E.G. Condé in conversation with Ariel Marken Jack
E.G. Condé (he/him/Él) is a queer diasporic Boricua writer of speculative fiction and fantasy. Condé is one of the creators of ‘Taínofuturism’, an emerging artistic genre that imagines a future of indigenous renewal and decolonial liberation for Borikén (Puerto Rico) and the archipelagos of the Caribbean. Condé’s short fiction appears in Anthropology & Humanism, If There’s Anyone Left, Reckoning, EASST Review, Tree and Stone, Sword & Sorcery, Solarpunk Magazine, and FABLE: An Anthology of Sci-Fi, Horror & The Supernatural. As Steven Gonzalez Monserrate, he is an anthropologist of technology and a digital sustainability advocate. Follow him on Twitter @CloudAnthro.
Author and reviewer Ariel Marken Jack spoke to E.G. Condé about the power of language, survival through art, and what it means to help found a new literary genre.
Ariel Marken Jack: Your debut novella, Sordidez, is forthcoming from Stelliform Press on 1 August. Sordidez is a foundational building block in an emerging artistic movement called Taínofuturism. What are the defining characteristics of a Taínofuturist work?
E.G. Condé: I like to think that Taínofuturism is an example of what Malka Older calls ‘speculative resistance’. Through art, we refuse to become extinct. Our storytelling interrupts the deeply held narrative that indigenous Caribbeans have vanished. Our creations reaffirm that we are here, have always been here, and will continue to be in the futures we are imagining. For me, these futures are anti-racist and anti-colonial. They are a celebration of the messy hybridities and contradictory legacies that make us Antillean. This means not disavowing our African, Asian, or European heritage in favour of some reinvented indigenous ‘purity’. Instead, I dwell in that space of impossible kinships, of simultaneously being the descendant of the coloniser and those that they colonised, in order to create something truly revolutionary; Taínofuturism is an irreverent myth cyclone spun from the debris of colliding continents and cosmovisions, cast in the languages, myths, and aesthetics of Taíno and Kalinago peoples. These are futures filled with spacefaring canoes, cassava computers, sentient storms, cybernetic carnival masks, and coconuts that whisper of liberation.
Ariel Marken Jack: What does it mean to you, both as a writer and as a reader, to be one of the founding artists of a new genre?
E.G. Condé: As a kid, I played a lot of videogames. I was particularly influenced by the Final Fantasy series and the ways that elements of Japanese culture seeped into worlds and characters that on the surface resembled mediaeval Europe. It was as if fantasy as a genre could only be thinkable through the aesthetic of mediaeval Europe even by Japanese creators. Similarly, in American grade school, I experienced literature in the third person, being assigned the literary works of white writers from the United States or the United Kingdom, as if Anglophone Caribbeans, Africans, or Asians were not capable of producing ‘true’ literature.
Taínofuturism is my attempt to reverse the alienation that I experienced as a reader and a gamer. I create stories that I have always dreamed of experiencing. It has been a long journey of self-discovery, and like any genre in formation, it has evolved in ways I could not have anticipated. I am very much indebted to the pioneering work of Afrofuturist creatives like Sun Ra, Octavia Butler, Samuel Delany, Andrea Hairston, Sheree Reneé Thomas, Zelda Knight; Nnedi Okorafor’s Africanfuturist novels; and Joao Quieroz’s dazzling Amazofuturist artworks as inspiration for how to imagine futures where communities gripped by histories of colonialism, slavery, and racism can flourish. Down the road, I hope to organise a project like Donald Ekpeki Oghenechovwe and Joshua Omenga’s Between Dystopias: The Road to African Afropantheology anthology, gathering stories from Jamaican, Cuban, Dominican, Haitian, Puerto Rican, and West Indian creators that bridge linguistic and national differences to create something that celebrates our shared indigenous heritage.
Ariel Marken Jack: How have you and other writers (and musicians, visual artists, and any other types of creatives involved) inspired and played off one another as Taínofuturism grows?
E.G. Condé: While writing the first draft of Sordidez, I discovered an incredible volume of Afro-Caribbean speculative fiction edited by Aníbal Hernández Medina, called Prietopunk. The stories offer a Hispanophone Caribbean take on Afrofuturism, entwining aspects of indigenous (Taíno) culture in the futures woven by the contributors. This inspired me to incorporate more aspects of West African cultures and religions in my book, so that what counts as indigenous and what counts as African is blurry. I think this is important, because there is a long history of anti-black racism in Puerto Rico. I am also inspired by a series of paintings called Taínofuturism by Priscilla Bell Lamberty, a Philadelphia-based Afro-Indigenous Boricua artist, which depict cyberpunkish AfroTaíno warriors that defy the colonial stereotype of what Taínos look like.
