Diversity in Speculative Fiction

Human beings have a huge range of perspectives and experiences. It can be easy, as readers, to gravitate towards the familiar, to read about same types of characters again and again. But if we do, we miss seeing the full spectrum of beauty and art that our favorite genre can offer.

Djibril al-Ayad, general editor of The Future Fire, discusses the topic with us further.

Q: Congratulations on ten years of The Future Fire. For those unfamiliar with the magazine, could you fill us in on the basics?

A: Thank you. Basically, The Future Fire is an online speculative fiction magazine that specializes in social-political themes—which is to say we’re more interested in the way cultures differ in future/past/alternative worlds, and what that says about our own society, than we are in all the jazzy tech, magic, war or royalty. That also means we’re interested in diversity—stories by and about under-represented groups, and stories that explore issues like gender, sexuality, race, disability, class and other axes of privilege. And we are devotees of the traditions of Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges, so we love stories that are slightly surreal or magical realist, ekphrasis, hoaxes, and the absurd.

Q: You’ve published several anthologies featuring under-represented voices in speculative fiction. Could you give us some more details about them?

A: Oh yes, we’ve now published three anthologies, and there are a couple more in the pipeline. The first was Outlaw Bodies, proposed and co-edited by Lori Selke, which features nine stories of worlds in which bodies that are different, modified, imperfect or transformed are prohibited, required, disadvantaged or otherwise constrained. There’s a lot of variety in there, and I’m pretty proud of the strong reactions we’ve received, from love to the occasionally reviewer who was offended by some of the content. And then we published We See a Different Frontier, co-edited by Fabio Fernandes, a postcolonial-themed anthology, which was the first time we paid professional rates for fiction. We See a Different Frontier featured stories from all over the world, earned a huge array of nominations, reprints, and honorable mentions, and is also being taught in a couple of college literature courses. And finally, out this month is Accessing the Future, co-edited by Kathryn Allan, full of stories and artwork that tell stories about futures in which disability is handled differently—sometimes better, sometimes not, but always recognized as the social and political phenomenon that it is. (Disability is not a medical issue; it’s a political one.) I think I’m being fair when I say that not a single story in any of these anthologies is a single-issue story, nor is any piece a dull, earnest tract or screed; they’re all great stories in their own right.

And right now we’re reading for a new anthology, Fae Visions of the Mediterranean, co-edited by Valeria Vitale, for which we’re looking for stories of ghosts, sea-monsters, pirates, hallucinations, dreams, legends, horrors and wonders from and about the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea (including and especially the under-represented North Africa and Near East).

Q: How has the fantasy genre changed in recent years? Do you feel it’s including more diverse voices than it used to? What are your thoughts on the urban fantasy genre, specifically?

A: I don’t know how it has evolved as a genre, necessarily, although there are no doubt trends and patterns that we could pick out in publishing. What I have noticed is that there is a certain kind of diversity that has probably always existed—there has always been fantasy by and about women, people of color, queer issues, class and disability—but that the mainstream is more aware of these days. This is obviously a good thing (or at least, obviously I think so), but it has also let to various push-backs and regressions: we’re seeing a lot of appropriation of non-European cultures by neo-colonialist authors, which is sometimes, but not always, deeply problematic. And we’re seeing the more sinister harassment and abuse campaigns against authors of color from groups who feel threatened by this new acceptance of diversity. Maybe this really ugly reactionary behavior is a sign that we’re winning, in the long term, but that doesn’t help people whose lives are destroyed by it.

Urban fantasy has long included diversity of characters in its menu of features, I think, and the inclusion of diverse authors is improving, too. There are common issues of cultural appropriation and stereotypes, of course, and gotchas like the “unique kick-ass heroine” with no female friends or relatives, but there are plenty of great women and authors of color writing UF, so we certainly don’t need to read any of the boring stuff if we don’t want to!

Q: What would be your advice to writers who want to write from an under-represented POV that they are not familiar with?

A: My first comment would be a warning against cultural appropriation—for me, it’s much more important to hear the voices of under-represented writers than it is to give the same cishetwhiteabledanglo privileged authors more variety and color to write about. Ask yourself why you want to write from an under-represented POV. Read works by people from that POV (nonfiction as well as fiction in the genre you write). Talk to people. Most importantly, ask someone from the group you’re writing as to read and critique your work. But then, don’t try too hard—remember that whoever’s voice you’re trying to write is human, too. 99% of the time they’ll have the same fears and motivations and reactions as your other protagonists who look like you. I’ve never understood (e.g.) male writers who are afraid to write female protagonists because they don’t know how. C’mon, guys, women are human! Have you never met a woman? They’ll react to meeting a ravening werewolf pretty much exactly the same way you will. Mutatis mutandis.

Q: What would be your advice to readers who are seeking books about diverse characters?

A: Firstly, I’d congratulate them on an excellent idea! I’ve hardly read any books by cis/het white anglo men for the past several years, and I’ve discovered some wonderful new work as a result of it. (Nothing against straight white men, of course, but they get 75% of the attention at the expense of the other 99% of the world, so they can afford to lose my custom for a bit!) But the main thing I’d say is look for books by diverse authors—that will give you the diverse perspectives you’re looking for far better than looking only at characters’ backgrounds. And if you don’t know where to start looking for and , then ask around: there will be a good deal more out there than you thought. I started asking around about diverse/minority SF/F anthology themes a few years ago (I was looking specifically for short stories), and received more recommendations than I’ve been able to make much of a dent in.

Q: Any closing thoughts?

A: Since you’ve been so kind as to let me talk a bit about TFF and our tenth birthday this year, I might mention that as a celebration we’re planning an anthology to reprint a few stories from the last decade plus a bunch of new material, which is tentatively titles Ten Years of The Future Fire or “TFFX” for short. Since we’ve never made any profit from this online magazine and small publishing venture (we’ve never aimed to), we’ll also be running a Kickstarter to raise the funds to pay authors properly for reprint rights and new stories. As stretch goals we will also try to: (1) raise the pay-rate for the Fae Visions anthology; (2) raise the pay-rate for authors and especially artists in the magazine itself for next year or so. You will find details of the fundraiser and other celebratory activities at our Editors’ Blog: Press.FutureFire.net

Thank you so much for giving us this space to chat with you and your readers!

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