Black Heritage in Horror: Interview with Maurice Broaddus
The resident Afrofuturist at the Kheprw Institute and an editor at Apex Magazine, his work has appeared in places like Cemetery Dance, Weird Tales, Magazine of F&SF, Uncanny Magazine, & Classic Monsters Unleashed. His books include Sweep of Stars, Unfadeable, Pimp My Airship, Buffalo Soldier, and The Usual Suspects. He was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award for editing Dark Faith. You can learn more about him at MauriceBroaddus.com or follow on his socials @MauriceBroaddus.
What inspired you to start writing?
I write because I have to. There is something in me that compels me to write, to release my ideas into the world, to let go of the stories running around in my head. To pick up the pen every day to create new worlds. I have been writing as long as I can remember. In second grade—when our family arrived in the U.S. from England—my teacher didn’t know what to do with me. She had an overloaded class and I could be a handful since I was easily bored. So she put my desk in a corner, gave me a stack of paper and just told me to “create.” I guess I’ve been doing that ever since.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
The first time I was kicked out of Sunday School class was due to me attempting to come to terms with the story I’d just heard. This grandmotherly Sunday School teacher had just read us the story of Noah and the flood. On the wall hung a flannel graph on which she had a fabric Ark and a fabric Noah bobbing on fabric flood waters. She invited each of the students to place an animal onto the Ark. You know, so the pastor’s son put a lion on it. His buddy put on a giraffe. And when it was my turn, I took a couple of the other fabric people and laid them on top of the water. She asked me what I was doing. I said “that is the story we just heard, right?” And out I went. I didn’t realize at the time that this was the beginning of me wrestling with a postapocalyptic narrative and trying to reconcile it with my faith. And probably stirred my interest in dark stories. Now I didn’t truly realize how pivotal a moment this would be in my life. Another Sunday School teacher heard about this incident and invited me to hang out with him. He introduced me to Dr. Who, Star Trek, and Stephen King.
The first story I remember writing was in fifth grade called “The Big Mac Attacker,” the tale of a burger being eaten … from the burger’s perspective. In my senior year of high school, my A.P. English teacher encouraged me to read Edgar Allen Poe after reading some of my (admittedly, angst-ridden) dark short stories. He kept introducing me to new authors to challenge me, really encouraged me to think about writing seriously. I was pretty much locked in from there. In college I tried giving up writing, but after a few years, I came back to it. I did an independent study course and was randomly paired with a professor who, as it turned out, did his dissertation on Stephen King and Clive Barker. That’s when I knew I was on the right path.
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?
No moreso than I make the conscious effort to breathe. I write the stories I wished I could have read coming up. I am black and I’m Christian, I don’t think about including those elements. They are a part of me and my voice. Who I am comes out in my writing.
I am conscious about the stories I want to tell and the themes I wish to explore. My focus is on my community, what that means, who my neighbors are, and what we have to deal with. My work involves a lot of social commentary and purposely pushes against what people think of as “black characters” by telling as many different types of stories with as many different types of people as possible.
What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?
Writing is my medication. Writing allows me to put some distance between me, what’s going on, and what I am feeling. I’m able to examine it from a variety of perspectives (not just what the main character is going through but how it impacts those around her/him/them). I can talk things through using my characters, dig deep within and plumb their hearts and hidden feelings and truths. This is part of how I inhabit the emotional space of my characters. It’s no different than an actor preparing for a role. I am standing there needing to cry, so I draw upon a painful moment in your life and emote it. It I want my characters to convey a certain feeling, I have to open myself up to that feeling. it’s why such great art comes from pain. Pain is universal.
Life happens. Unemployment. Death. Sickness. Homelessness. Loss. People. We don’t always see it coming. It can sneak up on us, break into the secure house of our lives, break our stuff, and make a mess of our routines, leaving us completely unsettled. Each day brings a new challenge and new opportunities to grow. Writing can be a valuable tool to help navigate those experiences and bring meaning and order to the chaos. For me, everything gets used. Every hurt, everything that makes me angry, every tear, every laugh, nothing gets wasted. I’m always feeling—or processing my feelings—so I’m always writing. The first step is to sit down with the blank page, put a pen to it, and see what comes out.
Writing horror allows me to channel my rage. It always seems to shock people when I say that I writer horror from a place of rage. But when I look at the world around me, the history of how my people has been treated, I’m left with little more than rage. So horror becomes my harshest weapon of social critique.
Writing horror gives me space to wrestle with my faith. Faith is never easy and I tend to have more questions than answers. I think that’s the most critical part of anyone’s spiritual journey, walking that line of tension between holding on during times of doubt and questioning. I think one of the best ways to explore that tension is in story. I guess you could say that in some ways, I’m working out my own spiritual journey in front of my readers. And sharing my nightmares.
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve?
Coming in (twenty plus years ago) I faced the usual struggles of being black and carving out room for myself in those spaces. Editors pressuring me into “taking the edges off of my characters” or trying to get me to “write to the market.” In short, trying to make me small. But I reminded them that I was the market, the part of the market they often forgot, neglected, or dismissed.
I remember my early publishing credits being dismissed as “Affirmative Action” inclusion. I remember the absolutely insane pushback the Dark Dreams trilogy received, such as being accused of “reverse racism.”
Things are … better. But I’m not under any illusions because that’s not what history has taught me. Black Lives Matter … right now. The pushback is inevitable. Just like the perseverance will be. Continuing to carve out spaces for ourselves (as editors and publishers), creating our own opportunities, telling our own stories on our terms. And by doing so, continue to create a more inclusive space for everyone.
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 gone from the Magical Negro to surviving until the end of the movie.
Representation is a nebulous target to aim for. For me it’s about control: of telling our own stories (on our terms) and having/creating positions of power (behind the camera, in positions within publishing, etc.). Then “representation” takes care of itself.
Who are some of your favorite Black characters in horror?
Who are some African diaspora horror authors you recommend our audience check out?
Wrath James White, Chesya Burke. Tananarive Due. Michael Boatman. Eden Royce. Zin E. Rocklyn. Cadwell Turnbull. Victor LaValle. Jewelle Gomez. Tenea D. Johnson. Brandon Massey. Sheree Renee Thomas. Nalo Hopkinson.
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
WRITE. Write for yourself, publish to be read. Do it because you love it. Do it because you have to, because it’s in your blood. Do it because it is something you would do free…just don’t do it for free. All stories I write are for me, either stories that amuse me, stories I wish I could have read coming up, or stories that present an interesting writing challenge. A lot of my novels and stories end up in my “trunk” unpublished because publishing wasn’t the point. When I choose to publish, I aim for the largest opportunity or visibility that I can, because the point is to be seen by as many eyes as possible. The other thing is work hard and smart. There are folks who are much better writers than me, but few work harder than me. I am always reading, writing, and challenging myself.
And to the Black writers out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
Do not let anyone make your voice small. Know your worth and always bet on you. Do your work in community. Community supports each other, cheers each other on, provides opportunities to one another. We go farther together.