I first heard Daniel José Older read back in 2012, at Readercon in Burlington, MA, during a Music and Words reading where authors read with backing music. I was impressed with Daniel and how he connected his reading with the rhythm and texture of the music. As it turns out, Daniel himself is a composer, in addition to being a writer, a former EMT, and a community activist. He regularly reads with a backing band, and music has a tendency to turn up in his work, whether it’s in the titles of his books (Salsa Nocturna, the Bone Street Rumba series) or the lives of his characters, such as the salsa-thrash band led by the protagonist’s older brother in his upcoming YA novel Shadowshaper. In truth, though he writes what could easily be called fantasy, much of Older’s stories reflects the detail and rhythms of real life, whether his own or the lives of others, in small details and broad strokes, which is precisely why his writing is so strong and relevant for readers.
Over the course of an hour-long phone call, Older and I talked about his work, both his published fiction and his nonfiction essays for BuzzFeed and other sources, before diving into discussions of the bigger issues reflected in his writing and his social media commentary—and in truth, Older welcomes the conflation of these things and the conversations that arise. He is unapologetic about his views, and he is eager to share them with anyone who will pay attention, so long as they don’t mind having their comfort zones disrupted a bit. Indeed, as Older essentially states later in the interview, it’s hard to learn vital truths without becoming uncomfortable at times.
The Rumpus: Half-Resurrection Blues is often held up as a work of urban fantasy, and it definitely feels like a strong example of that genre, but I also saw it as this interesting blend of urban fantasy, horror, and also a strong noir element. The voice of Carlos, the protagonist, especially feels very noir-inflected. Is that something a lot of people have asked you about so far in regards to the book, the noir influence?
Daniel José Older: They haven’t, actually! I think a lot of people just take it for a given because urban fantasy is sort of an indirect, mutant cousin of noir. The line of descent has gotten a little murky, though. It’s rare that I read urban fantasy and feel like it’s gotten that noir vibe, because noir is such a rich genre with so many power plays and such rawness, and I feel like a lot of urban fantasy swings towards whimsy, in a way that’s not my personal style. So I wanted to get back to those power plays and rawness.
Rumpus: It definitely feels more noir-like at times, yeah, in how you explain it. So, what kinds of noir stories or writers influenced you on Half-Resurrection Blues, if at all?
Older: Dashiell Hammett is really, like, my No. 1 there, and I have one of those Big Books of Noir and I just read through it and pick random stories in it, and try to respond to those. Another big writer for me is Walter Mosley. His Easy Rawlins is one of the best contemporary noir series that we have, and that does it as far as the grittiness, but there’s a level of truth telling in those stories that feels raw too, and I love that. That’s definitely one of the writers that led directly into my Bone Street Rumba world. I remember one of his books, Six Easy Pieces, a collection of Rawlins stories. That was my introduction to Mosley, and I read it all in one night, in one sitting, and I was like, Oh my god! Because it was a revelatory read. Mosley was doing stuff I didn’t know you could do. Back then, I always liked noir, but I wasn’t a fanatic by any means, and I was always a little wary of reading it because I knew, in most of the literature of noir, it was full of all these kind of racist and sexist things. I felt like I always had to be ready for that, reading noir. And then I read Mosley and I was like, What?! He took noir and used it to talk about race, class, and gender in a deep way, and still told a fascinating, exciting story that was purely noir, in a voice that was real and spoke to who the main character really is, and not necessarily white.
Rumpus: That just makes me want to dig into Mosley even more now! I know Mosley is one of those really interesting writers, because he’s so famous for his noir work, but he’s written sci-fi stuff too.
Older: I haven’t read a lot of it. I’ve read some of his sci-fi stuff, and I like what I’ve read, but I’m just a Rawlins fan in a big way. Really, he’s been a huge influence on me, and when I read Pieces, in the same year I read that, I also read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and I had been reading lots of Octavia Butler. It all kind of came together, and that’s how I became a writer. That stuff was big for me. I would also throw in Stephen King’s On Writing and the Harry Potter books.
