Writing While Young, Black, and Nerdy

I want to begin this post with an excerpt from the essay “Positive Obsession” from Bloodchild and Other stories by Octavia Butler:

My aunt and I were in her kitchen, talking. She was cooking something that smelled good, and I was sitting at her table, watching. Luxury. At home, my mother would have had me helping.
“I want to be a writer when I grow up,” I said.
“Do you?” my aunt asked. “Well, that’s nice, but you’ll have to get a job, too.”
“Writing will be my job,” I said.
“You can write any time. It’s a nice hobby. But you’ll have to earn a living.”
“As a writer.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“I mean it.”
“Honey… Negroes can’t be writers.”
“Why not?”
“They just can’t.”
“Yes they can, too!”
I was most adamant when I didn’t know what I was talking [about]. In all my thirteen years, I had never read a printed word that I knew to be have been written by a Black person. My aunt was a grown woman. She knew more than I did. What if she were right?

This conversation would have taken place in 1959 or 1960, but it’s 2018, and I’m sure most, if not all, black writers have had conversations similar this. Especially those of us who write fantasy, science fiction, horror, and magical realism.

In fact, toward the end of my senior year in high school, my math teacher had a sub one day who happened to be a black lady. I told her I was salutatorian, and she was so impressed. But when she asked what I was majoring in, I told her I’d be majoring in English with a concentration on creative writing. Boy, her face screwed up so fast, and she was quick to tell me that someone as smart as me should be majoring in some kind of science. I gave her a nervous smile, but that really hurt my feelings.

Why do so many of us give in to the notion that black people don’t write? That only perpetuates the notion that black people don’t belong in books (including the things that come from books, like movies).

So, unsurprisingly, when I was quite young (I mean elementary school), nearly all my characters were white because that’s what I read and saw, which is something Tomi Adeyemi also experienced:

“I had a lot of different reasons for writing [Children of Blood and Bone] but at its core was the desire to write for black teenage girls growing up reading books they were absent from. That was my experience as a child. Children of Blood and Bone is a chance to address that. To say you are seen.”

— Tomi Adeyemi, The Guardian

Later on, around 5th and 6th grade, I added Japanese characters when I discovered anime and manga. At this point in my life, I was more into drawing manga than writing stories, and I can remember my earliest inspirations to be Sailor Moon and Card Captor Sakura.

One of my friends in 6th grade looked at one of my drawings — magical girl characters of mine who were clearly Sailor Moon knock-offs — and asked, “How come you only draw white characters?”

Indignant, I replied, “They’re not white. They’re Japanese.”

But it wasn’t until then that I actually questioned why a Japanese girl like Usagi could naturally have blonde hair and blue eyes.

usagi

By the age of 12, I added more black girls to my stories because I wanted them to be the representation I was lacking. But the funny thing was that I was adding them one at a time. There was never more than one in a story.

I wrote my first novel when I was 15 (the most horrible vampire and werewolf novel ever, and this was before I’d even heard of Twilight), and out of the seven main characters, one of them was black. I forgot what I named her, but she was pretty much the only black person in the entire book. Although, in my defense, that’s what my life looked like at the time. Everyone in my friend group was white, except for one Asian guy, and I was still butt hurt from being teased by the black kids at my junior high for liking anime and rock music (I was on a steady diet of Green Day, Evanescence, MCR, The Used, Fallout Boy, and Panic! at the Disco).

A few years later, when I was 17 or 18?, I wrote another terrible horror novel that I eventually abandoned. Of the five main characters, there was one black girl, one white girl, one white guy, and two Asian siblings. I remember this black girl’s name. Mina Moon. (Ugh.) She relaxed her hair, and now that I think back on it, she was kind of annoying. Even though I wrote this nearly ten years ago, I can still remember the personalities of the other four characters, but for the life of me, I can’t remember anything specific about Mina except that she cried at the very beginning of the novel  (and I must say, with cringe, that I wrote the most cliched horror opening — Mina running through a dim hallway with flickering lights from some ghost or creature, and then sliding into a room in the nick of time).

So, strangely enough, even though I realized I wanted to see more characters like me, I was still rebelling against blackness super hard. I’m sad that the fact that my high school English teacher taught Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston was wasted on my naive, stubborn, low-key self-hating ass.

And when I reached late undergrad/early grad school, I straight up refused to write about blackness. I was still firmly rooted in the shallow notion that all blackness was, was color. Learning Black History was a nuisance to me. One of my white friends in high school scowled at the mention of a minority cultural event and called it “some stupid seminar for minorities to get together and feel good about themselves.”

So then. All that said, prepare to say “yikes!” because I’m about to share an excerpt from a blog post I wrote four years ago, during my first year of graduate school:

Hello! Happy Sunday once again, lovely blog readers.

