Two of my earliest childhood memories are of sci-fi films. I remember seeing Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan in the theater and crying when Spock died. I also remember falling asleep during Return of the Jedi and waking up with my father carrying me out of the theater. I would have been about three and four at the time. I grew up a Star Wars fanatic, so in my adolescence, I was happy to find there were actual Star Wars books. I picked one up at my local library and got into it one day while I sat in the laundromat.
I never finished that book. The first few chapters bored me to tears.
As much as I loved science fiction, fantasy, and other speculative genres, I was never much of a fan of reading them. I enjoyed The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in my younger years, but I didn’t grow up with A Wrinkle in Time or other such classics as a child. It wasn’t until I was in my late teens and early 20s that I began to find speculative work that really spoke to me. I’d say it probably began with two anthologies: Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root (2000), edited by Nalo Hopkinson, and Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000), edited by Sheree Renée Thomas.
But even with those anthologies, I don’t recall heavily reading speculative fiction during my 20s, not even after I found and was blown away by Octavia Butler’s Kindred in the early 2000s. The only other work that comes to mind around this time is Walter Mosley’s Blue Light. I might say I didn’t truly find authors with whom I would connect until after I got involved in WisCon in 2011. But even then, I noticed that the kinds of authors I like, especially since I tend to skew heavily toward Black women, were still few and far between.
However, when looking at Fireside’s #BlackSpecFic Report for this year, I was surprised at how abysmally low the number of black women seemed. I peruse lit mags almost every day looking for submission opportunities and have built a respectable list of go to’s, particularly the publications that include podcasts with their publications. However, even with the pubs that make calls that specifically ask for ‘diverse’ writers, I often wonder how much of that call is just lip service, a way to say “well, we tried,” when they still can’t find the type of ‘diversity’ they looked for, that diversity that presents no real challenge to whiteness and the narratives familiar to them that center this white gaze and experience.
What’s even sadder to me is that the hike in the numbers comes because one speculative lit magazine was made exclusively for Black writers, Fiyah. Seeing these numbers makes the harassment and hatred the outlet gets for being ‘exclusive’ almost laughable. And with the launch of Nightlight podcast, I hope the numbers grow, but I very much doubt that it alone will do enough to fill the gap in representation that still exists.
I know other responses to the #BlackSpecFic Report in previous years have expressed reservations in submitting unless the publication made an explicit statement of seeking ‘diverse’ writers. I feel this sentiment as I, too, often skip submitting to publications that don’t appear too welcoming to a bit of color in the ToC, particularly if I notice everyone behind the scenes mostly appear of a similar hue. Of course, this severely limits my options, but a lot of (emotional) work goes into submission with the possibility of a rejection. However, I also know there are other capable writers facing the same obstacle and take the risk only to find their work is not as valued as their non-Black contemporaries. And as my network of writers continues to grow, this lack of representation of Black writers appears more by design than objective editorial decisions.
I’ve spent much of my life looking at problems, seeing them either remain stagnant or grow worse over time. But perhaps the small increases in representation within the past three years is an indication that it is possible to get even more representation to make sure we are not only present but also varied within our representations, so I try to look with hope. The #BlackSpecFic Report has put the problem at the forefront, so I want to get to the point where I ask myself what some possible solutions are.
On my part, I know I should keep working at it, keep submitting even with the fear that I won’t get that “yes” I think I need, remember that someone thinks the stories I have to tell are worth the space in their publication. I also try to distribute information when publications have submission calls, knowing that much of my carefully curated social media circles consist of Black writers. Sometimes I feel it’s shouting into the wind, but perhaps a writer looking for just the right outlet will find a match.
And, of course, I think of ways to support publications that consistently provide a space for Black speculative writers. Perhaps they will not all be publications such as Fiyah and Nightlight meant to showcase Black writers specifically. But they do explicitly state that they want more ‘diverse’ representation. However, it is also important to look into these pubs to make sure they actually follow through. As for the publications themselves, I hope that more of them provide paying markets for Black writers. Beginning a publication, zine, or other outlet may be a labor of love, but Black writers are among the most underpaid and exploited in many professions. Economic barriers such as submission fees and low- and no-paying publications may deter many of us from even giving a publication a second look. Seriously, pay writers for their work and pay them on time.
Fireside’s #BlackSpecFic gives a snapshot of the obstacles that still persist for Black writers. In many ways, the industry has been unwilling to do the work it takes to create a truly more equal playing field for marginalized writers.
I’m grateful for the Black writers in speculative fiction whose work I’ve had the chance to enjoy these past few years. Finding Black writers has made all the difference in the world when it comes to my interest in reading speculative fiction. But when we have to overcome so many hurdles to even have our work seen, we don’t get the chance to reach those who would most appreciate what we have to offer.
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