Category Archives: Parlour

FANTAST IN FOCUS: GYRUS

Gyrus is the editor and psychonaut behind Dreamflesh, a dynamic webzine that explores the overlapping and often hard to articulate layers of the human psyche. First conceived in the 2000s, Dreamflesh has been a boon to readers interested in consciousness, ecology, and politics for over a decade. The project has many offshoots, one of which is North: The Rise and Fall of the Polar Cosmosa book described as unveiling “the story of cosmology as a crucible for and mirror of the contours of the spirit, and the power structures of society”.

But North and Dreamflesh are not the only publications Gyrus has under his belt. More articles are slated for 2017 and beyond, and Gyrus has recently revamped the Dreamflesh website to address what he believes are the significant existential challenges of the present age. We spoke to Gyrus to learn more about his approach to world mythology, art, and spirituality.

 The Custodian: Can you tell us more about your “gnostic experiences” on Ilkley Moor that inspired you to write North?

 Gyrus: North became a very different beast, in its eventual incarnation, from the inklings I had of it on Ilkley Moor two decades ago. The full scope of the follow-up research and thinking ended up radically reframing those early experiences. But at the time, these experiences gave me the idea that the spinning of the sky around the north pole star formed a kind of primary cosmic image for humans. Something connected to the dome of the skull and the swirl of the hair, a resonance which formed the symbolic scaffolding for our sense of bodily unity with the cosmos. The first wave of research following this intuition overwhelmed me with the sense that I’d hit a very potent vein.

 Actually the “gnostic” label, in the strict sense of transcendent grokking, is slightly misleading in retrospect. My obsession was to weave visionary experience into the fabric of scholarly research, and because I’d just emerged from academia, the heretically non-academic component seemed primary. But looking back, more important than the visionary experiences per se was the entire field that manifested in the relationship between dreams, synchronicities, rituals, the landscape, and book-based learning. I imagine this would be true for many historical Gnostics too, but for me this was ultimately scholarly, in that speculation was bounded by the known facts.

I’ve just re-read David Abram’s superb The Spell of the Sensuous, which suggests that our original animistic relationship to nature was lost through it being transformed into a relationship with the written word. The language of the birds fell silent as we invested our own externalised thoughts with a voice, a voice which spoke from dead pages that formerly supported the whispering of the leaves in the wind. Now obviously, being able to immerse back into that wordless world of natural voices is a wonderful thing. But stepping back with just one foot, keeping the other firmly in the Gutenberg galaxy, is also extremely interesting. Something sentient seems to rise up and busy itself forging connections in the space between the library and the moor.

The Parish Church at Ilkley. Image via Ilkley: Ancient and Modern (1885).

 In terms of specific experiences, one was a very simple illusion while sleeping alone out there, where I woke up to see a satellite—but instead of seeing it moving against the field of stars, I saw all the stars moving and it motionless. That was brief but staggering, and it triggered a visionary dream about the pole star, which I previously had no interest in. The pole star turned out to be a genuine key to the Swastika Stone carving, and weirdly related to the goddess Verbeia, whose Roman altar is in Ilkley. The other experience I’d mention is the ritual I did to Verbeia, asking for inspiration in researching her. I’d imagine it’s an underrated research strategy—she turned out to be very forthcoming.

The Verbeia altar stone at Ilkley. Image via Ilkley: Ancient and Modern.

C:  As you note in an essay, the word “contemplation” derives from the pensive bird-watching rituals of Roman diviners. Have your altered consciousness experiments been more vivid in the open air?

 G: There’s definitely something to getting out there in the open, altered states or not. There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes and gear. You’re not really getting to know a landscape unless you’re out there in all the elements. You don’t want to be nature’s fair weather friend do you? And while we shouldn’t be naive about the social construction of nature, allowing that insight to smother the experiential basics seems self-defeating.

Storm Approaching the Badger Stone at Ilkley Moor. Photo by Gyrus.

 Abram’s book is interesting in this context, in how he focuses on the air as an invisible presence, something sensual which acts as a basis for our sense of conscious presence. Of course, as in many if not most languages, our words “spirit” and “psyche” are ultimately synonymous with “air”, “wind”, “breath”. This connects to myriad things, but I’d highlight here the most tangible manifestation of air—wind—and how that hooks our psychology and spirituality into the weather.

 I’ve experienced the weather interacting in really interesting ways with outdoor rituals. Weather magic is an almost archetypal instance of magic among indigenous peoples. It deals with an emblematically chaotic system (in the chaos theory sense). So if you want, you can go to town with quasi-scientific explanations of magic in terms of subtle perturbations affecting large systems—a kind of esoteric butterfly effect. I’d prefer just to chuckle at the fact that “psyche” in Greek also means “butterfly”.

In the Blue Expanse by Arkady Alexandrovich Rylov. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

C: There’s an old, evocative proverb which goes something like this: “He who would learn to pray should go to the sea.” It seems to express something about the sensory-overloading, numinous power of the ocean. Have you had the opportunity to meditate in the presence of the Arctic Ocean?

I did visit Svalbard while I was writing North, though my timing to coincide with my birthday landed me in the most boring Arctic season—just as the light’s disappearing, but before the ice has really had a chance to take hold. I also missed the most spectacular aurora display for decades. Needless to say, the ocean was a bit of a disappointment too. Actually it was hard to encounter properly, since you’re not allowed outside town (Longyearbyen) without a guide who’s armed to deal with polar bears.

