Black Heritage in Horror: An Interview with Rhonda Jackson Garcia
Rhonda Jackson Garcia, AKA RJ Joseph, is a Stoker Award™ nominated, Texas based academic and creative writer/professor whose writing regularly focuses on the intersections of gender and race in the horror and romance genres and popular culture. She has had works published in various applauded venues, including the 2020 Halloween issue of Southwest Review and The Streaming of Hill House: Essays on the Haunting Netflix Series. Rhonda is also an instructor at the Speculative Fiction academy.
She occasionally peeks out on Twitter @rjacksonjoseph.
What inspired you to start writing?
I grew up in a reading household where everyone read, all the time. My mother taught us the reverence of words and how they should be respected and used wisely. And I was always full of words. Apparently, I was also full of stories. But I was also a shy child who wasn’t always sure people wanted to hear what I had to say or that any of my stories were important. Then I read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, and something about that book defined my whole life to that point and beyond. I drew parallels with the way Angelou viewed words and her agency in using them as she saw fit and my own experiences. I determined that I would use my words when I wanted, how I wanted, and I’d make them count, every time. There was never a time when I didn’t consider myself a writer, even from before I completely understood writing was my path and the gift I was charged with nurturing.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
Dark souls are beckoned by the darkness. I couldn’t resist the call to my base nature that understood darkness existed in multitudes. I got first-hand experience with real monsters while growing up, to the point the imaginary ones became my friends in their simplicity and the sympathy I had for them. I tried to write lighter things and they were always tinged with melancholy and shades of black. Horror media offered comfort for me throughout childhood, a sort of affirmation that light must exist because of all the darkness. They work together, even if we can’t always see how. And we can’t always escape the real-life horrors surrounding us, but, in horror media there’s always the assurance that we can tap out of what we know to be something made up by the creator. I also find the horror genre is the perfect vehicle to examine our human condition and offer commentary because of its vastness. It’s a wonderfully malleable genre that exists without many of the parameters other genres are governed by.
Do you make a conscious effort to include African diaspora characters and themes in your writing and if so, what do you want to portray?
I absolutely make a conscious and dedicated effort to write African diaspora characters, themes, and experiences into my work. These characters and experiences are the center of my fiction and nonfiction work because the stories need to be told and the experiences validated. There’s a prevailing idea in the publishing world that only certain experiences are valuable and worth audiences engaging with, and that only the stories that are palatable to certain markets should be produced. I rebuke that cruel limitation. There are enactments of Black experiences we never get to see in books or on screen because they’re actively kept out, mostly due to how foreign they are to mainstream audiences. But the reason they’re foreign is because the same repetitive, comfortable experiences are upheld and fed to the world over and over again to the point these are validated and held up as rules. Blackness is not a monolith. The representations of Black experiences should be as diverse as the experiences.
What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?
One thing I’ve learned through writing horror is how to impact the world I live in through my words. I often joke that I can only do two things really well: talk and write. My words are the tools I have to use in whatever way I need to. And one thing I want to do is write myself and other Black people into existence in these horror worlds, to write our stories in our voices. Writing horror has been instrumental in this plan because it has the space to introduce these ideas and manipulate them into something beautiful. The possibilities are endless here in the darkness and I’ve learned to take full advantage of this.
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve?
So many changes! I’ve been haunting the horror genre for many decades now and I’ve seen some remarkable changes, such as the expansion to include more valuable social justice commentary into our conversations surrounding what constitutes horror. To be clear, horror has always been based in these issues; folks just didn’t notice it all the time because the stories centered the beliefs they already held, making the commentary invisible. I appreciate that there’s more discourse on horror meaning different things to different groups of people. Also, I’m totally loving how the indie scene saw a struggling genre in horror and came to the rescue with amazing projects and an undying love to let everyone who wants to play in the playground some play time. The indie markets have created opportunities for us marginalized writers that we might not have, otherwise. Now that we have feet in the door, I expect the future of horror to evolve to eventually allow true inclusivity. Not quite there yet, but I remain hopeful.
How do you feel the Black community has been represented thus far in the genre and what hopes do you have for representation in the genre going forward?
