Rebecca Roanhorse: From Legend to Fantasy

Rebecca Roanhorse Locus Magazine Interview

REBECCA ROANHORSE was born in 1971 in Conway AR and grew up in Fort Worth TX. She received a B.A. in Religious Studies from Yale University and an M.A. in Theology from Union Theological Seminary before going on to receive a J.D. from the Univer­sity of New Mexico School of Law, specializing in Federal Indian Law. Roanhorse is of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo and African American descent, and writes “rez-based fantasy and indigenous futurisms.” She attended the VONA/Voices workshop in 2015.

Debut story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experi­ence™” won Hugo and Nebula Awards, was nominated for a Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and was a World Fan­tasy Award finalist. Her first novel Trail of Lightning (2018) began the four-book Sixth World series, with the second book, Storm of Locusts, coming in April 2019. Middle-grade novel Race to the Sky will appear in 2019, and an Anasazi-inspired epic fantasy trilogy is scheduled to begin with Between the Earth and the Sky in 2020. She is this year’s winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.

Roanhorse lives in Sante Fe NM with her husband, daughter, and pug.

Excerpts from the interview:

“I’m half Ohkay Owingeh and half black, and I have always had an outsider status. I’ve always been the person in the liminal spaces, in the in-between, and I have never quite fit in any particular mold. I’m good with that now – as an adult that’s fine – but as a child that’s a tough place to be. I will always write the outsiders. I will always be drawn to that. Even in ‘Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM‘, the main character is Native, but he’s not a very good one. He’s not a paragon of his culture – he’s just trying to get by and maybe make a buck and have a beer at the end of the day.

“In short fiction you can do a lot more experimental things. ‘Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM‘ is written in second-person present, and there’s no way I could sustain that for a book. It works in that story because it’s a virtual reality story about appropriation, and one of the things I wanted it to do, be­sides just to be a good story and have an emotional bite, was to make the reader complicit in the appropriation. I picked second-person to put the reader in the protagonist’s shoes, and I picked present because appropriation is happening now, and I wanted to give the story a sense of urgency. The novel and short story forms serve different functions. I can do a better deep-dive of worldbuilding and character development in a novel, but the short story can be a lot more exploratory.

“I can’t ever remember a time when I wasn’t reading. I was one of those kids who would hole up in the closet with my books and just read a lot. I read a lot of fantasy. I read the Dragonlance Chronicles – I was a little obsessed with Raistlin – and the Belgariad by Eddings of course. The first science fiction novel I remember is Dune, and that set me on my path.

“Reading and writing go hand-in-hand in my mind. I won my first poetry contest in third grade and I was hooked. I grew up in Fort Worth TX, and being a black and Native kid in Fort Worth in the ’70s and ’80s was pretty limiting, and I needed the escape. I wrote a lot of SF because I imagined different worlds and different places, and created complex places to escape to. I wrote my first story in sev­enth grade, and it just grew from there. I’ve been writing all my life.

“My mom was a high school English teacher, so she was very supportive – she would praise my work. It could be crap and she would still say she loved it. My dad was an economics professor, so they were both very well-read.

“My dad has passed away, but I recently gave my mom Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders and Victor LaValle’s The Changeling, just to expand her horizons a bit. I think she had no idea what to do with those books. She read them, so I’m proud of her, but she was like, ‘Is this supposed to be real?’ I said, ‘Just go with it, Mom.’

“I started to get serious about writ­ing in 2015, about the time I applied to VONA/Voices, a summer workshop run by the Voices of Our Nations Art Foundation. I was looking around for workshops, trying to take my writing to the next level, and I didn’t see anything that seemed welcoming. It can be intimidating, especially when you’re me. There was a workshop meant for writers of color, and I thought, ‘If I’m going to be in an environment where my work is being critiqued and I’m on the spot, I’d prefer to be around other people of color, who have probably had similar life experiences to mine.’

“I’m a lawyer by trade – that’s my day job. Before I was writing, that job was sucking my soul dry. I’d also just had a child, who was still pretty small, and I was feeling lost as far as who I was. I needed to find something to bring me back to who Rebecca is, instead of all these roles I was playing – as care­giver, or breadwinner, or whatever. So I turned to writing again. Writing has always been my special place, my joy. As I got more into it, I found a writing group and a local critique group. The feedback was good, and the camarade­rie, and seeing other people that had published – it started to seem like be­ing a writer wasn’t that far out of reach, and that it could be done. So I just did it. Full-time writing is my dream. My first book just came out, so let’s see how it sells, and see if people enjoy it, and then I’ll go from there.

“Growing up, I read all the fantasy you would expect, and yes, it was very white. In college I discovered the black literary world. I read a lot of Toni Mor­rison, Alice Walker, all those classics, and left fantasy behind for a while. I remember being in an airport, coming home during senior year in college or something, and picking up a Laurell K. Hamilton book. Vampires and were­wolves, fighting over the woman they love! I was like, ‘What? You can write and publish this?’ That was my entry into urban fantasy, and that brought me back into the fantasy fold. Urban fantasy was usually woman-centered, and though it was still mostly white, it was more accessible than farm boys go­ing on quests, and that got me excited about the genre again.

“I wrote so many white boys when I was starting out. I would write epic fantasy quests, space pirates, sci-fi cops, and they all centered white men. I didn’t know I could center people who looked like me. I didn’t even realize I could center women until I came back into fantasy via urban fantasy. The programming is real.

“Why Trail of Lightning? I was reading these urban fantasies with female protagonists who were half-Native, but they were written by white authors, and their Nativeness often just manifested as some superpower, usually nature-based – they could shapeshift into a coyote or call on some nature element or something, and I was like, ‘This Native repre­sentation is crap’ – no offense to those authors. It just didn’t feel like anything I knew from living on the reservation, or my experience of Nativeness. They didn’t even know their tribes. I wanted to write a story where the Native characters looked like the people I know, and function like the people I know. I didn’t want to base it in fairies or vampires or any other European mythology we see so much in fan­tasy. I wanted to base it in Navajo mythology. Why wouldn’t I? We have this rich tradition of stories and heroes and legends and gods and no one really knows, outside of Navajo circles, and that seemed like a shame.”

Interview design by Stephen H. Segal. Photograph by Arley Sorg.

Read the full review in the September 2018 issue of Locus.

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