Seals preserved in the open air at Longyearbyen, Svalbard. Photo by Gyrus.

I don’t have any real magical relationship to the ocean yet, though it kept cropping up in the wake of North as the logical field to focus on after so long looking up at the sky. I’ll see if anything comes of that. Offhand, I can appreciate its relationship to prayer clearly—that sense of swelling surrender, fluid power, and facing unknown unknowns seems spot on for the act of prayer.

   C: What are your favourite myths or folktales about the north? Have any of these played a psychogogic role in your dreams?

     G: My favourite was a guiding template for my early thinking on polar cosmology: the creation of the world from the body of Ymir the giant in Norse myth. It has its cousins in other Indo-European traditions, and details vary. But the basics are an almost tantric cosmogony of carnal correspondences: flesh becomes earth, blood becomes sea, bones become rocks, hairs become trees, skull becomes sky, and brains become clouds. The implicit image there of lightning as flashes of inspired thought is a high point in myth for me.

        It all connects to the polar view of things if you drop in the Latin term “vertex”—which refers to the crown of the head where the hair spirals, and to the celestial pole, around which the stars circle. The skull and sky reflect each other—there’s some really good mileage for outdoors meditation in there. The myth’s context crops up in the earliest Viking adventures to record voyages into the Arctic ocean. They related their experiences of mercurial ice and confounding weather to the Ginnungagap, the primeval void where Ymir dwelt.

   Despite the fact that dreams sparked my initial obsession with the pole, I can’t recall any major role for myths of the north in my dream life. There is the fact that Ilkley Moor is properly speaking part of Rombald’s Moor, and Rombald is reputed to have been a giant. I used to dream about Rombald moving rocks around on the moor at night, so there was definitely a trace of Nordic myth in the atmosphere of the place for me. I guess Yorkshire is “The North” from the south of England perspective in that it’s where you first start to psychogeographically brush against that world, which shades into Scotland, then Scandinavia, the Arctic, and beyond.

Guests from Overseas by Nicholas Roerich. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

C: What about art? Nicholas Roerich is possibly the best known painter of idealised boreal landscapes. Who are your favourite polar utopia artists? 

G: I’m not heavily immersed in art. Roerich’s images are great, but—and this may be due to what I’ve had access to—I drew more inspiration from Geoffrey Ashe’s telling of his story (in The Ancient Wisdom) than from his images per se. But my major art experience in this field was undoubtedly of Reinhard Behrens. I saw his stuff first on the cover of a book I found by chance in a second-hand shop, The Idea of North by Peter Davidson. A few months later I was visiting a friend in Dundee. We were driving around Fife looking for souterrains when we saw signs for an arts festival in Pittenweem, a fishing village that—we discovered that day— is a veritable hive of artists.

The festival is basically the town’s artists opening their homes up. You wander into someone’s front room, check their stuff out, say hi as you go out the kitchen at the back, into someone else’s back garden, and so on. It was pleasant enough, no amazing pieces but a unique experience. Then we wandered into a place that was utterly astonishing. It was like the abandoned hut of a legendary and eccentric Arctic explorer, meticulously constructed, everything weathered and intriguing. There was also a Buddhist-styled cabinet holding a large brown fur, gold-lined cloak, purportedly made from the last Yeti. We’d wandered into Behrens’ house.

Sami on Skis in Northern Lights by Frants Bøe. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

   A lot of his art is concerned with a little explorer in a yellow submarine, suspended somewhere between Arctic myth and Himalayan fancy, searching for a lost region called Naboland. Behrens creates archaeologically-authentic imagined artefacts to evoke this realm (it turned out my friend knew Behrens from her work in the university’s art and imaging department). I can’t say the art itself is profound for me—it evokes wonderfully, and is essential for anyone interested in boreal legend. But it’s perhaps too reliant on whimsy for my taste, which would always favour something with uncanny edges as well, such as Leonora Carrington. (Why mention her? I think I’m thinking of interesting polar elements in her novel, The Hearing Trumpet.) But the experience of encountering Behrens was incomparable—a density of serendipity which can be seen as an inherent part of the art experience. Which may actually be the ultimate art experience: when reality spontaneously collaborates.

Harsprånget waterfall in the polar night with the aurora borealis. Lithograph by Carl Svantje Hallbeck. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

C: What has been your experience with DIY publishing? Has your mission for Dreamflesh changed over time?

G: I’ve been incredibly fortunate. At the same time, I think there’s a lot to be said for passion and belief, going forward as if something can’t not happen, and it happening in the wake. Firstly I cut my teeth when it was still relatively possible to live on the dole by choice. A friend got me into zines, and I started doing a zine based on dreams, which my friend photocopied “for free” at work. It was a great experience: typewriter, scissors, Pritt stick, research, collaboration.

    By the time I came to do Towards 2012, I had access to DTP, and I wondered how much the zine aesthetic I was immersed in was based on choice rather than the necessities that guided the early days of DIY publishing – both for the counter-culture in the 70s and 80s, and myself in my early days. So I decided the goal with Towards 2012 would be to produce something as well as I could on zero resources. Everything fell into place. People just gave me money to do it –Julian Cope and Douglas Rushkoff were both benefactors. Pete Pavement in Hove offered to co-publish and distribute. I was heavily inspired by Simon Dwyer’s Rapid Eye, and I tried to fuse that underground coffee table thing with the lively mix of zine culture. It was the early days of the web, too, and I started folding that in, including quotes and website addresses in the margins to create networks of resonance across the contributions.

