Magical Systems and Fusion Reactors: Rivers Solomon Discusses An Unkindness of Ghosts

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Rivers Solmon’s debut novel, An Unkindness of Ghosts, will be released from Akashic Books on October 3. Its protagonist, Aster, has little to offer folks in the way of rebuttal when they call her ogre and freak. She’s used to the names; she only wishes there was more truth to them. If she were truly a monster, she’d be powerful enough to tear down the walls around her until nothing remains of her world.

Aster lives in the lowdeck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship’s leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer, Aster learns there may be a way to improve her lot—if she’s willing to sow the seeds of civil war.

You can read an exclusive excerpt from An Unkindness of Ghosts here, and below, we talk with Rivers Solomon about the process of constructing the HSS Matilda, the importance of writing corporealness and body movement into a story, and more.

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The Rumpus: An Unkindness of Ghosts imagines a future wherein the brutal racism and other systemic injustices of our society have outlasted humanity’s time on Earth. The blood-soaked soil of the United States is long gone, yet the horrors of the antebellum South are with us still, built into the architecture of the HSS Matilda, the spaceship where Aster, a badass black queer healer-surgeon-botanist-freedom fighter tries to decode the truth about her mother’s death.

I was so into Aster and so into the ship, Matilda. It has kind of a Fury Road-in-space vibe. So, before we get too deep into the book, I would love for you to describe the process of building Matilda. In terms of process: did you have a schematic of it in your mind’s eye or elsewhere, or did Matilda just unfurl as you wrote?

Rivers Solomon: Early on I knew I wanted Matilda to harken backward just as much as it looked forward. There’s an impulse when writing science fiction to linger on the futuristic elements of the speculative world—the spotless metal walls and glass buildings, soldiers in gray bodysuits stalking the Citadel and prisoners in burlap tunics lining up for their ration of protein-sludge.

Some of my favorite sci-fi worlds are informed by this aesthetic, but visions of the future often leave out the ways the past persists into the present. I set out to write a story that resisted that inclination and actively engaged history: its styles, social mores, technologies, so on.

When designing the layout of the ship, as well as its culture, I began thinking about those places in our own lives where what’s come before collides with what is yet to come. Resale shops. Garage and estate sales. Old churches. Small-batch distilleries. A psychic’s hole-in-the-wall shop. I remembered my time in rural Arkansas picking blackberries after Sunday services where women and men had sung centuries-old songs. I thought of my mother’s two or three childhood books that were saved from a basement flood, on the shelf next to French language tapes we listened to during our morning commutes when I was a kid, next to a phone that has capabilities unimaginable sixty years ago.

Though the specifics have morphed over time, I’ve had a sense of the ship from the earliest chapters. Even the name, which is based on Clotilde, the last known ship to carry enslaved people to the United States, gives a sense of a bygone time. There have been many different blueprints, but the idea of Matilda as a place where the past never really leaves us hasn’t changed.

Rumpus: You’ve said in the press materials for the book that the spaceship Matilda interested you as a metaphor for the rootlessness you’ve felt as a black American, “without foremothers, without history, and without nation.” How did you transpose concepts like foremothers, history and nation to Aster, who has come of age an orphan on an ahistorical totalitarian plantation in the vacuum of space? I’m curious how you approach those sorts of puzzles, not only in the context of working in the speculative mode, but also stylistically, in terms of language.

Solomon: Transposition is a useful way of thinking about this phenomenon, so thank you for that term—I’m going to borrow it for future discussions of the book. It’s a much more nuanced approach to examining the interplay between the speculative and the real world than I’ve seen before. I’ve grown weary of “sci-fi as metaphor” as an analytic framework because it has the potential to overly distill complex realities. Sci-fi as transposition, that’s definitely my new thing. Love it.

Okay, so we have our real world, our Earth, and the experiences therein, but what do those experiences look like, feel like, sound like when filtered through a sci-fi lens? How do you write these life-based experiences into a fantastical setting? People are people, sure, but to my knowledge, no one has spent the entirety of their lives enslaved on a space ship lost in the void. And just like writing a major song into a minor key, the rules of a given world influence our stories such that the end result might be unrecognizable from the source material.

