Don’t Put My Book in the African American Section.

Very few things could lure me out of the fugue-state of finishing a novel, but a note that I received yesterday from a reader sent me into full-on rant mode:

I just finished reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and I enjoyed it a lot. I was confused, though, to see that my library had chosen to shelve it under “African-American Fiction,” a separate section of the library. If this were standard policy for how the library handles African-American authors, I wouldn’t blink, but Butler, Delany, Hopkinson, and Durham are all shelved under “General Fiction” with the rest of the library’s SF&F books. (The library doesn’t have a separate section for SF&F, though it does generally mark them with a sticker on the spine. Hundred Thousand Kingdoms does not have a SF&F sticker.)

This strikes me as making the book harder to find for interested readers. But before I talk to my library to see if they’d at least be willing to put an SF&F sticker on the book, I figured I should ask–do you have a preference about where your books are shelved? If it’s shelved where you want it, I definitely don’t want to be the one to quibble with it! (I suppose one benefit of the current placement is that it pushed this white–and perhaps too narrowly SF&F-focused–reader into exploring a new section of the library.)

Many thanks to the reader, who asked to remain anonymous, for letting me quote her. And also thanks to her for caring enough to ask how I felt about this. It is a lucky author who has such readers.

And I agree with Reader; it’s great that my book in the African American Fiction (AAF) section lured her to a part of the library she wouldn’t have ordinarily visited. That’s actually the one heartening note in this whole situation, for a variety of reasons. But at the risk of pissing off some AAF-section proponents, let me be really really blunt here.

I hate the “African American Fiction” section. HATE. IT. I hate that it exists. I hate that it was ever deemed necessary. I hate why it was deemed necessary, and I don’t agree that it is. I hated it as a reader, long before I ever got published. And now that I’m a writer, I don’t ever want to see my books there — unless a venue has multiple copies and they’re also in the Fantasy or General Fiction section.

“But Nora,” I hear (some fictional respondant) saying. “You’re black. You write about black people, among others. Doesn’t that mean you belong there?”

My answer: “No. And the next person who rolls up in my blog talking about where black readers, writers, or characters belong is going to get popped in the mouth.”

OK, wait, I need to calm down a little. Deep breaths. Ommmmm. Gotta get back to my happy, professional place.

Better now. Whew.

Let’s look at this issue from the micro to the macro. Spoilers ahead — apologies to those who haven’t finished 100K.

On the micro scale, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms doesn’t belong in the AAF section because it Contains No Actual Black People. Which should, IMO, at least be a prerequisite for being in that section. There’s Itempas, who’s black — but he’s not human, and he doesn’t show up until the end of the book besides. If the walk-on appearance of a character in two chapters of a twentysomething-chapter book is all that’s required for it to get labeled AAF, somebody needs to expand the AAF section by a lot.

No, Yeine isn’t black. The closest racial analogue for the Darre, if they were in our world, would be South American Indian, specifically Inka. Arrebaia, Darr’s capital city, is pretty much a straight-up mooch of Macchu Picchu. And Yeine’s half white, because the closest analogue for the Amn is northern European. I don’t know why some people, despite my descriptions of the Darre (straight black hair, brown skin, a tendency to short stature, etc.), go from zero to African on Yeine. Actually, scratch that: I’m starting to suspect why they think it — because I’m black. And black people only write about black people, right?*

Which brings me back to the problem that the AAF section creates, and why.

I understand why this section exists — because the publishing industry rather notoriously would not publish books by or about black people until the 1990s, unless those books were deemed of sufficient interest to white readers. Prior to the 1990s it was kind of hard for black readers to find these “accepted” black writers (outside of Black History Month), because there weren’t many of them, and because their works were mixed in with the mainstream. So black readers had to rely on word-of-mouth — which, pre-internet, was actually kind of limiting. But — and here I include myself, as someone who’s been a voracious reader since the age of, like, four — we managed. And most of us, because we were just like any other reader, also read plenty of non-black writers, particularly if their works weren’t full of racefail. That’s how I ended up a science fiction and fantasy fan given that SFF is, shall we say, not so much on the multicultural content. (At least not in the case of human beings.) That was okay, though, because many of the stories were universal enough that I loved them anyway.

We’ll come back to this concept of “universality” in a later blog post. Got a book to write, today.

It took black authors self-publishing to lucrative success, with some rather famously becoming bestsellers by hand-selling self-pub’d books from the trunks of their cars, to prove to the industry that yes Virginia, black people do read, and what’s more they buy, and I dunno gee maybe it’s kind of racist to assume otherwise. So publishers paid attention and started snatching up black writers, and later black small presses, in an effort to latch on to this “new” audience. Many of them started heavy-handed marketing campaigns designed to appeal to the “urban” reader (where “urban” somehow = “black”) by using arcane language (e.g. “keepin’ it real!”) and plastering poorly-designed book covers with women who looked like music video refugees and men who looked like ex-cons. Or whatever the industry thought ex-cons looked like. And some black readers were grateful for the attention, after so long a time of neglect.

Problem is, most black readers aren’t “new” readers. That was a misconception derived from the initial racist assumption by publishers and retailers that “black people don’t read”; to people who swallowed that baloney, it must have seemed as though millions of black readers suddenly sprang fully-formed from E. Lynn Harris’ forehead in 1995. This is a completely illogical, frankly asinine assumption — what, were we all sitting around playing with our Dick and Janes before that? But that’s racism for you; logic fail all over the place.

