Adventures and Misadventures in Worldbuilding and Storytelling

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This month, my short story “The Things My Mother Left Me” was published in the special edition of People of Colo(u)r Destroy Fantasy. It’s an effort in worldbuilding and storytelling some five years in the making.

Sometime in 2011, I started thinking up a fantasy world. This is nothing new for me. If I was a god, these worlds would litter the omniverse–most of them fluttering in and out of existence, and abandoned by their neglectful creator. I like building worlds–sometimes, perhaps, more than I like writing the stories set in them.

All I knew about this world was that (for reasons only my muses know, and they’re rather tight-lipped about it) I wanted it to have mostly Central African characteristics. Now when I say that understand I don’t mean I wanted it set in Central Africa–a vast region of varying cultures and histories. When I create stories set in our world with tweaks of the fantastic or bits of alternate history, they’re pretty easy to recognize. When I create stories set in other, secondary, worlds, I mean other worlds: as in not this one. As in, you can’t get there on a map. As in, don’t try to find it on a map because obviously it’s a whole notha’ world and the map (should I draw it out) wouldn’t make any sense to you.

But even then, I am, to quote author N.K. Jemisin, rather “shit-ton” (I don’t know what that is in the metric system) careful. Plucking up bits of culture here and there to create your new world can have a colonizing effect. So on certain things–particularly distinct religious deities/traditions or ethnic groups or the like–I usually steer clear. Jemisin described her worldbuilding as stripping elements of our world away to their “archetypal bones:” just enough to flavor the soup. This can be contrasted, perhaps, with Charles Saunders: whose African-centered fantasy works (in his own words) absorbs much from our world as inspiration, and throws them into a pot of “constantly simmering gumbo.”

I guess you can put me somewhere in the middle. My secondary worlds tend to have degrees of recognition. They’re not so stripped down to the bones that the source material isn’t recognizable (for those who are looking); but they ain’t got enough meaty chunks to identify it right away like gumbo. Maybe it’s pelau. Or callaloo. Or I should just stop with the food analogies already. Point is, there’s definitely a borrowing and mashup in my worldbuilding. But I try to do so (with varying degrees of success I’m sure) with enough bits of difference that make it decidedly something else altogether.

In this case, the world of The Things my Mother Left Me revolves around the Ten Chiefdoms. The cultural source is mostly Central African, with hints here and there to early states like Kongo and Lundu. But there are hints and allusions to places that lie on the fringes of the Ten Chiefdoms, that speak to parts of West Africa. I also pull on modern elements of those regions: acknowledging the many globalizing influences and impacts over the centuries. Part of my reasoning was to subvert the usual tropes of an African-based fantasy society steeped solely in traditional forms, and to draw on (as well) what has been adapted through time right up to present day. That opens up a great deal in the way of fashion, food, architecture, etc. As such, this world also has elements of “modernity”–with clear hints to things like steam technology and skyships (though those are more complicated).

But this IS a secondary world, again. So its history isn’t our history, even if partially drawn from it. Neither are its flora and fauna. There are baboons in this world for instance–only they have wings. There aren’t any horses (so far) but there are giant feathered lizards used as beasts of burden. And more than a few other beasties (I heart beasties!) that evoke a familiar tropical environment for us yet make this world altogether “something else.” I won’t give away, for instance, the interesting use of an Okapi… and let you read that for yourself.

WARNING: It’s about to get SPOILERY. Not super SPOILERY. But I say things. So you might wanna stop now, go read the story and return.

By June of 2011 I’d written a story set in this world based on two characters: One was named Tausi. The other was named Nundu. I had it beta-read, I sent it off to a pro-market fantasy magazine that June and…REJECTION!

Rejections, like Nargles, are of course the necessary and familiar parts of the submitting experience. As I saw posted once, a writer who doesn’t expect rejections is like a boxer who doesn’t expect to be punched. You don’t like it. But you gotta deal with it. In this case, I even got some feedback. The story, they said, was too complicated. That can happen when  you get too deep into the worldbuilding–you try to stuff too much into one tale. I had kinda seen (and tried to ignore) that problem even before I’d sent off the story, and so agreed. Still, I liked this world. I just needed to find another tale to tell.

Easier said than done. Instead of writing a new story, I found I was just rewriting versions of the old one. Oh I made changes here and there, altering entire elements and tweaking plot lines–but it was the same story. It was like a song by (annoying artist X) you can’t get out of your head. You know you need to stop singing it. You know it’s not good for you. But you can’t help it. The story seemed stuck.

