude than she knows what to do with and doesn’t smoke weed. Each of them I find to be different and in some way interesting in their own right. That’s what I feel about Gullah/Geechee culture as a whole. Everyone you meet is a new and interesting personality. The older they get the more interesting they are.

Your books blend history with mystery and magic into dark fantasy horror. How did you perform your research for these characters and scenes or did you have existing knowledge to draw from?

It does draw from a little bit of existing African mythology using the African sun and moon goddess Mawu. Also, a little bit comes from the history of a tribe of African female warriors from the Dahomey kingdom. The details don’t make it into the book but they shape the backstory of what happened before the first Matriarch, Charii, arrived enslaved on the island.

The protagonist in your American Specter series—Audra Wheeler—is a powerful, yet vulnerable character. With the “strong, black woman” as the prevailing model for much of the media’s portrayal of black women, how do you create a believable, sympathetic heroine?

Yes, Audra is strong. But, it is obvious that she is struggling through her circumstances. At the beginning of the story I wanted to make it plain that she’s experiencing PTSD from a traumatic past. I also wanted to show some of her coping mechanisms and make it okay for her to be overwhelmed to the point that she faints. It is a little bit of an interesting decision to make in the light of this question of writing a vulnerable black heroine. Because, when she faints, other people have to take care of her and get her back on her feet so she can do her job.

This is reality. There is a point where stress becomes overwhelming and unhealthy and if you don’t get help it can kill you. But, even though she is struggling with PTSD there is nothing in her that thinks it’s okay to just quit. The only time she slows down is when her body physically makes her slow down. I think the decision to do that came with the decision to not make her supernatural in any way. She’s a regular human person with normal physical limitations.

It’s a little sad to me sometimes when a friend of mine or even someone really close to me like a family member tells me about a struggle they’ve been going through for weeks, months, years that I had no clue about. I feel worse when it’s someone else that tells me what’s been going on with my friend or my loved one. In my mind, I think and in my heart, I feel like I should have known. Why didn’t I know? I know why, of course, but I do hope that more storytellers will reflect that level of humanity in their black female characters; it’s okay to be vulnerable, and it’s okay to need and ask for help.

When using real events and places, how do you decide when to fictionalize and when to stay true to history?

That’s a good question. It’s a judgment call. I try to stay true to history up to the point where mythology is introduced. For example, in Everlasting: Da Eb’Bulastin the mythology begins when the U.S. Government uses eminent domain to take half of the island from the Native American tribe. It didn’t really happen like that on the islands. I think if it had happened like that on the islands there would have been a war or at least a battle. While it isn’t true to history I think that it is reflective of the climate of that time.

In American Specter I would stay true to history up to the point of the “specter phenomenon”. History would be the same up until 2003 and then details would shift; who is the president, what happens to law enforcement structures, how do municipalities handle ghosts as citizens? But, again I like to stay true to the climate of the era.

For you, what makes a great dark tale? What do you like to read?

A great dark tale sticks with you for a while. You can’t shake off the emotions that it invokes in you. As I think about the story I try to analyze why it had to be that way. It will bring a shocking sort of sadness. I do like to read stories that are fast paced and clever. I am not a patient reader, so if a tale is taking too long, I will skip ahead. I like to be on the edge of my seat. I don’t want the time to try and predict what will happen next.

Of the books you’ve written, what’s your favorite? Of which are you most proud?

My favorite child… I mean book… is… I don’t know. I think I’m always trying to get better. I am on a journey to become a great writer. I do like each book I’ve written for different reasons. My first is my first. Amullette’s character grew with me. I always have a strong place in my heart for her. American Specter is a fantasy that is fun to write. Thinking about new ways to encounter spirits is always interesting. Everlasting: Eb’Bulastin was more emotionally challenging.

Do you feel your work has been received differently as a Black female author?

I don’t think people know what to expect. I think that is normal for any new writer. My strategy as a self-published author has been to win fans one reader at a time. I often have to remind myself of the humble beginnings of many authors that I admire. Not to just look at film and television opportunities, but to really nurture my work as an author and publisher; engaging with avid readers and making sure reviewers that I trust have an opportunity to read my work, having an inventory of books on hand to sell. I’m still new to the business of it and I’m learning along the way.

What’s your next project?

I will continue with the series I’ve already begun. Next year I hope to introduce a new pen name, Julia Dove, for a new series called End River. It is a Young Adult faery tale fantasy about faeries born in ice and snow.

You’re also a filmmaker and screenwriter. What’s your filmmaking process? Where can we find your work?

I approach filmmaking the same way I approach writing. I first decide what kind of journey I would like to take the audience on (within the budget). Then I decide what the theme or message of the story should be. Finally, I create characters that help to push the story surrounding the theme or message forward.

At this point I don’t think any films are available to the public. But here’s a trailer for The Inheritance:


What inspired you to make films—was there a particular movie you loved and/or hated?

Being a writer inspired me to venture into filmmaking. I wrote for several indie producers on film projects and was consistently let down by the creative choices they made. I learned very quickly that, as a writer, there is very little control over the actual film that is created. The absolute final straw for me was seeing a gun placed in the hands of a character that was supposed to be super human. It just didn’t make a lick of sense. So,I realized early on that I would need to create my own films if I wanted to see my stories on screen told the way I wanted them to be told.

