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In 2012, Daniel José Older released his first collection of supernatural noir stories, Salsa Nocturna – thirteen interwoven magical stories with a distinctive cadence and rhythm that pull you in for a close dance with a half-dead detective, a portly jazz musician, an ancient collector, among others. Keeping up the momentum of a well-received first collection, in a few weeks, Older will be releasing Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, an anthology of short stories co-edited with Rose Fox that features the work of writers like Tananarive Due, Sofia Samatar, Ken Liu, Victor LaValle, Nnedi Okorafor, and Sabrina Vourvoulias. Committed to centering literary voices and lived experience that are usually footnoted, Older’s non-fiction work published in Salon and BuzzFeed explore a range of issues around agency and visibility.

The Brooklyn-based writer, editor and composer who also has worked ten years as a paramedic, performs with his band Ghost Star and facilitates workshops on storytelling, music, and anti-oppression organizing is currently at work on The Half Resurrection Blues, the first book of the Bone Street Rumba series released by Penguin’s Roc imprint.

In this interview, Older and I discuss music as a structural muse, the writer’s editing graveyard, writing in an authentic spirit, ghosts that conjure up memories and bringing new voices into science fiction literature.

– Kameelah Janan Rasheed, Senior Editor

 

Rasheed

William Faulkner is known to have said, “In writing, you must kill your darlings.” What elements of your writing have been difficult but necessary to cut and thoroughly edit? What do you do with the scraps and fragments of your writing that don’t make it into the final piece?

 

Older

For short stories, my editing process is mostly a tweak and trim affair — it’s rare that I’d cut a whole huge chunk out a short story. Having said that, I chopped the second two thirds off my first novel (a YA that hasn’t come out yet) and reformulated the whole mythology of it and from the scraps of that mess, I did end up with a whole other book. Most characters that show up stick around and if they don’t get used in whatever I’m working on they’ll pop in somewhere else, sometimes years later.

 

Rasheed

Your process feels familiar. It also reminds me of an writer’s scraps graveyard. Sometimes you resurrect the dead pieces and make them live with new purpose. Your little ghosts.

 

You mentioned the post-writing editing but what about the editing you do as you write?

 

Older

There is the editing that happens during the actual writing process – the words that never get written – and in that sense I’d say I skim the most on setting description. That’s because as a reader, my eyes tend to gloss over at descriptions (not a good habit), so my internal ‘oh dear’ meter starts going off, telling me readers are checking out once the information about what a place looks like starts to roll on. What’s funny about this is I do put a lot, a lot, of time into worldbuilding and context creating, to me that’s the primary mechanism for getting my point across. I think of context as place plus time plus power dynamics, and it’s usually that power dynamics piece that I spend a lot of my time fussing about trying to figure out how to let it manifest just so in the narrative without taking over.

Rasheed

Trying to “let it manifest” rather than laying a heavy hand is difficult because you want the reader to get the context but you don’t want to do all the work for them. I think there’s a similar approach with writing believable dialogue.

 

How do you approach writing dialogue?

Older

I listen. Simplest way to put it. Being a great musician is more about listening than playing, knowing when and how to jump in, to be in dialogue. So with literature. Listening, internalizing. Folks speak rhythmically, of course; there are casual cadences and formal ones, small ticks of language let you know whether someone loves you or not, what kind of mood they’re in, how they feel about the weather. Dialogue can reveal so much, it then becomes a matter of putting it to use. I could just sit and write stupid conversations between people for pages and pages because it’s fun, but when it comes to a story, the challenge is how to utilize these tiny moments of humanity and milk them for all their worth in the service of plot and character development.

 

Rasheed

In Salsa Nocturna, it’s clear that you listen very carefully to both people and landscapes. You paint the New York City neighborhoods with such vibrancy and intimacy.

Just as you are deliberate about the dialogue, you are also deliberate about the point-of-view from which you choose to write.

In Salsa Nocturna, why did your write in first-person? What was the intended benefit for the reader and as a writer, what attracts you to this approach?

 

Older

I tend to write in first person because my narrative aesthetic is rooted in storytelling.

