Editorial: The Dilemma of the Term “World SF” Redux

Last year, I wrote an essay entitled The Dilemma of the Term “World SF” on my blog. Right now, a couple of people in the blogosphere feels indignant at Norman Spinrad’s latest column, “Third World Worlds”, and I bring up my previous essay because Spinrad’s editorial tackles some of the themes which I originally brought up. What gets lost in some of the rants is that Spinrad does bring up some important and valuable points. For example, he writes about American and British writers tackling foreign cultures in their fiction (and I’d like to add writers like Geoff Ryman and Paolo Bacigalupi to that list). In some cases, they work, while in others, they don’t. Whether it’s the former or the latter however, it begs the question: can writers like Mike Resnick and Paul McAuley and Ian McDonald be considered World SF writers?

There are several points in Spinrad’s essay that I find problematic but his column is an interesting exercise in discourse because, at the very least, he’s consistent. I don’t know Spinrad (whether personally or his work), but it seems to be that he’s operating from a cultural paradigm. Take for example this quotation of his that has drawn the ire of several people:

So, for now at least, and in the apparent absence of a significant body of science fiction written by born and bred Africans, this Caucasian American is probably the closest thing there is or has been to an African science fiction writer, with the exception of Octavia Butler. Who did write the same sort of thing, and did it well, and was Black to boot, but I use that politically incorrect word rather than “African American” because aside from her genetic heritage she was no more African than Mike Resnick.

People are interpreting this as Spinrad saying that Mike Resnick is African American due to his fiction (more so than Octavia Butler) but where I’m coming from, that’s not what he’s saying. It’s more of the reverse: Octavia Butler is American (and not African) because she grew up and was raised in America. There is some merit (but I’ll air the opposing paradigm later) to this line of argument. Take me for example: I’m genetically Chinese but was raised in Philippine culture. I consider myself more Filipino than Chinese. Or take South African writer Lauren Beukes (who is of French and Dutch descent). To quote her, in an interview I conducted last year:

In answer to your question, I think of myself as South African full stop. Those European ties are so old, so frayed, they’re not even a sepia photograph, they’re a faded oil painting dating back 350 years when my family first came to this country.

What Spinrad neglects, however, is the opposing paradigm, which shouldn’t easily be dismissed. It’s the classic argument of the expatriate: does Kaaron Warren stop being Australian just because she lived in Fiji for a time? Or our very own Lavie Tidhar, who has traveled all around the world (and is currently still seeking a home!), is less of an Israeli just because he doesn’t live in Israel? Or, following Spinrad’s line of thinking (growing up in the said country’s culture), doesn’t that qualify Tobias Buckell as a Carribean writer because he was born and raised in Grenada before moving to the US? And America has several writers who’ve traveled in their youth, whether it’s Jay Lake or Jeff VanderMeer.

Or let’s talk about me. Sure, I consider myself Filipino, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have anything to contribute to the Chinese experience. My Filipino life is different from the Filipino life of an American-Filipino, a Korean-Filipino, a Spanish-Filipino, etc. in much the same way that my Chinese experience is different from that of a Chinese living in mainland China vs. one living in Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, etc. My Chinese heritage, from genetics to the rituals we practice, does have an impact on me and who I am, even if I consider myself Filipino.

The problem with picking just one paradigm is that it’s reductionist. Butler is an African American writer of science fiction because of several factors. Yes, genetics plays a part, but so did her upbringing, even if she was raised in America. Just as there is no Platonic Filipino, there similarly is no Platonic American. There is no single true American experience, any more than there is a single American accent. America is a plurality of cultures: I visited L.A. and San Francisco and the Filipino-American culture in each place is different. How much more when we compare the Filipino-American experience of California vs. New York? Or perhaps the Chinese-American culture vs. Latino-American culture in Texas? There’s room for overlap but each one is also distinct. Butler is simultaneously an American and African writer, although it’s up to her where her as to where her ultimate loyalty lies, if such a choice was ever forced upon her (but that’s also faulty logic because just as American might have declared war on Iraq, not every American is anti-Iraq). The only honest answer I can give is that it’s complicated instead of a binary reply (and people are free to change their minds later on).

Another point that I want to argue with Spinrad is the way he breaks down culture into its component parts. Take for example this line:

With the exception of the Japanese, I at least, am at a loss to point to any science fiction that I know of that has evolved independently in non-European languages or cultures disconnected therefrom.

