Brandon O’Brien is a performance poet and fiction writer from Trinidad. His work is published in leading SFF magazines, including Strange Horizons, Arsenika, Anathema, Fireside Magazine, Uncanny Magazine, and the anthology New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean, ed. Karen Lord (Peepal Tree, 2016), among other outlets. His publications have been shortlisted for the 2014 Alice Yard Prize for Art Writing and the 2014 and 2015 Small Axe Literary Competitions. He is also a teaching artist with The 2 Cents Movement and the poetry editor of FIYAH Literary Magazine.
He sat to talk with Frank Flanagan.
The news kept calling what happened at Owl’s Eye a riot. The wicces owned it. There was a chant by the second night—“See Love! See Light! Owl’s Eye saw it! Won’t you fight?”—and already a march. The Reckoning took the discontent right to the city, but never took control of it. It gave The Harmnones a little bit of faith.
An old man was on the news that night, asked why he’d stand for violent, sacrilegious punks. And the old man said, “Well, in my day the music, the culture, was much different than it is now, but we’re not here to talk about whether a geezer like me enjoys that kinda grating . . . But here’s what I can tell ya. Today’s same as my day. The punks, the youth of today, they stand up for what’s right—every time. Broken fingers, bloody noses—those’re just badges o’ honour. The Goddess’ll heal ’em. And what we’re doing to these wicces? Ain’t right, I tell ya.”
—from Brandon O’Brien’s “‘Punch God (In The Face)’ by The Harmnones”
Frank Flanagan: I read your short story “fallenangel.dll” in the anthology New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean. What do you see as the significance of this book in terms of the interest of readers in Caribbean speculative fiction and SciFi?
Brandon O’Brien: I think it’s just important to keep reinforcing that Caribbean writers can write speculative fiction, and indeed have been writing speculative fiction the whole time. And this is something that Dr. Lord, herself, essentially reminded me of when I attended her workshops before I ever decided to actually give this writing thing a try. We’re constantly imagining the Caribbean’s past and present, through the fantastic lens of our folklore and our faith, and through the futuristic lens of how we can be ‘developed’ and survive the troubles of neocolonialism. That means writers need not be afraid to tap into that legacy and know that they are reshaping some of those lenses in ways that can make others see, through science fiction and fantasy, the Caribbean in a powerful new way.
FF: The setting of “fallenangel.dll” is a futuristic island (2023) where cops smack a small child on the head with guns, the government controls death squads of attack robots, and evidence is planted for predetermined arrests. Are you imagining a future that will be even worse than the present if citizens don’t act against corruption now?
BO: When I wrote the first draft of this piece, Trinidad had ended a state of emergency a year prior, and hotspots were the subject of constant police activity even though the curfew had been lifted; plus, there was a judicial inquiry into a secret police service acting in the shadows with impunity, and the newspapers wouldn’t stop talking about it. Many Trinis will see this in my story immediately: “Oh, that’s the curfew! That’s the Flying Squad!” But if I’m being honest, I don’t think I was being prescient, per se. I guess I had in mind something like, ‘the only reason it isn’t this bad right now in real life is because we don’t have police robots on the streets’.
FF: The protagonist of that story, Imtiaz, has a partner-husband, Tevin. These lovers lead domestic daily lives. Given the Caribbean historical context and contemporary moment of ongoing struggles for full acceptance of persons who identify as LGBT, were you attempting to portray a gay couple’s relationship as utterly normalized?
BO: Exactly this—and not just normalized, but utterly banal like everything else. Honestly, I feel kind of wary about it in hindsight. I like that Imtiaz and Tevin are just partners sharing a life. I like that they’re so utterly Trini that things are falling apart outside, and they remark on it like it’s the weather. But, I also didn’t want it to seem like this was ‘the way’ to be gay in Trinidad, that there was only one way, and it was always low-key and resembling the mainstream, because it isn’t and it shouldn’t be. However, I also think a lot of queer folks are just people who buy groceries and watch bad TV and just want to beat rush-hour traffic, and for this story, that mattered.
FF: Rebellion, resistance and revolution against tyranny seem to be central themes in your writings, including in this story.
BO: I am just drawn to stories about young people watching a mess and being driven to act upon it—not always necessarily to ‘fix’ it, even if they end up doing so, but just to rise above it on their own terms. Shelly, in “fallenangel.dll”, is a very interesting woman of action to me. She learns about the injustice taking place around her and can’t ignore it. I think it’s important to tell Caribbean people that rebellion is a thing that’s natural to us, that our very history is one of survival and struggle against principalities and powers that have always existed and will always exist: force, violence, corruption, greed, and the stains of capitalism and neocolonialism constantly taking new shapes around us. You can fight back, but it doesn’t always mean laying down your whole life. Sometimes it just means bringing whatever small truth you come across to light.
