HELLO! I’M ONE OF THOSE AFRICAN AMERICAN SF/F WRITERS! HEY! OVER HERE! YOO-HOO!

I subscribe to Google Alerts. It’s a great writer’s tool: you give it a certain set of keywords, and it scours the internet, looking for those words. Great way to find out if someone plagiarized your story, or if your name gets mentioned anywhere.

My name popped up on a Barnes and Noble blog, so I took a look. It turned out to be an interview of N.K. Jemisin on her debut novel "the Thousands Kingdoms", which I also did a review about here at the Cafe. It’s your standard talk about your book and its influences article, but then the interviewer asks why aren’t there more African American women writing SF/F.

Her response:

“I’m not really sure how to answer that question, because it starts from what I think might be a false assumption. I know plenty of African American women (and men, and Asian Americans, and Latino/a Americans, and so on) who write SF/F. Offhand I can mention Nisi Shawl, Nnedi Okorafor, Nalo Hopkinson, LaShawn Wanak, Alaya Dawn Johnson, K. Tempest Bradford, Helen Oyeyemi, Tananarive Due, L.A. Banks, Ibi Aanu Zoboi, Carole McDonnell, Linda Addison, Sheree R. Thomas, Jewelle Gomez… I’m probably missing quite a few. And those are just the ones who’ve published short stories or novels; I know many more who are on the hoping-to-get-published track. Octavia Butler left behind a lot of children, spiritually speaking."

What especially thrilled me was that I knew many of the names she mentioned, and even met several authors in person. And I felt so honored to be listed among them. I’m a spiritual child of Octavia Butler. WHEEEEEEEEE!!!!!

So it was especially interesting when the next day, I mean the very next day, this popped up on Asimov’s and caught the SF/F world’s attention. I read most of it—at least the parts that weren’t rambling, but basically, in a nutshell, the guy basically says that there’s no such thing as an African Science Fiction  writer. Which at this very moment is being disputed by many wanting to set this guy straight.

As for me, however, it caused me to think back to N.K’s interview.  The interviewer pretty much expressed the same thing—albeit it far more eloquently and less…um…racefailly (good grief, is that even a word?) than the Asimov column. It does seem to be the opinion that while we are out there—there are many, many people who are unaware that there are people of color SF/F writers. In one of the interview’s comments even asks: "Where are these people?"

So, how do we address this? It just proves to me that we need to not only pimp ourselves as writers in our careers, but other people of color as well. Spread the word. Jump up and down, continue mentioning such groups such as Carl Brandon Society and Verb Noire, and magazines like Daybreak Magazine. Keep putting forward our names. Get more people talking about us.

Wish I can write more but I got to run. But what else can we do? Any ideas? Let’s brainstorm, and then let’s act.

Thoughts on Wiscon 33

It’s been a pretty eventful couple of weeks for me. Last week, we took a vacation to Cedar Campus and it was the first time that I actually had fun with Daniel there.  I mean, I’ve enjoyed my time up there before, but for the most part, Daniel didn’t seem to care too much about it until this year. Perhaps there is something about when a child turns five years old that suddenly, they become more interested in the world around them, instead of it always being me, Me, ME! So we had a nice vacation.

But before that, I got a chance to spend a single day at Wiscon. Well, technically, I started the night before, when I went to a reading by Ellen Klages and Geoff Ryman. But from that one single day, I could tell something right away:

This is a con I need to go to. Permanently.

I got to sit in the same room with several other black female authors who all write speculative fiction. And they run the gamut too…from vampire stories to epic fantasy. Epic Fantasy!!! It was so nice to find peers who are like me.

I got to participate in a writer’s workshop moderated by Alaya Dawn Johnson, who gave me some great advice regarding Willow (and finally convinced me to ditch the prologue. Sigh…but it will be worth it). Plus, I got to hear her read the best kick-ass zombie story ever that will never make me look at macaroni and cheese the same way again.

I got to chat a bit with K. Tempest Bradford while she was at a dealer’s table, and I got her to sign her short story she did in Sybil’s Garage #8, "Élan Vital".

