I haven’t dressed up for Halloween in years, can’t even remember the last costume I donned. But I was looking forward to getting decked out in my fangirl finest for The AfroFuturistic Affair, a costume and charity ball celebrating African-American artists, poets and writers of science fiction and fantasy. I was one of the featured authors for the event, along with Jaja Medjay, author of Renpet, and Rasheedah Phillips, one of the organizers of the gala and author of Recurrence Plot. I was all geeked out to be amongst my peeps — writers of color creating alternate realities and dystopian universes where black folks rule. Even though I was enthused about mingling with my fellow futurists, part of me felt like a sham.
I’m late to the sci-fi game. Horror is the genre I grew up on, and I can remember curling up with a Stephen King or Dean Koontz novel when I was nine or ten. I was fascinated by the idea of a lonely teen transporting objects (and bullies) with her mind and a pyrokinetic little girl with the ability to hurl mental firebombs to battle the bad guys. As a misfit, those powers would have come in handy on the school bus. Not that I wanted to annihilate the kids who picked on me, but I was seduced by the idea of having power, a commodity very hard to come by for a shy black girl.
As a teen, I attended a lecture given by Isaac Asimov, and I developed a reluctant interest in sci-fi. But most of the novels that I skimmed through had to do with white folks — particularly white men — in outer space, and I didn’t see myself represented at all. It wasn’t until I got to college that I was introduced to the works of Octavia Butler. I was thrilled to see black women who could levitate, time travel and lead a ragged army to safety in a post-apocalyptic society. Even after reading novels by Butler, Tananarive Due, who was one of my mentors at Antioch University Los Angeles, and L.A. Banks, I never dabbled in the genres of fantasy and paranormal noir. In fact, when I entered grad school, I was working on a novel about a woman living with a guy who may or may not be a serial killer. Heady stuff, I know.
I didn’t become familiar with speculative fiction until my second semester of grad school. One of my pieces about a black mannequin with pyrokinetic powers was being workshopped, and a classmate exclaimed, “Oh, I just love black spec fiction.” I didn’t intentionally set out to write fantasy, but my work had taken on a futuristic edge after I abandoned my serial killer novel. This newly discovered genre allowed me to speculate about future landscapes where black women are chased by hair vampires or policed by the Rage Patrol for having a temper. It gave me permission to critique issues of social justice in transgressive ways without being preachy. I had finally found a home in writing.
I know some people may not “get” my writing style. I’ve done fifteen readings across the nation since embarking on the Escape from Beckyville book tour on August 1, and I often have to preface my talks with a mini explanation of speculative fiction. I’m used to not fitting in, and much of what I write about is otherness — misfits and under dogs struggling to make sense of their identity and place in the world. I guess part of me felt like a fraud at The AfroFuturistic Affair because I don’t incorporate technology or apocalyptic themes in my work. I’m projecting my fears onto the peeps at the party, who were very complimentary to me and my reading. We’re all writers in the same struggle. What I do share with them is the desire to pen books about black folks with agency — be they on Mars or Manhattan — envisioning a future for people of color.
As the partygoers paraded around the loft in their futuristic finest, I realized that I had never attended a party where most of the people in the room were superheroes. It made me happy to see warriors, witches and warlocks of color, a sci-fi novel come to life. Author Junot Diaz says, “If you want to make a human being a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.” Not naughty nurses, zombies or entertainers, the costumes on display reflected empowered people of color on a quest to carve out brave new worlds. Even my dark angel outfit symbolized my desire to take flight in my own life. I’m proud to count myself among the futurists, crafting complex characters blasting away at the margins of their existence with swords, lightsabers and plain old sass.
For more photos from The AfroFuturistic Affair, visit the Escape from Beckyville fanpage on Facebook.