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On science fiction & Afrofuturism: Q&A with Isiah Lavender III

Allison Harris Keepers

For Isiah Lavender III, science fiction isn’t just a passing interest or favorite genre. The Sterling Goodman Professor of English in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences says science fiction is a storytelling device that can capture the human experience on an otherworldly level.

In this Q&A, he goes over his earliest memory of “Star Wars,” the history of science fiction and Afrofuturism, and his latest book on intersectional science fiction and race and ethnic relations.

How did you become interested in studying science fiction and Afrofuturism? 

“Star Wars” is my earliest memory. I remember falling asleep in my dad’s arms as he carried me into the house, and I had missed the lightsaber duel. But both of my parents were avid readers. My mom read lots of science fiction and romance novels, and I read everything over her shoulder. I read a lot of science fiction and had all the Star Wars action figures, all of the Transformers, all of the G.I. Joes. I kind of fell into science fiction and fantasy as a backdrop for pleasure reading.

I did not know that you could study science fiction professionally when I started as a student at LSU. And when I went to Iowa, I did not go there with the intention of being a science fiction scholar. I went there to be a folklorist who studied the trickster figure in African American literature. But I took one class in 20th century ethnic literature, and when “The Matrix” came out, I saw ethnic parallels with some of the works we were reading.

I wrote a paper on that and asked some people in my cohort if we wanted to have a science fiction class. We petitioned the graduate studies committee because there were three big science fiction scholars there at the time, and they said yes. After having only one formal class in science fiction my whole time at the University of Iowa, I did a lot of reading and was asked to do some review work for the journal “Science Fiction Studies.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

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Image: Isiah Lavender.

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