We asked the staff of FIYAH Magazine to describe facets of this problem on different levels: storytelling expectations, the field’s systems and structures, and individual markets.
In what ways does whiteness frequently misunderstand Black writers’ stories stylistically, narratively, or politically? And how do you think such misunderstanding contributes to low publication rates?
Justina Ireland, Executive Editor: I think it’s less of a confusion on the parts of editors and more a resistance to understanding. There is no magic to Black literature, no rendering of language that makes it indecipherable for white minds. It isn’t a complicated code that must be unlocked to find the Holy Grail of Black Culture. Stories by Black authors tend to focus on their stories on Black people, meaning they center the experiences of Black people. The majority of stories in the world, including in SFF, center a white point of view. Sometimes even those that claim to be about marginalized voices. What Black SFF writers don’t do is center white experiences and white mores. Similar to the pushback from men on women’s stories, the pushback from white editors toward Black stories is all about the self: they feel they can’t see themselves in the stories told by Black authors, so then they deem them bad or low quality. But quality is an opinion informed by experience. So in that way white perceptions of quality which center the experiences of white men as the most desirable narrative tool have a direct impact on the publication of short stories by Black people. TL;DR: white people think stories by and about white people have more value and are inherently better, so that’s what they seek to publish.
Troy L. Wiggins, Executive Editor: When we think of inequality and lack of representation, we have to think about the intentional ways that systems work to disenfranchise and underrepresent people. SFF publishing is a microcosm of general publishing and has some of the same structural shortcomings. I can’t say for sure that SFF editors are misunderstanding the stories that black authors send to them. What I see, though, and have seen, is that there is an unwillingness to understand them, which looks a lot like a misunderstanding but is not. I think that most SFF editors are not malicious, but instead are unwilling to do the work that it takes to let go of their assumptions of what a story from a black author should look like. The misunderstanding portion of this could come from a lack of reading or familiarity with the various cultural and literary traditions of these authors, but that general, harmful unwillingness is centered in the same kind of allegiance to whiteness that has historically kept black people out of most communities. This is why my refrain has always been recruit black editors, hire black editors, retain black editors. Some magazines have gotten that message.
Blackness is not mystical, black writers aren’t subpar, and we are not a monolith. There are histories to what we do, same as any other group of humans living on the planet, and to paint what we do as unfathomable or exotic enough to be “misunderstood” is just as limiting as claiming that it’s inferior.
Brandon O’Brien, Poetry Editor: As with most things, I speak from an Afro-Caribbean perspective in particular, but that doesn’t differ all that much from what is already being said here. White editors can’t judge what they are hesitant to understand. In particular, black writers speaking in their own voices doesn’t merely not center whiteness — it centers a point of view that they already know very little about, save for the stereotypical. Even when white editors do think black stories are just as valuable, they don’t “know” things that black writers or readers would know — and the more specific you get, the more you reach for specific black experiences that aren’t part of the monolith of stereotypes they’ve already consumed, they get… “confused” is the word I wanna use. They don’t know where to begin, or what to ask, so they write it off as too difficult to publish. But the thing is, they have a duty to understand, or they can’t judge the work. They have a duty to at least reach out to black editors and first readers, to as diverse a community of black consumers as possible, to be better able to judge the work, or else what it comes down to is that a story wasn’t right because it was too black for them to know.
LeKesha Lewis, Art Director & Web Master: I’m not sure it’s a misunderstanding so much as… expectation. The Black literary tradition held in highest esteem by white audiences is that of the Important Work™. The struggle narrative; tales of the abuses we’ve suffered, the dignity we maintain, and the beauty borne through it. It’s the common desired theme from all PoC writers. And because those have been the stories sought after and exalted nearly to the exclusion of all other story types or genres, the pervasive, often subconscious expectation is that when you see a story by a Black writer, it should in some way address our real-world hardship. Without that grit, we’re ruled inauthentic. Without that very specific element of racial struggle in a story, why even make the character Black? Enter in the wide-open multiverse of speculative fiction in which we can carve out worlds where our struggles in this life can be unwritten but we can maintain our patois, our traditions, the intangibles of our culture, and we’re disorienting; jarring, like breakfast orange juice in a minty fresh mouth.
