So it’s been almost 4 weeks since I found out my novel was going to be published. It’s been a whirlwind few weeks and there have been a lot of changes in my life as a result, mostly good. But I’ve also had some variation on the following conversation three times.
Me: So, yeah, 3-book deal, big advance, writer’s dream, really happy, woo hoo!
Random person: Wow, that’s great! Congrats! So what kind of book is it?
Me: It’s epic fantasy about a girl who gets wrapped up in a cosmological love triangle/political conspiracy. (Note: this is my current elevator blurb, subject to change.) First of a trilogy.
RP: Amazing! So, why do you write fantasy?
Note: the first time I got this question (long before the book deal), I thought nothing of it. But usually and especially lately it’s led to some predictable followup questions, so I’m now beginning to dread this one.
Me: Oh, well, I’ve always written fantasy, science fiction, horror, stuff like that. Once in a blue moon I’ll do non-speculative stuff, but spec just happens to be where my muse usually takes me.
RP: Yeah, but why? Why don’t you write something more… I dunno… mainstream?
Me: ::blank look:: …Because my muse likes the spec, like I said.
RP: OK, I get it, but I dunno. I would’ve thought you would write something different.
Yeah. The stress on you usually gets really noticeable right about here.
Me: ::flatly:: Well, like I said, muse and stuff.
RP: Yeah, but you’ve gotta be, y’know, a first. I mean, fantasy? Lord of the Rings, Narnia?
Me: ::coldly:: Surprisingly, there are more people writing fantasy than dead British white guys.
I’m sick of this. I really am. I suppose I’m going to have to get used to it, but it’s going to be hard because I’m already very, very tired of it. So allow me to put everyone on notice right now: there are stupid questions. If you have a question for me, and your question has to do with why a black woman would possibly, ever, for what ungodly reason write fantasy, your question is stupid. So don’t ask it, unless you want me to get very cross with you.
I have decided to begin a tentative FAQ, based on actual questions I have received.
Are you a black fantasy writer?
Well, I’m black, and I write fantasy, so sure.
No, you know what I mean. Do you write black fantasy?
Well, like I said, I’m black and I write fantasy, so of course that makes it black fantasy.
No, I mean, do you write about black people?
Oh, definitely. Many of my protagonists are some variety of browner-than-tan, even kinky-haired. If they have hair. I have a thing for bald men. Or men with purple hair down to their butts, but that’s probably just a weird holdover from my anime days… sorry, what was the question?
Quit playing. Do you write about The Black Experience ™ or not?
Oh, absolutely I write about TBE ™. On other planets.
Well, I tend to write about human beings, usually on alternate earths where they evolved just like the humans here. I really dig the worldbuilding thing. And just as humans here have differentiated into varying phenotypes — we call ‘em races, though that’s really just politically-created shorthand — I tend to think that fantasy worlds should have the same variety just for realism’s sake. There would be cultural differences too, quite a lot of them. I figure these cultures will have conflicts, because that’s human nature, and they’ll resolve them as we have — messily. Those conflicts interest me, so I often focus on characters at the center of them.
But why would a black woman write fantasy?
Uh, you do realize black people have dreams too, right? Imaginations, all that?
Ummm… well, I guess. But are your fantasy novels for black people?
OK. Let me stop you right here.
As with any writer, my understanding of the world is reflected in my fiction. It is not a perfect reflection because, duh, it’s fiction. But of course my history, education, and identity inform my fiction. That happens with any writer. Tolkien’s fiction was very definitely influenced by his identity as a British man partially raised in South Africa under apartheid — that’s why his good “races of men” were evocative of Anglo-European ethnicities and his evil Sauron collaborators were evocative of Asians (“Easterlings”) and Africans (“Southrons”). Tolkien was a product of his time, and I am a product of mine. I am an African American woman, descended from slaves, more recently descended from Civil Rights activists and artists. I was born postfeminism and am currently a professional observer/influencer of human behavior. Naturally my fiction will touch on slavery, rebellion, imperialism/colonialism, politics, mindf#cks, all that.
But is my work about this stuff? No. No more than Robert Jordan’s stuff was about being an old white guy. Is my work aimed at a single demographic? No, no more than C.S. Lewis’ stuff was aimed solely at Christian children. Besides, I’m a writer who will hopefully from here forth make her living from selling books. Why would I possibly limit my potential audience by writing only for a tiny smidgeon of it? That would be supremely stupid on my part.
For that matter, neither is my stuff about The Middle Class Female Experience. Or The Single Heterosexual in the City Experience. Or the English-Speaking American Experience. Or the liberal-socialist, professional psychologist, geeky videogame-playing cat-owner experience.
I write white people. I write men. I write people different from myself who are living experiences I can never share in places I can never visit. That is fantasy, plain and simple.
Yabbut are you going to be sold in the African American Interest section of the bookstore, or the Science Fiction and Fantasy section?
Are you even listening?
I think you should take out a full-page ad in Jet to advertise your book.
I’m going to cut you.
OK, that last one was a joke. But I have heard the rest — mostly from relatives, sadly, and a couple of co-workers.
Anyway. Stupid questions all out of the way? Good.
What really kills me is this: I’m not even the first black female fantasy writer. Not by a long stretch. There’s Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, Helen Oyeyemi, Carole McDonnell, Andrea Hairston, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Tananarive Due, and Nalo Hopkinson that I know of; probably a lot more that I don’t know. (No, we don’t all know each other. That’s another stupid question.) There are also black men in the game: Charles Saunders, David Anthony Durham, Minister Faust, Steven Barnes for his alternate histories, and some of Samuel Delaney’s stuff would qualify. Many of these people are bestsellers, award-winners — non-obscure Big Names. So I shouldn’t be dealing with this. The ceiling has been broken. There are enough black writers alone to bypass “token” status and go directly to “severely underrepresented but still significant minority”. The same goes for so many other “atypical” demographic sets — other writers of color, women, young writers, GLBT writers, non-Christian writers, disabled writers, writers from outside the Western hemisphere — that it should be common knowledge by now: the face of fantasy is no longer that of an aged, probably-British white dude. I’m guessing that’s what the face of fantasy must be, at least, because clearly I’m not it. Or people wouldn’t keep asking me these stupid questions.
So. I’ll admit, I haven’t gotten many of these questions from people in the genre. It’s mostly people who don’t read fantasy on a regular basis, who think it’s nothing but elves and unicorns and Tom Cruise or David Bowie gallivanting about in really tight pants. (Or no pants, a la Ahnold.) But if you are a likely reader of my work, and any of these questions are in your mind, just stop before you ask them out loud, OK? Pause to ask yourself where those questions are coming from. Ask yourself if you’d ask a white guy if he writes “white fantasy”. Ask yourself why you’re so shocked/confused/thrown off balance by me.
And then shut up, dammit, before you say something stupid.