I made a lot of stuff up. Some of it on a whim, based on what I thought would be beautiful, visually stunning, narratively arresting, interesting, exciting, entertaining. Some of it I extrapolated based on my own experiences or historical research. It was important to me while writing that things rang true to readers as much as possible, but I also luxuriated in creating a brutal but picturesque world that was vibrant and detailed. I don’t know if humans would organize themselves into nation-like groups based on ship decks or wings, but I liked the idea of it, and it certainly didn’t feel impossible.

Rumpus: This book is asking big questions about history, nation, foremothers. And yet it’s got this dynamo plot zipping along. Aster is, as she says, chasing her mother’s ghost, while simultaneously sowing the seeds of civil war. How do you approach the toggle between a character’s interior and exterior worlds? Is there a tension for you between plot and theme, or would you characterize your approach differently?

Solomon: I don’t experience it as a tension. I find if I go into a piece of writing with a mental checklist of what I should do—oh, make sure you’ve got some action, top it off with some dialogue, oh, and of course include what the protagonist is thinking about!—the resulting scenes are very unnatural and lack dynamism. Instead I try to live in a scene as much as possible. I move my body how a character moves their body. I’ll often do a gesture myself multiple times to figure out how best to describe it. I’ve done a bit of playwriting and screenwriting, and that has taught me to think quite visually, to really see how a character moves. But how we move is intimately tied to how we think or what we’re thinking at a given time.

In real life, the interior and exterior world do not always braid together into a neat and tidy plait. There are times when we space out and go on ridiculous philosophical tangents, or linger on especially joyful memories, all while the world is happening around us and we can’t be bothered to be in the moment. Conversely, there are times when the world is happening so fast that we cannot stop to think.

Rumpus: Aster’s strength fascinates me. She is incredibly resilient and though her body is brutalized throughout the book, it is weaponized in interesting ways as well. She tends with her exhausted body a secret garden laboratory deep down in the ship, growing various medicinal plants, some of which she uses to make a numbing ointment to rub onto her genitals before heading to the fields. It’s a beautiful scene, her friends razzing her about masturbating as she applies it. And, of course, there’s a river of sorrow running under that moment. Aster has also undergone a double-mastectomy and a hysterectomy, which I read as an act of insisting on her own body autonomy in the face of the overseers, a direct rebuke, not tragic exactly, but not without loss. Can you talk about your approach to writing Aster’s body? Is “writing the body” a useful framework for you?

Solomon: Bodies are an essential component of who we are. To get to the heart of Aster, I felt it was important to understand her body and her relationship with her body. When we treat characters as ethereal and without form, forgetting they are flesh, they can easily feel less vibrant and true. Writing in a person’s corporealness allows us to get closer to them. We see that they urinate, menstruate, bleed. We feel closer to characters whose bodies we can experience or witness closely. It’s more cinematic as well as more intimate.

I think a body is more salient in our lives the more that body deviates from the norm. The less ‘default’ it is, the more aware of it we are. It determines our social location, how we experience the world, and how other people experience us. That comes into play with Aster. The body is a location of difference and trauma. In a different world, her relationship to her uterus and breasts would certainly be different, so there is a loss there. (Even if that relationship were different, happening somewhere else, I don’t know whether she wouldn’t still choose to remove them, however). A lot of these questions I can’t answer fully because I do feel the true motivations are deep within Aster in a way that I can’t access.

The beauty of writing the body is I can talk about the reality of it without necessarily understanding the interiority. That’s the same experience we have with the people in our lives. A knowledge of their bodies to some extent can lead to a closeness and level of intimacy in its own right.

Rumpus: Sadly, Aster’s body is far from the only in peril. There is a lot of pain aboard the Matilda, and these characters bears scars upon scars. Yet there’s a specific approach to pain in this book, something perhaps ecstatic—it almost shimmers. You describe one of Aster’s most intimate relationships beautifully: “Their partnership revolved around sewing up each other’s various wounds. They’d become intimately familiar with each other’s frailties. Theo knew her every brittle bit.” Pain and the aching tenderness of vulnerability are sutured up together in this book. Then there’s Giselle, whose self-inflicted pain approaches a kind of rapture, maybe. What are your thoughts on writing pain?

