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“I want to read writing that is committed to taking me somewhere I couldn’t have gone without it, writing that fosters emotion that only becomes familiar once I see it on the page.” – Kola Heyward-Rotimi

 

I was incredibly grateful to be given the opportunity to chat with someone I consider one of the most talented writers working in SFF today. Although I know he’ll blush to hear me say that, it’s frankly an understatement of the skill at work in his genre-splicing, politically-engaged short fiction (and unpublished novels), as well as the the generous heart behind his activism and scholarly contributions. If you’ve never read any of Heyward-Rotimi’s short fiction before, consider this your wake up call! If you love found fiction, or writing like Susanna Clarke’s that blends the academic with the fantastical, you may want to start with one of my favourites, “An Exploration of Nichole Otieno’s Early Filmography (1232-1246)” at Strange Horizons. Or, if you prefer climate fiction that speculates on Earth’s potential future, try, “E. I.” at Reckoning. For a full list of Heyward-Rotimi’s publications, including his non-fiction, visit his website.

Heyward-Rotimi’s influences range from the oeuvres of genre titans like William Gibson and Samuel R. Delaney, to contemporary popular culture trends and the rise of social media.


1. I know you very well at this point, but many of our readers may be hearing about you and your work for the first time. Could you introduce yourselves to them?

I’m a writer and researcher based in San Francisco. Stanford pays me, and I read and write in return. Reading and writing is what I’ve done for a long time but at least now I’ve got a stipend to show for it. You can find my short stories in a couple places, most recent ones in Reckoning and Logic(s).

 

2. As a scholar who works on what one might call speculative landscapes in the real world, there’s a degree to which your work always feels infused with your research. Because of the kind of work you do, it’s always seemed to me that your fiction and non-fiction aren’t so much distinct categories, but instead part of a continuum of how you think through your ideas. This comes through not only in stories like, “An Exploration of Nichole Otieno’s Early Filmography (1232-1246)” in Strange Horizons, which is framed as an academic piece itself, but in your exploration of digitally-mediated landscapes in works like “E.I.” It’s a big question, but I’m interested in hearing more about how your fiction and your academic interests intersect.


I want to run hot thread through every thought and emotion I have ever held for as long as I care to weave the pattern.

 

When I read for my academic projects, I hope for the pleasures I get from fiction. I hope for good prose no matter what. That means s-A colour photograph of Kola Heyward-Rotimi. Kola is a Black man in his mid twenties, with pierced ears and a warm smile. He has short hair and a trim beard and is wearing a grey t-shirt and necklace. He is standing inside a room with beige walls and warm lighting. There is an indoor potted palm behind him.omething different for everybody, but for me, good prose is using language to make worlds of language. I want to read writing that is committed to taking me somewhere I couldn’t have gone without it, writing that fosters emotion that only becomes familiar once I see it on the page, and I’ve found these qualities both in fiction and non-fiction, within the academy and outside it. Honestly, I’ve found it more in fiction, and outside the academy, but I respect most all modes of writing. I approach them differently.

My academic research is driven by similar questions as my fiction, like How does the advent of virtual space interact with ways of being? What imaginaries/aspirations fuel the construction of our built environment? School asks me to show commitment, a sustained focus on these questions, and to absorb the conversations (“academic discourses”) that speak most directly to them.

My fiction takes the methods and things I learn from my research, and depending on how they fit with one another, fiction allows for the span of it to breathe. Letting things that I learn settle into shapes that flow as they’d like. I want to run hot thread through every thought and emotion I have ever held for as long as I care to weave the pattern, and fiction gets me halfway there. A few weeks ago, I sat on a bench I’ve visited for the past two years and bent myself over my diary split down the spine. I hoped someone would pass me writing so that I’d have to hide the pages, bring them close to my chest. That’s what writing good fiction should feel like, that thrill you get when you do something urgent and important to you, so that even if nobody else cares, your work is something to covet.

 

3. Queerness and identity permeate your work, as does what we might call an activist imperative. When it comes to the idea of the “queer” in the real world, there’s some contention these days over whether it is truly radical, or whether it’s been entirely co-opted by mainstream capitalism. I was wondering if you could speak to this.

I’ve been feeling inadequate with how I use words in general, which means I’m bound to be unhappy with however I respond to this, but the first part of my answer is that there is no one way to interpret queerness. Which I hope isn’t a controversial statement—I’m far from saying anything special. Queerness is absolutely radical and it is a corporate PR strategy and it is a great way to sell books if you pinkwash the author and blurb just right. But I’ll hold on the cynicism for a second—queerness can be a lifelong project of killing the cop on patrol in your body, the one who hurts you when nobody else is available to, who might speak and act for you. There’s a little man inside you dressed in uniform, and he’s making sure you’re never really at home. We must be grateful for the parts of queerness that remain a cop-killing project.

 

Queerness can be a lifelong project of killing the cop on patrol in your body, the one who hurts you when nobody else is available to, who might speak and act for you. There’s a little man inside you dressed in uniform, and he’s making sure you’re never really at home. We must be grateful for the parts of queerness that remain a cop-killing project.

 

Then there’s the other end of “queerness” that is vastly more disappointing, the one you can encounter by visiting your local commercial bookstore franchise. You know what I’m talking about because we’ve ranted to each other about this for like, hours, but it’s queerness as a shiny magnet for selling a product. It’s even clearer on the pitching-side of the publication process than the frontend, where authors ask for literary agent/publishing imprint attention by presenting their books as a list of tropes on the site formerly known as Twitter, when you want to know what themes and stories a book holds and the answer you get is that it has “gay representation” or something. By now it should be accepted that the “representation” strategy is a dead end, one of the reasons being that it assumes visibility is the same as agency. Representation must be paired with systemic change for it to do some good. In commercial publishing though, as a marketing tactic, queerness can’t function with change in mind, even if it is dressed in radical catchphrases stolen from the cop-killing side of the spectrum.

