Russian author Boris Strugatsky, 79, died November 19, 2012 in St. Petersburg, Russia from heart problems and pneumonia. Strugatsky and his older brother Arkady (died 1991) were famous for their collaborations. They are easily the best known Russian SF writers worldwide, and were considered major writers in their homeland, though their sometimes satirical work often brought them into conflict with the government of what was then the Soviet Union. The Strugatsky Brothers wrote dozens of SF novels, stories, and collections together, most famously Piknik na obochine (Roadside Picnic, 1972), a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award that was adapted for film by Andrei Tarkovsky as Stalker (1979). After his brother’s death, Strugatsky published two books under the pseudonym S. Vititsky.
Boris Natanovich Strugatsky was born April 14, 1933 in Leningrad, and remained in Leningrad during the siege in WWII. He attended Leningrad State University, where he studied astronomy, graduating in 1955. He worked as an astronomer and computer scientist until becoming a full-time writer in 1966.
Larry Yudelson sent us this link, From Flavorwire: Trippy ’70s Soviet Space Magazine Covers.
If you like these, also check out our earlier post on Chinese space art.
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>
SF is the literature of the imaginary. How can the imaginations of writers from outside the Western narrative contribute new perspectives to this literature? – Fabio Fernandes
Fabio Fernandes has recently given Locus a prompt for a round table, above. The resultant round table discussion was notable for a near complete absence of non-Westerners – which is, in itself, a telling comment. Fabio is currently fund-raising for a new anthology of post-colonial science fiction.
With the lack of non-Westerners involved in the Locus roundtable, we’ve decided to run our own. The resultant conversation is fascinating and far-ranging. We are posting the first part today, with the second due tomorrow.
Participating: Aliette de Bodard (France), Joyce Chng (Singapore), the controversial blogger known as Requires Hate (Thailand), Rochita Loenen-Ruiz (Philippines/The Netherlands), and Ekaterina Sedia (Russian/USA).
Joining them in Part 2 will be Rachel Swirsky (USA).
We asked them: How do you feel about this idea of “Western narratives” and the problems of inclusion within the sf “field”? for that matter, what are the problematics of some Western writers tackling non-Western settings for their novels, and do they result in exoticism? Fabio is currently raising funds for a fiction project on science fiction and colonialism. How do you see the two intersecting – both in fiction and in the world of publishing today?
Joyce: That is a lot to cover. I am sure others would chip in regarding the problematics of Western writers writing non-Western settings for their novels. Exoticism, cultural appropriation… are the mine-fields they have to tackle.
I encountered such an issue when I wrote “The Basics of Flight”, a steampunk novella featuring a white protagonist. I was told that my writing seemed forced and unnatural, the white characters stilted – and I felt the implicit assumption that an Asian like me shouldn’t be writing white characters. Therein lies the problem. Am I supposed to write solely Asian characters? And given my postcolonial background (Singapore was a British colony), am I supposed to write about a) angst regarding my neither-or-there or b) mother-daughter relationships (ala Joy Luck Club)?
Being a postcolonial writer both labels and pigeonholes me in that category. But I cannot deny the fact that I was born in Singapore and schooled in an education system left behind by the British. I am also the descendant of immigrants from China. I grew up thinking that I spoke fluent English and bam! the harsh reality hit when I ventured out into the real world. I am still identified by my skin color and that the assumption that I should be speaking English as a second or third language.
I support Fabio’s project and even wrote a blog post for it. It is difficult – sometimes, most of the time – to discuss about me being a Southeast Asian/Chinese SFF writer. People in the West tend to have fixed ideas of how and what we should look like or behave. The East is exotic. The East is mysterious. The East is hot jasmine tea/white rice/chopsticks and stir-fries. The East is martial arts and kung fu. The East is the Yellow Peril. The East is scary, but exhilarating.
We are not all of these. To us, they are commonplace, part of our lives. To us, it’s how we grew up and will continue teaching our children about our cultures and traditions. These “Western narratives” hurt us at the end and have damaged perspectives regarding non-Western narratives. The dominance of Western narratives has silenced non-Western voices, reducing us to nothing else but something out of a travel guide. Unfortunately, Western publishing continues to perpetuate such misconceptions and have created problem after problem for people outside the (white) fence.
I have always feel that SF is universal, kind of like Star Trek’s philosophy of IDIC. Oh I am proven so wrong at times. What I have encountered are clear instances where only a select type (white, male, but mostly white) is allowed to write SF. Only that select type is allowed to publish.
