Editorial: Looking Back on 2009
I started the World SF News Blog in February this year, on Livejournal; in many ways, it was intended to be a companion of sorts for The Apex Book of World SF. It has quickly evolved beyond that, though, and in October I made the decision to move it to a better hosting platform – wordpress – and expand the remit of the blog to include original content.
So, less than a year old, and still very much growing – I hope. I am very happy about the move in October. The blog as it currently is would not have been possible without, first and foremost, Charles Tan coming on board – Charles continues to provide the majority of our interviews and much more besides. Anil Menon has been an early supporter, with many good suggestions along the way. I am incredibly thankful to the whole community of writers and fans who have contributed material over the past three months – Guy Hasson, Kaaron Warren, Aliette de Bodard, Nuno Fonseca, Mihai Adascalitei, Nick Wood and others. You can see all of our original content here, and editorials here.
Right now, we aim to publish one original feature every Monday (an interview, review, essay, round table or other material) and one editorial most Wednesdays. Editorials are open to anyone – drop us a line if you’d like to contribute.
Our most popular feature by far this year has been the Ashok Banker interview (no longer available), but we’ve been getting a lot of interest (and the occasional lively debate) in a couple of the editorials (Where is the World in the World Fantasy Awards? and Don’t Shut Up!), in our Australian SF Round Table and in the feature on SF in South Africa. Our 2009 summaries for some of the short fiction magazines have also proven very popular.
This is the end of the year in the Gregorian calendar. Chinese new year isn’t for another two months, Lao/Thai new year for three, and Jewish new year for nine. But the Gregorian is the internationally-accepted civil calendar, so we’ll follow it for this purpose…
Just an English is the most prevalent “contact language” between multilingual people. Which brings me to the “purpose” of this blog. There seems to be an idea floating around of “world sf” being some sort of movement, which I find patently ridiculous. Perhaps it is a “sub-genre” of science fiction? Just as I find it silly to think this blog has any particular political agenda. All this blog aims to do is to share – with whoever wants to – some of the incredible diversity, joy, and sense-of-wonder that can be found around the world. Will American or British publishers suddenly exclaim – oho! We must publish more Chinese SF? – unlikely. Today, a headline such as “American publisher to release French SF novel” is noteworthy – a “man bites dog”. The reverse – “French publisher to release American SF novel” – is everyday – a “dog bites dog” headline. My point is, this blog is not meant as a sort of “missionary” outreach device to the monoligual masses of English. Indeed, one of the things I am most excited about that came as a result of this blog and the anthology is the planned new Portuguese magazine Dagon, which is promising to release international SF stories (some drawn from the anthology) in Portugal. Similar cross-fertilization is happening elsewhere, and I love the idea that the world of SF is being expanded across the globe, for readers in a multitude of languages.
And yet, things have been quite exciting on the English-language front, too. In 2009 we saw, on the American side, the rise of Haikasoru, the new imprint of Japanese SF in English translations, a new translation award that should come into effect next year, a special world sf issue of Words Without Borders and, on my own part, the release of both The Apex Book of World SF and the special world sf issue of Apex Magazine. And this blog, of course. French and Polish fantasy novels are being translated into English. We’ve seen a number of world sf writers published in high-profile magazines – from the New Yorker to Strange Horizons, and others signing book deals for English-language novels, such as Aliette de Bodard or Hannu Rajaniemi (or, indeed, myself).
I hope you discover, through the links and discussions on this blog, some of the wonderful surprises hiding in that great myriad world that is world sf. There are some great writers out there, and some great stories, and there are, as always, a lot of things still to talk about, and debate, and argue over. As the late, great Kurt Vonnegut once said about science fiction fans:
They are joiners. They are a lodge. If they didn’t enjoy having a gang of their own so much, there would be no such category as science-fiction. They love to stay up all night, arguing the question, “What is science-fiction?”
And long may it be so.
Over at Rebellious Jezebel, blogger Jha takes Nuno Fonseca (for his editorial here this week) and Luis Filipe Silva (for his response) to task on their treatment of gender, saying in part:
Well, yes, of course arguing the lack of representation in spec fic is a goddamn personal thing. Fuck the male privilege horse you rode in on, because this isn’t an intellectual exercise; issues of representation are serious and personal, because when we read stories, we would like to find some stories that represent us. There are the narrow few perspectives which are overrepresented compared to many other minority perspectives. The fact that you can even pretend that these attitudes don’t exist anymore or are so 1950’s is a sign of privilege, because even while overt racism is rare, what makes you think you don’t subconsciously hold racist attitudes?
These benefits of colonization he’s talking about…. where to start? Speaking English isn’t a benefit, it’s a necessity. Are minority writers always read? They may read but they may not get fair opportunity to be read. And if debates were really that easy to engage internationally – no wait, never mind, because they’re not, taking into account different cultural environments and contexts, which cause people to talk past each other and not necessarily be on the same page as is going on here in this very post.
And I like the number 8. So I will add an 8th point: the rest of their points ring true – it IS difficult non-English spec fic to flourish outside their linguistic contexts. We do face prejudice on whether our books will be picked up or not. Genrecan be a difficult market, what with varying tastes and diverse opinions on what it really should be like bouncing around. Yes, it can get better, but it can’t get better with folks trading on stereotypes and sweeping assumptions like the ones I’ve pointed out above to make their points.
While over in the UK, the gender debate continues with fjm’s Open letter to fans, authors and critics of the male sex:
Women, last time I looked, made up more than 50% of the population. We aren’t quite there in terms of fandom and authordom, but we’ve been past 35% for decades now.
So: the next time you are asked to be on a panel, or part of a discussion, or an anthology, and not a single woman is included, I suggest that it is not enough to shrug and say “well, I didn’t issue the invitations”. Question it. If the answer is “there wasn’t room” consider making a sacrifice.
Furthermore, if you are asked to talk about the state of the field, it is also your responsibility to think before you go ahead and give a list of “the best” science fiction writers with not a single woman on the list [and if you seriously think there isn't a single woman on that list you aren't doing the right reading].
I am really tired of hearing men discuss the field as if there are no women writers. There have always been women sf writers (see the research of myself, Merrick, Larbalastier and Davin). There is not a single decade of sf in the twentieth century in which there were no women writers.
I wish I could say that I am directing this at at some other men, men I don’t know, men who I don’t regard as my friends. But I’m not. I’ve seen almost every man I respect cheerfuly take his place on an all male panel, or reel off a list the best writers which is mysteriously free of women.
I am very tired of this. I will keep pointing it out, every time I see it.
