Sorry, no Elementals in Delft for you.

Observe.

Exhibit A:

We do not publish children’s books, poetry or short story collections, unless by an author already on our backlist, nor are we looking for fantasy and science fiction submissions.

Exhibit B:

Please note that we will not consider the following submissions: Science fiction; Fantasy; and Young Adult fiction.

Both these statements can be found, respectively, on the submissions pages of RandomHouse Struik and Penguin Books.

To say that I am stunned would be severely understating my reaction. Let me make a list for you: The Lord of the Rings; The Hunger Games; Twilight; Harry Potter; A Song of Ice And Fire; Vampire Diaries; True Blood; Divergent; The Mazerunner; Star Wars; Star Trek; Vampire Academy; anything by Anne Rice; anything by Lauren Beukes; The Parable of the Sower; The Hobbit.

If the South African publishing industry had its narrow-minded way, none of the above would have made it to the shelves, much less any screen you care to think of. Had J.K. Rowling been a South African author, the publishing houses of this country would have said no to, and likely scuppered, one of history’s most beloved book series. Because, make no mistake: Harry Potter and all his things is young adult fantasy.

There is obviously historical and economic precedent for this kind of attitude, but I will not go into it. Dave-Brendon de Burgh does a much better job than I ever could in his discussion “Why is SFF Stifled in SA?”, which painstakingly details the highbrow elitism the literary world makes itself guilty of, along with the staggering hypocrisy that underpins the approach major South African publishing houses take to SpecFic (I’m going with Dave’s definition of SpecFic, which is: “… the term I use to describe Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, etc. and which was popularized by Robert Heinlein in 1947.”). At the end of his piece, Dave concludes:

The only way this terrible and completely exclusive state of affairs will change is if South African publishers begin to take Speculative Fiction (Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Urban Fantasy, etc.) seriously. That means creating an imprint which focuses ONLY on SpecFic, and which seeks to find, develop and grow the talent of South Africans writing SpecFic. No such imprint (or department) exists within the big South African publishers. As we’ve seen above, either they don’t accept SpecFic submissions at all, or only accept those submissions if you have an agent or have written a Literary Science Fiction or Fantasy novel.

He is very right, in this. However, like most of the pieces that consider the South African literary and publishing world, his argument lacks the socio-economic context required to fully understand the devastating effect of the narrow-minded and dangerous attitude of publishing houses and, indeed, the literary world in general towards SpecFic. If anything, most lack the required contexts that put in place the truly problematic and outrageous attitudes that permeate the literary world.

Let me put it to you plainly: the dismissal of SpecFic on a publication and agent level in South Africa excludes writers of colour, and in the main (here in this country) black writers. That’s the short of it.

The long of it is complex and interwoven but, initially, can be brilliantly illustrated by this quote from Lauren Beukes — a much loved and very successful South African science-fiction writer — who describes the process of getting your SpecFic published to Ryan Peter as follows:

Phew, that’s a big question. You need an overseas agent who is based in London or New York where publishing lives. You need a finished book that you’ve polished and polished and polished to send out to agents. There are lots of online resources on how to get an agent and how to query an agent. If this is something you really want, keep at it. Make it happen. Going to international cons is amazing for networking and I’d highly recommend it (that’s how I got my first comics gig from a chance encounter with Bill Willingham and he only came to my reading cos he felt sorry for me cos I was so nervous) and it’s possible to do on a severe budget by sharing accommodation, nicking muffins from the hotel breakfast buffet for later (bad etiquette, I know, but I was crazy super broke) or eating instant noodles, but getting an agent is about amazing writing and a great story, well told. In the end, that’s what really matters. (emphasis my own)

One thing becomes abundantly clear here, apropos the idea that the literary world is hella exclusionary: Lauren did not fully unpack what it means to be black when she created Zinzi December. Writing black characters as anything more than nods to diversity requires a deep and empathetic understanding of the black experience.

That understanding would have prevented a comment that does not take the structural inequalities faced by so many in this country into account at all. Anyone can be a writer. I believe that. Everyone has a story to tell, and writing is just about learning to tell it well. But not everyone can get an international literary agent. Not everyone has access to online resources. And only a handful can just climb onto a plane and head to an international conference. Basically: getting an agent is not just about amazing writing and great story. It’s also about accessibility, about money, about inherent bias (because everyone is out of their mind if they think the colour of your skin doesn’t play a role in whether your novel gets published or not, and how it happens) and whether the process is different if you’re a female writer, if you identify as part of the LGBTQ community, or as non-binary or as trans.

Once upon a time, I was having this conversation with a friend and explaining (in painstaking and very tolerant detail) the inherent racism and bigotry that is interwoven into the literary world when I got fed a line that roughly posed this ludicrous theory: people of colour don’t read speculative fiction. How anyone could cling to this extraordinary belief is beyond me, but it ignores the glorious reality of the genre: that Afrofuturism is a growing movement which is gaining historic momentum; that speculative fiction is intrinsically important to showcasing black perspectives and highlighting the struggles of marginalised and oppressed peoples (specfic generally centres around struggle, c’mon), not to mention relatably drawing parallels between specfic and our own broken society. [Dan’s note: for a truly enjoyable exploration of Afrofuturism, check out Kodwo Eshun’s essay “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism”.]

