Charles Saunders (1946-2020)

It’s been a couple of days since I’ve heard of Charles Saunders passing away. In those couple of days I’ve had a few well meaning people ask me if I were going to write something in reference to his passing and while I fully understood why they would ask me that, I also didn’t feel as if it was my place to do so. And here’s why:

There’s this psychological pattern commonly known as “imposter syndrome” where an individual constantly doubts their talents and refuses to believe that they deserve their success, popularity or achievements. They fully expect to one day be exposed as a fraud and live in fear of the day that happens. You find it a lot among writers. Oh, yah…a whole lot of writers, trust me.

My imposter syndrome manifests in me through my relationship with a number of professional writers that thanks through the Internet I have met, worked with, met in person and even become friends with. The very notion that these accomplished men and women whose writings I have read and enjoyed for many years that treat me as a fellow professional still blows my mind and I often feel that somehow, I’ve tricked them into thinking I’m far more intelligent and talented than I actually am.

Which brings me to Charles Saunders. When people asked me if was I going to write something about Charles, I felt that Ron Fortier, whose friendship with him goes back to the 1970s and Milton Davis, who worked quite closely with Charles in recent years were more qualified to speak about Charles and that I would be stepping on toes by being presumptuous in claiming a relationship that wasn’t there.

But after talking with my wife Patricia and re-reading some of the letters Charles wrote me, I realized that there indeed was a relationship Charles and I had for a long time even though we had never met in person. I wouldn’t be the kind of writer I am without Charles Saunders. Don’t get me wrong…I would still have been a writer. It’s what I’m hardwired to be. But it was Charles Saunders that expanded my notion of what a black writer could write about. He, along with Octavia Butler, Chester Himes, Ishmael Reed, Samuel R. Delany and Langston Hughes helped me to have the courage to write what I wanted to write, instead of what I was “supposed” to write or what I “should” be writing.

I discovered IMARO sometime during the 1980s when I spent a lot of time on weekends hanging out in Manhattan’s used bookstores. At that time, I was hip deep in Robert E. Howard, Michael Moorcock, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Lin Carter, Fritz Leiber and the sight of a Heroic Fantasy/Sword & Sorcery paperback with a black hero on the cover was enough to drive all the air out of my body. I bought the book on the spot, asked the guy behind the counter if he had any more books like that. He gave me that; “Get outta here, man,” look and so I took the book home and during that weekend read it two times. Next weekend I read it two more times. It was that much of a revelation to me.

You have to understand that I didn’t get much encouragement from black folks as to the stuff I liked to write. Even other black writers didn’t have much respect or liking for my pulp influenced action adventures or Science Fiction or Sword and Sorcery. “That’s stuff for white people” I would be told or, “You need to write books that will educate. Our kids don’t need that.”

So when I found Charles Saunders it was akin to Indiana Jones finding the Ark of The Covenant. Here was proof that what I liked to write could be published. I could write what I liked to write and it would find an audience. As this was pre-Internet I had no way of knowing the setbacks and indignities Charles himself had to struggle with and like most visionaries he was not accepted or appreciated the way he should have been because he truly was ahead of his time. He is now known as the Father of Sword and Soul, but man, did it take him a long time for that acknowledgment. It’s not an easy thing to be the founder of a genre. But that’s what it means to be a trailblazer, leading the way for others to follow. Quite often, it’s the scout that returns to the wagon train with a lotta arrows in his back. But because he went on ahead and found a way, the wagon train gets to where it’s going. And all of us who have loved Charles for the characters he created and the stories he told are still on that wagon train, because it’s not the destination. It’s never the destination. It’s the path you create and the journey you take, the pushing of boundaries further and further out so that the ones following you know where to go because you made that road easier.

Charles Saunders expressed an appreciation and enjoyment of my work that still sustains me when I hit those days when the words struggle to flow the way they should. I consider myself blessed that for a time we exchanged letters and communicated not just as writers but I also hope with all my heart, as friends.

Thank you, Charles.

The Sword and Soul Must Read List Courtesy of Milton Davis, The Godson of Sword and Soul

Kind of a grandiose title, right? And Milton would probably be the first one to knock me upside my head for bestowing that title upon him but I can’t help it. Whenever I think of Sword and Soul I first think of Charles Saunders, that remarkably talented founder of the genre and the man who I consider to be The Godfather of Sword and Soul. At its simplest Sword and Soul is African inspired Heroic Fantasy/Sword & Sorcery . That’s the thumbnail version. For a more in depth and comprehensive overview of the genre I point you in the direction of an article written by Balogun Ojetade who is himself no stranger to the genre:

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Sword and Soul: Much needed new genre? Or Simply something old with a new coat of paint? By Balogun Ojetade

And Milton Davis is the second name I think of when it comes to Sword and Sword because he’s had  considerable influence in revitalizing and reinvigorating the genre, spreading knowledge of it and inspiring a whole generation of brand new writers who have embraced Sword and Soul with a burning passion, elevating and evolving it in exciting and fascinating new directions. That’s why I call him The Godson of Sword and Soul.