  Dreamflesh emerged after 9/11 evaporated the remnants of my 90s utopian energy. I got really into James Hillman, and to some extent John Gray. Both in different ways acted as necessary counter-balances to the utopian narratives I’d absorbed from Terence McKenna, Norman O. Brown and others. But Dreamflesh was still very much concerned with politics, especially environmentalism, and with connecting such wide issues with personal experience through ecopsychology and dreamwork. Looking back at when the only issue of the print journal came out in 2006, it felt like a time when ecological issues were finally gaining traction in the mainstream narrative space, and there was still time to make real changes. Now, it looks like a lot of that opportunity has been squandered. But we’ll press on. I don’t believe in optimism which can only handle it if everything works out.

Excerpt from Gyrus’s announcement for the re-launch of dreamflesh.com.

I’ve just revamped dreamflesh.com to start blogging again, and I’m hoping that some writer friends will be joining me to contribute there. Right now I think one of the most important things Dreamflesh can tackle is the tricky overlaps between its core concerns—ecology and esotericism—and the current wave of traditionalist myth-making and climate change denial. Finding the lines where we discriminate between taking time to understand broad human concerns, and putting up a fight against dangerous insincerity or ignorance is surely the hardest and most vital task afoot.

When I started out, these core concerns almost inevitably turned me away from left-wing politics in most recognisable forms. To a large extent, the occult and environmentalism were anathema to the radical left, and much of the mainstream left. They’ve mostly caught up in terms of the environment- there are some interesting re-readings of Marx’s views of ecology around. It might be a bit much to expect them to catch up with the occult! (Though Peter Lamborn Wilson has sketched outlines of what he terms a history of “left Hermeticism“).

In any case, I’ve retained a suspicion about the Left’s shortcomings, its in-fighting and jargon-heavy academics. But the reactionary anti-intellectualism around at the moment, and the neo-traditionalism manipulating it is clearly a danger of a different order. In some senses the environmentalism/esotericism overlap is an incredibly small niche in our culture. But it touches on some really important and difficult issues at the root of current problems—reaction against modernity, the valuation of immediate experience versus abstractions, the ability to process complex information and act in the face of uncertainty, the manipulation of the imagination (see: Giordano Bruno). So in that sense the project’s remit deals with the very heart of what’s going on now.

I think this was a big impetus behind the narrative of the book North. Both occultism and environmentalism have strong anti-authoritarian streaks, but—as we saw in the left’s inability to properly grapple with them—there’s also an air of pre-modern “tradition” around them, which can be refreshing, but often is stifling. When I realised that—contra [Mircea] Eliade—hunter-gatherer culture wasn’t just some long fade-in for traditional sacred myth and ritual, but in many ways its own mode of living, with some very anti-traditional elements, I felt this was an important twist for our large-scale image of our past, and one which suggests some potentials for a progressive pagan spirituality. (Of course it’s a development of McKenna’s “archaic revival”, though I think McKenna was sometimes out of date with his anthropology.)

  Traditionalism often marks the advent of the modern era as a singular historical rift, where secularisation began to disenchant the world, and we began to lose our roots. Of course there’s an important truth in this, but when we realise that the advent of civilisation was also a rift, where the scope for centralised power and oppressive hierarchies increased dramatically, it destabilises this traditionalist two-stage model of history with a problematic third initial stage. This vast foraging era wasn’t the golden age of the romantic imagination, but it contains plenty of legitimate fuel for the imagination which wants to tease apart animist spirituality and engagement with nature from the magnetism of civilised myth, and which wants to imagine an egalitarian paganism.

    The fact that it’s hard to be sure about what was going on, say, 100,000 years ago, is part of the attraction of this for me. It’s a constant reminder that ultimately we’re constantly grounding ourselves in fantasy, and justifying ourselves through fantasy. It’s a necessary task, which is best done with awareness, with Hillman’s psychological “seeing through”.

C:  Which movies and books would you recommend for amateur Hyperborean psychonauts?

 G: I’ve heard North by Gyrus is worth a go! If you allow the idea of both poles occupying the  same mythical space, it’s hard to resist or beat John Carpenter’s The Thing (based in Antarctica). Together with Larry Fessenden’s The Last Winter (which is properly boreal) and Reza Negaristani’s Cyclonopedia (a book ultimately too abstruse for me, and more Middle Eastern, but a useful reference point here), there’s a complex modern cosmology being drafted. There’s certainly enough in there to last you well past the amateur stage—but they would serve well starting out, too. They root the polar mythic dimension in the crisis of the present, which I think is important.

  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is well worth studying, too. It’s only briefly located in the far north, but again I think it resonates deeply with the present world’s connection to polar myth. Its legacy has ensured its status as modern myth, but that power is right there in the original text, more than anywhere. Also, if you enjoy cinematic exegesis and you’re very imaginative, try Hitchcock’s Vertigo (that advice kind of works in any context).

