Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Interview: FIYAH Literary Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction

Congratulations to FIYAH Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction for their Hugo nomination for Best Semiprozine!

In 2016, Fireside magazine published the #BlackSpecFic report. Within hours, a powerful discussion began, and it was determined that a SFWA membership qualifying 'zine needed to exist, a place in which Black voices were heard.  The 'zine became a reality, and FIYAH was born in winter of 2017.  In the years since, FIYAH has become more than a magazine that features fiction by and about Black people of the African Diaspora, it has become a community of safety and growth, a place where editors send personalized rejection letters, a place where issues important to the Black community can be discussed freely.  Not only do the stories, the artwork, and the community set FIYAH apart,  but just wait until you learn about the magazine's historical inspiration.
Publishing four times a year since 2017, FIYAH features spec fic, essays, interview, reviews, and artwork. Each issue also offers a play list curated by that issue's authors, and issue specific merchandise. FIYAH has won the World Fantasy Award, and now twice been nominated for a Hugo for best Semiprozine. Authors who have been featured in FIYAH include LaShawn M. Wanak,  L.H. Moore, Nicky Drayden, Omar William Sow, Tade Thompson, Juliana Goodman, Del Sandeen, and so, so many more.

Eboni Dunbar, L.D. Lewis, and Brent Lambert were kind enough to answer my million questions about the FIYAH's historical connections, what makes FIYAH unique, what happens when you can't buy an excellent story, how readers can find diverse short fiction, and more!

Eboni Dunbar is the managing editor at FIYAH, and you have seen her short fiction in Drabblecast, Anathema: Spec from the margins, FIYAH, and Nightlight Podcast. Her novella, Stone and Steel will be available this fall. You can learn more about Eboni at her website ebonidunbar.com, or by following her on twitter, @sugoionna87.

L.D. Lewis serves as a founding creator, Art Director, and Project Manager at FIYAH. Her fiction and non-fiction has appeared in FIYAH, Strange Horizons, Black Girl Nerds, Anathema: Spec from the margins, and elsewhere. Learn more about L.D.'s work at her website, ldlewiswrites.com, or by following her twitter, @Ellethevillain.

Brent Lambert is FIYAH's Social Media guru and Reviews Editor. Through the FIYAH twitter account, @FiyahLitMag, and his own person twitter account, @BrentCLambert, he prompts dicussions about Black SFF, promotes diverse fiction, and publicizes opportunities for marginalized writers. He recently hosted a night of speculative authors of color at Shuffle Collective's Weekend of Words.

Let's get to the interview!

NOAF: Can you tell us about your role at FIYAH, and how you came to be involved with the magazine?

Eboni Dunbar: I'm the managing editor at FIYAH, a new role I've taken on to support our other editors to produce the best magazine possible. I started off as a Stan from issue 1 of the magazine and have had my work published in FIYAH. When a role as acquiring editor came up I jumped at the chance to join the team.

L.D. Lewis: I'm the Art Director and Project Manager. So I commission, direct, and handle contracts for all of our cover art contributors and compose our visual assets like the logo, merch, and event graphics. And I also do the issue formatting, manage our website/store, customer service/tech support, and coordinate special projects like our POB Report. I've been around since the beginning.

Brent Lambert: I'm the Social Media Manager and Reviews Editor. I control and manage all of our social media content, making sure to keep engagement up, our reader base involved and create opportunities to hype up other Black creatives. As the Reviews Editor, I have a team of three dedicated reviewers who provide brilliant commentary on SFF books. Black thought on SFF is something that we need more of in the field so I really enjoy my role there.

NOAF: Not all of our readers are familiar with FIYAH's historical connection and the original FIRE!! in the Harlem Renaissance. Can you tell us more about that?

L.D.L.: FIRE!! Devoted to Young Negro Artists was a Black speculative fiction quarterly orchestrated by Wallace Thurman, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and a cast of Black literati in 1926. It was ultimately a one-off, as the headquarters burned down after the first issue's release. The idea then was to challenge the status quo, to reject respectability and to seed discomfort in those who prioritized it. You can read the sole issue online here or buy a physical reproduction (when the Schomburg reopens shipping) here. One of our founders P. Djeli Clark also penned a more extensive history of our connection to these forebearers here.

FIYAH came about following not only years of our personal observation of the absence of Black voices in genre publications, but after it was confirmed by the statistics in the original iteration of Fireside Magazine's #BlackSpecFic Report. And in the true spirit of every Black person who saw a need in our community going unfulfilled, we decided "fuck it, we'll do it." Naturally, we derived our name from the original FIRE!!. And we've maintained their dedication to authenticity, to the uplifting of new Black voices in speculative fiction and not just repeating the same three or four "names" the genre recognizes. We're still committed to appreciation for our people's stories for what they are, not for the way they can be molded to fit into the ideals that have kept us at a 2% publication rate (FIYAH’s contributions not included) and thus still outsiders to the field.

