The Changing Faces of Sci-Fi and Fantasy

imp kerr

A panel with science fiction and fantasy authors Deji Bryce Olukotun, Maria Dahvana Headley, and Haris Durrani

ON November 3 2016, PEN America hosted science fiction and fantasy authors Deji Bryce Olukotun, Maria Dahvana Headley, and Haris Durrani for a reading and panel. The trio discussed the limits of heroism, the politics of reality-building, and the whitewashing of publishing. The following is a transcript, edited for length, of their conversation.

When PEN approached me to help organize the event, I was in the middle of reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Black Panther comic books, which are super popular: they sell out every week. I felt real enthusiasm that a writer of color who was a National Book Award winner and MacArthur Fellow was tackling comic books, but at the same time, I wasn’t thrilled with some of his depictions of African themes and cultures.

Let me explain a little more what I mean. I was excited that Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has been a comic book fan his whole life, is tackling the genre, but I had critiques about his technique--some of the dialogue, some of the writing. I felt the dilemma that a lot of people feel if you are from a marginalized group. A lot of voices, especially black voices aren't making it on the page with major publishers. Was I going to actually destroy opportunities if I spoke out against his work and said, “Well, I love this part of the story but I don't like this part”?

We’re in an interesting time. This year two women authors won the prestigious Hugo Awards: N.K. Jemisin won for The Fifth Season, and Nnedi Okora won for Binti, which is a novella. The best novelette went to Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang, which was translated by Ken Liu and is set in Beijing. Best new writer went to Andy Wier, who wrote The Martian.

Is everything great? In 2015 authors, especially white authors, protested against political correctness and over-correcting for diversity at the Hugo Awards. With the on-screen adaptation of “The Hunger Games,” people were pissed off that some of the characters were played by people of color. PEN just did a recent study that revealed that there were only 47 LGBTQ books published in 2014. Less than half of those were from a major publisher. What I’ve observed is that there is a lot of great writing happening but a lot of it is on Kickstarter and on Patreon. Is that progress?

I hope what we will do today is talk about the good things that are happening, but also the things that could be better. What keeps you up at night? When you think about the publishing industry, what worries you?

Everything worries me and at the same time, my worry cannot control me because if it does I wouldn't do anything. I spend a lot of my nights thinking about fucked up narratives.

A Wrinkle in Time has a woman in it who is a Nobel Prize-winning scientist. I was a little kid when I read it, and I had no idea that a woman could be a scientist. I thought, “Women get to cook dinner.” I like to cook dinner. I'm good at cooking. I'm good at being nice to people.

I'm up at night because I can't believe that little girls still think that they can't be Nobel Prize-winning scientists. They still think they can't be astronauts. They still think they can't be motherfucking bad-asses. Win it, kill the world, rock it.

I can't believe that we are in this moment when this dude is running for president and he has no qualifications. He's just a dude who's famous. I can't believe this is still part of our narrative, that this is still how we tell stories. We tell stories about heroes who have done nothing to prove that they are heroic; who have done nothing to prove that they are good. They're just dudes who step into a room and say, “I'm the bro.”

In my version of the universe, everyone is capable of being a hero. Everyone. It doesn't matter what your gender is. It doesn't matter where you stand on the spectrum of anything. It doesn't matter what color your skin is. It doesn't matter where you come from. It doesn't matter what language you speak.

The current tradition of storytelling in America says that you have to speak English. You have to be a white boy. You have to be straight. That keeps me up. I cannot believe it’s 2016 and we’re still here. I was going to say it’s discouraging, but nothing discourages me. It’s enraging. Rage: that’s what keeps me up.

Rage is invigorating. It lights the fire. But I think what keeps me up at night are also the positives. In small ways, science fiction, particularly science fiction by people of color, is becoming mainstream. And more generally, science fiction as a whole is becoming mainstream, which is a very good thing. It means writers like ourselves get more opportunities to write, to publish, to make a living.

I often revisit my personal experiences with science fiction. I was a Muslim kid with a mom from the Dominican Republic and a dad from Pakistan. I grew up in a town that was 98 percent white. All we ever read in school were books by old white men. Science fiction was my outlet; it was a genre in which there existed a lot of old white men, but they nevertheless existed outside of the canon. I think in many ways that’s what allowed the genre to produce space for people like Samuel Delany or Octavia Butler or Kurt Vonnegut or Frank Herbert to thrive. The genre was outside the mainstream. That, for me, was incredible and powerful.

