Brandon O’Brien Interview: “Papa Bois and the Boy”

brandon-obrienRead “Papa Bois and the Boy” In Reckoning 1.

Michael: I’d never heard of Papa Bois until I read “Papa Bois and the Boy”. Now I know a little, but only in the abstract. How did you find out about him? I imagine the poem must be engaging with the myth, and with what the myth means to the people, in ways I’m not getting. Can you tell me a little about how you thought about that?

Brandon: Well, to open, ‘finding out’ about Papa Bois, in Trinidad, is the equivalent of finding out that water is wet, I’d say. I’m a Trini writer, and that means that folklore is always in the air—they’re the tools that people associate most swiftly with Caribbean fantasy. I grew up knowing about Papa Bois, the father of the forest, in the way that I guess we all grow up with Sleeping Beauty.

Myth gives people the kind of language they need to communicate the things they value, and part of why I love Papa Bois is because he stands for the reverence of nature that we always worry we’d lose. That’s what I wanted to tap into, especially as it relates to now—to how industrialization is a threat to it, a shadow cast over nature. I’m surely not the only Trinidadian, or even the only Caribbean person, who’s had this thought, but in a world where the ‘first-world status’ of a nation is measured in the height of its skyscrapers, coming from an island that yearns for that kind of ‘first-world’ love and leverages its oil economy for just a drop of that status—it was as if Papa Bois called me personally and insisted I write it. Or, hell, it was as if Papa Bois wrote it and told me to pass it on.

Michael: The poem tells a story about the encroachment of civilization on nature, and about fleeing that encroachment. It’s a classic trope of ecological literature, and something I think it’s almost impossible to avoid thinking about for anyone who grows up with access to nature. I wanted to ask what your own experience of that was like. Did you lose some nature that was precious to you? Would you tell me about it?

Brandon: This is an interesting question, to me, because I feel like ‘losing some nature that was precious to me’ means so many different things that aren’t very close to me, but I think about a lot. As in, I think about nature a lot, but I can’t think of any one thing that stands out. It wasn’t seeing my favourite reserve be torn apart or something like that—it was thinking about all of the various ways that our relationship with globalization has led us to make poor environmental decisions. And I’ll admit that those decisions always affect other people moreso than they do me. In Trinidad, we’ve destroyed prime agricultural land for houses, we’ve removed wetlands in order to construct a stretch of highway. And I’m not saying those infrastructural decisions aren’t valid ones to make, but the relative ease with which we make them at the expense of nature—and more often at the expense of people whose lives depend on it—is still baffling. And then they inevitably bite us, and we stare down the widening maw of food insecurity, for instance, and we wonder what went wrong.

Michael: Finally, I have been itching to ask you about Fiyah, the new (or should I say revived?) magazine of Black Speculative Fiction. You’re the poetry editor. How has that role been for you so far? Have you done anything like this before? What has editing taught you about your own aesthetic for poetry? Is it informing your writing at all?

issue-3-cover-smallBrandon: O, FIYAH has been lovely! Issue Three, ‘Sundown Towns’, has some amazing poetry in it, and I love everything we’ve looked at so far. It’s such a wonderful feeling to see great work pass before your eyes in a flurry, and an even lovelier one to let them know you’re going to give them the space to tell a story they care about, to give them a platform to share themselves like that. Because this is a new experience for me. I’m pretty sure I must’ve told the rest of the FIYAH team at least once how anxiety-inducing it is to have this kind of position over a work, to essentially decide if it deserves to be a part of your platform, to be seen. One of the things I’m glad to learn from this, from the business end, is that when an editor really cares about bringing new voices to the speculative fiction space, and you bring them really damn good work but it just isn’t what they want, it hurts them to tell you no almost as much as it hurts you to hear it. But when they tell you yes? Man… again, I’m really in love with the poetry in this issue!

On the aesthetic side, I’m discovering a lot. For one thing, seeing a bunch of poems set against each other every few weeks does wonders for undoing the kind of Poetry Dos and Don’ts we keep being told. Things I’ve heard people say are always uncool, or too old or cliché, or too difficult for speculative poetry, are always showing up in the poetry slush pile, and even if they don’t catch me, they still prove well enough that those things are still engaging and worth reading.

And that’s at least made me more confident about my own work. About being willing to test the boundaries of my own work.  I don’t see nearly as much experimental work as I’d love to, but I have seen swaths of poems that don’t shy away from being interesting with things people usually throw away as trite. I can only hope that seeing the poetry that comes out in the magazine in the coming issues will challenge and inspire others as much as it does me.

