An annotated list of published works and where to find them, with a background story that helps me remember how I manage to come up with the stories that actually get selected. Replicating that success is always the hard part.
The Machine– Flash fiction piece I wrote while riding on a bus one day between NY and Washington DC. I’d been reading a bit of Focault, some Greek mythology about Atlas and listening about the dreary state of the world on Democracy Now. Out of that heady mix, came this little allegorical gem. To my delight, the good folks at Every Day Fiction found it worthy enough to publish. I got the biggest kick out of reading the comments, as some of my Brooklynite slang created a moment of cross-cultural confusion for non-American readers. Published December 30, 2010
Shattering the Spear– My first full length fantasy piece, picked up by a semi-pro market ezine, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, no less. The background for this story is actually rooted in another tale, that’s part of a much larger fantasy world I’ve been sketching out for years. Two previous stories based in this world were rejected by HFQ. One day, while looking over one of these rejections, I decided to go another route–write a story based on a secondary character mentioned only briefly by a somewhat anti-hero, while featuring that anti-hero as a villain and side character. 9,000+ words later, I ended up with a Zhusa warrior, one ticked off dire rhino and a hunt for a mystical spear. Shattering the Spear earned some comparisons to the legendary Charles Saunders by the editors of HFQ, which made my New Year. Published January 1, 2011.
The Machine- Podcast– As if I wasn’t geeked enough, EDF asked permission to turn my flash fiction bit into a podcast. Read by Matt Cowens, it breathed new life into the tale–and with a New Zealand accent no less. I went international! Published February 7, 2011.
Wings for Icarus– While attempting to trim some palm trees in front of his Houston home, my Dad (a welder by trade with a typically West Indian penchant for fixing/building things) fell off a ladder. He lived to tell the tale, but broke his arm pretty badly. Naturally, several thousand miles away in Brooklyn, my mind turned all of this into a story. After getting shot down about three times, this was the piece that Daily Science Fiction decided finally hit the mark. Published April 5, 2011.
The Nganga’s Nkisi– A brief bit of light-hearted fantasy I doodled out, drawn on the time-honored meme of the mischievous sorcerer’s apprentice who tampers with powers beyond his control. This story involves two boys named Lumba and Diblo, and a whirlwind of trouble in the form of an animated Nkisi. Thanks to the folks over at the House of the Flying Pig–Hogglepot–for publishing. Published April 7, 2011.
Skin Magic– A story close to my heart, because it brought me back to writing. A string of rejected stories and the day-to-day life of pursuing a PhD, pretty much kept me away from writing for almost three years. Then, by chance, I decided to join an online site created mostly for writers of color–Black Science Fiction Society. It was fascinating to see so many other people, who looked like me, pursuing endless forms of speculative fiction writing. Inspired, that Christmas I began jotting down a story which I published in short blog posts on the site. Set in an alternate world drawn from the medieval Swahili states and kingdoms of the West African Sahel, with a menagerie of extraordinary beasties thrown in for good measure, it tells the tale of an unfortunate thief cursed with inked markings on his skin that make him capable of doing terrible things. Author Milton Davis, also on BSFS, loved the story, and asked if I would submit it to an upcoming anthology he and pioneering author Charles Saunders were working on of African Fantasy, aptly called, Griots. I’ve been writing regularly ever since. Published August 7, 2011.
- “Skin Magic” by P.Djeli Clark is a gripping, original action piece about the victim of a dying sorcerer’s curse. A young thief must live with moving tattoos etched [onto] his chest that are actual portals to other worlds and the monsters that live there. How he comes to deal with this horrid fate is a very gripping and exciting entry.- Ron Fortier, Pulp Fiction Reviews
- “Skin Magic” by Djeli A. Clark kicks the anthology back into action mode with a story that has a healthy heap of horror. The main character is a thief on the run who has living tattoos on his skin that are portals to a nightmarish limbo through which Cthulhuian creatures can emerge into our world. The thief, barely able to control this horrible ability is pursued by the fearsome minions of a consortium of dark magicians who desire this power for their own purposes. As soon as I finished this story, I wanted to read a sequel right away.- Derrick Ferguson, Blood & Ink Blogspot
- Six stories are of the first rank. Of these . . . “Skin Magic” by P. Dejli Clark is a tale of a thief cursed with horrible magical abilities being hunted by unknown forces across East Africa.- swordandsorceryblogspot
Fantasy Pick– was watching a game one day when a good friend called me frantic. He was not home, he couldn’t get a good internet connection on his Iphone and he needed me to immediately make his fantasy football selections. As I did so, I thought about the ways in which fantasy football drafts mimic the world of professional sports–where players are traded and moved around like commodities to suit the whims of their adoring fans. The story was also influenced by the works of William Rhoden and the great political sports journalism of Dave Zirin. Thanks for the good folks at Every Day Fiction in Canada for publishing this, my second work on their e-zine. Published August 24, 2012.
