Monday, October 22, 2007

Black Writers of Speculative Fiction

"Black Science Fiction and Fantasy."
Farai Chideya talks with fantasy writer Tananarive Due, science fiction writer Steven Barnes, and speculative fiction editor Sheree R. Thomas.

I'm listening to this as I type. It's an NPR program from August 13, not that long ago, and it includes a comment from the late Octavia Butler. I'm multi-racial, and as such, the depiction of minorities in fiction is a subject of some interest to me.

I remember when I was a teen reading SF, I could not think of any SF author of color other than Delany, and I'm not a huge Delany fan. Sorry. Jewish authors abounded, atheist authors abounded. But for a devout Christian Hispanic gal, finding folks like me was, well, a quest worthy of a fantasy novel. I had the same problem reading romances and Christian fiction. Those worlds tended to be very, very white.

Snippets & My comments:

Due: "You want to read work that reflects yourself. If you don't see it on the page in front of you, as a writer, you're challenged to write it yourself."

I know back in the late 80's and early 90's, when I was a romance reading fiend, I didn't see Christian people who were devout except, occasionally, in a historical novel (medieval, Western, etc). I would talk on romance reader boards about how romance was "functionally atheistic." Christian romance filled a void. Christian SF fills another, because ABA SF tends to reflect a secular view (the majority I've read), with occasions of outright hostility or sneering at the religiously devout, especially of the "conservative Christian" sort. When you don't see yourself reflected in the genre you enjoy reading, then you are challenged, as a writer, to fill that void, and you're frustrated as a reader, unless you can (as many of us have had to learn to do) just put up with the absence of the major world religion or the hostility to it.

Due: "Categories are a fact of life."

Being labeled a "Christian SF author" can be very limiting and, to some, irritating, just as some don't want to be labeled by their minority status: Hispanic fantasy novelist, Black supernatural suspense novelist, Asian Chick Lit novelist. With the emphasis on branding, I don't know how to escape this. If a publisher feels that the Hispanic market (a growing sector of the US population) is underserved and ready to be tapped more broadly, then they will seek that "Hispanic X-Genre Novelist." Or if you're Christian, you may be tagged by that little cutesy branding phrase that sets you apart as a Christian suspense or Christian prairie romance or Christian edgy thriller writer.

Good or bad? Limiting or smart? I'm divided.

Due talks about being marketed at first to black women (Terry McMillan readers), but branched out, attracting horror and mystery readers.

Due: "Even though there is an attraction to the supernatural, because of what people have in their own backgrounds culturally, I think there's also been a reticence on the part of some black readers to open my books, because of the sense--either because of religious reasons or stories their grandmother told them--that somehow they're inviting an evil into their world. So, I hear from book clubs that they have to fight sometimes to get my books on the list"

Well, that sounds familiar? :)

Barnes: "Science fiction and fantasy are very much the mythology of the 20th and 21st century, and the central mythology of any group of people is "God created us first and loves us best." So, science fiction is absolutely 99.9% white people and their imaginary friends. They don't believe that about themselves, they don't believe they're heir to the same perceptual problems that the rest of the human race has. But they do. So, if you put a non-white person on the cover of the book, you'll hurt the sales."

I agree with this. And I think it's sad. But there's a lesson in it beyond race and for all writers: Be careful about exclusions. Yes, write what you know best, but stretch a bit. If you're a Christian writer, be aware of not demonizing non-Christians. If you're an atheist writer, beware demonizing non-atheists. If you're white, do you have books by minority authors on your coffee table? If you're minority, are you depicting those unlike yourself in a fair manner?

I would happily retire the sneering, "Dead White Men" phrase from criticizing the canon--literary or SF or Christian. It shouldn't matter that they were white or men or that they're not alive. If it's good, it's good. Dead (and living) white men and women have given loads of reading pleasure.

But we live in a time very conscious of bigotry and wrongs committed (on all sides, in all countries) because of prejudice. It never hurts to self-examine and see if we're painting a limited world out of fear or prejudice or, well, just habit.

Barnes: "I know that as time goes on the aversion factor, the sense of the other, the sense of guilt based on things that happened in the past, all of those things combining with the natural human tendency towards just considering your group to be more beautiful and wonderful and intelligent than whatever the other group is--and these barriers take time; and it takes education. And, you know, hope springs eternal."



Valerie Comer said...

Interesting to see this today, Mir. I just read a post over at the Lost Genre Guild by a black fantasy author on the same topic. Gotta try me her book.

Mirtika said...

Oooh, I haven't been to LGG for a spell. I need to go check that one out.

SolShine7 said...

Mir, this is exactly why I like your blog. You bring up relevant topics that others overlook.

Growing up, it was a rarity finding books that I liked that had non-white ethnic characters as the lead. And it was even HARDER finding Christian novels with a minority character as the protagonist. And finding multi-ethnic characters, well that's toughest of all.

Even now, you're the only minority Christian speculative fiction blogger that I know of. And Camy Tang is the only Christian fiction blogger that I've found. If there are any more PLEASE let me know.

It's hard out there being a Christian minority, but I don't remember God ever saying that it would be easy so we have to keep pressing on!!

Great post.

Lelia Rose Foreman said...

I like how Barnes teaches Tai Chi at science fiction conventions