My question: Is diversity only lip service?
And as for postcolonial SF – I have written – and am writing – worlds where humankind has colonized and terraformed planets. Yet my roots weave their way in. Instead of fighting the indigenous/alien race, the characters form an alliance. However, the alliance is often fraught with concerns, because as colonizers, something will be lost in translation, no matter how well-meaning or well-intentioned they are. How about the voices of the colonized? I am learning about that myself, about the deep-seated issues within me. Have I internalized the colonizer’s point of view? Why am I behaving and reacting like this? What space does the colonized occupy? Is the space freely given or is it a privilege?
I recognize my ability to write as a privilege and that my Anglo-Saxon education has given me that opportunity to write. For that, I am grateful and humbled and terrified. I think about class issues. I worry about gender issues. What kind of legacy has my postcolonialness given me? What am I giving my daughters at the end?
requireshate: Here’s something knee-jerky (but, I think, not unjustified): I don’t think it’s possible for white westerners to write about any non-dominant cultures–and this includes, for example, Eastern Europe–without being exotifying, appropriative, and perpetuating western/first-world supremacy. Ekaterina Sedia articulated it fantastically here: http://worldsf.wordpress.com/2011/02/03/guest-post-seeing-through-foreign-eyes-by-ekaterina-sedia-author-week-1/ Specifically that an outsider looking in will seize on elements an insider takes for granted. Something that’s everyday to me will be shiny, exotic, and unusual to a westerner: and it is this thing that they will grab and run away with, hooting that it’s beautiful and awesome and so weird, as one might do over an alien artifact. And that’s what it will be to such a person–alien. I’ve seen this over and over even from writers who mean well, who have lived in Thailand, but who nevertheless continue to write and think in the western outsider mode, in short owing their allegiance to their culture, readers who think and consume and behave as they do.
Another particular I’ve to deal with is: there are very few Thai writers working in the Anglosphere, and as far as I’m aware, none at all working in western SFF particularly (apart from maybe Somtow, of whom the less is said the better). Due to this lack, it’s a challenge to be asked “which Thai writer would you recommend?” (often with an implied “so I can fact-check authenticity against this project about Thailand I’ve got”): I very simply am unable to point to many writers. My culture is presented to the western hegemony almost entirely through the eyes of tourists, the eyes of outsiders. This is why I don’t believe that a love of my culture can be expressed by writing about it in your fantasy or SF or whatever–that way lies appropriation; a genuine love can only be expressed by learning my language and translating existing Thai works. As Joyce says, our voices have been silenced, drowned out. More outsiders writing about Thailand? Not the thing we need, and far likelier to contribute to the problem than helping to alleviate it.
I want to respond to a few things Joyce brought up–the expectations for people like us to be exotic. I’m often questioned as to the authenticity of my identity, because to westerners I appear to be writing “just like them,” steeped in “North American culture” (when in truth I know almost nothing about North America!). This assumption comes about because the hegemony is so huge and pervasive that it becomes, itself, an invisible mass and the default assumption. Mostly, if you write in English and aren’t breaking into malapropisms or broken syntax constantly, you’re immediately assumed to be “one of them,” part of the western paradigm.
Aliette: I wouldn’t be quite as radical as requireshate, but I definitely think we need to differentiate between insider and outsider narratives–two modes of narration that come from vastly different backgrounds and vastly different concerns. I do think that, at the moment, the field a distinct tendency to laud outsider narratives as “authentic” (a fraught word I’ll come back to!) and to enshrine them as more valuable and valid than the insider ones.
I’m not saying that outsider narratives have no worth, or that it’s impossible to do them well (see below!); but I do think the current development is problematic on several levels.
There are lots of factors at play that explain why outsider narratives are more popular; but one of the main reasons is one of audience: as Ekaterina mentions in her blog post: at this junction in time, the dominant audience in the field is Western (of US/European culture), and outsider narratives have a better grasp of how to present (ie exotify) elements of a setting in a digestible manner for the mainstream (White) audience. This is very much regrettable, and I really do wish that people would stop using the word authenticity altogether, as it’s either used as an exclusionary factor, to police who within a community has the right to write about the culture (something I find utterly fraught with problems); or as a well-meaning but somewhat hollow reassurance that the writer’s world feels real (the only ones equipped to judge authenticity of, say, a story set in Brazil are Brazilian people, and I certainly would never dream of qualifying someone’s story set there with that word!).
