Mythology and Speculative Literature Panel

Mythology Panel header

Mythology is a rich vein for writers to mine when it comes to making new stories. But what are some dead angles that writers have when it comes to mythology? How do you build new ones with depth? How can writers handle retellings to make them truly new? How do you go about integrating existing mythologies into your work in a respectful way, or should you do that at all?

Join science fiction and fantasy authors Vida Cruz, Piper J Drake, Kate Elliott, Rebecca Roanhorse, and Shveta Thakrar as they dig into how they answer these questions with their own work and research.

This panel was livestreamed to YouTube on July 24th.
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Les Blancs by Lorraine Hansberry | Expanded Course in the History of Black Science Fiction

As I explained, this series is an expansion of my Fantastic Stories of the Imagination article titled “A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction.” (That essay is now hosted []here and on my personal website.) At’s invitation I agreed to delve more deeply into each of the 42 titles on that list in turn.

The original essay became a popular reference–apparently there wasn’t anything else like it available. The Carl Brandon Society’s website seems a good home for both the Crash Course and my subsequent expansions, so with the agreement of I’m republishing them here on a monthly basis.

This essay is about Les Blancs, Lorraine Hansberry’s last play.

First produced in 1970, a little over five years after the author died of cancer at the age of 34, Les Blancs never achieved the acclaim of Hansberry’s massively successful Broadway play A Raisin in the Sun, nor that of the Off-Broadway dramatic adaptation her widower Robert Nemiroff patched together from her notes and autobiographical writings, To Be Young, Gifted and Black. But though it remained unfinished at the time of her death, she considered it her most important work.

Les Blanc’s action takes place in an unnamed African country modeled on Ghana and Kenya, according to Hansberry’s biographers, and also somewhat on the Congo, according to me. (See, for instance, the reference in Act Two, Scene 2 to the Belgian King Leopold’s favorite method of mutilation, the cutting off of indigenes’ hands.) The “Kwi,” this country’s original inhabitants, are in the midst of being supplanted by English-speaking whites. The supplantation is carried out via multiple methods: a paternalistic Christian mission-cum-hospital, a white-run government supported by a white-run soldiery, and political interference with the threat of military intervention from the US. Like many SF and Fantasy authors before and after her, Hansberry is able to analyze real-life issues with lessened fear of triggering reprisals by situating them in a purely speculative location. Rather than invoking an alternate past as I do in Everfair or an extrapolated future as Nnedi Okorafor does in Who Fears Death, though, Hansberry creates a semi-imaginary present. (Now, of course, that present has passed.)

Also, she offers us two personifications of a spiritual force. This is not simply a case of imbuing her realistic human characters with archetypal qualities. In the prologue, and at the end of Act One, and again in the second half of Act Two, Scene 3, Hansberry renders the essence of African independence as a dancing woman bearing a spear. Because she’s a supernatural phenomenon this woman is visible only to the protagonist and to us, the audience. Later (the whole of Act Two, Scene 6), the author renders this spirit as male, a “poet-warrior” named Ngago who exhorts his people to take violent action. These extramundane scenes show that Hansberry valued the fantastic highly enough to explicitly depict it.

Hansberry’s friend and collaborator Nemiroff says that much of her inspiration for writing Les Blancs rose out of watching a production of Jean Genet’s Absurdist “clown show” Les NËgres. Reacting to the racism Genet both exhibited and lampooned and to the Frenchman’s ignorance of a continent often romanticized by Europeans, Hansberry began work soon after that evening on her oppositionally-titled play.

But Les Blancs’ inspiration was also in the time’s disturbed and smoky air. During the early 1960s, the years in which Hansberry hammered the play out, the flood of African anti-colonialism was in full spate. Alongside members of the U.S.’s civil rights movement marching for equality, African nations fought and burned for self-rule. Hansberry, politically aware as she was, paid attention to the parallels. She felt the ties spanning the Atlantic and linking together the destinies of kindred peoples. She knew these links were genetic, cultural, and spiritual–real on many levels. She conjured up her two embodiments of freedomís essence because of that truth.

In just the five years between Hansberry’s untimely death and the play’s first public appearance, the pan-African political situation she referenced shifted: battles and legislative drives were won and lost, additional assassinations committed. Things have changed even more radically since. A work in progress that traveled with Hansberry on trips to the hospital towards the end of her life, Les Blancs could well have continued being reshaped to reflect emerging reality. It could also, like China MiÈville’s Iron Council, have employed the techniques of imaginative fiction to show the future’s ineffableness. If Hansberry had lived.

