Finding Myself in Speculative Fiction Again After Leaving Other Worlds Behind

While the Black Lives Matter movement is finally receiving long-overdue mainstream focus, there are many separate social issues beneath that wide umbrella. One of the topics gaining attention right now in the quest for true equality is representation in literature. Hence, Black creators’ promotion of Black Voices Matter. A quick perusal of that hashtag on Twitter1 demonstrates how far-reaching it is, even leading to the inclusion of #BVM for Black authors to use for pitch events on the platform and plans of action by Penguin Random House2 and other publishers.

Suddenly, bestseller lists are a lot more diverse, but it required a push for Black voices to make that happen. What may surprise some, however, is that these new hot sellers by Black authors aren’t necessarily new at all. Some titles were published years ago, but didn’t make such lists for myriad reasons—and a lack of strong promotion by the publisher was often one of them.

Publishers often have a set amount of money to promote new books, and when entrenched bias comes into play, that money mostly goes to the promotion of works by white authors—with exceptions for a tiny number of non-white writers in the industry’s attempt “to cover up systemic racism.3

People who have always seen themselves represented in literature don’t necessarily notice the absence of others. What some people in publishing don’t recognize is that Black people read and we read widely. This despite having “people in high places—executives, gatekeepers—who will say Black people don’t read, which is a whole lie,” as author L.L. McKinney relayed to PBS NewsHour4. However, we don’t solely read the trauma porn about our experiences that publishing makes into bestselling books.

The gatekeepers to publishing are overwhelmingly white. They’re the ones who decide which books are published and which are promoted. Until the industry changes from top to bottom and more people of color hold positions not only as agents and editors, but also as executive-level decision makers (such as Dana Canedy recently becoming Senior VP and Publisher at Simon & Schuster, the first Black person to hold the position), too few of them will realize that Black people read more than the pain-heavy books they’re so fond of promoting. We also read romance, thrillers, self-help manuals, cookbooks, and yes, science fiction and fantasy.

If you think being a Blerd (Black nerd) is hard, imagine being a Blerd girl coming of age in the early 1980s in the deep South.

That was me.

At that time, there was no internet community of Blerds who proudly proclaimed their love of science fiction, comic books, horror movies and any music that wasn’t straight R&B. Instead, there was being called a “weirdo” if you admitted you liked pre-“Purple Rain” Prince better than New Edition and watched Star Trek in syndication more than you watched The Cosby Show.

In line with the music and TV-watching habits was my favorite book genre: anything speculative. If it fell neatly into sci-fi, fantasy or horror, I was hooked. So I graduated from the tenacious, real world-inhabiting heroines of Judy Blume straight to Stephen King, a jump from first bras to deadly vampires. After I’d exhausted King’s then-modest bibliography, I moved on to work by other writers like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Dean Koontz.

Do you see a pattern here?

Yes, there were women writing in the SFF space, but outside of Ursula K. Le Guin, they weren’t much publicized, at least not where I lived. Most of my book browsing took place in my local library, so if it wasn’t on the shelves there, I didn’t know about it, as my local librarian was much more likely to recommend Heidi or Ramona Quimby instead of what I actually wanted to read.

After years of immersing myself in settings as diverse as outer space, wardrobe portals, and the sea floor, I began to realize something wasn’t as diverse: the characters. Those characters, like the writers whose work I loved, were overwhelmingly white and male. How can there be infinite space for aliens, monsters, talking animals, and haunted houses, and yet so little room for Black characters who are the heroes of their own stories?

It can be this way when Black authors are given fewer opportunities—and fewer chances to mess up—than their white counterparts, or when the powers-that-be can’t “relate” to Black characters’ lives. For example, a Black friend told me that a white agent once told her that she couldn’t relate to the poverty in my friend’s book—it was the reason given for not taking her on as a client.

Writers are often told to “write what you know,” but we’re talking speculative fiction here. If ever there was an opportunity to write what you don’t know, this is it. After all, who among us has actually met a hobbit, a dragon, a mermaid or a Martian? One of the most wonderful aspects of writing and reading this genre of fiction is that the normal rules need not apply. Sci-fi and fantasy can upend the laws of gravity, rewrite history and imagine futures. Yet, in all of the fantastical and mundane worlds that countless writers have created out of thin air, I found so few Black faces.

Sure, there was the (very) occasional sidekick, a minor secondary character, but not many main characters who were doing what so many white characters in speculative fiction so often do. And that is—be the hero of their own stories, the captain of the ship, the dragon slayer, the good witch, the pixie, the adventurer.