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“Okay, Derrick,” you say. “I’m sufficiently intrigued to want to know more. But where do I begin? Who should I be reading? What books and writers do I start with?”

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I’m glad you asked because Milton Davis has been good enough to compile a list of Sword and Soul books that you can start with. And here it is:

  1. IMARO by Charles Saunders
  2. DOSSOUYE by Charles Saunders
  3. MEJI by Milton Davis
  4. GRIOTS Edited by Milton Davis and Charles Saunders
  5. GRIOTS: SISTERS OF THE SPEAR Edited by Charles Saunders and Milton Davis
  6. ONCE UPON A TIME IN AFRICA by Balogun Ojetade
  7. THE CONSTANT TOWER by Carole McDonnell
  8. ABENGONI: FIRST CALLING by Charles Saunders
  9. SONGS OF THE SUNYA: TALES FROM THE SANDS OF TIME by Mansa Myrie
  10. CHANGA’S SAFARI by Milton Davis
  11. WHEN NIGHT FALLS by Gerald L. Coleman

Many of these I have read myself and heartily recommend and as for those I haven’t read, I trust Milton’s recommendation as to their quality and entertainment value so don’t be wary of diving in and discovering the magic and majesty of Sword and Soul for yourself. Enjoy!

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The Spirit of Wakanda

If you’re among those who saw BLACK PANTHER and loved it…

…and if you didn’t love it I’m not sure we can still be friends. But I digress…

…you’re probably salivating and looking forward to more adventures of King T’Challa and wondering how you’re going to fill your entertainment hours with more of the same. You desperately crave for more fantastic tales of black heroes and heroines to feed your stimulated imagination now that your creative juices are flowing and your soul seeks to enrich itself with legends and stories of heroes and heroines who can stand shoulder to shoulder with T’Challa, Princess Shuri, Nakia, Okoye and M’Baku.

Look no more.

There’s a legion of staggeringly creative black writers and artists that have been working like gubmint mules for years producing just those kinds of stories. Some of their names you know. Charles Saunders. Milton Davis. Balogun Ojetade. Gerald L. Coleman. Valjeanne Jeffers. Jeff Carroll. Nicole Givens Kurtz. Toi Thomas. Alicia MCalla. Thaddeus Howze. Brian W. Parker. Ronald T. Jones. Mshindo Kuumba. Jarvis Sheffield.

Some names you don’t. But that’s okay. There’s two places you should start to learn the names you’re not familiar with.

One is here: Black Science Fiction Society

And the other is here: The State Of Black Science Fiction

So now you don’t have to wait. Because there is more wonder and adventure out there than I think you didn’t know existed. And I envy you the discovery. Wakanda is not just a country. It is not just a warrior spirit and code. It is not just a technology. Although it embraces and celebrates all of these.

Wakanda is also a family of imagination. Because we can dream our future into reality.

And in this…we are all this day and forevermore citizens of Wakanda.

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“Wakanda will no longer watch from the shadows. We cannot. We must not. We will work to be an example of how we, as brothers and sisters on this earth, should treat each other. Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another, as if we were one single tribe.”

-King T’Challa, Sovereign of Wakanda

Derrick Ferguson Listens To The Tales of The GRIOTS

GRIOTS

Before we get into the meat-n-potatoes of this review, it’s necessary that Sherman set the Wayback Machine for the 1970’s so we can indulge in a brief history lesson for context: Charles R. Saunders is a writer who like most of you reading this review fell in love with the work of Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan, King Kull and Solomon Kane.  REH is credited with being the creator of “sword and sorcery” a sub-genre of epic fantasy.  Sword and sorcery concerns itself with stories driven by action, healthy doses of sex and violence and strong supernatural/magical elements.

So in love with sword and sorcery is he that Mr. Saunders sets about writing his own stories.  And in doing so he determines to expand the genre by creating a black heroic fantasy character and set his adventures in a mythical Africa just as fabulous and dangerous as Howard’s Hyborian Age. And with his stories of Imaro, Charles Saunders gives birth to what is now known as “sword and soul” which are fantasy stories with an African connection or featuring African characters

I’ve been a fan of Mr. Saunders and his work ever since I was a high school student back in the 70’s and devouring heroic fiction at an appalling rate.  And as the Wayback Machine brings us back to the present we can begin this review proper with the good news that sword-and-soul is not only thriving here and now, it is giving voice to a new generation of African American fantasy writers eager to explore the genre and continue to nourish it with their talents.

GRIOTS is an anthology of sword and soul stories co-edited by Mr. Saunders and Milton J. Davis who himself has long carved out his own territory in the genre.  The fourteen stories in the book are:

“Captured Beauty” by Milton Davis.  It’s a great action story to lead off the book with.  It’s a simple plot having to do with rescuing a beautiful damsel in distress from the clutches of a vile villain.  But what made this story stand out for me were the characterizations of the protagonist Changa and his employer, the merchant Belay and their relationship.

