On a Saturday in late September, I sat for an hour with fantasy and horror writer Maurice Broaddus at Provider, a coffee house off East 16th Street. We sat outside with a view of the Monon Lofts apartments that popped up in early 2018, not long after Provider served its first latte.
Broaddus, who lives near Eagle Creek Reservoir on the northwest side of Indianapolis with his wife and two sons, is a busy guy. This past spring he scored a $175,000 three-book deal with TOR Books for a forthcoming fantasy series titled All the Stars. Tor Books, a subsidiary of Macmillan, is the largest publisher of science fiction and fantasy in the United States.
Broaddus, 49, also was coping with the death of his father the previous week, but this wasn’t slowing him down.
“One of the ways I tend to cope with grief,” he said, “is to go into high production mode.”
To contain that grief, he wrote a short story, figuring that the word count would be around 5,000.
“But it turned out to be 20,000 words by the time I was done,” he said. The story, “Bound by Sorrow,” will soon appear in the online sci-fi/fantasy magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies.
He hopes to turn in the first installment of the All the Stars trilogy — Sweep of Stars — to his publisher by his December deadline.
Often his writing has a local angle. Such is the case with his novel trilogy The Knights of Breton Court, which retells the King Arthurian legends set among warring drug gangs of Indianapolis — where a king rises from the streets and attempts to get crack dealers to change their ways.
His short stories have been widely anthologized, and his columns have appeared in The Indianapolis Star and other publications. He also has served as editor for several sci-fi/fantasy anthologies, and he has written for the video game Watch Dogs 2 developed by Ubisoft Montreal. His latest novel, Pimp My Airship, was released by Apex Books earlier this year. The middle-grade reader The Usual Suspects — inspired by his experience as an educator and by observations of his sons’ passage through middle school — also came out in 2019, published by HarperCollins.
The plot of The Usual Suspects revolves around a young black boy named Thelonious Mitchell who finds a gun on school grounds. The boy is aware enough to realize that by doing the right thing, he can get himself into a world of trouble.
The book has been getting rave reviews.
Elizabeth Bird wrote in the School Library Journal, “I want this book, so full of wit and intelligence, raw honesty and clever plotting, to be so well known that when I say ‘The Usual Suspects’ to a room of librarians, their first thoughts involve neither Casablanca or Keyser Soze but this work by Maurice Broaddus.”
Broaddus also will have a short story in an upcoming anthology timed to the second Black Panther motion picture release.
This writer isn’t always at his writing desk, however. Recently he delivered the keynote speech for Achieving Together, a conference for librarians and educators, that he delivered Oct. 4 at Central Library. He will return to Central Library on Nov. 9 for an event called Meet an Author, Be an Author: Indy Author Fair sponsored by the Indiana Writers Center. He also will take part in a panel discussion titled The Evolution of Sci-Fi Fandom at the Center for Inquiry on Nov. 10 as part of the Spirit & Place Festival. Such activities, as we will see, barely skim the surface when it comes to his involvement in the local community.
Broaddus was born in London, U.K., and moved with his family to the United States when he was 6 years old. They settled in Franklin, just south of Indianapolis, as one of the few black families in that town.
A formative moment in the evolution of his love of science fiction — and comics — began with a friend's gift.
“He gave me his stack of comic books,” Broaddus said, “and so it started off with X-Men. Obviously, I've since become a huge comic book nerd.”
He also was a fan of the original Star Trek series.
“So that was a huge hook,” he said. “And then the other hook was Dr. Who, which I used to watch with my Sunday school teacher ... And he's been kicked out of several churches since then. It happens.”
At Northwest High School, Broaddus was placed in the accelerated program. While the school had a large black population, the accelerated program was largely white.
For Broaddus becoming a writer wasn’t, let’s say, the path of least resistance. At Indiana University - Purdue University Indianapolis, he majored in biology, encouraged by his mother, who wanted him to become a nurse. He was, however, able to take creative writing courses, including with a professor who had written his dissertation on Clive Barker and Stephen King.
The professor encouraged Broaddus to submit his short story “Kali’s Danse Macabre” to a contest sponsored by Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine. He got an honorable mention.
He graduated in 1993 with a bachelor of science in biology.
Broaddus married his childhood sweetheart Sally Smith — they had met in middle school — in 1996. On May 13, 2001, she gave birth to their first child. On that day he was revising the last chapter of his first horror novel, thinking it would be the beginning of a long writing career. He sort of lost track of time in the process. As a consequence, his wife arrived at the hospital too late in her labor to receive an epidural.
