From The Future Fire:
We are seeking submissions for a colonialism-themed anthology of new stories told from the perspective of the colonized, titled We See a Different Frontier, to be guest edited by Fábio Fernandes and published by The Future Fire.
It is impossible to consider the history, politics or culture of the modern world without taking into account our colonial past. Most violent conflicts and financial inequalities in some sense result from the social-political-economic matrix imposed by European powers since the seventeenth century—even powerful countries such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) have to be viewed through the filter of our history to fully appreciate their current circumstances. The same is true of art and literature, including science fiction; asRochita Roenen-Luiz eloquently explained, “it is impossible to discuss non-Western SF without considering the effects of colonialism.” Cultural imperialism erases many native traditions and literatures, exoticizes colonized and other non-European countries and peoples, and drowns native voices in the clamour of Western stories set in their world.Utopian themes like “The Final Frontier”, “Discovering New Worlds” and “Settling the Stars” appeal to a colonial romanticism, especially recalling the American West. But what is romantic and exciting to the privileged, white, anglophone reader is a reminder of exploitation, slavery, rape, genocide and other crimes of colonialism to the rest of the world.
We See a Different Frontier will publish new speculative fiction stories in which the viewpoint is that of the colonized, not the invader. We want to see stories that remind us that neither readers nor writers are a homogeneous club of white, male, Christian, hetero, cis, monoglot anglophone, able-bodied Westerners. We want the cultures, languages and literatures of colonized peoples and recombocultural individuals to be heard, not to show the White Man learning the error of his ways, or Anglos defending the world from colonizing extraterrestrials. We want stories that neither exoticize nor culturally appropriate the non-western settings and characters in them.
We See a Different Frontier will pay US$0.05 per word, with a minimum payment of $50, plus the possibility of royalties if sales are good enough. We are looking for stories between 3,000 and 6,000 words in length; we are willing to be flexible about this wordcount, but the further a story falls outside this range, the harder a sell it will be. Please do not submit stories that are also under consideration elsewhere. Query before sending more than one story to us. We are unlikely to be interested in reprints unless they were published in an obscure market unlikely to be known to our audience, but in any case please query before sending a reprint, explaining when and where the story has appeared before.
Please send submissions as an attachment (.doc[x], .rtf or .odt) firstname.lastname@example.org. The deadline for submissions is midnight GMT, September 14, 2012.
About the publisher: The Future Fire is an e-published magazine showcasing new writing in Social-Political Speculative Fiction, with a special interest in FeministSF, Queer SF, Eco SF, Postcolonial SF and Cyberpunk. See http://futurefire.net/ for more details.
About the editor: Fábio Fernandes is a SFF writer and translator living in São Paulo, Brazil. His short fiction in Portuguese has won two Argos Awards in Brazil. In English, he has several stories published in online venues in the US, the UK, New Zealand, Portugal, Romenia, and Brazil. He also contributed to Steampunk Reloaded,Southern Weirdo: Reconstruction, and The Apex Book of World SF Vol. 2. His articles and reviews have appeared in The Fix, Fantasy Book Critic, Tor.com, and SF Signal. He is also the non-fiction editor forInternational Speculative Fiction.
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Fábio Fernandes, an SFF writer living in São Paulo, Brazil. Fábio has several stories published in online venues in the US, the UK, New Zealand, Portugal, Romania, and Brazil. He also contributed to Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s “Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded”, and has a story coming up soon in Lavie Tidhar’s “The Apex Book of World SF Vol. 2”.
This is the story’s first publication.
Deadly Quiet on the Western Front
“What did you do before the war?” asked the soldier in the trench.
“Was?” the corporal mumbled, distracted and disgruntled.
“What did you do before coming here, man?” the soldier asked again.
The corporal pretended he hadn’t heard the question. First, because the intimacy his subordinate showed him was very bothersome. And also, because he had more to do besides listening to the man babbling: binoculars in hand, he tried to look across the wasteland separating the two large areas of trenches. He couldn’t see a thing, and it was still light. When night fell upon that no man’s land, the hell of the bombs would torment them again.
“I was a painter,” he finally deigned to answer, still without looking at his brother-in-arms. But the soldier was gone.
So much the better. He wasn’t in the mood for idle chatter. And he needed the rest of the light to sketch.
He had almost added he had been a painter in Vienna. But that wasn’t important.
Unlike the other brothers-in-arms, the corporal wasn’t German but Austrian. Not that it mattered in the least: both countries shared the same language and practically the same culture.
The problem was in the practically.
Vienna was considered an enlightened capital, one of the greatest cultural centers of Europe, comparable to Paris. Its cafés and cabarets reunited the cream of the crop of the Viennese intelligentsia: poets, actors, musicians, painters.
All degenerate people.
The fact was, he didn’t like to talk to his fellow soldiers because of his temper. He couldn’t disguise his accent, typical of the suburbs of Vienna. The Wiener Vorstadtdialekt had always been a hurdle in life. More than a hurdle; a veritable curse.
The corporal was ashamed to be Austrian.
For him, Austria was a minor country. Germany was what really mattered, with its thousand-year culture, its powerful, vigorous music, its Germanic history, the Rheingold. How had Vienna contributed to the history of music, for instance? Mozart?
You didn’t want to get him started on Mozart. Little degenerate man. Confusing tunes. Too many notes. To him, Wagner was good. Yes, Wagner. Parsifal. Now that was music all right!