Conventions and panels seem to be an enormous part of the US – and to an extent the UK – world of fandom – a series of social events that seem to play a central role in at least some identities of genre. I find them interesting enough to try and write something more in-depth in the future about it – including the inaccessibility of “world” writers to that social/business network, and whether it should even matter – but I think in the meantime it’s worth highlighting fjm’s concerns. It should be noted that, at least from anecdotal evidence (as you can guess, I don’t really have access to any conventions!) “world” sf writers – particularly of a different shade – tend to end up in the “Others” panel. If I recall, Anil Menon told me he met Vandana Singh at “a panel about the Other”. What IS the other? dark-skinned? Or simply non-North American? I don’t know enough about panels and convention programming to comment… perhaps you could.
And finally, also in the UK, Liz Williams elaborates on fjm’s comments:
OK, here comes massive unpopularity, but I’m a bit tired of maintaining a unified front when there seems to me to be precious little unity behind the lines. fjm has posted a (perfectly reasonable) open letter asking that male fans, critics and so on think first when they compile lists, TOC etc for SF, because the women still get left out. This is fair enough. Sexism is still alive and well, and let’s kick its sorry butt, but I would like to add something.
The last panel I did in the UK was with Pat Cadigan and Jaine Fenn at the Sf film fest in London, and it was about being women writers in a male dominated world. The message that, thank God, Pat got out in the first 5 minutes was how bored we are about constantly being stuck on panels where we talk about Our Struggle. Instead, IIRC, we talked about books we liked. I have done this ‘women’ panel in various forms about 5 times now and thank you, Judith, for not making me do another one at Eastercon. Pat and I are not 20 somethings who think feminists all wear dungarees: I hope Pat will correct me if I am wrong, but we both regard ourselves as feminists and in my case, a lot of my views come out of 1970s feminist theory.
Why is it still all about What the Guys Think? Some moron comes out with some reactionary statement on a blog no one reads and we all run about like there’s a fox in the henhouse (derogatory metaphor is intentional). Why invest them with a power that they don’t really have any more? I’m not that interested in what doesn’t get said on Radio 4 – I’ve done a lot of BBC interviews, they’re always cut to hell and you could bang on about female SF for hours and still end up with a 20 second sound bite about rocket ships.
Much more in all those links, and large comment threads though, as always, we’d love to hear your comments here, too.
SF News Blog Interview
Today, Charles Tan talks to Richard Calder about his work, living in Thailand, and his collaboration with Filipino artist Leonardo M. Giron on the Dead Girls graphic novel.
What made you decide to pursue writing as a career?
The notion that books and writing were going to be a central concern first came to me, I suppose, in adolescence – that time when we disabuse ourselves of becoming train drivers, astronauts, or international men of mystery, but still retain enough of the childlike about us to be capable of believing that imagination will open other doors, and that life is more than a round of grubbing and spending. As I grew up, I wrote mostly indifferent, or bad, poetry – and some of it found its way into small magazines, as indifferent, or bad, poetry, often will; and then, when I was at university, a bad, certainly unpublishable, novel. It wasn’t until much later – I distinctly recall the sobering prospect of turning thirty with hardly any published work to my name – that I began writing with the kind of seriousness with which I hoped to be received, either by editors, or simply people I respected. In 1989, my first story – Toxine – was published in an Interzone anthology, and that same year, and the next, Interzone – the magazine – carried more of my work. Early in 1990, shortly after I moved to Thailand, I began to receive letters of interest from publishing houses and literary agents, which further propelled me to try my hand at the novel that became Dead Girls. When Malcolm Edwards at HarperCollins bought Dead Girls in late 1990 – the novel was written fairly quickly, but later went through considerable revision – I remember thinking that the door that I’d dreamed of walking through as a boy had at last opened, and that I’d only need step over its threshold to find myself in the fabled Land of Established Author.
But the course of a writer’s life is never so smooth!
What’s the appeal of speculative fiction for you? What made you decide to write for the genre?
I’d read SF from a pretty early age. Brian Aldiss was probably one of the first SF writers I sought out, and in my mid teens, I was a big fan of Michael Moorcock and J.G. Ballard. Then I recall not reading much SF for about ten years. I was brought back to the genre, first, by discovering Angela Carter, who so often incorporates SF, or fantastical, themes and motifs into her work, and then by the cyberpunk explosion. My early stories – and certainly Dead Girls – are, I think, a marriage, of sorts, between the vision of Angela Carter and the chrome-and-silicon, turbocharged world of cyberpunk.
I’ve never self-consciously taken a decision to write genre fiction, it’s simply the case that, whenever I’ve dreamt up a narrative, or had a particular idea on which to hang a story, it’s quite naturally taken a science-fictional form. The flavour, or dimension, of science fiction and the fantastic, seems built into my imagination, and it’s a predisposition I’ve never wished to resist, or challenge. It’s not the source, or fountainhead, of what I do; that lies somewhere far off, in childhood; but it seems interwoven with that source – and perhaps because SF is itself childlike, a genre of play and wonder.
Though I’ve always been quite happy to describe myself as a SF writer – the kind of self-denial endemic to the ‘slipstream’ is, I think, a little silly – I am concerned about realizing narratives and ideas in my own way, without kowtowing to the market. Which is only to say that, for me, genre expectations – the preponderance of a certain way of writing, which, at the moment, is rather slipperily referred to as ‘classic’ or ‘traditional’ SF – isn’t a given. This, I suppose, has the effect of making me seem like something of an eccentric, some might even say – what with my focus on sexuality, aberrant or otherwise – a shocking, writer, though it has never been my intention to be either eccentric or to shock (to purposefully shock is, after all, a vulgar exercise), but only to remain faithful to, and adequately realize, a personal vision in genre terms.
What were the challenges in getting published?
It’s a cliché, perhaps, but writing is a lonely business. A book can take a long time to finish – many years, perhaps – and as long again to get it published and into bookshops. Throughout this process, a writer experiences considerable periods of isolation, and out of isolation, perhaps, a certain ennui.
For me, the initial challenge was (and often still is) simply the harnessing of the necessary will – that is, sitting down, concentrating what powers I have, and addressing the task of constructing sentences, paragraphs, chapters. Creativity, for me, comes from the ground up. I may have an overarching idea for a narrative, but a story only really takes form, and more importantly, comes to life, when I focus my energies on the minutiae, which, simply put, is all about getting the best words in the best order. A narrative armature is, of course, important, but I’ve always felt that it’s attention to the basic building blocks of fiction that gives birth to credible characters, action, dialogue.
As for selling a manuscript: looking back, I realize that I was very lucky. Initially, at least. As previously stated, my first seriously written story, Toxine, and the stories, and novel – Dead Girls – that were soon to follow, were immediately accepted. But the truth is that getting published is often a difficult, protracted and complex affair. For the past twenty years, everything I’ve written has seen print, but submission, acceptance, and being part of the process of selling a book, is not something that for me – or I believe the vast majority of authors – is without problems. Indeed, it’s a rocky road. There are immense frustrations and reversals, though fortunately, of course, they’re balanced by moments of great satisfaction and pleasure – the pleasure of bringing a project to completion and seeing it in the public arena. (At which time, much nail biting over how differently one should have done things!) Over time, I’ve become philosophical. Getting published is something of a mad adventure, alternately filled with waves of frenzied activity, periods of great, sometimes dolorous, languor, and, finally – and thankfully – genuine elation.