The problem with this whole state of things, as has already been pointed out, is that if outsider narratives are enshrined and taken as gospel truth, then this not only drowns out insider narratives, but also makes them lose value when their writers are criticised for not adhering to the (sometimes harmful) clichés or exoticism perpetuated by the outsider narratives. Like Joyce and requireshate say, non-Western writers easily become accused of not being exotic enough–Vietnamese writers get accused of, say, not getting across the feel of Ho Chi Minh City because it doesn’t jibe with the exoticised description of the city some Westerner made. Indian people are told their stories set in Bangalore are not “authentic” enough because they don’t feature enough description and “sights and smells”–but really, when you’ve lived in a city your whole life, are you really going to pause and describe in minute detail every single fruit on the fruit-sellers’ stand?
Rochita: Oh, I have to laugh reading what Aliette is writing because I had to think of one instance where I critted a work of someone I was in a workshop with and being told that my insight couldn’t be right because history and reference books said it was so. This was on crit about a story which makes use of Chinese culture. Now, I am no expert in Chinese culture, but I did have a number of extended family (this is a very Filipino concept) who were part of the Chinese community and what was written just didn’t compute with what I knew or what I had absorbed of it. I shut up at that point because my immersion was more tribal and I found myself doubting my own experience of the culture.
Aliette: ha ha ha. I once had someone (non-Vietnamese) argue with me about how I’d got Vietnamese history all wrong because it was in the (American) history books. I’m much less pacifist than you, and I basically fought an urge to strangle the person at that point…
(the extended family is also a Vietnamese concept, I think–and one that is very lacking from a lot of genre books. I really should do stats on which protagonists have living parents and/or siblings, and move from there to uncles and aunts and parents’ friends…)
Ekaterina: Thank you guys for linking and mentioning my article. And yes, same experience with books about Russia by Westerners being lauded and preferred over Russian narratives. Russia does have a well-developed SF/F tradition, and it creates an interesting situation: when something DOES get translated into English (not too frequently, I may add), they are often chastised for not being rooted in their own culture enough — which is, not being exotic enough. Heck, I read reviews of my work when readers expressed disappointment that I missed a chance to teach Western audience about my culture. Because apparently it is my job to make Russia-based narratives as surface-alien as possible (inside, of course, they should speak to Western sensibility). Also, when Western writers choose Russia as their setting, they more often than not are unfamiliar with the existing Russian-language literature — that is, they write into the tradition they are not familiar with. They are writing into American/Western tradition, which presents its own narratives of Russia, and THIS is what feels authentic (I hate that word too) to the Western reader.
Rochita: For many writers coming from colonized nations, the act of putting words on paper is fraught with certain matters. In this, I speak from my own experience of Filipino literature, how it was taught to me and how I absorbed what Filipino literature means to the Filipino.
When I write SF, I am fully aware of the history of my people and our history of colonization. I carry this sensibility with me into my work and I see this as continuing on in a conversation with the poets and writers and activists who struggle against the impositions of colonization. At the same time, I hope to contribute to the ongoing conversation which leads to understanding between cultures.
I think that the non-western writer brings something different to the field of SF not just because of the insider perspective, but I also think it’s difficult to say that this is a true story of the culture without having been immersed in it yourself. But as Requires said, these things have been exoticised and appropriated so that the reader comes to expect the exotic and doesn’t understand why our stories don’t match preconceived ideas of how our stories should look like.
I admit to being automatically suspicious of work that is set in a non-dominant setting using non-dominant culture when the work is written by a writer from the dominant culture. I question the motivation of the work in the first place and until I find evidence of sincerity (it’s not just being used because it’s pretty but because it really is integral to the story) I tend to carry on being suspicious. I guess, this is my anti-colonialist bias setting in.
I have mentioned this to Aliette before and it is a concern that still plagues me because I do write mostly in the context of my own culture: I don’t want to play tourist guide to the reader and yet I also want to write about what is most beautiful and most precious to me. And that is my culture.
Regarding narratives: I want to point to Aliette’s post http://aliettedebodard.com/2011/08/31/on-the-prevalence-of-us-tropes-in-storytelling/
I think it’s very clear that a person coming from a colonized nation would have a very different perspective of story as compared to a person coming from a nation that has been the colonizer.
Rochita: I want to address something that was raised during the Locus Roundtable with regards to the effects of colonialism and how learning to write and to think in English has affected/influence the cultural narrative. There was also a comment made about the true narrative being only that which is translated from the original language into English.