And instead of dropping that original racist assumption that black people didn’t read, the industry gave it an upgrade: OK, black people do read, but they don’t read like the rest of us (read: white people, because Latinos and Asians and so forth don’t matter). And they don’t have the same need for well-drawn characters, engaging plots, etc., because they’re not very smart or well-read. All we have to do is give them are plenty of examples of people who look like them and speak “the vernacular” and deal with “their issues” (which are not like our issues). Profit! And because the industry also assumed that nobody but black people would want to read all this, y’know, “black stuff”, they decided to dump it all onto a single shelf, usually in the back of the store, and stick a label on it: African American Interest. Which might as well have read, “Everybody But Black People, Nothin’ to See Here. Move Along.”

I am ashamed to say that many black publishers and authors were happy to cater to these assumptions, because there was money to be made. This has perpetuated the problem. But I digress.

Now, let me be clear: there are some good writers in the AAF section. It’s not all “baby mama drama”. I’m a fan of Terry McMillan, who I discovered through this section before she started getting shelved in mainstream, and some SFF authors have been cross-marketed here if they’re big enough: L. A. Banks, Octavia Butler. If you’ve never visited that section of your bookstore or library, I urge you to do what Reader did, and go take a gander. You might discover something new and cool.

However.

As a result of this old and new racism, the AAF section of today is mostly just a constricted, homogenizing ghetto. Writers stuck there — those who aren’t big enough to be cross-marketed — have lower earning potential, because it’s a lot harder to sell books when they’re marketed to 12% of the population than 100% of the population. Let’s not talk about how some black authors have been forced into this marketing classification against their will. And then there’s the problem of content reliability. There is no reason that anyone should look among the “thug love” books to find Alaya Dawn Johnson’s lyrical fantasy Racing the Dark. The folks who would be interested in one are highly unlikely to be interested in the other. But that is precisely what happened to her, because her book got shelved in the AAF section too. The Autobiography of Malcolm X has diddlysquat-all to do with Zane’s “Sex Chronicles”, but I have personally seen these two authors shelved side-by-side in AAF, I guess because X comes near Z on a bookshelf.

Wonder what books shared the shelf with 100K in that library?

Anyway.

Any bookstore or library which shelves my stuff in AAF has assumed that my work is automatically of interest to black readers — and only black readers — because I’m black. It further assumes that black readers don’t care about the book’s actual content; they’ll just read anything by a black author. Yet further this practice assumes that white readers are too xenophobic to consider reading a book written by someone of another race, so such books shouldn’t even be allowed into their sight.

That’s an insult to my ability and the abilities of writers of color in general, and an insult to readers of every race.

Worse, any bookstore or library that does this is, IMO, perpetuating the same racist assumptions that caused this problem in the first place. It all comes down to the idea of universality — which mostly just means “the ability to write something that appeals to white readers”, in my experience. Before the AAF boom, black readers were assumed to have no interest in books meant to appeal to white readers; hence the assumption that we “didn’t exist”. When our existence was confirmed, black readers were then assumed to be strange ducks, Not Like The Rest Of Us in taste or discernment, fundamentally alien — or Other — in our intelligence and thought processes. And black writers — despite having written mainstream books for generations — were assumed to be incapable of writing for anything other than this strange, alien audience. If “universality” = “whiteness”, well, of course we couldn’t possibly have it. Even if we did. That little racism logic fail issue I mentioned, again.

Sadly, I suspect that whoever stuck my book in that library’s AAF section meant well. Thing is, intentions don’t really matter. The worst racism is perpetuated not through intent, but through thoughtless, unquestioning adherence to old, bad habits. We always need to ask ourselves where those habits come from, and whether it’s a good idea to keep perpetuating them. We need to ask whether they hurt more than they help.

So back to my point. Booksellers and librarians: please don’t put anything I write in the AAF section. Not unless you want to hurt my career. And not unless you want to make it harder, not easier, for black readers to find good, diverse, inclusive stuff in the long run, because you’re hurting the careers of many black writers who could help make that happen. And not unless you think that nothing written by a black person should ever be read by anyone non-black.

If the “Fantasy” notation on the spine doesn’t convince you not to shelve me there… if the fact that I got published by the SFF imprint (Orbit) of a mainstream publisher (Hachette) doesn’t convince you… if the content doesn’t convince you… if this whole long rant has fallen on deaf ears… then please listen at least to this: I don’t want it there.

So just don’t.

* Oree, the protagonist of The Broken Kingdoms, is black, and Itempas, who as I’ve stated looks black, is a major character in that story. For book 3, the protagonist is a god who looks Southeast Asian, and the other main characters are a mixed-race girl passing as white, and a mixed-race boy too dark-skinned to pass. Can’t wait to see what kind of shelving shenanigans happen with those.

72 Responses »

  1. Wow, I’m sorry for the frustration this has caused you, it’s not fair you have to deal with this sort of setback. I suggest guerilla tactics, if I see your book in such a section I’m going to move it to a prominent place in the SFF section…

    @Jenni_Hill at twitter.

  2. Right on. Very nicely put.

  3. I’m surprised they have an African-American section while they do not have a science fiction and fantasy section.

  4. They have an African-American section (not needed) but they don’t have an SF&F section? Be nice if they just had a ‘human fiction’ section. But something like that will not happen until the aliens arrive….

    I think perhaps that I’d like to volunteer to do some popping in the mouth, too….after you’ve had your chance. I share your frustration and will be checking my hometown library to see what nonsense they have created. hmmm….

  5. This. Absolutely. Enrages. Me.

    If it makes you feel any better, the reviews I saw that led me to buy your book (which I’ve not read quite yet) treated it as a traditional fantasy, but with a different plot focus that made it stand out from the cliches. The race issue did not come up at all – not even in that condescending “it’s so refreshing to see…” sort of way – and it didn’t even occur to me to be curious about it.

