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Dark Stars: Diversity in Speculative Fiction
I have an embarrassing confession to make. Unless the information has been handed to me in an author bio, I am often remarkably clueless about the personal details of the people I read. Age, gender, race, religion, orientation, ethnicity-- I know they matter in shaping the person who's shaped the story I'm reading, but finding these things out isn't high in my priorities. I read speculative fiction because I'm interested in the world inside the author's head, not their place in the world outside of it.
Sometimes the answers are obvious, of course, either from the author's name (if it is the author's real name) or from the context of the stories he or she writes. If I see initials instead of a first name, I'll suppose the author is female-- men don't really need to hide their gender to sell books (except in the Romance genre). In the absence of other clues, I'll generally assume the author is something like the book's main character, if I take time to think about the matter at all.
I've been known to make incorrect assumptions-- a colleague recently referred to Rob Thurman as "she," to which my smooth response was, "Wait-- what?" (As it turns out, "Rob" is short for "Robyn.") It's likely the author wanted me to make that assumption so that her male protagonists would be more "authentically" male ("write what you know," and all that), but it would have been easy enough for me to check. I just... didn't. (For a reference librarian, this betrays a shocking lack of curiosity.)
The question that's been bothering me for several months now is whether the author's background should matter to me, particularly when it comes to race. After all, we're talking about speculative fiction, here, where "race" takes on an entirely new spectrum of meaning. When the protagonist's partner has six arms, breathes chlorine gas, and wears dark glasses all the time because the ultraviolet on our planet is too bright for her eyes, I don't wonder whether the blue of her skin is dark or light. When the bandits ambushing a caravan are all nine feet tall with stone-like skin and wickedly curving horns, any differences in the humans they're attacking hardly seem to signify. Isn't it a good thing to care only about the quality of the writing, and be blind to the author's race? Isn't that a measure of true equality?
Don't get me wrong-- I cherish the concept of diversity in the books that I read. I love the depth and vividness (and delightful complications) it can add to the storyline, how it allows me to speculate on alien cultures and sample different perspectives without leaving the comfort of my armchair. I enjoy being able to peer into characters' heads for a few hours, trying to figure out what it would be like to live among people who are so very much Other. I think about how elves with near-immortal life spans might see the humans around them. I wonder how characters from galaxy-spanning federations bridge the differences and misunderstandings between planets.
What is it like to be welcomed into a place, yet still feel alien? Which intolerances are hardest to put aside, and why? Is it wrong to fall in love with someone who's markedly different from you? What does it do to your self-esteem to be repeatedly judged by your race or where you come from, instead of on your own merits and failures? Do these questions sound familiar? They should. These problems aren't limited to supernatural realms or galaxies far, far away. In short, reading about alien and mythical races helps me understand what it means to be human, in all our variety and sameness.
Well. In the process of writing this, I seem to have answered my own question. If I really want to study diversity through the lens of speculative fiction, it stands to reason that I should have some idea of the experiences that may have shaped the authors I'm reading. Who has more perspective on the issue than someone who's lived with these problems every day? I might spend a few hours trying to imagine it, but authors of color grow up wearing their differences on their skin. Someday, we may yet figure out how to be a human race. We'll learn how to celebrate the richness and complexity of our differences, instead of using them to isolate and tear one other down. In the meantime, I can do my bit by giving African-American authors the props they deserve. If I truly value diversity, I need to start paying attention to it in my authors as much as I embrace it in their fiction.
This month, I read a whole lot of author bios, and learned many new things about authors I thought I knew. In honor of Black History Month, I've singled out twenty-one titles by the best African-American authors of our Speculative Fiction collection. Oh, and I may have slipped in the occasional Canadian-- I just can't leave Nalo Hopkinson (who's a woman-- yep, got that one wrong, too!) out of a list like this.
The Ancestors by L. A. Banks, Brandon Massey, and Tananarive Due (Fiction Ancestors)
Minion by L.A. Banks (Horror Banks)
They Fly at Ciron by Steven Barnes (SF Barnes)
The Knights of Breton Court by Maurice Broaddus (PbkFantasy Broaddus)
Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler (Horror Butler)
The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany (SF Delany)
My Soul To Keep by Tananarive Due (Horror Due)
Acacia by David Anthony Durham (Fantasy Durham)
From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain by Minister Faust (SF Faust)
The New Moon's Arms by Nalo Hopkinson (Fiction Hopkinson)
Cold Space by Samuel L. Jackson (741.5973 Jacks)
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin (Fantasy Jemisin)
Racing the Dark by Alaya Dawn Johnson (Fantasy Johnson)
Bayou by Jeremy Love (741.5973 Love)
Whispers in the Night by Brandon Massey, ed. (Horror Whispers)
The Wave by Walter Mosley (SF Mosley)
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (Fantasy Okorafor)
The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Clarence Palmer (SF Palmer)
Those Who Walk in Darkness by John Ridley (Fiction Ridley)
Filter House by Nisi Shawl (Fantasy Short Stories Shawl)
Bite Marks: A Vampire Testament by Terence Taylor (Horror Taylor)