NOAF: What makes FIYAH different from the other genre magazines out there?

B.L.: The most obvious reason of course is that we're a magazine exclusively for Black SFF writers. But beyond that, there are a couple of things I think FIYAH does well. To toot my own horn for a second, I think our social media game is one of the best out there bar none. We've managed to not just be a magazine but to really foster community amongst the writers and readers that follow us that come from all walks of life. Despite us being an exclusively Black magazine, you will find people that aren't a part of that identity in our comments. We let everyone know they're welcome to interact with us.

Also, we do a couple of other neat things like every one of our issues comes with a playlist curated by the writers of that particular issue. It's a nice touch that I think helps us to stand out and shows that FIYAH is really dedicated to producing a world class product.

One of the biggest for me personally, is that we try and give feedback on every rejection. It's a TON of work and our editors do it without complaint because we know what Black SFF writers face out there. We're always having to walk the tightrope of knowing if we need to just up our craft or is our work not being seen because of our Blackness. It's a frustrating ordeal and why you see so many Black writers just throw up their hands and not even try to make it through these traditional channels. So we do our best to help encourage Black SFF writers to just keep going and not give up.

E.B.: Agree with Brent! I think one of the things that we do that is so awesome in giving feedback on every rejection. It can be demoralizing to walk away from a submission not understanding why it was a no. We can't always share all of our feedback but every author gets something they can work on as well as something we enjoyed. It's a reminder that No doesn't mean what you did isn't worth anything or is bad, it's just a no.

I also love all the other ways we're touching the community. Brent's social media prompts, etc., have lead to lots of great stories or ideas for me personally but I think for the community as well. I love our reviews, there are not enough Black reviewers and not enough reviewers looking at Black SFF.

NOAF: There are a lot of science fiction and fantasy readers who don't have much experience reading short stories and don't know where to start. What advice would you give them?

L.D.L.: I always recommend beginning with the spaces run by marginalized creators or which have a track record of acquiring diverse works. If you're going to build your palate in short fiction, why not start with the dynamic and inclusive as opposed to adding it later on? The semi-pro field has been doing a fantastic job of this, and most have content that's free to read or listen to online (though we encourage readers to support them monetarily so they can keep being fantastic):

Fireside Magazine - generally inclusive
Strange Horizons - generally inclusive
Escape Artists - network of generally inclusive podcast fiction
Uncanny Magazine - generally inclusive
Anathema: Spec from the Margins - (queer BIPOC)
FIYAH - Black speculative fiction

B.L.: These are all great mags and y'all should definitely follow L's advice. What I would add is that if you're new to short fiction then find stories that are actually short. And what I mean by is that is don't jump in reading a novella or novelette. I think people underestimate that reading skills are as much a muscle that needs to be developed as anything else. Actually start with shorter stories and build you way up to the longer ones.

Oh and be willing to quit reading a story if it's not speaking to you! Time is ever precious in this world and you should spend as much of it pursuing what makes your heart sing as much as possible.

E.D.:  These suggestions are awesome. I would also suggest checking out any of the podcast based SFF short fiction venues, sometimes listening is easier than reading and it may expose you to authors you wouldn't necessarily pick up. Some of the mags L mentioned have podcasts but I also like Nightlight Podcast and Glittership.

NOAF: What do you do when you read a great submission, but it isn't quite right for the magazine?

E.D.: These are the hardest! I've sent stories up the line that are fantastic but I'm not sure work for the mag or work for the issue. I think like most magazines sometimes you have to say no to great work. It's a hard lesson to learn but its true. It's also the greatest part about giving feedback to each submission, is we can address why we didn’t decide to take it even though we loved it.

NOAF: What will winning the Hugo mean to you?

L.D.L.: We have always maintained that we don't do what we do for awards, but it's nice to be recognized. If winning means increased exposure and new opportunities for the writers who have entrusted us with their works (and sometimes the launches of their careers), then we are thrilled to receive it.

B.L.: For a number of reasons, Black SFF books and short stories aren't as publicly popular as I believe they should be. We had a Black woman win the Hugo three times in a row and yet Black authors are still finding it hard to make space for themselves in this industry. But like so much else in our history, we have to chip away at the structures and make space for each other. So that would be my hope. That us winning Hugo would allow us to make space for others to achieve and grow.

E.D.: As was already said, there is a lot that comes with winning. I think the biggest thing is that it likely will open up our readership. Hugo award winning magazine is hard to ignore, no matter how much some people might try to.

NOAF: Thank you so much! 

POSTED BY: Andrea Johnson lives in Michigan with her husband and too many books. She can be found on twitter, @redhead5318 , where she posts about books, food, and assorted nerdery.