Fiction writer Lesley Nneka Arimah joins co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan to discuss how Black horror writing speaks to our current cultural moment. She talks about editor/director Jordan Peele’s new anthology, Out There Screaming: An Anthology of New Black Horror, in which her work is included, and how she went from avoiding horror to writing it. Arimah reads from her story “Invasion of the Baby Snatchers,” explains its origins in her own fears, and shares an alternative ending.
Check out video excerpts from our interviews at Lit Hub’s Virtual Book Channel, Fiction/Non/Fiction’s YouTube Channel, and our website. This episode of the podcast was produced by Anne Kniggendorf.
From the episode:
Whitney Terrell: Is that the source of the horror in your story? The idea that your own body can become a prison in which you become irrelevant?
Lesley Nneka Arimah: Yes, because my personal oubliette is pregnancy and the idea of motherhood.
WT: When you said aliens were being born… I’m like, “Isn’t that happening? normally?” That’s how a lot of people feel about it.
LNA: I’m at the age where a lot of my friends are having kids or have had kids recently. So I sort of think about pregnancy a lot. And it is one of those things that terrifies me a bit, both in the physical aspect of it—one of my friends developed an autoimmune disorder after pregnancy that just never went away, and she just has this now. Another friend, her feet grew two sizes and never went down. There’s changes in the body. And then there’s also the way that society treats women who are mothers, in the idea that, “Oh, this is all you are now,” right? Like, you’re only allowed to be this mother person, and that is your primary duty. There’s something about that being subsumed by this presence in your body that, both at the physical and the social level, really terrifies me. And so that was my personal oubliette.
Previous to this, I had only ever accidentally written horror; I never did so intentionally. And my accidental horror was also about giving birth to children, and so I was like, “Okay, Lesley, there’s clearly something going on here.” So it just worked out that this was where, when it came to articulate fears in a way that could be outwardly scary, I thought, “Okay, I feel this so viscerally that I think that this is something that I’d be able to depict on the page in a terrifying way.”
V.V. Ganeshananthan: It’s genuinely terrifying. The first time I read the story, I was reading it aloud with someone else. And we were taking turns shrieking a little bit. In the introduction to the book, Jordan Peele writes, “I view horror as catharsis through entertainment. It’s a way to work through your deepest pain and fear—but for Black people that isn’t possible, and for many decades wasn’t possible, without the stories being told in the first place.” And he describes the anthology as 19 personalized sunken places.
LNA: [Cat meows in background]
VVG: I like how your cat is adding atmosphere to this episode.
WT: Maybe that’s the alien from her story!
VVG: Anyway, I thought that this quote by Jordan Peele was so interesting because it means that representation in horror is—maybe even more than in other genres—a matter of emotional survival. And I was wondering: is that why Black horror has become such a dominant genre right now, or are there other reasons to go along with that?
LNA: You know, I don’t know enough to answer that definitively. But I always think what is really funny is the idea… Black people have had this joke amongst ourselves, and then you’ve seen it play out in some horror movies, where it’s like, the white folks always go toward the noise. And you’re like, “No, I’m not gonna check that out.” It’s almost a meme at this point, right?
WT: Well, that’s the Eddie Murphy routine that the name of the movie Get Out comes from, right? That was a great routine that I used to quote all the time with my friends when we were in college.
LNA: Yes. And that very much articulates a conversation that we’ve had amongst ourselves. I think it’s this idea that life as a Black person is scary enough that if there’s a noise in the dark, you don’t go seeking it out. Because it’s like, “Oh! I’m just gonna avoid that and maintain this calm space I currently have.”
WT: When the voice in the house says “get out,” you get out!
LNA: Get out, exactly! Right! I’m not going to go hunt down the source. The call is coming from inside the house? Well, I’m gonna get out of the house. So how’s that? It’s interesting seeing this renaissance. In the 70s or the 80s or maybe even backdating this more than I should, but you know, the Candyman and oh gosh, what was the other classic horror movie that I’m forgetting now? But this feels very new, a renaissance in a very interesting way. And it’s really interesting how, I’m not sure that Get Out could have happened outside of the particular moment that it became a phenomenon because I feel like the general public was familiar enough with some of the conversations about race for that to be impactful in a very interesting way. Whereas if it had come out maybe 30 years ago, I’m not sure that it would have had the same impact, because we knew our conversations were happening in smaller spaces than they are now and when Get Out first came out.
VVG: There’s also the joke about, if you’re watching a horror movie and there is a Black friend from a certain era, you knew that the Black friend was going to die. Like the people on Star Trek wearing red shirts, those people are goners. Boy, I hope I got that right otherwise all of the Trekkies who listen to our show will write back to me. But anyway, in retrospect that seems so ridiculous because that would’ve been the person with the most common sense who would’ve been like, “Don’t run toward the noise,” actually.
I remember you telling me that in the editorial process for this story, you had to nip off a little bit that went past your actual ending to the story because of length, and we wondered if we might offer our listeners an exclusive glimpse into this?
LNA: Yes, so there’s a pretty strict word limit, and my story was pushing against that word limit. And I had an issue with myself where, do I really want to be the jerk who is like, “Can I have more space?” You know? And so I was like, “No, I don’t.” And so I found what felt like the most natural stop where this ending is a little abrupt, but there’s something cohesive about it. And so I stopped the story earlier than I had intended. My original ending went a bit further, and I was unsure how to wrap this up in a way that is satisfying and meets the word requirements. And so I just lopped it off at an abrupt but natural stopping point. And so there’s a little bit that goes on after the original ending. I told myself that I was going to wait, and if everyone was talking about how clever the ending was, I’d be like, “Oh, yeah, that was intentional. That’s totally what I meant to do all along.”
Transcribed by Otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Madelyn Valento.
Photograph of Lesley Nneka Arimah by Emily Baxter.
LESLEY NNEKA ARIMAH:
What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky • Out There Screaming: An Anthology of New Black Horror (ed. Jordan Peele)
Jordan Peele • Toni Morrison • Stephen King • “Black horror is having a big moment. So is its pioneer, Tananarive Due” by Paula L. Woods | L.A. Times • N.K. Jemisin • Nnedi Okorafor • Violet Allen • The Nesting by C.J. Cook • The Leech by Hiron Ennes • Rebecca Roanhorse