Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo is currently nominated for the Kitschies Golden Tentacle Award and, in association with the award, we’re delighted to offer here a review of the novel by Charles Human, as well as an exclusive giveaway courtesy of Quercus Books. ETA: The giveaway is now closed, congratulations to the winners!
We have two copies each of both Redemption in Indigo and of Lord’s new novel, The Best of All Possible Worlds to give away. Simply comment below (making sure to include your e-mail address in the required field – this will not show when you post) and we will choose two people at random to receive them. Competition closes Friday!
Redemption in Indigo
Reviewed by Charles Human
I’m an appreciator of food in literature, being one of those strange few who are always very interested in the menus of the various inns and taverns visited in fantasy literature.
Redemption in Indigo features several stews, soups and honeycakes that sound delicious enough to make it difficult not to turn this into a Michelin review. Good thing too because it’s our heroine’s superpower.
Yes, Paama kills it as a chef and her husband, Ansige, can’t get enough of the fine dining experience that being her husband entails. Tragically eating is all he’s good for and Paama is eventually forced to leave the useless glutton and go back to her family.
That’s when a senior djombi, the powerful race of supernatural undying ones, become interested in Paama and gifts her with the Chaos Stick, a magical item with the power to nudge chance and tweak fate.
The Indigo Lord, also a djombi but not the human-liking kind, is a little peeved hat a nasty little homo sapien got given the best djombi tech and sets out on a mission to recover it from Paama. That’s when it all kicks off with human vs. djombi in a battle of wits for the ultimate prize.
Redemption in Indigo is a really fun book. It skips around like the story is not predetermined but happens according to the whim of the storyteller. It’s the experience of listening to a storyteller rather than reading that is captured so well by Lord in this book.
The narrator is really the central character in the book, his sly asides, in-jokes and preempting of audience concerns is one of the real joys, and one gets the feeling that if he were to tell the story again his choices could be different.
That’s also a good thing because choice is central to the story. The Indigo Lord’s choices, Paama’s choices, Ansige’s choices. Whether djombi or human they’re all subject to the forces of chaos and chance but also to those of predestination and perhaps even destiny. Sure, it’s not the not the orphan-born- under- a- special- star kinda destiny but the our-choices-shape-who-we-are kinda destiny that Lord is most concerned with, but it serves make the story very real and human.
My only criticisms are that having a narrator means that sometimes that action does lag and that changeable nature of the djombi means that, although they are interesting, the villains never seem truly evil and thus the stakes are not quite high enough for there to be real tension. Also there’s no recipe for honeycakes.
It’s an enjoyable read, both progressive and intelligent, and well worth putting on your TBR pile.
Karen Lord writes for the Huffington Post about being a Writer From Another Culture:
Almost every interview I have done as an author has presented me with some variation of this question: ‘What is it like, being a writer from another culture?’. It’s a tricky question and there are no straightforward answers. What is culture? Writers of fiction use a more flexible vocabulary than scientists, so let me reassure any sociologists who are reading that I will use the word ‘culture’ very loosely to talk about the filters through which we absorb information and the frameworks we use to understand the world. It is not limited to nationality, although nationality certainly plays a part, as do several other aspects that make up an individual’s identity.
Culture resembles light. It is only invisible in a vacuum (the deep darkness of space), and it reveals itself by illuminating whatever it touches (the brightness of dust motes in a ray of sunlight). Most authors write in a vacuum, immersed in the familiar, the commonplace, drenched in culture so pervasive that it can only be noticed when it is bouncing off foreign objects. Words are the medium, and so language is the first foreign object illuminated. I’m always fascinated at the editing process between American English, British English, and Caribbean English. The American publishers convert my spelling; the British publishers check my grammar, and some words and phrases I avoid completely because the likelihood of misunderstanding is too great. I write imaginary worlds with their own dialect and slang, which makes editing even more interesting. – continue reading!
Interview and Discussion with author Karen Lord
By Chesya Burke
I’ve had the distinct pleasure of being asked to interview the fabulous author of Redemption of Indigo, Karen Lord. I spoke with her over the course of several weeks and got to know her as a writer. Karen’s a fascinating person and it was wonderful spending so much time picking her brain.
Chesya Burke: Instead of doing the standard introductions and wasting time, let’s get to what brought people here. Karen, can you tell us little about yourself and your inspirations? How did you come into writing?
Karen Lord: By reading non-stop! I’ve been reading constantly since as far back as I can remember, and my mother made sure I was well-supplied with books. (I dedicated Redemption in Indigo to her memory.) Writing is only a way to get control of the business of storytelling so I can have more stories that I like, or that interest me.
As for those who inspired me – that’s a long list. C. S. Lewis, for the richness of his stories and the way he got better as he grew older and wiser. I think Till We Have Faces is his best novel (he thought so too!) and it’s my favourite book. It has one of the best female protagonists written by a male author that I’ve read. Then there’s Ray Bradbury, whose stories are first and foremost about the human condition. ‘The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit’ is the one I like best. In it he uses magic, or the idea of magic, very subtly to tell us about people finding the power to become who they are.
A late discovery for me, but still notable, is Dorothy L. Sayers. I usually dislike novels that are secretly (or obviously) all about the author, but when I read Gaudy Night I found it had unexpected depths. It was much more than mere narcissism or wish-fulfillment. And finally, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark is another novel I look to when I’m pondering storycraft. Its structure is non-linear and so brilliantly done that you feel you’re working out a very satisfying puzzle.
As you can see, I love stories about different worlds: fantasy, future and past.
Chesya: Very impressive list of writers and stories, I agree. You said, “‘The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit’… uses magic, or the idea of magic, very subtly to tell us about people finding the power to become who they are.” I agree and find that Bradbury subtly uses his characters to tell very powerful stories. This is an impressive trait in a writer. That said, after reading Redemption in Indigo, I believe that you use this approach, as well as having your main character, Paama, using power to discover herself. Would you agree? Why is this so important to you?
