Stage to Page: Theater Prof Publishes First Novel
Andrea Hairston, professor of theater, may be known as an
award-winning playwright and director, she has recently ventured
into the literary realm of science fiction with her first
novel, Mindscape, recently released from Aqueduct
Press. The book illustrates a dark future in which the world’s
inhabitants are divided into warring factions by an omnipotent
phenomenon. Hairston recently responded to 10 questions regarding
her first novel, writing and other topics.
a playwright. Mindscape is your first novel. What prompted
you to turn to the novel?
When I was growing up in the 50s, I intended to be a theoretical
physicist or a mathematician. But I come from a family of
storytellers, big talkers and tall taletellers. Nobody in
my family ever knew when to shut up. This got me into hot
water when I started to school. My mother started me writing
stories for her so I wouldn’t talk in class and disturb
the other kids who were trying to learn. I wrote epic adventure
sagas for her and drew illustrations of exciting moments.
She was trying to keep me out of the principal’s office.
I’ve been writing stories ever since. Even though my
brother and I acted out my stories for my parents, I was certain
I would write novels in between exploring the mysteries of
the universe. In college on the way to a physics major, I
shifted to theatre and writing and directing plays. I love
the theatre and the possibilities of live performance, yet
there were always stories that I wanted to tell that called
out for a different form.
a Science Fiction and Fantasy novel?
I have always
loved science fiction and fantasy and I’ve been doing
it as a playwright for 30 years without calling it SF&F.
In theatre, the genre lines are configured differently than
in prose. The big question is whether something’s a
musical or straight play. Do the actors sing and dance or
do they just have to talk? But what all plays share is theatre
magic—actors shapeshift and audiences suspend their
disbelief and are carried off, transported from their seats
into what we can only imagine. I want to write stories that
transport readers, that allow them the actor’s shapeshifting
what has influenced or inspired your creative writing?
Growing up I read
five or six books every week, all sorts of fiction: James
Baldwin, Margaret Walker, Harper Lee, Robert Heinlein, and
later Ursula LeGuin, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara. My mother
allowed us each to have one TV show when we finally bought
a television. My show was Star Trek, the original
series. I also remember watching a play by Alice Childress
on PBS in 1969 called Wine in the Wilderness and
at 17 I had never seen anything like that in my life. It was
a play about a lower-class black woman struggling with an
elitist, middle-class, black male artist to define beauty,
love, power, etc. There were no evil white people to be found,
and all the characters had to work on transforming themselves.
Watching that show definitely changed my life, changed what
I thought I could do and what could be written. African American
theatre opened up the world for me. Then I read Wole Soyinka,
Tess Onwueme, Derek Walcott, Bertolt Brecht, Jean Anouilh,
Caryl Churchill, Femi Osifisan, Ngugi wa Thiong’o ,
Micere Githae Mugo, Aimé Césaire, and more names
than I can call out.
you create a fascinatingly multicultural future world with
a strong African presence. Why did you decide to do this?
When I started
Mindscape, so many people had been eulogizing Africa,
proclaiming her demise, mourning the impossibility of any
sort of African survival. Decolonizing the African (native)
spirit was a hopeless futile fantasy.
I wanted to imagine
enter science as refugees from their magical worlds—prisoners
of superstition, hostages of the colonizer, slaves of the
master narrative. Modernity and post-modernity, although products
of colonialism, displace the colonized to the past, to history,
to people who once were whole and have now been shattered
by their backwardness, their poor competitive adaptation,
their lack of science and democracy, their inept economics.
The colonizers have consumed the colonized and define the
future. So caught up in the past, still trying to survive
history, how can the colonized imagine a future? How can a
future be imagined that contains the remnants of their broken
spirits? This is the kind of challenge I like as a writer.
explain the concept of Àshe?
The Yoruba of
West Africa believe that all human beings have the potential
of Àshe– the-power-to-make-things-be.
Master artists are singled out for their inspired usage of
the creative, divine spark but we are all, according to the
Yoruba, infused with Àshe in the form of imagination.
We are all artists. The more developed our imagination, the
more pro¬found our response to art and life. Profound
creativity must be met with creativity. The level a master
artist attains depends on the artistry of her community/audience.
We create who we might be. Language, story, gesture, and image
locate us with re¬spect to the distant ancestors, to the
here and now, and to our possible futures. Life is a work
of art. In order to transform the present, in order to have
a brilliant future, we must first imagine it. We must use
Àshe – the-power-to-make-things-be.
talk about the multilingualism in Mindscape—there
are many languages used and various dialects of English. Why
did you decide to write Mindscape this way and how did you
master so many ways of speaking, so that you could do this
I like stories
with multiple protagonists. I wanted to write a story with
a diverse suite of characters with conflicting views of the
world. All too often we read “others” as if they
were part of our truth in¬stead of part of their own.
I wanted to make sure each character’s language embodied
his or her perspectives, his or her particular Weltanschauung.
Playwrights spend a lot of time trying to find each character’s
particular language. This was a skill I used to write the
I love languages.
I grew up speaking “standard” American English
and Black English. I’ve studied Latin, French, Spanish,
Russian, and German, and I’d call Mathematics a language
I’ve studied too. Even though I’ve forgotten so
much of the subtlety and flair of all but German and French,
I vividly recall the world each (foreign) language called
forth. I can feel the character I become when speaking or
thinking in these languages and the characters I have become
in English for knowing these different tongues.
you to create “ethnic throw-backs”?
I was reading
about the suppression of native Bolivian healers and Isangoma
healers in South Africa and contemplating the so-called demise
of the English language in the mouths of hip black rappers
and their international mega-audience. I was struck for the
nth time with how cultural production that does not support
the status quo, that resists reproducing the current elite
hierarchy, is undermined or co-opted. “Folk,”
“street,” or “popular” cultural production
is often attacked because of its bad grammar, weak vocabulary,
and unsubtle style, which includes healing modalities, musical
and gestural idioms as well as slang. Mainstreaming is about
commodifying transgressive impulses and mining energy-rich
insurgent expressions. So one-time raunchy James Brown sells
us a sex machine with four-wheel drive or hip hop becomes
what Sarah Jones calls “hip pop.” Ethnic throwbacks
reclaim and preserve insurgent creativity. They are cultural
warriors who choose idioms that, embodied and performed, allow
them to define a future and maintain hope in the face of even
speak about the power of the word and the power of storytelling.
Words are powerful.
What language makes invisible disappears before our eyes.
Words conjure reality. There is nothing more important than
storytelling. Shortly after we emerge from the womb, stories
mold us, make us human beings, weaving the fantasy we call
reality. Stories assign us roles and actions, and we perform
the great dramas of our age. Most of what we know, or think
we know, we have never personally experienced. Fiction and
fantasy define the real.
your travels to Germany impacted your writing?
In 1984 I was
on my way to the Gambia when I changed my mind and went to
Germany instead. I had been studying the language for a few
years because of my interest in German theatre and the Neue
Welle—the new wave of German filmmakers. This was
my first long stay out of the United States, my first safari
into a foreign culture—which of course turned into a
journey into myself, an exploration of my world view, and
an excavation of my identity, my country, my home. People
in Germany did not mirror the Andrea back to me that people
in the USA did. It was actually hard to find myself in their
world. It wasn’t just about finding myself in the German
words, but in the stories and reality their language conjured.
I’ve been writing about these experiences ever since.
your next book be?
in Slow Motion is the story of three generations of African-American
women coming to terms with their hoodoo power.