What the Sea Wants– one of those stories that simply flits out of your head one lazy Saturday morning. Rather than let it get away, you decide to catch it with a butterfly net and commit it to paper. This particular tale was inspired by the tragedy that struck Papua New Guinea in July 1998–don’t ask me why I was thinking about that on a very calm Spring morning in Brooklyn–and delves into how the human psyche uses tragedy to preserve memories, weave folklore, and teach those who come after. There is also the unmistakable influence of my formative years growing up on the Caribbean island nation of my parents, who taught me a healthy respect for the sea. My second publication at Daily Science Fiction, making it thus far the only pro-market to which I’ve managed to sell. Onward… Published October 2nd, 2012.
Men in Black– a story from a dream. literally. I woke up with this story dissipating from my thoughts one weekend at my parents house in 2004 and jumped up and jotted down the basic premise. Sketched an outline up in 15 minutes, then started rifling through my parents library to find a book on “southern Negro dialects.” The theme of the story was heavily influenced by historian F. Leon Litwack’s Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow, which details the era of segregation and lynch law that permeated the American South, mostly from the perspective of the blacks who had to live through it. The book is sheer horror. It is violence and hate on an insensible level. It is everyday humiliation and such stark oppression and brutality you can’t fathom it as reality. I first read Litwack’s work on the Jim Crow South for a graduate history course and it has stuck with me ever since. My story Men in Black explores the darker side of the Victorian and Progressive Era, a slightly steampunk tale (no airships, corsets or zombies) about a lynching, the arrival of a mysterious stranger with his fantastic machines and the fate of a small town called Blackwood. Though written in 2004, the story just took up space on my flash drive due to its length. And no matter how many scalpels I took to it, couldn’t reduce it to a size that was publishable for most markets. Then, last year, indie authors Milton Davis and Balogun Ojetade announced they were putting together an anthology of black steampunk, aptly titled STEAMFUNK–and were accepting high word counts. Dusted off the story, edited it down to something slightly less embarrassing, submitted, crossed my fingers and was pleased when it was selected. Published Feb. 20 2013.
Ghost Marriage– This story came about as many others, simply as a fluke. I was sitting listening to the radio program Talk Back with Hugh Hamilton (who has now sadly-departed the revamped WBAI) when the topic of marriage came up. A sociologist was noting that despite what many may think, the institution of marriage through time and space has been diverse–with no single defining feature. Why, she even said, some cultures married the deceased. That made me stop. What? Marrying the dead? You mean… a marriage to a ghost? The muse struck, I did some research, started typing notes, and before you know it, I had the outline to a new story–Ghost Marriage. The protagonist is a woman named Ayen, who after being bonded to the ghost of her former husband, now seeks a spiritual separation from the seemingly angered spirit. Oh yes, and there’s a bull involved. The setting and culture was taken from East and Central Africa (or an imagined fantasy version), and pull on cultures as diverse as the Jieng (Dinka) and Himba. When I learned Milton Davis and Charles Saunders were created a second anthology on African-inspired fantasy, this one dedicated to women, I submitted Ghost Marriage–and it was accepted! In a recent Black Gate review of the book, the story managed to stand out and receive some praise:
P. Djeli Clark’s “Ghost Marriage” is my second favorite story in Sisters of the Spear. While it works the same sort of legendary material as McDonnell’s “The Night Wife”, it is told in a more contemporary style. It also expands the circle of devastation from beyond the confines of one woman’s family to potentially the entire world. Ayen is a young widow who is haunted by the destructive spirit of her husband. She has ventured deep into the wasteland in search of a wise-woman who can sever her dead spouse’s hold on her. Clark, another veteran of the earlier Griots volume, has written a powerful story of sorrow, remorse, and giant world-shattering monsters.
Readers who liked Skin Magic, from the first Griots anthology, may find clues to some interesting similarities. And I will say nothing more. Published Dec. 10 2013.