First off, it’s already difficult to separate the culture of a single nation. Now he’s including an entire continent, Europe, in his line of argument. If we’re just going that route, why don’t we ask the opposite question: Has there been any science fiction that has evolved independently of Indian languages or culture? How about Asia? (And I’d like to add that Palestine is in Asia, so when we’re talking about Christianity and the Bible, Asia has had a significant effect on European culture.)

The truth of the matter is, however, this is faulty logic. Each continent and culture has influenced others, whether on a major or minor scale. Can you imagine Chinese culture without India (goodbye Buddhism) for example? As science fiction fans, we all know about the Butterfly Effect and how this is one of the most overused tropes in time travel stories. How much more with real cultures and people?

Another problem is that while there are similarities between countries and cultures, that doesn’t mean they’re not distinct from each other. The Philippines for example was colonized by Spain. That doesn’t mean Philippine culture is the equivalent of Spanish culture. Nor does it mean that we’re the equivalent of another Spanish colony, like Mexico. So while there is some level of interdependence between cultural evolution–such as literature–it does not mean that just because that’s the case makes it less culturally unique. A concrete example of this is language: Filipino English is different from Indian English, Singaporean English, Korean English, British English, and American English. “Salvage” in Filipino English is slang for killing you indiscriminately and tossing your corpse into the river, the equivalent of “sleeping with the fishes” in The Godfather lingo. Clearly not in the same context as salvaging a sunken ship.

And of course, there’s all sorts of world science fiction out there–we’re just ignorant of it. Gord Sellar for example has this comment when it comes to Korean SF:

Korean SF is preoccupied with educational issues, to a degree that seems weird to a Western, in a way that reflects the society’s overwhelming and, to westerners, baffling preoccupation with education; it also seems, from what some Koreans describe and what little I’ve been able to read, to be less focused on problem-solving as an active, agency-driven process. Which also makes it hard to translate in a form that would make the text satisfying for most Western SF readers… we see deus ex machina where a Korean reader might see a happy ending that came the only way realistically imaginable.

Take my interview with Wu Yan, a Chinese writer, editor, and scholar:

Cixin tends to use a kind of globalization viewpoint to look at the world.  He thought science could solve most of the problems in the future.  His story has a lot of changing styles.  Sometimes it looks like a thought experiment.  For example, he wrote a story titled “I Do not Care to Die If I Have Got the Tao of Nature” (2002).  It comes from a quote from Confucius Analects.  Talks about people devoting their life to seeking the Tao (way) inside the world.  In Liu’s story, it turns to be a testing platform in front of earthmen. Answer the question correctly, or die for not succeeding!

Or Jacques Barcia on Brazil Science Fiction:

Again, that has everything to do with SF literature. Brazil was cyberpunk and it’s becoming post-cyberpunk. If Brazil used to have marginal tech with a dirty, gritty and violent setting, now the country is techy, edgy, and hopeful. There are tons of examples of how things could get better with technology and how literature could represent those facts and hopes in fiction.

Or Nnedi Okorafor’s interview (part of a larger article on SF in Africa) with Naunihal Singh, a professor of comparative politics specializing in conflict, civil-military relations, and the politics of Sub-Saharan Africa at Notre Dame University:

“The Ghanaians just weren’t connecting to it. Bring the Terminator to West Africa, and he’d stop running in a day. He’d sit there and glitch. It’ll be hard to make people afraid of a future where computers take over the world when they can’t manage to keep the computers on their desk running. These are very western stories. On the other hand, classic science fiction, like space exploration stories, would probably work better…assuming it was adapted for the audience. Africans would love to see stories about Africans on a space ship. The idea that Africans might be dominant in the future would resonate so well with nationalism.”

And Nick Mamatas when it comes to Japan:

Japanese SF authors will often proudly wear their influences on their sleeves, and those influences include American science fiction writers of the Golden Age and New Wave, as well as manga, the space race, philosophy both Western and Eastern, etc

Mamatas’ quote is something I want to highlight because it’s proof that a piece of text can be influenced by other cultures, yet still be unique.

And for all my complaints against Spinrad, his essay does bring up good points when it comes to writers trying their hand at writing “alien” cultures, or as Jeff VanderMeer pointed out:

He talks about colonialism. He talks about the insertion of the white guy into a non-white culture/setting, and understands that that’s often a recipe for terrible cliches. An interesting quote near the end, where Spinrad also talks about how understanding other cultures is a way of deepening your self and your writing.

