FANTAST IN FOCUS: PHENDERSON DJÈLÍ CLARK
Phenderson Djèlí Clark (aka “The Disgruntled Haradrim”) is a writer, historian, and lecturer. His short stories have appeared in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Griots: A Sword and Soul Anthology, and Daily Science Fiction. In the spring of 2016, Phenderson’s first novella A Dead Djinn in Cairo was published by Tor Books. The story is a fantastical mystery set in a retro-futuristic Cairo:
In an alternate Cairo infused with the otherworldly, the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities investigate disturbances between the mortal and the (possibly) divine. What starts off as an odd suicide case for Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi leads her through the city’s underbelly as she encounters rampaging ghouls, saucy assassins, clockwork angels, and plot that could unravel time itself.
We caught up with Djèlí to learn more about his writing, academic research, and storytelling roots.
The Custodian: Did you always know that you wanted to go into academia?
Phenderson Djèlí Clark: This depends on what’s meant by “always”. When I started my college career, I was either going to be a doctor of medicine or a scientist. But I didn’t really understand that the latter could be part of “academia”. However, I’d always had an interest in history. After taking a few more history classes than required, I went ahead and made the major change official. But even then, I wasn’t thinking about academia. Then I went off to work in the corporate world, doing boring corporate things, and after several boring years wanted to get the heck out of there. By then, I definitely knew I wanted to get into academia and take my interest in history as far as I could. I earned my doctorate last May. Now I look back in amazement that I’d ever contemplated doing anything different.
C: What’s the focus of your doctoral thesis and where are you studying?
P: I completed by doctoral work at Stony Brook University in New York, where I examined the impact of British Emancipation on American abolitionism and free African-American communities from the 1830s through the 1860s. In a larger sense, my primary areas of study are slavery and emancipation in what is often called the Black Atlantic.
C: What attracted you to the field of Atlantic history?
P: Reading about it from scholars. Bernard Bailyn and Paul Gilroy leap out, though they were hardly the only ones. I encountered these works in early graduate courses and was drawn to this notion of porous borders and an Atlantic that functioned as a medium of contact and interaction for people, ideas, culture, technology, activism and more. The role of slavery in shaping and creating this Atlantic world was in particular a topic I felt deserved more exploration. After all, some two-thirds of those who crossed the Atlantic during the formation of the so-called “New World” were Africans. With the exception of the Spanish, all the European empires settled more Africans in the New World than Europeans until around the nineteenth century. From mines in South America to Caribbean sugar plantations to the farms, seaports, and urban centers of North America, both enslaved and free persons of African descent became integral to nearly every facet of the Atlantic world. Their forced labour helped generate the economies of empires; their culture became an integral part of communities; and their struggles played critical roles in shaping the historical and political developments of the region. A lot of my own work is especially interested in examining and uncovering (recovering) these interactions.
There was also a personal angle. Though I was born and raised (mostly) in the United States, my parents are from the West Indies. I personally identify as Black, African-American, and Afro-Caribbean—with no conflicts or contradictions with any of those terms. Exploring identity outside of nation-states that crossed-boundaries has been a way of bridging my own diaspora existence.
C: In your incredibly witty essay “The Education of a Would Be Speculative Fiction Writer”, you describe some of the difficulties you’ve experienced as a new novelist. What words of encouragement (or admonition) would you give to other budding writers who are eager to get their fantasy novels published?
P: I came into writing with a lot of wide-eyed exuberance. And that can be a good thing. I wrote in copious amounts. I wrote carefree. I wrote—I thought—quite beautifully. The drawback was that I had no real understanding of the publishing world. Case in point, some of my earliest “short” stories would average around 15K words. My first novel attempts were massive Steven Erikson type tomes. I hadn’t bothered to do research on something as simple as word counts, especially for a first time author.
What I learned, and what I offer as advice, is to match your exuberance with research. Write for yourself (always), but be strategic as well. Read the stories that are being published to get a feel for what appeals to different markets. Share your stories with other writers who can offer constructive criticism. Submit often and in diverse spaces. Author Sunil Patel has a great write up on the blog A Dribble of Ink titled “Anatomy of a Sale”. If you’re ever discouraged or frustrated about selling a story, read that post. It’s cathartic.
I should point out that while I’ve had some success in the short story market, I have yet to publish a fantasy novel. That’s a work still in progress.
