BookCon 2015: Diversity in Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature

BookCon 2015 was full of interesting speakers, but my most anticipated panel by far was “In Our World and Beyond,” a panel presented by We Need Diverse Books examining representation in science fiction and fantasy literature. Featured on the panel, moderated by Marieke Nijkamp, were Nnedi Okorafor, Daniel José Older, Ken Liu, Kameron Hurley, and Joe Monti.

[*A note about the format of this article: I wanted to present this discussion with as little editorializing as possible, but I am able to recap only portions of each panelist’s response to the moderator’s questions here. Many, many other excellent points were brought up during the duration of the panel. To hear more from the panelists about this topic – and their work! – you can find them on social media. I’ve posted links to their profiles at the end of the article.]

The panel was introduced by We Need Diverse Books co-founder Miranda Paul, who spoke briefly about some of the organization’s most recent initiatives, including a new publishing internship program and a grant for unpublished writers from diverse backgrounds. Be sure to keep up with all the latest news from We Need Diverse Books by following them on Twitter or visiting their site!

Before the panel had even begun, Older warned the audience that this was not the space for those questioning the validity of the diverse books movement: “If you came with a ‘trollish’ question… just don’t ask it… If you’re worried about the poor, white, straight man – that’s a conversation to have somewhere else.”

Nijkamp then asked the panelists the first question: What does diversity mean to you as a person, as a writer, or as an editor, and why does it matter? Here are some of their answers:

Daniel José Older: To me, diversity is about the truth. When we’re not writing books that show the true diversity of the world, we’re lying, on some level, and I think all of us are tired of reading books that feel like a lie, and a lot of the history of literature has been a lie of a non-diverse world. So we are here to tell the truth. It’s really that simple. It’s not even something to argue about… diversity matters because diversity is the truth.

Kameron Hurley: I ended up having a very similar experience where you read a book, and it’s like “Oh, of course, space […] will be full of white men, and that’s not the truth. If you’re like me, and you lived in this artificial place where everyone had been homogenized to look the same [in literature], that was a very political thing that people did to keep it that way. And you go out to the world, and you realize, “Wow, I grew up in a big world, and yet I grew up in a sci-fi dystopia.” And when you realize how creepy it is, you want to go out and say that the future could be so much more fascinating and amazing than what’s being presented… it’s stupid! It’s stupid that we have to prove the truth. Unfortunately, those are the structures and systems in place, and that’s what we’re all trying to push up against.

Ken Liu: I totally agree with what everyone is saying. I guess for me the only thing I would add is that I’m actually a little uncomfortable with the word “diversity” and the way it’s being used. I think oftentimes it gets exoticized into this idea that if you look a certain way, this is the kind of story expected out of you. That’s actually just as problematic, if not more so. For me, what diversity is is a collective quality, of all of you… I don’t like to label an author diverse because I don’t think that means anything. Individuals are not diverse – collectively, we are, if we tell our own truth and can feel the freedom to push back against the one normal shaped curve in which not all of us fit. I want us to turn this world into a scatter plot and not a normal distribution.

Joe Monti: We hear this thing that women don’t read science fiction and fantasy, that women don’t write science fiction and fantasy, and that’s not the truth. I’m in this lucky privileged position here as the editorial director of an imprint of a major publisher to change that, and again, as everyone is saying, this is the world we live in… and not to see that represented in fiction is not true and also bad business. Once you start publishing toward a publishing audience, you’re going to get a wider audience.

Nnedi Okorafor: I think that one thing I can add to everything that’s been said is the issue of diversity and the necessity of diversity for me as a reader. I know me, when I was growing up, I read everything. When I was a kid I didn’t know anything about “diversity.” I didn’t know that word, but I intuitively knew it because whenever I would read, especially fantasy, which I loved, [it] had all white characters. I did not read one book that had non-white characters in it besides the books that had creatures in them… it comes from the whole idea that I didn’t see reflections of myself in what I was reading. And so when I started writing… I don’t write those characters because we need diverse characters. I write them because this is what is coming from me.

