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Isis Asare’s Sistah Scifi keeps Afrofuturist literature alive online

In 2018, when Isis Asare launched Sistah Scifi, a mostly online bookstore dedicated primarily to Afrofuturist sci-fi and fantasy books written by Black women authors, she recalls her younger sister, Tamika Stewart, saying, “That’s the most authentic thing you’ve ever done.” After all, literature, sci-fi, technology, organization and prodding niche communities into action had always been Asare’s “thing.” When they were girls growing up in Harlem, she tells me in a long, rich phone interview, “I formed an all-girl club when Tamika was young and I’d give her and the other girls little prizes for reading books I selected.”

Raised by Ghanian parents, reading was frequent, and delving into literature became a special zone for Asare. “I remember being in 4th grade and reading The Color Purple,” she says. “Who lets a fourth grader read that? Well, I did. After that, I wanted to change people in the world. The way her characters could question social norms and question limiting beliefs … I wanted to make the world more like that.” Another novel by Alice Walker, The Temple of My Familiar, later became a second favorite because the central character taps into past lives to find her power. Asare was transfixed by the novel’s fluid framing and found inspiration and personal direction in a character who selects forgiveness as an option to anger or resentment.

Sistah Scifi’s origins are in Seattle, where Asare—with her sister—established the online featuring authors like Tomi Adeyemi, Octavia E. Butler, Nnendi Okorafor and other writers representing the African diaspora. Special pop-up events attracted a devoted clientele in Seattle, but through collaborations and with Asare’s easy command of technology, a broader, worldwide audience was born. A following developed and expanded through virtual events occurring from Johannesburg, Africa, to places like Oakland as part of the city’s 2020 Black Joy Parade.

During the earliest days of the pandemic, Asare says she came gradually to realize—as we all did—that her work activities would be entirely remote. There would be no more in-person book club read-a-thons or events combining live music and author readings. In fact, she could continue to operate the already online bookstore without disruption, and live anywhere.

Another story explains her decision to relocate in 2020 to Oakland, where her downtown apartment is now ground central for Sistah Scifi. “I had been bouncing back and forth for decades,” she says. “I had practiced meditation at East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland and felt I had a supportive community here. And then I was talking to a woman who said this to me: ‘Oakland is a place where people believe in magic.’ That idea—that fantasy and connection to spirit leads to a whole new realm of possibility—is more discussed and accepted in Oakland. People move in that energy. I needed that personally at the top of the pandemic; it turns out the business needed that as well.”

Despite feeling “socially disconnected with going for weeks seeing no one other than the mail person,” the exuberant response to online events during the company’s early days bolstered Asare’s confidence about the bookstore’s continued viability. “I remember at first it was spotty, but then, 25 people showed up for one event to discuss Nalo Hopkinson’s The Midnight Robber,” she says. “They not only bought books and discussed books, they started organizing their own book clubs and promoted Sister Sci-Fi watch parties. It was good in terms of brand building and driving sales.”

Asare says that significant factors driving sales of books telling stories about or written by writers who are people of color are varied and more nuanced than is sometimes portrayed or understood. She said calls for Black literature stalled—and did not immediately jump as some media has reported—for the first week after the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis. “It was like an emotional blur. It was less about doing business and more about, is this still happening? There was a ‘this can’t happen’ thought,” she says. 

In hindsight, she says interest gradually increased, with people standing in defiance or support with their purchases, including non-Black readers who sought Black-owned bookstores and literature by Black authors. Increasing interest in readers seeking sci-fi specifically has been propelled by not only the Black Lives Matter social justice movement, but also by the genre’s elevation through scholarly attention.

“Dr. Ayana Jamieson is the founder of the Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network and did her Ph.d. thesis on how Butler’s life influenced her writing as a science fiction writer and Black woman,” Asare says. “Jamieson places her works in context. Science fiction is not just literature that is entertainment or distraction. Butler asks big questions and has lessons you can take and apply to your life.” Asare highlights Butler’s 1993 science fiction novel, The Parable of the Sower. “That’s a great one for Black women,” she says. “It’s the parable on how to be prepared, how to build community, how to have and achieve big goals. As a Black woman, it shifted my frame on how I can rethink and have strategies about tapping into my strength when I live in a society that doesn’t consider me to be powerful.”

Asare says she’d be remiss not to mention Yatasha Womack, who she says “wrote the book on Afrofuturism.” Contextualizing the concept across multiple mediums: in books, movies and more, Womack makes Afrofuturism more accessible by using plenty of examples and referencing pop culture that blends academic expertise, an authentic Black voice and applications to mainstream culture in her writing. “All of these academic or scholarly sources allow for deep and insightful thought that’s not only something to experience in scholarly workshops and libraries, but also on social media,” Asare says.

As commercial success for Black sci-fi writers increases, and speaking on whether or not now is a watershed moment for the next generation, Asare first brings up award-winning writer Tom Adeyemi. Named to the “pioneer” category on the TIME 100 Most Influential People of 2020 list, Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone (2018), the first novel of a trilogy, was an inspiration for Ciannon Smart’s Steeped in Gold. Smart’s story, set on a fantasy island loosely based on Jamaica, led to commercial success, and Asare says more authors are now thinking they can also write books in the sci-fi genre. “There’s more visibility and it makes the content richer. It’s great more people are getting the opportunity to write,” she says. “Is the content better? While the question jars me, I’ll say the level of intention is heightened, along with greater visibility. Butler long ago struggled as a Black writer to get her work noticed. Now, that’s less the case.”

Asare is a Black businesswoman and says vital skills she brought to the table when she launched the company were knowing how to build a brand on social media, familiarity with e-commerce and experience achieving engagement within communities. Tools and practices she had to master at a rapid pace were financial reporting, how to structure the day-to-day processes of a small business, licensing fulfillment, developing contacts with publishers and sourcing the best books.

Inevitably, any substantive conversation with a bookseller includes current must-read recommendations. Limited to one science fiction title in each of three categories, Asare suggests Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, edited by Sheree Renée Thomas (adult); Akata Witch Series, by Nnedi Okorafor (YA); and Shuri Volume 1: The Search for Black Panther, by Nnedi Okorafor (children’s).

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