When not teaching humanities at the Bay School in San Francisco, Berkeley author Ayize Jama-Everett is hard at work on the final installment of his superhero prose saga. At a time when masked avengers and super-villains dominate the entertainment industry, Jama-Everett has put his own distinctive stamp on the genre in three well-received novels: The Liminal People, The Liminal War and The Entropy of Bones.
Jama-Everett, 41, will speak at the Black Comix Arts Festival to be held Jan. 17 and 18 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and at the San Francisco Public Library. BCAF is part of the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations in San Francisco.
Reached by phone, Jama-Everett talked about BCAF, his own writing career and the future of super heroics.
“It’s a great time to be a person of color in comics,” he said. “We just want to hype that and give people the space to display their work.”
Asked how BCAF differs from other media conventions, Jama-Everett said: “If you’re a black guy and go to the comic bookstore, there’s always one or two other black guys there. That doesn’t mean you guys ever talk. [BCAF] is the place where all the geeks of color get to come together and hang out and not just listen to great panels and pick up great work, but also talk to each other about the stuff they’re interested in and why they’re into it.”
Jama-Everett grew up in Harlem, and comics played a crucial role in his learning to read.
“When I was a kid, they thought I was developmentally delayed because I wasn’t into reading very much,” he said. “Well, that wasn’t true. I wasn’t interested in reading what was being presented in the classroom.”
When he was in danger of being held back a grade, his uncle intervened.
“He just bought me a bunch of comics and threw them at me. He was like, ‘I’ll buy you more when you can tell me what they’re about. ‘”
The comics did the trick, and soon Jama-Everett was reading far above grade level.
He eventually attended high school in New Hampshire at Proctor Academy and studied in France his senior year. It was there he developed a fascination with Morocco, where he later lived for a number of years, while also traveling through Africa and Asia.
Jama-Everett received degrees from Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union and the New College of California. He taught religion and psychology at Starr King School for the Ministry, and worked as a therapist at the College Preparatory School. He has also worked at Catholic Charities and the Alameda County Juvenile Hall.
It was when working with homeless youth that he developed his interest in pursuing a Masters of Divinity degree.
“When you’re dealing with street kids and kids whose lives are put on the line on a daily basis, death becomes a constant companion, if you will. Watching kids create rituals around the death of their friends, their parents or other loved ones, you see a type of theology there.”
That interest in theology carries over into Jama-Everett’s fiction. The Liminal People and The Liminal War follow Taggert, a psychic healer/assassin, as he tries to untangle himself from the deadly influence of Nordeen, his mentor and father-figure. The Entropy of Bones is something of a spin-off, focused on Chabi, a teen whose super-powered martial arts training brings her to the unwanted attention of malevolent entities known as The Alters.
Without illustrations, the novels are dependent on the energy of Jama-Everett’s prose, yet they offer plenty of action, suspense, and super heroics. They are unusual in the diversity of their characters, their use of African-American history and their exploration of faith.
Each of Jama-Everett’s novel is published by Small Beer Press. Before signing with the Northampton, Mass. independent publisher, Jama-Everett self-published the first volume, rather than endure the frustrations of the standard submission process.
“I write what I want to write, and then I get notes back from editors saying, ‘Can you make your protagonist more likable?’ And I’m like, ‘No, dude. I can’t,’” he said.
World Fantasy Award-winning novelist and UC Riverside professor of creative writing Nalo Hopkinson will speak on a panel immediately preceding Jama-Everett’s at BCAF. Hopkinson was an early supporter of Jama-Everett’s work.
“To me, the ‘Liminal’ books feel both familiar in an almost old-school kind of way, and fresh,” Hopkinson wrote in an email. “It may be that I’ve been waiting a long time for science fiction to encompass work like this. Maybe it’s familiar because I’ve been imagining it for so long. Ayize’s writing manages to be simultaneously moral and disturbing. He continues to work almost singlemindedly at his craft, and I’m glad, because I want more.”
Jama-Everett says he sees genre narratives such as The Liminal People as a means of fostering healing among people long ignored by mainstream popular culture.
“There’s a big wound in not being seen, in having your reality not being represented in any way.”
Jama-Everett continued, “I feel that a lot of people of color in the United States walk through the world thinking that their approach to the world is out of sync because there’s no mirror for those things. If you can provide a mirror for people to say, ‘No, this is what it might look like if there was a black Captain America,’ showing that possibility for half a second does tremendous unconscious work for people to align themselves with the reality they are living.”
Working in collaboration with artist John Jennings, Jama-Everett is developing Box of Bones, a comics project unrelated to the Liminal People universe. “It’s like ‘Tale of the Crypt’ meets Black History.”
Asked whether he sees an end to the reign of superheroes on TV, in the movies and in literature, Jama-Everett said: “These are the icons of the United States. We’ve killed our gods and replaced them with superheroes. So they’re always going to be here. The question is what we do with them.”
Jama-Everett will talk from 3:10-4 p.m. Jan. 17 in the Koret Auditorium of the San Francisco Public Library Main Branch, 100 Larkin St.
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