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.
Since his arrival on the fantasy adventure scene back in the 70s, Charles Saunders has been recognized as one of the most successful African American writers in the field today. His action/adventure hero Imaro has been featured in a half dozen novels all of which went on to inspire generations of young black authors.
In 2011 Saunders wrote “Damballa” the first ever black pulp hero for Airship 27 Productions. Operating out of Harlem in the 1930s, Damballa employs unique African magic to battle gangsters and crooked politicians. Two years later Saunders introduced the Jungle Witch Luluma in his short story “Mtimu” which appeared in the Pro Se Production’s bestselling anthology, “Black Pulp.” At the start of the tale, the beautiful Luluma is a servant of a villainous hunter but by the story’s end she realizes his true nature and regains her independence thanks to the hero, Mtimu. Atypical of Saunders talent, she is a powerful character worthy of her own series.
Now Airship 27 Productions is proud to announce their creation of two new on-going book series, “Charles Saunders presents Damballa” and “Charles Saunders presents Luluma.” Managing Editor Ron Fortier elaborates. “In recent years, Charles Saunders has been extremely busy working on a truly unique black fantasy saga. So much so that it became impossible for him to devote any time to his other creations. When we suggested the possibilities of continuing both Damballa and Luluma with other writers, he was very excited about the concept and gave us his approval. Have no fear, he will be overseeing each series as they progress.”
Writing the first ever Lulama novel will be writer/publisher Milton Davis of MVmedia LLC. “I’ve known Charles Saunders for eleven years and had the privilege to work with him on a number of projects. I’m excited to have the opportunity to develop a novel based on one of his characters. It’s a dream come true.”
While Pulp Factory Award winning writer Derrick Ferguson will write the all new Damaballa adventure. “One the things that has always overwhelmed me in my New Pulp career is that I have gotten to meet with so many professionals whose work I have enjoyed and to my utter astonishment and joy I have found myself embraced and welcomed as a fellow professional.
“To say that I am honored to be given the opportunity to write a character created by Charles Saunders with his blessing is truly an understatement. Charles Saunders is one of the reasons I am writing today and to be working with him is an opportunity I never would have dreamed could have taken place. I pray that I do justice to the magnificent character of Damballa.”
At present there is no specific time set for the release of these new books. “Our plan is to move forward with full length novels first,” Fortier continues. “Later, if there is an interest, we may also produce anthologies featuring both Damballa and Lulama. We’ll leave that up to our network of pulp writers and the response of our readers. We see some truly amazing possibilities in the future for both characters and are greatly indebted to Charles’s faith in us.”
AIRSHIP 27 PRODUCTIONS – PULP FICTION FOR A NEW GENERATION!
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:
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.
“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?”
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:
IMARO by Charles Saunders
DOSSOUYE by Charles Saunders
MEJI by Milton Davis
GRIOTS Edited by Milton Davis and Charles Saunders
GRIOTS: SISTERS OF THE SPEAR Edited by Charles Saunders and Milton Davis
ONCE UPON A TIME IN AFRICA by Balogun Ojetade
THE CONSTANT TOWER by Carole McDonnell
ABENGONI: FIRST CALLING by Charles Saunders
SONGS OF THE SUNYA: TALES FROM THE SANDS OF TIME by Mansa Myrie
CHANGA’S SAFARI by Milton Davis
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!
Derrick Ferguson: It’s been quite a while since we’ve done this so for the benefit of those who don’t know you (and shame on them!) who is Valjeanne Jeffers?
Valjeanne Jeffers: Greetings sweet readers and authors. I’m the author of nine books, including my most popular Immortal series and Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective series, as well as one nonfiction book, The Story of Eve, which has only been published as articles. I also co-edited, with Quinton Veal, Scierogenous: An Anthology of Erotic Science Fiction andFantasy (Volumes I and II). I’ve been published in a number of anthologies, including: TheBright Empire, Fitting In, Black Magic Women,Luminescent Threads, Sycorax’s Daughters and Blerdrotica (in press).
DF: Where do you live and what do you tell the IRS you do?
VJ: I live in Alabama and I work as a teacher and literary editor. I love editing because I get to read wonderful books, mostly speculative fiction, for free.
DF: So how has the writing thing been going for you since we last talked? You’ve been a busy young lady.
VJ: I wish everything went as smoothly as my writing. There are always marketing headaches when you’re an Indie author. Right now, I’m working on getting all of my books on Barnes & Nobel’s site, and ultimately into their physical stores. I’m hoping that this will be a game changer for my book sales.
DF: Is writing getting easier or harder? Have you made any major changes or adjustments in how you work, where your work or the hours that you work?
VJ: I have to balance my writing with my work schedule, and that part is easier since I now set my own hours. I’ve also found my voice and a ton of support from my writing circle, so I don’t doubt myself as much as I used to. We writers are quirky folks, and it has been so beautiful to find my niche among them.
Yet, writing a book, for me, is like starting journey where you have a general idea of your destination, and no idea how you’re going to get there. It’s like that for me every time. That’s the difficult part. In my latest novel, Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective III, I tackled some issues that were very close to home, and this too made it harder. But I can see my way to the conclusion of my latest journey.
DF: You’ve been doing this for a goodly amount of time now. Have you found your audience? Or have they found you?
VJ: I believe that I have found my audience. Yet a writer’s work is never done when it comes to discovering new readers. I’m working really hard on getting my books into brick and mortar stores and attending events where I can meet and greet folks. Also, cons and author signings are a lot of fun.
DF: What are your thoughts on the role and direction of African-American Speculative Fiction written by Women of Color in the past five years?
