Black Science Fiction and Fantasy Our look at the African-American literary imagination continues with a trip into the outer limits of genre writing — science fiction, fantasy and horror — and the unique challenges faced by black writers of speculative fiction.
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Black Science Fiction and Fantasy

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Black Science Fiction and Fantasy

Black Science Fiction and Fantasy

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This is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Today, we continue our look at the African-American literary imagination with a trip into uncharted territory. I'm talking about the outer limits of genre writing - science fiction, fantasy, horror and more.

There's a small but growing fan base for what some call speculative fiction. A few have ever broken out of these genres and into the mainstream. Among those who have, Octavia Butler. When she died early last year, she was among the best-known contemporary science fiction writer, black or otherwise.

But she told NPR's Terry Gross in 1993 that her race didn't factor into her book sales, until she started writing about it.

Ms. OCTAVIA BUTLER (Science Fiction Writer): When I got into science fiction, I sold my first three books without an agent and with no particular connections. I just mailed them in over the transom. So nobody knew who I was and nobody knew I was black, and no one - apparently, there wasn't any worrying. I didn't have any difficulty selling my first three novels. When I wrote "Kindred," which is unmistakably of special interest to black people, I had a lot of trouble. All of a sudden, 15 publishers couldn't find a place for it. They just had no idea how to sell it as what it was.

CHIDEYA: "Kindred" is a novel set in 1976 about a woman who is transported back to the days of American slavery. She meets her ancestors, black and white. "Kindred" was first published as trade fiction, not science fiction. Today, it's a classic and remains Octavia Butler's most popular book.

For more now on the ups and downs of being a black writer of speculative fiction, we've got science fiction writers: Steven Barnes, author of "Zulu Heart," "Lion's Blood" and "Firedance;" also, Tananarive Due, her books include "My Soul to Keep," "The Living Blood" and "The Good House;" and Sheree R. Thomas, she's editor of "Dark Matter," an award-winning compilation of speculative fiction.

Welcome, Everybody.

Ms. TANANARIVE DUE (Author, "My Soul to Keep"): Thank you.

Ms. SHEREE R. THOMAS (Editor, "Dark Matter"): Hello.

CHIDEYA: I have to say, I'm a big fan of this genre. And so let me start with you, Tananarive. Octavia Butler described the moment when she decided to be a science fiction writer. She was 12 years old, watching a B-movie on TV, it was called, "Devil Girl from Mars," and she was convinced that she could write a better story.

Ms. DUE: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: What was your awakening moment?

Ms. DUE: I grew up watching the classic black-and-white horror movies, "The Mummy," "Dracula," that kind of thing. I don't think I ever imagined myself as a horror writer or a speculative fiction writer at that time. But I was definitely drawn to that type of writing from a very young age.

CHIDEYA: All right. Steven, what about you?

Mr. STEVEN BARNES (Author, "Zulu Heart"): Well, I've been reading and writing adventure stories for much of my, you know, childhood. I think if there was a very specific point where I started feeling that there was a voice missing that I might be able to fill in when I would read, you know, "Tarzan" or "Conan" or whatever, and there would be racist overtones in there that hurt. But I read them anyway, because I really wanted to immerse myself in the sort of fantastic adventure.

CHIDEYA: You know, there are a lot of writers - we just had another discussion in the literary series and there are a lot of writers who may have these incidental bits of racism or racial controversy. I remember reading Stephen King's "The Stand" and there's a scene where these black men are executing white people in this very kind of carnival-like atmosphere. It seemed out of place. Sheree, do you think that this motivates a lot of African-American writers?

Ms. THOMAS: Well, I think it - in terms of writers, it does motivate them. You want to read work that reflects yourself, not necessarily, literally. (Unintelligible) your perspective, your point of view and the community around you. And if you don't see it in the work in front of you, as a writer, you're challenged to write it yourself. You know, you want to put that world on the page.

CHIDEYA: So what is speculative fiction? It's a term that maybe not a lot of people know.

Ms. THOMAS: It's a broad umbrella term. I believe it was first introduced in the '30s by Robert Heinlein as an umbrella term to talk about works that wasn't necessary looking at technology or looking at, you know, the hard sciences, but looking at how communities and people would change over time.

So speculative fiction was more about social changes. And later, I used it after Samuel Delany and Marilyn Hacker edited a volume called "Quark" and they used the term speculative fiction. And they used it as a broad umbrella term, to not only include what we normally think of as science fiction, science fiction and fantasy, but to also include magical realist works and maybe works that are retellings of folktales, and things like that. So, just (unintelligible) literature, it's a big term for a lot of work, including horror.

CHIDEYA: Tananarive, how would you describe your books? Would you describe them as horror, what genre do you think?