Solomon: What’s important about the writing of pain in this book is that it’s generally not experienced alone. I think it’d be difference if what the characters went through in this book happened on a more individual level. I think that’s what you could be picking up on, the sense of intimacy derived from their shared trauma. The characters are constantly witnessing each other at their most vulnerable states. It breeds a certain closeness. And, it might be easier for them to interact with a person’s pain than with the person themselves.

For Giselle specifically, pain is very grounding to her. She’s someone whose hold on reality isn’t always very firm, but pain can bring her back to it. There are few people in this book who aren’t hurting, so even for her it’s a point of connection that tethers her to her peers.

One of my writing teachers, Adam Johnson, often spoke to us in class about the “trauma narrative.” It was something he was very interested in and something I’m interested in as well. He spoke about an inherent tension of writing trauma: trauma wants to be silenced and kept hidden or confined to the past, but it also wants to be discussed, acknowledged, talked about. The same can be true with pain in general. It hurts so we do everything to minimize it, get rid of it. But it’s hard to keep it silent and leave it unexpressed. When writing pain, I like to make sure my characters are navigating that tension.

Rumpus: I’m imagining Aster being played by Janelle Monáe one day. Can you talk about the influence of Afrofuturism on An Unkindness of Ghosts? What draws you to that school and what, if anything, were you hoping to add to that tradition?

Solomon: In the movie adaptation of An Unkindness of Ghosts I dream about in my head, there’s a flashback scene where Janelle Monáe’s song “Sir Greendown” plays over a montage of the young protagonist playing house with her best friend. There’s a lyric in that song, “the dragon wants a bite of our love,” that has resonated with me since I first heard it, and that captures a lot of Unkindness: how big, large, frightening, terrible monsters try to feed on the beautiful things we create despite them. That song has such an airy, dreamlike quality, and the spacy singing voice coupled with the almost garbled recording give it a bluesy 1930s/1940s feel. Listening to it is like being in someone’s dream from long ago. And it’s a total fantasy. That mashup of a fairy-tale narrative with a blues sound, a hint of danger in the background, that’s what Afrofuturism is to me. It’s synthesis of past and future with a focus on the plights of Black peoples.

I love that it’s inherently genre-bending. As I mentioned earlier, there’s no reason for a sense of history and tradition to get lost just because we’re turning toward the future. There’s room for African diasporic religious beliefs and magical systems to exist alongside fusion reactors.

Rumpus: The language in this book is bananas. You seem an effortless ventriloquist, moving between registers as Aster moves around the ship. You move not only into various characters’ minds but their tongues, too. How did you do that? Did you have any models or antecedents in mind for the book’s voice?

Solomon: When I was a kid my cousins often said to me, “You talk like a white girl.” As a result, I’ve always been hyperaware of my use of language. I became quite deliberate with it, incorporating silly phrases I’d heard into my vocabulary to make people laugh, like “totally nectar dude I’m digging it.” I was a dork. I was also using echolalia to make sense of how language worked. If I heard it, I said it. Bumblefuck. Kit and caboodle. Ony tail (my Aunt Karlene once used this term to refer to an extremely short pony tail and it’s stuck with me). Johnny on the spot. Anal retentive. I didn’t know what it meant, but I remember being in third grade and telling some kid, “Stop being so anal retentive.”

I’ve always been fascinated by the way people speak to each other. I love regional dialects. Random idioms. Bygone turns of phrases. Somewhere as a child I read the phrase “by the by” and was so deeply in love and haven’t stopped saying it sense! My Aunt Florence once used the phrase “high yellows” (a term used to describe light-skinned Black people, presumably who hold some degree of snobbery about their color), and I remember thinking, nice.

I love Black language in all its myriad forms. I love poetry. I do consider language an essential piece of a story.

There’s so many layers to a character’s voice and a novel’s voice: the literal words used, the tone, the accent, how closely their words follow the grammar of a given tongue and what it says when we deviate from that.

Language breathes. There’s a fluidity to it. To bring the world of Matilda to life I thought it was important that the language feels real, flexible, movable because it’s been my experience that language is both extremely individual and extremely cultural. It reflects larger patterns and attitudes as well as a single person’s personality.