    The novel I am working on is populated entirely by brown people. This wasn’t any kind of “statement,” it just so happens that I wanted to set the book in a place that’s sort of an Egypt analog. Now I’m wondering if that’s going to hinder its chances of being treated as regular-old fantasy. Because of course, since my characters are brown, they cannot possibly have the same fears, desires, interests, and motivations as pink people. Whatever.

    This kind of thinking has to stop. Not only is a grublike complexion not a prerequisite for enjoying Lord of the Rings et al, but let’s look at the other side of it too; maybe there are a few white people who might enjoy reading about “urban” topics, if you gave them half a chance, instead of labeling everything like separate water fountains and thereby -creating- a sense of alienation.

  6. I imagine there’s a bigger — assumed, dunno if actual — audience for AAF than for SFF, or the library could be in an area with a majority-black population.

  7. I agree with you, obvs, but I don’t think we need the “grublike complexion”, do we? I spend too much time talking about how to describe characters of color — including white people — in non-faily ways to let that one slide. Let’s just stick with “pink”.

  8. I agree with pretty much everything you say — particularly the fact that ridiculously disparate books get grouped together in this shelf ghetto, and that HTK (and Alaya’s book) doesn’t belong there.

    But — in defense of librarians — there are complicating factors here that have to do with you just grouping all of publishing, bookselling and library curating into a huge blob. Yes, the publishing industry has deeply-held recist assumptions. Yes, they jumped on (or, rather, hijacked) the ‘thug love’ bandwagon and made beacoup bucks doing so. The cheesy covers and assumptions about what ‘Black issues’ are were equal parts imposition of white execs’ ignorance and appropriation of an already-depressing self-image, though — much like the major-label takeover of gangsta rap twenty years ago.

    More importantly, while shitty Zane clones have nearly taken over the Af-Am shelves, that’s emphatically NOT the history of the Af-Am section. This perhaps is more applicable to libraries than to bookstores, but in many cases, libraries (which aim to be community-reflective institutions) added af-am sections AT THE DIRECT REQUEST OF BLACK PATRONS. They stocked those shelves with books REQUESTED BY BLACK PATRONS. That’s certainly how it went down at the library I used to work at, pre-Zane, in the late 80s/early 90s. Which facts don’t really make the whole arrangement less depressing — it’s just to say that the for-profit publishing industry and the not-for-profit library system have different aims and histories. Because I think the profession of librarian is a particularly honorable one, it’s important to me to make that distinction.

  9. If you saw my skin, you might change your mind about the grub thing… I would not look at all out of place under a rock.

  10. Ohhh. I’m glad to see you answering this question, because there’s a AA bookstore in my area (Urban Knowledges if it matters) where they have LA Banks, and some stuff by Butler, but that’s it for SFF. I was going to ask them to stock some Virginia Hamilton, you, Nnedi Okorofor, and some other stuff, but your points are really persuasive.

  11. “And now that I’m a writer, I don’t ever want to see my books there — unless a venue has multiple copies and they’re also in the Fantasy or General Fiction section.”

    This is the sort of thing I’d like to see, multiple copies of books shelved in multiple appropriate sections.

  12. Maria,

    An AA bookstore is a different matter. I have no problem whatsoever with AA bookstores because they coexist along with mainstream bookstores, and I can be stocked in both. This expands my potential audience, rather than limiting it, so of course I’d be happy to have my work stocked there — if they think it’s relevant. (Like I said, 100K doesn’t actually have any black people in it.)

    My problem lies in the fact that in a mainstream bookstore or library, it’s an either-or situation. I’m not a big-name author like Octavia or L. A. Banks, so I don’t get cross-marketed. Most bookstores are not going to buy a lot of copies of my book, and they’re not going to shelve them in two places because shelf space is a premium; they make their money by fitting as many books into a small retail store as they can. So they’re going to stick me on one shelf or the other — and I have a better chance of actually selling all those copies if I’m in SFF, rather than AAF.

    So where it’s an either-or situation, I have a problem with being shoved into AAF. If there’s no competition/conflict? I’m perfectly cool with that.

  13. Saladin,

    While I do know that the AAF section emerged as a result of black reader requests, I’m not happy about that. I think that we’ve all been trained in the fine art of marginalizing PoC, and there’s some internalized racism in the way some of us marginalize ourselves.

    That said, your point about the AAF section originally being very different is very well taken. In a way, it supports my point. I can remember, when I was younger, that the AAF section was subject-related. Books were shelved there based on whether they had something to do with AfAm history, politics, cooking, scholarship. And I can remember seeing books there that weren’t necessarily by black authors; as recently as the early 1990s (when I was in college) I can remember finding a copy of Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States there. And this kind of shelving — by subject, not by the race of the author or characters — makes perfect sense to me.

  14. This would be wonderful — but it’s highly unlikely to happen in the B&Ns of the world. Shelf space is just too valuable. They can’t afford to shelve your works in both Jewish Interest and SFF, mine in AAF and SFF (and maybe feminism?), etc. So if they’ve got to make a choice, I want to be where I can get the biggest and most relevant potential audience.

  15. “…they decided to dump it all onto a single shelf, usually in the back of the store, and stick a label on it: African American Interest. Which might as well have read, ‘Everybody But Black People, Nothin’ to See Here. Move Along.’ ”

    Not only that, but at least judging by our local Borders, the “Black Interest” (and “Asian Interest” and “Latino Interest”) shelves are also so aimlessly categorized and disorganized that it makes it very hard to browse them–mainstream literary fiction is tossed in with SFF and romances and nonfiction and YA and erotica with no rhyme or reason, with the thought clearly being, “Whatever, just stick it on the black shelf and let them try and find stuff.” As a white reader I’m thoroughly insulted by the idea I must, by definition, only want to read about people with blond hair and blue eyes, and frustrated at how much harder mainstream bookstores make it to find alternatives; I can’t imagine how I’d feel if I were a reader of color, or a writer of color deliberately segregated on a crammed little center shelf away from the supposed “real” books.

