Ayize Jama-Everett’s debut novel, The Liminal People, is a great piece of genre fiction. But picking which genre to place it in isn’t easy. The first in a planned series, it’s got the twists and taut pacing of a thriller, the world-warping expansiveness of a fantasy yarn, and even the love-as-redemption arc of a romance. Oh yeah, a lot of the characters in it have superhuman powers, too. The book’s mononymous narrator, Taggert, is able to commandeer other people’s bodies. He can heal them of diseases or do nasty things like make their taste buds explode.
Like all good genre stories, The Liminal People sneakily explores some deep questions. In between cool fight sequences and imaginative depictions of the not-quite or perhaps more-than-human, it makes you wonder about what it means to belong and who gets past the gates of that exclusive country club called “normal.”
It’s little wonder Jama-Everett would be interested in these kinds of subjects. Like his work, he’s hard to categorize. And he’s quite familiar with the experience of liminality. He grew up as a kind of real-life Oscar Wao—a bespectacled, comic book-reading punk rock fan in 1980s Harlem. After travelling the world and living for a time in Morocco, he settled in Oakland, where he works as a therapist and practices a particularly lethal form of martial arts known as kajukenbo. He’s just turned in a draft of the second installment of The Liminal People to his publisher, Small Beer Press, and the series is currently being optioned as a film.
I caught up with Jama-Everett recently, over a few too many shots of mescal at Prizefighter Bar in Emeryville.
The Rumpus: Tell me about your name.
Ayize Jama-Everett: Ayize means “let it come.” It comes from an African root language. It always means “let it come,” but it’s used in different ways. In South Africa, it’s a name. In Eastern Africa, it’s a celebration. They have an Ayize festival. In the desert, in the Maghreb, it’s a saying. If a giant sandstorm is coming and nobody can get away from it, they just say “Ayize.” Like, “Let it come, motherfucker, we’ll handle it.”
Rumpus: Who named you? Your mom? Your dad?
Jama-Everett: My mom. I didn’t really grow up with my dad. He’s a political prisoner by the name of Mutulu Shakur. I haven’t told this to anyone—not to my publisher, not anybody—but one of his many liaisons was with Afeni Shakur, the mom of Tupac. Tupac wasn’t his kid, but he raised him like a son.
Rumpus: Tupac Shakur was your step-brother?
Jama-Everett: Yeah. But I didn’t find out until I was twenty-five, after he had died. Like most black boys in Harlem growing up, I didn’t know my dad. So I didn’t grow up with ‘Pac. I didn’t know ‘Pac. But I found out later when I met my half-sisters that they knew who I was and that they would always tease ‘Pac and tell him, “You’re not our real brother, Ayize’s our real brother.”
There was this one time, they were shooting the movie Above the Rim around the corner from my mom’s job, and a bunch of friends of mine went down to check it out. I was in a different place [musically] than them. I was like, “Bad Brains is the best band ever!” I had just discovered Fishbone. I was hanging out at CBGB. So I wasn’t that into it, but I went down there with them and somebody called out my name, “Yo, Ayize!” and ‘Pac stopped what he was doing, and he turned around, he looked right at me, and he said, “You’re Ayize?” and I said, “Yeah.” And he asked me, “Do you know who I am?” And I was just kind of like, “Um. Of course I do.” And he said, “Okay. Cool.” And that was it. It was bizarre. I didn’t know what the deal was. It was only years later that I figured it out.
Rumpus: You assumed he was asking if you knew who he was as a celebrity, but he was really asking if you knew how the two of you were connected.
Jama-Everett: That’s right. And I had no idea about it. It was a moment of utter confusion. My friends were all excited for me. They were like, “Tupac talked to you! How do you know Tupac?” and all I could say was, “I don’t know him.”
Rumpus: Did you have any contact with your father at all?
Jama-Everett: I saw him a few times when I was very young. And we talked on the phone sometimes. But he’s in jail. And I don’t like jail. Also, his notion of what it is to be politicized and black is annoying to me. It’s just straight annoying. He wanted Tennessee and some other states to secede. And I’m like, really? I don’t have a dad because you wanted to do that? And not just me, there’s like fourteen other motherfuckers out there, too. Papa was a rolling stone, you know?
