I think that I’ve told my awakening story before: Some years ago, I existed as a slightly chubby and extremely black fan of fantasy, comic books, role playing games, and anime. I experimented with MTG and D&D. I stayed up all night through a semi-hurricane to finish Final Fantasy VII. I sulked along with my best friend when a girl ripped his valuable Aquaman comic book into pieces.
My dad hated to see me reading what he called “that fake stuff.” They had no real-world application, he said. I couldn’t make money doing any of it, he warned. But he didn’t actively try to stop me. One day I was pestering him to buy me a comic book while we were out on household errands. He picked up a Batman comic and thumbed through it, then turned to me and asked,
“Where all the black folks at? Ain’t no [expletive redacted] in this book.”
What can I say? My father wasn’t a scholar. He was just a regular dude who had good sense.
Now, I want you to do something. Google “Essential Science Fiction and Fantasy Books”. You do it yet? Huh? Never mind, I did it for you. Now, what did you see?
That’s right. Lists.
Lists for books including Dinosaurs.
Now count the people of color on these lists. Newer lists might include books from David Anthony Durham or N.K. Jemisin or Saladin Ahmed. But out of all the lists I looked at for this post, I saw authors of color listed only infrequently.
So, how are lists full of white male authors helpful for black folks who love science fiction but are wanting to read work from black authors?
So, I’ve come up with a list of my own. However, since:
1.) I don’t have a lot of time to read as much as I want, and
2.) I don’t have as much time to write about reading as I want
I’m going to narrow my list down to six. An odd number, I know. Work with me. What follows will be a list of six books by Black authors that any fan of Fantasy and Science Fiction absolutely has to read. And, if you’re new to the genre, welcome aboard. These books will be some that are essential to understanding the conventions of the genre, with stories that tackle themes salient to the black experience, and also are all just great stories. So, without anymore delay, here are:
SIX ESSENTIAL SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY BOOKS WRITTEN BY BLACK AUTHORS.
1.) The Conjure Woman – Charles Chestnutt.
The stories in The Conjure Woman deal with the racial issues facing the South after the war, often through the comments of the character of Uncle Julius McAdoo. A freed slave, he tells the stories to John and Annie, a white couple from the North, who are visiting in their search for property, as they are thinking of moving south (because of Annie’s health) and of buying an old plantation in “Patesville”, North Carolina.
Uncle Julius’s stories are derived from African-American folk tales and include many supernatural occurrences built around hoodoo conjuring traditions. They are less idealistic and romanticized than John’s understanding of Southern culture. They tell of black resistance to and revenge against white culture.
The Conjure Woman is a collection of short stories that deal with major themes through the lens of an African-American man living in Antebellum south. The prose is a bit dated, and very 19th century, but it establishes the genre very well. Chestnutt’s work is one of the first collections to be truly considered black speculative fiction/sci-fi/fantasy. Also, The Conjure Woman collection is 100% free on Project Gutenburg. So why aren’t you reading it yet?
2.) Kindred – Octavia Butler
I know that most people have read this. If you’ve taken a Women’s Studies course, or an African American literature course, you’ve read this. You’ve at least been exposed to it. My challenge is this: READ IT AGAIN. Read it without the labels that come with it. Take some time and just read it without any of the weight, read it just as a book that stands alone. It will have a different meaning to you.
If the two Charles’ can be considered Fathers (or at least Uncles) of Black Fantasy and Science Fiction, then Butler is definitely the Mother. I can’t think of any Speculative Fiction work by a black author that I read before reading Kindred. It was my introduction to the other world, to black people timeslipping. It is a seminal work, and you should give it another chance. (Especially if it becomes a graphic novel!)
3.) Imaro – Charles Saunders
I’ve talked about Imaro quite a few times already. It is the foundation on which Sword and Soul (and all other genres that sprang from it) is built. My love for Black Fantasy and Science Fiction would not exist without this book. It is Fantasy, pulpy and violent and full of muscles and monsters and it is everything that is, in my mind, right about the genre. Imaro will never leave my library, and I don’t think I will ever make a comprehensive list like this and not include it.
4.) Dhalgren – Samuel Delany
I don’t know where to begin with this book. It’s a feat of writing, a feat of craft, of plot, of syntax, of…everything. Delany is a genius, and it shows in his work, which is second to none. I literally read Dhalgren and feel like I need to go back to writing 101 classes. He’s written tons of other stuff, but this one sticks with me as the best work of his that I’ve ever read…besides Aye and Gomorrah.
5.) The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – N.K. Jemisin
I was torn between including this book on the list versus David Anthony Durham’s Acacia Trilogy. In the end, this one won out because…well, because I’ve read it more recently and I remember it better. It’s got Flawed Gods and royal intrigue and awesome moments of destruction. It’s paced and written amazingly. If nothing else, read it to experience one of the most compelling characters ever created.
6.) Who Fears Death – Nnedi Okorafor
If I had a spirit animal…Nnedi Okorafor probably wouldn’t be it. But, she’s still an amazing author. Everything I’ve read of hers has been phenomenal, but none more so than this novel. Be warned: It’s heavy stuff. There are themes in this work (rape and female circumcision are critical elements of the plot) but the heavy themes take nothing away from the singularly amazing story, wonderful prose, superior characterization, and spectacular worldbuilding.
So, there you have it. If you’re new to SF/F written by black folks, or you’re a pro but looking to check out some books that you might not have read, here are six (plus some extras! Don’t thank me) perfectly lined up for you.
Now, I know that I missed a lot. Other I didn’t feature any other PoC authors (and don’t get it twisted: I love books by more than just black authors), but this is an Afro-relevant™ blog.
That doesn’t stop you from dropping some suggestions, though. Feel like I missed something? Leave a comment. Recommendation for a Filipino spec fic author? Drop me a line. I’m always open to suggestions.
P.S.: Speaking of lists, check out 13 Black Superhero Comics You Should Read in 2013, and a different, but no less important post, 13 Black Superhero Comics You Should Read in 2013, Indie Edition. Both great lists.