The other day, I finally got around to watching a great interview panel I’d queued up with Nalo Hopkinson, Nnedi Okorafor, and Jewelle Gomez. Towards the end (around the 38 minute mark if you’d like to watch), Okorafor talks a bit about how speculative fiction isn’t as respected as other genres, and how only “serious” African fiction gets elevated in the canon, citing Things Fall Apart as an example. Someone points out that it’s funny because Things Fall Apart, of course, has magical elements of its own, but that got me thinking about how we categorize fiction as “sci-fi,” “fantasy,” or “literary” and how racism might be at play both in the devaluing of genre fiction and in how we think of African, Caribbean, and Latinx fictions in the U.S. context.
Part of the white worldview, dominant enough to be invisible to a lot of white folks, is the idea that science and logic are “fact” and anything magical or not understood by modern science is “fantasy.” This doesn’t just show up in how we categorize literature but also in how we think about mental health, how we distinguish “people” from “animals,” and how we think about life and death. If science doesn’t understand something, then either science is the one and only tool for figuring it out, or you just made it up and you’re crazy. Thus, it’s not surprising that a white-dominated publishing field would split out general “literary” or “contemporary” fiction from fantasy and sci-fi. But it’s telling that the same publishers also tend to split out “world” fiction, “African-American” fiction, or “ethnic” fiction.
I’m not saying that it’s not helpful to have a section to find works by authors of color, or authors from a particular place, but I’ve never seen a section in a U.S. bookstore labelled “white fiction” or “U.S. fiction.” It’s usually just “fiction.” So when a work by an author of color contains elements of magic, spirits, native religions, or monsters, it either goes into the “fantasy” (read: not real, not possible) bin or if deemed to have exceptional literary merit (by whom, I have no idea) it still goes into the “ethnic” or “world” bin (with Achebe, Marquez, Allende). These dichotomies seem to subtly, or not-so-subtly, suggest that white = real, science = omniscient, and anything outside a narrow white worldview = fantasies, fairy stories, child’s play.
I’d be curious to see a study on how white readers, readers of color, and indigenous readers perceive different works of fiction by white and non-white authors if they aren’t given a categorization for the work up-front. In particular, I wonder if there would be a distinction for most readers who are indigenous and/or of color between “fantasy” and “general” fiction, and if so where that distinction would lie. I wonder if white, non-indigenous readers are more likely than others to distance themselves from speculative fiction, because we’ve been taught that the elements therein are “not real,” and may not have the personal experience to contradict that. And then, at the same time, white readers and writers may be less likely to embrace the possibilities of speculative fiction because we don’t have as immediate a reason to yearn for alternatives and question the “realities” presented to us.
Even if the publishing industry wants to argue that there’s some clear line between general and speculative fiction (must be this magical to ride?) I would then wonder why certain works show up on shelves in their own special “ethnic” section rather than next to the popular genre fiction works by white authors. It seems that a number of works with magical elements that would potentially appeal to fantasy fans are instead segregated onto a shelf where white folks aren’t encouraged to explore, and there’s an exoticization in that. I remember reading Achebe and Laura Esquivel in high school where a number of students were confused that we were expected to read something so “weird” that “didn’t make any sense” according to the literary conventions we’d encountered in the curriculum thus far. As in the bookstore, the curriculum encouraged us to look at a few books by authors of color with magical elements as strange and foreign–important, maybe, but important in their own lane.