I’ve been meaning to post about the Hugo Awards, which were recently announced. Usually with awards, we tend to post a note highlighting any writers of international interest (if any) and leave it at that, but I feel it might be worth saying a few more words this time, so please bear with me.
There seems to be a conversation about the Hugos every year, of roughly the same nature. A good example is this recent one, which takes them to task by saying:
Although the Hugos present the image of something more cosmopolitan or representative than the standard convention award, it’s becoming increasingly apparent every year that, despite being the most recognizable award in science fiction and fantasy cultural awareness, the Hugos are nothing more than an amalgamation of like minded WorldCon members, or agendized voting blocs, bent on vociferous back patting.
I have sympathy with this sort of argument, though it’s worth noting neither the Hugos nor the “WorldCon” were ever meant to be international or all-inclusive. “WorldCon” gets its name from the World’s Fair that took place in New York in 1939, and the “Hugos” take their name from a Jewish immigrant to the United States, Hugo Gernsback, the founder of the first science fiction pulp magazine. Moreover, the Hugos do reflect popular taste – a quick look at the sales figures of the shortlisted novels suggests they are very popular indeed, and are recognised as such.
I think a part of the sense of – disaffection – we get every year is the very real sense that science fiction [ETA: I'm using this as an umbrella term for speculative fiction, including fantasy] itself has profoundly changed over the decades. Some terribly ambitious novels had won the award since it began in 1953, a period during which science fiction was in a very real sense an avant garde literary movement. The first novel to win was Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, and the 1960s saw such novels as A Canticle for Leibowitz, Stranger in a Strange Land, Dune and Lord of Light winning – surely some of the most remarkable and ambitious examples of American science fiction ever written.
But the nature of genre publishing itself changed. It is now a massively successful, commercial genre, with thousands of titles published annually, multiple franchises and diverse fandoms. William Gibson’s Neuromancer, a winner in 1985, still seems to me to represent a watershed moment for SF, a when-it-changed – less the arrival of a new era as the death of an older one, and it is suggestive that is was followed, a year later, by Ender’s Game, a novel that very much stands for the new kind of SF.
Ambition, experiment, a sense of being at the vanguard are not necessarily the qualities one looks for in a Hugo winner, though certainly ambitious and challenging work continues to be recognised – Mieville’s The City and the City, Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell to take two.
And science fiction fans, globally, continue to be invested in the Hugos, whether they vote for them or attend a Worldcon. It is not seen as belonging to the thousand or so people who vote for it, but to anyone who is a fan of SF. And they are not easy to vote for. Attending a WorldCon is an expensive proposition, and even a supporting membership, purely for voting, can be a massive expense for someone not earning “First World” salaries.
The arguments, I suspect, will continue for years to come, but I thought it valuable to highlight just what I see as so remarkable in this year’s shortlist.
And the thing is this – this is perhaps the first year in the award’s history (and the Campbell, a “Not a Hugo” award) where we see such a strong representation of international voices. I’m not sure I can highlight this enough. Saladin Ahmed‘s Throne of the Crescent Moon, for instance, is the first novel by a Muslim writer ever to be nominated for a Hugo. The first by an Arab-American, for that matter. (And this is when being Muslim in SF is still cause for a lot of nasty sniping, to put it mildly). Ken Liu, a Chinese-American author doing amazing work, amongst others, in translating Chinese science fiction into English, is nominated for Best Short Story. Aliette de Bodard, a French author of Vietnamese ancestry, is nominated for both Best Novella and Best Short Story, while Dutch author Thomas Olde Heuvelt is a surprise nominee with a translated story in the Best Novelette category.
Even more exciting, the Campbell Award, recognising emerging writers, has author Zen Cho as a nominee – the first time a Malaysian author is so recognised.
The Hugos are changing, I think. Or SF as a whole is changing. The surprise is not that popular American writers are nominated for a Hugo – but that diversity is increasingly represented on the ballots.
And frankly, for all my love of 1960s American SF, this seems to me to be the more exciting time to be involved with the genre.
Aliette gave us permission to repost this here, from her blog:
Mixed-race people in SFF
By Aliette de Bodard
OK, because I’ve seen one too many %%% storylines about mixed-race people in fiction (expanded for SFF to include the children of humans and aliens/magical creatures, etc.). For your information:
We are not psychopaths, terminally maladjusted, forever torn between two cultures in a way that will inevitably destroy us. We are not freaks or hybrids or mongrels or circus animals, forever exhibited as examples of what can go wrong in human/alien/magical creatures relationships; neither are we featureless saints exhibited as examples of interracial/interspecies harmony.