So I think our stories themselves are understandable. Black writers experience the full range of human emotion like everyone else. But when framed inside our Blackness, the disconnect lies in “this isn’t what I understand Blackness to be.” And then the way markets are structured, there’s no energy to commit to unpacking that. It’s easier to form reject, get back in the slush, and maybe hope the work is submitted and published elsewhere to become a viable talking point for growth at a more convenient time.
Several respondents to the 2015 report pointed to the overwhelming whiteness of editorial as an obstacle. What else about the system of the short fiction field, or the wider field in which it operates, might invisibly contribute to or perpetuate this problem in a structural sense?
Justina: There’s also a culture of “who you know” in SFF that becomes very visible once you go to cons and other events. For Black authors that cannot travel to meet people and make those connections it may be harder for them to get in the door or invited to anthologies and such. There’s also the issue of the Highlander syndrome, namely, There Can Be Only One. NK Jemisin is The Black Person Who Writes Fantasy. Nnedi Okorafor is the Black Person Who Writes Sci-Fi. It can be difficult to break into SFF because the editors who are looking for Black authors are looking for the next NK or Nnedi instead of being open to actually seeing what Black creators are bringing to the table. It’s reductive.
Troy: Definitely the Highlander syndrome that Justina mentioned, which rears its head in so many publications — how often do we see publications that feature only one story by a black author over the course of multiple issues? And of course, this is tied to ideas of black inferiority: black authors’ work has to be as good as their exemplars to even be considered, while nonblack authors can succeed with work that barely breaches average.
Another aspect that contributes to black invisibility in SFF is the need for more critical coverage and coverage of black media outside of the realm of fiction from mainstream outlets. Fortunately, we’re seeing that more critical coverage of short fiction in some areas: Charles Payseur’s Quick Sip Reviews, Maria Haskins’ Monthly Short Fiction Roundup, A.C. Wise’s “Words for Thought” column in Apex, and Bridget McKinney’s SFBluestocking are doing fantastic work in providing critical coverage to black writers’ stories, to the extent that they appear. And Strange Horizons has hired black reviewers to cover black media like Luke Cage. But there needs to be more.
Many outlets that can provide coverage of both black literature and black media only do so when there’s a big thing happening. Regular coverage falls to niche sites that lie outside of the mainstream SFF sphere, sites like The Nerds of Color, Black Girl Nerds, and Black Nerd Problems. Sites that claim to cover SFF developments and the SFF community have to talk to and about us outside of book releases and afrocentric movie trailers. Also, magazines that focus on publishing the work of African peoples from the continent to the diaspora have to be reviewed in these publications as well. Jalada, Kweli Journal, Omenana, and Brittle Paper are all journals that publish speculative fiction by people of African descent. Obsidian Journal has just released an issue focused entirely on afrofuturistic fiction and essays written by black people, and I haven’t seen any coverage of it by mainstream SFF sites. Neither have I seen any coverage on mainstream SFF sites of Sycorax’s Daughters, an anthology literally full of work from black women horror writers. Any magazine or blogsite that doesn’t have regular black contributors or freelancers to cover these kinds of releases are missing out on great work from authors who may not be a part of the existing SFF ecosystem.
Brandon: I just want to jump off from both Justina’s observations and Troy’s observation about seeing and reviewing work from the continent to the diaspora, because to me, both of those things are symptoms of the kind of monolithic perspectives of blackness in the world, and how that feeds back into people’s willingness to submit or how they view their own work. Because what that comes down to is that a lot of black writers don’t know that they can tell the story that they have to tell, because no one’s looking for it — or, if it exists, no one knows where to find it or how they can be a part of that legacy. So what you have is that not only is the perspective of black creativity already reductive, as Justina says, but no one knows that there’s space for them to write the kinds of stories that they want, the kinds of stories that come naturally from their own spaces or their own experiences of the world.