Is there a mental shift for you when writing short stories vs. novels? Or books that deal with London vs. those that take place elsewhere?
In the past, there’s perhaps been little ‘mental shift’ between short story and novel, but I’m presently at work on a slew of short stories that are the proving ground for what, I hope, will – for me at least – be new ways of writing. (And though not a short story, the
Dead Girls graphic novel project is part of the same, overall project to re-invent myself.) Within these stories – I hesitate to call them experiments, since ‘experimental writing’ so often conjures up the idea of writing that is wilfully avant-garde, wilfully obscure – there’s an attempt to explore new themes, take those themes that I’ve previously dealt with in different, stylistic directions, and to merge New Calder with Old Calder by way of realizing narrative within the formal structures of the essay, the travelogue, the academic paper, and so on. (I began to play around with this sort of thing in my story The Catgirl Manifesto: An Introduction.) I’m particularly interested in developing fictions as concatenations – seeing how one idea, or hobbyhorse, links (perhaps chimerically) with another, and then another, until a narrative spontaneously emerges out of, and imbues meaning into, what otherwise might simply be instances of weird connectivity between anecdotes, trivia, bagatelles. I love the compactness of the short story form, and the discipline it necessitates: the killing of one’s darlings, as I think Auden put it, to achieve a distillation of argument and action.
Travel has always involved forms of ‘mental shift’. For me, living abroad quickens inspiration, and has me dreaming up narratives and characters that simply wouldn’t have come into being if I’d stayed at home. The ‘Dead’ trilogy and Cythera couldn’t have been written in London, and Malignos couldn’t have been written anywhere other than the Philippines. And perhaps all this implies that, though I’ve been back in London for some years now, I will undoubtedly travel, and live, abroad again sometime in the future, if only to discover in myself further new ways of writing.
Considering all your travels, do you see yourself as a British writer, a Thai writer, a Filipino writer, or some amalgamation of all three? Where is “home” for you?
Somehow, over the years – and at least partly due to the fact that I’ve spent a good deal of time abroad, and have had few places I could genuinely call home – I’ve become very English. But becoming English, of course, is different from being English: it implies choice, rather than destiny: embracing a mythic, or imaginary, Englishness (while, I hope, eschewing stereotype!) that doesn’t actually exist. So, while not seeing myself as a British, Thai, or Filipino writer (and actually to identify myself as Thai or Filipino would involve considerable chutzpah!) I do see myself as something of an amalgamation, that is, an artificial construct. The contemporary, real-life Englishman Abroad is a pitiful creature. Ignorant, loud, vulgar, he can be readily identified by the trail of blood and vomit he leaves across the world’s holiday spots. But I am an Imaginary Englishman whose ‘home’ is the construct he has built for himself, a carapace, I hope (ahem), of old-world courtesies and (as one reviewer put it) ‘cosmopolitan sang-froid’, which he carries, and retreats into, much like a crustacean does. It follows, of course, that Richard Calder is – thank goodness – not a real person at all, but a style – a style of writing manifest in his fiction, and a fiction incarnated in peripatetic flesh.
One of the finest pieces of writing on travel and the ex-pat experience is also perhaps the most non-representative. It’s certainly the most terrifying: Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, a novel about the dissolution and loss of the self. It’s never been my experience to see any ex-pat come to such dramatic grief as the characters in The Sheltering Sky, but I have known many who have lost their identity, and not in a good way. To lose one’s identity is fine if one assumes another, that is, if one effectively re-invents oneself. But to simply lose one’s sense of self, to be lessened, rather than enhanced, by exposure to an alien culture, is a sorry state of affairs. There’s a part of me that’s Asian, but it’s so mixed up with what I value in my own culture, that I’ve become someone who, in many ways, shares a kinship, perhaps, with the kind of artificial creatures I’ve often written about (and perhaps whom I feel most comfortable with): mechanical people, dolls. ‘Home’ for me, I suppose, is a magic toyshop. And the door to the magic toyshop opens when we travel – to that most foreign, and alien, of shores: the realm of childhood, the source of all creativity.
What made you decide to live in Thailand and the Philippines? How have they influenced your work?
Quite simply, I moved to Thailand, and then the Philippines, to write. The experience of living in these countries was profound and has influenced my work deeply, permanently.
I moved to Thailand in January 1990. I’d visited Nongkhai many times before, but now I was coming to put down roots, albeit with the future open-ended to the point of being uncertain, not only in terms of work and goals, but also, of course, financially. My wife and I had some money in the bank, and we planned to use the front of our house as a shop – a kind of general store that, we hoped, would pay our day-to-day bills. Food was cheap, we owned our own property, and our overall expenses would, we hoped, be minimal. Freed from what had been a full-time and extremely time-consuming job, I would devote myself to writing.
Our house was on Meechai Road. Meechai is a not uncommon Thai name. But during the 1980s a certain Khun Meechai – who’d made his name as a birth-control and AIDS prevention campaigner – had championed the condom, to much attendant publicity. Consequently, ‘Meechai’ had become a synonym for condom, and I found myself living on Condom Road.
The house was a simple affair. Downstairs, it was a fairly spacious one-room structure of brick and concrete, which, at the back, gave onto an extra bedroom, a kitchen and a bathroom. Upstairs, it was little more than an oblong teak box surmounted by a tin roof. You entered the house by way of two sliding doors – the kind of concertina-like grilles that protect shop fronts in European cities. To one side of the house was a narrow alleyway, which demarcated our property from a disused rice barn, and to the other side was a neighbour’s house – one built in much the same style as our own.
In the days to come we acquired some furniture and went about settling in. Upstairs, the house was pretty much open plan, and had the appearance of a loft or attic (we pushed a bed into one corner, a table and chairs into another). There was, however, a small section that had been partitioned off to create a separate room. We furnished this space with writing desk, chair, and bookcases. And it was here that I began writing Dead Girls.
My typewriter, along with other household items from the UK, were being shipped, and had still not arrived (and would not do so for some time), so I bought a few thick ledgers, a handful of felt-tipped pens, some correction fluid (to edit with), and set to work.
