A brief public service message

Saying this because in the past couple of days I’ve had some Incidents, both professional and personal, and I’m beginning to be Pissed Off. Warning for profanity.

Let me make something clear: I talk about race, gender, and other issues of social justice because I have to. Because if I want to survive in this business, I don’t just have to adapt myself, I have to adapt the field itself — or I will die young of a heart attack or a stroke or something. But this does not in any way mean I talk about race and gender because I enjoy doing so. I don’t. It sucks up energy I desperately need to stay afloat while I’ve got two demanding fulltime jobs. And nobody really listens, anyway — for every one person I reach, five more declare me a PC Nazi and run off to lament the passing of the Good Old Days when they could be assholes with impunity. But as long as the literary field still reeks of bigotry, I feel I have no choice but to continue calling it like I see it. If I want change I have to act. See something, say something, etc.

However. I’m getting a little tired of so many people in the SFF genre treating me as N. K. Jemisin, Professional Black Woman.

At most conventions I go to, I get asked to be on the “race panels” (I stopped saying yes last year, except at cons like Wiscon where there’s a reasonable chance that the moderator and audience will not be clueless). In almost every interview, I get asked how I feel about Octavia Butler — even when I don’t mention her as a literary influence. (She’s not, ya’ll. She’s a career influence; knowing she made it in this business made me realize I could do the same. But in terms of her subject matter and writing style? No.) I’ve been invited to write for probably a dozen anthologies that have diddlysquat-all to do with the kind of stuff I usually write; it’s painfully clear in some cases that they’re just trying to increase their table of contents’ diversity. (I say no.) Walking down the hall at random events, random strangers ask me to teach them how to do a better job of writing people of color — WTF, people, at least offer to buy me a drink first, if you’re going to impose on my time like that. This is apart from the fact that I get mistaken for every other black woman in existence everywhere I go. At Worldcon I was Nalo Hopkinson, twice. So in some people’s eyes I’m clearly not even N. K. Jemisin, unique Black Woman. I’m just… Black Woman. Able to represent everyone like me and educate the clueless in a single bound.

Oughtta get a damn superhero emblem.

Look, I am a black woman. That’s not a problem. People notice my race and gender, I get that; that’s not a problem either. I certainly notice everyone else’s various identities. That’s the way the human species works. This is not what I’m complaining about. What pisses me off is being tokenized, essentialized, stereotyped, and being noticed for nothing but my racial and gender identity. How many motherfucking awards do I have to win to stop people from doing that? (Or will that just make it worse?)

Because I am also N. K. Jemisin, Author. I am N. K. Jemisin, New Yorker and former Southerner. How ’bout N. K. Jemisin, Counselor? N. K. Jemisin, Gamer? N. K. Jemisin, Pretty Good Cook and Lover of Good Restaurants? Or at least just N. K. Jemisin, Extremely Busy Person? Yeah, all that’s me, too.

So I’m establishing a rule. The next time somebody starts treating me like N. K. Jemisin, Black Woman, I’m going to ask that person what else they know about me. Just a simple question. Nothing rude about that, is it? I’m just going to make sure they see a little bit more of me than my skin, or my tits. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

60 Responses »

  1. Nalo!

    Yeah, clearly we were Separated At Birth. I think that’s 12 times I’ve been you so far. Maybe just 11.

    And I’m thinking about dreding my hair, too? We might as well just declare each other twins now! ;)

  2. N.K. Jemison, fucking awesome author and all-around interesting person who likes kickass anime. I love reading what you have to say about various issues, whether it be current state of SF or progressive issues or just chatter about books and anime. (I LOVED the discussion you held about anime here and got a whole bunch of great recommendations to look up! :D)

    I can sympathize to some degree. While this is not the same thing — I’m disabled, and though my illness is technically invisible (fibromyalgia/RA), I sometimes walk with a cane. I often look pale and sickly, and all my joints crunch in interesting ways even when I’m not trying. I have had people stop me more times to ask stupid questions about my health and identity. It is very frustrating to get pigeon-holed and have people see one thing about yourself and nothing else. Disability is part of my identity, but I am far more than just Disabled Chick.

