Personal Essay: "The People Men Don’t See" by Nisi Shawl
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: "The People Men Don’t See" by Nisi Shawl
“Why am I the only black person here?”
I asked myself this during the James Tiptree, Jr. Symposium hosted by the University of Oregon. As a person of color involved in the science fiction community since 1983, I was used to being what Nalo Hopkinson terms “the fly in the sugar bowl.” But over the years my isolation had diminished. Yet in December 2015, I might easily have resumed my old habit of shaking the hand of every POC at a given public SF-related function. Another African-American woman came into the auditorium for a while at one point. That and the presence of half a dozen ethnically Asian attendees would have kept me at it for a few minutes, but introductions to everyone of color could have been made during a bathroom break. The rest of the people in the room were unambiguously white.
Putting the question to my fellow attendees (I’m not shy), I learned that Eugene, the town where the University of Oregon is located, has long been a bastion of Caucasianhood. I learned that the two black women other than me who had won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award (given annually to a work of speculative fiction which expands or explores our understanding of gender) were East Coasters. Since the symposium’s organizers focused on panelists who’d contributed to the correspondence forming most of the Tiptree archive they’d just acquired, they didn’t offer to reimburse anyone else’s travel expenses. Which meant that the effort of finding the time to attend and shouldering the financial burden of doing so fell to 2011’s winner Andrea Hairston and 2012’s Kiini Ibura Salaam. Which effort and burden they had declined.
Logistical reasons aside, there was another, deeper cause for the absence of POC. L. Timmel Duchamp touched on it in her remarks on the panel on publishing when talking about popular culture’s awakening SF sensibility. This awakening is ambiguous in its effects; though it can render SF accessible to mass audiences, it can also privilege mainstream narratives, imposing them on a formerly marginalized genre and the marginalized voices seeking representation there. As Duchamp noted in her blog post about the symposium, “intelligibility is neither obvious nor ‘natural’ . . . Some stories are simply invisible to those who don’t venture outside mainstream culture.”
What happens when a story is unintelligible? It’s labeled worthless, weak, ineffective. It is rejected, unpublished, unsupported. Sometimes, as in the real-life case of Professor Steve Locke, a different and more easily accepted story is substituted. Police stopped Locke in the street and detained him because he “fit the description” of the burglar who had broken into a woman’s nearby home. Writing about the incident (bit.ly/1m3sk3R), Locke points out that, despite a lack of physical mistreatment, the encounter infuriated him. The violence he experienced was done to his personal narrative, the story each of us tells ourselves about who we are. This personal narrative is how we make sense of the world. Locke’s clearly visible Massachusetts College of Art and Design ID card, and the several discrepancies between his appearance and the sketchy outline of the suspect’s, counted for nothing in the face of the policemen’s preferred story.
Are my fictions subject to being discounted because they don’t “fit the description” of SF? Are my authorial imperatives, my plots, characters, and settings misunderstood because they diverge from the mainstream? Anecdotes are my only answers to these questions, and they’re hardly conclusive. I once had to rewrite a story when an editor told me I’d failed to evoke the criminality and danger of a neighborhood modeled on the completely middle-class one where I lived as a child. Once a different editor rejected another story because he didn’t believe a girl would kill her sister out of envy of her straight hair. And so on.
Digesting nonstandard narratives is an intellectual attainment, one the Tiptree Motherboard is conscious of as such and which it promotes via the award. Throughout James Tiptree, Jr.’s life, though—the years 1967 to 1977, during which the majority of his oeuvre was published (including “The Women Men Don’t See,” basis for this essay’s title), before his exposure as the pseudonymous persona of Alice Sheldon—there was no Tiptree Motherboard, no award advocating for marginalized stories. Other than Samuel R. Delany, there were no major black SF authors. No major SF authors of any color. The milieu in which Tiptree’s correspondence took place, and which the symposium’s organizers perhaps unwittingly duplicated, was that of nearly exclusive whiteness.
Yet it was also a magical time, a time in which one sort of divergent narrative did begin to emerge. As I’ve said elsewhere, my realization that I could make a career of writing SF came from reading Tiptree correspondent Suzy McKee Charnas’s 1974 novel Walk to the End of the World. “Wow,” I thought, “you can get away with doing this, and people will even pay you for it.”
There are significant connections between the rise of feminist SF and the rise of POC SF, though the timelines aren’t exactly concurrent. Intersectionality is an actual factor in how the world works: SF’s feminist Aqueduct Press published the three black James Tiptree, Jr. Award winners; in his welcome to the symposium, Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Doug Blandy quoted the Octavia Butler-inspired anthology Octavia’s Brood, co-edited by two more black women, Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown. And then Imarisha and brown were announced as winners, respectively, of the brand new James Tiptree, Jr. Fellowship, and the Ursula K. Le Guin Fellowship, created in 2014 to support research at the University of Oregon’s Tiptree archive. These connections validate POC’s place in the genre today and assure the strength of our presence here in the future.
Let’s keep moving forward, even as we glance back occasionally over our shoulders at the past. Let’s tell our own stories and insist we’ve got them right. Let’s keep on writing what needs to be written. Eventually it will be of no real consequence that there are people men don’t see. Our actions will speak for us. Our words will make our worlds known.______________
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nisi Shawl is a founder of the Carl Brandon Society and a member of Clarion West’s Board of Directors. Her story collection Filter House co-won the 2009 Tiptree Award. Shawl has edited Bloodchildren: Stories by the Octavia E. Butler Scholars and WisCon Chronicles 5: Writing and Racial Identity; she also co-edited Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler and Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany. With Cynthia Ward she coauthored 2005 Tiptree Longlist book Writing the Other: A Practical Approach. Shawl’s Belgian Congo steampunk novel Everfair is due out from Tor in September 2016.