  16. For what it’s worth, I work at a public library in Brooklyn and I’ve heard from my bosses that the American Library Association’s position is that we _cannot_ segregate books by the race of the author. We can shelve by subject, as you say, or by genre — we probably need an “urban fiction” section, because people keep asking me for it — but not by the race of the author.

    …I can’t actually find a link to the ALA’s position statement on that, so I apologize for it being thirdhand information.

  17. It just occurred to me that it’s possible the African-American section has a different book selector than the science fiction and fantasy (or entire fiction) collection. And that book selector thought it’d be a really good idea to add your book to the library collection. (A good thing!) But, since they’re the one who bought it, tech services (who processes the books and catalogs them) automatically put it in that section.

    I know it happens here that if the Fiction book selectors buy a science fiction or fantasy, it takes a lot of work to actually get it into that section. Because the sf/f book selector didn’t buy it.

  18. Natural characters, like natural people, are born into their skin colors and grow into their personalities over time. Contrived characters, on the other hand, are forced into a skin color and stuck in a molded personality that is difficult, if not impossible, to reshape. I fail to understand the differentiation between a “black story,” a “brown story,” or any other story that begins with a color, pink included. I understand people stories, and the colors (as well as a multitude of other descriptors) are one detail of the whole.

    Perhaps I’m the only one who feels overwhelmed in a book shop or library. When I am browsing, which is to say when I am not shopping for a specific book, I am a slave to marketing – both good and bad – because I have no other basis for making a decision, no information. And, reasonable minds differ, so the chances that the person who determines shelving and the author and the reader will all naturally shelve books identically seem rather slim.

    One of the points you made well is that classifications should not be made on the details within the story but according to some overarching characteristic, like genre or theme. It would also be helpful if the same library/bookstore shelved all books based on the same method or criteria.

  19. wow, that is some astonishing bullshit. I can see, maybe, having a special section for books dealing directly with the AA experience, but to just chuck all fiction by AA authors on one shelf regardless of genre? wtf?

  20. {head scratch} Okay, I admit that I live in one of the more liberal areas in the U.S., but… is this common in libraries? Because it’s not in our area. During February in Black History Month, there’s a special section that will pull out books to feature both historical and by black authors, but that’s February and they do that for every month topic. The only area I can even think of that’s segregated anything like you say is the “books in Spanish” section, and well, that’s kind-of obvious why they put them separate. (Of course, my library has also had a SF/F section since I was a kid 40 years ago, so I’m also rather astounded that the reader’s library didn’t have one. Maybe it’s a small library?) Huh. I’m going to have to go browsing through the Borders and B/N around here and see if they’ve got segregated sections (I don’t usually pay attention in bookstores as I head straight to the SF).

    Regardless, for what it’s worth, I agree. Put books in the main categories they represent. If they fall into more than one area, why not cross-tag? Easy enough to set up kiosks with categories that people can search “books by A-A authors” or “books with A-A characters” or “books with …”. Meta-tag, cross-tag, and provide computer searches for people who are interested. Maybe not as visually catching as a separate section, but the larger category is the better one for people who are looking for SF/F books to find. (If they did stock in both areas, that would be fine, but to stock in one and leave out of the other… bad idea.)

  21. Ever read Percival Everett’s novel ERASURE? It’s basically about the rise of these AAF sections and urban fiction.

    I’ve noticed that the AAF section in my local Borders is just the “black” section—that is work in translation by African writers with no “American” themes or settings etc. occasionally surfaces there.

  22. At one of my local-ish libraries (there are branches for two city and two county systems within ten miles of my home—lucky), there are AAF stickers on some of the books in the SF section. They are an eye-catching orange. :(

  23. I wonder why it didn’t seem obvious to the librarian(s) at this branch that your book shuold be shelved in the SF/F or even general fiction? If the were uncertain about how to shelve the book, couldn’t they have checked in WorldCat or their own online catalog system? FWIW, WorldCat lists “The Hundred Thousand Kingdom” as Fiction, with the specific subject area Gods–Fiction.

    African-American librarian here, recent library school graduate. While I’ve been searching for a FT library job, I have spent several months volunteering & doing cataloging work for a library serving the visually impaired. This involves metadata tagging (for publications in recorded, Braille, and large print format) to amke items more easily found in an online catalog used by sighted, partially sighted, and blind people. When I’m unsure about the proper tags or subject headings for a work, I check a variety of other sources — the National Library Service, WorldCat, the Library of Congress, etc. (there are many different sources & I won’t bore you with them, but my point is that there are plentiful resources librarians or readers may find helpful with “aboutness”). I’ll even check Amazon.com sometimes so that I can accurately tag content of concern to some patrons (sex, violence, language, drug use).

    I understand that approaches to shelving/cataloging vary — especially, as some posters pointed out, in smaller library branches — but this is such an easily preventable mistake. A quick comparative check of online catalogs should have resulted in the book being cataloged by content and genre.

  24. The bookstore I work at has an African American fiction section. But Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is in Sci Fi. And if it makes you feel any better, I sold a customer copy the other day.

    Recently, an author from AAF was moved to fiction. My first thought was how did they escape and get their freedom papers. I was shocked by the move it doesn’t happen often. Ironically it was an author who does will in that section.

    I used to like AA lit separate but not now with all the urban lit. When I show non Black customer a book by a Black author, I’ll usually bring the book to them so they don’t have to see what’s over there.

    The debate about AAF section will go on forever. I wonder if the powers that be will ever consider doing an Urban Lit/Street Lit section and putting everything else in their respective genre sections. Or at least splitting the latter so that the books are in both places.

