Photo Essay - African American Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers
George Samuel Schuyler, c. 1930. Photo courtesy of the Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.
George Samuel Schuyler (1895–1977), conservative journalist and cultural critic, was perhaps an unlikely figure in the world of science fiction writing. His contributions to the genre are relatively minimal, but he remains an important figure in literary history thanks to Black No More (1931), generally considered to be the first African American science fiction novel. The novel, which at the time of its release was classified as satire, depicts a world in which African Americans in Harlem are able to lighten their skin to the extent that they appear lighter than actual Caucasians. Whites respond to this phenomenon by darkening their complexions to such a degree that visible racial distinctions are maintained. The novel, in its most biting scenes, also spoofs the leading figures of the contemporary African American community, including Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois. Schuyler's legacy was somewhat tarnished later in his life (he died an outspoken critic of the civil rights movement), but his detour into the world of speculative fiction provides a classic example of the genre's singular ability to shed light on cultural assumptions and widespread prejudice.
Octavia Butler, right, stands with fellow writer Nalo Hopkinson at a Howard University conference on African American science fiction, March 2003. Photo courtesy of David Findlay and www.sfwa.org.
Octavia Butler (1947–2006) nurtured a lifelong interest in science fiction. Beginning as a writer at the age of 10—convinced that she could construct a better story than one she had seen on television—Butler grew to become an important voice both in the science fiction community and in the literary genre. Her work displays an innovative sensitivity to cultural, racial, and gender differences, and this approach is omnipresent in her consideration of fictional worlds and alternate realities. Her best-known work, the novel Kindred (1979), is exemplary of her emphasis on strong African American female protagonists, and the work remains distinctive in the genre. Butler won numerous awards throughout her career, including a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant in 1995.
Samuel R. Delany sits in his office at Temple University, 20 March 2009, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photograph by Michael S. Wirtz. Courtesy of Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT/Landov.
Much like Octavia Butler, Samuel "Chip" Delany (b. 1942) began writing science fiction and fantasy stories at a relatively young age. He has been incredibly prolific over the past several decades, and his novels have been honored with numerous awards, including the prestigious Nebula and Hugo Awards. His interest in writing extends to education, as well, and he has spent time as a professor of English and creative writing at a number of American universities.
Delany's work indicates an impressive diversity of interests. One of his earlier novels, the Nebula Award-winning Babel-17 (1966), explored the notion that the structure of one's language has the ability to shape one's worldview, while The Einstein Intersection (1967) focused on the significance of human mythology to future alien civilizations. In later years, Delany turned his attention to the power of writing (Dhalgren, 1975), erotica (The Tides of Lust, 1973), and the AIDS crisis (Flight from Nevèrÿon, 1985). Much of his recent work has revolved around complicated ideas of self-identification and sexuality. Delany's writing, as challenging and high-minded as it often can be, is an example of science fiction at its most inquisitive and inclusive.
Steven Barnes, center, poses with fans at a book signing, June 2004. Courtesy of IK Archivist/www.flickr.com.
Steven Barnes (b. 1952) has written for a wide variety of publications and television shows, but his primary literary interest lies in science fiction and fantasy. Barnes began co-authoring books with respected science fiction writer Larry Niven in 1981 (Dream Park), a collaboration which produced a series of popular sci-fi thriller novels. This success allowed Barnes to publish his own work, and he has authored dozens of books in the intervening years, including the Aubry Knight series (1983–1993), featuring a mythical black martial arts champion who must learn to shed a part of his warrior's training in order to become a more fully developed man. In 2002, Barnes released Lion's Blood, an alternative history novel in which the historical and social fortunes of Western Europe and Muslim Africa have been transposed. Barnes's most recent work has seen him stepping outside of the science fiction realm into the mystery genre, where he has written a series of novels (beginning with Casanegra in 2007) alongside his wife, Tananarive Due, and actor Blair Underwood.
Sheree R. Thomas speaks at the Octavia E. Butler Celebration of the Fantastic Arts at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, 21 March 2013. Photograph courtesy of M. Asli Dukan.
Sheree R. Thomas grew up reading science fiction in her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, but did not discover African American science fiction authors until college, when she was introduced to Octavia Butler's Kindred. Thomas has published a number of essays, poems, and stories, but in the world of science fiction she is probably best known as the editor of the Dark Matter anthologies. The first volume in the series, Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000), collects dozens of stories and essays written by some of the most important figures in African American literature, many of whom are not normally considered sci-fi writers. Thomas's decision to define the anthology series in terms of speculative fiction allows the volumes to cover a range of related genres, including science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, horror, mythology, and folktales. Samuel Delany, George Schuyler, Nalo Hopkinson, Ishmael Reed, Amiri Baraka, Walter Mosley, Octavia Butler, Charles R. Saunders, and W.E.B. Du Bois are among the many authors represented.
The debut volume received widespread critical acclaim, including honors in The New York Times and The Washington Post. The second volume in the series, Dark Matter: Reading the Bones (2004), was also well received, and presented a similarly diverse selection of writers. Thomas is currently at work on a third volume.
Nnedi Okorafor, 2010. Courtesy of vanderfrog/www.flickr.com.
