Shifting the Centre of Genre


Joe Sutliff Sanders

I became a literature professor because I am a nerd. I love books that my colleagues refer to disdainfully as genre (as though the novel weren’t a genre, as though literary weren’t a genre). When Books Combined asked me to write about what I love, I naturally chose speculative fiction (sf), the works of fantasy, science fiction, and horror that move me.

In this post, though, I also want to amplify work in and on sf by writers of color. Savvy Black nerds—blerds, I’m told—have been arguing for years that more nerds like me should be reading sf by people of color. John Jennings, the cartoonist and scholar, recently launched a new university-level course centered around Afrofuturism and ‘the visual cultures of horror,’ and Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, my favorite blerd, has a blog and forthcoming book about just these issues. Guided by such fellow lovers of genre (as well as a crucial blog in my field on Indigenous writers), I have been reveling in monsters and nightmares.

The BetweenThe work of these and similar writers has forced me to come to terms with a queasiness that I had allowed to fester in my reading preferences. My colleagues, for all of their snobbery, were at least open about their prejudices, but I had never quite faced up to a truth that these writers held up to me: I didn’t want to read sf by writers of color because I worried that such work would inevitably be about race. Being about race, it could not be about the characters, premise, setting, plot, or other aspects of narrative in which sf thrives.

That worry was stupid. It was grounded (as scholars of color have demonstrated) in a belief that White people can write about difference (for example, encounters with aliens, ghosts, vampires) without writing about race, but that, for example, Black authors can only write about race. It was grounded in an assumption that what White people write is the default, leaving, for example, the work of Asian authors only room to be a genre of a genre.

What I found instead was that the authors I loved most could, when they chose, write explicitly about race in ways that enhanced the worlds they imagined. Those are the moments I want to spotlight.

GhostSummerOne of my happiest discoveries was Tananarive Due. Her first novel, The Between, is more frightening because of the invisible walls that racism puts up around the family in danger, and it is also more convincing: the novel is about the horrific experience of a black family in the US, and they will have experiences clearly relevant to their race. Thus, the book is about race in that race, like gravity, exists, and like gravity, it must be accounted for in the calculus of the characters’ movements.  Due’s most recent book, Ghost Summer, is a collection of consistently excellent short stories. Her characters here, too, experience life as Black members of American society: as one woman feels the rising of a monstrous sexual desire, as others try to thrive as mothers in a world that reads black motherhood skeptically, their lives are informed, enriched by their blackness.
Monstress_Vol1-1Marjorie Liu’s comic book series Monstress plays more obviously with race, even opening with what certainly appears to be a slave auction, but it refuses to take for granted the lines of race that structure our own world. The series features two species at war, but the divisions within each society complicate any simple narrative. Too, Liu distributes characters of different skin colors across multiple sides of the conflict, defamiliarizing difference and forcing readers to understand how institutionalized discrimination works without the handy shortcuts of race as we recognize it.

Probably the best example of a horror novel both about and not about race is Stephen Graham Jones’ cunning Mongrels. Jones is one of those delightful writers who is both highly educated and completely unashamed to be writing genre, and this novel shows him at the height of his powers: it’s a sort of short-story cycle about a werewolf family constantly fleeing from the consequences of the destruction they leave behind. The chapters are sometimes obviously about indigeneity—what stories have been lost, what it means to pass, what traditions can be kept—and sometimes not, especially as the viewpoint character deals with growing up poor and lost.  Slipping in and out of view, race (and its kissing cousin, class) elucidates an Indigenous experience but never allegorizes it.

The Marrow ThievesFinally, there’s Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves, the freshest, most profound take on dystopia that I have read in years. The nightmare that Dimaline imagines is better because it is shot through with issues of race and sovereignty. As the viewpoint character flees the government desperately on his heels, shades of the real-world Indian boarding schools lend his fear a depth beyond his personal experience. On the one hand, he and his new friends are nothing more than a band of scrappy resistance fighters.  On the other, their history—fractured, traumatized, dehumanized, wrapped in the inevitable loss of a language that could allow them to think outside of Western structures—makes their fight more meaningful, more collective than anything I’ve seen before.

As I continue to explore these books that I (again, stupidly) avoided earlier in my reading life, I do want to keep thinking about how and when such authors sometimes use race to deepen their stories. I also want to see what they reveal about how White ideas about genre take on authority, how White discourse about difference positions itself as not about race when the same discourse by another author gets read as inevitably about race. Reading these authors has already nuanced my understanding of sf as a whole, and I’m a better fan of genre as a result.

Literature of QuestionsJoe Sutliff Sanders is a University Lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. His most recent book is A Literature of Questions:  Nonfiction for the Critical Child(Minnesota, 2018). Previous books focus on comics (The Comics of Hergé, Mississippi 2016; Good Grief!  Children and Comics, co-edited with Michelle Ann Abate, Ohio State University Libraries, 2016) and girls’ novels (Disciplining Girls, Johns Hopkins, 2011; Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden:  A Children’s Classic at 100, co-edited with Jackie C. Horne, Scarecrow, 2011).

The featured image at the top of the post is “Study in Red” Painting by Jonathan Thunder: