Back in 1992 my soulfullest Clarion West instructor, editor Gardner Dozois, shared with me and his twenty other writing students the surefire path to success: write and publish several short stories set in one universe, building an audience for your debut novel, which you would of course set in that selfsame universe.
According to the survey this essay accompanies, that surefire path is out of reach for most black writers. It hovers over our heads like one of those apparently unanchored walkways in a Roger Dean painting, winding off to unearthly realms that are in plain sight but remain always beyond our most earnest leaps and determined graspings.
Though soulful, Gardner’s white. So was everyone else teaching and attending that six-week workshop, one of the more than 30 workshop sessions Clarion West has held annually, devoted to upping the skill-levels of aspiring SFF short story authors. I was, as Nalo Hopkinson says, “the fly in the sugar bowl.” I was one of twenty-one. You do the math.
Recently the percentage of black students at Clarion West (and at its sister workshop Clarion) has risen to around 10%, while the percentage of Clarion West and Clarion nonwhite students in general has climbed even higher. Which makes the accompanying figures even more miserable in their implications. We’re trying, really trying. We’re doing everything in our power to improve our craft; we’re forming connections with others working in the genre; we’re stretching ourselves and flexing our talents and dedicating our time and energy to pursuing professional writing careers.
But if progress is measured in terms of our presence in the tables of contents of SFF’s short fiction venues, we’re getting nowhere.
Speaking of my own personal journey, many of the steps I’ve taken have been backwards. Or sometimes I’ve just shuffled in place. Gardner encouraged me to send him a story drafted during his Clarion West stint, and I did so, but waited for a response pointless months after it was lost in the mail. A similar stall-out occurred with an anthology invitation from another Clarion West connection, Greg Bear. And my short fiction has never received anything but rejections from many of the field’s major venues: Clarkesworld, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Tor.com.
Nalo Hopkinson, N.K. Jemisin, and Nnedi Okorafor have made it big primarily due to their novels. All three write (mostly unrelated) short stories, too, but the longer work was what brought them to the literary world’s fascinated attention. Same with Octavia E. Butler.
Not me. I’ve written four novels, but the first to be published hasn’t even come out yet — that’s Everfair, due for release this year on September 6. Meanwhile, I won the 2009 James Tiptree, Jr. Award for a collection of short fiction, Filter House. I’ve been invited to submit stories to several magazines and anthologies — though that doesn’t always mean my submissions are accepted. Lots of times, though, they are.
How? Why? Are my short stories infinitely better than other black science fiction authors? Am I seriously that much more — to coin a phrase—articulate than my colleagues?
I hope not.
In her groundbreaking book How to Suppress Women’s Writing (1983, University of Texas), writer and feminist Joanna Russ laid out the dismissive strategies publishing employs to keep literature safe for men. In 2011, I edited a volume of essays in which Dr. MJ Hardman expanded Russ’s observations on these categorizations (“She didn’t write it,” “She wrote it, but she shouldn’t have,” and so on) to cover even more axes of difference. If you want to understand in detail how this discrimination happens, I recommend reading either the Russ book or Hardman’s essay (The Russ Categories, WisCon Chronicles 5, 2011, Aqueduct Press). Basically, suppressing the expression of the thoughts of somebody different than yourself requires nothing more difficult than misunderstanding them. You can’t support ideas you can’t conceive, emotions you don’t realize you aren’t feeling
When I was 5 years old I got tired of hearing what “good” hair my baby sister Julie had. So I whacked it off with a big, clumsy pair of scissors. That memory and the lyrics of a 16th century English ballad contributed to the creation of my story Cruel Sistah. But the first (white) editor I offered it to didn’t think a girl would murder someone over how straight their hair was. Fortunately, soulful Gardner got it, maybe because — as he told me — though white himself, he has black relatives? That story was later reprinted in the Datlow/Grant/Link-edited Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror anthology.
However, you have to be printed to get reprinted.
Persistence and blessed chance have played huge parts in my fairly successful career. Where you see any number other than zero beside the names of the publications surveyed, you see the marks made by those few like me. Ones and twos and, rarely, threes.
That’s not enough, is it?
About the author
Nisi Shawl’s AfroRetroFuturist novel Everfair comes out from Tor on September 6. Her story collection Filter House co-won a James Tiptree, Jr. Award, and she’s co-author of the acclaimed instructional handbook Writing the Other: A Practical Approach. Shawl co-edited Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany and Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler. She’s active on Twitter and Facebook, and promises to update nisishawl.com soon.
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