We’ve come a long way…with still a long way to go. I remember watching Blacula as a kid and taking for granted that was how the world was supposed to work: beautiful and eloquent Black people living and loving and being the monster when they wanted to. This was my reality. I was surrounded by mostly Black people, doing these things. It wasn’t until I got out into the wider world that I realized my experience was insulated and the wider offerings of horror media wouldn’t reflect me or my experiences. Every representation of the Black community in this genre is an opportunity to expose audiences to a Black character they may not have met yet. I’m glad we’ve moved beyond the one-dimensional characters of the witch, the oversexualized woman, the thug, etc. But. The fact we still haven’t moved to Black characters being allowed full, nuanced characterization that allows for unexplained monstrosity and poor choices means we haven’t gotten where we need to be. Having the restrictions of creating Black characters only under certain prescribed, acceptable ways is very limiting to creators who want to write about Black experiences. Once those respectability shackles are off, we’ll finally have achieved true freedom.
Who are some of your favorite Black characters in horror?
My first love is Carola from Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990). To see the beautiful Rae Dawn Chong transform into this hideous gargoyle with such enormous power gave me life–and confirmed it was totally okay for me to want to be the monster. I also love Candyman from the 1992 and 2021 iterations. Although his character wasn’t allowed a full range of representation and his story introduced only on a surface level, I love what he represented in the possibilities for telling horror stories about Black people. Jeryline from Tales from the Crypt Presents: Demon Knight is also one of my favorites. I really appreciated that she was the least likely person who would have been expected to be “a chosen one” but that was exactly who she turned out to be.
Who are some African diaspora horror authors you recommend our audience check out?
Michelle R. Lane and Zin Rocklyn write with a poignancy and reverence that takes my breath away. They create beautiful and passionate prose that feels like decadence when you indulge in their works. John Edward Lawson is truly a mystical being whose magic touches everything he’s involved in. I learn something from his work every time I visit it—the reader, writer, and academic in me come away from these lessons fully nourished. Nuzo Onoh is a writer I read when I just want to be scared to death. Truly terrifying stuff. A newer to me writer is Donyae Coles. I like the journey she’s laying down and am excited to see what else she comes up with.
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
Read, read, read. Within the horror genre and outside. I hear way too many writers say, proudly, they don’t read, and it confuses me. Yes, we’re all busy and even I–who read way more than I write–don’t always have time to read as much as I’d like. As a reader, I have a hard time investing in the work of someone who doesn’t also support their industry. More than that, I feel it’s disrespectful to expect you can know all you need to know about a craft without taking the time to learn how that craft is deployed. I tell my students all the time, because the research bears this out: to be a good writer, you need to read. A lot. This is the main way to see writing in action and reading extensively can be as powerful a writing learning tool as a degree in writing. Reading the work of the peers you hope to join in the publishing world also shows you to be a team player who’s willing to put in the work and pay your dues. You never want to be perceived as that person who thinks they’re entitled to skip all the lines to get to the top because you don’t need to study.
And to the Black writers out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
Besides the above, I’d tell any Black writers who are just getting started to play the long game. The odds of us Black horror writers getting big publishing house deals right out of the gate with first works are very, very low. To even break in with indie markets can take a bit of time. Don’t be in a rush, impatient to get to the big leagues. If the reason you’re writing horror is to get rich and famous quickly, you might want to rethink that. First of all, that might not be your path, and you might want to be open to whatever path you’re destined to follow. The writers with the best opportunities and privileges aren’t getting rich and famous in our beloved genre, and even if they’re making a good living, it didn’t happen overnight. It just isn’t a thing that’s happening—which means progress for us is even slower than that. By multitudes. Now, this isn’t me saying to not aim for the top or to downplay your goals/talents/value. I remember one thing the esteemed Tananarive Due told me at a festival when I asked her how she felt about having been producing excellent horror for years and years and years and not having all the amazing opportunities I thought she should. She said she didn’t have time to worry about all that. She kept her head down and kept writing. That way, when Jordan Peele came along and kicked the door in, she had a ton of work to take with her through that now open door (paraphrased). That stuck with me. Keep writing, even when the opportunities aren’t there. Expect that they’ll come available at some point and you’re be a practiced writer with a full portfolio to present when the doors open.