Interview with N.K. Jemisin

#BlackSpecFic: A Fireside Fiction Company special report

(Read our report, editorial, and essays.)

I interviewed N.K. Jemisin last week, after sending her our report and the underlying data to review. For this post, I’ve taken excerpts from the transcript of our voice interview, but have otherwise not edited them.

N.K. Jemisin is an author of speculative fiction short stories and novels who lives and writes in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has been nominated for the Hugo (three times), the Nebula (four times), and the World Fantasy Award (twice); shortlisted for the Crawford, the Gemmell Morningstar, and the Tiptree; and she has won a Locus Award for Best First Novel as well as the Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award (three times). You can read more about her on her site.


To start, I asked N.K. about her reaction to the report and the data.

The numbers in general don’t surprise me.
The genre has moved towards embracing people of color, which is great. I don’t have any issue with that whatsoever. The percentage of those people of color writers who are black being really small, again, does not surprise me.

N.K. talked to me a bunch about the self-published black fiction market, which predates the wider self-publishing movement that grew out of ebooks. She pointed to it as one of the many reasons that black submissions rates might be lower proportionate to the population. (NOT to exclude institutional racism in publishing as a cause, but in fact as a byproduct of it.) She also strongly encouraged me to reach out to members of the black self-publishing community to talk about these issues, which I’d like to do in the future.

Black writers have their own market. They’ve got their own place to go. There’s a thriving field of self-published stuff in particularly black fiction. I don’t know that other groups of people of color have that same recourse. You know, the absence of black writers within sort of traditional publication markets is not necessarily indicative of the number of black writers who are out there.

There’s a gigantic market of self-published and small press published black fiction that kind of eschews the whole traditional published market simply because back in the nineties when all of this really kind of kicked off, you know, with E. Lynn Harris, and Zane, and all that, back in the nineties when all this kicked off the traditional publishing industry basically treated black writers as if they were anomalies. They would let in the occasional one whose work appealed to white writers. In the science fiction field there was the magic four, Hopkinson, Butler, Delany, and Barnes, and they didn’t even acknowledge Tananarive Due at that point, which is really kind of hilarious. They were just the traditional four, and that was pretty much it.

In mainstream fiction black writers made a lot of money just simply going off and doing their own thing, printing their own books, literally selling them out of the trunks of cars, famously in Elaine Harris’s case. The publishing industry kind of sluggishly moved to catch up with that, creating the category that we call African American interest fiction, but the side market, the original self publish market, remains. When you talk among black writers, all the time the big debate among young up and coming writers, and this is a debate that I was part of, the big debate is are you going to bother with the traditional market, or are you just going to go for our market basically?

I asked about the genesis of this market.

I would say that that was originally created by the industry’s reluctance to publish black writers who weren’t trying to appeal to white readerships or non-black readerships. That industry still exists. It’s still, as far as I understand it anyway, lucrative enough that people can, not necessarily make a living off of it, but make some money and feel like they’re not constrained by trying to write to everyone. They can write just to black readers if they want.

When you’re saying that there is an under-representation, understand that it comes from both ends. It’s coming from people who are fed up with and don’t expect to see themselves in traditional publishing, which is an issue. That is definitely an issue, because the under-representation has led to a thriving parallel market among other things. Just understand that there are some folks who aren’t trying.

We then shifted to talking about short-fiction markets and the markers of which ones are welcoming to black writers (and other marginalized groups) and which ones are not. This touched on #RaceFail several times, the 2009 discussion in the speculative fiction community that generated hundreds and thousands of blog posts. If you want to read more about it, here is a good place to start.

I will say that a lot of people will look for, kind of since RaceFail and since the various discussions that we’ve had about this in the field, a lot of people will look for that statement of, “We are interested in publishing diverse writers. We welcome writers of color and other groups.” A lot of people won’t submit to markets that don’t overtly do that, simply because that’s the sign that they’re not listening to what people have said. Pretty much since RaceFail I think people are kind of self-selecting. There are so many really good markets out there that there are plenty of good ones that they can find.

You just look on their submissions pages and if they don’t have a statement, it’s pretty obvious. RaceFail was such a watershed event that I can’t speak for other writers, but I know I look for that. If I don’t see it, that tells me that I’m dealing with a publisher who hasn’t been paying attention to the industry. It may not necessarily mean that that publisher isn’t open to publishing characters of color by writers of color, or by nonwhite writers, or whatever. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s any kind of exclusionary thing going on.
It does mean that that publisher is either not keeping up with what’s happening and/or is not interested in kind of putting out that welcome mat to counter years of the very exclusion that you’re kind of pointing out. Those numbers that you’ve shown, those numbers suggest that there has either been a pattern of intentional or unintentional bias that has been taking place for some time. Like I said, the reaction to that has been, on the part of black writers, to get the hell out and go do their own thing.
All that said, it was such a watershed event, and it was so seminal in kind of pointing out what publishers need to do in order to counter the history of exclusion. Even if they didn’t intend it, the history exists, that I look for that. If I don’t see that, that tells me that that publisher is either opposed to the idea or hasn’t been paying attention. Either way they’re not a good match for me.

Finally, we talked about something Fireside has noticed in our submissions piles, that often writers of color or other marginalized communities are writing stories that feature your standard straight white-male protagonist doing standard straight white-male things. This touches a lot on the #OwnVoices discussion. (A good intro to #OwnVoices can be found here.)

All people who grew up with science fiction, and fantasy, and horror went through the whole acculturation process of the genre. We were all told to read the golden age writers. We were all told Heinlein, and Asimov, and all these straight, white male, although some of them were Jewish. Some of them may have been queer, but not out. We were all told to read the same kinds of stuff. To some degree some of us actually just want to read more of that stuff. There’s the comfort fiction factor, even if it is writers of color writing about straight, white guys. Well, we ought to have the right to write about straight, white guys too if we really want.
That said, I mean, it took me until the age of thirty before I tried to write a black woman. You write what you are acculturated to write. You write what you learn how to write. If you’re reading almost nothing but science fiction containing straight, white guys going forth and doing straight, white guy things, then you’re going to feel weird, you’re not going to know how to write those own voices. It takes practice. It takes practice to do anything unique within this field, period, in writing, practice doing anything unique in writing.
There’s also the danger of being … What’s the word? Not typecast I guess. Typecast is the closest word I can think of to it. Writers of color have to wrestle with that. There’s the danger of us being expected to carry the weight of writing all the characters of color out there. If we want to see more black characters, there are a lot of black writers who feel like we have to do that, and we can’t do anything but that. It becomes a problem, because it means that we are then self-segregating and others are segregating us with the expectations that we fit to that. I would just say if you’re seeing a lot of writers of color who are writing traditional stuff, it’s partly because that’s what they’ve been taught to write. It’s also because they’ve been taught that that’s what the genre wants. Again, unless you see that statement to the contrary, it’s wise to assume that that is what the genre wants, especially in markets like say F&SF, which have printed almost nothing else.
Any writer kind of who knows what they’re doing goes forth and grabs a copy of an issue of something that they want to be published in or they skim it online. They read what that market has been doing. They see a particular flavor of fiction. Unless that market is doing something to counter that assumption, those writers are going to naturally assume that they want more of the same, which is how bias becomes a self perpetuating thing. Even if the editors of that market don’t intend for it to be sending that message, it’s going to. When you’re seeing that you’re seeing writers who are trying to break in. They’re trying to write what they think the market wants. Again, if the market wants something different, they’re going to have to say so.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Brian J. White’s story.