Fast forward a year later. In the Fall of 2012, artist Jason Reeves over at 133art was doing a promo–allowing for reduced prices for commissions. I’d seen Jason’s art. I was eager to support the project. And I wanted to see what some of my characters would look like in color. I commissioned several pieces: one was called “Tausi & Nundu,” taken directly from this world and this story I’d dreamed up. Maybe, I thought, seeing in print would provide the needed inspiration. It took a few months of back and forth, but Jason delivered on my request and came up with the following:

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The piece is fantastic to behold. I mean LOOK At it! It’s one thing to have an idea in your head, and another to see it in vivid color. Tausi–with the bushy fro and that smirking face. Nundu–several tons of six-legged, fierce-looking feline. Perfection!

Now, there were some things that were different. My vision of Tausi was a bit more big-boned than the one Jason gave me. She also doesn’t wear futuristic looking shoes and ankle bracelets or have that glowing gem on her forehead and forearms.  He tried to put a serious curl on Nundu’s mane too (yes you did Jason. yes you did). But really I had no major complaints. Because I’m open to artist interpretations (though I did squash that curly fro-mane) and the depiction is wondrous and magical. In fact one of his additions (the broken worlds in the sky) became a central part of the worldbuilding.

The piece became an instant hit. People loved it. So much so, that Jason began advertising and selling it as part of his portfolio. The more popular it became, the more people would ask me “yo’ when you gonna drop that story?” I started feeling like Jay Electronica. I knew I had to do something about returning to churning out a story set in this world. But you know, life happens. And let me tell you, life gives not two decent f*cks about your writing. Also, new ideas and new stories happened. Some of them went on to be published. And while I really liked this world, the other ones were just doing better. So it got put on the back burner.

Then the world came rushing back. In Oct 2015 artists John Jennings and Reynaldo Anderson curated an exhibit at the Schomburg in Harlem called Unveiling Visions: The Alchemy of the Black Imagination. It featured art and artifacts “connected to Afrofuturism, black speculative imagination and Diasporan cultural production.” Guess who submitted Tausi and Nundu to be part of that exhibit and got the image in there? Yup, Jason Reeves. So imagine walking into the Schomburg–THE SCHOMBURG–and seeing something you conjured up out of your imagination on display for the world to see:

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Okay, so it isn’t as grand as it looks right there. They didn’t blow it up and make a poster out of it. The image was part of a small digital screen a bit bigger than an Ipad. But it was in the SCHOMBURG!

Now I had to write the story. And I had to get it out there to be published. But, again, life. This time a year of finishing up my dissertation, graduating and getting a job. Then in May the call came for People of Colo(u)r Destroy Fantasy, a special edition of Lightspeed/Fantasy Magazine looking for writers of color. I decided hell or high water, I was going to enter. And I knew just the world I wanted to write about. I defended my diss and graduated that month, and two days later, got to work. It certainly helped that right about then my story A Dead Djinn in Cairo had come out on Tor.com to positive reviews. The muse is always fed by success and applause. But I couldn’t just submit the same old story. Ever looked at something you wrote five years ago? I needed a fresh take.

I decided if my first attempt was too complicated, this one might want to take a step back. So instead of plunging into a full-on adventure , I opted for a more personal story–one of origins, that gives us a background and context for the central character. I drew on the image Jason had crafted, as well as the old story and the many notes I’d collected over the years. I also decided to be more daring. Remember what I said about subverting tropes in worldbuilding? I wanted (for no particular reason) to very much include elements of Eastern Caribbean folklore in here. And why not? The trans Atlantic slave trade brought many Central Africans to the West Indies, along with their cultures and rhythms–and those “New World” cultures have been journeying back to their source in the form of dress, slang, dance and music for a minute. Let them mix, let them blend, let them mash-up. And damn the rules!

What came out in the end was a story and a world better than the one that came before. I felt good enough about it to send it out (just in the nick of time to make that deadline) and crossed my fingers. When it was selected, it felt like a long mission finally accomplished. This world was finally going to get out there, and sit along stories by N.K. Jemisin and Sofia Samatar in the anthology. Five years in the making. But FINALLY, it got done. It got some new art too:

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A new take on Tausi by Reimena Yee. Big boned. And she’s just getting started.

