From Our Archive: Nisi Shawl

This article first appeared in Vector 247.

Colourful Stories

Fantastic Fiction by African Descended Authors, by Nisi Shawl

Everfair coverSo rich a sea, so broad the currents … in exploring fantastic literature by African-descended authors, where do we start?

“Begin at the beginning” is standard advice for writers. “Begin where you are” is more my style. Where I am at the moment, where I’ve been most of my life, is North America. Though I know there are many other schools of African-descended writers out there, myriad fabulists swimming in gorgeous array, I’m at my best talking about those with whom I’ve had the most contact, those about whom I have something substantial to say: those who inhabit the Western Hemisphere. In the course of this essay, then, I’ll focus on “New World” writers of fantastic fiction whose ancestors came from Africa. I’ll talk about specific works by them and also touch a bit on what I see as a commonly shared theme.
Just as important as my location in the three dimensions of physical space is my location in a fourth, time. When I am is one week out from learning of the death of my friend Octavia Estelle Butler. So despite the fact that her fiction’s far better known than that of some of her colleagues, it’s to her work I’ll turn first.

Octavia, as almost anyone who knew her will tell you, was not quite a recluse, but fledglingsomeone who valued her loneliness very highly. Yet a major concern of the heroine of Fledgling, her last complete book, is building a community. Shori belongs to a sentient species known as the ‘Ina’, and must consume human blood to live. In other words, she’s a vampire–but a scientifically plausible one. At its best, the Ina/human relationship is symbiotic, and Shori, survivor of a vicious, lethal attack on her original family, instinctively seeks to reconstruct what she has lost: a feminist-oriented blending of species and sexual preferences that might be the envy of a Utopianist visionary.

Shori’s other quest, of course, is to bring to justice those who murdered her mother, her sisters, and the humans they had gathered into their extended family. The killings may have been “racially” motivated; that is, though Shori’s not human, she has been genetically altered so that her skin is as dark as most blacks, and the tactics her enemies use are those of the Klan and other racist lynchers.

While it’s these last points that will probably impress most readers as drawing on African American culture, the book’s concern with social and familial structure shares the same roots, I would argue. Historically, most New World descendents of Africans came to this hemisphere as victims of the slave trade. This means that a large percentage of the cultural artifacts that survived that trauma are non-material. And even these were difficult to retain, subject to enormous stresses under the system of chattel slavery. Language, genealogy, occupational associations: all vanished or were transformed beyond easy recognition. It seems to me that a longing for these lost inheritances underpins the frequent tendency of New World African descendents to write what’s known as “third order” stories.

(There are three “orders” of fantastic fiction: In a first order story, plot and action focus entirely on the advent of a technological innovation, or of a magical or supernatural device or event; in a second order story, an elementary plot appears in which said innovation, device, or event plays a key role. Third order stories are concerned with the effects on societies as a whole of these things. Isaac Asimov came up with a narrower set of classifications along these lines in his essay ‘Social Science Fiction,’ published in Reginald Bretnor’s anthology of essays Modern Science Fiction. In it, Asimov refers to “gadget science fiction,” “adventure science fiction,” and “social science fiction.” I’ve adapted these terms, expanding them to include all forms of fantastic fiction.)

Thus in Delany’s Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand, the far future’s informational density and modes of information distribution form the bases of two contemporary and conflicting socio-political structures, one hierarchical and one egalitarian. This conflict lies at the novel’s heart; its crisis is a tragedy that divides star-crossed lovers.

Of course there are concerns other than social or cultural issues driving the work of Delany and Butler and their lesser-known black contemporaries. And not every African-descended author of the fantastic writes what Butler called “save-the-world fiction.” However, it’s still possible to trace the influence of this tendency.

