Black Heritage in Horror: Interview with Tara Campbell
Tara Campbell is a writer, teacher, Kimbilio Fellow, fiction co-editor at Barrelhouse, and graduate of American University’s MFA. Her horror has been published in Strange Horizons (“Sasabonsam,” Tangent Online Recommended Reading List 2017), Nightlight (horror by Black writers), and Speculative City (“Spencer,” Tor’s “Must-Read Speculative Fiction” March 2020). She’s the author of a novel and four multi-genre collections, including Midnight at the Organporium which earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly. She teaches fiction at venues such as American University, Johns Hopkins University, Clarion West, Catapult, The Writer’s Center, and Hugo House. Read more and connect at her website: www.taracampbell.com
What inspired you to start writing?
This is probably not an original answer, but: reading. I fell hard for science fiction in grade school and junior high, reading through all those “golden age” classics (Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Heinlein, etc). I was fascinated by the possibility of new worlds and time travel and things like that. I started writing my own stories, including an embarrassing novel about a half-alien girl, which has since been safely shredded.
I stopped writing when I went to college and embarked on a career in international education and admissions. I thought I had to be practical and leave all that behind, and I didn’t start writing again until my late thirties, when my husband and I took a couple of creative writing classes together for something new to do. Those classes rekindled my love of writing, and my fascination with the “what-if” question that lies at the heart of speculative fiction.
What was it about the horror genre that drew you to it?
I actually never set out to write horror. I have a hard time reading it, and I have to make sure not to watch scary stuff too late at night or I won’t be able to sleep. The first time I saw one of my stories published as “horror” I was surprised and a little disappointed, because I’d always thought of horror as slasher, grindhouse stuff. But I’ve since realized that there’s so much more to it than just blood and guts.
The fascinating thing is, horror all comes down to power: how far people will go to get it, what they choose to do with it, and what they’ll do to keep it. Even now that I’ve accepted horror as part of my palette, I don’t sit down at my desk and say “okay, today I’m going to write a scary story.” I just write about human nature, and the fact that this can so easily turn into horror says a lot about the battles we’re facing as a species.
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?
This is something I’ve struggled with because I’m writing from the liminal space of being a white-passing, mixed-race person. There are tropes of Blackness people are used to reading: urban, Southern, immigrant, activist/revolutionary, “tragic mulatto,” etc, but my experience hasn’t been any of those.
I don’t want to fall into the white-default of the sci-fi I grew up on, but I also don’t want to graft an identity onto my characters that doesn’t ring true. As a result, I tend to write characters who are also in-between, racially or otherwise, and who are struggling with being neither here nor there. There are many ways to be Black, and as our nation grows more mixed, there will be more and more people writing these mixed experiences.
What has writing horror taught you about the world and yourself?
Well, I mentioned power earlier. But the other thing I’ve learned is that so often horrible things don’t come from a desire to be evil. You know that old saying about everyone being the hero of their own story? Well, it’s the same for horror, at least when it’s done well. The most effective horror for me is when the person (or creature) that seems so terrible is only trying to do what they think is right. It’s about different versions of good and evil, and knowing that these aren’t absolute values, but dependent on perspective and situation. It’s easy to label someone “bad,” but it’s more instructive to dig into their motivations. My story “Spencer” wasn’t horror in my mind, because I was imagining things from his perspective—after all, he had been abandoned. Wasn’t it all right for him to take a few things and become his own person?
How have you seen the horror genre change over the years? And how do you think it will continue to evolve?
As I mentioned, I haven’t been involved in horror for a long time because of my preconceived (and limited) notions of what it was. I’ve enjoyed disabusing myself of the slasher trope by reading horror by women and writers of color like Tananarive Due, Victor LaValle, P. Djèli Clark, and Rebecca Roanhorse—and of course Jordan Peele if we expand to film.
I’ve seen Octavia Butler and Nalo Hopkinson come up on a list of horror writers, but I view them more as genre-crossing writers who incorporate elements of horror. I’m happy that genre lines in general seem to be blurring. More people are taking their fiction to the edges without necessarily worrying about labels.
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?
It’s nice to see that we’re not always the first to get killed anymore. We may, in fact, be the ones who save the world.
Who are some of your favorite Black characters in horror?
I have to say, I could relate to the bookish main character of Victor LaValle’s The Changeling. I like stories in which ordinary people have to rise to the occasion in extraordinary circumstances. And I loved the chemistry of the siblings in Jordan Peele’s “Nope”—despite their differences they were ride-or-die, and they had the most epic hand-slap!
Who are some African diaspora horror authors you recommend our audience check out?
I’ll bring Tananarive Due, Victor LaValle, P. Djèli Clark, and Jordan Peele back into the discussion here. My list gets larger when we expand to speculative fiction in general. I loved N. K. Jemisin’s story collection How Long ‘Til Black Future Month because it was like a primer on how varied and playful speculative fiction can be. She brought that same sense of inventiveness and expansiveness to the 2018 edition of Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, which she guest-edited. And Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means when a Man Falls from the Sky is a wonderful combination of realism and speculative, a gateway drug to genre.
What is one piece of advice you would give horror authors today?
I think my favorite part of my path into horror is that I didn’t specifically set out to do it. I don’t dabble in darkness for the sake of it; I go there when the choices a character makes take things in that direction. So I guess I’d advise folks to try that: instead of thinking you have to write in a particular genre, let yourself write in whichever direction the story takes you, and trust that the speculative arena is large and weird and flexible enough to contain whatever you come up with.
And to the Black writers out there who are just getting started, what advice would you give them?
Similarly to the advice for horror writers: you do you. It can be a challenge to write from your experience if it doesn’t sound like the experiences that have already been written. But that’s where your particular flavor is. You don’t have to take on the responsibility for writing on behalf of the whole capital-C Culture, because we’re not just one thing. And we need to hear all of it!