All My Stories Are Political. I Checked.

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Turns out the SFF I write is pretty political? Who knew? The answer is, everybody. Everybody knew. Including me.

Art by Odera Igbokwe, from the short essay Fantasy’s Othering Fetish.

Sometime recently in the geek-o-sphere yet another attempt was made to create a politics-free SFF zone. The newly formed Apolitical Jedi Order sent out a tweet declaring their intent: “We are a new organization hoping to steer the sci-fi/fantasy community of creators away from the bickering and fighting over non- sci-fi/fantasy issues and back to just creating wonderful new stories.” It mostly went every which wrong way it could from there, including downhill–fast.

Given all the temper tantrums thrown in the SFF community over PoC, women and LGBTQ writing stuff that makes puppies sad, calls to get “back” to some time when pesky things like race, gender and sexuality didn’t intrude into genre are met with understandable skepticism.

When questioned about what exactly “non-sci-fi/fantasy issues were,” the League of Unconcerned Gentlemen got kinda heated, responding: “I have to say the anger & vitriol in response to our guild’s existence is… telling. We choose to walk a higher path. We choose to welcome all creators w/o having to pass a political/social litmus test. We choose to offer a place where politics aren’t shoved down the throat 24/7.” Yeah. That’s not defensive. Also, not the best way to win over friends or influence people.

So turns out the Centrist Death Eaters were pretty much the kinda people we suspected they were. No surprises. But as I read other folk quite rightly reading them the riot act, by pointing out nearly every bit of SFF is political, from Frankenstein to LOTR, I started wondering about my own writing. Was I, *gasp*, a political SFF writer? Would any of my stories meet the approval of the White “Meh” Council of Middle-earth?

I decided to find out. Here goes!

First up, The Machine. It was the first story I’d ever published back in 2010 and appeared online in Everyday Fiction. It’s about a guy who finds out there’s a machine somewhere in Brooklyn controlling the world, with authoritarians, religious fanatics and nihilists battling for its control. Yeah. This one was part Focault, part Greek mythology and part Democracy Now! It’s got politics seeping out its pores.

Next, Shattering the Spear– my first published fantasy story, picked up by  Heroic Fantasy Quarterly in 2011. It’s about a warrior who hunts for a mystical spear against the terrible Witch Priest. A key theme in the story, is slavery. Spoiler: slavery’s bad. Another one is colonialism. Also, bad. Not to mention, political. Did I mention that the mystical spear searched for in this story by the hero is actually taken from the name for the armed revolutionary wing of the African National Congress which was co-founded by Nelson Mandela in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre? Moving on…

Also in 2011, my story Wings for Icarus was published by Daily Science Fiction. It was inspired in part by my Dad falling out of a tree (he broke an arm but he’s fine now–thanks for asking!). It also includes mentions of the black inventor Elijah McCoy, with the main character alluding to stolen secret government technology: part Black History lesson and part X-Files, with a dash of Greek mythos. The story was also featured as part of The Fractal Project: a non-profit project aimed at bringing arts and sciences closer to people, as well as promoting creative thinking in Latin America. Yeah, I’m gonna go ahead and say there’s politics all over this one.

Here’s a possible contender. The Nganga’s Nkisi– a brief bit of light-hearted fantasy based on the age-old story of the sorcerer’s apprentice published by the House of the Flying Pig–Hogglepot. The tale involves two young initiates of a local Nganga and a rather mischievous enchanted Nkisi. So is the story political? Well, the idea for this tale came about because I wanted to tell the more commonly known “sorcerer’s apprentice” story but in a Central African setting. Why? Because Africa is woefully marginalized in fantasy, and certainly children’s fantasy. So even if the story is not overtly political, my aims in creating it certainly were. Guess that doesn’t pass. Hey, I tried.

Then there’s Skin Magic–a story close to my heart, because it brought me back to writing. It was published in the print anthology Griots in 2011. It’s about a thief who robs from the wealthy who finds himself haunted by magical abilities that loose Lovecraftian nightmares. Like a few of my stories, it also takes place in an ancient/medieval African-setting. And my reasons for doing so are (as I previously mentioned) quite intentional and related to the politics of representation. There’s even a scene where I take a dig at more “traditional” Eurocentric fantasy, by mentioning a far off dark land of ice and snow where men drape themselves in fur and iron and ride into battle–which our Sahelian protagonist finds too absurd to imagine. Guess I forgot to “steer-clear” of politics.

Fantasy Pick is a story I wrote that was published in Every Day Fiction in 2012. It’s about football. Well, to be clear, its about a football player who sells himself (literally) to corporations and who becomes a commodity. The idea was sparked by my thoughts on the ways in which fantasy football drafts mimic the world of professional sports–where players are traded and moved around like commodities to suit the whims of their adoring fans. The story was  influenced by the works of William Rhoden and the  sports journalism of Dave Zirin. About as political as you can get.

