Andrea Hairston's 'Master of Poisons' Injects Hope Into A Precarious World

Aug 13, 2020

In her creative life, Andrea Hairston covers a lot of ground. She teaches theater and Africana studies at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. She’s a playwright, theater director, screenwriter and novelist. 

Hairston’s forthcoming book, "Master of Poisons," is a fantasy novel about a world facing destruction. 

It begins:

We are more likely to deny truth than admit grave error and change our minds, even in the face of overwhelming evidence or imminent destruction. We refuse to believe in any gods but our own. Who can bear for the ground to dissolve under their feet and the stars to fall from the sky. So we twist every story to preserve our faith. 

Djola thought to steer the Arkhysian Empire away from this terrible yet mundane fate. He was forty-three, handsome, and fearless — arrogant, even — the Master of Poisons and in the Arkhysian Empire, second only to Emperor Azizi. When poison desert appeared in the barbarian south and the free northland, didn’t he warn Azizi? 

For twenty years as it crashed through river valleys and swallowed forests, Djola pleaded with Council and begged good Empire citizens to change their ways. But as long as sweet water fell from the sky every afternoon and mist rolled in on a night wind, everybody promised to change — tomorrow or next week. Then crops failed and rivers turned to dust. Good citizens now feared change would make no difference or was in fact impossible. Who could fight the wind?

At the center of the book’s plot, there is a poison desert encroaching on the world. Water is polluted. The land is not supporting life. 

"And people go from, 'Oh, my God, we should do something,' to 'We should just save ourselves, and let everybody else die,'" Hairston said.

"Master of Poisons" follows two main characters who are working to save the world. The genre is fantasy, though Hairston doesn’t think it’s fair to define the genre too narrowly. She points out that all fiction presents an alternate reality. 

Still, she said the sub-genre of fantasy does allow for flexible storytelling.

“It allows me to take us out of what we take for granted because we take realism for granted. And fantasy allows us to ask questions about what we take for granted as normal,” she said.

Climate change is the real-world version of a poison desert. But Hairston doesn’t consider her novel a pure allegory.

“Allegory usually is more of like a one-to-one correspondence,” she said. “And I think this is a riff. This is more like jazz.”

Andrea Hairston's new book, "Master of Poisons."
Credit Karen Brown / NEPM

In her writing, Hairston draws from the themes of African folklore and history. One of her favorite themes centers around what’s called the Women’s War — where women from the Ibo people judge the men on their behavior.

“The men had to listen to the women or women would do war on them. And the women would also just say, OK, we're leaving, you're not listening to us. We'll take our babies, we’ll go to the next village,” she said. “So investigating stories about that really was exciting to me because of the notion of how women had power in societies. We in the West might have thought, ‘No, they don't have any power,’ but in fact, they did.”

Hairston started her literary career with a small feminist press in Seattle that celebrates underrepresented authors, including people of color and queer people. 

Though she gradually moved to a larger publishing house, she said there still aren’t many African American authors in the fantasy or science fiction world. But she doesn't blame the genre per se.

“It wasn't that science fiction and fantasy was any less or more welcoming than realistic fiction or the theater world. I found the exact same barriers, prejudices, people not being able to quite imagine who would want this," she said. "I mean, I wrote a play called 'The Black Woman Survival Kit,' and someone said, ‘Well, who would want that?’”

But she’s hopeful about this political moment — with increasing awareness of the racism and structural barriers that keep many voices out of mainstream art.

“I think this is a particularly interesting time for creative writers to get their ideas and sensibilities out to the world,” she said, “when before, those same writers might have been seen as not, like, what do we do with them?”

"Master of Poisons" is scheduled to come out in September. Hairston said it’s hard to publicize a book during a pandemic, but at the same time, the theater world is facing a much tougher crisis. 

“I'm not facing the [question], 'When will the theaters open again?' Because people can buy my book and read it,” Hairston said. “And I think the book is fun, as well as thoughtful, and it's hopeful. So I have something to offer people as we go through this kind of difficult time.”

Check out more of NEPM’s Summer Fiction series here.