This week, I metaphorically sat down with Malachi Walker, author of the Catradora fanfiction Rhythm and Blues. First published in October 2019, Rhythm and Blues is not for the faint of heart, currently at 122,717 words and counting. Don’t let the length dissuade you: this story is beautiful and bittersweet, a perfect balance of hurt and comfort, romance, and healing.
Rhythm and Blues is set in a modern day AU, in a world similar to ours but with the addition of hybrids, such as Magicats and Lizardkin. Orphaned after a tragic accident, a young Catra is sent to the Right Zone, a music school/orphanage with the intention of shaping unlucky kids into successful musicians with lasting careers. As expected, the Right Zone (appropriately referred to as the Fright Zone), is unsafe and unwelcoming to little Catra. As Catra ages, she finds solace from her abusive environment in the arms of her best friend, Adora, and her found family of misfits: Rogelio, Lonnie, and Kyle.
Rhythm and Blues alternates between Catra and Adora’s childhoods in the Fright Zone, while also unfolding the story of these characters as adults, long separated and then reunited, now famous musicians with tour buses worth of emotional trauma, as they learn each other once more.
This story is a real treat to any Catradora fan, but also to readers who want to deepen their understanding of abuse and recovery, autism, the importance of representation, and what it means to be an ally/friend/partner.
And now, here’s Mal to discuss her story, Rhythm and Blues.
Jem (JM): Let’s start off with the premise of your story. It’s really unique and multifaceted. You have the music school and childhood flashbacks, interwoven with modern day. How did you come up with this story? Did you have the pieces figured out when you started, or did it develop along the way?
Mal (ML): The big inspiration behind the rock star AU was the album Phantoms by Marianas Trench. You gotta keep in mind that this was in that nebulous period between everybody losing their minds over Catra opening the Portal at the end of S3, but S4 hadn’t been announced yet. So there was a lot of abandon ship and cancel culture swirling around. Not a great time. Meanwhile, I’m the type of person who always draws inspiration from music that speaks to me, so listening to Phantoms during that period of fandom uncertainty and outright panic really got the ball rolling, ESPECIALLY the song “The Killing Kind,” which naturally became a centerpiece of the rock star au. It was while analyzing those song lyrics of both loss, remorse (and self-hatred) that I got the idea of an au Catra who has access to visions from the canon timeline and the ability to adjust her decisions accordingly—and thereby also offer commentary on why canon Catra made some of the decisions that she did, which I felt was sorely needed before s4 kind of reined in the chaos via Catra’s arc and subsequent callout—and from there it just kind of snowballed into what it has become.
JM: Music plays a huge role in this story. Can you tell me a bit about how you incorporated music?
ML: I adore music. It probably counts as one of my special interests, and I am an autistic for whom hearing is my most oversensitive… well, sense, and since I was only diagnosed three years ago, I’ve spent most of my life “self-medicating” so-to-speak by blocking out the sheer excess noise with music. It’s truly not an exaggeration to say I have earphones in about 75% of my waking hours. As a result, I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about music and getting to express some of those in the fic has been fantastic.
JM: In this fic, Catra struggles with severe night terrors, which serve as visions into the canonical world of the Netflix series. Can you tell me about that and why you incorporated the canon universe that way?
ML: Rhythm & Blues as a whole is meant to function as a dialogue, or—as I like to think of it—a shadow play. It’s all about me commenting on certain key events in SPOP via Catra’s reaction to them, but also the choices she makes as a result of her night terrors. In some ways the foreknowledge benefits her, like already going in knowing that there will be no negotiating with Shadow Weaver and that wanting affection from her is a lost cause, which gives Catra a certain measure of protection from her psychological manipulation and also spills over into helping Adora as well through providing better support. But in some ways it’s also a negative: R&B Catra has seen the way canon!Catra’s inability to let go has been a destructive force both to herself and the people around her and wants to avoid that at all costs. So as a result, she ends up doing the exact opposite and pushes people away, even in cases where the people in question would really rather she held on. She traded off some of her issues but developed a few new ones in their stead, and it’s very important to note that she is not omniscient. She only gets very brief flashes of canon!Catra’s life and decisions, and as a result she doesn’t often get the context and what makes canon!Catra do the horrible things she does. In a way, she’s kind of a stand-in for some of the fandom post-s3 in that regard, though like those people she is beginning to even out with time and growth (hello s4 rebound.)
JM: So, while you draw from canon for the night terrors, you’ve really crafted your own world for this story. The world building is great. I never felt overloaded with information, rather I was just seeing the world from the characters eyes. Can you tell me about your world building process? Did you intend to include racism toward hybrids, and if so, why?