Rumpus: It’s funny you bring up Junot Díaz because he visited my university last year, and he was great. He can honestly just work a crowd so well. He read from his story collection, This Is How You Lose Her, a bit, but just in the way he engaged and talked with the crowd, he was real and upfront about stuff happening in Kansas and going on in America. At one point he was like, “Wow, there’s a lot of white people here. You guys ever just think about that and what that means?” Just hearing him directly address that stuff and get right to it was cool and bracing.
Older: Yeah, that’s how it has to be done. That’s what required of us, especially right now. It’s really serious. There’s no time—we don’t have the luxury of tiptoeing around those kinds of issues. It’s life or death right now for a lot of people.
Rumpus: That reminds me of your Buzzfeed essay, “12 Fundamentals For Writing ‘The Other’ (And the Self),” which was really great and enlightening. One of the steps that stood out to me, as a writer, is the rule about knowing you’re going to fuck it up, and then knowing that is not an excuse not to write characters outside your own experience or ethnicity. It’s can be relieving to know you’re going to mess up, but not let that keep you from trying and improving your craft.
Older: That’s interesting to me, because that was the most popular takeaway from that article, and I was little wary of that to be totally honest with you. I think sometimes that becomes the only takeaway with a lot of people. That’s why I put that rule in the middle, on purpose, and ended with the rule about how sometimes the answer is, “No, don’t write these characters and these stories.” And that’s not to put anyone down at all! I just found the reaction to the piece really interesting because there’s sort of two problems that are almost at loggerheads with each other, and we have to look at them both. One is the lack of diversity of characters, and authors, and gatekeepers in publishing, and two is there is a huge amount of people doing it wrong, whether it’s white people writing people of color badly, or men writing women badly. So, how do we talk about both of those problems? Because both of them need to be discussed and shut down. That’s why both those pieces of advice are in there, because it depends on who you are and what your issue is, and what point in time you’re at as a writer, because we’re all growing and getting better over time. And at times, you have to step back and tell yourself you really don’t need to be writing that story, and at other times you have to write that story, and you have to do it well. You have to knock it out of the park. But on the road to that place, you’re going to fuck up, and then you have to ask yourself how you’re going to pick yourself up and do better next time. That’s really what it’s all about.
Rumpus: It’s interesting to hear that most people latched on to the rule about not messing up, because I agree, ending on the note of sometimes no is the correct answer, and you just have to set the story aside, is important. I thought the best part of that whole essay was when you reminded writers that people’s lives were at stake, as a result of these stories being written, published, and so on.
Older: Yes, and that gets lost in the conversation too. This issue of representation is really life or death, especially when we’re talking about children, like when I look at the dearth of representation in children’s literature. It makes me so sad, because I think about how kids of color have to grow up with this idea that the image of divinity and heroism is not them. And what does that mean? What does that mean for me, as a young Latino, trying to find people who look like me, or even were like me?
We talk about physical features a lot with representation and simplify it that way, but really we’re talking about something as deep as spirit, and rhythm, and soul, and narrative power. Those are all things that are part of the diversity conversation that get lost, because we’re so used to the Burger King kids’ club version of diversity where it’s like, “Oh yeah, paint the guy’s face brown, hey diversity!” That’s not actually diversity. We’re fighting for something much more in-depth than that.
Rumpus: That ties back into your other essay, “Diversity Is Not Enough.” I was rereading it earlier today, and I got to the point where the essay discusses the actual amount of children’s texts that have non-white, non-normative protagonists or characters—
Older: It’s devastating.
Rumpus: Yeah, it really is. It’s just sad. It reminds me of my students, when I teach them this essay called “The Myth of the Latin Woman” by Judith Ortiz Cofer, about Cofer living in America and traveling abroad as a Puerto Rican woman, and it’s also about the way Cofer is treated by white men in America and elsewhere versus the way people treat her in her local culture. I have white dudes in my classes who read this essay and they’re like, “I just couldn’t relate to this at all.” I’m always like, “How could you not relate to this?!”
