The World SF Blog

Speculative Fiction from Around the World

How to Write Science Fiction on a Post-Colonial World

Fabio Fernandes gathers a number of writers on SF Signal to discuss How To Write Science Fiction on a Post-Colonial World, with some fascinating answers.

Participants are Joyce Chng, Ekaterina Sedia, Karen Lord, Jaymee Goh, Jeffrey Thomas, Farah Mendlesohn, Jeff VanderMeer, Karin Lowachee and Vandana Singh.

I like this answer from Jaymee Goh:

Jaymee Goh is a writer of speculative fiction and scholar/blogger of critical theory. She has contributed to Tor.com, Racialicious.com, the Apex Book Company Blog, and Beyond Victoriana.com. Her fiction has been published in Expanded Horizons, Crossed Genres and Steam-Powered 2: More Lesbian Steampunk Stories. She analyses steampunk literature from a postcolonial perspective at Silver Goggles.

Man. Can I ask for a clarification of this question?

This question always crops up, and continues to crop up even more with discussions of race. I think it presents us with a false frame of how writing outside our experience happens, forcing us into a conversation on what “universal experience” is like, and eventually the conversation boils down to “a good story is a good story no matter who writes it.” Way back when, men would argue that women would never be able to write anything valuable or relevant, and women time and again disproved this. Colonizers convinced the colonized that there was a hierarchy of what was superior and more important, and for centuries we by and large swallowed this narrative, with some of our members proving otherwise. Being an outsider,outside the dominant narrative, has often produced revolutionary and incredible work.

But this question doesn’t always come from that frame; it usually comes from the frame of a historically dominant and oppressive group asking permission to do what it has always done to colonized groups: re-interpret the colonized’s experiences through the lens of the more powerful and privileged. So unless otherwise specified, I’m assuming this question refers to Western writers writing about non-Western cultures.

I’ll give this question a bone: when I was a child, I read Robert van Gulik’s Judge Dee comics. Van Gulik was an Orientalist in the first sense of the word: he studied the Tang Dynasty of China extensively, and wrote and drew nuances of the Tang Dynasty into his stories and comics. (Judge Dee is based on a historical figure from much earlier, but let’s just roll with this.) To this day, Chinese audiences still continue to read his stories; Judge Dee is our Sherlock Holmes. I think this answers the first part of the question quite nicely.

I would like to counter this question with another one: to what end does a writer write? For ourselves? Or for our audience? Both intentions are noble. However, if you are a Western writer, trying to write about a non-Western culture, I would raise my eyebrow at any talk of writing as an “enriching experience”. Isn’t economic dominance and touristic neocolonialism enough to enrich your lives? As a writer, I write for myself, as a colonized body, and I write for other colonized bodies as well. My first concern is for myself, to write a story that satisfies me as a reader. but my immediate concern after is for the audiences who don’t see themselves reflected or participant in any process of publishing.

As an academic, I tend to think of X literature as coming from a member of group X, especially if X literature touches on concerns specific to group X (this does not foreclose the possibility of someone from group X writing some other kind of literature). But if X literature comes from a member of group Y, and group Y has often been positioned as more powerful to group X, we need to question what exactly group Y writer is bringing to X literature: something new that re-frames the discourse surrounding group X? Or the same ol’, same ol’ talking about group X as if group X has no opinion or voice of its own? It’s vainglorious to assume the former, and ignore concerns to the contrary.

As such, this question is a self-centered one; it places all the attention on the writer’s intention and skill. I really have to question why any one writer would ask such a question, and am hard-pressed to come up with any other answer besides “seeking validation.” (This happens; it is normal. I do it too.) Western writers can and have written stories set in non-Western cultures. These stories have even been published. They have even *gasp* won awards! Bad stories that rely on racist stereotypes to carry them through and insult the people of that culture, they, too can win awards! Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi, Night Shade Press, I’m still looking at you. Why would a Westerner, with so much historically-granted permission and leeway, ask such a question? Why does no one ask, what kind of obstacles do writers from postcolonial groups face?

Recall Chimamanda Adichie’s story of a publisher who questioned her depiction of Nigeria; it felt inauthentic, because Adichie’s story didn’t fit any African narrative of poverty and ruin that the publisher recognized. Why, when a non-Westerner can be questioned on her writing of her own culture, must we focus on Western writers who have historically gotten away with racist, inaccurate writing, and give them the OK to write stories about us? Why now, when we non-Westerners have finally begun voicing our concerns of how we are depicted? And why we do keep having this particular conversation, in this particular frame, over and over again?

Now, writing as a non-Westerner, about another non-Western culture… the same rules and questions apply. For whom do we write? To what end do we write? What are the ramifications of our writing, and do we embed unconscious narratives that harm the groups we write about? As a Malaysian-Chinese writer, it would be easy for me to write something Islamophobic while writing about Malaysian-Malays, or something incredibly anti-black about African peoples. My status as a non-Westerner does not excuse me from these actions, no matter how well-intentioned I am. Would it be enriching for me to write about other groups that I know less of than the ones I identify with? Perhaps, but in my experience, it has been far more educational to actually just listen to them and support their voices than write about them, without their input.

So what, really, is this question asking? I think anybody asking this question really needs to interrogate themselves further on their reason for asking it. – read the full post.

June 13, 2012 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , ,

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