As part of the 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book, Catherine Hernandez (Crosshairs) and Jordan Ifueko (Raybearer) discussed their works of speculative fiction for YA and adult audiences, as well as their experiences as women of color writing BIPOC characters in science fiction and fantasy.
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Watch this event (transcript provided below):
Thanks to our bookseller for this event, M. Revak & Company.
“Ifueko’s mesmerizing debut stuns as it weaves a tale of loyalty, fate, destiny, family, and revenge. Moreover, it places a dark skinned heroine front and center, who is beautiful and powerful, deadly and compassionate, and vulnerable and tough, giving YA literature more of the diverse representation teens need.”—Booklist
“Crosshairs tells a story of battling against the insidious nature of fascism and white supremacy by being unabashedly yourself.”—USA Today
Thanks to The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative, Charlottesville Pride Community Network, Jefferson-Madison Regional Library, and the UVA LGBT Committee for Faculty and Staff for sharing information about this event.
SARAH LAWSON: Hello. Welcome to BIPOC Voices in Speculative Fiction, a program in the all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book. I’m Sarah Lawson, Associate Director for the Virginia Center for the book, a program of Virginia Humanities. Thanks for joining us. If you haven’t read today’s books, we hope you will. For details about how to buy them from your local bookseller or from our bookseller for this event. Please visit VaBook.org, where you can also explore our full schedule and watch past events. While you’re there we hope that you’ll consider making a donation to support the festival’s ongoing work at VaBook.org/give. Also we appreciate the help of our community partners in sharing this event. Thank you.
Now I’m pleased to introduce our speakers. Catherine Hernandez, author of Crosshairs, is a queer woman of color, theater practitioner, and the artistic director of b current performing arts and the Sulong Theatre. Her debut novel, Scarborough, won the 2015 Asian Canadian Writers Workshop Emerging Writers Award and was shortlisted for the 2017 Toronto Book Awards. She is of Filipino, Spanish, Chinese, and Indian heritage, and has married into the Navajo Nation.
Jordan Ifueko, author of Raybearer, is a Nigerian American writer who grew up eating fried plantains while reading comic books under a blanket fort. She now lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their collection of Black Panther Funko Pops. Raybearer is her debut novel.
Our moderator, Dr. Grace Gipson, is an associate professor in the Department of African American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. As a Black future feminist, Black creative, scholar, activist, her research and teaching interests explore Black popular culture, digital humanities, representations of race and gender within comic books, Afrofuturism and race and new media. Thank you all for joining us today. Grace, take it away.
GRACE GIPSON: Thank you. Let me just first say that I’m truly excited to be able to talk to both of our authors today and very much excited to be able to participate in this conversation. You all came to hear about the authors and talk to them, so let’s go ahead and dive right in. This question is for both, you, Catherine, and Jordan. Who are some of your literary inspirations when it comes to writing? Who do you channel or what things do you channel in as it relates to your writing?
JORDAN IFUEKO: It’s interesting because I’ve always loved speculative fiction and fantasy, but that’s a genre that’s never loved me back, as a dark-skinned Black girl. I had to find mirrors of representation in terms of what I related to, but only pieces of me. I’d read a book that made me feel seen as a Black girl. It’s funny but the Addy books from American Girl were some of my earliest representations, and even that’s about an escaped slave in the United States, but that’s only the beginning. So much of the book is about her building her life, which was really rare in the ’90s as a kid, as a Black girl trying to find adventure books. I also tended to read a lot of British fiction. Nigeria is a British colony. That’s how my parents were educated and we just had those in the house. Charlotte Bronte was a big deal to me. I loved just all of her woman going against the patriarch and demanding to have her own agency stories. They all had a little bit of a supernatural tint to them.
Honestly I felt kind of like a pioneer writing fantasy with Black people as a teenager. Raybearer I started when I was 13. I didn’t actually have any examples. Now I draw so much inspiration from the new blossom of Black speculative writers over the last 10, 15 years. N.K. Jemisin is someone who I would probably faint if I ever meet, because she’s a freaking genius, so I get a lot of inspiration from her, for sure.