Ariel Marken Jack: As E. G. Condé, you are a writer of speculative fiction, but you have another life as Steven Gonzalez Monserrate, an anthropologist studying cloud storage and digital sustainability. I find it interesting that you use your own name to separate your worlds and works, because the power and importance of names is a recurring motif throughout the sections of Sordidez. I am curious to know how you think about and approach the use of names, both in your writing and in your own life.
E.G. Condé: The world is an incredibly diverse place. One thing we have in common is a deep cultural investment in names. In some societies, names are fixed at birth. In others, they change when a person achieves a certain status (ex. marriage), or completes a certain rite of passage (ex. first communion). For me, names are powerful. They have real material consequences for their bearers. This was the case for my parents, who have very traditional Spanish first names. Growing up in New York City in the 1950s and 1960s, they experienced racism, othering, and violence because of their names. Their lighter skin tones gave them an advantage over other Latines. By taking on the English variants of their names in public settings, they were able to survive in white spaces. To spare me a similar experience, they named me Steven rather than Esteban, much to my grandmother’s dismay. As a protest, my Abuela would refer to me as Esteban because Steven is difficult to pronounce for people who speak Spanish as a first language (it sometimes sounds like Estiben when they say it). My grandmother, whose paternal surname was Condé, passed away in 2006. My pen name, Esteban Gonzalez Condé or E.G. Condé, honours her memory, but it is also a reversal and a rebellion of my parents’ willful assimilation into American society.
As a writer, I create from this wellspring of intergenerational trauma. My art is a celebration of my heritage and an expression of my experiences as queer Puerto Rican and an ongoing colonial subject of American Empire. Like me, the characters in Sordidez view names as cages that remind them of their violent, troubled pasts or, in the affirmative, as pathways to new worlds and better futures.
In my other life as Steven Gonzalez Monserrate, I do not have the same expressive freedom as E.G. Condé. My academic writing is accountable to data and scientific observations of the technicians that I study who run ‘the Cloud’.
Ariel Marken Jack: On a related note, one of the many aspects of your work that fascinates me is the multiplicity of levels on which you engage with language. ‘A universe can be spoken into being’, one of the novella’s most important characters tells another. In addition to English – the primary language of this text – Sordidez contains words in at least six languages and mentions the use of multiple signed languages. What universe are you speaking into being via your characters’ multilingualism and any other way in which you consciously used specific linguistic details to shape their story?
E.G. Condé: Code-switching is a term that comes to mind when I think about one of the defining features of being part of a diaspora. Migrants remix, reformat, and remake their ancestral language while also mastering the languages spoken in their new communities. This process is creative and exciting, but it is not without pain. For many diasporic Puerto Ricans, Spanglish – not Spanish – is the language we use to access the Puerto Rican side of our hyphenated American identity. This leaves us with a provisional belonging to our ‘homeland’. Spanish, however, like English, is a colonial language. In my book, I ask how rebuilding the extinct Taíno language might be a path toward decolonization from Iberian and American colonialism and recovering a lost belonging to the archipelagos where our ancestors dwelt for many generations. Language, as you pointed out, can bring a new world into being. Every language has unique textures, images, feelings, and puns that no translator can precisely recreate. This is why the death of a language is so violent. This is also the case for sign languages.
In Puerto Rico, there is increasingly a push to standardize American Sign Language (ASL) instruction, which threatens to erase the rich local dialects of Puerto Rico Sign Language (LSPR) used by Deaf communities in the island’s mountainous interior. My book addresses this, showing how hybridity and code-switching in sign language and spoken language can prevent the loss of this rich heritage. As for the Maya languages featured in Sordidez, I am very inspired by figures like Pat Boy, who raps in Maya, to encourage others to speak Mayan languages and resist linguistic colonialism in the Yucatán. As part of the research for this book, I took a free online beginner course in K’iche Maya hosted by the University of Texas Austin. Though I do not yet have fluency, learning the sounds, structures, and grammatical elements of K’iche gave me the ability to appreciate their unique beauty and imaginative potential.
Ariel Marken Jack: Returning to your dual lives as both an academic and a writer of fiction, I would love to know more about how your research informs your writing – and how, if at all, your fiction writing informs your academic research.
E.G. Condé: I think my training as an anthropologist, and as someone particularly attuned to technology as cultural and political, has enormously benefited my worldbuilding and my approach to representation. Ethnographic research teaches you how to listen carefully to what people are saying about their communities, identities, aspirations, and dreams. Anyone is a potential teacher, and I experienced that while travelling around México and Puerto Rico to do field research for this book. I learned a lot from children and elders, shopkeepers and bus drivers, kiosk vendors and buskers. At first, I wondered if my dual lives might not be complementary, but Malka Older and Arkady Martine are great examples of scholars who have crossed over into fiction. On the flipside, the storytelling skills I am developing as a fiction writer have improved my academic writing by making me more attuned to accessibility.
