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Steven Barnes

Steven Barnes
Interview by Gavin J. Grant

Steven BarnesSteven Barnes has published more than a dozen novels, the latest of which is Lion's Blood, a page-turning adventure of the pre-Civil War U.S. -- except whites are slaves and blacks are the masters. He has also taught writing at UCLA and the Clarion Writer's Workshop, written for TV, hosted radio shows, and created LifeWriting Workshops. Barnes is a long-term martial arts participant. He lives in Longview, WA, with his wife (author Tananarive Due) and daughter, and at least one cat -- who was on his lap while we talked on the phone. When did you first get the idea for Lion's Blood?

Steven Barnes: About seven years ago. On some level, it's impossible to be impacted by race in America and not wonder why things happened the way they did -- what would it be like if they were different? There was a TV series called Sliders where every week they would go to a different strange world. One of the producers asked me if I'd be interested in writing an episode where they slid to a world where the relative racial positions were reversed. In talking to them, I realized they weren't very serious about doing it well, they were interested in doing it sort of as a joke. Then there was the movie, "White Man's Burden," that dealt with the same world, and they did that terribly. They did not think about the world, and they didn't tell an interesting story in that world. So I started thinking about it and asked myself, How could such a world happen? What would be necessary in order to change it? What would it be like to live in it? I started researching it to try to find a way to do it realistically and in a way that made sense to me, that I felt it actually could have happened.

Lion's BloodI realized my primary task was to tell an interesting story in this world. I wanted very much to communicate aspects of my experience, and my thoughts about my experience being an American, that I'd never been able to say in any of my other work.

I definitely had a sense that I had to pull out all the stops. I think race relations are the largest unhealed wound in this country's character.

What kind of conversations are you hoping to start with Lions' Blood?

First of all, the conversation I would most like to start is, "Wow! What a great book, you should buy it!" [Laughs] I guess thematically my point is human beings are just human beings, and we need to understand the factors that create us. You have to separate human beings into their software and their hardware. In terms of hardware, we're all pretty much alike, but we're running very, very different software.

To try to put blacks in the position that whites were in, to a degree, and to put whites in the position that blacks were in, to a degree, forces people to -- hopefully -- understand some things about humanity: what the other group's experience was like, what it cost them, and the ways in which we can leverage our spiritual strength into success, clarity, love, health, and happiness in the material world. I think I'd most like to trigger a discussion about "what is man that thou are mindful of him?" What is the nature of humanity?

I believe in and I love this country very much, and it's been very hurtful at times to be here. To not feel loved -- it's a terrible feeling.

Have you ever lived abroad?

No. I've traveled just a bit but I've never lived abroad and I don't really want to. I don't consider the U.S. to be a country as much as I do an idea about a way that human beings can interact with each other. I think those ideas are very powerful memes that are spreading around the world. They weren't invented here; they sort of washed here as a result of thousands of years of social development in several different places. The entire world is represented in this country, and we're having a dialogue about the future of mankind. I like the answers we're coming up with, even if we can't always implement them.

Why did you choose to write this novel as a historical, rather than a present-day or futuristic novel?

The Descent of AnansiIf I had written it as a futuristic novel, most of the things that would make the universe [of this book] interesting wouldn't exist anymore -- because I believe that barriers are falling rather rapidly right now and over the last couple of years. But they're still there, trust me. We still have Martin Luther King Day and there's not a single movie with a black star in the top 10 at the box office -- so you have to take it all with a grain of salt.

If I did something in the future I wouldn't get to play with some of the tropes that I wanted to. By setting it as a historical, I got to deal with the heart of the issue -- the heart of the issue in racial terms. The difference in religion wouldn't have made as much difference in the future, either. My original thought was to set the book in the Civil Rights era, do a reversal on In the Heat of the Night, but my editor, Betsy Mitchell, suggested I do it during slavery as that's the heart of the issue. If I was going to deal with the heart of the problem, What is it that creates problems for black Americans? I have to go to the past, and the thing that black American have in common is the heritage of being descended from slaves.