As great as it is to see science fiction entering the mainstream, it also gives me a little bit of apprehension. I wrote an academic article in the New York Review of Science Fiction several years ago looking at trends in the genre before and after 9/11. I don’t think I agree with everything that I said in that article, but parts of it still hold up. There’s very little written by Muslims or about Muslims that’s deemed “post-9/11 sci-fi.” I'm very hard-pressed to find anything I’m satisfied with, mostly because these works scarcely deal with the post-9/11 abuse of human and civil rights.

There was an article in the New Yorker a while ago talking about a science fiction anthology called In the Shadow of the Towers. The whole article talks about the book and not once does it mention that there isn’t a single Muslim writer in the anthology. I’m not saying that we need people to write about 9/11 in a science fictional way. I’m just very, very cautious about the way people make claims to this kind of narrative.

I thought we could talk about worldbuilding. Maria: I’ve only read a small slice of your work in Magonia, but it’s mind-blowing the world that you build. Haris: having a devil appear in a knight’s costume in Spanish Harlem is really unusual. I’d love to hear how you guys put together the worlds in your stories.

Our utopian worlds? I am particularly interested in what would happen if things that are not allowed to happen, happen. If the people who are not allowed to have power, have power. I will also say that I hate worldbuilding. I only build the parts I want. I don’t want to build the kingdom, phyla. I’m not into it. I want to build the pieces that I need. That’s true of our world as well.

In Magonia, I built a matriarchal society. Women are in charge of the pirate ships in the sky. Men can’t sing as well as women. They also can’t fight as well as women, which is why women are in charge. I just kind of did that and didn’t make a big deal of it. The worlds I invent are casually run by women, casually run by queer people, casually run by trans people, and casually run by people of color because it doesn’t really matter.

If you make women in charge, it’s a fantasy novel. If you make queer people in charge, it’s a fantasy novel. If you make people of color in charge, it’s a fantasy. I think we are three minutes away from that not being a fucking fantasy. All my joy, all my passion, all my fury is dedicated to being thirty seconds away. Maybe it will happen in my lifetime. That’s how I do worldbuilding.

I don’t think much about worldbuilding. I find worldbuilding to be a bit artificial. There’s scientistic sensibility about it in the inclination to objectively create a world by saying, “Okay I want this element and that element and these are the logical consequences. This is how things would probably run.”

I don’t think that even describes our own world. It almost feels disingenuous to try to create a whole other world because I can’t possibly imagine it. Maybe this is my own fault of imagination. It’s hard for me to imagine a place completely removed from our own socio-political situations.

I have a pernicious relationship with reality. It’s hard for me to even talk about the real world, which is very present in my book, Technologies of the Self. For example, part of it is slightly autobiographical. It is fiction but part of it is based on real things. I have an actual uncle who has done a lot of the things that are in the story. There are elements that I know definitely happened and there are elements that I know definitely did not happen. Throughout my writing process, I would shift--even in a single scene, I’d be like, “I’m not quite sure if that actually happened or not.” When I was workshopping it with some of my peers, what I found fascinating is that in response to the stuff that I knew definitely happened, people would be like, “Oh no. That’s impossible. That could never have happened. That makes no sense. He couldn’t have had a pick-axe stuck in his chest and been bleeding out and stuck his finger in it. That doesn’t make any sense. But it does make sense that there’s a time-traveling demon, you know. I really feel like I’m there.” The politics of reality, and reality itself, are very malleable.

Stories that weren’t mainstream are now making it into the mainstream. Is this the right time? Is it happening too fast?

As apprehensive as I am about the mainstream, I think we can lever socio-political structures to our benefit. Even in writing my own book--and this wasn’t completely intentional--but when I went back and edited it, I made this the case. I’d actually prefer the book to have no cover and no description. Part of the way I wrote it was that you never actually figure out the protagonist’s name until about halfway through. This is part of the protagonist’s natural development, but his journey also mirrors the reader’s. His name is Jihad but he calls himself Joe. He’s Dominican. He’s Pakistani. He’s Muslim. I never explicitly say he is any of those things, partly because I don’t think identity can be encapsulated in a statement. It’s experiential. It’s bit of a trick to a reader who goes into any book and expects a white male protagonist.