Ms. DUE: I have always been fleeing categories, Harley Allison(ph) once gave me the advice not to have myself categorized as any particular type of writer, but categories are a fact of life. And I write supernatural suspense - that is what I'm primarily known for, although I have written short stories that might be considered science fiction, because they have a symbol full of science and then it's an extrapolation about okay, how will this impact an individual in the society or a child in a society. But most of what I write, definitely, is supernatural suspense.

CHIDEYA: And Steven, when you - one other cut on why African-Americans write speculative fiction that I've heard discussed is because we want to live to a certain degree, in a sense of hope for an alternative reality. Obviously, not all science fiction is positive, in terms of the way that the future is envisioned, but do you think that there is an urge for people who may have critiques of modern-day society to look for alternatives in the future?

Mr. BARNES: Well, I think that the drive of the artists of any kind is to express something what they feel inside themselves and externalize it so that others can feel, know and react to what they see. I think that African-Americans might have a little bit special push there, but the truth is that every individual human being feels that sense of disconnect with the society outside themselves. Blacks as a group have a disconnect. Gays as a group have a disconnect. You know, blind people, as a group have a disconnect.

So - anytime there's a cultural edge and you feel, my perspective, the way I see this, is not being presented or it's being presented inaccurately, or it's being presented viciously, it's being presented in such a way as it creates a derogatory context and I feel the pain, and my children feel that pain, then you do this as part of the artistic urge.

CHIDEYA: Sheree, tell us about "Dark Matter" because that was one of these landmark anthologies. Did you ever talk to the writers about why they wrote what they wrote?

Ms. THOMAS: Yes, I had many fun conversations with writers from all over the country and a few other places about how they got involved in the field, how they got interested. And many of them said, it was, you know, from childhood, you know, listening to elders in their families who told stories and really, just sparked their imagination. It inspired them to write and to look for work of their own.

Also, it seems to be a part of - just a part of the environment. If you are a part of a culture, for example, you maybe Caribbean and there are tales -legendary tales about guppies and all kinds of amazing animals, and lugaroos(ph), some hadeo(ph), what have you. You know, it's part of - just part of the atmosphere. And then, also, some of them were just interested in the sciences in general. I mean, that was just the thing that they were very curious about. They wanted to how the world worked and, you know, science is a great way to put order to what might be chaotic around you. And so they began to apply that to their writing.

Mr. BARNES: Sheree - and I'm going to ask all of you this - name your favorite work of speculative fiction, tell us very briefly what it's about, and why you like it?

Ms. THOMAS: You've got to be kidding.

CHIDEYA: Just...

Mr. BARNES: Our own works, someone else's works...

CHIDEYA: Anyone's work. Anyone's work.

Ms. THOMAS: I (unintelligible).

CHIDEYA: Hey, Steven, why don't you go first since Sheree, obviously, has a long list she's going to have to pick from.

Mr. BARNES: "2001: A Space Odyssey." I think it was the result of two extraordinary geniuses collaborating in a moment of time where the audience was ready for something new. It's virtually (unintelligible).

CHIDEYA: And Sheree, I'm sure - I'm a book lover too. So you have a long list, but pick one.

Ms. THOMAS: Oh, I'm going to go out on a limb. I'm going to say one of my all-time favorites that's stuck in my head would be "Moving Mars" by Greg Bear, which, you know, I just, I don't know, it just really moved me. It was a very amazing book. And I don't want to ruin it for everyone. Go find "Moving Mars."

CHIDEYA: Okay. Tananarive?

Ms. DUE: Oh, it's such a hard question. I'm so torn. I'm going to go ahead because I'm feeling sentimental, especially listening to Octavia's voice and say, "Parable of the Sower," which - there are so many other books, but that book is such a journey that it actually makes you stronger as the reader as you go on.

CHIDEYA: I had someone described that Parable series once as something that made them very nervous, but that they couldn't put down.

Ms. DUE: Exactly.

CHIDEYA: And so I want to reintroduce the topic and the folks. You're listening to NPR's NEWS AND NOTES. And I'm Farai Chideya.

We're talking about African-Americans writing speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror. We had just been talking to Tananarive Due, her books include "My Soul to Keep," "The Living Blood" and "The Good House." We've also got Steven Barnes, author of "Zulu Heart," "Lion's Blood" and "Firedance." And Sheree R. Thomas, editor of "Dark Matter," an award-winning compilation of speculative fiction.

Let's move a little bit from the writers to the audience. Tananarive, your books have really crossed a lot of audiences. Who do you think is your audience?

Ms. DUE: In the very beginning, my audience was almost exclusively African-American women, I would say. That was how I was marketed, sort of, on the heels of Terry McMillan, oh, black people will buy a commercial fiction. There was a lot of excitement in publishing about that. I have attracted horror readers over time. Steve and I just wrote mysteries and we're attracting mystery writers now.

But I will say this, it's interesting, 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.

