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Worldbuilding with Tananarive Due


Photo by Daniel Ebon

For our concluding interview in my Ways into Worldbuilding series, I am honored to welcome a distinguished voice in fantasy and science fiction, Tananarive Due.

Tananarive Due is an author, screenwriter and educator who is a leading voice in black speculative fiction. Her short fiction has appeared in best-of-the-year anthologies of science fiction and fantasy. She is the former Distinguished Visiting Lecturer at Spelman College (2012-2014) and teaches Afrofuturism and creative writing at UCLA. She also teaches in the creative writing MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles. The American Book Award winner and NAACP Image Award recipient is the author of twelve novels and a civil rights memoir. In 2010, she was inducted into the Medill School of Journalism’s Hall of Achievement at Northwestern University. She also received a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. Her first short story collection, Ghost Summer, published in 2015, won a British Fantasy Award.

Aside from reader expectations, why do you build worlds? Is it more of an obligation than a pleasure? If the latter, what is enjoyable or rewarding about this aspect?

All storytelling, to me, is worldbuilding–even if it’s our mundane world, we have to create the specific world of that character. But in terms of broader worldbuilding in my speculative fiction, since scope is not my natural strength, I am very character-focused i.e. what world would create this person? Or what interactions with the world would tell the best story for this character? I’m thinking specifically of my African Immortals series, where I was pulled out of my comfort zone in each book to expand the world for my characters. This also has bearing on my post-apocolyptic stories “Herd Immunity” and “Carriers.”

How important is worldbuilding in your stories? Is it a goal for you to create an innovative world, or do you favor having the milieu sit more comfortably in the background?

Yes, the BACKGROUND is where I’m most comfortable. When I write science fiction, especially, it’s just enough seasoning of futurism to be credible so I can tell my story–and often near-future at that.

Do you apply any sort of process to worldbuilding? How does a coherent world emerge in your work?

I write about human characters, to my first steps are built on my understanding of sociology and psychology in OUR world. “Wherever we go, there we are.” So any world I create cannot go counter to human nature. So if it’s a world with a specific kind of magic or technology, I start with asking myself why people would build this world or how they would use it.

Describe a milieu from one your works, and the aspects you found most rewarding. Which ones did readers comment on the most?

My African Immortals series is probably my most popular “world”–a sect of immortal Africans in an underground colony in Lalibela, Ethiopia. Their world involves advanced technology, telepathy, and healing blood (magic).

What kind of worldbuilding tropes are you tired of? Please share a couple of worlds that have especially impressed you.

I have seen changes in this trend, but I’m tired of worldbuilding that is exclusionary, i.e. the original Star Wars, which neglected to show a multiracial universe. Too often, aliens stand in for minority groups–and there’s no need for that, when actual black and brown people can also appear. I admire the worldbuilding in Octavia Butler, where she veers between aliens, dystopian futures and vampires to show the dangers of hierarchy and power dynamics. Her books are also always multiracial.

In a series, do you lay in mysteries, trusting that readers will be intrigued and look forward to learning the answer in later books? How do you feel about making the reader wait to learn important world features?

In my case, if a world feature pops up in Book 2 or Book 3, it’s only because I didn’t think of it earlier. **smile** But in all seriousness, sometimes I respond to questions from primary readers (like my husband, Steven Barnes) to account for features of the world that don’t quite seem consistent with human psychology, etc. If he asks, “But why are the immortals–who are mostly men–so docile in their colony?” I have to explain that later.

Do you consciously work against reader expectations for a milieu? If so, please give an example of a surprise you brought in to a familiar setting, and how successful you think it was.

I do like an almost-like-our-world in my storytelling approach, i.e. everything is like our world except this ONE small difference (though, depending on the difference, that can be hard to pull off). I don’t know how well it succeeds, but in my short story “Vanishings” I wanted to explore a world where death means the literal vanishing of the body, and “paleness” in illness means you’re literally fading away. So my story explores a family’s confusion and denial when the father never came home–is he dead, or did he run away? And how that confusion enables denial.

Any peeks you’re willing to disclose about your next world or what we might learn about the milieu in your next story?

My novel-in-progress is set in the fictitious town I explore in my short story collection, Ghost Summer, where magic exists and has a special impact on children.


About this series. Ways into Worldbuilding is a series of interviews I conducted in the summer and fall of 2016 with sf/f writers, asking about their opinions on, and approach to, creating fictional worlds, especially fantasy worlds.

Previous interviews:


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