Monday Original Content: A Round Table on Australian SF with Gillian Polack, Simon Brown, Yaritji Green and Tessa Kum.
By Kaaron Warren
Australians have a long history of Science Fiction and Fantasy literature. May Gibbs’ wrote Snugglepot and Cuddlepie in 1918. These famous gumnut babies and their mortal enemies the Banksia men are part of our cultural heritage, as are the dreamtime stories of indigenous Australians, the ghost stories from China, Vietnam and Japan and the cultural ‘baggage’ all of us bring to the country.
The writer and editor Gillian Polack wanted to look at this through an Australian speculative fiction prism, so gathered short stories from Australian writers in an anthology Baggage, out soon from Eneit Press.
As Gillian Polack says in her introduction to the book: “None of us travel lightly, although the stories we use to explain our lives help us think we do, sometimes. We all have cultural baggage and emotional burdens. We bring with us lack of understanding, death, sorrow, homesickness, loneliness, feeling alien. Underneath this bleak surface, there’s a great deal that’s heart-warming. Birth, discovery, love and learning.”
I asked Gillian and three of the contributing authors appearing in Baggage to talk about how their cultural backgrounds affected their work.
Question 1: How does your cultural background affect your writing? How does the culture you’re living in now affect your work?
Gillian: My cultural background affects everything. I’m a minority of a minority (Australian Jewish since the mid 19th century on my father’s side and since early 20th century on my mother’s – most Australian Jews come from more recent stock and are less English in culture), which means I’m always aware of how I differ from everyone else. I joke about not having a Fiddler on the Roof background at all, but it’s more complicated than that. And, of course, my training means that I analyse how these things happen and what they mean almost incessantly. This means that I write using the same ingredients as most other Australian writers, but using a slightly different palette.
The big difference is that, for me phrases like ‘white bread’ and ‘ethnic’ and even “WASP/C” are not useful signposts. Everyone has ethnicity in every place I write about, whether it’s a Canberra streetscape or on a distant planet in a far future. There’s no off-switch for cultural background in my worlds. No-one is neutral. I have to design pasts and family histories for every single character: I have to know how they eat at table and what sort of stride they take down the street.
It’s only recently, in fact, that I discovered that many writers have off-switches for ethnicity. Natural default positions into which most of their characters fall. That the only characters who have clear cultural development are the disadvantaged ones or the special ones. I find this very sad. I can’t imagine a world where most people are assumed to have a monotone simple heritage. For me, half the fun of writing comes in nuancing backgrounds and knowing where all my people come from and then letting them loose.
Simon: I think 90% of any affect is subconscious and subsequently hard to gauge, but the way I think, organise, analyse and use information, the way I view and categorise the world, is ruled by a huge set of cultural assumptions. As well, being part of what was until recently the dominant (and often dominating) English-speaking and Western-oriented world, meant I was surrounded by false horizons, and anything beyond was faint at best and invisible at worst.
Living in Thailand means I now see the world from a different perspective, although it too has its own assumptions which influence the way I interact with people – not only those I meet in real life, but those I meet in the fiction I read and the fiction I write. Accepted history, any culture’s biggest assumption, is now so flexible that trying to understand it is like trying to grasp a cut snake.
For me, another quandary is whether or not my growing awareness of my cultural bias produces any significant difference in that bias, or willingness to change it. I’m not suggesting I have to change it – cultural bias is not in itself a negative or positive thing – but now I live with a great deal less certainty about the world and my place in it.
Tessa: I am half-Chinese, half-White Australian, and it took me a long time to realise that wasn’t a normal or occasionally even an accepted thing. I grew up in a neighbourhood that was middle-class and white. Being surrounded by it, going to school with it, on the inside I’m also middle-class and white, albeit with cool and funky Chinese traits lurking about subversively. But it takes most people a while to see that while I look Otherish (from both Chinese and White Australian perspectives), and I have a fair whack of Otherish to me, I’m mostly Majority. It’s that schism between how I view myself and how others view me from which my sense of my cultural position stems.
A trend I noticed in my writing was a fair proportion of my protagonists were outcasts and loners. I thought that was simply me being unconsciously lazy until I attempted to conceive of a character that came from a cultural background comprised wholly of the majority. I’ve yet to successfully pin down such a character. There are assumptions that don’t even leave the unconscious which I cannot even conceive of.
I think it is easier to imagine what it is to be outcast, than what it is to belong.
In addition to my own mixed background, Australia is something of a melting pot for hundreds of cultures from around the world, and I take this variety for granted. This manifests in my writing in an almost lazy manner as well, to the point where I don’t think about reaching out an inserting a different flavoured detail or name to contrast all the details and names that have come before it, entire civilisations I will not flesh out as for the purpose of the story they are not required to be. They exist purely to provide the texture of a wider and eternally surprising world.
