Article By Andrew Wallace
The publication of Dread & the Broken Witch has certainly come at an interesting time. The welcome evolution of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the death of George Floyd this summer is now the backdrop to a white supremacist attack on the US Capitol. And here am I, a white chap from England, writing about a witch who is not only a black woman, but a transgender one as well.
These are big themes, so let’s start by going back to basics. The book is a novella, albeit a long one. Novellas are the book form between short stories and novels, and generally run from twenty thousand words to forty thousand. Dread & the Broken Witch is thirty-five thousand words, so about half the length of a novel.
I mention size because it was my first novella, and it was also the first book I wrote after a nervous breakdown at the end of 2015, with a subsequent year living with anxiety and depression. I haven’t written about this subject much, because despite my racket I am a private person. However, I have been strengthened by the honesty of others, especially friends on social media, and by a political situation I find – have always found – intolerable.
These things are linked. 2016 was spectacularly bad for many people’s mental health, with the election of a US president whose flatulent term hastened the empowerment of intolerance, and the UK’s descent into pointless fanatical nationalism. It exacerbated an already terrible situation in my own life, which compared to many other people’s is incredibly privileged: white, male-presenting most of the time, great physical health. That became part of the problem – I had all this great stuff so how could I be so unrelentingly rubbish? I felt I was better off as a collection of body parts best used by someone else.
That’s the thing about depression. It turns you against yourself. There was I, who had done stand-up at the Comedy Store, unable to even speak. There was I, who had worked for years as a crisis manager, and I couldn’t even do the washing up. Worst of all was that I was unable to write for almost a year. That may sound like the most snivelling kind of first world problems, but if you are a creative person it is a kind of living death.
What got me through was reading. I’ve written on my blog Life in Sci-Fi (www.andrewwallace.me) about the writers of colour who inspired me, such as NK Jemisin, Kai Ashante Wilson and Nnedi Okorafor, and it was then that I read them. So, thank you, guys.
With the love of a great family (there’s that luck again) I began to come out of the depression enough to consider writing a short fantasy piece. I wasn’t interested in the usual sub-Tolkien stuff, so I thought about a world I had created for another fantasy novel called Jester at the Court of Night. That damn thing nearly drove me crazy, so I put it aside. But one element burst into life, which is the sequence that explores how the Jester’s kingdom is perpetuating an Iraq-style misadventure in the continent we call Africa, and which in both books is called Zabardu. Why not set the story there?
Dread & the Broken Witch takes place around six thousand years ago. Instead of the evolution of the Abrahamic religions, genuine other-worldly beings appear, change everything, and then mysteriously depart. They love the people of the Earth and mate with them, and the offspring are the witches and wizards able to channel an interconnected magical world force called the Way.
I wanted a trans character for many reasons. Probably the main one is that I have always struggled with gender identity and sexuality, because our culture does not handle these things any better than it does race. The Broken Witch is a defiant rebuttal of all that. The ‘brokenness’ of the witch has nothing to do with her gender identity. It a mystery at the heart of the story, so I will not reveal it here. Instead, the Broken Witch has always known who she is, and in her youth used magic to match her inner and outer realities.
She is gorgeous, brilliant, kind, promiscuous, rowdy, outrageous and tough as she approaches middle age with no memory of what happened to her in the war that robbed her of her powers fourteen years previously. She is bold, often makes mistakes but will always apologise when she knows she is in the wrong, which is often. She is someone you would want as a friend, while also being mysterious, to her beloved village and also to herself. Her certainties are not what they were; things have become blurred, and a strange darkness is closing in…
Zabardu, my ancient altered Africa, is both a continent and a single country. This choice is deliberate, although I recognise that it’s wrong to call modern Africa a single country. I happily concede that you wouldn’t read a science fiction or fantasy book about contemporary Africa by me, you’d read one by the authors above, or by Tade Thompson, Wole Talabi or Irenosen Okojie. But I wanted to explore the uncanny beauty of the place as a continent of the imagination, made of love. Zabardu is not without problems, but its utopian feel is meant to counter the famine images imposed on Western kids as they grow up, and the false narrative that Africa is a basket case that needs a jolly good tidying up by white racists.
I’ve written a very personal fantasy here, informed as much by my imaginings of the continent over the years as by learning and relationships. For example, there are no borders, because borders are artificial constructs. There is no toxic colonial legacy; events in the story predate it. However, an invasion from the northern realms – this fantasy world’s version of Europe – is as great a threat as the Dread.
The Dread itself has elements in common with depression, and similar language is used to describe it, but it is not depression. The idea came from, of all places, the Edward Albee play A Delicate Balance. Albee, who like me was adopted, had just died when I wrote the first draft of the novella. Something about the story of a wealthy couple driven from their house by ‘a nameless dread’ scared the hell out of me. I can’t say why, exactly. Maybe it is the incomprehensible scale of what we do not know, or a glimpse of the true infinite, or the breaking through of a reality we have not evolved to perceive. Either way, that such a phenomenon could erupt into a suburban world, which is supposedly the quintessence of safety, makes the disjoint even more profoundly eerie.
I also wanted to subvert the traditional epic quest narrative. Instead of a trek through Shire/Moria/Mordor analogues, the Broken Witch embarks on a more intimate journey – from one side of the village to the other. The obstacles facing her are no less daunting, but the scale is more immediate.
I went overboard on the intimacy, however. I feel strongly that the fantasy genre often neglects the sexual aspect, and I crafted my narrative accordingly. However, even very positive beta readers told me there was too much sex. When the novella found a home with Luna Press in 2019, ten thousand words of erotica were replaced to create an entirely new arc that complements the dramatic conclusion.
My little book isn’t going to solve the problems we face. It’s a fantasy story that has a big heart and goes places fast, with a character whose qualities I aspire to. It will go its own way, and other than telling you about it there isn’t much more I can do. But if it helps or inspires anyone else the way it did me in my personal darkest hour then perhaps its time was always going to be now.