Build the Door, Hold the Door: Protecting the Citadel of Diverse Speculative Fiction–Nonfiction Introduction

I’m honored to have been your nonfiction editor for Disabled People Destroy Fantasy. Ridiculously honored. Honored and gobsmacked. Honor-smacked.

The Destroy series has come to mean something deeply important and deeply specific to our community of storytellers and story-appreciators. For many of us, the success of Destroy represents a kind of fulcrum. It’s the smash of the battering ram, the whiz of projectiles through the arrow-loops, the ball of flaming pitch flung over the castle wall that lets the occupiers know we’re here. Women, queers, people of color, disabled people. It’s our castle, too, this old, neglected heap of stones, and we’re coming in.

And now, with each subsequent Destroy project breaking new ground, it feels as though the old drawbridge is finally shuddering open to admit us. And we’ve come spilling in, jubilant, already clearing away the broken flagstones and the listing columns. And spec-fiction essayists, we professional de-constructors of stories, are feeling like the moment for our skill set has finally arrived. We’re tired of the inaccessibility of these crumbling stairwells, these small dark towers, these uninhabitable stagnant moats. We’re ready for the glorious re-model. We want to tear down everything that is creaking and dark and unlovely, and make space for something shining and strange and new. A place we can truly inhabit. A place that we can truly love. And it really feels as though there is nothing on earth that can stop us.

Many of us have lately voiced the feeling that we are in the midst of our own Golden Age of speculative fiction. And how could we not feel that way, with so many previously unheard voices suddenly ringing through the halls of genre? So many bold new banners. We feel richer and stranger and fiercer and more beautiful than we have ever before felt.

But I think there’s a truth we have to face about our castle, now that we’re inside it, and that is that it’s shrinking.

Our castle is shrinking.

Speculative short fiction markets are disappearing at a rate far faster than we’re creating them. We’ve lost five big ones in the last year alone, and many of our newer markets don’t last long. For writers of nonfiction, the problem is considerably worse, if they haven’t given up on the idea of being paid for their words entirely. At a time when speculative writing ought to be experiencing wild, unchecked growth, more and more markets are finding it difficult to simply keep the doors open. In castle terms, the venerable aged towers have tumbled, and the bright new towers intended to replace them have been falling away faster than the old. Our authors, the builders of our citadel, are rapidly running out of places to be published authors. 

So what can we, as both appreciators and producers of short speculative fiction, do about this? Other than financially supporting the markets and the authors that are still in operation, what can we do to keep our castle standing? After all, it’s ours. We have declared our right to be here, we have taken up residence. This great keep is our responsibility, now.

Well, first and foremost, we need to start building. Makes sense, right? Demolition itself is not growth. It is the work that is sometimes necessary before growth can take place. Deciding what we don’t want to read in our fiction does not get us very far in generating fiction that we do want to read. The great re-model only really gets underway when the pace of creation outstrips the pace of demolition.

So we need to give authors and publishers room to build new things. After all, it doesn’t do any good to identify the builders if they are not given the time or space or support they need to build anything and have it remain standing.

Building anything in art takes a simply epic amount of courage. If we want more diverse writing to exist in the world, if we want to continue to read earth-shaking stories written by and about women and queer folks, and people of color, and disabled folks… if we want to continue to read thoughtful, beautiful essays from valuable perspectives… then we’re going to need to deliberately create an atmosphere that fosters that courage, that encourages and rewards risk. If we want authors and publishers to be more prolific, we need to find ways of letting them know that we support their grand and wild experiments, even when they come out a little wrong. Even if some of them turn out to be the sort of big stone gargoyle we don’t want to look directly in the face. 

This community is a community of reformers. Our minds are always a little bit on the future, the what-could-be of it all. As reformers, we tend to seek out perfection. We look at what’s around us and continually think: This could and should be better. As readers, we don’t just want more marginalized voices in speculative fiction, we want those voices to speak the truths we’ve been waiting to read all our lives. We don’t just want greater representation of marginalized characters, we want total representation. We want to see people like us inhabiting stories we love, utterly and fully realized, unmarred by any false moments or unchallenged assumptions.

But intrinsic to art is the failed attempt. Part of giving an artist room to build is giving them room to make mistakes, to disappoint us, to fall short of our expectations both artistically and personally, and then take up their tools and try again. We as readers need to allow ourselves to love imperfect works by imperfect artists, to express full-throated support of the things we love, even while we are asking ourselves what could be better. We need to let these voices know that there is value in their speech, even when what they have to say is not something we especially want to hear, and that even their outright failures should be allowed to continue to exist in an environment where the castle is never quite finished.

Essayists are in an especially good position to help create such an environment. Our work can make an impact on the cultural mood even if it’s only a few scattered thoughts posted to our own blog. Essays that speak unequivocally about an imperfect work we love, or applaud the courage of a work we don’t, are not merely “nice” or “kind.” Intelligent, earnest words from other people are often the only thing that keeps an artist making art. And we need artists to keep making art. Past the point when their work is shiny and new to us, past the point when they are bold, beautiful new voices who can do no wrong in our estimation.

Because after we build, it’s our job to protect what we’ve built. To trust it. To believe in the value of its continued existence, even in the times when it fails us.

Another thing about being reformers by nature is that we tend to mistrust Establishment. As soon as something is Established, we start noticing all the ways its big, long shadow falls over the world.

But we inhabit the castle, now. We’ve put down roots in it. We want those roots to be long and deep and permanent. We are not looking to squat for a few short years. We are looking to live here. We need strong outer walls. We need towers and turrets and buttresses that won’t be pulled down to make way for theoretical better ones. We need to make permanent space for imperfection and disagreement and the odd bit of ugly charm.

My goal in this section was not to present you with prescriptive essays about what the role of disability or disabled authors should be in creating speculative fiction. It was not my wish to present disabled writers as a unified group, with a set of universally shared experiences that able-bodied people must learn to be mindful of. Rather, I sought out works which centered on the wild, beautiful visionary minds of the essayists themselves. The things these essayists dream of building. There are many ways to be a writer with a disability, and many ways to relate to your disabled body. If we are going to build, we need to eradicate the idea that there are correct answers to the open-ended questions inherent in the act of creation.

Some of the essays in this section express opinions I flatly disagree with. They are beautiful essays. Some of them push gently up against each other. They are beautiful essays. Some of them are not interested in convincing anyone of anything at all, and those are the ones that simply bowled me over with their charm and beauty.

I hope you love them, like I do.

Let’s build.

Nicolette Barischoff

Nicolette Barischoff has spastic cerebral palsy, which has only made her more awesome. She qualified for SFWA with her first three stories, published in Long Hidden, Accessing the Future, and Unlikely Story’s The Journal of Unlikely Academia. Her work has been spoken aloud by the wonderful people of PodCastle, and one of her novelettes is mandatory reading at the University of Texas, Dallas. She edited the personal essays section of Uncanny Magazine’s Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction, which won a Hugo Award. She’s also a fierce advocate for disability and body-positivity, which has occasionally landed her in trouble. She made the front page of CBS New York, who called her activism “public pornography” and suggested her face was a public order crime. She has the exact same chair as Professor X, and it is also powered by Cerebro.

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