“Popular culture” is no longer a “marketplace of ideas.” It’s a cartel.

An Exclusive interview with Bill Campbell

by Micah Yongo

How did your interest in science fiction begin?

It was in college and, like so many things in college, it was because of a woman. A friend of mine who knew I’d wanted to be a writer and knew my “left of center” tastes gave me Octavia Butler’s Wildseed and told me after I read that to go look up Samuel R. Delany. I was instantly hooked. Here were two beautiful, brilliant black writers using science fiction as their very own intellectual playground. I wanted to swing on those swings and slide down that slide. I almost immediately started writing speculative fiction and hoped to one day be considered among their ranks.

I’d like to talk about this new project you’re involved in – Rosarium Publishing. How did it begin? And what’s it about?

Bill Campbell, head cook & bottle washer at Rosarium Publishing

Bill Campbell, author, head cook & bottle washer at Rosarium Publishing

Rosarium Publishing is a company I started earlier this year. A couple years back, I wrote an anti-racism satire (Koontown Killing Kaperthat was so offensive and so racially charged that my agent basically refused to represent it. So, in 2012, I self-published the thing and hit the streets. I did book festivals, comic book conventions, craft fairs, even a few music festivals, and, by the end of the year, I found out that Koontown was being taught in two universities. That’s when the idea hit me that there were probably other authors out there like me who were somehow good enough for academia but not “good” enough for mainstream publishers. I started Rosarium Publishing to start my search for those authors.

Right now, we’re starting off fairly slowly, and focusing mainly on speculative fiction and comic books mostly (though not exclusively) from people of color. Mothership is our opening salvo. My co-editor, Ed Hall, and I were really fortunate with the level of talent we have in the anthology, but that’s the level of quality we are constantly striving for.

That difference you note between academic and commercial value is interesting. I remember learning of one of my favourite sci-fi books, a novel called Black Man, having to be retitled for its US release for much the same reasons. Why do you think there seems to be this reticence in popular culture to have a conversation about race?

The same thing happened to Lawrence Hill a few years back. His absolutely brilliant novel was called “The Book of Negroes” in Canada but was named “Someone Knows My Name” elsewhere. The title makes perfect sense when you read the book, but I knew a black woman who was given it by some white folks and she was pissed. Ha!

To get back to your question, I have a problem with the notion that the “popular culture” is somehow a reflection of what people want to read, watch, listen to, whatever. Our “marketplace” is so skewed. We live in a time when something like five or six corporations own roughly 90% of the world’s media with only a handful of corporations handling that media’s distribution. And corporations’ main objective is to sell widgets. They generally shy away from deep or meaningful, unconventional or “controversial” content.

Here in the States, since 2001, we’ve been going through one of the most turbulent periods in US history. We’ve had 9/11, the War on Terror, two longstanding wars, a recession, an undeclared depression, Gilded Age income inequality, you get the picture. Yet, we go from inane “controversy” to inane “controversy”–from whether Britney Spears was a good mother to whether Miley Cyrus was legitimately twerking or not.

“Popular culture” is no longer a “marketplace of ideas.” It’s a cartel, and, as I said, that cartel simply wants to sell widgets. They don’t want thought-provoking, meaningful content. Conversations about race is definitely one product that cartel ain’t interested in selling.

What role can science-fiction play in having this conversation?

Well, that being said, the thing that speculative fiction does is provide people the intellectual and emotional space to contemplate subjects a bit more, I guess you can say, easily than mundane fiction (Samuel Delany’s term) can. Sensitive racial topics can definitely benefit from that distance.

But I think the thing that’s most important with Afrofuturism and its offshoots is its DIY nature. You look at Milton Davis and Balogun Ojetade and Minister Faust doing their own thing and producing their own sword and soul books. Folks like me coming out with their own publishing companies. There are directors like Troy Bernier coming out with their own films. There are more black comic books now than you can shake a stick at. And you have the Genesis Science Fiction Radio show by William Hayashi and Jarvis Sheffield and the Black Tribbles radio show out of Philly highlighting all of it.

