A Nigerian, a Muslim, and a queer woman walk into a bar… and then proceed to read the entire sci-fi and fantasy genre for filth. (Don’t believe me? Check out the quotables on twitter)
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived at KGB’s Red Room on Thursday night for Pen Live: Black Panther, Katniss Everdeen, and the Changing Faces of Sci-Fi and Fantasy, but whatever expectations I may have secretly had were exceeded. The even started with a brief reading by each of the three participants.
Maria Dahvana Headley, author of the New York Times-bestselling young adult Sky Kingdom novels Aerie and Magonia, started the evening by reading an excerpt from her forthcoming work, The Combustible, a queer superhero and supervillain story. Let me not be coy: I’m going to buy this book. In her short reading the voice was quirky and funny and strong – one I’d like to spend some time with.
Next, Haris A. Durrani, author Technologies of the Self and co-founder of The Muslim Protagonist at Columbia University, read from his debut book. Haris’ work blended experiences grounded in his youth and family with elements of the fantastic to great affect. That he also weaves hugely important questions of religious identity into this narrative that force his audience to grapple with questions they may not want to is compelling.
The reading portion of the evening was rounded out by Deji Bryce Olukotun, author of Nigerians in Space, whose work questioned the filtering of information in our daily lives [stares coldly at Facebook algorithm that thinks it knows my interests but mostly just breaks my heart on a daily basis].
While the readings were good and I have three new books on my “To Read” list, the question and answer portion of the night was by far my favorite. When asked what excited them about the publishing industry, the answers were variations on a them: there is hope; there is incremental forward movement.
When faced with the flip side of that question, the answers veered towards the introspective. Olukotun noted that he was excited about Ta-Nehisi Paul Coates’s Black Panther run, but wondered about some of the “technical aspects.” He wondered if there was room for an African culture consultant. He voiced the concerns I’ve heard from several black creative when he asked, “[Am I] going to destroy opportunities if I speak out?” The question of whether or not oppressed and misrepresented people should be happy with the progress they can get is an eternal one. “We expect a white male protagonist” as Headley noted so is it enough (for now) to get something or someone different?
Do sci-fi and fantasy, with their outside-the-canon status offer room to make inroads? Yes and no. Durrani note that as a younger reader “Science fiction was [his] outlet” in part because it operated outside the canon even if it was occupied and written largely by old white men.
Headley, in part responding to a question about the Tilda Swinton whitewashing of The One, noted that as a child, she looked up to Spider-Man and Batman and all the other superheroes and imagined herself as them – a common experience – however as she got older she realized that she “wasn’t those dudes. [She] was the person who had the 30% wage gap from those guys.”
And yet all three remained hopeful. All three demonstrate the elasticity of the genres and their usefulness in forwarding different narratives. Headley articulated this idea perfectly when she said that she’s “interested in what would happen if the people who are not allowed to be in power are in power.” What a revolutionary thought.