By reading science fiction and fantasy by writers of color, I freed my imagination from Eurocentric fantasies that don’t care about marginalized identities.
Fantasy fiction and to some extent, sci-fi ( also known as SFF) have been wonderful genres to read this decade. Since 2010, almost all the speculative fiction books that I’ve read have been by people of color. From short fiction to speculative poetry and novels, speculative fiction by writers of color has entertained and inspired me in thrilling and surprising ways. As I look back on my favorite reads, I marvel at boundless imagination and potential.
I’ve loved SFF, especially fantasy, since I was a kid. I was introduced to the genre via Harry Potter, and my love for it grew as I read books inspired by dragons, Greek mythology, and goddesses from around the world. These books painted my imagination with wonderful colors and images that stayed with me long after I finished a book. As a reader, fantasy fiction serves as escapism and as a way of imagining a more powerful, magical version of myself.
My very first fantasy book by a Black author was The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin. I happened upon the book in the dimly lit aisle of the sci-fi fantasy section of my local library. The premise of a majestic city, power struggles, and gods intrigued me, but what really had me sold was turning the book over and seeing a Black woman’s author photo. Although my first read of the book was a little confusing, I was swept away by the characters. With that book came a thirst for more fantasy by Black authors.
It took four years for me to realize that I had to find these books myself. Libraries and bookstores didn’t have these books out in plain sight and it didn’t occur to me to ask for recommendations. As a result, I ended up Googling search terms like “Black fantasy books” and “fantasy books by Black authors.” One of these search results led me to the website Chronicles of Harriet, a website dedicated to promoting books and media in Black sci-fi fantasy, especially subgenres such as sword and soul and steamfunk.
Run by author Balogun Ojetade, this website introduced me to a whole slew of SFF subgenres rooted in African American culture, African culture, and Afrofuturism. The sword and soul genre retells African heritage and culture as warriors, sorcerers, and other powerful beings. Meanwhile, steamfunk shifts the focus of the Victorian steam tech era to African and African American adventurers while examining the effects of colonialism. I became particularly interested in blogging about the books from Atlanta-based publisher MV Media. A favorite from them to this today is the anthology Griots: Sisters of The Spear, which features sword and soul stories with Black female protagonists.
Browsing Chronicles of Harriet also led me to the groundbreaking anthology Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction From The African Diaspora. Edited by author and poet Sheree Renée Thomas, this anthology contains decades of stories and essays from writers like Samuel Delany and Tananarive Due. This anthology left me in awe at how long Black speculative fiction has been written.
After becoming a writer for the website Black Sci-fi in 2016, it became much easier to discover new Black speculative fiction writers. Not only was I occasionally able to do paid reviews of books, but I was also able to explore my SFF reading tastes. A notable instance is when I reviewed my first speculative poetry book, Life On Mars by Tracy K. Smith. Consisting largely of sci-fi poems inspired by outer space, the musician David Bowie, and the poet’s father, this book was a stellar examination of grief and race. This book led me to other Black speculative poets like Sheree Renée Thomas and Linda Addison and eventually inspired me to write my own speculative poetry.
In addition to having access to more Black SFF writers, I was also able to discover works by other SFF authors of color and queer SFF authors, with some also being QTPOC. The short fiction collection Falling In Love With Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson introduced me to speculative fiction with Black queer characters. JY Yang’s novella The Black Tides of Heaven introduced me to an Asian inspired fantasy world where you can freely choose your own gender when you come of age. Perhaps the most striking discovery was the 25th-anniversary edition of The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez, a Black lesbian vampire novel that combines horror, historical fiction, sci-fi, and erotica. Originally released in 1991, it was a groundbreaking read and a gem of a novel.
When it comes to my most recent reads, they served to undo the notion that women and femmes of color had to be so-called “strong characters” who could be physically strong but not have personal struggles or be emotionally vulnerable. The most impactful so far has been a two-book series by S. J. Jae Jones called Wintersong, followed by Shadowsong. Combining influences such as fairy tales, the film Labyrinth, and classical music, the book tells the adventures of a young woman named Lisel as she strives to save her sister and reclaim her true self from The Goblin King. Of the two books, Shadowsong resonated with me the most because of how it prominently featured bi-polar disorder through Lisel learning to live with it. This past year had me struggling to read SFF due to depression, so this book was really comforting to me.
By working within and beyond the constraints of real, lived oppression, these books serve to decolonize SFF. These stories reimagine the lives of BIPOC existing with the culture, history, and agency denied to us in the real world. By reading these books, I was able to free my imagination from Eurocentric fantasies that don’t care about marginalized identities.
All in all, this has been an awesome decade for me as an SFF reader. I’ve read books I knew I would enjoy and books I didn’t expect to enjoy. I learned that speculative fiction has always been vital for the imaginations of marginalized writers and readers. Whether through novels, short fiction, or poetry, speculative fiction makes imagination limitless.
Latonya Pennington is a prolific freelance pop culture critic and poet. Besides Wear Your Voice, they have also written pieces for Gamercraft, Brain Mill Press Voices, Comics MNT, among others. Their poetry can be found in online magazines such as The Asexual Journal, Color Bloq, and Fiyah Lit magazine.