Does your science fiction or fantasy world have to be woke? Experts debate at NYCC

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Oct 9, 2018, 12:00 PM EDT

What does it mean to be woke? What's it mean for your world to be woke? Can you critique our present world in fantastical or future worlds, or are you constrained by the systems and languages of our reality? These were some of the questions fielded at New York Comic Con 2018's "Does Your Fantasy or Sci-Fi World Have To Be Woke" panel.

It was standing room only, filled to the brim, and the diverse audience was eager to hear and engage in this important and needed discussion. Thankfully, the panelists are not only eloquent, but leading voices in their industry, and were willing to take on the big and sometimes scary conversations on race, diversity, appropriation, and diaspora.

"Wokeness: Being aware of the current state of affairs, being enlightened," stated moderator Dhonielle Clayton, the chief operating officer of We Need Diverse Books, as she kicked off the panel with a definition of that hot-button term. From there, the big question she posed was, when you create worlds, do you have a responsibility to make them woke?

Authors V.E. Schwab (Darker Shade of Magic, This Savage Song), Ibi Zoboi (American Street, Pride), Nebula award-winning N.K. Jemisin (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Earth series), and Daniel José Older (Shadowshaper), were eager to answer.

Zoboi explained how "woke" came from African American vernacular, coming out of a need to give vocabulary to intellectual resistance. "It was conscious. Conscious hip-hop. We were really pushing back against the status quo through our vernacular. Intellectual struggle encompasses the idea of black people doing deep dives, critical thought, critical reading in all they do."

"Language is actually being useful to wake people up rather than put them to sleep," he continued.

Older followed with, "Responsibility is the right way to frame it. What is the best way to approach this problem of the real world and the world we're creating? The artist has a responsibility to speak to the world and speak to the time we live in."

Jemisin intentionally used recognizable language to emulate the real world in her trilogy Broken Earth. "It's crucial not to stray too far," she insisted, "you can't get too allegorical. It's easy for one form of resistance to be appropriated and the original meaning to be stripped away from it."

The topic Afrofuturism was an especially heated issue, as the panelists found limitations in the genre and aesthetic prominently seen in Black Panther.

"When you've got people who cannot see the mythos that we as an African American ethnic group have created, the problem with [African-centric] terms like 'Afrofuturism' is that it erases the realities of what we have faced and built," Jemisin said, explaining further that she felt the term was morphing into the idea of only an African future and discarding an African American future, erasing what's happened already.

Schwab followed up with the fact they needed to concentrate on creating stories with them and people like them as the main characters. "You're never allowed to be the central figure," Schwab said. "Non-white people are only ever allowed to be secondary and tertiary... I want to center those who aren't centered."

Creators have to speak their truths, and for the panelists, Afrofuturism isn't that. They're African American and Latino; those are the stories and the worlds they want and need to create. This has been especially difficult in terms of marketing their work.

Clayton posed the question of how do they tell the truth and critique systems of oppression when gatekeepers want them to be silent and cater to a mainstream audience. Zoboi argued there was such a thing as being "too woke," to be marketable. An unfortunate reality that she and many others have lived.

"My publishing journey in being forced to dial back the truth to get my foot in the door," Zoboi said. She spoke on having trouble getting her rich Haitian tales filled with mythology, VooDoo, and folklore. Though she was quick to be reassured by the rest of the panel that it wasn't that she was too woke, it was just that mainstream culture doesn't have the palette for it... yet.

Slowly things are changing for the better and more diverse. Older sung the praises of We Need Diverse Books and the change they've headlined. "The literary landscape has changed a lot because women of color started We Need Diverse Books," he said. "Organizing that work changed the literary world. Everything looks different now." He spoke about how the New York Times bestseller list has more authors of color, the shelves at Barnes & Noble are now more diverse. "That's a piece of literary history now."

Everyone agreed that the fight will continue and more voices need to be heard. Stories need to be diverse and real, not allegorical. The age of orcs as stand-ins for people of color is over. Tell black stories. Tell brown stories. Tell stories that aren't about cis white men. Tell good, diverse stories, and the world will be richer for it.

"At the end of the day the only eye that matters is your own," Older said. "Your job is not to teach, it's to express. We are bound by the truth we understand ourselves."