With a Golden Risha– My second publication in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly and my return to submitting and publishing to kick off 2015. The origins of this story are multiple. It began some years back (perhaps 2011) when author Milton Davis issued one of his famous “image” prompts. He put up a picture of Ludwig Deutsch’s 1895 artwork A Nubian Guard and said “write a story.” Like probably every other black person who has dabbled in creating non-Eurocentric fantasy, I’d seen the image before. I even owned a framed copy at one time in college. As with most Orientalist art, fantasy is easy–because it’s already pretty fantastic. Not the actual “Near East,” but the conjured imaginings of some 19th century Occidental. With this in mind I plunged into writing my tale, but purposefully imbued it with a bit of steampunk–if only to shake up the cherished meme of a “stagnant” East. When I finished the short story it was okay. But I found even more I really liked the world I was building–a lot. I kept at it. Sketching out about three more stories over the ears, and the rough draft of a novel–that got to about chapter 3. Then I put it all down and went to play with some other shiny new toy. Sometime last year however I returned. I decided not to tell a grand sweeping story from this world, but something more specific. I wanted it to be based on an unlikely hero and I wanted it to be *fun.* What I ended up with was a 9000 word fantasy tale called With a Golden Risha.
What’s a risha? A risha is an implement used to play an oud. And if you’ve never heard an oud played, you are missing out on life friend. With a Golden Risha is a fantasy story of a down-on-his luck oud player, anarchist pirates, airships and (of course) a map to dangerous treasure and adventure. Like my original tale, it’s set in a world that pulls from the medieval and early modern Near East. There are hints here of the Baghdad Caliphate, the Ottoman Empire, the Mughal Empire, the Swahili City States and the Sultanates of Somalia. I say hints, because this is after all a work of fantasy. This isn’t our world, it’s merely an influence. I also had the opportunity between all of this to read author Saladin Ahmed’s Engraved on the Eye and Throne of the Crescent Moon, which really helped me (hopefully) think clearly about issues of appropriation and stereotypes when pulling from such diverse and rich cultures. Also found ample justification for my long love of describing food! Other influences include everything from musician Ahmed Alshaiba to Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker to Somali Pirates. But ah! I’ve said too much. Check out the story. And expect more from this dreamed up world. Published January 2015.
A Dead Djinn in Cairo – My biggest sale yet was a novelette to Tor.com. The origin of the story is simple: I wanted to write a tale set in an alternate world of magic & steampunk. And I chose Cairo. I’ve visited the city before, and it leaves an impression. So it just seemed the perfect fit. Plus, I’ve always had a thing for ancient Egypt as some of you well know from the unpublished novel that shall not be named. The protagonist was plucked wholly out of the Aether. That is, I only knew I wanted someone determined, strong-willed and who could get the job done. I ended up with Fatama el-Sha`arawi–an investigator with the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. Of course! Fatma’s first name was chosen from an old acquaintance by the same name. Her last name was a nod to the early Egyptian feminist Huda el-Sha`arawi–if anyone was at all paying attention. It was at first going to be Saadawi after the writer activist Nawal el-Saadawi, but it was Huda el-Sha`arawi who was best remembered for the “western digs.” And Fatma does love her tailored suits.
The rest of the story just fell into place. To quote the synopsis on Tor.com: Egypt, 1912. In an alternate Cairo infused with the otherworldly, the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities investigate disturbances between the mortal and the (possibly) divine. What starts off as an odd suicide case for Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi leads her through the city’s underbelly as she encounters rampaging ghouls, saucy assassins, clockwork angels, and a plot that could unravel time itself.
Writing this story allowed me to draw on my background on ancient Egypt, but pull that into a more recent Egypt. I wanted to move away from the usual Egypt of Western fantasy (set in a time of pharaohs and gods) but not lose that either. And I wanted to subvert typical Orientalist themes of the decaying East with a 1912 Cairo that was both cosmopolitan and modern but not inherently Westernized. Enter in a Sufist mystic and scientist by the name of al-Jahiz (big ups to anyone who knows their 9th century Islamic scholars) who uses machines to bring both djinn and magic back into the mundane, up-ending the entire colonial world order as we know it.
Researching and building for this world was fun throughout. How can you not laugh deviously as you write words like “Anarchist Necromancers?” Still, tried to be careful as I went blundering into language, religion, culture, gender, etc. I wanted a different world–but not an “exoticized” one. That provided me with a few challenges that I hope I got right–or came close to doing so at least. Of course, like the character Siti, I can’t help at times tweaking certain things to ruffle a few feathers. What came out in the end was a story I liked enough to drop into the lap of Diana Pho over at Tor. I was delighted when she was *equally* as delighted as I was and offered to buy it. Woot! After some fundamental edits (copy editors are gods! at times frustrating, but gods all the same.) and some PHENOMENAL artwork by Kevin Hong, the story premiered on Tor.com May 18, 2016–just one day before I walked with the doctorate. It managed to land some decent buzz and reviews. Even had a bit of fan art! Was a great graduation present. Folk have been asking if I plan on revisiting this world again. Answer is, definitely! Look out for more. Published May 18, 2016.
