David Anthony Durham has a bit of a thing for epics. An author known for his historical novels, Durham isn’t afraid to take on legendary figures like Hannibal and prickly subjects like black homesteaders in the 1800s. His latest book, the epic fantasy Acacia, may be seen as a departure by some, but to Durham it’s a continuation of his love for fantastic fiction and interest in the African-American experience in a historical context.
“I loved fantasy as an adolescent,” he says. “And took great joy in rediscovering it as an adult. That combination of being challenged, being spoken to as a reader with an intellect, but also being sent on a voyage overtly of the imagination was like a reawakening to what storytelling is (and always has been) really about.”
In some ways, Acacia is a straight up epic fantasy tale of royalty, treachery, and war. But Durham paints his world with more than just one color. Readers will find themselves in a truly multiracial, multicultural world, something we don’t see often enough in the genre. With Acacia, Durham particularly excited fantasy fans of color who were eager to see what he would do.
K. Tempest Bradford: I read that folks have been asking you, “Why fantasy?” But I suspect most of those people are not genre readers and/or writers. From my perspective, the question is: “Why epic fantasy?”
David Anthony Durham: Well, coming off of Pride of Carthage I was in epic mode. That novel felt, in many ways, like its own epic. And I liked it. I enjoyed watching individuals caught up in the swirl of events much bigger than themselves. Also, I like stories to unfold gradually, to build steam as they progress. And the epic mode allowed for such a wide panorama of topics and potential. That’s why it drew me. Not because of what people had done with it before, but largely because of what seemed like great potential to use it for my own purposes.
Also, as a reader, I love getting caught up and living with characters for awhile. I like a book, if it’s good, to be there for me at the end of the day for many days. I’m hoping some readers have that experience with Acacia.
Tempest: Is there any particular author or book that influenced the way you envisioned the Acacia project?
David: Sure, but the influences were mostly from the past. Ursula LeGuin was a favorite. I loved–and recognized young–that she was writing in a world of people of color. And I loved the she turned a lot of the norms of young man who is prince fantasy on its head. Her protagonists knew fear. They made mistakes. They were sometimes girls, etc. That was important to me.
Of course for pure storytelling Tolkein was an influence. And CS Lewis and Lloyd Alexander. All the usual suspects. I hadn’t read contemporary fantasy in ages, though, and only began looking at it after I’d begun Acacia. I get compared to George RR Martin quite a bit, but I didn’t read him until I’d finished Acacia. I like his stuff in many ways, but he’s a new one for me.
There are times when some folks– Martin devotees, for instance–seem to only see me in comparison to him, with no acknowledgment that I’ve had my own career for a while now and been writing for 18 years.
Tempest: Since this is your first foray into the genre, it’s not surprising that people are looking only at the one book and not at the scope of your career. Genre readers sometimes suspect that mainstream writers aren’t familiar enough with SF to understand that they’re just reinventing the wheel, so you speak. Though they may be capable writers, they sometimes make ‘beginners’ mistakes.
David: I worried about those beginner mistakes. I think I came out alright. There is the Martin thing. If I’d read him I would’ve changed a few things to avoid similarities, but I don’t think that’s a killer. We’re very different writers, and many readers seem to be noting that as well. I’d mention also that since grad school I’ve slowly (and not so slowly) discovered the virtues of a lot of genre writing. Crime, Science Fiction, even Westerns and definitely historical novels. I’ve learned a lot from writers that people in the academy wouldn’t even look at. That’s their loss, though.
I don’t take things for granted in any genre that I dabble in. I try to combine some of the elements of it that interest me with as much of my own vision as possible. A novel like Acacia is what comes out of that.
I make a point of acknowledging that I know I’m trying something new here, and I know my past accomplishments don’t mean that much. I’ve got to bring the goods. So far I can’t ask for a better reception. I’ve seen a number of reviewers begin by saying they approached the book with skepticism. They mention the possible mistakes, etc, but then–so far–they’ve all gone on to say they like what I produced. In general I’ve found the best of the reviews to be more in-depth and insightful than any mainstream reviews I’ve received.
Tempest: There are a lot of elements in the book that are very standard epic — a story about royalty and plots against the crown, battles for the empire, princes and princesses in hiding, people questioning the nature of the world they thought they knew. But you combine it with some elements I don’t see in a lot of fantasy, epic or not. The biggest one being the ethnic makeup of the world you created. You obviously set out to create a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural world.
David: I love those standard fantasy elements. They’ve endured because they have a resonance to people. I wanted to embrace that, but then bring some more things to the table. Diversity is foremost. I also wanted to have a world in which economic and trade forces played a part. And one where some of the evils of this world–the use of drugs, lets say, for controlling and manipulating certain groups–had a role. But diversity was the big one. Fantasy has been far too white and black, far too good and evil for too long. I know some epic writers–Martin, Bakker, Erikson–have been upping the diversity, but I think I have still a different take on it. One that will emerge more and more with the coming books.
It’s kind of amazing to remember how caught up I was in all white worlds like Tolkein’s. I read The Hobbit in Trinidad. And I bought The Lord of the Rings down there too. It spoke to me and involved me greatly. I’m hoping, though, that people from all around the world will be able to see themselves reflected in the world of Acacia. I would’ve loved that, so it seems important to me to provide it if I can.
Tempest: That’s why I’m fascinated that you chose epic fantasy. It’s a genre I associate with the kind of world that Tolkein presents. Then again, it’s a genre ripe for re-imagining in a different way.
David: That’s exactly why I felt ripe, yes. Each time I’ve picked a topic it’s been the story and the characters, yes, but there’s always been a desire to fill in what seems an unfortunate gap. Gabriel’s Story is about black characters in the West. Walk Through Darkness can be called a fictional slave narrative, but it’s also about the mixed bloodline that America seems so intent on ignoring or simplifying. And Pride of Carthage is an ancient war novel, but it’s one that eventually undermines the heroic tendencies of that genre. I’m working against the grain a bit with all of them, but that’s why each project has seemed so important to me.