VJ: I started this journey back in 2007. When I first began writing and reading the only black female authors I knew were: Octavia Butler, Tananarive Due and Nalo Hopkinson. Since then, black women have made tremendous strides as authors, directors and filmmakers. I’m one of the contributing screenwriters for the “7Magpies” horror anthology film, spearheaded by producer and creator, Lucy Cruell. Lucy decided to bring together me, Tananarive Due, Sumiko Saulson, Eden Royce, Crystal Connor, Linda D Addison, and Paula Ashe together as screenwriters to make this project happen, as well as several female directors, including Rae Dawn Chong. This film project has been in the works for a while, but hopefully we’ll see the finished product soon.
DF: I’ve noticed in the past few years you’ve been writing in the genre of Erotic Science Fiction which I didn’t know was a genre until I read some of your stories. Is this a genre we should all be reading?
VJ: I’ve co-edited Scierogenous I and II, and some of the writers in my circle write erotic science fiction, most notably Sumiko Saulson, Quinton Veal and Penelope Flynn. So, I believe that erotic science fiction may be ascending from sub-genre to full-fledged genre status. It ain’t for the faint of heart, but a lot of folks dig it.
I have a mix-media approach to writing: I write horror, science fiction and fantasy and I adore them all. Derrick, you once referred to my writing style as imaginatively experimental and I love this description. Yet, I don’t consider myself to be an erotic writer. I think of myself as someone who writes stories and novels with erotic elements. Author Milton Davis, when I posed this question to him, told me that if I removed all of the erotic elements from my stories, they would still be solid stories. But, if folks describe me as a writer of erotica, that’s cool. Often, it’s your readers who define your work according to how it moves them. As a case in point, I didn’t consider myself to be a horror writer, until Sumiko Saulson included my Immortal series in “60 Black Women in Horror Fiction” (she has since updated this volume to include 100 writers). I was blown away! And so, I took on the cap of “horror writer” and ran with it. Now, my most popular series is Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective, a horror/steamfunk series.
DF: You are a highly prominent and respected female African-American Speculative Fiction writer. At least I think so. But where do you see your place on the field? What position do you hold?
VJ: I graciously accept both titles. I believe that I have reached the point in my writing career where I am both a well-known and respected author. But there are shoulders that I’ve stood on to reach this point in my writing journey, most notably Octavia Butler. Octavia has always been my writing mentor, although I wasn’t fortunate enough to meet her while she was alive. And she continues to inspire me.
Last summer at Blacktasticon 2018, I sat on a panel with some of the heaviest hitters in the black SF community, to discuss Octavia’s writing and the impact that she continues to have on speculative fiction. I was honored to sit beside them. So, as I writer I have arrived, but there’s still room for growth.
DF: What keeps you motivated during creative slumps?
VJ: Octavia Butler has the best recipe for overcoming writers block: “First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.” As writers, we have to keep it moving, even through creative slumps. It’s okay to take some time off, to step back and let things simmer for a while. But when I leave my characters for too long, they become strangers, and then I have to go through the process of reacquainting myself with them.
Also, outlines work best for me, when I find myself writing in circles. Music too, is one of the greatest sources of inspiration for me. I’ve actually created scenes inspired by music. I once wrote a concluding action scene listening to “Rollin Crumblin” and another one listening to “Magic Carpet Ride.” And I listen to all genres of music depending on what mood I’m in: Jazz, Hip Hop, R&B, Blues and Rock.
Lately I’ve been listening to one of my favorite bands (just their music from the ‘70s) WAR
DF: What do you do with your free time when you’re not writing?
VJ: If I’m not writing I’m usually working or reading. I have three books on my kindle that I’m reading (Gerald Coleman’s “Plague of Shadows”, Joe Bonadonna’s “Mad Shadows II”, and Alan D. Jones’ “Blerd Tales”). I’m still working on reading stories from the anthologies I’ve been published in. I recently got my copy of The Bright Empire (edited by Milton Davis and Gene Peterson) and the first story I read was Balogun Ojetade’s “The Transmission of Aragomago;” it’s outstanding. I also just finished reading Nicole Kurtz’s story “Belly Talker” (from the Blacktasticon Anthology edited by Milton Davis) which is also off the chain. And I have a few favorite TV programs that I watch, or I try to catch a decent SF/fantasy movie.
DF: Tell us about your upcoming projects. What can we look forward to from Valjeanne Jeffers in 2019?
VJ: I’m currently writing Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective III: The Case of the VanishingChild. I should be finished by late Spring or early summer. And I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a children’s novel based on my short story, “The Visitor” (which was very well received). But I won’t tackle this until I finish Mona Livelong III. Author and artist Penelope Flynn is releasing an anthology of erotic science science, Blerdrotica, and my story “Aura’s Awakening” will be included, and I am very excited about it.
DF: Drop some Words of Wisdom on all the aspiring young writers out there reading this and thirsting for your knowledge.
VJ: My advice to all new authors is read books in your genre, or just read. Read the authors you admire and don’t worry if your words don’t sound like theirs. Variety is the sugar and spice of life, so find your own voice and write! Once you put pen to paper, you are a writer, no matter what anyone says.
DF: What is the one story or novel of yours that you would recommend that we should start with?
VJ: If your taste is Fantasy/Afrofuturism with a dash of Horror start with Immortal. If you prefer your Horror/Steamfunk straight with no chaser, start with Mona Livelong: Paranormal Detective: The Case of the Angry Ghost.
DF: What’s a Typical Day In The Life of Valjeanne Jeffers like?
VJ: Normally my days consist of writing, reading and playing with my grand babies – who are playing with my dog Caesar and my cat Cleo. I usually teach in the evenings, unless I’m editing a novel.
Derrick Ferguson: Anything else we should know?
Valjeanne Jeffers: I’d like to thank you Derrick, pulp writer extraordinaire, for interviewing me! And I wish everyone love, peace and creativity.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.