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.