ML: Okay, so. Credit where it’s due: I am an enormous fan of author Kyell Gold, both for rock solid character development/characterization and also the utterly fantastic level of detail that goes into his world building. He genuinely makes it feel like we are looking at actual animal people and not just people with a furry coat of paint slapped on, and he delivers a lot of that detail in very understated, off handed ways that nevertheless do so much to deepen the reader’s understanding of the world he’s crafted. It really helps in getting me to think about what a world shaped by both humans and hybrids working together could look like.
I also try to play very carefully with the topic of racism in the story (because I don’t want to be insensitive) but the material was already there from the show itself. Both Catra and Scorpia have indicated in the past that they’ve dealt with discrimination based on their non-human attributes. And I mean… any time you have multiple very different groups inhabiting the same area, there is bound to be tension. I especially drew on stuff like how if you look at colonial perceptions of the people they came into contact with, the overall presumptuousness and framing things entirely through their cultural lens is a huge thing that continues to generate a lot of tension. Like our own world, Etheria in the rock star AU is slowly getting better now that these communities are able to get their voices out into the public sphere and those outside perspectives are no longer the default, but it’s slow going, especially for the smaller groups who have necessarily had to be isolationist. Though I am going to note that I try very, very hard to create Magicat cultural stuff that is inspired by but not lifted from real world cultures and to avoid drawing too heavily from any one source, because that gets into unfortunate implications very quickly.
JM: On the note of underrepresented communities, Adora is autistic in this story. She also struggles with anger and PTSD. Can you tell me about that?
ML: The genesis of that was my good friend Jo (Johannas_Motivational_Insults, who beta reads for SeasInkarnadine, featured in our previous author interview) wrote up a fantastic meta on how alongside Entrapta, canon Adora also regularly exhibits traits that are very common to those on the spectrum. Examples include things like how she misses the constant noise of the Fright Zone, feels a need for rigid routine, is lowkey anxious all the time, clumsy, and has very low social intelligence. I mean, just look at the first meeting with Huntara for a prime example of that. A lot of that could be put down to having been raised by the Etherian equivalent of a giant spider, but it also could easily be neurodivergence, and it also goes a long way to explaining things like her seeming ignorance of the abuse Catra was enduring. Originally, I was going to have her be autistic but that being just a background detail in R&B (more of an Easter egg than anything) but as time went on it became more and more central to her character, until it was practically slapping me upside the head with an “you’re missing a mega opportunity.” Plus as I mentioned before, I myself am autistic, so a lot of Adora’s struggles and especially the sections regarding her childhood are drawn emotionally from my own experiences.
And of course, part of the ripple effect of Catra making different decisions in this AU is that she doesn’t deflect or hide the abuse past a certain point. Unlike canon!Adora, this Adora is fully aware of what’s going on and her own inability to stop it and there’s the complicating factor of Shadow Weaver exploiting her autism as a control mechanism, and that is just a breeding ground for some deep anger issues. Anger issues that canon!Adora also displays. Whenever canon Adora’s need for control is disrupted, the anger comes out full force, and in s4 we started to get a look at her seething resentment towards Shadow Weaver. So really, it’s just bringing that aspect of her character out into the open. And frankly after what she’s had to live with from such a young age, I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who wouldn’t have PTSD. I think all of the Horde Kids have it to varying degrees in the AU and have been dealing with it through therapy, but Catra and Adora definitely both got hit the hardest and deepest.
There is no real one size fits all approach to autism, so in my opinion, the more representation we have, the better it’ll be and the more it’ll help non-autistics understand us once they start looking for something other than the stereotype.
JM: Thank you for sharing this. In my case—as POC, trans, nb, lesbian—those are the communities I tend to pay attention to in terms of (under)representation. And that leads me to being ignorant regarding other communities. So I really appreciate you contributing your experience because I’m pretty ignorant regarding autism. Learning, always, but still. I think fanfiction is a really powerful platform to share these different experiences.
Hard transition—Shadow Weaver is brutal in this story. She’s very abusive canonically, but since your story is for an older audience, you don’t hold back here. Can you tell me about writing Shadow Weaver’s character?
ML: [Based on my past experiences], I can accurately anticipate almost everything Shadow Weaver does in canon because it’s from a playbook I know by heart. It’s both unsettling but also cathartic to see someone like that played straight and every bit as horrible as the situation actually is.
