Monday Original Content: Non-Western SF Roundtable (Part 1)
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: https://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!
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