The structural and industry-specific oppression and bias that exists in the publishing world of South Africa needs to be highlighted for the dangers it poses to having a diverse, informative and entertaining bookshelf. Plainly put:

1. It excludes writers of colour. The process by which a book of the specfic genre (which I have shown is relative to the experience of people of colour) is published in South Africa is by its very nature inaccessible. As it is so baldly stated in the quote above, you need finances and resources and time to find an international literary agent and somehow get your vampire story up on South African shelves. If you’re familiar with the black experience in this country, then you’ll know it’s hard to find a job, and an apartment, never mind a globally recognised book agent. Black people are still struggling to not get likened to animals in South Africa. By rejecting specfic and young adult submissions, the publishing industry effectively cuts off any kind of option for those bright young things who want to tell amazing stories.

2. It sets up an unhealthy understanding of specfic for the audience. This is briefly mentioned in Dave’s article, but I want to add to that the idea that specfic and, largely, young adult novels, are both white- and western-centric. In some cases, this is very overt, and in others it is more subtle, and can be considered more a lens with which the world is viewed, rather than a specific instance of bias. Like the audience is conditioned toward a certain type of specfic (literary fantasy springs to mind immediately), the same can be said of the characters and the worlds that are created. Audiences are repeatedly introduced to white- and western-centric specfic, and this births the absurd trend of people being unable to identify with only white characters; absurd because it’s often white people that spout this nonsense, and doubly so because people of colour have been required to swiftly overcome that hurdle if they want to get out of their heads a little bit. It’s unfair on a scale I can barely comprehend.

3. On the RandomHouse Struik submissions page, they request fiction stories with a “South African flavour”. I’m not quite sure what that means, since my idea of a fiction story with “South African flavour” is one about how the zombie apocalypse began in Durban central. As my friend JS put it (and boy, she really put it): “The stories we are allowed to tell are about poverty, crime, politics and virulent racism.” Once more, the industry is enforcing negative concepts on brown and black bodies, further entrenching the stereotypes attached to people of colour everywhere. Not only that, but it again conditions the audience to expect nothing else from writers of colour — any published works out of the accepted norm are rejected. This problematic approach severely limits the scope of stories being told.

4. It murders the market. And not just in the way most people say when defending this battered dynamic. Rather, it never even gave the market a chance to start, never gave South Africans a chance to test themselves against stories of dystopia set in East London. A ripple effect from that is also accessibility — specfic books are so damn expensive because they are all imported. We are not allowed to tell our stories, and we cannot even afford to read the stories that are acceptable.

It is, for a lack of better phrasing, a fucking mess.

I shudder to think how many mind-blowingly great stories we have buried under all of this kak praat.

Some time ago I (rather naively, I now fear) wrote about why there is no culture of reading in South Africa. I theorised that the common clarion cry of ‘black people don’t read’ is very true, because there are no stories for them. That there are no stories that the majority of the population can relate and aspire to. There are no brown superheroes, or teams of black kids swarming every disaster that comes their way. No aliens. No gods and monsters. No magic and mystery and legend and myth. No super computers. No dystopia (even though a country that is desert, mountain, jungle, sand and sea would be perfect for a dystopian setting) and certainly no zombies, vampires and werewolves. I say naively because I didn’t think it through all the way to the end, and did not recognise how truly oppressive it is.

Now I know why ‘black people don’t read’ (as I’ve said before, a laughable statement at best). It’s because there are no stories written about people of colour, for people of colour. And that is because the genres that people of colour feel most drawn to are not welcome at South African publishing houses, and if a person of colour can break free of the myriad of other social constructs that inhibit them, they are lucky to get an agent who will pay attention to their time travel trilogy. It becomes virtually impossible to write your stories, for your peoples.

I shudder to think how many mind-blowingly great stories we have buried under all of this kak praat.

I’ll be honest: I don’t know where to from here. It almost too entrenched for me to willingly engage or consider it. At the same time, the literary world is undergoing a much-needed critique, and could likely use a period of self-reflection while we all consider the lengths to which this industry goes to keep out young, modern, writers of colour. It would be criminal of me to distance myself from that. I arrive at many of the same conclusions others do: that the industry needs to be reformed on a fundamental level; that horizons need to be stretched and expanded, particularly when considering what constitutes literature; that woke intersectionality needs to be the MO; and that all writers, publishers and agents need to be concerned about the environment in which their craft exists.

Until that happens, our engagement with a genre that is viscerally, culturally important to humanity is becoming limited and blinkered. It could very well become very definitely not life-changing.

Imagine the look on Octavia Butler’s face if that were to happen.

[Author’s note: I wrote a follow-up piece to this, which had to be taken down amid some very dubious reasoning. So I definitely jotted down a follow-up piece to that directive, which deals with my personal disappointment and how privacy settings often protect, enable and shelter bigotry.]

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