We are not special, magical or possessed of numinous powers by virtue of our non-white/non-human blood; we are not the tamed Other, made acceptable by an infusion of white blood and white customs, the “safe” option with only a hint of fashionable exoticism and none of the raw difference of “true” foreigners. We are not a handy, non-scary substitute for diversity in fiction.
We do not have pick sides unilaterally. We do not have to share the identity of our mother or of our father to the exclusion of the other parent (and most of us will find it quite hard to completely reject one half of our heritage); and our parents are not perpetually locked in some cultural war in which there would only be a single winner. We can be raised with love and respect and in a meld between two cultures: we do not have to be orphaned/single-parent/neglected/abused to exist.
Our parents are normal beings, and so are we.
If you’re using mixed-race people in your fiction and feature ANY of those tropes, do please think for a moment of what it is that you’re saying (and I wish I could say it’s not the case, but I’ve seen all of these–yes, even the hybrid/mongrel–at some point in recent SFF, either in print or in other media).
Disclaimer: this is based on my experience and on those of friends growing up (mostly in Europe, and most Asian-white mixed-race). I tend to think a lot of it applies elsewhere, though…
I’m delighted to say we’ve been nominated for a BSFA Award in the non-fiction category!
And very happy to see two international writers, Aliette de Bodard (France) and Rochita Loenen-Ruiz (Philippines) in the short fiction category.
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett (Corvus)
Empty Space: a Haunting by M. John Harrison (Gollancz)
Intrusion by Ken Macleod (Orbit)
Jack Glass by Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
2312 by Kim Stanley-Robinson (Orbit)
Best Short Story
“Immersion” by Aliette de Bodard (Clarkesworld #69)
“The Flight of the Ravens” by Chris Butler (Immersion Press)
“Song of the body Cartographer” by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz (Phillipines Genre Stories)
“Limited Edition” by Tim Maughan (1.3, Arc Magazine)
“Three Moments of an Explosion” by China Mieville (Rejectamentalist Manifesto)
“Adrift on the Sea of Rains” by Ian Sales (Whippleshield Books)
Ben Baldwin for the cover of Dark Currents (Newcon Press)
Blacksheep for the cover of Adam Roberts’s Jack Glass (Gollancz)
Dominic Harman for the cover of Eric Brown’s Helix Wars (Rebellion)
Joey Hifi for the cover of Simon Morden’s Thy Kingdom Come (Jurassic London)
Si Scott for the cover artwork for Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden (Corvus)
“The Complexity of the Humble Space Suit” by Karen Burnham (Rocket Science, Mutation Press)
“The Widening Gyre” by Paul Kincaid (Los Angeles Review of Books)
The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (Cambridge University Press)
The Shortlist Project by Maureen Kincaid Speller
The World SF Blog, Chief Editor Lavie Tidhar
Aliette de Bodard‘s latest book publication is the novella, On A Red Station, Drifting, published by the UK’s Immersion Press in hardcover.
Here, Aliette talks about the genesis and process of writing the novella, based on the Chinese classic Dream of Red Mansions:
So, it’s occurred to me I didn’t actually provide this for my latest release–accordingly, there you go, author’s notes for On a Red Station, Drifting.
I started writing On a Red Station, Drifting after one too many readings of the Chinese classic Dream of Red Mansions, and musing on old literature.
It’s no secret that “classical literature”, at least the brand taught in French schools, is overwhelmingly male and concerned with “male” affairs: wars, violence, fatherhood, father/son relationships… I found the same preoccupation prevalent in SFF, to a point where it became unsettling–it’s a subject covered by Ursula Le Guin in her Language of the Night and by Joanna Russ in many of her writings. One of the things that drove this home for me was seeing the statistics compiled by Martin Lewis for the Clarke Award (among the highlights: around 90% of the books had at least a male protagonist, a good quarter featured no women main characters at all, and a good 81% of the books had the protagonist kill someone, while only under half the protagonists were in a stable happy relationship).
