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Credit: Saga Press

Nebula Award-winning author Rebecca Roanhorse is indigenizing the future of science fiction and fantasy

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Jun 27, 2018, 10:00 PM EDT

Rebecca Roanhorse is still excited after she won a Nebula Award for her first-ever short story, "Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience." Roanhorse, who is of Ohkay Owingeh and Black American heritage, is one of a small but growing community of Indigenous science fiction and fantasy writers.

"I wanted to tell stories that were fun, thrilling, and fantastical," says Roanhorse, who lives in Northern New Mexico, the region where her mother's Pueblo ancestors settled nearly 1,000 years ago. "But I also wanted to write genre stories that didn't dwell on the effects of colonialism, but rather felt sovereign."

Her work is part of a creative movement called "Indigenous futurism," stories, art, and comics that depict Native people as part of and shapers of the future instead of simply sitting on the sidelines. It allows authors and creators to "speak back to the colonial tropes of science fiction," says Cherokee scholar Adrienne Keene, quoting Roanhorse, "those that celebrate the rugged individual, the conquest of foreign worlds, the taming of the final frontier."

Although she grew up on a diet of science fiction and fantasy, including The Belgariad, Dragonlance, Wheel of Time, and Dune, Roanhorse says she had lost interest in much of the genre by the time she got to college. Indeed, Roanhorse's first adult writing was more along the line of law briefs and case studies — she has a law degree from the University of New Mexico. "Studying Federal Indian law and tribal law (the law which is internal to tribal nations, as opposed to U.S. government law that impacts tribal nations) did influence what I wanted to write and how I wanted to write it," she says.

Rebecca Roanhorse, author

Credit: Rebecca Roanhorse/Twitter

But all that changed when she discovered urban fantasy. "The genre opened up for me again," Roanhorse says. "All these powerful characters, often women, in contemporary settings with magic and supernatural creatures and love life complications to go along with them was something I didn't know you could do in Fantasy, and it was my sweet spot."

And seeing how authors of color, particularly Black women, were receiving recognition for what Roanhorse calls "incredible work," she says, "I knew I was back in for life." So she started her journey to become one of Native America's emerging authors.

The process of finding her voice is a familiar one: "I wrote many angsty space pirates and questing white boys with secret magical destinies," Roanhorse says. "I have notebooks full of the stuff."

She ultimately settled on what she knew best — her own peoples, cultures, and histories. "Native folks are my friends and family, the people I know the best," says Roanhorse. "I didn't see many Indigenous voices, but that's nothing new. I did see non-Native authors writing Native characters with abandon, so I figured if they can write Native characters, surely I can, too."

"Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience" is clearly linked to Roanhorse's own sense of cultural and material theft, colonialism, and loss within the world of virtual reality. In her Nebula acceptance speech, Roanhorse said, "It astounds me to this day, this moment, that so many people love this very Indigenous story about the horrors of appropriation and consumerism." She's also "blown away" by the support the story has received. In addition to the Nebula, it's also been nominated for the Hugo, Locus, and Sturgeon awards.

But the nominations are just icing on the cake, she says. "What excites me most is that people are reading the story and interacting with it." For example, Roanhorse says she saw a thread on Reddit where some readers were debating some of the literary devices she used in the story and arguing about what is real and what is not. "I was thrilled," she says. "That is every writer's dream, for readers to engage with something you've written."

And Roanhorse is just getting started: Her first novel, Trail of Lightning (Saga Press), hits bookstands both physical and virtual June 26. The near-future post-climate apocalypse story is set on the Navajo Nation's reservation, which has returned to its traditional name, Dinétah. "I wanted to tell a rez story, but a story that reflected the rez as I know it -- contemporary, dynamic, challenging, but wholly a place unto itself," says Roanhorse. "This is monster hunting on a near-future Navajo reservation where the gods and heroes of legend walk the land, but so do the monsters. And I threw in a few badass monster hunters, which is a Navajo tradition, too." One advance review calls the book "fun, terrifying, hilarious, and brilliant." The second in Roanhorse's "Sixth World" series, Storm of Locusts, will be released in 2019.

In 2020, Roanhorse will publish an epic fantasy inspired by Ancestral Puebloan, or Anasazi, culture, Between Earth and Sky. "The great matriarchal clans of a cliff city vie for power against a setting of political intrigue, rising rebellion, dark magic, and celestial prophecies," she says. "I am really excited to break out of the European mold and try my hand at an Indigenous-influenced epic fantasy."

Roanhorse says that these books are Indigenous stories unto themselves. "There's so much room in SF/F to shake things up, to imagine things differently, to tell stories that maybe people haven't read before," Roanhorse says. "I wanted to embrace that."

She's also happy to join some of her favorite Indigenous authors such as Daniel Heath Justice, Stephen Graham Jones, Darcie Little Badger, and Daniel Wilson in the SF/F genre. And, "Apex Magazine [which published "Welcome to Your Genuine American Indian Experience"] recently published an entire issue devoted to Indigenous SF/F with four distinct and exciting Indigenous women authors, myself included," as Roanhorse says. "We're tiny in number, but we're there."

At the end of her Nebula speech, Roanhorse noted: "Let this be a call to all the editors and gatekeepers in this room: Indigenous people are still here. We are writing, and we have stories to tell."