Creating Dark Matter: An Interview with Sheree Renée Thomas
By Jenn Brissett
16 February 2009
Sheree Renée Thomas is an award-winning poet, writer, editor, and publisher known especially for her Dark Matter series, a collection of some of the best science fiction, fantasy, and horror produced by people of African descent. Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora is a groundbreaking achievement by any measure and was the winner of the 2001 World Fantasy Award for Best Anthology. Thomas included authors such as the late, great Octavia E. Butler, Samuel R. Delany, and Tananarive Due, as well as unlikely suspects such as W. E. B. DuBois, George S. Schuyler, and Amiri Baraka.
Science fiction is often construed as the domain of white men, in terms of authorship, audience, and characters. Here at last is a definitive collection demonstrating that people of all shades can, and have, entered into other worlds, dimensions, and fantasies. Dark Matter is not just about equal opportunity; it is about, forgive the phrase, humanizing the speculative, opening the worlds of science fiction and fantasy to the many peoples who exist in our world. Now it is clear that every child is free to dream strange dreams.
Soon after the release of Dark Matter, Thomas was hard at work on another collection, Dark Matter: Reading the Bones. This collection, like the last, featured some of speculative fiction's finest writers, such as Charles Johnson, Nalo Hopkinson, and Walter Mosley, alongside new voices such as Nnedi Okorafor and Kevin Brockenbrough. Tapping into the ancient tradition of Sankofa (reaching into the past to see the future), Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, or Dark Matter II, uses the image of the diviner to weave together a collection of oracles to create new visions that are inclusive, imaginative, and magical.
Thomas is currently working on Dark Matter III, tentatively named Dark Matter: Africa Rising. She is a native of Memphis, Tennessee, and she now lives in New York City.
Jenn Brissett: Why did you create the Dark Matter series?
Sheree Renée Thomas: Mainly because I am a reader first and foremost and the book that I wanted to read didn't exist at the time. I really went looking for the book and couldn't find it.
JB: Did that make you mad?
SRT: I was kind of incredulous. I couldn't believe it. I mean, I know that we have the books. I read Bloodchild [by Octavia E. Butler]. And at the time I heard that she was writing another novel. And Samuel Delany was doing something.
JB: When was that?
SRT: This was 1998 because I went to Clarion [West] the following year. And I was already doing some independent publishing. I worked at Random House and I was already in the realm of books and doing my own thing. But what I read for pleasure was science fiction. I wanted to read more Octavia Butler; I wanted to read another Tananarive Due book; I even read a LeVar Burton novel. I don't know how to tell you how desperately I was searching. . . .
JB: Yeah, that's desperate. . . . [Laughter.]
SRT: I was reaching. [Laughter.] Actually, I was in Liberation Bookstore [in Harlem] and read this book called X published by Holloway House, if I'm not mistaken, where basically this brother goes back in time to try to save Malcolm X before he gets assassinated.
JB: You're kidding?
SRT: No, I'm not kidding! I mean I was reaching, okay? [Laughter.] I kept thinking, well, I know Steven Barnes has been writing and Charles Saunders has been also. There is enough to have a collection, at least one volume, of something. Even if it was not just African or African American, there was enough for something and it wasn't there. So I actually went to Barnes and Noble. An associate there said, "Why don't you try the anthologies? There might be something over there." What I found was a collection of Japanese science fiction stories. And I thought, okay, this is different. Not what I was looking for, we're not in Africa, but we are at least somewhere else. We're not in the medieval dark ages and we're not riding on dragons. I read a couple of stories and I thought, you know what, they had to translate these stories from Japanese so that I could read this and that must have taken some time. It must have taken some Herculean effort and patience and it's here. And the writers I love are already in English. So where's my book? I woke up at three o'clock in the morning and it just hit me. Bam! I'm gonna do black science fiction! My original vision, basically, was just to do reprints. I wasn't necessarily looking to go find any new voices. I was really looking for . . .
JB: The traditional, the older voices?
SRT: Not really the traditional older voices, but to put [black science fiction writers] all in one place so I could stop telling my friends, "Read this book and this novel, this book and this book, and this book." They could just get one volume, so they could have a little taster. Some people thought I was strange for reading science fiction. You know that.
JB: Yes, I very much know that. . . .
SRT: Most of my friends who do love to read would, at the time, never consider themselves science fiction readers. They associated it with whatever they saw on television and whatever they stopped reading when they were little. And that's it. They simply thought white boys with guns, white boys with toys, lasers, or space operas, and that's it. They had no idea of all the different amazing work that's been going on for decades and decades and decades. And I thought, once they get it they're gonna love it.
JB: So you were always into sci-fi and speculative writing?
SRT: My parents were. . . . It was in the house along with James Baldwin, and Amiri Baraka when he was LeRoi Jones. All of that was in the house. It was like my play land. And I'd like to say, they are like regular working class people who contribute to the bottom line. They didn't necessarily show up at the writers' conventions, or stand up at readings, but they bought books and read them regularly. In fact, that's how I learned about Tolkien. It was in the house. There were books everywhere and, of course, LPs [long-playing records] everywhere. My dad is a true music lover and had all the great stuff. I mean, he used to listen to Led Zeppelin and all that stuff. He had it all. And still does and one day I shall have it, too! [Laughter.] Their room was pretty much off limits. We had free rein of the house except for their bedroom and particularly the bed because the back of the bed had this bookshelf. That's where they had their top-shelf, best-loved books. We weren't to touch those books.