Karen: I would agree, but only to a certain extent. Paama had power before she was given the Chaos Stick. If anything, using the Stick helped to show her that our choices are important whether we have limited power or allegedly unlimited power, and in either case we bear the consequences of both our choices and the choices of others. So I agree with you that she discovers herself through the use of power, but not merely the power bound up in a magical object.
It’s important to me because I don’t often see stories examining the use of power in a way that I can appreciate. I do tai chi and a bit of bagua, and if there’s one thing you learn from that kind of training it’s that power is as much about knowing when to yield as when to press forward. Perhaps I’m using the wrong word; perhaps it’s not so much power as efficiency – the judicious use of power to maximum effect. It may not look dramatic, but it will give you the results you want.
I don’t like stories that only focus on protagonists with a superpower, or a destiny, or beauty or wealth or fame. I love seeing that subverted, like Bradbury did in ‘The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit’.
Chesya: In your opinion, what makes a good story?
Karen: I don’t think there’s any way to quantify that. For myself, I need characters who strive, grow and find some degree of triumph, even if it’s bittersweet. I like a certain level of resolution in plots, but I don’t mind a rambling, random tale because life can be like that. I enjoy humour, a balance of virtue and vice, and well-drawn minor characters. But these are simply ingredients, and things can still go wrong when assembling the dish. The real way for me to know a good story is: did it make me forget where I was while I was reading it? Did it go with me when I closed the book? Will I remember it ten years from now? Did it show me the world in a new way, or give me a new world entirely?
I’ve been surprised more than once by a story that looks like it should be a mess when you list its constituent parts, but when the whole is considered, it’s a remarkably good tale. That’s why I say there’s no way to quantify it. It’s a sweet mystery.
Chesya: I can’t express enough how much I agree with you. Especially this statement: “The real way for me to know a good story is: did it make me forget where I was while I was reading it? Did it go with me when I closed the book? Will I remember it ten years from now? Did it show me the world in a new way, or give me a new world entirely?” I notice lately, however, that more and more writers talk about simply wanting to tell a “good” story, which of course is hard enough, but the implication seems to be that these two things are mutually exclusive. As if somehow telling a good story is not also making reader think or “making them see the world in a new way.” Have you ever gotten this impression? What’s your opinion?
Karen: I’ve been that person, once upsetting a writer leading a workshop by declaring loudly and foolishly that I ‘just wanted to tell stories, not write literature’. So it would be hypocritical of me to complain when other people do it. I think my problem at the time was that I didn’t have a good understanding of what makes a story ‘literature’. Nor do I now –
Chesya: I’d love to hear your ideas, though.
Karen: I’m still working on it. But here goes.
Literature should tell more than one story . . . even use one story to tell another. There must be layers of meaning and interpretation. Although it is possible to tell a ‘good story’ using only one or two dimensions, the richness of literature comes from the myriad of stories it contains. Those are the books you must go back to because you’ll discover something new with every visit.
Having said that, this is where I can only return to ‘it’s a mystery’. You may think you know which elements in what configuration will produce that alchemy of ‘a good and multidimensional story’, but (and I speak only for myself) it’s a capricious muse at the best of times. I have read complex, well-crafted literature that was dull, navel-gazing and pretentious. I have read rollicking good adventure stories that were ultimately shallow and forgettable. There’s a sweet spot between those two that I love to read and want to write.
Chesya: Interesting. I found the more and more I began to write and read, the more the books I wanted to read and the books I liked to read began to blend together. As most writers, I read broadly and in every genre imaginable. Still, I found that scifi, fantasy, horror, mystery, ect. tended to explore that part of ourselves and cultures that is undefined. It allows for many broad possibilities. Do you find that these genres satisfy something in the human psyche that mainstream doesn’t? Vice versa?
Karen: That depends. Speculative fiction encompasses so many variations that I would hesitate to say it performs that role all the time and for everyone. I know some people who hate science fiction and fantasy. Sometimes when they say that they mean that they find the burden of made-up tech and made-up languages too heavy to bear, and I won’t argue with that. It’s not to everyone’s taste. What I think people do respond to (and what I believe you might be referring to) is a touch of myth – a certain kind of story that is constantly retold and becomes part of the cultural communication. That’s one of the reasons some people find it hard to appreciate speculative fiction from other countries. They simply haven’t been educated in the common myths that are part of that culture’s daily conversation. Mainstream novels can certainly have that quality of myth without having any speculative content, and thereby fulfil that same purpose (i.e. of satisfying something in the human psyche), but I do agree that speculative fiction gives us more ways (and more creative ways) to spin old tales.
But there’s so much overlap, so much fuzziness in genre-vs-mainstream questions. There are also different cultural expectations of what constitutes a fantasy or horror element. When is a ghost story horror and when is it mainstream? I’m less and less satisfied with the genre definitions I’ve been given. I find myself returning instead to myth, symbolism and layered communication of concepts, and how well any novel of any genre handles these things.
Chesya: Genre-vs-mainstream is a fuzzy subject, but what would an interview be without asking it?
Karen: Very true!
Chesya: I’m intrigued by your mention of cultural expectations and why some people find it hard to appreciate speculative fiction from other countries. It seems that many people don’t have an issue with some cultures such as Euro-centric inspired ones (Greek, Celtic and Norse Myth Cycles come to mind). However, other cultures, such as African and Middle Eastern seems to be ignored. And when it comes to Asia on the whole, it seems like many people think that those cultures begin and end with China and Japan. Do you find this to be the case? If so, want to discuss why?
Karen: I think stories from cultures that are already prominent in the global media and entertainment industry are seen as more accessible, even when their audience has only experienced that culture secondhand or via a highly stylized depiction (like Austen’s England or High School America). As a result, some people find so many stories set within the bounds of their acceptance and understanding that they won’t make the effort to sample anything different. Note that I say some people. I believe the problem lies more with risk-averse producers and marketers than it does with ineducable consumers. You can’t acquire a taste for something if you’re never exposed to it.
