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.
Part 2 of our roundtable on Non-Western SF. Part 1 is here.
Participating: Aliette de Bodard (France), Joyce Chng (Singapore), Requires Hate(Thailand), Rochita Loenen-Ruiz (Philippines/The Netherlands),Ekaterina Sedia (Russian/USA), Rachel Swirsky (USA).
Aliette: We talk about colonisation, which is mostly a phenomenon of the past (but which has left marks and scars everywhere that will take a long time to fade); but I think we need to bring up globalisation. It’s often lauded as a way which makes the world smaller so that cultures can meet. In reality, it’s immensely problematic, because what it has mostly done is homogenise everything to a common US/European framework and deny the values and identities of the people from outside that framework in, I think, a more insidious way than colonisation. Many people (especially in the West) suffer from the illusion that colonisation is dead; but it’s not. It lives on in its new incarnation; and it means we can talk about “universal stories” and “universal tropes” with such glibness–and forget that a large chunk of the world follows very different values and mindsets from the “default”, Western Anglophone one. Like requireshate says, there’s a really pernicious assumption that everyone is part of the mass and subscribing to the same “core” values, whereas nothing could be further from the truth. And there remains a fundamental power imbalance between the Western, English-speaking world and the non-Western countries–an imbalance that notably gets expressed in literature, and in the one-way street that means books get translated from English into pretty much every country in the world, but 0.3% of books published in the US are actually translated into English.
Joyce: Oh yes, globalization is insidious. Everyone is equal. Shrinking world. Blah blah blah. Everyone holds hands and we are friends. No. The scars of colonization are still there. Many former colonies are left with the issues to deal with. 😦
requireshate: When I go to a bookstore, there are veritable shelves of translated fiction–a fair bit from Japanese and Chinese, but vastly dominated by English-language fiction in translation. It’s what a lot of kids grow up reading, and it’s pretty awful to see so many covers featuring white girls (localized YA fiction and paranormal romance: Vampire Academy, Sherilyn Kenyon, and so on). The same holds true for advertisements in cosmetics/hairstylist/etc sections in any shopping mall–chock-full of white women on display, even some black women, but starkly few Asian women! And then, only from brands that are Asian in origin anyway. Christian Dior, Lancome, whatever? All white ladies. And, again, clothes brands, lingerie, all white bodies. These western corporations didn’t even think of localizing their advertising materials. Why would they? White signals opulence, beauty, and desirability. White is good, attractive, and an ideal we should aspire to. All this without Thailand having ever been colonized.
Joyce: Ditto in Singapore. A lot of white girls. Sooo… what does it say about the effects of colonization/colonialism? That Singaporeans have colonized minds?
Aliette: it’s the same in Vietnam, at least in those few bookstores I went to: the bookshelves for fiction translated from Western English were larger than the ones for Vietnamese and Chinese fiction put together, and that’s not even counting Young Adult…
(and also the same, sadly, for beauty products displaying white models)
Rochita: I think you can say the same about The Philippines. When I went home last year, I was struck once again by the plethora of fiction in English. They dominated the shelves. I was hard put to find books written by Filipino writers. True, there were some I hadn’t read before, but the imbalance was mind-boggling.
What worries me about globalisation is how easy it is to buy into that mantra of a universal narrative. Argh. Just as well say people all look alike.
Addressing the question of Western people writing about or of a borrowed culture (I think I prefer that term), I believe it is possible to avoid the pitfall of exotization. It will probably take a good deal of reading and a good deal of time and energy investment, but I believe it will be well worth it to the reader and to the author. It’s not enough to visit a country (the tourist writer who goes “oh shiny, I wanna write about that because it’s so cool and different”). I think, as Requires Hate has pointed out, it’s important to at least engage the literature of the country. It may be difficult but I think a lot of the heart of a culture is revealed in the work written by the people themselves.