Dead Girls was, for the most part, written entirely by hand. I wrote fast, completing a first draft in something like three months. But what threatened to put the brakes on that outpouring was the heat. Traditionally, Thais have lived in houses built on stilts, the area beneath providing a comparatively cool refuge for humans, and indeed animals, during the dry season. If Thais don’t possess a refuge of this kind, they certainly wouldn’t dream of sitting in the hottest part of the house, as I was doing, day after day. Naked except for a pair of shorts, and with a huge electric fan playing over me, I soon learnt how effective the teak walls and tin roof were at conducting the high temperatures outside. My manuscript became soaked with perspiration. After my typewriter arrived, and I began transcribing the draft, sweat would fall between the keys, the air sometimes growing so hot that the typewriter would simply cease to function, and I’d have to switch it off for fifteen minutes or so, to allow its overheated circuits to recover. My wife would supply me with large quantities of iced lemonade from the shop below – now up and running – but I think it was only the fact that I was, of course, somewhat younger – 33 years old – that I could write in such stifling conditions at all. (I do not believe I could do so now.) In time, I was to buy and install an air-conditioning unit. During the dry season, Nongkhai could be a very, very hot town.
Life wasn’t all sweat and ink stains, of course. Those early days in Nongkhai were, for me, truly wondrous. I was, perhaps, as free as I’d ever been in my life – free to do whatever I wished, free to pursue a new life. I bought a motorbike, and, during the evenings, my wife and I would drive downtown, sit in one of the restaurants along the big, moon-dappled Mekong River, and stare at the opposite, Laotian bank – served, in those days (before the Thai-Australian ‘Friendship’ bridge was built nearby) entirely by a fleet of tiny boats. I think some of my happiest memories of those days – and I think they are perhaps the happiest memories I am ever likely to have – are those quiet moments by the river, eating delicious, spicy food, drinking ice-cold beer, and staring, utterly entranced, at the bend in the river, the diamond-like stars, the moon, the little lights that festooned the river bank, and thinking, yes, I’m here, I’ve done it, I’m actually living in this fairy-tale world, and nothing can ever take it away from me.
How has the Richard Calder of today differed from the Richard Calder two decades ago? What piece of advice would you give yourself back then?
If experience gives, it also takes away. I wouldn’t – couldn’t – write, say, the ‘Dead’ trilogy today. My concerns, and perspective on life, have changed – and changed considerably. Where the 2009 version of Richard Calder differs, I think, most markedly from his forebear is in his concern for discipline. (And in life, as much as art.) Invention springs from discipline of form, and I currently find that, for me, characters, dialogue, narrative, evolve chiefly through formalistic concerns.
I’ve never been one to give advice, to others or myself. But I currently find myself reaching out to the Calder of two decades ago, just as the 1990 Calder reaches out to me. Writing is always a matter of re-invention, and ultimately, of re-inventing the self. With the Dead Girls graphic novel project, Calder Past and Calder Present merge and become the ghost – and ‘ghost’ necessarily, since the project is ongoing and incomplete – of Calder Future. And Calder Future will, I hope, preside over a fictional universe that is tighter, more controlled, and more elegant, than the baby universe that it sprung from.
Currently in the field, how do you see diversity? Is it gradually being undermined or is there a slow but steady exploration of other cultures, other ideas, other worlds with the proliferation of the Internet? How would you describe the current British speculative fiction field right now?
I’ve always been most interested in SF when the genre has suggested that it can do anything, go anywhere, and that nothing lies beyond its purview. That means that I’ve been drawn to SF chiefly because of the New Wave and Cyberpunk. Publishers currently focus almost exclusively on what has come to be known as ‘classic’ or ‘traditional’ SF, meaning space opera, or some variant thereof. Diversity is thus compromised.
How would you define being a libertine writer?
Principally, a libertine writer is one who castigates hypocrisy, and the moral virtue sometimes made of fear. (Though to effectively enslave people it is only necessary to convince them that the opinions they hold have nothing to do with a constant diet of persuasion and fear, but that they are free, and their opinions are their own.)
And a libertine writer is something more, too. I’ve long subscribed to the hope of witnessing the evolution of a true species of ‘dark fantasy’, that is, a body of fiction that has its roots, not merely in Romanticism, Symbolism and the European Decadence (traditions that have inspired so much of my own work), but more importantly, in psychoanalysis and the exploration of society’s collective unconscious (traditions that underpin the last century’s, and this century’s, quest to understand the soul of modern man). In other words, I long for the emergence of a species of the fantastique that eschews escapism and embraces the challenge of creating an imaginative exegesis of contemporary life – an exegesis that seeks to understand, say, the emotionally regressive and stunted life of British society in 2009 by reference to such thinkers as Freud and Foucault, rather than by punking out, not only to the market, but to respectability; an exegesis that fearlessly uses the elements of science fiction, fantasy, horror and much else to explore the festering cellars of the collective human mind in order to reveal some measure of ‘truth’ about the hidden, unacknowledged ‘secret life’ to which we owe our current state of regression, infantilism, affectlessness and near perpetual panic.
To write a truly dark fantasy it seems imperative that an author address a fundamental reality: that human beings spend their entire lives dreaming, fantasizing, confabulating; that the nature of fantasy – of how we indulge it, use it, and of how it uses us – is the central issue facing the modern world, and not something that can be relegated to the usual, debased arena of discourse that so often passes for ‘fantasy’ – whether ‘dark’ or otherwise – in the marketplace.
You’re currently adapting Dead Girls into comic form. What are the particular challenges in making the transition from prose to comics?
Dead Girls the novel has had to be completely re-imagined and re-invented. The novel’s essential elements, of course, remain – most importantly, the two central characters, Iggy and Primavera, the mise-en-scène of London and Bangkok, and the idea around which the narrative revolves: that of a nano-virus plague that is turning young girls into cyber-dolls. The structure of the graphic novel, however, is quite different from that of the novel, and there are scenes, plot devices, and a lot of dialogue and voice over that’s completely new. The graphic novel, then, is a new piece of work that takes Dead Girls the novel as a starting point. But, importantly, the graphic novel is true to the spirit of the original novel.
How did you end up collaborating with Leonardo M Giron? Where did you find him?
I saw Leonardo’s work in the quarterly magazine Murky Depths, and it was immediately evident to me that he possessed both the skill and vision to delineate the ‘magic toyshop’ qualities of Dead Girls. I subsequently asked publisher and editor Terry Martin to introduce me to him. (Terry has shown tremendous enthusiasm and support for the project throughout!)
Dead Girls is a cyberpunk, or, some would say, ‘post-cyberpunk’, novel; but it also owes much to the gothic, particularly in its deliberate conflation of eighteenth-century automata and twenty-first century robots.
In Blade Runner, Daryl Hannah (who plays the replicant ‘Pris’) ‘does a punk variation on Olympia, the doll automaton of The Tales of Hoffmann’ (according to film critic Pauline Kael). The magic-toyshop world of Hoffmann similarly pervades Dead Girls, spliced with latter-day variations – but far more self-consciously. Leonardo’s work – which combines manga-inspired Ligne Claire with sketchy, highly detailed renderings of hyper-real, futuristic cityscapes – is ideally suited to realizing the tale of a twenty-first century Hoffmann, a tale of dolls, porcelain and clockwork, of mannequins, toys, visionary childhood loves, and of androids, gynoids, mecha, hyper-real cities, ray-guns, and death.
