Interviewed by Moriah Hampton, PhD, an instructor in the University at Albany's Program in Writing and Critical Inquiry (WCI)
Stephanie Andrea Allen, Ph.D., is the author of two short story collections, A Failure to Communicate (2017) and recently published How to Dispatch a Human: Stories and Suggestions (2021). She has co-edited three collections of short fiction: Lez Talk: A Collection of Black Lesbian Fiction (2016), Solace: Writing, Refuge, and LGBTQ Women of Color (2017), and Black from the Future: A Collection of Black Speculative Writing (2019). All five collections are available through BLF Press, an independent Black feminist publishing house founded by Dr. Allen in 2014.
Currently, she is Assistant Professor of Gender Studies at Indiana University Bloomington. A scholar of Black lesbian literature and film, her ongoing work includes the book project, “Marginal and Forbidden:” Black Lesbians, Contemporary American Culture, and the Politics of Representation.
Congratulations on the recent publication of How to Dispatch a Human: Stories and Selections (BLF Press). How does this work fit into the genre of speculative fiction as you define it?
Thank you! That’s a great question and I’m not sure that I have a satisfactory answer. For me, the speculative is rooted in reality but imbued with fantastical and magical elements. It doesn’t necessarily need intricate world-building, but the reader must have a sense of how the worlds I create are different from our world, and they must be both believable and recognizable, strangely familiar, if you will.
My work is often idea or character-driven, and because I focus on Black characters, mostly women, there are folks who’ll claim that my work doesn’t fit, because it doesn’t do what folks expect it to do. But that’s usually because they expect Black characters to behave a certain way, to exist in narrowly defined geographies, and for there to be lots of handwringing and gnashing of the teeth. My stories don’t do that, speculative or not. So, to answer your question more succinctly, HTDAH fits perfectly into my definition of speculative fiction!
As someone interested in exploring Black lesbian and queer characters’ lives, what draws you to speculative fiction? What does this genre offer you as a writer and reader?
Speculative fiction is everything! It is full of possibility and potential for me to imagine what our lives might be like if we were able to just BE. If the sum of our existence wasn’t rooted in trauma narratives or quotidian coming out stories. Not only that, but why do folks assume that Black lesbians and queer folks aren’t already in the future, or that we don’t belong on distant planets or in other universes? That way of thinking is rooted in exclusionary practices that riddle the publishing industry, as well as the systems of oppression that we currently live in and are fighting against.
As a reader, I want to be transported to a world where people like me exist and where they aren’t subject to the same kinds of systemic oppressions that currently exist in our world. Or where we are actually doing something about it that makes sense (for example, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower). I love weird little stories where nothing is as it seems, and where folks are pushing the boundaries of reality. I don’t like super scary or supernatural things, so I try to steer away from that kind of writing. I do love apocalyptic or dystopian fiction, like Justin Cronin’s The Passage Trilogy.
Which writers of speculative fiction have influenced your work? In what directions would you like to see this genre going in the future?
More than anyone, Jewelle Gomez has had the biggest influence on my work. I think Publishers Weekly referred to her as the “godmother of queer Black speculative fiction” in their review of our anthology, Black From the Future: A Collection of Black Speculative Writing. But to be more precise, she is the progenitor of Black lesbian speculative fiction, and that inspired me to stand fully in my identity as a Black lesbian, as well as to write stories about us that I wanted to read. I also love N.K. Jemisin, who I think is one of our greatest living writers, and I also admire Naomi Kritzer’s work.
What would I like to see more of in the future? More stories by a much more diverse body of writers. By that I mean that so much of Black speculative fiction focuses on trauma and our tenuous past, even when folks are writing about the future. Gatekeepers, editors, agents, etc., are generally invested in a very specific type of “Black” story, even when they think they’re being inclusive. I’d love to see more work imbued with a bit of humor, more LGBTQ characters exploring the universe and having a good time doing it, more imaginings of futures where we aren’t always struggling to survive or fighting evil.
You also founded BLF Press, a Black Feminist Publishing House. How would you characterize the mission of BLF Press?
At BLF Press, Black women writers are at the center of what we do, not at the margins. It means that I publish stories that other folks might consider too Black or too queer, or that don’t often fit the narrative of what folks think “Black writing” should be. I envision BLF Press as an outlet for the expression of various types of writing that exemplify the experiences of Black women and women of color in the United States.
What do you look for in a manuscript?
More than anything, I look for beautiful writing and compelling storytelling; someone who understands their craft and is good at it. We mostly publish literary fiction, so I look for excellent, even exceptional quality writing. What makes a book riveting for me as a reader is a story that grabs me from start to finish. Literally a book that I don’t want to put down. I’ll also go a step further and say that I do look for manuscripts where I can see that the writer has put some effort into the process of submission. There are a lot of folks who just send out their work to anyone with an open call, and it’s the most annoying thing. You wouldn’t believe the types of manuscripts I’ve received and rejected. And while I don’t love asking folks to submit cover letters, I need writers to explain why they think BLF Press is a good fit for their work, given our very specific mission. If they can’t articulate that in their cover letter, we probably aren’t the publisher for them.
As a creative writer, publisher, editor, and scholar, you are engaged in various pursuits. What are your plans for the summer?
Ahhh! I have a list of things to do that has its own list of things to do! But seriously, I’ve just accepted a tenure-track position at Indiana University, so I’m busy getting my research plan together, as well as finishing up a piece of scholarly writing that’s due this month. We’ve also signed one of my favorite writers to BLF Press, so we’re getting the announcement ready and working on the cover.
I’m also trying to read for fun. I read for my research, for my teaching, and of course for my publishing house, so it’s hard to find time to read just for me, but I set aside a little time every evening for personal reading. At some point, I’d like to take a little break and do absolutely nothing at all, but we’ll see.