The end of Spinrad’s essay also fittingly concludes with the following:

Except to repeat the old saw that travel broadens the mind, and extend it into the contemporary realms of the virtual; fiction, music, cuisine, language, to travel within the realms of as many Other Cultures as you can by whatever means available; directly, or via media, on every level possible, from the lofty heights to the rhythms of the gutter, so that while they may remain different from your own, your mind is opened to the infinite multiplexity of human cultures and styles, real and to be imagined, so that nothing different remains alien.

Travel in this extended sense indeed broadens the mind.

It also renders it deeper.



39 thoughts on “Editorial: The Dilemma of the Term “World SF” Redux

  1. Hi Charles, I immediately thought of you when learning of this amid birthday messages today. Thank you for this great overview of these different perspectives.

    Don’t forget Ashok.

  2. Hi Amy! Saw your comments in one of the other blogs (forgot if it was Mamatas’s or Jemisin’s). Happy birthday! (Unfortunately not the best topic to talk about on your birthday.)

    1. Actually, now that I see all the dialog this has raised, I think it is a good subject for my birthday or anyone else’s. This really lifted the curtain in a way that I hope everyone can understand. I am touched by so much that people have said, but as I said – first thing I thought of was you!

  3. Well put, Charles. I agree with your Butler/Resnick comparison. I wonder if some people are taking the easy way out by shooting at this one trivial target when there are many more ideas that Spinrad put down that can be more meaningfully discussed. But, alas, the internet knee-jerk doesn’t like complexity. Great essay, thanks for writing it.

  4. The problem with his statement on Resnick vs. Butler is that it undermines the exercise of self-identification. Just because a white dude writes about African scifi, doesn’t make him an African science fiction writer, it just makes him a white dude writing scifi that passes as experientially African. Kaigou went over this during the Lambda Literary Awards kerfuffle when she defined the traditional sense of what a “body of literature” means. The lack of a large group of Africans writing scifi doesn’t mean you get to call a white American an African scifi writer. That’s just ridiculous. I variously identify as a Malaysian-Chinese / Chinese diaspora writer; if some fella who doesn’t identify as this comes along and writes a story about the Malaysian-Chinese or Chinese diasporan experience, does it mean him a Malaysian-Chinese writer? No. Similarly, if a guy writes a lot of books about women, that doesn’t make him a woman writer.

    Moreover, as much sense as his last paragraph makes, it still reeks of privilege. Even when trying to research, there will always be some who will be able to do more research than others, by virtue of their circumstances. We know good research leads to good writing. Of course, someone in a “first world” country is going to have more access to research materials on other countries than someone in a “third world” country. But to posit it that way really makes it sound like people who don’t have such access… are somehow weaker writers, and that’s truly uncharitable.

  5. Amy: I also forgot to mention that I didn’t mention Ashok since we had to pull out his interview (on his request), so it’s moot to refer to a withdrawn text.

    KS: I don’t think people are taking the easy way out more than reacting first. It’s also not a trivial point, but admittedly not the central thesis of the entire essay. (But the rest of the essay also hinges on his supposition.)

    Jha: Taken out of context, sure, the Resnick vs. Butler is a very, very stupid statement. But in the context of Spinrad’s essay, he’s not really saying Resnick = African Writer, but stressing his point on writers (privileged?) writing about other cultures.

    As for self-identification, that’s another essay in itself that I don’t want to get into here. But suffice to say, there can be exceptions. In the Resnick example, he can become naturalized for example. Is he permanently excluded because he wasn’t African, genetically or culturally, from the start? Or in the case of the guy writing about women, what happens if he undergoes a sex change? For me, context is important, instead of universal and hard-and-fast rules which aren’t really the case.

  6. Unfortunately Spinard simplifies a complex subject and seems to lack the necessary research in several areas. It might have been best if he talked to some international writers rather than simply stating some stuff that was bizarrely innacurate (like assuming all Latin Americans, just because they were colonized by Spain and may share a common language, share the same cultural experience).

