Book Review: How Long ’til Black Future Month? – N. K. Jemisin

by @edent | # #

A young black woman stares off into the distance. Her amazingly styled hair is filled with geometric shapes.

In the first collection of her evocative short fiction, Jemisin equally challenges and delights readers with thought-provoking narratives of destruction, rebirth, and redemption. In these stories, Jemisin sharply examines modern society, infusing magic into the mundane, and drawing deft parallels in the fantasy realms of her imagination.

The preface of this book unreasonably annoyed me. It rails against the unjust nature of contemporary publishing, throws around industry-insider terms without explanation, and complains about the state of the sci-fi market.

I accept that fandom may be problematic, and the publishing industry might be deeply discriminatory – but I’m just a casual sci-fi / fantasy fan. Unless there’s a photo of the author on the jacket, I don’t know their age, race, gender, or much else. I didn’t like feeling as though I was being castigated for something beyond my control.

(Aside: I know there’s a long history of women authors using male or androgynous pseudonyms. And I can’t help wondering if Nora Jemisin becoming N. K. Jemisin is a deliberate obfuscation strategy.)

Once I got over myself and my insecurities, I was blown away by her stories. I’d gladly have read a full novel of all of them. One or two would be on the top of my Netflix miniseries queue. The writing, plotting, pacing, and characterisation is superb.

But it leads me to a question that I find uncomfortable: what is “black” sci-fi? The author has a great blog post about being relegated to the African American section of a library, and I understand that I can’t fully empathise with her position.

When I read books, I kinda randomly distribute characters between my friends and celebrities. Unless they are obviously described as having black skin, or blonde hair, or towering height – in which case they get a nearest-match.

Now, that in itself isn’t bias free. The movies I watch almost certainly don’t reflect the diversity of society. But I sort of assumed that people didn’t just default all characters to looking like them.

One of the curious things about this collection of stories is how rarely race is mentioned. That took me down an interesting intellectual exercise of forcing me to recognise every character as implicitly non-white.
Does it change the way you view the actions of the protagonists in, say, Harry Potter if you picture them all as non-white? Is Hermione a harmful stereotype of the book-smart Chinese kid? Is Draco a problematic trope of a violent Latin-American gang member? Is Harry a role-model for black students?

Jemisin’s collection of stories is fantastic. Each one is a precious jewel. And, I’m glad to have my biases and reading choices examined and recalibrated.

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