Dream of Red Mansions, meanwhile, a novel that was written in the 19th Century, has 12 central female protagonists (and an effeminate, somewhat ineffective male protagonist who often wishes he was a girl), a slew of relationships from husband-wife to various degrees of family closeness. Its Twelve Beauties of Jinling are very different women, from the fierce and domineering Wang Xifeng to sickly and grudge-prone Lin Daiyu. It is explicitly written as a homage to those women; and its focus is resolutely domestic. It concerns itself with the affairs of two related households (the Rongguo and the Ningguo houses of the Jia family), their day-to-day intrigues and relationships, while the great events of the period are relegated to the background (the very strong political upheavals of the time period are only alluded to when they impinge on the family’s everyday life). I thought it was an awesome way to write a book, and I decided I wanted to try my hand at a domestic plot. – continue reading!
The James White Award is an annual short story competition open to non-professional writers. Entry is free to writers from around the world and this year the judging panel will include French writer Aliette de Bodard, alongside Ian McDonald and the interzone editorial team. The winning story gets £300 and publication in Interzone.
From the administrators:
- · Stories entered into the competition must be original and previously unpublished.
- · Stories must be in the English language but the competition is open to writers from any nation.
- · This year’s judging panel comprises the novelists Aliette de Bodard and Ian McDonald and the Interzone editorial team.
- · Entry is free.
- · For the full rules and details of how to enter, visit www.jameswhiteaward.com
- · The prize for winning this year’s James White Award 2011 is £300 plus publication in Interzone, the leading UK science fiction magazine. This year there will also be a prize of £100 awarded by the judges to the second place story.
- · The closing date for this year’s competition is midnight (GMT) 16 December 2012.
- · If you have any questions, contact the Award Administrator at email@example.com
- · The James White Award was instituted to honour the memory of one of Ireland’s most successful science fiction authors, James White. To learn more about James White and his writing, visit www.sectorgeneral.com.
The latest issue of Clarkesworld has a major new story by Aliette de Bodard, Immersion:
In the morning, you’re no longer quite sure who you are.
You stand in front of the mirror—it shifts and trembles, reflecting only what you want to see—eyes that feel too wide, skin that feels too pale, an odd, distant smell wafting from the compartment’s ambient system that is neither incense nor garlic, but something else, something elusive that you once knew.
You’re dressed, already—not on your skin, but outside, where it matters, your avatar sporting blue and black and gold, the stylish clothes of a well-travelled, well-connected woman. For a moment, as you turn away from the mirror, the glass shimmers out of focus; and another woman in a dull silk gown stares back at you: smaller, squatter and in every way diminished—a stranger, a distant memory that has ceased to have any meaning.
Quy was on the docks, watching the spaceships arrive. She could, of course, have been anywhere on Longevity Station, and requested the feed from the network to be patched to her router—and watched, superimposed on her field of vision, the slow dance of ships slipping into their pod cradles like births watched in reverse. But there was something about standing on the spaceport’s concourse—a feeling of closeness that she just couldn’t replicate by standing in Golden Carp Gardens or Azure Dragon Temple. Because here—here, separated by only a few measures of sheet metal from the cradle pods, she could feel herself teetering on the edge of the vacuum, submerged in cold and breathing in neither air nor oxygen. She could almost imagine herself rootless, finally returned to the source of everything.
Most ships those days were Galactic—you’d have thought Longevity’s ex-masters would have been unhappy about the station’s independence, but now that the war was over Longevity was a tidy source of profit. The ships came; and disgorged a steady stream of tourists—their eyes too round and straight, their jaws too square; their faces an unhealthy shade of pink, like undercooked meat left too long in the sun. They walked with the easy confidence of people with immersers: pausing to admire the suggested highlights for a second or so before moving on to the transport station, where they haggled in schoolbook Rong for a ride to their recommended hotels—a sickeningly familiar ballet Quy had been seeing most of her life, a unison of foreigners descending on the station like a plague of centipedes or leeches.
Still, Quy watched them. They reminded her of her own time on Prime, her heady schooldays filled with raucous bars and wild weekends, and late minute revisions for exams, a carefree time she’d never have again in her life. She both longed for those days back, and hated herself for her weakness. Her education on Prime, which should have been her path into the higher strata of the station’s society, had brought her nothing but a sense of disconnection from her family; a growing solitude, and a dissatisfaction, an aimlessness she couldn’t put in words.
She might not have moved all day—had a sign not blinked, superimposed by her router on the edge of her field of vision. A message from Second Uncle. – continue reading!
SF Signal have just published the first part of a roundtable on race in science fiction and fantasy, with David Anthony Durham, Aliette de Bodard, Adrian Tchaikovsky, and Ken Liu:
Q: In what ways do you see readers reacting to the racial content of your work? As a follow-up question, has your race entered into that discussion, and if so, how?David Anthony Durham
Sometimes I think readers assume that I’m writing about race just because I’m a writer of color and/or because I’ve done so before.