Today, I wanted to talk about explicitly not writing the “ethnic story.” I don’t think it’s as big an issue these days, but authors of color are often expected to write the “story of their people.” It’s kind of similar to what I learned in my Victorian Women Writers seminar: anything written by women was supposed to have conveyed the “woman experience,” and/or reflect the female writer’s life. Likewise, for example, I would be expected to write about “the black experience.”

Not to disappoint you guys, but writing about being black sounds horridly boring.

I remember reading in my first Fiction Workshop class a short story written by a Vietnamese writer whose name escapes me. It’s basically talking about him trying to write a story, and how he doesn’t want to sell out by writing the ethnic story – but then that’s what it turns into anyway. It’s the most pretentious, sneaky thing… Hated it.

I don’t understand why people expect us to be spokespersons. [….]

I’m most naturally a writer of fantasy and horror. I love science fiction (though I’m horrible at writing it); I can’t imagine what Octavia Butler must have endured growing up in a time when blacks weren’t supposed to write things like science fiction. Have you read her short story “Bloodchild”? I love it! Science fiction with a literary flare.

I wanted to write about her nearly seamless blending of literary elements and genre elements, but I couldn’t find enough sources. You know what I find a lot of though? “Bloodchild” is clearly about slavery. Are you kidding me? Butler even said herself that it had nothing to do with slavery. You know what else I kept finding? Race and gender in Butler’s “Bloodchild” or something of the like. Well, she’s woman writer and a black writer, so she must be writing about the woman experience and the black experience. [….]

Although it doesn’t seem to be that big of an issue these days, it still kind of is, and it’s one of my fears as a black writer of genre… being the black writer of genre. If I continue to work hard at my writing and am ever lucky enough to be remembered for my work, I want to be listed among great writers and great fantasy writers and great horror writers.

I don’t want to be excluded from these groups but then added, as an afterthought, to a list of great female writers and great black writers.

Thankfully, by the time I reached my second year of grad school, I’d developed a deeper appreciation for black writers in literature (and thank Odin I’d finally learned there is far, far, far more to being black than skin color and ghetto-ness). I didn’t get to revisit Their Eyes Were Watching God in the classroom, but I did have the pleasure of studying Beloved by Alice Walker — one of the most artful pieces of magical realism I’d ever laid eyes on. It was beautiful. And it was beautifully black.

“In this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. and all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver–love it, love it and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.”

― Toni Morrison, Beloved

And then Winter was born. Winter Yllda Al’Wen Žu.

winter cropped
This is my character, Winter, from The Adventures and Shenanigans of Bastien Falcowhich I published in 2015. My talented friend, Joye Cho, is responsible for this stunning image.

Even though I started writing my humorous fantasy novel, The Adventures and Shenanigans of Bastien Falco, when I was still in my last semester of undergrad, I didn’t finish it until a few months after I received my Master’s. This gave me time to fully develop Winter and her surroundings. This gave me time to write about Sandy’s xenophobic reactions to people who weren’t Northern (read: European) like him. And this was the first time that I was okay with writing a black woman who was dark skinned with natural hair.

It was a god damn breakthrough.

Now, not only have I discovered that I could emulate the wonderful, colorful diversity of the world in my writing (there are all sorts of ethnic backgrounds that also deserve representation! LGBTQA+ individuals deserve representation! It’s not always just about black or white! And not everyone in the world is straight, so why is that what my fictional world looks like?), I’m all about representing blackness as well as black characters in my stories, including, and especially, fantasy. Because I need to.

So, then, I write science fiction and fantasy for a living. As far as I know I’m still the only Black woman who does this. When I began to do a little public speaking, one of the questions I heard most often was, “What good is science fiction to Black people?” I was usually asked this by a Black person. I gave bits and pieces of answers that didn’t satisfy me and that probably didn’t satisfy my questioners. I resented the question. Why should I have to justify my profession to anyone?
But the answer to that was obvious. There was exactly one other Black science-fiction writer working successfully when I sold my first novel: Samuel R. Delany, Jr. Now there are four of us. Delany, Steven Barnes, Charles R. Saunders, and me. So few. Why? Lack of interest? Lack of confidence? A young Black woman once said to me, “I always wanted to write science fiction, but I didn’t think there were any Black women doing it.” Doubts show themselves in all sorts of ways.

— Octavia Butler, “Positive Obsession,” Bloodchild and Other Stories

There are more of us now — me being one of them — and I’m trying so hard not to let you down, Ms. Butler. I really am.

GoFundMe, to help me cover the costs to publish my anthology of fantasy and science fiction short stories, Fairy Tales and Space Dreams.

Twitter: @BGBFS

Facebook: Black Girls Belong in Fantasy and Sci-fi

Website

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s