Their first son is currently a freshman at Ball State University, while that first novel remains in the drawer, unpublished.
Before 2010, Broaddus was mostly writing horror.
“A lot of my horror stories, they're dark, and they're angry,” Broaddus said. “That was the space I was writing from, the space of pain and hurt and anger.”
Some of that anger was personal, stemming from growing up and his aforementioned high school experiences. Some of it also came just from being aware of African American history stretching from the year 1619 — when the first slaves were shipped to the Americas — to the present.
When Broaddus started out writing horror fiction, there weren’t very many African Americans in the genre, a fact he became painfully aware of when he went to writer conferences.
While he was selling his horror fiction at a steady clip in the aughts to various magazines, he also held down a steady 9-to-5 job as an environmental toxicologist working with Commonwealth Biomonitoring, a position he left in 2009.
In 2010 Angry Robot published his first fantasy novel — Book 1 of the The Knights of Breton Court trilogy — titled The King Maker. This series, sort of an inner city update on the King Arthur legends, was inspired by his time volunteering at Indy’s Outreach Inc.,where he mentored homeless teens.
Some reviewers thought this book was geared too much toward black readers, in terms of its dialogue. As a result of such criticism, Broaddus sometimes has wondered whether to “whiten” the characters in his fiction to improve the odds of a sale.
In 2009, he read three books back to back that permanently flushed that notion from his mind. He read Beloved by Toni Morrison, Future Land by Walter Mosley, and The Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler.
He was struck in particular by Beloved and its narrative centering on escaped slave Sethe, a woman who is haunted by the ghost of her child she killed as she tried to escape a slave plantation, so she wouldn’t be forced to return to slavery.
“It is a ghost story that tears you apart, stitches you back together, and even tears you apart again,” he said.
Broaddus noted that none of these highly successful black authors, in very different genres of fiction, felt the need to whiten any of their characters or to pander to a white audience.
“I’m just like screw that,” he said. “I'm still just gonna be me. If I don't get published, I don't get published. That's fine. People can survive not being published. But I can't survive not being me. I'm going to be as me as much as possible in my stories ...
“I did start finding places for those stories to be sold. But the critical lesson for me was I'm gonna be true to myself, to my culture, and just move forward. And I think that's the lesson of those books.”
Broaddus describes his fiction — and his fiction often is described — as Afrofuturism.
“Afrofuturism is basically art seen through the black cultural lens,” said Broaddus. “It's very much critiquing the present, but with this view of creating our own future.”
The first time he ever heard the term was when a reviewer wrote about his short story collection The Voice of the Martyrs. The book, published in 2017, contains futuristic stories with black protagonists.
Broaddus wasn’t sold on Afrofuturism as a descriptor until the movie Black Panther hit, with its mostly black cast, much of it set in the fictional African country of Wakanda.
But much of his fiction, like The Knights of Breton Court series, is set in a locale a lot closer to home than Wakanda.
In the case of his most recent novel, Pimp My Airship, the place names will be familiar to Indianapolis residents, places like Indiana Ave., Delaware Street, and Haughville. The novel also mentions the daily Indianapolis Star and the weekly African American paper The Recorder.
Indy’s municipal system of government Unigov, which combined Indianapolis and its surrounding suburbs into one governing body in the mid-’60s — some say to the detriment of the city’s African American population — also gets a mention.
I asked Broaddus where the location of Provider coffee shop fits into the larger fictional map in his latest novel. He told me this part of 16th Street would have been Tinker Street originally. How does he know this? Because writing Pimp My Airship was his excuse to do some research on the history of Indianapolis.
“I found all these original maps of the original layout of the city,” he said. “I really love this city. So the idea of steeping a story in Indianapolis history really intrigued me. And then turning the history on its head also intrigued me.”
Pimp My Airship combines elements of both the past and the imagined future. It’s a world where dirigibles piloted by “Afronauts” can rise into the clouds above Indianapolis, but where old-fashioned prejudice and oppression are still alive and well, and large sections of the city have been turned into a prison.
The novel centers on a chiba-smoking dude named Sleepy who just wants to be left alone so he can deliver his kickass spoken-word poetry to adoring crowds. But then he becomes associated — and guilty by association — with a troublemaker and professional protester who goes by the moniker (120 Degrees of) Knowledge Allah. Both men are arrested by the police for basically, being in the wrong place at the wrong time and thrown in jail. After they escape, they meet up with young heiress Sophie Jefferson, whose father has just been murdered. With her help, they find themselves instigating a rebellion against the powers that be.
