The writer and social-justice facilitator adrienne maree brown thinks we can use organizing like time travel — as a way to transport ourselves into a more communal and sustainable future. Even when responding to the moment, her projects look forward: In 2019, motivated by the exhaustion many felt after Trump’s election, she released Pleasure Activism, an anthology of love letters from organizers about the meaning they find in their work. Last year, when fraught discussions of “cancel culture” permeated right- and left-wing circles alike, brown wrote We Will Not Cancel Us, a short book advocating for healthy and empathetic conflict. Now, as COVID-19 continues to put Black communities into unprecedented physical, emotional, and economic peril, brown releases her first long-form work of published fiction: Grievers, a novella about Black death during a pandemic.
She started writing the book in 2012. “I did not expect or predict this pandemic, but it was definitely interesting to compare my guesses of what a pandemic would look like in Grievers to what happened during COVID,” brown says. “In the book, for example, I said the CDC would not be on the ground, but they’d be making the calls. That was true to form. Capitalism is usually pretty predictable.”
Grievers follows Dune, a teenage girl living in Detroit, as she mourns the death of her mother due to H-8, a terrifying virus claiming the lives of Black folks all around the city. As she watches countless loved ones fall prey to the virus, Dune realizes that H-8 is forcing Black folks to sit in their grief, sending previously healthy people into deep comas of mourning from which they never wake — a symptom that will either prove fatal or necessary to their survival.
Brown’s writing artfully burrows into our darkest societal anxieties — the fear, the exhaustion, the death, the grief — and finds the light stubbornly gleaming underneath the surface. “Dune realized … that even if she didn’t really have an idea of why she would continue living, she didn’t want to die,” brown writes. “She particularly didn’t want to die from H-8.” The premise of Grievers is a crucial one: that perhaps in our mourning, we do not just grieve the dead — we also grieve the realities of our own lives, which, in spite of everything, we still desperately want to live.
After many years spent in Detroit, brown now lives in Durham, North Carolina. Vulture spoke with her about writing intimate, textured depictions of Black grief, the power of speculative fiction, and how to write about death without succumbing to despair. —Mary Retta
Speculative fiction is where we get to practice the future. I think that science fiction is a form of organizing, and all organizing is science fiction.
While writing Grievers, I first asked myself: Who are the Black people who are writing about grief? And it turns out most of us are. A lot of speculative Black fiction is actually trying to figure out what to do with Black grief. The stories are asking: How do we stay visionary? How do we imagine that we have a future?
Photo: Courtesy of the Publisher
Before and while writing, I read Tananarive Due’s African Immortals series. She also has a book called The Good House, which is a really beautiful and intimate portrait of someone dealing with grief. It really moved me. I read N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy, which came out more recently. My main go-to is Octavia E. Butler. She was one of the first people who taught me that you can write about Black people and what’s happening to the planet from a speculative position that honors the pain that’s happening, while also offering ways out, ways through, and ways forward.
This is what I wanted to offer with Grievers. When I started writing this book, I was going through a lot of loss — on a personal level, an economic level, a societal level. It occurred to me at the time that the unique situation with Black death and Black grief was that there was never a time where things slowed down so that we could actually experience our grief fully. That was the impetus for this book. What if we didn’t have a choice? What if the grief reached a point where it completely takes over?
I originally wrote the story from the perspective of Kama, Dune’s mother. But I felt like I needed a protagonist who was young enough to feel the stakes of the moment, and to still have time to see the change that might take place. We’re in this moment right now where everything needs to change. There’s something about the risks young people are willing to take, the kind of bullshit they are unafraid to call out, that really moves me. Dune felt like the right window to talk about grief, because so many young people’s lives have been shaped by it.
For me, the biggest challenge while writing Dune’s perspective was, how can I show that her grief is her gratitude for these people that she loved, and her reckoning with the power, the strength, the scale of love that she feels? Dune keeps records throughout the book of everyone who has died. She writes down what they’re wearing, where she found them, what she thinks they were feeling or little bits of their lives that she can decipher. Sometimes she takes pictures. I saw this ritual very much in the same vein of the #SayHerName movement that we see on social media today.
Grief can come in different shades. There’s a moment in the book where Dune loses someone she was a caretaker for. There’s the relief that comes with no longer having to do that labor, while also a recognition that she’s had time stolen from her. The complexity of that emotion felt important to include. But Dune isn’t just grieving the dead. She’s also mourning life: the life she thought she’d have, the time she thought she could spend with the people she loved. Holding that grief close is what pushed Dune to keep moving forward.
I didn’t want Grievers to feel optimistic. I wanted it to feel realistic. Afrofuturism as a genre is about writing stories that make us want to stay alive given the conditions, rather than necessarily rewriting the conditions.
Black grief is so overwhelming; it’s rare to get the space to even talk about how overwhelming it is. So often, we touch into the feeling, or we hashtag the feeling, or we try to move through it at the surface of the feeling. We rarely ever sit in it. One of the things I’ve always wrestled with in Octavia’s work is even though we know her characters are losing people, we don’t get to see their grief very often. Lauren Olamina in the Parable series, for example—she’s a feeler and an empath, yet we rarely get to see much of how she experiences her grief. That’s something I longed for in Afrofuturist work, and I think my longing shapes this text.
The opening scene, for example, is a cremation. When I wrote it I was like, Holy shit. There’s no happiness inside of this moment. That might come later, but right now, it’s just the labor of grief. It’s messy, and it’s physical, and I tried to capture it that way. As much as I wanted the book to have an arc toward life, I also felt it was important to include accurate portrayals of what it’s like to be sitting in grief in the moment.
I’ve never experienced grief without also feeling a powerful anger. My friend Prentis Hemphill has spoken about the idea that when Black folks get angry, we are actually trying to reclaim someone’s Black time — from slavery, from Jim Crow, from the oppressions we live inside of, from the amount of time we spend in fear, from all the lives we lose too soon. I felt it last year when we took to the streets and protested police violence. How do we reclaim that time?
I think that when we see Dune at her angriest is when we see her coming alive. One of the first offenses that happens in the book is when Dune’s mother gets sick and she is denied treatment because she doesn’t have health care. Dune is so angry, not just at the doctors but at this massive system that will not take care of the people she loves most. There’s so much power in that — part of Dune’s grief is her anger, and part of her anger is a knowledge that things don’t have to operate this way. I think that anger is a large part of how we break with this current reality and begin to orient ourselves toward something else.