    A bookstore only has to get two copies in to make this happen and one copy doesn’t take up much shelf space. However, two copies of a title in section usually catches the eye of a customer quicker then one. One copy can’t be faced out.

    I’ve never seen The Autobiography of Malcolm X shelved next to Zane. I am laughing now so I don’t cry.

  25. *mortified* Oh my god, I *did* make Yeine African influenced in my head. I didn’t make her “black” quote/unquote, since, as you said, she’s “biracial” in the first place, and the hair type and skin color I hopefully interpreted correctly (for her and the Darre), but all the facial structure that I could fill in for myself would definitely tend towards an African influenced look, and not S. American Native. I even got the city references!

    That annoys the hell out of me, especially as a black woman that is trying to be more aware, and I’m kind of don’t want to know all of my reasons for doing so. *sigh* Well, I have in my past really did try to create black women where there was none in interests that were black women adverse, with my biggest imaginary stretches being Sailor Pluto and Polgara. Haha, I tried so hard before I had to give those up.

    But I’m also trying to get out of my black/white dichotomy I set up for myself sometimes, and I wouldn’t doubt that influenced my silliness. That and common S. American facial structures are not easily formed in my head so it’s harder to pull for face creation. Curiously, the grandmother wasn’t nearly as fail. Maybe the context mitigated the dichotomy somewhat.

  26. I can see I’m going to have to clarify. My objection isn’t to the existence of an AAF section. As Saladin rightly pointed out here in the comments, once upon a time the AAF section was valuable. It was a good place to find books about AfAm history, books about slavery or the Civil Rights movement, cookbooks, songbooks, books about black art forms (e.g. jazz), etc. I think the problem came in when they started trying to put literature in there, because black writers don’t stick to some simplistic formula. Zora Neale Hurston wrote books with both black and white protagonists (though her “white books” never sold as well or got as much critical attention), yet I’ve often seen all her stuff in the AAF (well, lately I just see her in literature; I think all the “street lit” has driven her out, which is a good thing). So I think the AAF section has value in and of itself. But fiction shouldn’t be in it, unless the author or publisher is advertising it as such — unless they want to target only a black audience. But no one else should be put there, and certainly not just because they’re black.

    And I’ve calmed down now. No popping anybody in the mouth. ;)

  27. Sounds like somebody hasn’t gotten the memo, then, at least at this library mentioned in the OP.

    You work in Brooklyn? Are you at the main branch? I go there all the time; I live near Prospect Park. =)

  28. AAF sections aren’t common in libraries, in my experience, except in communities with a large black population. Then, sometimes, as Saladin has pointed out, the library patrons themselves will ask for a section like that, because otherwise it’s difficult to figure out who black authors are, and who’s writing black characters, without relying on the internet and/or word of mouth. (And in predominantly black communities, internet access is spotty, and if they’re not in the word-of-mouth loop, AAF segregation provides a valuable service. Until it gets stuffed full of street lit crap and becomes a dumping ground for black authors whether their work should be there or not.)

    And yes, the kiosks would be fantastic. Just putting up a list would work too. I don’t know why more libraries/bookstores don’t do this.

  29. I haven’t (read Everett’s book), but it sounds familiar. I’ve read much better rants on this very subject by black writers for years now, so it’s not surprising to me that somebody’s finally made a book out of it. I’ll check it out.

    Re: AAF becoming the black people’s holding pen… yeah. -_-

  30. The only thing I can think is that the librarian who put it there wanted to put it there, maybe to showcase the fact that there was a black author writing epic fantasy. Which I can kind of understand; there aren’t many of us. (David Anthony Durham, Alaya Dawn Johnson… er… I think that’s it.) But it still hurts us to get put there, because our books aren’t only of interest to black people.

  31. Yay! Sales always make me happy. ^_-

    And I was boggled by the Malcolm/Zane pairing myself. I thought the damn thing was written by Alex HALEY anyway, but I’d have to look it up and see; been awhile since I read it. And why the heck wasn’t it in with the other biographies? Yeah, I share your laughter and tears.

  32. It seems to be a common mistake — and honestly, I never describe Yeine’s facial features explicitly. I don’t like interfering with whatever image the reader is forming in his/her head more than I have to. I did have to make it clear that she’s not (completely) white, and that her particular blend of brown leaned closer to Indian than anything else. But I didn’t try to do that just with description; that’s why I threw in Arrebaia/Macchu Picchu too, so people would get the idea from that.

    And I accept the fact that readers will put their own context onto a character; this is why one has to *say* a character is non-white, or readers will default to white. But what’s happening thanks to AAF (and other factors) is that readers are beginning to default to thinking “black author = black character”. Which means I’m going to have to start *saying* that Yeine’s not black.

  33. Our local Borders has ethnic sections. In the Hispanic section are translated books by those well known South Americans Stephen King, Dan Brown and J.R.R. Tolkien.

    Which is just to say, these categories are unhelpful to everyone.

  34. *proceeds to fail roll on fangirl check*

    Curiously enough, I didn’t know of your race until I was pretty much done with the book (flipped to your picture accidentally when trying to find my page). Especially curious for me because I’ve actively been on a hunt for good books written by PoC/WoC specifically for the past year or so, only to fall on top of an awesome one by accident.

    Then I found out later I’d already been reading your writing on blogs and comments for a minute! I was too through (in an awesome way)! I immediately accosted my boyfriend and added this book to our Relationship Requirements.

  35. I spent about a year fruitlessly searching for Racing the Dark at my local Borders; as it turned out, it was shelved in African American books, but SFF. But here’s the kicker: my local Borders does not seem to have an African American section (if it’s there, it’s very well-hidden; I should track down an employee and confirm).