Leonardo paints on Dresden China, and he paints scenes and figures that owe their ancestry to both Lewis Carroll’s looking-glass world and Gibsonian cyberspace. His eclectic style – a style that is at once innocent and sophisticated, and that conflates Eastern and Western influences – means that he is as much at home in Meissen as in Manila. And since Dead Girls is set in both East and West, his hybrid approach harmonizes with the story’s cosmopolitanism.
Dead Girls was influenced by the work of the Surrealist artist Hans Bellmer. Bellmer, of course, had an obsessive interest in the magic, or demonic, toyshop world – an interest that had begun, or culminated, in his fateful visit to the opera to see Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann, which was to be such a powerful influence when he came to construct his great Surrealist object: The Doll. Sue Taylor, in her book Hans Bellmer, The Anatomy of Anxiety, writes: ‘Like André Breton’s famous chance discovery of a rustic slipper spoon at the flea market in St Ouen, which fulfilled the poet’s imperfectly understood enigmatic desire, the unexpected delivery of old toys from Bellmer’s mother had great resonance in the artist’s psychic life.’ According to another of Bellmer’s biographers, Peter Webb, these toys included ‘broken dolls, linocut magazines, glass marbles, Red Indian disguises, conjuring tricks, penknives, spinning tops, and pink sugar pigeons’; Alain Jouffroy adds dangerous items, ‘daggers, axes, totems, dynamite, and automatic pistols’; and Alain Sayag mentions grade-school primers and, curiously, phials of poison.
The toyshop that displays such items is home both to the naïf, and to the sinister; to innocence, as well as perversity. It is such a toyshop that Leonardo and I are building, a place of magic, of subterranean wonders and amoral forces, a place at once delicate and cruel, a lost domain of play and revolt.
For we are twenty-first century Hoff-men.
Where can unfamiliar readers find more of your work?
My first two published stories, Toxine and Mosquito, are available online at Fantastic Metropolis. Go to:
Prospective readers may purchase the ‘Dead’ trilogy (that is, Dead Girls, Dead Boys, Dead Things) and my other novels, Cythera, Frenzetta, The Twist, Malignos, Impakto, Lord Soho, and Babylon, at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.
And those who wish to read Dead Girls the Graphic Novel on an episode-by-episode basis should subscribe to Murky Depths at:
And news about the graphic novel’s progress, as well as examples of artwork, can be found at:
Responding in part to Jetse de Vries “Should SF Die?” essay, Val’s Random Comments Blog responds, including a long review of The Apex Book of World SF – calling Nir Yaniv’s Cinderers “the collection’s most disturbing story by far” and Kristin Mandigma’s Excerpt from a Letter by a Social-Realist Aswang “absolutely hilarious”.
One argument in the (completely pointless) debate on whether or not science fiction is dying is that the genre is a very anglophone affair. I’m not entirely sure I agree with that statement. Simply because Science Fiction does not get translated into English does not mean it isn’t written and published outside the English speaking nations. There is an extra hurdle though and that is the size of the market. Science Fiction is a niche market and it is becoming more so every year. To sustain a population of professional writers you need quite a few people who read science fiction. English can provide that, many other languages cannot. I don’t know of of any author writing in Dutch who can make a living writing science fiction or even fantasy.
There are several strategies to deal with this problem. A first group simply keeps their day job or supplement their income with other activities in the publishing world. A second group writes mainstream literature or other, more profitable, genres and throws in a work of science fiction once in a while. A third group attempts to write in English, translates their own work or has their work translated to reach a wider audience. Writing speculative fiction in a small language is hard but that certainly doesn’t stop people. There’s is quite a bit out there if you know where to look. The Apex Book of World SF collects a number of stories from around the world. Most of these writers have adopted the third strategy. Some of the sixteen stories were written in English, three were translated by the author and in three cases the translator is named in the copyright information. I have been looking around for quality Dutch genre fiction with limited but encouraging success, it only makes sense to see what is on offer in the rest of the world.
Dutch editor and writer Jetse de Vries discusses the future (and present) of science fiction in Should SF Die? over at the Shine Anthology blog. Jetse addresses issues of race, international SF, commercial concerns and much more in this thoughtful essay.
My viewpoint is that SF is becoming increasingly irrelevant, and that lack of relevance can be attributed to developments and trends already mentioned in the points above, and SF’s unwillingness to really engage with the here-and-now. That doesn’t mean that SF needs to die (actually, a slow marginalisation into an increasingly neglected and despised niche-cum-ghetto is probably a fate worse than death), but it does mean that SF needs to change, and that it needs to become much more inclusive of the alien (and I mean alien in ‘humans-can-be-aliens-to-each-other’ sense) and proactive, meaning it should not just shout ‘FIRE! FIRE!’ (and do almost nothing but), but both man the fire trucks *and* think of ways to prevent more fires.
That none of the 57 Hugo Awards for Best Novel have been won by people of colour (and 15 by women), is not a good sign. That all of the SFWA Grand Masters are white, and that only 3 of the 27 SFWA Grand Masters are women doesn’t help matters, either. Compare this with a literary prize like the Man Booker Prize (where 8 people of colour, and 15 women have been awarded among the total of 43 recipients), or the Nobel Prize for Literature (where 9 people of colour, and, admittedly, only 9 women have been awarded among the total of 106 recipients), then one can clearly see that SF still has way to go in that respect. OK: one could also say that the whole of western literature has quite a way to go in that respect, but I do note that the number of ethnic and women recipients of both literature and SF prizes has been going up since, say 1960 or so. If looked from that perspective, SF has much more catching up to do than literature.
Over at his blog, Luis Filipe Silva has a thoughtful response to the Nuno Fonseca editorial we published yesterday.
This season’s highlight on the Portuguese SF must be the publication of what we hope is the first article by Nuno Fonseca for the World SF blog, thus kicking off the Portuguese-speaking contribution to the general debate on the legitimacy of an international SF.
The fundamental question that arises from Nuno’s take is that a (literary) criticism about the state of a World SF done on a full stomach is substantially different from a criticism that has to crawl into the other people’s bins and live on crumbs.
By criticism we refer to the set of international authors complaining that there are not enough women to write SF or enough people of colour or of alternative sexualities – arguments which, I confess, always leave a hint of defending a particular, very personal condition, more than reflecting a generalized condition of the genre as they purport to be. On the other hand, I do not belong to any of these alleged conditions of exclusion nor do I live in a country where conflicts of race are socially dominant, so my opinion may be unfair. But in essence, it’s not as if we were still living in the 1950s, as if we hadn’t already gotten rid of a set of damaging social and cultural prejudices (so much that someone holding prejudices becomes a target for prejudice) – and by ignoring this change, the exclusion argument risks becoming stale and repetitive.
