In Part One I presented a discussion between writers Steven Barnes, Maurice Broaddus, Tananarive Due, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Tonya Liburd, and Nisi Shawl about Fireside Fiction’s reports on black writers in speculative fiction. In this part I want to talk about SFWA and what it can learn or has already learned from both the report and the discussion, along with listing some of the action items I’m taking away from it.
What’s Happened So Far
When the original 2015 report came out, we discussed it on the SFWA Board but little conclusive was achieved. I wrote about some of that discussion as well as my own thoughts.
Of the various action items the SFWA Board talked about, some have been fulfilled.
- We successfully surveyed the membership in a project started by Justina Ireland and brought to completion by Erin M. Hartshorn, and are working on analysis of the results. We pushed hard on this, and I used part of my discretionary fund to pay for 10 $25 gift cards to use as prizes for filling the form out. Over half the membership responded, which I think may be a greater percentage than we’ve ever had in recent decades. I would like to think renewed enthusiasm and faith in the organization’s direction drove participation as much as the gift cards, but truth be told, the gift cards were probably responsible.
- The Grants Committee’s decisions were informed by this during the last round, and I also looked at the decision afterward to make sure we were serving a number of diverse groups. That’s a step that needs to get formally written into the process, in my opinion. Over the past year I’ve been reaching out to groups supporting writers and F&SF works of color in order to let them know the grants are there and worth applying for, such as HeroNation.
- On a personal level, as SFWA President, I’ve been trying to read in a way that informs me, while also making sure I’m promoting black writers while working towards overall diversity.
But there’s more to be done. (For example, that publishing house outreach is something I need to figure out, so my next step is asking our volunteer wrangler to find me someone to compile that list. Or the SFWA Star Project has been pretty inactive, so I need to prod around and see if someone won’t start driving it while firmly resisting the urge to do it myself.)
There is a fine line between asking for help from black writers in fixing the issue and expecting them to fix it. I still try to navigate this in addressing the issue, and with the podcast, my hope was to a) facilitate discussion that promoted awareness of the issue and b) gather information that helps me — and the rest of the SFWA Board — figure out what SFWA can/could/should best do.
Gleaning Action Items
Beyond the podcast, I looked to the original report, its follow-up, the accompanying essays, and some of the pieces it sparked in order to inform myself. This is accordingly an imperfect view and does not touch on every related piece, but I think I’ve created a decent list of things to do.
When the Fireside Fiction report came out, I was dismayed initially, and remain a bit daunted by it. For me it was hard to look specifically at this one aspect, black writers, rather than diversity issues overall. Realizing that was revelatory and only came about because of feedback that someone graciously gave me. Attitudes about class, race, gender, sexuality all play together in the make-up of our own personal filters on the world; I found it useful to try to change that filter and I’m very grateful to the essay writers as well as people who talked personally with me about the issues for their valuable time and effort.
Two black writers have been important to my own career. The first was Octavia Butler, one of my Clarion West instructors. The second is Samuel R. Delany, whose The Fall of the Towers was one of the first pieces of adult SF I read, and which inspired me to try to find out for myself all that SF could be.
One of my core beliefs is that if I’m leading an organization, I need to make sure that organization is doing what I believe to be the right thing. So what can I help SFWA do? Here are my notes.
Nisi Shawl: Ones and Twos and Rarely Threes. Shawl mentions editor Gardner Dozois telling her Clarion West class in 1992 that writing and selling stories in a particular universe is a good path to selling a novel in that universe. She references Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing and makes the observation that the suppression of thought requires nothing more difficult than misunderstanding. For me that raises a question about how to recruit and train slush readers. She also notes that “you have to be printed to be reprinted.” In the podcast this came up again: for there to be better representation in the slushpile, there needs to be more black publishers, editors, and slush readers in the system.