With the Acacia Trilogy I’m a little surprised by readers that mention my exploration of racism. Surprised because racism isn’t, to me, much of an issue in the books. I wrote about these topics explicitly in earlier historical novels (like Gabriel’s Story and Walk Through Darkness), but the Known World is free from the racial hierarchy of our history. Sure, there are tensions, but I don’t think anybody in the novels believes that one race is inferior to another. They have national pride and-particularly in the case of the Meins-a desire for racial purity. But that’s a product of having been a proud clan of people that have suffered exile. That’s very different than the hundreds of years that our Western society used science, religion, laws and myth to differentiate the races in the starkest of terms.
I made the Quota/Mist trade one that takes slaves from all races of the Known World. I wanted to contrast that against our history of the Atlantic Slave trade. Anybody’s children are at risk. Anybody can be sent overseas to an unknown fate. And in the later books, I was interested in what that means for those slaves. How do they come to define themselves in their slavery? Not, surely, by their race. Are they more a part of the culture that sold them into slavery, or do they draw their identity from the one in which they’re raised-that of their enslavers?
I find that the readers most likely to engage with this are the ones that have spent the most time thinking about the role of race in their own lives, especially those that come from-or are themselves creating-multicultural identities.
The flip side of this is that some readers don’t notice anything unusual in the multicultural vibe of the books. I’ve heard readers express surprise that I identify as African-American. “I didn’t know he was black until he said so in a blog post.” That sort of thing. I think part of what’s going on there is that some readers expect a black writer to write about race in a certain way, to write primarily black characters and to have a particular platform that’s easily recognizable-and potentially dismissible-to them. I want to believe that what I do is a bit different than that. And, honestly, I’m very glad to be able to have a dialogue with these readers as well. – read the full post.
There seems to be a sudden explosion in international SF magazines, with the latest being International Speculative Fiction - check it out, they’ve just published Aliette de Bodard’s Butterfly, Falling at Dawn!
The first such magazine, however – the guys who inspired me to eventually edit The Apex Book of World SF and start the World SF Blog – is InterNova, edited by Michael Iwoleit from Germany. InterNova was first published in print, with only one – yet revolutionary – issue, but has since been relaunched as a web magazine.
It publishes a wide range of fiction and non-fiction from all over the world, and is looking to continue to grow. Michael writes:
The international science fiction e-zine InterNova (inter.nova-sf.de) is facing a major upgrade. In recent months the magazine has almost doubled its audience. To provide a better service for its readers editor Michael K. Iwoleit plans a design and functionality rework of the site and more regular uploads. To make the best of the magazine, however, InterNova is looking for further volunteer collaborators. Especially wanted are native English proofreaders who are willing to read two or three stories each months. There are also plans to open a Spanish and a French section of InterNova to provide part of the magazine’s content in these languages too. To make it happen, the support of volunteer English-to-Spanish and English-to-French translators and of proofreaders in both languages will be required. InterNova also appreciates contacts with correpondents who could provide news about the sf production in their country or region. If you’re interested in a collaboration please contact editor Michael K. Iwoleit at <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Part 2 of our roundtable on Non-Western SF. Part 1 is here.
Participating: Aliette de Bodard (France), Joyce Chng (Singapore), Requires Hate(Thailand), Rochita Loenen-Ruiz (Philippines/The Netherlands),Ekaterina Sedia (Russian/USA), Rachel Swirsky (USA).
Aliette: We talk about colonisation, which is mostly a phenomenon of the past (but which has left marks and scars everywhere that will take a long time to fade); but I think we need to bring up globalisation. It’s often lauded as a way which makes the world smaller so that cultures can meet. In reality, it’s immensely problematic, because what it has mostly done is homogenise everything to a common US/European framework and deny the values and identities of the people from outside that framework in, I think, a more insidious way than colonisation. Many people (especially in the West) suffer from the illusion that colonisation is dead; but it’s not. It lives on in its new incarnation; and it means we can talk about “universal stories” and “universal tropes” with such glibness–and forget that a large chunk of the world follows very different values and mindsets from the “default”, Western Anglophone one. Like requireshate says, there’s a really pernicious assumption that everyone is part of the mass and subscribing to the same “core” values, whereas nothing could be further from the truth. And there remains a fundamental power imbalance between the Western, English-speaking world and the non-Western countries–an imbalance that notably gets expressed in literature, and in the one-way street that means books get translated from English into pretty much every country in the world, but 0.3% of books published in the US are actually translated into English.
