Afrotopia: Culturally Relevancy in Science Fiction, Who Knew?

As a school librarian I am proud of the evolution and expansion of children and young adult literature throughout the years. My goals are to increase literacy and make my excitement about books contagious. However, as an adult reader I hardly veer from the path of indulging in historical fiction, although I desire to explore more. This can become problematic when trying to promote reading to reluctant readers. Initially, it’s the high interest and realistic fiction that captures their attention. They want characters with whom they can identify and realistic problems and solutions. That’s why, regardless of my personal preference, each year I am excited about new themes in literature and up-and-coming authors so I review and make purchases for collection development.  Although science fiction and fantasy are my least favorites, I do my best to include as much as possible for those who are avid readers of the genre.

Lately, I have noticed increased interests in science fiction among girls. No longer can we designate this genre as one solely written for or by males. Girls explore, girls experiment, girls dream, and girls love science, too. Witnessing this was encouraging and it inspired me to give sci-fi a chance. Nancy Farmer, James Dashner, James Patterson, and Ray Bradbury are just a few authors recommended to me by staff and students. I read some works and I’ll admit they are different but it’s all good reading. Genetically altered youths saving the world and a society where books are burned were unique topics. In fact, reading science fiction opened a new pathway to thinking for me. Its organizational structure, character development, and themes can challenge any reader, which is important as a learner. However, during book talks I still find myself leaning toward promoting the genre of historical fiction to students. There was always this goal to convince them that reading memoirs, biographies, and history within fiction can be just as cool as reading about galaxies, augmented realities, and futuristic environments. It is my effort to promote recreational reading and help them develop critical thinking skills about the world in which they live.

While some see this genre as a recounting of boring and mundane historical facts, I see it as a great opportunity to provide context and answer the question of why? Believe it or not historical fiction can help students understand contemporary literature and real life through its explanation of patterns in human behaviors. I wouldn’t say I am obsessed with it, but I will say I have a great affinity for the genre. In young adult literature titles like Copper Sun and Fire from the Rock by Sharon Draper, Yellow Fever by Laurie Halse Anderson, Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers, and Bound by Donna Jo Napoli are some of my favorites.

Upon more reflection I realized it isn’t just the history that piques my interest, it is the reading about particular populations. I serve a student population that is predominantly African American and they desire to read about relatable characters and situations. I have noticed in many science fiction novels, futuristic storylines may suggest that characters live in a post-racial or post-sexist world where “isms” simply don’t exist. This is not to suggest that themes of suppression and oppression cannot and do not emerge in sci-fi plots, because they do. For example, Kindred by Octavia Butler, a common high school senior read, is the story of a black woman who time travels from the present to a plantation during slavery. Butler’s writing wonderfully expresses the intersectionality of race and gender.

Furthermore, I have observed that students who read about real-world marginalized communities and people of color gain greater understanding and empathy. As an advocate of cultural diversity and social justice, I respect the unique and creative storytelling that historical fiction offers. In a “right now” world, important historical events are often forgotten over time, and I want students to know that remembering is essential. I also admire authors who are brave enough to go there in retelling stories of the past. I am even more thankful for authors who represent communities where historically there has been no voice. While some science fiction includes female protagonists and entertaining storylines, it was its lack of representation of cultural and racial diversity in recent titles that didn’t totally win me over.

That was until I read Binti, an Afrotopian novel written by Nnedi Okorafor, a Nigerian-American woman. Binti tells the story of a woman from an African ethnic group modeled after the Himba of Namibia who is highly intellectual, fully aware of her customs and traditions, and possesses a special gift that gets her accepted in a prestigious intergalactic university. It is a short but powerful read of less than one hundred pages that students can take on without feeling overwhelmed. Other titles included Binti: Home and Binti: The Night Masquerade, which is the final installment of the trilogy.

Reading this novel led me to research and find similar titles commonly referred to as Afrotopian. Science fiction written by African and/or African American authors who intertwine history, science, myth, the complexities of race, gender, class, and sometimes politics. It’s clear that increasing selection options will encourage more students to read science fiction particularly if it includes cultural relevant topics. Finally, I am endeavoring to build a larger Afrotopian collection that can be paired with historical fiction. Think if you love The Riot by Walter Dean Myers, you’ll love Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson. For now these titles have been added to expand the science fiction collection.

Books Referenced:

Butler, Octavia E. Parable of the Sower: Parable of the Talents; Kindred. Quality Paperback Book Club, 1999.

Hopkinson, Nalo. Brown Girl in the Ring. Grand Central, 1998.

————–. Sistermine. Grand Central, 2013.

————–. Falling in Love with Hominids. Tachyon. 2015.

Okorafor, Nnedi. Binti. Tor/Forge. 2015.

————–. Binti: Home. Tor/Forge. 2017.

————–. Binti: The Night Masquerade. Tor/Forge. 2018.

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Author: Chiquita Toure

I am an educator, school librarian, writer and well advocate.
This is my 23rd year with Columbus City Schools. Currently I serve as the head librarian at Eastmoor Academy, a college prep high school. Although memoirs and biographies are my favorite, I am not afraid of sci-fi and fantasy. Using my role to promote social justice and cultural relevant literature is one of my favorite things to do.



Categories: Blog Topics, Collection Development, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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1 reply

  1. If you are looking for diverse fantasy, sci-fi, or dystopian YA books, try Children of Blood and Bone. It is fairly new and the author is Nigerian-American. I think this book is the first in a series, with rumor that a movie is in the works.

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