Daniel José Older is a champion for equality in contemporary literature. His recent Buzzfeed article shook up the media world with its scintillating analysis on the lack of diversity in mainstream publishing…and what we need to do to change the situation. And, when a reviewer relied on a startlingly racist double standard while reviewing Long Hidden, the first collection of speculative fiction written to give voice to marginalized peoples–read indigenous people, people of color, queer people, women, people with disabilities among others–ever, Older’s detailed analysis of the situation again shone the spotlight on literary injustice and had the reviewer (and magazine publisher) admitting their egregious prejudice and vowing to do better in the future.
States Older: “Writing is a survival mechanism. We write to stay alive, many many times. I say that because it matters that we honor that urgency, that legacy, the fact that we’re taking part in a long tradition of people telling stories so that they don’t vanish forever. This is a sacred task.”
Daniel Jose Older is also the author of the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series, which begins in January 2015 with Half-Resurrection Blues from Penguin’s Roc imprint. Publishers Weekly hailed him as a “rising star of the genre” after the publication of his debut ghost noir collection, Salsa Nocturna. With Rose Fox, he is the co-editor of the above mentioned anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. He guest edited the music issue of Crossed Genres. His short stories and essays have appeared in Tor.com, Salon, BuzzFeed, the New Haven Review, PANK, Apex and Strange Horizons and the anthologies Subversion and Mothership: Tales Of Afrofuturism And Beyond. Daniel’s band Ghost Star gigs regularly around New York and he facilitates workshops on storytelling from an anti-oppressive power analysis. You can find his thoughts on writing, read dispatches from his decade-long career as an NYC paramedic and hear his music at ghoststar.net/ and @djolder on Twitter.
KF: Where did you grow up? What was that like? Where do you live now? How do these places influence you?
DJO: I grew up in Boston – specifically Charlestown, which was at the time a lower/middle class Irish enclave and has since been gentrified into yuppyville. I live in Brooklyn now, a city of many many stories, and these streets and the amazing people in them fuel a lot of my fiction.
KF: Please tell us some of the books/writers you love.
DJO: The 3 authors that really set me on my path are Octavia Butler, Junot Díaz and Walter Mosley. Octavia – I devoured her entire bibliography and it revolutionized how I think about science fiction, mostly because her power analysis is so sharp, so brutal and I hadn’t read work that approached power with the nuance and depth that hers does and still flourished in the realm of imagination. So that blew my mind. Junot and Walter both taught me that voice matters in a way I’d never realized. They write such gripping narratives and they do it in such a casually poetic way, like they’re just sitting there talking to you. Made me realize I could do it too.
KF: How did you know you wanted to be a writer?
DJO: I’ve certainly always written. I was scattered for a lot of my 20s. I tried essays, poems, screenplays. None of it felt quite right, although I love all those mediums and I’ve returned to them since. In 2009 I sat down to try writing a book, a YA urban fantasy and it just clicked. There was no question. This is what I was put here to do.
KF: What is the best thing about writing?
DJO: I simply love stories. I love how they speak to us, how they show us ourselves, how they confuse and enlighten and inspire us. Enrage us. To be immersed in the throes of birthing a story – that’s one of the greatest pleasures I know: watching it unravel, teasing it out. Bliss.
KF: Where do you write?
DJO: I have a little office I write in most days. I try to switch it up and work at the kitchen table sometimes too.
KF: When did you begin to write? Why did you begin to write?
DJO: It was a moment that I was really feeling acutely the lack of People of Color in Young Adult fiction, specifically fantasy. I honestly felt enraged at the overwhelming whiteness of the genre – a conversation that’s been going on for a long time, and part of my impulse to start writing was in that rage. The other part was love, of course, because I love writing, love my people, love fantasy, love this city. That turns out to be quite a ferocious combination to make literary jet fuel from.
KF: What does music mean to you?
DJO: I learned music out of the humbling awareness that there are just some things words can never express. Of course, there’s plenty that music can’t express either, but I value music for it’s ability to go deeper than language.
KF: How does being a musician/music shape your fiction and essay writing?
