A conversation with the novelist (and with his pals) about the power of diversity in sci-fi and speculative fiction.
By David M. Perry
Daniel José Older (Photo: Daniel José Older)
The Internet trolls picked a bad week to call Daniel José Older “irrelevant.” As we meet in the opulent lobby of the Palmer House Hotel in downtown Chicago, his young-adult book Shadowshaper is sitting on a New York Times bestseller list. He’s in town because the book was been nominated for the Andre Norton Award by the Science Fiction Writers of America, which is holding its annual Nebula conference in Chicago. Best of all, he’s just signed a contract for two sequels. There’s also his well-reviewed adult fiction, the “Bone Street Rumba” series. By no standard of publishing is this person irrelevant.
So why the trolls? They’re coming after Older for the same reason that he’s succeeding as a writer — his urban fantasy novels actually look like urban America (including the ghosts) and he’s got no patience for the bros who want to keep their fantasy worlds white. They also don’t like that he uses his social media presence to call out discrimination within the art world and in society at large. Best of all, Older is far from alone on these scores. There’s a whole generation of writers and readers who have made diversity in fictional representation both more visible and increasingly commercially successful. No wonder the ugly underbelly of Internet white supremacy is riled up.
Older says he was first drawn to Twitter as a “storytelling platform” in which people write using their own vernaculars (he cites the epic story of Zola the Hooters Waitress as an example). He was working as a paramedic and sitting on all of these “tiny vignettes,” and Twitter soon became a place where Older could “get shit off my chest, and be in conversation with other people who need to get shit off their chest on the same topic, and maybe deepen your own analysis while you’re doing it, and maybe theirs.” Meanwhile, he was taking a writing class, making music, and writing the first draft of the book that eventually became Shadowshaper.
Behind Daniel José Older’s smart-mouthed teens and dapper assassins lies a sophisticated analysis of the nature of power.
Older was drawn to urban fantasy, reaching as far back as “the second half of Dracula” for models. Too often, he says, urban fantasy depicts only a “white and sanitized version of the city, which is ironic, given that ‘urban’ is the euphemism for black and brown when it comes to publishers.” He wanted to write urban fantasy infused with noir, a genre that lends itself to critiques of race and power, so he invented his haunted version of Brooklyn. He slogged through rejection after rejection, all the time crafting stories with diverse protagonists and narrated in multi-lingual vernaculars that approximated the language he was encountering in real life.
Shadowshaper tells the story of teenager Sierra Santiago, a muralist who discovers shadowshaping — the craft infusing ancestral spirits into art — just as all its practitioners are being executed As in all the best young adult fiction, the story is accessible to teens but still gripping for adults. It’s set within communities of color who face literal (in terms of the attacks on artists) and cultural erasure within the broader society. Santiago fights back by mastering the magic within her own art.
Readers, especially young readers of color, have responded by sharing the book within their own communities, providing that invaluable promotion that money just can’t buy. Mikki Kendall, an African-American writer and social-media powerhouse (she’s responsible for globally trending hashtags like #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen and #NotYourMule), told me that she can’t keep a copy of Shadowshaper in the house. A teen girl will come over, see the cover, realize that here’s a fantasy book that actually speaks to her, and then it’s gone, spirited off into some unseen high school book-lending network.
Older told me that his goal as a writer is to reach people who have always loved books but have rarely seen themselves within them. He acknowledges the difficulty: “Start to talk vernacular in a narrator’s voice … that’s when people get uncomfortable. And whenever someone gets uncomfortable, that’s when someone else is getting really comfortable, and it’s people who have never been comfortable before.” When readers tell him that they heard their own voices in his prose, he’s delighted. “That’s the point of my literature, definitely,” he said, “To make people feel at home in books.”
Older’s goal as a writer is to reach people who have always loved books but have rarely seen themselves within them.
Speculative fiction matters. The genre encompasses everything we might once have called science fiction and fantasy, but it’s not niche entertainment for nerds; we’re all nerds now. Speculative fiction dominates the most widely consumed media of the moment: the Marvel empire, Star Wars, Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, the most popular video games, and so on. The heart of the genre, though, has always been books that reveal and push the boundaries of our imaginations, exploring new worlds alongside new aspects of the world in which we already live. These visions of the possible need to reflect the diversity of our reality.
The genre has always contained, even celebrated, some elements of diversity: Octavia Butler and other African-American writers found vibrant inspiration for their science fiction in the ethos of Afro-futurism. Ursula K. Le Guin and others brought second-wave feminist ideas into their world-building. Still, the mid-20th-century founders of contemporary sci-fi were mostly white men, and the dominant fantasy landscapes therefore defaulted to white, heteronormative, patriarchy. Fans who were not white, not straight, not Western, had to submerge their fantasies in the work of others, or fixate on characters like Lieutenant Uhura.
