People of Color are constantly carving out spaces for themselves within the areas of our interests. Sometimes it’s for comfort, most times it is out of necessity. It’s a reaction to our voices being minimalized, our commentary becoming footnotes or the misconception that we don’t have much to contribute to a space. Almost every professional field or organization has a sector of people of color grouping together to create opportunities for recognition and a platform for topics and conversations that may go unheard or aren’t prioritized. There are associations for Black doctors, lawyers, students, the list goes on. It’s no different when it comes to our hobbies. With the rise of geek culture, also came the need for spaces where we could rejoice when a Black character makes it to the end without dying in a science fiction thriller, or that a character who looks like us is killing it in a major role. Online forums and social media groups have become a hub for Black nerds (Blerds) and geeks. Though these groups provide a soap box and a celebration of our geekdom, there is a still a need for visibility and representation above the surface.
In the literary world, a report by Fireside Fiction showed that there were more talking animals in books than there were people of color. When confronted about the disparity, the response from the industry is usually to uphold the myths about creators and consumers of color. They say that people of color aren’t buying as many books, or that we’re not interested in certain topics, specifically Science Fiction. Then the onus falls on the creators of color to bring characters to life who look like them. All people of color are also lumped into the conversation when discussing diversity. If one Asian writer is featured, for example, then many literary outlets feel that they are not excluding non-white writers. But even then, the gatekeepers of the industry insist that Black Science Fiction writers don’t exist.
Meanwhile, there was a growing community of Black Science Fiction writers moderated by P. Djeli Clark, and Troy Wiggins getting rejected or being passed over by editors and publishers. So, in the tradition of not being given a space to share our works and ideas, they created one. In 1926, when there was a need for space for Black literature we got Fire!! Magazine where writers such as Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston shared their words. The magazine only had one issue as a result of a fire at their headquarters. In 2016 when there was a need for space for Black Science Fiction writers, FIYAH Literary Magazine, a publication where writers of color could share their work, was born from the ashes.
On making space for writers of color, Justina Ireland, one of the Executive Editors of the magazine says, “Black people are writing stories, and if there are no Black writers in your magazine, then there’s a problem with your magazine,” says Ireland. In regards to the literary world as a whole, “Editors need to look at themselves.” She continues, “They should really ask themselves, why don’t they like this story? Is it because they don’t see themselves in it? Or do they really think Black people won’t buy Science Fiction?” “Aversive racism is still racism,” she concludes.
With that said, it’s no surprise that FIYAH is described by its creators as “Part literary incubator, part middle-finger to the establishment.” Great writers with a deep-rooted love for Science Fiction are encouraged to submit their work. From the editors to the artistic director, the team is comprised of writers. Everyone has a love for Science Fiction and well-written stories. “We all have been rejected. We know what that feels like,” says Ireland. So, one of their focuses is to also give feedback to writers who submit but may not be chosen for a particular issue of the magazine. “If it doesn’t work, we let people know why, and encourage them to keep submitting.” When describing the type of submissions they are looking for, Ireland states, “We look for writers who talk about the things your friends made fun of you for. The robots, the magic, Greek mythology, we want magic and mayhem.”
Ireland is no stranger to being an “other.” Growing up in a trailer park and being among the few people of color in her area, she found solace in devouring all of the comic books she could find on the spindles in the grocery store. Though she is a champion for being an example that the Black geek communities do exist, she does relate to the apprehension of many to acknowledge their fandom. “You don’t want to be the weird kid when you are already the Black kid,” says Ireland. But she also addresses why Science Fiction and Fantasy are ideal for people of color. “Fantasy allows us to look at the problems that are insurmountable and handle them.” In regards to the superhero narrative, “they are larger than life and can deal with things that an average person may not be able to because they exist outside of the issues, and they have the resources to handle it. Like racism. They represent a hyper-realized version of self. It gives us a way to deal with things.”
When asked about the other sectors of Black geek fandom such as cosplay she further addresses why representation matters. “I’m not a cosplayer, but I think it’s awesome. Though there is always a troll in some corner of the internet making comments when a Black person decides to dress up as their favorite character who may not be Black…how many times are we supposed to dress up as Storm (from X-Men)?”
Ireland also tackles the mislabeling of Black writers in Science Fiction. With the conversation usually springing out of analyzing the works of notable authors such as Octavia Butler, there are times when a story is released about Black characters in Science Fiction settings; they are categorized as “Afro-Futurism.” The confusion according to Ireland is, “It’s a shorthand for Black people who write Science Fiction but not all Black Science Fiction is Afro-Futurism.” Ireland also points out, “Octavia Butler doesn’t just write stories with Afro-Futuristic themes. She also writes time travel fantasy.” She further explains that “Afro-Futurism, is not just a Black person in Science Fiction, the genre takes problems from the diaspora to an extreme conclusion. When you are the Black person writing a spaceship story, it’s not the same thing. White people who write fantasy that takes place in a certain era in England, aren’t categorized as Steam Punk.”
Though FIYAH is a magazine that features stories that capture the true essence of Science Fiction written by people of color, starring people of color, and for people of color, the point is to still have works written to be read by everyone. However, there is still a bit of resistance from non-people of color. “The response is that it’s not for them. But there are a lot of things that are ‘not for me’ that I still enjoy.” She goes a bit further into the issue, “I think that (as a non-person of color) when you have a million stories that are for you, then you think that every story should be for you.”
There was a time where no one identified as a geek or a nerd; you were labeled as such. The cliché nerds and geeks were the outsiders who wore glasses and ill- fitting clothes, were thought to have the best grades, and had a fondness for comic book heroes and science fiction stories. Those roles were represented on the small screen by characters such as Screech on Saved by the Bell, and Steve Urkel on Family Matters. They were bullied, they barely ever got the girl, and no one wanted to be “them” in real life. Now, that many of those nerds and geeks have grown up to be the captains of their industry, it’s a label that many claim, but still few are truly about that life. Ireland and the FIYAH team are geeks to the core, leaving a permanent mark in the Science Fiction genre. “You can’t walk into a comic bookstore without tripping over a rugged white man on the cover,” says Ireland. But with FIYAH on the literary scene that’s definitely about to change.