    So if the books are categorized at the national level for chain bookstores and local stores have no discretion, but some WHOLE SECTIONS are optional, what does that mean for local stores’ ability to carry books that are officially filed in those sections? My guess would be that they can’t.

    Worrisome.

    Obviously this is not applicable to independent bookstores or libraries, but it does seem to apply to the big chains.

  36. Oh my god, this topic is so frustrating, angering, and nauseating! It is so very obvious that the AA-interest section is little more that Jim crow – for books!

    I’m very surprised that the collective population of black authors haven’t signed onto a class-action suit against the major book-chains to for them to stop this practice! I guess that would be kind of like “biting the hand that feeds you”, even if its somewhat warranted because their practices are diminishing your potential pool of readers. Is there anything like a professional society for black writers that can give you all the power of a collective voice to intercede with both publishers, and book-sellers to promote practices that would be non-racist and mutually profitable?

  37. Twigged onto your post by accident, just wanted to say Cheers! An AAF section by subject is fine, but an AAF section by author is just racism, diversity-style.

    I’ve never heard of you before now, which is really weird because I’ve been hitting the SFF sections since I was old enough to read. So I’m going to go check out those sample chapters.

  38. I had never heard of AAF shelves before reading this. As far as I knew, this doesn’t happen in the same way in the Netherlands. But I’d never really bothered to check, so I logged into my own library.
    When I searched for “blindness” I got both fiction and non-fiction books, and the novels were sorted under “fiction”, not “information” which is the non-fiction shelf. Then I searched for “discrimination” and I got a myriad of books, again, both novels and non-fiction, and I did not find any novels listed as anything other than that, novels. (I found both Toni Morrison and Maryse Condé, among many other writers I don’t know.) I started to feel smug until I searched for “Maroccans”, (the most talked about minority in the Netherlands). I only got non-fiction! Many books where about Maroccans as a social group; only some of them seemed to be targeted at Maroccans themselves (which made me very uncomfortable), and there weren’t any novels listed. Even though I know this library stocks books by well known Maroccan-Dutch writers Abdelkader Benali, Naima El Bezaz and Hafid Bouazza. If I’d wanted to learn more about Maroccan-Dutch life from novels, my library search engine would not have helped me to do that. I am very happy my library doesn’t take novels out of the mainstream fiction pool based on their subject matter, but there seems to be some discrimination going on none the less. “Englishmen” did get me novels and supposedly neutral information, while “Germans” got me thrillers about evil nazis. “Japenese” didn’t fair much better. I’d like to thank you for inspiring me to undertake this little excercise and I wish you all the best in your fight against discrimination hidden as categorisation!

  39. EXCELLENT POST, Nora. I could not agree with you more. The same argument can be somewhat extended to other “niche” (read marginalised) sections such as the queer section or the women’s studies section. I’m not saying they shouldn’t exist necessarily, but that their existence speaks volumes.

  40. I was reminded of this excellent blog post tonight when pondering “Griot Audio”, an imprint of Recorded Books. I’ve listened to some books from this imprint before– it’s been around since 2000, apparently.

    Now, by using the word “Griot” and a silhouette of an acacia tree as their logo, they’re obviously trying for an African feel for this imprint. Yet in the introduction to an audiobook from this imprint, we hear “this recording is copyrighted 2008 by Recorded Books, producer and publisher of Griot Audio, celebrating the best in contemporary African-American fiction and nonfiction.” (Italics mine. The narrator didn’t speak in italics there.) A little websearching brings up a press release where the president of the parent company praises “the continued achievement of our Griot Audio imprint, the world’s largest and most distinguished publishing imprint devoted to unabridged audiobooks by African-American authors.” Ooh, and in the company’s FAQ they explain imprints: “The Clipper imprint, for example, offers the best in British authors and narrators while the Griot Audio showcases the best in contemporary African-American writing.” Squarely African-American then, and I’ve certainly seen the term “griot” used by African-Americans.

    So why am I harping endlessly on this? Because the audiobook I was listening to was Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. A book set in Nigeria/Biafra, written by a Nigerian author. From Nigeria. Which is not in America. Who is therefore not African-American in the slightest.

    Am I wrong in thinking this is the same sort of thinking? The only thing “American” about this audiobook is the narrator, but apparently because the author is black, it’s in the “African-American” Griot imprint? Are African authors often crammed into the African American Fiction section at the libraries that have it?

  41. We have the same problem here in South African book stores, we all tend to get lumped into the darkest depths of the book store under African Literature, regardless of our individual genres, which in is totally absurd. There are some newer book stores who are changing this, but its slow progress.

  42. “Who is therefore not African-American in the slightest.”

    Not so sure about this — she came here when she was 19 and is now 32. She cut her teeth as a writer in US university writing programs. I’m not saying that you’re wrong, or that I know how she self-identifies, just that it’s an interesting case. In Arab American writing circles we used to go back and forth on this all the time. Who is an Arab writer and who an Arab(-?)American writer? I knew folks who were born in Lebanon but had been here ten years — in some cases became citizens — and it was important to them to be recognized as not ‘just Arab.’ On the other hand, I’ve known US-born Black writers (mostly older, more radical folks) who prefer to be called African or Afro-Diasporic or something else, and hate the term African-American b/c of its fake equity with, say Italian-American or Irish-American. And in fact this ‘griot’ imprint sounds like a cheesy attempt to co-opt a hard-won if sometimes problematic African-identified iconography that was already in place, put there by writers like these.

    WHich is all just to say that labels are a complex thing.

  43. I agree that ghettoization of black authors – of all authors from non-dominant groups — is a problem. It reflects the way that so many of our categories are fictions that just don’t hold up to close scrutiny.

