When Isis Asare read Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood for the first time two years ago, she loved it and wanted to discuss it immediately. Her friends recommended other authors whose names and work she didn’t know, despite the writers and narratives speaking to identities and experiences Isis personally resonated with. “How was this not in my life?” she mused in our conversation over Zoom. “I thought I was well-versed in Black literature.”
Isis threw herself into Butler’s corpus. What started as an organic system of joining book clubs and surrounding herself with like-minded readers sparked a desire to create a community of her own, which she called Sistah Scifi. She dove into science fiction and Afro-futurism, participating in events such as the Octavia E. Butler Slow Read, organized by BookTubers Njeri Damali Sojourner-Campbell and Musical Tati. Appropriately, “it was like discovering a whole new galaxy,” Isis told me.
Having cultivated this connection and appreciation for the community, the next step was to start her own bookstore. Founded on February 2, 2019, the Oakland-based Sistah Scifi barely had a year under their belt before the pandemic hit. Isis recalls attending a performance of the opera of Butler’s Parable of the Sower in Los Angeles just days before lockdown rules were instated. As a lover of e-commerce, she had always intended for the store to be online, and the COVID-induced shift to a remote world actually resulted in business flourishing. Many customers were searching for Black-owned bookstores during the summer of 2020, and, after being included in lists of stores to shop from published by Buzzfeed, Scifi.com, Shop Black, and more, Sistah Scifi had a huge influx of orders. Following on the heels of their partnership with Libro.fm to add e-books and audiobooks to their offerings, their customer base grew immensely.
Since its founding, the Oakland community has rallied around them. Sistah Scifi organizes very well-attended book clubs and movie watch parties as well as selling books. Their reach extends beyond Northern California: Isis said there are usually even a few event participants from London, Germany, and South Africa. “We have a very engaged community,” Isis said. “What I love most about it is that these people want to take the tenants of these books and literally change the world.” This ethos sits at the very heart of Sistah Scifi’s model: the events and partnerships Isis creates are all in the spirit of expanding minds and challenging dominant narratives.
In addition to the titles gracing their extensive online bookshelves, Sistah Scifi also offers special merchandise. One particularly popular item is a shirt listing Black female science fiction authors. “Even when you narrow it down [with these parameters], there are hundreds of names that could be on the shirt,” Isis remarked. For every sale, Sistah Scifi donates $5 to Black Girls Code.
Sistah Scifi’s merch and messages have reached far and wide. In February of 2021, the President of Bennett College posted a photo on Instagram wearing a Sistah Scifi sweatshirt with images and text reading “Sista from another planet.” This was particularly special to Isis: “She was the person we made the shirt for. Someone who loves Afro-futurism, someone who sometimes in social situations feels like she’s literally from a different planet. She got the aesthetic and messaging behind the shirt.”
Butler’s Parable of the Sower continues to hold the bestseller slot at Sistah Scifi. According to Isis, “2020 was the time to read and reread and discuss and read Parable again.” She participated in three different book club circles dedicated to it alone. Aside from the ever-brilliant Butler, Isis’s personal recommendations include An Unkindness of Ghosts by River Solomon and A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow. She recommends the former due to its representation of neurodivergent and gender-nonconforming characters and depiction of the protagonist tapping into science and philosophy in order to create a new way of existing in the world Solomon created. “What I like about this is there is a successful revolt. The main character is able to change the society that she’s in,” Isis told me. A Song Below Water gets her stamp of approval as a Young Adult book that effectively centralizes the Black Lives Matter movement in the setting and plot. She’s also excited about the upcoming HBO adaptation of Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death.
Looking ahead, Isis has big plans for Sistah Scifi’s future. She has aspirations to partner with the Black-woman-owned company Pop.com to create an offering just as futuristic and exciting as the books she sells: automated Sistah Scifi book kiosks in Black-owned cafes. “We are reimagining what it is to be a Black-owned bookstore; what it is to be a local bookstore. What is it to be in a different city and still getting a specific book from my favorite Black-owned bookstore in my favorite Black-owned coffee shop? How does that change how we think about what is local?”
Isis’s emphasis on community permeates every aspect of her business. “I want to be a shining example of ujamaa (collective economics). For everything I do, I think: how can I do this in partnership with folks already doing the work so it’s collaborative and lifts up as many people as possible?”
As COVID restrictions lift, Sistah Scifi is looking forward to once again participating in events and creating new partnerships. With any luck, Isis will once again be able to attend the Parable of the Sower opera, participate in the Bushwick Book Club, an organization dedicated to creating original music based on books, and partner with the Museum of Pop Culture (MOPOP) in Seattle. The museum is hosting an Afro-futurism exhibit of which Sistah Scifi looks to be a part.
“We’re really excited about 2021. Really excited about the community,” Isis told me. “It’s very exciting to bring to life the science fiction we’re reading about. Our brand and ideas are connecting where they need to connect. Our ideas are not new by any stretch of the imagination, but we’re connecting with folks who are super knowledgeable about Afro-futurism and the books and authors and are looking for another [way] to connect.” Sistah Scifi’s future certainly looks bright.
If you’d like to learn more and connect with Sistah Scifi, you can find their website here.
Not a member and want to receive special benefits and discounts at Sistah Scifi and other participating stores? Become a member and you’ll receive a Reckless Reader card and all the perks!
All images are courtesy of Isis Asare.