Connected to Culture: A Conversation with Sheree Renée Thomas
Sheree Renée Thomas was born in Memphis, TN. The eldest child of an air force vet, she grew up on various military bases. She eventually moved to New York, where she lived for twenty years before returning to live in Memphis. She worked at genre bookstore Forbidden Planet, as well as working full-time in publishing while freelancing on the side, doing everything from writing jacket copy to proofreading and copyediting to editing.
In 2000, Time Warner published Thomas’ groundbreaking anthology Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora under its Aspect imprint, followed by 2004’s Dark Matter: Reading the Bones. The first was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and both titles won World Fantasy Awards, making Thomas the first Black World Fantasy Award winner. She is associate editor of Illinois State University journal Obsidian: Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora, and guest edited special issue “Speculating Futures: Black Imagination & the Arts,” and is again guest editing special issue “Heirloom: Preserving HBCU Futures.” She has also edited Apex and Strange Horizons magazines, and more recently, became the editor for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
Thomas was long listed for the Otherwise Award in 2016, in 2017 she was given BLERD City’s inaugural LA Banks Award, and in 2020 she was a World Fantasy Award finalist in the special award, professional category. But her accolades extend far beyond genre. Her work has been supported by numerous fellowships and residencies from organizations such as the Tennessee Arts Commission, the Cave Canem Foundation, and Smith College. As a writer, her nonfiction contributions include The Washington Post and The New York Times. Her fiction and poetry are widely published and anthologized. She has three collections: Shotgun Lullabies and Sleeping Under the Tree of Life, both published by Aqueduct Press in 2011 and 2016, respectively; and Nine Bar Blues, published in 2020 by musician Jack White’s Third Man Records imprint, Third Man Books.
Besides these, Thomas gives historical tours in Memphis, organizes events such as the Black to the Future Revival on the River, and remains actively involved in various artistic communities. She is on the Curatorial Council for Carnegie Hall’s upcoming citywide Afrofuturism event, and her current projects include coediting the Africa Risen anthology with Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki and Zelda Knight for Tordotcom Publishing.
You are a special guest of honor at the upcoming Worldcon (DisCon III in Washington, DC), and you were scheduled to be guest of honor at WisCon, among other appearances. What were your first convention experiences like?
My first SFF con experiences were back when Warner Aspect was publishing the first Dark Matter anthology in 2000. I had never gone to a science fiction one before working with Betsy Mitchell. Before the anthology, I didn’t have the budget to be able to fly out to cons, spend a thousand dollars or more on the hotel, food, etc. while wearing blinders so I don’t weep and try to buy all the good books and cool things in the dealers’ rooms. And I wasn’t a con goer anyway, as it wasn’t a tradition in my family. We didn’t really go to many people’s book signings or what have you. I did more of that in college and can still remember Gwendolyn Brooks’ visit to Memphis. Just an exhilarating experience! But like so many other fans, we were part of our favorite writers’ invisible bottom line. I’m sure in some small way we helped fund at least one Stephen King, Toni Morrison, or Alice Walker family vacation, and maybe contributed to some other small joy, because we had so many different editions of their books.
Keep in mind that later, I was living in NYC, the mother of two children, so that meant any family traveling would be to my hometown, Memphis, (or Florida) so we could spend time with our loved ones. It was so expensive, so I wasn’t a regular at cons; however, I did attend WisCon as much as I could because it was the only time and place I’d get to see some of my friends. I had some good memories of Readercon, especially when my Clarion West class met up to help celebrate Octavia E. Butler and Gwyneth Jones. Linda D. Addison and Harlan Ellison made my NY Horror con experience memorable, and I think that may be where I first met Dallas Mayr (Jack Ketchum), who was wonderful. I had no intention of making the trip to Montreal in 2001, but Dark Matter had been nominated for a World Fantasy Award and Betsy encouraged me to go. My family drove up from NY, and we stayed with relatives in Repentigny. At the World Fantasy Awards ceremony, I remember our Uncle Henri was more astonished than anyone when it was announced that the anthology had won. He made the most beautiful sound!
You are doing a lot of work with Illinois State University journal Obsidian. Besides holding the associate editor position, you also edited “Radiant Youth: Stories of Light & Darkness,” a folio for issue 46.2 and guest edited the “Heirloom: Preserving HBCU Futures” special issue. What has been the best thing about working on these projects?
