The Big Idea: Joelle Presby

What’s in a word? For Joelle Presby, perhaps the whole world… for starters. In this Big Idea, Presby explains how a single word opens up a whole universe for her novel The Dabare Snake Launcher.


My big idea is a dabare.

When you grow up in an area where everyone else speaks at least four languages fluently, but your family moves around, you start over with a different primary language every year or three. For other people, that meant getting very good at language learning. For me, it meant adoring the numerous West African children’s games that were numbers or science-based and could be played without being able to really communicate.

And it meant treasuring the words that were kept in the common argot even as we moved around the country of Cameroon. Dabare was one such word. The fact that it mostly related to science-y and engineering-ish type things made it all the more precious.

The word dabare from the Fulani language in current and historic usage varies significantly depending on which part of the Fulani diaspora is providing the definition and how recently the recording entity has conquered or been conquered by that powerful tribe.

Within The Dabare Snake Launcher, I honor that flexibility in the word’s meaning by redefining it before each section from a new fictional source.


\ da-ba-RAY \

an engineering construction made with repurposed parts and extreme technical know-how, which either works flawlessly or not at all

origin: West African Fulani

Definition from The Cassini-Sadou Dictionary, 3rd ed.

Dabare—the engineering know-how to plan, implement, and follow through on a complex project

(Samson Young’s note: Depending on context, “dabare” is sometimes applied to someone who only thinks they have this “dabare” skillset, but the resulting engineered object—also referred to as a “dabare”—proves the individual does not/did not.)

Definition from “Local Terms” in The TCG Kilimanjaro Handbook

Dabare—early texts using this term can be understood to mean some combination of the following: (1) scheming, (2) the practice of magic, (3) the application of knowledge in an attempt to force a result, not always successfully

Source: University of Yaoundé, Fulani Folklore Wiki

Characters who scheme make for really fun story-telling. And complex engineering is a delight to my nerdy soul. I began work on my Dabare novel after getting my hands on a hardbound 2013 collection of articles from the International Academy of Aeronautics titled, “Space Elevators: An Assessment of Technological Feasibility and Way Forward.” I skipped to the section in the back of the book with all the reasons why a space elevator was impossible.

They weren’t wrong.

But if you give me science fiction’s traditional single cheat, in this case, a tether of carbon nano fiber in truly industrial lengths, all the other problems are solvable with money, power, and hard work.

In short, a whole lot of characters would have to fight for and against the construction of Earth’s first space elevator. If it succeeded, it’d be the amazing wonderous kind of dabare. If it failed, it’ll be the greatest waste of all time, and Earth would’ve been better off if no one had ever tried. A space elevator project is a dabare. It has to be.

The Dabare Snake Launcher: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

6 Comments on “The Big Idea: Joelle Presby”

  1. “A tether of carbon nano fiber of truly industrial length”? Promises to be at least as much fun as “The Descent of Anansi”. Mind you, I suspect the fun & carbon fiber to be the only thing in common with the earlier work.

  2. dabare

    What a wonderful concept! I could have used this so often during my career.

    I will treasure the term and look forward to reading the book. Thanks so much.

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