Maurice Broaddus has made a career of pushing new frontiers. Not only in his sci-fi and fantasy writing (he’s got several novels and a slew of short stories under his belt), but his own work in community development. More recently, Broaddus’ groundbreaking ways have seen him help co-launch NeoText, a brand-new digital outlet for novellas and narrative non-fiction from a slew of celebrated writers and artists. (Each book also features illustrations and covers from well-known comic artists.)
As part of NeoText, Broaddus has teamed co-writer Otis Whitaker and illustrator Jim Mahfood for Sorcerers, a coming-of-age-tale about a young black’s man journey into becoming a “hip-hop-inspired sorcerer.” I touched base with Broaddus recently, and we discussed not only his work in afrofuturism and the creation of Sorcerers, but his ongoing community development efforts and how that all feeds back into his art.
Sorcerers is available for purchase starting today.
Sorcerers clearly connects back to some larger traditions (in literature as well as in a more broad cultural sense). Why is it so essential to use fiction to explore black culture and history? What sort of ideas or lessons can be explored through your works?
Fiction is about stories and the tradition of storytelling goes all the way back to griots, the keepers of stories, history, and traditions. The stories shape the culture and history grounds our identity. Fiction continues that work. Fiction, especially science fiction and fantasy, allows a bit of a remove, which creates room for the reader to gain perspective (and hopefully empathy) for certain conversations and characters.
My work often critiques and explores issues faced in present day-to-day life in the community, like gentrification, over-policing, racism, injustice and inequality, oppressive systems, identity, and belonging.
How would you describe the scope of Afrofuturism to someone mostly unfamiliar? What’s the connection between this approach and larger activism in general?
The idea of Afrofuturism has seen a recent resurgence in interest since the term was first coined by social critic, Mark Dery, in his 1994 essay, “Black to the Future.” When most people think about the term these days, it’s in light of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s blockbuster, Black Panther. But Afrofuturism is what black creatives—black people, period—have always done: imagine a better future for ourselves. From Martin Delany and his book Blake; or The Huts of America to W. E. B. Du Bois’ story, “The Comet;” to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer and N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy; from the visual art of Jean-Michel Basquiat the music of Sun Ra, Parliament-Funkadelic, or Janelle Monae to the work of Milestone Comics, Afrofuturists ponder the questions, “Where are we now?,” “Where do we want to be?,” and “How do we get there?”
I was thinking about Afrofuturism, and how it’s all about building the world to come, and your own community work. Do you see an inherent connection between the two? Do we have to build the foundation in reality to “reach” the sort of utopias you then write about?
The opposite, actually. In order to create radical change we have to be able to envision it. So we dream the possible future, cast a vision of what a better tomorrow could look like, and then start making steps, charting a course to get there. Being the Kheprw Institute’s Afrofuturist in Residence represents a public statement of the attitude and mindset of the organization and community, about creating desired future states in the present by constantly re-imagining the work and the way the community moves through the world.
I love that Sorcerers is a coming-of-age story, about owning one’s responsibilities and sense of power. How do you balance the pillars of “this is entertainment” and trying to engage readers toward awareness/action?
It’s a delicate balance. I’m not interested in giving a sermon or generating propaganda. Humor is my favorite tool. My favorite comedians are society’s harshest truth tellers and critics. What I learned from them is that their focus was on the joke first (which makes the truth of their message go down easier). With that in mind, I focus on telling the best story possible and populate it with interesting characters whose journeys you want to follow. The message, themes, what have you, flow organically from there.
There’s definitely been an awakening in recent years for non-POC to issues in the black/Latin/etc. communities. What role does your work, or Afrofuturistic works in general, still play as people open their eyes and own up to these systemic issues?
The failures of our societal systems (as well as our all too human condition) has to be interrogated in our art. Big obstacles to the work, like white supremacy, get cracked open in stories. The tales put a human face to the work. I look at the reaction people have had to my most recent works, The Usual Suspects (a middle grade detective novel) and Pimp My Airship (an alternate history/steampunk novel). The Usual Suspects has been making several lists of books people can use to talk to children about racism and navigating the world when burdened with a “label.” Pimp My Airship is Afrofuturism in the steampunk genre. Still examining systemic issues, but through the black cultural lens. That critical lens rooted in the past, with an eye to the future, in order to critique the present.
How does being a writer or a creative in general shape how you approach some of your community efforts? Does it help or hinder the way you try and engage or give back?
My community work informs my writing and my writing informs my community work. One of the things that I’m doing is mentoring young creatives to be the next generation of dreamers, storytellers, and vision casters. Because that’s the work of art informing community work and community work informing the art. The merger of art and social practices, artists and activists.
I read that you focus a lot on asset-based community development, which seems to be all about empowering communities through the skills and strengths of respective members. How does this approach work in respect to some other “tools” in the development bag? Is there a connection back to this approach as a writer/creator?
For a long time I struggled with the notion that “I’m only a writer, what can I do?” But what it boils down to is empowering agency: start where you are with what you have. The community I work in, like other communities, is rich with gifted talented individuals who care about each other and their community. We pay attention to people’s gifts, seeing them as cultural, social, and productive assets within the community. Their talents, their passions, their expertise are the building blocks of community.
Asset-based community development starts by listening to the experts when it comes to problems in their neighborhoods: them. The work becomes about relationship building, sharing social capital, leveraging power and opportunities to create institutions they control. Too often development starts with a plan outside experts have come up with and then the organization foists it on a community. Throwing money at a problem haphazardly rarely does any good. I’ve literally watched a neighbor have more impact with $5,000 than a non-profit doing the exact same work with $100,000.
These narratives are important. Narratives shape. Narratives build capacity. Narratives are educational, with people learning from one another. If we don’t control our own narratives, others certainly will.
I want to talk briefly about NeoText, which is all about providing fiction to better match the pace of modern life. Why is it important to have this platform, one about free-flowing creativity and greater access? Is this perhaps yet another tool for community engagement and collaboration?
NeoText is an exciting experiment in storytelling. You have probably sensed that I love working in community and the NeoText aligns perfectly with that. There’s a collaborative spirit, working very much like a writers room and that’s where I thrive.
Pulling back the curtain a bit, the thing people rarely admit to is that creative tension produces the best ideas. It’s true in my community work, it’s true here. People throw ideas into the mix, other creatives push back against them, and in that frisson, the ideas refine themselves into something better.
Besides, I get to draw on the community I know: my local hip hop scene. Another excuse to talk with them, build with them, and highlight them. NeoText is excited to be in the mix of all of that.
How would you suggest other folks get involved in their communities? What’s the best way to help or figure out one’s role in “giving back”?
A friend of mine just asked me this. I answered, this is the teacher in me, by asking him questions:
- Have you met your neighbors?
- Do you know what organizations are doing work in your community?
- Which of those organizations have values or do work in an area you are passionate about?
- How can you join in the work that’s already going on (rather than reinvent the wheel)?
Giving back is not just about money. Time, resources, relationships, that’s what social capital is all about. I may not have much money, but I can make an introduction to someone who does. Like I said it’s all about starting where you are with what you have. But you have to start.
Sorcerers blurs the line between comic and short fiction/novella. Why is this format so interesting, and can we expect more hybrid works from you and/or NeoText?
Oh, I’m not done with these characters. Not by a long shot. Their journeys are just beginning and there are plenty of stories for me to tell. And NeoText is the best partner to have in telling them. I look forward to future collaboration with them.