Obsidian is a wonderful literary journal and digital publishing platform led by poet and professor Duriel E. Harris. It holds a special place in my heart. I saw old volumes of the journal in Memphis when I was a teen, along with Callaloo, The Black Scholar, and others. I knew when I read the iconic writers in its pages that I wanted to be published by them someday. Obsidian was one of the first places that published my work, and more importantly, supported me as an emerging writer. The founder, the late Alvin Aubert, initially rejected my work multiple times, but he also took the time to send me personal notes and feedback at a time that was important to my development.
Being published in Obsidian felt like I’d reached a milestone that had personal and professional value that I am so grateful for. He helped me feel seen in a way that remains a part of my journey. Working on special folios and volumes like “Speculating Futures: The Black Imagination,”which won the 2016 Parnassus Award, “Radiant Youth” on childhood, and the upcoming HBCU issue is a joy, work that keeps me connected and grounded in Black art and cultures from around the world. Editor Harris has taken a journal with a forty-five-year history, founded during the Black Arts Movement, and continued it on to a new time that is so different, in terms of technological and cultural reach. Working with veteran and emerging artists—fiction writers, poets, playwrights, visual artists, scholars, and musicians is a challenge on its own, because you are building a community with people who are coming from so many different mindscapes and continuums. You must stay hydrated to make all those temporal shifts!
Are there important ways in which your approach to editing for the Obsidian issues differs from your approach to editing The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction?
Certainly. Obsidian does not receive the same volume of daily submissions as F&SF, which was founded in 1949 and has its own special legacy and cultural reach. But new writers are new writers, so that remains the same, and at the end of the day, the goals are quite similar. I want to support and publish work that excites, engages, and impacts our world. What that looks like in Obsidian and F&SF may be different. One is specifically and unapologetically dedicated to showcasing the brilliance of African writers and Black writers of the diaspora, while the other is speculative fiction and poetry from around the world. Interesting though, that there is more of an expectation of myriad genres and experimental and hybrid structures in the former than, traditionally, in the latter, but both audiences of readers open the pages with a sense and hope for new discoveries. Obsidian is also based at a state university that has its own Publishing Unit, while F&SF is privately owned and operated. I am fortunate that both have wonderfully capable and hardworking staff and volunteers.
Even before taking over as editor for F&SF, you had considerable experience as an editor. Are there one or two stories from your various projects as an editor that stand out in your mind as particularly important or special?
Oh! You’re asking me to choose favorite stories out of all the amazing writers I’ve been lucky to work with—that is extremely hard, especially because I am focused on the future, the new works coming on down the line. I will tell you of a few stories that I do think of more often and remember and smile. Nalo Hopkinson’s “Greedy Choke Puppy” and her “The Glass Bottle Trick” are favorites. Ama Patterson’s “Hussy Strutt” because I miss her voice so, and grieve that she isn’t here to grace us with more of her wonderful stories and imagination. “Venus Witch’s Ring” by Inda Lauryn and two awesome stories by Eden Royce from Apex Magazine’s Zodiac issue and the special Southeastern USA issue of Strange Horizons. Right now my mind is full of the new stories from Trouble the Waters: Tales of the Deep Blue forthcoming this fall from Third Man Books, Africa Risen, forthcoming next year from Tordotcom, and F&SF.
I could do a multi-tonal praise-song for every single story that the magazine has published this year, so yeah, I’ve been doing this work a while, but I still have that new editor joy. It’s reading the good, unforgettable stories that makes it worth the time and the brain cells!
Does being a fiction writer and a poet give you a different editorial perspective, does it change the way you do things as an editor?
It makes me more mindful perhaps of what it is I am asking writers to do. But I don’t know most of the writers I am reading, so I have no idea what they can or cannot do, in terms of revisions or what have you, and I don’t yet know some of the things that are vital to them and what are their pet peeves. Having a sense of a writer’s voice does help inform the editing, but with short fiction, writers often have a very wide range. As a poet, I do read for clear, strong sentences, clarity, vivid imagery, interesting prose. Not just characterization but the moods and ideas expressed. What story are you telling me beyond the plot, beyond the lines on the page? Dry bone writing might make me bounce harder on some tales than others; it all depends on how the writer chooses to begin and reveal their story. What makes me want to read on to the story’s end could be your voice, your rich characterization, wonderful setting, intriguing action, etc. It’s about getting your readers invested in the story you want to tell.
Many people don’t realize that F&SF is in fact also a horror market. What is great horror for you, and do you feel like what you like about horror is similar or different to other horror folks?