    I think part of the issue may be that while people in SF/F are becoming more aware of race since the various iterations of RaceFail, they still don’t always know how to respond. I’ll admit I can fall into this trap sometime, and I end up listening a lot more than talking because I don’t want to inadvertently hurt someone. But a lot of people seem to think that talking about race is the Right Thing To Do (and I’m not saying it isn’t) but they haven’t learned how to do so in a way that’s not hurtful and stereotyping and intrusive.

  3. Hmmmm, I’ve met you once and much too briefly but:

    N.K. Jemisin, smart

  4. I will go with N.K Jemisin: Writer of Awesome Books and Awesome Blog Posts! Thanks so much for posting this.

  5. I’m one of those readers who didn’t know your race when I read your books. Didn’t matter to me then (I was too enraptured by your beautiful brain to care about your skin color) and doesn’t matter now overmuch (same reason) except that reading your blog and learning about your various trials as a person of color in this field has been an eye-opening experience for me.

    It boggles me that race could be a big deal for a fiction author (who bloody cares when the words are so pretty?) or that people at conventions could be so… disappointing. I don’t know if I just naturally want to believe people are better, or if I’m terribly sheltered.

    As a Midwestern White Girl, there’s a lot about the world that I don’t know — and don’t know that I don’t know. I appreciate posts like this because they give me a chance to see a different perspective and help me be less clueless, which is nice. Also, in my own writing I try to include a mixed bag of races and I very much want to handle that well. I feel your rants on the subject have helped me do that. (Well, better, at least.)

    But for what it’s worth, I have to say that while race-relations aspect of this post was edifying, the part that jumped off the page for me was “N. K. Jemisin, Gamer”. Awesome. Race, culture, whatever… now you’re one of My People. :)

    (Marvel at the self-control as I keep myself from asking specifics about your prefered game systems or character types.)

    Ultimately, I feel like my world-view is more well-rounded for following your blog, so for that reason I’m glad that you address race issues. It’s interesting. But it still counts as one of the least interesting things I know about you.

  6. Well, I for one am glad that you have spoken your mind and come out with this. Even if someone reads this post, and declares you insane or a race-war-mongerer, at least there’s a small chance that someone will think twice before pigeon-holing someone simply based on their race and gender.

    I’m a health care professional, not a writer, but even I get tagged sometimes as THE black woman in the room – which of course comes with extra baggage. Even in a “liberal” crowd, I’m automatically popular and people want to chat simply because clearly I have some kind of brown-person insight.

    Basically all I’m saying is 1) you’re not the only one and 2) keep being you/You are appreciated for being you.

    Thanks.

  7. I just looked up your website after finishing The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms approximately 23 minutes ago. I ordered it(with some trepidation) onto my Kindle after coming across Goodreads reviews – all insisting I should not pass your story up. And they were right! I have been glued to that book for the past two days, feeling surly and constantly muttering under my breath when I had to put it down for silly things like feeding my dogs or doing laundry.

    I had no clue as to your race or gender until I looked up your site (to see what other books of yours I could buy). Thank you for not being like Octavia Butler or any other writer except exactly who you are! Your book is one of the best fantasy books I have read in…years…yes, that sounds accurate. I loved it, and I love your voice! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  8. N.K. Jemisin: influence.

  9. Here’s a secret:

    I had no idea that Yeine or Oree were “black” until I read this post. You know why? It wasn’t relevant to me. The only thing that was relevant were a few vague physical details and the fact that they looked different than the Arameri and most of Sky because they were from Some Other Land. It’s fantasy! The way that other people reacted to their difference was all I noticed, not exactly what that difference was or how it might have related to the modern world.

    This does not, in any way, demean your craptacular experience with the way that people have treated you in the publishing industry and at conventions. Instead, what I think it says is something about me: That I could care less what “race” people are from (and this applies to real and fictional people). I also don’t care what your sexual orientation, religion or political ideaology are. I care about how you behave and/or whether you are interesting to read about.

    If someone uses the fact that they are from X race as a reason to be nasty, prejudiced or bigoted to others, then they suck. If someone uses the fact that they are from X religion or X political party or X sexual orientation to be nasty, prejudiced or bigoted to others, then they suck. “I’m better because I am X” = I don’t want to be around you or read what you have to say. Otherwise, welcome to the party. :)

    However, I do very much love to read about issues like this from the perspective of the people dealing with them. I feel that it helps me better understand life from their point of view, which makes me a more understanding person.

    p.s. N.K. Jemisin means a lot more than “black woman” obviously!