Older: Ha! Actually maybe the point is you don’t relate to it, and that’s the problem. And that’s like the response from agents and editors who say, “I didn’t relate to that,” when we’re submitting pieces to them. When the industry is like 96% white, we have to bank off of people dealing with shit they can’t relate to in order to get our voices out there.
Rumpus: That’s such a bummer, too, seeing the way agents respond to non-white, non-normative storytellers and stories. I feel like my sphere of influence, my body of experience, is limited by all sorts of factors: my ethnicity, my class, where I go to school, etc. So it’s so sad to see agents turn up their nose at stuff like your YA novel Shadowshaper, which I absolutely loved! Like, I loved Sierra.
Older: Thank you! Thank you so much. Sierra was the character that I got rejections from agents that said they couldn’t relate to her.
Rumpus: Really? Oh God.
Older: Yeah, agents and editors. It’s ridiculous. Sierra’s not a character that should be difficult to identify with.
Rumpus: Agreed! And one of the great things about Shadowshaper and Sierra is the balance in the narrative between the supernatural conflicts, with the main villain and his supernatural cronies and her quest to learn and refine her abilities, and the realistic or mundane conflicts, like her growing sense of who she is, ethnically and personally, and how she realizes how different she is from most of the people around her. That non-supernatural part of things actually felt even more important at times than the supernatural stuff.
Older: No kidding! Not for nothing, but I think it really does connect to the fact that in 2015 we still need a movement to remind Americans that black lives matter. There is a question of relatable characters of color to a white industry, and it’s in the same conversation regarding white carelessness of black lives institutionally, and personally. When you read the tweets and see the video of the cop saying “Fuck your breath,” and all these other things that are happening, they’re all interrelated. They’re all not necessarily the same thing, but they’re interrelated, and it’s about looking at and asking about the empathy gap in whiteness that can’t conceive of the humanity of color. It’s about looking at what’s going on with whiteness there.
Rumpus: I still haven’t watched the “Fuck your breath” video yet. I know about it, and I’ve read about it, and I know where to watch it, but I’m afraid to because I know that if I do, I’m going to be really pissed. I know I should watch it, but I don’t want to for that reason. And thinking of that, alongside Eric Garner and Michael Brown and other incidents, I just, I can’t.
Older: See, that’s so right now, and it’s also been going on for a long time, and there is literature in this moment of history to respond to that. In December, I think, there was a handful of hip-hop and soul albums released that directly talked about Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter. Now, that’s like literally a few months’ time. The protests broke out in November, and by December you have albums that are dealing with it: D’Angelo, Ghostface Killah, J Cole, etc. And these people were literally talking about these issues. Now, I know it takes a long time to put an album together, and it doesn’t take as long to put a book together, and you can put up an essay in seconds, practically. Where is the literature, then, like fiction and nonfiction, that talks about, as an industry, #BlackLivesMatter?
Rumpus: What do you think, then, is the strength fiction has in starting a dialogue about this stuff, or addressing the empathy gap in whiteness and helping others gain empathy for non-white characters? When you wrote Half-Resurrection Blues, initially, what were you writing it to engage in dialogue with, culturally?
Older: I was thinking a lot about gentrification at that time; I still do. That’s a big contextual piece of that book; it’s not the whole conflict, but it’s a piece of it. It’s there. So those things are going on, and at the same time there is the element of asking in the plot, what is the meaning of an extrajudicial killing? What does that mean? Because genre fiction sometimes is quick to be pithy about human lives, and especially lives of color. A lot of the time, there’s bad guys of color, or sidekicks of color that get killed off, and then the note of redemption at the end involves killing the big black bad guy. That’s a very common theme, in detective stories or fantasy or other places, where you win by killing a black guy. That’s happened so many times.