What the Sea Wants was published by Daily Science Fiction in October 2012 and tells the story of a young girl turned old woman who is continually called to the underwater world by a childlike being who lives there. The story was influenced by my island roots and the tsunami that struck New Guinea back in the 90s. But what probably makes it definitively political, is that it’s also an allegory about how myths intended to control girls and women come into being.

Men in Black published in the print anthology STEAMFUNK is about a mysterious man and his even more mysterious Men in Black who arrive in a small Southern town. It’s also, primarily, about a lynching. Racial violence, terror, white supremacy: it’s got enough politics to make a Gamer Gater cry.

Ghost Marriage was published in 2013 for Griots: Sisters of the Spear. Catch that title? The entirely anthology’s purpose was to highlight not just women in speculative fiction, but Black women. So it’s political, right out the gate. Ghost Marriage itself is about a woman shunned in her society who is seeking to get a divorce from the spirit of her dead husband. Did you read some political overtones in there? Good. Also, I came up with the idea listening to a talk show discussing the historical institution of marriage in the wake of a larger national discussion at the time on legalizing same-sex marriages. So there’s that.

With a Golden Risha  was my second story in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, published in 2015. It’s a story about an oud player who ends up on a pirate ship. I know you’re thinking, aha! That’s just some good swashbuckling! No politics there! I should mention that these are anarchist pirates led by a guy who regularly spouts political treatises straight out of Marx. He’s also trying to start a revolution.

In May 2016, Tor.com published my novelette A Dead Djinn in Cairo. How much politics is there in this story? For one, the entire idea of an alternate steampunk Cairo filled with djinn came about with me thinking of a way to undo colonialism–in particular, the Battle of Omdurman. I also wanted to subvert typical Orientalist themes of the decaying East with a 1912 Cairo that was both cosmopolitan and modern but not inherently Westernized. Enter a Sufist mystic and scientist named after a 9th-century Islamic thinker al-Jahiz, who uses machines to bring both djinn and magic back into the mundane, up-ending the entire colonial world order as we know it. The protagonist, Fatama el-Sha`arawi, is a cross-dressing strong-willed and capable young woman; she’s also named after the early Egyptian feminist Huda el-Sha`arawi.

Sometime in the summer of 2106, my story Redemption for Adanna was published in the Myriad Lands Anthology for Guardbridge Books. The purpose of the anthology was to feature fantasy stories from around the world (myriad lands) and not just Europe. Pesky politics! Redemption for Adanna was a sequel of sorts to my 2011 short fantasy story Shattering the Spear, and deals with similar themes of slavery as well as issues of identity and “colorism”–of a fashion.

My story The Mouser of Peter the Great was published in November 2016. It was part of an anthology called Hidden Youth, whose purpose was to focus on stories of marginalized youth (as in, not the usual white male central characters you’re used to). Uh oh. Sounds rather politic-y already. My story was about a young African “Moorish” boy who finds himself brought before Peter the Great. It was inspired by the real life Abram Gannibal, the great-grandfather of the “veritable Shakespeare of the Russian literary tradition,” Alexander Pushkin. Pulling on histories of Eastern slavery and revolving around the issue of lost identity, it also draws on Peter the Great’s attempts to “westernize” Russia and the country’s overlapping of Western and Eastern cultural spheres.

In December of 2016, my story The Things My Mother Left Me appeared in Lightspeed’s sister publication Fantasy-Magazine’s People of Colo(u)r Destroy Fantasy. You probably guessed it already: the whole anthology is dedicated to non-white people blowing up fantasy by centering non-white people. So I’m gonna go ahead and call it political. It’s also got a non-European setting (a secondary fantasy that draws in great part on Central Africa and the Caribbean) and features a young heroine living in an autocratic society that punishes women for using magic. Also, there’s a revolutionary named The Bandit Queen.

I returned to the world of Dead Djinn in Cairo in 2017, this time in an anthology called Clockwork Cairo: Steampunk Tales of Egypt. My contribution was a short story titled, The Angel of Khan el-Khalili. Not only is it set in an already inherently political alternate world steampunk 1912 Cairo, but the central character is a factory worker and deals with Victorian-Edwardian Era issues of labor exploitation, strikes and bosses. Because of course it does.

And I think that’s it. I got a set of upcoming stories in 2018: one trying to uncover the lives of the teeth of enslaved people owned by George Washington; a tale of a young woman who must take down an autocratic ruler who is leading a kingdom down a path of war, ruin and mass poverty; and a novella set in an alternate New Orleans during the Civil War, with themes on everything from African religion to slavery.