Let me tell you what an American person established in the publishing industry told me: I should buy a thick book of American poetry and read these poems everyday until I get the nuance of the language. When told this to visiting poet, JT Stewart, she said to me: No. You don’t need to do that because you write the language as you hear it in your ears. As you grew up hearing it and speaking it. Not as Americans do.
Aliette: Yes, there’s a very deep-seated assumption that Westerners are the reference for the English language–whereas the largest Anglophone country in the world is India, and there are plenty more non-Western countries where English is an official language. That’s not even getting into the mechanics that mean most of the world has to learn English as a second or third language just to get by, whereas most English speakers can afford to remain monolingual.
Coming back to the subject of writing in another culture: I, too, think it’s possible to do it well (if not perfectly, and probably not as insider narrative). I’d add talking to actual people from the culture and visiting (with locals, not expats!) to reading the books.
Rochita: I agree.
Aliette: Paraphrasing a 101 I gave to someone else about writing other cultures:
I think that, especially if you’re a Westerner doing another culture, you have responsibilities to do the best darn research you can (and not just appropriate the cool bits). You must take care not to promote harmful stereotypes ; especially since, as a Western writer (especially, but not only, if you live in the West), you must be aware that your narrative is going to be privileged over that of locals. That gives you extra responsibility to get it as right as you can.
You have to accept that your narrative will always be that of an outsider. Sometimes a privileged or particularly well-documented outsider; but it won’t be 100% accurate. It doesn’t mean it’s worthless, it doesn’t mean it can’t be good; but it does mean you have to be aware of the issues in writing outsider narrative (mostly that a lot of other people have been doing it badly, badly wrong over decades); and thus be very careful of what you put on the page.
You might get called on what you wrote; you might be accused of getting things wrong. This is the frustrating part, because there really isn’t any other answer that you can give but “sorry, will do better”, even if you think the other person’s experience isn’t “representative” (whatever that hoary term means). You basically aren’t speaking in a position of authority about the culture, even if you researched it to death. (that’s the bit I struggle most with, incidentally. But I totally understand where it’s coming from).
But, honestly, when I see the mistakes that piss off people like requireshate, it starts with very basic stuff like getting names wrong, or over-exoticising the everyday. When I read a story about Vietnam or France, most of the stuff that makes me want to throw it at the wall is on the same basic level of wrong names, followed by wrong mindsets (I once read a story in which a 17th-Century Vietnamese struck his father and didn’t feel remorse about it. Not likely unless we’re talking psychopath). The mindset is a surprisingly faily one: people from a different culture are going to have vastly different values and assumptions, and you just can’t transplant, say, a modern British person and pass them off as a Vietnamese just through a little change of costumes! You have to understand what makes a culture’s bedrock, what is likely to make people tick, what they’re likely to value and hate–different cultures have radically different axes. To take just one example, the quintessential Confucian male is the scholar with great literary talent, wearing his hair long (because cutting one’s hair was a Barbarian thing), and not hesitating to weep tears when parting from friends. This is a far cry from the male ideal in, say, mainstream US society, where weeping is seen as a very girly thing, and there is deep-seated suspicion of people who are too smart.
And, finally, when you’re done writing your short story or book, get someone from said culture to read it; several someones if you can, that you can trust to give you an honest opinion of where you might have screwed up (always useful to not only have several pairs of eyeballs, but several people from different points of view within the culture can help identify issues).
Ekaterina: Also, something Western writers often overlook or are not terribly concerned about: even though you are not speaking from the position of the authority, as Aliette said, you WILL be perceived as an expert and an authority of a foreign culture you write about. And that’s a serious risk.
Joyce: I would like to follow up on Aliette’s point: Do ask people from that culture to have a look through/critique/beta-read the story. Please, please, please, do it.
Rochita: Excellent pointers. And take note of the pointer where Aliette says that if someone says you’re doing it wrong from the reference point of their own experience, then you as an outsider writer just have to accept it and apologize or determine to try better/fail better. It bewilders me when people get defensive about criticisms leveled at their outsider work because isn’t that to be expected? I mean, as writers we already know that when we put something out there, not everyone is going to love it. That is just asking for the impossible. And that someone bothers to point out the fail is a sign that they wanted you to try harder or at least there was/is an expectation that you can do better than that.
