Black to the Future: top storytelling voices on demystifying genre

Black to the Future: top storytelling voices on demystifying genre

A conversation with Corey Brotherson, Chella Ramanan, and Rivers Solomon on Afrofuturism

by Suswati Basu

The British Library hosted a recent panel event for the inaugural Black to the Future Festival, which looked at the topic of Afrofuturism in the sphere of science fiction, ahead of the venue’s major “Fantasy: Realms of Imagination” exhibition. Moderated by multidisciplinary storyteller Leah Muwanga-Magoye, three distinguished voices in the world of storytelling came together to talk about their creative processes, genre-bending narratives, and the challenges they’ve faced in breaking through boundaries and expectations. The discussion featured award-winning writer and creative consultant for the games industry Corey Brotherson, Bafta-nominated narrative designer Chella Ramanan, and acclaimed author Rivers Solomon, known for their works spanning multiple genres and media platforms.

Black to the Future panel discussion with Corey Brotherson, Rivers Solomon and Chella Ramanan on storytelling.

Brotherson kicked off the discussion by delving into his ongoing graphic novel series, “Magic of Myths.” He described it as an urban fantasy story with a unique twist—a young black woman trapped in a fantasy world, forced to interact with gods, monsters, and magic inspired by classic Roman and Greek mythology. The writer emphasised his desire to explore the social and political implications of such encounters, especially within the context of a Black protagonist. He shared his journey of developing this series over twelve years, now approaching its sixth season, highlighting the gradual unveiling of underlying themes.

Read: Black to the Future festival: a journey into Afrofuturism

Solomon, who is non-binary, followed with a discussion of their most recent book, “Sorrowland.” They explained their intention to create a narrative that straddled the genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy while delivering a thought-provoking and unsettling experience. Solomon touched on the challenge of blurring the lines between these genres and allowing readers to interpret the work from their unique perspectives. “Sorrowland” follows the transformation of a young woman as her body undergoes monstrous changes, and Solomon discussed the significance of this transformation as a central theme.

Ramanan introduced “Windrush Tales,” a narrative video game set in 1958, exploring the experiences of the Windrush generation in Britain. Originally, Ramanan set out to express her Caribbean heritage and celebrate the success of the Caribbean community in the UK’s history. She shared her journey from contemplating various creative forms, such as poetry and essays, to settling on a video game format. Ramanan also credited Brotherson for his support and collaboration on the project, reiterating the need for better representation of British Caribbean heritage in the gaming industry.

Boundaries and limitations of gatekeeping identities

Muwanga-Magoye steered the conversation towards the ways in which the guests navigated boundaries and limitations in their storytelling. Brotherson reflected on his early inclination to write female protagonists and the realisation that he wanted to see more female leads in narratives. However, he grappled with the responsibility of authentically portraying the female experience and eventually found a way to incorporate his own personal struggles, like dealing with depression, into his storytelling. He said he was able to transpose “the stuff that I know I can talk about and feel comfortable talking about into that sort of stuff.”

“So one of the stories was about a lady who is struggling to fight against problems of constantly fighting handshakes, and her mental faculties. And that was my experience. Unfortunately, when I was under my antidepressants at the time I was having leg shakes, I was really struggling kind of focusing, and it’s just kind of transposing the stuff that I know I can talk about and feel comfortable talking about into that sort of stuff.”

Corey Brotherson, “Magic of Me” author

Solomon also felt the pressure of writing differently-gendered characters, but realised that in an imaginative space, characters could “talk about what their body is like and what their childhoods are, like, in, in different ways, depending on what suits them at the time.”

With that being said, they expressed their pride in being able to write unapologetically themselves, channelling anger and discontent into their work. They explained that their writing often serves as a platform to explore unresolved anger and the complexities of the world. Solomon sees their writing as an act of self-love, a means of reconnecting with their true self and sharing authentic experiences.

“I am proud that I get to write stuff that feels really sort of unapologetically me. It’s felt really good. And I like being able to write stuff that’s really angry and there’s no necessarily real sort of resolution to that anger. Any book that I write, it’s like, by the end of it, this is the world that we live in right? And even though I’m writing in an imaginative space, I’m writing species of fiction largely, that’s still kind of the framework that we’re all kind of here.”

Rivers Solomon, “Sorrowland” Author

The burden of societal expectations and pioneering a path

Ramanan also acknowledged the “soul-crushing” weight of expectations and responsibility that comes with being a pioneer in representing a particular community through a creative project. She shared the challenges of developing “Windrush Tales” and the privilege of consulting with Caribbean elders to capture the essence of that historical period accurately. She expressed excitement about the generational bridge created during these consultations and the valuable insights gained from community involvement.

“The weight of expectation on a game like this is just like, unjust because it’s the only one. And yeah, it’s just this soul-crushing pressure to get it right for ourselves, for our community, for relatives, for our game developers who want to make unusual games.”

Chella Ramanan, “Windrush TalEs” Games developer

The Black to the Future panellists celebrated the power of storytelling as a means of expressing authentic experiences, challenging boundaries, and fostering understanding. They stressed the importance of continuing to create art that resonates with their identities and experiences, even if it means navigating complex terrain and questioning their roles as storytellers.

Interview with Black to the Future creative director Sara Veal on storytelling through the lens of Afrofuturism.

Storytelling often serves as a bridge between cultures, generations, and personal truths, hence the artists Corey Brotherson, Chella Ramanan, and Rivers Solomon are shining examples of creators who fearlessly push the boundaries of narrative to share their unique perspectives with the world.

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