Reading Towards Anti-Racism: Challenging Preconceptions with New Suns
One of the responses to the increased urgency and visibility of the Black Lives Matter movement in June 2020 was a call for white people to expand their perspective and interrogate their privilege by reading the work of Black authors. In the field of speculative fiction, this meant a proliferation of lists of work by Black authors. These calls, however, also generated a backlash of critique that these kinds of actions, while worthwhile, were limited and mostly empty gestures in the face of brutal systemic injustices.
As a teacher of writing and reading and science fiction, I believe that reading is not an empty gesture: there is research to support that fictional narratives can change who we are and how we interact with the world. If this is true, then it follows that there is real power in what and who we read. At the same time, how we read affects the impact that reading can have. As an instructor with the power to choose what my students consume, it’s important to me to select diverse authors. Whether I do this in a commercial or a university setting, my choices determine what is made visible. And as a white teacher, who teaches mostly white students, I am called to actively interrogate what our responsibilities as readers and consumers are when engaging with work by BIPOC authors. This essay explores how engaging critically with speculative fiction by BIPOC authors can help white readers become better allies and advocates, focusing on the anthology New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color (2019) edited by Nisi Shawl. I argue that how we engage with these texts is what matters, unpack the dynamics of such work, and offer a call for collective reading.
In October 2020, I offered an online class covering the New Suns at a Washington, D.C. bookstore, Politics and Prose. The class was small — seven people. Of my seven sign-ups, all were women, though we ranged from baby boomers to Gen Z. Not all of us were white, but none of us were Black or Indigenous. There was also a range in terms of our familiarity with speculative fiction: three of the women were knowledgeable and fairly prolific science fiction readers.
Overall, our status as cis professional-class women who could afford to and were interested in literature classes in our spare time made us a fairly homogenous group. Because of the goal of the anthology and the direction I set us on at the start of the first class meeting, we were intentionally grappling with what it meant to read authors who were writing from a perspective that was not ours. We were appreciating, and paying for, the work of BIPOC authors without asking those authors or token BIPOC class members to share their own experience or act as representative of a minority viewpoint. It was a space for us to ask and try to answer questions like “what experience of reality is represented here?” ; “how much of this representation is for me?” ; and “what do I do as a reader when I am the outside perspective or my reality is not represented?”
Reading a piece of speculative fiction is like a game: the reader is attempting to discover clues that illuminate the world the author has built. It is the responsibility of the author to leave enough clues that the reader understands the world and can make educated assumptions about pieces that aren’t explicitly discussed. Much of the craft of speculative fiction is in the elegance of world-building, so that a reader learns and discovers without pages of exposition. A reader of speculative fiction attempts to understand a world that is not their own. Betsy Huang, in a discussion on science fiction and race, has described this as a process of “unlearning” so that the reader can make “space for different ways of understanding.”
Speculative fiction by people of color offers an additional and important step for white readers— orr, indeed, any readers that are not familiar with the traditions or background of the author. But “unlearning” requires that readers move away from the assumption that the default perspective aligns with theirs; arguably, white readers are the least prepared to deal with this, given their overwhelming representation in media. They must look for the clues in the author’s world-building, but they may also find themselves without the required context or perspective to understand the information the author is providing. Thus, the white reader must exist in a space that is not for them and that they cannot fully access, replicating, in an imaginary space at least, the lived experience of BIPOC authors.
In Science Fiction after 1900, Brooks Landon discusses the process of reading SF as like learning a new language, in that SF readers are required to engage with something that is literally new, that goes beyond just a metaphorical change of perspective. In the New Suns stories, like with many speculative fiction works by BIPOC authors, race is not represented through allegory. Race and racism are represented directly in these stories, though the speculative aspects allow more allegorical representation of other issues — power, colonialism, imperialism, resistance — enabled by the recognition of a racial imaginary.
New Suns opens with “The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex” by Tobias S. Buckell. With a few well-crafted pages, Buckell situates us on a future Earth that has become an intergalactic tourist destination.It is easy to get caught up in the humor of the story — aliens asking for “authentic human food” and being flown to Harlem instead of downtown Manhattan — but an analytical reading of the story reveals the message underneath — “Galactics” have bought all the best real estate and pushed humans out of many spaces. The damages of intergalactic tourism are meant to illustrate the way tourism changes native opportunities and access. Not everyone in the class was conscious of this message after their first reading — they were more concerned with the work of deciphering the world-building — but our discussion of this aspect led them to appreciate the story more than they had when just reading it at face value and to grapple with what it means to be the individuals who may be engaging in that tourism.
