Interview with Ayize Jama-Everett

In April of 2016, Fantasist Creative Director Evan Adams and Managing Editor Will Waller sat down with author Ayize Jama-Everett in a café in Oakland, California for an interview about his books The Liminal People, The Liminal War, and The Entropy of Bones. Will was sick, and largely did not speak. There are spoilers in this interview.

Evan Adams: You get a lot deeper into the physical mechanics of how the powers work, the Liminal powers specifically, mostly, than a lot of works that involve people with powers. Can you talk about what motivated that?

Ayize Jama-Everett: Sure. Let’s start before Liminal People. I think in the ’90s, or maybe it was the late ’80s, Marvel comics had the first Mutant Registration Act, and in the actual comics they had little cards with where mutants were supposed to fill out what their powers were. And you’re either an energy manipulator, or some sort of psychic, or tap otherworldly dimensions or something like that. And I was just like, if the categories are that set, then you should be able to trace where people’s powers are coming from, right? So I wanted to keep the mystery of where powers come from open. So it’s like, they’re Liminal, they’re not mutants, they’re not magical imps or whatever, they’re just Liminal, they’re something in-between. But because that was so vague, I really wanted to focus on the specificity of the abilities of the folks. And so, especially with Taggart, a way to contain his powers is to describe them. So, he can look at you and mess you up. Ehh. Well, he can mess you up biologically. Ehh. He can mess with your ATP production rate. You know what I mean? That’s far more fascinating than “He just can mess you up.” It was a way of talking about the person and the power and the ability.

EA: Something I notice is that almost all of their powers could be, using broad definitions, some form of psychokinesis. There’s places “in the literature”, as they say, for both cellular psychokinesis, which would include Taggart’s healing, and atomic psychokinesis, which would include things like setting things on fire, because it’s agitating things at the atomic level.

AJE: I think like “Yes and…” I think with some, definitely. And then there’s Prentiss, who talks to animals. I touched on it a little bit in The Liminal War, but in the final Liminal book I go a lot deeper into exactly what she is, and her abilities. Have you read all three, or just the first one, or…?

EA: I’ve read Liminal People, and I’ve read Liminal War. I started Entropy of Bones but I haven’t finished it yet.

AJE: So like, Mico, that whole going back in time thing. It’s more than agitation, it’s manipulation, you know what I mean? Sort of like that universal consciousness applied with manipulation.

EA: Follow-up to all that: what was the research process like?

AJE: Lots of fringe science that had been discredited by the 1970s. Taggart was pretty easy in terms of research, just a bunch of anatomy and physiology books, and looking at every possible thing that can go wrong with the human body. With Mico, I got into a lot of tribal music, and looking at the role of music and vibration on the body. With Prentiss, I kind of played with this idea of, there are these lost children that get found every now and then, like kids raised by wolves or whatever, and there’s always pretty unique – just like, how they’re raised, unique things happen. One not-uncommon thing that happens is that they become magnetic, metal sticks to them. Another thing that’s bizarre is, they have these relationships with animals…an animal can be 10 blocks away and sense this kid and just come up to them, and it’s never an aggressive relationship. So, I was looking at that same sort of thing, this lost child, but instead of being lost in the wilderness, she’s lost in the city, and so all these animals are sort of magnetically drawn to her. Tamara’s just my all-time badass, so I’m just like “You don’t need research, you’re just a badass.”

EA: There’s a scene in The Liminal People where Tamara beheads Alia, an unarmed 10 year old who’s been stripped of her powers. What was it like writing that?

AJE: I’m so glad you asked that. I feel like people either didn’t realize that, or they just gloss over that fact of this character. What I wanted, towards the end of the book…it would have been easy to have this sort of loving forgiveness time where all the badness is done and we can all move on with our lives, but that 10 year old is responsible for killing [Tamara’s] mom, and the rape of her best friend, and just tried to kill her, and it’s like, no, sometimes you gotta pay the piper, even if you’re a 10 year old. I feel like Tamara had been super sympathetic for the entire thing; Taggart is this weirdo lunatic who comes in her life, and is taking care of her, but still kind of weird, and like, she lost her mom, she lost her dad, it’s so easy to feel pity for her. I wanted her to have an edge. She gets to choppin’ too. That’s what she said she was gonna do, and that’s a lot of what Liminal People is: people doing exactly what they said they were gonna do. I think in this society it’s rare that that actually happens. And she was like “I’m gonna find the person that did this, and I’m gonna kill them.” And then she’s like “Oh, it’s a 10 year old. Well, you still gotta die.”

