Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Wakanda Forever: Bluff City Writers Contribute to Black Panther Anthology

Posted By on Wed, Dec 9, 2020 at 1:17 PM

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Memphis looms large in the just-announced Marvel Black Panther prose anthology, Black Panther: Tales of Wakanda, due next February. Not that T’Challa is hanging out on Beale Street, taking in a view of the Mississippi, or attending art shows at the CMPLX. No, it’s that so many Memphis authors have contributed to the collection.

Memphians all, poet/editor/author Sheree Renée Thomas, teacher/author Danian Darrell Jerry, and FIYAH magazine publisher and Memphis Flyer contributor Troy L. Wiggins are all featured in the anthology, which is edited by Memphis/Holly Springs native Jesse J. Holland.


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“I was like, ‘This is a dream that I wouldn’t have said aloud.’ I was thrilled. Can this year get any crazier?” says Thomas, who is having something of a banner year. Her short story collection, Nine Bar Blues, was published in spring (and many stories are eligible for awards), she contributed to the Slay vampire anthology, and was named the new editor of long-running The Magazine of Fantasy & Science-Fiction. “It’s a 20-plus year overnight success. I spent years quietly just working, publishing, of course, but not getting huge fanfare beyond the anthologies,” Thomas says. “That’s how it is for everyone, but we focus on the exceptions.


“Writing is a long game. You’ve got to be a long distance runner. It’s one thing my mentor Arthur Flowers has always said,” she continues. “It may be a while before you’re published in something your family recognizes.”


But if there’s a list of high-profile recognizable characters, Black Panther is indisputably on it. Though Thomas is a longtime reader of sci-fi and fantasy, she says she’s newer to the world of comics. “I wasn’t able to read comics regularly as a child. [It was], ‘Here’s your library card, go to the library.’” But, the author says, she is a fan of the character. In fact, she dressed up to attend the 2018 screening of Black Panther and even made it onto some news clips about the night. “They show me in my Wakanda outfit with a huge afro. I was ready for Wakanda,” Thomas says with a laugh. And anyone who’s read her work can attest that Thomas will be right at home in the Afrofuturism of Wakanda.


“When Chadwick Boseman passed, that was a big blow to everyone,” she continues, remembering the charismatic Black Panther star who passed away in August of this year. “I had to take a moment to kind of regroup from that. I think it had an effect on us. We were so hoping that he would be able to enjoy the book. So it put new passion into the writing to honor his amazing performance. He embodied the Black Panther.”

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Of course, writing for Marvel means digging into decades of history. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby debuted the character of T’Challa in 1966. “When I was writing my story I had to do a lot of research,” Thomas says. “You’re not using the Marvel Universe; you’re using the canon. And of course, the new story threads that are being written out by Ta-Nehisi Coates and others.” (Note: Coates’ The Water Dancer was my favorite novel of 2019, and his ongoing run on Black Panther makes for some of the most exciting and challenging comics I’ve ever read.)


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“I’ve always been a big Marvel fan,” says Danian Darrell Jerry. “Not just Black Panther, but anything they’ve put out — X-Men, Spider-Man, Avengers, Doctor Strange. So this is a great opportunity for me to get in there and tap into some of the things I imagined as a child. It’s a little surreal, but it’s fun.”


Jerry is a native Memphian with deep roots in the city’s creative scenes. He’s a hip-hop artist who works with the Iron Mic Coalition. “I’ve always been interested in reading and books and comics, but I’ve always been interested in the arts in general,” he says. What’s more, Jerry works here to help promote literacy and an appreciation for literature — from childhood on to adulthood.


He has his MFA from the University of Memphis, where he now works as an adjunct English instructor teaching composition and literature classes. “This last semester I got a chance to teach Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me in my lit classes. [It was great] taking my literature class and adding a BIPOC focus and lens to it, examining hard questions on race relations in class, which was very productive.”


As founder of Neighborhood Heroes, a community outreach program, Jerry has used comic books as a tool to foster an appreciation of reading. Now he’s writing some of those same characters. “We use comics and fantasy to promote literacy to kids, teaching kids how to read through comics,” he says. “Last year, we threw an event on Mud Island, and it’s funny because we had ‘Black Panther’ come out and greet the kids and take pictures. We had cosplayers, and they loved it. Last year I was doing that, and this year I got the chance to actually write in the Black Panther book.”
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