Looks like I can’t steer-clear of politics infecting my stories. It informs my writing. It informs my characters. It informs my imagination. It informs my very reason for creating. I guess I’ve always known I was a political writer of SFF. Because there are no “non- sci-fi/fantasy issues.” We bring everything to this process–ourselves and the larger world around us. Ignoring that isn’t choosing “to walk a higher path.” It’s willfully refusing to see the realities that shape us, and that shape the stories we tell.

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39 thoughts on “All My Stories Are Political. I Checked.

  1. I guess what they mean with “non-sci-fi/fantasy issues” is actually “anything that reminds us there are people with different opinions, backgrounds and experiences than we’re used to”… Which is sad in itself, but especially sad for SF/F, which (for me, at least) is all about different opinions, backgrounds and experiences, as well as different visions of how the world could be. Which is why I, personally, am really grateful that more diverse authors are pushing for visibility.

    And, you know, if those people don’t like that – well, there are still plenty of authors who write for that audience, too. I don’t think they’ll run out of “safe” SF/F anytime soon.

    By the way, did I ever thank you for linking to the pages of artists whose art you use on your blog? Because there’s some great stuff to discover there, so thanks!

    • It is some sad cognitive dissonance. I’ve known folk who cold wax on with pride about how JRR Tolkien’s Middle-Earth was drawn from his experiences on the battlefield in WWI; how the Ents were part of his ideas on ecology and preservation; or how Sauron represented his fears of over-industrialization. But ask about perhaps racialisms in his writings regarding Orcs or Far Harad, and they go all Treebeard: “Now, now. Don’t be hasty.” It tells me that folk are fine with “issues” in SFF–just not the ones that make them (personally) uncomfortable. Says quite a bit when you’re more likely to accept talking trees than the realities of things like race.

  2. I was thrown, at first, by the name on the blog. For some reason, I was thinking Phenderson. A man’s name for sure. Then I started reading…and the numerous references to women as protagonists had me questioning my assumption. So…maybe it’s a pseudonym and the writer is a woman? Then I looked on Amazon to see if the story “What The Sea Wants” was available…and the name was associated with another name, Daniel Jose Older. So, I was back to the…is it a he or a she? Perhaps the work was an anthology written by two people?

    So, while you may have thought you were writing on the question of politics in SFF, you were really setting up narrow-focused people like me for a treasure hunt trying to find out your gender. As if, somehow, your gender is tied to the relevance of your position. There’s never enough time to address all biases, is there?

  3. I love every single one of your story synopsis. I am going to try and find your works in my local library ( I usually don’t buy ).

    Regarding the topic in question: Fantasy Books need to be political. When dealing with magic and other unreal objects, a bit of realism grounds the story for me as a reader.

  4. Pingback: All My Stories Are Political. I Checked. — Phenderson Djèlí Clark – Babies

  5. I don’t mind some fantasy, but in my youth when I used to read it, I preferred hard science fiction stories. (Some scientists I’ve read about confess that some of their inventions were inspired by science fiction.)
    Jules Verne, Robert Heinlein, H.G.Welles, Phillip K Dick – constantly reprinted not only because they make us think but also because their stories are worth the re-read. Writing political SFF isn’t new. But it seems to me that it’s political correctness that has invaded the genre. Perhaps that’s what people are complaining about.

  6. Love this!

    and not only your sci-fi/tantasy writing is informed

    Looks like I can’t steer-clear of politics infecting my stories. It informs my writing. It informs my characters. It informs my imagination. It informs my very reason for creating. I guess I’ve always known I was a political writer of SFF. Because there are no “non- sci-fi/fantasy issues.” We bring everything to this process–ourselves and the larger world around us. Ignoring that isn’t choosing “to walk a higher path.” It’s willfully refusing to see the realities that shape us, and that shape the stories we tell.

  7. Peace and Love , mind-swimmers I enjoy reading your degrees. I have a solution for all points that might give help if self accepted ,”define the root for FICTION “. Etymological . Peace

  8. I’m intrigued by the defensiveness of groups looking to de-politicize fiction, as though representation of a non-“default” identity in a story is so intrusive that it could be detrimental to a story. As though somehow apolitical situations should be the default. It’s telling that these readers don’t want politics intruding in their fiction, since it requires a degree of privilege to be able to ignore politics in everyday life.

    I love your sarcasm, and “the White “Meh” Council of Middle-earth” is perhaps one of my favorite phrases ever written. Thanks for this insightful piece — I’m eager to read more of your work.

  9. My writing doesn’t come close to reaching the heights that yours reach, but I find myself in teh same situation, except out in real life Like all I talk about is politics. But thats what got us so rankled up in it and why we go to music festivals at at all. We’re feelers, and for us, emotional pain can be un bearable. I digress. Just wanted to say I love our art

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