The #ownvoices hashtag has been percolating on social media for some time now. It’s generally used to signify a work of fiction by a minority writer, writing a story from within their own community and/or describing their own lived experience. Some will bristle at the implications, decrying that we are all human, and can therefore write from myriad human perspectives—whether non-neurotypical, or non-heteronormative, or that of racial minorities. And while that can absolutely be true (writers should, can, and do write from perspectives not their own), sometimes people writing about the experiences of others fall back on stereotypes or unthinkingly incorporate deeply ingrained prejudices into their work, perhaps despite their best efforts, and often without being aware they are doing so. They are not, after all, members of the community they seek to describe; their perspective is inevitably from the outside looking in.
The #ownvoices hashtagseeks to remedy this experience gap, pointing out fictions about and from the identities in question. They are, in other words, stories from inside looking out. Heretofore, this hashtag has been largely used to classify young adult fiction. While I can see the pedagogical reasons for this, maybe us olds would be well served by identifying #ownvoices in narratives written for us as well. Science fiction often deals with the alien—the discovery and slow understanding of other cultures, civilizations, and peoples. As such, science fictional or fantastic fiction can be a rich canvas on which to explore the differences that already mark us, stretching our understandings and misunderstandings that much farther. For people who have been marked as other within their own lives, this fictional extremity can be the sort of alienating canvass that resonates.
To that end, here are 13 works that tell stories from the intimacy of cultural identity and the extremity of the SFFnal. I do not pretend this list is anywhere near exhaustive; it’s more a starting point for further inquiry. What novels would you add?
Kindred, by Octavia Butler
Octavia Butler was far from the only woman of color writing science fiction in the 1980s and ’90s, but she is one of the few who got any cred for it. She deservedly racked up a prodigious number of awards—including a Nebula Award for Best Novel for Parable of the Talents, several Hugos, and a number of other prizes. Her subversive, racially charged vampire novel Fledgling, which would’ve the first in a trilogy were it not for Butler’s untimely death, put a stick of dynamite to genre tropes that had gone unexamined and undisturbed for decades. But probably her most vital work with regard to race is Kindred, which tells the story of Dana, an African-American writer, and her white husband, as they travel through time to the lives of Dana’s slave ancestors. The novel echoes historical slave narratives, but with the twist of a modern black woman’s perspective. Kindred puts the lie to the pablum that “you have to judge writings of the past by the worldview at the time.” Well, yes, but whose? Certainly slaves did not hold to white notions of white supremacy. They were too busy trying to survive a vicious and immoral system, as expertly detailed by Butler. The book has become a classic, much taught in schools. Just last year, it was translated into graphic novel form, losing none of its power or relevance.
Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse
After picking up a Nebula for her short story “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” (which also eventually won the Hugo and several other awards), Roanhorse went on to crush it with her debut novel, Trail of Lighting. It’s a gritty, post-apocalyptic fantasy that takes place on what was once a Navajo reservation, now referred to as Dinétah. A decade or so has passed since the drowning of the world, a sudden, inexplicable apocalypse that brought with it the return of Native gods and monsters. Maggie Hoskie is a monster hunter with a past who is pulled back into the trade in an escalating series of events. There are dozens of “Indian princesses” in urban fantasy, and Maggie is a direct refutation of that trope: a prickly, likable, and sometimes scary Diné woman riding out the end of the world.
Mapping the Interior, by Stephen Graham Jones
Jones’s novella tells a story of something between a haunting and a possession. It is a retrospective fiction, told by an adult about a pivotal time in his childhood. The depicted events occured when the narrator was 12 years old, living for the first time with his mother and younger brother outside the reservation, after the death of his father. The boy is a sleepwalker, and becomes convinced he’s seen his father, in full fancy dress regalia, visiting his brother in the short, dark hours. His brother isn’t quite right, and is frequently sent to specialists and targeted by school bus bullies; soon, their father’s spectral visitations begin to take on a more sinister feel. Mapping the Interior is less about the generic “sins of the father” than a wholly creepy, razor sharp examination of a life lived on the edges of two cultures—fully immersed in both, and yet…
Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor
The Hugo and Nebula award-winning Binti starts off as a strain of the space academy story: the title character is the member of a small ethnic minority, and the first of her people to be accepted to a prestigious intergalactic institution of higher learning, Oomza University. Leaving the Himba people is life-altering step for Binti, one which will forever unsettle her place with the culture of her birth. But this displacement becomes so much stronger when the Meduse, a hostile alien race, attack the transport ship which was to shuttle her to her galactic education. Binti plays with tropes of boarding school and military fictions—groups of ethnic minorities on the train to Hogwarts or the Great War explicating their cultures in quick, easily legible gestures—confounding expectations and going nowhere you expect. Binti brings her culture with her, inevitably, into space, and it makes all the difference.
Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed
Saladin Ahmed’s Nebula-nominated debut tells the story of Abdoulla, a ghul-hunter in his silver-haired years who gets dragged back into the trade by an old flame; never mind that all he wants to do is hang out drinking tea. In order to defeat a dark sorcerer, the ghul-of-ghuls, he enlists the help of old accomplices, a mage and an alchemist. He is also aided, somewhat begrudgingly, by a Dervish apprentice and a girl who might also be a cat. The novel is notable in several ways. First, and maybe most obviously, it takes place in a Middle-Eastern inflected fantasy landscape, instead of the usual Tolkien-esque Europe. Second, Abdoulla is no ingenue, but an old dude whose knees creak and who gets maudlin, in the small hours, about the one that got away. The world Abdoulla inhabits—especially his bustling, cosmopolitan city—is beautifully realized.
The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang
R.F. Kuang’s celebrated debut is another boarding school fiction, of sorts. Rin is a talented war orphan from a nothing Southern province in a country not dissimilar from early 20th Century China. (Kuang is a scholar in Chinese history, most specifically this period.) Passing the brutal exam to gain entrance to the imperial military school in Nikan seems like the ticket out of her small, mean life, but her first months at Sinegard are one setdown after another. She is simply out her depth alongside the wealthy and politically connected students who have trained since birth to stand with Nikan’s elite. She ends up falling in with Jiang, Sinegard’s resident weirdo professor, who is more likely to end a conversation with fart noises than teach his proscribed classes on lore. With him, she begins to learn the ways of shamanism, a practice more mythical than practiced in Nikan. Jiang’s teaching will be put to the test when Nikan resumes hostilities with the neighboring Federation, and Rin must decide how she will use her skills to fight those who would destroy her people.
Midnight Robber, by Naolo Hopkinson
The backstory for Jamaican-born Naolo Hopkinson’s beautifully textured Midnight Robber is almost too complex to sum: a young girl, Tan-Tan, is taken by her disgraced mayor father from the Caribbean-colonized world of Toussaint to the planet’s strange, alternate-universe twin, peopled largely by criminals from Toussaint (like her father). Tan-Tan matriculates under her dad’s rough care in a place where reality is stretchy. There, creatures of Caribbean myth are real, and Tan-Tan grows into a person of lore herself—the Midnight Robber, a sort of Robin Hood who spouts the poetry of the Carib. The language of the novel is a complex patois, something you must lower yourself into slowly, even while it roils. It is a heady mix of the SFFnal and the folkloric.
Half-Resurrection Blues, by Daniel José Older
While urban fantasy by its very nature takes place in urban landscapes, sometimes the genre can be very white, even though big cities usually aren’t. Older’s Half-Resurrection Blues is a direct refutation of this white-washing, taking place in a New York peopled by the very plurality you can actually find on the streets of Brooklyn. (Older worked as a paramedic in these very neighborhoods, and his writing has a detailed sense of place.) Carlos Delacruz is half-dead, having awoken from his murder without memories of his pre-death life. The ghosts who find him and nurse him back to a sort of half-life decide he looks Puerto Rican, so that’s how he thinks of himself. (This is one of many half-jokes about race in America you’ll find in this novel; the metaphor of existence in two worlds is operative on several levels.) Delacruz must run down another halfie who is threatening to break down the border between life and death, which brings Delacruz into contact with several Brads, a giant Hasid, junkies, trolls on bikes known, a santero, and maybe, just maybe, the love of his life. (Half-life. Whatever.) Half-Resurrection Blues is an active novel with really lovely language, twisted with street grit, and so good, you’re glad it’s the start of a series.