Perhaps in the end the real issue is about wishing a shift on the themes addressed by SF – say, from a technological vision of the future into a mystical vision – that will make SF closer to the cultural heart of the complaining person. It is natural that, as an example, the perspective of the all-American-hero not only has little to say to an Eastern citizen but, to a large extent, will be seen as offensive in a region formerly colonized by the West. – read the rest of the post.
Editorial: Having it all
By Nuno Fonseca
We have it all. Seriously.
Bear with me a little while I digress.
“We” is a strong word. As a species, we managed to obtain some proeminence through brute darwinian force and relentless acculturation. As people, we gained sufficient aplomb to be able to communicate globally. As SF fandom, we thrive on the propaganda of change. We, as in all of us, are able to read and write science fiction every single day of our lives if we decide to do so. But here’s the catch: we, as in all of us, are only able to do it globally. Individually, or in each country, the speculative paradise is not.
Every time I see a flame war, a heated commentary discussion or simple online tantrum about the derision of a specific, be it gender-based, or around the colonialist-nationalistic axis, or about race discrimination, or even senseofwonder uberall-ism and whatnot, I feel happy and sad. Why? Because in most of these cases what we see is a plain bellyful attitude, even though it is a post-inclusive one. Let me explain.
I happen to live in a country where there are no women writing science fiction. Or black people. Or gay, or whatever you may think about as a specific. Oh it’s true there are a few one-off examples, but way too few. It is a country where the few people who do write SF, are inclusive ones, as it is possible in our global information society. The problem is not one of segregation, but a far more problematic one: we have been getting no one to include here. And this, I tell you, is the truly sad thing.
Let me repeat this: no one.
As a reader, writer, editor and full-time fan, I can assure this is the case. There are several factors that contribute to this sorry state of affairs.
As you saw through the comprehensive 1998 article By Teresa Sousa de Almeida on Portuguese SF posted here on the 23rd, we do have some genre-related problems when it comes down to simple publication, a problem that today, 11 years later after that article, though a bit better when we talk about fantasy, continues to haunt SF Portuguese publication. Today, as in most places, fantasy in Portugal is riding a fad, mainly centered in children lit and the paranormal romance mode; epic fantasy has been getting some attention by national authors, and there, fortunately, we have been seeing at least some new women authors, with moderate market success. And that’s it. On the other hand, in my editing experience, submissions are very scarce, mostly male-dominated (and as for race or other specific, I obviously have no idea since they are entirely from new unknown authors). If I tell you also that I only remember two submitted shorts by female authors, I will not be exaggerating (sadly of very poor quality).
Is there anything we can do to better this? Of course. But the main problem remains that of the whole genre market itself and its poor expression. In the last couple of years, two main publishing houses (Saída de Emergência and Gailivro) have been betting on genre, with low but steady rising success. But mainly in Fantasy, because Portuguese SF works published in this timeframe just number… two. Though more are planned for the next year, fortunately. The rest of the publishing world just treats genre as non-existing or a fad, with the occasional one-offs.
So, you see, I marvel constantly when I see people passionately flaming editors for not including women in an anthology. Or whatever. And I also feel sad, because this is a “comfortable” discussion. Because people, be they women, black, foreign, gay, etc. do get published a lot in the anglo-speaking SF market. And because I remember that the SF fandom, writers, fans, publishers and editors, throughout the years, have been the most socially inclusive and tolerant and active people in the literary world.
The speculative fiction inclusive paradise is globally here, but it still needs to get better outside the English-speaking countries. However, I assure you that, thanks to the long-standing efforts of the SF community, we do find the strength to carry on.
And it will get better.
Nuno Fonseca is a speculative fiction writer, was co-editor of the Portuguese e-zine Nova and is currently editing for the e-zine Bang!, the leader magazine of the genre in Portugal.
Lavie Tidhar’s South African-set story, “Bophuthatswana”, is now available as a podcast on Pseudopod, read by Elan Ressel.
‘You know what they call people like us in America?’ I say.Wez looks at me sideways. His pupils are large, his dark hair falling over a delicate oval face. ‘I don’t know, bru. Super-heroes?’‘No, asshole,’ I say. I take a hit on the spliff and pass it to him. The smoke percolates through my lungs and the definition of light outside grows sharper. Wez is Chinese and lives with him mum down near Bruma Lake. His mum’s a born-again Christian. He is the colour of pine and burnt amber. Beside him, I am Ethiopian Mocha, drunk with cream. ‘They call us “people of colour”.’Wez takes a toke on the spliff and shakes his head. ‘That’s fucked up, bru.’ The car races down past walled suburban prisons decorated in barbed wire and electronic alarms and “Beware The Dog” signs. ‘Does that mean white people are called “colourless”?’‘No,’ I say. ‘I think they’re just called people.’
Over at Strange Horizons, Andy Sawyer has a wonderfully thoughtful, in-depth review of The Apex Book of World SF, calling Anil Menon‘s story Into the Night “by far the best story I have read all year” and the book as a whole “the most exciting anthology I have read since the SFWA European Hall of Fame.”
This is not one of those anthologies which neatly tick off boxes: there are two authors from France, China, Israel, and the Philippines, but none from, for example, Russia or Japan. Lavie Tidhar’s introduction, indeed, flags the book’s omissions, noting that there are no contributions from South America or Africa, and offers an intriguing hint that “Speculative fictions from the Arab world . . . are enjoying a new popularity.” (Tell us more!) The back cover adds Pakistan to the list, which seems to be an error. The mixture here, unbalanced though it may seem to a cursory view, allows the anthology to avoid the obvious failing of “showcase” anthologies: we cannot, having finished this selection, ever delude ourselves that we have “heard” the voices of the science fiction of China, say, or Israel. Han Song and Yang Ping, say, or Guy Hasson and Nir Yaniv, are very different writers telling very different stories (there is a darkness to be found in the stories by Hasson and Yaniv which perhaps bears investigation, but I wonder that in noting that, I am falling into the same trap which calls American SF “optimistic” and British SF “pessimistic”). When it comes to the myriad voices which are telling stories of the fantastic, perhaps all we can do is be selective in the way Tidhar has been here: pick good stories, keep your eyes on what is going on (Tidhar runs the World SF News blog), and consider any such anthology to be a small step in a larger project. The gaps here are not evidence of inattention but of spaces which we hope will be filled. When they are, on this evidence we will all be enriched. – read the rest of the review.
Monday Original Content: A Round Table on Australian SF with Gillian Polack, Simon Brown, Yaritji Green and Tessa Kum.