FF: In Anathema magazine, you have a story entitled “Punch God (in the Face) by The Harmnones”, in which the setting seems to be not in Trinidad, but perhaps more in the future British Isles. What does punk and or Afro-punk mean to you and your writing?
BO: “‘Punch God’…”, at its heart, is a very similar story to “fallenangel.dll”; the latter refers to punk music and mosh pits, but the former is right there in the music. “Punch God…” is about young people who just want to survive and find value in their world, and they discover that they can only do so by speaking out, by being a source of inspiration to others, even if it puts them in further danger. And they do that through the music, through their art. That’s what punk is, to me personally—the power to challenge the systems that cause harm to others. So, I’m really big on being engaged with community as a kind of punk sensibility in my work. I always try to make my characters members of something big. In “Punch God’…”, that’s faith. Even in Trinidad, there was a point in history when it was punishable by law to be a practicing Shouter Baptist, and that was part of what I was thinking of when I wrote this story. When you look at most communities like that, they’re all remarkably punk—and Afro-punk particularly, when you look at who really did the legwork to defend the community in those histories. The history of the Caribbean is Afro-punk. The history of queer liberation is Afro-punk. Shouter Baptist Liberation is Afro-punk.
FF: In the future time of “They Will Take You From You” (published in Strange Horizons) the Benefactors, a group of alien, all-powerful bird-like masters, create superhumans called the geniuses. One of the geniuses is the athlete Khalil Cain, a black man whose image online is bleached alabaster white upon his death. What is the significance of this bleaching, and why do you link it with an apocalypse?
BO: I wrote “They Will Take You…” after the end of 2016, which, at the time, was the year we all loved to hate. We wouldn’t stop talking about all the genuinely meaningful celebrities that we lost that year: David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Carrie Fisher. But something I noticed in the more notable essays and obituaries that were written about black celebrities who passed that year, like Prince or Muhammad Ali, is that they all read the same. They were all about how those people ‘transcended race’, how what they made or what they did was somehow palatable first and foremost because they assimilated somehow. They weren’t ‘black’; they were ‘universal’ somehow. And I hated that. It isn’t true, first of all, but even the subtle intention to make it true was such a deliberate thing, as if these people worried that being unapologetically black was too radical. They needed to make it sound not radical enough. It struck me as a kind of verbal whitewashing. So, I wanted to write the exaggeration of that: if time itself is taking black geniuses from the world, then by Jove, when you put them in the grave you call them black, you call their work black, you call their genius black.
FF: In “They Will Take You…” the Benefactors use Earthlings to cultivate intellectual property. Is this an allusion to how people of color in Trinidad or North America are being treated today?
BO: It’s very much how they’re treated right now. How a lot of people are treated now—seen as body-commodities for the creation of ‘things’, even just ‘content’. In that sense, capitalism makes commodities out of everyone. But it’s noteworthy that when that happens, when the system wrings all bodies of their ability to make things, black bodies still have to either outdo their peers by leaps and bounds, or suffer the indignity of being told they ‘transcended’ their own identity, just to be recognised at all.
FF: In addition to writing short fiction and publishing in both Caribbean-related journals and anthologies and SciFi and Fantasy sources, you also write poetry, some of which makes use of folklore, myth and speculative elements. In your poem “god-date” the goddess in the sky seems like something between a lover and a mother from ancient times, or a mere celestial fantasy. What do you think is the relationship between nature, myth-making and spirituality in your writing?
BO: As for myth-making, the natural, and the spiritual, first and foremost I’m really eager, in my writing and in my life, to challenge how we imagine the metaphysical. Those things are important to people, but I always feel compelled to explore them separately from organized, orthodox ways—not because those forms aren’t valuable, but because I want to try to paint being connected to the spiritual in other ways. What if you’re in control of your myth? What if you’re in control of your faith? What if doing so is more powerful practice than committing to someone else’s ideas of how you should believe? I guess “god-date” is one of those poems—a kind of imagination of how extreme one’s connection to the spiritual can be—but when I wrote it, I really just wanted this persona to kiss a goddess. If it’s anything radical, it’s the idea that the love that the spiritual entity can have for us can be deep, that they can want us terribly just like we often say we want them; they can be vulnerably in love and admit it.
FF: In your persona poem “the lagahoo speaks for itself” (Arsenika), the Trinidadian shapeshifter promises to “feast on the tight-fisted and apathetic”. As a poet, what is the appeal for you of drawing upon and reworking folkloric characters and tales?
