Black reality in a world of fantasy : Code Switch Why build a fantasy world that still has racism? B.A. Parker moderates a discussion on Black science fiction and fantasy with authors Tochi Onyebuchi and Leslye Penelope at the National Book Festival.

Black reality in a world of fantasy

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GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Chicago, what's good? We have missed y'all, but allow us to rectify that. So we are coming your way for our very first live show since the pandemic shut everything down. So we have some very special guests, including a special musical guest. So come rock with us November 2 at the Studebaker Theater. Tell your mama. Tell your friends. Tell your people. They and you can get tickets at nprpresents.org. We'll see y'all soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

B A PARKER, HOST:

I'm B.A. Parker.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:

I'm Karen Grigsby Bates.

PARKER: And this is CODE SWITCH from NPR.

Karen, have you ever been to the National Book Festival?

BATES: I did for the first time last year, Parker.

PARKER: Really?

BATES: But because of COVID, it was virtual. Despite that, though, I had a great time.

PARKER: For those of you who don't know, the National Book Festival is this book event in Washington, D.C., created by the Library of Congress at the behest of then-first lady Laura Bush. You know, it really runs the gamut. I mean, this year they had Janelle Monae. They had Black women who write about their sewing. They even had Nick Offerman from "Parks And Recreation" discuss the American frontier. And it was so galvanizing. And I feel terrible because this event's been going on for over 20 years in D.C. And I grew up in Maryland, and, like, I had never heard of it.

BATES: And really, the festival is designed for everyone. It is not a festival that only features high literature. It's, like - there is something for everybody there.

PARKER: Oh, I totally, like, wandered the floor buying things that I did not need. I think I bought a pair of socks that look like "The Snowy Day" cover...

BATES: Ah.

PARKER: ...By Ezra Jack Keats.

BATES: Yeah.

PARKER: I don't need those.

BATES: Yeah, you do.

PARKER: But now I got them.

BATES: Yeah, you do.

PARKER: So luckily enough, you know, for my first National Book Festival, I got to moderate a panel that focused on two Black fantasy authors, Leslye Penelope and Tochi Onyebuchi.

BATES: And that's really interesting that there was a panel with two Black fantasy writers at the festival because for a long time in the publishing world, people who ran it would say, Black people don't do fantasy. And the truth is, we always did. We have for decades.

PARKER: It sounds like they're leaving money on the table...

BATES: Yes.

PARKER: ...Because - yeah, because at the festival, the audience was full of young and old Black sci-fi and fantasy readers who are obsessed with, you know, N.K. Jemisin or Octavia Butler or Colson Whitehead.

BATES: Yep. Yep. So now you had a fantasy panel. Parker, are you a fantasy person? Do you normally read fantasy?

PARKER: I'm not a fantasy person. I was a "Twilight Zone" kid, but I wouldn't say I was a fantasy person per se. Like, I wasn't seeking out speculative fiction or, you know, sci-fi worlds. Like, bless "The Hobbit," but that's just not...

BATES: (Laughter) It's not your thing.

PARKER: Like, Godspeed. But, like, I actually learned a lot doing this panel about how two authors build their characters and their worlds. Leslye Penelope's latest novel called "The Monsters We Defy," takes place in a fantastical version of 1920s Washington, D.C., where a young Black woman who talks to spirits goes on, like, a jewelry heist adventure.

BATES: And what's the jewels she - or the jewel or jewels she's supposed to be heisting?

PARKER: They're on the body of Josephine Baker - you know, everyday, normal stuff.

BATES: Oh, wow.

PARKER: Right? Yeah. And Tochi Onyebuchi is known for his YA novel, "Riot Baby."

BATES: Yeah.

PARKER: His new novel, "Goliath," is about 2050 New Haven, Conn.

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BATES: Shut up.

PARKER: Oh, wait, why?

BATES: Because I was born and raised in New Haven, Conn. There wasn't...

PARKER: Shut up.

BATES: ...Much fantastical about it when I was there.

PARKER: (Laughter).

BATES: So Tochi's - how's - what's in Tochi's New Haven?

PARKER: Well, Tochi's New Haven is where all of the white people and the wealthy people have fled Earth. And all that's left of a climate-destroyed planet are the poor and the people of color.

BATES: That's not all that far off the mark because most of the wealthy white people in New Haven, except for a tiny sliver, are in the suburbs that surround New Haven at this point. So, you know, he knew what he was talking about.

PARKER: So you get it.

BATES: Yup.

PARKER: And so at the festival, we discussed what creating those two worlds looks like.