Nnedi Okorafor (b. 1974) was born in the United States to Nigerian parents. She grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, and teaches writing at Chicago State University. Okorafor began writing her own fiction while in college and published her first book-length work, the young adult novel Zahrah the Windseeker, in 2005. This title, which won the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature, blends elements of science fiction, fantasy, mythology, and Okorafor's Igbo heritage to tell the story of a teenage girl who embraces the frightening special powers that she possesses in order to save a friend.
Okorafor has also written novels for adults, the best known of which is Who Fears Death (2010), a post-apocalyptic sci-fi/fantasy novel that takes place in a future Africa, but which is also anchored in present-day African turmoil. Touching on the horrors of genocide, rape, and FGM, Who Fears Death is indicative of Okorafor's desire to address difficult ideas in a bold, aggressive manner. As she has stated, "If it scares you to write it, then you should definitely write it...Who Fears Death is full of moments and situations that I wanted to pull back from or skip over....But I knew that if I was feeling that way then that's where the good stuff was, so I faced it." (http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/okorafor_interview/)
Andrea Hairston in an undated photograph. Courtesy of Micala Sidore.
Andrea Hairston (b. 1952) has enjoyed a distinguished career as artistic director of the Chrysalis Theater in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she is also a professor at Smith College. In the last few years, however, she has also become a lauded author of speculative fiction. Her first novel, the award-winning Mindscape (2006), is a science fiction thriller that sees characters racing across planets and dimensions in order to save their world from annihilation. Hairston's second novel, Redwood and Wildfire (2011), has a slightly more restrained premise (recalling the work of Octavia Butler), and straddles the genres of historical fiction, folklore, fantasy, and magical realism. Set in late 19th-century America, the novel looks at theater performers on an unpredictable journey from backwoods Georgia to the "futuristic" city of Chicago, employing telepathy, magic, and even teleportation along the way. Redwood and Wildfire won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award in 2011 for "science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender." (http://tiptree.org/)
Virginia Hamilton, 24 October 1994. Photograph by Jimmy Byrge. Courtesy of www.virginiahamilton.com.
Celebrated children's author Virginia Esther Hamilton (1936–2002) wrote in a variety of styles and won the Newberry Medal, becoming the first African American to do so, for her realistic fiction novel M. C. Higgins, the Great (1974). In 1975, Hamilton became the first children's writer to win a MacArthur Fellowship, and in 1992 she won the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Author Award, given biennially to authors who have made an extraordinary contribution to the field of children's literature. Although she is not normally considered a science fiction writer, between 1978 and 1981 Hamilton released a series of young adult novels, collectively known as The Justice Cycle, that fit squarely in the sci-fi genre. The books reference many of the hallmarks of speculative fiction—extrasensory perception, future worlds, alien planets, fantastical creatures—but at their core, the novels are about human relationships, namely the relationship that eleven-year-old Justice has with her twin brothers. Indeed, deeply-felt human relationships lie at the core of much of Hamilton's work, and many critics cite Hamilton's sensitivity to the intricacies of interpersonal communication as the primary strength of her literary output.
Tananarive Due reads from one of her books at the Brooklyn Book Festival, 17 September 2011. Photo courtesy of editrrix/www.flickr.com.
While working as a journalist for the Miami Herald, Tananarive Due (b. 1966) finished her first novel, The Between. A suspense story set in a Florida African American community, The Between was nominated for the Bram Stoker Award in 1996, and launched Due's career as a writer whose work explored both the history of the African Diaspora and the emerging trend of speculative and supernatural fiction. Her 1997 follow-up My Soul to Keep—also nominated for a Stoker award—was the first in her African Immortals series, in which a brotherhood of powerful undead warriors clash in an ancient battle between good and evil. Due collaborated with her husband Steven Barnes and actor Blair Underwood on the Tennyson Hardwick mystery series, while her short stories have been featured in multiple science fiction and fantasy journals and anthologies. Among them, "Patient Zero" (2000) stands out as a harbinger of the apocalyptic themes so popular in early 21st century science fiction. In it, a young boy records his experiences while living in a research facility in the midst of a plague that wipes out most of humanity. Due became the Cosby Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College in Atlanta, and has also taught creative writing at Antioch College in Los Angeles. In 2013, Due's work expanded into film production when she and Barnes collaborated to produce Danger Word, an independent film based on an excerpt from their novel Devil's Wake, in which a man and his granddaughter must survive a zombie plague.
N.K. Jemisin at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art, 3 May 2011. Photo courtesy of Houari B./www.flickr.com.
Since the early 2000s, N(ora) K. Jemisin has been one of the most influential short story writers in science fiction and fantasy, with highly imaginative work appearing in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Helix, and Weird Tales. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (book one of The Inheritance Trilogy), tells the story of Yeine Darr, an outsider whose actions help to bring about the downfall of an oppressive plutocracy. Kingdoms was nominated for a Hugo, a Nebula, and a Locus award in 2010–11. Thanks to her growing social media presence, Jemisin has used this subversive theme to discuss the issue of diversity in science fiction and fantasy, a genre that, despite its inherently forward-thinking nature, disproportionately represents white characters. "Revolution is on my mind a lot," she has said (1). The recent apocalyptic trend, in her opinion, reflects fears of societal change that her novel gleefully exploits. But besides providing a unique perspective on a well-worn archetype, Jemisin juggles multiple genres; thus, The Inheritance Trilogy combines elements of fantasy, mystery, romance, and political thriller. Her second series, Dreamblood, began in 2012 with The Killing Moon, and utilizes similar themes of magic and intrigue.