Chesya: I know artists don’t like to toot their own horns, so you can fully blame me for this next question. Having been published for a relatively short time you’ve won some impressive awards and garnered much deserved attention. Can you tell us a little about the awards and accolades you’ve received?
Karen: Thanks for the opportunity. 😀
I’m very grateful that Redemption in Indigo has received awards, particularly these ones! It gained its first award in early 2009. The Frank Collymore Literary Award is a Barbadian prize for unpublished work, and the committee includes academics, award-winning authors and poets, and cultural professionals. You may have first prize shared between two entries in one year or no first prize at all in another year. It’s purely about the quality of the work, and not about choosing an annual best. Kamau Brathwaite has won that award. I was in shock when my manuscript won. It made me think seriously about moving my writing from hobby to career.
After the book was published, it won the 2011 Crawford Award for best fantasy novel by a new writer. This award is judged by a committee of editors, reviewers, publishers, academics and writers and is connected to the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts. The list of past winners and nominees is impressive, filled with authors who went on to develop long and illustrious careers (no pressure!). I was particularly grateful for that award because it proved to me that the book was accessible to readers beyond the Caribbean, and could be considered genre as well as literary.
I want to mention an award I did not win: the 2011 Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature, a new regional award for published work. Redemption in Indigo made the longlist with three other books of fiction, three non-fiction, and three poetry. It was very affirming to get recognition at the regional level, especially when I looked at the calibre of the other fiction nominees chosen by the committee. However, what really got my attention in poetry and non-fiction was the presence of two Nobel Prize winners – Derek Walcott and V. S. Naipaul – plus Kamau Brathwaite and Edwidge Danticat! Being on the same list as those names was a prize all by itself!
Most recently, Redemption in Indigo was awarded the 2011 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature. I’m very happy about this award! It’s the first award I’ve won where my work was in competition with books by long-established, award-winning novelists. It’s based on the spirit of the Inklings, a group which includes two of my favourite authors. Finally, it’s a juried award connected to the Mythopoeic Society, a group of academics with an interest in mythmaking – a subject which has been peripheral to my own academic studies as well as a personal fascination.
I had the additional pleasure of seeing Redemption in Indigo make the 2010 Locus Recommended Reading list (First Novels) and the 2010 Amazon’s Top Ten SF/F (Editor’s Picks). It also got starred reviews from Booklist and Publishers Weekly.
Now it’s just been nominated for a World Fantasy Award, which is absolutely amazing!
Chesya: Nice list of awards! Can you tell us about this move from writing for a hobby to it being a career?
Karen: I suppose I can thank the recession for that! I had just completed my PhD and it was a bad time for getting research work. I had time on my hands, and I felt a curious sense of obligation after winning the Colly – that I should prove I wasn’t a one-shot wonder. In addition to learning more about the writing process, I set myself to research as much as I could about the publishing industry. I’d done a little research previously, mostly on British publishers and agents, but I took it further: contracts, typical author career paths, frequency of novel output and whether to add short stories to that, key names and networks in the field . . . and so on.
Chesya: So with all you’ve learned and researched, do you have any advice for new writers?
Karen: Research aside, I’m pretty new at it myself, so I can’t offer anything that they haven’t heard already. In fact, with so much advice available, I’d tell them to research and ask and check for themselves, because although people mean well, some advice simply isn’t relevant to your particular situation and skills.
There are a few timeless staples, however. Write without fear, edit without mercy and don’t quit your day job yet.
Chesya: Great advice. Thanks so much for talking with me, Karen. It was a wonderful discussion.
Karen: My pleasure! I really enjoyed this.
Chesya Burke was called “a formidable new master of the macabre” by no less a person than Samuel Delany. She is the author of short story collection Let’s Play White.
I am delighted to introduce this week’s original feature, a round table on women in SF, from a global perspective, with some of our favourite authors. Without further ado:
(Global) Women in Science Fiction Round Table
With: Aliette de Bodard (France), Joyce Chng (Singapore), Csilla Kleinheincz (Hungary), Kate Elliott (US), Karen Lord (Barbados), Ekaterina Sedia (Russia/US)
Kate: It’s difficult for me to articulate all the strands of thought interweaving in my head when I think about this. I’m going to throw this out just as a kind of fragmented opener that barely touches on the core issues and is mostly definitional, for which I apologize.
One place I could start is with Joyce’s mention in her excellent rant on the World SF blog of the very term “World SF.” I’m glad the World SF blog exists; I think it needs to exist. At the same time, “world sf” becomes a bit like the current use of the word “ethnic” in American English: it denotes a particular thing that has to be marked because it isn’t the thing that doesn’t have to be marked. Just as we have an entire discussion about “women writers” instead of “writers.” World SF still exists outside the default, and can be ignored or included depending on the needs of the discussion, because the discussion is indeed still US/UK-centric and, of course, Anglophone-centric (which I admit is great for me, being a native English speaker).
It would be easy to criticize sff as a genre form of cultural imperialism, but I don’t think the global world culture is so easy to categorize these days. Not that the reach of advertising dollars and multinational companies don’t skew the larger global cultural picture, because they do, but we have only to look at the global music scene to see how musical styles from one place can both reach out and be woven into music from another place. Sometimes this is appropriative, but more often it reflects (I think) the normal human tendency to gather and weave.Caribbean-American writer Tobias Buckell just posted a fabulous account of AnimeKon, held in Barbados (Karen can speak to this as she was there). To me one of the salient points I take away from his post is that sff, anime, manga, and film has become/is becoming a shared global cultural mix. To my mind, the way it will remain vibrant and urgent and alive is insofar as it is embraced, changed, mashed up, and transfigured by that global reach.
Karen: I’m glad Kate mentioned AnimeKon. While we were there, I asked Tobias things like ‘how does the gender balance here compare to other cons you’ve been to’, ‘are there more males than females buying your books’, and so on. I’ve heard that Dragon Con has a similar good mix of gender and age, but other cons can be very age- and gender-specific. To me it isn’t unusual to see all kinds of people enjoying all kinds of SF/F, and daring to create it too!
