History Is a Dystopia
A conversation with Tananarive Due
November 16, 2017
Nov 16, 2017
26 Min read time
After the slave trade and colonization, history has become a dystopia.
Editor's Note: In this podcast, award-winning writer Tananarive Due reads her story, “The Reformatory,” featured in Boston Review's print issue, Global Dystopias. (Order your copy here.) She also talks to editor Avni Sejpal about history as a dystopia, Afrofuturism, and the wondrous possibilities of James Baldwin writing science fiction. An edited transcript of their conversation is below.
Avni Sejpal: You are the author of twelve novels. You write in the genres of speculative fiction, mystery, horror, and history. You have also co-written a civil rights memoir with your mother. Given the range of genres in which you write, do you see a common thread that runs through your work? Or, to put it another way, how would you describe the project that you are engaged in?
Tananarive Due: It does seem that I am all over the map sometimes with the genres, and I have only written one memoir. But history is a thread through my work. Even when it is futuristic work, as some of my work is, it is using history to hopefully help people heal, or, if not that, then to give a faith to be experienced that makes it very visceral for the reader, and to help people gain an understanding of what racial horror feels like. Race is definitely a thread through everything I write.
AS: Can you tell us a little bit about “The Reformatory,” your story in Global Dystopias?
TD: This short story is an excerpt from a novel in progress. It’s set in 1950 in Florida at a reformatory for boys in a fictitious town called Gracetown, Florida. Full disclosure—this was very much sparked by a real life reformatory in Marianna, Florida, called the Dozier School for Boys, and I have some family history there that really compelled me to have to exorcise this story.
I would really love to find a way to help readers understand that, after the slave trade and colonization, history has been a dystopia for a lot of people in this country and throughout the world.
AS: So when you are working on a project of this kind where there is a family history involved, how much historical research do you do and how much do you rely on family narrative?
TD: For a project like this one, based on a real life institution, there is a lot of research available, and it is heart breaking. There are memoirs by survivors of this school—Robert Straley, Roger Kiser—so I am able to rely on witness accounts, survivor accounts of what happened to them there. There is a report by the University of South Florida about this school that is very comprehensive, plus newspaper articles, and I have done interviews for this novel. But that is not always the case. If I am writing a contemporary novel that does not involve so much historical research, I do tend to veer more toward imagination and those family narratives, a little seasoning from my own experiences.
AS: Can you talk a little more about the experience of fictionalizing a place like the Dozier School?
TD: Well, I decided that because there are so many nonfiction books available about the Dozier School, it wasn’t incumbent upon me, or even my place, to attempt to write a nonfiction book about it. I had a great uncle I never knew about who died there in 1937. I only learned about his existence a few years ago, shortly after my mother died. I got a call from the Florida state attorney’s office, this was back in 2013, letting me know that my relative, Robert Steven, my mother’s uncle, had died there in 1937. And from there my family and I went to the site where they actually had to dig up the bones of these children. Imagine a reformatory that has to have its own graveyard, because so many young men there have died. This is between 1900 and when it was finally shut down in 2011, but probably the last bodies were buried in the fifties or the sixties.
AS: That is staggering to think about. So “The Reformatory,” as you mentioned, is part of your novel. It is also part of Global Dystopias, which came out earlier this month, right around the anniversary of Trump’s election. Are you feeling very dystopian these days?
TD: It’s such a slog, you know, I used to take a little joy from the news in the morning, but it’s such a slog, all day long, to see headline after headline after headline about what’s going wrong, and what’s headed in the wrong direction. What’s outlandish—you never would have imagined the Veteran’s Day comments that Trump made overseas. It’s really growing into chaos. The very notion of what the office has meant, whether you liked or did not like the previous presidents, there was the notion we shared of what that office was supposed to be. And the potential for damage can really leave one paralyzed if you spend all your time thinking about it. It’s just that overwhelming. It’s not imaginary, it’s actually real. That’s what’s scary about it.
Imagine a reformatory that has to have its own graveyard, because so many young men there have died there.
AS: All too real. How does it feel to be writing something that is set in a horrific past while simultaneously living through a different horror.
