On Tananarive Due
In 1997, I met Tananarive Due at the African-American Fantastic Imagination conference hosted by Clark Atlanta University. She was cute and smart and terribly young, and when I heard her explain how she combined social networking, musical skill and raw chutzpah to get a cover blurb from Stephen King, it was pretty much love at first sight. Literally, within three days we were all but engaged, sitting in the airport holding hands, our heads resting together, speaking of building empire…and a life…together.
And in 1998 we were married in her parents’ house, by her father, and she moved to Washington State, where I was raising my daughter, Nicki, in a little lumber town called Longview. When Nicki graduated high school, the idea was that we would move down to California and my home town of Los Angeles, and take on Hollywood.
In the mean time, we wrote. T (as I call her, figuring that there was no reason to invest the extra syllables, or even fearing that by the time I got out “Tananarive” I could have said “T…the bus!” and saved her life) was a writer of such clarity, imagination and emotion that Hollywood immediately saw the value of her work, and fought to back dump-trucks filled with money up to our door. We believed that if we could learn to work together, we could graft the best of her approach and mine together, and create something extraordinary, and effective.
Well…anyone who has tried to collaborate with anyone at all has experienced the difficulty of weaving two creative instincts into a single braid. Now add being married. The natural jostling and arguing that is a natural part of the collaborative process now has to also carry the weight of the natural stresses of living and loving. One answer was to take the relationship itself “off the table.” In other words, no matter how passionate the fight, it was never personal. It was just about the work.
To a degree it worked, although our initial attempts to work with movie studios were pretty much still-born. We just couldn’t figure out how to leverage our different approaches.
Then in 2005 we were asked to submit a story to a horror anthology, and wrote the tale “Danger Word,” which is also included in the collection Ghost Summer: Stories. This was our first fictive collaboration, and we bounced ideas back and forth until we came up with the idea of a grandfather trying to protect his immature and traumatized grandson post zombie apocalypse. (By the way, this simple short story led, in time to our “Devil’s Wake” young adult zombie series, and the short film we co-produced and wrote, “Danger Word,” in which the young boy protagonist of the original story morphed into a slightly older girl. But that’s another story.)
What happened during the writing of the short story was fascinating and educational. The process moved from plot to character to rough draft to polished draft. But it was in the polishing that something remarkable happened. The first time I read Tananarive’s work, a passage of her first novel, The Between, I recognized that this young woman had phenomenal storytelling skills, but I didn’t fully understand what it was I was seeing.
When we worked on “Danger Word” on the other hand, we talked about every sequence, every scene, every paragraph, every sentence, every word. And as we “passionately discussed” all these things, what became clear is that she did not use the same dyadic relationship that had been so valuable in my own career. Yes, she understood plot beautifully. And her characterization was superb—she had a feeling for humanity that simply shone from the page. But there was something else: poetics.
The language itself. And more than that, please remember the saying that “poetry is what happens between the lines” in the same way that “jazz is what happens between the notes.”
Tananarive was looking at the invisible world of the almost psychic connection between the writer and the reader, the creative dream-space that the storyteller creates where emotions trump logic, and we are willing to accept the fantastic as real. Plot, yes. Characters, yes. But the POETRY of the language, the imagery, the rhythms, the secret meldings of their proportions, the thing that can’t quite be quantified but is the instinctive gift of the natural story-teller, that thing that teachers seek to educe from their students, often with despair. It is indeed a gift that keeps on giving, and Tananarive Due, my darling wife, has it in spades.
I fought her for a couple of years, but finally surrendered, and added that third element to my basic structure, which then became: Plot, Character, Language (what I call “poetics’). Each has a relationship with the other two. Each can be viewed individually, or in dyadic relationship with one of the others.
View this as life itself. We have human beings. And we have the world that they inhabit. And the lives they create in reaction with that world.
And then there is the poetry, the world of meaning they seek to create…we seek to create…out of our day-to-day lives. Seeking every day to not merely survive another sunset, but to find pleasure, and beauty, and even that elusive quality called “art”, spinning gold from the straw of our existence.
Tananarive’s fiction seeks to add or extract meaning from the chaos of life, to give us the perspective that helps us see that the crying child, the departing lover, the discontented customer, the senile grandparent who used to be so alive and wise, are somehow all part of a world of meaning. We see the people. We experience the events. But it is the poetry we yearn for.
We work, we play, we give, we share…seeking that poetry. Seeking love, and connection with our own hearts. And fiction reduces the infinite universe into a knowable few words and scenes that represent a greater whole, and to the degree that the writer is honest about their own experiences, needs, strengths and weaknesses their characters live more vibrantly than the actual “real” human beings in our lives. There is something magical about a writer who can do this, give us these insights, extract and convey that meaning.
And Tananarive is a magician. She loves her characters, because she loves people deeply. Her connection to her family, her friends, her readers, her students and even teachers is profound. And as the man fortunate enough to share her life, I have been able to observe her in all moods and times, through triumph and tragedy, and seen the depths of her strength and the very real and tender weaknesses, all of them connected to how very much she loves life, and fears what that life can do to those she loves.
The poetry of life is the invisible connection between people, things and events. Love is the binding emotion between those exact same things. By seeking to orchestrate the emotions and images experienced by the audience when they read her stories, she is saying: I love these things. These people. This world. I want you to experience that love. To open your heart, despite the fact that there is much to fear. Do not let fear stop you from loving, ever, because it is, in the final analysis, the only thing that blunts the terror of existence.
Tananarive Due’s stories are filled with terrors, extraordinary and mundane. And with beauty. And love. And poetry. The human heart is just that large, that immense, with that many chambers. If all there was in the world was people and problems…character and plot…it would be a sterile world indeed.
But there is more. There is poetry.
There is love.
She is mine.
Steven Barnes. June 10, 2015