I think that some genre boundaries become self-fulfilling prophecies. It might be a consequence of the kind of marketing mentality that says to the reader ‘If you liked Author X, you will love Author Y!’ It may make for easy marketing, but it trains readers to be unadventurous, and then pushes new authors to fit into established moulds if they hope to sell – or even get published, for that matter. Potential new readers are being passed over because a lot of genre publishing rarely takes risks. You have to look to small presses, literary presses for that.
I realise I haven’t really addressed the questions, but that’s because they’re not so much loaded as … not entirely relevant to my experience? Yes, the conversation has been UK/US-centric thus far. Does that mean that gender in SF/F is more of an issue in those countries? Or that too few have sufficient knowledge of literary traditions in other countries to broaden the discussion? Science fiction more appealing to men? Not according to me, nor to my female friends. Have I written science fiction? I have, but it hasn’t been published yet (though the manuscript did win an award). It didn’t feel different, or special. Was it supposed to? I have a major in physics and a minor in astronomy. Does that exempt me? Someone did tell me once, years ago, that physics isn’t a girl’s subject. I think I laughed in his face.
Csilla: What struck me most in Joyce’s rant was the bitter truth of world SF being exotic curiosity. As Kate had mentioned, the discussion about women writers and even any discussion about SFF is heavily US/UK-centric, making it seem more important, which is a misconception fed by the fact that even though English language serves as an intermediary when it comes to SFF, only 3% of all books published in the US is a work in translation (I don’t know the percentage for SFF but my guess is it’s even more dismal). There are wonderful gems of SFF literature all over the world, by women and men alike, and the English-speaking world, the great common marketplace of the SF doesn’t even know of, and by lacking an edition in English, other countries remain also ignorant of these (with a few exceptions of course). Take “Vita Nostra” by Maryna and Sergey Dyachenko (Ukraine), or the WonderTimes tetralogy by Etelka Görgey (Hungary) (http://sfmag.hu/2011/01/11/etelka-gorgey-wondertimes-religion-family-saga-and-science-fiction-in-four-volumes/): they will only be recognized globally if they get translated to English. That is a task a non-English speaking writer has to bend to – on the other hand, being present in English also opens a lot of doors (doors that are by default open to native speakers).
World SF is a colourful and invisible mass, with only limited permeability. English is the language that should serve as an intermediary yet it shouldn’t only be the responsibility of the writers themselves to translate and promote their work. The view the world gets about world SF is distorted: the ones who master English or are able to get a good translator get published (if they are lucky) while others remain mostly unknown. World SF is an iceberg with only the tip visible and it would do well to raise awareness of it for SFF would only benefit from the cultural cross-pollination. Non-English speaking writers get plenty of influence from translated US/UK works. This should be a two-way channel.
I am not saying of course that everything that gets published in other countries is brilliant. It isn’t. World SF has the same percentage of crap as US/UK SF. Hungarian science fiction, for example, is mostly stuck in time and is definitely dominated by men – to tie the conversation back to the original women writers discussion. This is partly due to the fact that there was a long hiatus in the publication of science fiction, and even before that, the translated works were mostly Golden Age works, with only a handful of women writers like Ursula K. Le Guin and Andre Norton. Neuromancer came in only in 1992, and Hungarian writers were slow to follow. The retro character of Hungarian science fiction is also a direct result of publishing and awarding mediocre works that are ignorant of the themes and changes in global science fiction. Although there are Hungarian science fiction writers who read and write modern works, we never had a New Wave movement, and only have isolated attempts at quality. As there are only a few Hungarian female role models in SF, women are discouraged and leave the genre, which only enforces the artificially upheld notion that science fiction is only for men. Even awareness that this is a problem is lacking.
After SF Signal’s Mind Meld Gábor Takács, editor of the Hungarian magazine SFmag made the statistics based on the majority of Hungarian science fiction short stories in 2010 to see how many women were published (19%) and how many stories feature a female protagonist (7%). (http://sfmag.hu/2011/06/17/zsoldos-dijra-jelolt-novellak-ertekelese-statisztika-es-osszegzes/) Our only science fiction award, the Péter Zsoldos Award has a 14 years old history, yet there has not been a single woman winner either in the novel or the short story category (in spite of the jury having strong chairwomen). Many of the women who write SFF in Hungary are not even published and have to turn to POD or self-publishing, and not because of the lack of talent. Before being recognized as part of world SF they need to be recognized in their own country, hardships that those who have the privilege of being men or US citizens or native speakers are not aware of.
Writers all over the world would benefit from being judged on a global scale. World SF needs the raised awareness as much as women writers do — and needs a lot more publishers who raise that three percent.
Aliette: this is raising a lot of points, and, like Kate, I’m not quite sure how to tackle them in an orderly fashion. While the world is a more complex place than it was during the Cold War, I don’t think we’re quite past the cultural imperialism of the US–or, at any rate, that science fiction hasn’t quite got over it. As far as the genre is concerned, English is the language, and Western Anglophone the reference (not the case, for instance, with mysteries, which can get translated more easily, though there are still a lot of problems). SF in particular has very strong US roots and US sensibilities: in France, we had a period of our SF aping the Golden Age (we got over it, but it was painful while it lasted). I’m not saying it’s deliberate imperialism, just the sort of unconscious bleed-out from a dominant culture, coupled with the tendency not to question its “superiority”.
Reading Joyce’s article, the one other thing that I wanted to comment on was the use of “minorities”. I think a clear difference needs to be made between minorities in the US (who might have a hard time getting heard because of the White-dominated publishing industry), and non-US, non-Western folks (who, not being part of the dominant culture and the dominant country, have an even harder time). I don’t think the distinction is clear enough right now, and it leads to people lumping everything together and claiming that the debate is inclusive because US POC are having their say (which is an important thing, but again not the whole of the scene). What I saw of Racefail, for instance, was heavily focused on US sensibilities and US perception of racism. Again, I’m pretty sure other corners of the web had other discussions, but the dominant voice was that of US people.
