Savannah Eadens Louisville Courier Journal
Olivia Raymond often imagines a future for Black people that is not just equitable, but magical. Fantastical. A world in which the Black experience isn’t connected to pain or trauma, to slavery or police brutality. Where Black life isn’t viewed as a monolith.
In the real world, Raymond may not be able to escape racism.
But in the fictional world, her characters can.
Under the pen name Zelda Knight, Raymond, a 23-year-old who lives in Louisville, has been writing speculative fiction and romance novels for years. Now earning a doctorate in pan-African studies at the University of Louisville, Raymond’s company, Aurelio Leo, is the only Black-owned publishing house in the area. Founded five years ago, Aurelio Leo publishes horror, science fiction and fantasy from authors around the world, from Cuba to China.
Their stories are of Black love, magic and wonder.
A collection of speculative fiction and poetry by African and African Diaspora writers, the anthology is filled with different stories. In one, an old god rises up each fall to test his subjects. In a different story, Africa is caught in the tug-of-war between two warring Chinas. Another tells of a post-apocalyptic world devastated by nuclear war, where survivors gather in Ife-Iyoku, the spiritual capital of the ancient Oyo Empire, where they are altered in fantastic ways by its magic and power.
With the billion-dollar enterprise of Marvel’s Black Panther, the world started noticing speculative fiction rooted in the African experience, or “Afro-futurism.” In the book world, Nigerian-American authors Nnedi Okorafor (the Hugo and Nebula award-winner who coined the term) and Tomi Adeyemi, author of the international young adult bestseller “Children of Blood and Bone,” have risen to popularity.
But they are just two examples of a growing number of Black writers who are finding platforms to tell their own stories of the fantastic and the future.
For Raymond, writing is a form of escapism. While the science fiction and fantasy genres can include werewolves and witches in a fantastical setting, they also often grapple with real-world problems like censorship, feminism, racism and climate change.
With undergraduate and graduate degrees in history, Raymond believes in studying the past in order to learn more about the future.
An avid reader from a young age, Raymond published her first story at just 12 years old. But growing up, she didn’t notice the race of the books’ authors. She was desperate for characters who looked like her, though, and if a character was described as even slightly tan, she imagined they were Black. Her favorite genres of contemporary romance, science fiction and fantasy, were, for the most part, dominated by white authors who often wrote from a white lens.
One of Raymond’s favorite authors, Beverly Jenkins, who writes romance and historic novels, included Black characters who weren’t just slaves. It was revolutionary for Raymond, who was eager to read romance stories in which Black women were desired, not fetishized.
Now, as a writer herself, Raymond explores topics like infertility and queerness in her works.
“I write about the things Black woman face, but also the simple life aspects of life for Black people,” Raymond said. In one of her stories, she describes a Black character rolling her hair into a bonnet before going to sleep at night.
“The reason why I focus on speculative fiction or horror, science fiction and fantasy is because I am always trying to chase the question: How can we envision a future that is more inclusive, more diverse and where Black people can live their fullest lives?”
It’s not easy navigating the publishing world as a Black woman, though, Raymond said.
It often feels like an uphill climb.
“The publishing industry can sometimes exploit your Blackness, and you feel like you have to just to get your foot in the door,” she said.
That’s why she founded Aurelio Leo.As a small press, publishing five to 10 books a year, Raymond said she feels under-estimated and is inundated with assumptions that her press is inferior, that the works she publishes are lesser quality.
“You often hear black writers say there’s not much room for blackness in publishing,” said Ekpeki Oghenechovwe, a Nigerian writer and co-editor of the Dominion Anthology with Raymond. “It’s worse for Africans writing from continents away … Normally black voices are side-lined, unrelatable. African voices even more.”
Raymond solicited Oghenechovwe for his work after publishing one of his essays in Aurelio Leo’s literary magazine. Since then, the flood-gates have opened with requests for more writing, Oghenechovwe said. And it matters that Aurelio Leo is Black-owned, the Nigerian writer added, because Raymond cares and values his work.
From an ocean away, Raymond is empowering writers, and forming a bridge between African and African American writers who want to write about the Black experience.
“It feels liberating,” Oghenechovwe said. “I don’t have to wait to not be rejected by a foreign magazine that may think our prose and phrases are awkward. Or our names are strange. (Aurelio Leo) is a safe space that cocoons blackness and Africans and allows it to shine its brightest amongst other worlds of its own kind and be appreciated to the fullest.”
Though production manpower is limited at Aurelio Leo, which Raymond operates out of her Louisville home, with visibility, the publishing house could grow.