Dreaming Awake

Explanatory note: This is an essay I wrote for the forthcoming anthology The Miseducation of the Writer — essays by writers of color on genre literature — to be edited by Maurice Broaddus, John Edward Lawson, and Chesya Burke. I’ll keep you posted on deets as they come.

Long ago, in the time before now, black people were all kings and queens.

This is not true.

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There is a strange emptiness to life without myths.

I am African American — by which I mean, a descendant of slaves, rather than a descendant of immigrants who came here willingly and with lives more or less intact. My ancestors were the unwilling, unintact ones: children torn from parents, parents torn from elders, people torn from roots, stories torn from language. Past a certain point, my family’s history just… stops. As if there was nothing there.

I could do what others have done, and attempt to reconstruct this lost past. I could research genealogy and genetics, search for the traces of myself in moldering old sale documents and scanned images on microfiche. I could also do what members of other cultures lacking myths have done: steal. A little BS about Atlantis here, some appropriation of other cultures’ intellectual property there, and bam! Instant historically-justified superiority. Worked great for the Nazis, new and old. Even today, white people in my neck of the woods call themselves “Caucasian”, most of them little realizing that the term and its history are as constructed as anything sold in the fantasy section of a bookstore.

These are proven strategies, but I have no interest in them. They’ll tell me where I came from, but not what I really want to know: where I’m going. To figure that out, I make shit up.

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Not so long ago, at the dawn of the New World, black people were saved from ignorance in darkest Africa by being brought into the light of the West.

This is bullshit.

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When I was a child, my parents tried hard to give me a mythology.

I read every book they gave me. Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears (Verna Aardema) was a favorite. I voluntarily devoured volumes of Egyptian myths alongside the Greek and Roman mythology I was being shovel-fed in school. I eventually looked up the origins of my middle name — Keita — and discovered the half-mythic, half-real tale of Sundiata Keita, who might well have been counted among my ancestors.

Probably not. But my parents wanted me to be able to dream, and they knew that myths matter.

They knew this because they had been raised in the days when people like us were assumed to have no mythology, and no history worth knowing. Instead they were fed a new, carefully-constructed mythology: our ancestors were supposedly semi-animal creatures that spent all their time swinging around in the jungle until they were captured and humanized by lash and firebrand and rape. This shamed my parents — as such myths are meant to do. Generations before and including them wondered: if they truly came from such crude origins, did they have any right to want something more for themselves than powerlessness and marginalization? My parents’ generation was the first to really confront the lies in these myths, so I don’t blame them for trying to give me something better.

But as I grew older, I began to realize: the stories my parents had given me weren’t my myths, either. Not wholly, not specifically. My father has spent the past few years researching our genealogy. As far as he has been able to determine, I am many parts African, most of it probably from the western coast of the continent, though in truth we’ll probably never know. But I am also several parts American Indian — Creek/Muscogee that we know, some others that we don’t — and at least one part European. That component is probably Scots-Irish; we don’t know for sure because nobody talks about it. But that’s just the genetics. The culture in which I was reared, along the Gulf Coast of the United States, added components of Spanish and French to the mix. And the culture I’ve since adopted — New York, New York, big city of dreams — is such a stew of components that there’s no point in trying to extricate any one thing from the mass.

And no point in trying to apply any single mythology. I have nothing. I have everything. I am whatever I wish to be.

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Very long ago, in the ancient days of the world, black people were created when Noah was sodomized by Ham, his son. In retaliation, Noah cursed all Ham’s descendants to be servants of servants for all eternity.

This is… I don’t even know what the hell this is.

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J. R. R. Tolkien, the near-universally-hailed father of modern epic fantasy, crafted his magnum opus The Lord of the Rings to explore the forces of creation as he saw them: God and country, race and class, journeying to war and returning home. I’ve heard it said that he was trying to create some kind of original British mythology using the structure of other cultures’ myths, and maybe that was true. I don’t know. What I see, when I read his work, is a man trying desperately to dream.

Dreaming is impossible without myths. If we don’t have enough myths of our own, we’ll latch onto those of others — even if those myths make us believe terrible or false things about ourselves. Tolkien understood this, I think because it’s human nature. Call it the superego, call it common sense, call it pragmatism, call it learned helplessness, but the mind craves boundaries. Depending on the myths we believe in, those boundaries can be magnificently vast, or crushingly tight.