The fact that the discussion is centred on SF is… I’m not quite sure how to articulate it. I appreciate the Russ Pledge, I really do; but it does leave a slight impression that SF is the important genre, and that fantasy doesn’t even bear mentioning. Of course, it’s always the case when you start putting genre boundaries; but there’s something about this that bothers me. You could argue that we’re making the Russ Pledge because fantasy doesn’t need it; but I’m not even entirely sure that this is the case. All major fantasy bestsellers are written by men, and there are known biases in that genre as well. I’m not quite sure what to think. Still, I guess we have to start somewhere in order to tackle inequalities.
Hum. I realise I haven’t tackled a lot of the questions either… Have I written science fiction? A little–it didn’t feel like me to be appealing more to men than to women, though science fiction written by women does tend to appeal more to me than that written by men. I’m not entirely sure why; probably personal taste. Tales entirely focused on science at the detriment of everything else tend to leave me cold, but that’s because I’m a scientist myself, and science in novels, even if really well done, reminds me too much of work (but my husband, a physicist by trade, is equally bored by that kind of tale, so it’s probably not a gender thing).
I’m curious. Do you think that what women write (and read) tends to have a slightly different sensibility than what men write? (I’m not saying it’s a rule, just a trend) Not sure how to articulate it, but even my husband, who is very open-minded and progressive, reads way more men than women; while I read both equally.
Kate: Karen, what were Toby’s observations about gender and age balance at AnimeKon?
I should note that I agree with Aliette about cultural imperialism. I was trying to say I think it is no longer only cultural imperialism that gives sff/anime/etc its global reach. The degree to which these subjects and forms show up cross culturally speak to a more universal form, if you will, of how they connect with certain readers and viewers as we move further into the 21st century. (And, off topic, I agree completely about Racefail. It was a hugely important and valuable discussion, but it was deeply US-centric and at times unaware that it was so.)
I learned more about Hungarian sf (and the difficulties faced by women writing in the genre there) from reading what Csilla just wrote than anything I had ever known before, which to me is symptomatic of how fenced-in the Anglophone US/UK market can be and how difficult it is to get non-English works translated into English, much less sell them to consumers. For example, I was introduced to Argentine writer Angelica Gorodischer through Small Beer Press’s 2003 edition of Kalpa Imperial, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin, yet when I check Amazon.com, I don’t see any English editions of her many other works.
Regarding the history of sf, I’d be curious to hear from Ekaterina, because it seems to me that Russian and Eastern European sf writers were deeply influential in the evolution of the field, not to mention that the word “robot” comes from a Czech writer.
This discussion brings me to think of the resorts that dot the world, where Westerners can travel to “exotic” destinations while remaining in the comfort of familiar surroundings whose decor varies in pleasing but not too demanding ways. The obstacles facing world sf writers are really profound, and for women, I think, doubly so.
I have more to say (or at least questions to ask) about Lavie’s question about the greater discussion focusing on science fiction and leaving aside fantasy and urban fantasy/paranormal, especially as it affects the visibility of women who may be writing not in English in those genres which often do not get the same level of respect sf does. But I’m thrashing around trying to make sense of my chaotic thoughts. And that’s leaving aside Aliette’s question about reading and writing sensibilities! My time zone is headed for bed; I’ll return in the morning.
Csilla: Thank you, Aliette, your thoughts on cultural imperialism. It reminded me that there was a time when the Western dominance in SF was a relative thing. Ekaterina could tell more about the Soviet fantastika that defined the SF literature of the whole socialist block in Europe and Asia. We grew up reading People Like Gods by Sergey Snegov, Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers, The Cyberiad and Eden by Stanislaw Lem, books that had defined our perception of science fiction as much as Ursula K. Le Guin or Asimov. With the borders opening it seems to me that we have traded this diversity and co-existence of cultures for the previously banned works of Western science fiction, unconsciously giving in to the notion that Western SF is somehow superior.
Now that I think back, the Soviet SF books I read were mostly written by men with only a few women writers. I am sure the contribution of women in the Soviet fantastika must have been greater than the handful of stories I encountered, but Ekaterina surely knows more about it. Just like Kate I am also curious how fantastika has changed during the past years.
Joyce: Okay, jumping in right here as I manage to get some time on the computer to do non-work stuff. What Aliette has asked is very pertinent: I believe that what women write (and read) tends to have a (slightly) different sensibility than what men write. Then again, I would expand on the question. What are women expected to write? If we are expected to write romance, then that is just stereotyping. If we write science fiction, are we expected to write ‘soft’ science fiction?
I think as women SFF writers, we are expected to conform to a certain stereotype. What happens to women who write hard science fiction?
Joyce: I feel that – as what I have ranted – is that the discussion is still very US/UK-centric. It is fine that the POC and minorities are speaking out in – say – the States, but that is still very US-centric/dominated. I also feel that women from places like Southeast Asia might not have the same experiences/common ground to talk about and we end up grappling and confused. There is a lot of intersectionality – what are Southeast Asian women (with different experiences/backgrounds) going to say? What are Southeast Asian women supposed to say? Likewise, when it comes to SFF, what we experience might be similar but vastly different as well. Often as such, we end up trying to conform to foreign-sounding standards and end up feeling confused.
I grew up watching Star Trek and many other American SFF shows. At the same time, I watched wu xia series (Jin Yong, anyone?) and listened to Chinese legends. So in a way, I am straddling in between two worlds. I was not American (because I am not), but I grappled with issues of identity and self-perception. The educational system in Singapore was based on the Anglo-Saxon system, thanks to British colonialism. I think and speak in English… and struggle with my Mandarin Chinese. I speak Cantonese than Hokkien, my mother tongue, simply because my mother was brought up Cantonese by her mother.
How am I going to approach SFF with this skein of experiences?