I have issues with these statements because it negates the work of poets, writers, activists and artists who have struggled in order to reclaim culture. I was reading a book by Manuel Dulawan, probably the most prominent of Ifugao culturebearers, and he writes about how the imposition of the English language was part of the campaign to suppress/erase indigenous culture. In practice, the culture bearers have often been demonized (their rituals are anti-christian). That the rituals and the narratives of the original culture have been preserved speaks of the resilience of these culture bearers and of the people around them.
If we sat down and talked about colonialism and the resistance to colonialism, I could go on and on. <g>
Ekaterina: That English-language comment gave me pause too: in a general sense, we live in the world of cultural dominance of Anglophone cultures, English is the international language, and many people HAVE to speak it, and write in it. It’s a remarkable move, really: write in your own language, and we’ll ignore you; write in English and we’ll doubt your authenticity. Failure to acknowledge the cultural hegemony of the English language and WHY many non-Anglophone writers might choose to write in English is disingenuous. Not to mention, are we saying that only monolingual folks have a grasp of their own culture?
Joyce: Ironically, when I added in dialect or Mandarin Chinese as a form of pidgin in my SFF, I got comments stating they didn’t understand or that something was lost in translation.
By the way, a lot of postcolonial writers are able to code-switch. I do that a lot myself. I use English for communication but when I am at my parents’, I use Mandarin Chinese or Cantonese (for my mum – when I want to describe something, but only Cantonese could express it better).
Aliette: I code switch a lot too, but I wonder if it’s not a multilingual thing rather than a post-Colonial one ? (I do it between English and French at my parents’, with the odd smattering of Vietnamese for food items)
Rochita: I had to think about a comment my brother made when he my work. How reading the story and then coming across a word or a phrase that is so obviously Filipino to the Filipino reader gave him that jolt of recognition. And I think this is something people forget. Readers from non-western places read SF too. It’s not something that’s confined to the West.
requireshate: Aliette sez: “but really, when you’ve lived in a city your whole life, are you really going to pause and describe in minute detail every single fruit on the fruit-sellers’ stand?”
Yes, this very much. I become very impatient with this kind of writing by outsiders, and one particular book begins on this very note: at a fruit-seller’s stall! The description is of course of reeking durians. As well, white western writers are rarely charged with inauthenticity: outside of a charge from peculiar national-supremacist groups, no one’s likely to say a book is not “American enough” or “British enough” (unless perhaps it’s an American writing about the UK). There’s no obligation pressed upon a white westerner to pander, no expectation that what they write will be representative of so-and-so. There is no “single story” for them, as Chimamanda Adichie pointed out. They are under no pressure to sell their culture, and if they write something negative about say the white middle-class American life (or, indeed, a white American serial killer) it won’t be used against them or against their culture: nobody will say “Oh, what a shame it is that all young US men are serial killers!” to again paraphrase Adichie. They don’t have to think of what they write, or even how they conduct themselves, will shape outsiders’ view of all white westerners.
Joyce: THIS. I have folks remarking that Wolf At The Door isn’t Singaporean enough and that the descriptions of the city could well describe other cities in Asia, like Taipei. In other words, not authentic! I am not your travel guide, white reader. I do not want to educate you. I am not obligated to turn my novels into tourist attractions.
Rochita: Yes. This. You say it so very well. I had to think of how for most writers from the dominant (white/european) culture, commerciality of the work becomes a primary concern. Whereas for the non-white/non-western writer, there is a consciousness of expectation as well as awareness of the baggage you carry with you. Not that we aren’t thinking about the commercial aspect, but there are other things that supercede that concern.
To be continued in Part 2 Tomorrow!
AA: The Alchemy of Stone was about feminism, free will, class struggle, and religion, and The House of Discarded Dreams is a place where forgotten dreams fester and take on a life of their own.Heart of Iron released this past summer and I really enjoyed the creative descriptions and imagery while reading it. For those people who haven’t read it yet, what is it about?
ES: Ostensibly, it is about alternate history in which Russia and China (well, the Taipings) allied against Britain and the Ottoman Empire – and the plot involves our heroine, Sasha Trubetskaya, trying to forge this alliance with help from her indomitable aunt, some suspiciously politically acute fur traders, heretical hussars, and some well-known legendary characters, against meddling and resistance from the British Secret Service led by Dame Florence Nightingale. But I guess people will enjoy the book most if they don’t expect a heart-stopping adventure but rather meditation on nature of heroism, national identity, strength, and the role of embarrassment in world history. It’s a very geeky little book, so be warned! I even wrote a historical compendium for it – and you can find it here:
AA: What was the motivation for writing Heart of Iron?