You can read (or listen to) the story in its entirety here. Or buy the entire anthology. I wax on about this world and worldbuilding in general more in an author’s spotlight here as well.

A collage of inspiration for this world and most recent story:

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7 thoughts on “Adventures and Misadventures in Worldbuilding and Storytelling

  1. Loved the story. I started out trying to localize the cultural elements (a weakness of mine – the feeling I got was of the space bounded by eastern Congo and the coast of Mozambique) but the glimpses of history and hints of the wider world made clear that the inspiration went well beyond one region, and by the time the Jab Man started talking about Obeah, it was natural. The story and characters were immersed in the world, and it all came together as well as Jason Reeves’ artwork did. I hope there will be more in this universe.

    • Jonathan,

      Thanks for reading. Glad you enjoyed it. No, localizing the cultural elements that flavored the story are good. And you were right to hit on eastern Congo and parts of Mozambique–both past and present. And I had so much fun with the Jab Man! Definitely more from this world to come.

  2. Personally, I’ve got a lot of concerns when it comes to worldbuilding. You should check out this great video about the perils of worldbuilding, assuming you haven’t seen it already.

    The Nerdwriter’s critique of worldbuilding is mostly formalistic. He expresses concerns about how worldbuilding trains people to passively accept the stories they’re given, both fictional and otherwise, as just an objective account and not something open to interpretation and critique. I would go even further and argue that worldbuilding tends to slip back into regressive forms of representation. To seize the lowest hanging fruit I can think of, I’d point you to George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels and all the embarrassing racial stereotypes that found their way into those movies. The character of Watto, for example, is clearly coded to be middle eastern despite the fact that he’s an alien. I’m sure Lucas wasn’t intentionally trying to slander people from the middle east as scrupulous, greedy junk men who smell, he just found the stereotype in his brain ready-to-hand and so he threw it in. It’s easy to criticize Lucas as just being a bad writer with some screwed up ideas about race, but I think even a really great writer is going to feel pressure to fall back on those ready-to-hand stereotypes when writing a weird, alien world. How else do you communicate to your audience how they should be feeling at a certain point except by showing them something they’re familiar with from our own flawed culture?

    Regressive forms of representation isn’t the biggest problem that worldbuilding invites though. Those forms show up in more historically located fiction as well, and you can always just criticize them as being inaccurate when they do. The biggest problem is that when we confront George Lucas about Watto, he can always just say “Hey now, it’s only a movie. These aren’t racial caricatures, they’re these wacky aliens from space. Stop reading so much into it.” Worldbuilding invites the temptation to disown the social and historical influences on your fiction. A lot of people just want to write good, entertaining stories that don’t force readers to confront the muck of politics and ideology, but the problem is that it’s impossible to put a pen to paper and not start digging into that stuff, so too often worldbuilding gets used as a tool for writers to try to shuffle up their influences enough just so you can enjoy the illicit reproduction of old social forms without recognizing and being forced to take responsibility for them. That temptation is there even for progressively minded writers in the SFF community. I feel there’s a disturbing trend among authors to put the priority on writing fiction that’s inoffensive as opposed to writing fiction that’s revolutionary, fiction that is so desperate to respect its source material that it refuses to use it in any way that might be socially meaningful or politically effective. I’m wary of worldbuilding that tries to mix up its sources to the point of being unrecognizable and thus inoffensive.

    All that being said, I do still enjoy worldbuilding in fiction and think it can be used to imagine new ways of living that can be useful for people stuck in this world. I think the best way to do that though is to fully own the influences informing your work, not to try to strip them to the point of being unrecognizable. I strongly disagree with Jemisin’s wanting to boil down to the “archetypal bones” of a thing. I think even the most basic archetypes–the mother, the hero, etc–I think are historically conditioned, and you remain most enthralled to those ideas exactly when you think you’ve gotten away from them. You can’t go around history, only through it.

    Philosophical musings aside, congratulations on completing your five year completing _The Things My Mother Left Me_. I enjoyed reading it along with your Tor story, and I’m looking forward to checking out more of your stuff. Cheers!

    A.J. Rocca

    • A.J.

      Thanks for reading. You’ve laid out some interesting premises here on worldbuilding! I’ve seen the video on the “perils” of the act, and the dependency it can create for fully fleshed out worlds. I get the concern, though I’m not sure I see it as a problem. I’ve never seen anyone so fully and completely create a world that there weren’t spaces left for varied interpretations, additions, imagined histories, etc. beyond the author’s imagination. In fact, I think creating a detailed world can help engender reader/audience desire to continue their own building.