Today, although there’s a long way to go before traditional publishing truly reflects the diversity of the genre’s readership, there is clear progress. Women swept the SFWA Nebula awards this year. Panels at the Nebula conference, which is more a gathering of practitioners than a typical fan convention, were especially focused on diversity and complexity, and associated those attributes with quality. This trend feels new, and meaningful. When Older joined Kendall and Alyssa Wong, who describes herself as a “hapa writer of tiny horrors,” for a panel on writing characters of color who go “Beyond Bitches and Badasses,” Wong observed that this was the first time she had ever been on a panel with only people of color. The room was at least two-thirds white, but they had come to listen.
Of course, there’s been a backlash, because exposing and undoing white supremacy is never simple. Most recently, two linked right-wing groups, the Rabid Puppies and the Sad Puppies, took advantage of the nomination rules to pack the Hugo Awards — speculative fiction’s most prestigious fan-voted honors — with only works that meet their narrow guidelines for approval (i.e. white and straight). The Puppies inhabit the same milieu as Gamergate, the most famous and vicious of these regressive protests, unless you count the Donald Trump candidacy. (Before that there was “RaceFail 2009” and a 2013 controversy within SFWA itself over sexism within the organization, not to mention ongoing whining about women in Ghostbusters and Star Wars.)
“We are shaking up the way that the industry has functioned.”
Older treats these protests — by people who want to keep their literature white, straight, and abled — essentially as jokes. “Racists,” he says,” must be the most sensitive people on the planet, because their perceived injury is so tiny.” Kendall told me that at least some of the backlash comes from fear of having to compete on what’s truly a more level playing field, and that fear makes her generally optimistic. “We are shaking up the way that the industry has functioned” she said, even if most major publishers and agents remain white. Self-publishing and direct connection to fans makes so much more possible. Commercial success forces change. It’s not just about best-sellers and major awards, either. Kendall said, “There’s plenty of room at mid-list for writers of color who are doing something new, something interesting,” and, she continued, “there’s a whole crew of people who are coming.”
If they can’t get big publicity budgets from the major publishing houses, or even a book contract at all, there are still ways to get your work out. Kendall says: “Teenagers, young-adult readers who are using social media consistently as part of their day-to-day life, are the best publicity machine you could ever want.”
At their best, works like Older’s and his cohort are going to reach across communities to entertain and inform without preaching. There’s a moment in Midnight Taxi Tango, Older’s most recent adult novel, in which Carlos — who is partially dead and kills rogue ghosts for a living — tries to give a ghost-killing knife to Kia, a teenage black girl who works for a santero and is currently being attacked by murderous child ghosts. She’s narrating this chapter:
I scowl at the dagger, my arms crossed over my chest. It is pretty cool though. “Where am I
supposed to keep that thing, man? You do realize I’m black, right?”
“Can’t be walking ’round BK with a dagger hanging off me just chilling like ayy. You gonna pay
for my funeral when the cops blow my ass away?”
“Kia, I — ”
“Y’all brown folks don’t get got like us, C. You might get ya ass beat for being brown, especially gray-ass brown like you. But I’m black. Ain’t no kinda ambiguous either. Unambigously black. They shoot us for having a wallet or a sandwich, how I’ma roll with a medieval-ass ghost-killing-ass dagger?”
Carlos finally stops trying to interrupt me, which is all I really wanted. He moves his mouth around his face a few times, eyebrows creased. It’s fun to watch. He still holds the knife out like I’m a knight and he’s a king.
“You right,” Carlos says. “It is different for me. I hadn’t thought about it like that.”
“’Course you hadn’t.” I snatch the dagger. “I’ll take it though. I’ll figure it out.”
This is about as didactic as Older is willing to get, and really it’s just a teenager messing with a grown-up.
Behind Daniel José Older’s smart-mouthed teens and dapper assassins lies a sophisticated analysis of the nature of power. That’s the feature that links his work with others in his cohort, including Kendall, Wong, N.K. Jemisin, the folks behind “Disability in Kidlit,” and so many more. They are infusing their fantastical fictions with stories that take into account the complicated power dynamics generated by living in diverse societies. As a result, they’re better stories. They feel more connected to reality, no matter how many murals start to weep bitter tears. Diversity, Older told me, isn’t necessarily about race and certainly not about a checklist: “Diversity is about the truth.”