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In Conversation with Zelda Knight and Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald

Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora is the first volume in a series which brings together the work of writers from various parts of the Black Atlantic. The collection’s dense richness of imagination, setting, story and vision compelled me to interview the two editors Zelda Knight, who is also the publisher at Aurelia Leo, and Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald to find out more about how this distinctive title came into being.

Zelda Knight, photo courtesy of ALTON STRUPP/COURIER JOURNAL

Akilah White: Who came up with the idea of doing the Dominion anthology and why?

Zelda Knight: Dominion came about due to a recent tragedy in my life. On July 16, 2019, my family survived a grease fire at our home. I sustained flash burns down my left arm and across my face, and my mother suffered full-thickness (3rd degree) burns on around 25% of her body. We all survived, but the scars from the accident and the trauma remain. After a near-death experience, one begins reexamining their life.

Around the time I was recovering, I came across The 1619 Project, directed by Nikole Hannah-Jones, as well as The Year of Return sponsored by the Ghanaian government marking 500 years of the Black Atlantic here in the United States. As a Historian, Pan-Africanist, and Black publisher, I thought I should find a way to contribute to these historical movements with a speculative twist.

While scrolling through ArtStation to find artwork for one of my literary magazines, I stumbled across the Afrofuturistic artwork, Vagrant knight, by Brazillian illustrator Henrique DLD. I knew I had a good concept and stellar artwork ready to go, but I needed a cornerstone for the eventual project. I tapped my soon-to-be co-editor Oghenechovwe, whose short story, “Ife-Iyoku,” I’d published before. The rest is quite literally history as we came together to create a truly unique anthology to share with the world!

AW: How did you decide that doing a Kickstarter campaign was the best path to publication?

ZK: Publishing is a low margin, high stakes world. You can sink thousands into a project and not “earn out.” And, because I was recovering economically and physically at the time, I knew there was no way I could do this project justice without seeking outside funds.

AW: The open call on Horror Tree was an eye-opening find. Most of the sub-genres listed (Rococoa, Dieselfunk, Sword and Soul, Steamfunk) were entirely new terms to me, even though I had read works that likely fitted into one or more. What is the importance, as you see it, of consciously naming and developing these categories as a part of the science fiction tradition?

ZK: People sometimes get nervous around the word Black or of Blackness in general. That’s because words have power, and Blackness is a political statement of global solidarity just as much as it is an identity for some. Black speculative fiction has its own trajectory outside, and within, the broader literary traditions of horror, science fiction, fantasy, and so on. So, it’s important to name it what it is because it allows readers and writers to trace the history of these genres outside of a Eurocentric lens. Scholar M. Haynes does just this in his wonderful piece Black Speculative Fiction, which does a great job defining its genres and their roots.

However, sometimes it’s better to read something or interact with it to understand it. For that, I highly recommend people search the works of Black spec-fic’s primer publisher MVMedia, LLC, among others. Funny enough, their hosting “The Summer of Sword and Soul” with some works you probably came across before!

AW: What led you to decide on this question “What is the legacy and the future of Africa and the African Diaspora?” as the anthology’s theme?

ZK: I originally had an anthology of alternate history in mind. So, the question was meant to prompt writers to take historical events, groups, and the like and place them into speculative futures. After talking with my co-editor, we went with a different angle. But, the question was still relevant so we kept it for the open call!

AW: Did you get a lot of submissions? How easy or difficult was it to arrive at the final selection, in light of the range of genres and writers included of the Black Atlantic?

ZK: Whoo whee! I’m used to reading a crush of submissions as a solo publisher, but Dominion’s open call was extra stressful because I could feel the weight of what we were trying to do (and hopefully accomplished). Not having a theme as much as an open question meant we ended up getting an entire spectrum of work from places I sometimes forget the Diaspora ended up. Overall, it was really tough, and paying them all was always at the back of my mind. There’s some we let go I feel bad about, but in the end, I’m happy with what we selected!

Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald: I have a level of experience when it comes to slush reading, having slush read for three mags that paid the SFWA pro rates and got submissions in the hundreds and even thousands; Strange Horizons, Podcastle, and Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores. This was a bit more taxing however as I was working in the role of acquiring editor. It wasn't an easy weight to bear, having to decide the stories that could fly. I had to constantly worry if I was doing the right thing, if the stories I selected were the ones that needed to be heard or seen, and dealing with the wealth of high quality material that came from writers both in the continent and in the diaspora. These were things I didn't really have to worry about, as a slush reader where someone else made the decisions. All in all, it was an enlightening process, that taught me a lot about what goes on behind the scenes with magazines and one which I believe will make me have a better mindset and understanding of the whole publishing process.

Photo courtesy of Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald

AW: The cover illustration by Henrique Dld and design by Maria Spada are truly fantastic. What was that selection process like? Were there other candidates for the cover otherwise?

ZK: When it comes to illustrated covers, I find a piece that speaks to me and hunt down the illustrator! I couldn’t imagine a cover more perfect than Henrique’s, and Maria really took it to the next level with her graphic design skills. So, no one else was in the running, and when people see Volume 2’s, they’ll know why I don’t try to tempt myself with multiple options. There’s so much great art out there!

AW: In light of the anthology’s theme, what do you envision as the Dominion series’ legacy in speculative fiction and/or literature in English as a whole?

ZK: I envision Dominion being taught in ivory towers as a primer on contemporary African and African Diasporic literature. At least, that’s what the academic in me wants. My more public facing self hopes people take it as a challenge to build their own. Let’s keep expanding Black speculative fiction together! And, if Dominion is passed down to new generations from old bookshelves, that would make me extra happy too!

EOD: it is my fervent hope that the anthology will encourage and give Black writers a safe space and an addition platform to the existing few, one that embraces their unique voice and amplified it for the world to see. To this end, we tried to be more receptive to stories that wouldn't necessarily have a home in other venues. Some of these themes contain narratives that are considered rather strong but are a valid recounting of Black and African cultural experiences. It is my fervent hope that writers will be encouraged by the anthology, to keep writing and telling, and sharing these stories of blackness and Africaness.

AW: Is it too early to ask for any details about volume two? I’m caught between my eagerness to read more works from the authors in volume one and a greediness for information about what could be on the horizon.

ZK: Volume 2 is still pretty hush-hush for now but know some fan favourites have already been invited to expand their worlds or create new ones for Volume 2! The cover art is bomb by a Ghanaian artist we got in touch with from another project. And, were hoping to have some more household names in it as well.

EOD: As you might have surmised from what my co-editor said, volume 2 is in the works. I'll say this much, that it promises to be even bigger and better. And we will pull no punches in bringing as much Black and African richness to readers, as volume one did. We are also working on other similar projects to the Dominion Anthology, ones that offer opportunities to Black and African writers and that will delight all considers of diverse literature.

Read Akilah White's review

of DOMINION here.


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