So, how do we grant weight to lives of color in literature? I think that’s a question we all have to struggle with. That’s one of the reasons why I started my book with an extrajudicial killing between two brown and black men, and it actually has huge consequences on everyone and everything. It’s a really the worst thing that happens to Carlos, for his own life too. So, I think it’s about asking these difficult questions of ourselves as writers and trying to work through them, not necessarily knowing the answers. Certainly while writing my book, I wanted to be thinking about that. I also wanted to bring that larger conversation into the urban fantasy genre because it doesn’t happen that often in other books. Urban fantasy in general has no interest in talking about police brutality and gentrification, even though those are the two biggest problems taking place in urban settings right now.
Rumpus: I caught those things in the text, those questions and issues. What I liked was how these things, like gentrification, actually get used as metaphors for understanding how these evil forces in the story are moving in on our real world in the text. Like, there’s one point in the story where Carlos and his colleagues are triangulating the movement of these creatures on a particular neighborhood, and they invoke gentrification as a concept for understanding these forces. I thought that was a really pointed commentary on gentrification in and of itself.
Older: That’s sort of my strategy in general. There’s this essay I just published called “Context as Crisis: The Street is a Book”. It really lays out a lot of my theory in regards to that strategy. The idea of having gentrification as a contextual piece, as opposed to the main topic for the story, allowed me to use it as an echo. Like, when the ngks happen and they start taking over the neighborhood, they’re not supposed to be hipsters, which is something people have asked, but that does happen to be a reference point for understanding what’s going on, because it is reality. And so, it’s sort of there, lingering. It’s not supposed to be a simplified thing, like “the ngks are hipsters.” Gentrification is a long-running historical issue that’s deeper.
Rumpus: It feels like in Shadowshaper the hipsters become more of an explicit concern, because Sierra has to deal with them personally while going out and hanging out with her friends in Brooklyn or wherever. Still, I like that the story there isn’t reducible to any kind of message about hipsters or whatever either.
I do remember reading one review in particular, though. The reviewer was praising the book and pointing out how cool it is that Carlos isn’t actually fully able-bodied.
Older: That’s true, that’s true.
Rumpus: And I was thinking after reading the review about how rarely that occurs in fiction in general, not just genre fiction. Was that something you set out to tackle as well?
Older: Not at all, but I’m really glad I ended up doing it. It didn’t occur to me until a friend on Twitter that also isn’t able-bodied pointed out to me how much she loved Carlos, and how great it was to have a hero that wasn’t able-bodied in urban fantasy. Before she pointed it out, I didn’t realize it. I didn’t set out to do that strategically; I just wanted to do Carlos right, as a character. I wanted to do what was true to him as a person. Part of it was also, while writing, beginning to build in his backstory, and initially I didn’t know what his injuries were going to be from, but I wanted him to have this past he would have no idea about, and that was a relic of him about his past. I liked the idea of his injuries carrying with him after he died and came back.
Rumpus: What kinds of other impressions have you gained from other people who have contacted you about reading your novel so far? I mean on Twitter, in the real world, inside or outside the genre community, anywhere. How has the response matched up with what you initially wanted to do with the novel overall?
Older: It’s been overwhelmingly joyful, just reading people responding to it and just getting it. I know it’s not a really clear term, “getting it.” It’s like when you read reviews of a novel you write, and some reviews talk about the book and you’re like “Okay, that’s cool, they liked it,” and then there’s reviews that get it.
The difference is like a whole world away, but there isn’t exactly a way to put that into exact words. Overwhelmingly, though, people reach out to me in email and on Twitter and just get it, and that’s the most beautiful thing for a writer to experience. Even better, actually, is when someone reaches out and says, “I never thought I could see my voice in this kind of literature, and now I’m going to start writing.” That’s happened a lot. It truly touches me. I had that moment of wanting to start writing with Walter and Junot and Octavia, and to give that moment to someone else is the greatest gift. That’s the point of literature, especially rebel literature, because I entered into being a writer with the idea of making a change.