To me, the most revolutionary thing you can do as a black person is raise some happy, cool kids that feel good about themselves and the world around them.
Rumpus: All this talk about your family makes for a good transition into the book. For all the fighting in it and the action and the supernatural stuff, what struck me was that it seemed, in the end, to be a story about family and finding your place in the world.
Jama-Everett: Yeah. I’ve never really felt family or the whole notion of home. I wish I did but it just never worked for me. I’ve always felt like the outsider. When I was younger, I had an idea that I could make family. I think that is what most people try to do. You go from your family of origin to your family of choice. I think that’s what Taggert is doing and I think that’s one thing I’ve been dealing with, too.
Rumpus: And yet, not to give anything away, the book does seem hopeful in that regard, with Taggert moving from his family of origin towards a family of choice—or at least beginning to see a way to make that happen.
Jama-Everett: I think everybody’s on a grind. Everybody’s working through something and trying to figure it out. And Taggert’s grind is trying to find support. It’s like joining a gang. A lot of times you have to get jumped in or you have to take somebody out. And that gang can be different things. It can be the military or it can be the Vatos Locos. But everything requires a sacrifice.
Rumpus: What was the first sci-fi book you read that got you interested in the genre?
Jama-Everett: It might have been Chocky, it might have been A Wrinkle in Time. You can do so much in kid’s books. Back in the ’80s, nobody paid attention to what was in there. I remember Elf Quest. In the fourth book, they find elves in the snow and they decide they’re gonna have a big war with the trolls, but before they do, they start having orgies. And I remember sitting in the Barnes and Noble on 81st and Broadway as a kid just going, “Whoa! Okay. I guess this is what’s in books.”
Rumpus: Is it safe to say you were one of the only kids in Harlem reading stuff like that?
Jama-Everett: Totally. People thought I was slow because I didn’t really like to read. But then I got a bunch of comics and suddenly I liked reading. It was from a really young age, too. Like second, third grade.
Rumpus: What comics were you reading?
Rumpus: That’s some heavy stuff for a seven- or eight-year-old.
Jama-Everett: Oh yeah. The graphic novel I remember the most was God Loves, Man Kills. It was this parable of Professor X being Martin Luther King, Jr. and Magneto being Malcolm X. I loved it.
Rumpus: Why do you think the X-Men resonated with you so much?
Jama-Everett: I was born in ’74, and if you look at New York in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it was one step away from Mad Max and the Thunderdome. I mean, it was grimy! And I wasn’t cute. I wasn’t perceived as smart. I was a geeky kid with glasses and I was a little stick, very skinny. People forget, it wasn’t always cool to be a geek like it is now, you know? So I was constantly scrutinized and seen as a potential victim. I had to learn how to navigate the world and other people’s perceptions and I think that taught me about narrative. It was like, This is what this other person’s story is about me. Do I want to play into that or do I want to play against that? So when I saw these stories about mutants versus humans, I really got it. It made sense.
Rumpus: And now you’re writing about liminal people, people on the edges of society.
Jama-Everett: Yep. When I first started writing, that’s what I wrote about. People on the fringes of the fringe group. One of the things I got from growing up in New York was that you should never assume you know the full story about people, never assume that you know everything that’s going on.
I remember riding the A train one day when I was about nine years old. I had headphones on. And this dude and this girl were talking, so I took off the headphones because I wanted to hear his game. The guy is talking at her: “What’s up with you? You got a man? Blah, blah.” And the girl keeps telling him to leave her alone, but the guy won’t shut up. All of sudden, this other guy from across the aisle gets up and punches the guy three times in the head—knocks him out. Bam bam bam! Then the girl gets up and goes through his pockets and she says, “I told you to back the fuck off.” Then they both get off the train together! That taught me, hey, you need to pay attention. You need full awareness at all times. Everything is a risk.
Rumpus: I find it interesting that you grew up in Harlem, the Mecca of black culture in America, and that you’ve wound up in Oakland, which has been called the Harlem of the West.