What about painting, then? Klimt, with his ill-proportioned women over geometric backgrounds with no meaning whatsoever? The paintings with biblical themes were passable, he conceded, but the final result, oh, the final result!
And what about Schiele? Who the hell was Egon Schiele, mein Gott? Painting sick women, syphilitic dancers, corpse-like whores, showing unashamedly their pudenda? Outrageous! And to think the little fellow had been accepted by the Akademie der Bildenden Künste!
The corporal’s application had been refused by the Akademie almost at the same time.
Not long ago – around 1906 – he had been selling his paintings in the cold streets of Vienna. Or at least trying to.
Nobody ever bought a single painting of his.
If the corporal had liked Van Gogh, he could have compared himself to the Dutch master. Not in quality or even technique, but in the fact that in years and years he never managed to sell a single painting.
But the truth was that he hated Van Gogh.
And all the Impressionists. Monet, Gauguin, Seurat. Especially Seurat! What kind of nonsense was that pointillism?
When the war was over, the corporal would follow the advice of the Direktor of the Akademie. He would be an architect. No modern art for him, thank you very much.
Alas, the new age didn’t seem to acknowledge the great painters of the last generation, like Feuerbach, Waldmüller, and Rudolf von Alt. Those men, the corporal thought, oh, they knew how to paint! The beautiful watercolors of von Alt, the living colors of Waldmüller, so realistic!
The corporal was a most realistic man. It was impossible to fight in a war and not be realistic, or at least so he thought. (The corporal was a most opinionated man.) He was well aware that he didn’t have an ounce of the talent of von Alt or Waldmüller. It doesn’t matter, he thought: destiny had other things in store for him. If he couldn’t be a painter, he would be an architect. And he would be an architect of great things.
But first things first. The thin shroud of light over the moonscape of Ypres offered to the corporal a phantasmagoria, something worthy of Gustave Doré. He thought Doré’s engravings for Don Quixote impressive works of art.
Using a tiny piece of charcoal, the corporal sketched. And planned for the future.
The corporal was, above all, an optimist.
If you happened to watch him from a distance, always serious and withdrawn, you certainly wouldn’t say that. But only an optimist would think everything would turn out right in the middle of an all-out war; the War to End All Wars.
(An optimist or a madman. But you couldn’t get caught saying that to his face, or he would go absolutely crazy. A raving lunatic, indeed.)
The corporal fulfilled his duties with the utmost seriousness. Maybe even beyond the call of duty.
Two years before, in October 1916, he had been wounded in France. Grenade shrapnel in his left leg during the Battle of the Somme. Nothing serious, but he was given a medal. He thought of refusing it – after all, it was his duty, nothing more – but you simply can’t shrug off a decoration from your fatherland.
They also gave him a bonus. He got a transfer to Germany and was stationed there for five months.
The worst five months of his life.
He had no family, no home to return to; he didn’t know what to do: it was the first time he had stayed away from the front in two years of war. His recovery was quick enough, but they insisted on an extended leave anyway. The corporal’s protests were useless. He was compelled to obey.
He spent part of that time visiting historical and architectural monuments in Berlin. And dreaming of, one day, himself being counted among the creators of such magnificent stuff. Sketching the Doric columns of the Brandenburg Gate and glimpsing the occasional dirigible transporting materiel – probably guns, and the new mechanical golems made by those Viennese steel manufacturers, the Wittgensteins – as near to the front as it dared.
Scheissköpfe, all of those Imperial Army Generals! How could they think that Jewish automata could replace real Menschen, real men like him?
As soon as he had fully recovered from his injuries, he was sent to Munich. To work in a supply division.
He almost had a hysterical fit. He was a man of action, not of idling around.
He had petitioned the War Office to return to the front as soon as possible. Now he was back in his true home, the List Regiment. Doing what he did best: running. The corporal acted as a messenger between the regimental staff and the outposts. It best suited his surly, solitary temperament.
Anyhow, the regiment was his home because he liked the pure, Spartan environment of the battle front. There he could revel in the hardships of the field, and the few moments of meditation and contemplation of the landscape.
That was more than he could ever have wanted. A fine home? A family? That he didn’t care for. Deep down, the corporal knew very well what his so-called brothers-in-arms thought of him.
No matter how hard he tried (and he tried very hard), he couldn’t disguise the fact that he was and would always be an Austrian. At the end of the day, in spite of being united by the same goal (temporarily, it was good to remember) – defeating France – the Germans never forgot their class system, a division similar to the complex network of castes in India, in the corporal’s opinion.
For the corporal, however, the entire situation only existed because of the degeneration brought about by that mixture. And the Jews were to blame for that.
The Jews were an ugly, impure people. They were a riff-raff of criminals and communists. The problem was that the German government did not turn away the Jews who wanted to fight for Germany on the battlefield. But that didn’t mean the corporal had to like them.
And he was quite sure that his Jewish superiors had barred his promotion to Sergeant First Class.
It doesn’t matter, he thought at meal time, eating bread and jelly, wiping the spatters with his hand to avoid smearing them even more over his uniform, already stained with mud and soot. To be a corporal was better. He didn’t want to be a leader. Not for now, at least.
One day, the war would be over. And, when that happened, he wanted to be part of the new order. Any little thing would do, since he would be able to help restore Germany to its position of prominence on the world scene. Deutschland über alles, he thought while eating his bread and jelly and petting the dog that rested at his feet.