      On making worlds with unrecognizable sources: I’m of two minds about it. On the one hand, I tend to make my influences more blatant. The purpose here is political. I think diversity in SFF should also highlight the diverse histories and cultures of our world–that has too often gone ignored. So if I’m drawing on the Kingdom of Kongo or medieval Somali Sultanates, I want readers to get that. It may not be *our* world. And I may not want to beat readers over the head–but I want them to understand/feel/experience that I’ve quite intentionally moved away from the more Eurocentric norms. This ain’t Westeros I’m creating.

      On the other hand, I enjoy worldbuilding that’s not always recognizable immediately, because then I have to do some sleuthing to get at the influences. I don’t think, for instance, Jemisin is moving away from those influences. Dig a bit, and you’ll locate them. She even points them out in blog pieces. I think you read Inheritance Trilogy and it certainly mirrors distinct aspects of *our* history (slavery, colonialism, religious zealotry, etc) though through a very other wordly lens. Reading her work influenced how I engage my own worldbuilding–even though I take a somewhat different tack.

      Think every writer is going to choose their own path.

      • “I’ve never seen anyone so fully and completely create a world that there weren’t spaces left for varied interpretations, additions, imagined histories, etc. beyond the author’s imagination.”

        You’re probably right, but I do think there is a marked trend in that evolution to eschew altering the narrative structure, themes, metaphors, and other more socially constructive aspects of the story in favor of just working the interior logic of the world to death. Speaking for myself personally, I take a lot of guilty pleasure in clicking on videos exploring the Star Wars extended universe. I don’t even really care for the movies that much anymore, but goddamn, that lore. Tell me more about the planet where the lightsaber crystals come from and how the breathing apparatus on Darth Vader’s suit works. This obsessive need to know, this fill-in-the-gap syndrome which Disney seems to be milking for quite a lot of cash atm, always leaves me feeling kind of icky when I indulge it. There’s just a general temptation for us lovers of fiction to want to dive ever deeper into our fictional worlds and to escape this one, and obsessing over these little details is a way to find in world explanations for things in the story to avoid confronting their real social/historical origins. We get so absorbed with the fictional breathing apparatus behind Darth Vader’s voice that we forget to ask why George Lucas decided to use the voice of a black guy for one of the greatest villains in movie history. I don’t think that fill-in-the-gap syndrome is the worst thing in the world–everyone needs a little escapism after all–but it’s something to be aware of for people trying to challenge the tropes of SFF and what they embody.

        “And I may not want to beat readers over the head–but I want them to understand/feel/experience that I’ve quite intentionally moved away from the more Eurocentric norms. This ain’t Westeros I’m creating.”

        I think it’s extraordinarily hard to get out of Westeros. Even researching and using the history of non-western cultures and histories, the fantasy genre itself is completely immersed in it, and it’s very hard to escape the shadow of our literary forebears. It’s impossible not to write in reference to the genre’s conventions and tropes even when you’re reacting against them. This is particularly problematic if you’re trying to help forge a new, positive black identity that doesn’t repeat the original sin of eurocentric culture of defining black in reference to white. That’s a problem I really have no idea how to solve, maybe you’ve got some ideas.

        Apropos to all this, something I’d really like to hear you comment on is why in _A Dead Djinn in Cairo_ did you choose to put Fatma in a bowler and Englishman’s suit? It struck me as such a curious choice that you did that and that you took special pains to explain it in the context of your world where Egypt had successfully managed to repel European occupation. Fatma’s in world explanation is that she’s doing it as kind of a way to mock the failed European conquerors who would sometimes dress up in Egyptian garb, but my reading of it was that you were writing kind of this funky steampunky story, and it ain’t steampunk if there ain’t a bowler in there somewhere, so you just had to sneak one in. Maybe that’s an ungenerous reading, maybe you were more self-aware about it than I’m giving you credit for, but whatever the case, that bowler still found its way in. Even in this story written to get away from Europe’s cultural hegemony we still find the prints of that hegemony.

  3. Thank you for writing this story!!! I loved they way Tausi had to *think* before/as she kicked butt! Plus, those giant pangolins are *cool*

  4. Pingback: For the Good of the Order: Writing Goals 2017 | Phenderson Djèlí Clark

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