Jama-Everett: That’s true. But, you know, I don’t just hang out with black people…
Rumpus: I guess I’m getting back to the family of choice versus the family of origin thing, and finding a place to belong.
Jama-Everett: Black people are my family origin. It’s not that I don’t like being black. I am thoroughly fine with being black. What I like is to be around other people who are fine with me being thoroughly black. And that’s not as common as you might think it is. A lot of people have tension. And that’s what I love about Oakland. It accepts all kinds. It’s like, “Are you working? Do you have a job? Are you trying to get through? Cool.” I think Oakland has more middle-class pride than any place I know. If you’re making it through somehow, you’re good. I like that spirit.
Rumpus: Do you think you’ve found your home then, in Oakland?
Jama-Everett: I definitely feel comfortable here. And if someone were to come step on my head and say, “This is what home feels like!” I guess I wouldn’t argue with them. But I think having not grown up with it, there’s always going to be a question. Is this really home? I’m never quite sure.
Rumpus: Have you ever thought about moving back to New York? It’s a pretty popular thing to do these days.
Jama-Everett: The Harlem I grew up in is gone. The hill I grew up next to used to be called Sugar Hill, because that’s where everyone got their heroin. About five years ago, I went back and I’m walking from the train to my mom’s house at like nine in the morning on a weekend, and I saw two white gay dudes walking their dog, and in my mind, I was like, “Run! Run!” But then I realized, this is their neighborhood now. I’m the stranger. I’m reacting to some shit that hasn’t been around here for twenty fucking years.
The other thing is, a lot of my friends growing up were street kids, prostitutes, spare-changers, and you know, Giuliani, Koch, all those assholes, they killed them. They threw them off the streets, they put them in psych wards, they put them in juvie. I used to hang out in Washington Square Park and Tompkins Square Park. And those spots have totally changed. All the spots that were landmarks for me were landmarks because of people. And the people I chilled with can’t afford to live in Manhattan anymore. So, you know, talking about family of origin, it’s not there. That city is gone. I remember watching Sex and the City and I’ll be honest, the first two seasons, I was hooked.
Rumpus: Sex and the City? Really?
Jama-Everett: Oh yeah. I’ve got weird streaks in me, man. I was all in it. I was like, “What is Samantha going to do next?” And then—and I hate when this question happens in my brain because it usually fucks up my experience—I thought, “Where are all the black people?” And it hurt, because I realized I had just watched two seasons of this show set in New York fucking City where I was born and raised, and it wasn’t even just, “Where are the black people?” It was, “Where is any person of color?” Even the cab drivers were white! If your cab drivers are white, where the hell are you?
I’m not necessarily mad about it, though. I mean, back in the day, a rat got on the subway with me once. It just walked on right behind me. I have a pathological fear of rats, so I was crying and shaking and climbing the poles to get away, and everybody else on the train was laughing at me. But that’s what I knew. And that’s just not there anymore.
Rumpus: Speaking of finding one’s place in the world, putting out your first novel must feel like a similar process in some ways. You can’t help but hope for some kind of acceptance, the sense that you’ve found people who understand you. Have you had a taste of that?
Jama-Everett: For sure. I’ve gotten e-mails from individuals—I feel weird calling them fans—who’ve been like, “That book was amazing.” That’s been cool. The industry response has been par for the course, though. They’ve been like, “Yeah, we see that you’ve done something,” and that’s about it. But that’s okay, because the shit that makes their dicks hard doesn’t usually make my dick hard, so I would be weirded out if all of a sudden I was nominated for a Hugo or something.
Rumpus: You’d be thinking, What have I done wrong?
Jama-Everett: Exactly! One of the things about the commentary is that people keep tripping about the fact that Taggert uses the word “faggot.” I’m beginning to think that what it gets down to is P.C. cred, like, “I called this author out for using the word ‘faggot.'” Either that or people just want to have a mode of connection with the narrator or the protagonist of a book, and that protagonist can’t do anything that they perceive as an insult.