Action item: Think about slush readers. How do we create systems that recruit widely and also teach those readers and editors to read without so many filters? (Reading these essays might be a pretty good start on that.) Figure that out, then figure out how to spread that knowledge via panels, podcasts, handouts. Slush readers and interns are where the majority of our editors and publishers come from; change at this level will spread upward and do so within a few years, particularly if we figure out ways to help first-time anthologists and newbie editors as well, perhaps simply with resources.
Brian White: A Note from the Editor of the #BlackSpecFic Responses. White’s piece is most useful to me in talking about the changes Fireside itself made in reaction to the report. They included an anonymous way to self-report when submitting, something that SFWA could adapt to its membership form. They added special submission periods aimed at specific groups. That I’m not sure about translating – an obvious way would be grants or awards aimed at those groups, perhaps, but that’s not a substitute for inclusion in the existing ones. Changing staff to be more representative is another step, and something SFWA can incorporate in its staffing and volunteer (perhaps?) process. As is amplifying and building on the discussion itself.
- Look at how we’re staffing and talk to the volunteer coordinator.
- Budget in 2018-2019 for analysis that looks at the Nebula awards/nominations/recommended reading lists in terms of racial/gender/class diversity.
- The podcast is one way SFWA can further the discussion. Figure others out. What can we do to leverage this effort more effectively? What sort of follow-ups are useful?
Tobias Buckell: Boldly Going Nowhere. Buckell talks about Leonard Nimoy and how Spock’s mixed race character was one that Buckell could identify with himself. He notes “Getting validated is really important to us humans.” He talks about being told repeatedly that characters of color don’t sell, and looks at the numbers that he’d expect from SFWA.
Action item: How can SFWA help with validating black writers? Our annotated reading lists, handed out at places like the Baltimore Book Festival, is one place. Inventory what we have and figure out holes. Then start filling them. As a follow-up make sure this material gets into our “SFWA-in-a-box” packet that lets members run SFWA meetings/panels at local cons and events.
And while I’m at it, we should probably make sure that membership survey gets done at least every two years.
Justina Ireland: Two Percent. Ireland points out that “promoting diversity and inclusion isn’t a passive state, it’s an active one.” She debunks issues of quality and, like White’s piece, hers presents some steps: 1) support successful black authors and SF mags publishing them, 2) challenge panel line-ups (and I’d add topics, and structures, and alls sorts of practices), 3) be vocal regarding supporting and promoting black writers, and 4) make spaces welcoming and inclusive.
Action item: For me, this underscores an existing issue that’s been slowly getting better, but not fast enough: the SFWA forums. Which deserve their own, and lengthy, post, but I am postponing that until I finish setting up a meeting with the expanded moderation team and talking to them about policies.
Troy Wiggins: Speculativeness Blackness. Wiggins talks about the disappointment of science fiction, “a space defined by creating new and different realities,” not looking at racism. Racism is very much part of American culture and in the news right now – to not question it seems a retroactive move. He talks about what magazines can do: soliciting from black authors, hiring black editors (and slush readers), not using a blind submission system as an excuse, tracking submission rates, heavily publicizing and promoting stories by black authors, and openly courting stories from connected authors. This last point puzzled me a bit — did it fit into a mentorship program, perhaps? It wasn’t until I read Jemisin’s later reaction to something that happened to her after the initial report came out that it clicked for me.
Brian White: Interview with N.K. Jemisin. Jemisin is unsurprised by the numbers. She references a strong black self-published fiction segment and that intrigues me enormously, because I know we have a lot of resources that self-publishing folks will find useful. She also notes that after #Racefail, many magazines began including a statement that they were interested in diverse fiction, and that for her a magazine that lacks that is signaling an editor who is either nor current with the industry or not interested in publishing diverse fiction, including fiction by black writers.
Action item: Look at the overall magazines and see who has such a statement and who doesn’t. Publish best practices to go along with our model magazine contract.
Anonymous – We Are Writing the Future. They talk about some of the reaction and charges of flawed data, and make valid points. I love this line, “Black people are in your science fiction, writing your future.”
