Janine Cross Interviews… Suzan Palumbo!

September 28, 2023

Your debut short story collection, Skin Thief published by Neon Hemlock, comes out this October. In the collection, you use nature, Gothic hauntings, shape shifting, and Trinidadian folklore to explore issues of racism, and homophobia, among others. How do you think horror as a genre, and this book specifically, can be a tool for social critique?

Real life is horrific in many ways and horror allows us to highlight the pain, grief, isolation, disgust, repulsion, terror and rage we experience as part of being human without having to soften or apologize for the spotlight we shine on that reality. 

Skin Thief is full of protagonists who are deeply flawed and fragmented in literal and metaphorical ways, dealing with painful and horrific circumstances. They are just like real people who make mistakes or are unsure of what to do, and have to deal with consequences, in worlds that aren’t constructed for their comfort; worlds like our own, that are rife with oppression, injustice, selfishness, violence and heartache. 

While I use nature, Gothic hauntings, shape shifting and folklore in speculative ways to illustrate the inner conflict and turmoil experienced by the characters, the core of the book is very much situated in reality. All of the emotions and reactions the characters experience are what many people feel every day. People feel monstrous. They are afraid, full of guilt or ashamed. I wanted to look at those emotions without flinching or trying to hide from them. I wanted to put together a collection that had a painfully honest emotional heartbeat and hopefully I’ve managed to do that. 

Can you talk about the complexities of identity and patriarchy that’s woven throughout your stories, and how do they play out in the plot and for the characters?

Because I try to be as emotionally honest as I can when I write, a large portion of the stories in the collection deal with women navigating patriarchy in different forms and at different stages in their lives. I cannot speak for everyone’s experience with patriarchy but mine has been full of violence, to be frank, in the physical, emotional, economic, sexual, political, social and cultural areas of my life. I know what it’s like to be powerless, to be threatened, to not have control of your destiny, to be forced to deny your sexuality, to experience physical violence, to not have the opportunity to support yourself financially, to not be taken seriously, to be told everything about you is wrong. The characters in Skin Thief encounter all of these circumstances and grapple with them. Patriarchy and the way it manifests isn’t the only obstacle they encounter, there are others, but it is certainly an un-ignorable part of the world in many of the stories. 

As a co-administrator of the Ignyte Awards and a member of the Hugo nominated FIYAHCON team, what exciting changes are you seeing in the current horror/dark fantasy cannon? How do you think your book fits into that?

The Ignyte Awards are a speculative fiction award series founded by myself and L.D. Lewis. The awards, “seek to celebrate the vibrancy and diversity of the current and future landscapes of science fiction, fantasy, and horror by recognizing incredible feats in storytelling and outstanding efforts toward inclusivity of the genre.” Creating and running these awards has been one of the most personally rewarding projects I’ve ever been apart. They bring such joy to the community and I love when we can come together and celebrate positive aspects of genre. I’m very heartened by the changes I’ve been seeing in the industry and cannon. There are many BIPOC writers and queer writers publishing stunning horror. They are being acknowledged and celebrated and it gives me a lot of hope that this will continue and that we can look forward to reading diverse stories written from POVs that have been under represented. 

My collection is not the first collection of Canadian Trinidadian short stories. But, I do believe it is one of the first to directly label itself as a horror and dark fantasy collection. The stories “Laughter Among the Trees” and “Douen” are among the first stories to be nominated for the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards by a person born in Trinidad. (If they are not, indeed, the first.) I did not know of any queer Trinidadian Canadian horror writers when I was growing up or in University. I’d never seen myself reflected completely in a horror story before. I’m extremely grateful to readers and the horror community for seeing value in my work and who push for diverse storytelling. If this book inspires one other person to feel like they belong in horror, or make a connection they hadn’t before, then all of the effort putting this collection together will have been worth the effort.  

Who are some of your favourite writers who influenced you, and have your tastes in horror changed over time?

I grew up reading all of the classic Gothic romance and horror writers: Mary Shelly, Edgar Allen Poe, Bram Stoker, Charlotte Bronte, Daphne Du Maurier etc. I absolutely love The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. I think it’s a perfect book. Angela Carter is another favourite of mine, particularly her collection, The Bloody Chamber. The line, “Now you are at the place of annihilation,” from Carter’s story “The Lady of the House of Love,” always makes me shiver. One of my favourite contemporary writers is A.C. Wise. I love her horror short stories so much, I asked her to write the introduction to my collection and she said, “Yes.” In the last couple of years I’ve loved collections by Paula E. Dashe, Rhonda J. Garcia and Carlie St. George. I adore Hailey Piper and Eden Royce’s work as well.

I do think my tastes in horror have changed slightly. When I first began reading, I tended to reach for more literary work. I still love literary horror but these days I find myself reading a lot more body horror and folk centered horror. I’ve also become increasingly fascinated with the concept of “the final girl” in horror films and I’ve been seeking out work that interrogates that construct.

How does your non-writing life play into your fiction writing?

I love learning about animals, gardening and camping. I often incorporate these hobbies into stories. Gardening has taught me a lot about patience and waiting, which has come in handy in my publishing endeavours. I also like to draw and play music but I’m not great at either. I tend to write a lot about creative frustration and my struggles with those pastimes provide a lot of inspiration! Finally, as I mentioned previously, I was born in Trinidad and Tobago. Trinidadian culture, history and dialect appear throughout my work because they’re integral to who I am and I enjoy smashing those parts of myself with my Canadian upbringing when I write.

What’s one piece of advice you would give authors of dark literature today?

That idea that you have that you think is too weird and transgressive to write? You know the one that you shy away from? Write it. Run as fast as you can towards it and don’t look away. Confront it. I think some of my best stories, the most original, are the ones I was terrified to write but wrote anyway.

Thanks very much for hosting me and for the thoughtful questions!

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