Saturday, 1 September 2018

Multiracial voices in Science Fiction and Fantasy

So…my blog’s been quiet for a bit.  But there’s a good reason for that!  My wife created a podcast – In Mixed Company – and I’ve been a frequent guest on the show.  Check it out – she’s a great speaker (I try not to be terrible either) and the theme is very important in today’s world:  positive discussions about anti-racism in a multi-racial world. 

This week’s episode (and the reason for this blog post) is about representation of race in science fiction.  Specifically, how non-white authors have typically been underrepresented in the field.  I find this both weird and concerning, because a lot of sci-fi (and by extension fantasy) talks about aliens, non-human races, post-race utopias, multi-racial characters (both human and human/non-human/alien/cybernetic hybrids) and so on.  A lot of sci-fi and fantasy also deals with the prejudices and conflicts that affect them.  Spoiler alert:  so does mine.  The Human condition and our attempts at civilization are pretty fascinating, after all. 

These are not bad topics for any of us to talk about, but as an anti-racist and LGBTQ2+ ally it’s important I get it right.  My identity (white/CIS/male) and 30+ years of social conditioning can get in the way – I have to be careful not to be preachy or pedantic, and I try my best to ensure that I’m respectful.  I think it’s crucial that those of us who have one privilege (or several) do something good with it.

  • Here’s a bonus tip of the day:  it costs nothing to say you're sorry when you make a mistake.  It's the ones who double down on being inconsiderate/hateful who create most of our problems. 
  • Here's another one:  if you're white and have a friend (or in my case a wife) who's racialized, that doesn't mean anything when it comes to being an ally.  Yes, words do matter, but actions matter more.

For the record, I’m not saying it’s bad to have white or male voices in this space – I’m saying it would be wonderful to have a more diverse membership within our community.  I think it'd be amazing to welcome and celebrate everyone’s experiences!  
But I digress.

Now, I’m not going to repeat all the same things Stephanie and I talked about on the podcast – I'd rather you listen to it directly here: 

Instead, I’m going to talk about what it means to me that the number of non-white authors and publishers out there is relatively small (I’m talking about Western markets – so basically the US/Canada/Europe).  
Some inroads have been made, since people of colour have won prestigious awards recently in a broad variety of categories, and their works have met with both critical and popular success (including some being optioned for TV and film).  Hell, N. K. Nemisin’s Hugo Award speech is one of the primary inspirations for this article, so if you haven’t heard it, watched it or read it yet, I urge you to go do that.  Frankly, it's more important than anything I have to say.

Because she's right and because she's lived it.

I see so many parallels between her and my wife's experiences.  Experiences I'm simply a spectator to.  Even in the worlds I create as a writer, I don't write from that raw perspective.  If you can't tell, I’ve been reading N. K. Nemisin's books lately, and the way she decodes racial prejudice is intense, intensely personal and eye opening.  So yeah, call me a fanboy - I'm proud of that fact.  Her writing is special, her anger is real and her characters and worlds and stories are consuming. 


There’s always more work to be done.  How many of the major publishers (as in owners/operators) out there are racialized?  What about employees/managers/editors?  How about agents?  If you are one, I'd love to hear from you - about what its been like and how you've carved out your space.  When we go to conventions, how many of the attendees, presenters and vendors are non-white?  How often are their voices praised when on a panel?  It’s not just one area that needs representation – I think it’s the entire industry, culture and environment.  And this isn’t just for publishing.  I don’t know of any industries that couldn’t use a broader spectrum of participants.   

It's an interesting facet of Human industry – and how our lives work – that whenever perseverance and hard work, talent and luck are prerequisites, that last one can mean the difference between hitting it big, medium or not at all.  If you add race to the mix, it just gets harder.  Throw in gender (and/or sexuality) and it's harder still.

These are some of the reasons why there are plenty of really great authors with amazing stories out there who don’t have big audiences.  And as a consumer, I try to find them, and not just because it's nice to read new things.  Sales drive change in industries because sales are widely regarded as a barometer for how culturally important a work is and how financially relevant an audience is. 

Of course I look for stories that grab me too – but sometimes it’s hard to find new voices when the shelf at the local book store is full of names I already know.  It’s even harder online, in the sense that there’s so much noise out there in the indie space it can be really hard to find anything really special.  

Everyone’s trying desperately to be heard, and between that and creative ways to game search algorithms, spawn fake reviews, and mess with hit/download numbers, it can be daunting.  I have to rely on others most of the time – good people who create lists, write blogs and post videos – people who've waded out there and brought back names and books stories that hit a nerve – that spoke to them in an important way, and then taken the time to recommend them to others.

So, with that in mind, here’s a short list of racialized authors I think everyone would benefit from reading, and not just for their science fiction.  Take a look at articles and interviews as well.  It’s not really long or extensive – nor is it complete, so if you have anyone you’d like to add, tweet that at me (@drmontgomeri) or leave a comment – whatever you want.  It’s important that we recognize and remember anyone who’s not just talking about these issues, but also living them.

Alright, here we go, in no particular order:

  • Octavia Butler
  • Samuel R. Delaney
  • N. K. Nemisin
  • Nnedi Okarafor
  • Daniel H. Wilson
  • Rebecca Roanhorse
  • Ken Liu
  • Chohei Kambayashi
  • Koushun Takami

As always, thanks for reading!

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