Interview

Interview with Verb Noire

K. Tempest Bradford

New York, New York, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Interview with Verb Noire, conducted by K. Tempest Bradford.

[0.2] Keywords—People of color; Race

Bradford, K. Tempest. 2009. Interview with Verb Noire. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 3. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2009.0160.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Science fiction and fantasy publishing is no longer completely dominated by large conglomerate publishers. Small or independent presses are growing in number and influence, producing award-winning, best-selling authors whose voices often better reflect the ever-more diverse SF readership. However, there are still many underrepresented voices in the genre, including people of color (POC).

[1.2] Enter Verb Noire (http://www.verbnoire.com/). Early in 2009, writer Mikki Kendall, who blogs under the name Karnythia, and writer Jamie Nesbitt Golden conceived of an independent e-publishing press that specialized in fiction featuring POC protagonists. Their mission is to "celebrate the works of talented, underrepresented authors and deliver them to a readership that demands more." Verb Noire's first book, River's Daughter, by Tasha Campbell, was released in May 2009.

[1.3] K. Tempest Bradford, who blogs as The Angry Black Woman (http://theangryblackwoman.com/), first met Kendall through blog and LiveJournal discussions about race, SF, and fandom. After a successful month guest blogging on theangryblackwoman.com, Bradford invited Kendall to become a regular contributor. They met in person for the first time this year at the WisCon Feminist Science Fiction Convention, where they discussed Verb Noire, SF publishing, fandom, and community.

2. Perspective

[2.1] KTB: Knowing how tough it can be for small presses, are you worried or scared for the future of the enterprise?

[2.2] Karnythia: Yes and no. I would be an idiot not to have my "what if" moments. I also know that even if we don't make it, we will (to borrow a phrase) have changed the face of the industry. I feel like we have to try, because sitting around waiting to be let in isn't going to work. Even if we personally fail, maybe the next person will succeed, or the one after that.

[2.3] KTB: Someone has to step up and lay the groundwork.

[2.4] Karnythia: Exactly. Mind you, I'm hoping that we do knock the ball out of the park. And I plan for us to keep trying as long as possible, marketing as aggressively as we can.

[2.5] KTB: One thing I have been thinking about is how to deal with people who just can't seem to "get" fiction written from POC perspectives. For instance, with Nisi Shawl's Tiptree Award–winning collection Filter House, there's been a lot of discussion around Matt Cheney's review of it in Strange Horizons (note 1). He really panned the book to hell. The whole time I was reading his review, I thought: "The real reason he doesn't like this book is because it is not written for him, for his perspective, for his comfort, because he's a white guy."

[2.6] Karnythia: I think that those people will have to finally accept that they don't get to have the only view. There is no right way to do SF. The whole "I need a white perspective to enjoy a book" is so self-involved and racist. It is not about the authors, or even really about much of the prospective audience. Honestly,"This touched uncomfortable places and that makes it bad," says a lot about the industry that no one really wants to discuss, but the truth keeps playing out at the least opportune moments.

[2.7] KTB: No, it's not. Also, Matt didn't even explicitly say that, but I grokked that's what his problem was. When I first read Filter House I was a little shocked, but in a good way, to read so many stories that had an essence of, "I am written by a black woman and you just need to get used to that." I'm not used to reading a lot of fiction that makes me feel this way. I wish I could get more.

[2.8] Karnythia: I've been working on something that is all about the black woman's perspective in horror because I really got tired of women who didn't fight back or say no. I'm noticing as I go along that it's not that I dislike horror movies so much as I dislike the lack of real heroines. I think Nisi had a similar moment of, "I am not a white woman, so why is she supposed to be the example for me?"

[2.9] KTB: Exactly. Her stories resonated with me because she took that tack. But this may not work as well for others. Often we are the ones being asked to take the point of view of the so-called default/mainstream culture, yet it's not often people from the mainstream are asked to take ours.

3. POC and the wider community of SF publishing

[3.1] KTB: Verb Noire is obviously all about making POC visible and countering POC disappearing in other published works. How do you think the press's impact is going to be felt in the wider community of SF publishing? Sometimes the big houses end up following the lead of the indie presses.

