I ’m not one of those people who say they did it on their own,” Sheree Renee Thomas readily admits. “There are always people along the way who gave you a chance.”
In Thomas’ case, start with her parents, who were big readers, their house in Memphis filled with books, including fantasy and science fiction. When Thomas one day reached for her parents’ copy of The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien, they took her to get her first library card, and the librarian at the Hollywood branch introduced Thomas to other science-fiction titles.
Thomas had early academic role models too: her teachers at Scenic Hills Elementary; her guidance counselors at Sheffield High, where she was valedictorian of her graduating class. But fantasy literature wasn’t her focus by the time Thomas entered Rhodes College. She was set on majoring in history. A course in creative nonfiction, however, led Thomas to take her own writing seriously, though she’d penned stories growing up. And it was another Rhodes teacher, in a class on slavery and literature, who introduced Thomas to the work of Octavia E. Butler — a class that Thomas termed “life-changing.” Butler was an African-American science-fiction writer in a world that Thomas mistook to be a solidly white (and largely male) preserve. Even Samuel R. Delany, one of Thomas’ favorites, came as a surprise when she discovered on a book’s dust jacket that Delany too is black. There were other Memphis mentors as well, such as David Earl Jackson at The Tri-State Defender newspaper; painter Larry Walker of B. Visible magazine, who published some of Thomas’ early work; another painter, Ephraim Urevbu, and his South Main art gallery, where Thomas once worked; writer and native Memphian Arthur Flowers; and University of Memphis historian Miriam DeCosta-Willis.
Writer Jamey Hatley did more than act as friend: She introduced Thomas to the names of the black women in publishing featured in an issue of Black Enterprise magazine. Thomas wrote to those women in publishing — “I was young! I didn’t even think about it,” Thomas says — and they kindly wrote Thomas back, in essence saying, “Next time you’re in New York …”
And New York is where Thomas lived and worked by the mid-1990s. She’d earned a spot as an “editorial floater” at Random House, where she learned every aspect of the publishing business at that giant company’s many imprints — editorial, production, art, marketing, and sales. She also moonlighted at Forbidden Planet, the independent bookstore in Manhattan that specializes in fantasy fiction and that attracts some noteworthy science fiction fans (among them, Michael Jackson) and science fiction writers (among them, Harlan Ellison).
Thomas at the time was thinking, “Amazing. I was like, wow!” But when she entered a Manhattan Barnes & Noble looking for a collection of writings, in one volume, of African-American fantasy writers, she came up empty-handed. So Thomas did something about it.
She put together her own collection of short stores and essays by other writers, and it was a groundbreaker: Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2001). It drew from a wide variety of authors, including Octavia Butler, Samuel Delany, and Amiri Baraka. It drew the attention of readers who’d never thought of W.E.B. Du Bois as a writer of fantasy fiction and who would never have admitted to liking science fiction. (“They were suddenly coming out of the woodwork!” Thomas says of that audience.)
Thomas followed that volume four years later with Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, which included such well-known writers as Walter Mosley. Both collections received the World Fantasy Award for Best Anthology, and Thomas hopes to have another volume of Dark Matter published to coincide with her first volume’s 20th anniversary.
Thomas has been more than an anthologist, though. She’s had her own short stories, poetry, essays, articles, and critical pieces published in literary journals and online magazines. Of the novel she’s working on now, she’d rather not say, but her Shotgun Lullabies: Stories & Poems appeared in 2010. And her own publishing business, Wanganegresse Press, brought out Arthur Flowers’ Mojo Rising: Confessions of the 21st Century Conjureman in 2001.
That word “conjureman” is a good example of what’s being tapped into here: writers from the African diaspora using folklore and myth to explore not only the past but what could lie ahead. And this past August, Thomas faced the future again.
“There is power in fantasy, especially in stories that urge us to face the impossible or find ways to survive,” Thomas wrote in an essay for The New York Times. It was an essay on the power of speculative fiction to address the problems of climate change and environmental injustice, and it appeared as part of the “Room for Debate” series at the Times. Thomas left New York and returned to Memphis a few years ago — just in time for her to participate in the community writing workshop conducted by Richard Bausch, who was then teaching creative writing at the University of Memphis. But she’ll be leaving Memphis again in the spring of 2015 to serve as the Lucille Geier Lakes writer-in-residence at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her goal: to introduce students to writers they may not be familiar with and from around the world but all of them under the umbrella term “speculative fiction.”
“Growing up, I was determined not to be a statistic,” Thomas says of the racial divide that too often still marks her hometown. It’s a divide that can be said of the city’s writing community as well.
“When I returned to Memphis,” she says, “I was also determined to stay connected to the writing life. I love Memphis, but, yes, the writing community can be kind of insular.”
But Thomas wants local writers of whatever color to keep in mind what she herself learned from the mentors she’s met. Those writers weren’t, in Thomas’ words, sitting there waiting for inspiration to strike. They were getting down to business: writing. They connected with other writers. They supported one another. They were serious about their work. For young writers in Memphis, Thomas adds the following advice: “Stay dedicated, network, reach out — and grow.”
And another thing: Be kind to your editors.
"There is power in fantasy, especially in stories that urge us to face the impossible."
“It takes good fortune to be in the hands of a good editor,” Thomas says. “And I just found out there’s something called Editor Appreciation Day! I thought back to all those people who read my work and published it and built my confidence. I thought of all those writers in the Dark Matter series who trusted me. Writing may be your life, but editors are the life blood.”
And as for the city of Thomas’ birth, its writers of color, its writers of science fiction:
“When I was growing up, it was too easy to hear, ‘You want to be a writer? There aren’t any writers from Memphis.’ That was so not true,” Thomas says.
“Yes, speculative fiction can be an eye-opener for a lot of people, because it looks at things from a different perspective. But coming from Memphis allows you to do just that.”