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Rising Above the Failure of Imagination | The Nation

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Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay

New words from writers of color.

Rising Above the Failure of Imagination


Science fiction enthusiasts dressed as characters from Star Trek, pose for a photograph outside the twelfth annual Sci-Fi London festival in East London on April 28, 2013. Science fiction and fantasy have traditionally underrepresented minorities and other marginalized populations. (Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett)

Last week, the #DiversityinSFF hashtag gained momentum on Twitter and spawned a necessary conversation both on Twitter and beyond about race, gender, sexuality and class—or, more succinctly put, difference—in the literature the Science Fiction & Fantasy (SFF) community produces. Scrutiny was also applied to the literary gatekeepers of that community, as it should be applied to all literary communities.

At The Guardian, David Barnett offers solid insight into the conversation and the climate that served as catalyst. Jim C. Hines, who coined the hashtag, offers a round up of related responses. Most notably, Tor added an explicit diversity statement to their submission guidelines. Such gestures are an excellent start.

As is always the case during such conversation, there have been precious, panicked pleas to avoid quotas and to remember the importance of quality, as if a demand for diversity is synonymous with a higher tolerance for mediocrity. These pleas arise any time the marginalized demand to be heard and those making their needless pleas realize the status quo is about to change.

The conversation about diversity in SFF is also striking because it reveals how discrimination and its deeply embedded cultural effects are so pernicious that even imagination, the very thing that should transcend the world we live in, is constrained. Some writers suggest that they simply don’t know how to write diversity into their novels but have no problem creating elaborate worlds set in alternative times and realms, populated by beings human and otherwise.

What does it say about writers that it is easier to imagine creating an alien species and alien worlds than it is to create a non-white and/or heterosexual and/or male and/or differently abled and/or working-class humanoid character in a non-Western setting? We see such reticence to approach difference in fiction, across genres and it is, in part, understandable but it is also a bit offensive, this notion that underrepresented people are so different and mysterious, so far from the dominant understanding of normal, we dare not even try to write their experiences.

Writers don’t want to write difference wrong, but getting difference wrong and writing difference so inaccurately it becomes offensive are not the same thing. It’s not hard to avoid stereotypes and lazy misconceptions. It’s not hard to avoid sweeping generalizations and inadequate research. It’s not hard to avoid writing difference simply for difference’s sake. If we aren’t willing to take risks in fiction, why are we writing? Maybe we will not get difference perfect, but we will become better writers by trying, and the next time we approach difference, we will be more prepared to rise to the occasion.

Two books that rise to this occasion are Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed, and Salsa Nocturna, by Daniel José Older. In Ahmed’s debut novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, weary old ghul hunter Adoulla, his dervish apprentice Raseed and the feisty Zamia Badawi must work together to protect the Khalif of Dhamsawaat. The novel is full of action and intrigue, a little romance. A rebellious Falcon Prince is quite the trickster, and at times it’s not quite clear if he is friend or foe. Throne of the Crescent Moon is a fun, charming novel. Ahmed is a skillful world-builder. The physical setting of Throne of the Crescent Moon is beautifully rendered, without the indulgent excess of description all too often found in fantasy novels. The characters, though somewhat flat and too true to type, inhabit this world convincingly. I would have liked to see women written more ambitiously but I also recognize that this is a first novel. Overall, Ahmed has written an engaging story, wielding his imagination as the fierce tool it is supposed to be for a fiction writer.

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There is such musicality and electricity in Daniel José Older’s Salsa Nocturna. His stories might best be characterized as ghost noir, set in the streets of New York, featuring the world we know and one just beyond our imagining. In Older’s stories, the dead are as much a part of life as the living. The language is playful and Older’s love for storytelling comes through on every page. These are stories about desire and how in life or death, what we want is to be seen, to be heard, to be known. Older also uses the supernatural to negotiate the complexities of race. Though at times uneven, Salsa Nocturna bodes well for Older’s future work.

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