The Mouser of Peter the Great -This story I wrote back in 2015. It’s part of the anthology Hidden Youth–the sequel, of sorts, to the Locus and World Fantasy Award nominated Long Hidden: an anthology of speculative fiction dedicated to telling stories of people at the margin. Hidden Youth’s purpose was similar–this time focusing on stories of marginalized youth. When the call for stories came out in 2015, I knew I wanted to enter. But what? I had all of human history before 1935 C.E. to choose from. For a historian, this can leave you immobilized by an abundance of riches.
What I settled on was the Tsardom of Muscovy (Russia) set in the eighteenth-century. It’s about a young African “Moorish” boy who finds himself brought before Peter the Great: inspired by the real life Abram Gannibal, the great-grandfather of the “veritable Shakespeare of the Russian literary tradition,” Alexander Pushkin. It’s hard to pinpoint what led me here. I’ve known about Abram Gannibal and Alexander Pushkin forever–one of those staples many black folk learn about to counter Eurocentric histories. I had read Long Hidden, and I liked this notion of setting stories in places people least expect–with characters who at first glance might seem “out of place” but are actually right where they belong. A young black boy in the early modern Russian royal court fit the bill perfectly.
The problem was that the real-life Abram Gannibal was hard to place. Even Alexander Pushkin, who sought to celebrate his paternal grandfather’s African heritage and its influence on his life, knew little about Abram’s origins. Historians, both Russian and otherwise, have offered up varying theories. From Ethiopia? Chad? Of royal background? Abram’s life remains shrouded in bits of mystery that are hard to pin down.
It came to me as I was researching and trying to develop a story, that perhaps this was the story. What must it have been like for a young boy, barely eight years old, to end up in a strange place, and become entangled in the royal politics surrounding a powerful figure like Peter the Great? What was it like to be taken as a slave into this society? How was this Eastern slavery different from the trans-Atlantic trade we’re more familiar with? How does it offer new possibilities (Abram, for all intents and purposes, is practically “adopted” by the Tsar and will marry into Russian aristocracy not to mention serve at its highest levels) but replicate some of the same issues of displacement, discrimination and social-death? How does this fit into Russia’s own lengthy history of mass serfdom?
I had a few things to pull from that just about every scholar on Abram agrees on–that he arrived in Russia at a young age, that he’d come as a slave from the Turkish court, etc. I also drew on some of the politics of the age–namely Peter the Great’s attempts to “westernize” Russia and the country’s overlapping of Western and Eastern cultural spheres. Of course, my favorite part was adding in lots of elements of Slavic folklore–which become central to Abram’s story and his attempts to locate himself as a slave thrust into this new world.
I was fortunate enough to get novelist E.P. Beaumont, whose links to Russian culture and history provided great insight, to give it a beta-read along with the crew at Fizzgig (I know you’re like, huh? Fizzgig? Shhh. It’s a secret). After some editing I submitted it and was happy when it got accepted. That, however, wasn’t the end. It took some work to get the project of Hidden Youth off the ground, as I wrote about here back in June. But the great news was that it did become a reality, and the book was published in early Nov 2016. Grab a copy and enjoy The Mouser of Peter the Great alongside 21 other diverse fantastic tales!
The Things My Mother Left Me– This story is part of some world building several years in the making–though it was written in a two week period in mid 2016. It appears in Lightspeed’s sister publication Fantasy-Magazine’s People of Colo(u)r Destroy Fantasy (edited by writer Daniel Jose Older), alongside amazing tales by authors like N.K. Jemisin and Sofia Samatar. The influences of this story are varied–from precolonial to modern Central Africa (in particular the Congo region) to Eastern Caribbean folklore.
Set in a backwater town in the Ten Chiefdoms (where broken moons, netherworldly tricksters and winged baboons are rather mundane–but magic is forbidden) it follows the attempts of a girl (Tausi) to escape the legacy of her rather notorious mother. Easier said than done.
I’d tell you more about it, but I already wrote an entire blog piece on it. So read or listen to the story (they Audio-thinged-it!) at Fantasy-Magazine, and check out the blog for more background on how it came to be. And what may yet come.