I suppose my personal cultural baggage has taught me that we are judgmental creatures, and the best of us understand that judgments can and regularly do need revising. There will always be something you cannot understand, and therefore always more to learn.
Which is a fine thing.
Yaritji: I am Yankunytjatjara, Djaru, Irish, and Australian. I live within the grey zone of two cultures – Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.
I have written this doorstopper of a fantasy based on dreaming entities from the Yankunytjatjara side of the family. I wrote the bulk of it while studying a Bachelor of Creative Arts (Creative Writing) at Flinders University. The degree I did allowed me to choose the topics I wrote my assignments on, and through my studies I came across this thing called copyright: a strange and wonderful thing which is good for the western world but does not fully protect the creative and intellectual rights of Indigenous Australians. We are the world’s oldest surviving culture yet we often find ourselves on the back foot playing catch up to legislation and policies that often were not explained (if explained at all) until too late and that does not address or cover Indigenous copyright or ownership principles.
So back to this copyright thing. Indigenous copyright is conceived as a heritage that is passed down; you learn the stories of the land and its inhabitants so that you can pass it down to the next generation. Our stories also have borders; we can own a story up to a certain landmark and then the neighbouring community owns the story from that landmark onwards. Some stories or characters can be shared between nations. However with the westernised concept of copyright, ownership generally goes to one person/corporation. Then once the copyright holder dies copyright remains in place for 50 years then it becomes public domain: then anyone can use it.
So back to my doorstopper, it is sitting there, waiting. It sits there wondering if it might ever get out into the world. Sure, I could make some quick money by getting it published. Use the ‘exotic other’ of my Indigenous culture, my ‘exotic other’ Indigenous name, my western knowledge and my western networks to get this story out there and milk it for all its worth. But at what cost? I’m not prepared to sell out my community’s heritage. With Australian copyright laws the way they are, the cost is too great; it takes too much from my people.
As far as how the culture I’m living in now affects my work, I am careful about what I write. I speak to my Elders. I share what I am going to write about. I had this idea, I thought was wonderful, so I shared the basics with family and other Indigenous writers but after a discussion it turned out that some parts of my idea would conflict with culture. So I thought, okay, I can’t do that but I can still do this, this and this, and my story will still have strength without selling out. Everything is about respect. Respect for culture. Respect for others. Respect for myself. If I can’t respect my culture then I have no respect for myself. It may be a different story if I wrote outside of Speculative Fiction. I wouldn’t have to be so careful – well other than, you know, avoiding being libellous. I want to write the stories I want to read, stories my community might want to read.
Question 2. Tess’s comment about the broad cultural mix in Australia is a good one. Do you think this gives Australian writers a broader range of characters to work with?
Gillian: It’s the same number of characters, but potentially wider and more interesting choices for those characters. The trick is in that word ‘potentially’. We all spend large chunks of our lives within our own heads. Everything is coloured by our own vision and our own background.
Whether or not we can use people quite unlike ourselves culturally with anything like authenticity depends on how far we can reach outside ourselves. Simon’s point was telling in this respect: he possibly didn’t know just how far he could reach until he did so.
Brian Wainwright (who writes terrific historical fiction, always with women as the main character) has said more than once that it’s just another aspect of the challenge of writing a novel to write a strong character of the opposite sex. The same goes for other cultures.
I really have to add that I’m as guilty as the next person in limiting characters to my comfort zone. I’ll write weak women and whingeing women but I’m uncomfortable writing stupid women. I’m also not comfortable with writing different dialects. These limits we carry round with us restrict our capacity to make more interesting choices about our characters’ lives.
The bottom line is that it’s not how amazingly culturally varied Australia is, but how we as individual writers understand cultures and deal with them.
Simon: No. I think anyone who’s read widely will have no problem creating believable characters from different backgrounds.
Yaritji: A writer can write any character of any heritage into their work. But can they make a character of a different heritage to their own, ‘real’? Can the writer understand why a particular culture acts the way they do? Can they see history from a different perspective? I think if a writer can see to the truth of a character, and avoid one dimensional stereotypes, they could write from any heritage. However in today’s environment, minority cultures have experienced past literary portrayals which did not even begin to describe the essence of their culture. It is no wonder that today these minority cultures want a greater control of who is writing about them, and how this is done.
Question 3. I’m interested in Simon’s comment about history and how it changes depending on where you live. Do you have to actively think about changing the way your characters view history in order to separate them from yourself?