TD: There are many moments I have been discouraged in working on “The Reformatory,” because it is a difficult world to live in, it is a difficult time to revisit. The research makes me cry. So there were many times I put it aside, or I thought, “Well maybe I’m allowed not to finish every novel that I start.” But, when we are living in these disastrous times, and I get these daily reminders of everything that is at stake, I really think that I can’t let it go. It’s not just the fictionalized story of my relative Robert Stevens that I want to tell. It’s the story of mass incarceration. It’s the story of now turning back the clock on all the progress that I hoped we were making, and some we had made, in helping to wake society up to the very dystopian nature of our mass incarceration system, it’s just unbelievable. There’s an artist named Adrienne Maree-Brown in the speculative fiction community who talks about this idea that while some of us live in utopia, some of us are already in the dystopia. And that’s true on so many levels, whether it has to do with poverty or water poisoning like in Flint. One really has to look no further than our so called “criminal justice system” to see that the dystopia is here and now. And I really believe that we can abolish juvenile prisons, that this is the low hanging fruit. Juvenile systems can be a model for how you dismantle the system, because it’s too early to give up on juveniles, there are other systems that we can put in place to address their concerns, and, frankly, so many of them shouldn’t even be there. You’re locked up behind bars for truancy. That’s not even a real crime for an adult. The system is so inherently vicious toward childhood. I really believe that art can help people understand. They say that thousands of people are a statistic and one person is a tragedy. So if people are able to look at a piece of fiction where they hopefully feel some attachment for a young person, someone who made a relatively small mistake but is paying an inordinate price for it, and say “This must not stand. This cannot stand. What type of society are we?” I’m trying to draw inspiration from the time. I do believe that they’ll pass and problems will take other forms, but I really do help that art helps make a difference in the world.
AS: Absolutely. So I found “The Reformatory” to be a very affecting story. In the version that’s published in Global Dystopias you begin with a very specific time and location. You write, “Gracetown, Florida. Summer 1950.” I was very struck by that. There is something about the story that could have been set in different moments. You mention mass incarceration—it could be a very contemporary story, it could also have been a story set in the late nineteenth century or the early twentieth century. So I wonder, why 1950? Is there something about mid-century America that you were trying to convey?
TD: Yes. I wanted it to be pre-civil rights movement, pre-Emmett Till. This is the world that created the Emmett Till situation. My child in this story could have been Emmett Hill. To show the precariousness of that moment in history when there was really no hope in sight. There was no mass movement underway. The people who had been living under these conditions, like you said, they could have been sharecroppers right at the end of the Civil War. For some families there was virtually no difference in their lives from the end of the civil war through the nineteen fifties, and of course those poverty gaps exist today.
I wanted this story to be set in a moment before the civil rights movement and Emmett Till. I wanted to show the precariousness of that moment in history, when there was no mass movement underway and really no hope in sight.
So I did choose that era for that reason, and also because this novel is in a lot of ways a tribute to my late mother, the civil rights activist Patricia Stevens Due. We co-wrote the civil rights memoir together, Freedom in the Family: A Mother–Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights (2003) , which thankfully we published before she passed away. But she died before she ever heard the story of her uncle at the reformatory. I would not be surprised if no one had ever told her. I know how she would have felt about it, and I know that she would have been one of the ones leading the charge to figure out what happened, that was her nature. I wanted to set this in the time she was growing up. Walter Stevens, in the short story version, has an older sister named Gloria. Gloria is my mother’s middle name. And Gloria is working tirelessly to free him while Walter is making his own plans. He is undergoing trauma, but he is also very emotionally resilient, as children can be. They may wear the trauma for life, but in the moment they have an almost magical ability to sort of absorb it, and move through that moment, and move through that space to get to the next thing. The price can last for years, but often children can react and plan and recover in ways that some of us don’t, as adults, when we are faced with trauma.
AS: You talk about recovery and you mentioned hope at an earlier point. I’m curious—for a dystopian narrative, “The Reformatory” ends on an arguably hopeful note, with a promise of survival. Is there an exit from dystopia as you imagine it, and what kind of freedom is possible at the end of history?
TD: Wow—what kind of freedom is possible at the end of history? I love this question, I love the sound of it. What kind of freedom is possible at the end of history? You know, I have to embrace the optimist in me. I was at a program in Florida earlier this year called “Black Women Rise.” Angela Davis was there, and she spoke to the need for optimism to do the work that activists do. As she said, if you can’t imagine that better world a hundred years from now, how do you motivate yourself to work toward that world? She’s been through so much. For her to be able to hold on to optimism, and this idea of Afrofuturism—that we survive, that we are present, and that we thrive in the future—this is a radical notion, that we survive and thrive in the future. And when I say “we,” there’s a part of me that is automatically talking about black people, or African Americans, if I want to be more specific. But I think we are also learning that the larger “we” means that we can’t afford to leave any of our communities behind. We really can’t, because look what happens when as a culture you are willing to sort of shrug at the Confederacy, shrug at Nazis, shrug at the Klu Klux Klan, look how far we all get dragged down.