Just as the novel’s setting should be vaguely familiar to Indianapolis residents, so too should be the issues that animate the story.
“It's been interesting watching some of the reviews,” said Broaddus, “How they talked about Pimp My Airship in terms of, ‘He gets to write about institutions of control and institutional racism and over-policing and mass incarceration. And It's the most fun romp we've ever read.’”
Creating an issues-oriented romp, as it were, is exactly what Broaddus had originally set out to do.
“I wanted to create something fun and yet be able to discuss all these issues which are relevant to the community now, but sort of ease people into it,” he explained. “That's what I love about sci fi/fantasy, is that you can talk about some of these subjects that would normally be taboo subjects ... but if I can set it in such a way that you are entertained by it, then all of a sudden it's like, ‘Hey, this is fun!’”
In the world of Pimp my Airship — in the novel’s funhouse mirror reflection of Indianapolis — spoken-word poetry is a big deal. Indianapolis, as Broaddus affirms, has a strong poetry scene.
“All these spoken-word artists have just fallen into my life.” he said. “I'm surrounded by all these poets, who I consider as heroes in the community. And so the idea that poets and artists can do some serious social change became an idea I'm going to play with.”
He rattles off the names of spoken-word artists Tatjana Rebelle, Mariah Ivey and Januarie York, among others.
One of the spoken-word artists Broaddus praised also had words of praise for him.
“It would be an understatement to say Maurice is one of the greatest gifts to my life and Indianapolis as a whole,” said Tatjana Rebelle. “It’s not very often that you meet people that do the work without the desire for accolades.
“He lives his life according to his passions and pushes me to do the same. I am so grateful to be able to call him a colleague and even more honored to call him my friend. He inspires me to use my 24 hours in the day to work for the life I want, as a writer, organizer, and all around community member. It shows the world that nerds can be icons too. I look forward to the day when Maurice Broaddus becomes a household name.”
Indianapolis also isn’t lacking in venues for spoken word. You can check out the Iconoclast series at the Irvington Theatre, That Piece Open Mic at Central Library, and VOCAB at White Rabbit. And that’s just for starters.
It so happens that the aforementioned poetry series — all of them inclusive in terms of race, sexual orientation, and gender — are organized by African Americans.
Broaddus loves this scene, but he’s also aware of the fact that these events occur in spaces not controlled by blacks.
“That’s the flip side of it,” he said.
Partly to correct such disparities, Broaddus volunteers his time at the Kheprw Institute, a community development organization formerly based in the Crown Hill neighborhood, now located at 546 E. 17th St., adjacent to Dr. Martin Luther King Park.
Broaddus first came to Kheprw to talk about the history of African American speculative fiction several years ago, and they kept calling him back for different projects.
“And then, the next thing I know, I've just been a part of Kheprw for three years now as their resident Afrofuturist,” he said.
The executive director of Kheprw, Imhotep Adisa, said he appreciates having another “old head” as part of the organization, noting that the experience Broaddus has, as being a husband and father gives him a valuable perspective.
“As I watch him ... he's really trying to find ways to support others in the community,” he said. “Through his skill set, which of course is writing, he's always got a pen his hand, he's always taking notes, he's always writing shit down, and if you're not careful, you'll find yourself in one of his stories or several of his stories.”
Broaddus’ work for Kheprw is informed by his devout Christian faith.
“When I think about my faith, I should be leaving the world a better place in my wake,” he said. “I'm constantly thinking about, well, what does that look like?”
One of the ways he manifests his faith is to participate in various organized conversations around town.
“I'm a big conversation guy,” said Broaddus. “So any excuse to have meaningful conversations I love, because meaningful conversations lead to relationships, and relationships are at the heart of transformation of a neighborhood, of a community, of a city.”
Another “big conversation” Broaddus is involved in is the monthly Afrofuture Fridays series at Kheprw that he cohosts with Rasul Palmer. During such discussions, participants often use the “black cultural lens” that he uses in his fiction and turn it toward actual problems faced by black people.
Cohost Palmer, who considers Broaddus a mentor, says the subjects of discussion vary widely every month.
“It can be from a book, a movie, music, or particular artists like a painter or a writer,” Palmer said. “Sometimes we do video games, and we do other forms of entertainment as well.”
Hip-hop artist, activist and Kheprw member Diop Adisa values Broaddus’ contributions, not just to Kheprw but to the wider Indianapolis community.
“Maurice likes to connect worlds and people to storytelling and then use his contribution to impact community and impact how we envision ourselves in the future,” said Adisa. “In the variety of communities he's involved in, he's constantly looking for what is the thread that he can use to communicate what these communities are grounded in ... to change community for the better.”