    What about a white woman author who writes science fiction with black characters? Where do we put that one? SFF? AAF? The women’s section? The white people’s section? What do we do with NKJ and Octavia Butler? We need a separate shelf for black + woman. Better yet, black + woman + SFF! Why is it that fiction by people of color is called “ethnic” or “multicultural” fiction? That label perpetuates the whole idea that white people don’t have an ethnicity or culture, thereby normalizing whiteness.

    There is always a tension in identity politics between ghettoization (which often contributes to totalizing and essentialism) on the one hand, and incorporation (which often contributes to invisibility) on the other.

    This same dynamic plays out in ethnic/sexuality/gender/women’s/disability studies in academics. Why do we have ethnic studies programs? How is that different from having AAF shelves in the bookstore? If someone studies Chicana literature or Asian-American history or queer film, why aren’t they located in English, history, or film departments? On the flip side, don’t we need these very programs until we’ve actually reached a point where the –isms don’t hold power over us anymore? (I’ll be a post-feminist in a post-patriarchy.)

    Nine times out of ten it’s not relevant to point out that Obama is our “black” president. “Spotlighting” his blackness reinforces the fact that presidents are normally white and Obama is ab-normal. But I’m also not willing to be like Chris Matthews and “forget” he’s black.

    It reminds me of Pat Parker’s famous poem, “For the White Person Who Wants To Know How To Be My Friend.” The opening lines are “The first thing you do is to forget that I’m Black. Second, you must never forget that I’m Black.”

    It’s a very difficult dance and it’s one that, unfortunately, gets completely co-opted for niche marketing and profit. I’m glad the discussion was raised.

  44. Hi Voxygen,

    What about a white woman author who writes science fiction with black characters? Where do we put that one?

    Thus far, all books like this have been put in SFF. I don’t know if there’s ever been any debate about putting things like Nancy Farmer’s The Ear, The Eye, and the The Arm in the AAF section, but it sort of pre-dates the current form of this section.

    This same dynamic plays out in ethnic/sexuality/gender/women’s/disability studies in academics.

    I don’t think I agree with this. Oppressed-group studies programs are intended to help us all understand how society works. They’re incubators for thought that can’t thrive in mainstream sociology/history/etc. due to the vagaries of academic politics — and the whole goal of such programs, like all academic programs, is to then share what’s generated in the incubator with society as a whole. The AAF section may well have originated as such an incubator, as Saladin pointed out, but that’s not how it works now. It functions as a ghetto, locking away undesirable images/ideas in a place where society as a whole is unlikely to see it. It’s a dumping ground. An entirely different paradigm.

  45. My question about where to put a white woman writer writing SF about people of color was really to suggest that there really aren’t enough separate shelves in a bookstore if we’re going to break things down into those categories.

    I think what I’m trying to say is I’m not ready for literature or history or SFF to be colorblind (genderblind, etc.) just yet, but I resent the way that corporations exploit and co-opt identity politics and color-consciousness for a profit. That sort of culti-multuralism depoliticizes the original power and significance of those shelves; it’s precisely what makes the dumping ground what it is, a totalizing containment strategy.

    Anyway, thanks for responding to my post. It’s nice to know you’re listening and I’ve enjoyed the conversation!

    I can’t wait for the next book in the trilogy. I loved the first one very much and I’ve recommended it to all my friends.

  46. Oh, and to add, I’m not at all questioning or challenging your personal decision not to be shelved on the AAF shelf.

  47. I’m with you in the outrage department, Mishell–seriously, wtf, library/bookstore cataloging-bots?? @_@ SFF belongs in the SFF section, regardless of who writes it or what color the characters are. Do you think Toni Morrison cares to read SFF? I think not (though she should–everyone should~ ?), so why put SFF books in the Af-Am section?? >..<

  48. Oops, my reply got cut off somehow. @_@;; Okay, let’s try again w/ the rest of it:

    I’m with you in the outrage department, Mishell–seriously, wtf, library/bookstore cataloging-bots?? @_@ SFF belongs in the SFF section, regardless of who writes it or what color the characters are. Do you think Toni Morrison cares to read SFF? I think not (though she should–everyone should~ ), so why put SFF books in the Af-Am section??

    But I wanted to reply specifically to you, Mishell, because this issue came up once in a guest blog Alaya Dawn Johnson did on Justine Larbalestier’s blog, and someone noted that this sort of racial-profiling book cataloging doesn’t happen to white authors who write characters of color. So please don’t change your (awesome-sounding) Egyptian-analogy fantasy story’s setting! You, at least, should be fine.

    Now, I really wish we could say the same for Alaya and Nora and every other non-white author who dares to write outside their pre-defined Af-Am or Asian-Am or Chicano Lit genres. -__-;;

  49. I agree wholeheartedly with you Mrs. Jemisin. I am what people call ‘a black person’ and aspiring writer of fantasy and have loved fantasy all my life. But I have always questioned the AAF section thinking it is just belittling to my intelligence because all of us do not think alike. I really hate it when business or governments try to put us all into groups, it’s sometimes annoying.

  50. Excellent post – and thank you for the recommendation, I’ll look up Alaya :)

  51. “No, Yeine isn’t black. The closest racial analogue for the Darre, if they were in our world, would be South American Indian, specifically Inka.”

    I’m going to speak honestly here. The only reason I bought your book was because I thought the main character was black/biracial. Though I liked the story well enough but learning that she was some other race is a bit of a let down for me personally. It doesn’t change anything really and I know that as a reader I am free to paint whatever pictures I want to in my head about the characters I am reading but truthfully, there are next to no black female characters in scifi/speculative fiction and whenever I hear about one, I immediately buy the book. Yep, I’m one of those people who assumed she was black/mixed because you are but knowing the truth now is a let down. But that’s just me.