Joyce: Oh yes, globalization is insidious. Everyone is equal. Shrinking world. Blah blah blah. Everyone holds hands and we are friends. No. The scars of colonization are still there. Many former colonies are left with the issues to deal with.
requireshate: When I go to a bookstore, there are veritable shelves of translated fiction–a fair bit from Japanese and Chinese, but vastly dominated by English-language fiction in translation. It’s what a lot of kids grow up reading, and it’s pretty awful to see so many covers featuring white girls (localized YA fiction and paranormal romance: Vampire Academy, Sherilyn Kenyon, and so on). The same holds true for advertisements in cosmetics/hairstylist/etc sections in any shopping mall–chock-full of white women on display, even some black women, but starkly few Asian women! And then, only from brands that are Asian in origin anyway. Christian Dior, Lancome, whatever? All white ladies. And, again, clothes brands, lingerie, all white bodies. These western corporations didn’t even think of localizing their advertising materials. Why would they? White signals opulence, beauty, and desirability. White is good, attractive, and an ideal we should aspire to. All this without Thailand having ever been colonized.
Joyce: Ditto in Singapore. A lot of white girls. Sooo… what does it say about the effects of colonization/colonialism? That Singaporeans have colonized minds?
Aliette: it’s the same in Vietnam, at least in those few bookstores I went to: the bookshelves for fiction translated from Western English were larger than the ones for Vietnamese and Chinese fiction put together, and that’s not even counting Young Adult…
(and also the same, sadly, for beauty products displaying white models)
Rochita: I think you can say the same about The Philippines. When I went home last year, I was struck once again by the plethora of fiction in English. They dominated the shelves. I was hard put to find books written by Filipino writers. True, there were some I hadn’t read before, but the imbalance was mind-boggling.
What worries me about globalisation is how easy it is to buy into that mantra of a universal narrative. Argh. Just as well say people all look alike.
Addressing the question of Western people writing about or of a borrowed culture (I think I prefer that term), I believe it is possible to avoid the pitfall of exotization. It will probably take a good deal of reading and a good deal of time and energy investment, but I believe it will be well worth it to the reader and to the author. It’s not enough to visit a country (the tourist writer who goes “oh shiny, I wanna write about that because it’s so cool and different”). I think, as Requires Hate has pointed out, it’s important to at least engage the literature of the country. It may be difficult but I think a lot of the heart of a culture is revealed in the work written by the people themselves.
Let me tell you what an American person established in the publishing industry told me: I should buy a thick book of American poetry and read these poems everyday until I get the nuance of the language. When told this to visiting poet, JT Stewart, she said to me: No. You don’t need to do that because you write the language as you hear it in your ears. As you grew up hearing it and speaking it. Not as Americans do.
Aliette: Yes, there’s a very deep-seated assumption that Westerners are the reference for the English language–whereas the largest Anglophone country in the world is India, and there are plenty more non-Western countries where English is an official language. That’s not even getting into the mechanics that mean most of the world has to learn English as a second or third language just to get by, whereas most English speakers can afford to remain monolingual.
Coming back to the subject of writing in another culture: I, too, think it’s possible to do it well (if not perfectly, and probably not as insider narrative). I’d add talking to actual people from the culture and visiting (with locals, not expats!) to reading the books.
Rochita: I agree.
Aliette: Paraphrasing a 101 I gave to someone else about writing other cultures:
I think that, especially if you’re a Westerner doing another culture, you have responsibilities to do the best darn research you can (and not just appropriate the cool bits). You must take care not to promote harmful stereotypes ; especially since, as a Western writer (especially, but not only, if you live in the West), you must be aware that your narrative is going to be privileged over that of locals. That gives you extra responsibility to get it as right as you can.
You have to accept that your narrative will always be that of an outsider. Sometimes a privileged or particularly well-documented outsider; but it won’t be 100% accurate. It doesn’t mean it’s worthless, it doesn’t mean it can’t be good; but it does mean you have to be aware of the issues in writing outsider narrative (mostly that a lot of other people have been doing it badly, badly wrong over decades); and thus be very careful of what you put on the page.
