When he was 11, Samuel R. Delany stayed overnight at a Harlem hospital for observation. It was 1953, and nearly a decade before Delany would publish his first science-fiction novel. He had already realized he was gay. With trepidation, he asked the doctor, a white man, how many gays existed in America. The doctor laughed. “[He] told me it was an extremely rare disease,” Delany says. “No more than one out of 5,000 men carried it.” Rest assured, the doctor added, no medical records existed confirming the existence of black homosexuals. “Simply because I was black,” Delany says, “I didn’t need to worry!”
In his 2007 novel Dark Reflections, Delany’s experience at the hospital resurfaces. The protagonist, a gay black poet named Arnold, is having his tonsils removed when the doctor notes the improbability of his identity. Such recollections, particular to Delany’s upbringing and voice, surface throughout the body of his work and have taken his science fiction to heights unexplored by authors ignorant of marginality. In July, on the occasion of the publication of A, B, C: Three Short Novels (Vintage; paper $16.95), The Nation spoke with Delany, a four-time Nebula awardee, about intersectionality, growing up black in New York City, and placing his legacy as a gay sci-fi writer of color in perspective. — Cecilia D’Anastasio
CD: You have said, “For better or for worse, I am often spoken of as the first African-American science-fiction writer.” What did you mean by that?
SD: What did I mean by “for better or for worse?” It’s a placeholder. It holds a place for ghosts—the ghosts around any such discussion as this, ghosts sometimes useful to evoke in discussions of any practice of narrative writing, science fiction or other.
In my 1998 essay “Racism and Science Fiction” that you quote, I mention some of those ghosts in the paragraphs following my sentence: M.P. Shiel, Martin Delany (no relation), Sutton E. Griggs, Edward A. Johnson, W.E.B. Du Bois (certainly the best known), and George Schuyler—black Americans (or, in Shiel’s case, Caribbean), who wrote books or stories that we can read as science fiction. Full disclosure: Before I started writing science fiction, I’d looked through a copy of Shiel’s The Purple Cloud but had not known he was black by the current laws that made me so.
Today, I want to amend the sentence, in that I am the first broadly known African-American science-fiction writer to come up through the commercial genre that coalesced before and after the term “science fiction” began to appear more and more frequently in Hugo Gernsback’s magazine Amazing Stories between 1929 and 1932. Octavia E. Butler was the second. She was briefly my student in the summer of 1970 and my friend until her death in Washington State in 2006. We read together at the Schomburg library in New York City or shared panels at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, at a book fair in Florida, twice in Atlanta; and once we presented together for the Smithsonian on a rainy DC night.
But another set of ghosts are needed to make our own discussion here make sense—ghosts who come from the genre (and I used the word advisedly) we call “the literary.” For an idea of how much literature has changed since I first entered the field as a writer in 1962, or perhaps when, in 1966, I attended my first science-fiction convention in Cleveland, consider first what the academy that gives us our sense of what literature is teaches today—and then consider how that differed from what it taught in 1967. In that year, there were no virtually black studies classes (much less programs or departments); there were no women’s studies classes or programs, and no gay studies or queer studies classes or programs.
CD: It may be fair to say, then, that few writers were using the genre of what Darko Suvin has called “cognitive estrangement” to address personal experiences of marginalization before you.
SD: Here’s one I’ve written about in a narrative contained in my book of stories Atlantis: Three Tales—the second story in the book. Though the story does not narrate the first time; nor does it tell the last.
The first person to call me a nigger was not some hostile white man or woman. (Though, before I’d gone to my first science-fiction convention, some had.) Like many, many, many blacks all through this country, certainly in those years, and even today, it was my dad—whenever he got really frustrated with me. He was a black man—and a black from the American South, born before World War I. We were not poor. But we were nobody’s rich, either. And when my dad got really riled, I was a “stubborn, thickheaded nigger.” I didn’t think much of it. It was one of the most common words on the streets on which I lived, and I knew perfectly well I wasn’t supposed to say it at all. So I didn’t. But it prepared me for the first time a white person did—which we’ll talk about later.