OK, so right out the gate, like, I want to ask about the inspiration for your latest novels - you know, "Goliath" and "The Monsters We Defy." And so, Leslye, I think you have, like, the most millennial impetus for, like, an origin of writing "The Monsters We Defy" in that is was like - saw it on Twitter.

LESLYE PENELOPE: Yes. I don't remember exactly when, but I saw a tweet, like, a manuscript wish-list type of tweet that agents and editors often make to say what they're looking for. And it was a Harlem renaissance fantasy heist. And I was like...

(LAUGHTER)

PENELOPE: ...That sounds interesting. I would read that. I think I could write that. Like, I've never written a heist before. So, yeah, it is a millennial kind of thing to have happened - is inspired by a tweet.

(LAUGHTER)

PENELOPE: I was originally going to set the book in Harlem, but it was during the pandemic. So I couldn't travel. I couldn't go to New York. I couldn't even go to libraries. And I live in Maryland. As I said, I went to Howard. My family's from D.C. I grew up in Maryland for most of my life. And so I started researching D.C. and finding all of these amazing things that were happening that I hadn't realized were happening during that time period in D.C., like Black Broadway, which was U Street. And I spent a lot of time on U street in college and post-college, and I was like, this has to be a D.C. story.

I don't read enough fantasy books about D.C. I just wanted to add to the knowledge of this place that is my home. You know, in the late 1800s, D.C. had the largest population of Black Americans - bigger than Harlem. And it wasn't - a shift happened later on. But there was so much going on here that I didn't think people knew enough about. And it was - a lot of it was very inspiring to me and the various characters that appear in the story. And so I knew I wanted to have a heist, so I needed, you know, people to steal something. I needed to know what they were stealing. I had no idea. Who was the bad guy, who they were it stealing from - like, I had nothing but Harlem Renaissance era, you know, fantasy heist.

PARKER: And so, Tochi, what was your inspiration for, like, taking to the world of "Goliath"?

TOCHI ONYEBUCHI: So it's funny. I was actually - in 2013, I was in Ramallah in the West Bank, working with a prisoners' rights organization. And at the time, I had this idea for this, like, mosaic novel of these people set on a space colony. And it was going to be very literary. It was like "Mad Men" in space, right? But I was looking at it. And, like, all the characters in there on the space colony were white or white-coded. And I was like, wait a second. There are no Black people on this space colony. Where did they go?

(LAUGHTER)

ONYEBUCHI: And I was like, oh, they got left behind. And, you know, I - when I was in the West Bank, the Arabic word for Palestine is Filastin (ph). And I grew up in a very biblically robust household. And so I figured I knew about the Philistines and David and Goliath. And so I wrote this short story about this group of Black and brown brick stackers in New Haven. And then it sat on my hard drive, unsold, for a number of years. And then back in - I want to say end of 2014 - I returned to it because one of the things that happened when I first wrote that story was, I knew immediately that it was the best thing that I'd ever written. And so I wanted to tap back into that. And then I started writing more about the characters. And it was, like, the most vibes situation ever. Like, normally I'm a planner, but I was just like, let's just see where this goes. And then "Goliath" just sort of came out of that.

PARKER: Well, it's also - what's great about that is within the context of, like, the fantasy genre, there is kind of this liberation or this whimsy that comes with the creative process. But even in your works, there's still, like - the weight of Black reality is still there. And so I am curious about what draws you to that because it could be, like, you know, a universe that has no colonialism, has no racism, homophobia, sexism. But, like - but that's not how it goes, even in the fantasy.

PENELOPE: Yeah, I do - I always am writing about Black people, even in a secondary fantasy world. I like to have my default be Black. So often you hear about the white default in literature, and you're assuming a character is white unless you're told otherwise. In my books, just assume a character is Black unless I tell you otherwise. And so it could - and maybe in the future I will explore, like, worlds where there aren't the conflicts that we have now. But I do believe that on some level you need some kind of conflict. And because fantasy and speculative fiction in general is a good mirror to hold up to our world - you know, I love it because you can reflect some of the problems that we have in different ways without the baggage that we carry and hopefully get people to look at them in a different way and maybe see them through a different lens.

So - but even in "The Monsters We Defy" - it takes place in 1925, Washington, D.C. It's not about racial conflict. You know, it's about a thriving Black community in D.C. It's about, you know, this place that existed, that was real, where you could live your whole life shopping at Black businesses and, you know, only working for Black employers and things like that. So the larger environment of 1925 America is there, but the villains aren't white people, and the villains aren't racism necessarily. And it's really just a very Black story. And I thought that, you know, we need that, too. We need to see our people thriving. And - even in the past, because that gets overshadowed a lot of times. You know, what do you think of - I think of 1925 at first. And I was like, how am I going to write this story without it being about Black pain? You know, because I just think of, you know, the rise of the Klan and lynchings and all these other things that were happening at that time. I didn't want to write about that.

