End of Winter Term Reflection

At Oberlin College, the conversation about diversity and representation is unavoidable.  People are constantly clamoring for diverse media and denouncing what they see as harmful or not good enough. Fantastic fiction is a big target of this criticism. There is that stereotype: the idea that fantasy is all Arthurian white guys waving swords around and winning the helpless girl, and that science fiction is all white guys on spaceships waging wars against bug-eyed aliens.

But that conception never felt right to me. Yes, there was plenty of that, but I had seen so much more! I had stumbled on a few queer SFF books by chance, had passed around copies of The Last Herald-Mage (featuring a gay mage as his nation’s legendary hero) and Ascension (featuring a black lesbian spaceship engineer) to a few friends, told everybody who would listen about The Dark Wife (a lesbian retelling of the Persephone myth) and A Door Into Ocean (featuring an all-female planet), but to hear the way people talked, the queer and racially diverse scifi/fantasy scene was tiny. Over the summer, curious about what else was actually out there, I looked up some queer science fiction book lists— and found a whole world of books I had never even heard of.

The ones that caught my eye, I ordered from the county library system or bought secondhand online. One of the most memorable was a series called Children of the Triad, about cooperation between several species on the same planet. Most of the characters used exclusively the nonbinary pronouns id, idre, and ids. I had rarely seen alternate pronouns used in books, never mind so extensively, but there they were, on the pages of an out-of-print paperback from 1989. And that was only one of the things I discovered. I found a book about a deaf Native American woman as ambassador to aliens who used sign language. I found a book about kids in Nigeria learning magic. I found a book about a queer black girl traveling in space with a gay couple. There were scores of books with queer and diverse characters. And it disappointed me that so few people knew about these books. Even the better-known ones, like the Valdemar series, were relatively obscure. I wanted to share these with the school, and more than that, I wanted to share them with the world, make them easy to find for all the people who wanted diverse media, and all the people who said there was nothing out there. And that’s when a friend gave me the idea of making this into a Winter Term project. If I had the school’s support, I could publicize a list of diverse SFF books, and maybe—just maybe—convince them to buy a few for the library. 

I talked to the English department, and then to the head of the library, and was eventually directed to the Head of Collections, Jessica Grim, who told me that not only could the library buy books for my project, they could get 100 of them, and put them on display! Part of my project would involve compiling the list from the best of what I found. And by this point, I knew how I would share my collection with the rest of the world: a database of books, sortable by tags marking why I chose them.

That meeting was in mid-September, and it took a lot of effort to leave the majority of the work until at least winter break and not to just start right away. In the time between conceiving the project and starting it in earnest, I searched for and bookmarked book lists, blogs, and other useful resources I would use to compile the list. And then the fall semester was over, and I had the time to work, and in a flurry of SQL tables and PHP and HTML coding, I began to build my database and the webpages that would display it. I started adding books to a table, adding new columns as I needed them, eventually adding another table to keep series names I’d reference by numbers in the main table, and another table to keep the tags to make displaying them on the site simpler. I built a webpage to add books, using PHP to submit text fields directly into the SQL. I had help from many places. My family had a domain name already in use that I could host the site on. My friends had book suggestions, my dad helped teach me PHP coding. My mom reached out to a children’s literature discussion group for recommendations and I got a storm of emails in reply, including a message from Jane Yolen! I even talked to an editor at Bold Strokes Books, a long-time queer publisher.

Every day brought progress and new questions: Should I add digital books? How do I tag matriarchies? How do I display the book covers? But I worked through these, adding books and search functions, building pages of interesting links and special lists of notable books and personal favorites.

The next step, once I had a large collection and a working website, was to choose the books for the library. I picked out the most notable and interesting books, ones that showcased the diversity I wanted to present. Some of these, the library already had, mostly works from Nalo Hopkinson and Octavia Butler. I built a list of ones they didn’t have, including new and old books with all sorts of characters and settings, anthologies of queer and international short stories, and even a few comics. I sent in the list, and the library started ordering the books.

There’s a lot more to do, even after fulfilling my plans for Winter Term. I’m going to continue to update the site, adding new books and features. It’s been a great success so far, even more than I expected. My social media posts have attracted hundreds of visitors. I even found a post somebody made about the project on a Russian page for comics fans! People have been submitting books to the database and suggesting new search options.

I’m very pleased with the work I’ve done on the database, and the attention it’s gotten. I’m able to share this collection with the world and start new discussions. This project was partially intended as a response to the sort of discussions that had led me to assume there was very little diversity in SFF. I wanted an alternative to what felt like endless criticism of popular books and disdain of new ones; focusing on the problem rather than the solution. Ruth Sternglantz from Bold Strokes Books told me something that I think illustrates this very well. She said, “I once went to a publishers convention where someone made a long speech about how there were no queer books. I’ve worked at a queer publisher for ten years. I was sitting next to people from other queer publishers that had been around just as long. This stuff exists. The problem is that people aren’t aware of it.” 

While criticism has its place, I think promotion is a more dynamic method of activism. Instead of talking about the flaws in one popular book, I want to bring two better ones to the table (or six hundred!) and promote them with enthusiasm and without snide comments about the popular one. Share good books. Promote indie authors who need the attention. Dig up old gems. Encourage new authors who work in webcomics and ebooks. If people can see the momentum already in the diverse book scene, if they buy newly published books and make them popular, more authors, especially minority authors, might be inspired to write, knowing they have a support base. Big publishers will see a new market. Readers will be excited to discuss new books instead of being afraid that their childhood favorites will be cynically dissected. It’s a win for everybody: the authors get the attention, diverse works become more popular, and readers have something new to celebrate.

I have some plans for the future of the website, including developing an advanced search mechanism that would subdivide the “race” and “noneuropean” tags for specific regions of the world. For now, I’m looking forward to seeing the books arriving at the college library and preparing for the Spotlight on the Collections display in April. I hope that my website will prove to be a useful resource for people looking for the diverse books that are too often overlooked.

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