By Kaaron Warren
Australians have a long history of Science Fiction and Fantasy literature. May Gibbs’ wrote Snugglepot and Cuddlepie in 1918. These famous gumnut babies and their mortal enemies the Banksia men are part of our cultural heritage, as are the dreamtime stories of indigenous Australians, the ghost stories from China, Vietnam and Japan and the cultural ‘baggage’ all of us bring to the country.
The writer and editor Gillian Polack wanted to look at this through an Australian speculative fiction prism, so gathered short stories from Australian writers in an anthology Baggage, out soon from Eneit Press.
As Gillian Polack says in her introduction to the book: “None of us travel lightly, although the stories we use to explain our lives help us think we do, sometimes. We all have cultural baggage and emotional burdens. We bring with us lack of understanding, death, sorrow, homesickness, loneliness, feeling alien. Underneath this bleak surface, there’s a great deal that’s heart-warming. Birth, discovery, love and learning.”
I asked Gillian and three of the contributing authors appearing in Baggage to talk about how their cultural backgrounds affected their work.
Question 1: How does your cultural background affect your writing? How does the culture you’re living in now affect your work?
Gillian: My cultural background affects everything. I’m a minority of a minority (Australian Jewish since the mid 19th century on my father’s side and since early 20th century on my mother’s – most Australian Jews come from more recent stock and are less English in culture), which means I’m always aware of how I differ from everyone else. I joke about not having a Fiddler on the Roof background at all, but it’s more complicated than that. And, of course, my training means that I analyse how these things happen and what they mean almost incessantly. This means that I write using the same ingredients as most other Australian writers, but using a slightly different palette.
The big difference is that, for me phrases like ‘white bread’ and ‘ethnic’ and even “WASP/C” are not useful signposts. Everyone has ethnicity in every place I write about, whether it’s a Canberra streetscape or on a distant planet in a far future. There’s no off-switch for cultural background in my worlds. No-one is neutral. I have to design pasts and family histories for every single character: I have to know how they eat at table and what sort of stride they take down the street.
It’s only recently, in fact, that I discovered that many writers have off-switches for ethnicity. Natural default positions into which most of their characters fall. That the only characters who have clear cultural development are the disadvantaged ones or the special ones. I find this very sad. I can’t imagine a world where most people are assumed to have a monotone simple heritage. For me, half the fun of writing comes in nuancing backgrounds and knowing where all my people come from and then letting them loose.
Simon: I think 90% of any affect is subconscious and subsequently hard to gauge, but the way I think, organise, analyse and use information, the way I view and categorise the world, is ruled by a huge set of cultural assumptions. As well, being part of what was until recently the dominant (and often dominating) English-speaking and Western-oriented world, meant I was surrounded by false horizons, and anything beyond was faint at best and invisible at worst.
Living in Thailand means I now see the world from a different perspective, although it too has its own assumptions which influence the way I interact with people – not only those I meet in real life, but those I meet in the fiction I read and the fiction I write. Accepted history, any culture’s biggest assumption, is now so flexible that trying to understand it is like trying to grasp a cut snake.
For me, another quandary is whether or not my growing awareness of my cultural bias produces any significant difference in that bias, or willingness to change it. I’m not suggesting I have to change it – cultural bias is not in itself a negative or positive thing – but now I live with a great deal less certainty about the world and my place in it.
Tessa: I am half-Chinese, half-White Australian, and it took me a long time to realise that wasn’t a normal or occasionally even an accepted thing. I grew up in a neighbourhood that was middle-class and white. Being surrounded by it, going to school with it, on the inside I’m also middle-class and white, albeit with cool and funky Chinese traits lurking about subversively. But it takes most people a while to see that while I look Otherish (from both Chinese and White Australian perspectives), and I have a fair whack of Otherish to me, I’m mostly Majority. It’s that schism between how I view myself and how others view me from which my sense of my cultural position stems.
A trend I noticed in my writing was a fair proportion of my protagonists were outcasts and loners. I thought that was simply me being unconsciously lazy until I attempted to conceive of a character that came from a cultural background comprised wholly of the majority. I’ve yet to successfully pin down such a character. There are assumptions that don’t even leave the unconscious which I cannot even conceive of.
I think it is easier to imagine what it is to be outcast, than what it is to belong.
In addition to my own mixed background, Australia is something of a melting pot for hundreds of cultures from around the world, and I take this variety for granted. This manifests in my writing in an almost lazy manner as well, to the point where I don’t think about reaching out an inserting a different flavoured detail or name to contrast all the details and names that have come before it, entire civilisations I will not flesh out as for the purpose of the story they are not required to be. They exist purely to provide the texture of a wider and eternally surprising world.
I suppose my personal cultural baggage has taught me that we are judgmental creatures, and the best of us understand that judgments can and regularly do need revising. There will always be something you cannot understand, and therefore always more to learn.
Which is a fine thing.
Yaritji: I am Yankunytjatjara, Djaru, Irish, and Australian. I live within the grey zone of two cultures – Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.
I have written this doorstopper of a fantasy based on dreaming entities from the Yankunytjatjara side of the family. I wrote the bulk of it while studying a Bachelor of Creative Arts (Creative Writing) at Flinders University. The degree I did allowed me to choose the topics I wrote my assignments on, and through my studies I came across this thing called copyright: a strange and wonderful thing which is good for the western world but does not fully protect the creative and intellectual rights of Indigenous Australians. We are the world’s oldest surviving culture yet we often find ourselves on the back foot playing catch up to legislation and policies that often were not explained (if explained at all) until too late and that does not address or cover Indigenous copyright or ownership principles.
So back to this copyright thing. Indigenous copyright is conceived as a heritage that is passed down; you learn the stories of the land and its inhabitants so that you can pass it down to the next generation. Our stories also have borders; we can own a story up to a certain landmark and then the neighbouring community owns the story from that landmark onwards. Some stories or characters can be shared between nations. However with the westernised concept of copyright, ownership generally goes to one person/corporation. Then once the copyright holder dies copyright remains in place for 50 years then it becomes public domain: then anyone can use it.
So back to my doorstopper, it is sitting there, waiting. It sits there wondering if it might ever get out into the world. Sure, I could make some quick money by getting it published. Use the ‘exotic other’ of my Indigenous culture, my ‘exotic other’ Indigenous name, my western knowledge and my western networks to get this story out there and milk it for all its worth. But at what cost? I’m not prepared to sell out my community’s heritage. With Australian copyright laws the way they are, the cost is too great; it takes too much from my people.