So - and I found a way to still tell the story, still tell about these lives that are impacted by all of those things that are happening. But people who actually in real life managed to have wonderfully rich lives that were full and happy and self - you know, just in control of themselves and in control of their environments to the degree that they could.

ONYEBUCHI: Yeah. Like, I think one of the biggest sort of breakthroughs in - particularly in science fiction and fantasy over the past - I don't know - I guess you could say like 20 years - 15, 20 years is less now the, like, subject matter and more the people who are writing. Like, that seems to be the biggest thing where now we have more, you know, people of different genders. We have nonbinary authors writing and publishing more in traditional outlets, in science fiction and fantasy, more people of Asian - East Asian backgrounds, South Asian backgrounds, African backgrounds, et cetera. And one of the interesting ways in which that intersects with genre is that science fiction in particular is very colonialist in origin, like, immensely colonialist. Like, you think of all those first contact stories, a lot of them are, like, white dudes going to a place where there are already people or things and then just making it their own. Like, that's what all those, like, settling on Mars and terraforming Mars stuff is. It's literally like Columbus and genocide. Like - and you're the hero, right?

But what's interesting now is that now you're seeing this genre space being not, like, taken over but being filled now by the children and grandchildren of empire. Like, my grandparents were British colonial subjects, right? So, like, I have a - I would have a very different perspective on what science fiction and fantasy can mean to me versus, like, you know, somebody descended from, like, the colonial overseers and what have you. So I think that's a big part of where a lot of my perspective on science fiction comes from.

At the same time, it can be a very tough space to live in when writing - or when sort of analogizing the Black experience in these spaces. It's - it reminds me of - I think it was a piece that Gene Demby wrote, like, back in 2015 about Black reporters covering, you know, Black death or a lot of what was happening in America with regards to the officer involved shootings 'cause now you have people that are performing this professional duty of documentation. But at the same time, the people that they're reporting on are people that look like their cousins, that look like their moms and their dads and their brothers and their sisters. And they quite literally have skin in the game. And there's something that that does to you.

And I feel like similarly, like, "Goliath" was not, like, an easy book to write. Like, it came out of me relatively quickly, but it wasn't an easy space to live in because I was also writing about the place that I lived in at the time - and, like, still (laughter) live in. And I was like, oh, yeah, what if, like, nuclear fallout and, like, these places that I love are just gone? Or - and so, you know, I do think at one point I would like to write about a place where there's, like, no colonialists (laughter) at all. Like, that'd be really cool. But it - the thing about it is that it would also be a wild and maybe the wildest stretch of my imagination, like, 'cause I don't - I have no idea what that would look like. It's easier for me to envision what the world in 2050 after climate change and nuclear fallout would look like than it is for me to envision, like, OK, what kind of world without colonialism look like?

PARKER: Well, geez, Tochi.

(LAUGHTER)

PARKER: No. Hey, this is an incredibly naive question on my part, but it is as someone, like, from the outside - like, I was never a sci-fi kid. But I am curious. It seems like the fantastical stories that bubble up into the zeitgeist seem to be, like, you know, the dystopic or the post-apocalyptic. And why is it - I guess you've answered this a little bit, but, like, why is it so easy to lean into the dystopic? Like, why is it never, like, this Wakandian world where, you know, people recycle and it's 2080 and, you know, women and nonbinary folks are all together and it's wonderful? Like, why is it never that that becomes the discussion? Like, there are - I mean, the girls on the subway have been reading "Parable Of The Sower" like mad right now. And so why is it we, like, we lean towards the dystopic?

ONYEBUCHI: Like, I see this a lot in activist circles. Like, it takes a certain - like, there's something that allows for certain people to expand their moral imagination in a way that, like, isn't accessible to, like, me, for instance. Like, I have to go to them, I have to go to others like them for that sort of thing. Like, I just can't think that way. But there are people that are able to manifest that sort of vision that power their mission so they can be like, OK, this is what it can look like in a, like, prison abolitionist world. Or, like, this is what the world can look like if, you know, police - if the funds that go towards police departments were allocated towards social services and schools and this that and the third. You know, this is what it can look like when we have a green revolution and this is what it can look like when we have a coalition between people who are advocating for sustainability and people who are advocating for prison reform.

