Black Women Horror Writers: Interview with Tonya Liburd
I’m so happy to be back with Graveyard Shift Sisters this year doing interviews with women horror writers of color. This year, I want to expand this feature to include women of color who are directors, filmmakers, even editors. That brings me to my interview with Tonya Liburd, author, editor, and supporter of People of Color in dark fiction. I’ve had the privilege to chat with Tonya about on a number of writing and publishing topics and we’ve shared in process versions of our stories with each other.
When I asked her, Tonya readily agreed to an interview and I’m pleased to have her as my first Graveyard Shift Sisters interview of 2016.
Thank you for granting me this interview. Tell us a bit about yourself and your writing style.
I've been told that one of the things that I do is that, when talking, I switch between my Trini roots and my Canadian identity seamlessly, so much so that Nisi Shawl uses the first ever thing I got published in her workshops as an example of good code switching. I'm authentic not because I'm trying to prove a point, but because it's really, really cool. My mythology has monsters you have never heard of before and you're gonna love it. I love what I'm sharing in my writing. I hate not being able to visualize what I'm reading, and it's a point of pride for me to make sure that, in regards to my own writing, that comes through at the very least.
What inspired you to write dark fiction? You’ve written tales of varying lengths. What are the differences in crafting a short story—say, five thousand words—as opposed to a one hundred word flash fiction tale?
I started off writing even longer than that. The first thing I seriously started to write was a novel about an ex-slave turned vampire. After seeing a role playing book for the Assamite Clan for White Wolf's Vampire: The Masquerade, my head exploded. A cool, black vampire?! And words started coming. I tend to write longer, and for years I couldn't master writing shorter fiction. In terms of the differences in crafting longer work as opposed to short stories and micro fiction, one must cultivate the proper number of plot threads for the story that you're writing. Unresolved plot threads are like bloody stumps; you don't want to leave them at the end of a story!
Now, why do I write dark? I have had a very hard life during my teenage years onward. Some things included child abuse. That tends to give one an unvarnished view of the world, undiluted by privilege. Dark fiction allows me to poke holes in the illusions of classism, racism, and all the other isms that exist out there that people won't want to acknowledge or talk about.
You’re the Associate Editor for Abyss & Apex, a well-respected Hugo-Nominated genre magazine. How many submissions do you see from authors of color? How many are accepted? What can authors of color do to increase those numbers? (Presuming those numbers are low.)
We have a large volunteer staff, and Wendy S. Delmater [Editor and Publisher] and I actively look for a mix of new and unique stories. We don't have quotas. In fact, we don't count how many of our writers are male or female until the end of the year. It's based on merit that much. And yet, we end up with about 45% being female. We are looking for new and unique voices, and people of colour are going to be part of that.
While Abyss and Apex is currently closed to submissions, it is due to reopen in May 2016. If you’re a writer, have a look at their submission guidelines.
How can female authors and authors of color gain a larger share of the dark fiction fan base? Is it all about visibility?
Let me talk about our experiences here at Abyss and Apex to answer that question:- there seemed to be an assumption that if Wendy didn't have a person of colour on staff, she wouldn't be as receptive to multicultural stories. Wendy's been receptive all along. And the proof is in the pudding: while I am inordinately proud of finding writers like Celeste Rita Baker, Wendy had already published someone from Trinidad; the story was about a folklore character called a douen. Not to mention the other people of colour of note that she had published very early in their careers, people like Aliette de Bodard, N.K. Jemisin, Frank Wu, and Christine Ong Muslim. Tony Pi from Canada, whose "Metamorphoses in Amber" I absolutely love, was nominated for an Aurora Award. He'd also won an Aurora in 2015. They may feel more comfortable submitting with me on staff, but they were welcome all along. I'm sure that's true in other places.
I also think getting people of colour in the industry behind the scenes will help with the gatekeeping phenomenon. Diversity doesn't simply manifest on its own at this time. It requires active cultivation on the part of editors, etc. Visibility to me sounds like we're not already there; we are. We're just not being allowed our share of the pie, so to speak.
Can you share with us some of the tired, worn out storylines and tropes you come across when reading submissions? How can authors prevent falling into the usual stereotypes when creating characters and magic systems in their storylines?
To quote Wendy, a phrase I find hilarious - "Extruded Fantasy Product". We do not get enough science fiction. Also, we get far too many derivative stories: tales based on real-life events, popular video games, best-selling books and recent movies (sanitized, but just like that novel or movie!).