Lost Gods, by Micah Yongo
Lost Gods follows a matriculating young person, Neythan, as he graduates to the brotherhood of assassins known as the Shedaím. In his first excursion as a full member, he’s betrayed by one of his fellow students, framed for the murder of another. Neythan starts off on half-quest, half-chase to bring his classmate and betrayer to justice, even while he’s pursued by the brotherhood in turn. The novel also follows several others in the rich tapestry of life in the multi-cultural empire, from the sharif, to exiled wanderers. Lost Gods is based on African folklore, a game of thrones more beholden to the Middle East than the West.
Borderline, by Mishell Baker
The title of Baker’s first novel in the Arcadia Project series, Borderline, refers to several things, the way good titles always do. There is the borderline between the fae world and our own, which is policed by the aforementioned, government-rocognized Arcadia Project. There’s the borderline between the beautiful fiction of Hollywood and the less than beautiful perpetrators of that particular mirage, as explicated by its L.A. setting, and a plot that concerns the mixing of movie magic with the literal kind. And then there’s borderline personality disorder, a diagnosis the principle of the novel, Millie, shares with her creator. Millie came to Hollywood as a young filmmaker, but after a disastrous affair with a professor, she tried to jump from a rooftop to her death; she survived, and lost the use of her legs. The Arcadia Project finds her convalescing, waiting for the insurance money to run out. They want her to help run down a fae who has jumped the bounds (another borderline), and figure she is a safe bet: if she tries to go public about the existence of the supernatural, no one will believe her. Millie is a winsome first person narrator, nowhere near perfect, but self-aware, and managing her BPD as best she can.
The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu
At about the time when Ken Liu’s debut novel was published, the sci-fi novel Ken Liu translated into English from Chinese, The Three-Body Problem, won the Hugo Award for Best Novel. Grace of Kings went on to pick up several prestigious nominations itself. Like many good translators, Liu has a gift with language, and on a prose level, The Grace of Kings is lovely indeed. The novel incorporates a fair amount of both history and folklore about the fall of the Qin dynasty and the rise of the Han way, way back in Chinese history, enhanced with a silkpunk aesthetic and something like jokes about accounting. Chinese history—with its sweep of millennia and dynastic machinations—is perfectly suited to epic fantasy, a genre which has heretofore largely cribbed from medieval and renaissance Europe (with notable and important exceptions, of course). Liu tells something like a national origin story, with all of the attendant tall tales, mythologizing, and invocation of the gods such an enterprise incurs.
Jade City, by Fonda Lee
The titular Jade City is the capital of an island nation a generation or so past occupation by a foreign power. This occupation was repulsed by the Green Bone warriors, an ethnic minority who have the cultural lore and genetic predisposition to wield jade, a mineral resource that can confer superhuman powers on its wearers. Without adequate training or natural disposition, jade can drive a person to suicide. Two generations ago, Green Bone warriors were hungry freedom fighters with bonds forged in blood; now they are warring clans presided over by both cautious old men and hungry young upstarts. The Green Bone warriors are at war with themselves. Jade City is a sprawling story of crime families in conflict, and owes much to Hong Kong action films as it does to The Godfather, set in a cosmopolitan city with nevertheless a deeply traditional culture.
An Unkindness of Ghosts, by Rivers Solomon
Aster is a lowerdecker on a generation ship bound for the promised land, a vessel ruled by a religious and racial autocracy; in plainer terms, the HSS Matilda is, years out from port and years into its voyage, a spacefaring slave ship. We first encounter Aster when she is amputating the frozen foot of a child whose deck had its heat cut by the upperdeckers, not as punishment, precisely, but more as operative cruelty. Aster struggles with personal pronouns a bit in this interaction—is this the deck where all children are referred to as “they” (which is Rivers Solomon’s own preferred pronoun)? The dozens of lower decks have complex local mores and lingo, sexual orientations and gender expressions. (A variety Aster sometimes has trouble with, because she is non-neurotypical, and has trouble reading other people’s emotional states or discerning nuance.) Aster is asked by her friend Theo, a biracial doctor who ministers to the upperdeckers, to investigate the poisoning of the Sovereign, who lies on his deathbed. This outrages Aster; the Sovereign presides over the horrors of the lower decks. But his poisoning seems to have something to do with Aster’s mother’s death many years earlier, so maybe, Aster thinks, she can use the death of someone much more powerful as a means to her own deeply personal end.
What authentically told stories do you recommend?