Tell us the impetus for your in-progress web series, The Descended.

The Descended started with a desire to see modern day Gullah/Geechee influences in film narratives. I have been involved in the Gullah/Geechee Project for the past four years and noticed that there are very few films that reflect Gullah culture and community as it is today. It is a very small community. However, it is also a very important community with a very special history and culture. I would like to see our young people see themselves reflected in films and be proud of the culture. I want them to hold onto it as they move out into the world.

Also, I would like other communities to understand exactly what Gullah/Geechee culture is all about. Once upon a time we were enslaved and due to the climate and location of the islands we had to combine our African languages and cultures in order to survive and thrive almost in a world set apart from main land USA. Today those cultural influences are seen everywhere from the arts and fashion, to storytelling, and even in popular culture, the music of Beyoncé and the hit show Underground, for example. I think the time is right for audiences and filmmakers to embrace narratives that involve Gullah/Geechee culture.

When you get angry at a movie, what sets you off? Are there tropes in horror movies that you dislike? How do you deal with them?

I do get angry when things don’t make sense. I don’t like things that are racist, sexist, or degrading. But, tropes to me are a tool to help storytellers jump into a story quickly. It is frustrating as a viewer, however, when these tools become a crutch for storytelling. If the film doesn’t work to develop the character beyond the basic trope then the character becomes easily expendable.

The only way to really deal with poor character development is to think about ways it could have been done better. If it’s really bad I would write a review and maybe vent a little on social media. I do think it is important as a feminist (and “arm-chair” activist) to point out some of the problems with tropes that lean in on negative stereotypes.

I do write A LOT, so I get it. Unless I’m writing a novel and can afford three or four weeks to develop characters, I generally begin with a trope. I do hope to develop an arc that redefines who that character is by the end of the story. So, if I kill a character they are more than just The Black Best Friend or The Chubby Sidekick or The Hot Girl.

Tell me more about the Gullah-Geechee Heritage and Film Festival.

The Gullah/Geechee Heritage & Film Festival is an event that celebrates Gullah/Geechee history, culture, and heritage. The aim is to keep the dialogue and conversations about Gullah/Geechee culture in the hands of Gullah/Geechee people. Over the last… however many years Gullah/Geechee culture has become a bit of a kitschy commodity: the folk art, the baskets, the speech. Sometimes it feels as if the culture is portrayed as a caricature of itself and not its true self. The Gullah Geechee Heritage & Film Festivals are a great way for the community to get together and share the authenticity of Gullah/Geechee and also a way to reclaim the narrative surrounding the culture.

As a director you have hundreds—possibly more—of decisions to make. What are some of those decisions and what impact do they have on your end product? Is it all about choosing the right actors?

To me, the logistics are the most important thing: locations, transportation, lodging and food. Once those things are figured out then everything else runs smoothly. Talent is important, but I will preface that by saying your talent is only going to be as good as your network, not your budget. Everything from the camera operator to your production assistant to the actors are really going to be about the network that you choose to invest in. I had to learn this the very hard way… i.e. experience.

My note on actors, especially young, black actors (and I hope this is received with the spirit in which it is intended): As a low-no budget black filmmaker I cannot go into a casting looking for an actor or actress to fit the role as I have written it. Because it is very rare for black parents to send their kids to college to learn how to act. RARE. So, it is very rare for young black talent to have the skills needed to believably become the character.

In casting, I am looking for someone that brings magic with them to the audition. Aaron Spelling called it “star-dust”. There is something about this person that I want to be around. There is something about this person that I want to see on screen. There is something about this person that I want to help succeed, learn, and grow. So in casting, I will change the script for that person to make it work for them. It’s easy to do when you’re the writer/director.

What research do you perform—before or after the cameras are on? How important is “getting it right” for a filmmaker when bringing a story to the screen?

I think I do a lot of research. Once I’ve decided that I’m going to make a film, I research everything about the logistics first (locations, lodging, travel and food). I think I’ve spent about a year on The Descended already and I’ve had to delay the shoot several times to rework issues as they come up. It is very important to get it right. Nobody wants to be associated with a crappy film… me included.

What’s your next project?

My next project I’m already working on with Chrystee Pharris and Natasha McCrea of Crea8 Productions in Hollywood. We are adapting my novel series, American Specter for television.

I want to thank Rasheedah for sharing her inspirations and her work and for featuring Gullah-Geechee heritage. She has a lot of irons in the fire and I look forward to seeing more from her.


Exciting news about the screenplay based on her trilogy American Specter: She’s having a Hollywood table read in January or February so wish her luck! Find more about Rasheedah’s work on her website, on Twitter, and on Facebook.



About the Author

Eden Royce is descended from women who practiced root, a type of conjure magic in her native Charleston, South Carolina. She’s been a bridal consultant, reptile handler, and stockbroker, but now writes dark fiction about the American South from her home in the English countryside. She has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Dirge Magazine, and is one of the founders of Colors in Darkness, a place for dark fiction authors of color to get support for their projects. Find out more about Eden’s brand of horror at edenroyce.com or follow her on Twitter (@EdenRoyce)
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