To say that literature—one of the several cultural products that supported this system—was a very different thing (as science fiction, hemmed around by it, was a different thing) is another way of saying the world itself was simply different. To me, it seems neither fair nor accurate [to say that no one was using science fiction to address personal experiences of anti-black racism before me]. The problem here is that I’m not sure how the personal experiences of marginalization and the personal experiences of blackness have to be related. Do both the experiences and the blackness have to be mine to be personal? Could they be observed by someone else? If they were, would they be less personal? Is personal there the same as subjective, and in what way? Or are they not?
Around us, here, I see all those literary ghosts, who I picture as pressing closer to see the outcome as to how we will handle those questions, the ghost of Dickens’s Oliver Twist, David Copperfield; Balzac’s Cousin Bette, le père Goriot; Becky Sharp, Jane Eyre, Heathcliff, Hawkeye, Chingachgook, Ishmael, Queequeg, Jean Valjean, and Raskolnikov, Huck Finn, Jim, the nameless hero of Hamsun’s Hunger, Steinbeck’s Tom Joad, and Fitzgerald’s James Gatz. These ghosts are pushed forward by the black characters behind them. In their own tales, all these ghosts, black and white, are marginalized characters, some clearly so, some only suggestively, in the societies their writers portray, for better or worse (still a placeholder for more emendations, more ghosts that can’t demand them but can explain why they are needed); poor boys who grow up to be poor men or got their money dishonorably or died; socially impoverished poor relations trapped in families who resented having them at all. All of them required their writers to create fictive strategies to present that marginalization.
The ghosts above have alerted their readers to the fundamental ways in which poverty, economics, the social blindness, and hypocrisy of others as well as small-mindedness and the way small-town propriety chastens and destroys.
CD: What other writers were doing this kind of work in ways that resonated with you?
SD: The first white writer who wrote a black character I personally found believable—and I read lots and lots, both inside and outside science fiction—was Thomas M. Disch, in his 1968 New Wave novel Camp Concentration, first serialized in the British science-fiction magazine New Worlds, whose first installment appeared in its first tabloid-style issue. The presentation of Mordecai is one reason I think it’s such an important book in science fiction’s history. Yes, that book passed my own Turing test in a way that, for me, Faulkner’s black characters did not—as, indeed, many of his white characters failed to do for me as well, though I always found his language exacting, when it wasn’t exhausting. Tom told me later that he’d modeled Mordecai on a black classmate of his in the Midwest. But, boy, did I recognize him from my memories of myself and my black friends on the Harlem streets.
Till that point, all of the white attempts to do this, in my experience, had failed. But that’s narration. That’s science fiction. That’s literature—or perhaps that’s a place where, sometimes, instead of trying to strangle one another, the three become congruent. But it also suggests that the way to succeed is a matter of a writer’s being observant, intelligent, and creative, with a sense that the more cliché the characters are, the more likely (but not certainly) they are to be unbelievable, while at the same time they can’t be so idiosyncratic as to be irrelevant, and that is more important than the race of the writer.
The novel [Camp Concentration] takes place only an indeterminate 10 or 15 years after it was written—in short, it has undergone the transition all science fiction is doomed to follow, from historical speculation to historical fantasy. The United States is fighting a war—which may be an extension of the war in Vietnam or another, in Malaysia. It’s purposely unclear. Our protagonist is a conscientious objector and a poet—and the book is his journal. In 1967, when I first read Camp Concentration in its New Worlds serialization, after it had failed to find a US publisher, I can think of two things that were then inconceivable: The first is that 50 years later, we would have a black president. But by 2005, it was very thinkable. Morgan Freeman had played the current president of the United States in Deep Impact, with at least two other black actors representing the POTUS on various running series—so that, if anything, when Obama got in in ’08, today hindsight makes it look more inevitable than surprising.