    There’s also other important issues, like foreign cultural dominance. Mexican cinema ceased to exist in a powerful, dynamic form in the 1950s. This means much of the national cinemata was replaced by foreign, imported movies or foreign-inspired plots and situations. Adopting Hollywood as the default model and diminishing expressions of national cinema gave way to a bizarre experience on the silver screen. A Mexican cinema reinassance began in the 90s, and has continued up to nowadays. That’s when Mexican filmmakers began to looks for their own vision, and you got people like the directors of Pan’s Labyrinth and Children of Men making movies, and even moving to Hollywood (in a bizarre twist that is maybe not so bizarre if you look at 1920s-1930s Mexican cinema).

    This “importing” of Western cultural values (through TV, advertising or even fast food, hey, NAFTA changed a lot of stuff, allowing American products that I had never had access to. Giving us Walmart, etc) creates a difficult dynamic for other countries, who feel they must imitate these countries in their entertainment, which trickles down to things like sci-fi. I’ve experienced Mexican people thinking setting a sci-fi story in Mexico would be silly because it is not “exotic” enough and sci-fi must be set *outside* of Mexico. Sometimes it feels like we are dreaming someone else’s other dreams and writing other people’s stories. (Lets not even mention an immigrant like me, who is both Mexican and Canadian, and what that might imply.)

    This doesn’t mean there isn’t sci-fi outside of the US or the UK. Just that it’s a complex topic. For example, sometimes spec-fic is not classified as spec-fic in other countries. In Mexico, it gets shelved under “literature.” Foreign writers are shelved under fantasy and science fiction. Even then, Mexico *has* had stuff that has been self-identified as spec lit (Mexican cyperbunk), but again, it’s a long and complex discussion.

  7. I am reminded of a panel I attended at an academic conference in the UK. It was about Welsh Science Fiction. I figured that between us Dave Langford and I had done a lot to put Wales on the science fiction map. However, I was firmly told by the presenter that one was not entitled to consider oneself a Welsh writer unless one lived in Wales and, preferably, wrote in Welsh.

    Everyone involved in identity politics has a membership policy. Sometimes that policy involves co-opting as many people as possible; sometimes it involves keeping most people out. Sometimes, magically, very similar arguments are used to bring some people in and keep others out. I rather wish Spinrad had known about Lauren Beukes because I’d love to know whether he considers her “African”.

  8. But when you research ‘another culture’ (in order to write about it) you read whatever of that culture was translated into your own language. Isn’t it a reduction of values?

    And if you don’t speak _that_ language and you don’t live as _they_ live, no matter how educated you are, you’re still only a tourist…

  9. Yes. Thank you so much for this. There are a few points of merit in this article–unfortunately, they’re lost in so much stuff that makes me want to scream…

    rreugen: It’s probably pessimistic, but I’m of the opinion that no matter how well you research a culture, you will always remain an outsider. True, there are degrees of outsiders, but the sad truth is that unless you’re born in a particular culture, I don’t think you’ll have the deep-seated reflexes that come with it.
    From what I’ve seen of my expat Vietnamese family (who settled in Europe), I’m not really convinced you can “acquire” another culture even when you live in its midst. You can learn the language, and some of its ways, but there’s always going to be stuff that you miss, and it could be large stuff. There’s just no substitute to being a native.

    1. I think you’re right. There is a certain kind of necessity/practicality in dealing with the surrounding world that has roots going too deep into the specific ethos of a people. No matter how well you research, you won’t get there.

  10. Silvia: Great points. The main problem on Spinrad, in my opinion, is oversimplification.

    Cheryl: True enough about identity politics.

    Rreugen: Writing, in a way, is reduction. You don’t write about *everything*, although there is a “distillation” process involved.

    The peril of that kind of belief is that you can never write about a culture that’s not your own.

    For me, it boils down to execution. Are you a convincing writer? You can do all the research and immersion you want but if you can’t write it convincingly, it’s futile.

    People also have different learning curves. Some people who’ve lived here for a few years understand the culture. Others who’ve stayed here longer don’t. It varies from person to person, rather than a universal axiom.

    Aliette: I think the “degrees” matter. And as Nnedi pointed out in Twitter, especially with us mixed heritages/cultures, we’re in this space that’s sometimes one or the other, sometimes both, and sometimes neither.

    And there are also some details, some nuances, that don’t need to come out in the writing (just as you don’t use everything that you’ve researched).

    1. Okay, writing involves a distillation process. But I do think that what you ‘reduce’ things to as an outsider is more representative of your own culture, not of the one you have researched and tried to write about.

      And I don’t think the talent of the writer can do anything to help this. I remember a well-written novel by Dan Simmons that took place in my country, and none of the romanians in his novel behaved or resembled the romanians among which I live.