Throughout my life as I’ve sought to become a published writer of speculative fiction, my strongest detractors and discouragers have been other African Americans. These were people who had, like generations before them, bought into the mythology of racism: black people don’t read. Black people can’t write. Black people have no talents other than singing and dancing and sports and crime. No one wants to read about black people, so don’t write about them. No one wants to write about black people, which is why you never see a black protagonist. Even if you self-publish, black people won’t support you. And if you aim for traditional publication, no one who matters — that is, white people — will buy your work.

(A corollary of all this: there is only black and white. Nothing else matters.)

Having swallowed these ideas, people regurgitated them at me at nearly every turn. And for a time, I swallowed them, too. As a black woman, I believed I wasn’t supposed to be a writer. Simultaneously I believed I was supposed to write about black people — and only black people. And only within a strictly limited set of topics deemed relevant to black people, because only black people would ever read anything I’d written. Took me years after I started writing to create a protagonist who looked like me. And then once I started doing so, it took me years to write a protagonist who was something different.

Myths tell us what those like us have done, can do, should do. Without myths to lead the way, we hesitate to leap forward. Listen to the wrong myths, and we might even go back a few steps.

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Throughout history, all over this world, black people have been scholars and inventors, hard workers on whose backs more than one nation was built.

This is true, but not the whole truth.

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After my parents divorced, I spent every summer visiting my father in New York. We spent every night of those summers watching Star Trek (the original series) and The Twilight Zone, which came on back to back in syndication on Channel Eleven. It was father-daughter bonding over geekery. It was also, for me, a lesson in how hard it was to dream of the future when every depiction of it said you don’t have one.

Because Star Trek takes place 500 years from now, supposedly long after humanity has transcended racism, sexism, etc. But there’s still only one black person on the crew, and she’s the receptionist.

This is disingenuous. I know now what I did not understand then: that most science fiction doesn’t realistically depict the future; it reflects the present in which it is written. So for the 1960s, Uhura’s presence was groundbreaking — and her marginalization was to be expected. But I wasn’t watching the show in the 1960s. I was watching it in the 1980s, amid the destitute, gritty New York of Tawana Brawley and Double Dutch and Public Enemy. I was watching it as one of five billion members of the human species — nearly 80% of whom were people of color even then. I was watching it as a tween/teen girl who’d grown up being told that she could do anything if she only put her mind to it, and I looked to science fiction to provide me with useful myths about my future: who I might become, what was possible, how far I and my descendants might go.

The myth that Star Trek planted in my mind: people like me exist in the future, but there are only a few of us. Something’s obviously going to kill off a few billion people of color and the majority of women in the next few centuries. And despite it being, y’know, the future, my descendants’ career options are going to be even more limited than my own.

Fortunately in 1992, reality gave me a better myth: Mae Jemison became the first black woman in space. She wasn’t the goddamn receptionist. Only after that came Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, with its much-vaunted black captain.

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In the present, black people can be anything they want to be.

This is not true. Yet.

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For a long time, I was ashamed that I wrote science fiction and fantasy.

I write a little of everything — cyberpunk, dark fantasy, slipstream, space opera, liminal fantasy. But it bothered me most to write epic fantasy because, well, as far as I knew, epic fantasy was Tolkien’s British mythos. It was D&D campaigns writ large with stalwart pale-skinned people killing Always Chaotic Evil dark-skinned people, if the latter were even given the courtesy of being called people. It was doorstopper-sized novels whose covers were emblazoned with powerful-looking white characters brandishing enormous phallic symbols; it was stories set in medieval pseudo-England about bookworms or farmboys becoming wealthy, mighty kings and getting the (usually blonde) girl. Epic fantasy was certainly not black women doing… well, anything.

And that’s because there were no black women in the past, right? There will be no black women in the future. There have never been black women in any speculated setting. There are black women in reality, but that reality is constrained within wholly different myths from what’s seen in fantasy novels. (The Welfare Queen. The Music Video Ho. The Jezebel. The Help.)

