Congratulations on this wonderful story! Could you tell us a little about how it came to be?
Thanks! So, this story is an origin tale of sorts. I actually wrote another story back in 2011 set in this world, with at least two of the same characters. But it was longer than I liked, and with too many moving parts. After repeated attempts, I walked away and worked on some other projects. In 2012, hoping to get some new inspiration, I commissioned artwork to be done for the story by Jason Reeves over at 133Art. The piece was a hit, and was even featured at the 2015-2016 Unveiling Visions: The Alchemy of the Black Imagination exhibit at the Schomburg in Harlem. When the call for POCDF submissions came out, it seemed the right time to return to this world. I set my original write-up aside, and instead tried to explore the background of the central character, hoping to give her more depth and meaning. The result was this story.
The world of the Ten Chiefdoms is so fascinating. Feathered lizards, winged monkeys, pottery that comes to life; the backdrop seems filled with these tiny elements that really bring it all to life. I have to ask—is there more of this world planned?
Who doesn’t like winged monkeys? When it comes to worldbuilding, especially in fantasy, it’s those little elements that add texture to the setting: the clothing, the food, the architecture, the color and scents. The world of the Ten Chiefdoms has diverse inspirations: from Central Africa to the Caribbean. So you see bits of history, music, folklore, politics, and even dialect, of these vast regions interwoven throughout. There’s also a closeness to nature, which allowed me to include a bestiary of fabulous creatures. Why, for instance, giant feathered lizards? Because in this tropical setting, horses are problematic, not to mention boring! This was also a way to give myself playful elements that I know I’ll enjoy returning to—if only to explore them further. So yes, there’s definitely more planned for this world. This story is a beginning.
Themes of mothership, of matriarchy and patriarchy, also play a strong role in the story. Was this an intentional choice? What do you think the story has to say about the role of women in the Ten Chiefdoms and, by extension, in our world?
Intentional is always a hard thing to suss out. From my first writings in this world I knew the protagonist’s backstory—which tied a mother-daughter relationship to the broader societal politics of the Ten Chiefdoms. The rest grew from there, leading me to explore several gendered themes: women as keepers of sacred knowledge, rituals, beliefs; women who are marginalized or persecuted for holding such knowledge; women finding ways to resist their persecution through secrecy or preservation. There are enough examples of this from our own world that play out across cultures, time, and space—especially in societies facing stress or shock. The Ten Chiefdoms similarly arises after a great upheaval. In the search for stability, edicts are passed that disproportionately impact women, diminishing their status and power. But as we learn, and as we know from our world, resistance will always take root in the midst of persecution.
As a writer of color, how do you think your heritage affects your writing?
It’s always there. I grew up reading a lot of fantasy in which I barely saw anyone who looked like me. And nearly everywhere looked and felt like Middle Earth (at least the less swarthy parts). But fantasy can take place anywhere, and the characters can look like anyone. In this story, for instance, I threw in a bit of Carnival folklore from the Eastern Caribbean—a distinct part of my own heritage. I was hesitant at first. Could I do that? Was I breaking some unwritten rule of the fantasy gods? Was J.R.R. Tolkien going to frown down on me? Then I remembered this was fantasy—with talking dragons and whatnot. I’m supposed to break the rules and overthrow gods. So I did what I had to do.
What’s next for P. Djèlí Clark? What are you working on now?
A gothic fantasy novella complete with magic swords, sorcerers, and monsters. Did I mention it’s set in 1920s Georgia? Of course it is.