With that in mind, I let myself be as free as possible with the language. I didn’t want to police myself because I thought if I did what I created wouldn’t feel organic.

Rumpus: One of the many achievements of this book is its conjuring of all sorts of characters we don’t regularly encounter on the page. You’ve said, “I made a deliberate choice not to shy away from blackness, queerness, or disability. I made a deliberate choice not to shy away from examining the way capital decides which bodies have worth.” I wonder what these choices looked like during the day-to-day writing process. Do you any have advice for the writers out there, and I count myself among them, struggling to write across difference and/or into big ideas?

Solomon: One of my favorite books is a novel by Ann Patchett called Run. It’s not one of her best-known novels, but I love it so much for its frank, tender, and nuanced treatment of race. It takes place over one night and is about a white family and their two adopted Black sons (or it’s about two Black boys and their white adoptive parents). There’s also a young Black girl at the forefront. I was young when I first read it and I hadn’t heard of Ann Patchett and I just assumed she was Black. Of course, as I later found out, that’s not the case.

So, it can be done. It has been done. Why isn’t it done more often? Much of it is about examining our lives as much as it’s about examining our writing. Who are our friends? Where do we live? Who do we include in our lives and who do we deliberately leave out? People who are neglected on the page are just as neglected in real life. I feel really blessed and honored to be living a life where I get to be friends and family with people across the breadth of human experience. I don’t think it’s something I necessarily sought out, but I do think it’s something we can open ourselves up to. It helps to read widely and diversely, too, I suppose.

The only thing I am sure of is that I probably made some mistakes with how I discussed certain things in the book, and I believe it’s okay that it’s a learning process and it’s better to try and fall a little short. Seeing people as people helps—understanding that, across many differences, we’re all human. That might sound a bit harsh, but I’ve found myself guilty at it at times. I’ve realized I’m viewing people through a lens of assumptions, tropes, and stereotypes formulated from viewing media. It can be hard to see through to the individual persons when we’ve got a chorus of nonsense telling us to do the opposite. Actively challenging what we know is a good first step.

Rumpus: Did writing this novel teach you anything about yourself, and if so what?

Solomon: I’d say it taught me about how much I change over a relatively short period of time. My views about the world are in rapid flux, and that became very apparent over the course of completing An Unkindness of Ghosts. During the editing process, I’d go back to read a section I’d wrote six months ago and realize how much my views on a matter had been complicated since first birthing the scene.

This is a very simple treatment of the dynamics of this relationship, I’d think or, I’m not sure the narrative is in line with my current thinking or politics about this issue. And I’m talking purely from an ideology perspective. Nothing to do with writing technique. I wasn’t going back and saying, “Wow, I can’t believe I wrote this trash sentence with my own two hands” (though, okay, yes, I was also thinking that). I was going back and wondering, “Why did you romanticize the toxic interplay between these two characters?” That didn’t mean getting rid of toxic relationships, but thinking about how my views on these issues made me frame it in the narrative. Most writing reflects deeply held values of the author.

There’s so much about the world that I don’t know, don’t understand. I’m in the midst of a growth phrase, always learning (and unlearning). I don’t think this is uncommon, but a project as big as a novel gives a tangible record of someone’s thought processes over a year or more. No doubt if I started the book today, it’d be better, not just because I’ve grown as a writer, but because I’ve grown as a person.


Claire Vaye Watkins earned her MFA from the Ohio State University, where she was a Presidential Fellow. Her stories and essays have appeared in Granta, Tin House, Freeman’s, the Paris Review, Story Quaterly, New American Stories, Best of the West, The New Republic, the New York Times, and many others. A recipient of fellowships from the Sewanee and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences, Claire was also one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35.” She is the author of Gold Fame Citrus and Battleborn. A Guggenheim Fellow, she has been a professor at Bucknell University and Princeton, and is currently an assistant professor at the University of Michigan. She is also the co-director, with Derek Palacio, of the Mojave School, a free creative writing workshop for teenagers in rural Nevada. Claire is a founding member of The Rumpus Advisory Board. More from this author →