   Joscelyn Godwin’s book Arktos deserves credit—it arrived just when I started out, and was an invaluable source at the time. Touching more on the mystical aspects of the boreal, Peter Levenda’s Stairway to Heaven is a good round-up of material and speculation on Ursa Major, and convincingly argues that polar myth is as important in occultism as it is neglected. And Henry Corbin’s The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism is essential for grasping the esoteric appeal of the north. But I would advise something more down to earth after all that. David Abram’s aforementioned The Spell of the Sensuous isn’t concerned with anything specifically northern, but its treatment of cosmology and animism should feed fruitfully into the imagination of anyone who’s ventured far in this direction.

C: What are you working on now?

  G: The dreamflesh.com revamp is my main focus at the moment. After finishing North I had an idea for a novel, which is shelved for now. Then I thought I’d like to resurrect Dreamflesh the print journal (issue two, ten years later!). But for various reasons that foundered. Right now I just want to get back into the habit of writing, so blogging it is. I hope I’ll find time to write longer pieces for the essays section I definitely want to do something about the cultural psychology of Universal Basic Income. There’ll be more interviews with inspiring figures, and I’m going to try to get back into the discipline of reviewing most of the books I read—old or new—the review as a platform for thinking things through.

Follow Gyrus on Twitter and Facebook for more anthropological, political, and philosophical musings. You can also visit his website, Dreamflesh.

FANTAST IN FOCUS: DANIEL HARMS

“They are either not mortal, or their date of life is indeterminately long; they are of a nature superior to man, and speak with contempt of human follies. By night they revel beneath the light of the moon and stars…”

-from The Fairy MythologyIllustrative of the Romance and Superstition of Various Countries by Thomas Keightley (1850).

    Like a capricious princeling, the literary fairy is typically puckish and vindictive; reigning over or guarding ill-defined territories and kingdoms. Magical power is his birthright, an inborn, phantom technology that enables him to (like a Harlequin) transmogrify scenery or (like the deus ex machina) pluck characters out of difficult situations. His inconstancy makes him an unreliable ally but, if he’s down for the job, he can be a wellspring of unadulterated puissance.

Image from Huon of Bordeaux, illustrated by Fred Mason (1895).

Image from Huon of Bordeaux, illustrated by Fred Mason (1895).

In the Early Modern era, a peculiar tradition arose which sought to tap into this “fay-power”. A few magicians armed with special grimoires began to focus their ceremonies exclusively on fairies, eschewing the angels and demons of the Goetia and Kabbalah. Daniel Harms, a New York-based librarian and Cthuliana mythographer, has been studying and cataloguing this abstruse form of magic for several years. Along with Joseph Peterson, he’s playing a central role in the recovery of fairy rituals, scouring the Bodleian, British, and Folger Shakespeare libraries for lost manuscripts. We spoke to Dan to learn more about his research.

The Custodian: When and why did you start researching fairy magic?

Daniel Harms: I’d been studying works of ritual magic for years, especially printed works thereof. When I turned to the manuscripts, I soon realised that the texts edited by [Samuel Lidell MacGregor] Mathers, [Aleister] Crowley, and [Arthur Edward] Waite were only part of a broad and incredible corpus. In particular, I was intrigued by a manuscript at the Folger Shakespeare Library, most notable for its frequent conjurings of fairies and its curious illustrations.  It’s probably one of the most stunning works on magic ever written, and I was privileged to work on it with James Clark and Joe Peterson to create The Book of Oberon.

This has led to a broader survey of fairies in the manuscripts and printed works of ritual magic.  I should add that this study is in its early stages, so I have a great deal still to learn.

oberon-cover

C: What was the Elizabethan view on fairies and their power/habitation?

D: I don’t think we can say there was a particular view on fairies.  This was a period where the belief in fairies seemed to experience a fluorescence, while at the same time undergoing considerable scrutiny.  Reginald Scot argued that fairies were creations of Catholic nurses to scare children, while [King] James I saw them as delusions of the devil.  Even among believers, there was considerable fluctuation in how they conceived of these beings.  You had a culture which shared both saccharine views of tiny, harmless fairies, and rituals in which fairy kings and queens appear in majesty.

Excerpt from William Lilly's History of His Lives and Times (1715).

Excerpt from William Lilly’s History of His Life and Times (1715).

The trouble is, no one really sat down to systematically consider fairies until a century later, when the Reverend [Robert] Kirk composed The Secret Commonwealth, and it’s uncertain how much of the earlier fairy lore made it into his work.  People found fairies to be humorous, phantasmal, demonic, or dangerous, with each one of these perspectives creating an aversion to further investigation.  Even Kirk really seems to be more intent on writing about second sight than the fairies.

But I don’t want to be accused of leaving your question unanswered!  Fairies had the power to bring wealth and poverty, fortune and misfortune.  They could smite people or bring them good luck.  Their habitation was varied – you could find them in wildernesses or at old burial mounds, but some were creatures of hearth and home.  What they seemed to shun were places with large numbers of people – but even that was not an absolute.

screen-shot-2016-11-12-at-6-44-51-am

Excerpt from Thomas Keightley’s The Fairy Mythology.

C: Generally, who were the practitioners of fairy magic and what were their sources?

