From Micro Fiction to Tales of the Afro Strange | Talking with Indie Award-winning author Ran Walker

On a recent August day, Ran Walker, winner of the 2019 National Indie Author of the Year Award, stopped by the LJ offices to talk about writing and teaching creative fiction and poetry, his coining of a new subgenre term, and winning several high-profile awards for his self-published novel, Daykeeper.

On a recent August day, Ran Walker, winner of the 2019 National Indie Author of the Year Award (which was selected by a panel of judges that included myself as well as editors and critics from Publisher's Weekly, IngramSpark, St. Martin's Press, and Writer's Digest), stopped by the LJ offices to talk about writing and teaching creative fiction and poetry, his coining of a new subgenre term, and winning several high-profile awards for his self-published novel, Daykeeper.

Daykeeper coverThe author of 17 books, including full-length novels, short stories, poetry collections, and flash fiction, Walker is also an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Hampton University, a historically black university in Virginia. Daykeeper is a deeply human story about loss, grief, and ethics. In it, a recently widowed professor struggles with the death of his wife. Then he meets a young woman nearly half his age, who is also a student at his college. Walker says the moral grappling in the story and the questions it raises were partly inspired by David Mamet’s Oleanna.

Walker was surprised and thrilled at the critical reception. The first award he received for Daykeeper was the 2018 Virginia Indie Author Project Award for Adult Fiction (a contest co-sponsored by Library Journal). “It just felt good that the librarians in my home state of Virginia thought enough of the book.” Two months later, Walker was informed that Daykeeper would be entered for consideration for the national award. He was teaching at Hampton University when he received the email notifying him that he’d won. “I thought it was an error at first. All those years, writing all these books, all those late nights.”

In addition to writing full-length novels across a range of genres, Walker also has an undeniable passion photo of author Ran Walkerand skill for short form writing. “One of my favorite poetic forms is Kwansaba.” An African American verse form of praise, the Kwansaba was created in 1995 by Eugene B. Redmond, East St. Louis Poet Laureate and professor of English at Southern Illinois University-East St. Louis. “It is limited to seven lines, seven words per line, and no more than seven letters per word,” Walker explains.

“The first thing I do when teaching my students in Intro to Poetry is introduce the forms. I have them submit portfolios where they write in seven or eight different forms. Free verse is last…. The form that I prefer the most is Kwansaba. It’s 49 words—what can you do with 49 words? You have to hit the idea at a certain angle for it to work.”

Walker’s love of compact writing extends beyond poetry. “I love writing dribbles,” he says. Dribbles, Walker explains, fall under the umbrella of flash fiction, which contains several short forms. “Flash fiction is typically fiction that’s 1,000 words or less. Micro fiction is 300 words or less. Drabbles are 100-word stories. Finally, there are dribbles, which are 50-word stories.”

If he could master the Kwansaba, Walker figured, he could write a 50-word story. “It uses different parts of the brain to create.” He recommends interested readers—and writers—check out 50-Word Stories, a website where many of his own dribbles have been published and where he reads the work of others and finds inspiration.

Kwansaba collection coverExperimenting with the limitations of these forms is both a creative and technical challenge for the author. “How can I say these five words in one word? Instead of using this adverb, maybe there’s a verb that encompasses enough of that energy. You’re constantly weighing and tinkering. And you want to have an effect that resonates at the end. You don’t want to just write a synopsis of a story.”

Walker’s latest work, a collection of short stories called Portable Black Magic: Tales of the Afro Strange, to be published on October 1 by 45 Alternate Press, contains eight tales. The first story, “Secret Rooms in the Mansions of My Mind,” gets its name from a line in a D’Angelo song. It centers on a struggling artist who keeps dreaming of the perfect woman. His dreams almost overtake his reality and he begins to paint the woman. He soon finds out that another artist has painted the same woman—but that artist based his paintings on a real-life model. The dream girl exists. “So the story is really about: Can she live up to the fantasy he’s created in his mind? Ann Patchett talks about this idea in The Getaway Car. Can this idea you have in your head ever manifest itself in the exact way when you write it?”

I asked Walker about the term Afro Strange and its meaning. Is it akin to Afrofuturism? “I sort of made it up,” Walker explains. “I came up with the phrase because other labels didn’t quite fit. I used to call my work “Afro Nerd,” or “Blerd” literature.” Blerd, a shortened form of “black nerd,” has come to encompass a wide array of speculative fiction, books, comics, films, and pop culture that’s by and about black and brown people. "It’s really targeting the college-educated person with interests that go well beyond what’s normally associated with African American characters,” says Walker. His stories, he explains, are not Afrofuturism because there are no science or science fiction elements. “They are all based in the real world…but tilted. Kind of like The Twilight Zone.”

Take, for example, a story in Portable Black Magic called “The Salvatore Grant.” In it, a young man getsPortable Black Magic cover into Yale, but cannot afford the tuition. “Then he sees a flyer for a six-figure college grant from a company that makes Italian food. He goes to the interview in his polyester suit and pleather shoes. There’s a doctor, a lawyer, and a chef all sitting around the table. To get the grant, he must agree to allow a one-inch piece of muscle from his thigh to be removed so it can be incorporated into a very expensive pizza.”

While race isn’t made explicit in the stories themselves, Walker hopes that the subtitle makes it clear to readers that his protagonists are black. “Toni Morrison talked a lot about expectations—the expectations that we bring to what we read. And how many readers assume that, unless otherwise specified, characters default to white.” Walker hopes that his work upends and disrupts those expectations.

When asked about reading and writing in the current political climate, Walker admits that “it can feel entirely surreal. Sometimes I feel like I can’t speak my mind when I really want to speak my mind. But I do it through my art.” Walker then describes a recent short story he wrote about a black college grad who takes a job being the “black friend” at parties and high-profile events for white people. “The young man gets hired out to a politician who is very much like Trump. He has to stand behind the politician at rallies and events. It’s a surreal story,” Walker says, “but we are living in crazy times.”

 

Kiera Parrott is the reviews director for Library Journal and School Library Journal

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Curtiss McGee

Creative wisdom. Wonderful author great work of art. Great talent very tasteful readings.

Posted : Aug 29, 2019 10:41


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