Ekaterina: Another point is that the insiders will disagree. Some will like it, some won’t, and some will hate it because it is by an outsider. And the lesson for the writer there is not to say “Well, screw it, haters gonna hate, I’ll just write whatever because you cannot please anyone”. You’re still responsible for doing as good a job as you can. And accepting that your best might not be good enough for some people, and their opinions are also valid. Don’t trot out the natives who loved your work, don’t tell people who dislike it that they’re wrong because another person from the same culture liked it. So really, if you want approval, stay out of other people’s cultures. Nations won’t get together to sign waivers that say that you are free to appropriate whatever and no one can say anything about it ever. People will be angry, and they will be right to be angry. If it upsets you, reconsider your motivation.
Joyce: I agree with Ekaterina’s points here as well.
Aliette: Yup, definitely agree!
Rachel: As the token westerner… 😉
It’s interesting to me that outsiders get so frustrated with the idea that insiders will disagree with each other about what constitutes a good representation. (In my experience, the same dynamic occurs along other axes of privilege as well.) Writers understand that when they are writing, for instance, a character, not all of their readers are going to agree with each other. Readers aren’t a monolith. If you can understand that two American white dudes can disagree on whether a character is well-written, then theoretically you can understand that two people from a non-Western culture can disagree on how well the representation is done.
Writers are also–well, I hope they’re also–prepared for the idea that no matter how much energy they put into making a piece of work as beautiful and wonderful as they can, people are still going to criticize it. For some reason, that understanding gets churned under as soon as the issues in question carry sociological weight; there seems to be a feeling that research or good intent should insulate the writer from criticism.
Most writers I know have prepared themselves for being critiqued about character, etc. When privileged people take on writing about people from non-privileged populations, they need to be prepared for that level of critique, too. It may be more heated, but the stakes are also higher.
I hope that writers who ask other people to beta-read their stories do so with care and concern for the people on whom they are imposing. Nisi Shawl recommends in Writing the Other that one should offer a meal or at least a drink. If you’re in a reciprocal critique relationship with someone, or hope to establish one, that’s one thing. If you’re talking to someone with whom you have a prior relationship, that’s another. If you are approaching someone you don’t know, it’s vital to bear in mind that you are asking for a favor, and to remember reciprocity.
Speaking as a western writer, and as someone who has attempted to engage in writing with other kinds of privilege, I am inclined to agree that it’s inescapable that a privileged person will write a narrative that is rooted in their privilege. One can minimize exoticism, I hope, but I don’t think it’s possible to erase it.
As a writer of science fiction, particularly, though, I see myself as having an obligation to present a future that is, as Joyce says, for everyone. As I should have said in the other roundtable, despite the American propensity (including mine) toward tunnel vision, reality is global, and (barring certain speculative scenarios), the future should be global or globally influenced as well. I think there’s an obligation for Western writers who work within science fiction to engage with both western and non-western cultures. Otherwise, we do end up with white-washed (western-washed) futures and I think that the effect of this on the cultural imagination is wholly negative; the future isn’t just for white westerners. I think it’s a particularly pernicious form of erasure.
Obviously, the tunnel vision problem can, to some extent, be fixed by providing more works in translation, and by providing greater publishing access to non-western writers, both those who write in English and those who don’t, but I also think that the western imagination of the future itself needs to be adjusted.
Honestly, I think part of the problem with Americans writing about non-western cultures-or reading about them, or engaging with work written within those contexts–is that we hardly talk about colonialism at all; it’s a tabooed subject, but I don’t think one can really understand the global political context without an understanding of colonialism.