And in the early ’70s [in “Angouleme,” from 334, published in 1972], Disch was the first science-fiction writer to conceive of gay marriage as lying in a foreseeable future. I wasn’t. I’d already worked through all my interest in marrying anyone and was pretty sure it was not an institution for me. I still am.
CD: Could you tell me about another experience of yours, growing up in mid-century Harlem, that found its way into your fiction?
SD: All the experiences that were used in my own stories and books were black experiences—why? Because they were mine. In my books, sometimes the central characters were white—as in Trouble on Triton. Sometimes, as in The Fall of the Towers, Babel-17 (where the main character is Asian), or The Einstein Intersection, Dhalgren (where the main character has a white father and a Native American mother), or the Return to Nevèrÿon series, many or sometimes all were non-Caucasian.
Here is something that I think as an almost purely black experience (it is only that racial experiences are never pure that keeps such purity a metaphor), one that I’ve told many of my black friends, fewer of my white friends, and written about fairly indirectly in my Return to Nevèrÿon fantasy sequence.
All my life, one of the things people—white people in particular—had been telling me was that I looked white. I didn’t particularly believe them—though sometimes I wondered. My parents had told me that I was black and I should be proud of it, as both of them were, but one day in late September or among the first days of Indian summer (I was still in elementary school, so I was probably 10 or 11), I was sitting on a bench in Central Park, with my school notebook open, doing my math homework, when, with unkempt blond hair and steel-blue eyes, a kid about 20—today, from the state of his jeans and sneakers and T-shirt you would know immediately he was homeless, and, though “homeless” was not part of our vocabulary then, I realized it—walked up in front of me, his grin showing not very good teeth. “Hey,” he said with the thickest Southern accent I’d heard in a while, “you a nigga ain’ ya, there, huh?” I looked up, surprised. “Yeah, you a nigga. I can tell. Tha’s cause I’m from Alabama. See I can always tell. You ain’ gonna get nothin’ by me. I can see it, right in yo’ face there. The mouth, the nose. All that—naw, I can see it. You ain’t gonna fool somebody like me, get away with nothin’.” Then, still grinning, he turned and walked off, through the sunny park.
And that was the first time I was called a nigger by a white guy—a homeless Alabama drifter coming up to an urban black kid on a bench doing his math homework.
Frankly, I got less upset over that one than I did over my father’s. Because at least it taught me something. I mean, he was right. There’s nothing unpleasant for a black person to be recognized, especially when, I assume, they feel they are telling you something that for some reason they think you want to hear.
And sometimes it happened with black folk. Yet more stories. At this point, I don’t remember whether it was the fifth or sixth time [that happened], but after one of the men or women left, frowning after them, I said to myself: You thickheaded nigger, you better stop believing all these white assholes who keep telling you how white you are, because obviously there are a whole lot of white people in this city—in the country (by then, it had happened a couple of times outside New York)—who have nothing else to do but go around on the lookout for any black person they think might be racially passing, and remind them that they can’t. But this is one very small way in which a race gets constituted socially.
CD: What is it about science fiction and its arguably “escapist” values that has made it a good venue for you to meditate on how power is wielded in America?
SD: I’m less interested in how power is wielded—the assumption that it ever is directly, without the mediation that either multiplies its effects or mitigates them, is usually another mistake and a tragic one—but rather how it creates both subjects and objects. For it to work in any mode other than catastrophic, usually it must be a local and humble act—and, even then, often it misfires. Mostly it’s flailing in the dark and usually creates pain, death, and agony—for some or several groups or species. That was what Lord Acton was about when he made his famous statement about the tendency for power to corrupt—which I quoted in my first novel [The Jewels of Aptor].