I got to have dinner with Tiptree Award winner Nisi Shawl and N.K. Jemisin. The former I had nearly embarrassed myself over by having a fangirlish conniption fit when I first met her Friday night.  The latter has a book, "The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms" coming out next year (yayyyy!!! black female epic fantasy writer!!!). She also wrote a wonderful essay on RaceFail I raved about on a post a few weeks ago…

I got to hang out with my book club, Beer and Marmalade, which was cool because I don’t get a chance to do that often outside our meetings. I was bummed, though, that I wasn’t able to go to their party on Sunday to see Geoff Ryman <>.

And finally, SHAPENOTE SINGING!!!

There was a distinct different feel to Wiscon than the Oddcon I attended last month. Oddcon was more laid back, more casual, more geared to science fiction and fantasy in general. With Wiscon, there were numerous deep topics being discussed that I would have loved to participate in. Not just feminist in nature, but some hard topics like discussing the whole RaceFail issue and religion in fiction. It was very cool to not be the only black person there–in fact, there were several black folk who seemed to show up just for the fun of it, rather than being on a panel or a writer or anything. I wished I had time to get to know them. But the same type of community that was present at Oddcon was also present at Wiscon. It was pretty easy to walk up and talk to anyone, and the authors I saw were very approachable and easy to talk to. I wish I had a chance to take Ellen Klages up on her offer to go out for a beer and talk about writing, but I just ran out of time. It will have to happen next year.

So sorry for the truncated report. I’ve only been able to scratch the surface of the deeply rooted tree that is Wiscon. But one thing is definite–I do plan to go next year. I may even find a way to finagle myself on a couple of panels.

Wiscon 34…ho!

Book Review: The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

I made the decision to start reading more scifi/fantasy books by people of color (i.e. black people) about a week before I learned anything about RaceFail. In February’s issue of Ebony Magazine, they listed some books to read. I usually skip over it their selections, since they usually have romance and/or memories–stuff I’m not interested in, but then I read a blurb about "The Intuitionist", a story about the first black female Elevator Inspector caught in a political war in her department. Elevator Inspector? Now that intrigued me.

Lila Mae Watson is an Intuitionist. She is part of a new breed of Inspectors who can go into any elevator and inspect it just by intuition. This pits them against the Empiricists, who inspect elevators the hands-on way, and who scoff at the Intuitionists, calling their methods voodoo, touchy feely.

Then an elevator falls and crashes, an elevator Lila Mae inspected and cleared. Lila Mae, who is never wrong, finds herself caught between the two factions’. It’s election time to vote in a new chair, and the two candidates, one Empiricist, one Intuitionist, push and pull Lila Mae to concede to their wishes. There is also much about the founder of Intuitionism, James Fulton, who hidden blueprints to the perfect elevator, and it is up for Lila Mae to find them so she can clear her name.

There’s a lot packed in this relatively short book. Whitehead (I love this guy’s last name–he’s black–did he take it into account when he decided to become a writer?) puts the setting of the book in an alternate, but close mirror of the 1930s, where mobs easily kidnapped journalists and break their fingers so they won’t print certain stories. The story has a vague steampunk feel to it with all the focus on how elevators work and the different factions of the Inspectors. It treads in the shadow of speculative fiction, though as I got towards the end, I became hard-pressed to find it.

Told from Lila Mae’s point of view, the whole subject of race is also pulled into it. We see Lila Mae breaking barriers by becoming the first colored female Inspector, but her path to get there is hard–at the school where she learns about Elevators, the only place for her to live on campus is in a janitor’s closet in an abandoned gym. And the barriers are still very much present–there is a dramatic scene where Lila Mae goes to the Elevator Follies disguised as a waitress, and she sees two of her white coworkers in blackface doing a routine. She then sees the only other colored person, who had been invited to the Follies, cracking up alongside the others. She returns to the kitchen, who are all black women, and ponder how they remain silent, doing their chores knowing full well what was happening in the other room.

