The Father of Sword & Soul and an Elated Author talk Sword & Soul, Steamfunk and Racism in Role-Playing: Charles Saunders Interviews Balogun!
Recently, I had the honor of being interviewed by one of my idols – Charles R. Saunders – the father of Sword and Soul and creator of the Imaro and Dossouye series of novels, as well as the incredible Pulp novel, Damballa.
The interview – along with other awesome blog posts, interviews, book reviews and other Blacknificence – was originally posted on Charles’ website at http://www.charlessaunderswriter.com/.
Balogun Ojetade is the Master Instructor and Technical Director of the Afrikan Martial Arts Institute, a school that teaches indigenous, West African martial arts. Born and raised in Chicago, he was educated at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Columbia College in Chicago.
At Columbia, he majored in Film, with a concentration in screenwriting. Balogun wears many hats, besides his career as a martial-arts instructor: freelance journalist, screenwriter, film director, film producer, fight choreographer and actor. And he is excellent at all these endeavors.
During the short time I’ve known him, Balogun has made a great impression on me. He could be considered a Renaissance man, but given his love for all things African, “Blackaissance Man” is a better tag. As you read the interview below, you’ll see what I mean.
Q: When and how did you become interested in fantasy and science fiction?
I became interested in fantasy and science fiction as a little boy of no more than five years old at the feet of my mother. My mother was – and still is – a huge fan of the television shows Get Smart and The Wild, Wild West. Get Smart was an American comedy television series that satirized the secret agent genre. It was a great science fiction show that I enjoyed. The Wild, Wild West – which incorporated classic Western elements with elements of the espionage thriller, science fiction/alternate history, a bit of horror and plenty of humor – is one of my favorite shows and greatly influenced my writing. The Wild, Wild West would be classified as Steampunk today – one of the genres I enjoy writing.
Q: Speaking of another genre, you’ve got a Sword and Soul novel coming out very soon called Once Upon A Time In Afrika. Where did the idea for the novel come from, and what’s it about? (Full disclosure: I was privileged to write the Introduction to this novel.)
Once Upon A Time In Afrika is about Akinkugbe – a young man from the Oyo Empire – who enters a martial arts tournament to fight for the hand of the woman he loves. The best warriors from across the continent of Onile (“Afrika”) have gathered to do battle, unaware that a threat to the entire continent is heading their way.
The idea came from my study of – and initiation into – the traditional priesthoods and warrior societies of the Yoruba. The customs intrigue me. How certain chiefs and warriors wear certain clothing and carry certain weapons and other trappings of status and those things carry deep meaning. Traditional people do not just throw on any old garment or wear a random headpiece. Their gear tells a story. That is what sparked the idea for “Once Upon A Time In Afrika” and the story just grew from there.
Q: Is the title a play on Once Upon A Time In The West?
The title is not only a play on “Once Upon A Time in the West”, but also on “Once Upon A Time in Mexico” and “Once Upon A Time in China”. I am a fan of all three films and figured it was time to tell the “Once Upon A Time in Afrika” story, which I hope to one day produce and direct as a feature film. In fact, the script is already written.
Q: When you first started reading fantasy and science fiction, were you already aware there were at least a few black writers in the field? Did you feel alone as a black person in reading this type of fiction, or were some of your black friends also into it?
I knew there had to be Black writers out there. It’s funny; I read an article you wrote in 1987 in Dragon Magazine #122. The article – which I still have – is entitled “Out of Africa” and is about creatures from African Folklore. When I read it, I said, “Man, this white dude has done his research, but one day, I am going to write about Africa and it wondrous creatures, history and artifacts so my people can get it from a brother.” It’s funny now…and kind of sad that I had no clue you were a Black man until about four years ago. And I did not know Samuel Delaney was Black until about two years ago.
I never felt alone in reading science fiction and fantasy as my friends were also into fantasy, science fiction and horror. Ninety-percent of my friends collected comic books and played role-playing games and ninety-nine percent of them were Black, so I felt right at home.
Q: Whoa, I almost had an identity crisis for a minute there. Moving on … from your viewpoint, what is the current state of Sword and Soul?
I see Sword and Soul growing tremendously in popularity this year and especially in 2013, with the release of Griots II: Sisters of the Spear. A lot of people – authors and readers alike – are very excited about its release.
Also, when I posted the cover art for “Once Upon A Time in Afrika” people loved it. The positive reaction and eagerness for the release of the book is incredible.
Finally, as a former teacher of English and Creative Writing, I turned my students on to your work and the work of Milton Davis and the students – many who were reluctant readers – fell in love with Sword and Soul, a testament to the power of the genre and to your – and Milton’s – Blacknificent talent.
Q: Thanks for the kind words, Balogun. Moving on …a new subgenre has sprung up over the past few years. It’s called “steamfunk,” and it’s a black variation of “steampunk,” which is itself a recent development. Is steamfunk to steampunk what Sword and Soul is to sword and sorcery?
Yes, Steamfunk is a philosophy or style of writing that combines the African and / or African American culture and approach to life with that of the steampunk philosophy and / or steampunk fiction.