Wolf At The Door was written as a challenge to norms (that Southeast Asian urban fantasy is just as interesting and perhaps more diverse than the US/UK ones). I write urban fantasy, yes… but I am also interested in ‘soft’ science fiction. Many of my SFF stories deal with future worlds colonized by Terrans. These Terrans often deal with their own identities beside coping with new flora and fauna. Are their languages going to change or are they going to remain the same? Will they change their traditions or integrate new experiences into them to form cultural hybrids? I explore such issues in my SFF stories. I do believe science fiction is changing. Note: I hasten to add that science fiction will only change, when people are willing to change and incorporate new ideas/ideologies/beliefs. Science fiction is no longer an old boys’ institution.
I hope to see more Southeast Asian women writing SFF. I believe there are many (I am one of the editors of a new anthology – “Hybrid”!) and I do see women writing. I also hope to see more non-US/UK women writing SFF. I am heartened from what I see in the roundtable discussion! Perhaps the iron gates will open… in the future.
Karen: ‘Soft’ sci-fi – that’s like what Ray Bradbury wrote, right? Let’s assume, purely for the sake of argument, that women are inclined (nature or culture?) to write and to enjoy a certain type of fiction. Is there a hint of judgement attached, that the male-dominated subgenres are, if not more lucrative, more prestigious? More likely to be ‘true’ sci-fi? I have a vague impression, completely unsupported, that more women write speculative fiction that crosses from genre into literary (there’s another arbitrary boundary with value judgements attached). Do male writers who produce soft, near-literary sci-fi find themselves overlooked when it comes to awards and mentions from genre reviewers?
I think that the problem isn’t whether women write or read different things. It’s the imposition of boundaries and the assigning of value that’s the problem – whether that boundary is genre vs literary, world sf vs Western, or women writers vs men. As a reader, I don’t want to miss out because the next great SF/F writer happens to be the ‘wrong gender’ and has been discouraged from writing what they’re best at writing.
Kate, I just checked in with Tobias to make sure I’m not misquoting him in public! He says that he found the AnimeKon gender balance and age distribution to be much closer to Comic Con than WorldCon (with Comic Con having the better age and gender mix), and in fact the female attendance at AnimeKon was even better than Comic Con. He also reminded me that the gender balance extended to the organisers (one male, two female), something which we both agree must make a difference.
Kate: Karen, absolutely on organization. I’m chuffed by these observations about the balance and distribution at AnimeKon. Also, I’m watching you write in real time as I’m writing this. Kind of cool. Now I have to go walk the dog, though.
Kate: Without wanting to take anything away from the genuine problems women writers of science fiction have in, say, the UK, where it is clear they are deeply underrepresented compared to how many are and could be writing sf, I think you’re all identifying a potentially bigger point.
By focusing on sf are we privileging it as a more “serious” or “prestigious” form of writing? Are urban fantasy and paranormal looked down on because of their subject matter and approach–their sensibility, as Aliette says? Are there more non US/UK women writing urban fantasy? Are these women being ignored both because of the issues relating to English translation and because of the status of urban fantasy itself? Would a man writing sf be more likely to be picked up for translation than a woman writing urban fantasy or paranormal, because sf is taken as a more “serious” and therefore more “important” genre? Is there a “sensibility” in female written uf or fantasy or sf that is seen as less serious and important, so therefore can be derided or dismissed?
I’m not one to agree with essentialist views of gender. There may be essential differences between male and female, but to my way of thinking our cultural blankets obscure what those might be. However, I do think that just because of culture and societal conditioning and expectations that many women may well write with a view or focus whose sensibility may differ in some ways from that of men. At the same time as women’s “concerns” are often dismissed as trivial or unimportant, the way we as women view and examine the world is often dismissed as “the wrong way” or not “the right way” and thus women fall afoul of being judged as not worthy of a greater readership. This can influence how women writers are read, and how they are reviewed, and whether they’re published at all or can get past the gatekeepers.
Some months ago in an online venue, I read the comments section of an article whose subject I don’t recall except that it was about fantasy or sf. But in the comments several well known male fantasy writers said the most demeaning and insulting things about urban fantasy and paranormal; it was so sexist it shocked me, not that it should have, but it did anyway. They were younger men (i.e. younger than I am); I really thought they would have known better or been beyond that, but they weren’t. It made me sad. I suppose it’s possible to argue that if urban fantasy/paranormal sells well, then publishers will be more likely to take on translations, as they do with mysteries, yet I do wonder even with mysteries if anyone has done a statistical study of the male/female breakdown of how many non-English-language mysteries have been translated into English. As Aliette points out, does the greater representation of women in fantasy (as compared to sf) mean equal representation in all aspects, such as promotion and bestseller lists? In epic fantasy I would say emphatically no; in urban fantasy I would say yes–within the English language market. Yet I still don’t think that makes it easier for the non-English writer to move into the English language market, especially not for women.
Kate: A brief comment which I won’t make again. It is so hard to step outside my US-centricity, even when I try to be conscious of it. So thanks for putting up with it here.
Karen: Kate, I should have stopped to read your comment before editing mine. That’s exactly what I’m getting at, the question of respect, and also inclusion. Why dismiss urban fantasy, or YA? Or why move the goalposts of definition to conveniently exclude from your genre a writer who might be outside the usual demographic of the genre’s writers and readers? Why should authors need to ‘neuter’ their names in order to appeal to male readers? For some reason, I’m thinking about the crime genre. Men happily read female crime writers, don’t they? Are the expectations different?
And 100% agreement with the need for more translated works, especially home-grown literature as opposed to imitations of golden age SF/F.
(By the way, I’m trying to be as ‘global’ as I can in my comments, but I’m an anglophone from a former British colony and can only do so much!)
Aliette: I was mentioning it earlier, but crime also feels fairly global, at least in France. I don’t have the data by genre, but I have read crime novels from a lot more sources than US/UK (Sweden, South Africa, China…) ; whereas most non-French SF and fantasy is translated from English. And yes, a lot of the big names in crime are female; it doesn’t seem to be the case in SF, at least in Anglophone countries.