One of the projects Broaddus is helping to develop is an artist coworking space called Cafe Creative that also will function as a performance venue and art gallery in the basement of the Kheprw office space.
The question that Broaddus hopes Cafe Creative will help solve is this: “What would it look like to have spaces that we control now, to be able to use those as platforms for what we want to do?”
It’s this idea of creative control — black control over black spaces — that Broaddus is passionate about. It’s an issue that is relevant when considering the impact of the annual daylong PreEnact community festival sponsored by the nonprofit Harrison Center, the first iteration of which occurred in 2017.
The fest takes place over three blocks of East 16th Street, involving street theater, spoken word and musical performance, in a historically black community.
(The setting for PreEnact, it so happens, was just a block away from where we were sitting at Provider coffee house.) This year’s PreEnact occurred on Oct. 5.
According to the Harrison Center website, “PreEnactment theater envisions a neighborhood that OUGHT to be — just, equitable, and economically vibrant.”
The near northeast side of Indianapolis is transitioning rapidly, as vacant lots and abandoned buildings are being turned into homes, apartment complexes, and businesses.
It remains to be seen whether the good will and awareness that the Harrison Center and its partners are attempting to generate will prevent people being displaced by rising rents and home values.
That area of the city is one that Broaddus himself is invested in, as he works at The Oaks Academy, where he runs the resource room. The private Christian school at 1301 E. 16th St. is in the middle of the stage, as it were, for PreEnact. It’s also where his children attended middle school.
As it turns out, Broaddus recently wrote a short story that uses “pre-enact” as a verb.
“I wrote a couple of stories that kind of link Indianapolis to my trilogy that is going to be taking place in outer space,” said Broaddus.
The most recent one is called “The Migration Suite: A Study in C Sharp Minor,” which is available to read in the online science fiction and fantasy magazine Uncanny.
The story was inspired by the recent performance of two local artists, vocalist Manon Voice and pianist Joshua Thompson, at the Indianapolis Artsgarden.
“And while they're performing, I didn't even realize my hand was already moving,” Broaddus said, “and I'm starting to outline this short story.”
“‘The Migration Suite’” follows the movement of Africans from Africa, through the United States and then into space,” he said. “Act Four takes place in Indianapolis, on Indiana Avenue. And then Act Five picks up a generation or two later as African Americans are packing up and moving into this colony in outer space.
“But in the opening paragraph, it basically says at first we were pre-enacted out of our neighborhood and then we were pre-enacted off the planet. In the story, I go on to say, it feels a lot like ‘Thank you for your service, now get the fuck out.’”
Broaddus, it turns out, isn’t entirely against the idea of PreEnact.
“You're doing all this service to the past, which I love,” Broaddus said about PreEnact. “Let's recognize the past. Let's celebrate the present. But there seems to be a stunning lack of imagination of where we're going to live in the future.”
The Harrison Center has attempted to create a dialogue among PreEnact’s partners about such issues as affordable housing. There were, it seems, some positive results from these conversations, such as the neighborhood around the East 16th Street corridor (sometimes called Monon16) being the recipient of the first-ever Lift Indy designation from the city of Indianapolis in 2018.
But, again, it remains to be seen whether the $4.5 million in grant money attached to this designation — which will be used in part to develop affordable housing — will have a significant effect against the tide of market forces.
There are, it seems, more questions than answers at this point, which makes it a ripe topic for Broaddus’ speculative fiction. This is also to say that the connections between his fictional worlds and our real one stretch beyond just place names into the territory of social justice.
Ultimately, the defining lesson of Pimp My Airship for real-life Indianapolis is tied not just to social justice, but also to self-empowerment.
“These are the lessons we apparently have to keep learning over and over again to know we have agency,” said Broaddus. “Now what do we do with it?”
By the end of Pimp My Airship, the characters suddenly find they have agency — the ability to act independently and make change — vis-à-vis the powers that be.
With the emergence of Cafe Creative at Kheprw, and through the work of like-minded organizations, Indianapolis artists — particularly black artists — may be coming to a similar crossroads.
Broaddus finds himself in the perhaps unusual position of standing at these crossroads both in fiction and in the real world.
His cut-eye glare is aimed, as it were, not just at PreEnact, but at other arts events and programs taking place in areas of the Circle City where market forces are driving gentrification in historically black communities.
“I think that's one of the jobs of an artist, is to keep critiquing, to keep their feet to the fire.”
“I could see this going horribly, horribly wrong. Because America.”