      I can’t consider any of the writers mentioned in the original article as World SF Writers, they are American or British writers, period.

      I also do not believe that JRR Tolkien is a Middle-earth Writer, or that Larry Niven is a Ringworld Writer 🙂

      1. What you “reduce” is certainly the author’s unique perspective, and of course, their own culture plays a part, but again, it depends on the agenda, empathy, and awareness. Some writers will understand the particular culture they’re writing about. Others won’t. The pitfall of your generalization as I said before is that it presumes no one else can write about a culture that’s not their own. And whether an author succeeds in doing so or not varies from person to person, even from that country.

        Take for example Jacques Barcia, who’s from Brazil. He likes Ian McDonald’s novels and his take on South America. There’s probably other South American readers who’ll agree with McDonald’s take. But similarly, there’ll be those who disagree as well. Barcia’s opinions isn’t representative of all of Brazil (much less South America) but it’s not to be discounted either.

        When I speak of talent, well, you must understand that there’s different sorts of talents. Some writers might be talented in characterization but not in setting. Others might be good at plot but will be lacking in description. In your example, Simmons might be talented in one form of writing, but that might not necessarily be the case when it comes to convincing you of the authenticity of writing about another’s culture.

        You’re free, of course, to define “World SF” however you like. As I mentioned in my original essay (the one I first linked to), it’s a problematic term that means different things to different people. Jha, in the comments above, follows your line of thought as well when it comes to the determining the allegiance (for lack of a better term, and I’m not limiting it to nationality either) of an author.

    2. Charles: yeah, degrees do matter. I was being a tad abrupt here… And it is definitely a very complex problem if you have mixed heritages/cultures/races.
      I agree about the details and the nuances not needing to come out in the writing, but I think that doesn’t quite solve the problem: there is some stuff you’re going to get wrong about the culture/subculture you’re writing about if it’s not your own. There is also some stuff that you don’t need to mention. Having 100% overlap over those two subjects is practically never going to happen unless you’re in very particular cases..

  11. World SF writer? No. I’m not even sure what that means.
    Sf Writer who tries to take a world perspective? Yes.

  12. Aliette: Yeah, I was abrupt there too. Comment boxes are too small–it’s a blog entry in itself. That’s actually an old topic, about not perfectly being able to fully capture the experience of a culture that’s not your own (same goes for gender, social disposition, etc.).

    In fiction though, you don’t need to know everything, just good enough for what the story needs (you won’t know what the story needs though until you do your research and write it). Depending on the kind of story you’re writing, some will need exhaustive immersion, others less so.

    Ian: Hi Ian! I don’t know what a World SF writer is too. Probably bad terminology on our part. We tend to go for specifics. For example, is Aliette a French writer? Yes. Vietnamese writer? Maybe. Aztec writer? Dunno, probably not. As Cheryl Morgan pointed out, it’s more of self-identification politics. (Do we highlight your work in this blog for example is a question that might pop up with regards to “World SF”.)

    On a side note, in my interview with Jacques Barcia, who’s from Brazil, he’s a fan of your work.

    1. As far as simplifications go, I prefer to view my own identity vs other cultures in terms of distance and tolerances. The distance between you and a particular culture grows as the culture becomes different from the one you’ve grown up in, and different from the one you’re living in now.

      The greater the distance is, the harder the gap is to bridge, and the more likely it is that even with great amounts of research, you’re still going to get things wrong.

      The tolerance… the tolerance is intra-group variability: for instance, if you take France as a whole, the experience of a blue-collar worker in the South is way different from that of a manager living in Paris. If you take the various strata of the French society, obviously, the tolerance is going to be smaller than that of the whole country.

      Unfortunately, you’re only at distance 0 from yourself. After that, as we get further and further away from your particular background, the distance keeps rising. If we take my experience as a baseline, I’m already sitting outside the tolerance for upper-class French women–because I’m mixed-race and because, although Vietnamese culture didn’t play a huge explicit part in my education, it still ended up creeping into the least likely places. I’m still relatively close to, say, a blue-collar worker in a French factory–and a little more distant to a Vietnamese person, whether they’re expats or not. My distance to cultures I have very little in common with, such as Africans or Hispanics, is pretty much up there with infinity.

      As you say, the problem arises when we try to make that distance/tolerance thing a binary either/or: insider/outsider. That’s where you get all the murkiness and the degrees; and where it can get really tricky.

