Sistah Scifi founder Isis Asare stands for a portrait next to her new book vending machine inside Oaklandia Cafe x Bakery in downtown Oakland on Feb. 22, 2023. Asare hopes it will be the first of a national network of Sistah Scifi vending machines meant to expand the reach of Black and Indigenous science fiction and fantasy authors. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)
Book vending machines are a growing trend across the country — and at Oaklandia Cafe x Bakery in downtown Oakland, you can now find one curating Afrofuturist books.
Isis Asare, who created and runs the online bookstore Sistah Scifi, is on a mission to double the number of Black and Indigenous speculative fiction writers on the New York Times Best Sellers list. She launched the first Sistah Scifi book vending machine in Oakland to make those books readily accessible.
“The goal of this Sistah Scifi book vending machine is to make the discovery of Afrofuturism and Indigenous futurism books as easy as buying a candy bar,” Asare said.
Asare first had the idea for her sci-fi vending machine in 2019 and began rolling it out this month. The machine takes cash and credit cards, and there are around a dozen books for sale, from paperbacks to graphic novels.
“There's stuff for children, young readers, young adults and adults,” Asare said. “Primarily the focus is Black speculative fiction and Indigenous speculative fiction, written mostly by women.”
Titles by well-known names like Octavia E. Butler and Alicia Keys, as well as local, self-published authors like Nurjehan de Leon, whose pen name is Gigi the Alchemist, are among the offerings.
Black speculative fiction on the rise
Stories within the genre of Black speculative fiction – also known as Afrofuturist literature – imagine alternate worlds where Black and Brown characters are driving the narrative.
L.D. Lewis, who has written about Black speculative fiction, says the genre’s been around for a long time, but the publishing industry has largely overlooked it outside of big names like Octavia E. Butler and N.K. Jemisin.
"I love that people know more than just a couple of names now," Lewis said. "You know, we've been doing spec-fic since Zora [Neale Hurston] and Langston [Hughes]. Like, we've been around for a while. But now people are engaging with the work less in that academic sense and more to just kind of enjoy it."
Lewis co-founded Fiyah Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction and is the lead author of the magazine’s 2022 #BlackSpecFic Report, which examines short fiction publishing trends within the genre. She says over the past several years, publication of Black speculative fiction has gone up slightly, from around 2% in 2015 to making up nearly 7% of the output in 2021.
"Not massive numbers. Definitely an improvement," Lewis said. "We've seen a lot of movement with regard to getting Black editors on to mastheads, and so that's helped improve the numbers considerably."
Sistah Scifi meets Oaklandia Cafe x Bakery
For Latorra Monk, owner and operator of Oaklandia Cafe x Bakery, housing the Sistah Scifi book vending machine was a natural fit for her business. Monk had already been cultivating a small art gallery space and lounge area in the cafe featuring works by local Black artists when Asare approached her with the idea.
"I was like, ‘This is the perfect opportunity to really elevate our culture within this corporate space.’ To really be seen and be heard," Monk said. "Our high-level focus [at Oaklandia] is on food, as well as bringing people together. And I feel like in these current times, it's not just about selling a product, it's about having a mission … trying to be impactful."
Monk said her 3-year-old son affirmed just what kind of impact the machine can have.
"He looked over and saw that machine and he ran to it and he said, 'Mama, I want a book from here,'" Monk recalled. "And I knew immediately that this was the right space for it, because I think of my own experiences as a child when it came to literature and seeing myself and not having that readily available at my fingertips."
One of the books now at Monk’s and cafe patrons’ fingertips is To Boldly Go, a children’s picture book about Star Trek actor Nichelle Nichols and her impact on the civil rights movement. It's written by Oakland-based author Angela Dalton, who says she feels honored to be included in the vending machine’s offerings.
"Ever since the pandemic, it’s been very hard for picture book authors, but especially Black picture book authors, to navigate how to promote their books," Dalton, whose publisher is HarperCollins, said.
The movement to ban certain books by Black authors in the midst of debates around critical race theory in some schools and states only heightens Dalton’s concerns — but she finds some hope in these vending machines.
"Especially as we're facing book bannings and we're facing gatekeeping of Black voices and Black stories, it's so important to have that presence, especially in gentrified communities," Dalton said. "So these vending machines are a way to do that. To get our stories out there, to get our Blackness out there and to keep us present in the community."
Since the grand launch with Oaklandia earlier this month, two additional Sistah Scifi book vending machines have launched: one in Mill Creek, Washington, and one in Shoreline, Washington. Asare says her goal is to have a total of 10 machines across the country by June.
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