  52. MarlaS,

    I’m sorry to hear it’s a letdown for you to hear that Yeine isn’t black. (She is biracial — just Indian/white, not black/white.) I get that there aren’t many black women in fantasy — really, seriously, truly I do. (HOMG, I do.) I get that that’s a deficit that needs to be corrected, and I’m doing what I can to add more — notice Oree in book 2, who is black. Many of the protagonists in my short stories are also black.

    But I do not, do not, do not believe that black writers should limit themselves to writing only black characters. I think that’s a restriction that we so often impose on ourselves that makes it easier for the mainstream to segregate and diminish us — to declare that black writers are for black readers and no one else. That black writers are incapable of writing anything but black characters. These are racist, flat-out wrong assumptions — but the only way to counter them is to prove how wrong they are.

    And there’s a very simple reason why we should do this: I do not believe that the onus for adding characters of color to the fantasy canon should fall solely on writers of color. I do not believe that the onus for correcting the errors of racism should fall solely on its targets. We weren’t the ones who created this problem, we aren’t the only ones whom it affects, and we should not be the only ones expected to fix it. Racism is a systemic thing; it can only be addressed in the grand scale. By everyone. So if I’m expecting writers of other races to reach beyond themselves, I have to do that too. If I’m going to call for all writers to become more inclusive, and write fantasy that more accurately represents the human race, then I have to show that I’m willing to walk my own walk, not just talk the talk.

    Hope you can understand that.

  53. Thanks for your reply. You are absolutely free to write characters of whatever race you choose and incidentally I don’t think that black writers should only write black characters. Speaking for myself as one black woman who enjoys the genre, I just like reading about black women. Scifi is exciting, especially when the book is good and you start picturing it in your mind and fantasizing about who would play what role in a movie version. Honestly, I couldn’t care less about the race of anyone else in the book. I guess I just need to be more careful with my book selections and stop buying books based on the author photo! Good luck with the rest of the series.

  54. Marla S.,

    Psst — now that I can officially announce my new books, thought you should know: the Dreamblood series is set in an ancient-Egyptish fantasy world. Nearly everyone in both books is black. The first book’s protagonist is male, the second’s is female. Just FYI. ;)

  55. Well I will be pre-ordering that one for sure!

  56. I am looking forward to your next duology–after I finish the 1000 Kingdoms first, of course!

  57. “I do not believe that the onus for adding characters of color to the fantasy canon should fall solely on writers of color. I do not believe that the onus for correcting the errors of racism should fall solely on its targets. We weren’t the ones who created this problem, we aren’t the only ones whom it affects, and we should not be the only ones expected to fix it. Racism is a systemic thing; it can only be addressed in the grand scale. By everyone. So if I’m expecting writers of other races to reach beyond themselves, I have to do that too.”

    I can’t express how happy and relieved I am to read that. I want my books to tackle RaceFail, but more than that, I LOVE to write characters who are from all different ethnicities (including mixed race) and of different sexualities, because it’s fun and interesting and BETTER. And yet so often I’ll stumble across reviews and comments dismissing books with gay characters which are not written by gay authors, or books with ethnically diverse characters who have white authors. They say: ‘What can THEY possibly know about it?’ And that makes me want to cry, it really does, because I feel as if these reviews miss the point so entirely – what’s the point of trying to argue? Seeing someone encapsulate this so perfectly has truly made my day. Thank you.

  58. Hmmm…I didn’t know or get that Tempas was black. Did not change my feeling or vision of the story one bit. Still my favorite book of 2010 and looking forward to #2!

  59. The thing that most surprised me from this post is that Yeine’s closest analog is an Inca. I didn’t imagine her as black because that wasn’t an explicit description but neither did I explicitly imagine her as an amerindian or mesoamerican analog. Though now I can easily related to her wishing she’d gotten the better aspects of her parents with my father with heavy native American features marrying a swedish/dutch woman. I have wondered many times why I couldn’t have gotten blue eyes and raven black hair in combination or more height or a narrower nose or any number of combinations.

  60. Hate to double post but I did imagine Sieh as an amerindian or meso american figure because of your allusions to the trickster and dark brown skin as well as the later transformation into a panther. I don’t know why I persisted in not linking the similar appearances between Sieh and her into forming a new image in my mind.

  61. I am an African American woman who also writes fantasy. I completely agree and have ranted about this myself.

    Thank you so much for this post.

  62. I’m old enough to remember when ALL SF and Fantasy was filed on a single rack labelled YA (Young Adult) in the children’s section of the library. I wouldn’t get hung up on where your book is shelved. Such classifications change frequently, often on a whim, and the person shelving the books hasn’t necessarily read them.

    I don’t care about an author’s race, gender, appearance, politics, or favorite brand of candy bar. I’m never going to meet the person anyway, and presumably their books will outlive them and those details will become irrelevant. If the author can tell a good story, if the writing is interesting and I like the book well enough to keep it and read it again, that’s good enough for me. I’ve enjoyed THTK very much and it joins a select company on my shelf of “keeper” fantasy novels.

  63. I had NO idea that these books were written by a “Brown Person” until I came here, saw your VERY nice picture, and read your enfuriated response to some ignorant jackasses. As far as I am concerned – ALL WORDS ARE BLACK – written on WHITE, and that is all those colors mean to me. It’s a shame they have to mean so much more to other people, and NOT in a good way, either. Since I live in a VERY heavily Hispanic populated area, I wonder if my local librarfy here in San Antonio, Texas has a Hispanic Authors area ? I don’t blame your reation, or feelings one single bit. I say move ALL the books out of that segregated area back to where they belong – on shelves with OTHER books, just like them – written in BLACK.

Dreamblood Book One:

The Killing Moon

The Killing Moon

Read Sample Chapter 1


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