Aliette: I agree… to some extent. That’s another point I wanted to bring up: we’ve been focusing on narratives exclusively or quasi-exclusively set in other countries so far, but SF has a habit of large-scale narratives set all over the world. Well. All over the Western world. It is very problematic when the future space stations are manned only by white people, the future of the world decided jointly by America and Europe, and the non-Western countries are presented as hell-holes of poverty only fit to escape from. (though we can argue about the very notion of having a large-scale and global setting and deciding the future of the world, which feels a tad imperialistic to me…).
That said, for me, it rejoins some of the comments we’ve been making on different types of narratives: it would definitely be better to have visions of the future coming out of the Western Anglophone tradition that are genuinely multicultural, but having other narrations from non-Western countries would, I think, present radically different pictures of the future, and alleviate the issue of tunnel vision sometimes found in (Western, American) SF books. The best cure for tunnel vision is openness of mind 🙂
There is also a big problem with colonialism here in France. It is pretty much never talked about in polite society, and glossed over in school by saying “we did some morally reprehensible things, but it’s OK because we brought the gift of civilisation to the colonised countries”. The extent of the reprehensible things (destruction of said local civilisation, widespread repression, imposition of foreign ways of living and inferiority complexes) is just never brought up at all. I once started to talk about how France broke Vietnam by colonising it and separating it into three entities just as it was becoming a country, and other French people told me to stop–I can stop, sure, but it’s still true! (and don’t get me started on the “gift of civilisation” thing…)
From comparing notes with the UK (where I lived for a while), I suspect there’s a big tendency in the Western world to say that colonialism is over and done with, and that there is thus no need to talk about it or address it. Which is… disingenuous, annoying, and harmful because it perpetuates colonialist myths about the past and the present.
Joyce: Why is colonialism a taboo subject? Is it because as Aliette has said, nobody wanted to talk about the “reprehensible things”? Westerners have to confront this particular demon if they want to really understand what’s going on. To say that it’s “over and done with” is just ignorance and damaging.
Aliette: speaking only for France, I think we’re very bad at dealing with our demons. There’s been a lot of self-examination going on in the wake of WWII (and over the fact a lot of French people were collaborators), but I highly suspect this is because the faction that came out ahead in France fought collaborators–so we don’t have to admit, per se, that the *official* government sanctioned anything that was going on during WWII. Same thing applies to colonisation and its legacy; there’s no examination of the fact that the French government and the French people were arrogant enough to carve out huge chunks of countries and mostly ignore the people who were there in the first place; and are responsible for a lot of the current problems plaguing the developing world.
Rachel: In the United States, we pretend that colonialism is something that other countries did and do not acknowledge the ways in which it influenced our global positioning.
Aliette: bringing up another subject… Should we discuss the issues associated with genre definition and genre narratives? I have the feeling that “this story isn’t SFF” is very often used as an argument to dismiss non-Western SF on the grounds that it doesn’t adhere to a mostly Western definition of SFF–like having no novum, not being “realistic”, not having enough “science” or “defined rules of magic”. (it’s also used to dismiss women writers from SF, but that’s another kettle of fish altogether!)
There is a twin issue, which is the other problem Rochita raised: different cultures have different values and different narratives, and there is thus a tendency for the field to tell non-Western writers that their writing is flawed; that their narratives don’t deliver a satisfying ending, their characters are too passive; their story structures are weak (or too convoluted): in other words, to hold everyone to a narrow definition of story, very largely elaborated in the US/Western Anglophone world.
What do people think?
Joyce: I think it all ties in with that mindset of the non-Western writer being ‘inferior’. That’s one dangerous (colonized) mindset.
Aliette: Yes, colonisation v2.0.
Rochita: Yes. I remember a conversation I had with Chris Beckett at my first Eastercon where Chris was asking me if there were any SF narratives in The Philippines. I had been doing a lot of reading into native folktales and native myths, and I told Chris about certain stories that struck me as having a particular SF flavor. For instance, there is a story where a woman is carried away to the Skyworld in a basket. I could see the basket as a metaphor for flying saucer and the visitors from the Skyworld as possible aliens or future beings from the same world. But because these stories are not told in what we define or recognize as SF language, a reader used to the Western narrative would probably not identify it as SF.
