Tell me if you’ve heard this one before. A young Middle-Eastern American, a person of color (POC), impressionable and full of desire to escape into worlds of science-fiction and fantasy, picks up The Hobbit and Harry Potter to read or queues up Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica on their streaming platform.
Our POC falls in love with Aragorn and Frodo, Hermione and Harry, Kirk and Spock, Adama and Starbuck. Who wouldn’t? They are brave and beautiful, full of honor, justice and the all the goodness your parents raised you to believe in.
But something feels off. None of your Romeos or Juliets talk like your parents. None of them dress like your gido or nona. But the antagonists, the enemies, those eastern swarthy people, do. Down to the bone, they look like you, smell like you, eat like you, talk like you. Why is it that so many books written by Western authors and Western publishers make you feel like the antagonist of your life’s story?
Maybe you hadn’t just heard all this before. Maybe you lived it. I know I did. I thought I’d do something about it. I started writing, and writing, then submitting for publication, and writing, and submitting. And submitting. And submitting…
Like any artistic industry, the publishing industry has gate-keepers, people meant to make sure only the best content arrives on the book shelfs or in your inbox. For years, I believed they played their part purely, that they existed solely to enhance the quality of the work that gets to market, and saw it as a challenge to be met.
After a while, I realized the gate-keepers were more than just quality control. They were megaphones to those they chose to publish, and silencers to those they didn’t. And as often as not, it quality had nothing to do with it.
So I came up with a pen name. A.A. Leil, a mysterious, ambiguous pen name in the vein of a C.S. Lewis that I thought would appeal to the gate-keepers and make me sound more ‘authorly’. Less ‘swarthy’.
It didn’t make a difference. Maybe because I couldn’t let go of who I am. With every submission, I mentioned my background because throughout the industry vague calls about a desire to support minority voices had been made. I’m not sure by whom, they seemed like a far-off adhan calling to a masjid that you could never find.
And that’s why I write, because of who I am and who you are. You’re someone who can decide for yourself what to read without gate-keepers deciding for you. You should get to see protagonists and antagonists of all kinds. Because it’s not the color of someone’s skin that builds their character, it’s their life experience and the choices they make.
Every piece of speculative fiction has been workshopped, rewritten, beta-tested and edited over countless hours to make it shine as brightly as possible. Some have never been published, some have been recognized in writing contests, some have been published in speculative fiction magazines and anthologies. But the only outlet that matters to me is your inbox.