I think one of my favorite reviews of the book was, “Yeah--this book is kind of like a Trojan horse. I thought it was going to be one thing and it became something totally different.” We can lever the expectations that readers have and that the mainstream has to make our points and push forward our own subversive agendas.

I was around when alternative rock was starting. It became cool to know bands that no one else knew that had value, that were good, that touched you in some way. When I see a lot of sci-fi come out, I think my personal concern is about co-optation. Do these people care about science fiction? Are they taking it seriously? When it’s about people of color, I’m paying extra close attention.

Last night, I watched the pilot to Luke Cage. Whenever I watch these shows I’m really nervous. I grip the pillow. I’m paying attention to what’s going on and what it symbolizes. In this case, I was impressed. They got marquee actors. The story was interesting. I just watched the pilot, so I can’t speak for the whole season. At the same time, I asked myself, “Would I like it if I was from the neighborhood?”

Another question?

I had a very interesting reaction to the new Dr. Strange. I grew up reading the comic books. There’s an Asian character who helps Dr. Strange become what he is. In the movie, the character is played by Tilda Swinton. My initial reaction was, “That’s terrible. There’s a lot of great Asian actors out there who could have played this role. Why did they choose her?” On the other hand, Tilda Swinton is a great actress. She would be very good.

Growing up, there were a lot of books I read where I put myself in the place of the hero. If he happened to be a white guy, happened to be Tarzan, happened to be John Carter, I thought he was me. When I grew up, I realized, “Wow. That’s not me at all. That’s some white guy writing about his white world, and yet I perfectly fit into it.”

In my mind, I was Superman. In my mind, I was Spiderman. In my mind, I was every fucking bad-ass who destroyed injustice. Then it turned out all those dudes were not me. I was a person who had a 30 percent wage gap between those dudes. I thought I was a superhero, and instead, I was not even a sidekick. I was actually a villain.

Then they cast Tilda Swinton. Hollywood is commercial. Hollywood is a massive villain in this case.

Whiteness is a constant unabashed privilege. White people are always the hero. Tilda Swinton being cast as someone who isn’t white ignores everything. There’s no version of reality in which androgynous clone Tilda Swinton, who I love, should be cast in that role. Don’t fucking do that. You have 75 million dollars. Why would you do that? I love her. Cast her in any independent movie. She does not need to be an Asian hero. She doesn’t. The equation is fucked up.

Also Scarlett Johansson in “Ghost in a Shell.”

Also that! Fucked up.

I think we should go a step further and say, "Why not make Dr. Strange Asian?" Movie producers have a fear that they can’t properly write Asian characters, which means they don’t have Asian writers. I think that’s why it’s so important that we have institutions that are changing the platforms and support structures available to writers, allowing them to have their work read and their voices heard. They’ll be able to change the narrative, I hope.


Deji Bryce Olukotun’s novel, Nigerians in Space, a thriller about brain drain from Africa, was published by Unnamed Press in 2014. A sequel, After the Flare, will be published in 2017. His short story is featured in the 2016 science fiction collection Invaders: 22 Tales from the Outer Limits of Literature (Tachyon). He has been featured in Electric Literature, Quartz, Vice, Slate, the Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, Guernica, The Millions, ESPN, Chimurenga, and PEN America.


Maria Dahvana Headley is the New York Times-bestselling author of the young novels Aerie and Magonia (one of PW’s Best Books of 2015), the alt-history novel Queen of Kings, and the internationally-bestselling memoir The Year of Yes. With Kat Howard she is the author of The End of the Sentence, one of NPR’s Best Books of 2014, and with Neil Gaiman, she is co-editor of the number one New York Times-bestselling young adult monster anthology, Unnatural Creatures. Her short stories have been among the best anthologies of several years, including this year’s edition of Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, and have been finalists for the Nebula and Shirley Jackson Awards. Upcoming are The Mere Wife, a Beowulf adaptation for FSG, and The Combustible, a queer superhero novel for HarperCollins.


Haris A. Durrani is an author, engineer, and academic. His debut, Technologies of the Self, won the Driftless Novella Contest. His stories and nonfiction have appeared in AnalogLightspeedThe New York Review of Science FictionSkin Deep’s “Imagining 2043,” Catapult, and Media Diversified.