CATHERINE HERNANDEZ: I could pretend that I’m well-educated in speculative fiction and that it was speculative fiction that actually inspired Crosshairs, but I would say that the biggest inspiration for this book in particular was Adrienne Maree Brown’s Pleasure Activism. The reason for that is because I really wanted to show a play by play for hope, because the book is dramatizing the rise of fascism around the world, specifically targeting QTBIPOC, elderly and disabled populations. While that’s quite heavy, I really wanted to show that change is possible and that change could be embodied, and not only be our perpetrators, not only by perpetrators embodying the change and learning allyship, but also for us the people who sit at different crossroads of oppression, that part of the revolution is also for us to give ourselves pleasure in many different ways, be it love, food, sex, all of those things. Her work really inspired me to ensure that the book wasn’t just about these horrible possibilities like a nightmare come to life, but rather that it could be also a dream come true if we play our cards right.
GRACE GIPSON: I like how both of you all brought in ideas that weren’t necessarily attached to people of color as it relates to in the speculative or the idea of being able to have joy, experience joy, be able to feel empowered, be able to know that yes, we go through pain and trauma, but there’s also ways to enjoy and have the smile on the face to feel like you can thrive and not just survive, so to speak. Considering the speculative genre, sci-fi, magic realism, has been very much white, cis-oriented, how do you both of you as women of color, how is your work, specifically your Crosshairs and Raybearer, what does it mean to write in this genre, personally and for the larger community?
JORDAN IFUEKO: One of the first things I knew I wouldn’t do in Raybearer is make it a Black pain story. It’s not that those stories aren’t important. They absolutely are. If you only ever see yourself represented in narratives of pain and struggle, I think that has its own really horrible implications, and impact especially on developing minds, since I write YA for children to teenagers and young adults. Raybearer, while all of the characters go through significant struggles and trauma, none of it is related, at least with the protagonist, to the color of their skin. I think with fantasy we’re able to write a Black narrative that doesn’t hinge on their oppression. There is imperialism in the book, but the ruling class is actually dark-skinned and coded as Yoruba, as West African. Tarisai’s struggle, while she does have to decide what to do with systems of oppression, she benefits from it but also it oppresses her as a woman. She needs to find out whether she’s going to swallow the propaganda or she’s going to, because that’s safer and it will protect people she loves as well, or if she’s going to risk everything to try and get a better world.
It’s interesting, I didn’t even do this part consciously, she is never the victim of physical violence. She has an emotionally and psychologically abusive mother, that kind of thing, but I was so tired of reading books where girls who looked like me got hit if they were the protagonist. It’s one thing to see your oppression reflected, that’s really cool, but to never see yourself in a place where you’re elevated and …
It’s interesting. It shows how different empowering narratives are for different kinds of people in the intersection, because for a lot of white women I’ve seen an empowering narrative for them is like, “Don’t treat me like I’m made of glass. I hate dresses. I’m going to get on a horse. I don’t want to be your princess,” which is empowering if you have been put on a pedestal that prevents you from doing things because you’re considered too precious and weak.
If you’ve been dehumanized and considered like you can’t feel pain because you’re a rough Black girl, whatever, an empowering narrative might very well be a story in which an entire empire wants to kiss your feet and just treat you like you are the most precious thing that has ever happened. That is Tarisai’s story. She’s in the upper echelons of privilege. She has to decide what to do with it. That’s one of the main struggles. I’d never seen a story like that, featuring a girl who looked like me. I have completely lost sight of the original question, but I’m glad I said all that.
GRACE GIPSON: You answered it perfectly. Perfectly.
CATHERINE HERNANDEZ: I love that, Jordan. I’m sure it’s empowering for your readers, but it must’ve been so transformative as a writer to take on a different narrative such as that. That’s amazing.
JORDAN IFUEKO: Thank you.
