Black Women Horror Writers: Interview with Michele Berger
For many of us, that word carries such weight and expectation. For Black women especially, the word “hair” can strike fear into our hearts, keep us up late at night, and empty our wallets with lightning quick ease. As such, it’s a perfect topic to explore in horror. So little of horror is written from a place of authority for Black women. When it is, the story tends toward the historical, steeped in the horrors of slavery, or even twisting the conjure magics into something evil and ugly.
But author and professor Michele Berger, who teaches classes on Sapphire’s Push and Beyoncé’s “Formation” at UNC Chapel Hill has taken our hair, something that holds the power to change our mood and our mindset and brought it into horror. With her latest release Reenu-You, Berger has brought some of our worst fears into realization. Even with so many women embracing the natural texture of their hair, hundreds of thousands of women are still searching for that product that makes styling that little bit easier.
When Kay finds Reenu-You on the shelves, a product promising exactly that, she tries it. The resulting rash and sores she gets won’t heal and are in fact, spreading. She goes to the hospital where she comes across a room of other women with a similar affliction. After an initial hesitation, she speaks with them and realizes they have all used Reenu-You. They leave the hospital, unsure the doctors are willing or able to do anything about this condition that is spreading unchecked. Does anyone care? Can the outbreak be stopped? Or are Kay and her newfound friends and allies doomed to succumb to the effects of Reenu-You?
Berger has done a fantastic job of bringing together women from different walks of life seeking a solution: first to what they see as the rigors of hair-styling and then to the disfiguring lesions caused by a hair product promoted as a solution to the previous concern. I enjoyed reading about these women and how they finally accept that they are on their own to figure out what’s happened to them. And I’m so thankful to read about a group of Black women that represents the diverse educational and socio-economic backgrounds we represent. Berger seasons the storyline with articles, corporation memos, and news reports to explain and underpin the cause of the outbreak.
Reenu-You is a fascinating read, perfect for the sci-fi/horror fan that enjoys conspiracy theories and plague-level epidemics. It’s also the ideal read for those who enjoy dark fiction highlighting the fellowship of Black women, and how powerful sisterhood and communion can be. I reached Michele for an interview and I found her incredibly open to discussing her inspirations for her work. We spoke at length about Reenu-You, what it meant to be a Black woman author of dark fiction, the politics of beauty for people of color, and how to motivate yourself to get your own stories out there.
Thank you for granting me this interview. Tell us a bit about yourself and your writing style.
I started thinking about being a writer in high school. I came close to doing a double major in writing and political studies in college. I came close to pursuing a MFA, but ultimately decided against that path. Internally, I knew I wasn’t ready yet to embark solely on a creative path. I decided to become a professor and conduct research (which involves another type of writing), and believed I could make more space for creative writing later in my life. And I have done so.
I have also been a student of creativity for the last two decades. While pursuing a Ph.D., I became specifically interested in women’s experiences of creativity and the challenges that many female artists face. In 2009, I began my coaching practice called, The Creative Tickle®. The Creative Tickle® approach is about inspiring people to awaken their inner genius and view creativity as a type of practice. I teach people how to create ‘smackdab’ in the midst of their busy lives and how to be an ‘everyday’ creative person. I also run The Practice of Creativity blog that features interviews with artists discussing the creative process.
Creatively, I write poetry and non-fiction, but my abiding passion is writing speculative fiction. I think of myself as someone who writes speculative fiction with a literary sensibility. Paying attention to the rhythm and pattern of words is deeply satisfying to me. Reenu-You is my first major speculative fiction publication.
Reenu-You is based on the multi-billion dollar hair care industry. As people of color, we have a special relationship with our hair and skin. How do you translate that into horror?
We do have a special relationship to our hair and skin. The global history of skin lightening products and hair relaxers reveals some troubling patterns both of supply and demand. I’m obsessed in particular with what attitudes about hair reveal to us about racial legacies, history and politics. I’m interested in exploring both the pleasure and pain of these legacies.
These topics are not well-worn territory yet in speculative fiction. These topics lend themselves to ‘what if’ questions. In the novella, the product Reenu-You seductively promises an all-natural, healthy chemical free fix to its customers –it’s billed as a hair tonic. The idea for Reenu-You developed as I watched the 1990's ‘Rio’ scandal unfold. The World Rio Corporation released a product known as Rio, billed as a natural hair relaxer, marketed almost exclusively to Black women, and as an option to traditional relaxers.
Soon women around the country were reporting horrible reactions to Rio including itchy scalps, oozing blisters and significant hair loss. A class action lawsuit revealed that there was nothing natural, at all, about Rio. Rio actually contained a number of highly acidic chemicals! I thought about the complex mix of desire, history, beauty norms and corporate practices that contributed to the Rio debacle. I wanted to highlight some of these themes by making the stakes higher—the potential threat of a virus in a hair product.
Foremost, I want the novella to entertain, but if it also raises questions about our trust as consumers in beauty products that are unregulated as well as normative beauty standards, then I’m a happy camper.
In addition to appearance, Reenu-You is about the bonds of friendship and sisterhood during adversity. Why focus on this aspect and what does it say about women as protagonists?
Despite popular media that encourages us to think it is natural for women, especially black women, to undermine each other, be jealous, competitive and be overly male identified, there is a long tradition of valuing sisterhood and female friendships. For many black women and women of color, it is often in these friendship communities that we see our worth and value mirrored back to us. I am very much interested in the idea of the female collective. In exploring friendship, I want to go beyond the best friend or sidekick trope and the ensemble model (usually of a mixed gender group), that doesn’t explore intimacy. I think there is something very special, powerful and potentially untapped in the nature of collective female friendships. We are problem solvers, truth tellers, counselors, coaches, leaders and advocates for each other. The characters in Reenu-You touch on all these roles.