You mention that “queerness and identity permeate [my] work,” and this is probably because that’s my reality. (Same for everyone else, though some forms of “identity,” using monumental amounts of violence, can maintain a delusion of base truth, a.k.a. normalcy.) It would be much harder to omit queerness and Blackness in my work than just to have it there. That’s my baseline, which opens the work up to play with all the many ways these things can manifest. “My story has gay shit” is obvious. The more interesting part is “What’s the gay shit getting up to?”

 

4. So many of your works engage with time and history in one way or another. In particular, your work tends to question the pristine nature of time and the way pockets of culture (think: 70s or 80s culture[s], contemporary TikTok culture[s], or visions of the future) elide into one another. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Why do you find yourself so attracted to these composite futures?

Simplest way to put it is the future doesn’t exist, and the present is an accumulation of the past. The contemporary is the most recent addition to a massive, impossible wreckage, centuries and centuries of dead promises that shape our every living moment. At least this is what the writers most influential to my understanding of time believed, namely Mark Fisher and Jacques Derrida. I have beef with a lot of their positions and their development of “hauntology” in general, but what has really stuck with me from their work is the lingering presence of dead projects, dreams, futures. We can write the shape of the 21st century as a reckoning with the collapse and reorientation of worldmaking paradigms—think of African decolonialist efforts, the end of the U.S.S.R., May ‘68, or the seismic aftereffects of liberation movements in my local area of San Francisco. Do such things ever end, or fail? Real life doesn’t wrap neatly into conclusions. There’s no “The End.” Through my stories, I explore the implications of a non-linear present, the dead things that leap up through us and the things that beam in from our imaginary futures.

 

The contemporary is the most recent addition to a massive, impossible wreckage, centuries and centuries of dead promises that shape our every living moment.

 

I also have a fondness for the 60s and 70s. Some of my favorite science fiction and fantasy came out then, and there was such a wacky energy going on pretty much anywhere you look. There is a terror I find in mid-20th century America, a very familiar terror, that I can’t articulate super well other than writing around it. An international awareness too. With the recent organizing against Palestinian genocide, the tactics, symbols, and words of our predecessors re-establish themselves. It’s horrific that we still fight the same mechanisms of death, but I find optimism in that we have a past to learn from, to collaborate with.

 

5. What are you working on currently and what ideas have you most excited?

My main project right now is a novel about experimental artists living in the Bay Area, a week in the life of a hack getting overpaid for commissions. It’s been a challenge to draft, mainly because it’s close to my home and life, and I’m coming to realize that if I want to keep my love for writing, I need to feel the weight and brightness of every word I put down. Like that hot thread I mentioned before. I can’t afford to draft something that doesn’t feel true to the drive compelling me to write it, so I’m taking my time and learning how to let the story speak.

This summer I’m aiming to revise my last book as well, about social media influencers navigating a real estate conspiracy spanning Los Angeles, Shanghai, and a new city in Nigeria. There’s a short story I’m hoping to wrap up in-between drafting and revising the books, which would be great to publish. It’s been too long since I’ve put something out!

There are too many ideas, stories, people that have got me excited right now. First off, Renee Gladman has been one of my favorite authors I started reading this year. I began 2024 with her book To After That (Toaf), and I’m hoping to make it through the rest of her work over the coming months. She’s got such a magical way with words! Gladman’s stories sit between novel and poem. You trip through thickets of beautiful sentences that meditate on the experience of city living. I’m reading her Ravicka series right now, about a fictional city and the people that make their homes in it. Thanks to Sofia Samatar and Kate Zambreno’s book Tone for introducing Gladman to me. Samatar is one of the best fantasy authors writing today, so I knew Gladman would hit hard.

By the end of Maya Binyam’s debut novel, Hangman, her storytelling and its constant heartbeat of dread forced me to sit upright. That book has such a rhythm, I can play it in my head. I am always appreciative of a book that values what’s unsaid, the negative space, just as much as the written word, and Hangman is a masterful example. I won’t say anything more because I think it’s better just to read it.

I’m excited about the vividness of your writing and the much-deserved success that it’s receiving. The Erstwhile Tyler Kyle was a trip I won’t forget, like I was being forced to watch a vivisection. I can’t wait to get my hands on whatever you’re drafting next.

 

About Kola Heyward-Rotimi

Kola Heyward-Rotimi is a fiction writer and researcher of urban and digital environments. His speculative fiction places people in-between magic and technology, then follows how they live. He is a PhD student in Stanford’s Modern Thought and Literature program, where he has been studying the aesthetic and sociopolitical implications of smart city megaprojects in postcolonial countries. Kola’s work has been in Strange Horizons, Reckoning, FIYAH, and others. Find him at www.kolaheywardrotimi.com, @KolaHR on X/Twitter, or on a very long walk.

Header image by Kola Heyward-Rotimi.

Steve Hugh Westenra

Steve is a trans author of fantasy, science fiction, and horror (basically, if it’s weird he writes it). He grew up on the eldritch shores of Newfoundland, Canada, and currently lives and works in (the slightly less eldritch) Montreal. He holds advanced degrees in Russian Literature, Medieval Studies, and Religious Studies. As a reader, Steve’s tastes are eclectic. He enjoys anything that could be called speculative, including fantasy, sci-fi, and horror, but has been known to enjoy a good mystery as well as literary fiction. He’s always excited to try something new or that pushes boundaries, particularly from marginalized authors. Steve is passionate about queer representation, Late Antiquity, and spiders.

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