FaustTo take an extreme example, African-Canadian Minister Faust’s The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad reads for the most part as a light, fun adventure. Heroes Hamza Senesert and Yehat Gerbles find themselves drawn into a highly atypical Grail Quest, hunting the sacred relic through the wilds of Edmonton, Alberta while pursued by pretentious academics and gift shop owners. Wonderfully witty and full of inside-the-genre jokes (the encounter between Hamza, Yehat, and a cop unfazed by Jedi mind-control techniques alone is worth the book’s price), Coyote Kings still keeps social concerns in mind. No isolated knights errant, Hamza and Yehat run a summer camp for neighborhood kids and do their best to stay in contact with their own immediate families, dysfunctional though they often prove to be.

The Good House, by Tananarive Due, sits solidly in a subgenre where family matters traditionally hold full sway, for horror literature is rife with intergenerational curses. Due’s genius lies in tying this familiar trope to some of the particular societal problems of the African diaspora: ostracization by members of dominant white culture, marital instability, and the heartbreaking vulnerability of young black men. Her most recent novel, Joplin’s Ghost, takes on added depth because the protagonist is part of an interracial family.
Due’s husband Steven Barnes, a renowned science fiction writer, has also published two alternate histories. They’re set in a timeline in which the number of deaths from Europe’s Medieval plagues are so greatly multiplied that colonization of the Western Hemisphere falls to Egypt, Ethiopia, and China rather than to England, Spain, and France. Here the connection to socio-cultural issues is clear from the beginning, and clearly exciting to the author. Both Lion’s Blood and Zulu Heart explore the outcomes of this branch of imperialism’s probability tree with infectious glee at the upsetting of historically entrenched white privilege. Barnes reprises the battle of the Alamo with African heroes, and reinvents submarines courtesy of a black female engineer. Beneath all the action and impish revisionism, though, lies a thoughtful re-examination of the moral and ethical dimensions of slavery. By reversing traditional racial role assignments he throws revealing new light on them; it’s as if one were watching a negative of a black-and-white film.

Of course, race is not a chiaroscuro. Some of the most telling instances of its multiplexity come from Caribbean-born authors. Nalo Hopkinson, raised in Jamaica, Guyana, and Trinidad and now living in Toronto, depicts East Indian traditions as part of her fascinating creation Toussaint, a planet colonized by non-white settlers. In Midnight Robber, Toussaint’s culture is “creolized” in the sense that

midnight robber1

it’s a mix of African, Island aboriginal, European, Asian, and other influences, all unobtrusively credited for their individual contributions in the text, all stunningly evident in the colony’s language, music, dance, food, and community institutions.

After creating this carefully planned near-paradisiacal society, vibrant, vital, balanced yet dynamic, Hopkinson transports her pre-adolescent heroine Tan-Tan to Toussaint’s prison world, by contrast a chaotic and treacherous milieu. Here, among convicted murderers (including her own father) and living legends (including talking lizards and giant, flightless, carnivorous birds), Tan-Tan comes of age and gives birth to her own legend. “My father, Lord Raja,” she declaims at a festival, “was the King of Kings, nemesis of the mighty. He command the engines of the earth, and they obey him. My mother, Queen Niobe, cause the stars to fall out the sky at her beauty and the wind to sigh at she nimble body as she dance. How I could not be joyful? How I could not be blissful?” The gorgeous rhythms of Caribbean speech animate this triumphant claiming of Tan-Tan’s heritage.

Hopkinson’s work as an editor is as noteworthy as her fiction. Beginning with Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root, an anthology of fabulist fiction by Caribbean-connected authors, through Mojo: Conjure Stories, to So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy, which she co-edited with Uppinder Mehan, she has consistently selected the best stories by authors established and emerging, familiar and unknown. I’ll discuss these anthologies further later in this article; for now, I mention them because they serve as an introduction to some newer writers.

Tobias Buckell, who appeared in all three of these anthologies, has just released his first novel, Crystal Rain. Once again we’re in a far-future multi-cultural milieu extrapolated from Caribbean roots. But conditions on Nanagada are nowhere near as ideal as those on Hopkinson’s Toussaint. Refugees rather than settlers, Nanagadans have gradually declined from the technological peak which allowed them to travel to the planet in the first place. The immortality of the so-called “oldfathers” is failing, the terraforming projects incomplete. The oldfathers and their short-lived descendants are caught in the crossfire between two warring alien species known to humans as the Teotl and the Loa, names referring to divinities of Aztec and Haitian religions. A harrowing quest for a hidden piece of oldfather technology plays out against this socially variegated background, making for a dizzyingly kaleidoscopic tale.

