Sunday, May 8, 2016

Notes from a reading: An Evening at the Brooklyn Museum

Yesterday the Brooklyn Museum (in Brooklyn New York, of course) kicked off May with their "first Saturday" program, in which the museum features free readings, entertainment, cultural programs, and even museum admission. This also happened to be a Saturday when I was already to be in Brooklyn for my niece's fourth birthday party (at a wonderful old carousel in Prospect Park, giving me an easy opportunity to wander to the museum for the one free event which caught my eye: a reading and discussion with Nnedi Okorofor, N.K. Jemisin, and Ibi Ozoi. This event consisted of brief readings followed by a panel discussion and Q&A. Members of the Brooklyn-based multi-media arts collective BKLN ZULU shared the stage with the writers, proving background music and video for the reading portion.

Nnedi Okorofor
I've mentioned Okorofor earlier on these pages for her younger readers' fiction. She's also written some very smart and very different adult SF novels, including the "aliens invade Nigeria" novel Lagoon from which she read yesterday evening. Her work is hard to classify, straddling the lines between science fiction, fantasy, and "Afro-futurism" (more on that label later). I honestly found the inclusion of the supernatural in what was otherwise a science fiction novel to be jarring at first, but fiction SHOULD be jarring. If it isn't, then it's likely not that interesting, or at least not taking any chances or risks. In the following conversation, Okorofor called out the sharp division between fiction dealing with the supernatural and fiction which is strictly "realistic" to be a peculiarly Western phenomenon, while other cultures have more comfort weaving the mystical and the mundane. The chapters she read involved an encounter between an internet scammer and Ijele, a supernatural  Igboo entity called a Masquerade, reminiscent of street performances but, in this context, all too real. Okorofor had quite a commanding reading presence, and the multimedia dovetailed very well with her work, abstract colors interspersed with the computer-generated text of classic email scams.

N.K. Jemisin
Next to read was N.K. Jemisin, who did not read from her ongoing Broken Earth series of novels because she thought - perhaps rightly - that secondary-world fantasy is tough to introduce in this format. Instead she went to an older work, a piece she wrote for a lesbian steampunk anthology. Hers was the most playful of the three, dealing with the perfectly absurd (yet undeniably fun) assumptions made in Steampunk settings. Eschewing the more traditionally Steampunk Victorian England or American West, Jemisin proposed a world in which Haiti grew to superpower status following a successful slave revolt, defending itself with rum-fueled Dirigibles. Yes, it's insane on its face, but no more so than any other Steampunk futures. Her  reading was the most playful, but there was an edge behind it in the wish-fulfilment of an oppressed people fighting to keep their freedom - and a character recounting the horrors of how slaves were tortured following an earlier, failed revolt. It toed the line between "fun" and "serious wonderfully. Sadly, Jemisin is getting over a bit of a bronchial infection, interrupting an otherwise wonderful reading with periodic coughing. Like the other two women, she commanded a strong presence on the stage. She's quite active and vocal on Twitter (about writing and about politics), but uses the image of a housecat as her avatar, so I've never had a mental image of her. I can report that in person she does not look like a housecat.

Ibi Zoboi
The final reading was Ibi Zoboi, the only one of the three writers I didn't already know. The work from which she read is YA novel taking place in Detroit and featuring a young Hatian protagonist in an encounter with Legba, a mystical person who, like the devil, stands at crossroads and has presence in this life and the next (part of me wonders if the image of the devil at a crossroad is borrowed from this tradition, if they developed independently in parallel, or if the Haitians borrowed from Christians. Either way, the two images are similar, but different). She did a lovely job with the voices of her different characters, and again was supported by multimedia. I found it interesting that Zoboi and Okorofor used similar elements to very different effect - Okorofor's Ijele was powerful, alien (not in the literal "from space" sense, but in the "not like us" sense) and unknowable. Papa Legba, on the other hand, walked in the guise of a homeless man, answered questions, and sang cryptic little riddle-songs which I'm sure will serve to answer challenges her protagonist will have in her journey.