CATHERINE HERNANDEZ: Can we talk about Instagram reviewers? Some of them are so generous. Some of them are so generous. For me I’ve just been amazed by how wonderful and gracious people have been on … What’s wonderful about Instagram is the fact that you know they’re not people who are part of these very traditionally white institutions for reviewing. They’re just readers. One reader said something that was so profound to me about Crosshairs, which is that, “Isn’t all organizing”—in the case in the book where the characters are organizing towards this big event where it’s a big revolt against the fascist regime, that—”Isn’t all political organizing science fiction?”
That was so powerful to me, because that’s exactly what I think of when it comes to speculative fiction, science fiction, is that we’re imagining a world for ourselves. When you were mentioning, Grace, is that when you have this predominant sci-fi world that it’s predominantly white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, is that you realize what they’re imagining. They’re imagining a world in which it does not include us at all, because that to them is a bright future. A bright future does not include us, whereas what’s so amazing is that putting the pen in our hands and the fact that it is completely unstoppable in QTBIPOC hands. What we can imagine for the future has been very powerful, because I really wanted to imagine people.
The big sci-fi moment for me was, can white, cisgender, able-bodied, heterosexual people, what do I imagine if they were actually to change? I asked people from my community, “What would you want to see in people’s … What would you want to see in their bodies and the way they speak and everything?” We distilled it down to four lines about what allyship actually looks like and made it a creed in the book.
That for me was a very powerful moment for me is that I can imagine it. If I can imagine it, it can happen, because I wrote the first part of the book thinking, “Ah, we’re doomed, we’re doomed!” At that time there were these mass floods here in Toronto where I live. I thought, “This is it.” I had no idea what was going to happen with the pandemic. I remember it was like, “I have to believe that there’s hope. That’s the only way I can write this book, I can finish this book.” When I saw that that that Instagram reviewer had said, is that all political organizing is science fiction, that really blew me away. I’m glad that it resonated in that way for that reader.
GRACE GIPSON: Once again, excellent points that you all are bringing up. It makes me think about this idea that you all have the ability to rewrite the script, rewrite the narrative. You all have the opportunity to normalize or provide another reality that is often marginalized, made invisible, not even thought of, talked about. The fact that you all willed the pen to make sure that readers can see and can provide that review that says organizing is science fiction. It’s interesting when you mentioned about the generosity of reviews. I think we’ve been so accustomed to reviews being geared towards a certain way or being so sharp and so critical that we don’t get a chance to really see the impact that many of these books and these stories really have on individuals. Social media, as it has its pros and cons, definitely provides another outlet for us to see what our books can do for somebody and the way it can change our mind and change our thinking. Yes, thank you. Thank you all for that and for I won’t even say the courage, just for the fact that you all did it, you wrote the story and you put pen to paper.
All right. Let’s dive into some of the protagonists or the main protagonists of each of you all’s text. How would you say that the main protagonist or characters for each of your books speak to the current climate of society and maybe even potentially historical, past societal climates at all, if they do? Anybody can jump ahead.
JORDAN IFUEKO: I think Tarisai, there’s so much that she represents about my personal growth that I didn’t realize was happening at the time because I was going through it. Because I started this book when I was 13 and just continually rewrote it until I was in my 20s. Her journey tends to reflect the epiphanies that I was getting at the time. One recurring theme of hers is deconstructing systems of belief in herself. She has to do that first before she can change anything externally, which is something very much I was going through.
Fantasy that is Eurocentric, it’s way more than green, cool climates and traditionally Western castles. It’s also the mindset. You think of a lot of popular children’s fantasy, say C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, which there are still things about it I’m very fond of, but realizing how inherently imperialist the narrative is. It’s literally about blond children coming into a land they’ve never been before and assuming the right to rule it, even though they don’t look like anyone there. That’s just the way it’s meant to be. They’ve been waiting for them to come in and rule, and now they’re finally here. The bad people are the people who want them gone. This is the height of British imperialism, the ’40s and that kind of thing when C.S. Lewis was writing.