Nijkamp next broached the topic of whether or not science fiction and fantasy writing is or should be political:

Daniel José Older: I wish it went without saying, but fantasy and sci-fi has always been a political endeavor, but it’s been a very colonial, imperialist, racist, and sexist political endeavor. That’s the history of sci-fi and fantasy, with some notable exceptions. So it’s political, but it’s a normalized form of politics, that especially white dudes are used to seeing themselves destroying the world and that being a victory and a good thing. So that’s not political to them. That’s political to us because we have to read those books and flinch every time we turn the page.

Kameron Hurley: Yeah, the status quo is not a neutral position. It’s not when you reach parity that people start pushing back, it’s when you reach about one in three. So you start to see women, people of color, and women of color start to win awards, start to actually get book contracts. But we have a long way ago – but the pushback starts now, and that’s how you know that you’re winning, that you’re getting somewhere, when you’re making people uncomfortable… the fact that I want to write a really great adventure story that has a multiplicity of people and four different genders is another adventure story. I don’t see any reason why everything can’t co-exist… yes, absolutely is all my stuff political – and it’s a damn good adventure story, too.

Ken Liu: The question behind some of this pushback is a discomfort with the mode of discourse. It’s the belief that when you write fiction as an explicitly kind of political move, you’re going to resort to the narrative structures and the kind of rhetorical modes of politics, of political debate, which is actually not the case… the way that fiction persuades is a very different mode of discourse… fiction persuades by experience. It’s a way to get you as the reader to experience a different way of thinking, a different way of viewing the world, and that is incredibly, incredibly valuable. I think the power of diverse fiction is that it allows everybody to realize… that there are other ways of thinking, of being, of living, that are just as valuable and just as valid [as yours]. What is the point of reading SF/F other than to experience these different modes of thinking and being? That’s kind of the point.

Nnedi Okorafor: [In] science fiction and fantasy… you can kind of present certain kinds of political issues that are either highly sensitive or have been beaten into the ground so much that people don’t want to hear it anymore. You can make those issues new as writing them as science fiction or fantasy. And that’s something I’ve always been very aware of. In Who Fears Death I wanted to deal with female genital mutilation, and I’ve read about that in memoir form, and straight fiction, and it is tough to read – you almost want to put it down. I wanted to deal with this issue head-on but in a way that I could get people to see it… science fiction and fantasy can be used in a political way.

Daniel José Older: If we are honest, if we are people of color in the United State telling the truth, that’s always a political act. So when I sit at the table to write that creates its own form of politics that hopefully doesn’t come across in a forceful way but is just what I know to be true. And I think that’s where literature gets really good.

After Older’s comments, Nnedi did point out that while SF/F is often political when it comes from authors of color, it doesn’t have to be – a point the other panelists agreed with. Marieke next led the discussion toward unpacking the complicated definitions that arise when discussing representation in SF/F literature.

Kameron Hurley: This is something I’m starting to see a lot more of online – what do we mean when we say “diverse”? And for me, [what] that means is that I’m not hearing from the same three people from the same three backgrounds. A lot of time on the New York Times Best Seller List there are the same three writers whom they quote for everything, the same three white upper-class guys who have had the same middle-class background. We’re not getting a slice of life. We’re not getting actual stories from the broad universe that there is to draw stories from… and it gets hard. People will say, “Oh, this table of contents isn’t very diverse,” when what they mean is that there aren’t any women on it. Or that there weren’t people of color on it or that there were only rich people… instead of just saying “diverse,” say what you’re actually saying: “These are all [rich] white [men].” Some of that is trying to get away from PC language… just say it: It’s full of white people. It’s full of dudes. And getting that out in front of people, saying “This is the truth” may be the way that we get away from this [ambiguous] language and get to the root of the problem. We’ve been nice, people know there’s an issue, let’s be right in their faces.