DJO: Being a musician has taught me how to listen more than anything else. How to tune in. Hear the secret symphonies going on all around us, all the time. That’s conversation, dialogue, rhythm, flow. All that is musical. It’s given me an appreciation for silence I wouldn’t have otherwise, that space between the beat, around the note. All this comes to play on the written page as well.
KF: How does being a paramedic influence your writing?
DJO: EMS put me in the center of a lot of people’s worst moment. It meant taking part, again and again, in the ongoing tragedies of the city, hopefully making a difference for the better, and it taught me a lot about what it means to be active rather than passive, to be face to face with disaster, to heal. We do a lot of self-healing as well, if we’re doing it right and that’s a skill every writer needs.
KF: What was the inspiration for Salsa Nocturna? How long did it take to write? How long did it take to get published?
DJO: Salsa Nocturna started as a few scattered short stories. It was Carlos and Gordo first, and the book charts their journeys to meeting each other, which happens about halfway through, and the ragged band of supernatural badasses that results from their two worlds crashing.
KF: How did the Long Hidden anthology come about?
DJO: One night on Twitter we were talking about how historical speculative fiction is so white, so male, so cis, so heteronormative and someone, I think Rose Fox, my co-editor, said, we should do an anthology! And Crossed Genres agreed. They published Salsa Nocturna and have done amazing work. And kaboom! It happened.
KF: What do you want to say in your work?
DJO: Ah- so many things. Mostly, I think a lot of my work is trying to say, whether with a whisper or a shout: Shit is not that simple. We live in so many interstitial spaced, amidst so much complexity. We are confounded and crushed by the forces that pretend to empower us, we find light in unlikely places, we grow, change, heal, exist outside of the traditional definitions and borders that society has set for us. And there is beauty in all that, as well as pain, triumph, heartbreak. All the makings of great stories. So there it is.
KF: What are you obsessed with?
DJO: Jerk chicken.
KF: What do you see a center for African American fiction doing?
DJO: As a non-Black Person of Color, I don’t think it’s really my place to throw in on that one. I’ll say in general that there’s a great need for folks of color to carve out our own spaces, across the arts, where we can cultivate our voices away from white culture as much as possible. Those spaces need to exist. Programs like VONA, which shaped me a lot as a writer, really really matter. They are necessary in a publishing industry still so steeped in its own racism. Also, any center needs to deal with intersectionalities of oppression and empowerment or it’ll fail at its primary goal.
KF: What is the state of fiction in America right now?
DJO: Ha – I don’t know if I have a good answer for that. I’d say we’re at an ever-evolving crossroads. An identity crisis, in a way. Which is a good thing. We’re long due for some crisis, and the change that’s need won’t come without discomfort.
KF: Why are so few African American or writers of color and women writers being published? What does this mean for writers of color or women writers?
DJO: White supremacy in the publishing industry is still alive and well. We can dance around excuses but at the end of the day, it’s very simple. And it has to end.
KF: The great Junot Diaz recently wrote a piece for The New Yorker about the isolation and prejudice writers of color can feel in M.F.A. programs. Can you tell us about your experience in higher education? Can you tell us about the support you have had, the inspiration you have had?
DJO: The two writers that have really taken me under their wings the most are Sheree Renée Thomas and Tananarive Due. They have looked out for me, told me the hard truths about the industry and most of all guided my prose and narrative craft to a whole other level. And once that’s happened – once someone taken you in like that invested in you, it’s not just your craft that changes; you understand yourself as part of a larger community, you’re on a continuum of writers who have struggled and thrived along these paths for many years. There’s a concept of the writer as this solitary figure and it’s very dangerous. We are many. We are interconnected, in conversation, disagreement; we challenge each other and grow from it. That’s community.
KF: What is your upcoming book about? What inspired it?
DJO: Half Resurrection Blues, which comes out from Penguin’s Roc imprint in January, is a prequel to my short story collection Salsa Nocturna. It’s about Carlos Delacruz, who is half dead and half alive, living in that in-between space amongs the living and dead. It’s a sort of retake on the Cupid & Psyche myth, which I’ve always loved, and somewhat an urban fantasy riff on identity, culture and power. Wrapped up in a good mystery and love story.