At least with Acacia I was able to have a bit of fun too: strange beasts to be slain, warrior princesses, banished sorcerers, mass nudity. It was wonderful to be able to grease the creative gears and go with it.
Tempest: One of the other interestingly different elements you include in the book is the role of women. The Acacian military forces include both women and men at all levels. The Calrach women fight alongside the men and, to Acacians, seem almost indistinguishable from them. You sprinkle little tidbits like this through the book–never heavy-handedly–but it’s still very much a male-dominated world. It’s the oldest prince, Aliver, who is heir to the throne and charged with what seems like the most important mission. It’s his father who is the leader of Acacia and Hainish who leads the antagonistic force, the Mein, etc.
As I said, the book is very much in the epic fantasy vein, which usually splits between either male-dominated worlds or warrior-women in… male dominated worlds. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying. But you seem to be taking a step beyond. How much of that was a conscious choice and how much just the way it grew as you wrote?
David: It was both. Certainly, the core of the novel is the four Akaran children. In that regard it’s 50/50, male to female. Around them, though, are primarily male players. I’d like to think that by the end you’ll see just how important the female characters are to me and to the story to come. I’d even suggest that the fact that the novel begins in regular male-dominated form is crucial to the ways that I eventually work to break from that.
Tempest: It’s obvious to me that these issues are important to you because you’re African American. Not only the diversity of the races in the book, but the economic forces driving this empire: trade, slavery, drugs. But you don’t feel like you’re writing about “The Black Experience”. Is it possible for a black author to be seen as not doing that? It seems to be what people want.
David: True enough. I don’t know if it’s possible, but I’m trying. (There’s that working against the grain thing again.) I absolutely know that my ethnicity informs my writing. It’s a strength, I think, and I’m proud of it. But in many ways I’m no expert on the “Black Experience”. I don’t want to speak for the entire group–partly because that group isn’t monolithic. And partly because my family and my experiences have been multi-racial and international. I’m out to speak to as large a group as possible.
And I also want to write more novels like Gabriel’s Story and Walk Through Darkness. I’m hoping that when I do I bring a larger audience to them than if I’d only ever written novels just on African-American issues.
Tempest: It’s great that you resist pigeonholing like that. Has that been hard to do?
David: Part of me wants to say no, it’s not been that bad. But another part of me says that I only feel that way because I’ve come to accept a lot of pigeonholing as the norm. I did write two novels before Gabriel’s Story. The first one got my first agent (an African-American), but she only signed me because her reader (an African-American) was so enthusiastic about that book. But neither of those first two sold to a publisher. They were contemporary, introspective, literary coming of age stories with black male characters as the leads. I don’t think any publisher saw that combo as a homerun.
So I wrote the third novel. That one sold because that reader for my first agent became an editorial assistant. She tried to get Doubleday to buy my novels several times. By the time I gave them Gabriel’s Story they were ready, but would they have been if there wasn’t someone in the room with them everyday asking them to see me? Since then, Doubleday has been very supportive. They seem to think I can do whatever I want and that the box don’t fit anymore. That’s great.
On the other hand bookstores have tried to box me in. Walk Through Darkness went straight to the African American section in Borders. This disturbed me for many reasons. For a while there reviewers were happy to pay attention to my books around February, but sometimes wondered–in writing–why all my titles weren’t published to correspond with Black History month. So, I guess it hasn’t been easy. But I’m always aiming kind of high, so I don’t expect it to be easy.
Tempest: Lately there has been a lot of discussion about the lack of diversity in the SF genre. Did you know that before you got started?
David: Sure, and that’s another reason it felt important to take a crack at it. The book is not a “Black Fantasy” (although I wish there were more of those, too). But my experience with life makes it impossible to create an imagined world that lacks diversity. I think only a white writer could do that without even noticing it, without an inkling that’s it racist. In my case, though, I wanted a complete world, multi-colored and messy and conflicted. Just like ours, but different. And I hope that some out there take some inspiration from my doing it as a black writer. We should be able to do whatever we want. And the more we do in the more places the better everyone will be for it.
I’ve read the work of a handful of student writers of color that are writing fantasy or science fiction. So far none of them have had a word to say about race. It’s been as absent from their work as from that of the white writers they’ve been reading.
Tempest: That doesn’t surprise me. People of color rarely see themselves portrayed in meaningful ways in genre fiction. And there’s also this underlying but unspoken vibe that stories about non-whites aren’t wanted. Unless the non-whites are Asian. And, even then, they’re appropriated Asians.
David: Good point. You could ask me if I choose to base Acacia around a Mediterranean-like kingdom instead of an African-like kingdom intentionally and I’d say there were lots of reasons for that. But, I am aware that if I want to draw as many people into my world at all I’ll have a better shot at it if I start on more neutral territory, let them get used to it, and then open things up. That’s very much what I’m hoping will happen here and in future volumes.
Tempest: After you finish with this trilogy, do you think you’ll return to fantasy? Or try your hand at science fiction?
David: I don’t know if I’d be any good at science fiction. I don’t have any stories in that vein waiting for me to address them. I’d be happy to write more fantasy, maybe even more in the world of Acacia. I’m also interested in doing some YA fantasy before my kids are too old to appreciate it. I’d also hope that I can loop back into historical topics, including African-American ones. My agent (a second one, white male this time) warned me this would be hard to pull off. He was right, of course, but we’re doing it anyway.
Tempest: Always pushing that envelope…
K Tempest Bradford is a writer, blogger, and non-fiction editor for Fantasy magazine.