And once upon a time I wondered: Is writing epic fantasy not somehow a betrayal? Did I not somehow do a disservice to my own reality by paying so much attention to the power fantasies of disenchanted white men?

But. Epic fantasy is not merely what Tolkien made it.

This genre is rooted in the epic — and the truth is that there are plenty of epics out there which feature people like me. Sundiata’s badass mother. Dihya, warrior queen of the Amazighs. The Rain Queens. The Mino Warriors. Hatshepsut’s reign. Everything Harriet Tubman ever did. And more, so much more, just within the African components of my heritage. I haven’t even begun to explore the non-African stuff. So given all these myths, all these examinations of the possible… how can I not imagine more? How can I not envision an epic set somewhere other than medieval England, about someone other than an awkward white boy? How can I not use every building-block of my history and heritage and imagination when I make shit up?

And how dare I disrespect that history, profane all my ancestors’ suffering and struggles, by giving up the freedom to imagine that they’ve won for me.

So here is why I write what I do: We all have futures. We all have pasts. We all have stories. And we all, every single one of us, no matter who we are and no matter what’s been taken from us or what poison we’ve internalized or how hard we’ve had to work to expel it —

— we all get to dream.

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In the future, as in the present, as in the past, black people will build many new worlds.

This is true. I will make it so. And you will help me.

40 Responses »

  1. i will help you. and so will many others. thank you so much for this. i’ve made some of these points amongst my peers–black, white and other, male, female and undecided–for so long, i began to feel like i was losing my flipping mind, some lone lunatic whose mental malady blinds him to the beautiful robes sported by everyone’s favorite emperor. i haven’t gotten to the end of your series yet, but it’s some of the most fulfilling spec fiction i’ve read in a while. i constantly find myself thinking, “thank you for writing this.” i wish everyone could read this essay. it’s good to know i’m not a lone voice asking questions and demanding a seat at a lunch counter reserved for fair-haired elves. hell, my steel phalluses are just as big and sharp as anyones. this essay speaks to me like flipping gospel. and for that i say, “thank you for writing this.”

  2. Thank you for writing and sharing this, Nora.

  3. An interesting and important essay, thank you. And for your other writing on The Other.

    This line especially resonates:

    Myths tell us what those like us have done, can do, should do.

    I am tiptoeing outside my safety net in a work I’m researching. Why a character so desperately wanted to know the folklore and myth of the people he was hiding among was crucial, I knew that. It was partly to be able to hide better among them. But why keep some of the mores he learned among them when that life was long past?

    Because, cut off from his own past, he needed myth to base his life upon, so he could continue on his own journey.

    Thank you.

  4. This is the best thing ever. I don’t even really have the words to convey how this made me feel, but it was everything good and hopeful I see in my own future. I’m a black woman. I am also a writer. I almost ALWAYS write science fiction and fantasy, but I almost always keep my writings to myself for some of the same reasons you listed here. This made me feel a lot better about what I write and why I write it. Maybe some day, I’ll get to show my work to you.

  5. A beautiful essay. Brought tears to my eyes.

  6. Hopeful tears, I mean to say. Or maybe: complicated tears.

  7. This is beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

  8. I just want to say I’m really, really glad that you’re a writer, and that your books are out there. ^_^

  9. Wow, just wow. Beautiful and inspirational. Thank you for sharing, Nora!

  10. When I read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms the first time, I didn’t digest the color of the people in the story at first. I was so taken with the world itself and more importantly the strong women of the protagonist’s homeland. It was the second time that my slow-processing brain really digested what you had accomplished in this story. You are building worlds. You are sharing that with all of us. I’m happy to help. These Dreams Need To Be Known.

  11. I think you should be Joseph Campbell’s successor.

  12. Wonderful essay. Beautifully written. Thanks for sharing it.

  13. Great essay, Nora! Lovely & powerful.

  14. seriously. We WILL help. you are not alone.

  15. I love what this essay says about the power of myth. Your stories and characters are so amazing; I’m so glad you didn’t let yourself be discouraged from sharing them with us!

