by Beverly Aarons
Witchcraft, futuristic tech, goblins, mermaids, magical spells, dystopian/utopian futures, and other fantastical imaginings are all common themes in science fiction. And every Black nerd knows that there is a sizable number of Black people who love to read the genre. So why is it still so difficult to track down speculative fiction stories written by contemporary Black women authors? There’s certainly no shortage of Black women writing in the genre. And many of those writers are incredibly prolific. The biggest challenge seems to be curatorial. Some of these works remain “undiscovered” by a wide swath of readers because there are not enough people who seek out, read, and vet published science fiction stories written by Black women.
Fortunately, there’s an app for that — well, more like a website. Sistah Scifi, an online bookseller, makes it easy for Black readers (and everyone else) to find contemporary science fiction written by gifted and accomplished Black women writers. Founded in 2018 by Isis Asare, Sistah Scifi is a “cauldron of all things afro-futurism — mysticism, science fiction, voodoo, magical realism, speculative fiction, and horror — casting spells to uplift literature written by Black women.” I had an opportunity to speak with Asare about her bookstore, her mission, and the origins of her love of science fiction.
“I think a lot of times Black literature is tied to Black pain or anti-racism,” Asare said. “And what I love about scifi is that it allows you the space to completely re-imagine your world with no confines, with no limitations, where every single rule can be questioned. And when I started Sistah Scifi in 2018, I desperately needed that freedom as a woman — as a Black woman.”
That sense of freedom from confines wasn’t something that Asare got to taste very often growing up in Houston, Texas. Like the children in Octavia Butler’s “Lilith’s Brood,” she was immersed in a culture that was in many ways alien to her Ghanaian parents.
“I used to think about my parents and how interesting it must be for them,” Asare said. “They grew up in Ghana. They came to the U.S., and they’re surrounded by this culture that must feel very foreign on some levels — at least the details of it, you know? And then to have children which then feel very foreign. They don’t — we didn’t necessarily sound like them, we didn’t respond to a lot of stimuli the way they do. The way we move in the society is very different from them. In some sense, we must’ve felt like a different species.”
And it was a desire to fully understand the new culture in which Asare was living that caused her to delve deep into African American literature. She read “The Color Purple” in the fourth grade. Not exactly children’s literature, but it gave her young mind a glimpse into the Black American experience.
“Most of my close friends are African American.” Asare paused and repeated “African American” for emphasis. “They were born here. Their family had been here for generations, and they had so many experiences of Black America that were very different in my home. So I had to actively study what it meant to be Black in America. … What was eating chitterlings or learning how to play dominoes or spades? Because it’s not like the aunts or uncles would come over on the weekend and my family would play spades. We played different games because we were West African, but that just did not translate to my friend group in terms of validating my cultural sense of being Black.”
Asare’s interest in African American literature grew as the years progressed, but she didn’t begin to discover the rich canon of Black women science fiction writers until after graduate school when she discovered Octavia Butler. And it wasn’t until the launch of Sistah Scifi that she uncovered an even deeper trove of writers who weren’t necessarily famous but who were great storytellers exploring the freedom of possibility for their futuristic Black characters. These science fiction stories broke the rules and disrupted hierarchy. It was something that deeply appealed to Asare.
“I think creating that space where you break all the rules, like the hierarchy associated with gender or beauty or race or wealth,” Asare said, “allows you to question some of the assumptions that a lot of the times society does not question. Like, ‘the wealthy man is wealthy because he is smarter and did something right and does something better than the rest of us. The poor person on the street is on the street because of whatever,’ and it allows you to step back and question those assumptions that oftentimes go unquestioned. You don’t even know that those are in your operating system. And I think it’s important because those assumptions are often chaining us and limiting us. But you can’t remove those blockers if you don’t know that those assumptions are there.”
Fortunately, many assumptions are being removed, especially around who is part of the science fiction community and how Black women should show up in the world.
“So for me, my interest in scifi and my interest in Black culture was always very disparate — like separate from each other,” Asare said. “And I feel like now there’s more room for them to integrate. There’s just more popular, more accessible places where it’s cool to be a Black nerd and weird. … And it’s freeing.”
Beverly Aarons is a writer and game developer. She works across disciplines as a copywriter, journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and short-story writer. She explores futuristic worlds in fiction but also enjoys discovering the stories of modern-day unsung heroes. She’s currently writing an immersive play about the themes of migration as well as a series of nonfiction stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their local communities and the world. In August 2018 she produced a live-action game and event where community members worked together to envision an economic future they truly desired to leave future generations.
Featured image: Isis Asare (courtesy of Isis Asare).