A conversation with Nalo Hopkinson for Wired.
SCIENCE FICTION AUTHORS are overwhelmingly white and so are the characters that appear in sci-fi books and movies. That lack of diversity is a major weakness for a genre that prides itself on exploring infinite possibilities. The prevalence of white characters in science fiction is so familiar that it’s often taken for granted even by people of color such as author and playwright Sunil Patel.
“Growing up I literally did not think that Indian people could have science fiction and fantasy adventures,” Patel says in Episode 189 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “I thought fantasy adventures were for white British schoolkids.”
When people of color do appear in science fiction, it’s often as sidekicks or advisers. Black characters are likely to die quickly and are unlikely to ever interact with any other black characters, since many galaxies seem to contain only about three black people. That lack of representation makes it hard for people of color to imagine that their writing will ever find a home in the genre. Author Nalo Hopkinson saw an example of this at a recent convention.
“One of the people in the audience was a young mixed-race woman who loved horror, who wanted to be a writer, who thought she couldn’t write what she loved because she kept dreaming up black, female horror characters,” says Hopkinson. “It’s heartbreaking to me that whole swaths of people don’t think that their stories get to be told.”
The situation is improving, but author Nisi Shawl says that as recently as two months ago she attended a science fiction convention where she was the only black person present.
“I was used to the idea that I could go to a convention and shake hands with every person of color there,” she says. “And I could have done that at this thing as well.”
In response to these issues, Lightspeed magazine recently launched a Kickstarter for People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction, a special issue celebrating the contributions that people of color have made to science fiction. The issue features personal essays and reprint fiction selected by Patel and Shawl, along with original fiction selected by Hopkinson, who thinks these stories will appeal to any science fiction fans who want to broaden their horizons.
“I’ve just been kind of vexed recently by what seems to be a growing notion that science fiction and fantasy really shouldn’t change and shouldn’t challenge the reader,” she says. “That is what they are there to do.”
Listen to our complete interview with Sunil Patel, Nalo Hopkinson, and Nisi Shawl in Episode 189 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Nalo Hopkinson on her background as a writer:
“I was lucky growing up. I am the daughter of a library technician—my mother—and an actor/poet/playwright/teacher—my father—and living in the Caribbean we were very keyed in to the literature of the region. I knew that people of color could write, and that we could write whatever we wanted to. When I started writing science fiction I did have to do the sort of ‘unhooking’ of my brain. The first story that came to mind was the default kind of fantasy—white people set in some part of Europe—and I sat with it, because it wasn’t making me comfortable, and I completely changed it. But I knew that I could do it, and I’m kind of blessed that way, and it really hurts me when I see people that don’t have that advantage.”
Sunil Patel on editing the personal essays:
“Arthur Chu‘s essay is called ‘My Life as an Alien American.’ What he noticed is that in science fiction films there’s so much Orientalism. You don’t even see Asian people, exactly, in science fiction, but all the aliens are very clearly Asian-inspired. Well, ‘inspired’ sounds like a good thing, but it’s not really a good thing how they’re portrayed. And that was actually the interesting thing about putting together these essays, was making sure I got a wide variety of backgrounds and voices. Because as you can see, the experience in science fiction as a black person is different from the experience in science fiction as an Asian person. You see and react to different things.”
Nalo Hopkinson on the science fiction community:
“I said something about the lack of representation a few weeks ago, talking to CBC Radio, and someone who’s a friend was on a listserve where people were being angry about my even daring to say that, and someone said that I had clearly never heard of Samuel R. Delany. … He’s my teacher and he’s my friend, and I can count higher than one. There’s still a problem. … So it’s little things like that, and it’s the bigger systemic things that are difficult to prove. You know what they smell like, but you can’t ever nail it down, because no one’s ever going to tell you that that’s what’s going on. So it creates this atmosphere where—as people of color—we’re suspicious. We just are, and we have very, very good reason to be. And telling us that we’re insane, well, we’re used to that. We’re not.”
Sunil Patel on Neil Gaiman:
“Yesterday Neil Gaiman tweeted that he backed People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction, and I asked, ‘Hey, Neil Gaiman. Thank you for supporting it. I hope you’ve been reading the personal essays!’ And he said, ‘I’ve been loving them.’ So these essays that I asked a bunch of people to write have now been read and loved by Neil Gaiman, who has a lot of influence and power, and so I hope that they’ve influenced him in some way. … I know that he’s aware of racial issues, but I’m pretty sure that there are many things in these essays where he might have said, ‘I did not know this.’ And to be able to influence someone in our community who has that kind of cachet is important.”