ES: I already spent the advance! Joking aside, I wanted to write alternate history dealing with a place other than the US or Western Europe, and I wanted to address concerns different from the ones Western-focused alternate history explore. Here, we are not looking at manifest destiny, but rather at two countries in the grip of dramatic change (the Taiping Rebellion in China, the dramatic reformism following the success of the Decembrist Revoltin Russia), and at people who are trying to control the chaos around them out of the sense of self-preservation, not necessarily heroics. And as in all my books, I was interested in the themes of oppression and people living under oppressive rules – and still doing their best.
Ekaterina Sedia recently translated this delightful, non-existent table of contents for an Encyclopaedia of Feminism According to Harry Potter, compiled by Russian fans. We thought it was too good not to share!
Encyclopaedia of Feminism According to Harry Potter
The Practice of Female Separatism in Daily Life of Luna Lovegood
Hermione Granger on Liberal Feminism
Female Empowerment in Academia Through the Eyes of Minerva McGonagall
Women in Politics: The Dilemma of Dolores Umbridge
Women in the Military and Psychological Violence: The Case of Bellatrix Lestrange
Consequences of Limiting Abortion Rights: The Tragedy of Lily Potter
The Death Toll of Unpaid Labor: The Duel of Molly Weasley and Bellatrix Lestrange
Replication of Violent Family Practices: Family Strategies of Nymphadora Tonks
The Duality of Economic Strategies for Women: Narcissa Malfoy
The Internalized Misogyny Among Successful Women: Rita Skeeter
Woman as a Scapegoat in Political Processes: Marietta Edgecombe
Forced Marriage as a Conduit of Classism: Pansy Parkinson
Fatphobia: Millicent Bulstrode
Ridicule of Victims of Violence as a Form of Demonization: Moaning Myrtle
The Founders of Hogwarts, or Men are Always in Charge: False Equality
Hufflepuff and the “Virtue of the Working Class”: The Silent Majority
Cho Chang: The Relations with Racial and Ethnic Minorities as a Casual Entertainment
The Marriage of Ginny Weasley: “Woman Exchange”
Good Homosexual is a Well-Educated White Men with No Sexual Liaisons: Albus Dumbledore
Polyamory and Childfree Lifestyle — Self-Positioning of Bellatrix Lestrange
Ariana Dumbledore: Murder of a Disabled Person as a Social Necessity
Argus Filch: Even Harry and Ron Can Laugh at the Handicapped
Goblins: The Apotheosis of the British Antisemitic Tradition
Flitwick and Hagrid: Ethnic Minorities Will Always Clean Up After You, or Uncle Tom in Hogwarts
If the Protagonist is Fed, Slavery is Awesome: House Elves
Only Stupid Girls Fight Slavery
Hermione Granger: A Good Woman Defends Others’ Rights and Provides Others’ Lessons
Alcoholism and the Esoteric: Coping Mechanisms under Conditions of Discrimination
House Elves: Just Like Women, Only Ugly and Invisible
Pomona Sprout: Good Girls are Liked but not Noticed
Professor Vector, or Anonymity of Women in Mathematics
Poppy Pomfrey: a Subservient Suffragette, or the Outcome of Courses of Higher Women’s Studies in St Petersburg
Bellatrix Lestrange and Luna Lovegood: Psychiatric Disabilities and Ableism in Hogwarts
Luna Lovegood, Tom Riddle, Harry Potter: Good Children Don’t Get PTSD
Luna Lovegood: Forced Acceptance into the Family Strategies of Psychological Repression
Conventional Man is Allowed Anger but not Grief. Harry Potter: The Masculinity Trap
Remus Lupin and the “Good Cripple” Archetype
Rolanda Hooch: Professional Women’s Athletics as Deviation
Molly Weasley and Fleur Delacourt: Differentiation Between Women as a Tool of Oppression
2. Is African folklore an interest of yours? What made you decide to explore this for a fantasy novel? With themes of the lingering effects of colonialism at play in your book, what sorts of concerns did you have about cultural appropriation as you wrote it?