As for why she is so much more brutal in this AU… I felt some anvils needed to be dropped. Like, I understand why exactly they choose to use her lightning powers in the show, since it’s safer for kids, but that also leads to people downplaying or underestimating that abuse. Because let’s be clear here: Shadow Weaver has straight up been torturing Catra since she was very young. My goal here was to make her actions impossible to downplay or brush aside, while still keeping things from getting too dark. It’s a fine line.
JM: In your story, Adora and Catra are separated for 10 years, yet, despite not seeing each other for that long period of time, your Catra and Adora have a really strong, healthy bond. Why did you write their relationship this way? Moreover, all the relationships in this story are beautiful and intense. The Fright Zone crew are amazing. There’s so much love between all of them. Can you tell me about that?
ML: A huge part of it is that, in the show’s canon, a break between Adora and Catra was inevitable—Shadow Weaver designed it that way. She played them thoroughly against one another so they would never be able to join forces against her. But in R&B, that ability is neutralized because Catra will not play ball. They’ve still obviously got their issues to work out (Adora hiding her autism in particular is gonna be a huge deal in the next fic) but on the whole they are way better at seeing one another for who they are instead of projecting onto one another like they do in canon. And the ripple effect of that increased ability to understand each other spreads outward to the rest of the group as well. Lonnie, Rogelio and Kyle are no longer just background dancers to the Catra and Adora show, they are their crew and they’re all each other’s family, and they understand where they’re all coming from.
It’s [also] just a natural consequence of them both being older/having more life experience than in canon, and having had time to seek help and heal and come to terms with some of the trauma (not all, but they’re getting there.)
And also, I’m just a big ol’ romantic and I have a LOT of yearning in my gay little heart.
JM: If Noelle and the cast and crew-ra were to read your story, what would you like them to know/take away from it?
ML: Thank you so much for bringing this amazing show into the world. It means a lot.
JM: What about She-ra the series inspired you? In writing this story, in your own life, or in general?
ML: Well, I grew up with my own Shadow Weaver. And even after I got out of that situation, I reacted in much the same way Catra did. I lashed out, I drove people away, I did everything I could to make sure no one could see how much pain I was in and no one could get close enough to hurt me. It wasn’t great and I’m not proud to admit I hurt people, but I get it. And the thing is… you don’t see that kind of portrayal in female characters in media. When I was that kid, trying to figure out how to cope with my own abuse, I often modeled my behavior after male characters. Because the male abuse victims were the ones who were allowed to be angry, allowed to be wrathful and break things and generally just behave badly in response to an unjust situation. But the stereotype for female abuse survivors was either an anxious, socially maladjusted wreck or the placid, smiling doll who continues to keep that expression up through untold atrocities. So I’m not exaggerating even a little when I say I have waited my whole life to see a portrayal like Catra, a character who is reflective of my personal experience as an ex-child abuse victim but is still allowed to be sympathetic and is not rendered a lost cause. Like I was into the show before, but S3 rocked my world, because I’ve been there. I obviously didn’t get something as obviously symbolic as a world-ending lever, but I’ve been in that deep dark place where you want to not exist anymore because just the act of existing equals pain.
But I’m also living proof that you can come back from that. It takes a lot of time and effort and persistence (so much persistence) and in some ways it hurts worse than anything you’ve ever lived through, but recovery is possible. And I’ve gotten really tired over the years of stories that either brush aside trauma or end on that whole “oh, you’re forever broken and always a hot second away from a breakdown” brand of misery porn that disguises itself as realism, but really just conveys the message that trying is meaningless.
So to see a show that doesn’t shy away from portraying how bad abuse is but nonetheless keeps that optimism there… It’s pretty incredible. Because remember… Micah was able to recover and have a happy life after what Shadow Weaver did to him, which is something we don’t see nearly enough of in shows: a recovered abuse victim. So you can’t tell me the rest of these guys can’t get there if they work on it. It’ll take a lot of time and effort, but it’s possible. And I can’t wait to see how it all plays out.
Rhythm and Blues by Malachi Walker is a powerful story that somehow is a delight to read, while also exploring trauma, mental health, and the path to recovery. As a Catradora fan, it was refreshing to read a story where these characters were unflinching and honest in their love for each other. And while you might cry while reading, I hope you read Mal’s story. It will challenge your perspective and fill that catradora-shaped hole in your heart, and you’ll get some great music recommendations out of it. Read Rhythm and Blues here, and if you binge the whole story in one sitting like I did, remember to take water breaks and hold your phone screen further from your face!
Next week: I interview HeroTheHardWay, author of everyone’s favorite niche Catradora fanfiction As Long As We Stay Together (If We Just Stay Together), wherein Catra and Adora are astrophysicists at the Amundsen Scott Station in Antarctica. Read the story here!