Black Americans have to be differentiated from African immigrants, who do about as well statistically as immigrants from many other countries. Slavery made some very specific demands both on the slave and on the master -- it created a somewhat tortuous relationship, and I thought that era would be the best, most interesting, most potentially passionate and dramatic period to deal with.

What do you mean when you say tropes?

The core image systems. The ability to communicate in the media is based upon manipulating image systems that the audience is comfortable and familiar with. Some of the images we are very comfortable with, judging by "Gone With the Wind" being the most popular film in American history (if you adjust the dollars for inflation), the images of slavery, of blacks being subservient to whites -- and that being the natural order of the world -- are in everything from "Gone With the Wind" to "Driving Miss Daisy" to "The Green Mile." I felt if I inverted that, I'd automatically be tapping into some potential dramatic energy. Any time you invert or disrupt what people expect to happen, you get an emotional response -- either a scream, a laugh, a jolt of some kind or other. I think to a certain degree that's what artists try to do.

I know you write for TV. How about movies? Eric Jerome Dickey talked about the difficulties in making films for the black American audience.

Think and Grow RichWhites have been able to leverage their numerical and financial advantage into a fantastic cultural advantage. I doubt there's been one movie in which a black man is sexual that has earned over $50 million -- and that's the average cost of a Hollywood film. If you're going to make a mainstream Hollywood film, you must leave his sexuality out of the issue. Tom Cruise gets laid in a movie, the movie makes $200 million. Will Smith can make love to his wife in a bio-pic about the most famous black man in American history -- and the movie flops. One cannot establish causality there, but the statistics are very, very provocative.

You can change all the laws you want to, but people in their hearts are going to feel comfortable with what they feel comfortable with -- and, unfortunately black Americans are on the losing side of that. Certain kinds of imagery that I believe are important for the proper nurturance of the human spirit, the mythologies that exist in every culture about who it is we are, how we're related to god, and how we're related to our own sense of greatness...blacks don't get that. It's damaging. It's up to people like me to try and change that.

When you were writing Lion's Blood, did you think of it in very visual terms?

I tend to think in very visual terms, and I tend to write books as scripts first -- and then turn them into novels. It's not that every scene that was in the script is in the book, of course, you go in lots of different directions...writing it as a script first enabled me to test different ideas in shorthand -- it doesn't take as long to write a script because all you have is narrative and dialogue. You don't really have description or the internal monologues. I take the position I'm a reporter trying to cover the events that happened in the book, and I can write about them from several different angles. If I write it as a script, in a couple of months I can have a full version of the story that I can look at. If the characters work, if it feels believable, then I start back at the beginning again, and start turning it into a book.

Why did you choose to write about Islam?

Islam is the only major competitor Christianity ever ran into. They come from the same root, so what you've got is a really ugly family argument. They're all looking at the same mountain saying, "It's mine! It's mine!" It's universally ridiculous. That's the human dilemma: everything you do to support your people is legitimate, but if the other people do the same, it's terrible. It's like listening to Rush Limbaugh: any time liberals do anything, he screams about it, but if the conservatives do the exact same thing, they're in the right, and it's all wonderful.

Achilles ChoiceJudaism, Christianity, and Islam all do that to each other. Everybody uses violence against everybody else; everybody claims that they are peaceful and that they're in the right. I think the only answer is to go beyond religion to the question, What is spiritual? To move beyond the nationalities, the races, and the history, to say we're all attempting to stand in the light of god. In the process, everyone is beating the hell out of each other.

I chose Islam because I needed a unified religion in sub-Saharan Africa to spread certain kinds of things -- such as the best way to create a unified army. I had to research and find out enough about it to portray it in a way that would not be insulting.

What kind of research did you do for a book like this?

