The changing faces of science fiction: notes from my event with PEN America

Thanks to PEN America for hosting a thought-provoking event at KGB Bar. Over the course of two hours, I joined Maria Dahvana Headley (the Magonia trilogy) and Haris Durrani (Technologies of the Self) for a fascinating discussion about science fiction and fantasy.

We discussed African, Queer, and Muslim perspectives on writing, including what excites us and terrifies us as authors. I especially enjoyed their thoughts on world-building, which as a writer is one of the most enjoyable and difficult aspects of crafting a speculative fiction story. You’ll be able to find the rich catalog of stories we referenced during our discussion on the event page at Pen.org. And I recommend you check out Maria and Haris’s stories. They’re good.

Lead photo credit by Bayo Olukotun

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photo credit: PEN America

Lessons from my event with Cuban sci-fi writers and translators

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On Wednesday, I joined a group of stellar writers and translators to discuss Cuban science fiction at the Bronx Museum. We covered a lot of ground over the two hour discussion, which finished off with a sumptuous meal of empanadas, wine, and beer. Here are some takeaways:

  1. Cuban science fiction is a mature and fascinating field. According to scholar Yasmín S. Portales-Machado, the genre has gone through several waves in Cuba, which began in the 1950s with pulp fiction and carried over into the 1960s before being crushed in a cultural clampdown in the 70s. Writers re-emerged in the 80s to begin pushing forward the genre again. We’re now in a golden era of writing with authors such as Yoss and Erick J. Mota, among many others.
  2. Many Cuban science fiction writers are deeply trained in science. A quick scan of the biographies of the authors in Words Without Borders’ May issue reveals that several authors studied physics or biology. In my opinion, this has led to sci-fi literature that is both lyrical and technical — an extraordinary mix that is rarely seen.
  3. Cuban artists are concerned about copyright. Authors have benefited from being able to read and watch sci-fi content at very affordable prices, giving them access to the latest explorations in the genre. (An expensive book costs $3, and the current government salary is $20 per month.) If copyright sharks swarm in and start cracking down on file sharing and piracy, there’s a risk that authors may be isolated in the short term from great content. Maybe publishers could promote Creative Commons licensing in the meanwhile as a stop-gap measure.
  4. It’s still not easy for Cuban authors to travel to the U.S. The visas of Yoss and Erick J. Mota were delayed by the U.S. embassy in Cuba, and they were only able to visit the U.S. after our event. This is unacceptable and violates their right to seek, receive, and impart ideas — a cornerstone of free expression. The U.S. needs to step it up.

Thanks to Esther Allen, Hillary Gulley, Yasmín S. Portales-Machado, and Karen Phillips for a lively discussion.

What does a black stormtrooper mean for creators of color?

I published a piece for Slate: FutureTense on Afrofuturism. In the article, I take a look at various trends unfolding within black thought and culture on science fiction and fantasy. Are black characters in scifi merely window dressing, or are they part of an emerging movement?

I interviewed Nnedi Okorafor, Ytasha Womack, Lisa Lucas, and Lionel Queen — all creators and publishers of color who are doing amazing work.

You can read the article here.

New Story in Watchlist by O/R Books

I’m really excited to have been published in the new fiction collection The Watchlist: 32 Stories by Persons of Interest by O/R Books. Expertly edited by Bryan Hurt, the book features some fantastic writing by authors such as Charles Yu, Cory Doctorow, and Carmen Maria Machado. It is the first fiction collection on surveillance after Edward Snowden revealed the scale and scope of the global surveillance regime.

My story in this collection, We Are the Olfanauts, was published in Electric Literature. You can read a great introduction to the story by Bryan Hurt on the page.

Short story published in Electric Literature

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Electric Literature featured my short story We Are the Olfanauts in its “Recommended Reading” series. I’m really honored — it’s a fantastic publication with a wide readership. The short story features a young Kenyan man whose job is to sort through the content at the world’s hottest new tech company — which specializes in scented social media. The story, which you could call science fiction, is part of the fiction collection Watchlist by O/R Books edited by Bryan Hurt. Basically, I was interested in the people behind the smooth user experiences of surfing social media like Twitter and Facebook. Who are the human beings tasked with examining our expressive content, which can sometimes be the worst that humanity has to offer?

I spent a few years developing this story, with lots of starts and stops, so it was great to have it published, and to have it featured on such a great site.

You can read the story here.