[3.2] Karnythia: I can pretty much guarantee we'll see some new imprints being created. See what happened with Kimani Press in the romance genre (note 2). BET books owned a bunch of imprints that Harlequin bought and turned it into Kimani. Four books a month, all African American romance. I think we'll see the same happening with Tor or Baen, maybe Daw.

[3.3] A lot of the bigger publishers are so busy putting out new versions of the same old thing that nothing fresh is getting out. I can go the rest of my life without another young hip wealthy white person now with magical powers/vampire/ghost story.

[3.4] KTB: It's that thing media has where it finds a good, comfortable spot and, like an old cat, refuses to leave it. Media is so afraid of game-changing. As you said, publishers are like that, too.

[3.5] Karnythia: And it's so sad because, while Lord of the Rings was groundbreaking, the knockoffs? Not so much. And the romance genre is surviving off SF's castoffs.

[3.6] KTB: I do realize that there's plenty of market research to back up the oft-repeated notion that people want to see or read what they like over and over and don't want new things. But I don't think it has to be that way.

[3.7] Karnythia: You can make market research say anything if you pick the right sample.

[3.8] KTB: This extends to the fiction I read, too—the same stories told over and over but without any kind of fresh perspective on them, not even the fresh perspective of, say, another culture.

[3.9] Karnythia: It's The Last of the Mohicans approach where the hero is white but uses the skills from x society to save them. If they taught him the skills, why can't they save themselves?

[3.10] KTB: Obviously their skills work better when wielded by a white man.

[3.11] Karnythia: Everything is better with a white man—except, you know…not.

[3.12] KTB: I think it's part of an invisibility problem. Hollywood people seem to feel that "mainstream audiences" need a white person to identify with in a film, show, or book, like adding the white character to the Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee movie (note 3).

[3.13] Karnythia: There was a lot of hullaballoo over Jill Scott's show—The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency—and the BBC deciding not to insert a white character. Highest ratings in years, blows the doors off HBO, and I am an addict. But…they still kept believing the audience needed a white guy. That's why they've ruined Avatar: The Last Airbender by casting white actors as characters who, in the original animated version, were all clearly portrayed as of color and will be shocked—shocked—when it flops.

[3.14] KTB: It's frustrating. You know there has to be a tipping point where it is deemed not okay by people in power to do this, even if their reasons for saying it's not okay is that it means they will lose money.

[3.15] Karnythia: I think, especially as we start to turn to our own markets, that the so-called mainstream will follow out of curiosity, if nothing else.

[3.16] KTB: And maybe in search of something that's not the rehashed product they continue to see.

[3.17] Since I've started coming to cons and being active in the science fiction and fantasy community, the landscape has changed. I see more POC both in the "visible"/con-going community just as I am seeing more POC writing books or being in them. I feel like those two things are connected, though I'm not entirely sure which came first.

[3.18] Karnythia: I think it isn't a question of POC writing more or trying to participate more so much as that the doors are open a little more so that they get published. Plus, with the Internet, we don't have to rely on the old methods. Look at the Web comic based on African American folklore, Bayou (note 4). It is growing in popularity, and that has a lot to do with stuff like link spam (note 5) from readers who are also bloggers.

[3.19] KTB: It's important to note that this is just a tech-enhanced version of what POC and really all fans did before. But pre-Internet, the conversations were more in-group.

[3.20] Karnythia: Yep. We always had our lit, even if it was just passed as family lore. But now other people can (and want to) see what we're talking about.

[3.21] KTB: Even as they are shocked and appalled that it's not what they assumed we would talk about.

[3.22] Karnythia: The idea that we're not really thinking about white people never occurred to them, much less that we wouldn't really care about their opinion of what we are talking about.

[3.23] KTB: That we are having conversations with each other. Or even between different kinds of POC.

4. Creation of Verb Noire

[4.1] KTB: When you decided to start Verb Noire, what finally pissed you off enough to say, "Okay, let's do this"?

[4.2] Karnythia: It was all about this year's eruption of arguments over racism and cultural appropriation in science fiction fandom (RaceFail) (note 6) and the realization that while authors of color are turning themselves inside out, the mainstream really has no interest in letting us tell our own stories.

[4.3] I want sci-fi to actually reflect us—our voices, our views. And I'm thinking, in this day and age, why keep up the abusive relationship of yesteryear?