EA: So intense…that was just like “Does this mean we can be friends now?”

AJE: Woosh. Yeah, I love that part.

EA: In Liminal War, the Eel Pie Islanders have this gaggle of former child soldiers that they’re trying to rehabilitate, and I have two questions there. First of all, their situation is different, their outcomes are very different from Alia’s, and also…you’ve got a lot of violence between children, and I’m wondering if you could talk about that.

AJE: I think part of it is I work in a high school, and I’ve worked with teenagers forever, and so I feel like that’s an aspect of it. People are often surprised that teenagers are sexual, and they’re often surprised that teenagers are violent. Even though the majority of soldiers around the world right now are under the age of 25, you know what I mean? There have been waves and waves of kids with machetes, high on cocaine and gunpowder, that have taken over countries. And that’s fucked up. I also used to be a therapist. I worked with some kids from the Sudan, who’d been here, and who’d been child soldiers, and it just really impacted me, the degree to which they completely understood the nature and role of violence in social structures, and to some degree in political structures, but really couldn’t understand how other people didn’t get it. They were offended that people didn’t understand that they could go to violence, and they wanted to prove that on a regular basis. And I was kinda like, “Okay, well, what does that give you?” And it gave them a sense of autonomy and a sense of power. In The Liminal War, Mico’s in this project of trying to redeem the world. He literally wants to, with his crew, make the world a better place. And for him, the place to start with that is the children. Imagine if you start with “we are the future, we are the world” or whatever, you know, “Save The Children”, and it’s like “Hey, we’re gonna start with the most violent, fucked up children, because they’re the ones that need the most help”. That seems a better strategy to me than to just give a bunch of kids food. One seems more proactive, while the other is “Oh, let me just help a little puppy”. No, it’s a child, it needs more than food. So, I think having violent children in there is bit of a nod to my former career, and to some of the kids that I’ve worked with.

EA: That is so cool!

AJE: Thank you.

EA: I mean, not the part where kids are deeply screwed up, obviously. We don’t want that. My other follow-up, on the whole “Alia getting beheaded” thing, going in a completely different direction is: do you think there are people whose abilities make them too dangerous to be allowed to live?

AJE: In this world?

EA: Yeah.

AJE: Ability no, but power yes. I think there are some people that are too powerful, and it’s how they use that power. I feel like there are people that have far too much influence over other people’s lives. Me and my fiancée are watching one of those Vice documentaries, on Abu Dhabi, and half of Abu Dhabi is these Bangladeshi…for lack of a better term, slaves. People getting paid a buck fifty, three bucks a day to do this labor, and then being charged like 525 bucks a day in order to have the privilege of working in Abu Dhabi, and I’m like, you guys are half the country! Why wouldn’t you go into the Trump Tower of Abu Dhabi or whatever, slaughter everyone, and live someplace nice for a little bit, at least until the military comes and takes everything over. There are people that have too much control and power, and whenever you have control over another’s life, and you’re not being conscientious about it, and you’re not taking care of those people, well, you deserve whatever pain you get.

WW: With both your previous and your current work in mind, how do you relate that to the rights of youth? And the position of power that almost all parents, almost all teachers, almost all adults have in relation to every youth?

AJE: I know there’s movements of like “divorce your parents” or whatever and, I dunno, it depends on your relationship with your parent. I would never tell anybody “you have to love your parents”. So I don’t know about that. What I do know is that kids, yes, they’re precious and bloodline-whatever, but they’re also human beings, and at some point you have to treat them as though they were another human being who is not you, whom you actually don’t really have that much authority over, after a certain point, and you kinda have to negotiate. I don’t have any kids, because I don’t want kids, but if I ever had kids and they were like “Dad, I hate you”, I would say “Okay, cool, do me a favor: get out of my house.” You don’t get to tell the person who’s feeding you, who’s taking care of you, who’s there if anything goes wrong, that you hate them. Like, “I’m frustrated with you”, “I’m angry with you”, “I have issues with you”, I totally get. “I hate you?” Hey, you know what, if you were a stranger, and you were like “Dude, I hate you.” I’d be like “Okay, well, get away from me.” So, I feel like there has to be a negotiation at some point. If not, then kids, because they’re younger, they’ll outlast older people, and negotiate when they’re old and weak, so it’s better to negotiate from a sense of power. I’m fuckin’ around, I’m sorry.