P: That would have been a great origin story! Wandering around Luxor, especially at night, is a writer’s dream. Between there and Aswan I think I had about a hundred ideas. And certainly there were bits of my own memories of Cairo sprinkled throughout the story. But A Dead Djinn in Cairo has less exciting beginnings. I’ve always been into counterfactuals that radically rewrite the social and power dynamics of our world, like Steven Barnes’s Lion’s Blood saga or Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt. I wanted to do something similar, but with a decidedly lighter tone. I honestly can’t say why I chose Cairo for the setting. But once I did, and I set out doing research, the rest just began falling into place. I wanted to find a way to keep the “magic” often associated with Egypt but to subvert the Orientalist themes that tend go along with it. An early twentieth-century Cairo as a hub of modernity, populated by jinn, and retro-futurist steampunk technology seemed a great way to do that.
The setting allowed me to draw on the rich history of both Cairo and the larger region. There are Ottoman influences in the political structures of this alternate world. There’s a religious revolution in the works in Sudan pulled on the nineteenth-century Mahdist movement. The progenitor (of sorts) of this world, al-Jahiz, was inspired by the real life ninth-century Muslim scholar of the same name. And the protagonist Fatma el-Sha’arawi shares a familial name with a pioneering Egyptian feminist. So the story was helped along greatly by what already existed to work with.
C: In the Arabian Nights and other works of folklore and fable, jinn can be both capricious and cunning. In some contemporary Maghreb and Saharan cultures, there are even rituals (such as the Zar rite and the Gnawa dances) to ceremonially evoke them. Which legends would you say most influenced your depiction of the relationship between paranormal beings and humans?
P: So what I didn’t want to do with my take on jinn was the depiction many in the West are familiar with: the trapped entity in the bottle that grants wishes. I’m not against that trope. I’ve enjoyed it in other works. I just wasn’t interested in doing it again with this one. After all, as you point out, jinn have many interpretations beyond that in literature, religion, and popular folklore that are diversified across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
In fact, I’m going to quote directly from the site Islam and Science Fiction on this:
“Jinns are intelligent beings in Islamic belief system which have free will just like human beings. Unlike humans however they are made of smokeless fire. Jinns are also supposed to have different religions just like humans e.g., Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism etc and even Atheism. Jinns are supposed to live in the unseen world which can be thought of as a parallel dimension co-existing with our own.”
This very much sums up how I came to understand jinn through my own research. If there was a direct influence, it was probably illustrations I’d come across over the years in thirteenth to seventeenth century Arabic, Mughal, and Persian art and texts. Here, jinn are depicted as humanoid beings with the heads of animals or fantastic creatures; as malevolent spirits or fierce opponents; as allies, servants, or guards; as beings with their own societies—doing everything from philosophising to making music.
The jinn I create are in many ways like us: they love, fight, play, worship, and interact directly with the humans about them. Yet they’re also otherworldly and alien, with motives and behaviour at times beyond our comprehension. I explore this “alien-ness” by making the jinn extra-dimensional (if not extraterrestrial) beings that have been brought back into the human world. So many of the questions common to SF themes of alien contact come into play here. It’s also revealed that jinn are not the only beings to have re-entered this world. Humans are forced to contend with the fact that they are no longer the sole “intelligent life form” on the planet. What’s more, these other beings are often smarter, older, and stronger. How humanity deals with this profound change to their place in the world (perhaps even a demotion) is a key theme running throughout the story.
C: Tell us more about your heritage. Was there anyone in your family who really encouraged you to become a storyteller?
P: I was born in the United States to West Indian parents. At about two years of age I was sent back to live with my grandparents until I was about seven. This was in Trinidad, within a community of persons of both African and East Indian descent, among Christians, Hindus, and Muslims. It was a polycultural experience: the food, language, customs, rituals, music, and definitely the storytelling. As the saying goes, Trinis like to “talk, talk talk”. And I was surrounded by storytellers: from my grandmother who warned of witches at night to my neighbour’s recounting the saga of Hanuman and Sita. I wrote about this in a reflective 2012 blog piece called “Pass the Chutney, Watch for Soucouyant and Beware Unclean Hands“. Though the time I spent in Trinidad wasn’t long, it was profoundly influential.
