[HEAR ME OUT] I Am What Is And What Could Be: A Quick Thought On Why I Write What I Write and Read What I Read

Octavia Butler herself, signing a hardcover copy of a book

The following post is an edited version of a rant on the Equal Opportunity Facebook. Follow it for lots of bookish news updates and rants.

“Fourteen years ago, during my first year of college, I sat in a creative writing class and listened as my teacher, an elderly man, told another student not to use black characters in his stories unless those characters’ blackness was somehow essential to the plots. The presence of blacks, my teacher felt, changed the focus of a story, drew attention from the intended subject.”

Octavia Butler, The Lost Races of Science Fiction, 1980

These words, penned in 1980 by La Grande Dame Octavia Butler hit me in a really personal place for a lot of reasons. When I first began to write and submit speculative fiction back in 1995 or so…well, first of all, it wasn’t that good. No delusions of grandeur here, and ya girl is still struggling on the quality front. But it was also based on the world as I knew it and saw it, and I lived in a multicultural neighborhood, went to even more multicultural schools, and lived in an area where I heard AAVE, Spanish, Amharic, Korean, Russian and the occasional bit of Tigrinya every morning on the way to the bus stop. So, I wrote stories about diverse people from rich cultures coexisting in space, fighting dragons, and generally living their fantastic otherworldly lives outside of mainstream struggle narratives and. the feedback I got was always things like–“this would be better if you wrote about normal people”, “Why have you described character X as ‘pretty’ on page 4, but also ‘Black’ on page 7?” and my personal favorite, “Race doesn’t matter in the future. Why do you have to make your characters different races? We will all be one race, so there’s no need to use ethnic names or strange cultural terms.”

If I recall correctly, the strange cultural term was “pepper sauce”.

My first novel, which has never been published and will probably never see the light of day because it’s aged very poorly, was about a punk-loving Black woman in her twenties and her alcoholic Japanese-American boyfriend committing petty crimes and con jobs in East Denver and accidentally getting in too deep. When I began to shop it around to agents and publishers, the consistent feedback that I got was “This is an interesting social commentary, but these characters and relationships aren’t very realistic and therefore, we won’t be able to sell it.” It was suggested that perhaps the boyfriend be rewritten as a Crip or Blood. It was suggested that all the characters be rewritten as white, with perhaps the lone white character changed to “mixed-race” as a concession. It was also suggested that the idea of a weird alternative Black girl protagonist who lived in the ‘hood in what was not an “urban” novel would not be relatable for any audience. At the time, I was a weird Black woman with an Afro and black lipstick in my 20’s who lived in East Denver and had a Asian-Latino boyfriend. (For legal reasons, we did not commit any crimes and alcoholic is…a harsh word.) At the time, alternative and unbelievable struggle love between skinny pockmarked unlikable white people set to rock music was a hot, artsy trend in media–but make the lovers “ethnic” and add a beat to the music and suddenly it’s unrealistic.

I still get the same nonsense now, in slightly woker yet less self-aware permutations. Disappointingly, a lot of it comes from people of color who have internalized certain colonial constructions of the world. Someone read a chapter of one of my current projects and immediately came back to me with the criticism ,”Why is the villain Black? Be careful about making only the villain Black.” When I pointed out that in this fantasy world, no-one is “white” (it’s a savannah world of dark-skinned people and the heroine references her own dark brown skin on the first page) I was told that I should now be careful about writing stories that have too many Black characters because they don’t sell well if you’re a new writer. When I asked did she think people are really “Black” in the American sense in a fantasy world in which there is no Europe, no Africa, no Americas and a whole lotta sunshine and cocoa butter I was told I was missing the point.

**PRIMAL SCREAM**

I’ve always written the kind of people that I know, love, and feel most familiar with into the unrealistic situations that my messy imagination creates. That doesn’t mean I omit, dislike, or exclude white people. It simply means that white people are not the only ones who exist in the world of What Could Be, and I refuse to pretend so. Writers like Octavia Butler and N.K. Jemisin have broken through that barrier for all of us, but even they had to begin their careers with slavery narratives and stabby white feudalism. It’s frustrating. While it’s improving every day, it’s still a struggle out here. (My latest criticism–“This sounds like…Africa? Or like, fantasy Africa? But you’re not African, you’re just Black. You can’t write anything about Africa. Have you thought about setting this in like, the civil war? Maybe they’re all slaves? But wait, you can’t have someone be Black and disabled and a slave in a novel, it’s just too sad.”🤬)

It’s not lost on me that down here in the hack seats where I hang out and write on the weekends, the only pieces of work I’ve managed to publish are about being a Black woman in direct struggle, even though that is not what most of my unpublished writing is about. I guess all of this is a large part of why I run this blog. Diversity is a normal part of the human condition. Human interaction, cultural interaction, linguistic interaction, are all a vital, fascinating, enriching part of human history and life. I’m not interested in glorifying racist platforms or people by constantly calling them out and giving them attention because I have better things to do than fight with unimportant people. I do want to recognize the artists who are writing and creating within the diversity of what is, to me, the regular world. I also want a place where those of us who are “diverse” can express our love for traditional literary canons (there’s no shame in good books, wherever they originate), find ourselves in what we already love, and find newer books to expand and reinforce our ideas of What Is and What Could Be. There is so much more to the literary world than we are taught in school or exposed to in mainstream pop culture.

Anyway, thank you for coming to my TED Talk. Go read Dame Butler’s original words at the link below. They’re 40 years old, but were still true yesterday.

In 1980: Octavia Butler Asked, Why Is Science Fiction So White?First published in Transmission Magazine, the afrofuturist author’s essay “The Lost Races of Science Fiction” resonates more than ever in today’s conversations around race and representation.

(As always, beautiful people, this blog has affiliate relationships with sites like Bookshop and any clicks/purchases made from here will result in a commission being paid.)

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