The original drafts of Raybearer unconsciously mirrored those narratives. Even though it wasn’t about white people, it was still this very Eurocentric plot structure of there’s an empire and it’s good and it’s golden and people want to threaten it. They’re going to destroy it. We have to protect it because we’re the rightful rulers. As I grew up the story became the main character, Tarisai, trying to accept this narrative, and genuinely accepting it. When she starts getting her own ideas, she thinks they’re evil and they’re dangerous, because that’s what she’s been told. She willfully suppresses her own intellect so that she can conform to the narrative that she wants to believe, until it just comes to a breaking point and she has to make a very quick and clear choice, and she does.
I think that for those of us who are growing up, and especially in this era of information when is more accessible than ever before, but also people who are oppressed, they’re able to expose what’s happening more easily than ever before and share it faster than ever before. With Black Lives Matter, that has always been happening in the United States, but it was just this crucial turning point where enough of us had cameras on the ground that everyone around the country realized, “Wait, they shoot Black people in your neighborhood too? Wait, this is a widespread systematic problem that’s still happening.” I think having those scales fall from your eyes as a young person, even if you have always belonged to a marginalized group, is something that a lot of people will be able to relate to.
I also think as a personal journey, for me and for Tarisai, one thing she does is try and reject the legacy that she comes from, because she’s afraid of it. She has valid reasons to be afraid of it. She goes through all of these different stages of trying to say, “Oh, I’m never going to be like my ancestors who did this and this thing to the people they love. I’m completely different.” That doesn’t work, that level of denial. She goes the other extreme of, “I’m going to be just like them. I’m doomed. I’m going to hurt everyone I love.” That’s also an extreme.
She has to find that balance of recognizing your influences, the negative ones, that come from your environment, that come from your family, that come from your different parts of privilege or ignorance, and getting agency to overcome those, while also acknowledging that they’re there, which is something that I think any person with any kind of privilege has to do at some point, whether you’re able-bodied or whether you have some kind of class privilege.
I feel that I had some degree of class privilege just in that my parents could afford to immigrate here, unlike the majority of people in Nigeria, and then the different advantages that gives you over Black Americans as well. I was born and raised here, but I was able to enter into the system at more stability than someone like … I am descended from American slaves as well, but mostly from Nigerians who immigrated, and just balancing that. There are parts of your Blackness that are definitely oppressive, but there are also levels of privilege you have over other people who share your marginalized status. All of that gets unpacked in Tarisai’s life as I was unpacking it in my life. I’ve already heard from lots of really wonderful readers the different parts of that that they felt represented in. That’s been really cool.
CATHERINE HERNANDEZ: Jordan, I just want to say that I am so proud of you. I can’t believe that you started writing this at 13. What was I doing at 13 other than stapling my kilt in a bathroom to make it look shorter so that boys will look at my legs? That was basically all I was doing.
JORDAN IFUEKO: Oh my god.
CATHERINE HERNANDEZ: I just hope you understand how accomplished you are. I would say that with Kay, my protagonist, he is a mixed heritage, Jamaican, Filipino, gay, feminine man. The way that I had written him into being was there were two reasons why he was so important to me. One of them was that I wanted to make sure that the protagonist had no way of code switching, hiding, changing the way that he was in order to be protected from the fascist regime. As he says in the book is that you can’t scrub off the skin and you can’t switch off the femme. It’s just the reality, just how it is for myself and my partner. I really wanted to show what it was like to be part of the QTBIPOC umbrella is that going to the washroom could be a choice of life and death. The simple act of going on the bus late at night, pre-COVID times, it could be a choice of life and death. As we’re seeing now with the pandemic is that even just the choice, the need to work for your family could be life and death. That was very specific for me is that there was no hiding for him. There was that.
There was also I needed this character to really call out something that was very important to me, which is to call out the rampant anti-Black racism in the Filipino community, which is not a conversation that is … It’s not a common conversation in the media is POC communities and anti-Blackness and also various levels, how complicated it gets when then you’re dealing with Black trans women or sex workers, etc etc. For Kay, I really wanted to show that there’s two things going on, is that he’s hiding from a fascist regime in the present, but he has also lived a life in which he has never been safe. Even as he was born, his mother saw him as basically the souvenir from a relationship that had failed and that he represented to her this thing that was dirty and that was wrong. His mother being Filipino is just to show what anti-Black racism looks like with Filipinos at the helm of that. It’s ugly, despite the fact that we do have … Just showing that while we are oppressed in some ways, is that our proximity to whiteness keeps us safe in so many other ways.