“Awakening” by Valjeanne Jeffers.  It starts out with a little girl who has no desire to spend her adult days sitting around being ladylike and raising squalling brats while the men have all the fun being warriors and having adventures. The girl, Nandi, grows up and finds out that there’s a supernatural force in her life who also thinks that yeah, her being a warrior is a pretty good idea.

“Lost Son” by Maurice Broaddus is a story I wanted to like a lot more than I do as I like Mr. Broaddus’ style of writing.  But the story just seemed to end without resolution or even much of a point.

“In The Wake of Mist” by Kirk A. Johnson is another story I didn’t get.  Although I liked the imagery the writer evokes, that’s all the impression the story made on me.  A series of wonderfully described images that really didn’t seem to go anywhere or evoke any sort of feeling in me.

“Skin Magic” by Djeli A. Clark kicks the anthology back into action mode with a story that has a healthy heap of horror.  The main character is a thief on the run who has living tattoos on his skin that are portals to a nightmarish limbo through which Cthulhuian creatures can emerge into our world.  The thief, barely able to control this horrible ability is pursued by the fearsome minions of a consortium of dark magicians who desire this power for their own purposes.  As soon as I finished this story, I wanted to read a sequel right away.

“The Demon In The Wall” by Stafford L. Battle is one of my favorite stories in this anthology.  Equal parts high adventure and comedy, it’s an entertaining near parody of the genre.  The sorceress Makhulu and her grandson, the warrior Zende are characters I’d love to see more of.  The banter between them alone is worth reading the story for.

“The Belly of The Crocodile” by Minister Faust is a tale of sibling rivalry.  And that’s all I’ll say about it because it’s not a long story and its emotional punch is best served by reading it yourself.

“Changeling” by Carole McDonnell is a story that works just the way it is but if it were twice as long I wouldn’t kick.  This is about three sisters destined to marry and become queens of their own kingdoms.  But the real prize is their native kingdom only one of them will inherit when their mother dies.  It’s got that ‘Once Upon A Time” feeling as it unfolds it’s ultimately sorrowful tale.  It’s a story of Shakespearean tragedy that has a lot to say about human nature and the ugly power of jealousy.

“The General’s Daughter” by Anthony Nana Kwamu is a good choice to follow “Changeling” as they have something in common.  Both of them have more than their share of action but they also dig deeper into the emotional core of their characters to reveal who these people really are and why we should care about what happens to them.  I really liked the emotional resonance I felt in both these stories after I finished them.

“Sekadi’s Koan” by Geoffrey Thorne is another story I immediately wanted a sequel to as soon as I finished reading it.  I got a very strong Roger Zelazny vibe in this tale of a gifted martial artist studying her deadly art at a school located…well, I’m not sure where it’s located but I was so entertained I didn’t care.  And unlike some other stories where I got the impression that the writers themselves weren’t sure of where their stories were happening, I didn’t get that impression from Mr. Thorne.  I got the feeling he knew exactly where and when his story was taking place but is saving that for what I hope will be future stories about Sekadi.

“The Queen, The Demon and The Mercenary” is by Ronald T. Jones and like “The Demon In The Wall” is a story that seems designed for nothing but the reader to have as much fun reading it as I’m sure the writer had writing it.  The swaggering warrior Toulou sets out to rescue a suffering kingdom from the demon-wizard terrorizing the people and does it in style.  Highly recommended.

“Icewitch” by Rebecca McFarland Kyle proves that you don’t necessarily have to set a sword and soul story in an African setting.  This story takes place in a frigid realm where a dark-skinned youth struggles to find acceptance among his mother’s people who are lighter-skinned.

The only real problem I have with Melvin Carter’s “The Leopard Walks Alone” is the ugliness of the names in the story.  I tried saying them aloud and I swear I bruised my tongue.  I realize it’s a somewhat petty quibble but naming is important in fantasy stories.  Difficult and harsh sounding names should be used sparingly.

And The Master himself, Charles Saunders finishes up the anthology with a tale of Imaro: “The Three Faced One” If you’ve never read an Imaro story or anything by Charles Saunders, this is an excellent introduction to both.

GRIOTS also boasts fourteen interior black and white illustrations by fourteen separate artists as well as biographical information about the writers and artists and introductory essays by the editors.  The cover by Natiq Jalil is simply wonderful to look at.

So should you read GRIOTS?  Absolutely.  True, a few of the stories didn’t turn my crank but most of them did.  If you’re a sword and sorcery fan looking for some heroic fantasy that takes place in realms other than the Medieval or ancient settings most sword-and-sorcery stories take place in then you most certainly should check this anthology out.

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Want a copy of GRIOTS? You know you do. Okay, go HERE and get yourself one.