I learned to write yes from books and at school and all that but also on the ambulance, trading stories with my partners, on the block, hearing about the comings and going of the neighborhood, in my family, hearing about what once was and won’t be again. All this is literature, often literature at its finest. It’s bawdy and complex, layered, imaginative, fantastic, courageous, uncensored. So, beyond Díaz and Morrison and Butler and Due and Mosley and Shakespeare and Homer, these voices are ones I look to for literary guidance.

 

Rasheed

All those writers have a recognizable rhythm and cadence to their writing. I am interested in the rhythm and cadence of Salsa Noctura.

How does music influence the structure of Salsa Noctura? And at a character level, what role does music play in the life of characters like Miguel and Gordo in Salsa Noctura?

 

Older

On a basic level, there’s a Cuban song section called the montuno – it’s that part at the end of a song where suddenly everyone goes nuts, the drums get vicious and folks take turns soloing while the chorus repeats a few simple lines beneath it. This developed into mambo, but for a while it would give sharp contrast to an otherwise relatively chill song, a bolero or a son. Some of my stories will follow this pattern; folks trundling along their lives, some gradual escalation but nothing off the charts, then ghosts are coming out the woodworks, a train’s coming, the trumpet blares, evil dolls fall from the ceiling – beneath the chorus riffs on the same motifs we’ve been hearing throughout but there’s a new urgency, a hint of chaos like it all might collapse on itself at any second.

In another sense, a microsense, I love repetition, internal rhymes, the playfulness of language and sentence structure. Pauses. The power of silence. All these are musical qualities that I’ve learned to pay attention to both in melody and the written word.

 

Rasheed

Your discussion of music reminds me of Toni Morrison’s comments in a 1993 Paris Review interview on style and “structural entities” in Jazz. Morrison seems more focused on elements of restraint and improvisation but you both hone in on music as a structural muse to approach writing that leaves the writer as she puts it, “yearning for more.”

Beyond being a structural muse, what role does music play in the life of characters like Miguel and Gordo in Salsa Noctura?

 

Older

For the folks in Salsa Nocturna, music smoothes out the treachery and drudgery of everyday life, it helps them process change and transition; for some of them, it’s their first language. Miguel, the taxi driver in Love Is A Fucking River, finds his way into an emotional state through pop-ass Bachata on the radio, Gordo uses music to stay in touch with his ancestors.

 

Rasheed

And many people know you as a musician. Talk a little about how you’ve integrated your band, Ghost Star into your readings.

 

Older

As a writer, I find performing with the band behind me brings the stories to life in an entire new way.

I was reading the other day without the band and I could almost hear the music behind the stories anyway, which speaks to something that’s true of the writing process in general for me: there’s a musicality to putting words on the page, a rhythm, an interplay of silence and noise, a convergence of harmonies. So performing with the band feels closest to home, to what is storytelling in its most natural state.

Rasheed

Writing and music are both forms of storytelling with their own structures and languages. What is your first language?

 

Older

Fiction is my first language. Music a close second.

Music is what will always be there, underneath, throughout, regardless, always. To me, it’s something beyond, there’s a depth to music that words can’t reach. I learned composition and theory because I was aware of the limits of language, to have an outlet to express what I couldn’t with words. Having said that, knowing the limits of language also draws me to it, we’re best friends, I feel most at home crafting stories. And they’re always connected.

 

Rasheed

Fiction is your first language but you also write non-fiction. What’s your first love?

 

Older

Fiction, because it flows. I’m getting there with non-fiction but I’m still finding my voice. If you follow me on twitter you’ve probably seen me ranting and raving about it; it takes me twice as long to write half as many words. I love non-fiction too of course, and when an idea comes I always move on it, knowing it’ll make me batshit for a while, but I love the challenge, I love the straightforwardness of it, it’s a release.

 

Rasheed

It seems that the other life passions like music find their way into your work. I am curious about whether your day job has the same influence. You’ve worked for some time as a paramedic so I can’t help but seeing elements of engagement with the dead, nearly dead, and spiritually dead in your work. In what ways has being a paramedic influenced the content and intent of your work?