When the story doesn’t linger on the intricacies of elevator philosophy, it puts us squarely in Lila Mae’s conformed-to-standard shoes. This is not a woman who stands out. What defines her is her uniformity. Her apartment is sparse, her lifestyle built on routine, until her world is shaken. We then see her life, through present time and flashback, as she begins to change from someone who follows directions, to someone who truly follows her intuition.

Whitehead’s writing is circuitous. Weaving between Lila Mae’s predicament to her past, dipping into Fulton’s long winded theories about the perfect "black box", an elevator that would transcend itself, jumping to other characters like the polite but apathetic thugs Jim and John–Whitehead’s style of writing takes a little getting used to. At times, the information on elevators get a bit much–having Lila Mae go through an oral exam was torture for me, and probably her as well. But Whitehead also surprises by showing us a slices of the 30s and 40s you wouldn’t normally see. For instance, when Lila Mae get chased by Jim and John, she escapes by ducking into a Dime-a-Dance in progress. I never knew such things existed back then. But the way he uses the venue is wonderful and touching.

The ending, for me, is ambiguous as we learn Fulton’s history and the meaning behind his invention. It feels like I need to read it over again, just to read between the lines of the whole story. But it would be something I’d would to read again, maybe even buy and keep on my bookshelf a while. Not bad for a debut book. Three 1/2 elevator cabs out of five. And watch that first step–it’s a doozy.

Celebrating Black Future Month

Remember Black History Month back in February? Yeah, I didn’t either. Sadly, my observance of the month has faded along with Kwanzaa, which my family never really celebrated anyway (in fact, it never even entered our heads to celebrate it). I do have fond memories of all the stuff we had to learn during Black History Month, and I’m a little sad that Daniel won’t have that same experience, not unless we send him to an all black school (and to be honest, I want him to be exposed to many different cultures, not just white and black).

That all said, this past March has been interesting. It feels like I’ve spent the entire month not just discussing multi-ethnic matters, but reconciling on how that applies to me as a black writer.

In the past, I really struggled on what made me a black person other than just color. I didn’t act like a "typical" black person; in fact, as a kid, I caught a lot of flack from other black people because I "acted white". I spoke proper. Always had my head in a book. Wasn’t very interested in singing or dance groups. In high school and college, I got to hear all the fun names that goes along struggling with black identity—like oreo or zebra. Fun, fun times. See, this is why I don’t like thinking about high school days.

It got to the point where I felt more "black" among my white friends than I did with other blacks. So I hung out with whites more. It was where I felt the most comfortable. The way I figured it,

Now, fast forward to this past March. I’m attending our Wiscon Book Club, Beer and Marmalade, and one of the things we decide to talk about was a racism discussion that’s been happening on LiveJournal appropriately called "RaceFail 2009". I’m not going to spell out the whole history of that; clicking on the link would give you an idea, although you can get a more detailed history of the whole mess at Ann Somerville’s LiveJournal. But anyway—I didn’t really want to do it, as any discussion about race makes me highly uncomfortable. But I dutifully read some of the essays out there, and I came across this post "We worry about it Too".

That essay hit a strong nerve with me.

You see, when I started writing, I had prided myself on being a ‘black’ writer of speculative fantasy. I figured it would make me stand out more, especially since I was writing a fantasy novel that contained black characters in it. Heck, it had a black woman who was a main character. But when I first wrote Willow, she wasn’t the main protagonist. The young man she protects, the white male, he was the protagonist. Most of the book was written from his point of view, as well as several others who were white.

I once took a draft of Willow’s Synopsis to an agent at the Midwest Writer’s Conference a while back. One of the things she said was, "It looks like the female character is stronger than the male. Why isn’t this in her point of view?" And I just stared at her, because 1) it didn’t really occur to me to write in the black female’s point of view, and 2) deep down, it scared me. Who was I, a black woman, mind you, to know what an actual black woman felt like?

(And yes, I know most of my short stories have black characters as the main protagonist—but it’s different when you write sci/fi or plain speculative, because it’s easier to picture black people in the future. But in fantasy? Most are set within Eurocentric settings; any black people would be relegated to an African tribal status.)