So, especially if you live anywhere other than the US or the UK, you can’t go to cons or cons are almost always far more prohibitively expensive to travel to, when you do see the few black stories that come out they’re totally different from your perspective, and the stories that are from at least a perspective as un-American or un-European as yours is aren’t getting any publicity. You can’t really get a diverse world of writing if the community is still so insular.
We can be reasonably confident thanks to FIYAH’s BSF Report that Black writers’ submissions are highly variable per magazine. What about an individual magazine — submission guidelines, aesthetic, or presentation — might alienate (or, alternatively, appeal to) Black authors?
Justina: If a magazine hasn’t published any Black authors, well-known or novice, then other Black authors are going to be less likely to submit to them. Black people in the US live in a world where they are constantly reminded in small ways and large that they are unwanted and their lives matter very little. It’s reinforced by small daily interactions and large events like the Philando Castile verdict. For many Black authors, they aren’t going to waste their time submitting to a magazine that allows no space for voices like theirs. First of all, because that is exactly how we teach authors to submit “look at the other things we’ve published to see what we’re interested in” and second of all because rejection stings, no matter how much it may be part of the business, but it stings even more when it might be related to the color of your skin and who you are as a person. Why waste your time of a venue that isn’t going to fully consider your voice, anyway?
Troy: Everything Justina said. Also, speaking on this as a submitting writer, I pay a lot of attention to how editors and associates of magazines respond to different things in the community. If Magazine A does something that is insensitive to black people, and the editor of Magazine A dismisses their action, I know that my work is probably not welcome in Magazine A and will be less likely to submit there. If the editors of Magazine B through J all send out tweets or write editorials that subtly side with Magazine A’s stance, then I’ll be reticent to submit to them as well. They’ve just given me an inside view on their politics, and since editors are gatekeepers who are subject to biases just like everyone else, why would I send my story to someone who might let those biases cloud their view of me or my work?
Brandon Everything Troy and Justina just said. And, again, speaking as the Afro-Trinidadian in the room, I guess it’s also a matter of being really particular about the kinds of work that they accept. I will more often than not still submit something of my own to a place that has accepted black work before and has treated black writers with respect, but I’m also looking for a space that respects black voice in work, especially from the Caribbean diaspora. And I don’t care if that’s harsh — if a mag has never, not once, published a story where a character talks like I talk, or if I send them something and the rejection letter calls my dialect “dense” or “difficult” without asking me a question, I may try one more time, but I have to be pretty masochistic to send them another one after that.
I guess it comes down to courting black experience. It’s not enough, to me, to say “we’re looking for diverse voices.” They have to go searching for it. They have to convince us that they’ll actually look deep at our work. Let us know that you care, that this isn’t about you avoiding criticism and is about you hearing black voices.
LeKesha: So, going back to FIYAH’s BSFReport, we saw that Black writers submitted in volume even to pro markets with a very poor rate of representative publication. These are established magazines: Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Analog and the like. And as a submitting writer with knowledge that my voice as a Black person is not particularly fitting for these markets, I’ll send work along anyway because it’s not like my expectations are high, but if I succeed, it’s a remarkable by-line. The anecdotal responses to our survey indicated that we either ignore markets with a poor track record where Black voices are concerned, or we submit anyway with no real enthusiasm but to keep our stats up.
Black writers also do research just like anyone else. If a market’s website is unkempt or outdated, if submission information isn’t easily accessible, if editors are caught behaving badly on social media in a way that calls into question their respect for marginalized people or the stability of the market, we will pass. We pay attention to things like responses to diversity studies, the #BlackSpecFic, and #BSFReport. Markets that continue to operate as though they are perfectly fine continuing to publish next-to-no Black authors in the face of these things make it into our private conversations about where we are welcome and where we are not. Markets that grow from these studies, even if it’s something as simple as implementing inclusive language or diversity statements on their websites, become at least worth a shot. Of course follow-through is the end goal, but changes in practices show us that at least they’re paying attention.
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