      So, if you force me to be specific and choose a racial/cultural identity, I’ll choose French because it’s the closest in terms of distance, but it does very much fail to capture the complexity of my particular experience.

      (and all of this is still completely ignoring the issue that cultural boundaries keep shifting, not only depending on where you are, but also on when you are. French culture is always integrating new concepts–to take a rather non-subtle change, Islam didn’t use to be part of our worldview 30 or 40 years ago, but with the sheer number of immigrants from Maghreb, parts of it have become woven into what it means to be French, at least in some strata of society).

  13. I am Singaporean-Chinese. And indeed, there are all sorts of world SF – and I have to say that US-centric writers are ignorant of the fact that writers of SF from other countries besides the US do exist.

    So, Spinrad’s first versus third world classifications rankles, mainly because it looks at polar differences. And I agree his view is privileged as well.

    1. (cont’d)

      I have been reading through the comments and yes, degrees do matter. Charles brought up a good point about the Chinese diaspora. I am Chinese, I am Singaporean, I am Hokkien, I am Cantonese, I am Shanghainese. How I was brought up and educated shaped my world view. My genetic (Chinese) culture formed the bedrock, but my education was basically Anglo-Saxon, thanks to British colonialism. I was also educated in Australia. So what am I? Singaporean. Chinese. All of the above.

  14. I consider myself a writer. If asked to expand that, it would be “US writer”. That’s informed by having grown up overseas, though. One reason I write secondary world fantasy, I believe, is to assimilate all of the experiences I had as a kid.

    I most emphatically don’t consider myself a world SF writer. That strikes me as horrifyingly presumptuous. And one reason Spinrad’s Resnick comment struck me as absurd.


  15. Mr. Tan, I am sorry if I have appeared inconsiderate in my earlier reply – it is only because of my bitterness not because of your arguments. I feel bitter because I see how, sometimes, the depiction of a foreign culture by a good, talented English-writing author becomes more real than that culture itself. For example, my romanians are convinced that vampires are a part of our mythology because they saw all those spectacular vampire movies. (no, vampires don’t belong to our myths, actually, we have other stuff)

    You are right, of course, and I am wrong to generalize. I was thinking about your reply and I remembered a story (“The Motorman’s Coat” by John Kessel – The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, June/July 2009) where I thought that the author did an amazing job of capturing the post-Iron Courtain eastern-european mindset. So, heh, yeah.

  16. Eurgh. I find labelling very painful and irritating.

    It’s annoying enough being labelled a “woman writer”, let alone a “white South African woman writer.”

    And where do you draw the line?

    There are so many elements at play in shaping who we are and nationality and race and gender are only part of that. What about class? Politics? Education? Religious beliefs or lack of? Influences? Worldview? General disposition? Heck, fashion sense?

    There are 11 national languages in South Africa, not including some regional dialects that didn’t make the cut. Different tribal groupings, different race groups, different cultures, subcultures within cultures. It’s the difference between a gothpunk princess Tswana girl and a dreadlocked Jewish rasta boy.

    That said, if anyone tries to tell me I’m NOT an African writer, I will have to break out my origami shuriken folded from my collection of rejection slips and inflict the death of a thousand papercuts.

  17. On a more serious note, I’ve been asked twice in recent months to identify African writers doing SF/F and horror for upcoming anthologies and it’s damn hard. (As Nnedi is discovering – she’s trying to assemble a list at the moment).

    Helen Oyemi’s dark fairytale fantasies bridging England and Nigeria would count, but then I’d also count Ceridwen Dovey’s Blood Kin as well as JM Coetzee’s post-apocalyptic apartheid parable Waiting for the Barbarians, although I wouldn’t call him an SF writer and he’s moved to Australia anyway.

    Part of the reason this is such a daunting task, as my South African editor (and poet and short story writer) Helen Moffett said when I asked her for recommendations: “My untutored response is that because of the dearth of marketing of books by African authors, there is generally (eek, generalizing already) a much looser concept of “genre” than in the West.

    It’s not that there are no scifi/horror/fantasy African writers, instead there are lots and lots and LOTS of African writers perfectly capable of writing within these genres, but whose works usually overlap or combine several genres simultaneously. The market is so constrained (just getting into print is a battle) that sub-specialising (which presumes a sub-specialist market) is a luxury that most don’t have.

