Black Female Characters in Science-Fiction and Fantasy Novels
I am an avid Science Fiction and Fantasy fan, and especially so with regards to literature. I’ve been this way since the beginning, since the very first fairy tale sprung my imagination. I still have my first hard back fairy tale book, “The Collins Book of Fairy Tales”, with my seven year old pink pencilled graffiti of my name on the inside cover.
I recall loving almost all of its stories, and especially the “Twelve Dancing Princesses”. The mystery of where they went and why, the magic, the wonder and, of course, the romance. Asides from a couple of brunettes, the princesses were all varying shades of blonde. Which makes sense as they were sisters, but all the other princesses and maidens in the book were also relentlessly depicted as ‘fair’.
I’m quite sure that illustrations such as these created and fuelled my anxiousness about the darkness of my skin. An anxiousness my glamourous Nigerian diva of a mother and my own stubborn pride would not indulge.
Despite their racism by exclusion, I didn’t love the stories any less, the illustrations didn’t detract from the magic. I never felt it was their fault that people who looked like me didn’t feature in their world. I simply let the magic and wonder of these wondrous worlds feed my imagination. Looking back, it is clear that I craved the unpredictability and the possibilities of magic in the world; a world of fairies and mermaids. The witches and ghosts weren’t so welcome, but clearly integral, and always easily overcome.
I fell in love with reading and writing as a child and excelled at writing stories about magic and talking animals. My mind was always filled with impossible things. And, despite attempts to replace them with more ‘suitable’ and ‘serious’ matters, my fascination with magic persisted.
I grew from the realms of Hans Christian Anderson, and the Grimm’s brothers to my beloved Roald Dahl. “The BFG” was great fun but “The Witches” literally blew my mind. Yes, the protagonist was a boy but the witches in all their deliciously, child torturing glory delighted me. They may have been ‘bad women’ but they were brilliantly, maliciously and titillatingly ‘bad women’, with magic. I was the kind of child that wanted the baddies to win. I would get frustrated when the obviously far more attractive and cleverer villain suffered an ignominious defeat. Was that because I had seen too many women and dark-skinned people cast as villains? Had I subconsciously started routing for the bad guys out of frustration at this absurdity?
I read on to discover Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” series with more witches, though less cruel and more humorous, and the dry-witted, father figure like character of Death. It was a magical world of absurdity that ridiculed the real, yet still offered a playful escape.
Every world I encountered held its own fascination. But all of them were barren of inquisitive and courageous girls, teenagers and women that weren’t white.
It wasn’t until my early twenties that the frustration fully kicked in. I began to send my own fantastical stories off to Science Fiction magazines, but to no avail. Notably the stories the magazines were printing, were aimed at their core audience of proudly geeky white men.
I recall visiting the now closed Fantasy Centre on the Holloway road. I was so upset about the closing of literally the only dedicated Sci -Fi and Fantasy bookshop in London that I offered to film a short documentary about them. On my first visit I was received with fascination and interest because it was rare for a woman, let alone a black woman, to have such a deep interest in the genre. They assumed that a boyfriend had ‘got me into it’, which of course I adamantly assured them was not the case. This perspective highlighted the very simple fact that women were not being catered for in the genre, despite the evidence of very talented female writers.
Women were a scarcity in the world of literary Science Fiction and Fantasy, and black women, we were unicorns.
My answer again was to write. Thousands of pages that would never be read by anyone but myself. I developed my own black female characters shooting through space to fall in love and defeat terrors.
I waded through the likes of Phillip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov and Michael Moorcock, some of the grandees of literary Science Fiction. Until I discovered the African-American SF writer Samuel R. Delaney, I attempted to read “Babel -17”, but his writing style disappointingly didn’t resonate with me. It seemed too dated and the Americanisms and overt masculinity alienated me. This was a problem I encountered with a lot of the male American Science Fiction and Fantasy writers of the sixties and seventies, until I found Roger Zelazny.
I lost myself in his “Chronicles of Amber”, the utter lack of protagonists that looked like me, the Americanisms and antiquated references didn’t stop me from falling in love with his nine princes. Zelazny’s journeys from reality into a fabulous universe ruled by the laws of magic, where if you were a prince of Amber, anything you imagined was true, was like a spiderweb of possibility for me. My daydreams rewrote their adventures to include a stylised, immortal version of me; in all my dark-skinned and heroic glory.
This is a theme that still echoes through my writing, as I explore the idea that the only way for a black woman to achieve unlimited power over her life and surroundings and embark on a magnificent adventure, would be in another realm, or another galaxy. But this is nothing new, the appeal of Science Fiction and Fantasy has always been in its ability to demolish the barriers surrounding your everyday existence. To allow you to build your own societies, explore your own versions of reality, to become omniscient and invulnerable, to find both adventure and true bone-deep love, contentment and happiness.
I went on to fall in love with Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, and especially his novel “Against a Dark Background”. The protagonist may not have been black but she was a she, and hard as nails as she limped through the novel with a caustic, ruthless determination that I lapped up over and over again. Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” graphic novels had the odd illustration of a beautiful dark skinned woman as the love interest for the character ‘Dream’. But whilst intriguing, only momentarily satisfied my hunger for recognition and connection.