Ariel Marken Jack: You published a short story in Solarpunk Magazine, ‘Sidereal’, which is set in the same world as Sordidez and features several of its characters. Did the novella grow from the short story, or are they both pieces of a larger body of work?
E.G. Condé: One of my beta readers uses the term Condéverse to describe my fiction, because so many of my stories are set in the same universe and refer to each other with carefully planted ‘easter eggs’. I have a giant sticky note that maps out the various interconnections between my stories along a timeline that spans hundreds of fictive years in the near-future. The short story from Solarpunk Magazine you referenced, ‘Sidereal’, directly overlaps with the epilogue of Sordidez, filling in some of the gaps that the novella’s length forbids while retelling an ancient Taíno myth about the origin of the sun and the moon. ‘Sumerki’, a short story published in Tree & Stone, is something of a prologue to Sordidez, setting the stage for the story’s antagonists in the frame of a queer military romance set in near-future Siberia. ‘Silicon Fox’, a speculative noir set in Iceland, sets up some of the worldbuilding elements in Sordidez as well as one of the novella’s mysterious factions. All of these stories, including Sordidez, are the setup for a larger novel project in progress called Supercoherence, which contemplates the relationship between shamanism and quantum computing.
Ariel Marken Jack: What are some works from other genres and artistic milieus that have inspired you as you help build a rich and thriving Taínofuturist movement? And, outside of Sordidez and the short fiction you’ve published in venues like Reckoning and the EASST Review, what stories, books, and other works of art would you recommend as examples of Taínofuturism?
E.G. Condé: When I was eighteen, I was moved to tears by Esmeralda Santiago’s rich and vivid description of ‘how to eat a guava’ in When I was Puerto Rican. The historical novel, Taíno, written by Jose Barreiro, nurtured my curiosity about the indigenous part of my heritage. This set me on the path toward indigenous futurism, which is magnificently articulated in Walking the Clouds, an anthology edited by Grace Dillón. The stories and essays in the collection grapple with the themes of colonialism, assimilation, belonging, language, and extinction with breathtaking diversity and imaginative depth. As for what might be good recommendations for readers interested in Taínofuturism, Rafael Morillo’s short story collection Exotic Worlds, features some exquisite examples of what might be called Taínofuturism set in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Puerto Rico. There are some beautiful entries that fit this genre in Speculative Fiction for Dreamers, edited by Matthew David Goodwin, in particular, ‘Ancestral Lines and Other Tall Tales’ by Sam Figaredo.
Ariel Marken Jack: I’d like to end by circling back to ‘Sidereal’, whose resourceful and wildly inventive Boricua characters, rather than fleeing Borikén in the wake of disaster and governmental abandonment, remain ‘to serve as custodians of the forests and mountains, as had their ancestors in the centuries before.’ One of the things I love most about your work is the sense of optimism I find in its blending of ancient and modern ideals, which honours the beautiful aspects of various pasts while embracing the beautiful future possibilities made attainable by cultural and technological shifts. Can you talk more about the hope inherent in a fundamentally syncretic worldview that treasures both nature and technology?
E.G. Condé: Your question gets at the heart of one of my artistic obsessions – dwelling in the spaces and tensions between past and future, nature and culture, magic and technology. Studying colonial history has taught me that Nature is a fantasy; a fiction of a lost Eden or ‘untouched’ wilderness that European settlers thought they were ‘discovering’. On the contrary, when the Spanish conquistadors landed in the Caribbean and the Yucatán, the lush jungles they were encountering were anything but some paradise lost. Human hands shaped those landscapes. Archaeologists believe the Taínos of the Caribbean originated from the Orinoco basin, bringing cassava and fauna from South America with them as they settled the Antilles. Similarly, the Maya peoples living in the Yucatecan forests, were actively cultivating their seemingly ‘wild’ landscape, carefully orchestrating the ecology for their own uses. My point is that the indigenous peoples of the Americas were terraformers. They did not live in passive harmony with their environment. This brings me to one of the interventions I hope to bring to utopian fiction (solarpunk, hopepunk, ecopunk), which is to dispel the myth that indigenous societies are more sustainable because they do not alter the world as capitalism does. The truth is far more complicated. What is substantially different between the two systems are the values and guiding principles behind their environmental transformations. Capitalism is ruled by a simple axiom of ‘growth at any cost’. It is fundamentally unsustainable, suicidal even, as it actively undermines the planetary ecology that sustains its growth. For fiction writers, our task is to write alternate endings to this story of unbridled expansion and self-destruction. My hope is that Sordidez provides one blueprint. ∎
Ariel Marken Jack (they/them) lives in Kespukwitk. Their fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Bikes in Space, Dark Matter Magazine, PseudoPod, Strange Horizons, and more. Their non-fiction columns on speculative and horror literature appear in Fusion Fragment and at Psychopomp.com. They also curate the #sfstoryoftheday. Find their writing at arielmarkenjack.com.
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