Yes, it is of great interest, along with other non-Western narratives. In all my books, I try to break away with the traditional linear three-part arc, so embracing a different tradition certainly gave me a good template of doing so. As for imperialism: I don’t think one can honestly write about the world today without talking about it. I mean, we grow coffee and cocoa where we grow it because of it – imperialism shaped the world, and going about as if it was just that brief phase that ended without any long-lasting effects is disingenuous, to say the least.
As for cultural appropriation, it’s a several-fold answer. It’s always a concern, sure. First, I was reluctant to use existing myths, so I used them very sparingly and in close consultation with Tait, the aforementioned friend. The myths that characters tell each other are all made up but within bounds of existing folkloric tradition (such as characteristics of animals) or literary ones (man-fish is a Zimbabwean urban myth of sorts, explored by Marechera, and one of Vimbai’s stories is a riff on Tutuola.) Europeans tend to be very liberal while “collecting” folklore and I tried not to do it – that is, I went by definition of creative transformation rather than mere copying as described in African customary laws folklore copyright protection (summary document here: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0012/001277/127784e.pdf).
Then, Vimbai herself is a cultural outsider to her parents’ tradition – that is, she is second generation and is culturally an American, with not as much insight into her parents’ culture as she would like. I would not be comfortable writing about Zimbabwean folklore from the insider perspective, because I am not an insider. I was careful to speak about the culture rather than for it, which I believe is a crucial distinction between talking about other cultures and appropriating them.
Finally, I do realize that my insight is limited, and the book is really much more about the immigrant experience – something I do know about first-hand. And this is something I spoke a lot to my friend about. He was very supportive of the book, but he also said, “You do realize that some Zimbabweans will not like this book because it was written by a white woman.” And yes, of course I do realize that, and you know what? It’s a valid position. I think it’s an important thing, to accept that you won’t have a unanimous approval, and to not be hurt about it. Westerners writing about other cultures either seek validation or just default to “haters gonna hate so screw them, I’ll write what I want” positions. So for me, I think it’s important to do one’s best, but not expect that everyone will love you for it. I mean, I myself am wary when Westerners write about my culture, so who am I to expect a different treatment? – read the full interview!
Over at SF Signal, Grady Hendrix talks about the history of Soviet science fiction films:
The titles are what grab you: I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen; Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel; Who Wants to Kill Jessie?; To The Stars By Hard Ways;Ferat Vampire; Test Pilot Pirxa; Ikarie XB-1. A heady combination of ESL literalism, proletarian bluntness and purple exploitation prose, who could come up with titles like these except a bunch of communists, caught between socialist worker’s heaven and the crass capitalist hell? And that’s exactly who made these movies – filmmakers from Czechoslovakia, Poland, East Germany, Estonia and the USSR back in the bad old days of the Cold War.
We’ve all already seen flotsam and jetsam from these flicks. Roger Corman was drawn to them by their polished special effects and sophisticated set design, and he hacked them into pieces, dubbed them into English and hung clunky AIP titles around their necks like leper’s bells: Voyage to the End of the Universe, Battle Beyond the Sun,Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, Queen of Blood. Titles that reek of colonization, conflict, feudalism and naked chicks in fur bikinis. The poetic romance of revolution, crushed beneath the bootheel of marketing. Fortunately, there are DVD boxed sets and retrospectives surfacing all the time, including a massive megalith of one right now in Toronto, but if you’re expecting these films to be square stories of space comrades mouthing absurd Marxist slogans you’re in for a surprise. These films traffic in more uncertainty, fear of dehumanization and vampire cars than anything the United States has ever produced. – continue reading.
Here’s the table of contents for new anthology The Immersion Book of Steampunk, edited by Gareth D. Jones and Carmelo Rafala and published by Immersion Press. International contributors include Aliette de Bodard, Jacques Barcia, Anatoly Belilovsky and Lavie Tidhar.
Table of contents:
- “Follow That Cathedral!” by Gareth Owens
- “The Machines of the Nehphilim” by James Targett
- “The Siege of Dr. Vikare Blisset” by Jacques Barcia
- “The Clockworks of Hanyang” by Gord Sellar
- “Cinema U” by G.D. Falksen
- “Kulterkampf” by Anatoly Belilovsky
- “Rogue Mail” by Toby Frost
- “Electrium” by Elizabeth Counihan
- “Leaves of Glass” by Lavie Tidhar
- “Memories in Bronze, Feathers, and Blood” by Aliette de Bodard
- “Empire of Glass” by Tanith Lee
- “Steam Horse” by Chris Butler
- “Professor Fluvius’s Palace of Many Waters” by Paul Di Filippo