D: I’d say you have two different categories of practitioners about whom we can discuss.  The first were the local wise folk, many of whom claimed to have gained their power and knowledge through encounters with fairies.  For such people, the initial encounter with these beings occurred without being sought, with the fairy offering magical ability in return for a price.  The practitioner would often work within a usual repertoire of healing, locating stolen goods, and breaking witchcraft.  The most famous example of such a “fairy doctor”, to appropriate an Irish term, is Mary Parrish, who seems to have conducted a loving relationship with the MP Goodwin Wharton.  We find other examples in the pamphlets and trial records of the era – John Walsh, Susan Swapper or Swaffer, Anne Jeffries, and others.

The second category were the learned magicians, who utilised written texts in mixtures of English and Latin in order to call up these spirits.  They were educated, and thus likely male for the most part, but we know relatively little about them as a group.  Their texts survive, usually consisting of rituals to call fairies mixed with lists of demons and charms.  These individuals sought out fairies in order to obtain love, knowledge, treasure, or invisibility.  Most of these books are filled with procedures culled from other manuscript and printed sources.  We have very few accounts of the results of any magical experiments, save for those of John Dee and Gilbert Humphrey, who didn’t have much to do with fairies..

 Most of the evidence for our first group comes from trial records, and the manuals serve as our proof for the second group.  This does raise the possibility that we might have overlap between the two in some cases.  For example, Mary Parrish once employed a grimoire in her work before she lost it.

Image from The Book of Superstitions by Heinrich Ludwig Fischer (1790).

Image from The Book of Superstitions by Heinrich Ludwig Fischer (1790).

C: How did the rituals differ from other forms of grimoire magic?

D: I’m writing a book chapter about this right now, so I don’t want to give too much away.  What I can talk about is what I call the “table ritual”, a procedure that appears in pseudo-Agrippa’s Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy.  (To give credit where it’s due, Claude Lecouteux describes a similar rite as “the meal of the fairies”, but he never gets into the ritual magic material for his analysis.)

In brief, the magician goes into an isolated place, where he sets up a table, with tablecloth, knives, goblets, bread, and water.  The exact items differ, but the ritual follows the same pattern.   He is then joined by three women, who sit at the table and eat.  Sometimes the magician sits with them, drawing a magical circle in the ground around his end of the table.  Then they provide the magician with what he desires – answers, a ring of invisibility, or even sex.

We have a number of variants, with one prominent one being the inclusion of three white-handled knives.  Given that most people would have carried their dagger for eating with them, this indicates that the people for whom the table is set are high status. The same motif of three white-handled knives left on a table is also present in poetry from centuries before, so we may be looking at a custom that extends far beyond ritual magic texts.

This is very different from the attitude in other types of ritual magic, with their protective diagrams on the ground, the strict separation between the magician and the spirit, and the ritualized threats of punishment.  And a similar rite carries over into later published grimoires.  If people are interested in more details, I talk at length about this in The Faerie Queens anthology from Avalonia.

Image from The Astrologer of the Nineteenth Century by Raphael (1825).

Image from The Astrologer of the Nineteenth Century by Raphael (1825).

C: What are your thoughts on the spirit Oberon? He seems to share some characteristics with the Greco-Roman god, Pluto. In fact, in Merchant’s Tale, Geoffrey Chaucer calls Pluto the King of Faerie.

D: You also have Sir Orfeo, the Middle English poem that retells the story of Orpheus, but with the unnamed king of the fairies taking the place of Pluto.  (And Pluto is one of the knight’s ancestors, just to complicate matters)…

I do believe there are similarities in the mythology, as both are beings connected with the underworld, riches, food taboos, and the like.  The ritual texts, however, feature “Oberion” as a spirit who seems closer to the demonic than the fairy.  Most of the procedures to summon him are much closer to the traditional infernal model, including a circle, long conjurations involving Christian themes, and so forth.

I’m not sure whether that is helpful or not regarding the Pluto connection!  I do think that the world of popular belief in spirits from the period was much more nuanced and complex than the teachings of the theologians.

C: What are you working on now?

D: As it turns out, Llewellyn and I are just finishing up a contract for our next book, a manual of sorcery from the Bodleian Library, that includes rituals for demons, fairies, ghosts, and other creatures.  It’s not as long as The Book of Oberon, but I think that should translate into a lower price as well.  There are some exciting pieces in there that I believe your readers will appreciate.

To learn more about fairy magic, contact Dan on Twitter @DanielHarms1. You can also visit his blog.

FANTAST IN FOCUS: GORDON WHITE

“One of the roles of the Trickster is to introduce uncertainty and novelty into your existence.”

-Gordon White

Also known as “the dark prince of modern Chaos magic”, Gordon White is a writer and podcaster. His website Rune Soup is a juggernaut in the occult blogosphere, a collection of prodigious musings that combines witty speculation with cunning erudition. Gordon is also the author of three books: The Chaos Protocols, Pieces of Eightand Star.Ships. Star.Ships, a cross-disciplinary study of humankind’s mythogenesis, has the makings of a magnum opus—though it’s probably too early to say. Gordon’s next works remain—like an alchemical formula sealed up in some sepulchral and inaccessible laboratory—a mystery. Naturally, we jumped at the opportunity to speak with Gordon about his scholarly passions and magical goings-on.

The Custodian: Can you tell us a little more about how you got into anthropology? Which books and thinkers first gave you frissons?

Gordon White: Hmm. I’m not entirely sure I am into anthropology even now. My favourite exemplars of it are so far from the original definition as to render it meaningless. These include travel writers (Jan Morris), magicians, rogue scholars, and archivists (Charles Fort, Bob Wilson) and permaculturalists.