They might not be talking about you and your ancestors and your grandparents who fled the Nazis, but still, that really alarming trend to try to lie about the past, rewrite, and romanticize the past for a more favorable narrative that points to whiteness, and the goodness of whiteness, and the justice of whiteness—it’s dragging us all down! The faster we all shed this, the faster we all come to terms with what reality is. In terms of dystopia, when reality becomes less and less comfortable for the masses—maybe that’s what it takes. People who are in comfort don’t agitate often. Sometimes they do, sometimes they have their eyes open, and they’ve had experiences that make them great allies. But most of their friends in comfort are not agitating. The people at the fringes, the people who are not receiving justice, who are not receiving access to health care and education and jobs, those people agitate. The more of us there are, the faster there is change. The nature of this current dystopia that we are living through is so absurd in some ways. It is so absurd that people who don’t want to be politically inclined can’t help but notice it. Maybe some good comes from that. We can arrange something positive out of that. Not to say that it was worth it, but it has to happen.
AS: Clearly there is a connection for you between writing and the unfinished business of the civil rights movement. How do you think dystopian imaginaries in particular influence the methods and gains of activism?
TD: I love to look at the work of Octavia E. Butler as an example of an artist who was not comfortable in many senses for much of her life. As someone growing up in poverty, as a black women, as someone who was very tall for her age—all of these things that created a feeling of being an outcast left her to look out at the world, see what she saw was wrong with it, and write passionately to try to help steer us to a better course. A book like Parable of the Sower (1993), which is full of pessimism, because it is a world that doesn’t feel that different from the one we are living in. The more time that passes the closer it feels. Some people feel like we turned that corner some time ago. It depends on what your experience and what your comforts are. How close you think we are to this world that she describes with armed walled-in communities, and people running amok on the streets, and impossible inflation, and racism amok. So she gives us that to scare us, and to make us question ourselves in terms of all of our economic policies and our assumptions about what our future will look like. But she embeds within it this seed of optimism, which is her religion, Earthseed—everything you touch you change. It is a horrible world but there is a way out. I think that art can be like that seed of hope. Whether it is showing us a dystopia, which is something that says, “OK guys, let’s steer clear, because this is where we are going” . . . but even in those, and in this collection as well, Global Dystopias, there is a seed of optimism in many of the works.
The idea of Afrofuturism—that we survive, that we are present, and that we thrive in the future—this is a radical notion.
AS: You mention Octavia Butler. I wanted to ask you about your literary influences, particularly whether you see yourself writing within a tradition of black writers who were living through and writing about racism in postwar America—such as, say, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston—how influenced do you feel by them, given that they were not necessarily writing within the genres that you write in?
TD: Wouldn’t that have been amazing? What would I have given if James Baldwin had been a science fiction writer. Oh he would have been fantastic. That problem solved right there. You know, it’s interesting, I did have a bit of an identity crisis as a young writer. And by young I mean very young—I started writing when I was four years old, picture books and this sort of thing—and I was writing space ships and talking cats as a nine, ten year old writer. But when Alex Haley’s Roots (1976) came out, that awakened a bit of an urgency in me as a black writer. I wanted to explore slavery and the middle passage in my work. But the older I got, and the more I explored both the official cannon, which was white male European writers, and even that black southern tradition—I so admired Toni Morrison and Alice Walker—because I grew up in the suburbs in the seventies, I also had a little trouble finding my footing in those narratives as well. I didn’t know what my story was to tell.
So first I had to stop writing as white male characters, which I was literally doing by the time I was in college and grad school—I was writing white male characters!—so first I had to stop that. I had to shine the light back toward self, and personal experience, and stop trying to imitate what writing and the creative writing and fiction stuff was like from the institutional model. And then I had to give myself permission as a black writer to write horror and to write science fiction. And I wish I had known about Octavia Butler’s work when I was in college. It was only really after I had been published. I had published my first novel before I read my first Octavia Butler novel. But it was Gloria Naylor and Mama Day (1988) that really helped me understand that I could write fiction that was true to my writing style and my training that was also about black characters, that was also about the metaphysical. That was really, really significant for me. And I think that it is important that artists have models, because even with all my civil rights history and training and home school about black history from my parents, I still started to lose sight of who I was and what stories I wanted to tell.
