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From Stage to Page: Theater Prof Publishes First Novel

Though 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.


 

 

 

You’re a playwright. Mindscape is your first novel. What prompted you to turn to the novel?

Hairston: 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.

Why write 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 experience.

Who and 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.

In Mindscape 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 something else.

The colonized 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.

Can you 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.

Can you 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 convincingly?

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 book.

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.

What led 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 devastating atrocity.

Please 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.

How have 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.

What will your next book be?

Exploding in Slow Motion is the story of three generations of African-American women coming to terms with their hoodoo power.

1/24/06
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