He smiled, savoring the sweet irony. He despised any kind of intermingling of blood, but the dog was just a mongrel that had come from nowhere one day and had stayed by his side.
He called her Fox. She was a smart bitch, and could run almost as fast as he. A fine companion, she was. Better than his degenerate regiment colleagues.
The year 1917 was a particularly troublesome one for the List Regiment. Its members fought in the trenches on the French side of Flanders, in the Battle of Arras in the spring and in the Chemin des Dames in the fall. The corporal was one of the most vigorous fighters, and showed such a lack of restraint on the battlefield that he won even more medals.
That, of course, was of no consequence to the corporal. What he really wanted, in his heart of hearts, was to win the war. Only Germany triumphant would make him really happy, and free to realize his dream.
From time to time he received letters; never from his sister, with whom he had lost contact years before. One of his few correspondents was a painter who was also fighting in the War, Ernst Schmidt. In their letters, Schmidt and the corporal talked a lot about politics and the future of Germany. In their exchange, the corporal mentioned to Schmidt his recent interest in politics. After all, there were too many architects already. Of course, maybe he wouldn’t be able to give up architecture just like that; he needed to survive, natürlich, to earn his daily pumpernickel (something he had not always managed during his time as a painter in Vienna, and the memory of hunger still haunted him). But he would enter politics anyway, no matter what.
The corporal never gave up. He had the utmost contempt for several of his regimental colleagues. Not brothers-in-arms, no – he could never use such an expression, particularly for those who had families. Because those were the first to come up with reasons to be discharged from service, on the slightest pretext.
Not he, no. He had no family. And, even if he had, he wouldn’t give up his chance to fight for his country. His Heimat! No excuses for him, no sir. He would follow the call of duty to the bitter end.
The year 1918 was even better for Germany. In March, the Reich imposed on Russia the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and by April had virtually annihilated the Romanian defenses. The mechanical golems had been particularly helpful with that, even the corporal admitted (though grudgingly).
Things were so good that the List Regiment easily beat the Frenchmen in Montdidier-Noyon and, soon after that, in Soisson and Reims.
That was why nobody expected the mortar strike.
When the bomb exploded in his regiment’s tent, the corporal was leaving to get his dog, which stubbornly ran off around the trenches just at lunch time.
He was by the entrance to the tent when all hell broke loose. The last thought that crossed his mind was: I must punish that bitch, Scheisse!
Then he blacked out.
Only the first half of 1918 had been good for Germany.
The bloody battles, to which the soldiers gave themselves body and soul, were utterly destructive for the Army of the Reich. In early August, with insufficient soldiers and no food, which was even worse, the Germans in desperation stopped attacking. This gave the allied powers the chance to make a counter-strike.
So successful a counter-strike that, by the end of September, the German Chief-of-Staff, General Ludendorff, proposed an armistice, offering the surrender of Germany.
But not even Ludendorff knew the Germans’ ultra-secret weapon.
Gustav Noske did.
A member of the Sozial-Demokrat Partei, the German Social-Democratic party at the beginning of the century, Noske was a hardline military officer. Just before the War, he had become a member of the Reichstag, supporting a pact between Left and Right so that the country could face the harshness of war.
All bullshit, of course.
What Noske really wanted was power, whatever the cost. And power he got, with a new medical technique which went beyond the boundaries not only of imagination, but also of ethics and convention. After some political and corporate string-pulling, Noske created as early as 1917 a special group of fighters, the first military – and secret – force of the Deutsches Reich: the “Freikorps” (“freedom fighters”, or, in a more literal and less ironic translation, the “free bodies”).
The first group was a band of de-cerebrated soldiers. Literally de-cerebrated: only those brain-damaged and thus considered officially dead could be part of the Freikorps.
It was the first application of the Faust Auferstehung Methode on a large scale, outside research and development laboratories. If the French horse-eaters and the American doughboys were still fighting and resisting the mustard gas and even the mechanical golems – which were huge and sturdy machines, but, truth be told, very clumsy and prone to defects more often than not – nothing less than resurrected (and therefore unkillable) German soldiers could stop these Allies now.
But then, it was a dirty war.
At the cold chrome operating table, the German surgeons don’t stop to think: thinking is not their job; they are not there to think. Let others do that, while drinking Schnapps and eating Sauerkraut in the old, gay bars of München and Berlin. Long may they continue, is all one of the surgeons can think as he is stricken by a sudden desire to drink a large Glas Bier and look into the beautiful blue eyes of his fiancée, who waits for him in the Bavaria of his youth.
Not now, however. Now the doctor must concentrate and perform the surgery. It’s an experimental procedure, but one already performed successfully on animals. The next logical step, of course, was bound to be with humans, sooner or later – and war is always a good operating theater, a test tube, a Petri dish for the souls of men. These, naturally, are just metaphors: for the surgeons, there is no such thing as a soul. What does exist, however, is the mind. Without the mind, there is no life.
Therefore, the corporal who is on the operating table before them – he and several others caught by the shrapnel from the bomb that destroyed almost the whole of the List Regiment – is dead. And, if a soldier never usually has a say in anything, obliged to do whatever he is ordered, what then of a dead soldier?
A mere technicality. The soldier on the bed is not quite dead. His veins pulse; his heart pumps blood; his muscles react when stimulated by electrical impulses.
Only the brain remains dead.
But the body, ah, the body – is alive!