Here’s a brief synopsis of Les Blancs as we know it: In Act One, two men arrive at a Christian mission’s rural African hospital. They are a white U.S. journalist called Charlie (for most blacks that’s a racially charged name), and Tshembe, a black native who has returned from life abroad to attend his fatherís funeral. The two men interact with each other and various others–Tshembe’s brothers, the hospital staff, the local military commander–against a backdrop of guerilla violence. Tshembe receives but rejects a mystical call to arms, refusing to revenge his older brotherís betrayal of the liberation movement. In Act Two the violence intensifies. Tshembe accepts the call he earlier rejected and kills his traitor brother. But other deaths occur as well, and the final scene ends on his cry of anguish. There is no third act.

How would a longer-lived Hansberry have resolved her hero’s dilemma?

Originally, Hansberry’s notes reveal, Tshembe was Candace, a woman. Answering the dancing female spirit’s call to arms, killing the brother–in fact, the action of the whole story would have unspooled differently with a woman as its protagonist. What if–maybe in response to feminism’s building second wave–Hansberry had returned to her first conception?

Until we figure out how to access alternate timelines we’ll never know.

I came to this play through the guidance of Andrea Hairston, a fabulous author of award-winning fantasy and science fiction novels who is also a theater professor at Smith College. She helped me see its fantastic elements by making me conscious of habitual prose consumers’ tendency to discount such things as mere matters of dramatic convention.

Because of this introduction I have the privilege of identifying with Hansberry’s relationship to Les Blancs. My debut novel Everfair also takes place in an imaginary African country–but its imaginariness is historical rather than the result of a geopolitical mash-up. I can visit Everfair’s physical locations, though I never have. In writing it I relied, as Hansberry did, on remote research. So I can easily picture her in the throes of authorship, fretting over her play’s details, implications, and vectors, the branching consequences of carefully thought out decisions on what to represent, and who, and how…just as I’ve done. Just as numerous other African-descended creators of speculative works have done. And I can picture her happy now to know that we return via her words to her unnamed chimerical land; I can envision her smiling her gorgeous smile on learning from our comments and discussions what we’ve discovered there.


Celebrating Octavia E. Butler

Celebrating Octavia

The Carl Brandon Society celebrated the birthday of the much missed Octavia E. Butler (June 22, 1947 – February 24, 2006) with two #CelebratingOctavia events: a virtual birthday party and a spotlight on some of the recipients of the scholarship named in her honor.

We wanted to honor the fact that that Butler was a visionary genius whose fiction continues to be relevant and insightful and also that she was a wonderful, kind person and great friend. And, as we’re committed to keeping her legacy alive, we’re following her example by supporting the next generation of science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers–especially writers of color.

Our #CelebratingOctavia panels:

Celebrating Octavia E. Butler Virtual Birthday Party

Agent Merilee Heifetz and authors Tananarive Due, Sheree Renee Thomas, Nisi Shawl, and Steven Barnes celebrated Octavia’s birthday with stories and remembrances and laughter.

Octavia E. Butler Scholars Spotlight

This spotlight celebrates recipients of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship: authors Christopher Caldwell, Shweta Narayan, Dennis Staples, and Kai Ashante Wilson. They read from their work and/or talk about how the scholarship and attending the Clarion or Clarion West workshops impacted them as writers.

Donate Today!

If you’d like to donate to us directly and support the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship or our other major programs, such as the Parallax and Kindred Awards, you can mail donations to:

The Carl Brandon Society
PO Box 23336
Seattle, WA 98102

or donate via PayPal:

Accessibility Statement

These videos have auto-generated captions. We will provide corrected captions and possibly transcripts as soon as we are able.

Special Thanks

Video editing and bumper creation services provided by: Byron DeMent

#CelebratingOctavia Participant Bios

Steven Barnes

Steven is a New York Times bestselling, award-winning novelist, screenwriter, and creator of the Lifewriting writing course. He has been nominated for Hugo, Nebula, and Cable Ace awards, won an Emmy for the “A Stitch In Time” episode of The Outer Limits, and an NAACP Image Award as co-author of the Tennyson Hardwick mystery series with actor Blair Underwood and his wife, Tananarive Due.

Steven has written three million words of published fiction published in seven languages, including comic books and over 20 novels. His television credits include Baywatch, Stargate SG-1, and Andromeda. In addition to Lifewriting, he teaches webinars on Afrofuturism and Black Horror.

