'Black Sun' Offers A Fantasy Set In Ancient Pre-Columbian Americas

Oct 16, 2020
Originally published on October 16, 2020 4:59 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The bestselling author Rebecca Roanhorse grew up reading science fiction and fantasy novels that didn't often reflect her own experience and history as a Native American woman.

REBECCA ROANHORSE: I'm a huge epic fantasy fan, and all my life, I think I've been reading epic fantasies inspired by European settings. And I always wondered what it would be like to read an epic fantasy inspired by the rich cultures of the Americas, pre-Columbian Americas. So this is just something I've always wanted to read I haven't really seen a lot of, so I just decided to write it myself.

SHAPIRO: That book is out now. It's the first of a trilogy, and it's called "Black Sun."

ROANHORSE: A lot of Americans, you know, probably still think of pre-Columbian societies as sort of primitive or savage, unfortunately. But actually, they were incredibly sophisticated, particularly in their astronomy and city planning and architecture. It's really amazing.

SHAPIRO: So the capital city where a lot of the action in this book takes place is called Tova. There are meeting places way up in the sky connected by these suspension bridges, and then there are also parts of the city that are kind of deep in chasms carved into cliff faces. How much of the design of this fantasy city is based on actual cities that ancient people in the Americas built?

ROANHORSE: Well, I was sort of inspired by places like Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde from the ancestral Puebloans and then also the Incans, of course - the city of Machu Picchu and the bridge system that the Incans created, the wonderful woven bridges that still exist to this day. So it's sort of a mix of all of those and then my own imagination.

SHAPIRO: In this book, you've imagined all kinds of fantastical creatures. I mean, there are water striders big enough to pull a barge. There are people who are part fish. And yet the creature that you've built the entire story around is a common bird that many of us see every single day. Why crows?

ROANHORSE: Oh, you know, I kind of love crows. And I'll tell you, I have a family of crows that hangs out around my house. I'm sort of up on a mountain, and they - I see them occasionally going through the valley. They'll come, and they'll land on my roof. And I feel like they're talking to me and, you know, sort of checking in on me. And so I guess just having crows around me, like, really inspired me to write about them. They wanted to be in the story. Corvids in general are just fascinating birds, just super-intelligent. You know, they create families. They have these long memories. They hold grudges. They're just really neat creatures.

SHAPIRO: Was there one detail that you learned as you studied these birds to write the book that really blew your mind?

ROANHORSE: You know, I think the grudge-holding. You know, you'll notice that they are the avatar of a vengeful god in the book. And I think the idea that they could - you know, they recognize a face, and they remember you. And then they pass that down to, like, their children and their children's children. You know, so you really have to be careful not to piss off crows.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) So as you mentioned, the crow is the avatar of a vengeful god in this book. Your central character is a boy who becomes a vessel for a god, and his purpose in life is basically to avenge a massacre that his people endured many years ago. Were you thinking about this in the context of the genocide that your own Native American ancestors experienced?

ROANHORSE: Yeah, absolutely. This whole idea of generational trauma, I think, is what really attracted me to that - not so much the vengeance as much as what happens to a people who survive a genocide. How do you sort of reckon with that? What - how does that sort of play out? And there are different factions within the group that have different approaches to that, different answers to how you face generational trauma.

SHAPIRO: And yet your main character is a weapon of vengeance, and there's a central tension of whether there was a difference between vengeance and justice. How do you wrestle with that in your own mind?

ROANHORSE: You know, I think we're just going to have to see. I'm not sure what the answer is.

SHAPIRO: You mean see in the second and third parts of this trilogy that you haven't written yet or...

ROANHORSE: Well, yes.

SHAPIRO: ...See in the real world if justice is ever served?

ROANHORSE: (Laughter) No, I mean see in the trilogy how I'm going to wrestle with it - you know, what the answer is for me - because I'm not sure I know.

SHAPIRO: Oh.

ROANHORSE: And part of the joy of being a writer is getting to sort of wrestle with these issues that plague you, you know, that interest you.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. It also allows you as a writer to inhabit multiple points of view and write both sides of an argument. You know, I'm thinking of one character who is a leader in the society that carried out the massacre and says, I need not repair anything. I was not alive back then, so I have no responsibility.

ROANHORSE: Right. Yeah. And that's, you know, right out of real life. I hear that quite often on social media when people talk about reparations or when they talk about, you know, sort of the genocide of Indigenous peoples. And that's actually something people say. So I wanted to take that and sort of explore that and what that means and whether there's some truth to that or whether that's just delusional.

SHAPIRO: There's also a real class divide in this society that you've created. One of the main characters is the Sun Priest, which is the highest possible position of power, but she comes from a background that is poor and humble. And she sort of realizes that in some sense, she will always be an outsider. What did you want to say with her arc?

ROANHORSE: Oh, you know, I have a line for her that I'm really attached to that says, you know, she sort of fell in love with this institution, but this institution did not love her back. And, you know, that has certainly been my experiences to a certain degree throughout life. I came from sort of humble beginnings in Texas and went to the Ivy League. And so it's, you know, a lot - some of that is my sort of feelings about class divide, and then, you know, some of it's from my own experiences. And then, of course, some of it's just me exploring that topic in fantastical ways.

SHAPIRO: You said you identify with the idea of loving a society more than the society loves you back, and I wonder if that also applies to the world of science fiction and fantasy. Like, you grew up reading novels that you really had to kind of search to find yourself in. And despite the challenges, you've committed to finding a place for yourself in this world that maybe didn't initially welcome you with open arms.

ROANHORSE: Yeah. You know, I do have to say that the science fiction and fantasy community in general has been pretty kind to me. I've been very lucky. But there have been women of color, people like N.K. Jemisin and others, who had to go through those doors before me. And they certainly were not as welcome, and they bore the brunt of being the first. And so I owe them, you know, everything positive that I've - you know, my acceptance into the community is really on their shoulders. So I just have to shoutout the elders in the field as well, the women of color who have paved the way.

SHAPIRO: Rebecca Roanhorse's new novel is called "Black Sun." Thank you for talking with us about it.

ROANHORSE: Oh, thank you.

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