Gillian: Unless I’m going to write a character who is a professional historian of exactly the same kind as me, none of my characters are going to view history the way I do. Also, it’s easier to keep my history-brain out of my fiction than to translate the burden of it into something shaped like a regular narrative.
Having given those caveats, I suspect that I always take on board how my characters think of the past and of history. I don’t even do it at a conscious level, mostly. When someone asks me, though, I know.
Simon: I’m not sure this question is separate from the more general one of how different characters are from the author who creates and describes them. One of the most frustrating problems I have with some criticism is the way a few critics/readers think a character’s background/prejudice/opinion in some way reflects the author’s background/prejudice/opinion. The reason most of us write fiction, I think, is to imagine ‘the other’, for lack of a better and more precise term: other people, other landscapes, other times, other cultures, etc, some of which have never existed except in the writer’s mind.
Yaritji: In any story the main character has to overcome a problem of some sort – if they don’t well it is going to be one boring story that only a mother can love.
History should be important to any writer. The past can help us to understand how we got to where we are now. For example, look at Australian History – originally we were the dumping ground for the ‘UK crims’ and then we got the others who came over to make a better life for themselves and their families. This history was what I was taught in primary school. However this was one side of history, the side of history I found myself standing in was completely different. My people, Indigenous Australians, were here first, we had our culture, our laws, our way of life. We were forced to conform to another way of life through dispossession, massacres, rapes, ‘Stolen Generation’ and so forth.
Quite an ugly side of history that the wider Australian community would like to keep in the past, let alone be told that due to the treatment of Indigenous Australians throughout history, the non-Indigenous Australians have given themselves the privileged position within a country that was not theirs to begin with. Everyone in the Australian community is shaped by their collective history.
Okay, so how do I separate myself from my characters, with respect to history? I don’t. For years I’ve learned to live within two cultures, two very different perspectives of history. I draw from the two sides of history I’ve learned: one from the Australian education system, the other from the Indigenous community. You can’t have just one side. You have both. You need the good and the bad of both sides. Because really, no matter what side of history you stand on, human desires are very similar – we want to be loved and love in return, we want to provide for ourselves and our families (food, clothing, a home, access to education/information/resources). The question is do we obtain what we need or take what we want? All history does is show us what happened yesterday, and what we do today defines tomorrow’s history. This is the same for the characters we write.
Question 4. Gillian talks about the ‘fall-back cultural position’. How can we avoid this in our fiction?
Gillian: I don’t think we can avoid it. Novels are based on us sharing some of these with others. However, we can control our use a bit more and reduce some of the negatives. We can learn about our own background and find out what our assumptions are. We can watch for recurring patterns in our own fiction and in others’.
Simon: To start with, you don’t have to avoid it. It’s just important you’re aware of it, so you can avoid it if you want to.
Yaritji: Isn’t the ‘fall-back cultural position’ something people do no matter where they come from or what their heritage is? People write from what they know and understand from their own perceptions on life and the people around them. I don’t think I use a ‘fall-back cultural position’ with my fiction, unless I’m asked to use some of my heritage.
Question 5: The rules and boundaries are so clear for Indigenous writers writing about their own culture. Are there any rules of usage you follow in your writing?
Gillian: There are some areas where I tread very carefully. The Shoah is one of them.
Simon: For my part there are no rules or boundaries in writing. I don’t mean I’ll willingly offend anyone, but if it serves the story then I’ll take from whatever culture I want. The world’s stories are my stories. Ultimately, leaving aside the question of transgressing someone’s cultural borders (because there is no answer to it), a writer has to serve the story first and last.
Gillian Polack is a writer and historian. Her latest novel, Life Through Cellophane, was recently released by Eneit Press. She is the editor of Baggage. Her main webhaunts are her website (http://www.gillianpolack.com) and her blog (http://gillpolack.livejournal.com)
Simon Brown has been writing for nearly 40 years. He lives in Thailand with his wife and two children.
Tessa Kum is a graduate of the Clarion South Writers Workshop, editorial assistant for Weird Tales, and assistant editor for the Best American Fantasy series.
Yaritji Green: My mother is Yankunytjatjara and my father is Jaru. Now you know who I am and where I come from (you never know we could be related). I am a librarian at a university library and two days a week I work for the Black Words research community, in AustLit – The Australian Literature Resource (http://www.austlit.edu.au). Black Words indexes the works and biographies of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers and storytellers.
Kaaron Warren’s first novel Slights was published by Angry Robot Books in 2009. She has a story in Baggage about a man named after a lost village, and a story in the Apex Book of World SF about censorship and propaganda.