I believe that we, as writers in the act of decolonizing, seek to break the expectations that are placed on our SF as we try to reconcile history and heritage and the way we look at SF. I read Aliette’s stories and I can see how this is a story that is uniquely Aliette and uniquely SF because it does not always conform to the SF narrative. The expectations of Western SF are very particular so much so that if we bring stuff to the table that just doesn’t compute with that expectation, the work we produce is shunted off as “oh it’s fantasy in space” or some such thing.
For me, the beauty of being a non-western writer is this: I don’t feel constricted by the demands of existing SF, because I do not see the body of Western SF as being the only true SF. My input into the great SF conversation is to say: look, I know you think of SF that way, but just put yourself in my shoes and try to see through my eyes because I am trying to show you what SF looks like from my point of view.
There was a time that I did feel pressured to conform, but I soon realized my inability to be truly creative inside those strictures. I believe SF as a genre is one that means for its inhabitants to be constantly trying the boundaries, shaking up conventions, and turning expectation on its head. So, to me the unexpected narrative is more beautiful because it expresses this spirit of openness. It’s frustrating when we get told that our characters aren’t proactive enough of they aren’t saving themselves or that things just happen. It’s like the colonizers telling the village people: Look, your Mumbaki, he doesn’t fit in with our model of what Christianized people should be like.
If we were equal, we wouldn’t have to be worried about our stories not conforming to narrative or fitting into the set paradigm.
requireshate: With regards to being sellable and marketable–that requires playing to the western gaze, making your culture accessible to western readers, giving them a channel for literary tourism. Another tool of imperialism, frankly.
Rochita: True. In a sense that’s like selling your soul. <g> I don’t think it’s sustainable and in the end, I don’t believe it makes for good fiction.
Joyce: Ditto on “tool of imperialism”. It hurts the non-Western writer in the end.
Ekaterina: Cultural colonialism, again — only certain kinds of narratives are acceptable. And Western readers and writers often forget that this is not a symmetrical situation! American culture as filtered through Hollywood/major book releases is so ubiquitous everywhere, they shape narratives all over the world. So it’s not only non-Western writers not being translated into English but also a form of cultural genocide where intrusions of Western narratives everywhere reshape stories as well. It’s such a self-perpetuating machine that feels very powerful. I mean, I have no idea how to deal with something so huge.
Aliette: *nods* I agree with pretty much everything; and I wish I had a solution, but like Ekaterina I find the whole issue a bit daunting. Very huge and very pervasive–and so very insidious.
Rochita: I’d like to share something from the Babaylan Files. Conversations-signs and symptoms of the decolonized Filipina in the US. My observation of American/European culture is how there is a very strong “I” orientation. Societies are individualistic and this also shows in the narratives that we get from the West. In returning to the indigenous, there is a stronger focus on community: we have the narratives of extended families, the strength of women bonded together, the role of culture bearers and the consciousness of history, which not all western writers are aware of, but which I believe the non-western writer is more keenly aware of. I’m sorry that I can’t point to a specific article as I didn’t realize we’d be having this conversation when I read it, but I remember this article that said reading history and getting very angry are the first steps towards decolonization. <g>
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!
AA: The Alchemy of Stone was about feminism, free will, class struggle, and religion, and The House of Discarded Dreams is a place where forgotten dreams fester and take on a life of their own.Heart of Iron released this past summer and I really enjoyed the creative descriptions and imagery while reading it. For those people who haven’t read it yet, what is it about?