That was very important to me to show that through the life of Kay, but also showing that because he sits at the crossroads of these different identities, is how important it is for him to fight back. Because he’s lived a life in which he’s almost completely stilled and dissociated from the evil things that keep on happening to him, is that he finally finds the strength, closer to the end of the book, and he choose to fight finally. All of that was very important for me in Kay.
JORDAN IFUEKO: I’m sorry, I just have to ask real quick, is this a series?
CATHERINE HERNANDEZ: Ah! I wish. That’s another thing that somebody said on Instagram was that, “This should be an HBO show.” Let’s just bring that up into the universe. Let’s hope that happens, because I am a television writer. It feels like that, now that I’m saying it out loud. Yes. This feels like it is a television show. I hope one day it does become one.
JORDAN IFUEKO: Yes, that would be awesome. I just wondering if as a book if there are more installments or if for now it’s a standalone.
CATHERINE HERNANDEZ: Right now it’s a standalone. What’s so funny is that people, I won’t give away the ending of the book, but there were a lot of people like, “I just want to know what happens at the end.” A lot of times I say, “You know what? It’s not me that I don’t want to write. I want white people to write it. Just you write it, because I’m done.” I think all of us feel the same way, is that I’m just so done trying to show what should be done. I feel like it’s time for white folks to go, “What can I do? Can I do it?” I think that that’s why I left the book the way that it is. We’ll leave it at that.
JORDAN IFUEKO: Absolutely.
GRACE GIPSON: In saying that, my hope for readers who get both of you all’s books realize that this can translate into multiple spaces, that it doesn’t have to be just for the casual reader. I myself as a professor will make sure to bring it into the classroom, because everybody needs to hear these stories. Everybody needs to pick up and normalize these narratives. Everybody needs to know that there are other people that exist, that we don’t live in a monolithic society. Both Crosshairs and Raybearer definitely tell the story, like, “Hey, I’m here. Not only am I here, but you need to recognize that I’m here.” That’s what I definitely get from both of you all’s books. Wow. I’m telling you. I’m learning so much and getting so much. To get it firsthand from you all is really, truly a treat. I’m definitely getting the unapologetic vibes. I hope more literature and more books continue to do that.
JORDAN IFUEKO: I just want to say real quick I’m so glad you’re a professor. I never got to have a Black professor. I’m just like, what it would’ve meant. What it would have meant. Thank you for having your job and doing your job.
CATHERINE HERNANDEZ: Thank you so much for doing your job. I haven’t had one either. I would’ve actually had a good degree if it …
GRACE GIPSON: It’s interesting that you both say that, because many of my students tell me that. I think I sometimes am shocked. I’m like, “Wait a minute. You’ve not? I’m your first? Wait a minute. No. This shouldn’t be happening.” It motivates me even more to make sure to push to get those stories, tell those, bring those lessons to the forefront. Thank you all also for that. It’s a team effort that we all have.
Here are some individuals. It’s a individual question for each of you all. For Catherine, “The speculative along with dystopian fiction allows a space for marginalized and invisible voices to be heard.” You’ve touched upon this already, but if you could go a little deeper. How does Crosshairs rewrite the script for LGBTQ and BIPOC voices within the speculative, within dystopia, within magic realism, all of that?
CATHERINE HERNANDEZ: I’m so glad that you’re … I love this. It’s like a spitfire round between me and Jordan. No, because it’s just such an important thing to say, because when you think about … I think one of the things about the book that rubbed people the wrong way, because sometimes people have feelings, they catch feelings when they read stuff like this, is that there’s this call to action that I’m specifically saying in the book, which is that you can see endless, endless examples of QTBIPOC folks suffering. There’s almost this weird, macabre fascination that the mainstream has with books like that that watch us suffer.
