Talking with 'River Mumma' Author Zalika Reid-Benta | SFF Q&A

Canadian SFF author Reid-Benta discusses her thought process when crafting stories, connecting with her characters, and what is next in her writing plans.

Zalika Reid-Benta is a Canadian author whose debut short story collection Frying Plantain won the 23rd annual Danuta Gleed Literary Award and the 2020 Kobo Emerging Writer Prize in literary fiction. Reid-Benta also won the 2019 People’s Choice Award for Best Author from River Mumma is her first novel. She talks with LJ about her thought process when crafting stories, connecting with her characters, and what is next in her writing plans.

River Mumma is the story of an under-employed millennial tasked with finding the hair comb of a Jamaican water deity. What brought these two very disparate characters together for your book?

I had wanted to write a novel that involved Jamaican folklore, so that has always been at the back of my mind. In my mid to late 20s I kept seeing articles about “the millennial” experience that I didn’t relate to or saw reflected in the people around me, and I think I kind of just sat on that, sat on my initial responses to those articles or to those quizzes about what it meant to be a millennial. I’m a person who needs to ruminate on things, and when it comes to writing, I can ruminate on things for months or years. So I think I was subconsciously figuring out how the two things could go together, and then one day I just had the idea.

Did you grow up with certain folktales or mythology from your childhood?

I did. I mostly grew up with Anansi the Spider, he’s a classic.

While this is your first fantasy novel, your previous story collection, Frying Plantain, also placed a young Black woman in Toronto, exploring both her Jamaican heritage and her current life. Do you find your own experiences reflect some of your characters’ journeys?

More so River Mumma than Frying Plantain. For Frying Plantain, what I relate to most is Kara’s introspection and quietness. There were a lot of reasons why I wrote that collection, but one of them was wanting to write a quiet protagonist because I found most young main characters to be extroverted and sassy and precocious. I wanted to write a girl with a temperament I could’ve related to when I was younger. For River Mumma, I can relate to graduating and not being where you thought you’d be by a certain age, and I can relate to struggling to find out more about your history, whether cultural or familial, and having to turn to books and external sources to sort of fill in the blanks of what your family has told you.

What is next for you in writing?

I am trying to write a dark academia romance novel!

Do you have some favorite writers in science fiction and fantasy?

Nalo Hopkinson, Octavia Butler, Victor LaValle, N.K. Jemisin, Cherie Dimaline, Zoraida Córdova, and J.R.R Tolkien.

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