Black Heritage in Horror: Interview with Micah Yongo
Micah is the author of two ancient Africa-inspired epic fantasy novels. His debut, Lost Gods, was shortlisted for a British Fantasy award, as well as Starburst Magazine’s inaugural Brave New Words award.
Shaped by the West African folklore of his childhood, Yongo introduces readers to fresh mythic worlds on the way to examining ideas on religion, culture, and belonging.
Manchester-born aside from a year living in the US Yongo has remained domiciled in the city of his birth, having worked as a journalist and content designer alongside his novel writing. His latest book, Pale Kings, is a continuation of the Lost Gods story, following the journey of adolescent assassins through a complex world of betrayal, conspiracy, and political intrigue.
What inspired you to start writing?
In many ways, it feels as though I wasn’t so much inspired to begin this journey as required to. I’m in love with language and have perhaps always found a tad more satisfaction than is healthy in the apt use of a well-placed word. So I guess you could say I had always been the proverbial bone-dry forest on a summer day awaiting its inevitable spark; which for me came in the form of an email exchange with a friend in which they asked me to describe my mental health struggles at the time. “Not the feelings you’re experiencing though,” they’d explained, “rather… if what you’re experiencing were some kind of living entity, what would it be like?”
Yeah, I know, weird question. And yet, in retrospect, an impressively creative one – their attempt to connect with my inner turmoil, which is perhaps why I decided in the end to oblige. The result triggered what turned out to be a fairly strong writing habit, and eventually evolved into the theme and manuscript for my first novel, Lost Gods. Since then, through writing, I’ve been fortunate to leave the mental health struggles behind, whilst discovering this most beautiful craft of playing with words to shape fantastical and mythic worlds. The rest, as they say, is history. I’ve been writing ever since.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
I wouldn’t call myself a horror aficionado per se but there is this quote from the movie Insidious that I’ve always been fond of.
“It’s not the house that’s haunted… it’s your son.”
Which in many ways captures what the genre is truly about – a means of delving into those daunting shadows and terrors that we’d otherwise avoid; the horrors that are to be found within.
You could say fear, in some ways, is the most fundamental of human instincts, an evolutionary imperative – the ability to imagine, and thereby anticipate threat, before it arrives, is a profoundly creative skill, and yet as potentially debilitating as it is essential – the inventive impulse reversed; the dark side of the coin, so to speak. As a writer, I’m fascinated by how nebulous this capacity can be, and the deftness with which it can shift from tool to weapon or prison, depending on the person in whom it abides, and the context in which they find themselves.
Harnessing ways to explore the meaning of this most paradoxical of emotions – and its power to both drive or cripple us, is, to me, an essential pursuit of storytelling. I think the best horror, whether fantastical or suspenseful, expresses this inescapable enterprise of humanity – the desire and impulse to make sense of ourselves.
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?
Hmm, I’d have to say yes, and no. We are, of course, the reservoir from which we write, and so a desire to portray textures and flavours of culture cognate with those of my heritage feels very natural for me, especially as these kinds of worlds and experiences remain scarce in genre fiction, and epic fantasy especially. But I don’t think this desire has ever been my chief motive. I find, when I write – insofar as I’m able to understand the why of what I’m doing – that my aim is to simply tell a good story.
Fundamentally I believe that all of our stories, when told well, are one story. They’re each of a piece with one another, because we all share these persistently common motifs of being human – hope, fear, pride, faith, family, enemy, mortality, legacy etc. I think the best stories manage to honour and deal in these things in believable and thoughtful ways. And I think this is the first and most noble call of the storyteller. But if I’m able to do that well and offer a window into the traditions, characters and worlds inherent to my ancestry… well, that’s just peachy.
What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?
Man… you know, if I knew the answer to this question I’m not sure I’d be able to call it horror anymore. But… I do think there is something fascinating to be mined in considering that this genre even exists, that we’ve created this space in our culture to lean into our fears, and even discover a kind of thrill to them. Because when you boil it down, fear – the unexpected sound at night, that strange movement out of the corner of your eye, or murky shape amid the shadows – is really to do with our struggle to contend with the unknown.