 

Older

When you deal with the dead on the daily, it changes your relationship to death. I already had a pretty high level of comfort around death, for whatever reason – the first cardiac arrest I worked, shoot, I barely remember it. It didn’t faze me. But then there’s a new comfort you develop as time goes on. And that does play into the fiction, in the sense that all the protagonists in Salsa Nocturna are either dead or have a very easy relationship with the dead. This is a fun thing in fiction, a strange kind of friendship, but in life it’s also deeply related to my spiritual practice, the Lucumí tradition, which involves ancestor worship. That relationship is reflected in these stories. The dead aren’t to be feared so much as communed with. It’s a conversation, always.

 

Rasheed

I am interested in hearing more about Lucumí. When I was doing research of African and diasporic religions, I remember you telling me over twitter about being of Jewish and Cuban heritage. A few months ago on a bus back from Philly, our bus driver was on the announcer speaking and Yiddish and Spanish as he talked about being a Puerto Rican Jew. I was hoping you could talk a bit about your family specifically, but even more generally about Latino Jews and how Lucumí emerged in your life.

 

Older

I grew up celebrating Christmas and Hanukah, we were Catholic and Jewish and overall had a sort of relaxed, inclusive approach to religion. Both cultures have taught me a lot about life and Spirit, but I ultimately found what I was looking for in Lucumí, which folks also call Santeria. It’s a faith I carry in the blood as well and it jumped into my life and put me on my path with a resonance that I’d never felt from a spiritual system before. I still honor the traditions I grew up with, that’s a part of who I am and Passover at our house is always a delicious mashup of matzoh ball soup and bustelo and rice and beans and salsa music.

 

Rasheed

I imagine Lucumí shapes how you understand life and death and the interstitial spaces between the two states. I want to go back to your point about ghosts and lingering spirits as entities to be “communed with” because you do some interesting things with the Council of the Dead and ghosts in your work that remind me of Avery Gordon’s work. In Avery Gordon’s Some Thoughts on Haunts and Futurity, ghosts are not these floating translucent figures, but this imperative — the past showing up in the present as a reminder for “the something to be done.” Specifically, she writes,

“Haunting always registers the harm inflicted or the loss sustained by a social violence done in the past or being done in the present and is for this reason quite frightening. But haunting, unlike trauma by contrast, is distinctive for producing a something-to-be-done. Indeed, it seemed to me that haunting was precisely the domain of turmoil and trouble, that moment (of however long duration) when things are not in their assigned places, when the cracks and the rigging are exposed, when the people who are meant to be invisible show up without any sign of leaving, when disturbed feelings won’t go away, when easily living one day and then the next becomes impossible, when the present seamlessly becoming “the future‟ gets entirely jammed up. Haunting refers to this socio-political-psychological state when something else, or something different from before, feels like it must be done, and prompts a something-to-be-done.”

Beyond the floating translucent figures, how do ghosts operate in your work?

 

Older

Great quote. I think of ghosts as a personification of the intersection of life and death, the past and present (yes, very much like a city…). In this sense, the ghost presents amazing narrative opportunities.

A principle of social justice work and many spiritual traditions is the idea that the past always walks with us, whether in the form of ancestors or institutional memory or the stories we tell. History walks with us.

The Council of the Dead is the bureaucracy of death. It’s really a very human, living enterprise, to try to over-organize something as impossible as the Afterlife, but there it is. This is directly inspired by working for ten years in the confines of the real world bureaucracy of life and death, which is the medical field. It is complicated, has little or nothing to do with actual healing and everything to do with business, politics and Covering Your Ass. Which is a large-scale tragedy when you think about it, has very real costs in our everyday lives and has been that way for so long, it’s hard to collectively envision a more holistic approach.

 

Rasheed

I really like this idea of the past always walking with us because it creates a dimensionality to our experiences and the way we understand those experiences. The way you shape characters seems to carry that tradition of dimensionality and visibility of the exposed rigging that makes us human.

I remember my engagement with science fiction as a child being very alienating because there were no black people in these texts. I found the text to be aggressively saying, even if unintentionally so, in the future, there are no black people.

