Longtime Hyde Parker Mikki Kendall is best known as an online feminist activist and social media force; her hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen became an international phenomenon, generating an intense conversation about the ways in which feminism has ignored and erased the voices of women of color.
Before Kendall was on Twitter, though, she was in fandom. “I am a nerd,” she told me. There are some unfortunate pictures of me where it’s very clear; I have terrible bangs, and my grandmother dresses me funny, and I have big, ugly purple glasses.” She posted to the Voy message boards on Buffy back in the late 1990s, “Pre-Twitter, pre-blogging — it was all black and white; we didn’t have colors, and we liked it.” She was a Dr. Who fan, and read “everything from C.S. Lewis to Aldous Huxley to Marvel — I read all the X-Men and Incredible Hulk.”
These days, Kendall isn’t just a fan; she’s a creator. She’s planning a nonfiction book about the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag, but she’s also got other projects, including a Black Chicago steam-punk radio play and serving as co-chair for the feminist WisCon in May of this year. She’s also written a script for the Gail Smone-edited Swords of Sorrow comic series from Dynamite Comics. “I’m working with some serious heavyweights,” she said, with barely restrained excitement, “so my first comics project is also a class in comics writing.”
I talked to Kendall by phone about feminism, race, and diversity in science-fiction and fantasy
How does your interest in social justice and feminism fit with your interest in fantasy and sci-fi? You could see someone arguing that sci-fi isn’t real, and that therefore it’s not really related to social justice or feminist issues….
I actually get really into talking about race and representation in sci-fi and fantasy. In terms of feminism I don’t think that has to be separated. It’s one of those things where, women are writing sci-fi, women are finding their voice a lot of times in fiction. Sci-fi owes its existence to women. We talk about Mary Shelley as the first women, but there are novels before her — The Tale of Genji, all of these things. Fairytales were stories told largely by women talking to other women, which is why so many of them are about princesses. So I feel like story-telling and feminism just go hand-in-hand, and racial justice issues too. Because when we speak up for ourselves and about ourselves, and include ourselves in these fantastical worlds and visions of the future, we’re basically saying that we refuse to be erased, that we refuse to be silenced, we refuse to be squashed.
I’m one of the people that back in 2009 — there was this thing called “RaceFail,” where a bunch of sci-fi authors basically ate their feet — they just shoved their feet whole into their mouths, and one thing that came up then was — “Write your own.” Well, we are writing our own. We have been. How are you saying “write your own” to people who write things, when the reason that people don’t know those things exist is that we get to the publishing house, and you’re not publishing it? Not because it’s not good — because I’ve seen more than one set of editors say they “find something hard to relate to.” And then when you read it, what’s hard to relate to is that it’s just not about white people. It’s not centered in white social norms.
So what does diverse sci-fi or fantasy mean? Is it more actors who are people of color? Is it more creators who are people of color? Is it different kinds of stories?
All of the above. I have a hashtag I occasionally trot out #WeNeedDiverseMedia. And I say that because we’ve already seen that, even if you have a creator who includes diversity, getting that onto that book cover to reflect what’s inside the book is difficult. I mean, Ursula K. Le Guin — when she sold the television rights to A Wizard of Earthsea, I don’t think it occurred to her that someone would eventually come along and erase all the brown people from a book that was clearly about brown people. But that’s exactly what sci-fi did. We’ve seen this happen with Drive, where the director said they cast a white girl because she looks like someone you’d want to protect, even though the story was about a Latino woman. Or Exodus, where Ridley Scott came out and said, well, if I cast someone named Mohammed, I couldn’t get funded. Really? Okay.
Meanwhile, diverse projects are putting up ridiculous numbers. They’re selling well; they’re doing well in ratings. But we somehow have the same conversation every few years, where — like right now, I think Empire is one of the top rated shows period. And you keep seeing these articles, “Oh my god, we can’t believe the ratings are this high.” Well actually if you look, the ratings have been that high for other properties focusing on people who aren’t white.
Laurell K. Hamilton, though I don’t like her books all the time, had a Latina vampire hunter. L.A. Banks has a black vampire hunter— all these things. But what people think of is Buffy. Which was crap…or at least the movie was. The show was better. I have Joss Whedon issues, but we won’t get into that.
Most of the better-known sci-fi and fantasy creators are white creators, so I wonder how you see yourself fitting into that tradition, or whether there are other sci-fi and fantasy traditions that are less well known?