Wouldn’t it have been amazing if James Baldwin were a science fiction writer?
AS: Speaking of the white male canon, it has often been said that speculative fiction, science fiction, and genre fiction are dominated by white male voices, and western voices at that. But that can also be said about “literary fiction”—realism or anything that is considered to be literature with a capital “L.” I’m curious, do you find that the genre of, say, speculative fiction, is actually more inclusive than realist fiction?
TD: I have never been asked that question and would have to think about it. If it is, it has come about very recently. I don’t know if I can speak with authority about whether it is more inclusive, but I will say that in recent years it has certainly become extraordinarily more inclusive than once it was. When I first started publishing, in 1995 and in 1997, I was invited to Clark Atlanta University for a black speculative fiction conference. You could fit a handful of us on a stage. Not everybody could attend, but Jewelle Gomez was there and Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany, and my soon to be husband, after I met him there, Stephen Barnes. There were other writers, but it was a smaller family. Just in that short amount of time, you could not fit not just all of the writers of color and LGBT writers who have entered the field writing their truth, but just black writers alone you could not fit in a coherent panel for stage because there are way too many. It is really gratifying to see a sub-genre like this grow so fast.
I think it really has a lot to do with that assumption that you talked about earlier that people look at science fiction as a white male field, and readers also might have been looking at it as a white male field, which meant that those readers who were also budding writers would look at it as a white male field, not even realizing that there was a place for them, that “oh, my story fits this mold.” It is not the same story, it shifts the shape of the mold a bit. But I think what we have to bear in mind is that no one owns the future, no one owns any art that details what the future may be like. We all have a responsibility to imagine the future, or “what are we doing,” and also learn our own history so that we do not repeat the same mistakes over and over. So once writers of color, black writers, start giving themselves permission to write about the future, or to write about magic in ways that are different than some of the European systems that have been written about more exclusively in horror, once we start to change the palette a bit, I really believe that that helps everyone. That widens the world closer to what the world actually is, so that we can have real conversations about what the future should be—not a mythology, or a fantasy, or an oversight—but actually based on the fact of reality. This is the world, and this is what the future can be, and look at us, we are all here in the future.
Even with all my civil rights history, I didn’t know what my story was to tell. So I had to shine the light back toward self. First I had to stop writing from the point of view of white male characters. Then I had to give myself permission as a black writer to write horror and science fiction.
AS: So coming back to “The Reformatory” for a moment, something that we have been talking about all along is the fact that this is both a dystopian tale and historical record. That blending of history and dystopia seems to almost suggest that history itself is a dystopia, and particularly black history. Would you agree?
TD: I absolutely would. It has had its moments of brightness, obviously. I swear the more you research the earlier times the more respect you have for the entertainers whose art you have enjoyed, and who managed to capture joy in their music with so much was going on at home. But just by way of example, many of the survivors that I have had contact with from the Dozier school, either through their memoirs or meeting them when we actually went to Marianna to the school’s site, are white survivors. This was a segregated facility that had a colored side and a white side. And for whatever reason it is difficult to find black survivors to tell their story. I have been told anecdotally that there is still some fear.
I also personally believe that, while trauma is just as heartbreaking to a black family as a white family, there is a level of resignation and “this is the way things have been” and “this is the same thing that happened to your other uncle” . . . There is this pattern of violence, when you have this history of violence and separation, and you are basically terrorized into silence, that is a different situation than a white family that had not experienced that, they had maybe their own poverty and their own issued but they weren’t those issues. So when it happened to their families, some of these descendents would not rest until they found out what happened. I guess maybe that fear does factor in. The past is not as far past as we believed before last November. There were a lot of people who weren’t surprised. But there were a lot of people who were very surprised. I think we are all living in an environment where we can pause to ask ourselves what the ramifications would be for raising our voices, for asking questions.
AS: One other thing I wanted to talk about with the story is that you mentioned racial horror early on. Reading the story for me was a visceral, embodied experience, there is so much brutality and violence in it. As I read I found myself flinching. Could you talk a little bit about violence, whether it is physical or psychic or both in the story, and why it is important to represent that violence in sensorial detail.
The past is not as far past as we believed before last November.