When you approached science fiction as a writer, what do you seek to do with both the narrative and the characters you craft? Is this any different than what you seek as a reader?

 

Older

As a writer, I do approach sci-fi with a sense of reclamation, yes. I mean, I think most of us share that experience you describe in one form or another, and it’s frustrating as hell until you use it as an entrance point for creativity.

For me, I literally started writing my first book on the spark of, Well dammit, we need a Harry Potter that speaks to us. And it seems odd, to create in anger but it works once you then bring in all the other elements/emotions/magic etc. What I always say, what boggles my mind really, is that these conversations about race and gender and class, all these complicated layers of power and privilege, resistance and oppression, they’re exactly what good literature is made up of. Yet, folks tend to sidestep the conversation or fully block it out. Which, besides being awkward, racist and ultimately a disaster, is simply a missed opportunity. There are so many amazing concepts to explore with so much depth and emotion, and because of the blinders and consequences of speaking difficult truths, writers largely ignore them. Net result: as you said, it appears we don’t make it out of this century. Total erasure from the fantastic realm. Or we’re all bad guys. Fuck that.

 

Rasheed

In thinking about non-white characters being displaced from traditional science fiction narratives, I am also thinking about spatial dislocation as well — stolen bodies, involuntarily migrated bodies, etc.

In Mark Dery’s, “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose” (from Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, 1994), he talks about black people as the descendents of alien abductees. In what ways are marginalized communities like alien abductees and in which ways do they live beyond the confines of this label?

 

Older

Alien abductees and marginalized communities…the common thread is displacement.

We talk a lot about white supremacy but don’t really discuss white culture, not in any institutionally meaningful ways I mean, and that’s a conversation that’s going to have to happen as we move forward: what is white institutional culture and what are it’s ramifications; how does it lead to white supremacy and how do we dismantle that? Instead, we talk about “institutional culture” because it’s more comfortable for people in power not to have to deal with the tragic complexities of race and power. In order to not feel like we’re completely insane, it’s important to be clear that the structures in place weren’t designed with a multiracial society in mind. In this sense, displacement is a very real experience, even for someone born in this country, raised here.

 

Rasheed

As a real experience, it demands space to be explored. Octavia Butler talked about how science fiction allowed her the freedom to create new worlds while also critiquing existing worlds in ways that don’t amount to an index of grievances.

In Salsa Nocturna, you deal with some weighty issues around immigration, gentrification, and cultural appropriation. There is a certain delicacy to the narrative. It’s there, but I am not necessarily ushered to the “big lesson” or hit over the head with a calculated and didactic expectation. What is your approach to writing about the rawness of what makes us uncomfortable?

 

Older

Wonderful. That’s what I was going for – that delicacy. Had an epic conversation on twitter the other day about including political ideas in fiction and the general answer, the same one I hear again and again from writers, was that if you consciously include politics in your writing, it will become didactic and obvious. Which strikes me as odd. And by odd I mean, off. We are so committed to craft and decision making, we manage to fit all kinds of subtle deep layers into our stories, approach the human heart from 18 million different angles, employ foreshadowing, flashbacks, motifs, all these techniques and we can’t figure out how to be slide opinions in there without our subconscious taking over? No, man. We gotta do better than that.

Rasheed

In relation to your work, there is definitely currency to the late artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ assertion that “the most successful of all political moves are ones that don’t appear to be ‘political’”.

 

Older

As I mentioned earlier, for me, context is the answer. I put my rage and doubt and fear into worldbuilding, craft a context that speaks to the fires we live in and then deploy characters across it. But this is an ongoing conversation/process. The thing is to have it.

 

Rasheed

But there is always that point when someone is uncomfortable and they have the power to remove the text that makes them uncomfortable or calls normative systems of thought into question.

In my last interview with Kiese Laymon, we talked a little about writers and their relationships with editors and publishing houses. In your essay Another World Awaits, you write

“A few years ago, someone in the publishing industry crossed out a line I wrote in a novel. I’m pretty good with taking criticism; I don’t usually get gooey over the words I write, even if the stories are close to my heart. This line however, had to do with a Latina character feeling uncomfortable in a shnitzy part of Brooklyn because all the other women of color had little white babies and all the white people were looking at her sideways. The note beside the crossout said: “Doesn’t happen in this day and age.”