There are artists no longer looking for white, corporate approval. They are doing their own thing and pounding the pavement with their work. It’s a much harder row to hoe, but, if we can sustain this aspect of Afrofuturism, then we have the chance to really change the dynamic. These corporations may very well decide to cash in on Afrofuturism, but they will ultimately abandon it like they’ve done all other art movements. But, if we have this network of independent producers and a fan base that supports it, then we can have the conversations that we deem important, we can produce the images and the works we can be proud of, and we can keep developing our own culture and let it take the various shapes that we want it to.

I think that’s the most important thing happening right now.

It’s a great point you make about the DIY aspect of afrofuturism, the ownership it offers. I read William Gibson once called sci-fi a vehicle for ‘a sort of folk propaganda for American exceptionalism,’ and noted its habit for projecting ‘the world as a white monoculture [and] the protagonist as a good guy from the middle class or above’. Do you feel this is something afrofuturism is beginning to change? And why do you think sci-fi has traditionally been the domain of the white middle-class for so long?

Actually, I think it is. I think there are subtle shifts in the power dynamics (in Hollywood especially), and I think that there are a lot of really talented writers “of color” whose talents can no longer be denied. I also think with the changes in technology, making production a lot cheaper, giving people more direct access to their potential audience, is also contributing to this change. All of these things are converging to make Afrofuturism and other “ethnofuturisms” possible vehicles to explore and produce.

For example, 10-15 years ago, even if there had been this many POC writing SF, I couldn’t have pulled off Mothership. I just didn’t have that kind of money. But now, especially with crowdfunding (we ran an Indiegogo campaign), it was possible. It was a lot of work, but it was still a lot easier to find the writers I wanted for the project, the audience who’d be interested, and the funds to pull it all together.

As for your last question, I’m not sure. I know when I first started writing SF over 20 years ago [ahem], there was some hostility to the idea of black folks writing it within our own community. People would ask, 

“Why are you messing with that stuff? Why not write something relevant to our people?”

I thought, as I said before, that spec fic opened up myriad possibilities to address just that, but a lot of folks just didn’t see it that way.

These attitudes are definitely changing now. But, think about it, our lives are science fiction today. Sunshine Patriots is about cyborg soldiers, and we now have soldiers with prosthetic limbs going back into active combat. There are just too many examples of this kind of thing (nanotechnology, medicine, the internet, I even got to do a bank transfer from my bank in DC from my phone in Amsterdam), and, as I like saying, what is more science fictional than a black President?

rosarium

Koontown Killing Kaper, My Booty Novel, Sunshine Patriots – Your body of work has been pretty eclectic. What attracts you to writing the kind of stories you do? What’s the process?

 My process, if you can call it that, sucks. I’m not one of those writers who writes on anything resembling a regular basis. I’ve only written three novels in the last 15 years. Basically, I obsess over ideas for years on end. Then, one day, when I have the thing mostly formed and I get really depressed that I haven’t written anything down yet, I end up spending a month in a feverish rush writing the book. Both Koontown and Sunshine Patriots took about six weeks to write, but they were in my head for years. My Booty Novel took a little longer–maybe about four months.

As far as what attracts me to the stories I do, I’m not sure. My intellectual interests have always been a bit scatter shot, so there’s no telling what I’ll be reading or obsessed with at any given time. It’s also my feeble attempt to avoid ending up writing the same novel over and over again. There are a couple of graphic novel projects I’ve been working on that will make people go, “WTF?” and don’t be surprised, when it’s all over, that I end up writing my very own Russian novel. Ha!.

Ha – Brilliant! The black Dostoevsky, why not? You’ve mentioned the work of Delaney, Butler and others who’ve paved the way in getting things started. We’re reading statistics about how the demographic for many western countries is going to change over the coming years (it’s expected that by 2043 white people in the US will no longer be an ethnic majority, and there are similar projections for the UK). In light of this, what do you see for the future of afrofuturism and other genres of black art? How do you think it’s going to change?

Hm, good question. Oddly enough, I hadn’t really thought about it. My first guess would be (and this is depending on so many factors) that the kind of efforts that we are currently doing will ultimately become commonplace. I always tell people that there will ultimately be sequels to Mothership every few years or so, but my ultimate hope is that one day there will be no need for another Mothership project, that it will outlive its purpose. A lot of this is wishful thinking on my part, but I can actually envision it.

