Interview with Author Andrea Hairston

Andrea Hairston is a novelist, essayist, playwright, and the Artistic Director of Chrysalis Theatre. She is the author of Redwood and Wildfire, winner of the 2011 Otherwise Award and the Carl Brandon Kindred Award, and Mindscape, shortlisted for the Phillip K Dick and Otherwise Awards, and winner of the Carl Brandon Parallax Award. In her spare time, she is the Louise Wolff Kahn 1931 Professor of Theatre and Afro-American Studies at Smith College. She has received the International Association of the Fantastic in the Arts Distinguished Scholarship Award for outstanding contributions to the criticism of the fantastic. She bikes at night year-round, meeting bears and the occasional shooting star.

I had the opportunity to interview Andrea, which you can read below.

First of all, welcome to Geeks OUT! Could you tell us a little about yourself?

I love words! I love talking in tongues, dropping into another mindscape, and expressing myself in different modalities. I write poems, plays, essays, and novels. I’ve translated plays from German to English. Under duress, I have even written a few short stories! In my spare time, I’m the Louise Wolff Kahn 1931 Professor of Theatre and Africana Studies at Smith College and the Artistic Director of Chrysalis Theatre. I bike at night year round, meeting bears, multi-legged creatures of light and breath, and the occasional shooting star.

What can you tell us about your latest book, Will Do Magic for Small Change

Cinnamon Jones dreams of stepping on stage and acting her heart out like her famous grandparents, Redwood and Wildfire. But at 5’10’’ and 180 pounds, she’s theatrically challenged. Her family life is a tangle of mystery and deadly secrets, and nobody is telling Cinnamon the whole truth. Before her older brother died, he gave Cinnamon The Chronicles of the Great Wanderer, a tale of a Dahomean warrior woman and an alien from another dimension who perform in Paris and at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The Chronicles may be magic or alien science, but the story is definitely connected to Cinnamon’s family secrets. When an act of homophobic violence wounds her family, Cinnamon and her theatre squad, Klaus and Marie, determine to solve the mysteries and bring her worlds together. The three of them also start falling in love.

Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

Doing research for an earlier novel, Redwood and Wildfire, I came upon a photo of African women performing/being displayed at the 1893 Chicago’s World Fair. They were former warrior women from Dahomey, West Africa, or they were acting as the warrior women—so-called Black Amazons who’d fought French colonialists in fierce battles. After Dahomey’s defeat, this troupe of “exotic savages” was exhibited at the edge of the Fair. I gave the Dahomeyan women a moment in Redwood and Wildfire, but I wanted to do more. I wondered who were these women? What did they think, feel, or do?  What was their story? As I was thinking about writing a novel about Redwood and Wildfire’s granddaughter, I decided the Dahomeyan women would be a major part of the story. 

I researched Dahomey, West Africa, and their warrior-women, but the record was scant: descriptions of them, accounts of their deeds, and history in broad strokes. The warrior women were wives of the King of Dahomey—not his bedmates, but his assassins and bodyguards, his army, and political advisors. Women had considerable power in Dahomey’s fluid yet hierarchical society and could rise from slave to Kpojito—ruling consort of the King. By the mid- 19th century, Dahomey’s elite had grown rich selling slaves to the Europeans. The King bypassed the nobles and governed using a cadre of commoners, including the warrior women, whose status depended on his authority. Unfortunately, nobody really talked to the warrior women or to the performers who were at the Chicago Fair. European and American journalists, adventurers, and explorers talked about them. So, to create characters, I had to speculate on this scant historical record. Taiwo, the Great Wanderer, is a storyteller, an alien griot from another dimension who comes to know our world from the perspective of Kehinde, a warrior woman. Taiwo struggles to make sense of our world, to deal with love, betrayal, heartbreak, joy, and injustice. The Chronicles that Taiwo writes are a lifeline for Cinnamon and her crew.

What inspired you to get into writing, particularly speculative fiction? 

When I was six, I played a willow tree in a play and I got hooked on trees and theatre, on the journey from self to other. But growing up in Pittsburgh, PA in the 1950’s I had the wildly ambitious yet worthy and admirable goal of becoming a Theoretical Physicist or a Mathematician. Theatre Artist or Novelist were wildly ambitious goals for young Black girls too, but surely I was not going to waste my math/science talents, my brain capital, and creative spark on lesser pursuits!

Now, I come from a family of storytellers, of big talkers, and tall-tale-tellers. Nobody in my family ever knew when to shut up. This got me into hot water at school. My mother was desperate and said, “If you get bored, write stories for me. Don’t disturb the other kids. They’re trying to learn.” Keeping out of trouble, I wrote epic adventure sagas for her. I’ve been writing epic adventure sagas ever since. 

The second semester of my junior year in college, I ran away to the theatre! My plays have always been speculative, always on the fantastic side of realism. I ask myself: What’s the world, the universal feel like to an ant, a river, people from a hundred years ago, the lady next door, or the alien from another dimension? My first full-length production was an alternate reality play about Einstein in which Marie Curie was a Black woman revolutionary. There was singing and dancing, mystery and magic, science and comedy, and revolution of course. 