You go on to write not just about how editors have silenced and censored your writing but also how this has translated into your own self-censorship.

Can you talk about how you’ve navigated the publishing world — how you’ve managed to stay authentic to your voice or even situations where your narratives have been compromised?

 

Older

Well, yes. All this. I fired that particular person and I struggle with that question all the time. There isn’t one answer, or rather, the answer lies in the process of finding one’s voice, which is a lifelong journey.

 

Rasheed

How do you balance a desire for marketability and a need for authenticity? In some ways this question connects to the first question around “killing your darlings” except the murderer in this case may not necessarily be you.

 

Older

I think the balance comes when we’re able to have that conversation on the surface, with each other, with ourselves, to really sink our teeth into understanding how we’re silenced, how we silence ourselves, what this translation thing is all about. I wrestle with it, and I find a voice I’m comfortable in, tell the hardest truths I can and then actively seek out people in the industry that are ready to hear and publish my voice. They’re out there. I’ve been blessed to find an agent and editors who are brilliant and open to voices outside of what’s traditionally published. I believe the industry’s changing. Not fast enough, but yes, there it’s changing. Ultimately, I choose to replace the word “marketability” with “good storytelling,” and so challenge myself to hone my narrative craft while finding my authentic voice, which are two intimately related paths.

 

Rasheed

In finding your authentic voice, there is this question of how we write authentically about experiences that are not our own.

I was curious as to how your engagement with gendered realities outside your own influence how you craft the women characters in your work, particularly in Salsa Nocturna. How do we negotiate male feminisms predicated on protecting women with male feminisms that engage with dialogue and agency?

 

Older

I think Junot Díaz said it best when he talked about how as men writing about women, the first step is always to admit we suck at it. The second step is the same thing I said above about dialogue: listening. It’s simple but so so undervalued and patriarchy teaches us that we already know everything or are supposed to act like, so it discourages listening. Listen: we know nothing. Not shit. So, I listen. To the women around me, my family, my friends, my elders, my ancestors. The challenge when writing the other is being honest about how the other sees the self…if that makes any sense?

Let me try that again.

What’s hard for men about writing women and, in fact, the world at large, is owning how much patriarchy has fucked up this place and our relationships. Straight, cis- men in particular have a very skewed sense of safety and comfort and privilege, mostly because we haven’t generally lived the experience of being targeted for our genders or perceived genders. Yes, there are exceptions, and sexual violence, for example, against men is a real thing, often turned into jokes or ignored all out, patriarchy sees to that erasure, and the same rules also tell us that it’s more acceptable for us to commit an act of violence than hug another man. This is rape culture, and it needs to end. And men need to figure out how to collectively be a part of ending it. That’s our responsibility.

 

Rasheed

In what ways do you feel that you struggle with or feel comfortable with shaping multi-dimensional female characters?

 

Older

As for shaping characters, what happens is this: a character emerges, sometimes they bring a story with them, sometimes not. What matters is, can I hear their voice? If yes, the rest rolls out smooth, then it’s a question of storycraft, the mechanics of narrative. Sometimes there’s work to do, research, meditation, a walk, to get into the heart of it. I write characters across the gender spectrum. It is challenging and it is what we are here to do, tell stories, stories outside of ourselves and the ones within us as well. The work is melding them into something that resonates and then making it sing.

 

Rasheed

Looking back, do you see any shortcomings in how you crafted these characters, particularly in Salsa Nocturna?

 

Older

The first clump of Salsa Nocturna stories all featured men. Straight men. A lot of that was because I was brand new at writing fiction and still feeling my way through it, like when you walk into a theater you’re going to perform in and you walk around a few times, taking it in. Carlos is about as close to my own voice as any of my characters – if you read my blog from the ambulance days, you’re reading the seed of Carlos’ voice. My editor at Crossed Genres, Kay Holt, who is magnificent, pointed out to me that the book was something of a sausage party, I don’t think it passed the Bechdel test even, and she challenged me to write stories from the point of view of women. So The Passing and Magdalena came out of that, and I’m really so grateful that she asked that of me.

