African(?) Science Fiction – Michael A. Burstein on the Africa Controversy

Over at the Apex Blog, Michael A. Burstein is extending the debate started by Norman Spinrad’s controversial “Third World Worlds” column in Asimov’s. Burstein focuses on American writer Mike Resnick, and his treatment of African themes and settings:

Mike loves Africa, and has done more than just go on a safari.  Mike has actually gone on six safaris

You can also follow the dialogue with N.K. Jemisin in the comments section.


8 thoughts on “African(?) Science Fiction – Michael A. Burstein on the Africa Controversy

    1. Actually, I thought the quotes bring the point home.

      To go back to the original debate that spawned this post:

      Has Mike Resnick spent time in Africa and does he spend effort on writing stories with realistic African settings? Yes.

      Is Mike Resnick an African writer? No.

      Writing stories set in Africa does not automatically make you an African writer, nor does six safaris. Six safaris may make him better at writing stories set in Africa, but it still doesn’t qualify this guy as an African writer.

      To stretch out the analogy, I’ve spent at least two months in Canada over several years, and we visited many local provinces, different regions, went on tours led by Canadians, and stayed at hotels run by local Canadians. This does not make me a Canadian writer.

      I am also interested by the fact that after N.K. Jemisin mentions a specific book as dehumanizing to African people, Shetterly later specifically mentions his desire to read this specific book (out of the 24 Africa-centric Resnick books that he could read) while simultaneously stating how he is not a racist.

      “I refuse to consider his works set on alien planets (like “The 43 Antarean Dynasties”), which position aliens as allegorical African peoples, as “African stories”, regardless of their inspiration. Doing so implies that actual human beings are as strange and inscrutable as non-human aliens; quite literally dehumanizing. I think you can see the problem in this.” – N.K. Jemisin

      “I’ll have to track down a copy of “The 43 Antarean Dynasties”. I found a summary that says the humans are a family of three. Any choice regarding race in the future is tricky–the first question I always have is why everyone in a story set more than a century or two in the future doesn’t look vaguely Asian, since the idea that whites or blacks will survive as distinct races seems quite racist.” – Shetterly

      1. I understood the point of the article as being that Mike Resnick, while not being an African writer, did indeed research his setting (didn’t follow the whole discussion, but I assumed people accused him of mining Africa for exoticism and not understanding the culture underneath? I didn’t see it at all as a statement that Mike Resnick might be an African writer. It was, I think, pretty clear to everyone involved that he wasn’t and couldn’t ever be called one) In the context of defending the research, the quote seemed particularly unfortunate because for me, safaris aren’t typical of Africa–they’re just stuff that tourists do when they’re in Africa. It’s a little like saying someone has thoroughly researched French culture by climbing the Eiffel Tower six times. It’s not a very good argument.
        And I might be wrong, but the way I understood the discussion on “The 43 Anterean Dynasties” was that the problem was the labelling of the story as African, not the story per se.

      2. By ‘the original debate’ I was referring more to this part:

        “In the April-May issue of Asimov’s, Norman Spinrad published a controversial On Books column titled “Third World Worlds.”…Spinrad hailed Resnick as the closest thing science fiction has to an African writer, and a lot of critics, knowing that Resnick is a white American, picked on this statement in particular and were rather dismissive toward him. It didn’t help that Spinrad compared Resnick to Octavia Butler in what Rose Fox, writing in the Publishers Weekly Genreville blog, rightly called “an entirely gratuitous dig.”

        Basically, someone made a claim about Resnick that Resnick had no input on, and people were rightfully upset at the claim being made in the first place. Michael Burstein is the author of the post in the link, which does use the above quote as a jumping off point to state that while Resnick is not an African writer, Resnick is still very knowledgeable about Africa.

        I think we’re in agreement regarding the research part, which also jumped out at me. I’d be fine with the linked post if it had just stopped at saying ‘Resnick loves African culture and is better at writing things set in Africa than most people’ and hadn’t tried to make the claim that Mike Resnick is awesome at ‘writing the other’ and his sci-fi awards and the fact that he has been mistaken for a black man by one professor are proof that he’s great at writing ‘the other.’

        The issue of this statement is the context of Racefail09 and the history of sci-fi/fantasy at being very, very bad about ‘writing the other.’ The fact that the majority of these awards would have been awarded by white people to a white man for writing about African people is really not inherently proof of excellence at writing about Africa or African people, due to the fact that these awards are given by groups historically dominated by white, English-speaking authors from the US, Australia, Canada and the UK.

        “By my count, there are three Hugo winners, eleven Hugo nominees, and six Nebula nominees on that list. Is it any wonder that when thinking of Africa in science fiction, inevitably one ends up thinking of Mike Resnick?”

        That has got to be extremely grating to the black, African and African-American sci-fi authors out there who have written excellent stories that have not be rewarded or acknowledged at that level. I mean, to name two authors I’ve read *recently*, Nnendi Okorafor (the daughter of Nigerian immigrants) and Nalo Hopkinson (a Jamaican-born writer and John W. Campbell Award-winner) have written and are writing explicitly Caribbean and African sci-fi/fantasy.

        Now, none of this is explicitly Mike Resnick’s fault. I’m just saying that the people who keep on talking about how great he is at writing about Africa are not doing the guy any favors, because no matter what the entire issue boils down to the fact that Mike Resnick, a white man, is known and has been rewarded by white people for writing about Africa/African culture analogies, when there are African, African-American or Black authors who have not been acknowledged or recognized for their work.

        Again, the history of this happening is not Mike Resnick’s fault, but pointing out his success, awards and wide recognition, in contrast to African, Black and African-American authors, is really a kind of Pyrrhic victory for the guy, all the more so because Resnick hasn’t been the one making these claims.

      3. ChicagoC, where did I state I’m not a racist? I always assumed in that Avenue Q show tune way I was at least a little bit racist like everyone else. Or rather, I did until I took the race test at Project Implicit, which concluded that, like a large minority of white people, I have an implicit preference for black folks. Now, Project Implicit has its critics, so if a better test comes along that reveals I am a bit racist, I won’t dispute that.

        As for why I wanted to read the story, whenever someone claims something is racist, I want to see if they’re right. In this case, I’m glad I read the story, not because it’s a great story, but because Jemisin is wrong on at least three important points which I just added to the comments over there.

        I have read some of Resnick’s other African stories. I don’t remember anything racist in them, but I read them a long time ago. If you’ve got examples of racism in his African stories, please offer them.

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