I grew up in the inner city of Houston, one of the largest metropolitan centers in the United States. Although my immediate surroundings were urban, I also spent a lot of time in rural small towns outside of Houston with extended family. I had my college educated mother in-house, offering all the reading and book learning I could take on. On the other side, I had a huge extended family offering raucous and loud education in such things as fishing, gardening, and hayrides. None of us had much in the way of material things—we were poor people. The result was an upbringing I affectionately call “country ghetto”. This foundation of my identity expanded when I, as an adult, attended college and later moved to a suburban town just outside of Houston. Even in the suburbs close to the city, we are surrounded by the trappings of the rural: livestock nestled within fences along highways and wide, open green spaces. I am all of these people—and all of these facets of my identity converge in my writing.
However only the more refined characters and their “respectable” stories find limited acceptance in the horror genre; my country ghetto stories languish unsupported and unwanted. The part of me they represent wastes away with them in the desolate and liminal space of The Disappeared. Or maybe I should call this space The Invisible. The term “disappeared” gives the impression that representations of me and my characters ever existed anywhere within this genre in the first place. We haven’t. I’ve engaged with horror content for over forty years and I’ve yet to see people like us have their own novels and movies in notable numbers, with the exception of a scant few movies like Tales from the Hood and Bones or the one-off short story. Even these examples focus on urban Black experiences rather than Southern, or more rural ones. Granted, I don’t profess to have read every horror work in existence or watched every horror movie around; but, in almost half a century, I’ve seen and read quite a bit and if it has Black people in it, I probably have at least heard about it. I haven’t heard about very many poor, Black, country ghetto people like me in works of horror.
While all my work centers the experiences of Black people, specifically, Black women, every character and story comes to me differently. Sometimes they slant more literary, though not often. Sometimes the voices from suburbia beckon me to tell their stories. Other times, academia clamors to be heard above everyone else. I write them all. I do this knowing the odds of many of them seeing the light of day in a publication are low. These odds become just about nil for the characters inside my head whom the horror world doesn’t deem to be good enough. I’m not saying no one is publishing my work at all. I’m fortunate that much of what I write finds a home at some point. It hasn’t always been that way, though. Part of my fortune is because I continually work to improve my writing. The other part is the opening up of the horror genre to diverse voices. Even if this progress has been infinitely slow, I have benefited from it. And writers with far more talent than I find they still have work that never becomes published, so I’m not saying I expect for everything I write to be picked up and put out in public.
What I am hoping for is less pain during the process. Not the regular and expected sting of rejections—that’s a part of the submission process. It’s the reasons behind the rejections I wish to be free from. Is it too much to ask to not be told over and over again, even by venues helmed by other Black people, that the Black experiences I’m writing aren’t the right kind of Black? To not have a story rejected, not because it’s poorly written, but because an editor for an anthology of regional horror doesn’t feel my characters are Texan or Southern enough because they’re raw and poor and Black? No, I would never get this exact feedback in a rejection letter because most people know they can’t afford to commit these obviously exclusionary thoughts to written correspondence. But I still know the reasons, whether they’re explicit or implicit.
Plagued by this knowledge, I want to cry out in anguish that my stories have value, that these are strong characters, that the stories fit perfectly within the horror genre, that they deserve a chance … Can’t they see my stories look strange to them because so few are allowed through, that if they engaged with my stories, they’d become more recognizable, if these people would just open their eyes they would see these stories are human stories, that they could connect to them if they wanted to but they don’t want to acknowledge my work or me … I deserve a chance. My throat grows numb from the unvoiced screams and I feel myself fade bit by bit back into the margins with every rejection of my experiences of humanity.
Even allowing grace for a simple difference in opinions between editors and publications doesn’t explain how almost none of these characters by no writers are making their way to the finish line. I’m not delusional enough to even imagine I’m the only Black writer writing about country ghetto Black people. There may not be a ton of us doing so because Black experiences are vast across a never-ending diaspora of enactments. But not five … or one other writer making it past the gates into books and movies? It’s hard to guess at numbers because however many of us there are, our work isn’t being published or produced for film in measurable quantities.
This means our stories will also never appear on “best of” lists or win awards. Having depictions of my experiences and my stories locked out of the genre in this way is a kind of pain that doesn’t happen in sharpness. It’s a more insidious type of hurt that spasms constantly and throbs with the ache of a long ago fractured bone that vibrates with pain every time it rains. It stays with you, never receding, never abating. It escalates every time a table of contents list is announced or a new movie deal is reported, because you know those works won’t have a whole lot to do with you. You stop listening during awards season because you know you aren’t apt to hear any resonance of any stories of you or yours in the listings.
I used to think I could make it stop hurting by simply not writing or trying in the first place. I quickly found that didn’t work. The only result I got from that was more pain at denying a part of myself in the same ways the genre denies my existence and the existence of people like me. I only succeeded in serving my own invisibility within the genre, placing myself in a position even more lowly than the genre’s darling vampire who cannot see herself in a mirror yet still knows she exists through her progeny and in the reverberation of stories told about her and others like her. When I don’t write these characters and stories, I am destroying my own progeny before anyone else has the chance to do so, and certainly if I don’t write myself into stories, no one else will, either.
The ache does subside slightly when I’m lucky enough to encounter people in the publishing and film industries who accept my stories and characters exactly for who and what they are. Like the editors of anthologies and magazines who genuinely solicit diverse voices and appreciate authentic expressions of this diversity. Or the editor from outside the country who accepts my experiences as a valid expression of Americana, no questions asked. Like my film agent who wholeheartedly supports all the color I’ve imbued in my works as she champions them in the filmmaking world to studios that want good, solid stories, period. And the publisher who took on my short story collection with all the variations of Black, female experiences I relate within it.
All of these people aren’t of color or female, even, and yet they all are able to see some type of universality in my storytelling—features that still remain connected to the human condition, regardless of the specificity of the characters or their circumstances.
For these people, I am eternally grateful. They provide necessary bursts of illumination on my Black experiences that feel like an infusion of being, where I and my characters exist on this plane and are validated. It is within this space of existence that we are free from the burden of constant comparisons to monolithic Black experiences that do not belong to us. I can’t, and shouldn’t try to be, every Black person. I can only relay the stories that are mine to tell. This realm of corporeality allows freedom from the shackles of stereotypes and respectability politics.
I pray for more of these spaces for myself and other Black writers in the horror genre, where we can exist and experiment and have the room to succeed. Only within these areas can we move away from simply haunting the margins of the genre like discarnate spirits eternally damned to never claim our voices. We can then use our value to contribute to the growth and sustenance of horror, if only rendered invisible no more.
R. J. Joseph is a Stoker Award™ nominated, Texas based writer who earned her MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. She has had works published in various venues, including the Halloween issue of Southwest Review and The Streaming of Hill House: Essays on the Haunting Netflix Series. When she isn’t writing, reading, or teaching, she can usually be found wrangling her huge blended family of one husband, four adult sprouts, seven teenaged sproutlings, four grandboo seedlings, and one furry hellbeast who sometimes pretends to be a dog. She occasionally peeks out on Twitter @rjacksonjoseph or at www.rhondajacksonjoseph.com
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