So, first, I think that genre lines kind of lie. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, it’s a ghost story, but we call it lit [literature], and make it eligible for certain prizes because it’s not genre. Because it’s a black woman who wrote this ghost story that went into lit, it doesn’t “count” as horror or sci-fi or fantasy. But I feel like a lot of the lines are artificial anyway.
There are plenty of people who didn’t know that Chip [Samuel] Delany wasn’t white, despite the fact that Chip Delany’s never hidden that he’s not white. People tend to assume a lot of things. You have sci-fi writers who end up in romance because they have a romance element in their stories. So you now have paranormal romance as a genre. Paranormal romance is just sci-fi with a romance plot, really. So I think it’s hard to say that there’s a white male tradition to fit into. I don’t think there is actually a white male tradition.
You’ve got Dwayne McDuffie in comics, and everyone sort of acts like Dwayne was the first black man to really write a comic, and that’s not true. He is the first one to become a name, but that’s very different from being the first one to do the work. Because for a lot of this, it’s not that we aren’t there, it’s just that you don’t really know who wrote what, or what was involved. And then you factor in the reality that some of the stuff that black people are writing gets shelved differently. If Beloved were in horror, would you know about Beloved? Octavia Butler is the best known female black sci-fi writer, but she’s far from the only one.
I was curious what fantasy or sci-fi writers would you recommend to people?
N.K. Jemison. Nnedi Okorafor, who writes a lot of what I guess you’d call magical realism now, because again we’re back to the genre descriptions. Daniel Older. And there are any number of people writing short stories — Lashawn Wanak, Cheshya Burke.
I will say this. I think it’s important to incorporate into our entertainment kids of color, because we talk a lot about kids of color and reading, but we don’t talk about the age at which they look up and find that they’re not in any of the fun things to read. How do you enjoy something that doesn’t incorporate you at all, or that makes you a villain or a victim, period? But if you go to the YA (Young Adult) section, how many of the books when you open them have any kids of color inside, much less boys of color or girls of color as the heroes? I think that’s an important part of this. I think people think of comics and sci-fi as frivolous, but when you read for pleasure, that’s how you improve your reading skills. The better you can read depends on how much stuff you’ve been reading. And most kids want to read for pleasure if they’re going to read.
What did you think of the Percy Jackson books?
So my oldest son really got into them at first, but then he faded on them towards the end. He and I had quite a few conversations because he’d read stuff that I write and my friends write. A lot of the things that do incorporate him are either things I wrote or that someone I know wrote. He’s definitely a reader, but he started to feel that as much as he liked Charly Bone and Percy Jackson, the diversity is not super strong in any of that stuff. Percy Jackson is better than some; it’s certainly something that he enjoyed, but as he got older and more critical about media, he started to think to himself, “in a bunch of these books, the guy who looks like me has 2 or 3 parts.” He also started to reach an age where he started to participate in online fandom and that kind of soured him, because a lot of the fandoms are racist. They’re not super-racist really, but there’s always someone.
Like, for Harry Potter, when she made Blaise Zabini— who’d only been a name in the books — when she made him in the movies visibly a boy of color, there were actual posts written by teenage fans [saying], “OMG! I’m so sad, that beautiful boy is black.” And I think you see that same thing with the Vampire Diaries or True Blood or whatever. And he’s looking at the imagery, with game art and fan art, even when characters are of color, the art that fans make represent them as white, because that’s what fans have been trained to think of as attractive.
Or the backlash for Rue in the Hunger Games. That was largely teenagers. She was black in the books; she was black onscreen, but…
So was there a series your son liked that was diverse?
Not for YA. He’s gotten into reading Andrea Hairson’s Wildfire which is really too old for him — but he’s 15. I’m working my way through the fact that “too old for him” is quickly becoming a thing that doesn’t matter anymore. He likes Salsa Nocturna, Daniel Older’s first book. And he was planning on Older’s reading Half-Resurrection Blues.
Wherever possible he does read as much as he can that is diverse — it’s just that now it’s mostly adult books, because it’s a weird gap. You have a lot in kid’s books that try for diversity. Comics — he reads a lot of comics. You can read Teen Titans and see Cyborg, or read Spider-Man and see Miles Morales. Do you keep trying with YA books? Or do you just stop?
Comics are better than YA books?
Oh my god yes. And book lists for school are also mostly white, and even when there’s diversity, it’s not like it’s fun diversity. Like they’re history lesson books. For your average 15-year-old boy of color, there’s not a lot where they’re the hero.