Both of my parents encouraged me further in storytelling. My mother was a master storyteller. She could stretch out a short event into a fully thirty minutes and keep the entire room engrossed. I think I picked up on much of that natural talent she had for telling stories: learning how to pace, throwing in humor to keep your audience, making sure you’ve built up for the finish. My mother also strongly encouraged my love of SFF. She introduced me to reruns of Twilight Zone episodes, original Star Trek, told me old stories passed down in the family of supernatural dreams or odd happenings, and took my sister and I to the library to check out as many books as we wanted. My father did much the same. He sat up with me late at night to watch old Ray Harryhausen or Godzilla flicks, and took us to the theatres to see every SFF movie. I think he’s seen the Star Wars trilogy at least a hundred times. My parents weren’t writers or creative artists. My mother was a telephone operator; my father was a welder. They were pretty regular black folk doing regular black folk things. They also happened to love SFF and storytelling—and passed that on to me.
C: Who were your favourite authors as a child? When did you begin to feel unsettled by the scarcity of mainstream fiction set in non-European locations?
P: I think the first SFF novel I was drawn to, as a kid, was The Hobbit. I remember seeing the Rankin/Bass cartoon on television and then begging my mother to take me to the library to get the book. I devoured it at age seven. Then I read Lord of the Rings soon after. It was odd because at the same time I was reading books like Frog and Toad and Dr Seuss. So it was an odd mix. I don’t even know how much of Tolkien I actually understood—but I knew I liked it. Through elementary school I must have read every C.S. Lewis book on Narnia I could find, all the quirky Roald Dahl books, Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time saga (these blew me away!), Danny Dunn SF mystery books and more things than I can remember. By middle school I started reading lots of mythology for some reason: Greek, Norse, Egyptian. I also really got into classic SF like Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert, etc. In high school I returned to my fantasy roots. I re-read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Someone introduced me to Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s Dragonlance and that opened the fantasy series floodgates. After that my reading list was mostly R.A. Salvatore, Terry Brooks, David Eddings, Raymond E. Feist, etc.
Through all of this, I was very cognisant that these stories were usually lacking in people of colour (beyond Haradrim or Southrons doing nefarious things) and almost always set in European-type locations. I would try to imagine characters like Drizzt Do’Urden as non-white, but as a figure coming from a race of evil ebon-skinned elves it remained problematic. Reading authors like H.P. Lovecraft was like punching myself in the face. One of the few times I encountered non-white characters in a way that wasn’t stereotyped, or downright racist, was Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea stories. The book cover featured white characters but I was certain I’d read Ged and others were brown to black. After that, I pretty much distrusted book covers.
It wasn’t until college, between becoming thoroughly engrossed with Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, that I read a full SFF novel by a black author. That was Patternmaster by Octavia Butler—and my entire SFF world exploded. Before that I had started writing my own short SFF stories, all filled with black characters, and sharing them with friends. It was my personal way of inserting myself into the genre I loved. But before coming across Butler, I hadn’t thought there were black authors actually doing this already—professionally! I hadn’t even considered that I could possibly write something that could be published—like the white authors I’d grown up reading. This is one of those reasons representation (and access) matters so much. I had grown up in a household with parents who nurtured my love of SFF, who imbued me with a strong sense of identity. Yet even with all of that, I still had not conceived of black SFF writers creating whole worlds, novels, and series.
In the coming years I eventually tracked down more black authors: Charles Saunders, Tananarive Due, Steven Barnes, Samuel R. Delany and more. They opened my awareness to what SFF could be.
C: What’s next? From what we’ve read in reviews of A Dead Djinn in Cairo, people are really aching for more.
P: I was really blown away, and humbled, by the reception and reviews for the story. As a writer you’re never certain how your creation is going to be received. The longer you hold onto it, the more the doubts creep in. I remember expressing some of those reservations to fellow writer Troy L. Wiggins right before A Dead Djinn in Cairo came out on Tor. His exact words to me were, “You’re bugging”. Turns out, he was right.
I’m still writing and submitting—racking up sales and rejections. This year I’ve had one other story come out in an anthology titled Myriad Lands—which collects fantasy stories beyond the usual medieval European focus. I’ll have two more fantasy stories in anthologies by Crossed Genres and Lightspeed coming out later in 2016 or early 2017. Now that I’m a junior scholar, juggling SFF writing with academic writing is proving a challenge. But I’m hoping I can carve out the time—because I have a lot more tales I want to tell! As for the world in A Dead Djinn in Cairo, I think it’s safe to say I’ll be returning there again.
Follow Djèlí on Twitter @pdjeliclark.