How strange is fate: if the corporal now being operated on on the cold chrome table had stayed inside the tent with the others, he would have been blasted into oblivion. Instant, utter, irretrievable death. On the other hand, had he taken just a few steps more, and distanced himself, say, eight, nine feet away, he would have had no more than a few burns, nothing serious, and would have been back on the battlefield in no time at all – or, with luck, could have obtained medical leave and a much deserved rest at home, where most certainly his loved ones would be eagerly waiting for him.
But that was not to be.
A piece of shrapnel penetrated the corporal’s frontal lobe, rendering him completely unconscious. He probably never even felt it.
Now there he was, his mind totally erased. The metal fragment had lobotomized the corporal’s brain.
The surgeon doesn’t think of what awaits the soldier if the surgery is successful. After all, things could always be worse. For one who loves and cherishes life, there is no fate worse than death.
The corporal doesn’t think any more. Thinking is not his job; he’s not there to think.
If asked, he won’t be able to answer. He can’t remember anything. Not even how to speak. For the corporal, everything is nebulous, everything is mist.
He has no other memory than the present moment, and the present moment is this: a tall, square-jawed man, yelling at him something he can’t understand.
The man points to him, and to others who, just like him, are sitting in folding chairs inside a tent, boards with faces painted on them. After some more yelling, the man opens a flap in the tent and shouts to someone outside. Other men bring another man inside, similar but different. The color of the mist surrounding him is different.
The corporal notices that the color of the man’s clothes is different from the color of the clothing that he and all the others are wearing.
The yelling man is still yelling. He gestures with his hand. The corporal doesn’t understand what the man wants. Until the man grabs a long, heavy thing with another thing pointy and shiny at its end, and shoves it into the corporal’s hands. He points to the man with the different color mist, and then to the pointy shiny thing now in the corporal’s hands. He begins to spear the belly of the different man with his fingers.
Then the corporal gets it.
He lunges forward and pushes the pointy shiny thing he’s carrying into the belly of the different man. The different man screams a thing that the corporal doesn’t understand. The corporal smells a very smelly smell. The different man falls to the ground.
The yelling man opens the flap again. He pulls the corporal by the sleeve of his jacket. Outside, a line of other yelling men forms a corridor that hurriedly pushes the corporal and the soldiers, everyone now carrying the same heavy things with the pointy shiny thing at the end. At the end of the corridor, a ladder. The man at the foot of the ladder shouts and points to the top, to whatever there is beyond the ladder.
It’s a small ladder. The corporal climbs its rungs with some difficulty because of the heavy thing in his arms, but he does well. And he gets to see what’s at the top of the ladder: a field of dead, dark earth. No plants, no sign of life.
But, in the distance, the corporal sees something.
Mists of a different color.
Now he knows what he must do.
Grenades and mortars fall all around, showering the corporal with black earth and body parts. The ones who don’t lose too much – an arm here, a leg there, half a torso gone but their heart still beating fine, an eye, ach, what is an eye after all? – keep on going inexorably.
Then, when the undead soldiers are close to the enemy trenches, the machine guns start spitting fire.
The corporal feels impacts on his legs, arms, shoulders, belly, face. He feels his body wet. He smells the same smelly smell of the different man when he stabbed him.
But nothing matters now. In fact, as soon as the corporal is reminded of these things, he forgets them.
The only thing that matters is the different colored mist. And what he was just taught to do to it.
Inside the tent, the sergeant in charge of the special attack group receives the report of the charge on the enemy trenches.
A total success. Every single Englishman killed.
On their side, no losses among the soldiers. That is, among the living ones of the second platoon.
Among the undead soldiers, as they are already beginning to be called by the superstitious and ignorant Army riff-raff, things are quite different.
Of the twenty-seven soldiers who served as guinea pigs for the experiment, nine got back to the German trenches unharmed. Twelve suffered considerable damage (loss of limbs, mostly), but the field doctors especially sent by the secret project guarantee that, after blood transfusions and replacement of the lost limbs with cheap prosthetic ones, they will be able to fight again in a couple of days with the same efficiency as they did today.
Six soldiers were deemed completely unrecoverable. Among them, the leader of the squad, the corporal wounded in the mortar bombing a few days earlier. The sergeant met him once: a bad-mouthed, bad-breathed fellow, who used to talk to himself. He had already seemed a lunatic even before the accident, Gott in Himmel!
But at least the son of a bitch had taken a lot of lives to hell with him. Judging by the report, Corporal Adolf Hitler was responsible for a veritable massacre in the enemy trenches before his body finally hit the ground.
Ach! the sergeant thinks to himself. War is war; one bastard more, one bastard less, what’s the fucking difference? A mediocre Scheisskopf like this Hitler would never have survived much longer anyway.
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.
Djibril al-Ayad is general editor of The Future Fire, an online magazine of social-political speculative fiction. In the past, TFF published themed issues on Feminist SF and Queer SF, and two guest-edited, themed anthologies are currently in development:Outlaw Bodies, themed around trans, queer and disability issues with a cyberpunk flavor, edited by Lori Selke; and We See a Different Frontier, which will publish colonialism-themed stories from outside of the white, anglo, first-world perspective, edited by Fabio Fernandes, who also interviews.
Fabio Fernandes: First of all, Djibril al-Ayad is not your birth name. I’m not going to ask you your former name, but I’m curious to know why you chose this particular name, and what meaning (linguistic, social, political) it has in your life?
