An Evening of Readings to Celebrate Master of Poisons

The Smith College Department of Theatre and the New Play Reading Series are excited to host an evening of readings to celebrate the release of Master of Poisons, a new novel by Andrea Hairston, Louise Wolff Kahn Professor of Theatre and Professor of Africana Studies, via Zoom on September 24 at 7:30 p.m. Joining Andrea in conversation about Master of Poisons, theatre, afro-futurism and black women writers are award-winning playwrights and authors Pearl Cleage and Sheree R. Thomas, who will also read from their own work.

In Master of Poisons, Andrea Hairston weaves together African folktales and postcolonial literature to create the futuristic fantasy world of her fourth novel. Djola, the right-hand man and spymaster of the lord of the Arkhysian Empire, is desperately trying to save his adopted homeland. The world is changing. Poison desert eats good farmland and once-sweet water has turned foul. The wind blows sand and sadness across the Empire. To get caught in a storm is death. To live and do nothing is death. Awa, a young woman training to be a powerful griot, tests the limits of her knowledge and comes into her own in a world of sorcery, floating cities, kindly beasts and uncertain men.

Master of Poisons is inspired by humanity’s current climate change crisis and its paralysis in the face of dire predictions and extreme weather events. Hairston sees fiction, fantasy and art as a way to find a path forward when progress feels impossible. In an interview with Lightspeed Magazine she says, “Along with science, I think we need magic, our conjure selves, our metaphorical minds to find a way out of no way, to make climate change not be a dead end.”

Advanced press on Master of Poisons has been glowing. Publishers Weekly gives it a starred review, exclaiming “Hairston weaves a rich tapestry of folklore and adventure, inviting readers into a well-developed, non-Western fantasy world, while navigating pressing issues of climate change and personal responsibility. This is an urgent, gorgeous work.” Bestselling young adult author Daniel José Older enthuses, “Master of Poisons is sheer, undiluted brilliance. Epic, courageous, unapologetically fierce…This is a prayer hymn, a battle cry, a lovesong, a legendary call and response bonfire talisman tale. This is medicine for a broken world.”

The virtual event will feature Hairston reading from Master of Poisons and special guests Pearl Cleague and Sheree R. Thomas reading from their work along with a conversation about black women writers, afro-futurism, theatre and fantasy. There will be time for questions.

Signed books are available through Broadside Books.



Andrea Hairston is author of Will Do Magic For Small Change, a New York Times editor’s pick and finalist for the Mythopoeic, Lambda, and Otherwise Awards. Other novels include: Redwood and Wildfire, an Otherwise and Carl Brandon Award winner, and Mindscape, winner of the Carl Brandon Award. She has also published essays, plays and short fiction and received grants from the NEA, Rockefeller Foundation and Ford Foundation. Andrea is a professor of theatre and Africana studies at Smith. Master of Poisons is out September 2020 from 

Pearl Cleage is an Atlanta-based writer and currently the Distinguished Artist in Residence at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta. She is the author of award-winning plays, including Flyin’ West, Blues for an Alabama Sky, The Nacirema Society and her most recent play, Angry, Raucous and Shamelessly Gorgeous. She is also the author of eight novels, including the NYT bestseller What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day. She is also the author of a memoir, Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons and Love Affairs. She was commissioned by Oprah Winfrey to write a poem, “We Speak Your Names,” to honor 25 legendary African American women. She frequently collaborates with her husband, writer Zaron W. Burnett, Jr.

Sheree Renée Thomas is an award-winning fiction writer, poet and editor. Her work is inspired by myth and folklore, natural science and Mississippi Delta conjure. Nine Bar Blues: Stories from an Ancient Future (Third Man Books, May 2020) is her fiction debut. She is also the author of two multigenre/hybrid collections, Sleeping Under the Tree of Life (Aqueduct Press, 2016), longlisted for the 2016 Otherwise Award and honored with a Publishers Weekly Starred Review and Shotgun Lullabies (Aqueduct, 2011). She edited the World Fantasy-winning groundbreaking black speculative fiction anthologies Dark Matter, and is the first to introduce W.E. B. Du Bois’s science fiction short stories. Her work is widely anthologized and appears in The Big Book of Modern Fantasy, edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer (Vintage, 2020). She is the associate editor of the historic Black arts literary journal, Obsidian. She was recently honored as a 2020 World Fantasy Award Finalist in the Special Award – Professional category for contributions to the genre. Visit her website.