Hopkinson selected Andrea Hairston’s ‘Griots of the Galaxy,’ a futuristic tribute to the traditional West African musicians who “stand between us and cultural amnesia”, for So Long Been Dreaming. Prior to this, though several of Hairston’s SF plays had been performed, her only genre publication had been in 2004, in the form of an excerpt from a forthcoming novel. The novel, Mindscape, has just been released from Aqueduct Press. Set a little over a century in our future, it depicts a world where strange force fields reminiscent of the Berlin Wall divide warring geopolitical entities. Harsh class distinctions (some people are openly labeled “Expendables”) and deliberately reconstructed ethnic traditions intensify the heady richness of Mindscape’s socio-cultural potpourri. Heroine Elleni, one of the few who can travel across the force fields, struggles to hold together a treaty hammered out by her mentor Celestina, who was assassinated before the peace plan could be put in place. In Elleni’s attempts to make good on Celestina’s work there are echoes of the African spiritual tradition of doing more than nullifying an ancestral curse–of actually redeeming it. By her extraordinary efforts, Elleni changes history as well as the present and the future, giving the dead past life and meaning.

Having reached the midpoint of this article I return to its beginning and my assessment of my position. I’ve covered “where” and “when” I am. Now for “who.”

I am a writer: African-descended, enamored of speculative fiction in all its sub-genres, professionally published (short fiction, book-length nonfiction). In the school of African American SF authors, I’m a definite swimmer.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of what I’ve published validates my theory that African-descended writers of the fantastic often gravitate towards familial, social, and political themes and issues. My story ‘Cruel Sistah,’ which first appeared in Asimov’s and will soon be reprinted in the 2005 Datlow/Link/Grant Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror, is a good case in point. On its surface it’s a simple murder story, what I’ve often half-jokingly called “the Ebonics version of an old British Isles ballad.” But in making the familiar tale’s cultural milieu 1960s black Seattle instead of feudal Britain, and the specific traits marking the preferred sister straight versus kinky hair instead of blonde versus brunette, I’ve tapped a rich mine of cultural referents. All the slain girl’s family, all her social surround, are responsible for her death – not just the sister who actually does the deed, but everybody who bought into a white ideal of beauty. All are guilty, and all suffer.

Online you can find other examples of this tendency in my work. In ‘Momi Watu’ I depict an iatrogenic plague in terms of how it warps the daily life of the single mother of a mixed-race child. In ‘Wallamelon’ a young girl uses newly acquired magical powers to protect her neighborhood from the forces of gentrification.

darkmatterIn print currently you’ll find ‘At the Huts of Ajala’ in the first of the Dark Matter anthology series and ‘Maggies’ in the second, as well as ‘Tawny Bitch’ in Hopkinson’s Mojo: Conjure Stories anthology, and ‘Deep End’ in her more recent So Long Been Dreaming.

So Long Been Dreaming brings together re-visionings of science fiction and fantasy tales ordinarily written from a colonialist perspective. All the contributors descended from or were themselves members of colonized populations, including the African diaspora. In addition to the contributors I’ve already noted (myself, Andrea Hairston, and Tobias Buckell), I’ll briefly go into the work of Chicagoan Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu. Her ‘When Scarabs Multiply’ is a glimpse into a near-future Africa where bombs and climate change compete for weirdness points with transdimensional warrior queens. Okorafor-Mbachu’s excellent recent YA novel, Zahrah the Windseeker, also takes place in Africa. There’s a tenuous narrative thread connecting the two – in an expanded version of ‘Scarabs’ to be published as Ejii the Shadow Speaker, the heroine travels to Zahrah’s world. San Francisco’s third Poet Laureate devorah major, and Sheree Thomas, editor of the aforementioned Dark Matter series, also make appearances in So Long Been Dreaming, along with several other African-descended authors to be discovered and enjoyed.