Djibril al-Ayad: Yes, “Djibril” is the nom de guerre I use in speculative fiction publishing and campaigning. I use another pseudonym as a horror/cyberpunk writer and a third (almost my original name) as an active academic historian. I use three names primarily to keep my web presence distinct, for convenience, rather than trying to hide my identity or anything. (Having said that, I do prefer not to cross the streams!)
In fact “Djibril” is pretty close to being my own name; it’s a regional variant of my given name, and Ayad was the family name of my Algerian grandfather. My (French) grandmother died when my father was a small child, and her relatives took him away to be raised in a vile orphanage run by sadistic nuns rather than let his poor and foreign father keep him, so my family has no real Algerian roots, we never learned Arabic, etc., and my grandfather is long dead. In a way my reclaiming the name is a reaction against the injustice of that story, which has always made me angry, although no one else on either side of the family seems to see it that way.
FF: How the idea of creating The Future Fire came to you? And, speaking of names, how did the magazine get its name?
DA: I’ve always liked the idea of running a science fiction magazine. I grew up with this romantic image of the pulps and of xeroxed fanzines produced at home, and the idea of putting something out there full of weird fiction, surreal art, political agendas and baffling juxtapositions appealed to my love of collage and recycled scrap art. It wasn’t until I was working in digital publication myself that I realised I could actually do this, and so in 2004 I got together with a bunch of friends in Scotland, Switzerland and the USA, bought some webspace, and started writing a “manifesto” (really a call for subs).
The name was the hardest thing. Twenty years ago when I thought about putting out a 12-page xeroxed pamphlet, I was going to call it “Ya God, it’s a…” The idea was for each month’s theme to add a different word to the end of that phrase—but the juvenile humour was in the fact that yagoditsa is apparently the Russian word for “buttock”. (So clever. So glad we didn’t have the internet then.) I think The Future Fire name was more or less random, or the result of a brainstorm between the five original editors or something. It worked because of the alliteration, the dystopian connotations, and the environmental postapocalypse feel of it too. I think we all thought this was mostly going to be an Eco-SF magazine in those days.
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!
Charles Tan interviews Fabio Fernandes about his writing, SF in Brazil, and his new crowd-sourced project on colonialism-themed SF.
Hi Fabio! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you get into speculative fiction?
I started writing speculative fiction in my early twenties. I had already written for the stage (and won an award) when I was 19 years old, but nothing related to fantastika. I always loved speculative fiction, specially SF (I was a fan of TV shows of the genre, like Star Trek and Star Lost, since early childhood, and read a lot of comic books – my absolute favorite was the X-Men). In my teens I started to read what every Brazilian boy and girl my age used to read: Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, occasionally Heinlein. In my case, since I finished my English course by 18, I discovered Frederik Pohl, Robert Silverberg, and Frank Herbert as well. My first speculative story was published in a fanzine when I was 21. That was exactly 25 years ago – my goodness, time flies!
For readers unfamiliar with the speculative fiction scene in Brazil, how would you describe it?
A thriving scene today. It was a very harsh panorama by the time I was writing for fanzines, in the 1980s and 1990s, but today there is what some call the Third Wave (I’m from the Second Wave, the Gen-Xrs, in fact), and now there is a new anthology every couple of months. Since 2008 the speculative fiction scene in Brazil has become a very rich one in terms of publishers too – there are now at least half a dozen small press uniquely dedicated to publish SFF. We have an annual convention, Fantasticon, and until 2010 we had a biannual con, Invisibilidades, which I curated, but sadly is no more because the institute who sponsored it cut the funding. But I’m planning to do another model of con in the next few years.
How did you become a fiction writer? A translator?
I suppose fiction comes spontaneously. One day you are reading, and you feel like writing too. Either because you feel you can write something better than the writers you are reading, or because you want to be part of a tradition of such accomplished storytellers (that’s my case). I started with poetry (badly) in my teens, then wrote plays (still do, but right now I’m in a sabbatical from the theatre) and one day I woke up to the fact the I could write short stories. Then I met the members of CLFC (the Brazilian Science Fiction Reader’s Club, founded in 1985 by Roberto Nascimento and which still exists to this day, although I’m not a member anymore) and I saw that I could indeed do it. Then I started to write for their fanzine, SOMNIUM, and it was the beginning (that was in 1987).
My career as a translator began shortly before that. I had just left high school and didn’t know what to do at the university (we don’t have college in Brazil – 4-5 years in university are pretty much the same of college+university for us here).
One of my concerns is colonialism, and how there’s a disproportionate amount of literature coming from the West to other countries, but the reverse is not true. For you, why do we need to address this problem? And how does this play into us as SF readers?
I think this is a two-tiered problem. The first tier is related to the amount of translations to the English language. It still amazes me how few translations there are, for instance, of Brazilian literature (in general, I’m not even speaking of the genre) in English. Consider movies: almost every time a non-English-language movie is a big hit, what Hollywood do? Immediately buys the rights and remakes the film, just because AMERICANS DON’T WANT TO BE BOTHERED READING SUBTITLES (remember True Lies, Nikita, The Departed). Then why aren’t we seeing more translations in literature? (I’m aware this comparison is not exact, but it fits the bill anyway). It should be an easier thing to do, since in a book you won’t be able to perceive the “alienness” of the work languagewise, which is not possible in a subtitled movie, where the foreign language is there all the while upsetting the spectator (I try to see this through the POV of the American, for instance, because as a Brazilian, I watch subtitled movies all the time and I don’t care, I’m used to it). But some of the reasons we don’t see more novel translations is because, naturally, it’s more difficult to translate a novel than a movie, it takes much more time, and it’s more expensive to do so. That seems to be a major impediment.