  16. I love what you’ve shared here. Thank you.

  17. Nora thank you for this essay. It awaken my fearlessness and my focus to dream and write. Gassho.

  18. Yes. THIS. You put into words all the reasons why I write SF, and more.

  19. I really liked this essay, Nora. I liked how you were speaking to ‘us’ as much as ‘them’, and how you balanced a critique of ALL myths.

  20. This was beautiful.

  21. I have goosebumps. Thank you.

  22. This is amazing, Nora. Thank you.

  23. I’m a black woman and writer. Or Wrirter and black woman. And I know that Blacks and others ethnicities will built many and many other world!!!

  24. I feel you. I am a Haole (white) writer who lives in the Pacific Islands. I have for 40 years, and have been the minority race for 40 years. Being the only white face in the family crowd, I hear Shhh, when someone says, ‘But she looks so Haole.’ I write urban myth and use shape-shifting characters from Polynesian, Asian and Native American traditions. I have to find beta readers among the elders of the tradions so I don’t offend and create a fire storm at ‘another Haole puttting their limited understanding and interpretations on our sacred ones.’ My advise to you is-write from your heart and trust your voice. Anybody who loves to read will read, anybody who wants to play with you will play, and anybody who will open up to understanding your theme will. That rant said…let’s play!

  25. Beautifully written, argued, imagined. Thanks for this.

  26. Wow. This is really powerful.

  27. Awesome essay. The world is so narrow if we’re all looking through the same hole. We — all of us — need people writing all the stories, all the different kinds of myths.

    Angie

  28. Nora, this is a great essay and I appreciate the straightforward manner you address each of the ideas you share in it. You are one of my heroes. I only recently found out about your fiction and the fact that you have a multicultural world that you write about, and all I can do is be grateful for your presence in the Science Fiction and Fantasy community. I’m a black writer myself and I’ve always wanted to write about cultural diversity in my literature. I look forward to continuing to follow your posts to learn as much as I can about how to better approach this subject in my writing with more subtlety, class, and thoughtfulness. Thank you so much for your contribution to the writing community.

  29. Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears

    Yes! I loved this book as a kid. So pleased to see a shout-out to it.

  30. When I first bought “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” (it was an Amazon recommendation), I knew nothing about you. The blurb simply appealed to me, and I’m always looking for new SF&F authors. I thought nothing about the protagonist being either female or dark skinned because I’d grown up reading LeGuin and Cherryh. If the story is good, the characters complex, and the writing well done, that’s all that matters to me.

    I loved the story enough to buy the second book. It wasn’t until I finished the second that I flipped the book over and saw your photo.

    I wonder at all the thoughts and emotions I had in that moment of discovery. The initial emotion was surprise. But why was I surprised? Not that I thought it impossible or improbable (though experience told me it might be), but more that I had discovered something new and delightful, that I had shared a love for a genre with someone I hadn’t realized that I could share it with.

    And at the same time, I realized that had I seen your photo before I bought the book, I might not have made the purchase because I would have been afraid the content would prove to be the very stereotype you felt pushed toward writing in the first place.

    The fact that I realize I might have passed up these wonderful books because I would have had that thought makes me sad and ashamed of myself, especially in view of how much I loved the first book and how much I look forward to reading your new ones. I’d like to think that I’d have gone ahead and taken the chance anyway, though I’ll never know.

    Fear is one of the most powerful emotions we all have, and it wars against rational thought on a daily basis in everything, even from “should I buy this book?” to “should I write something I want to write despite everyone trying to discourage me?”

    I’d like to think that we are both well on our way to overcoming those fears.

  31. Thanks for the link via Twitter. I really enjoyed your thoughts on mythology and how it effects people and how they perceive the modern mythology we create and consume.

    I never thought of Uhura as a receptionist .. an interesting overlay onto her character based on your experience. I never thought of a com. officer as a receptionist. It gives interesting thoughts about my buddy nice who was a Sat. Com. officer in Iraq … I never quite thought of him as a receptionist for his combat unit. It’s a very curious thought indeed.

    Thanks for the food for thought.

  32. This is incredible, and beautiful, and I thank you for writing this.

  33. Makes me want to make some shit up of my own:)

  34. Thank you for writing this. Thank you for writing at all. Thank you for actively trying. Thank you for succeeding. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Dreamblood Book One:

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The Killing Moon

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