The genre that I loved best didn’t seem to love me—that is, characters who looked like me—back.

So slowly, I stopped reading pre-internet fan fiction Star Trek novels—slim volumes that used to take up their own area in the sci-fi section of the bookstore—and the books with a bare-chested, sword-wielding, long-haired blond man on the covers. I left sci-fi and fantasy behind and immersed myself in worlds that were closer to home. At the time, in the early 1990s, well before diversity and inclusivity became buzzwords, I didn’t have the words to express my disillusionment with speculative fiction. I simply started reading more books written by Black authors and that featured primarily Black characters, out of an unrealized, unspoken desire to read about people who looked like me.

I reached out to Rena Barron, author of Kingdom of Souls and lifelong sci-fi and fantasy fan, with questions on how her love of the genre shaped her own work and if a lack of diversity influenced her decision to focus on the SFF space. She enjoys the limitless imagination in the genre, but became “convinced that no one wanted books” featuring Black characters doing fantastical things. But now, she can “write fantasy with Black people going on big adventures, wielding magic, fighting monsters, and saving the world because I never read anything like that growing up.”

I, and many other speculative fiction fans, welcome authors like Barron with open arms.

Moving into adulthood, I was still reading, but often, I wasn’t as excited about it.

I read “issue” books and books about Black American trauma5, which—compared to books written by and about us that offered a bit of escape from harsh, all-too familiar realities—were easy to find, as if the whole of the Black American experience is about little more than slavery, civil rights and the heavy boot of racism constantly on our necks. Those books have merit, but sometimes I just wanted to read straight fantasy featuring characters who had brown skin, curly hair, and more than a casual understanding of games like Dominoes and Spades.

So while I was reading books about either Black trauma or breezy women’s fiction, I missed SFF dearly.

Luckily, a title just so happened to catch my eye in the library one day: Kindred, by Octavia Butler.

By the time I read this life-changing novel circa 1995, Butler was a celebrated Hugo Award winner and had published the first book in her Parable duology. For the first time ever, I was able to read about main characters who were unapologetically Black and female, despite American society’s seeming desire that Black women apologetically present themselves. Otherwise, we run the risk of being deemed too loud, too angry. In short, too Black. And here was Butler, writing about characters of all colors without race being the singular, driving issue of the books. As with a lot of speculative literature, she touched on timely topics and she disguised them in words, and worlds, that didn’t hit readers over the head with an obvious message. But she also allowed her characters to be what white characters had always been: free. Free to express a wide range of emotions and actions, to love, to laugh, to be the heroes of their own narratives.

Instead of being the mystical sidekick, or the Oracle to Neo, Butler’s characters inhabited worlds and universes where they existed at the forefront of the action. Her characters were complex and, like real people and real characters in other books, they sometimes made bad decisions or were unlikeable.

They had half-human, half-alien babies in the Lilith’s Brood trilogy or, in the Parable duology, they navigated what could be an eerily prescient landscape if we continue on the same self-destructive, planet-destroying path we’re currently walking. Unlike Black trauma books, which focus so heavily on slavery or police brutality, Butler’s work didn’t neglect the suffering of Black characters but she also never made her books stand solely on that trauma. The pain her characters faced and dealt with may have contributed to their identity, but it also played a secondary role to what these people actually did, whether it was shapeshifting or time travel.

Through Butler’s work, I fell in love with science fiction and fantasy all over again. I related to her characters without feeling like I was drowning in their racism-induced agony because they were doing more than simply suffering. Naturally, after I read everything of hers that I could find, I went looking for more Black speculative authors. I found Tananarive Due, Colson Whitehead, and Brandon Massey, but it took a while, not until the past few years, that I discovered a lot more. Names like Nisi Shawl, N.K. Jemisin, Rivers Solomon, and Nicky Drayden. Evan Winter, Nnedi Okorafor, and Marlon James.

But what reading Butler’s work also did was make me realize that I could finally cast aside the heavy, literary focus that marked much of my earliest work and dive into writing that had always made me happy, a sentiment shared by P. Djeli Clark, who said in response to a couple of questions from me that “There were few Black people or PoC in my SFF worlds, or in my SFF authors, the same way there were so few BlPOC on my television, or in movies, or in my textbooks, etc. As much as I loved reading and watching and ingesting SFF as a kid, not once did it cross my mind that I could be a creator of SFF.” When he notes that “not seeing faces that looked like mine creating the stuff I was reading/watching simply rendered the idea of my becoming a SFF creator a non-thought, a non-consideration,” it becomes painfully obvious that when Black readers don’t see themselves in the books they read, they don’t create that work. And the whole of the genre suffers from a lack of varied perspectives, a different way of viewing the world, whether that world is Earth, Middle-Earth, Earthsea, or something else entirely.

