Black Future Month is here.
In her 2013 essay, “How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?,” writer N.K. Jemisin, whose future would include historic victories as the first African-American writer to win a Hugo Award for best novel, as well as being the only person to ever win that award three consecutive years, made it clear that she wasn’t being seen in the genres she loved. Science fiction and fantasy are supposed to embody imagination, but rarely ever deviated from the safe confines of white male heteronormativity. Why, she asked, “was it easier to find aliens or unicorns than people of color and realistic women” in two genres that took such pride in being marketed as “speculative?”
With How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?, Jemisin’s first short story collection, the acclaimed author answers her own question so that future generations will never have to ask it. The leads in the 22 stories contained herein are mostly women, people of color and occasionally queer, and represent some of Jemisin’s earliest work after she decided to make writing her “side-hustle.” Becoming a transformative literary figure was less important than paying her utility bills and student loans, so this collection is partly an origin story where the hero claims and hones her powers and has to be braver and more committed than her male peers while constructing her safe space so the rest of us can bear witness to the wonders she’s created.
And they are wonders. This isn’t a chronology from earliest published work to latest bit of crafted finery, but an ark of genius that spans science fiction, fantasy, horror and historical fiction. It seems ridiculous to be surprised by the excellence of craft in the shorter works of a novelist whose writing has become the standard within her genre, but there is no warning preparing you for the abundance that is this collection. By her own account, Jemisin came to writing short stories reluctantly, wanting to focus instead on novels, but there’s no evidence of that in the work. She is like Franca, the chef in one of the collection’s standouts, “L’Alchimista,” who is given otherworldly and unappetizing ingredients and builds sumptuous meals full of magic and reality-bending powers.
Jemisin confesses to being in conversation with the former masters she consumed since she began reading science fiction and fantasy as a child. If “Walking Awake” is her response to Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters and “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” a reaction to Le Guin, then “Red Dirt Witch” is her Bradbury. Set in Alabama before the peak of the civil rights movement, the story is centered on Emmaline, a black mother who must defend her three children from the White Lady, a monster in human form that subsists on the blood of children. It preys on Black children because no one would go looking for a missing Black child in Alabama or any of the former states of the Confederacy. The White Lady shares the same malevolence as Mr. Dark, the carnival leader in Something Wicked This Way Comes. They are both Old World forces made into American nightmares, but where the boys of Bradbury’s novel live idyllic Midwestern childhoods, Emmaline’s children are trained to know that they are never truly safe as long as there are White people around who may misconstrue their actions. Returning an apple to a man who dropped it was never a life or death decision for Jim Nightshade or William Halloway.
These stories were created prior to her unprecedented harvest of accolades, so sometimes Jemisin is just playing. In “The Effluent Engine,” she creates one of the great swashbuckling spies of historical fiction, Jessaline Cleré, illegitimate daughter of the Haitian revolutionary leader, Toussaint L’Overture, who sets upon nineteenth-century New Orleans in pursuit of some technology that will keep her people free. Jemisin often writes short stories as proofs of concept for her novels, and one can only hope this is true for the adventures of Ms. Cleré. “The Elevator Dancer” is a sort of parable about a security guard in a theocratic dystopia losing his mind and “Henosis” is a laugh-out-loud experiment in form and time travel. For lovers of science fiction edged in string theory, both “Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows” and “Non-Zero Probabilities” deal with our present reality where the laws of physics changed their order of operations.
The fact that we are living in a golden age of writing needs to be continually stated, and it is the result of people like N.K. Jemisin who tired of the homogeneity in genre fiction and decided to confront the gatekeepers until diversity became more than just a talking point. We do not see our biases until they are presented to us in ways we cannot eschew. When it comes to race and gender, we won’t believe our biases until someone grabs us by the lapels and refuses to let go and we finally understand the brainwashing effects of Whiteness and misogyny. Getting people to move beyond the debilitating nature of their own racism is the most difficult project anyone could undertake in this ridiculously racist country. But artists and activists refuse to quit in the face of reactionary forces. Because of that, Black Future Month is here. N.K. Jemisin has shown inclusive futures. It is imperative that we take her art into our reality.