I don’t feel like I need to defend myself on this front. I ran away to a transsexual house when I was a kid. I have queer friends left and right. I’m probably one of the more vocal black male queer advocates that you’ll meet. So, you know, when it first came up, I was like, “Okay, whatever,” but three or four other people have done it now, too. I mean, here we have this character who’s slaughtered a child. He’s tortured people. You’re okay with all of that. But he says “faggot” and now you’re offended?
Rumpus: So when you wrote him using the word, you did it knowingly, to reflect something about him?
Jama-Everett: It was just his voice. This is a guy who went to college, but he’s been living with hash traders in Morocco. He’s been sent around the world to kill people. And some no-account individual is messing with him, so he’s just like, “Fuck you, faggot.”
Rumpus: You’ve also voiced some disapproval when people have called it a “superhero” book. Is it the term hero that you don’t like?
Jama-Everett: To me, a hero is more than a sandwich, okay? And Taggert’s project in the book is to become human, not superhuman.
Rumpus: And you don’t think he’s heroic in that effort?
Jama-Everett: I guess when you have somebody reaching for what they could be instead of what they are and not just accepting their lot, there’s some heroism in that. But in terms of looking at Taggert as a model or a way to behave? Nope. Not at all.
If you want a classic morality tale, where good triumphs over evil and the black guys—I mean, the bad guys wear black and the good guys wear white, there’s tons of those out there. I am not interested in that story. I am interested in people who make hard choices and have to live with them. I’m interested in characters who reflect this world in a different world setting.
Rumpus: You’ve had an interesting process with this book. You put it out yourself first, right?
Jama-Everett: Yes. I kept sending it out and waiting three months and then getting these really great rejection letters. Then I had this one interaction with an agent, someone I had been referred to, so not just a cold call, and I waited months to hear back, and I called and they were like, “Are you sure you sent it?” That was it for me.
Not a lot of people eat off of self-publishing. I knew that. But then again, I didn’t know of a lot of people who had ever eaten off their first novel anyway. So I just figured, let’s get it out there. I hit up local bookstores and they carried it. I had an awesome website, and I sold some there. Then my friend Nalo Hopkinson said, “You should send it to Gavin Grant over at Small Beer.” I thought he would be interested in possibly looking at something else but he said, “No, we’ll just do this.”
Rumpus: How do you know Nalo Hopkinson?
Jama-Everett: It’s a funny story. I used to be on this thing called the Afrofuturism Listserv. For anybody who was into Afrofuturism, it was kind of a big deal. This was probably 1996 or ’97, back when listservs were big. And Harry Allen, the publicist for Public Enemy, had put something online to the effect of, “Black people should not be having sex with white people while oppression is still going on.” I had a white girlfriend at the time, and so I drafted this whole page-and-a-half thing about it, and I subject-lined it, “I just had sex with a white girl.” To this day, I have never gotten so much hate mail. I couldn’t believe it. “I feel so sorry for you, brother. Your mind is so fucked up. Blah blah blah blah.” Only three people came to my defense. Nalo was one of them. And so me and Nalo had this online friendship, and whenever she would come into town, we’d have drinks. She’s been such a great advocate. That’s my buddy. I love her to death.
Rumpus: You found a little bit of family there, it sounds like. A kind of writing family.
Jama-Everett: I look up to Nalo. She’s had her struggles. But she writes consistently. She gets out there. So in that sense, of her career, I would love to have that. But some of the shit she’s had to go through to get there, I don’t want all that.
Rumpus: Isn’t that what a big sibling is supposed to do? Pave the way? Go through all the hell so that you don’t have to?
Jama-Everett: All the biggies—Nalo, Sam Delany, Octavia Butler, Steve Barnes—I couldn’t be them. They put so much on the line. I still have two day jobs! I write on the side because I can’t trust these motherfuckers with my money. I’ve been broke before. I don’t want to be broke again. Octavia Butler was working in a library when she wrote Kindred. Sam Delany lost his mind a few times trying to get his shit done. I’m not that person. I like to eat. There’s only so far down the line I’m willing to go.