An Interview with Veronica Henry, cofounder of MyAfricanDiaspora.com

Veronica Henry is the cofounder of MyAfricanDiaspora.com and the editor of the newly released short-story collection  Bloodlines – Tales from the African Diaspora. Born in Brooklyn, NY, she currently resides in Las Vegas, NV. She is also an author of sci-fi and fantasy fiction and a freelance writer and has written on a variety of topics, including business, arts and entertainment. Her novels include The Return (sci-fi)  and Monday’s Purgatory (fantasy). She also writes short stories. Her articles have appeared in BizBash Magazine, Nevada Magazine, Expanded Horizons, Fantasy Magazine and The Sierra Express Media (Sierra Leone West Africa)

Among her many achievements is her success in using her love and aptitude for internet technology to help foster greater public awareness of race and gender relations, the African Diaspora, and women’s issues. 

After tracing her African ancestry to Sierra Leone together with her partner Eric Deal, they founded the website www.myafricandiaspora.com, a news and information website targeted at members of the African Diaspora, with the aim of helping them reconnect with their roots.

The depth of Veronica’s intellectual and spiritual convictions was demonstrated in 2008 when she gave up a successful 20-year IT career to pursue her entrepreneurial dreams and her desire to be a writer. She was also driven by a yearning to trace the African roots of her family tree. With the help of DNA mapping by africanancestry.com, she has since confirmed her links to the Mende people of Sierra Leone through her maternal lineage.

Veronica’s quest to uncover her African roots represents  a growing trend among African Americans to use DNA mapping to lift the veil that has long enshrouded their ancestral lineage. Not only has her experience strengthened her determination to build bridges between peoples of African descent, she also wants to use the revolution in internet technology to help forge interpersonal and business connections throughout the Diaspora.  The launch of the short-story collection  Bloodlines – Tales from the African Diaspora is one of the fruits of her labours.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Veronica during which she spoke about the aim of her website myafricandiaspora.com and her recent book-publishing venture. She also spoke about her journey to Africa after tracing her roots to Sierra Leone and the life-changing impact the experience had on her.  

How does it feel having published Bloodlines – Tales from the African Diaspora?  

Veronica: It feels great to have this collection published. I’m excited for the authors in particular. For many of them, this is their first publication. It was a lot of work, from sorting through contest entries, to marketing, to actual production, but definitely a worthwhile experience. 

Did you ever consider having it published by one of the regular trade publishers? What was the experience like with Smashwords and Createspace?

Veronica: Actually, it wasn’t. I’ve talked with many traditionally and self-published authors and understand the pro’s and con’s of both models. We knew that this was a piece that we wanted to have more control over.

Both Smashwords and CreateSpace have worked out well for us. I think for non-technical people, the layout can be challenging, but they are willing to assist.

Did the volume of entries you received for the initial short story competition meet your expectations?

Veronica: With this being our first contest, we didn’t know what to expect. I’d say that we didn’t receive as many entries as we’d hoped for, but were still happy with the response. And we’ve learned a lot. Next time around, we’ll refine our initial marketing strategy. Being a small business, resources are always a challenge.

Overall, what do you think of the quality of the stories in Bloodline? 

Veronica: Of course, reading likes and dislikes are subjective, but I think the stories are excellent. There is something for everyone in this collection. All genres, all geographies, all age-groups. 

Do you feel the need to create opportunities for new writers?

Veronica: Absolutely. There simply aren’t enough markets or outlets that feature short fiction by people of color. When we conceived this idea, we searched for other collections that encompassed black writers from across the diaspora, and when we couldn’t find it, that’s what we set out to create.

In 2008 you turned your back on a corporate career that you had built over a period of 20 years to pursue what, I imagine, must have seemed an uncertain future? Have you ever wondered, ‘What on earth was I thinking?’ 

Veronica: Everyday. I can’t describe the feeling. It’s something that other entrepreneurs will recognize. There’s a voice in your head that keeps whispering what may seem nonsensical, irrational, counter-intuitive babble about pursuing your dream. When I filtered out the noise and honed in on the voice, the message was clear and I knew what I had to do.