As far as how the culture I’m living in now affects my work, I am careful about what I write. I speak to my Elders. I share what I am going to write about. I had this idea, I thought was wonderful, so I shared the basics with family and other Indigenous writers but after a discussion it turned out that some parts of my idea would conflict with culture. So I thought, okay, I can’t do that but I can still do this, this and this, and my story will still have strength without selling out. Everything is about respect. Respect for culture. Respect for others. Respect for myself. If I can’t respect my culture then I have no respect for myself. It may be a different story if I wrote outside of Speculative Fiction. I wouldn’t have to be so careful – well other than, you know, avoiding being libellous. I want to write the stories I want to read, stories my community might want to read.
Question 2. Tess’s comment about the broad cultural mix in Australia is a good one. Do you think this gives Australian writers a broader range of characters to work with?
Gillian: It’s the same number of characters, but potentially wider and more interesting choices for those characters. The trick is in that word ‘potentially’. We all spend large chunks of our lives within our own heads. Everything is coloured by our own vision and our own background.
Whether or not we can use people quite unlike ourselves culturally with anything like authenticity depends on how far we can reach outside ourselves. Simon’s point was telling in this respect: he possibly didn’t know just how far he could reach until he did so.
Brian Wainwright (who writes terrific historical fiction, always with women as the main character) has said more than once that it’s just another aspect of the challenge of writing a novel to write a strong character of the opposite sex. The same goes for other cultures.
I really have to add that I’m as guilty as the next person in limiting characters to my comfort zone. I’ll write weak women and whingeing women but I’m uncomfortable writing stupid women. I’m also not comfortable with writing different dialects. These limits we carry round with us restrict our capacity to make more interesting choices about our characters’ lives.
The bottom line is that it’s not how amazingly culturally varied Australia is, but how we as individual writers understand cultures and deal with them.
Simon: No. I think anyone who’s read widely will have no problem creating believable characters from different backgrounds.
Yaritji: A writer can write any character of any heritage into their work. But can they make a character of a different heritage to their own, ‘real’? Can the writer understand why a particular culture acts the way they do? Can they see history from a different perspective? I think if a writer can see to the truth of a character, and avoid one dimensional stereotypes, they could write from any heritage. However in today’s environment, minority cultures have experienced past literary portrayals which did not even begin to describe the essence of their culture. It is no wonder that today these minority cultures want a greater control of who is writing about them, and how this is done.
Question 3. I’m interested in Simon’s comment about history and how it changes depending on where you live. Do you have to actively think about changing the way your characters view history in order to separate them from yourself?
Gillian: Unless I’m going to write a character who is a professional historian of exactly the same kind as me, none of my characters are going to view history the way I do. Also, it’s easier to keep my history-brain out of my fiction than to translate the burden of it into something shaped like a regular narrative.
Having given those caveats, I suspect that I always take on board how my characters think of the past and of history. I don’t even do it at a conscious level, mostly. When someone asks me, though, I know.
Simon: I’m not sure this question is separate from the more general one of how different characters are from the author who creates and describes them. One of the most frustrating problems I have with some criticism is the way a few critics/readers think a character’s background/prejudice/opinion in some way reflects the author’s background/prejudice/opinion. The reason most of us write fiction, I think, is to imagine ‘the other’, for lack of a better and more precise term: other people, other landscapes, other times, other cultures, etc, some of which have never existed except in the writer’s mind.
Yaritji: In any story the main character has to overcome a problem of some sort – if they don’t well it is going to be one boring story that only a mother can love.
History should be important to any writer. The past can help us to understand how we got to where we are now. For example, look at Australian History – originally we were the dumping ground for the ‘UK crims’ and then we got the others who came over to make a better life for themselves and their families. This history was what I was taught in primary school. However this was one side of history, the side of history I found myself standing in was completely different. My people, Indigenous Australians, were here first, we had our culture, our laws, our way of life. We were forced to conform to another way of life through dispossession, massacres, rapes, ‘Stolen Generation’ and so forth.
Quite an ugly side of history that the wider Australian community would like to keep in the past, let alone be told that due to the treatment of Indigenous Australians throughout history, the non-Indigenous Australians have given themselves the privileged position within a country that was not theirs to begin with. Everyone in the Australian community is shaped by their collective history.
Okay, so how do I separate myself from my characters, with respect to history? I don’t. For years I’ve learned to live within two cultures, two very different perspectives of history. I draw from the two sides of history I’ve learned: one from the Australian education system, the other from the Indigenous community. You can’t have just one side. You have both. You need the good and the bad of both sides. Because really, no matter what side of history you stand on, human desires are very similar – we want to be loved and love in return, we want to provide for ourselves and our families (food, clothing, a home, access to education/information/resources). The question is do we obtain what we need or take what we want? All history does is show us what happened yesterday, and what we do today defines tomorrow’s history. This is the same for the characters we write.
Question 4. Gillian talks about the ‘fall-back cultural position’. How can we avoid this in our fiction?
Gillian: I don’t think we can avoid it. Novels are based on us sharing some of these with others. However, we can control our use a bit more and reduce some of the negatives. We can learn about our own background and find out what our assumptions are. We can watch for recurring patterns in our own fiction and in others’.
Simon: To start with, you don’t have to avoid it. It’s just important you’re aware of it, so you can avoid it if you want to.
Yaritji: Isn’t the ‘fall-back cultural position’ something people do no matter where they come from or what their heritage is? People write from what they know and understand from their own perceptions on life and the people around them. I don’t think I use a ‘fall-back cultural position’ with my fiction, unless I’m asked to use some of my heritage.
Question 5: The rules and boundaries are so clear for Indigenous writers writing about their own culture. Are there any rules of usage you follow in your writing?
Gillian: There are some areas where I tread very carefully. The Shoah is one of them.
Simon: For my part there are no rules or boundaries in writing. I don’t mean I’ll willingly offend anyone, but if it serves the story then I’ll take from whatever culture I want. The world’s stories are my stories. Ultimately, leaving aside the question of transgressing someone’s cultural borders (because there is no answer to it), a writer has to serve the story first and last.
Gillian Polack is a writer and historian. Her latest novel, Life Through Cellophane, was recently released by Eneit Press. She is the editor of Baggage. Her main webhaunts are her website (http://www.gillianpolack.com) and her blog (http://gillpolack.livejournal.com)
Simon Brown has been writing for nearly 40 years. He lives in Thailand with his wife and two children.
Tessa Kum is a graduate of the Clarion South Writers Workshop, editorial assistant for Weird Tales, and assistant editor for the Best American Fantasy series.
Yaritji Green: My mother is Yankunytjatjara and my father is Jaru. Now you know who I am and where I come from (you never know we could be related). I am a librarian at a university library and two days a week I work for the Black Words research community, in AustLit – The Australian Literature Resource (http://www.austlit.edu.au). Black Words indexes the works and biographies of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers and storytellers.
Kaaron Warren’s first novel Slights was published by Angry Robot Books in 2009. She has a story in Baggage about a man named after a lost village, and a story in the Apex Book of World SF about censorship and propaganda.