You might get called on what you wrote; you might be accused of getting things wrong. This is the frustrating part, because there really isn’t any other answer that you can give but “sorry, will do better”, even if you think the other person’s experience isn’t “representative” (whatever that hoary term means). You basically aren’t speaking in a position of authority about the culture, even if you researched it to death. (that’s the bit I struggle most with, incidentally. But I totally understand where it’s coming from).
But, honestly, when I see the mistakes that piss off people like requireshate, it starts with very basic stuff like getting names wrong, or over-exoticising the everyday. When I read a story about Vietnam or France, most of the stuff that makes me want to throw it at the wall is on the same basic level of wrong names, followed by wrong mindsets (I once read a story in which a 17th-Century Vietnamese struck his father and didn’t feel remorse about it. Not likely unless we’re talking psychopath). The mindset is a surprisingly faily one: people from a different culture are going to have vastly different values and assumptions, and you just can’t transplant, say, a modern British person and pass them off as a Vietnamese just through a little change of costumes! You have to understand what makes a culture’s bedrock, what is likely to make people tick, what they’re likely to value and hate–different cultures have radically different axes. To take just one example, the quintessential Confucian male is the scholar with great literary talent, wearing his hair long (because cutting one’s hair was a Barbarian thing), and not hesitating to weep tears when parting from friends. This is a far cry from the male ideal in, say, mainstream US society, where weeping is seen as a very girly thing, and there is deep-seated suspicion of people who are too smart.
And, finally, when you’re done writing your short story or book, get someone from said culture to read it; several someones if you can, that you can trust to give you an honest opinion of where you might have screwed up (always useful to not only have several pairs of eyeballs, but several people from different points of view within the culture can help identify issues).
Ekaterina: Also, something Western writers often overlook or are not terribly concerned about: even though you are not speaking from the position of the authority, as Aliette said, you WILL be perceived as an expert and an authority of a foreign culture you write about. And that’s a serious risk.
Joyce: I would like to follow up on Aliette’s point: Do ask people from that culture to have a look through/critique/beta-read the story. Please, please, please, do it.
Rochita: Excellent pointers. And take note of the pointer where Aliette says that if someone says you’re doing it wrong from the reference point of their own experience, then you as an outsider writer just have to accept it and apologize or determine to try better/fail better. It bewilders me when people get defensive about criticisms leveled at their outsider work because isn’t that to be expected? I mean, as writers we already know that when we put something out there, not everyone is going to love it. That is just asking for the impossible. And that someone bothers to point out the fail is a sign that they wanted you to try harder or at least there was/is an expectation that you can do better than that.
Ekaterina: Another point is that the insiders will disagree. Some will like it, some won’t, and some will hate it because it is by an outsider. And the lesson for the writer there is not to say “Well, screw it, haters gonna hate, I’ll just write whatever because you cannot please anyone”. You’re still responsible for doing as good a job as you can. And accepting that your best might not be good enough for some people, and their opinions are also valid. Don’t trot out the natives who loved your work, don’t tell people who dislike it that they’re wrong because another person from the same culture liked it. So really, if you want approval, stay out of other people’s cultures. Nations won’t get together to sign waivers that say that you are free to appropriate whatever and no one can say anything about it ever. People will be angry, and they will be right to be angry. If it upsets you, reconsider your motivation.
Joyce: I agree with Ekaterina’s points here as well.
Aliette: Yup, definitely agree!
Rachel: As the token westerner…
It’s interesting to me that outsiders get so frustrated with the idea that insiders will disagree with each other about what constitutes a good representation. (In my experience, the same dynamic occurs along other axes of privilege as well.) Writers understand that when they are writing, for instance, a character, not all of their readers are going to agree with each other. Readers aren’t a monolith. If you can understand that two American white dudes can disagree on whether a character is well-written, then theoretically you can understand that two people from a non-Western culture can disagree on how well the representation is done.
Writers are also–well, I hope they’re also–prepared for the idea that no matter how much energy they put into making a piece of work as beautiful and wonderful as they can, people are still going to criticize it. For some reason, that understanding gets churned under as soon as the issues in question carry sociological weight; there seems to be a feeling that research or good intent should insulate the writer from criticism.
Most writers I know have prepared themselves for being critiqued about character, etc. When privileged people take on writing about people from non-privileged populations, they need to be prepared for that level of critique, too. It may be more heated, but the stakes are also higher.
I hope that writers who ask other people to beta-read their stories do so with care and concern for the people on whom they are imposing. Nisi Shawl recommends in Writing the Other that one should offer a meal or at least a drink. If you’re in a reciprocal critique relationship with someone, or hope to establish one, that’s one thing. If you’re talking to someone with whom you have a prior relationship, that’s another. If you are approaching someone you don’t know, it’s vital to bear in mind that you are asking for a favor, and to remember reciprocity.