“Deer Dancer” by Kathleen Alcalá is set in a post-apocalyptic North-Western US, and the protagonist, Tater, of Mexican-American descent, is a gifted plumber who has “True Dreams.” There’s an elegant distribution of “clues” that flow seamlessly with the narrative and allow the reader to piece together important conclusions about this post-apocalyptic world and how it works. But the climax of the story provided more obscurity than clarity for our group of readers. Our group really struggled in discussing this story. Everyone agreed it was beautifully written, which made it a pleasure to read. However, we felt like we didn’t have the context necessary to fully understand the events and meaning of the story. And we shouldn’t demand that stories be told so that we can access them.
Reading and discussing this story was uncomfortable, but productive. As a teacher and scholar, there is often an impulse to find the answer – to be able to say “this is what happens” or “this is what this means.” Reading and teaching stories like this in New Suns forced me into a position where I could not always do that. There is a freedom in being able to embrace that lack of knowledge and access. There is also humility in it. Yes, I could research these authors and the traditions they are drawing on, but that will not allow me to replicate the impact of coming from and being in those lived realities.
These stories either take place in or directly reference the United States and which deal most explicitly with our country’s racial legacies. However, the collection offers a broader scope of landscapes to disrupt and distance the reader, and the contributing authors represent a range of perspectives across age, race/ethnicity, gender and sexual identity, and country.
Minsoo Kang’s “The Virtue of Unfaithful Translations” is a historian’s retelling of how two translators judiciously mistranslated letters between rulers in order to avert a war. Reading and discussing this story was another exercise in ignorance, in an engaging and invigorating way. We had never read anything written in this style: Kang in an interview described the story as a mix of “East Asian historical writing practice and storytelling.” Because of our unfamiliarity with Korean history, we were unsure how much of this was a complete fantasy world, or whether it might be drawing on historical events or common mythologies. In spite of, or perhaps because of, this, we all agreed that the story was a delight to read.
While any work of speculative fiction can produce the effects described above, an anthology of short stories like New Suns is particularly powerful because of the constant work of destabilization as the reader moves from story to story. This, I think, is where the importance of communal reading comes in. While the deeper resonance of the texts can be reached by an individual, that’s not always the goal when sitting down to read. I’d argue that most people read for pleasure. Even the texts that I’ve written about academically, I read for pleasure first. But it takes sustained attention, conversation, and being involved in other critical or analytical conversations to go from reading to thinking about a text. Even the most talented academic is not going to arrive at a sustained and thoughtful analysis entirely on their own.
There is research showing that “story can be a vehicle for social change” by allowing readers to recognize prejudice through the story vehicle and then apply those lessons to social problems. This suggests that not only can reading socially impact the world, but that “connecting with narrative” is enjoyable because it is a social process, and, therefore, can be most effectively done as a social act. In addition, white readers will come with blind spots.
Their privilege and their perspective may make it difficult to realize some of these readings. And, as I mentioned above, in some cases that was exactly the point of this reading group: to sit with what isn’t ours and what can’t be known. But in terms of thinking about racism and how these texts can illuminate the systems of white supremacy, white readers may need to work together`. White readers collectively and thoughtfully analyzing speculative fiction by BIPOC authors can benefit from the social experience personally and take that benefit into the larger social relations of society.
I want to be clear that reading is not enough. White people and other allies must actively work on being anti-racist and dismantling white supremacy. But collective analytical reading of speculative fiction by BIPOC authors can prepare white readers to better engage in that work.
Leigha McReynolds teaches first-year writing at The George Washington University and classes on science fiction and British Literature at Politics and Prose bookstore. She is also a professional writing coach and consultant. Leigha’s research covers disability, narrative, gender, and eugenics in science fiction. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram.
This review was commissioned from an emailed pitch in December 2020; it was edited by Ashumi Shah and copyedited by Jake Casella Brookins. ARB wanted to use caution commissioning an essay on reading BIPOC SF through a white lens, and went through several rounds of edits with the author to address some of these concerns. No review copies were arranged by ARB.