Derivative stories are a dime a dozen. Avoid writing derivative work, have your own voice; don't try to be the next whoever. We also point a lot of writers who need the help to the Online Writer's Workshop, and no, we don't get paid for saying that; we just think they're awesome, and that's where WE started out.
Caribbean culture and mythology feature heavily in your work. What research do you perform or is your work mostly spawned from personal experience? In fiction, how important is “getting it right” for an author when writing about a culture?
I grew up in Trinidad and came to Canada at 14 1/2, therefore a lot of it is personal experience. But in terms of folkore, the oral tradition is still quite strong in the Caribbean, and getting information off the net, or even libraries back when I'd started my vampire novel in '97, and asked friends of the family if they can do some homework for me back home, is tough and hard to get.
In fiction, if you can't do the homework to get it right, don't do it at all, is my honest opinion, if only because you'll throw those who do know out of your story, and mislead those who don't.
What’s your next project?
I'm finishing off a novel, tentatively called Island Girls, and I'm shopping around about ten short stories and a few poems to various markets.
What truly scares you? How do these fears inspire your writing?
Not having one's mind I think is the scariest thing that can happen to you. You can be paralyzed and still have a sense of self. What if that is gone? These fears don't inspire my writing as much as my passions do; things like mental health awareness, abuse awareness recovery.
What do you like to read and/or watch?
I find myself mostly watching genre, if only to keep abreast of what's happening in the field. Reading genre has become mostly work; in fact most reading has become work. A side-effect of being a magazine editor and something Nalo Hopkinson said happened to her but until it happened to me, I didn't understand how it could be possible. Reading straight-up lit, however, doesn't tax my mind. Probably because subconsciously I am not taking apart the world building, the turns of phrase, etc., and I get immersed in the craft involved in genre writing more. Once I am done with writing-related work, I go game. I am an avid FPS video gamer.
What’s missing in fiction? What shape would you like to see the future of horror take?
What's missing? In the Western world, an international worldview. Non-western worldviews. Translated works. People not gobsmacked with the fact that islands with hundreds of thousands of people populating it in the Caribbean can have a better grasp of standard English than an entire North American continent.
What shape would I like to see the future of horror take? I'm rather new to this, but I'd like it to be a community and an environment where I don't feel like the single speck of pepper in a sea of white bread. I'd like the horror I see to be professional, diverse, not afraid to play with words, and still have that solid core of a story to transport you to dark places.
Who is your main inspiration?
My mother. She survived child abuse, just like I did, to explore and embrace more than one religion in her shortened lifetime, venturing from Buddhism to Hindu spiritualism, doing yoga and meditating. She got her kids meditating as young children as well. In her bedroom/study she had Kahil Gibran's The Prophet, the Koran, cut out and scotch-taped quotes from the Tao Te Ching on the back of her door, and personal quotes regarding Maurice Bishop. She was a hairsbreadth away from getting her masters on sociology right before she died, and I read all of her books, including the biology textbooks she used. There was one book by a Guyanese academic concerning excursions to the Caribbean, Central and South America that I'm using as research for my novel.
What’s the most difficult part of writing for you?
Editing my own stuff; but its not so bad as before, because my self-esteem used to translate that if something I wrote needed fixing, I was just no good in general. That's changed. The other thing that's tough, and this may have to do with my PTSD and not having a secure foundation, or rather having had the rug literally pulled out from under me in a traumatic way, is the waiting game about finding out if something you sent out will be published or not.
Is there a subject you refuse to touch?
Not really. Maybe Nazis...?
What do you do in your spare time? (If you have any, that is.)
Watching pop culture news shows - it's like eating popcorn or junk food, easy on the brain, doesn't require thinking. Family Feud's hilarious; also, I kill pixels (as I've mentioned before, I'm an avid FPS video gamer).
Thank you for the interview. Is there anything else you like to mention?
I have a non-fiction piece coming out in The Malahat Review's special Creative Non Fiction edition, Issue 193; "Elusive Boundaries: Mapping Creative Nonfiction in Canada". I'm so excited! I really put my heart and soul and blood into that one.
Thanks for the interview, Tonya. Pick up a copy of Postscripts to Darkness 6, with Tonya’s story “The Ace of Knives” here.
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)