For the Mojo: Conjure Stories anthology, Hopkinson sought out stories based on African-derived magical systems from writers of all racial backgrounds. It’s a harmonious blend of diverse voices, some new, some familiar. Of the lesser-known authors, Jarla Tangh is well worth watching out for. Though ‘The Skinned,’ her tale of a guilty African immigrant facing down undead canine vigilantes, is her only published work to date, it’s a strong debut that leaves its readers wanting more.

Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root is both narrower and broader in focus. Drawing exclusively from the repertoires of Caribbean writers, Hopkinson included stories with much more varied themes. From the poetic hyperbole of Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘My Mother’ to Geoffrey Philp’s wryly humorous ‘Uncle Obadiah and the Alien’ to Hopkinson’s own deeply unsettling ‘Glass Bottle Trick,’ a host of styles and topics abound. About half the stories were reprinted from a wide range of anthologies and literary journals.

Like Whispers, the Dark Matter books include both original and previously published stories, and take their material from one particular group of writers: the descendants of Africans. Sheree Thomas’s monumental editing accomplishment encompasses early science fiction by noted activist W.E.B. DuBois as well as groundbreaking newer work by up-and-comers such as Kevin Brockenbrough and David Findlay. At the end of the first volume three definitive essays appear: ‘Racism and Science Fiction’ by Samuel R. Delany, ‘Black to the Future’ by Walter Mosley, and ‘The Monophobic Response’ by Octavia E. Butler. Dark Matter I and IIare essential reading for anyone who wants a basic understanding of speculative fiction of the African diaspora.

Those who know Walter Mosley primarily as a mystery writer may be surprised to find thewavehim mentioned in this essay. But the author of the Easy Rawlins books has also written two science fiction novels (Blue Light and The Wave) and a collection of SF stories (Futureland).

Sometimes speculative literature by writers of African descent is marketed as mainstream fiction, as in the case of Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, or Nega Mezlekia’s The God Who Begat a Jackal, both extremely powerful fantasies. Many of Toni Morrison’s and Ishmael Reed’s works could also be categorized as fantasies, or at least as magic realism. The same could be said of Virginia Hamilton’s novels, usually considered simply “young adult.”

Whether familial, social, and cultural concerns are addressed directly and at the work’s outset, as in the case of So Long Been Dreaming, or are intrinsic to the make-up of particular characters, as in the case of the conjure women of Mama Day, whether they provide a carefully constructed backdrop for the action as they do for Crystal Rain, or represent the conflicting forces at a story’s heart as in Stars in My Pocket… or Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, the frequent presence of these concerns is of arguable importance, denoting as it does both a loss of a former social structure’s sufficiency and stability, and often, that absence’s fulfillment. Keeping in mind the idea that writers of African ancestry are more likely to reflect concerns of these sorts in their work may render visible to readers from other races depths they otherwise might miss. I hope that this essay will attract more readers to fabulist fiction by blacks, and that the possibilities inherent in the perspective I’ve sketched above, that which gives pride of place to family, society, and culture will allow them greater enjoyment of its riches.

Claiming the waters in which the school of African-descended speculative fiction writers swims from those who see it as the territory of European-descended authors only is a project I and others are deeply involved in. The Carl Brandon Society formed in 1999 to “address the representation of people of color in the fantastical genres….” In 2006 we’re giving two $1000 literary awards, the first of an annual paired presentation. The Parallax Award will go to the best speculative fiction by an author of color, the Kindred Award to the best speculative fiction by an author of any extraction that explores and expands our understanding of racial issues. The awards will be announced at WisCon 30, held in Madison, Wisconsin in the United States during the weekend of May 26 – 29. By drawing attention to work by genre writers of the African diaspora, our colleagues of color, and our allies, the Parallax and Kindred awards will increase this work’s recognition and acceptance, and perhaps even stimulate its creation.