Like Sword and Soul, Steamfunk has a rhythm; an aesthetic; a spirituality that differs enough from the genre from which it sprang to be its own genre, or at a minimum, a subgenre. Sword and Soul is not Sword and Sorcery in Black-face. It has a different feel to it, as does Steamfunk in relation to Steampunk.
Q: You’ve made your own contribution to steamfunk: “Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman,” based on the black woman who helped more than 300 slaves escape from the South in the years before the Civil War. How did this idea come to you, and how does your version of Tubman’s exploits differ from what happened in real-life history?
Harriet Tubman is one of my idols and represents the epitome of a freedom fighter. I originally researched Harriet Tubman’s history for a poem I wrote about her and found out some incredible things about her, such as the fact that not one of the people after her head ever gave the same description of her as someone else. She seemed to be able to change her size and appearance.
She was also incredibly strong. Once, as an elderly woman, she refused to leave her seat on a train. It took five men – after breaking her arm – to remove her. And it is well known that she had psychic abilities.
These stories sparked my imagination and I decided to write a story about Harriet Tubman as a person who possessed abilities beyond normal human beings and that there were others like her – some good; some not so good. I then began to research the time period and the characters and story came to me.
In “Moses: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman”, Harriet battles and bonds with famous – and infamous figures in history. I have combined real events and twisted them with the paranormal and anachronistic technology. Harriet Tubman is still a freedom fighter, but she is also an expert in hand-to-hand combat and possesses powers that make her one of the greatest – and deadliest – opponents of those who would oppress, subjugate and destroy those weaker than themselves.
Q: Do you have any other steamfunk projects on the go? I know you’ll have a story in the upcoming steamfunk anthology that you and Milton Davis are co-editing.
I have written several Steamfunk stories, including “Nandi”, a story about a woman who is a detective in an America in which Africans purchased California and set up a free state for Blacks, First Nation / Native Americans and the oppressed Chinese. Steam technology is not discovered until the mid 1900s. The story takes place in the 70s and combines elements of Blaxploitation films with Steampunk.
Other stories include “Black Caesar: The Stone Ship Rises”, which takes place on the high seas; “The Hand of Sa-Seti”, a Sword and Soul / Steamfunk mash-up and “Rite of Passage: Blood & Iron”, a tale of the legendary John Henry.
As co-editor of the “Steamfunk” anthology, I am contributing a story in which Harriet Tubman does battle with Peter Pan.
Finally, Milton and I co-produced “Rite of Passage: Initiation” a short film I wrote based on his short story, “Rite of Passage”. We plan to use the short film to generate interest and funding to make the larger project, which is a television or webseries, also based on the “Rite of Passage” story. “Rite of Passage: Initiation”, which is about Harriet Tubman initiating her pupil as a Conductor on the Underground Railroad, is complete and will premiere August 4, 2012 at the Black Science Fiction Film Festival.
Q: You, Milton, and several others are in the process of developing an African-inspired fantasy role-playing game called Ki-Khanga. When did the inspiration for this venture hit you, and how is the game coming?
I have wanted to create an African-inspired role-playing game since I was twelve years old. I finally came up with a system for the game about six years ago, which I presented to Milton Davis last year and we have been developing it together ever since.
Ki-Khanga is coming along well. Milton and I have developed the countries on the continent of Ki-Khanga, an alternate Africa, and we are writing stories set in each country to make players more familiar with the world and to spark ideas for game-play.
We have play-tested the game and have gotten positive feedback, which we are using to further develop the game into a fun and unique experience that fans of role-playing games, fantasy and Sword and Soul, as well as African history will love. After one more local play-test, we will play-test the game a few times in other cities before we prepare for the game’s release.
Q: How did you and your group develop the Ki-Khanga setting? How much of it is derived from real-life sources, and how much came from your imaginations?
Milton and I have met several times over the course of a year to discuss – and work on – building the Ki-Khanga world. We took the continent of Africa as our foundation and then made things quite a bit more fantastic. Ki-Khanga is a bit smaller than real-life Africa and only has sixteen countries.
After naming the countries and creating their governments, economic systems, religious systems and the like, we created a history for the continent itself and how the fantastic creatures, fearsome monsters and powerful magic all came to be as a result of the wrath of the Creator. How He struck the continent with His axe and how the destruction in his wake was given life by His wrath and by the nurturing of his equally powerful wife.
Q: Who, besides Milton, are the others involved in the development of Ki-Khanga?
A: The other people working on Ki-Khanga are Stanley J. Weaver (“Standingo”), an extraordinary artist whose works have graced the covers and interiors of several novels and comic books; and Eugene Randolph Young (“Eurayo”), another Blacktastic artist who is an art instructor and artist for role-playing games and comic books. Stan is creating the visuals for the cultures in Ki-Khanga and Eugene is creating the creatures and further developing the maps, which are drawn by Milton. Milton is co-producer, co-creator and publisher of the game.