The changes in the world have reorganized so greatly that, even though they never completely blocked the passage of those ghosts from either side to the other in any absolute way, nevertheless they retarded the passages of those ghosts in different ways and at different speeds at different periods, and by a process quite as complex as discourse itself, because it was comprised of discourse itself, another name for which is “understanding” as it is a response to the world (in pre-Platonic Ionia, Heraclitus called it “logos” to stress its inextricable relationship to language), or simply “thought.”
In those works, not how it reflects answers, but how it suggests, as [scienc-fiction writer Theodore] Sturgeon said, “the next question” is their strength, not in the romantic mode of “seeking” but in the far more risky mode of “finding,” no matter who asks it—male, female, gay, straight, Asian, Latino, white, black, Muslim, Jew, or Christian, or even the dreaded atheists such as Butler or myself (another category, another inadequate identity), even if it has, however locally, the be-spiritedness to make art of the process, in whatever genre.
CD: A great deal of science fiction, and especially sci-fi by white or heterosexual authors, attacks issues of class, capitalism, etc., by cutting clear lines between Us versus Them, the righteous versus the hegemony. As one of the first sci-fi writers who personally struggled with racism, your writing seems to avoid that trope and instead address the ambiguity in your characters’ marginalized identities and the societies they live in. Could you comment on what role ambiguous identities, and even the idea of “blame,” plays in your writing?
SD: “Us-and-Them fiction” of any sort has never particularly interested me. Generally, black people do not struggle with racism. It’s just a given. We combat it when possible. We accept it when we can’t. Those are our choices and have always been. And as I wrote 17 years ago, when the combat, gentle or forceful, expands the minority presence notably beyond tokenism, that’s when the hegemonic folks get upset. That’s not prediction. That’s part of the way the system functions.
Identity is basically a synonym for category, and while categories make language possible, they make problems in life—especially when you try to assign subjects to them. People almost never fit, or never fit for long.
CD: How has the sci-fi community changed or expanded since you first encountered it?
SD: Black science-fiction writer Nora K. Jemisin talks on a video squib devoted to Octavia E. Butler about going to SF conventions sometime in the last few years and finding some 30-odd black writers there. Easily that could be the convention—Readercon 26—I came back from only a few weeks ago, held in Burlington, Massachusetts. I found it a wonderful and provocative time—as I also found my first, in 1966.
But Jemisin’s account is not an account of the first science-fiction convention I attended back then. There, yes, I was the only black SF writer. (In California, Butler was not yet 20.) And what I found were two—count them—two black science-fiction fans, among thousands of white kids: Elliot Shorter was a big bear of a black guy whom I’d known before in New York during my term and a half at City College (though I hadn’t known he was into science fiction; people didn’t spread that around so easily then); Dee Potter was a tall, dark-skinned, and impressive woman who, as did Shorter, appeared to be very comfortable in that world. They were the pleasant surprise, not the white kids. I became friends with both, and remained so in the halls of various hotels and science-fiction conventions for years.
I’ll end with a last incident from that convention. I’ve often told about it. I recount it here once more, however, because, well, because it happened. While I was lingering by a gold-draped wall in the main ballroom, a young man—certainly no older than 15, though possibly as young as 13—came up, looked about nervously, and asked: “Um, excuse me—are you the guy who wrote… um, that book… about… you know, the three people… doing it, all—together?… the woman and the… two guys, at once?”
I realized he meant my then-recent novel, Babel-17. So I said, “Yes, I am,” though I’d never heard anybody—editor, agent, or reviewer—characterize the book that way before.
Glancing right, then left, he leaned slightly forward and lowered his voice: “Is that… possible?”
Now since some of what was behind my portrait of the three-way sexual relations described among the navigators in the book had been based on my most personal experiences from the past few years, I told him: “Yes. It is.”
He took a deep breath, let it out with palpable relief, stood up—he was a head shorter than I was—turned, and walked away.
Notebook under my arm, I watched him move away among the crowds of youngsters, puzzling over what had just happened. And probably that’s the incident that changed me the most.