Over at the excellent site Islam and Science Fiction, M. Aurangzeb Ahmad interviews Najiyah Diana Helwani , author of Sophia’s Journal: Time Warp 1857 – a time travel coming of age novel set in Kansas right before the Civil War. Here’s an excerpt:
Aurangzeb: Do you think there is a general lack of interest in Science Fiction in the Muslim community?
Najiyah: I think there’s a general lack of knowledge about what SciFi even IS! And it’s so hard when we’re still battling some people who think fiction itself is haram or makruh. In many parts of the Muslim world, reading for pleasure and insight is just not part of the culture, and among Western readers there is a prevailing suspicion that Islamic fiction is substandard. So we have to raise awareness of the value of fiction itself and market well enough that readers begin to realize that we’re good writers as well as promote Islamic science fiction within the sci fi community.
Aurangzeb: Do you think that Muslims and Arabs type casted in Science Fiction stories in general?
Najiyah: It seems that in many cases the apocalyptic drama set as a battle between “Muslim Terrorists” and the sane world has replaced the exotic Eastern mystery of veiled women and sufis chanting in mosques. What bothers me is when people write stories or movies that perpetuate historical and/or theological fallacies. And when they represent the terrorists as mainstream Muslims.
Editor’s Note: Congrats to Lauren Beukes for winning the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award.
Writing The Other is a sensitive topic. It should be. Not least because it’s so often been done so very, very, badly.
But the truth is that unless you’re writing autobiography, any character you write is going to be The Other.
I am not a serial killer. (Unless my multiple personalities are hiding something from me.) I am also not a 50s housewife, a parking attendant, a car-jacking reality TV star, a Ugandan email scammer, a Tokyo mecha pilot, or a future-world stubborn-as-heck gay anti-corporate activist. And even though my novelist friends Thando Mgqolozana and Zukiswa Wanner like to joke that I’m a black girl trapped in a white girl’s skin, I’m not Zoo City’s hip, fast-talking, ex-journo, ex-junkie black Joburg girl protagonist, Zinzi.
I don’t have a lot of patience for authors who say they’d be too scared to write a character outside their cultural experience. Because we do that all the time. It’s called using your imagination.
The other people I don’t have a lot of patience for are the ones too lazy to do any research. I heard a radio interview recently with a poet who had written a whole book of verse about the sex workers in Amsterdam’s red light district and the incredible empathy she had for these women and how she tried to climb inside their heads to really expose the painful reality of their experiences.
Number of sex workers she interviewed or even tried to engage in a casual chat to get that in-depth insight into the painful reality of their experiences?
Sometimes imagination isn’t enough on its own. People are people. We love. We hate. We bleed. We itch. We succumb to Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs and traffic makes us pissy. But culture and race and sexuality and even language are all lenses that shape our experiences of the world and who we are in it.
The only way to climb into that experience is to research it, through books or blogs or documentaries or journalism or, most importantly and obviously, talking to people.
I was lucky to have good friends like Lindiwe Nkutha, Nechama Brodie, Verashni Pillay and Zukiswa Wanner who were all willing to take me round Johannesburg AND read the manuscript afterwards to make sure that I got the cultural details of the people – and the city – right.
I read books on Hillbrow, like Kgebetli Moele’s Room 207, watched documentaries and movies and turned to Twitter to get expert first-hand info on city details like storm drain entrances and good places to dump a body (!).
I chatted to music producers and journalists to understand the South African music industry and interviewed refugees like Jamala Safari to get insight into what he’d been through (and referred him to my publisher when he mentioned he’d written a novel about his journey from the DRC to Cape Town).
I visited the Central Methodist Church where 4000 refugees were sheltering in the worst conditions that were the best possible option for them in that moment, got bounced from The Rand Club, paid for a consultation with a sangoma (who diagnosed a dark shadow over my life and recommended I sacrifice a black chicken) and did follow-up interviews with other traditional healers to make sure I was on track on the details before I twisted them to my fictional purposes. And I spent a week just walking round Hillbrow and talking to people.
As my official “culture editor”, Zukiswa Wanner busted me a couple of times on inaccuracies – almost all of them on inner city living details, like Zinzi stopping to buy a single Stuyvesant cigarette from a street vendor. “No ways, dude, I’m sorry, it would be a Remington Gold. That’s the cheap generic,” or providing the correct slang for the ubiquitous plastic woven rattan suitcases used by refugees: “amashangaan”
“But is Zinzi black enough?” I asked her, after going through all the notes in her commissioned reader’s report which hadn’t addressed the point even once.