I think that what’s rubbing people the wrong way is that I’m showing that these folks then say, “No more.” And that it’s not just about us fighting back, it’s about us saying to them, “Look in the mirror and embody the change.” Because that’s a hard thing to do, is that we’re not saying, “Just tell me something nice.” We’re not saying, “Treat me nice, house me, feed me, tolerate me,” la la. We’re saying, in the book I’m saying, in your body you must believe that I should have equal access to resources and that I should be able to live and love as equally the same as you.
That is a very difficult thing for people in the mainstream to hold inside of them, is that, “Oh, but wait, can’t I just post something on Instagram about MLK Day? Can’t I just put a little black square in support of Black Lives Matter?” I think that that call to action really has caused a lot of readers to have some feelings about it. I’ve had to mourn it, because I’m just like, “Wow.” It’s like, “That’s really that hard for people.”
What I feel like my work is doing is that I really want to, much like what Jordan is saying, unfortunately there is a lot of suffering in Crosshairs, is that I’m saying this is the suffering that they’ve been through, this is why they’re fighting back, but now the ball is in your court. The ball is in your court, and that means that anything beyond embodied allyship is just a performance. That’s been an interesting thing. I understand that it’s rubbing some people the wrong way. However, I’m just leaving it to the universe and I’m just going to have hope that even if it’s three people, that’s all I’m praying for, even if it’s just three people who embody it for the rest of their lives, then I’ll be very happy. It’s a lot.
JORDAN IFUEKO: I love that, just people have had some feelings. That’s all you need to say. You don’t need to give that any more time. I hope you get to say that sometime in a live panel to one of those, “More of a comment than a question,” people, like, “I see you are having some feelings, sir.”
CATHERINE HERNANDEZ: It’s not our job. It’s not our homework. I already made the book. I made the book.
JORDAN IFUEKO: What did they want you to do, to change the … It’s out there.
CATHERINE HERNANDEZ: I think to engage in a lifetime practice of allyship is a little bit … It’s a lot for people. It’s up to people if they want to actually go for it or not. I know that it’s hard for me sometimes too, as a person who has a certain amount of privilege too, is that sometimes it’s hard for me to meet my daily practice. Sometimes I fail and I get it. At the same time I’m like, we’re just at such a critical time in our history, I don’t think that we have room for subtleties. Let’s just jump. Let’s go. Let’s go for it. That’s how I feel. That’s how I feel. People like you, Jordan, and you, Grace, you give me so much hope. It’s so great.
JORDAN IFUEKO: Thank you. Back at you, for sure.
GRACE GIPSON: Back to what you were saying about that discomfort, then that’s when I respond. Welcome to my world. Welcome to what I experience on a day-to-day basis and you tell me not to complain and you tell me to have a seat. You have several seats. You take that in. You digest that and see what we experience regularly, like you said in the book. I don’t get to take off my skin and be someone else. I don’t get to situate my thought and put in something else. It doesn’t work like that. Like I say, welcome to my world, have several seats, and we’ll go from there as far as what you’re thinking.
Jordan, so as someone who just finished Tomi Adeyemi’s series with Children of Blood and Bone and Children of Virtue and Vengeance, it’s really important to bring in the African diaspora into fantasy and YA and the fact that there’s this increasing popularity. What can you add to that as far as the importance of bringing specifically the African diaspora into YA and fantasy?
JORDAN IFUEKO: One thing I love about African diaspora is that, or I guess all Black people, this would include continental Africans as well, but especially with the diaspora, I’ve heard it described as a people who have been given the worst, rotting, fetid lemons and consistently managed to make the most delicious lemonade that is stolen and loved and coveted worldwide. Black culture is king. People don’t like Black people, but they sure love Black culture. Every single continent is hugely informed by the inventions, the music, the stories, the slang, the clothing of Black diaspora. I think that it’s one of the saddest and most interesting paradoxes that Black diaspora are largely considered to be a culture-less people, simply because people have seen us actively making our culture. I think it’s just easy to assume, “Oh, my culture’s been around for 500, 1,000 years. You’re just the descendants of slaves trying to make a way, or immigrants who didn’t have pride in their home country so they went somewhere else,” rather than this very active, breathing, actively being made culture that is always beloved, so much so that it is stolen all the time.