Yes, there are more sci-fi and fantasy novels being published by Black authors these days, but publishing still has a long way to go, as evidenced by this Lee & Low study6, which shows that the industry is staggeringly white, straight, and non-disabled. Until the industry understands and makes strides to push books by writers of all colors, bookshelves, bestseller lists and “best of” compilations will continue to only reflect a portion of society. As Lee & Low Books says, “If the people who work in publishing are not a diverse group, how can diverse voices truly be represented in its books?”

Elle is a fantasy writer and author of the upcoming Wings of Ebony. In response to my asking about her experiences as a fantasy fan, she expressed that like so many Black readers of all ages, she “found such escapism in books and spent hours in them away from the distractions at home. It took my mind and emotions on an adventure and I craved it more and more.” Everyone deserves to be able to do that—escape into another world, even if only for 350 pages. When she says that “every kid should be able to see their version of ordinary turned into something fantastical, inventive, extraordinary to inspire them and ensure they feel capable, seen” and “I never saw my neighborhood, my community, the food my family enjoyed, the music we listened to, the traditions we had reflected in literature,” the importance of diverse voices—not just characters, but characters written by authors who know this experience intimately—becomes clear.

Only time will tell if this current love for Black authors continues past the movement, beyond this moment. But publishing should want to continue to publish Black writers in the long-term and not only push them as a knee-jerk reaction to current events. Real representation means more than a small cluster of bestsellers written by black authors one month and then no diversity for the rest of the year. Black readers want a greater selection of stories featuring characters who look like them, and they want those stories to reflect the variety of lives we lead. In addition to important stories that dissect our pain, we also need books—books that publishers believe in and actively promote—that portray us as joyful, fun-loving and clever. Seeing Black authors on bestseller lists shouldn’t be an anomaly, especially when the books are about Black characters simply living their lives—even if that involves flying into space.

If ever there were a literary genre perfect for leading the way toward real and lasting change in our society, speculative fiction is it. Reading shouldn’t only be about enveloping ourselves in the familiar (although there are definitely times that call for it)—reading is truly a gateway to infinite worlds, the perfect way to immerse ourselves in the unfamiliar and to therefore learn from it and grow. This genre, more than any other, can show that there are many stories featuring Black characters that don’t need to have at their core black pain. With more novels written by Black authors added to the speculative literary canon, I’ve found my way back to the types of books that sparked a love of reading—only this time, many more characters look like me.

 

[1] Link to https://twitter.com/hashtag/blackvoicesmatter.

[2] Diaz, Luiz. “Black Lives Matter. Black Voices Matter. Black Stories Matter.” Penguin Random House, 10 June 2020, penguinrandomhousesecondaryeducation.com/2020/06/10/black-lives-matter-black-voices-matter-black-stories-matter/.

[3] Deahl, Rachel. How #PublishingPaidMe Exposed Racial Inequities. 10 July 2020, http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/83838-how-publishingpaidme-exposed-racial-inequities.html.

[4] Barajas, Joshua, and Brown, Jeffrey. “Black Authors Knew They Were Being Paid Less. This Hashtag Revealed How Large the Gap Really Is.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 11 June 2020, http://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/black-writers-knew-they-were-being-paid-less-this-hashtag-revealed-how-large-the-gap-really-is.

[5] Reddin, Frankie. “Why We Need to Engage with Black Literature beyond Racial Politics.” Harper’s BAZAAR, Harper’s BAZAAR, 15 June 2020, http://www.harpersbazaar.com/uk/culture/a32847657/why-we-need-to-engage-with-black-literature/.

[6] Leeandlowbooks. “Where Is the Diversity in Publishing? The 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey Results.” Lee & Low Blog, 10 Feb. 2020, blog.leeandlow.com/2020/01/28/2019diversitybaselinesurvey/.

Del Sandeen

Del Sandeen is a speculative fiction writer. She is the recipient of the 2019 Diverse Writers Grant and the 2019 Diverse Worlds Grant from the Speculative Literature Foundation. Her work has appeared in Magnolia: A Journal of Women’s Socially Engaged Literature Volume III, FIYAH Speculative Literary Magazine, and Gay magazine, among others.

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