Last semester, I had a conversation with a professor who, after expressing her dislike of Octavia Butler, stated that it was a shame that no women of color wrote science fiction and fantasy. I felt stunned, my brain scrambling to list names, though it, of course, failed me. As soon as I left her office, I started listing.
What about Nalo Hopkinson, publishing award-winning novels since 1998?
What about Nnedi Okorafor, publishing regularly since 2007?
What about N.K. Jemisin, who debuted in 2010 with the well-received Inheritance trilogy?
What about Helen Oyeyemi, so often found in the literary section but sticking close to the fantastical with Mr. Fox and Boy Snow Bird?
There’s Sofia Samatar, whose novel A Stranger in Olondria was reviewed in 2013 by many high profile organizations (NPR, Kirkus, PW).
What about Zen Cho’s debut Sorcerer to the Crown that lit up bookshelves in 2015?
And that’s just a few names. A simple Google search brings up Lightspeed’s anthology People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction, which includes enough women in the table of contents to keep an avid reader busy for a while.
A few months later, another professor said something similar, calling N. K. Jemisin a rare African American writer in the speculative genre. Yes, the science fiction and fantasy community was only white for a very long time, but that was the seventies, not 2016, the era many of those writers dreamed of on the page. Even with people like long time community member Nisi Shawl and 2015 Nebula award winner for short fiction Alyssa Wong and a full spectrum in-between, academia refuses to catch up and simply shuts the ivory gates.
There’s a larger erasure at work in the libraries of the Ivory Tower when it comes to diversity in general, but what concerned me the most about my two interactions with these professors was they acted like they knew. As if the world of SFF hadn’t been experiencing growing pains since the last time they strolled through the genre section at Barnes and Noble. In the essay “Science Fiction and ‘Literature’—or, The Conscience of the King,” Samuel R. Delany discusses such academics, calling their ignorance a “rupture,” and provides a theory:
“The working assumption of most academics […] is that somehow the history of science fiction began precisely at the moment they began to read it. […] [These] notions accomplish the same thing; they obviate the real lives, the real development, and finally the real productions of real SF writers.”
Erasing writers like Nalo Hopkinson and Nisi Shawl with Ivory Tower ignorance feels like an even worse insult than simply dismissing SFF as genre. These women of color are wonderful writers and deserve to be on class syllabi next to Atwood and (the rarer) Le Guin, but that can’t happen if academics assume they don’t exist in the first place.
Delany’s description of such ruptures occurred in the seventies. At least some of academia is still stuck back in time, even if the SFF community is slowly moving forward.