I have so much pride in being part of the diaspora, but there is always that … We exist in this liminal space. In some ways I have more privileges than people who are 100% descended from Black American enslaved people, because I have a very specific link to cultures that I’m descended from. To be honest, most Black American enslaved people did come from West Africa, so whenever they want African roots, I encourage them to be like, “You’re probably Yoruba. Join our team!” In other ways, I am not nearly Nigerian enough for people in Nigeria. I’m not nearly Black American enough for people here. I’ve never been white enough for white Americans, obviously. You exist in this liminal space. I think fantasy means that much more to the diaspora in that we can have a place in which all of the cultures that intersect and make ourselves exist without question, without explanation.
It’s interesting, because so many people market Raybearer as a West African fantasy book. It does have lots of really strong West African elements, but it’s a global fantasy, in the same way that I feel like a global person. My West African heritage is a huge part of who I am, but so is growing up in L.A. and all of the American media and all of the British literature that I read for fun and was made to read by a Eurocentric system and also the Black American culture that I both descended from and wasn’t able to connect with because of where I lived, which didn’t have a lot of Black people. All of those things make who I am. For marketing purposes, it’s always easier just to say, “Oh, this is a West African fantasy book, because African fantasy is hot now.” I’m just like, “This is a Jordan fantasy book.” There are so many other kids who are that many intersections.
I think even Black American kids, because they’re growing up in an age of globalized media, I think I heard Black people are the biggest consumers of Japanese anime in the United States per capita. So even that narrative is informing a lot of their storytelling now, along with all of the traditional Black ways of storytelling and all that stuff, and that is authentically them. Fantasy is a place where that kind of intersection can exist. It’s not like having to write an alternate history of say …
I haven’t wanted Bridgerton, but just from the descriptions I’ve seen, it’s basically a fantasy regency England and they just don’t explain why Black people get to be lords when they would’ve been enslaved in sugar fields and stuff. While that rubs me the wrong way, I understand the impulse for that, where it’s just like I’m so tired of having to make excuses for why I should get to be in this setting. I’m just here, and those are the rules of this world and you just need to accept it. That’s what I love about fantasy. I think one of the reasons why diasporic speculative and fantasy fiction is so important is that it’s a place we can exist on our own terms. That’s always been really important to me.
GRACE GIPSON: Excellent. Excellent. You all could write a dissertation and a thesis.
JORDAN IFUEKO: That’s the professor in you that’s just like, “You know what you could do.”
GRACE GIPSON: All the work there. One last thought, question to ask both of you. Writing is the umbrella, and then when you think of the terms resistance, inclusivity, and intersectionality, just without deep thinking, what comes to mind? Shoot off what comes to mind for both of you.
CATHERINE HERNANDEZ: Oh my goodness. The thing that comes to mind is just why not? Why not? Just because it’s actually not that difficult. When you’re writing, it’s not that difficult to remember to include. Then also with some, I did have a team of about 12 people who kept me accountable in the writing of this book, who represent the different communities that are in the book. I did get called out once with regards to where are all of the disabled people in the book. You mention them, that they’re being oppressed, but then you don’t see them. Being someone who has disabilities myself, I realize that that was my internal thing going on, like, “Oh, I am so ashamed of myself that I didn’t include them in the manuscript,” and when I rewrote it, it became stronger, making sure that there was representation there. It’s always why not. Why not include people of different backgrounds, abilities, everything? It’s almost like an honor to me. That’s how I put it.