With Octavia’s passing, the Carl Brandon Society and several of her publishers were moved to start a scholarship fund in her name. Beginning in 2007, each year the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Fund will enable a student of color to attend either the Clarion or Clarion West Writers Workshops, held in East Lansing, Michigan, and Seattle, Washington, in the U.S. Soon we hope to extend the scholarship offer through Australia’s Clarion South also.

So I end where I began, mourning and accepting Octavia’s death. And moving on.

To learn more about the Parallax and Kindred Awards, the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Fund, and other projects of the Carl Brandon Society, visit the Society’s website.

You can join the Carl Brandon Society no matter what your race, career, or avocation. Readers are as welcome as writers, as is anyone interested in this or related schools of fantastic fiction. Come on in; the water’s fine.

Bibliography

Asimov, Isaac. “Social Science Fiction.” Bretnor, Reginald, ed., Modern Science Fiction, Chicago, Il, Advent Publishers, 1979.
Barnes, Steven Lion’s Blood. New York, NY, Warner Books, 2002.
Zulu Heart. New York, NY, Warner Books, 2003.
Buckell, Tobias Crystal Rain. New York, NY, Tor Books, 2006.
Butler, Octavia E. Fledgling. New York, NY, Seven Stories Press, 2005.
Delany, Samuel R. Stars in My Pockets Like Grains of Sand. New York, NY, Bantam Books, 1984.
Due, Tananarive. The Good House. New York, NY, Atria Books, 2003.
Joplin’s Ghost. New York, NY, 2005.
Faust, Minister. The Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad. New York, NY, Random House, 2004.
Hairston, Andrea. Mindscape. Seattle, Washington, Aqueduct Press, 2006.
Hopkinson, Nalo. Midnight Robber. New York, NY, Warner Books, 2000.
Hopkinson, Nalo, ed. Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root. Montpelier, Vermont, Invisible Cities Press, 2000.
Mojo: Conjure Stories. New York, NY, Warner Books, 2003.
Hopkinson, Nalo and Mehan, Uppinder, eds. So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy. Vancouver, BC, Canada, Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004.
Mezlekia, Nega. The God Who Begat a Jackal. New York, NY, Picador USA, 2002.
Mosley, Walter. Blue Light. New York, NY, Warner Books, 1998.
Futureland. New York, NY, Warner Books, 2001.
The Wave. New York, NY, Warner Books, 2006.
Naylor, Gloria. Mama Day. New York, NY, Ticknor & Fields, 1988.
Okorafor-Mbachu, Nnedi. Zahrah the Windseeker. New York, NY, Houghton Mifflin, 2005.
Ejii the Shadow Speaker. (Forthcoming.)
Reed, Ishmael. Mumbo Jumbo. Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, 1972.
Shawl, Nisi. “Momi Watu.” Strange Horizons, August 2003, .
“Wallamelon.” Aeon Magazine, Issue Three, May 2005, .
“Cruel Sistah.” Asimov’s SF Magazine, October/November 2005.
Thomas, Sheree, ed. Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora. New York, NY, Warner Books, 2000.
Dark Matter: Reading the Bones. New York, NY, Warner Books, 2004.

Nisi Shawl is the co-author, with Cynthia Ward, of Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, published in December 2005 by Aqueduct Press. Her short stories have been published widely, including in Asimov’s SFStrange Horizons, and Infinite Matrix. Her reviews and essays have appeared regularly in the Seattle Times since the turn of the millennium, and she is a contributor to The Encyclopedia of Themes in Science Fiction and Fantasy and to The Internet Review of Science Fiction. In 2004 and 2005 she edited BEYOND magazine, an online magazine of Afrocentric speculative fiction by teens. Nisi is a founding member of the Carl Brandon Society, and is currently a board member for the Clarion West Writers Workshop. She has been a guest lecturer at Stanford University and at the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame. She likes to relax by pretending she lives in other people’s houses.

This article first appeared in Vector 247. Also available on our archived website.

 

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