N.K. Jemisin, the three-time-back-to-back Hugo Award winning author of Far Sector for DC Comics’ Young Animal Line, reflected upon her experience in the industry in a recent interview with The Guardian and put forth her own conclusion that “it’s still easier for a white person to write a book with an all-black cast set in fantasy Africa and get it published than for a black person.”
In the interview, the veteran sci-fi author discussed how, at the beginning of her career, she “didn’t think I had a chance” at publishing books with characters of color because she “just didn’t see characters like me in fiction” due to being “exposed to nothing but white dude fiction” in her readings.
“I honestly didn’t think I had a chance. You just didn’t see characters like me in fiction. We were all exposed to nothing but white dude fiction, occasionally young white women fiction, and if that’s how you’ve grown up, then that is what is normal.”
However, Jemisin also found dissatisfaction with classical sci-fi stories featuring black characters, specifically referencing Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, which sees a black man as the last surviving member of the human race. She notes she felt as if the character was “basically a white guy who just happens to have black skin,” which Jemisin states is “not really the ideal way to handle it.”
“There’s a paragraph when the black male character is introduced where Clarke pauses the story to basically explain to the audience that, you know, this character is black, but it doesn’t really matter anymore in the future. And so for all intents and purposes, he’s basically a white guy who just happens to have black skin. Not really the ideal way to handle it.”
Going on to recall how the first novel in her Dreamblood duology, The Killing Moon, failed to find a publisher, Jemisin explains that this was a time when “science fiction and fantasy publishers were not super interested in stories with black casts by black writers.”
“It was the mid 2000s, and at that time science fiction and fantasy publishers were not super interested in stories with black casts by black writers. They had done some stories with black casts by white writers, but they were not interested in those stories coming from people who actually were black.” Rejection letters would say things like, “we like this, but we’re not sure how to market it. We like this but we’re not sure who its audience would be”– the implication from publishers being “that fantasy readers don’t want to read about black people. Black people don’t want to read fantasy. So what do we do?”
A frustrated Jemisin went on to test this thesis, rewriting her 2010 novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms with an all-white cast, and becoming disheartened when the rewrite ended up having “three different publishers fighting over it.”
“All of them were horrible people. They’d shank each other for, like, nothing. And I wrote this angry story about this lone brown girl going into this place full of mean white people. And I’m like, ‘This is what you want?’ I was pretty bitter … I’d taken such care in [The Killing Moon] to include sympathetic white people, but that wasn’t what they wanted.”
Jemisin on Lovecraft
Like many contemporary writers highly engaged with social justice theory, Jemisin turns towards the subject of H.P. Lovecraft, describing how the Lovecraft mythos inspired the villains of her new novel, The City We Became. She also condemned Lovecraft’s works for their “xenophobia” and “racism.”
She explains, “When you read things like The Horror at Red Hook he’s blatant both about the racism and the fact that the racism is the inspiration for his feeling that these people are evil.”
Jemisin would go on to discuss how a bust of Lovecraft that had been given to winners of the World Fantasy awards was removed after Nnedi Okorafor won the award for best novel in 2011. The bust was removed in 2015 following a petition created by now Star Wars The High Republic writer Daniel José Older. Older declared Lovecraft “an avowed racist and a terrible wordsmith” in the petition.
Okorafor would sign the petition writing, “Yes, Octavia is a far better choice. I look at my World Fantasy Award in my trophy case and simultaneously smile and frown. What a great great honor, but…Lovecraft’s head? In my home? Can we PLEASE address this once and for all?!”
“She received the award and was like, do you understand exactly what Lovecraft represents to someone like me?” said Jemisin
She added, “There’s a sort of running thread in science fiction to ‘engage with the art and not the artist’, probably because so many science fiction writers are problematic people. But in Lovecraft’s case doing that is not just egregious but dishonest, because Lovecraft’s fiction is so rooted in his xenophobia.”
Despite her abhorration of Lovecraft’s xenophobia and racism, Jemisin has taken Lovecraft’s mythos and combined it with her own social views, with the villain of The City We Became described as “basically Cthulu” and being composed of “the man-bunned alt-right trolls it recruits to fight for it.”
The evil in The City We Became is, Jemisin has said, “basically Cthulhu” (Lovecraft’s octopoid monster), with a group of diverse characters facing off against it – and against, pointedly, the man-bunned alt-right trolls it recruits to fight for it. “I was choosing to engage with Lovecraft’s fear of the city – his sense that these diverse people brought a bad energy to it,” she says. “My take was: of course they bring an energy to the city, all people do. He perceived it as evil, but really it’s just life.”
In her concluding thoughts, Jemisin asserts that despite publishers and editors claiming to be supportive of inclusive, representative fiction, “it’s still easier for a white person to write a book with an all-black cast set in fantasy Africa and get it published than for a black person.”
She states, “And so there’s a strange and nasty tendency that’s developed for publishers to be perfectly OK with novels about certain groups of people written by white folks, but not written by members of that group. It’s still easier for a white person to write a book with an all-black cast set in fantasy Africa and get it published than for a black person.”
What do you make of Jemisin’s comments?