Speaking as a western writer, and as someone who has attempted to engage in writing with other kinds of privilege, I am inclined to agree that it’s inescapable that a privileged person will write a narrative that is rooted in their privilege. One can minimize exoticism, I hope, but I don’t think it’s possible to erase it.
As a writer of science fiction, particularly, though, I see myself as having an obligation to present a future that is, as Joyce says, for everyone. As I should have said in the other roundtable, despite the American propensity (including mine) toward tunnel vision, reality is global, and (barring certain speculative scenarios), the future should be global or globally influenced as well. I think there’s an obligation for Western writers who work within science fiction to engage with both western and non-western cultures. Otherwise, we do end up with white-washed (western-washed) futures and I think that the effect of this on the cultural imagination is wholly negative; the future isn’t just for white westerners. I think it’s a particularly pernicious form of erasure.
Obviously, the tunnel vision problem can, to some extent, be fixed by providing more works in translation, and by providing greater publishing access to non-western writers, both those who write in English and those who don’t, but I also think that the western imagination of the future itself needs to be adjusted.
Honestly, I think part of the problem with Americans writing about non-western cultures-or reading about them, or engaging with work written within those contexts–is that we hardly talk about colonialism at all; it’s a tabooed subject, but I don’t think one can really understand the global political context without an understanding of colonialism.
Aliette: I agree… to some extent. That’s another point I wanted to bring up: we’ve been focusing on narratives exclusively or quasi-exclusively set in other countries so far, but SF has a habit of large-scale narratives set all over the world. Well. All over the Western world. It is very problematic when the future space stations are manned only by white people, the future of the world decided jointly by America and Europe, and the non-Western countries are presented as hell-holes of poverty only fit to escape from. (though we can argue about the very notion of having a large-scale and global setting and deciding the future of the world, which feels a tad imperialistic to me…).
That said, for me, it rejoins some of the comments we’ve been making on different types of narratives: it would definitely be better to have visions of the future coming out of the Western Anglophone tradition that are genuinely multicultural, but having other narrations from non-Western countries would, I think, present radically different pictures of the future, and alleviate the issue of tunnel vision sometimes found in (Western, American) SF books. The best cure for tunnel vision is openness of mind
There is also a big problem with colonialism here in France. It is pretty much never talked about in polite society, and glossed over in school by saying “we did some morally reprehensible things, but it’s OK because we brought the gift of civilisation to the colonised countries”. The extent of the reprehensible things (destruction of said local civilisation, widespread repression, imposition of foreign ways of living and inferiority complexes) is just never brought up at all. I once started to talk about how France broke Vietnam by colonising it and separating it into three entities just as it was becoming a country, and other French people told me to stop–I can stop, sure, but it’s still true! (and don’t get me started on the “gift of civilisation” thing…)
From comparing notes with the UK (where I lived for a while), I suspect there’s a big tendency in the Western world to say that colonialism is over and done with, and that there is thus no need to talk about it or address it. Which is… disingenuous, annoying, and harmful because it perpetuates colonialist myths about the past and the present.
Joyce: Why is colonialism a taboo subject? Is it because as Aliette has said, nobody wanted to talk about the “reprehensible things”? Westerners have to confront this particular demon if they want to really understand what’s going on. To say that it’s “over and done with” is just ignorance and damaging.
Aliette: speaking only for France, I think we’re very bad at dealing with our demons. There’s been a lot of self-examination going on in the wake of WWII (and over the fact a lot of French people were collaborators), but I highly suspect this is because the faction that came out ahead in France fought collaborators–so we don’t have to admit, per se, that the *official* government sanctioned anything that was going on during WWII. Same thing applies to colonisation and its legacy; there’s no examination of the fact that the French government and the French people were arrogant enough to carve out huge chunks of countries and mostly ignore the people who were there in the first place; and are responsible for a lot of the current problems plaguing the developing world.
Rachel: In the United States, we pretend that colonialism is something that other countries did and do not acknowledge the ways in which it influenced our global positioning.
Aliette: bringing up another subject… Should we discuss the issues associated with genre definition and genre narratives? I have the feeling that “this story isn’t SFF” is very often used as an argument to dismiss non-Western SF on the grounds that it doesn’t adhere to a mostly Western definition of SFF–like having no novum, not being “realistic”, not having enough “science” or “defined rules of magic”. (it’s also used to dismiss women writers from SF, but that’s another kettle of fish altogether!)