A tremendous amount of reading, and then finding Muslims willing to speak to me -- especially Shaykh Tanar Tarsusi, a Sufi in the Bay Area. I spent days with him and his people going over everything I conceivably could. They were willing to share ceremonies, texts, and knowledge not usually shared with the outside. They trusted me with that.

The novel is written on an epic scale, but at the same time, it's a page-turning adventure story. So hopefully that means there'll be a large audience for it.

I hope so. If I were as rich as Bill Gates, I'd still want this book to sell really well. I want to communicate to people. First and foremost I'm a storyteller -- much more than being a proselytizer or pamphleteer. I love to catch people's interest. I also want to communicate aspects of my experience that I don't feel I've ever really been to communicate, or have never really been communicated.

Bringing in the Zulu nations in as the equivalents of Gurkhas or storm troopers...

[Laughs] There isn't any direct equivalent in American history; they were a wild card, for sure.

...must have been a lot of fun.

I look at Shaka Zulu as being a cross between Napoleon and Vlad the Impaler -- the guy was a nut, but also brilliant and a tremendous athlete. But I needed to be careful, because the Zulus are the most African of the Africans in the book -- everyone else is Islamic, and Ethiopia has their long ties to the Mediterranean, so their gene pool is more mixed. I had to be very careful to make sure that I wasn't saying the more African, or blacker, somebody is, the more animalistic they are.

It was really great fun, because I got to play with questions of their sexuality, culture, and attitudes. But there were things that were very painful to write. The middle passage sequence was awful. I like to write books that are hopeful -- I don't think I've ever written a down-ending book in my life -- but there were things about writing this book that were much more painful than I expected them to be. I did not make these sequences as realistic as I could have. I didn't want to put my characters and my readers through it. I wanted them to have down moments so that their ultimate triumphs would be higher.

There have been books I've read where I'd be hoping that events wouldn't get as dark as they might, and they did anyway...

This is a problem if you're trying to write about black experience in the U.S. There are things about it that white Americans really don't want to know. Imagine how you'd feel about it if your ancestors were actually involved in creating this misery. There are whole varieties of black experience that literally can't be put into books if you want those books to sell well. In general, people don't read entertainment to feel uncomfortable.

By inverting the situation, by making the things to be overcome the hero's problem, I thought maybe I could convey some of this experience, but not try to make anybody feel guilty. I have no interest in people feeling guilty. It's useful to understand the past, mostly to understand that we're in this world together with our different religions, races, and political leanings, but we have to get along in order to move forward.

Are you going to write more books set in the world of Lion's Blood?

Hmm, let's see...yes! The second book, Zulu Heart, will be out next February. I hope people fall in love with this world and the struggles of my young Irishman, Aiden, and my young African, Kai, and will be interested in their lives, their relationships, and the world they live in.

For Aiden, what kind of research did you do?

I had technical advisors. Heather Alexander did the Irish slave songs, and I have a friend, Rebecca Neason, who writes books set in Ireland. I was able to tap their knowledge and get them to point me in the right direction for the reading to be done. Then it was a matter of reading books set in that period, books on Celtic history and wisdom, the magic and the language, and so on.

Was there any time you would research, say, Aiden's position, by researching the history of blacks in the U.S.?

Blood BrothersYes. I've done extensive research into slavery: the economics, psychology and politics of slavery, and what it meant in terms of America. I chose the Irish because they had proven in their own history to have enormous resilience. They also had a patois, a rhythm to their life and language, that I could feel when I would hear them speak.

What I had to do was to take the same question, What is it that creates a slave? and transplant it to other groups. Traditionally in the U.S. you did not have large groups of slaves from any one area kept together, they mixed them up. That was one of the things that made it so terrible; the slaves had no way to communicate except in the master's language. I deliberately created a somewhat artificial situation where the Irish were able to stay together. That enabled me to maintain a sense that there was something familiar in this world -- which allows the reader more of a bridge into the new world. It was going to be really alien world no matter what I did, but there was a limit to how alien I could have it, and still maintain that reader identification.