There are characters I’d like to explore further. Janey for instance, has this whole arc with the golem they build, haven’t had a chance to really get into that or open up her journey. It’ll happen. CiCi of course has a whole life of stories, her own and other people’s that I’m excited to unravel more. Short stories give us this little glimpse of people. As writers, we try to reveal as much about them in that glimpse as we can and not feel like we’re cramming it all in. This both exciting and challenging as hell, it’s like when you meet someone and all you have are these few hours to get to know them, but you feel like you’ve known them for years. There’s no one answer for how to do this. The feedback I’ve gotten about the female characters has for the most part been very positive. A whole room full of folks read Magdalena and wrote me excited emails addressed to Mrs. Older, so that felt like I’d done something right.

 

Rasheed

Just as you released one big project, you were on to the next — Long Hidden. Can you share about the inspiration for this project and what we can look forward to in May?

 

Older

Long Hidden was born from the same frustrations we spoke about earlier – it’s an answer to erasure.

 

Rasheed

What did you learn along the way as this project developed?

Older

It’s been fascinating, this process, and definitely has taught me more about writing than anything I’ve ever done. At one point during the editing I was writing a bunch of essays about the same topics, the way scifi/fantasy has erased or mistold our stories, and getting trolls in comments sections and on twitter, and then I’d pause, shut everything down and go work on Long Hidden and you know, sometimes that’s the answer, to create something new, to usher in and clear the space for new stories, which are really very old stories, and be part of the platform.

 

Rasheed

I like the idea of creating something new and clearing space. Often times, we get trapped in writing as a reaction which continues to center those who perpetuate the erasure.

I am really interested in the internal structure of Long Hidden. How did you select the stories that would begin and end this collection?

 

Older

Sofia Samatar’s story, Ogres of East Africa wowed me immediately, in that it brings this urgency and love to all these complex layers of race and mythology. It’s an adventure, a love story, a critique and a fantasy all wrapped into one and Rose and I felt like it was the perfect way to raise the curtain.  Sabrina Vourvoulias’ Dance of the White Demon, speaks to the whole book in its long look at history from the point of view of a tragic defeat. It’s so gentle and so painful and raw at the same time, and it really speaks to the power of myth and storytelling across centuries. Plus, it’s a great story.

 

Rasheed

I’ve been reading a lot about discursive programming and I am interested in generating opportunities for publics to engage with artists. What programming has been organized for Long Hidden?

 

Older

Our book release party is at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on May 10 at 9pm and several writers will read and there will be music. We’ll have readings and a panel at Wiscon, a feminist science fiction conference in Madison and more at Readercon, another science fiction conference outside of Boston in July. Also, some folks are planning an LA launch party as well.

 

Rasheed

How do you balance more collaborative and editorial projects with your more individual writing efforts?

 

Older

It’s not a role I’m used to but I’m so honored to be part of the project, to put my name on it. Rose Fox, my co-editor, is like a kindred spirit of literature – even when disagree, it’s in such an excellent and fascinating way I actually looked forward to our disagreements sometimes because I’d always come out of it knowing more, understanding deeper, thinking more clearly.

 

Rasheed

After Long Hidden, what’s next for you?

 

Older

I just finished recording the audio book for Salsa Nocturna for audible.com which I am really excited about it. The spoken word is really for me at the heart of writing so being able to narrate the stories was a powerful experience. I’m about to begin edits on Half Resurrection Blues, which is a prequel to Salsa Nocturna and tells Carlos’ story. It’s the first of a trilogy and comes out in January 2015. We’re also wrapping up Long Hidden stuff, finishing touches and I just finished the first draft of Book of Lost Saints, a novel about Cuba, exile and revolution. I have two projects in their seedling stage, just a swirl of ideas and a few written pages – one’s an adventure story about princesses and the other’s a very messy, sordid YA about evil monsters in a Connecticut suburb – so I’m excited to see where those go. And more in the pipeline.