My sister, who has a LiveJournal of her own, puts it down the best way when it comes to her writing fanfiction: "I write about white characters because that’s what I read when I grew up." I’m the exact same way. I’ve grown so used to seeing white males in fantasy that when I started writing a fantasy novel, it was easy to fall into that same line of thinking.

My realization about my main characters came before I read that essay by Nojojojo, of course. But the timing couldn’t have been better. Because I read it just when I started my second rewrite of Willow’s prologue. And it made me seriously think. Am I writing from this character’s POV because it’s what I’m used to, or should I write from this other character to give him/her more of a voice in the book?

It’s a hard thing to juggle, but I’ve rewritten the prologue and chapter 1 of Willow, and I think that so far, both have come out a lot stronger. I’m eager to see this novel through Coren’s eyes. It’s risky, but it’s also very exciting.

That’s how I feel about this whole RaceFail thing. Sure, a lot of people on both sides have vented and/or said very stupid things (I almost don’t read comments anymore), but some very insightful and deep discussion has come because of this. And there are attempts to further the conversation. Wiscon will be holding its first Cultural Appropriation Class (I mentioned this in my last post), and luckily, I’ll be able to attend that. There’s also been a great promotion to read more fantasy and sci/fi by people of color, which I highly, highly recommend (and I’ve started doing myself). There’s also a new small press in the works called Verb Noire who caters specifically to people of color in the scifi/fantasy community. Worth checking out.

This is probably the best time to be a black speculative fiction writer. We’re forging into new territory here. It’s scary, risky and it’s never really been done before. But it’s long overdue. And I think this whole experience is helping to strengthen my own identity as a black writer. For the first time, I can own up to that and really feel like I mean it, instead of feeling like some imposter.

Of course, my hubby would suggest that’s because inside of me there’s a Japanese girl perpetually stuck at age thirteen, but that’s not true. She’s sixteen. That’s a world of difference.

New Story: “The Liberation of Roscoe White” published at The Town Drunk

Hot dog! A new story of mine is up and running! I like it when I get my stories published!

“The Liberation of Roscoe White” was among one of the first short stories I workshopped with my writers’ group back in Chicago. It’s also the first story I ever wrote that utilizes the “F-word”, or any amount of swearing, for that matter. An interesting learning process, to say the least. If you’re sensitive to strong language, you’ve been warned.

I had a lot of fun writing it, and I’m grateful for The Town Drunk publishing it. I also find it a tad ironic, seeing that two of my favorite print repositories of fantasy have dried up. Hmm…

Anyway, “The Liberation of Roscoe White” is up. Enjoy!

“Crowntree” is up at Ideomancer!

And yet another story of mine is up to read! Yippee! And it’s at Ideomancer, of all places!

This one has a special place in my heart. It’s based off an actual tree and stone ring I saw in someone’s backyard. Seeing the tree took me back to the days of when I was a kid, and our own backyard.

We lived in a cul-de-sac, and our backyard was adjacent to a trainyard that had a slice of forest serve as a barrier of sorts. Several feet of this forest protruded into our own backyard, so basically we had a lawn with a couple of trees, then a wooded area that had a path going through it, so in a way, it was like our own forest preserve. And in the city of Chicago, that’s pretty special.

Towards the back of our backyard, there was a tree we could climb. It had a space where two or three kids could stand up, and there was even an odd stump that served as a makeshift chair. My sisters and I, and our friends, would go to the backyard and play ‘king of the castle’ and sometimes tell stories (I was doing that even way back then).

Thinking about it now, our backyard was a kid’s paradise.

So fast forward a couple of decades, I’m at a friend’s house for the first time, stuffing Easter eggs. I happen to look into their backyard, and lo and behold, there’s the tree. They also have a strange concrete ring that we couldn’t really figure out what it was used for. My imagination kicked in and “Crowntree” was born.

What’s also cool about this story is that this is the first story that got into the exact place I wanted it to go to. I’ve always been a fan of Ideomancer and their stories, so I made it one of my goals to get a story in to them. It’s quite a prestigious market, and I’m very happy that they chose my story (and the other stories in this quarter’s issue are wonderful too).

Go read “Crowntree” at Ideomancer!

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