I just read a story in the news about a former college professor, Pearl Duncan, who went to Ghana to trace her roots using DNA matching.

Black Americans are the most isolated people in the world. No group of people have ever been taken as far into slavery. We lost our names, religion, and culture, and then we were programmed in a social program that was given to us by those in whose interest it was to keep us helpless.

It's as if the whole culture has enforced amnesia.

There's a certain amount of truth to that. Everybody else knows their ancestor's names back who-knows-how-many generations; they're worshipping the image of a image of god that looks like them, and their creation myths connect them directly to god. They say, "God created us, and he created the rest of the world." The Native Americans have that...the Japanese were all related to the emperor, and the emperor was related to god...the Jews are the chosen people...everybody has that, except black Americans.

RootsThat's why Alex Haley got such a powerful reaction to Roots. Regardless of whether it was scholarship or mythmaking, he drew a line all the way back and no one had ever done that. You could see the popular outpouring of energy when he did that: people went nuts! Thirty million people had been told their whole lives and their entire history, You are nothing, you are nothing! and suddenly he was saying, "No, you're human beings." Just that little thing made an enormous difference.

How old were you when Roots came out? Did you read it at that point?

I guess I was in high school, around 16. I didn't read it until I was in college.

Did it have any effect on you?

Far Beyond the StarsIt didn't have that much effect. I was somewhat dissociated from my sense of being black. There was no strength there, nothing I could identify that was healthy to me. It took years for me to get through that and process it.

I liked Roots, but there was a certain sense of, "That's interesting," because there was definitely a lot of feedback that said, "The blacker you are, the less we're going to accept you." If everything that I wanted in terms of building my life existed in that majority culture, then I had to put my racial feelings on the shelf.

You see white people driving their cars with bumper stickers saying, "God created beer so that the Irish would rule the world." Everybody gets to be proud of their heritage. If black people do a bumper sticker that says something specifically about black pride, they get pulled over by the police. Don't think that still doesn't happen disproportionately. It's very natural, police are a high-testosterone alpha-male type. They tend to be very territorial, and one way of defining territory is skin color.

One Door Away From HeavenOne of the things I want to do in Lion's Blood is say, "If the positions were reversed, we'd be just as nasty as you guys." It's not what white or black people do -- it's just what people do. It's disturbing, of course, but I think that human beings are kinder to each other, in general, than animals are. It's the natural world, and I think we're making a better world all the time. It's hard to grasp that sometimes because there's so much pain.

What are you reading?

Mostly nonfiction aimed at research for Zulu Heart. In the car I was listening to the latest novel by Dean Koontz, One Door Away from Heaven.

Are there any books you always recommend?

Zen in the Art of WritingIt would be easier for me to point to nonfiction: Musashi Miyamoto's Book of Five Rings and Sun Tsu's Art of War. Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill is a wonderful book about basic mental savvy that encourages people to be successful. In terms of science fiction, the works of Harlan Ellison -- I think he's a fabulous fantasist. Larry Niven's Ringworld. The nonfiction work of Isaac Asimov. Ray Bradbury -- both his fiction and nonfiction. He wrote an extremely insightful book on writing, called Zen in the Art of Writing, that I always recommend to young writers.

* Martial Arts Man!
The Book of Five RingsBesides Black Belts in Kenpo Karate and Kodokan Judo, Steven Barnes has also studied (or taught!) Wu Ming Ta, Filipino Kali stick and knife fighting, Jun Fan Kickboxing, Wu Style Tai Chi Chuan, Shorenji Jiu Jitsu, Tae Kwon Do, Aikido, boxing, Western fencing, wrestling, Wing Chun Kung Fu, Shotokan Karate, French Savate, Pentjak Silat (an Indonesian fighting system), and Ashtanga Yoga!