There’s no hidden agenda; I’m just straight-up here to fuck shit up. So when I see writers of color coming to me and telling me they’re now going to enter the world of writing, or that their voices now have more possibility of getting into the world, I’m like “Mission Accomplished.” That’s what I’m here to do.
Rumpus: That’s such a great thing, hearing that. I imagine it’s like an ego boost, but humbling too.
Older: Oh, it’s deeply humbling. Like, it just makes me feel like, wow. I was just a conduit for those stories and those words, and I somehow got it right and out there on this larger plane where these people are affected. It all just makes me sit down and take a moment. I’ll also go back to those tweets and emails when it’s award season or bullshit is going on in the industry that will get me down, and I’ll just think about those voices and those lives that I’ve encountered.
I think about those voices and what they have meant for me, and how the industry is changing in ways that can’t be computed and can’t be explained in a blog post. There’s a groundswell, and it’s making people uncomfortable; as far as I’m concerned it’s making the right people uncomfortable. We have the momentum, and it’s just a matter of moving forward, and that just gives me life.
Rumpus: That gets at a question I’d wanted to ask after reading “Diversity Is Not Enough,” because you mentioned there’s a lack of diversity in publishing, but that’s also symptomatic of systemic racism, walking hand-in-hand with other factors that deny equity to others (sexism, classism, etc.).
When you mentioned that the right people are becoming uncomfortable, I think that’s part of that process of having a larger dialogue. In order for people to change their minds, they have to be made uncomfortable.
Older: Absolutely. And publishing is very comfortable right now—less so, hopefully, because of our work, but less comfortable for the people it’s always been comfortable for.
Rumpus: I think we’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of “Diversity Is Not Enough” too!
Older: Yes! I know. I’ve marked it on my calendar because I wanted to tweet something about that. It’s awesome.
Rumpus: It’s just cool to think about it being published a year ago, and the dialogue you’ve had with people since then. I see a lot of that dialogue on Twitter, not always positive, but you know—
Older: [Laughs] Aw yeah.
Rumpus: I guess you’re always going to get those people. Any time you make people uncomfortable, you risk people saying either “You’re right, I need to change things,” or “Screw you, I’m going to go vote for John C. Wright for Best Novella at the Hugos.” So, when and how do you decide what to do with people trolling you?
Older: [Laughs] Yeah, the way I deal with trolls is giving them a picture of a dog or a cat, and then I block them. That’s it. I don’t have time to deal with people who can’t expand their imagination beyond their own race. I don’t have that time, because I want to spend that time with my people, and then people that can change their minds. I think there are selective exceptions. The other day I was going in on someone in the industry who has a lot of stature, who was saying something particularly asinine, and then I had to say something about that. I think everyone has to go with his or her gut knowing when it’s time to say something though. I actually almost never engage trolls that engage me first, because most of the time what they have to say is just irrelevant, or they’re not really people on consequence in the industry. They’re just being difficult.
The times that I’ll troll somebody is if, like, when someone makes a point of publicly attacking a powerful piece, like that Toni Morrison essay by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah. That was such a profoundly important and well-written piece, so for some white reviewer to come up and call it fatuous, with no actual basis for his critique, that’s a really high level of throwing your white privilege around publicly. Personally, that was something I didn’t feel right just standing by watching. That was my decision, you know, and it was a personal question. Having said that, I do feel it very profoundly how time and time again it’s the writers of color that are the ones doing the calling out. I’ve gotten to a place in my career where I feel comfortable calling out people in the industry. Whether or not that’s a strategically good idea remains to be seen—I’m fine with it in my heart and mind—but let’s remember that that does carry risks with it, especially for a writer in an earlier stage of her career than I am.
I do want to shout out websites like BookRiot, which are pretty great about being outspoken about diversity, though that’s not their point. They’re not like a diversity book website—they’re just a book website—but they know this conversation about diversity, race and power, is part of the book world right now. There are moments of like, “Here are people stepping up” and that’s awesome. It’s a multi-racial website, and it just does really good work all-around. But, when writers of color are jumping into the trenches to defend each other, where are the white writers in those moments?
