Given the racism found in speculative fiction as well as the lack of onscreen Black representation, the adaptation Nnedi Okorafor’s “Who Fears Death” should be celebrated instead of overshadowed.
By Latonya Pennington
Nnedi Okorafor is one of the most successful Black speculative fiction writers in existence today. Last year, she won a Hugo award and a Nebula award for her sci-fi novella “Binti”. Now, her post apocalyptic SFF book “Who Fears Death” is going to be adapted into an HBO television series. Yet, VICE magazine decided to make this accomplishment about author and executive producer, George R.R. Martin.
First, let me start off by saying George R.R. Martin is not to blame for this. VICE magazine probably thought no one would read the piece if they put the name of a lesser known Black female writer first. Therefore, they used Martin’s fame in order to get clicks and views.
Not only is this disrespectful, but it is racist.
By putting Martin’s name before Okorafor’s and cropping Okorafor’s name off her own book cover, VICE has made it seem like a black female writer needed help from a super famous white male author. In other words, Martin is positioned as a white savior to a Nigerian-American author.
It is this kind of bad reporting that fuels the racism already present in speculative fiction. Last year, Fireside Fiction released a report that stated that less than 2% of speculative fiction short stories were published by black writers.
Besides the report, the racism in speculative fiction was also exemplified by the Hugo Awards controversy in 2015 and 2016. During these years, a group of conservative writers known as The Sad Puppies and The Rabid Puppies attempted to game the nominations so that only white cis-het speculative fiction authors could be voted for. While things reached a stalemate in 2015, last year was a win for women of color writers.
Major incidents such as the #BlackSpecFic report and the Hugo awards controversy, are not the only things that demonstrate the racism in speculative fiction. It can also be found in visceral reactions to things like women of color starring in a Star Trek franchise and all-white lists of the best fantasy and science fiction. Whether you are a reader, writer, or viewer of sci-fi and fantasy, it is hard to not notice the racism in the genres unless you are already used to seeing yourself represented.
Although I’ve enjoyed fantasy fiction since I was a kid, I didn’t start seeing myself in the genre until I was an adult. As a Black queer person, I didn’t know I could be in fantasy books or write fantasy fiction because reading so many books with white protagonists and authors made whiteness the default. It wasn’t until I read “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” by N.K. Jemisin that I felt like it was possible to be in the genre.
Prior to the announcement of the television adaptation of “Who Fears Death”, the film adaptation of Tomi Adeyemi’s West African fantasy novel “Children of Blood and Bone” made headlines. Both have the potential to do great things for the speculative fiction genre in America, especially since there have been more black women starring in American sci-fi and fantasy.
Characters such as Star Trek’s Uhura and Cleopatra 2525’s Helen were groundbreaking figures that showed it was possible for black women to exist in space and in the future. With the adaptation of “Who Fears Death”, the television series could show it is possible for black women throughout the diaspora to have magical powers in a way that isn’t simply a trope.
In fact, the television series could be groundbreaking for its setting as well as its lead character. Part of the reason that black women are rarely featured in on-screen fantasy works is that screenplay writers are inspired by Eurocentric settings, myths, and folklore. Despite evidence that black people have existed in eras such as the Renaissance and the Victorian Era, some people state that it isn’t historically accurate to include black people in films and shows like “Grimm”, “Once Upon A Time”, and any American version of King Arthur.
Given the racism found in speculative fiction as well as the lack of onscreen Black representation, the adaptation Nnedi Okorafor’s “Who Fears Death” should be celebrated instead of overshadowed. Black women have written speculative fiction for years and yet we are just now getting a show starring a Black woman with magical abilities. If black girls are literally magic, then seeing “Who Fears Death” on-screen might be the most powerful thing we will ever witness.