EA: I have a question about your email signature: you’ve got a part in English that says “Game recognize game, do I know you?” And then there’s a part in Arabic that, if my Google Translate is to be believed, says “Only mistakes are mine and praise is due to God.” and I find that contrast interesting, and I’m wondering if it’s deliberate.

AJE: So, “Game recognize game” is an old hip-hop saying, like “If you and I do the same thing, I should recognize what you do.” So if you’re a comic book fan, and I’m a comic book fan, and you see my Preacher shirt that says “Good’s gonna beat evil as long as good fights dirty,” and you’re like [clicking noise], I’m like “Okay, game recognize game, I know you, you know me.” So that’s one thing. And then the second part, it’s from the Quran, and it’s a saying that reminds me to stay humble. “Only the mistakes are mine” really plays in when I’m writing a first draft and I just look at all the typos. And I’m like “Those are mine. All that’s mine.” The story? I don’t know where it came from. I’m like, you know, “All praise due to God.” So I don’t see them as contradictory, I just see them as different aspects of my personality.

EA: You have Master’s degrees in Divinity and Clinical Psychology, and I guess you’ve implicitly covered this a little bit, but I’m wondering how that background has influenced your work.

AJE: The theology, I think in this last Liminal novel you’ll see it a lot more, it comes out. And I think any time you’re fighting against entropy, you’re talking about some kind of theology; you have to believe that there is at least the potential of some overarching good to exist in some way, shape, or form. The Master’s was about looking at religious texts and religious experience, and putting it in a context that people who don’t read religious texts and don’t have religious experiences can understand. So that was about it. It’s everywhere in there, old gods and new, and all that stuff. In terms of the clinical psychology, I think it’s the insight into the characters. I’m not very focused on physical descriptions; I’m more into the internal psychic place of the characters. And I think that comes from literally thousands upon thousands of hours of listening to people try to get a sense of who they are, and their place in the world. So it impacts the plot as well. That’s pretty much what all the plots are. What’s everybody doing? As their world changes, what’s their role in it?

EA: Can you talk about your writing process? Do you have a special pen? Do you get up before 4am? Are you an outliner?

AJE: My whole world has changed because this last year my fiancée and her 16 year old son moved in with me. And then I started working on a job in San Francisco, which drives me to get up at 6:30…well I have to be out of the house by 6:30 every morning, and I usually don’t get home until 5:30 or 6:00, because Bay Area traffic sucks. So what worked once does not work now. I can tell you my ideal schedule, which is an hour and a half either in the morning right when I wake up, or right when I come home. No music, no nothing, just sit, write, hour and a half. For first drafts, at least; I might work on edits later. No special pen or anything, but what I will do sometimes if I’m stuck, is I will switch medium. So, from computer to handwriting, and then sort of get that in. And then, again if I’m stuck, transcribe all that stuff back in, just to keep it flowing. I feel like flow is the most important thing, to always be working on something, so that even if you’re like “Aaah, I don’t know what comes next”, it’s like “okay, let me read the last five pages”. If you’re typing it in while you’re doing it…I don’t know, it works for me. Outlining? I have to be careful with outlining. I outlined a novel so well that I didn’t want to write it. So I just had the outline and I’m like “Why would I write it? I know exactly what happens.” That scene that you liked? I did not outline that at all, and it came to me as I was writing it. I think that’s when things are going best, is when I can be in flow with the narrative and not be too far ahead of it. There’s a scene that I wrote a couple weeks ago, where Taggart actually attacks Mico for half a second and…well, now it’s a half-second, but I just had Taggart attack Mico, and I was just like “Fuck, how am I gonna write my way out of this one?” ‘Cause I’m like “Who wins that fight?” So I feel like being in the moment of the narrative really helps to keep it alive and fresh.

EA: Mico’s so smishy! Why would anybody attack him?