The second tier is related to the writers. If you are a non-Anglo writer and you are interested in make yourself heard in the Anglo world, maybe you should consider writing in English. There’s nothing wrong with that. Joseph Conrad (born and raised in Poland, native speaker of Polish and French) did it. Vladimir Nabokov (born in the former USSR, native speaker of Russian, did it. And they became masters of the English literature.
It’s all about communication, you know. If we really want to address this problem, we must learn how to communicate with each other. As SF readers in a global community, English is our lingua franca. And we, who live outside the Anglo world, should use it more, and more creatively, introducing neologisms and words of our own languages, helping English to take the next step to evolve into a really global language instead a colonizing language.
How did you become involved with The Future Fire? For unfamiliar readers, could you tell us what the magazine and the Peerbacker fundraising is about?
I was aware of TFF a year or so ago, via The Outer Alliance, an LGBT-friendly association of which I’m a member, and I started to read it since then. By the end of 2011, Its editor, Djibril al-Ayad, issued an ad looking for guest editors for two special editions in 2012. These editors should present fresh, relevant projects of their own, related to the spirit of the magazine, which has a distinct social-political orientation. I offered then a project regarding an investigation on Colonialism, and Djibril liked the idea very much. The fundraising was suggested into the project pitch, so we spent a couple of months searching for the best fundraiser site to help us. Peerbacker was the best for a number of reasons, not the least of which the fact that it accept projects from outside the US (I’m from Brazil, Djibril is from the UK). We aim to raise just enough money to pay a professional rate for authors and artists. But we will do the editorial and technical work for free.
What made you decide to title it We See A Different Frontier?
I’m a big fan of the cyberpunks, and one of my favorite Bruce Sterling stories is We See Things Differently, where he portrays a difficult situation for an Arab world journalist faced with a post-crisis America. It’s a prophetic story of sorts, and I was really wondering, after reading it, how did Bruce had the balls to write it (of course, he wrote that years before 9/11, so the answer is simple – I read it after). Evidently I didn’t condone the actions of the protagonist, but I liked the complexity of his character, and the words he says in the end of the story – words which happen to give the story its the title. And, even if the ending had been more peaceful and understanding, the words wouldn’t have ringed any less true. Because people of different cultures really see things in a different light, even small, quotidian things. And that can be beautiful instead of weird. So I decided to title this guest edition We See A Different Frontier to celebrate the difference and to clarify the fact that, in the world of the 21st Century, geopolitical borders are indeed changing, and concepts like First World and Third World maybe just doesn’t apply anymore.
Here in the Philippines, we’re sometimes criticized for borrowing a foreign term, speculative fiction, and using it as our own. What’s your stance when it comes to appropriating the title for an American’s work, and using it for your own?
That’s an excellent question. I’m a strong believer in DADA and the Surrealists (in the works of the Modernists, by the way – I taught Art History for quite a while), and the matter of appropriation is quite adequate. Appropriation can indeed be akin to what some would consider “stealing” ( I don’t), but in the case of our title I took the care to change it for one simple reason: keeping the original simply would not translate my idea. If I thought it would, I’d ask Bruce about using it as a homage. But is he didn’t agree, that would be okay – between me and Djibril, we had two dozen more suggestions of titles. We just happen to like that better.
Assuming the fundraising succeeds (and I hope it does), do you have the contributors already planned, or are you just about to start soliciting/announcing a call for submissions?
Thanks for the best wishes! We really hope too! In fact, we are thinking of inviting contributors, but we will announce a call for submissions for at least half of the stories (we haven’t decided yet how many stories will fill the issue – we are thinking of eight), but this number may reach two-thirds, because we want to be surprised – and I’m guessing we will have a lot of surprises out there.
What would be your criteria as far as fiction and contributors are concerned?
One US writer told us via Twitter that he loved the idea, but he was very said because he wouldn’t be able to be a part of it. Then I asked him why, and he answered because you’re asking for people outside the Anglo world. Then I had to ask him to read more carefully our pitch text in Peerbackers. We are not excluding anyone – we just want more people from outside the Anglo world, that’s all. But we welcome everyone. Period. I must admit I won’t be happy if all we get are subs from North America and Europe, for instance, but we will take them, read them, and if they are good, we will publish them. Why is that? We want the experience from people who lives the daily reality of non-Anglo world – be it from the POV of a poor person living in Central America, Sudan, North Korea (highly unlikely, but why shouldn’t we aim high?), be it from a rich, spoiled Brazilian, Indian, South African kid living the good life now that her country is one of the BRICS. All these POVs can bring us a rich experience and give us a lot of food for thought.
Why is this project important? Why should readers care?
Because we are really living in a globalized world, you know. Aside from a few isolationist countries which still insist and create a new curtain (an infocurtain, if you will) to alienate their citizens from reality, like North Korea and Iran, most of humankind communicates, or desperately tries to communicate, via the web and mobile devices. The future has come, and the tech corporations have done their part regarding the making of devices to unite us all over the world. Now it’s our turn to do something which really matters with it.
Anything else you want to plug?
I want to thank you, Charles, and Lavie, for the excellent work that The World SF Blog have been done for international SF. I just hope our Guest Edition can do a work as good as yours in raising awareness for the state of SF around the world.
