Where are you from?
Notes on Belonging
Every mid-month, we have a guest writer on After Five, a voice from a historically underrepresented community or identity group in the writing, reading, publishing and SFF ecosystem. Previous features have been from Chovwe, Shingai, Tlotlo, Rafeeat and Akilah.
Today’s letter is from Veronica G. Henry, author of Bacchanal, The Quarter Storm, and The Foreign Exchange (Feb 2023). Her work has debuted at #1 on multiple Amazon Bestseller charts and her novel Bacchanal was chosen as the Editor’s Pick for Best African American Fantasy. She is a Viable Paradise alum, and a member of SFWA. You can sign up for her newsletter at veronicahenry.net, and find her on social media @veronicawrites (Twitter) and @thewordslinger (Instagram).
Where are you from?
At first glance, this is a seemingly innocuous question, no? For many, that’s exactly the case. An inquiry made out of genuine, harmless curiosity. A hope to connect, a conversation starter that may reveal shared experiences. But in other instances, just beneath the surface, lies a suggestion, an assumption even, of otherness. That you inherently don’t belong. That is when the question becomes problematic.
Years ago, I fulfilled a lifelong dream and visited the African continent. Navigating the maze of busy streets of Dakar, Senegal and Freetown, Sierra Leone, I was both dumbstruck and thrilled. My presence didn’t elicit a sideways glance, raised eyebrow or glare. Nobody looked at my skin and questioned whether or not I belonged. The assumption that I did, frankly made me giddy with relief. But then I opened my mouth.
Where are you from?
I didn’t mind, finding the question asked out of what I perceived as more along the genuinely curious line. I was happy to share the story of my family, the African cultural roots still so prevalent in parts of South Carolina. I explained everything I understood about the DNA test that landed me there, and what I’d learned about my ancestors. But that assumption of belonging, for a moment at least, was shattered.
The reactions to my story fell firmly into two camps: on one side, unabashed delight. These were the people that embraced me. I heard “welcome home” so many times I was brought to tears. There was of course, another camp that felt that I still was not enough. Not African enough, not Sierra Leonean enough. That my being born away from my ancestral home was somehow my fault, a wrong that irrevocably relegated me to outsider status.
Luckily, I didn’t care. Knowing who I am and where my ancestors came from is a gift that nobody will take from me.
But that experience did make me wonder if the same attitudes would follow me into my writing career. No matter the land of my birth, it feels natural to me to include African mythology and themes in my narrative work. I would have to write these stories from a different perspective, one shaped by American history. I love a good challenge though, so I dove into my research like a woman on a mission. I read. I scoured online resources. I did a fair amount of lurking and listening. In the end, I educated myself to the best of my ability and then I wrote.
My first novel, Bacchanal, a historical fantasy, includes elements of African mythology and mythical creatures. There’s a mythical demon that subsists on souls, a were-hyena straight out of Nigerian folklore, an Eloko from the rainforests of Zaire. I experimented with the idea of the magical and unexplained in everyday life. Being able to weave these themes into an American historical setting wasn't easy, but it was a challenge I was up for and am pretty proud of the way it turned out.
For my next novel, The Quarter Storm, my protagonist is a Vodou priestess. Notice the spelling? Instead of the Voodoo tradition popular in New Orleans, my main character is Haitian American. Haiti is a place where the Vodou religion, which originated in West Africa, is still preserved and practiced in much the same way as it has been since inception. I blended the ancient tradition of healing with the setting in Louisiana to craft something that I hoped would paint the tradition in a more respectful and educational light than we’ve seen in the past.
Admittedly, I was concerned about alienating readers on both continents. But luckily, I didn’t. I’ve been overwhelmed by the positive response. Readers are a special lot. Thinkers, perceptive, willing to go on a journey with you if you lay the ground rules and stick to them. In an age where our attention spans are under constant assault, readers persist in supporting authors. And for the ability to continue telling my stories, for belonging on both sides of the Atlantic, I’m eternally grateful.