Books written by African American authors
Very few things could lure me out of the fugue-state of finishing a novel, but a note that I received yesterday from a reader sent me into full-on rant mode:
I just finished reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and I enjoyed it a lot. I was confused, though, to see that my library had chosen to shelve it under “African-American Fiction, ” a separate section of the library. If this were standard policy for how the library handles African-American authors, I wouldn’t blink, but Butler, Delany, Hopkinson, and Durham are all shelved under “General Fiction” with the rest of the library’s SF&F books. (The library doesn’t have a separate section for SF&F, though it does generally mark them with a sticker on the spine. Hundred Thousand Kingdoms does not have a SF&F sticker.)
This strikes me as making the book harder to find for interested readers. But before I talk to my library to see if they’d at least be willing to put an SF&F sticker on the book, I figured I should ask–do you have a preference about where your books are shelved? If it’s shelved where you want it, I definitely don’t want to be the one to quibble with it! (I suppose one benefit of the current placement is that it pushed this white–and perhaps too narrowly SF&F-focused–reader into exploring a new section of the library.)
Many thanks to the reader, who asked to remain anonymous, for letting me quote her. And also thanks to her for caring enough to ask how I felt about this. It is a lucky author who has such readers.
And I agree with Reader; it’s great that my book in the African American Fiction (AAF) section lured her to a part of the library she wouldn’t have ordinarily visited. That’s actually the one heartening note in this whole situation, for a variety of reasons. But at the risk of pissing off some AAF-section proponents, let me be really really blunt here.
I hate the “African American Fiction” section. HATE. IT. I hate that it exists. I hate that it was ever deemed necessary. I hate why it was deemed necessary, and I don’t agree that it is. I hated it as a reader, long before I ever got published. And now that I’m a writer, I don’t ever want to see my books there — unless a venue has multiple copies and they’re also in the Fantasy or General Fiction section.
“But Nora, ” I hear (some fictional respondant) saying. “You’re black. You write about black people, among others. Doesn’t that mean you belong there?”
My answer: “No. And the next person who rolls up in my blog talking about where black readers, writers, or characters belong is going to get popped in the mouth.”
OK, wait, I need to calm down a little. Deep breaths. Ommmmm. Gotta get back to my happy, professional place.
Better now. Whew.
Let’s look at this issue from the micro to the macro. Spoilers ahead — apologies to those who haven’t finished 100K.
On the micro scale, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms doesn’t belong in the AAF section because it Contains No Actual Black People. Which should, IMO, at least be a prerequisite for being in that section. There’s Itempas, who’s black — but he’s not human, and he doesn’t show up until the end of the book besides. If the walk-on appearance of a character in two chapters of a twentysomething-chapter book is all that’s required for it to get labeled AAF, somebody needs to expand the AAF section by a lot.
No, Yeine isn’t black. The closest racial analogue for the Darre, if they were in our world, would be South American Indian, specifically Inka. Arrebaia, Darr’s capital city, is pretty much a straight-up mooch of Macchu Picchu. And Yeine’s half white, because the closest analogue for the Amn is northern European. I don’t know why some people, despite my descriptions of the Darre (straight black hair, brown skin, a tendency to short stature, etc.), go from zero to African on Yeine. Actually, scratch that: I’m starting to suspect why they think it — because I’m black. And black people only write about black people, right?*