Anyone who knows me personally knows that I love horror. I am the kind of fan that watches obscure international films with subtitles right along with the blockbusters, and I cannot wait to see Nia DaCosta’s Candyman. With that said, I’ve been listening to and reading scary tales since I was a child. My grandparents and their friends, neighbors and such, would tell the scariest haint tales and true-life historical tales that would leave me awake and “peep-eyed” until I finally fell asleep. I loved it! And their storytelling, which is something I think Memphians are particularly gifted at, had a big influence on me falling in love with words and writing.
So yes, I do enjoy receiving horror submissions and have bought some stories that I hope readers will enjoy, too. I am not the biggest reader of body horror, but I do rock with it when I can. Psychological and supernatural are my faves, and I am always interested in folk horror and stories that explore what frightens people in other parts of the world. What makes a good horror story is one that fills you, the reader, with creeping dread. It’s a work that makes you uncomfortable in your skin and has you looking around, dreading what may come next.
F&SF is also a poetry market, so I hope writers and readers don’t sleep on that. I’m still getting a rhythm and a sense of what it is I am seeking from poets, because there is a kind of ambiguity in speculative poetry that is not always easy to express to the others, since the genre can include science-based poems, which shouldn’t be interpreted as traditional nature poems, as well as science fictional, fantasy, and horror works. The horror stories and poems I mostly pass on are overly graphic, while some of the other poetry’s speculative elements are too slight. But I am enjoying reading the poems and hope to publish more in the issues. As a poet I don’t want to see our poems treated as fillers for remnant space. The works speak and stand on their own. And it’s been lovely to see poets receive reviews, which seems to me to be an uncommon gift of focus and attention, well deserved.
Tell us about a few of your science fiction and fantasy picks for F&SF—what are some of the stories you’re excited for people to read?
Oh, so you are slick and goin’ to ask me again, lol! What jumps out for me now are Stephanie Kraner’s “A Father’s Hand,” “Dontay’s Bones” by Danian Darrell Jerry, and new stories by Rob Costello and Viktor Pseftakis, which are coming out soon, because these works had a visceral effect on me when I first read them. Rich Larson’s “The World, A Carcass” made me worry so much for the protagonist and Michael Swanwick’s new story kept me intrigued right on to the end. There are others that resonated in other ways, and that’s the fun part of editing, finding the works that really stand out for you and readers. I’m excited about the stories readers will discover soon, and it’s a special privilege to work with some excellent international writers and translators.
You have also been working on the Africa Risen anthology with Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki and Zelda Knight. What excites you most about this project?
The response to the African Risen call for submissions was exciting. We received works from throughout Africa and her diaspora, so the sheer sensory experience of entering worlds that aren’t traditionally Western-based or -centered was fun. We’re so looking forward to sharing this work with readers and seeing what other new stories some of these writers, especially the newer or less well-known voices, will create and publish in the time ahead.
You recently announced on Twitter that you are cocurating a citywide festival on Afrofuturism, organized by Carnegie Hall. How did you get involved in this project, and what is important for people to know about it?
I was invited and am honored to collaborate with such an energetic, talented, and dedicated team. This is a project that Adriaan Fuchs has been dreaming up for some time, and thank goodness, we are getting on the other side of the pandemic, allowing Carnegie Hall to welcome performers and patrons back, live and in person, in the fall. The festival kicks off next February 2022 and will continue through March. As a former New Yorker who lived in Harlem and UWS for over two decades, I’m thrilled that the city will come alive with Afrofuturism celebrations in the various boroughs. We’re working with community partners to create musical, literary, and artistic experiences throughout the city, and between the Carnegie Hall team, me, Reynaldo Anderson, King James Britt, Louis Chude-Sokei, and Ytasha Womack, the festival is going to be a lot of fun, covering good ground.
What else are you working on, what do you have coming up that you want readers to know about?
As usual, wonderful new things are happening that I can’t yet announce. Between Marvel’s Black Panther: Tales of Wakanda anthology that was edited by Jesse J. Holland, Carnegie Hall’s Afrofuturism festival, and Africa Risen, I’ve had to hold down the lid on a lot of good, hopeful news. But I can share that Imagine a Future, the wonderful new video game I consulted on with three futurists for Mercedes-Benz AG and PlayStation, will be available on July eighth! It’s on the Dreams platform and features a lovely character, Eshe, and her AI companion in a completely customizable future world that gamers can create and collaborate with together to explore. We started in 2019 at the Luma Foundation in beautiful Arles, France, launched an interactive experience in Frankfurt, Germany, and later the awesome team did their magic. This really made me appreciate all the hard work and the many hands that help create video games. Very cool.