CHIDEYA: That's interesting. Steven, what about you? And, you know, bouncing off of what Tananarive said, are there barriers to broadening your audience?

Mr. BARNES: I would say so. I mean, I think that the typical reader of one of my books is a science fiction reader who enjoys social speculation or anthropological speculation or - and enjoys a certain amount of suspense and action. I think that there are problems with broadening it out to the broadest conceivable audience that I would have not faced had I been white because, I think, that science fiction is - in fantasy(ph), a 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 percent white people and their imaginary friends. You know, that - they don't believe that about themselves. They don't believe that they're heir to the same perceptual problems that the rest of the human race has, but they do. And so if you put a non-white person on the cover of the book, you'll hurt the sales.

CHIDEYA: That's really interesting. And before we move on to Sheree, I'm thinking as you talk of Ursula Le Guin, who broke a lot of boundaries with women's issues in the same way that you're talking about breaking boundaries with African-American issues, she found a great audience. Do you think over time that African-American speculative fiction writers will find, you know, ways to broaden non-black audiences?

Mr. BARNES: Well, it's already happening, but it will never be as popular. I mean, you know, Ursula Le Guin - one thing all she had to do is to reach out to women who are 51 percent of the population, you know. So just numerically, she had a gigantic advantage. So 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 us 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.

CHIDEYA: Sheree, when you think about the audience, "Dark Matter" is, I think, very well known in African-American speculative fiction circles. How - has it had a ripple effect in, say, science fiction circles, African-American reading circles? Where else has it gone?

Ms. THOMAS: Well, it's definitely been a part of the book clubs. They really reached out. And I totally agree with Tananarive about the struggles they might have had, to have the book on their list because there is this streak of conservatism that we have in our community, maybe not more so than in the other community, but we're more conscious of it, I guess, because we're so small compared to the rest of the country. And definitely the science fiction community has embraced it. In fact, they gave it two of their higher awards, two World Fantasy Awards. It's actually two volumes of "Dark Matter." So I feel like, yes, it's a part of that community.

My challenge is to just get it into the rest of the world, the rest of the community that are reading who normally would not pick up science fiction at all, no matter who's on the cover. They feel like it has no relevance to daily life or that it's mostly just space operas and laser guns, and has absolutely nothing to do with, you know, genetically modified food that we're eating or the environment or, you know, environmental racism, for example, how that might impact communities. All kinds of things that really do affect us on a daily basis, it's in that work.

And the thing that really - it tickles me is, you know, I'll see people get so excited about a blockbuster film, you know. They'll break their neck to go to the movies to go see a "Matrix" or something, you know, and not realizing that a lot of the ideals, a lot of sensibilities had already been explored in science fiction on the page decades ago, you know. We're just not getting the technology to show it. But we certainly have the imagination to write it. So that's always a challenge. Science fiction is for you. It is relevant. It is engaging, and we are part of that discussion.

CHIDEYA: Tananarive, I think about "Star Trek," which fits into this broad genre of TV, pop science fiction and the fact that it had the first inter-racial kiss. Science fiction sometimes breaks these boundaries of expectation. Do you think that it has social relevance?

Ms. DUE: Oh, absolutely. Octavia comes to mind. I mean, when you think of a book like "Parable of the Sower," it's a near future environment where you can see hit sort of that scenario. If this goes on, this is how society will go. I'm working on a book right now. It's the second sequel to my book, "My Soul to Keep," which is set in the near future, and it's looking at what happens if there's no health care, what happens if war goes on unabated? What happens if this happens? So hopefully, you can take a science fictional element, a futuristic element or a fantasy element to hold up a mirror to our society and show readers, listen, you need to have a voice, you need to be active because this is where we could be headed.

CHIDEYA: Steven, what are you working on right now?

Mr. BARNES: I'm working on a sequel to a novel set 30,000 years ago in East Africa. It's called "Shadow Valley." And also, we're getting ready to do the second book, the second Tennyson Hardwick mystery novel.

CHIDEYA: And Sheree, are you continuing to look at gathering together African-American speculative fiction? I just met, for example, a filmmaker who's doing a doc on black speculative fiction writers, just briefly.

Ms. THOMAS: Yes. I'm editing a third volume of "Dark Matter on Africa."

CHIDEYA: Wow, it sounds absolutely fascinating. Well, I want to thank all of you and wish you the best in your writing adventures.

Ms. THOMAS: Thank you.

Mr. BARNES: Thank you so much.

Ms. DUE: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Sheree R. Thomas is the editor of "Dark Matter," an award-winning compilation of speculative fiction. She spoke with us from NPR's New York studios. And from NPR West, sitting right here with me, we had Steven Barnes. His books includes "Zulu Heart," "Lion's Blood," and "Firedance." Also, Tananarive Due, author of "My Soul to Keep," "The Living Blood," and "The Good House."

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