Genre Tokenism Today: The New Octavia Butler – Panel Report

After an embarrassingly long pause, I’m continuing with my write-ups of the WisCon 31 panels I attended. When I’ve finished writing about all of the panels, I’ll do a round-up post.

The second panel I attended on Saturday morning at WisCon 31 was “Genre Tokenism Today: The New Octavia Butler,” moderated by Nora Jemison and featuring panelists K. Tempest Bradford, Candra K. Gill, Nnedi Nkemdili Okorafor-Mbachu and Nisi Shawl. The blurb in the program was:

After the untimely death of the great writer Octavia E. Butler, some have asked who will take her place. A panel of African-descended women currently writing genre fiction addresses this question, talking about Octavia’s oeuvre and their own: similarities, differences, market forces, and the pressures to model their contributions to the field on hers. How many ways is this question just plain wrong? Who has a vested interest in there being “an Octavia,” new or old? What would a “new Octavia” look like? How does her literary legacy affect the field today, and how might it do so in the future? And how does this legacy relate to this disturbing question?

I was mightily intrigued by the panel description, and eager to hear some of the panelists – women whose writings I’ve enjoyed for some time – discuss the questions. This was one of the few programming items at WisCon 31 that I had no trouble whatsoever deciding to attend (the big problem is usually choosing between two or three equally interesting-sounding choices – but sometimes the right choice is clear). And I was not disappointed: this panel was definitely one of the best I attended this year.

Nora Jemison started off by introducing each of the panelists as “the new Octavia Butler,” which helped get the panelists started in discussing the meaty issues referenced in the program blurb right away, as they each denied being “the new Octavia” and explained why the label was inappropriate to each person.

Nnedi Nkemdili Okorafor-Mbachu noted that her stories have often been compared to Butler’s, even though the only things they have in common are the race of the author (and many of the characters) and that the stories are genre fiction. Her work, she said, is comparable in some ways – but it is also comparable (and with more validity) to that of other authors.

Jemison pointed out that “the next __”-style comparisons, mainstay of back cover blurbs and soundbites on talk shows, are usually made between authors who have something in common in terms of style or content. The women who are being described as “the next Octavia Butler” are comparable not because of similar style, but because of race and gender.

Okorafor-Mbachu felt that it’s a natural comparison to make. Octavia Butler was a very well-known writer, and it makes sense that people are looking to make a comparison between her and other authors – but it’s still inappropriate.

K. Tempest Bradford suggested that if there were more prominent black women writing science-fiction, people would be less tempted to talk about “the __.” An audience member joked about how it seems as thought there is only one space for a sci-fi-writing black woman. Octavia Butler’s untimely death left a slot to be filled – like a rent-controlled apartment. This reminded Bradford of something Tobias Buckell had written on his blog (which I did a little searching for, so as to quote accurately):

Someone says SF/F isn’t diverse, people respond by chanting “Hopkinson, Butler, Delany, Barnes” like it’s a magical phrase that dispels the +10 diversity attack spell.

The conversation shifted, as another audience member asked if it’s even possible to tell the race and/or gender of a writer from what they write. Jemison said that many works by black authors share similar themes – alienation, references to slavery – which, while often present in stories by white authors, have a certain “feel” to them that she picks up on as a reader. Bradford agreed that she can often tell a writer’s race from reading her or his work. Nisi Shawl observed that there’s an expectation from editors that black writers will deliver “black content,” adding, with a touch of humor, “whatever that is.”

Another question was taken from the audience: Could the questions about “the new Octavia” be coming out of a fear that Butler’s work and importance will be erased?

Candra K. Gill said that she thinks it is very likely, and also that she feels it is important to have a visible woman of color in the field, so that aspiring writers will know that it’s possible for them to get published. Okorafor-Mbachu pointed out that there are actually quite a few black women – and men – writing genre fiction, and that there have been for some time. They’re just not as highly visible as Butler was, for whatever reason. Shawl talked about Nalo Hopkinson (who is herself often described as “the next Octavia”), who is very active in editing and trying to get more attention and exposure for other writers, trying to increase visibility for women of color in the genre.

An audience member told a story about a friend who had tried to join a black writers’ group and was turned down because her fantasy piece marked her as somehow “not black.” Bradford said that this is one reason why representation in genre fiction for writers of color is important – it’s good to show that they do exist.

Jemison observed that speculative fiction really ought to appeal to more people of color, because it can so often be transformative and progressive. Gill responded with some thoughts on how difficult it can be to be a black sci-fi fan – who do you talk to about it? Do you go to cons?

Jemison agreed that safe spaces (and the perception of spaces as safe) are important. It seems that many fans who are people of color need to know they’ll be safe at cons, and they might not feel comfortable (for good reason) attending white cons.

Gill observed that a further complication to being a person of color who writes or is interested in genre fiction is that many writings by people of color are mis-categorized – science fiction stories are labeled and marketed as magical realism, and so on. Okorafor-Mbachu observed (if I’m recalling correctly – somehow, this bit didn’t make it into my notes) that this has happened to some of her work.