AJE: ‘Cause he’s so squishy! That’s the thing. Taggart’s like “Dude, we fucked up the entire world, like, I’m trying to fix it, can you stop being squishy for a second?” And Mico’s like “But, can’t we just all hug?” And he’s like “No!” and he just reaches out for a second and he’s like [inaudible, possibly a sound effect].

EA: Incidentally, I find it interesting that it’s…when I was initially reading them, I was reading it as “my-co” rather than “mee-co”, because I was thinking about, you know, mushrooms, Micology.

AJE: Yeah.

EA: And it’s “mee-co”.

AJE: That’s right. See, you’re who I write for. You’re totally who I write for. I think I cover it more in Entropy of Bones. We sort of get into what the Mana is, and it is kind of based off of that plantation-size, underground mushroom in the middle of [Oregon’s Blue Mountains National Forest] that reacts to human touch. Talk about research! So his relationship is with this weird thing that fungus and mushrooms are, and our relationship with them. Richard Stamen, do you know him at all?

EA: He doesn’t sound familiar.

AJE: He’s this mushroom guy who’s cleaning up Fukushima radiation with mushrooms, and using them as insect repellent that does this really weird thing where once enough of the insect that eats it dies, it sets off this spore that is an antibacterial, so that it limits its own growth by the death of the species around it. There’s all this weird intelligence in this microbial, fungal growth that we don’t really talk about or conceptualize as intelligence the way we think of human intelligence, or even animal intelligence. So Mico has that direct connection to it, but… “mee-co” sounds better than “my-co”.

WW: You travel a lot, right? Like you’ve been all around the world. And you move your story all around the world as well. Do you focus on places that you’ve been, or do you just kind of take travel as a given?

AJE: I feel like if I can describe it well enough, then I’ll write about it. That usually limits the stuff to places that I’ve been. There are some places where I haven’t been, that I’m like “I think I’ve got it” just from like, photos. But I also think…these characters, from jump, in the first ten pages of Liminal People, Taggart is already moving between continents, like that’s just who he is. The voyage matters, you know what I mean?

You have to have so much more internal detritus if a character is still, as opposed to if a character is moving. So I feel like sometimes just to move plot along I translocate them. And it’s also a lot of places that I have some sort of emotional connection with. And I like them. I like talking about them. It’s a way of travel, to me. And it’s a really good tax write-off, because pretty much any place I travel now is a tax write-off, so it’s like “Woo-hoo, Mexico City will be in the next one!”

And, honestly, the US is kinda boring, if you could have a story based even in London, or fuckin’ Toronto. Like, a story based in Toronto versus a story based anywhere in the US, Toronto wins! Just because, maybe it’s just me, but it’s a clean East coast city, whoever thought of that? How does that happen? I grew up in New York City, and I grew up in…I call it the black multi-spectrum, because it was like, black french speakers from Haiti, and black French speakers from Cameroon, and black Brits, and black people from Kenya, and black people from the Caribbean. And it was all these different types of people, and all these different names and this range of ethnicity, in these very small areas, so when I write, that’s the norm, that’s the baseline for me, you know? If everybody’s named Chuck, John, and Sally, and they’re in the middle of Des Moines, Iowa, that’s freaky to me, I’m like, “Okay, when do the children come out and kill everybody with hockey sticks?”. The norm to me is multiethnic, queer, multireligious…that has to be there for my world to make sense.

WW: One of the things I notice is that you break families and then the characters make new ones. There’s a certain amount of found community in all your relationships and like, choosing who really should be there.

AJE: I mean, that’s my life. That’s just how I live. But I have to give props to Andrew Vachss. I don’t know if you’ve read any of his stuff…well, call it crime noir, but you want to talk about dangerous children, that’s the guy to freaking read. I got a chance to meet him one time, and he’s an amazing human being. I think he coined the term “circle of trust”. There’s this circle of trust that child abusers use to infiltrate for kids, you know? They have this myth of there’s some guy lurking in the bushes that’s gonna come out and molest children. And the majority of molestation cases are not that at all; they’re people that are in the circle of trust. And one of the things that happens with those kids is that it’s really hard for them to establish another circle of trust, because of that violation, and because other people in that circle didn’t step in and say “Hey, that’s fucked up, don’t do that.” They usually let that person stay in the group. So, any time I can show people like, you get to choose who your family is, and you get to hold them accountable, and they get to hold you accountable, however that can be modeled, in my life, in my writing, whatever, I’m gonna do that ’cause, like I said, it’s kinda how I live.