BO: I’m big on the idea that folkloric creatures are creatures of righteous vengeance. I feel that way about the lagahoo, because he has this supernatural access to information about the grave— that is the coffin he bears on his back, the chains that bind it to his body. I feel like that naturally lends itself to a kind of awareness of injustice. I imagine, for instance, in this poem and in a recent story I published in Uncanny Magazine called “The Howling Detective”, that the coffin isn’t theirs. They aren’t dead—they’re shapeshifters, yes, but with extra knowledge, that knowledge of the grave itself. The coffin is that of someone who didn’t deserve to die, someone who suffered something unforgiveable, and it sends some poor man into the night howling angry, and it gives him the tools to kill on his fingertips, telling him, ‘deal with this for me, please’. I feel that way about most women in folklore, too—pretty much any woman in any culture’s lore, anywhere in the world, are who they are because they’ve been wronged. By society, by a man, by destiny itself. Folklore is punk in its own way, too. You have this wealth of power, you are ostracized by those around you, you are laid low. But you can use rage to make things right, even if it costs you.
FF: In your poem entitled “Prometheans” (Control), the speaker encounters an angel, whose body is cased in cement: “I wanted to… feel what holiness would feel like/ against the s(k)in, would it feel like/ nicotine and joy being tipsy/ enough to disappear through the touch/ but sober enough to remember it?”
BO: It is subversion. This is a scene of immense reverence and faith, but what the persona is asking for is especially profane. The first purpose of this was actually just a queer love poem—this man, at the feet of an angel, something so outside of the realm of mundane understanding of sex, love, and the body, asking to be loved, to be touched by him, this larger, more powerful thing, this example of what is ‘perfect’. And through writing it, I discovered how much more radical it would be to try to tell that relationship between mankind and angelhood that we typically see in some kinds of theology: that they are the spiritual servants of humanity, because humanity is actually the ‘perfect’ thing, the thing God ultimately sees as ‘good’.
FF: Do you think your poems are meant to be heard (seen) perhaps more than just read?
BO: I find this question really valuable. Ideally, if you take a good poem and read it, and if that poet is a performer, they put it on stage, you shouldn’t just feel like you got the poem at a higher volume. You should feel like you got a new poem, like something was revealed on some deeper level that you didn’t hear in your own head. But I’m also big on the idea that ‘reading’ should be radical. The act of seeing a work on a page should also unlock something, and the published work that inspires me does that, as well. I’m fond of my poem “Hunting with Zeno’s Arrows”, in Eye to the Telescope, for that—it was an experiment in how many layers of narrative can be held in what is still one story.
FF: For you, what is the importance of using Caribbean languages and speech in SciFi?
BO: Science fiction is a lens applied to real people, real conflicts, real societies. It’s about how real people operate in circumstances we haven’t imagined yet, or haven’t imagined the consequences of yet. And that includes Caribbean people, who bring their tongues with them. More importantly, it’s about the fact that we are here, in the future, and that our stories are given the same room for complexity as anyone else’s. And that means we talk how we talk. And it means we cook our food and we wear our hair like we want and we practice our faith and so much more. Caribbeanness is just as much a part of the future as everything else.
FF: Do you have favorite writers or literary models for futuristic Caribbean world-building? Whom you would recommend?
BO: I can think immediately of the writers who I consider mentors and inspirations: Karen Lord, Tobias Buckell, Nalo Hopkinson. Writers whose bodies of work are very good at getting across those many big and little things that speak to Caribbeanness, even in stories or worlds that are not on their face ‘about the Caribbean’. I can also recommend: RSA Garcia, P. Djeli Clark, Stephanie Saulter, Kevin Jared Hosein, and Lisa Allen-Agostini. The website caribbeansf.com is a good place to start, but by no means an end point.
FF: What do you have planned for your next writing projects? Will you be working with any other writers, artists or groups?
BO: I’m working on far too many things. My serial novel, How To Unmake It In Anglia, is only just underway, and I’ve been drafting another that I can’t wait to say more about. I’m also trying to squeeze out a novella as we speak, and I’ve been smoothing the edges of so many small collections of poetry, making things fit where they’re needed. I’m even working on a tabletop roleplaying game right now. I’ve been keeping far too busy for my own good, is what I’m saying. But they’re all such beautiful things, and I want to do all of them justice, so they all get some of my attention.
Frank Flanagan is an adjunct professor in the English Department, College of General Studies, at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras. He has published journalism in The Boston Globe and conducted interviews for Moko and Pree. Currently a doctoral student in Literature of the English-Speaking Caribbean at the University of Puerto Rico, his academic work focuses on topics related to masculinities and land rights in Caribbean literature.