Speaking of the future, what can we look forward to seeing next from you? What are some of the things in pipeline for 2014 and beyond?

Oh, we’re really excited about what we’ve got planned for next year. First, there’s Keef Cross’s DayBlack digital comic. It’s about a former slave, Merce, who’s been a vampire for the past 400 years and is currently a tattoo artist. He’s figured out a way to drink blood without violence, but he’s being steadily drawn back to his old, gory ways.

The artist who did our Mothership cover, John Jennings, has an art book, Pitch Black Rainbow, coming out in the spring. Both Keef and John are brilliant artists. It’s been a real pleasure working with them.

We’re coming out with a special 40th anniversary edition of Vern E. Smith’s The Jones Men. It’s a crime novel set in Detroit that was nominated for an Edgar award back in 1974. Gar Anthony Haywood calls the book, “The Wire before there was The Wire.

And, in the summer, we’ll be coming out with Brett Cottrell’s The Valley of Fire. We call it a “divine comedy.” One of God’s angels comes down to Earth and threatens to cause Armageddon all in search of the perfect sandwich. It’s a wild ride and funny as, well, hell.

We have a few other things cooking, but these are the projects that are in the immediate future. I’ve said it before but we kind of envision ourselves as “the little engine that could,” and I really feel like we’re on the right track. Of course, only time and “popular culture” can tell.

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Micah Yongo is curious about the things that make the world, and those living in it, tick. He writes about creativity, ideas and anything else to do with exploring new paradigms for culture, art, learning and life. He’ll be found, with knuckle to chin, on Google+, at his blog Thoughthouse or misbehaving at @micahyongo.

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9 replies

  1. Great interview Micah. I’m very much encouraged and inspired by the way that entrepreneurs like Bill Campbell are creating an opportunity (positive) from a negative situation through enterprise/ingenuity/creativity. Reading this took me back to my undergrad BA Social and Cultural studies days when I read Adorno’s work on the Cultural Industries. Looking forward to you next piece 🙂

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  2. Amazing Q&A, Micah. I can’t believe I’ve never heard of Bill Campbell till now. As an aspiring fiction writer “of color,” I definitely want to learn more about his work and the publishing groups he networks with.

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  3. Micah,
    Thanks for a thoughtful interview….Bill is right about how a small # of corporations control our media distribution…Love that he is making his dream come true, and also making it come true for other writers.

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  4. Great interview. My mind is spinning. Although I’ve had much attention from agents over my last manuscript, it falls between what the Christian market and agents think will sell, it is violent… like that doesn’t exist in real life, even if it is somewhat historical/sci-fi fiction. I like the can do attitude. That is what makes people successful.

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    • Definitely. The ‘can do’ thing is a big deal. I think what Bill and others in the genre are doing will ultimately prove to be the best way to move things forward and provide a viable forum for more interesting art to get made. And by interesting I mean things that don’t fall easily into proven marketable stereotypes, but instead push the envelope a little (like it sounds that manuscript you’ve written may be doing).

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  5. This is such a great interview… I love Campbell’s remarks on popular culture – I think the inanity and homogeneity of mass entertainment is really is an insult to all of us… I’m sure it’s intended to foster this negative idea of everyone else or ‘the herd’ so that creatives think ‘there’s no point doing anything challenging; there’s no audience… if I want to survive, I’ll have to churn out more of the same tasteless pap’

    I wish I could get Mothership in the UK. I know I could get the pdf version but my only reading time really in on the commute, so it takes me forever to read pdfs

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    • I know what you mean, I loved Bill’s thoughts on this too. Especially in drawing attention to the fact that ‘popular culture’ is not always a reflection of what people actually want to read/watch/listen to. Those market paradigms usually only reflect what’s proven rather than what’s current. The past rather than the present. People appreciate when publishing houses/film studios/recording companies take risks and try different things, more diverse things.

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      • I guess it’s a good thing in that way – in that someone like Bill can find a keen market, and a patch of unoccupied, uncolonised, cultural space that can be a starting point for resistance

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