EA: I guess, I don’t actually have a question, but I have several times not had a question and you’ve had interesting responses anyway. One of my favorite things about Liminal War, which, it’s a long list, was you getting into like, time travel is complicated for black people?

AJE: Yeah.

AJE and WW: Laughing.

AJE: So it was that thing you were talking about before, in terms of powers. Getting into the details of them, right? I’ve said this before, but like, if you think about like reading somebody’s mind. That metaphor doesn’t even work. Like, minds are books? And you read…how does that work? Do you like, see what people see? Do you hear what they hear? Do you experience what they experience? Do you do that on a purely intellectual level? Is there an emotional level? What’s the difference between a telepath and an empath? Like, really, if you actually break that down, it’s kind of hard to figure out, right? So, same thing with time travel. It’s like, yeah, okay, we can talk about it from a purely physics standpoint, but what story ever actually does that? The Time Machine didn’t do that. Nothing – we’re not talking about physics when we’re talking about time travel, we’re talking about a cultural displacement.

And if we talk about cultural displacement, especially African Americans, it looks like we’ve done this before, we’ve had this cultural displacement thing. And then if you look at it metaphorically, even more, when you look at the technology. I think, for me I think the biggest technology is distillation, ’cause I’m weird. But the technological difference from colonizing Europe and colonized Africa, you can talk about gunpowder or whatever, but really, it’s just like wholesale distillation of alcohol, right? This is something that Africa and the United States didn’t really have. So it’s a form of chemical warfare. When you’re thinking about the slave trade, it’s like, “Oh, we’re trading you rum for the slaves.” And people are like “Oh my God, I’ve never had anything like this, yum, it’s so good.” But also, our bodies have no defenses for this much concentrated alcohol. Everything that goes in there goes into fucking you up. Well, that’s another sort of time travel thing, isn’t it? Like, you leave Africa alone for another 200 years, I have no doubt that distillation will reemerge. It was there in the 1700s and 1800s as part of chemistry. But in terms of like, gin, rum, that big vat sorta shit, give them another 200 years they totally would have made it. But guns, distillation, come in Africa, all of a sudden, Africa’s changing; things like railroads and all this other stuff, this huge technological import, right? It’s a time shift! When we talk about time travel, if we’re not talking about space, what are we talking about in terms of travel? So the traveling that they do in The Liminal War is like, cultural travel and spiritual travel, that’s why I like Tamara, who’s so ingrained in her space and time, [she’s] like “What the fuck is this?!” And she’s like “I didn’t know slavery was still around!” And they’re like “It’s not slavery, it’s the reconstruction.” And she’s like “Ahhh…the fuck? They have nothing, they’re walking around enslaved, they’re fucking slaves.” And they’re like “No, they’re not slaves.” And she just doesn’t get it, you know? So that’s what I wanted to play with. Are you guys fans of Broad City?

WW: I don’t know it.

AJE: It’s a television show. They used to have this show called Time Machine Bong, so 4:20.

It’s these cousins going back in time. And they go back into like, caveman times. And usually the narrative is like “Oh, the cavemen try to kill you, duh-duh-duh.” All of a sudden the woman starts having sex with all of these cavemen, and she’s like “This place is great! They love my body hair, they’re super flexible, there’s no possessiveness…” She’s like “I get to sleep with whoever I want. I don’t care, I’m staying.” And I’m like, fuck yeah! That’s how you play with these notions of these classic tropes of like, oh trapped in another time. No, fuck it. Being in the other time is just fine. So that’s what I wanted to do a little bit with Liminal War. That concept.

Ayize Jama-Everett was born in 1974 and raised in Harlem, New York. Since then he has traveled extensively in Northern Africa, New Hampshire, and Northern California. He holds a Master’s in Clinical Psychology and a Master’s in Divinity. He teaches religion and psychology at Starr King School for the Ministry when he’s not working as a school therapist at the College Preparatory School. He is the author of three novels, The Liminal People, The Liminal War, and The Entropy of Bones, as well as an upcoming graphic novel with illustrator John Jennings entitled Box of Bones. When not educating, studying, or beating himself up for not writing enough, he’s usually enjoying aged rums and practicing his aim.