An audience member asked what readers and fans can do about the situations explored by the panelists. Bradford talked about the SF Bookswap program, saying that she’d be interested to see a version for writers of color. Shawl encouraged fans to join the Carl Brandon Society, donate to the Octavia E. Butler Scholarship Fund (right now is a really good time!), and submit nominations for the Kindred and Parallax awards. Gill suggested that readers nominate works by people of color for other awards for which they may be eligible. Jemison asked readers to write to their favorite magazines and other publishers, requesting more of the types of stories they want.

Audience members also had ideas. One suggested that fans who are teachers can try to use works by writers of color in the classroom, exposing students to authors they might not otherwise come across, and also driving some book sales. Another audience member pointed out that book clubs are also a good way to give greater exposure to writers of color. Another idea from the audience was to request books by writers of color through local libraries, and to donate books by writers of color to school libraries.

One audience member suggested that creators who are not people of color can still help to make people of color more visible in genre fiction and art by depicting them. This particular suggestion made me twitch a little bit because of concerns about potential appropriation, but I think it’s worth thinking about. If a creator approaches something outside her or his experience with respect and a willingness to do the hard work and research (Writing the Other, by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward, might be one good place to start – I don’t have a copy of the book yet, but I’ve heard great things), I think very good things can often result.

The panel pretty much wrapped up with these suggestions about what fans and readers can do, and I think it ended on a very high note. One of the things I love about many of the conversations to be had at WisCon is the sense that yes, something is very wrong with [fill in the blank], but yes, something can be done about it. I really dig the optimism at the con, which makes a good contrast to the prevailing mood I remember from most of my women’s studies classes in college, which was rage and bitter frustration. Those are important things to feel and explore, I think, but also draining and often disheartening. The “Genre Tokenism Today: The New Octavia Butler” panel at WisCon 31 was not. It was energizing and inspiring. I’m so glad I attended.


  1. says

    This was an awesome panel write-up; thank you! Just a note–it’s actually Okorafor-Mbachu (w/a “c” in the middle there). I noticed it was a typo in the program book, which I assume is where you cut & paste it from. :)

    (& also? Her book _Zahrah the Windseeker_ is a FABULOUS wonderful book that everyone should read if they haven’t already. :)

  2. says

    I followed that whole conversation at Tobias Buckell’s blog, and it got quite interesting… I’m on the fence about appropriation. As a person who writes (though still looking for that first big publication for $$) in the SF genre, I would like to include a) women and b) diversity in my writing. It seems like assuming that, because I am a white female, I can only write the white female experience is only contributing to the problem. Even though I cannot “authentically” write from the perspective of a person of color.

    When you think about the nature and settings of SF as a genre, I arguably know as much about the life of a person of color 500-1000 years from now as a person of color today does. (Oh dear lord, I am hoping this is not coming out wrong, because here comes the flaming.) But what I’m trying to say is that it’s reasonable to expect that our cultural experience is going to change drastically in the far future. What do we know about anybody’s ethnic/cultural experience in the future? For all we know, we’re all one shade of brown or another, because we’re mixed. Therefore I think it’s a big assumption for me to conclude I can’t write characters of color. Every white male writer thinking this way is what got us into this trend of the depiction of a lily white future in the first place. As long as the writing is done thoughtfully, I think it is appropriate for me to write characters of color even though I am not a person of color.

    But I guess the key is thoughtfully. Because appropriation of the “OMG ninjas are cool, let’s make everyone Asian!” type is not the kind of appropriation I mean.

  3. SunlessNick says

    I think it was Neil Gaiman who defined “writing like Alan Moore” as “writing unlike anyone else who has written comics before.”

    The same should apply to Octavia Butler: to be the “next her” is to be so unique a writer as to make being the “next anyone” a meaningless descriptor – or to put it another way, the next Octavia Butler and the next Arthur C Clarke would be the same person – it’s an easy soundbite, but rubbish when analysed.

  4. says

    johanna – thanks for the correction! I’ll edit the post in just a minute. I had, indeed, taken the spelling from the program book. I’m glad to hear an endorsement of Zahrah the Windseeker – I have it written down on my list of books to read that I compiled at the con this year, and I’m really looking forward to getting a copy. :-)

    Duru Antilles – I think you’re on the right track, myself. I think for white creators to avoid writing characters of color out of fear of doing it wrong is a bad thing, for the reasons you outline. But I also think that white creators should be, as you say, thoughtful about it. We should do the research, be respectful, and be open to criticism for the times when we screw it up.

    I think genre fiction is a great place to be trying to write outside of our own experience – there are lots of possibilities there that don’t exist for people writing, say, modern mysteries, and we should take advantage of them to write with greater diversity.

    SunlessNick – “it’s an easy soundbite, but rubbish when analysed” – Yep!

  5. Qit el-Remel says

    Octavia Butler was a pioneer, not a token. It’s an insult to her memory—and to the talents of any women (or men) whom she may have inspired—to tout one author as “the new Octavia Butler.”


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