Michael: How do you feel the work the magazine has featured so far has done at representing the spirit of the original Fire!, and Fiyah‘s statement of purpose? Are you seeing submissions written to that purpose?

Brandon: Definitely. I think our goal to èpater le bourgeois has been undoubtedly achieved since day one. I can speak for everything that comes to us, and for the poetry slush in particular, when I say we’re always brimming with work that I think is doing what FIYAH has to do to follow in FIRE!!‘s spirit—work that rebels against both the narratives black people have been fed in narrative media in general and the history of the speculative fiction canon in particular. We have a secondary goal—to give writers the confidence in their own work to keep getting hungry, to keep working and submitting as many places as possible – and of course I feel it’s too early to gauge, but seeing how hungry readers are for FIYAH, I have faith. We’re giving the black community worldwide a space to tell their own stories in their own voices, through the lens of speculative fiction, and we’ve seen some very radical things come out of that process. Things that challenge all of the gatekeepers’ assumptions about the genre, and put blackness in a far more nuanced light. I want to do more of that. I want people to keep seeing more of that.

Michael: Are you having to do much outreach, encouraging authors to submit who might not have done much submitting before? I understand many writers of color feel an active disinterest from white-dominated publishing that deters them from even seeking publication for their work. Did you experience that at all submitting your own work? Are you doing anything specific to overcome it at Fiyah? Do you feel you are contributing to change the circumstances that were outlined in that Fireside #BlackSpecFic report?

Brandon: I’d say… a little less than before. Again, I can speak definitively for speculative poetry, which from my vantage point is such a small community already; take the black community within it, and we cut it even closer. Then we’re talking about a distrust of the publishing ecosystem, a distrust that is literally older than I am, and I can’t blame anyone for that, I think. If someone looks at the genre, even at people deliberately reaching out to them, and goes, ‘no, I don’t think the genre is for me, because I’ve had these experiences’, I don’t think I can criticize them for that. It was part of my own experience, for a time, for sure.

But we’ve also been lucky that people, especially after the #BlackSpecFic report, have been eager to see the landscape change. People are rooting for us, because we’re making it a little easier for new black voices to make their way into the genre and have their work noticed. So they’re sharing us with their friends, they’re promoting us on social media, because they have faith in us. And we’re working hard to earn that faith, and to reach out to people in their small pockets who may have something but haven’t been sending it out, because we really do want to see it.

Michael: Sorry for the barrage of questions about this—it’s all stuff I’ve been thinking about a lot for Reckoning, if from a different angle. Fiyah looks beautiful, it’s doing what it’s doing forcefully and with grace, and it’s something the field and the world badly need. So I can’t help looking to you all for inspiration.

Brandon: You can’t see this make me blush, but it’s making me blush! I similarly think Reckoning is sorely needed—giving people an avenue to use speculative fiction as a lens to view the literal world in, and our impact upon it, and how we can be better stewards of it. The genre has been having such good luck lately, with so many people wanting to ensure that it becomes more diverse, more inclusive, more radical, more conscious, more critical. As a fan, as a writer, and now as an editor, this makes me so happy. I’m glad both of our spaces can be such inspirations to each other, and I can’t wait to see what it inspires other people to make.

Michael: Thank you for being a part of that inspiration. And thank you very much for talking to me!

Brandon: Thank you! For the opportunity to talk to you, and for sharing my work in Reckoning!

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Papa Bois and the Boy

Brandon O’Brien

I startled you the first time.

You spilled bougainvilleas deep violet

from your lap, bursting all around

us. The whole forest was staring

 

at me, waiting to see what came next.

You ran before I could finish

calling your name.

I sympathized, you know.

 

The iron devils had already

moved in, their teeth marking your trees,

splitting rocks with their toes

in search of something more golden-black

 

than freshwater clear.

I looked like a devil’s-heart, no?

And how could I see you?

But fear makes special senses,

 

desperation is its own sight.

You never stopped me laying

my head in your heaven— “but

that is what it here for,” you

 

say. “For rest.”

You’re a charming

king of a more dazzling domain.

I’m as afraid of the outside as you;

 

look at us, you a god with horns,

me a man who ran and tore the city’s dress off me.

The mimosa pudica closes her doors

with each tremor of modernity drawing close.

 

You bring mockingbirds to our dinner

tables soon, dare to kiss a boy so

future-scented, tell me I don’t

need to apologize. “The city does

 

forget easy. The woods can’t.”

I want to live as long as you do,

hand over hand, be a pleasant memory,

‘til the city steps on the very last green.

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