Rumpus: Right, which is why it’s good to see a place like BookRiot, where they’re all working together.
Older: Yeah, and also not just writers, but it’s also a question of how writers are all in one on this stuff, and yet rarely do we hear agents and editors taking a stand on things. Now, they’ll tell you that it’s because they’re in a politically fragile situation where they have to deal with a lot of different forces, and that’s true, but it’s also true of writers. It’s not a simple question, and I don’t think it means everyone needs to stand and be loud. Sometimes you can just work in the background and do good. But when there’s an overwhelming loudness on one end, and an overwhelming silence on the other end, something is wrong.
Jordan Brown is an editor at Simon and Schuster, and he put up a really powerful blog post about sexism and being a man, and that was like one of the few times I’ve ever seen an editor say something like that. I’m sure there are other examples. Cheryl Klein, my editor at Scholastic, has definitely made comments and is part of an organization of publishers that is outspoken about diversity in civil publishing, so there are examples. For the industry to change, though, people need to be uncomfortable, and change doesn’t come without risk-taking. The question is, who is taking the risk?
Rumpus: So, Half-Resurrection Blues is part of a series, the Bone Street Rumba series. When’s the next book coming out?
Older: So, Shadowshaper comes out June 30th, and the next Bone Street novel, which is called Midnight Taxi Tango, comes out next January. There are already some chapters up online on Tor.com and other sources, in the form of short stories. They’ll be kind of chopped up and moved throughout the novel, but they’ll give you a sense of what it’s like.
I’m really excited about it because there’s three POV characters now. Do you remember Kia, the girl who worked at the botánica?
Rumpus: Yeah, she was cool. I liked her.
Older: She’s one of the POV characters.
Rumpus: Awesome! What inspired you to make her a POV character this time?
Older: She did! She was just fun. I remember creating this character because I wanted to have a girl working the botánica, and she was supposed to be this small character, and she was like, “Uh, no.” And then she just became a big presence in my imagination. Her voice is so strong in my head that I couldn’t not write about her. So now it’s her, Carlos, and Reza, the main character from my story “Anyway: Angie”.
Rumpus: That’ll be really cool for people to check that out when it comes out, and to look at Shadowshaper too. Again, it’s just so great to see a YA book about a Puerto Rican girl going through life, I hope people check it out. I’ve mentioned before, how my student or other people don’t read these stories or don’t react well to them. If any of my students read Shadowshaper and they tell me that they couldn’t get into Sierra’s head, I’m going to tell them they have 0% imagination and give them F’s for all eternity.
Older: [Laughs] That’s a great blurb right there. I wish I could put that on the cover of the book. You know Shadowshaper was actually the first book I sat down to write.
Older: Yeah. I actually just found one of my first query letters on it, back from 2009.
Older: And it’s from the editor that ended up buying it, which is kind of mindblowing. But yeah, back in 2009, in January, I sat down and wrote the book in a couple of months, called Sierra Santiago and the Invisible City. It was a totally different book; I’ve completely rewritten it since then, before it became Shadowshaper. But, I sent it to Sheryl at Scholastic, and very gradually she asked for more of it—I’d sent the first few chapters—and while I was doing that I was writing the stories that became part of Salsa Nocturna, and then I was working with an agent that I didn’t even sign with because he left the business, Nathan Brandtsford, and he helped me change it into the book it became, and then I showed it to Sheryl again, and they finally bought it, but that was in 2012. Everything else happened in the meantime: the essays and Half-Resurrection Blues, all that. It’s been a long road. So for Shadowshaper to come out to august acclaim is breathtaking to me on a whole other level, because it all started with Shadowshaper.
It’s exciting for me as an author and it’s exciting for me as a human being who cares about where publishing goes in the world. It’s exciting for me as an activist that has been working with kids of color and who grew up as a kid of color trying to figure out who I was. All those levels, and then it’s exciting for me to have seen it come from where it was when I first started it all those years ago.
Author photograph © Kevin Kane.