Like, I think it's partly that. Like, if we look to activist circles and see how rare a lot of those people are, particularly the ones that are, like, doing the work, I think that can help us answer the question of why it's so easy to imagine the end of the world as opposed to, like, the beginning of something new and beautiful. But at the same time, I do think part of the answer lies in, like, what you've done with "The Monsters We Defy" and what, like, telling - I don't - like, a fantasy heist story in an all-Black - like, I don't know. There's just, like...

PARKER: It's wonderful.

ONYEBUCHI: Yeah, there's something, like, salvational about that.

PARKER: Oh, 'cause, like, OK. Leslye, you say that Clara was already a kind of - was a real person?

PENELOPE: Yes,

PARKER: So - but how was she able to fit in your mind to fit into this story?

PENELOPE: Yeah, because we don't know much about the real Clara Johnson, and in the author's note I talk about how I discovered her. She was a 17-year-old girl in 1919 during the D.C. riots, and essentially during the riots, police officers burst into her house, into her bedroom and shot at her. She shot back. She actually killed a white detective and went to jail for a year and a half. She was convicted of manslaughter, and then she got out of jail. So at 19, she goes free. And I read that, and I thought of Breonna Taylor. And I thought of what this girl must have been like, like, to have gone through that at such a young age and then imagining her six years later, and what would be the personality? What would be the effects, the costs, of being in jail for a year and a half, of being convicted of, you know, taking a life, but also taking a white life, being threatened with all kinds of things as a result of that?

So I took the little bits that we know from history from this person and just imagined a life and tried to bring about this person who would have been colored by those experiences and what that might mean. And so, yeah, we don't know anything else after she gets out of jail. There's not much in history that I could find about her. So I took the, you know, took the bits - and who would also make, you know, a good heroine? Sometimes when I'm creating new main characters, I'm trying to write someone different than any of the other books.

PARKER: Now I'm thinking - because you answered this a little bit, but what - in, like, in your next story, what kind of protagonist, what kind of world do you want to explore? This is for both of you. But I...

PENELOPE: So I'm working on the next book now. The main character's also very much more loosely based on a real person from history. And yeah, so my very first books - the main character had my personality. You know, like, I think the first book you write - it's not really autobiographical but cleaving very close to what I know. And so as I'm trying to grow with each book, I'm trying to expand that and stretch and make sure I'm just rounding out, you know, all kinds of characters. So, yeah, the thing I'm working on now - totally different personality type, but I still want a good heroine that you can follow, you know? So she is a little bit meeker, a bit more sneaky and sly, and she's like a grown-up Harriet the Spy but Black in 1935.

PARKER: Ooh.

(LAUGHTER)

ONYEBUCHI: I can dig it.

PARKER: All right.

PENELOPE: Yeah.

PARKER: Tochi, what about you?

ONYEBUCHI: I mean, things are kind of up in the air. There are two contenders for what the next thing is. I mean, I'm always trying to write not just a different book from what came before, but almost, in many ways, like, the polar opposite. So, like, "Riot Baby" was very much defined by its constriction. It was very claustrophobic by design. Whereas "Goliath" - I wanted to achieve a more sort of emotional expansiveness but also geographic expansiveness.

And then the next book, there are two contenders, one of which - I wanted to sort of blow up the form of the novel even more and, like, do some really weird structural, metatextual things. Or the next thing is going to be, like, something that's almost - and this might actually even be more of a challenge - just, like, a straightforward detective book - single POV, just one protagonist trying to unravel a conspiracy or a mystery or whatever. That actually might be the more challenging book to write. And so I might be gravitating towards that one.

PARKER: Just find your inner Walter Mosley and just, like, get it done.

ONYEBUCHI: Exactly. I just got to find that.

PARKER: After the break, Karen, I've got a lot of questions for you about what we just heard, but also about publishing and fantasy and race. So stay with us, y'all.

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PARKER: Parker.

BATES: Karen.

PARKER: CODE SWITCH. Now, Karen, I wanted to talk to you because, as some of our listeners may know, you are an author. And I know that you've written nonfiction.

BATES: I did. My co-author, Karen Hudson, and I wrote a book called "Basic Black: Home Training For Modern Times." And, Parker, we purposely didn't call it etiquette. We called it home training. You've heard the phrase before, right?

PARKER: For sure. I have a family.

BATES: Yep. Yep. And if you're Black and you have a family, you've heard home training. Maybe even if you're in the South and you're not Black and have a family, you've heard home training. And it's how the elders in your community brought you up - your grandparents, the lady down the block who's always telling your mother what you did before you could get home to fess up.

PARKER: I know that's right.

BATES: Life lessons that Karen and I were lucky enough to get as Black women who grew up in our respective Black communities. And we're a certain age, so they were doing that back then. We got practical lessons like how to write a thank you note, how to set a table, that kind of stuff. After that, I wrote two novels.