JB: But you did?
SRT: Yeah, I did. And the book I got was The Silmarillion [by J. R. R. Tolkien]. One day my mom saw me reading this book and when she realized that I was interested and was following it she said, "Why don't you put this book down and let's get this one?" And that's when they drove me to get my library card. "We're going to take you [to the library] and let's open up a whole new world for you." The librarian at the Hollywood branch, she realized that I really loved science fiction. She gave me permission to check out books from the adult section and had me reading down the shelves in alphabetical order.
JB: So you're just a reader turned writer?
SRT: Not according to my mother. Apparently, I was a writing child.
SRT: I didn't think anything of it. It's just what we did for entertainment. I would say there wasn't anything extraordinary in that. I was like a lot of kids: played jacks and double-dutch, rode around on iron skates like all the rest of the children.
JB: You were raised in Tennessee?
SRT: For the most part. My dad was in the air force so we [moved around a bit].
JB: When did you come to New York and how did New York affect you?
SRT: I came to New York in '95, and I came to work in publishing and be a writer. Publishing! Publishing! I'm there! If I'm gonna starve as a writer then at least let me learn what it takes. Let me learn the kinds of questions that an editor has to ask before you take a chance on an author. How do they put a book together? How does it go from your idea to becoming a finished book? What's the process? Who are the people involved in that and how do they sell it? For me that was the perfect place to be, working in book publishing. And getting all the wonderful free books that you get [laughter] and being around people who love books. I expected New York to be cold but I found many people to be generous.
JB: So how does Clarion fit into this?
SRT: Clarion came four years later. After I had started on Dark Matter and sold it and was working on it. I edited Dark Matter at Clarion. Imagine that! [Laughter.] Six weeks away from my family. Seattle was rainy, but had a really cool vibe. A wonderful place, but rainy. There were people—strangers—who were pretty open, as in, you were writing new original work every single night and were presenting the raw, fresh, "dripping wet babies" to get shredded! [Laughter.] In addition to, and in the presence of, the writers you've been reading and admiring and loving your entire life. It's pretty intense, but wonderful. Just an amazing experience.
JB: How did you find out about Clarion?
SRT: I worked at Random House and also part-time at Forbidden Planet when it was across from the Strand. And I was flipping through Locus and saw the ad [for Clarion]. I saw that Greg Bear would be there. I remembered being so amazed by his stories from when my parents subscribed to OMNI magazine. Then I saw Octavia [Butler] and I said, "It is on!"
JB: That's how you met Octavia?
SRT: That's how I met Octavia. That's how I met Nisi [Shawl]. That's how I met a lot of wonderful people. Howard Waldrop. He writes on so many different subjects. He wrote so many different stories that I didn't even know it was him until I interacted with him. Then it was like, "Ahh! That was all you!" He was awesome, like the story doctor. He was amazing. And we had the most beautiful direction with Nancy Kress. She was just what you needed. Wonderful. A true teaching spirit. Very generous. Tear your stuff up, but in a real loving way. [Laughter.]
JB: Now that you're going to be an instructor at Clarion West 2008, how does that feel?
SRT: I'm thrilled! I am truly honored. I think I squealed when they called. My kids were like, "What is wrong with her now?"
JB: What do you look forward to?
SRT: I look forward to seeing who the writers are and meeting all the different people. I know how Clarion is. Many different styles. Many different aesthetics. Many different approaches to it. And seeing what they cook up in week five. I have them at the infamous week five. Which apparently is not infamous anymore . . .
JB: Why was it infamous?
SRT: Because something would happen by . . . It's hard to describe. It's like, okay, you take a whole bunch of grown people [laughter], some of them not too grown, no matter how old. . . . The youngest person we had was nineteen. She was really, really sweet, but we were probably a bit rough on her because you're here with grown people! The oldest writers were maybe in their fifties. Some had been published. I remember a really great mystery writer. He had published. Anyone who had published, we were like, "Wow!" He was career Navy and an engineer or something. He was retiring. And Clarion for him was like, "Either I'm going to be able to pursue this or not." He was really searching. Everyone was. Either you were at the beginning or you were trying to get a sense of: Is this for me? Am I any good at it? Do I have anything to say? Does anyone want to read what I have to say? How much can I learn? So it's a lot. I mean, people were married, had children and families. It's a lot going on. And you don't get a lot of sleep. You don't get any sleep. You're in the workshop during the day and you have to write a complete short story or novel chapter and have it submitted at a certain time so it can get reproduced.
JB: And you were doing this while working on Dark Matter?
SRT: Yes. It was not necessarily the plan. It was just the timing of it. But it was a once in a lifetime thing. If I could participate, I wanted to participate. It wasn't the best time, necessarily, given that I needed to complete Dark Matter that summer.
