August 2010

I guess I'm trying to move from having to say something to having something to say

Black Girl, Light World V: Black Authors/Characters in Speculative Fiction

(originally published here on June 25th)

A few nights ago I was doing my usual Youtube surfing for tutorials on natural hair care and styling, when I came across the above video by AFR0STORY and she poses a question/situation that I've also pondered a a lot over the years.

I love speculative fiction in general, and fairytales & epic/high fantasy in particular. Those are the types of stories that lead me into wanting to write and the stories that instill inspire a creative spirit in me. I grew up reading and sci-fi and fantasy were the genres that I always turned to for something intriguing to read. It didn't escape my notice that most of the characters (all of the characters) were white people, or elves as white people, various aliens as animals or white people, dwarfs as white people... yeah.

I know that that affected me as a kid wanting to write speculative fiction because all my characters were at least racially ambiguous with light skin, if not white. I hadn't even really noticed that that was something I was doing. I was just writing the same types of characters that I read about in these types of books. It wasn't until I was in my late teens, that I began to question the status quo in the books I was reading--therefore questioning my own writing--and made a conscious decision decision to change that.

Part of the reason there aren't many black characters in spec-fic is because that aren't many black authors of spec-fic. Just go to wikipedia and look up spec-fic authors, then spec-fic authors of color. The difference in length between those two lists are drastic and telling. And it's kind of vicious cycle, black kids don't see characters who represent them in this genre of fiction, so they don't read those books and certainly don't care about writing them, therefore there aren't many black authors to make black characters sci-fi and fantasy. Some noted exceptions are Octavia Butler (obviously), Jeremy Love (graphic novel Bayou and others), Nalo Hopkinson, Tananrive Due, and Nnedi Okorafor (there are more, and if you're curious wikipedia is a good place to start).

I know that one of the problems that I run up against as a fantasy writer is that fantasy relies heavily on cultural mythological motifs and archetypes, and though I grew up with European fairytales as the model to work from and I'll be honest, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, The Red Shoes, Rapunzel, etc are close to my heart, those stories that are close to my heart don't represent me as a Black person or as an American (though I see that White people have no problem with identifying with princess even though there aren't any American royalty... none explicitly stated as such though there is certainly a privileged class) and when I do write a story with a black character, I don't want to just drop them in a traditionally European setting and call it a day. I want the world I build to be reflective of the background of the characters in it. But while I am African American, I am not African either, and stories about Anansi or Ituen and the King's Wife don't awaken the same... nostalgia, the same emotional investment in me, and I don't know if that's a failing on my part, if it's something I should strive to change or just realize that--for me-- this is a part of my African American experience. I learn and read about them because I do want to know, even need to know the stories of people everywhere, but they are just as unreflective because they don't relate to the culture that AAs have grown up in for the last 400 years. For me, framing a story has become difficult. Often, I have felt caught between a rock and a hard place. Where are my myths to draw from?

One writer that has helped me be much more flexible in the way I think of myth and incorporate that in my stories is Jeremy Love. Bayou is one of the best stories I've ever read and Love structures the story using traditional Southern folktales and myths and while I was reading it online (don't worry, I'm buying it and Vol. 2 as soon as I get my 2nd paycheck!) it was like something shook loose in my mind. I can do this differently. I can mix and match. So fine, this story reaches out to you, this other character, and that setting. I can mix it all in if I want to, I just have to "make it work." I do want to familiarize myself more with the works of the Black authors above, and glean from them how to approach what, for me, is a conundrum.

What I Know 1

There is only one thing in the world that gives me more of a… thrill, more of an “experience” than listening and dancing to hardcore.
For most of my life, I’ve been looking for music that encompasses all the highs and lows and in betweens of my experience at least, and the only thing that came close was classical music. Classical music, however, does not totally fit my personality, and though at times it sated my need for a thrill, it never really made that much sense (does that make sense?), it satisfied but it didn’t. It was really just making do. Then one day I heard Emery, my first introduction to hardcore, and I was floored. The strength and beauty of the melody versus the harshness of raw emotion in a pure, true emo scream (not the sappy, watered down crap that MTV has labeled emo and has none of the real emo/screamo heart or hardness behind it); the intertwining of emotion an clear cutting and descriptive yet cryptic lyrics; the combination of romance and fury, what more could I ask for?
“Returning the Smile You Had From the Start” is one of the songs that got me through my mother’s death. It said a lot of the things that I couldn’t at the time, a lot of the things that I still can’t say, not by myself, not in my own words. And though I love reggae, and hip hop, and metal, and southern rock, and classical music, and folk/folk rock, and alt pop; though I love all these things, no other genre speaks in my own voice the way hardcore does. Emery or Atra or Anberlin or As I Lay Dying or Living Sacrifice, when a lyric or musical phrase sounds like it was pulled straight from my mind, straight from my heart, how can but respond in kind with a twist, a turn, a scream, a thrash, a punch, a strike, a full body seizure, an unmistakable movement or sound that shows my complete assent? In all truth, my body does this with or without my say-so.

excerpts from "The Wanderer," an elegy from the Book of Exeter

"Always the one alone longs for the Maker's mildness, though troubled in mind, across the ocean-ways he has long been forced to stir with his hands the frost-cold sea and walk in exile's paths...
There is no one living to whom I would dare to reveal clearly my heart's thoughts...
Cares are renewed for the one who must send, over and over a weary heart across the binding waves. And so I cannot imagine for all this world why my spirit should not grow dark when I think through all this life of men, how they suddenly give up the hall floor the mighty young retainers. Thus this middle-earth droops and decays every single day; and so a man cannot become wise before he has weathered his share of winters in this world...
'Where has the horse gone? Where is the rider? Where is the giver of gold? Where are the seats of the feast? Where are the joys of the hall?...
All is toilsome in the earthly kingdom, the working of wyrd changes the world under heaven...
It will be well for the one who seeks mercy, consolation from the Father in heaven, where for us all stability stands."