So far, what has been the public response to your website myAfricanDiaspora.com? 

Veronica: The international community has been unbelievable. I’ve met and conversed with people from around the world. Travelled to Africa and established our first friendships on the continent. Writers, business people and artists have all reached out to us for inclusion on the website. This has been the most amazing experience of my life. 

How did it feel when you received your DNA results from africanancestry.com showing that your mother’s lineage came from the Mende people of Sierra Leone?

Veronica: In a word, relief. Not knowing where you come from is an awful scar of slavery – the depth of which I’m not even sure most understand. I feel privileged to be a part of the Sierra Leone community and the Mende tribe. They have welcomed us with open arms and I am eternally grateful.

How has this knowledge changed your life?

Veronica: After obtaining our ancestry results and researching the plight of Sierra Leone, and many other West African countries, we wanted to do something. We realized that the picture was much larger – that every person of African descent was affected.

We decided to launch a website, dedicated to the idea of reconnecting the entire African diaspora, if not by DNA result, then by the news and information we could provide.  That decision changed our lives.

On your visit to Senegal and Sierra Leone how were you received and were you able to relate to the people and their way of life?

Veronica: Since we’d spoken to many Sierra Leoneans before making the trip, we had little reservation about how we would be received and we weren’t disappointed. People opened their homes to us, cooked for us, talked and educated us on our history.

On our first night there, a minister – The Hon. Alhaji Alpha B. Kanu (current Minister of Mineral Resources) even treated us to dinner and we shook hands with the President Ernest Bai Koroma and Vice President Samuel Sam-Sumana, at a diaspora conference. It was surreal and I think of returning everyday.

You visited the Bunce Island slave castle in Sierra Leone. What was it like? 

Veronica: Much of the castle is in ruins, but what is left evoked all the emotions you would imagine – anger, sadness, oddly struck by the beauty of the almost untouched greenery, yet also, a feeling of completing a cycle. That visit inspired a short story that became my first professional sale as a writer.

It is reported that you are trying to formalize your reconnection to the birthplace of your ancestors by applying for Sierra Leone citizenship to complement your U.S. citizenship. If so, why do you feel the need to take this step?

Veronica: Two reasons – first, we plan to become a part of this community. Visiting was not a one-time thing, and having a Sierra Leone passport will make travel easier. Second, because it is a true reflection of who we are. Time and circumstance cannot change that.

You have had firsthand experience of the exceptional difficulties Black writers face in trying to get their work published – especially if they’re based outside of North America, the UK and Europe. You have voiced your frustration at the relative lack of stories featuring people of African descent.  From your perspective as an IT professional, and one who is passionate about technology, do you think the Internet and the advent of new technologies like e-books, e-readers and print-on-demand publishing offer writers more publishing opportunities?  

Veronica: Slowly, but undeniably, self-publishing has become a more attractive option for those that may not fit the traditional publishing model. Thanks to the Internet, there are many publishing options and marketing outlets. The challenge will be for authors not to see this as a shortcut, but as an option for work that has undergone all the rigors required to ensure you publish the most professional book possible – albeit one that will require more work than you’d imagine.

How important is writing to you?

Veronica: Writing means everything to me, it’s become a compulsion. On days when I’m busy, consumed with updating the website, my freelance work or other things, I miss not being able to write fiction. Still I do some form of writing everyday, whether it’s an article, a blog post or fiction, I’m never far from the written word.

Who are some of your favourite writers?

Veronica: Octavia Butler is my inspiration. Not only did I love her work, but she proved to me that a black woman could write and be successful in the sci-fi genre. There are too many others to mention, but I also admire the work of: Ursula LeGuin, Charles Saunders, Nalo Hopkinson, China Mieville and Jhumpa Lahiri.

See http://www.veronicawrites.com/ to learn more about Veronica.

Ruins of the Bunce Island slave fortress in Sierra Leone

After returning from her visit to the Bunce Island slave castle in Sierra Leone, Veronica was inspired to write the short story “My Soul to Free.” It was published by Expanded Horizons. It’s a moving piece that captures the emotional pain and turmoil of her experience and reignites the horror of the slave trade. Read it here …

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