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Distorted Mirror: An Interview with Russell Nichols

In this issue, we're chatting with author Russell Nichols about his piece, "Man of Straw."


Russell Nichols is a speculative fiction writer and endangered journalist from Richmond, California. His story about a black vampire on trial in Boston was included in the Best of Apex Magazine: Volume 1. Find his work in Terraform, Nightmare Magazine's POC Destroy Horror special issue and other anthologies. He left the States in 2011 to wander the world, living out of a backpack with his wife. Look for him at russellnichols.com.


CICADA: Thanks for chatting with us, Russell! Can you give us an intro to yourself and your work?

RUSSELL NICHOLS: Of course. I’m a natural-born writer, originally from Richmond, California. My wife and I sold our stuff back in 2011 and we’ve been vagabonding around the world since then. The stories I tell take many forms as screenplays, stage plays, speculative fiction and nonfiction. I’m a journalist by trade, a nomadic reporter unstuck in time, looking back to the future.


CIC: “Man of Straw” is definitely set in the future, with its bionic birds and government-sanctioned cloning, but it is also a terrifyingly close and recognizable future in a lot of ways. How did you go about building the world for this story? How does setting this story in the future help you examine existing systems of oppression?

RN: My first trip to this world was a few years ago, for a story called “u wont remember dying.” It was a shorter experimental piece set in a hospital, so I didn’t have time to explore the area. When I went back for this follow-up story, I was able to zoom in on details that stood out to me, reflecting themes of reality vs. artificiality, endangerment, fear, and so forth.

A near-future setting like this one allows me to look at things from a different angle. It’s like a distorted mirror and, as a journalist, I’m constantly asking questions about how systems of oppression could evolve and what that might mean for the most vulnerable. Then I bring the answers back, tragic as they may be, to hold up to the present.


CIC: Once he is discovered putting up the scarecrows, Marcus says, “That’s how they see me. Might as well own it, know what I’m saying?” Can you talk a bit more about the parallels between Marcus and the scarecrows?

RN: Marcus would be the one to ask, but I haven’t seen or spoken to him since he went missing. From the outside looking in, I saw Marcus as a man grasping for identity. Here he was, murdered by a cop, then resurrected days later. This is post-trauma on a whole 'nother level. How do you process that? How do you deal with that survivor’s guilt?

Without the necessary support, I think he began to fixate on how bigots saw him. He internalized their fear of him, their judgment of him, reciting straw man arguments that he was “brainless” and so couldn’t get hired for a job, for example.

But again, this is just one man’s opinion. Maybe Marcus meant something completely different when he said that. Unless he turns up, we’ll never know.


CIC: You describe yourself as an Afrofuturist writer—tell us a bit about what Afrofuturism means to you and to your work. What voices within that movement are particularly exciting to you right now?

RN: Art Curator Ingrid LaFleur defines Afrofuturism as “a way of imagining possible futures through a black cultural lens." This has always been critical to our survival. If you can’t see yourself in the future, you can believe you don’t have one. That said, we can’t talk about tomorrow without the context of yesterdays. It’s this cycle of time that has Afrofuturist voices ride on, from W. E. B. Du Bois to Octavia Butler, from Sun Ra to Janelle Monáe, and so many more. Right now I’m listening to music by Flying Lotus, watching films by Wanuri Kahiu and appreciating art by Tim Fielder. For me, Afrofuturism means using science and technology like two turntables, mixing the past and future to spin new stories in the beat of the moment.


CIC: Writers often write and rewrite and pick at a draft endlessly. How do you know when to call a piece “done”?

RN: I’m from the school of thought that a piece is never done. But I know interviews can’t last forever. We’re all working with limited time here. I’ve got deadlines to meet and there’s only so many questions I can ask. Some characters want to go on and on, telling me their life stories, and I have to cut them off. Some run out of things to say early. Others run out into the night, never to be heard from again, and the ending writes itself.


CIC: You mentioned that you and your wife have been “vagabonding around the world” since 2011. What’s one of your favorite experiences you’ve had since you started traveling?

RN: That's tough, picking just one. But a definite highlight was staying with an Indian camel driver and his family in Rajasthan. It was this remote village in the Thar Desert, cut off from everything. Never seen so many stars in my life.