My second-favourite (living) exemplars who are closer to the term are still hamstrung by a materialist/academic worldview and so I inevitably parse their admirable research through a more magical lens. These would include Wade Davis, David Lewis-Williams and, most recently, Genevieve von Petzinger. The combination of personal experience -eg Wade Davis- and rigorous data analysis -von Petzinger- is the epistemological sweet spot. It is all too rare.

I came to a serious analysis of the topics studied in anthropology by way of a Film/Documentary degree so my first exposure to it was in its rejection: Barthes, Derrida, etc. And it was the better twentieth-century documentary filmmakers -especially Dennis O’Rourke– who were working in a cross-cultural context that gave me my first inklings there is probably a way to do it “right”. That’s where my frissons happened.

C: Do you remember your first encounter with the Atlantis myth? How has your passion for lost or fabled lands (let’s call it the “Atlantean impulse”) affected your travels and research?

G: I don’t have a memory of a time where I wasn’t aware of the idea of lost cities, which suggests I may have picked it up by way of some of the mythology books my father used to read to me as a very small child. But I could snorkel before I could read and was scuba diving by fourteen so the experience of actual wrecks and sunken detritus probably blended in there somewhere.

I’ve been diving all over the South Pacific and it took until my second year of a film degree before I could no longer contain myself and used a documentary module as an excuse to visit Micronesia to dive on Nan Madol and the WWII wrecks of Chuuk Lagoon. We ended up meeting Nam babies, the First Lady of the Federated States of Micronesia (she was restocking bookshelves in the library), Canadian smugglers, and American entomologists straight out of a [Rudyard] Kipling or [Graham] Greene novel. The film itself is terrible -I was nineteen, after all- but the taste for adventure never went away.

I’m not sure how much my interest in Atlantology and the adventures it wrought affected my research except insofar as it served as a reminder that you really don’t need anyone’s permission to do this kind of work. If your skills are sound, have at it. I know a thing or two about magical powers and I can tell you a large student debt does not confer any.

Gordon diving.

Aquaman Gordon. Photo via runesoup.com.


C: Keeping with the Atlantis theme—you also tend to take a pelagic, or open-sea approach to historical enquiry. Alternative history, esotericism, “deep-state” politics, and fringe science are among your most popular topics; collectively an oceanic “Kraken” (loved your essay on the “Consolation of Cryptozoology” by the way) of head-turning mysteries. Given your long-term interests in these subjects, how do you personally preserve a no holds barred sense of enchantment while maintaining a firm grip on reality?

G: With tremendous difficulty and sporadic failure, it must be said. And to quote the Borg Queen, “you imply a disparity where none exist.” The goal is the same: least inaccurate ontology. It is only the feeble-minded, Victorian categorisation of Creation into entirely artificial little boxes; biology, astronomy, politics, anthropology -plus the pathetic impulse in humans to literally make a subject up whole cloth and then declare themselves an expert in it- that can trip you up.

[Terence] McKenna said something similar when he received pushback on his Timewave Zero stuff: He was told there is no relation between the complexification of the universe following the Big Bang and the subsequent further complexification of the emergence and growth of life on earth because one topic is astronomy and the other is biology. Timewave Zero is mostly wrong -albeit nobly so- but he was right to call ‘fool’ on these so-called scientists who have probably completely missed the uneven distribution of novelty in the universe because once, long ago, London’s Natural History Museum had different wings for rocks than for insects.

The skillset or worldview that keeps one’s grip on reality is a proficiency in research and analytics. The majority of human intellectual endeavours are an example of solving the wrong problem in engineering. You don’t need to be an expert in every field that interests you, but you do need best in class research and analytics so that you can extract the high-quality information when you need it.

This is a rare skill at this point in the timeline but it is growing rapidly. A new metaphysics will emerge from data analysis that can interpret things like the uneven distribution of novelty or the appearance of waves/cycles and power laws at every level of observed reality.

And we mustn’t be too hard on ourselves. This kind of metaphysics can only have emerged in the last fifteen years with improved computing power. Talk to a retired economist about the difference in analysis when he/she was just starting out and what is going on now and it is truly a brand new day.

Very occasionally I get pushback on this from more staid magicians who have built too much of their identity around medieval and Early Modern categorisations to give them up now. (Twas ever thus for chaos magicians!) But this is how you separate out the real metaphysicians from the Renn Fayre folks. McKenna again: If it’s real, it can take the pressure.

star-ships-rouge-edition-cover-1

C: If you’re like some of our other fantasts, you’ve had a fair share of chilling experiences with night terrors and other anomalous presences. Which ones were the most frightening or illuminating?

G: The classic early childhood hag attacks remain the most frightening so far, and I’m still not entirely unconvinced that they weren’t screen memories for abduction experiences. The correlation between hag attacks and sleep paralysis positively defines ‘necessary but insufficient’. Anyone else who has had them will assert they were so much more than ‘mere’ nightmares.

But, after a couple of decades of regular magical practice it’s surprisingly difficult to ‘get scared’ by the paranormal. One of my secret loves is professional snake catching videos on YouTube. For most people they are terrifying encounters. For the snake catcher they are not.