No action item there, just a quote to be jotted down in my notebook.
Reactions to the First Fireside Fiction Report
I looked to the second report as well as some of the pieces reacting to the report for more insight, and found the following particularly useful:
- You can find all of #BlackSpecFic material collected by hashtag here.
- The FIYAH #BlackSpecFic Roundtable by the FIYAH Magazine Staff explores many of the different levels of the issue.
- Related guest post, Reading Our #OWNVOICES by Lamar Giles, for Book Riot included this line, “If helping someone (presumably underserved readers) is dependent on you feeling welcome, who are you really trying to help?”
- Submitting (SFF) While Black by Phenderson Djèlí Clark
- BlackSpecFic Feelings by Shannon Barber.
- Why Discrimination Can’t Stop the Black Imagination by Tonya Pennington included an important line, “knowing the history of black speculative fiction is crucial to its survival.” SFWA’s History project is something I’ve been kicking along since it began, and it seems to me this dovetails nicely, so I added another action item here, to talk to Erin M. Hartshorn about the History Project and how an effort to celebrate black voices might fit into that.
Finally, as a result of reading I began to understand that phrase “openly courting stories from connected authors” when I read about an upsurge in invitations to established black authors immediately after the first report was released. Yes. Mail established black authors not just for their stories but to get -their- lists of people we should be helping. Ask them to suggest slush readers. Let their network come into play and amplify the hell out of it.
Reactions to the Report
One of the things that happened after the Fireside Fiction report came out was that I, like a number of other figures in the field (or so I would suspect) received an email from “Lev Bronstein” saying they and a group of “editors and writers” had put together an analysis that “suggests that we can’t draw any useful conclusions from Fireside’s report.”
In reading the report, I found that they had quoted me as part of their justification for their actions, and I replied saying not to use my name in that fashion. I’m still irritated by the assumption that I’d want to be associated with the amount of privilege showcased in both that email and the essay that they briefly posted then took down as a result of the absolutely inevitable and IMO justified Internet reaction to it.
It was, alas, not the only thing that in my perception would attempt (perhaps deliberately, perhaps simply a result of the misunderstanding Shawl references) to divert, distract, or otherwise detract from the message of the report. But it would be wearisome and discouraging to begin to assemble anything reporting on that.
Yes, you can perform verbal things and come up with “no useful conclusions.” Or you can believe the voices that work together in the accompanying essays to say, Yes, this is what we’ve experienced. Yes, this is an issue. Yes, we need to change it because it is harming people and the field overall. I believe the stories I’ve been told and they hurt my heart. The friend who had an editor highly interested in her book and looking forward to working with her — until the point where they met face to face and the white editor realized my friend was black. The friends who wryly compare notes on which of the black authors they regularly get mistaken for. And I believe the lack of representation in F&SF hurts the field and deprives us of some voices with a whole lot of things to say.
One thing I know is that this analysis should have happened sooner. I am, alas, only one woman, and I juggle at least a dozen SFWA-related things at any given time. There’s an essay about a complaint I received regarding a Service to SFWA award that goes with this, and that will be appearing soon. The wheels of bureaucracy grind exceedingly slow, particularly when powered by volunteer labor, and SFWA has brought that lesson home to me again and again.
Making sure we are useful to members, particularly self-published ones, is important. All writers want value for their money, including black writers. A membership card and a chance to say you’re a member isn’t enough by a long shot. So here’s something about what we offer and will continue to offer, what we’re trying to accomplish, and why. A list of what I’m trying to do, and the promise that I’ll listen to — and try to understand — feedback about it.
So. I don’t have any of the answers, I think. But I’m working at moving forward. As with other SFWA-centric blog pieces, I am following my philosophy about transparency whenever possible, not just in terms of processes, but the decision making behind them. I’m happy to answer questions about any of this, and to those with toes I’ve stepped on unnecessarily, I hope you’ll let me know so I can sidestep your feet in the future.