On the question of inclusion: I agree with Karen and Kate that it’s a very problematic one, especially since the boundary between SF/fantasy/horror is so fluid–you can basically define it as it suits you. And, while the Russ pledge in urban fantasy would have no interest (except for men!), I think a modified version of it would have merits, ie not draw attention to the women writing it, but to the quality of what is being written. UF is very easily dismissed in the debate, and it’s making me quite ill at ease. In “male” terms, one possible analogue of UF would be military SF–which is overwhelmingly written by men–but I don’t see it being military SF being dismissed quite as fast as UF.
I’m not conversant enough with the French SF/F scene to tell whether there is misogyny at work. Certainly our biggest selling SF writer, Pierre Bordage, is a man; and one of the only French SF/F writers to be translated into English is Pierre Pevel. But on the other hand, you have people like Jeanne A-Debats, whose short stories and novels swept up all the major awards in France; or Charlotte Bousquet, who won the Prix Imaginales this year. I don’t know, it just doesn’t seem that matters are that bad here (but again, there might well be invisible factors at work that I don’t see). France, from my (somewhat biased and limited) point of view, has more of a literary sensitivity, and I think the French are not quite as fast to pigeonhole novels into one slot or another: the various genres and subgenres of SF/F do exist here, but you get books which cheerfully ignore all labels and go on to win awards and sell a reasonable amount of copies (though by Anglophone standards, “reasonable” would be pitifully low). Similarly, our two biggest sellers at the moment, at least according to Amazon, are George R R Martin and Robin Hobb (both translations, I know, but at least we have gender parity…)
I do wonder about those rare SF/F books being translated into English–aren’t nearly all of those written by men (not to mention bestsellers in their home countries)? I can think of Pierre Pével, Sergei Lukyanenko, Dmitry Glukhovsky, etc., but I have to admit I can’t put my finger on a single woman in the lot…(also doing my best, but remember I’m seeing the French SF scene through a tiny little pinpoint of living in the country and reading some of the books. I haven’t actually hung out with that many authors and got “the inside picture”, so to speak)
Ekaterina: I’m sorry to disappoint, but since I am living in the US now (and for the past twenty years) I’m not as current on Russian SF as I should be. However, there are certainly a few prominent women writers — for example, Dina Rubina who is not strictly SF, but certainly uses enough fantastic elements to be considered at least speculative. Then there are wonderful Maria Galina and Maria Chepurina, Mariam Petrosyan, and Yulia Zonis. And of course female writers are translated in even smaller numbers than male ones, although Petrosyan’s DOM V KOTOROM… is probably one of the best three books I read in years, just remarkable.
I feel like anything I’ll say I’ll be repeating myself, because basically I feel like I’ve been banging my head against the wall with this topic — the one-way street of SF, where English-language works get translated all over the world, while the reverse is not true. While we can talk about English being an equalizer language (as Csilla mentioned), it also works as an effective tool of exclusion: it is so dominant that the expectation is for the rest of the world to speak English, not to try and understand them. And even foreign writers who DO write in English are by no means on the level playing field with the native speakers: there is a pressure to write in one milieu, there’s a tendency of editors to assume that every non-standard usage is a mistake, there are not-so-subtle hints that maybe one didn’t write one’s books, etc etc.
Joyce’s post certainly brought up a ton of issues, and it is difficult to sort through all of them at once. One thing is true: it seems that the mainstream tolerates only one level of otherness (as in deviation from white male default) at a time. You can be a woman or a POC or a non-Anglophone, but if you’re more than one of those categories, frames of reference become increasingly divergent from the conditioned default (because let’s face it, with the penetration Hollywood and Western media have all over the world, pretty much everyone is exposed to and is expected to relate to a white American dude as a hero. Once you start introducing separators — race, gender, nationality — you lose chunks of audience. Sure, some people find different perspective interesting and refreshing, but many more find them alienating and difficult, especially when they are reading “for pleasure” (another weird phrase, because why the hell else would you read?) Really, the advantage of being a cultural dominant is that you don’t have to know how to relate to anyone else, and I have no answer as to how that can be changed. The irony is that as some of the US-based SF is becoming more internally diverse, it seems more closed off to the outside influences. If that makes any sense.
Joyce: Just to comment on the urban fantasy=female authors – the bookstores here in Singapore stock up on many US titles. Does this show that Singaporean readers are still fixated on US or indeed UK titles (and authors). There is one Singaporean author SM de Silva (female) who self-published her urban fantasy novel Blood on The Moon – but even then the reception of home-grown UF authors is not there. Many readers are still reading US and UK titles (okay, I hope I don’t sound as if I am whining…)
Then again, I have an impression even within the SFF world, paranormal romance is received with disdain or at least with a curl of the lips (that signify disgust/dislike?). I wonder why though. Is it because it’s been overdone or that paranormal romance (italics for emphasis) equates women’s writing?
Aliette: I know UF used not to sell at all in France; and it’s only in recent years that we’ve started having huge hits (our big editor Bradgelonne started a “Milady” imprint, and I understand it’s been selling like crazy, even more than epic fantasy). In many ways, it does feel (again), like the one-way street: the US are the trendsetter, and everyone else is following in their wake with a slight delay–but there is no import of, say, French or Chinese or Singaporean trends back into the Western Anglophone world (like Ekaterina, I’ve been banging my head against the wall at this state of things for a while).
Coming back to what Ekaterina is saying about US SF: I have also noticed this phenomenon of US SF becoming more diverse, but closing itself to external influences. I wonder how much of that is a feeling of “having paid their dues to diversity”, so to speak? There’s both the notion of each step from the norm being more and more costly, as Ekaterina said (US POC are already “different” enough for many people); and the equation of US minorities with their countries of origins. I suspect that the general perception is that SF is more diverse because minorities are finally having their say (and this is a good thing, don’t mistake me), and that people equate this with the notion that everyone in the world is having their say (which I don’t think is the case, even though there have been efforts with imprints like Haikasoru, and activism from Cheryl Morgan, Jeff Vandermeer, …).