[4.4] People will swear that POC aren't into SF, but, like Pam Noles (note 7), people get disgusted seeing us marginalized, erased, or made into caricatures.

[4.5] KTB: I wonder, do people tell themselves that POC don't watch or read SF because they believe it, or because they want it to be true so they can go on ignoring us?

[4.6] Karnythia: They want it to be true. I know when I first started participating in Doctor Who fandom, there was a lot of "I didn't know black people were watching" and lots of "you only started watching because of Martha." I just don't have the energy to battle to love a show.

[4.7] KTB: And it can be a battle. This is why we need Verb Noire. We need this kind of effort for other media too. Spike Lee was/is doing it. And BET is stepping up a bit with their animation department. But for SF TV/movie media, there doesn't seem to be a collective of people looking to bring our stories to the screen. Do you think that if we up the ante in the literature world, film and TV would follow suit?

[4.8] Karnythia: Yes! Best-seller lists are the key, then standing strong on casting and writing, like Alexander McCall Smith did for Ladies' Detective Agency. They were way too trusting with Avatar, and we see what happened there. I think McCall's method of "I won't sell the rights unless you make these guarantees in the deal" was the best approach. The one thing writers of color and writers who create characters of color can't afford to do is get blinded by the dollar signs or else their work is ruined. Look at the Wizard of Earthsea movie, where a world that was explicitly depicted as having very few white people ended up almost entirely white on screen (note 8).

[4.9] KTB: Yes. In that case, I think that Le Guin never considered that the Sci-Fi Channel and the producers would be so completely stupid about casting.

[4.10] Karnythia: I'm sure she didn't. What happened to her was a major lesson, though.

[4.11] KTB: If you weren't aware before of what they can and will do to you and your book, you should be now.

[4.12] Karnythia: Exactly. That's something our authors, should they hit big, will be reminded of. I want them to succeed, but not at the expense of their vision.

[4.13] KTB: In 2008 I was on a panel called "Can Internet Drama Change the World?" at WisCon. I'm a veteran of many online arguments and other dramas, often finding myself frustrated, angry, and in despair over the possibility of change. But the panelists and I all agreed that extremely fraught Internet arguments (often labeled drama) are useful and often lead to change. Almost every major fight, discussion, debate, or argument I've had online led to something positive: new connections, strong friendships, and, very often, important projects.

[4.14] My blog, The Angry Black Woman, came about because of online discussions around race—which can be filled with drama—and my desire to foster more advanced dialogue. The latest major debate, RaceFail, was wider-reaching and longer than almost any Internet drama I've ever been involved in. It generated a lot of heat and a lot of anger, but it doesn't surprise me that it also generated substantial community action and a project like Verb Noire. The positive reaction is often equal to or greater than the negative "action" of Internet drama.

[4.15] Ultimately, the good things generated by drama will outlive the memory of the drama, especially online. I have high hopes that Verb Noire will instigate important changes in science fiction and fantasy publishing.

5. Notes

1. Tiptree Award, http://www.tiptree.org/; Matthew Cheney's review of Filter House, http://www.strangehorizons.com/reviews/2008/10/filter_house_by.shtml.

2. Kimani Press, http://www.eharlequin.com/store.html?cid=368; Wikipedia entry, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kimani_Press.

3. "This reminds me of the fantasy v. reality casting session for Anansi Boys that went on in the inboxes last year," by Pam Noles, And We Shall March, May 11, 2007, http://andweshallmarch.typepad.com/and_we_shall_march/2007/05/this_reminds_me.html.

4. Bayou by Jeremy Love and Patrick Morgan, http://www.zudacomics.com/bayou.

5. Blog posts that contain large lists of links with little or no commentary for the purpose of keeping record of scattered posts and discussions around a single topic.

6. RaceFail summary on the FeministSF wiki, http://wiki.feministsf.net/index.php?title=RaceFail_09.

7. "Shame," by Pam Noles, from The Infinite Matrix, http://www.infinitematrix.net/faq/essays/noles.html.

8. "A whitewashed Earthsea—How the Sci Fi Channel wrecked my books," by Ursula K. Le Guin, Slate, December 16, 2004, http://www.slate.com/id/2111107/



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