JORDAN IFUEKO: One of the many words that leapt to mind for me was reality. I’m glad that we’ve gone beyond the word diversity to try to pivot to inclusion, which is a much better word, but even at that word, it seems like I could see people seeing it as like I’m doing a favor, where it’s just like, no, you’re just actually writing the world as it is. It would be weird if you wrote a world in which there were only men. You know that’s not realistic, even if it’s a fantasy, unless that’s literally the point of the fantasy is that it’s this weird dystopia where … All of these people exist and always have and have been a big part of the narrative, even in places you wouldn’t think they exist, even if you’re like, “No, this is a fantasy based in the British Isles,” I’m just like, “I’m sorry, Black people were there too, man. We were everywhere. The idea of historical Europe that you think existed is informed by a fantasy Europe that you saw through movies and TV series, where any historian will tell you there have always been Black and brown people. Do you know how close Rome is to Africa and how they colonized the whole continent? We’ve had ways to get there and we have been there, hundreds and thousands of years.”
It’s interesting because I have found I have gotten through to some of the most just … They’re already geared up to be like, “Oh, I’m not one of those feminist social justice warrior snowflakes.” It’s interesting because even though I avoid talking to those people, period, when I do intersect with them, I have found I have gotten through to them, being like, “Oh, I just thought you’d want to be realistic. I just thought you were the kind of person historical realism would be important to you, but if you want this fantasy world in which they all look the same, then I guess you can write that.”
That’s where you get the stuttering, “Oh, it’s just I didn’t think … ” I’m just like, “They were there. Look it up. Hey,” because I think a lot of people want to put themselves in the seat of the realist and you in the fantasy of the desperate identity politics person who just wants everything to be about you. To turn that mirror back on them and be like, “Actually you’re the one who’s not being realistic, because we’ve always been here,” is a very simple and effective response.
I would just say reality. It’s okay to not write realistic things, but you have to have a reason why. It’s going to stick out to people who know that they were there and they existed and you should want to write things that reflect the truth if you possibly can.
GRACE GIPSON: Absolutely. Great answers. Awesome. Excellent. Yes, woo! Once again, you all have made my day. This is great. This is awesome. I want to make sure that future readers, because I’m going to claim it for you all that folks that come to the panel and that have come to the panel are going to buy the book, read the book, and share it with others, so where can readers follow you all on the internets? Where can they reach out to give you that review that is so needed to make sure that others can pick up and see what they might be missing? Please share with us where we can find you on the internets.
CATHERINE HERNANDEZ: Want to go ahead, Jordan?
JORDAN IFUEKO: I am now pretty much exclusively on Instagram at Jordan Ifueko. I do have a Twitter account, but I have an unhealthy, co-obsessive, Cathy-Heathcliff relationship with Twitter, so it is locked down right now and I am telling people to follow me on Instagram instead. Raybearer is available anywhere books are sold. There is both an American and a British edition, depending on where you are. It’s probably Virginia, I guess. I do hope you support your indie bookstores, please please please. One really lovely one is Once Upon A Time Books, which is here in Southern California, and they ship everywhere and have deals. I go and sign books for them all the time, if you want a signed copy. The audio books are really cool too. Maybe get those from Libro FM.
CATHERINE HERNANDEZ: Amazing. I love the cup. I’m going to do the Vanna White thing. This is the Canadian version, and this is the American version. The UK version is coming up in April. The books can be bought wherever books are sold, although please do buy local. One bookstore that I really love is Another Story Bookshop here in Toronto. They send out internationally. My audio book, which was a top 10 book in Audible was-
JORDAN IFUEKO: Yay!
CATHERINE HERNANDEZ: It’s read by me. It was read in this closet. That one, it’s available on Audible. There you go.
GRACE GIPSON: Awesome. Awesome. Excellent. Thank you both again for taking your time to talk with us about what’s happening and what’s going on in your literary mind and in your books. Like I said, please, please make sure that you all go and get the book. Since we’re going to wrap this thing up here, thank you, Catherine, thank you, Jordan, and thank you to everyone who is watching. Like I said, please consider buying or just go ahead and buy, I’m not going to say consider, just go ahead and buy these featured books from your local independent bookseller or using the link that is provided on vabook.org. You can also check out some of the other events of our all-virtual 2021 Virginia Festival of the Book at VaBook.org. Once again, thank you both and happy reading to everybody.
CATHERINE HERNANDEZ: Bye, everybody.
JORDAN IFUEKO: Bye.