In fact, thinking of Haikasoru, it occurs to me that quite possibly the only subgenre where this isn’t a one-way street is SF published in mangas. Not quite sure why that is, or why it’s limited to this particular medium?
Joyce: Oh yes, I agree with the feeling of “having paid their dues to diversity”. Have that masterlist with token POC/minority characters and they feel like they are good allies with a pass to get away from POC censure. Then again, what is a good ‘ally’? Cluebat: Everyone in the world is still not saying their say.Then again, why should US/UK take the lead?
Csilla: It seems to me that we are trying to tackle in one go problems that are interrelated yet cause serious headache even separately. The situation of women writers in general, the borders world SF has to tear down, the underappreciation of urban fantasy: they could be all traced back to the existence of a privileged class and privileged traits. It’s difficult for me to find an approach that could give an answer to all the questions above, so I will try to focus instead on fantasy as the conversation turned that way, although Aliette and Kate pretty much covered the main points.
What you said made me think about non-Western fantasy and science fiction, speculative fiction so different from what we used to label SF that even the writers and readers don’t realize it’s SF. This strangeness may come from the stylistic approaches of the mainstream, the themes and sometimes merely from the fact that these works reflect very strongly the angst and mentality of a certain nation. All non-Western countries have these books, but we are so used to being told what SF is and what SF should be that anything that doesn’t follow the US/UK trends automatically falls into the mash category of the mainstream (and I am not talking about magic realism, nor those who study literature, just the general idea of SF that lives in the heads of an average reader). Now that I think about it, it’s exactly these works that could contribute the most to the dynamism and diversity of global SF (as “world SF” is used to define non-US/UK SF I have the need of a more universal term, is there one…?) and perhaps bend a little the boundary of what is SF.The problem is, just like Ekaterina said, that the more the fiction deviates from the default, some of the audience is lost. Strangeness is a spice that is tolerated but people like to enjoy it with moderation.And this is the drawback of English language serving as a mediator. While being published in English is clearly the most effective way for a non US/UK writer to make her work available to readers all over the world, English language publishing is not a non-profit organization. The preferences of the editors and publishers shape the genre, and they go for what they know will be selling, because it’s familiar or at least not too strange to be a turn-off, just strange enough to get favorable reception. And why would readers pick up a foreign novel if most of the review sites don’t even mention it and are all about Western publications?World SF writers may try other venues if the big publishers turn them down, and they do, but they need compensation for the lack of privilege or else it won’t be a big surprise that in a race where some people run free and some in sacks, those with tied feet will always falter behind the privileged.I hope this makes sense. As I have never lived in the US/UK I don’t have a firm understanding of its SF industry so my guess at what publishers or readers like or not like is just a speculation.
Joyce: Yes, you made sense, Csilla. People are still in sacks and those with tied feet are still faltering. That’s my main beef/worry/concern when it comes to Western publications. Diversity is one thing. But actually walking the talk is another.
Csilla: Aliette, I have seen that France has a wonderful and rich comic culture – here in Hungary when French SF comes up it’s the BDs that are mentioned, Metabarons, Enki Bilal’s and Jean-Claude Gal’s works etc. Perhaps they could serve as the foot French writers could plant in the door to keep it from closing?
Aliette: (just a tangent on BDs) Csilla, I think it’s been tried before. A couple of French BDs were translated for the US market, and they didn’t work so well. More than anything, it highlighted the differences in conception between a French BD and a US comic: a French BD is a series of long episodes that are usually published a year or so apart, the individual episodes being quite thicker than a comic (usually 50 A4 pages, sometimes more). They can be standalone episodes, but also part of an ongoing series: Universal War One, for instance, one of my fave time travel SF series, is a complete story in six volumes. Comics are usually released issue by issue (sometimes day by day for the online strips); and I know there have been some problems with that when Marvel tried to publish translated BDs: there was backlash, centred on the fact that the individual episodes weren’t complete, and that people would have to wait a long time for the sequel. I think that, because the individual episodes were far longer than a single comic issue, readers expected them to be complete stories in and of themselves.
There are also very different expectations on storyline, and even on art, which I don’t think help the BDs reach into the US. But if there’s a way to export them elsewhere, I’d be all for it. BDs are a treasured part of my childhood, and they shaped me way more than golden age SF/F.
Csilla: Aliette, thank you for your answer. It’s interesting as it also highlights the difference in mentality and expectations; other Europeans usually have no problem reading BDs.
Karen: Csilla said something I found really striking: ‘speculative fiction so different from what we used to label SF that even the writers and readers don’t realize it’s SF’. The boundaries of SF are drawn differently for different cultures, or simply don’t exist. Redemption in Indigo is speculative fiction, but most of the Caribbean readers I’ve talked to don’t encounter it as fantasy. Our literature has a long tradition of incorporating supernatural elements, and for some readers ‘fantasy genre’=elves & orcs.And here’s my favourite bit from Csilla, bolded:
This strangeness may come from the stylistic approaches of the mainstream, the themes and sometimes merely from the fact that these works reflect very strongly the angst and mentality of a certain nation.
Now, as a reader, I want that. I want to read a book or short story so evocative of another time or place that I am positively inspired to go to the library or the Internet and research the non-fiction sources of the tale. I want stories that test me so much with their difference that I need to read more authors of that country, to get into the habit of listening to their particular idiom.The irony is that traditional UK/US SF/F has so much created its own idiom that it does not realise the extent to which it has become opaque to the mainstream reader. The tropes and homages are all known to the insider, but to the outsider they add another layer of difference and difficulty. And yet much of ‘global’ SF, with its lack of adherence to the UK/US rules, could end up being more accessible to the mainstream reader, especially those who are allergic to Tolkien and technology. It probably just has to be marketed right.