In fact, if you really think about it, it’s not the calamities of life that really trouble us so much as the unanswered ‘why?’ that will often accompany them. Meaninglessness is the thing we really fear; Chaos, as the ancient Greek poets had it. And so since then and before, every age and people has told stories; fables, aural and written, to combat this Chaos, eliminate this sense of disorder, and persuade us against the world’s ambivalence. To give it meaning.
That we have a genre of storytelling that so actively bucks this trend and instead embraces the Chaos, refusing to ignore it, preferring instead to integrate it into our narratives of ourselves and the world, I think, says something about us, and perhaps about our attempts to master our fears, or at the very least dance with them. I suppose in a weird way I find something profoundly human and hopeful in that.
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve?
I’m a notoriously slow but greedy reader which often leaves me feeling uninformed on these kinds of questions. And so, I guess the honest answer ought to be ‘I don’t know’. But I will say I think the slow but continual emergence of diverse voices has begun an intriguing expansion of the genre in terms of the kinds of stories that are being told. I feel we’re seeing, and will continue to see, more satire, and more sociocultural commentary – which I like. It feels rebellious. A rebuttal of sorts to what has gone before. There’s perhaps no better example of this than the writing and filmmaking of Jordan Peele at the moment. I, for one, am all for it.
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?
There’s so much that could be said on this isn’t there… once upon a time a black character in a horror movie or novel was rote signifier for ‘this will be the first character to be offed’. Some years back the trend was so common that the mere presence of a black character bordered on breaking the 4th wall – a wink from the writer to the audience: ‘there we are, dear reader, you know what happens next.’
Gladly, it seems we’re moving beyond that now, and are seeing more nuanced story arcs and characterisation; not only in horror but across the board, which is exciting.
Who are some of your favorite Black characters in horror?
I’m just always going to have a soft spot in my heart for Wesley Snipes’ iconic rendering of Blade, and LL Cool J’s less iconic but witty Preach in Deep Blue Sea – one of few human characters I was rooting for in that movie (yeah, I was team shark. They seemed to be getting a raw deal).
Who are some African diaspora horror authors you recommend our audience check out?
We’re perhaps not used to thinking of many of these names as horror authors but there is something so markedly visceral, arresting and, yes, horrifying about Octavia Butler’s novella, Kindred, and so too Fledgling. The deftness which she is able to weave fantastical analogues of the African American story into her books is both exhilarating and truly chilling.
I’d be remiss not to also mention the work of Nnedi Okorafor, Helen Oyeyemi, and also, of course, N.K. Jemisin. The latter we might say sits more firmly in the storied garden of SFF, but her genius for skipping between genres to play with their tropes is truly special. I find myself routinely discovering in her books cleverly rendered elements of horror, and always used to devastating effect.
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
I always feel there is something elevating about when we have something to say through our fiction – when we are willing to cultivate a point of view we believe in, and share it. And don’t get me wrong, this is not, as I alluded to earlier, our first calling. We are storytellers. We are to entertain. But we can – if we’re to allow the works of Butler, Jemisin, Okorafor, Delaney, Morrison and others to teach us – be much more than that too. So, no harm in doling out a little didactic subtext amid the thrills and scares every now and then.
And to the Black writers out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
I think the most important thing to do as a writer is to find your voice and take responsibility for it. Defend it. It is you. That twist to your temperament, that quirk of sensibility, or taste, or even the pure euphony to how you like to put words together, the texture of your prose, are, I think, the most vital energies of a writer, especially if your writing is to offer a window into other worlds. So, don’t be afraid to almost be a kind of character in your stories – an auteur.
Alongside that, I would say try to write often, to feel the rhythm of your words, acquaint with it, until the sound of the writer you are thrums through your bones and resounds in every cell of your being like a well struck chord. For me, writing is something that must be felt in order to be done well. And that feeling must be, at root, a pure and internal thing, in need of no audience. I do not know of another way to find this feeling other than to read as much as possible and write as much as you can.