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.
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?
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.