JB: What did you walk away from Clarion with?
SRT: I was fired up! Within one year, we in the group that kind of bonded, we gathered together and went to an island. We reunited for our continuation of Clarion. Certain people went on [to do great things]. I remember, some of the stories better than the people. I remember when a fellow workshopper wrote a mole rat story. She went on to win World Fantasy Awards, too. I think we won at the same time. That was a damn good story. She wrote the shit outta that mole rat story! I think that came from a day trip. I don't know what they saw but she came back and wrote this kick-ass mole rat story. That's where I read Ama Patterson's "Hussy Strutt." I actually read Andrea Hairston's excerpt from Mindscape. When I got to Clarion I was like there are black people up in here! I thought I'd be the only one, but there were two other black women! Everything just felt like this was where I needed to be.
JB: Black No More [George S. Schuyler's 1931 novel, in which a black scientist invents a process to transform a person from black to white]: this was my introduction to this writer. And you have an excerpt. The excerpt was the fun part. When you go on and read the book . . .
SRT: It blows your mind, right?
SRT: He wasn't playing.
JB: No. He wasn't playing. What was in your mind when you included this story in the collection?
SRT: At the point where I got to Black No More my whole vision for the collection had changed—had evolved. I had definitely moved beyond just reprinting stories. [I thought] let me reach back and find what else have we done. There's more, I know there's more. There are stories under the radar that were not necessarily classified [as science fiction]. So what else is out there? And also I wanted to get a sense of what we were doing in that area even if we weren't conscious that we were writing in that area . . . and how it connected to our political reality or not. Why do people write speculative fiction in the first place? That was just to me a brilliant piece from that era. He was very conservative. It's such a black thing to write. Satirical work. We don't have a great deal of satire. You probably couldn't name more than maybe fifty people who wrote satirically and he is one of them. You had the mad scientist in there to try to make it plausible. The whole premise is totally relevant. It was classic. If it were available today there would be people lined up down 125th Street trying to get the procedure done.
JB: It's a very painful story.
SRT: Yeah, it's a very painful story. And he has to get through the pain with humor. And also, the way he sets up some of our heroes, the leaders at time. I mean, Madam C. J. [Walker] doesn't come off too well in the book. Brother [Frederick] Douglass doesn't do too well either. [W. E. B.] Dubois . . . No one is safe. Not the black characters, not the white characters. He just kind of lays it out there.
JB: That leads me to the next person I wanted to talk to you about, which is Virginia Hamilton. What is her importance not just as a writer, but also as the keeper of our folklore? What do you think of her and her books?
SRT: My goodness, when I think of her I almost think of her as a character out of an Octavia Butler novel. Someone literally took the seeds or just took little sections of the last plants, the last stories, of ourselves and carried them with her into the future. She went back and collected folklore that so many people had forgotten. So many people don't even tell their children anymore. Don't even know that we used to tell the stories. The tongue can barely even sing the songs anymore. She brought it back and she brought it back for children. That, coupled with the wonderful art that always went with her work . . .
JB: Yes. The Dillons [Leo and Diane Dillon].
SRT: . . . It's like a dual gift. When I think back on my childhood book collection, there were very few books that reflected me. Very few with black children, or black anyone. And the few that I had were by Virginia Hamilton . . . and I feel that she touched many lives and did it so beautifully. Such a brilliant storyteller and writer. I mean, it's one thing to retell someone's story, but to tell it in such a way that was uniquely hers. She's such an amazing writer and that's just the folklore. You go into her novels. The House of Dies Drear. The Planet of Junior Brown. Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush. Just really amazing. And who knew that she wrote a traditional science fiction trilogy?
JB: Wait a minute, this I don't know. Tell me about that. . . .
SRT: I think of it as . . . In my mind, I put it on the shelf with Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. It's with siblings, brothers and sisters who are on a quest. . . . They go to a whole 'nother realm. It's The Justice Trilogy [Justice and Her Brothers (1978), Dustland (1980), and The Gathering (1980)]. It's a novel [series] for young adults. She takes the old knowledge and wisdom and history and she refashions it in a way that's really magical. And it's not one of her most well known books probably because it's about slavery. Nnedi [Okorafor] wrote an essay [in Dark Matter II about Virginia Hamilton].
JB: Yes, I read it. Speaking of Nnedi, she's really racking up the awards!
SRT: She always has. Yeah, she don't play! But it's like if you're the only one really kind of doing . . . Not saying that the work isn't amazing, but what other black African woman do you know of who writes science fiction, just straight out science fiction, and not calling it some other kind of somethin' somethin'?
JB: That's really true. . . . Octavia is the only other one that I can think of. . . .
SRT: And she's telling her stories and she's remaking them into something new. And why not?
JB: Well, thank you so very much. And we all look forward to the publication of Dark Matter III: Africa Rising.
"Black Pot Mojo": Sheree Renée Thomas's blog
"Sheree R. Thomas": Author profile on African American Literature Book Club (AALBC)
"Fallen": A poem by Sheree Renée Thomas in Strange Horizons
The Carl Brandon Society—supporting speculative fiction writers of color