    It’s grand that Western anthologists (I’m assuming?) are out looking for the fruits of our gorgeous, glorious literary jungle, but there’s a bit of a cultural lag in their assumption that market niches on our continent work the same way they do in Europe or North America. Here endeth the lesson, sorry, can’t help it, now for the useful bits.

    Writers obviously falling into the mutiple genres category: Ghana’s Ama Ata Aidoo, dramatist, poet, novelist and children’s author (who was working on an African sci-fi novel during her sabbatical at UCT a few years ago); Zakes Mda, who mixes “magic realism” (not sure that you could call it fantasy) into his novels, notably Ways of Dying and She Plays With The Darkness; our own Mandla Langa, whose The Lost Colours of the Chameleon is set in a fictitious Indian Ocean island (but is it fantasy as the West understands it?), and who is now working on a detective novel; Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o, whose Wizard of the Crow has a similar premise to Chameleon.

    Then there’s SA’s Nthikeng Mohele, whose The Scent of Bliss is set in an imaginary city, and has a narrator simply designated Q.”

  18. Thanks for the good and well reasoned article, Charles.

    I read Spinrad’s comment regarding Mike Resnick and Octavia Butler as saying that while Octavia Butler is African American and Mike Resnick is not and both of them have written novels set in Africa, neither of them are African in the way that Lauren Beukes and the many authors she listed are.

    I’m German. When I visit an “authentically German” Oktoberfest in the US in a town which – based on its name – was settled by people who came from nowhere near Bavaria or drive through Ontario and come across a German radio station playing kitschy folk pop no one under 60 would listen to in Germany or when I walk into a German bakery in Singapore, where a Chinese Singaporean woman in a dirndl dress sells Black Forest Gateaux baked by a guy who turns out to be an expat from Hamburg, which is neither near the Black Forest nor Bavaria, I feel somewhat bemused. Because even though the US Oktoberfest, the Canadian radio station and the Singaporean bakery all claim to be authentically German, they’re really not. They’re a simulacrum of aspects of certain regional (South) German cultures, but they have very little to do with me and my culture. The US Oktoberfest is nothing like the real deal and the Canadian radio station doesn’t play the sort of German pop music people are actually listening to (my German friend and I briefly considered donating some CDs to them until we realized that their audience probably isn’t interested in current German music). The bread was pretty good, though. And while I cannot speak for any Africans, I imagine they feel similar about African-Americans celebrating African culture as I do about the US Oktoberfest. Interesting and probably a lot of fun for the people celebrating it, but not really my culture.

    As for the term World SF, aren’t we all World SF writers? Unless an SF writer who’s an actual extraterrestrial shows up, that is.

    1. Hum, sounds to me there’s also a problem of cultural divergences/evolutions: the culture of Quebec descended from French culture, but we stopped evolving in tandem some 2-3 centuries ago (not only receiving different foreign influences, but merely living in different circumstances, different climates, different political rules…). As a result, I’m similarly bemused when I go to Quebec: the language is the same, but a lot of things have changed or seemed to hark to an earlier time even while some people will insist they’re authentic French.
      On a similar issue, my father’s side of the family is blue-blood upper-class; but they certainly have very little in common with the pre-Revolution noblemen, or even with the 19th-Century nobility. Times changes and things keep evolving…
      (and then we get to argue with authenticity, which is necessary but I think fraught with problems. It’s a bit like Charles said: we’re trying to reduce nuances to a binary authentic/non-authentic, and while there are clear-cut cases, you’ll always find yourself bogged down in the murky middles).

    2. Oh, and about “World SF”: I think it’s meant to say “non-American/non-Anglophone SF”.
      I kind of happen to like the term, because I’m tired of seeing American ads arguing that something is “the world’s best” when what they really mean is “the best in the US”. The US have a somewhat annoying tendency to think that “American”=”world”, so turning this on its head is kind of pretty neat.

      (but Lavie was the one who originally coined the term, and I’m not quite sure whether that’s what he meant)

      1. I guess it depends if you divvy it up by language or birth location. Or both.

        Either way, little gets translated to English. Which means you get the old iceberg thing were you only see the top and there’s a lot at the bottom. But that doesn’t mean you can say “there’s no ice at the bottom.”

      2. I like the term myself, because like you, Aliette, I am sick and tired of the “American/US = World” mentality.

        And there *are* other writers from non-US/English-speaking worlds who write SF too.

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