College of African art

Expert offers 21st-century statement on the future of African diaspora

By

Marshall Terrill

Black speculative fiction can trace its roots to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, but it's currently experiencing a big resurgence thanks to the twin successes of the movies “Black Panther” and “Get Out.”

The genre encompasses elements of fantasy, science fiction, horror and magical realism and often references black history and culture.

But a lack of awareness and promotion by mainstream media means it can be daunting for a new reader to know what the genre is or decide where to start. That’s why Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination is welcoming author, editor and FIYAH literary magazine co-founder Troy L. Wiggins to ASU’s Tempe campus.

At this special event, co-presented with School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Wiggins will present a public lecture on the power and potential of black speculative fiction and the popularity of the genre since the release of the two films.

ASU Now spoke to Wiggins in advance of his Feb. 11 presentation, “The Future Ain’t Gonna Write Itself.”

Black man in glasses and blue shirt

Troy L. Wiggins

Question: What was the genesis of black speculative fiction and how has it grown over the years?

A: This is a complicated question with a complex answer. Defining speculative fiction broadly as imaginative literature and narrative that uses fantastic themes to reckon with our pasts and futures, it can be argued that the genesis of black speculative fiction is the genesis of black humanity. But I don’t think that’s quite what we’re looking for here. 

Talking in modern literary terms, it’s generally accepted that the first published work of black speculative literature was Martin Delany’s serial utopian novel “Blake: Or the Huts of America,” which was published in 1859. However, it’s entirely possible that there were black authors publishing speculative fiction before then.

Early black speculative fiction was political, as black life tends to be, and the themes reflected those politics. With regard to genre, the work that we see used as exemplars dealt with utopia and folklore, with utopian authors looking at the black international past to think deeply about the futures of themselves and their people. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, both concepts and production of these stories expanded and globalized, with authors like Pauline Hopkins exploring the connection between African Americans and Africa in her serial novel “Of One Blood,” and African authors exploring their own rich histories and mythologies in speculative work like Thomas Mofolo’s “Chaka.”

This expansion and globalization of authors, theme and story continued into the mid-to-late 20th century, with black speculative authors such as Octavia E. Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Nalo Hopkinson, Nnedi Okorafor, Tananarive Due, N.K. Jemisin, Nisi Shawl, Maurice Broaddus, and many others continuing to produce speculative fiction that examined black life and imagined our collective futures.

Q: The name of your publication is a tip of the hat to a previous publication called Fire!! Talk about the link to the past and how FIYAH is a continuation of the original.

A: Fire!! was a Harlem Renaissance-era magazine published by a collective of African American authors that sought to provide a more modern, realistic view of the African American experience using literature. There was some generational tension in the literary space at the time, and younger authors wanted to showcase the more controversial viewpoints of the newer generation of black authors. About the publication, Langston Hughes famously said its goal was to “to burn up a lot of the old, dead conventional Negro-white ideas of the past … into a realization of the existence of the younger Negro authors and artists.”

Unfortunately, Fire!! only published one issue before going under, but FIYAH has risen from its ashes. FIYAH is a response and continuation of the goals of the original Fire!! magazine, but with a laser-focus on black speculative fiction. Part of (the goals of Fire!!) were to provide a publication outlet for younger black authors, because publication space in the periodicals of the time was limited. FIYAH rose to being as a response to the results of the 2016 #BlackSpecFic report which showed that about 3% of the stories appearing in professional science fiction and fantasy periodicals for that year were written by black authors. FIYAH, like Fire!! before it is a space open to black authors of all identities, and of all experiences. We seek to elevate and uplift both black speculative authors and their fiction and assist in creating a pathway to professional authorship for them.

Q: What makes for compelling black speculative fiction?

A: Reading tastes are, of course, many and varied, so I’ll answer this one from the only perspective that makes sense to me: my own.

I love black speculative fiction that unashamedly, unapologetically, presents its blackness in a compelling and evocative narrative. That narrative, nor its themes, need be any more political than the politics of living while black demands. What I care about most is a black story that has the resonance, resilience and complexity that good human stories demand, but told from a black perspective. I love black speculative fiction that draws on a part of black history or experience that exists more closely to truth than stereotype, and that features black characters that feel real and true to me.

I’m obsessed with the future. Accordingly, I love a good near-future science fiction, dystopian or magical realist tale that takes our ideas of race, identity, society, community, culture and innovation and throws it all into a blender. I love stories that throw off the labels and crosses of complex identities like blackness even as they speak to the interconnections that those identities force us to navigate and reckon with. I love narrative that looks unabashedly at our best and worst natures and gives us a deeply human story within that horrible mess, and even better if it sticks close to your bones and revisits you whenever you close your eyes.

Some of my recent favorite works of black speculative literature are N. K. Jemisin’s “Broken Earth” trilogy and “The City Born Great,” Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s “Friday Black,’ Victor LaValle’s “The Ballad of Black Tom,” Xen’s “Cracks,” Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ “Bluebellow,” Phenderson Djeli Clark’s “The Black God’s Drums,” and the work of Imade Iyamu.

Q: What areas/genres does black speculative fiction delve into, and what's considered taboo?

A: Black speculative fiction’s narrative and thematic potential is as boundless and infinite as the lives, experiences, and imaginations of the people who create it. The idea of blackness has often been used as a crutch or a cross to limit black authors and the types of work they produce. An example of this is the emphasis on slavery and its attendant racialized and gendered horrors as a driver of character development or innovation.

The best black speculative works and narratives reject that outright, or look to minimize the aspect of titillation that those thematic choices have generated among consumers of black speculative narratives in the past. Instead, forward thinking black speculative art and fiction can look at black history, culture and values with either human detachment, using it as contributors, not drivers, to character and plot, or with pride, seeking to uplift those elements with respect and honor in the work. It can be argued that black speculative fiction’s goal, besides entertainment, is imagining and shepherding potential futures and if that is the case, what is taboo are those themes and stories that promote regressive ideas and attitudes.

Q: Where do you see black speculative fiction heading in the future?

A: It’s here where I admit that I’m deeply afraid of doomsday, so barring eventual human extinction, my hope is that we see a deeper diversity of stories by a larger and more representative group of authors. Black speculative authors and artists are still at the mercy of industrial and institutional gatekeepers. Now, various movements and coalitions have arisen to combat those gatekeepers and those coalitions have enjoyed some thrilling victories, but much work remains.

It would also be interesting to see what kinds of political philosophies and ideology arises from black speculative fiction receiving a wider distribution in this post-"Black Panther" media landscape. Afrofuturism has already moved from a purely creative movement into one that incorporates creativity into community advocacy and organization. As the future looms, I’m excited to see how these modes of thought and creative production coalesce into movements that seek to create the futures depicted in black speculative art.

Top photo: "Building Afrotopia" collage, 2015, by artist Stacey Robinson. Courtesy of ASU's Center for Science and the Imagination.

"The Future Ain't Gonna Write Itself" is part of the 2020: Year of Anticipation and Foresight series, co-sponsored by the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, the Center for Science and Imagination and the Center for the Study of Futures.