I mention that I appreciated the variation in character and background for all of the women she’s created in the book. Michele says this was such an important aspect for her to include as many times, we as Black women don’t get portrayed beyond the sassy character. Our emotional territory isn’t explored. While we want complex works, we also want characters we haven’t seen in mainstream media before—we want to see the range of lives we lead represented.
Who impresses Michele? She loves the portrayal of Annalise Keating, Viola Davis’s character on How to Get Away With Murder. The dichotomy of her life is so comparable with many of ours. Her work persona and image can be in stark contrast to what she shows to those in her inner circle, and even what she reveals when she’s alone.
We talk more about identity for Black women and how it seems to be solidified so early, especially in our girls. They worry about how their hair looks at an early age and it can keep them from being carefree. I was surprised to hear that Rio was still around and that there was been several more class action lawsuits, against Wen and even L’Oreal.
What’s your response to people who say that blacks shouldn’t love horror and dark fiction because our lives are difficult enough? Can we be people with a history of trauma and still embrace dark fiction?
It’s dangerous for anyone to tell a whole community that an area of creative expression is somehow off limits. As someone who has experienced a lot of trauma from the ages of 5-25, I’ve found dark fiction incredibly therapeutic. What’s so exciting now is that there are many diverse voices publishing in dark fiction. They are exploring a range of stories that illuminate aspects of history and experience that have been ignored. It’s interesting, too, that this same kind of question (and resistance) was posed to Octavia Butler about the value of science fiction to black people.
Who inspires you?
I have always been a voracious reader. When I was in college I discovered the legacy of many African American women writers. I devoured the works of Ntozake Shange, Toni Morrison, Gwendolyn Brooks, Toni Cade Bambara, Gayle Jones, and absolutely everything by Alice Walker. Their work is something I carry pretty deeply inside of me. In the last decade, I have been inspired by Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Jonathan Lethem, Pearl Cleage, Walter Mosely, Sherri Tepper, James VanderMeer, Charles de Lint, and Joy Castro.
What scares you? How do these fears inspire your writing?
From about age 5 to 25, I experienced several different types of sexual violence including an attempted rape, intimate partner violence and stalking. Despite years of helpful therapy and self-defense classes, I know that not too far under the surface I carry some fears about being violated. The dark can be a scary place and when I’m by myself, I sometimes still sleep with all the lights on. Reenu-You doesn’t take up issues of sexual violence but some of my other stories do.
There is also a type of psychological horror to living as a racialized person and that does fuel my stories as I am fascinated in how coping with ‘otherness’ shapes the worldview of many of my characters.
Zombie stories also really get under my skin.
I read a comment you made online that research shows women writers are less likely to follow up when getting encouragement from editors than male writers. Why do you think this is and what’s your advice?
As a creativity coach, I have found that many creative women tend to hold themselves to an extremely high and unyielding standard. We often think our work isn’t ready when it is and we can have very active inner critics. We tend to second-guess and shrug off an editor’s encouragement and tell ourselves, “Oh, the editor is just being nice.” Sometimes this is a function of not having mentors or models who help us to navigate what to do in these kinds of situations. The reality is that editors aren’t being nice--they really do want to see your work.
Send them another manuscript, ideally within the week and definitely within a month’s time. Even if they reject the next thing, you’re building a relationship with that editor. Keep sending them material appropriate for the journal or magazine. Find out what conferences they typically attend. It might be possible to meet them in person. Also consider reversing your mindset about the submission process. Think about it, editors in every creative medium need content. We as creators have content to give, that’s what we do. We have some power and agency in the equation. We have to consistently submit our work. We have to remember, we’re helping people do their job—finding content that they love and that their audiences will enjoy.
What’s your next project?
I’m shopping my short story collection to publishers and also working on a mystery novel involving eco-fashion. And, of course, more stories set in the Reenu-You universe!
What’s the most difficult part of writing for you?
Finishing what I start is always a constant challenge. Really, it’s finishing the last 10-20% of a project that can be quite difficult for me. Like most writers, I love the flush of energy while playing with new ideas and getting that first white-hot draft written. Over the years, I’ve gotten better at revision and taking my time restructuring a piece. It’s just getting that final polish of a story completed where I can really lose steam. I use calls for anthologies as motivation to complete work. And, I believe in giving myself rewards along the way, and big rewards for finishing that last 10% and getting a story refined and out the door.
When you want a good scare, what do you like to read?
Shirley Jackson Paul E. Cooley, Joe Hill, Linda Addison, Clive Barker, Kelly Link, Nisi Shawl, and you!
Thank you so much! And thank you for the interview. Is there anything else you like to mention?
Get writing support. If I hadn’t have found my writing teacher, Marjorie Hudson almost 7 years ago, I would have probably given up on writing. I didn’t have a strong writing community before that and I was worse off for it. Now, I have a writing buddy that I meet with once a month for support, a monthly writing group where we share drafts of our work, and am part of several online writing communities. Find people who can nurture your interests and vice versa. Take writing classes, go to public readings and attend conferences when you can afford it.
Michele wanted to thank me for reaching out to her for this Graveyard Shift Sisters interview because she’d never thought of herself as a “dark fiction” writer. I’m happy to know she’s embraced it and is currently writing a companion story—a co-quel, if you will—to Reenu-You.
Published by Book Smugglers
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)