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Interview: Justin C. Key on “Afiya’s Song”

Justin C. KeyTell us a bit about “Afiya’s Song.”

Afiya’s Song is first and foremost an ode to my ancestry as a black person in America. However you define it, whatever successes I enjoy, my core identity as an African-American began with slavery here in the United States. That said, Afiya’s Song is the story of a young American slave woman who utilizes her ability to connect to her spiritual homeland through song to heal herself and others. In this healing she finds the strength and courage to lead a rebellion. Given the time period of the story, of course it is in part about the brutality and reality of slavery. But much more than that it’s a story about resilience, culture, and sacrifice.

 

What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

Like a lot of writers, I am constantly jotting down ideas. The idea of a self-healing protagonist came to me several years ago, and somehow my mind wandered to ‘what if that person was alive in slavery times?’ I wrote a few pages down, with a male protagonist–just scattered scenes. I stopped and wondered what I was really adding to what had already been written about the time period. I didn’t want it to be a trunk story. I put it away. When I was accepted into Clarion West, the idea was one of the first that popped into my head as a potential piece. At Clarion we’re encouraged not to work on old stories, so I started fresh. I’m glad I did.

 

Can you tell us about any of the research you may have done for “Afiya’s Song?”

My main resource was a book called ‘Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember’ by James Mellon. These were stories by former slaves, in their own words. One of the beauties of Clarion West was that I was able to fully immerse myself into writing and research. I’d read a little, and then write a scene or a stretch of dialogue, stepped away to breathe and digest, then write some more. My research gave me a glimpse not only into the everyday horrors of slavery, but also how people still found joy in their lives through song, community, and hope. Slavery is an ugly, real, and crucial part of our history, but even in its darkest hours there was still humanity present in every single story, every single life.

There’s also a bit of ‘life research’, if you will. My grandmother worked as a maid in Martinsville, a small city in the south of Virginia. Reading and watching and searching gave me the details and dialogue and politics of the time period, but a lot of the emotion was already present in the stories of my own family history, in one form or another.

 

You’ve said that you “felt this was the story I went to Clarion to write.”  Could you elaborate on that statement?

Clarion West was a great experience for myself and my classmates for many reasons. It gave us the time to write and read and fail and learn and grow. “Afiya’s Song” culminated a lot of what I learned at Clarion, not just about plot and character and dialogue, but also of perspective and responsibility. Our class constantly pushed each other to become better. For example, after my third week’s story, a classmate challenged me to try writing a story with a woman main character. Making that switch for Afiya’s Song helped me tackle a flaw in a lot of the mainstream stories set in this time: women used as tragic set pieces. Motivation. I wanted something more than that.

I don’t think I was ready to write this story when I first had the idea. At Clarion, I gained the perspective, introspection, skills, and confidence to give Afiya’s story justice.

 

What are you working on now?

For the last year I’ve mainly been working on a science fiction novella that takes place in a post-apocalyptic medical school. The idea sprang from my observations of health disparities throughout my medical training and delving into the history of medical experimentation on marginalized populations in America. I’ve been talking with an interested editor about developing a series for a major publishing house. I’m pretty excited about it.

I’m also working on a ‘sword & sorcery’ short based on the African Benin Empire that incorporates the Atlantic slave trade. To be clear, I definitely don’t want slavery to become a ‘gimmick’ in my writing, but after working on Afiya’s Song that period in time remains fresh in my mind, compounded by the current political climate. I love fantasy, and I hope to explore some of its elements through the African lens.

 

Anything else you’d like to add?

Writing something like this—and especially publishing it—made me nervous. After reading a final draft, a mentor warned me that I had to ready myself for potential backlash. Was I trying to imply that black people can only prevail through the use of magic? My goal was not and never will be to romanticize slavery. But as a 30-year-old (28 when I wrote it) father of two black boys who was taught little about this crucial part of our history in grade school, exploring this era and the emotions that come with it is part of my personal growth and journey. My hope is that by sharing part of this journey with others I can not only spark a reflection on our history, but also touch the essential parts of humanity that binds us across color lines.

 

“Afiya’s Song” appears in the July/August 2017 issue of F&SF.

You can buy a copy of the issue here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1707.htm

You can subscribe to the print edition of F&SF here: https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/subscribe.htm

You can subscribe to the electronic edition of F&SF at the following links:

Weightless Books (non-Kindle): https://weightlessbooks.com/category/publisher/spilogale-inc/

Amazon US (Kindle edition): http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

Amazon UK (Kindle edition): http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004ZFZ4O8/

Clicking on Dr. Key’s author photo (photo credit Rob Allen Photography) will take you to his website: http://www.justinckey.com

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