(Editor’s note: NonDoc’s Author Umbrella interviews up-and-coming writers, particularly authors of color, authors of disability and LGBTQ authors. The interviews have been transcribed and lightly edited for length and clarity.)
For this week’s Author Umbrella, I interviewed Kacen Callender, award-winning author of Hurricane Child, This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story, King and the Dragonflies, and Felix Ever After. Their novel Queen of the Conquered will be released by Orbit on Nov. 12. It is the first book in the Islands of Blood and Storm series.
An ambitious young woman with the power to control minds seeks vengeance against the royals who murdered her family, in a Caribbean-inspired fantasy world embattled by colonial oppression.
Sigourney Rose is the only surviving daughter of a noble lineage on the islands of Hans Lollik. When she was a child, her family was murdered by the islands’ colonizers, who have massacred and enslaved generations of her people—and now, Sigourney is ready to exact her revenge.
When the childless king of the islands declares that he will choose his successor from amongst eligible noble families, Sigourney uses her ability to read and control minds to manipulate her way onto the royal island and into the ranks of the ruling colonizers. But when she arrives, prepared to fight for control of all the islands, Sigourney finds herself the target of a dangerous, unknown magic.
Someone is killing off the ruling families to clear a path to the throne. As the bodies pile up and all eyes regard her with suspicion, Sigourney must find allies among her prey and the murderer among her peers… lest she become the next victim.
1) You’ve described Sigourney Rose as morally gray, someone who is both oppressed and the oppressor. What inspired and influenced you during the writing process as you shaped Sigourney’s character?
I was inspired by a lot of my own experiences. I often face discrimination as a black, queer, and trans person—but like Sigourney, I also have privileges that have allowed me into certain spaces that aren’t always accessible to other black, queer, and trans people.
I attended a private school on St. Thomas of the US Virgin Islands as a child and teen. When I left St. Thomas, it was to an overwhelmingly white college campus in Westchester, New York, and after graduation, I eventually found a position in publishing in New York City.
It was privilege that allowed me to attend a private school and college and allowed me to find an opportunity in one of the most expensive cities in the world, but in each experience, I was often the only black person in the room.
I wanted to explore the intersection of privilege and oppression and… look at the ways I am also contributing to [that] system of oppression – as so many of us [do] – just by being in a capitalistic society that we can’t escape.
I was ultimately inspired to write a realistic, honest, and vulnerable character that asks the reader if we are all, like Sigourney, morally gray people as well.
2) Queen of the Conquered is set in the Caribbean and explores slavery and colonial oppression. As someone from St. Thomas of the US Virgin Islands, what pitfalls did you seek to avoid that so frequently appear in more touristy versions of stories written about islands?
It can be easy to tell when a person who has chosen to write about the Caribbean isn’t actually from the islands. There’s an exoticism, without any depth or layer, to the setting, making the Caribbean seem like a fantasy itself. There’s rarely any mention to the history of colonialism and oppression that has shaped the islands and is something that we still see the effects of today.
For example, Haiti had the first successful slave rebellion and was severely punished for fighting for its freedom and still struggles economically without any acknowledgement from France for its part in the history and state of the island. Haiti is rarely celebrated as the site that sparked revolutions against slavery across the Western Hemisphere.
There are similar stories across all of the islands. Citizens in the US Virgin Islands still don’t have the right to vote for the President, and gentrification is seen in the privatization of beaches and buying of land from locals for tourism.
While the islands are absolutely beautiful, the greatest pitfall of writers who aren’t from the Caribbean is the focus on the beautiful setting without [examining the] history and ripple effects of colonization.
3) Sigourney Rose’s ability to read and control minds is fascinating and adds a new twist to political maneuvering. It also opens her up to the corrupting nature of power and self-betrayal. What lesson do you hope is the biggest take-away for Queen of the Conquered readers?
Thank you! There isn’t a lesson that I hope readers will learn from the book, but I do ask questions through Sigourney’s character.
I wanted to ask readers to consider if we are morally gray and perhaps even the villains by being complicit in a society and system we’re caught in that does depend on oppressing others.
I ask if it’s possible to rise to the top of the system to create change, or if we’re better suited burning down the oppressive system to start again.
4) As a nonbinary, award-winning author of several books about queer protagonists of color (Hurricane Child, This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story, King and the Dragonflies, and Felix Ever After), what would you like to see more of in the LGBTQ+ canon?
I would love to see more of (and write!) queer speculative books. There’s a ton out there already, and we’re getting more of it every year, so I’m excited to try my hand at joining in and writing some fantasy novels featuring queer and trans characters of color.
5) On Twitter, you posted a fascinating thread about a recent vacation in London. How did it differ from Philadelphia? And do you see London making a setting appearance in any of your future novels?
Okay, some observations in no particular order: It’s absolutely BEAUTIFUL here. Gorgeous nature intertwined with everything. pic.twitter.com/tItiasMRfn
— Kacen Callender – preorder Queen of the Conquered (@kacencallender) August 20, 2019
Thanks! I didn’t explore a huge section of London, so I don’t want to generalize my experience, but it was surprisingly pretty similar to Philadelphia in the sense of historic significance and the great diversity… and the plethora of amazing food!
It was different in the sheer number of people and size of the city. I do think London might make its way into a YA fantasy, adult fantasy and adult contemporary I’m in the middle of drafting now, so I’m happy I got a chance to visit.
6) It’s often said that authors draw from what they know when they write. Which character, out of all your books, do you see the most of yourself in?
This is such a hard question! I honestly can’t choose. I already talked a little about the ways my experiences influenced Sigourney Rose from Queen of the Conquered.
Caroline from Hurricane Child was based strongly on my experiences growing up on St. Thomas as someone who was isolated and bullied.
Nate from This Is Kind of an Epic Love Story was created out of my own fear of the vulnerability of falling in love.
King from King and the Dragonflies looks at my thoughts on the way my black and queer identities intersect.
Finally, Felix from Felix Ever After is also a black, queer, and trans person, and like me struggles with letting go of toxic and unhealthy relationships in favor of people who genuinely love and care about him. I think only because I’ve never seen another character who so strongly represents my identity and personality, I’ll have to choose Felix.
7) What elements of Queen of the Conquered do you think would best appeal to Oklahoma City readers?
Like all of the nation, there’s been a long difficult history with oppression and racism. I think the honest look at oppression will resonate with anyone who wants to reflect on how oppression has shaped our world and wants to consider the ways we all may contribute to oppression.