By Hari Ziyad
Gregory Anderson-Elysee is a Haitian-American filmmaker, director, writer and model, and has been involved in the arts since he was a child. He is currently in the process of publishing a comic series revolving around characters from African folklore.
Growing up and having an interest in stories of the Africana Diaspora, I’m hoping this is the first of many stories I can produce in introducing many people to African and Black-based lore and characters that are unfortunately being passed on and, in a sense, forgotten. Rich characters that have so much potential for modern storytelling and will hopefully have a place today.
Hari: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me, Greg. I know you’re very busy with all of the things you do.
Greg: Too many things, haha. Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here!
H: And that’s what I want to start with. What drew you to all of these various interests? One might argue that writing and modeling, for instance, are two very different things. Do you see a through-line in your work?
G: I guess I just have an appreciation for art in general. I wrote my first story back in first grade and I would make my own books with pictures and staple them together. That was my hobby and because of that I started drawing a lot.
In high school I got into theater and filmmaking and in the past few years fell into modeling when I was taking a break from acting, but that became it’s own thing.
I love telling stories just as much as I love reading, watching, and hearing them. I always want to tell a story in some way and even modeling tells a story. I like to give a sense of myself in every project I do and hopefully that comes across. It’s all connected to my need to present a tale or idea.
H: That’s funny—someone just asked me if I consider myself a writer and I responded that I prefer the term “storyteller”. I feel you when you talk about the various ways a story can be told and that’s the beauty of a lot of the work done by creators I follow. They don’t stick to just one medium. Their stories won’t be contained.
G: First off: dude, if you’re going to use storyteller, you’re an amazing storyteller! The way you put your ideas down, your opinions… you have a talent and it’s always gripping. I can’t wait to see how much further you go with it.
As for getting into other mediums, it just feels normal to me. I don’t go in thinking: hmm, what field am I gonna try to jump into today? I just jump in because something appeals to me and all of a sudden I’m stressing that I have no more free time because I’m involved in something else and someone thinks I’m good at it, haha.
H: Thank you! It’s really interesting that you connect the types of stories you tell through modeling with your other stories. You’re a very—how shall we say—imposing guy (haha) and I noticed that throughout your work you also have a connection with mythology, powers and superheroes. You think there is a connection there?
G: Jeez. I don’t feel imposing at all, that’s so weird for me to hear. Haha. Growing up I’ve always been into superheroes. I started getting into comic books in the second grade and even before that I loved superhero cartoons.
My love for mythology came from my mom introducing me to the original Clash of the Titans and I was a big Hercules and Xena fan. I taught myself Greek mythology as a kid so I was definitely the know-it-all in my Classical Cultures class in college. And in high school I started to get interested in other mythological figures outside of Greek and, while some I cared more others, it was always fun to see what heroes were important for which culture.
Superheroes in a sense are just modern mythological characters, when you think about it, so I suppose they’re all connected in that way when it comes to my interest.
H: You say you don’t feel imposing all the time and it’s so hard to believe! Let’s just say, I could see you fighting crime in a cape haha.
G: Only if you’re my sidekick! Haha.
H: Let me get back to the gym, then. At this point, I’d only be a liability.
But I think what is interesting is that for someone who isn’t as immersed in mythology or the world of superheroes, it’s easy to, I think, assume that the stories all derive from one or just a few cultures—cultures that aren’t made up from people who look like you or me. I wouldn’t have expected a comic about Anansi the Spider—and, yet, here you are making one where he’s a character.
How do you feel that cultures outside of those that are primarily white fit into this world, and what drew you to tell this story of Is’nana?
G: Well Anansi showing up in comics is actually nothing new. He appeared as a spirit in a Spider-Man story written by J. Michael Straczynski where it’s revealed he was the first “spider man” and he also appeared in a Dwayne McDuffie Justice League story where he was connected to the superheroine Vixen. I just don’t think Anansi has been a lead character in a comic, at least not to my knowledge.
And I think cultures and characters of all types should have a more prominent place in our culture today, not just… white mythology, for lack of a better term. We’re suppose to be a melting pot of ideas and backgrounds yet beyond the same ol’ famous mythology figures from Greek or Norse stories, we know nothing else.
Maybe there’s an interest in Egyptian mythology but then you have so many people disconnecting Egyptian mythology from African culture. I mean there’s an upcoming movie about Egyptian gods where they’re all white except for one Black token!
The unfortunate thing is that a lot of people don’t know the stories of their backgrounds, whether it’s African or Caribbean or African-American backgrounds, and it’s a theme that is apparent in a lot of my work. It seems you have to go to college to learn of these stories and their figures if you’re not being taught it by your parents.
There’s so much untapped history in our culture, and right now I’m referring to Black culture—speaking for myself. Among the histories are stories that people don’t know about. It always breaks my heart when I ask Black people I know if they’ve ever heard of Anansi and I get a “No.” The few Black people who have heard of him say to me, “I haven’t heard that name since I was a kid in my old country.”
There’s so much substance gone and all it takes is research. And from that research comes creativity and from there comes interest.
All that was what drew me to create Is’nana: The Were-Spider. I absolutely love the stories of Anansi the Spider and I personally felt that his spirit as the God of Stories was dying. Is’nana is suppose to represent the attempt to save his father’s legacy in this modern world.
