Wednesday 5 December 2012

Author Interview: Kiini Ibura Salaam

Kiini Ibura Salaam is a poet and artist, as well as a writer of non-fiction and some of the most unusual fantasy and science fiction you'll read. Her first collection of short stories, Ancient, Ancient is out now from Aquaduct Press.

Award-winning author Nalo Hopkinson said about Kiini, “Salaam treats words like the seductive weapons they are. She wields them to weave fierce, gorgeous stories that stroke your sensibilities, challenge your preconceptions, and leave you breathless with their beauty.”

And, according to Jack Womack, Kiini “deserves to be considered as one of today’s most promising contemporary genre writers. With writing that challenges assumptions on gender, the nature of fantasy, the uses of myth and much more, she offers the readers stories that they will not soon forget. [Ancient, Ancient is] a marvelous introduction to a marvelous writer.”

1. Ancient, Ancient is your first collection of short stories. Now that you've gathered them in one place, have you noticed any particular themes in your writing, and have those themes changed over time?

When I did a mini-book tour for Ancient, Ancient, I invited other writers to take part in my readings. I found I enjoyed a live exchange with another writer more than I enjoyed standing up there and solely reading my work. Consequently, I got to hear quite a few interpretations about what my work was about: it's about possession; it's about community; it's about displacement.

For me, I'm less interested in the themes and more interested in how I'm characterizing people and how I'm structuring conflict. I think initially most of my stories were a young character against unjust communal responsibilities--mostly they were burdened by an expectation or a role that they didn't want to comply with. I think over time, I've begun to use more actual characters to animate the conflict not just faceless traditional or cultural edicts, and I've began have the main characters do more than just put up with unjustness but try to do something about it--to act and or to transform their own thought process. And I think that signifies growth on my part.

2. You're not just a short story writer, you're also a poet, an artist, and a writer of non-fiction. How do these different creative activities interact with each other, and do you think they've been a big influence on your prose?

I'm fascinated with poetry. I don't read it very often and I don't write it nearly as often as I used to, but I am fascinated with word choice and imagery. I think that definitely comes through in my prose.

Regarding the non-fiction, I have been writing a blog about the writing life ( for over ten years, and during a period when I was not writing fiction, I truly believed it sustained my development as a writer. Even though I was not practicing fiction writing, I was still working on stringing together sentences and ideas, editing text, and--perhaps most importantly, sharing the writing with others. When I finally got back to fiction writing, I found that my craft had developed, and I credit my blog for that.

As for painting, I recently had an interesting experience in which I had my novel manuscript and a canvas literally on the table at the same time, and I'd switch back and forth between the two. What's interesting is when I sit down to write--if I'm challenged or there's something unresolved--I can suddenly feel sleepy, very sleepy (I know this occurs for many other writers). It's a highly effective method of self sabotage because it's next to impossible to write when you're sleepy. Well this time, when I felt sleepy, I turned to painting. The act of painting woke me up, and while I painted, my mind worked out some of the challenges with the novel. I never thought that painting could literally be a help to my writing in that way. That it could help me skirt around whatever is triggering me to sleep and allow me to continue to advance in the story development.

3. You didn't start out writing speculative fiction, but say you stumbled upon it as a means of bringing new life to your stories. What do you think speculative fiction offers to you as a writer, and have you found the genre limiting or frustrating in any way?

I think speculative fiction offers me the ability to use the full stretch of my imagination. All writing relies on imagination, speculative fiction just takes it further. While I like literature that comments on human nature and human relationships, I also like my sense of life to be challenged and disturbed a bit and I think science fiction does that. I believe that when we stretch our minds beyond what we already know, then we create space for something new to be possible.

Reading and writing spec fic brings me all kinds of ideas about lifestyle, relationships, communication, and expression that I might not have had otherwise. I don't think I feel any limitations in the genre because I don't feel like I have to write in the genre. The limitations I feel are more from the outside. I have two novels going--neither of which were originally spec fic. Now one is and one isn't. And I feel some paranoia about which novel I complete first and if readers will be confused or dissapointed depending on which novel I publish. There are people who don't read spec fic and people who only read spec fic. Either way, I feel like there's a box I will be stepping into that doesn't reflect the multifaceted nature of life.

It's great that spec fic is a huge growth market for young adult books. It suggests to me that imagination is being allowed to stretch further into adulthood from childhood. In children's literature talking animals, weird worlds and nonsensical happenings are a given. That given is now being extended to the young adult market, and many adults are reading those books. I look forward to the day when "literature" has space for all of us and the average reader is happy to switch from reality-based fiction to speculative fiction and back again.

4. What's coming up for you next in terms of your writing? Are you planning another short story collection, or are you working on something different?

I'm working on a novel. I have basically been trying to crack the code of novel writing since 1991. I remember coming to Clarion [Patrick's note: Kiini, Steph and I were all at the Clarion West writers' workshop in Seattle in 2001] and being shocked that your wife, Stephanie, had written three novels. I couldn't write anything longer than a short story. She laughed and said she couldn't write stories, she only really felt comfortable in the novel form.

For me, novel writing is like stumbling around in the dark, and knowing that everywhere I step--there will be a solid floor, but if I walk too far in the wrong direction, I could find myself on the edge of a cliff or on the side of a building at a dead-end plot-wise.

However, even as it is a foreign form to me, it's something I must do to continue to develop as a writer. Though some people do it, I feel like I can't just write stories forever. People want novels, if they like your characters, if they like the worlds you write about, they want to go deeper and to know more. That was a complicated answer to a simple question. A novel is next!

5. If you were only able to give one piece of advice to a new writer, what would it be?

Keep writing. That is all. There is so much to discover in terms of a writer's individual voice, a writer's themes, a writer's craft, and of course, a writer's ideas. There's a quote that says something like you arrive at mastery by making the same choice over and over again. In the case of writing, you arrive at mastery by making the choice to sit down and write: again, again, and again.

This is not to say it will be easy or fun or predictable. It's just to say if you keep doing it you will improve and you will discover more about what you have come here to offer to the world. Keep writing.

Thanks, Kiini!

Kiini Ibura Salaam is a writer, painter, and traveler from New Orleans, Louisiana. The middle child of five, she grew up in a hardscrabble neighborhood with oak and fig trees, locusts and mosquitoes, cousins and neighbors. The house no longer exists, having been reduced to rubble along with almost all of the houses in a six-block radius after the 2005 levee break in the Lower Ninth Ward.

Growing up with creative parents who charted an independent cultural and intellectual path, Kiini’s childhood was rich with art, music, and books. As a student, she naturally gravitated toward reading and writing, and wrote her first professional story as a first-year student at Spelman College. After being paid $100 for the publication of that story, her identity as a writer was buoyed and she proclaimed herself a “serious” author.

Kiini’s work encompasses speculative fiction, erotica, creative nonfiction, and poetry.

If you want to find out more about Kiini and her work, you can read her blog at

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