ES: Ostensibly, it is about alternate history in which Russia and China (well, the Taipings) allied against Britain and the Ottoman Empire – and the plot involves our heroine, Sasha Trubetskaya, trying to forge this alliance with help from her indomitable aunt, some suspiciously politically acute fur traders, heretical hussars, and some well-known legendary characters, against meddling and resistance from the British Secret Service led by Dame Florence Nightingale. But I guess people will enjoy the book most if they don’t expect a heart-stopping adventure but rather meditation on nature of heroism, national identity, strength, and the role of embarrassment in world history. It’s a very geeky little book, so be warned! I even wrote a historical compendium for it – and you can find it here:
AA: What was the motivation for writing Heart of Iron?
ES: I already spent the advance! Joking aside, I wanted to write alternate history dealing with a place other than the US or Western Europe, and I wanted to address concerns different from the ones Western-focused alternate history explore. Here, we are not looking at manifest destiny, but rather at two countries in the grip of dramatic change (the Taiping Rebellion in China, the dramatic reformism following the success of the Decembrist Revoltin Russia), and at people who are trying to control the chaos around them out of the sense of self-preservation, not necessarily heroics. And as in all my books, I was interested in the themes of oppression and people living under oppressive rules – and still doing their best.
Ekaterina Sedia recently translated this delightful, non-existent table of contents for an Encyclopaedia of Feminism According to Harry Potter, compiled by Russian fans. We thought it was too good not to share!
Encyclopaedia of Feminism According to Harry Potter
The Practice of Female Separatism in Daily Life of Luna Lovegood
Hermione Granger on Liberal Feminism
Female Empowerment in Academia Through the Eyes of Minerva McGonagall
Women in Politics: The Dilemma of Dolores Umbridge
Women in the Military and Psychological Violence: The Case of Bellatrix Lestrange
Consequences of Limiting Abortion Rights: The Tragedy of Lily Potter
The Death Toll of Unpaid Labor: The Duel of Molly Weasley and Bellatrix Lestrange
Replication of Violent Family Practices: Family Strategies of Nymphadora Tonks
The Duality of Economic Strategies for Women: Narcissa Malfoy
The Internalized Misogyny Among Successful Women: Rita Skeeter
Woman as a Scapegoat in Political Processes: Marietta Edgecombe
Forced Marriage as a Conduit of Classism: Pansy Parkinson
Fatphobia: Millicent Bulstrode
Ridicule of Victims of Violence as a Form of Demonization: Moaning Myrtle
The Founders of Hogwarts, or Men are Always in Charge: False Equality
Hufflepuff and the “Virtue of the Working Class”: The Silent Majority
Cho Chang: The Relations with Racial and Ethnic Minorities as a Casual Entertainment
The Marriage of Ginny Weasley: “Woman Exchange”
Good Homosexual is a Well-Educated White Men with No Sexual Liaisons: Albus Dumbledore
Polyamory and Childfree Lifestyle — Self-Positioning of Bellatrix Lestrange
Ariana Dumbledore: Murder of a Disabled Person as a Social Necessity
Argus Filch: Even Harry and Ron Can Laugh at the Handicapped
Goblins: The Apotheosis of the British Antisemitic Tradition
Flitwick and Hagrid: Ethnic Minorities Will Always Clean Up After You, or Uncle Tom in Hogwarts
If the Protagonist is Fed, Slavery is Awesome: House Elves
Only Stupid Girls Fight Slavery
Hermione Granger: A Good Woman Defends Others’ Rights and Provides Others’ Lessons
Alcoholism and the Esoteric: Coping Mechanisms under Conditions of Discrimination
House Elves: Just Like Women, Only Ugly and Invisible
Pomona Sprout: Good Girls are Liked but not Noticed
Professor Vector, or Anonymity of Women in Mathematics
Poppy Pomfrey: a Subservient Suffragette, or the Outcome of Courses of Higher Women’s Studies in St Petersburg
Bellatrix Lestrange and Luna Lovegood: Psychiatric Disabilities and Ableism in Hogwarts
Luna Lovegood, Tom Riddle, Harry Potter: Good Children Don’t Get PTSD
Luna Lovegood: Forced Acceptance into the Family Strategies of Psychological Repression
Conventional Man is Allowed Anger but not Grief. Harry Potter: The Masculinity Trap
Remus Lupin and the “Good Cripple” Archetype
Rolanda Hooch: Professional Women’s Athletics as Deviation
Molly Weasley and Fleur Delacourt: Differentiation Between Women as a Tool of Oppression
2. Is African folklore an interest of yours? What made you decide to explore this for a fantasy novel? With themes of the lingering effects of colonialism at play in your book, what sorts of concerns did you have about cultural appropriation as you wrote it?