Fabio Fernandes writes to tell us of a new initiative, We See a Different Frontier, to be co-edited by Fernandes and published by The Future Fire – a “special issue/anthology of colonialism-themed speculative fiction from outside the first-world viewpoint.”
We will be interviewing Fabio on Monday, but in the meantime here are some details of the project – do consider donating if you would like to see this come into being!
Colonialism is still a thorn on the side of humankind. Many of the problems of the Third World, for instance, are due to the social-political-economic matrix imposed on its countries by the First World countries since the 17th century (e.g. the manufacture by European powers of arbitrary borders and tribal conflicts in Africa, and then the creation of Arab countries to defeat the Ottoman Empire in WWI). The balance of power is changing in the 21st Century, but it’s still essential to look back if we want to truly understand the forces at play in the political and cultural panoramas of Third World countries—and even in countries that hardly can be labeled as Third World, like the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa).
Much widely distributed science fiction and fantasy is written by American and other Anglophone authors, and treats subjects close to the hearts of straight, white, English-speaking men. There’s nothing wrong with this sci-fi itself—we love lots of it—but there’s clearly something missing. Having white Anglo cis/hetero/males as (the only) role models is not an option any more. We aim to redress this balance, not only by publishing speculative stories by people with different viewpoints and addressing concerns from outside of the usual area (seeWorld SF), but also by explicitly including fiction that addresses the profound socio-political issues around colonisation and colonialism (see Race in SF). We want to see political stories: not partisan-political, but writing that recognizes the implications for real people and cultures of the events and actions that make up science fictional or fantastic histories, as well as our own history.
For this anthology we will be looking for stories from the perspective of people and places that are colonized under regimes not of their choosing (in the past, present or even future). We are not primarily interested in war stories, although don’t completely rule them out. We are not interested in stories about a White Man learning the error of his ways; nor parables about alien contact in which the Humans are white anglos, and the Aliens are an analogue for other races. We want stories told from the viewpoint of colonized peoples, with characters who do not necessarily speak English, from authors who have experience of the world outside the First World.
We want to raise at least $3000 dollars so that we can make this a professional rate-paying anthology for authors and artists from outside of the mainstream. All editorial and technical work will be carried out for no pay, but we feel strongly we should pay authors fairly for their work. This money will cover the cost of paying around $250 for each of 7-8 stories, plus a cover artist, publicity and advertising, review copies, rewards for donors, etc. All profit from sales of the anthology will be paid to the contributors as royalties. If we raise more than this, we can buy even more stories and/or pay even more professional rates to the authors. If we don’t quite make it, we’ll still publish this great anthology, but it may not be as large, as great, or as professional.
This week’s short story, by Brazilian author Fábio Fernandes.
Ganesh, in the Afternoon
by Fábio Fernandes
“For starters, the first sentence in a short story must always be a startling one,” said Villupuram the Elephant God, waving the printed pages in one of his four hands.
“Right, but what about the story? Did you like it?” Satyajit the puny mortal man asked anxiously.
“You will want to create something supernatural, something that does not exist in the world as we know it,” Villupuram answered obliquely. (Villupuram was the mortal name of the Elephant God, for he also was a man, at least part-time.)
“Then you didn´t like it,” Satyajit said, already beginning to feel sorry for himself.
Villupuram just wobbled his head. In Indian body language, the head wobbling is usually considered a sign of approval. With that giant elephant head, however, you could never be sure. That head shake could also mean I’m giving you the answer I think you want to hear, or I hear the words that are coming out of your mouth, or even I really want the answer to be yes, but…
“On the contrary,” his friend finally answered. “I found it most interesting.”
Villupuram started to polish his glasses using the hem of his white long-sleeved kurta; he did it very slowly, with careful circular motions, probably so as not to let the fabric of the tunic scratch the lenses.
That never failed to bother Satyajit: he knew that every time his longtime friend and former teacher did that (and he did that even in his original human form), when he ran through those motions, those calming gestures that usually triggered a calmer mindset which Satyajit himself sometimes used to meditate, he would be more often than not simply looking for the most kind, adequate words to say in an embarrassing situation.
“Is it that bad?,” Satyajit couldn´t help but blurt out the words he wanted to hold back. But maybe it was for the best; if he must have his story completely bashed, he wished the coup de grace to be as quick and painless as possible.
Villupuram squinted his beady eyes and looked at his ex-disciple for a minute (which for Satyajit had seemed the proverbial eternity).
“I didn´t say it was bad,” said Villupuram, his voice strangely mellow for what should certainly be an elephantine glottis. “I said it is interesting. That is many steps up the quality ladder.”
“How many steps?” asked Satyajit.
His friend laughed. An incredibly crystalline laughter.
“You are still so impatient,” Villupuram said. “It´s not bad, this impatience, though.”
The Elephant God rose from his cushions beside the small table they were having tea at and walked clumsily to a wooden closet on the wall of the room, still holding the pages in one hand – the lower right one, Satyajit now noticed. He also couldn´t stop watching that huge body and wondering how could that big, gray, leathery skin fit in human clothing.
He (certainly it was a he, Satyajit thought; it never occurred to him to ask Villupuram if he also underwent a sex change when he turned to godmode) opened the two upper doors of the closet and craned his neck (what neck?, Satyajit asked to no one. He is an elephant, for crying out loud!)inside, as if he was looking for something.