As for “illuminating”, in many ways ‘illumination’ is binary: there is the time before you viscerally experienced that magic/the spirit world/etc is fully, inarguably real. Then there is the experience that affirms this for you, frightening or not. And then there is the rest of your life, which may or may not include further filling out of the detail around that first illumination -which we might otherwise describe as the practice of western magic.

chaos-protocols-1-640x964


C: When and why did you take up podcasting? What’s the most difficult thing about it?

G: I’ve been podcasting weekly for almost a year, but appearing semi-regularly on other podcasts for a few years before that.

“Why” is more difficult to answer. I was very interested in the form back in 2004 when Steve Jobs coined the word because earbud headphones -however shit they are- had achieved an elevated cultural status and I found this creatively fascinating. (Remember those early iPod ads with the black silhouettes and white earbud cords?) And so I was fascinated by the idea -hearkening back to my documentary days- that you could independently put voices inside people’s heads- while they were going about their lives. I was living in Auckland in 2004 and spent a month or so walking around and penning a sort of radio drama set in the streets of Kingsland, Mt Eden and Ponsonby that people could listen to on the same streets. It was never made but you could consider it ‘analogue augmented reality’. I still want someone to do it. I want lots of people to do it, actually.

The most difficult things about podcasting are all production things. Time zones are a bitch, for one. The other is it takes a lot longer than most people realise to edit them. Otherwise podcasting is an absolute joy for me.

A previous guest and an amazing woman –Geraldine Beskin of London’s Atlantis Books– asked me why I was doing “all this” when I went into the shop to record the show. I grew up in regional Australia and found magic just prior to the internet. The very idea that the people who wrote these books all lived on the same wet, grim, little island and that they were real humans just seemed too surreal to contemplate. Now many of the people whose books I read I have not only met but consider friends. So I told Geraldine that I am podcasting for my teenage self or whoever that is today -some irritable queer misfit in the Ohio Valley or something. It’s all well and good to “find the others” -and I did- but she also needs to know they are real humans like her.

(It’s possible that made me sound more noble than I am. In the end it’s just me talking to people whose ideas I like. That hypothetical queer misfit may just need something to listen to on the school bus. As Homer Simpson would say, I’m not running for Jesus.)

pieces-of-eight

C: You’ve also written quite a bit about the therapeutic nature of cooking and drinking. We’ve already seen the Egyptian pain-killer potion, but can you share your favourite liqueur/magical tonic recipe with us?

G: That’s a whole book -and one I may write some day- but I tend prefer provenance to individualised ingredients. (I love herbalism but in almost all cases the doses are far too low to do anything. Pot purri is closer to witchcraft than most extant “herb magic” you will read about, because at least that actually does what it promises. This is an inevitable side effect of the modern legal landscape, of course.)

So, provenance then. Actually even provenance isn’t quite right. If terroir is the local land/climate then histoire must be that plus the story of the barrels the whisky is aged in or the previous owners of the vineyard (Templars, Medicis, etc) or the indigenous names and histories associated with the agricultural land the products come from (Kapiti Coast in NZ, for instance).

At the very least the universe behaves linguistically and may well be composed of language so there is a way of folding histoire into magical feasts and experimentation. This is how one can build one’s own technical hermetica.

We’re heading into summer here so I imagine I’m about to switch to Barbancourt for a while -assuming I can find a supplier. Not only does it have great histoire, it is also the best rum on earth and I will drunk fight anyone who says otherwise.

C: Any future projects/publications in the works that you’d like to tease?

G: Definitely not.

gordon-talking

Gordon White. Photo via runesoup.com.

Gordon’s latest interview shows are broadcast every Thursday on Rune Soup. He tweets @gordon_white.

FANTAST IN FOCUS: DELPHINE LEBOURGEOIS

Delphine Lebourgeois is a collagist and illustrator. A graduate of the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts de Lyon and Central St Martins, Delphine has had her entrancing artwork featured in publications, such as The Guardian and The New Yorker.  All in all, there is a current of effervescence and playfulness that runs throughout Delphine’s collages. Her scenes, full of light and movement, are living poetry. Naturally, we were elated to speak with Delphine about her work.

Fall 7 Sirens by Delphine Lebourgeois

Fall 7 Sirens by Delphine Lebourgeois

The Custodian: One of the most striking things about your artwork is how you cleverly and seamlessly mix tropes from the Old Masters with images from contemporary culture. For example, in Smoke V you’ve got a nonchalant woman relaxing in a pool of water with a cigarette while a miniature Artemis shoots an arrow into the stars and kills a passing Superman. How do you start to build these visual narratives? What’s your process?

Delphine Lebourgeois: I like to draw from diverse stylistic and cultural sources to create a language where symbols play with each other. Collage is my main tool to build the stories. I work with photoshop mixing up imagery and then re-draw some elements that get scanned in. The series Smoke is really about slowing things down and taking a break, hence the shooting down of the little Superman. In Smoke I, the woman in the water wears tattoos of shooters. It’s about preserving peace and sanity after (or in spite of) the battle.

Smoke V by Delphine Lebourgeois.

Smoke V by Delphine Lebourgeois.

C: Who and what are your artistic inspirations?