Were there any writers or stories that sparked your own love and interest in storytelling?

I was/am a voracious reader. I lived in the library as a child, reading everything. My older brother was a comic book collector and sf fan, so as little sister I read what he read: Orwell, Tolkien, Huxley, Lewis, Heinlein, Asimov, Herbert, Verne, Wells, Clark, Dick, and Bradbury. I watched Star Trek the original series. That was a family event.

In the 70’s I would read Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and find Ursula K. Le Guin, Vonda McIntyre, Marge Piercy, and Margaret Atwood. In the 90’s several writers and directors gave me works by Octavia Butler. They insisted that given the plays I wrote and the theatre I did, I would love Butler. They were on the mark. And all along, the work of Black women playwrights sustained and inspired me: Lorraine Hansberry, Alice Childress, Sonia Sanchez, Adrienne Kennedy, Pearl Cleage, Lynn Nottage, Aishah Rahman, and Anna Deavere Smith.

How would you describe your writing process? 

Writing is a rehearsal. I show up every day and try to find the joy, solve the problems, and rework what I have discovered and uncovered.

What are some of your favorite elements of writing? What are some of the most challenging?

Favorites: Getting lost in the characters, the setting, the poetry of action. Asking questions, solving problems, finding possibilities I can imagine only as I am in the process of writing.

Challenges: Making sure that I tell the story so that a reader can appreciate what I have uncovered and discovered.

As someone influenced by Afro-futurism, could you define what the concept means for those unfamiliar with it, and describe what it means to you personally?

I am one of the pioneers of Afrofuturism.

I have always been interested in stories that haven’t been told; in characters who have been left out of the official narratives of the “American nation” or who don’t play on the world stage; I am curious about the lives that don’t get written down. I want to explore voices that were/are barely heard and I insist on telling of the unknown people who made me and all of us possible. I have been researching West African cultures and Indigenous American cultures since I was fourteen. This is important to all my work.  

A mathematician at a conference in the early 1990s told me that we shouldn’t worry about losing Indigenous languages. While teaching Black women playwrights at the Universität Hamburg in Germany in 1995, I went to an international conference where many people were eulogizing Africa, proclaiming her demise, mourning the impossibility of any sort of African survival. Decolonizing the indigenous African spirit was seen as a hopeless futile fantasy—a negative word for these folks. Folks kept telling me, the savages have to become civilized westerners! People have been telling me some version of that all my life. I refused the demand that I check Africa at the door to modernity or the future.

I am an Afrofuturist keeping company with Indigenous Futurists. Afrofuturism and Indigenous Futurism are aesthetic philosophies and cultural practices that center on Africa and the diaspora and other non-western cosmologies. Afrofuturists/Indigenous futurists use science fiction, fantasy, the magical realm, and historical fiction to critique the present, re-envision the past, and invent the future.

My first full-length play Einstein was written in 1973. Many other plays feature mystery and magic, science and comedy, and singing and dancing. I began calling these plays sci-fi carnival jams. The titles give you a taste of the plays: The Enemy’s Not On Safari Coming to Round Up in The Jungle No More (1979), Incantations (1986), Dancing With Chaos (1995), Strange Attractors (1996), Lonely Stardust (1998), Hummingbird Flying Backward (2000), Thunderbird at the Next World Theatre (2014), and Episodes from Continuing Drama of Cinnamon Jones—scientist, artiste, and hoodoo conjurer (2018)  

What advice might you have to give for aspiring writers?

Don’t Give Up. Give yourself the time to find your way to writing the stories you want to tell, the stories only you can tell.

Besides your work, what are some things you would want readers to know about you?

I love cooking and inventing recipes. 

I plan to hit the bike trails around the USA in 2023!

Are there any other projects you are working on and at liberty to speak about?

I have completed a draft of my next novel, Archangels Of Funk, which is part of my five-book deal with TorDotCom. Five Books! Hard to believe, sometimes. Each word I write makes it more real. Archangels is the story of Cinnamon Jones, that scientist, artiste, and hoodoo conjurer in my 2018 play. The novel takes place in the Massachusetts of my mind in an alternate present after Water Wars have scrambled the world. Disruptors and the Nostalgia Militia roam the roads wreaking havoc. Invisible Darknet lords troll the internet solidifying their power. Cinnamon and her Circus-Bots are part of a community of Motor Fairies, Wheel-Wizards, and Co-Ops trying to hold on to who they’ve been while coming up with the next world. Of course, not everybody has the same vision for the future—so who gets to tell the story of our lives?

Finally, what LGBTQ+ books/authors would you recommend to the readers of Geeks OUT?

C. L. Polk—The Kingston Cycle, starting with Witchmark

Sam J. Miller—Blackfish City and The Blade Between

Charlie Jane Anders—The City in the Middle of the Night, Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak, and Victories Greater Than Death

P. Djèlí Clark— A Master of Djinn