Q: For the record, Stan did the cover art for Once Upon A Time in Afrika. Meanwhile, I know the Ki-Khanga concept will ultimately involve more than just the game. What sort of spin-offs are in the works?
We will release an anthology before the game is released to build interest in the Ki-Khanga world. This anthology will be interwoven into the game itself also.
As a screenwriter and director, I am always looking at things and seeing how they can be developed into a film, so I have been working on a screenplay for Ki-Khanga as well. I believe that the release of a Sword and Soul role-playing game, followed by a Sword and Soul movie will send the popularity of Sword and Soul into the stratosphere.
Q: About 10 years ago, there was an African-based game out called Nyambe. Would you regard Nyambe as a predecessor to Ki-Khanga?
“Nyambe” wasn’t actually a role-playing game. It was a supplement for Dungeons and Dragons. Ki-Khanga is a stand-alone role-playing game with its own unique system of play and a unique random generation system that utilizes playing cards instead of dice.
Q: Martial arts are associated with almost every place on the planet, except Africa. There’s karate and kung-fu from Asia; modern boxing, which originated in England; mixed martial arts, which comes from North America; Greco-Roman wrestling (origin obvious) and so on. But Africa has indigenous martial-arts traditions of its own, which you have studied and Incorporated into your work. What are some of those traditions, and what can be done to make the rest of the world more aware of them?
If you go to Africa and ask for the local African martial arts school, they will send you to a Tae Kwon Do or Judo school because in Africa, the martial arts are referred to as “wrestling”. To wrestle – by African standards – means to put someone on their back, belly or side, thus rendering them more susceptible to a finishing technique. This is achieved by any means, thus, if I shoot my opponent in the neck with my long-bow and he falls, I have wrestled him by African standards.
Some of the names of these systems, which all operate on the same principles, with slight variations in strategy and / or application, include:
Laamb (Senegal) – also called Lutte Senegalaise avec frappe (Senegalese fighting with strikes); Ijakadi (Nigeria / Yorubaland); Nsanga (Angola) – also called Sanguar; and Mgba (Nigeria / Igboland).
Q: Are African martial arts in danger of becoming extinct in Africa itself? If so, what can be done to prevent that from happening?
A: No, African martial arts are not in danger of becoming extinct in Africa. They are an intrinsic part of the traditions of the people. In Senegal, Laamb is the number one sport, followed by soccer. The real danger is that Africans in the Diaspora (i.e. African-Americans, Black Brits, Afro-Brazilians, Afro-Cubans and the like) are forgetting, or have already forgotten the martial arts of their ancestors and feel Asian martial arts are the ultimate expression of martial arts. This can be prevented by making more African martial arts movies.
People believe in what they see on television and in film. When Steven Seagal — a master of the Japanese art of Aikido — came out with his Above the Law movie, Aikido schools around the world increased in membership by 400%1 Similar growth happened in Kung-Fu schools in the ’70s; Ninjitsu schools in the ’80s; and now in Mixed Martial Arts schools — all because of television shows and movies like Kung-Fu, Enter Wm Dragon, Enter the Nina, The Octagon, and The Ultimate Fighter.
A couple of African martial arts films would inspire many of our people to train. Of course, making films is expensive, which is why, until my production company produced A Single Link, there weren’t any such films made. A Sword and Soul film would be the best setting in which to showcase the African martial arts.
Q: As we can see from the above, you’re into a lot of projects, all of which are valuable and worthwhile. How do you manage to spread yourself out without spreading yourself thin?
A: Being the father of eight children, ranging in age from 25 – 4, has made me very efficient with time. I have a strong work ethic and I love the creative process, so I enjoy what I do. I also have a very patient and understanding wife, who is an artist herself – a photographer – so she allows me the time and space to do what I do. Of course, she knows that when I blow up, she will be sitting pretty, so her allowance is a wise move.
Q: How do you envision future participation of blacks in science fiction and fantasy? I’m old enough to remember when the only visible presence in the field was Lieutenant Uhura on the original Star Trek series. We’ve come a long way since then. Do we still have a long way to go?
A: Participation of Blacks in science fiction and fantasy is growing rapidly. There are over 2000 members on the Black Science Fiction Society website and our Facebook group, State of Black Science Fiction 2012, has nearly 400 members and has only existed since February, 2012.
We have many authors, animators, film directors and artists. Of course, we have a long way to go; however, most of us have stopped waiting for Hollywood to discover us, which is a step in the right direction.
For those that still think we cannot make it without Hollywood (I include major publishing companies in this), Street Lit and Nollywood prove otherwise. Admittedly, a lot of the work coming from these outlets is not the best, however, if we take the same hustle and grind mentality that they have and combine that with our superior work, we will be just as successful or more so.
It’s pretty obvious that we will be seeing a lot of multi-media creative output in the future from the Blackaissance Man. For more information on Balogun’s endeavors, check out his website: http://chroniclesofharriet.com, and his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ Afrikan.Martial.Arts. To see his seminal essay about the role of race in role-playing games, go to: http://chroniclesofharriet.com/2012/01/19/racism-in-role-playing!