D: Pop art is a big one as well as street artists in general. But, on a different note, I recently saw the exhibition My back to Nature by George Shaw who was the artist in residence at the National Gallery London for the past two years. Shaw paints atmospheric woodlands with traces that humans have left behind. These act as indications that something somehow dramatic has happened. His work offers numerous readings and ways of interpretation. It’s together sacred and sordid. An abandoned duvet becomes the glowing cloak of a Virgin Mary, a splatter of red paint against a tree carries the charge of a possible crime. It’s ambiguous and beautiful.

Fall 1 by Delphine Lebourgeois.

Fall 1 Spell by Delphine Lebourgeois.

C: What about your favourite books? Which ones were truly able to make you feel as if you were living in another time, place, or universe?

D: This question takes me back to my teenage years when I used to read a lot of magic realism novels (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende…). These books really made me travel.

More recently, I would choose The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories by Don DeLillo. His writing is visual. It evokes a myriad of images that seem to jump from one dimension to the next in a vertiginous way.  There is something deep about the essence of humanity in his stories. Also in an acute visionary sense.

Fall 5 Dignity by Delphine Lebourgeois.

Fall 5 Dignity by Delphine Lebourgeois.

C: Did you always want to be an artist?

D: I am not sure really. “Being an artist” sounds rather pompous and paradoxically doesn’t define much. Making images is my way to communicate with other people. It’s an exchange that’s vital for me.

Superhero I by Delphine Lebourgeois.

Superhero I by Delphine Lebourgeois.

C: What kind of themes were you working with in your new Heroes and Villains series? Our favourite is Superhero I. We immediately noticed its resemblance to the “Fool” tarot card, which symbolically represents unrestrained creativity and willpower.

D: The Heroes and Villains collection is essentially about children. Children and their relationship with society. Family being the first societal structure everyone experiences, Superhero I and II depict a child with a masked female character who would appear to be his mother.

Bye Bye Mummy by Delphine Lebourgeois.

Bye Bye Mummy by Delphine Lebourgeois.

I wanted to create stories about protecting and failing sometimes as a parent and as a society by extension. In other images from the series like Belonging and Bye Bye Mummy, a group of fierce looking masked adults welcome the small child as a peer. This is about the vulnerability of youngsters who seek reassurance and a sense of belonging by joining the wrong crowd. The appeal of baddies…

I am interested in philosophers such as Hannah Arendt and Rousseau who believe that man was born inherently good and it is society who corrupts him. This series is still a work in progress with more images to be released in 2017.

Zodiac by Delphine Lebourgeois. Commissioned by Femmes Majuscules.

Zodiac by Delphine Lebourgeois. Commissioned by Femme Majuscule.

C: Arguably the most jarring recurring image in your art so far is the sharpshooting woman. This markswoman appears with two other imperious shooters in your new series. It’s as if you created a perfect representation of sheer focus and power. How did this sharpshooter first come about? Did you always know that she would have such an emotional resonance?

D: I guess the “sheer focus and power” is probably down to working the image over and over. My work is everything but spontaneous! The shooting girls appeared with the series The Girl has a Gun in 2014. Yes, it is about giving the power back to women, but it is not in opposition of men. Men in fact, are pretty much absent from this series. However, an isolated woman is often found confronting a malicious group. This is about individuality and finding the strength to go against the flow.

The Inner child is, to date, one of my most popular pieces despite arousing a certain amount of dislike. The guns can be disconcerting.

Bang Bang Grils by Delphine Lebourgeois.

Bang Bang Girls by Delphine Lebourgeois.

C: Can you tell us more about your upcoming exhibitions?

D: I am currently taking part in two group exhibitions: “People on the move” organised by Art Bastion in Miami for Amnesty international, and “Drawing Lines” a show on drawing curated by Jealous Gallery (London) with artists such as Charming Baker, Ann-Marie James and David Shirley. There is also a string of art fairs coming up starting with The Other Art Fair and AAF Stockholm early October followed by Flux London and AAF Singapore.

2015 by Delphine Lebourgeois. Commissioned by Femme Majuscules.

2015 by Delphine Lebourgeois. Commissioned by Femme Majuscule.

Follow Delphine on Twitter @DelphineLebourg.

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's imagining of P. Djeli Clark (actually nineteenth century painting by Georges-Antoine Rochegrosse).

The Custodian’s imaginative conception of P. Djèlí Clark (actually a nineteenth-century painting by Georges-Antoine Rochegrosse).

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.

Louis Hennepin Map of North America (1698). Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Louis Hennepin Map of North America (1698). Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

French Slave Ship, La Marie-Séraphique, Saint Domingue (1773). Photo via Slaveryimages.org.

French Slave Ship, La Marie-Séraphique, Saint Domingue (1773). Photo via Slaveryimages.org.

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.

9780765389442
C: How did A Dead Djinn in Cairo come about? Any possibility you encountered a few inspiring genii loci during your first trip to Luxor?

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.

Luxor Temple. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Luxor Temple. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Alexander the Great, with the assistance of Jinni, Builds a Wall to Fend off Gog and Magog. Illustration from the sixteenth-century Book of Divinations. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Alexander the Great, with the assistance of Jinn, Builds a Wall to Fend off Gog and Magog. Illustration from the sixteenth-century Book of Divinations. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Image from Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp by Andrew Lang. Illustrated by Errol le Cain.

Image from Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp by Andrew Lang. Illustrated by Errol le Cain.

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.

Illustration for The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Image Jian Guo.

Illustration for The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Image © Jian Guo.

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.