Yes, it is of great interest, along with other non-Western narratives. In all my books, I try to break away with the traditional linear three-part arc, so embracing a different tradition certainly gave me a good template of doing so. As for imperialism: I don’t think one can honestly write about the world today without talking about it. I mean, we grow coffee and cocoa where we grow it because of it – imperialism shaped the world, and going about as if it was just that brief phase that ended without any long-lasting effects is disingenuous, to say the least.
As for cultural appropriation, it’s a several-fold answer. It’s always a concern, sure. First, I was reluctant to use existing myths, so I used them very sparingly and in close consultation with Tait, the aforementioned friend. The myths that characters tell each other are all made up but within bounds of existing folkloric tradition (such as characteristics of animals) or literary ones (man-fish is a Zimbabwean urban myth of sorts, explored by Marechera, and one of Vimbai’s stories is a riff on Tutuola.) Europeans tend to be very liberal while “collecting” folklore and I tried not to do it – that is, I went by definition of creative transformation rather than mere copying as described in African customary laws folklore copyright protection (summary document here: http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0012/001277/127784e.pdf).
Then, Vimbai herself is a cultural outsider to her parents’ tradition – that is, she is second generation and is culturally an American, with not as much insight into her parents’ culture as she would like. I would not be comfortable writing about Zimbabwean folklore from the insider perspective, because I am not an insider. I was careful to speak about the culture rather than for it, which I believe is a crucial distinction between talking about other cultures and appropriating them.
Finally, I do realize that my insight is limited, and the book is really much more about the immigrant experience – something I do know about first-hand. And this is something I spoke a lot to my friend about. He was very supportive of the book, but he also said, “You do realize that some Zimbabweans will not like this book because it was written by a white woman.” And yes, of course I do realize that, and you know what? It’s a valid position. I think it’s an important thing, to accept that you won’t have a unanimous approval, and to not be hurt about it. Westerners writing about other cultures either seek validation or just default to “haters gonna hate so screw them, I’ll write what I want” positions. So for me, I think it’s important to do one’s best, but not expect that everyone will love you for it. I mean, I myself am wary when Westerners write about my culture, so who am I to expect a different treatment? – read the full interview!
Ekaterina Sedia on Tor.com (Ekaterina Sedia) on Challenges of Writing Alternate History Set in Other Cultures
Over at Tor.com, Ekaterina Sedia has a post on Challenges of Writing Alternate History Set in Other Cultures. Here’s an excerpt:
As someone who writes steampunk set outside of the familiar western milieu, I find it extremely challenging – because many readers do not have a very detailed picture of Russian or Chinese real history, one of the images required to make a comparison to spot the differences is either vague or missing, and I found with my work that this lack of a clear image tends to draw criticism along the lines of “I’m not sure what alternate history element was and why it mattered.”
When I wrote my alternate-history adventure Heart of Iron, I decided the point of departure would be a Decembrist rebellion that actually succeeded. From there, I painstakingly extrapolated possible social and political effects: freed serfs create a surplus of employable labor that can be occupied to increase industrialization and railroad building, all in line with liberal reformism of the new Emperor Constantin; early railroads resulting in Transsiberian railroad leading to strengthening ties with China, which at the time was between the two Opium wars and in the middle of Taiping rebellion; education and property reforms after a British model to feed Constantin’s presumed Anglomania, etc…. But I found that because it was an unfamiliar setting, many readers and reviewers weren’t sure where, exactly, the history had been altered.
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.