H: One thing I noticed when reading Is’nana was an—for lack of a better term—obsession with the idea of “being forgotten.” Both the villain Osebo and the heroes, Anansi and Is’nana, mention this concept as if there are consequences beyond what we can imagine in no longer knowing them. I read that as a metaphor for our roots and where we are from.
How do the dangers of forgetting history manifest in your personal life and how do you see that playing out in society?
G: Well, no one likes to be forgotten nor invisible. Everyone wants to leave some sort of mark. Even if not big, no one wants to be a nobody, even if it’s just being somebody to one person in their life. All life has some form of meaning, whether it’s long term or for even one other individual.
The spirits of Osebo and Anansi, while being enemies since the beginning of storytelling itself in the Anansi myths, both fear their legacy being forgotten. If they become forgotten, they lose their power and therefore they lose impact. And it all comes down to pride. Pride of who we are, where we come from, and how far it’s gotten us to where we are as a people and as an individual.
Speaking for myself, I know that I can learn so much more about my past, and I do that by doing research into our cultures. I’m always game to learn more. Each time I learn something new, I get a bit more insight into who I am due to all the struggles that ensured my existence.
It’s very important to me and I’m baffled by people who have no interest in any part of their backgrounds. Not even one. We lose our essence, our core, and our roots and I feel that a lot of mainstream media isn’t helping to salvage the spirit of where we come from. It’s very dangerous and it’s very sad.
You see it played out when people have no interest in the past, whether it’s actual history or stories and other forms of culture, and it’s really being played out when those same people see their natural culture as being inferior and not worth fighting for or being presented and showcased. You can’t ask to be added to the table when you won’t showcase the delicious types of dishes that makes you unique and different from the same ol’ dry mac and cheese that’s been there for consumption for years.
H: But there is a difference in how Anansi’s pride and Osebo’s play out. Anansi seems to be motivated by goodness—and he’s presented as a hero. Osebo’s desire to be remembered seems rooted in selfishness.
Where is that line? It reminds me almost of the difference with the idea of “gay pride” and “straight pride” or “Black pride” and “white pride”.
G: That’s an awesome interpretation, haha. Anansi has been a working figure in the story’s universe for a long time and he knows the good in people from how long he’s been a deity. That being said, in the original mythologies, Anansi himself is very selfish and is the original trickster. He’s the true OG. At this point he wants to leave a mark but by being a good example for his son, Is’nana, although at times it’s very hard for him due to his weird personality.
Osebo, on the other hand, doesn’t give a damn who gets hurt in the process and sees everyone and everything as being beneath him. He feels in order for him to be remembered and respected, he needs to ensure that he’s on top and especially feared.
There are so many ways for one to be remembered but it’s in your approach as to how and why you’ll be remembered.
H: I think the comic is great and I can’t wait for others to read it. At what stage of the process are you now, and what are the next steps for you to make this available to the public and what have been your struggles in getting it made?
G: Thank you! I’m so happy you enjoyed the book. And awww man, don’t get me started! Haha. Nah, the production of the book was actually a lot of fun and I’ve connected with a lot of amazing artists who helped bring it to life.
Walter Ostle, the penciler and inker, was the best person for the job in bringing my vision to life in such a dynamic way and he brought in Lee Milewski to help with colors which added a great lush and surreal atmosphere that won me over instantly.
Letterer Joshua Cozine added so much mood to the final product with his font styles. And let me not forget Walt Msonza Barna who did a ridiculous cover that is truly creepy and impactful. They really helped the process be as seamless and fun as possible.
The struggle was definitely having the financial means to pay them for all their hard work and talent. Being an artist is a thankless job, these guys taking hours of their time to work on creating a beautiful product like this to life. It took quite a few months and they have their own lives and projects of their own.
I’ve learned so much seeing the process happen and these guys deserve as much praise as they can get and it was only fair to pay them for their services. I had to pick up a few different jobs and gigs to ensure the production of the book and that was the biggest struggle for me and very much continues to be the main struggle for the book.
There are a few logistics left for me to do behind the scenes but the overall production is done. Right now the Kickstarter to raise funding for the book is up and running which is great since everything has been out of pocket for me thus far and it’s pretty damn dry, haha. The Kickstarter will help pay for the printing of the book along with a few rewards for supporters like prints, T-shirts, posters, and an original Anansi stuffed toy, along with further production of future Is’nana books.
H: Anything else to add?
G: I just want to thank everyone who’s been involved in the making of the book and thank everyone who has shown interest in it. I hope it is well received and that it’s a lot of fun to read. I can only hope that it helps bring some interest to other cultural and folkloric ideas that are out there. And thank you, Hari, for taking the time to have me here and this awesome discussion. It really means a lot.
H: I’m sure it will! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today, and I cannot wait to see more of your work!
G: Oh, more is coming! And I look forward to more of your own writing!
Hari Ziyad is a Brooklyn-based storyteller and the Editor-in-Chief of RaceBaitR. Their work has been featured on Gawker, Out, Ebony, Mic, The Guardian, Colorlines, Paste Magazine, Black Girl Dangerous, Young Colored and Angry, The Feminist Wire and The Each Other Project. They are also an assistant editor for Vinyl Poetry & Prose and contributing writer for Everyday Feminism.