Author Bill Campbell has plenty of experiences under his belt. The Pittsburgh native and Northwestern alum is not only a writer who explores science fiction and African Diaspora themes, but he's also a publisher, a former AmeriCorps volunteer, music critic and English language teacher in the Czech Republic.
Campbell, along with author Ytasha L. Womack, will be discussing their work at the Oak Park Public Library on Thursday, July 10 at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday Journal recently interviewed him on the subject of Afrofuturism.
How would you describe Afrofuturism and how does it apply to your work?
Oddly enough, I'm one of those artists who's not really into definitions. However, I think of Afrofuturism as an artistic movement spanning the different disciplines where the Diaspora gets to examine its own past and future, its own humanity within the context of speculative fiction. It is global and quite disparate and, to me, incredibly hard to pin down in just a few words. I think that's why I like it so much. There are so many possibilities within Afrofuturism — and within all of us.
Some of my own work could be classified as Afrofuturism. There's the anthology, Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond, of course. Then my first novel, Sunshine Patriots, is a bit of "Rastafarian science fiction." My anti-racism satire, Koontown Killing Kaper, has also been classified as such. It has vampire crack babies, after all. It's along the same lines of satire as George Schuyler's fiction and Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo. But my interests vary. In fact, at the end of next year, I'll be coming out with a graphic novel set in 1920s Eastern Europe.
Who or what has inspired and influenced your work?
There are way too many influences to count. Two of the biggest would be Samuel R. Delany (if it weren't for him, I don't know if I would have ever started writing science fiction) and Ishmael Reed. After reading Candide, I realized that "serious literature" could be funny and, in that light, I thought nothing could be more serious than some of Reed's work.
But my main influence would probably have to be Zora Neale Hurston. In the early '90s (while at Northwestern, oddly enough), the rap group X-Clan really got me to thinking about voodoo as a black spiritual movement and not as "devil worship" as it so often had been characterized. Then I read Hurston's Moses, Man of the Mountain, and she made connections between African spirituality and the Old Testament that I never thought of. That caused me to examine other denigrated diasporic cultural traditions. In fact, her footprint is all over Sunshine Patriots (my first novel), but I doubt if many people would see it that way.
So you could say that Delany really got me into science fiction, Reed inspired me to write satire, and Hurston drove me into really studying the culture. Of course, Michel Foucault had a large hand in all of it, too, teaching me to look beyond face value and look at power relationships.
Describe a character from one of your works that interests you most. Why is this character important?
That would have to be the main character of Koontown Killing Kaper, Genevieve Noire. She's an ex-supermodel/ex-homicide detective/private eye. I liked the challenge of writing her because her experiences and attitudes were so outside of my own, but I really liked her intellectual (almost spiritual) journey from going to someone who feels somewhat separated from Koontown to someone who really learns to embrace and defend it and how to love her own people, warts and all.
Is Afrofuturism a necessary literary/art form?
Oh definitely. One of the reasons I love science fiction so much is that it gives the writer and their audience the space to delve into issues that they might not delve into otherwise. There are so many possibilities one can discuss within the genre without seeming didactic. There are so many issues confronting us today (not just as black people but as a global community) that need to be discussed. Afrofuturism is a useful way to discuss those things. Also, if you look at a lot of the awful ways we're constantly portrayed in mainstream culture, I view what many Afrofuturists are doing as not only a pleasant diversion from that mess but also a very strong tool with which to combat it.
How do you see the future of black sci-fi and fantasy?
I see the resistance to black SFF rapidly melting away. When I started writing it in the early '90s, I'd often hear black people ask, "Why don't you write real stuff about the problems our people face?" I would often say, "But I am," and folks wouldn't believe me. Now more and more people are actually seeing what we're doing, and they more readily accept what I was saying then to be true now.
Besides, 21st-century existence is science fiction. Even in the '80s, most people couldn't have imagined the technology we consider commonplace today. In certain ways, not accepting science fiction is not accepting the reality you're confronted with every day.
What projects are you working on now?
Well, since starting my own publishing company, Rosarium, a year ago, I haven't had much time for writing. Right now, I'm mostly working on other people's projects and trying to get them out to the general public. We're about 18 artists strong. So there's a lot of work to do. However, I have carved out a little time for my own work later in the fall. I'll be working on a graphic novel about World War II. I've always wanted to explore what my maternal grandparents went through during the war. I think this is the time to finally do it.
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