PARKER: When going from nonfiction to fiction, what did fiction allow you to do?

BATES: For me, fiction allowed me to tell some uncomfortable truths about race that most people might not want to listen to 'cause it's not their experience. So, for instance, in the first novel, "Plain Brown Wrapper," the protagonist is a snarky Black female newspaper reporter in her 30s who brings up race whenever she feels she needs to, which is a lot, things being as they are. It could be newsroom politics. It could be LA city politics. And her white people - her editors, some of the newspaper's more conservative subscribers, city movers and shakers - they don't want to hear that. Now, that was first published in 2001. And some things have changed very little.

PARKER: I mean, the first thing that I can think about is something that Tochi said about Leslye's work that really resonated with me that I think goes along with what you were talking about, is Leslye's choice to create an all-Black space and how that was actually quite liberating to see. And I wonder how that aligns with your writing experience.

BATES: It kind of does. I mean, my protagonist lives an integrated life, but my main protagonists in both books were always Black. The social life my characters have is frequently majority - if not all - Black. I was really interested, especially in my second novel, "Chosen People," in showing many different kinds of Black people in different situations. You know, so there's not this one monolithic Black community.

PARKER: Shocking to all - we contain multitudes. I'm thinking that's why it can feel like publishing is lagging behind. But I guess I think that way when it comes to Black authors. I mean, one of the things that Leslye talks about is a lot of her earlier work, her "Earthsinger" series, was self-published and had to be self-promoted until it reached popularity. And now "The Monsters We Defy" gets, you know, proper distribution because of that. And I know you've - I've heard you talk about this sometimes about, like, the evolution of, you know, Black authors, especially in the '90s, getting the recognition that they deserve and getting - being able to reach mainstream audiences that they wouldn't have found through self-publishing.

BATES: I mean, in the early '90s, for sure. You know, some authors, like the late E. Lynn Harris, got tired of butting their heads against the walls, and they published their own books, which back then was much harder than it is now, and sold them directly to Black readers. E. Lynn sold so many of his novels that a major publisher woke up and smelled the cafe au lait and brought him into the fold. And by the way, Parker - and I've said this several times - as a demographic, Black women buy more books than anyone, OK?

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PARKER: Oh, I know.

BATES: I know you've got a bunch of books in your house. And your mama has a bunch of books in her house, and so did mine. And, you know, we just - we buy books. We like books. We like to read.

PARKER: I mean, I'm sure. And I - you know, I'm thinking about that time of self-publishing and, you know, E. Lynn Harris, Michael Baisden, and, like, our - the moms in the neighborhood, you know, having their book clubs to talk about these, like, self-published books 'cause they create that community themselves. And, like, with Terry McMillan, like, they - they're authors that created more visibility for Black authors as a group.

BATES: But it's cyclical, right? I mean, publishers will look at Black authors for a couple of years and then move into something else. Something else catches their fancy. When really, the field should be wide open for all kinds of stories 'cause there are good ones out there.

PARKER: Yeah. I mean, that's what made the book festival so interesting was that it had - it created a space for writers of color to thrive that weekend. And so it makes me wonder, you know, after the talk with Leslye and Tochi, what are the possibilities for the future of future fiction?

BATES: Well, I don't know what they are, but I know what they should be, and they should be infinite. You know, if you have a "Station Eleven," that great future fiction novel by Emily St. John Mandel, then why can't you have future fiction set in Watts or in Houston's Third Ward or in East St. Louis, Ill., or any other neighborhood that is largely non-white and has a thriving life of its own that we want to know about?

PARKER: Dang, Karen.

BATES: That was it. That was my one profundity for the year (laughter).

PARKER: That was great.

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PARKER: And that's our show for today. We want to hear from you. You can email us at codeswitch@npr.org. My Twitter is @aparkusfarce and Karen's is @karenbates.

BATES: And we just wanted to give a quick shout out to our CODE SWITCH Plus listeners. We appreciate you and thank you for being a subscriber. Subscribing to the CODE SWITCH Plus means getting to listen to all of our episodes without any sponsor break, and it also helps support our show. So if you love our work, please consider signing up at plus.npr.org/codeswitch.

PARKER: This episode was produced by Kumari Devarajan. It was edited by Veralyn Williams with some help from Dalia Mortada. Shout out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH troop - Alyssa Jeong Perry, Jess Kung, Christina Cala, Steve Drummond, Diba Mohtasham, Gene Demby, Leah Donnella and LA Johnson.

BATES: I'm Karen Grigsby Bates.

PARKER: And I'm B.A. Parker.

BATES: See you.

PARKER: Hydrate.

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