October is Black Speculative Fiction Month and next week, the Midwest BSFA is hosting a reading/discussion of Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements with one of the anthology’s contributor’s Dani McClain! We talked to her about her story “Homing Instinct,” the difference between fiction writing and journalism, and defining home on your own terms.
Midwest BSFA: How did you get into writing?
McClain: My mother gave me a journal when I was 7, and writing in it got me into a practice of recording my observations and reflecting on my experiences. I wrote and edited for my high school newspaper, mostly profiles of students and teachers. I wrote and edited for a literary magazine in college. I wrote theater reviews for a college newspaper, which was great because I went to school in NYC and so was reviewing shows at the Public Theater and other incredible venues. I’ve always used writing as a way to better understand what I think and feel. In my professional life, I try to use reporting and writing to amplify voices that are too often on the margins of public discourse.
Midwest BSFA: Are you a big fan of speculative fiction?
McClain: Not really. I discovered Octavia Butler in the summer of ’98, when I found a book of her short stories on a bookshelf in an apartment I was subletting. I remember being fascinated and disturbed by her stories, especially “The Evening, the Morning and the Night.” Someone encouraged me to revisit Butler’s work a few years later, and that’s when I read her Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. Her writing felt relevant and relatable in a way that I didn’t expect science or speculative fiction to be. Years later I discovered Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed. I’d put both of these books on my list of favorites. For me it’s more about the writer’s use of language and a book’s particular themes than a genre. I like good writing and visionary thinking. The genre matters less to me.
Midwest BSFA: What is your understanding of speculative fiction?
McClain: My understanding is that speculative fiction does exactly what its name suggests: It’s fiction that speculates about the future. Within that, there are dystopias and utopias — imaginings about the best possible future and the worst possible future.
Much of my thinking about speculative fiction has been shaped by the Allied Media Conference community. AMC is an annual gathering in Detroit that brings together artists, organizers, teachers, journalists —anyone who makes media that responds to the world around them in creative and collaborative ways. I’ve been attending the conference for about a decade, and we understand “media” in the broadest sense of the word. It includes zines, films, dance performances, clothing — anything that helps you communicate.
In the past five or so years, a group there began incorporating sci-fi and speculative fiction into our conversations about media. I’d read sci fi before, but it was really as a result of conversations at AMC that my interest deepened and that I came to write this story for the Octavia’s Brood anthology. I was fascinated by the idea, advanced by Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha (OB‘s co-editors), that all social justice organizers are creating “speculative fiction” in a sense, in that they’re envisioning a world that doesn’t exist yet, putting their faith in the possibility of that world, and working toward it.
Midwest BSFA: Why do you think representation in speculative fiction is important?
McClain: Every form of art and expression should be representative, if by that you mean inclusive of perspectives held by people of different races, ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, geographic locations, etc. Everyone should feel invited into writing speculative fiction so that they can then create stories that adequately reflect their lives and their questions about the world.
Midwest BSFA: How did you come up with the concept for “Homing Instinct”?
McClain: I’ve moved around a lot as an adult. I had a stable childhood in terms of being rooted in one location, and I was raised in Camp Dennison in the house that my grandfather’s grandparents built. It’s where my mom grew up and where she lives to this day. I have strong ties to my hometown, but as an adult I’ve lived in at least four different cities. I’ve followed job and educational opportunities, and landed in New York, in Wisconsin, in California. I’ve followed the promise of sunny weather and no snow. The story evolved out of conversations with friends who also feel pulled between the place they were born or where their families are and some other place. I wanted to explore how priorities might shift if there was some externally imposed limitation on mobility.
Midwest BSFA: How do you define home?
McClain: I’m still figuring that out. The Robert Frost line has stuck with me: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
Midwest BSFA: How is journalism like (and unlike) writing speculative fiction or any other kind of fiction?
McClain: “Homing Instinct” is my first and only piece of published fiction and I don’t practice in the genre. I don’t think of myself as a fiction writer, so I don’t feel knowledgeable enough to confidently compare the two. That said, I found the processes of puzzling over structure and anticipating readers’ questions to be similar. There was a bit of research involved in writing this story, and I do a lot of research when I’m reporting a piece or writing commentary. The major difference was that with the short story I had a lot of freedom, because the effort was fueled entirely by my imagination. With a reported piece or with news analysis, I’m tethered by the facts and by information that my sources share with me.
Midwest BSFA: Where can people find your work?
McClain: I’m a contributing writer for The Nation and a lot of my work can be found at http://www.TheNation.com. You’re also welcome to follow me on Twitter @drmcclain and to check out danimcclain.com.
Midwest BSFA: Anything else you want to tell our audience?
McClain: Thanks for being interested in Octavia’s Brood and I hope to see you on October 21.