TD: This was a very, very tough moment for me to write in the story. But it was always the moment I was writing up to, which is beyond the violence, trying to find some hope on the other side—how to process that violence. Why is there so much? There is even more violence than the excerpt I read that I cut out. This is the bogeyman, for the most part, this whipping shed. In real life it was called “The White House.” I call it “The Fun House” in my story. But this was the place where these boys very often lost their innocence and where their lives were in some ways damaged a great deal for the rest of their lives. Just the trauma of the violence. And there were also accusations of sexual abuse. But for the most part the accounts I read have been about the physical beatings. A man to my face, and this was a white man, talked about how he had the skin whipped off of his back. He could not see his parents on visiting day because of the damage to his skin and the doctor literally had to remove the fabric from his injuries. This is brutality, brutality against children. To me it would be a cheat not to express the full brutality of the experience. And it is difficult to do that to a twelve year old protagonist, or even have him witness it, or be afraid it would happen to him, frankly, when I think of my own son. But it would not be fair to the survivors of this school, and the survivors of the system overall, to gloss over the violence, because violence and sexual abuse mark so many experiences in the criminal justice system. Where you are removed from a home environment, where you have measures of safety and control, and put in an environment where you have no control, no name. There are statistics that show that the majority of sexual abuse in juvenile detention centers is not perpetrated by other prisoners, it is perpetrated by guards. Horror, typically, is violence by the monster, the daemon, the zombie. In this story, the horror is human, and the ghosts are just survivors in their own way.
AS: So this is an instance in which real life and the details of history have influenced your formal choices.
TD: Yes, absolutely. “The Reformatory” is a horror novel. But it is the first horror novel I have written where the horror is mostly human. History is what gives me that lens. It just is what it is. There are books about the criminal justice system in Florida in the fifties. Devil in the Grove (2012) is one about a completely unrelated case that Thurgood Marshall tried. It’s a horrible story. Corruption, racism, murder. It’s just a complete mockery of a criminal justice system. When you look at what we have currently—not so different. Horror stories everywhere. I would really love to find a way to help readers understand that history has been a dystopia, it has been for generations, for a lot of black families in this country and throughout the world, after the slave trade and colonization. And not just blacks, but many groups. So yes, this history has been the dystopia, which is why even though a lot of the stories in this issue are about futures, this history is still carried behind them, the dystopia already in progress.
AS: You mentioned futurism earlier. For genres that are sometimes considered to be future facing, would you say that the backward glance is actually what anchors them?
TD: I absolutely agree that the backwards glance is essential. This is something that marks a lot of Afrofuturistic work. I will use the example The Black Panther (2016), which depicts technologies that are very advanced while at the same time a visual homage to ancient traditions. In the same way, for me as a black writer, it would be impossible to carry on into the future without that backward glance from time to time. Sometimes I have novels that are partially set in contemporary times and partially set in history to show the parallels of these characters’ journeys. These stories are being repeated over and over again. Unfortunately, many more of us now understand: this is how the Nazis came to power. When before we had kind of muddled over it, now it is very clear. So we are repeating these same mistakes, and our human frailty cannot keep pace with our technological advances. I cringe to think that one day, as Octavia dreamed, we will conquer the stars—that man will conquer space. But just imagine, on our current trajectory, we will have the ability to colonize and explore, still carrying these very basic hatreds for each other, this hierarchy that has been so harmful to us. I would like to see more work in the social sciences, and just getting along with each other, before I even need to think about where we need to go after we have used up this planet.
AS: You mention Afrofuturism. Can you tell us about what you are reading these days?
TD: I always freeze up a little bit. I am going back to a debut novel, that I actually blurbed, that is fantastic, called An Unkindness of Ghosts (2017), by a new writer named Rivers Solomon. It’s fantastic. It is futurism, but it very directly addresses this question of how class, and caste, and race would play out in that future if we are unable to address our income gap, and our very basic distrust of the other.
AS: So when do we get to read “The Reformatory?”
TD: This is the part where I can’t look at my crystal ball. But I am very serious, I am so excited to have this excerpt published, because it really does help motivate me to keep going and reach the finish line. I figure I am about at the halfway point. The tough part was getting to this very scene. But the rest is all, “OK, how do I get out of here?” and that’s the fun part.
AS: Well, I hope we can to hold you to it.
TD: Yes, it will definitely be done by next year!
AS: Excellent. I for one am really looking forward to reading it when it comes out. This might be a nice note on which to wrap up this conversation. I think we have given our listeners a lot to think about. So thank you so much Tananarive for being a part of this. It has been a really interesting conversation.
TD: Great questions! Thank you very much.
While we have you...
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
November 16, 2017
26 Min read time