I read on to discover brilliant female authors like Ursula K. Le Guin, Sheri S.Tepper and Patricia A. Mckillip. Grand dames of both Science Fiction and Fantasy literature, with careers stretching through the decades to the present. They are all captivating storytellers, and Sheri S. Tepper and Patricia A. Mckillip have written novels that I will continue to reread and cherish till the end of my days. Their bold feminist ideologies and challenging views on society, culture and the sexes, deeply resonated with me and helped shaped my world view, but again there was that fleeting feeling of wouldn’t it be great if the protagonists looked like me.
In my search for ‘fantastic’ black women I ventured on to Toni Morrison and attempted to read “Beloved”, but I have to admit my mind was not made to process ghost stories, the psychological effects last for weeks and are not fun. Added to which my interest was and still mostly is, about stories that are as far removed from our world and its constraints and prejudices as possible.
Dystopian futures and the like were of little interest to me, which of course ruled out a lot of literature that could have given me what I wanted as far as the physical attributes of a female character were concerned. I wonder what would have happened if I had read Octavia E. Butler’s trilogy “Lilith’s Brood” in my teens?
Then I discovered “Black Star Rising”, the first ever ‘space-opera’ I had encountered with predominantly black characters. The novel is a pulpy Sci -Fi, in which the damson skinned ‘Captain Mandella’, an intimidating and commanding woman, leads the all black crew of the Zsf-e5 engineering craft through various adventures in space. Written by Peter Kalu, a black British male writer described by Benjamin Zephaniah as being one of the first Afrocentric Sci-Fi writers. It had a forgettable story but for the fact that it was the first black Sci -Fi novel I had read. And there was something intriguing and fascinating about reading a book that was aimed at people like me.
I read on, and one day, quite by chance, I came across the ‘Matador’ trilogy of books by Steve Perry. Perry is neither a woman, nor is he black, but an author who happened to write one of the first Sci-Fi books I had read with a well-developed black female protagonist. When I began reading his first novel, “The Man that Never Missed”, I had no idea that there would be a black character with a pivotal role. ‘Dirisha Zuri’s’ appearance as a character that was prized and adored and very much on and part of the adventure was a welcome surprise.
I remember seeing the cover of ‘Matadora’ the second novel in the series and smiling to myself. ‘Dirisha Zuri’ was the ‘Matadora’, and her character was drawn provocatively but fiercely. Dressed in black and leaning seductively against a sufficiently powerful and futuristic looking vehicle, whilst holding up a gauntleted hand. With her African features she was clearly a dark and beautiful and powerful fighter. She was the hero, and this was her story.
I knew from having read the first book in the trilogy, that it wasn’t going to be Hugo award winning writing. It was nevertheless going to be an engrossing and satisfying adventure that I could thoroughly lose myself in. The ‘Matador’ trilogy seemed somewhat obscure, which made the books feel more personal and special. As did the warm feeling of finally reading about a black female protagonist that didn’t get humiliated or abused in any way. There were no nasty surprises waiting to bring me down. No having to read about a black female character being degraded.
‘Dirisha Zuri’ wasn’t second best to anyone. Her character was convincingly powerful and invincible. And as such she was totally free, like a black Kung- Fu ‘Barbarella’, she could go anywhere she chose, love whomever she wanted to love regardless of gender. More importantly still, she spent her time pursuing that which she loved. My ultimate dream, to be able to be free to fully pursue my own path. To have a life entirely of my own choosing, free from societal mores and constraints. I have yet to find another character quite like ‘Dirisha Zuri’.
I think it’s safe to say that the lack of black female characters in literary Sci-Fi and Fantasy, alongside the desire to release the characters and adventures filling up my head. Is definitely one of the motivations fuelling my need to keep writing my own stories in the genre. I have a fierce desire to unleash my black female characters unfettered by ideology, and perceived ideas of what it is to be a black woman in our society. To set them forth on weird and wonderful adventures to magical worlds, far flung galaxies and different dimensions.
In hindsight the fact that it took until my twenties to find a Sci-Fi book with an image of a dark-skinned and short haired black woman on the cover is rather terrifying, but at least I did. I didn’t need the protagonists to develop a politically black perspective. I don’t believe that we should allow skin colour to culturally define us. Yet, constantly reading descriptions of the glories of a protagonist’s sky blue eyes and perfectly pale skin can do a lot to disconnect you from the more pertinent aspects of a story. There is an undeniable importance in seeing people that look like you, not just in the world that you live in, but in the worlds that you want to live in, the worlds that exist in your imagination.
My joy of reading Sci-Fi and Fantasy has never waned, because for me it is the most complete form of escapism. When I’m stressed out, anxious or awake in the small hours of the morning with the fear. A cup of tea and a good book are my only true consolations. Preferably a novel with a story arc that has a strong feminist heroine on a strange planet, with an insidiously terrifying foe that she vanquishes in a devastatingly final way, or better still manages to subvert and control. I have read thousands of novels of this kind, be they Science Fiction or Fantasy. Including novels more recently by the African- American writer N.K. Jemisin. Novels containing strong female protagonists who are black, or fabulously alien or fantastical. They are like old friends and even though I know their stories well, there is always something new to gain from them. Some satisfying twist or turn of phrase, to ease my mind and settle my heart.