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POC Destroy Science Fiction! is a special issue of the Hugo-winning magazine LIGHTSPEED, 100% written—and edited—by POC creators.
POC Destroy Science Fiction! is a special issue of the Hugo-winning magazine LIGHTSPEED, 100% written—and edited—by POC creators.
2,354 backers pledged $51,734 to help bring this project to life.

Personal Essay: "This Is What Happens to Us" by Suyi Davies Okungbowa

Posted by Lightspeed Magazine (Creator)

When we set out to destroy science fiction with this Kickstarter, we didn't want it to be your ordinary, run-of-the-mill campaign. We wanted it to be full of smashing, crashing POC voices, telling what it really means to be POC reading and writing science fiction. One of the ways we hope to do that is by sharing a series of personal essays about the experience of being POC in science fiction.

Personal Essay: "This Is What Happens to Us" by Suyi Davies Okungbowa

This is what happens to us.

We’re reading this blog post where a middle-aged white American dude gets fed up with SF book covers splashed over with Caucasian faces, lugs it to the nearest Barnes & Noble, and takes stock of the split between white faces versus people of colour on book covers.

The results aren’t pretty.

Scrolling through responses to said blog, we come upon a commenter who talks about how white people often don’t learn to identify or empathize with people of other races, and how people of colour are a lot more used to buying stuff with white people on them than the reverse. According to her, this prevails because both parties have had a lot of practice at it.

Hold that thought.

Here’s the thing about being African SF lovers (writers, readers, fans) living on the continent. We prowl the biggest bookshops in Lagos, Nigeria, searching for the latest SF titles from around the world. In almost all the bookshops we visit (there’re only a few good ones), there’s a section for SF. However, one thing strikes us. This SF does not include African writers.

All African narratives, SF&F or otherwise, are shelved in the “African Fiction” section.

For African SF writers like us, domiciled on the continent and without international recognition, it’s tough to get recognized for our genre both internationally and locally, because “African Fiction” is the one genre everyone believes we should fit into. Not that this is any easier for those not domiciled (not at all). It’s just a bit harder for us because literary awareness is tough to come by around here.

But that’s only because our literary awareness and shelving skills were lifted right out of America’s and Europe’s leading publishers and bookstores, who taught the world that there should be African Fiction, but no American Fiction or European Fiction. Who taught the world to empathize only with “true SF&F,” said validation arising from the degree of “whiteness” of the narrative. Who taught the world that African SF&F is just African Fiction repackaged, not “standard” enough to be graduated to the “true” SF&F section.

And guess what? Like that commenter says, both parties have had a lot of practice believing it.

So, this is what happens to us. SF lovers visit the white-only SF section and pick out titles from their favorite white authors. Lovers of mainstream African fiction visit the African Fiction section, gloss over the SF books presented there, then move on because, “Weird is not really our thing.”

So there our SF narratives lie: in limbo, confused by an identity we did not bestow upon ourselves, yet saddled with the responsibility of deflecting these assumptions every damn day, clambering over insurmountable hills of publishing, waging war on gatekeepers.

Will we relent?

Haha. Hell no.



Suyi Davies Okungbowa lives in Lagos, Nigeria and loves stories in all forms. When he’s not at the day job or goofing around on the PS4, he writes suspense and speculative fiction (sometimes when he is at the day job). He has published in Mothership Zeta, Jungle Jim, Omenana, and The Kalahari Review. Suyi also sometimes narrates fiction and writes nonfiction. He lives on the web at suyidavies.comand on Twitter at @IAmSuyiDavies.

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    1. Andy Konecny on

      Irrevenant has is right, politely pointing it out (aka being a squeaky wheel) when ever we can is how we make that change. It usually doesn't happen right away, but when enough of us point it out, change does happen. It starts with a response of "nobody ever asked that before" and gradually turns it to "we get lots of that, we should make that change". Starting the conversation where it needs to be is the key, and in this case it is in the book stores with their staff.

    2. Irrevenant

      Incidentally, if you see this happening it's worth politely bringing it to the bookstore's attention. Just "Excuse me. I was looking for this SF book but it took forever to find because someone filed it separately from all the other SF. Just thought you should know". And encourage your friends to do the same. It may or may not work but it's worth at least letting them know it's an issue.

      Note that it's likelier to work in locally owned stores than massive chains. Sending letters is probably a better option for large chains.

    3. Reinik

      Thank you for writing this, because I didn't know they put your SFF in a separate section! And it's that way in the rest of the world too?!

    4. Tasha Turner

      Wow. Intellectually I know black authors books are put in the African American (AA) section in the bookstore no matter the genre. I tweet #WeNeedDiverseBooks frequently when I'm backing crowdsourcing or reading/reviewing non-white authors/anthologies. But when browsing for non-white authors/anthologies SFF in a bookstore it never occurred to me to the AA section to find what I'm looking for. *headdesk*

      No matter how far we think we've come internally our subconscious bias continues working against us.

      And how crazy is it that in countries which are not majority white (most of the world) the USA/Eurocentric categories are used further erasing your own culture.

      Thank you.