Ken Liu: I think the issue is that we’re very interested in polite because that’s the only way that we think we’re going to be taken seriously. I don’t think that’s true – I think it takes all kinds of discourse to shake up the status quo. You need the people who will engage in… very outspoken, very not-polite [conversation] – that kind of discourse is necessary. You can’t just say that the only way to get things done is to be very polite… truth is sometimes uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable because it challenges those who benefit from the status quo. I like to say that in science fiction and fantasy every dystopia is actually a utopia for a certain group of people; you just have to find out who those people are – and that’s the case here. The current state of representation in science fiction and fantasy is a utopia for many people, and you have to figure out why they think it’s a utopia and why they’re so unhappy when someone speaks a little bit louder than they’re used to.

Daniel José Older: We need to be able to have these discussions in lots of different ways because the conversation gets very intense. We’re coming up against hundreds of years of erasure, and then we’re like, “F— you.” And people are like, “Oh my God! You just said that!” It’s like throwing a rock at a tank… I really want the censorship conversation to be in conversation with the diversity conversation because they tend to be very separate. But when we look at the publishing industry and how white it is, we have to understand that that is a censorship conversation happening right there, that it is the Gatekeepers involved in getting our work out there as people of color are very intensely white, whether it’s agents or editors or that one person who is in charge of buying all the YA books, science fiction, books, whatever, for the largest bookselling corporation in the United States, for that to be one person who is white is a form of censorship… there is a very deep and steep power imbalance that we have to discuss. And that’s not even a place we’ve been able to get to yet in these conversations because we’re so busy trying to get published.

Finally, Marieke asked the panelists what they wanted audience members to take away from the panel.

Kameron Hurley: Please don’t be quiet. Because it’s by being loud and persuasive and awesome that has gotten us this far.

Ken Liu: As readers – don’t give up. Demand books that are good, that actually reflect the reality we live in. Our funding mechanism for literary production is the market, and you guys are the market. The only way you can get it to change is to demand the books that you want. As writers, you have to keep on pushing. You have to solve this problem from [the] demand side.

Nnedi Okorafor: So I want to impart on those writers who are writing what they’re writing – If you don’t see an example of what you want to write out there, don’t let that stop you. Just create your own path, be your own path. It’s harder; you have no examples to follow, and that’s fine. You’re going to have to be a little more creative. It is very much possible… the obstacles are there, but there are always ways around them, there’s always ways over, always ways under. There’s always a way. Don’t let those mechanisms that are in place hold you back.

Daniel José Older: Publishing is complicated, it’s dangerous, it’s unhealthy, and it’s amazing – and that’s just the publishing side of it. It’s also true of writing, on a whole other level. So you need to go out there with your machete sharp, ready to pave a new path through the wilderness and also look at what’s happened before. I always feel like we’re here because so many people fought and spoke up and risked their careers and their lives for us to be here at this table… that’s a history we cannot forget, ever. We always have to hold that up.

These celebrated panelists talked for an hour about representation in SF/F and the publishing industry at large – but there is still so much ground to cover. If you want to keep the conversation going, be sure to check out some of the panelists on Twitter!


Daniel José Older is the author of Half-Resurrection Blues, the first installment of the Bone Street Rumba series. You can find him on Twitter here.

Kameron Hurley is the award-winning author of the Bel Dame Apocrypha, the Worldbreaker Saga, and several short stories. You can find her on Twitter here.

Ken Liu is the author of Grace of Kings and several award-winning short stories. You can find him on Twitter here.

Nnedi Okorafor is the author of the World Fantasy Award-winning novel Who Fears Death and ten other books. You can find her on Twitter here.

Marieke Nijkamp is the author of the forthcoming novel This Is Where It Ends. You can find her on Twitter here.

Joe Monti is the editorial director of Saga Press. You can find him on Twitter here.

Jessica J.

I've been making magic at MuggleNet since 2012, when I first joined the staff as a News intern. I've never wavered from the declaration in my childhood journal, circa October 2000: "I LOVE Harry Potter! If I clean my room, my mom says she'll make me a dinner a wizard would love!" Proud Gryffindor; don't hate.