Zukiswa laughed at me. It hadn’t occurred to her.
“Oh Zinz is hip and black enough,” she said, “Fuck anyone who questions that. What does that even mean? Don’t worry about it. I too am going to be catching flak. I write purely from the male perspective in Men of the South so you’ll have company.”
No-one (yet) has given me flak for being a white South African writing a black South African. And Zukiswa’s Men of the South was just short-listed for the Herman Charles Bosman prize. She says she only gets flak from people who assume she’s a man and that Zukiswa is a pseudonym.
In the end, I think my question should never have been “Is Zinzi black enough?” but “is she Zinzi enough”? Because it’s not about creating one-trick ponies that reflect some quintessential property of what we think being Other is about. It’s about creating complex, deep, rich characters driven by their own motivations and shaped by their experiences.
People are different. There are things we don’t get about each other. Usually it’s because we haven’t asked.
And then write.
Writers of science fiction and fantasy in Israel are faced with considerable challenges. For one thing, in such a small country, the prospective local readership is relatively small. This leaves very little room for dreams of fame and riches—at least as long as one relies exclusively on the local audience. For another thing, writers must find a way to ‘localize’ their stories, instead of imitating fiction from the USA or from the UK, with their characteristic motifs and cultural background. Israel is a small and relatively young country. It has its own nature and rhythm, and its citizens have their own traditions and mentality. This means that stories which fit perfectly on the streets of Manhattan or London seem out of place in Tel Aviv or Haifa; and behavioral traits which are natural for the British or for North Americans come off as artificial and unconvincing when attributed to Israeli characters. Therefore, until recently, as the anthology’s editor, Ehud Maimon, states in his introduction, it seemed impossible to write science fiction and fantasy in Israel, or at least have them set in Israel.
The original Cyberpunk – initiated by William Gibson and picked up by Bruce Sterling, Pat Cadigan, Tom Maddox, Lewis Shiner and others – may have been a short-living movement in Science Fiction that lost its impetus after a few years. The plot vehicles and, maybe even more, the aesthetics of Cyberpunk, however, have left deep marks on the genre and all over the world writers have continued the Cyberpunk tradition in their own ways. In a special feature scheduled for mid June we will present a selection of international Cyberpunk stories with contributions from six countries. For the nonfiction section we are still looking for essays and articles that explore Cyberpunk and associated topics from the view of countries and writers outside of the English-speaking world. Submissions are welcome.
Congrats to the BSFA Award Winners:
- Novel: The Dervish House, Ian McDonald (Gollancz)
- Short Fiction: – “The Shipmaker”, Aliette de Bodard (Interzone 231, TTA Press)
- Art: The cover of Zoo City, Joey Hi-Fi (Angry Robot)
- Non Fiction: “Blogging the Hugos: Decline”, Paul Kincaid (Big Other)
Over at The Portal (which has other interesting, international SF articles as well), they posted an article from the Second Annual Interactive Fiction Mini-Convention entitled Racontons une histoire ensemble: History and Characteristics of French IF (1, 2) by Hugo Labrande. Here’s an exerpt:
As pointed out by a few critics, among them Jeremy Douglass, the dominance of English in interactive fiction means that most of the histories of the genre are centered around works written in English and thus mention Infocom games as the canon of interactive fiction, from which everything else was derived, and acknowledge them as a major influence, if not the biggest. But as noted by some, while Infocom games were a huge success in North America, their success in other countries where they were also available varies greatly. Therefore, how can we talk of a history of interactive fiction that mentions Infocom as a major influence when every other community grew up without Infocom games? As a matter of fact, each other language community has its own history—one could say parallel histories—of the development of interactive fiction. Those histories are certainly interesting, as they might, for example, provide other perspectives about the market of interactive fiction (did IF die with the fall of Infocom, or was that a more general trend of the video game market?) and also give the opportunity to those communities to establish themselves as independent communities with their own interactive fiction culture.
Today is the official release of Historical Lovecraft edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles. Aside from stories that take from places all over the world, it includes an international roster of writers including Meddy Ligner (translated from the French, French author), Nathalie Boisard-Beudin (French), Julio Toro San Martin (Chilean, living in Canada) Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas (translated from Spanish, Mexican), Y. W. Purnomosidhi (Indonesian)–and that’s not including the publisher and editors.
“Widows in the World” by Gavin J. Grant embodies the word strange in the ezine’s title. Told in two parts, published 7 February and 14 February 2011, this surreal rambling, which invokes Roald Dahl, is unintelligible. Continue reading