Tananarive Due

Tananarive is an award-winning author who teaches Black Horror and Afrofuturism at UCLA. She is an executive producer on Shudder’s groundbreaking documentary Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror. She and her husband/collaborator Steven Barnes wrote “A Small Town” for Season 2 of “The Twilight Zone” on CBS All Access.

A leading voice in black speculative fiction for more than 20 years, Due has won an American Book Award, an NAACP Image Award, and a British Fantasy Award, and her writing has been included in best-of-the-year anthologies. Her books include Ghost Summer: Stories, My Soul to Keep, and The Good House. She and her late mother, civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due, co-authored Freedom in the Family: a Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights. She is married to author Steven Barnes, with whom she collaborates on screenplays. They live with their son, Jason, and two cats.

Merrilee Heifetz

Merrilee represents authors of books for adults and children, including several #1 New York Times bestsellers and recipients of major awards and honors. She represented MacArthur Grant recipient Octavia E. Butler for the last 18 years of her life, and since 2006, has been the Literary Executor of the Butler Estate, for which she oversees licensing film and TV rights, translations, stage rights, permissions, and advises on scholarships and charities benefiting writers of color. Her Children’s Book authors have won, among them, three Newbery Medals and she would love to find more quality storytellers of diverse backgrounds.

Nisi Shawl

Nisi is the author of Everfair, Talk Like A Man, and dozens of short stories, many of which can be found in the James Tiptree, Jr. Award winning and World Fantasy Award nominated collection Filter House. She’s the co-author of Writing the Other and teaches seminars and classes on writing inclusive, representational fiction.

Nisi is the co-editor of Stories for Chip, Strange Matings: Octavia E. Butler, Feminism, Science Fiction, and African American Voices, and most recently New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color. She edits reviews for The Cascadia Subduction Zone, a literary quarterly from Aqueduct Press. She is a founding member of the Carl Brandon Society and has served on the board for the Clarion West writing workshop.

Sheree Renée Thomas

Sheree creates art inspired by myth and folklore, natural science and conjure, and the genius culture created in the Mississippi Delta. She is the author of Nine Bar Blues: Stories from an Ancient Future, her first fiction collection. She is also the author of two multigenre/hybrid collections, Sleeping Under the Tree of Life, longlisted for the 2016 Otherwise Award, and Shotgun Lullabies, described as a “revelatory work like Jean Toomer’s Cane.”

She edited the two-time World Fantasy Award-winning volumes, Dark Matter, that first introduced W.E.B. Du Bois’s work as science fiction and was the first black author to be honored with the World Fantasy Award since its inception in 1975. Sheree serves as the Associate Editor of Obsidian: Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora . A former New Yorker, she lives in her hometown, Memphis, Tennessee near her mother and the mighty river that is her muse.

Christopher Caldwell

Christopher Caldwell is a queer, Black American living abroad in Glasgow, Scotland. He was the 2007 recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship for Clarion West. His work has appeared in Strange Horizons, FIYAH, and Uncanny Magazine among others. He is @seraph76 on twitter.

Shweta Narayan

Shweta Narayan was born in India, has lived in Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, Scotland, and California, and feels kinship with shapeshifters and other liminal beings. Their short fiction and poetry have appeared in places like Lightspeed, Transcendent 3,, and Strange Horizons. One of their Clarion submissions stories, Pishaach, got edited into shape after going through Clarion critiques, and went on to lose a Nebula.

Shweta’s been mostly dead since 2010, but they write when health allows.

Dennis E. Staples

Dennis E. Staples, author of This Town Sleeps, is an Ojibwe writer from Bemidji, Minnesota. He graduated from the Institute of American Indian Arts with an MFA in fiction. He is a graduate of the 2018 Clarion West Writers Workshop and a recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship. His work has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction and Nightmare magazine. He is an enrolled member of the Red Lake Nation.

Kai Ashante Wilson

Kai Ashante Wilson was the 2010 Octavia Butler scholar at the Clarion writing workshop in San Diego. He won the Crawford award for best first novel of 2016, and his works have been shortlisted for the Hugo, Nebula, Shirley Jackson, Theodore Sturgeon, Locus, and World Fantasy awards. Most of his stories can be read, gratis, at His novellas The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps and A Taste of Honey may be ordered at your local bookstore or online. Kai Ashante Wilson lives in New York City.