Following the reading was a discussion on writing, on the place these writers hold as African-American women in the SF world and publishing at large, and a bit on classification. Okorofor gave the most personal about herself, opening the discussion with a digression to recount masquerades in Nigeria where, as an American-ibo  visitor, she was often a target of the masked figures chasing kids through the streets. She pointed at one of the members of BKLN ZULU (the one in the grass-looking outfit) and said that the one she remembers looked just like him! There was also a personally (to me) shocking moment when she recounted the beginning of her life as a writer as needing the activity to keep herself sane after being (temporarily) paralyzed following spinal surgery to correct severe scoliosis. Those of you who've followed me know our recent history with that issue; while our experience wasn't hers and I don't know first-hand what it is like to live with back pain and surgery, I DO know something from seeing it up close. It gave me the absolute deepest sympathy for Okorofor and left me thankful that she was able to channel that difficult experience into a flourishing career as a successful and acclaimed writer. Jemisin told of being sent off on "adventures" when she was a child, with a subway token, a few dollars, and a destination. Later, in the Q&A section, she discussed "living a life" as the one thing writers don't discuss enough. She thinks "write what you know" is poor advice, especially for a fantasist writing about a world in which there are people who can control earthquakes. Her advice is to live, experience, and learn what you want to write about. Unlike Okorofor, she's always seen herself as a writer, binding little books with cardboard and yarn as a grade-school student.

In another note from the discussion, the panelists didn't much care for the term "Afro-futurist". Jemisin isn't that interested in labels overall, and wants people to read her work regardless of what it's called (and would write whether or not anyone read her). For one thing, it's a term which predates "Afro-futurist" literature, originally applied to a musical genre. For another thing, it's seen by some as an American term, marginalizing actual African artists. I'm in agreement with Jemisin on this, in that I'm not a huge fan of genre labels. I'm an unapologetic fantasy and SF fan, but I'm fine getting literature in my SF and SF in my literature. That Okorofor mixes fantasy elements in her SF and that Jemisin's work has fantasy elements but can be read as SF are not only fine with me, but really positive developments. We should think about how fiction makes us think and how it makes us feel rather than squabble over which box into which it should be put.

Finally, there was a Q&A. I'd like to speak to my fellow audience members for a moment. First, "I have a comment...." isnt' a question. It's a comment. I showed up to listen to the panelists, not random audience members. Second, "I have three questions...." is not a question. It's three questions. If there's a line of six people at each of two microphones then you're not doing anyone any justice by asking three questions at once. Finally, I know that the panelists were African American SF writers. I know that Octavia Butler and Sam Delaney are African American SF writers. That doesn't mean you have to ask about them! It strikes me as slightly reductive to bring in Butler every time there's a discussion of African American women in SF. (That said, all three writers had interesting answers regarding Butler, so what do I know? I was especially intrigued by Zoboi admitting her disappointment on finding that the Butler  was not as  "black liberation" focused as she expected her to be. I still think it was a silly question).

Quibbles about the Q&A aside, it was a wonderful evening and a great chance to hear from some of the most interesting writers in SF today and, as an added bonus, have a few free moments to tour the museum. I've not talked about "diversity" in this piece, but it IS noteworthy that these are not only three African-American women, but that two of them are among my favorite writers. Without taking some effort to do otherwise, many of us only read those who echo our experiences, who fit what we expect, who feel easily relatable. This is a disservice to ourselves more than to the community at large, and a trap into which I've fallen at some points in my life. The point isn't that you should read these women because they're African-American women; it's that you should read a broad section of everything available to broaden your context and your experiences. To be a complete person, we need to experience more than one kind of book, more than one kind of thinking, more than one culture. 

As I said, this was a wonderful and special evening. Hats off the the Brooklyn Museum for hosting this event and to Okorofor, Jemisin, and Zoboi for their participation.

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