It turns out that Ayize Jama-Everett loves Being John Malkovich – the 1999 fantasy and phantasmagoric film – as much as I do. This does not surprise me. While awarding the film four full stars, Roger Ebert commented: “Rare is the movie where the last half hour surprises you just as much as the first, and in ways you’re not expecting. The movie has ideas enough for half a dozen films, but […] we never feel hard-pressed; we’re enchanted by one development after the next.”
Ayize’s writing is like that. Full of surprises, unexpected from one moment to the next, hard to define. But it is not enchanting in a passive, sugar candy, Sunday morning way. Ayize’s voice is whimsical, it is masterful, and it is tough.
And that, perhaps, is the difference between Being John Malkovich and Being Ayize Jama-Everett. The difference between a white man growing up in 1950s small town Illinois, who can have extremely dubious political views and still be beloved of millions, and a black man growing up in 1980s Harlem, New York, whose writing is extraordinary, but likely still unknown to many of you reading this.
Being unknown as a black writer – particularly of speculative fiction – is not a simple oversight. It is not a matter of simply having missed seeing a book in your local library, or not having read the review on your favourite website. It is part of a systemic, even if unintentional, ignorance of a certain set of voices, faces, and imaginations. The ignorance – and its consequence – slips through the cracks, falls through the fissures, and is overwhelming in its absence, even in the interstices of one of the most profoundly political forms of writing there is.
I grew up in India, devouring science fiction and fantasy. I read everything I could get my hands on, often dusty artifacts of either the colonial Englishman reading Jules Verne, or the post-colonial Indian reading Asimov. Things changed in the early 1990s; suddenly we had cable TV and the internet, and my sense of time was no longer three generations behind the Anglo-Saxon world. Yet I did not hear of Octavia Butler till I arrived in the United States in 2007.
Octavia herself once talked about how blackness was unwelcome in science fiction, unless – as she was told by an editor – there was “some sort of racial problem, that would be absolutely the only reason… for including a black.” On the other hand, Octavia pointed out, when she was trying to put together an anthology about black people: first, nobody would buy it, and secondly, “most of the stories that we got […] were about racism, as though that was the sum total of our lives.”
Ayize is one of Octavia’s brood: unafraid of confronting and confounding race, but with an imagination that slips it into the interstices of a richly textured palimpsest of possibility: worlds in which a biracial (half-Mongolian, half-black) girl can learn a martial art that “breaks the memory of bones” from an Indian man decades older than her, in which a black mercenary’s powers involve manipulating the map and molecules of the body, and in which his daughters (biological and adopted) can control animals, objects, and minds. And those are just the humans in Ayize’s sentient worlds between Morocco, Monterey, and magic.
Ayize slips between human and plant, between reality and fantasy, between philosophy and fiction, and offers up a liminality which is where we all live, if we are honest enough to recognise it. He pushes us beyond binaries with deft dark humour and the confidence of living in multiple spaces himself. Despite being a theologian, a psychologist, and a teacher, Ayize never gives in to either the righteousness of philosophy and psychology, or the self-consciousness of pedagogy. He leaves it to us to wander amazed in the worlds he constructs for us, or – as is far more likely – hurtling between them in gasping breaths of questions, about ourselves, about each other, about the ways in which our marginal, liminal selves can get centered in a writer’s imagination.
And that, perhaps, is the greatest gift Ayize gives us. He once said, “There’s a big wound in not being seen, in having your reality not being represented in any way.” Yet that lack of representation is not solely of race, or gender, or sexuality, or age, or… it’s a wound of invisibility that comes from not being easily categorised, even as those around you try strenuously to fit you into a box of their shaping.
Everyone who wants their superheroes, but flawed and disturbed: Ayize writes for us. Everyone who has never found themselves in mainstream popular culture: Ayize writes for us. Everyone who lives in interstitial spaces: Ayize writes for us.
Being Ayize Jama-Everett may not be easy. But being his reader is fantastical.
 Being John Malkovich (Roger Ebert, 1999).
 Black Scholar Interview with Octavia Butler: Black Women and the Science Fiction Genre (The Black Scholar, Vol. 17, No. 2, The Black Woman Writer and the Diaspora, March/April 1986, pp. 14-18).
 Berkeley author Ayize Jama-Everett: ‘It’s a great time to be a person of color in comics’ (Berkeleyside, January 2016).