There is a twin issue, which is the other problem Rochita raised: different cultures have different values and different narratives, and there is thus a tendency for the field to tell non-Western writers that their writing is flawed; that their narratives don’t deliver a satisfying ending, their characters are too passive; their story structures are weak (or too convoluted): in other words, to hold everyone to a narrow definition of story, very largely elaborated in the US/Western Anglophone world.
What do people think?
Joyce: I think it all ties in with that mindset of the non-Western writer being ‘inferior’. That’s one dangerous (colonized) mindset.
Aliette: Yes, colonisation v2.0.
Rochita: Yes. I remember a conversation I had with Chris Beckett at my first Eastercon where Chris was asking me if there were any SF narratives in The Philippines. I had been doing a lot of reading into native folktales and native myths, and I told Chris about certain stories that struck me as having a particular SF flavor. For instance, there is a story where a woman is carried away to the Skyworld in a basket. I could see the basket as a metaphor for flying saucer and the visitors from the Skyworld as possible aliens or future beings from the same world. But because these stories are not told in what we define or recognize as SF language, a reader used to the Western narrative would probably not identify it as SF.
I believe that we, as writers in the act of decolonizing, seek to break the expectations that are placed on our SF as we try to reconcile history and heritage and the way we look at SF. I read Aliette’s stories and I can see how this is a story that is uniquely Aliette and uniquely SF because it does not always conform to the SF narrative. The expectations of Western SF are very particular so much so that if we bring stuff to the table that just doesn’t compute with that expectation, the work we produce is shunted off as “oh it’s fantasy in space” or some such thing.
For me, the beauty of being a non-western writer is this: I don’t feel constricted by the demands of existing SF, because I do not see the body of Western SF as being the only true SF. My input into the great SF conversation is to say: look, I know you think of SF that way, but just put yourself in my shoes and try to see through my eyes because I am trying to show you what SF looks like from my point of view.
There was a time that I did feel pressured to conform, but I soon realized my inability to be truly creative inside those strictures. I believe SF as a genre is one that means for its inhabitants to be constantly trying the boundaries, shaking up conventions, and turning expectation on its head. So, to me the unexpected narrative is more beautiful because it expresses this spirit of openness. It’s frustrating when we get told that our characters aren’t proactive enough of they aren’t saving themselves or that things just happen. It’s like the colonizers telling the village people: Look, your Mumbaki, he doesn’t fit in with our model of what Christianized people should be like.
If we were equal, we wouldn’t have to be worried about our stories not conforming to narrative or fitting into the set paradigm.
requireshate: With regards to being sellable and marketable–that requires playing to the western gaze, making your culture accessible to western readers, giving them a channel for literary tourism. Another tool of imperialism, frankly.
Rochita: True. In a sense that’s like selling your soul. <g> I don’t think it’s sustainable and in the end, I don’t believe it makes for good fiction.
Joyce: Ditto on “tool of imperialism”. It hurts the non-Western writer in the end.
Ekaterina: Cultural colonialism, again — only certain kinds of narratives are acceptable. And Western readers and writers often forget that this is not a symmetrical situation! American culture as filtered through Hollywood/major book releases is so ubiquitous everywhere, they shape narratives all over the world. So it’s not only non-Western writers not being translated into English but also a form of cultural genocide where intrusions of Western narratives everywhere reshape stories as well. It’s such a self-perpetuating machine that feels very powerful. I mean, I have no idea how to deal with something so huge.
Aliette: *nods* I agree with pretty much everything; and I wish I had a solution, but like Ekaterina I find the whole issue a bit daunting. Very huge and very pervasive–and so very insidious.
Rochita: I’d like to share something from the Babaylan Files. Conversations-signs and symptoms of the decolonized Filipina in the US. My observation of American/European culture is how there is a very strong “I” orientation. Societies are individualistic and this also shows in the narratives that we get from the West. In returning to the indigenous, there is a stronger focus on community: we have the narratives of extended families, the strength of women bonded together, the role of culture bearers and the consciousness of history, which not all western writers are aware of, but which I believe the non-western writer is more keenly aware of. I’m sorry that I can’t point to a specific article as I didn’t realize we’d be having this conversation when I read it, but I remember this article that said reading history and getting very angry are the first steps towards decolonization. <g>