Satyajit could glimpse several figurines inside the closet, which he now noticed was a kind of private shrine: a small silver Kali, a middle-sized golden Gautama Buddha, the ever-present minuscule white-and-blue china figurine (so out-of-fashion for decades now) of Kung-Fu-Tze fishing in a pond, a big purple Krishna.
And, in the center of the shrine, an almost life-sized Ganesh towered over the other gods and philosophers. It was a very colorful statue – the only one of the whole bunch which was full-colored – , all draped in real folds of yellow, saffron, and blue cotton. The plaster skin was painted salmon, as it was commonly depicted in the Indian iconography.
With the statue right by his side as if put there for comparison, Satyajit could see that Villupuram wasn´t so similar as Ganesh as his mother had told him at the airport. He looked more like a strange version of that old nineteenth-century Englishman, whose name he can´t for the love of Vishnu remember now but he knows that was dubbed “The Elephant Man”, because of his deformities, than like a real elephant.
Villupuram straightened his back again and shut the doors close. In his upper right hand, he carried a burning stick of brazilwood incense.
“It´s been a long time since I smelled brazilwood,” Satyajit said approvingly, sniffing the scented air.
“I know,” his friend said with what passed for a smile with that big elephantine mouth (at least he didn´t have tusks, Satyajit thought; he would have trouble to eat). “Your mother told me that the day before you returned home. Speaking of which, you didn´t tell me anything at all about your stay in the motherland. And about the workshop.”
“Oh, the workshop was great,” Satyajit said, managing a not very sincere smile.
“Then why are you here?”
Satyajit´s smile crumbled.
“It didn´t come out exactly as I expected,” he finally answered.
“And why not?”
Satyajit let out a deep, sad sigh.
“I didn´t get a good feedback on my stories,” he said. Then, after a few seconds: “People in the motherland seem to be so closed to themselves. It´s as if they didn´t recognized me as their equal. Sometimes I got the feeling that they can only really appreciate their own writings.”
“A surprise ending,” Villupuram said, looking at Satyajit´s story again.
“What?” Satyajit said, frowning. It didn´t become his friend, always so scientific-minded, to change subjects like this. (He thought that it also didn´t become him to have statuettes of gods at home, but that was becoming a common item now in the houses of many of his friends of the University since the Blossoming.)
“Aside from the complete absence of the supernatural element,” Villupuram added, apparently oblivious to his friend Satyajit´s amazement, “your story doesn´t have a surprise ending. Maybe that´s why the members of the workshop didn´t give this one, for example, the attention you thought it deserved.”
“But you think it was just because of that?”
Villupuram raised his enormous head and just looked at his friend.
“You know better than that,” he said.
Satyajit blushed and nodded, eyes lowered. Some things should be left unsaid.
“Anyway,” Villupuram went on, as if nothing had happened, “the underlying narrative structure of a short story is, as the name goes, much too short in order to allow the adequate development of a complex situation. One must create a sharp, shock situation, a scenario that gives the reader the impression that it simply sprouted from nothingness while things are going on all around, as if that universe was always there.”
“But, from the very start, the writer must feed the reader with small portions of his universe, as bits of paratha along the way.”
“I´m not sure I´m following you…,” Satyajit said.
“Do you remember the tale of Hansel e Gretel? Little bits of bread or cake are also in order. But with parsimony, otherwise the story doesn´t go off. Doing so, the writer can make the narrative go wherever he sees fit, until a finale that catch the reader unawares, taking him by surprise.”
“And how can I do that?”
“There is, indeed, an efficient method you can use,” said Villupuram, stroking his snout. “It´s the hidden story method. You tell one story in the surface, but in fact you´re telling a different story running in a parallel track, so to speak. In the end, you make it abundantly clear to the reader that the parallel narrative in the background was in fact the story that mattered the most, not the one on the forefront.”
“It doesn´t seem easy,” Satyajit Said. “Even more for a Fantasy tale.”
“It´s not easy at all, in no literary genre,” Villupuram said. “But Fantasy is not different, say, from whodunits or suspense stories, is it? Remember the pulp stories of Mohandas and Thomas that you liked so much to read as a boy.”
“But they really happened,” Satyajit countered. “Thomas just happened to retell their cases in the format of detective stories.”
“Some of them, yes,” Villupuram said, scratching his elephant ear with his upper right hand. “But let´s not forget that, after Thomas´ death, further novels started to be written by other authors, keeping Thomas´ name as a house name. And they always follow a preordained formula.”
“But that doesn´t make them necessarily bad stories.”
“No, you´re right,” Villupuram said, twirling in the fat fingers of his lesser left hand the pair of glasses that didn´t fit in his currently overgrown head. “But that formula is just one element of the equation.”
Satyajit listened to his friend´s lesson not in a rapture, as he always did when he came there to study Literature in the past. He was trying very hard to listen now, but the ears flapping, the snout moving up and down snakelike, the four arms gesturing all at the same time, all of this was very confusing and tiring. His cup of tea grew cold on the table.
When Satyajit arrived at his friend´s house, everything was normal, as it should be. The transition to divinity status, however, went so smoothly that several minutes passed until he noticed Villupuram´s ishvara manifesting itself. He never even knew Villupuram, being an intellectual and an accomplished writer, would have an ishvara. Even so, it became manifest the only way it could for a man of letters: Ganesh, the Indian elephant god of wisdom and writing, who acted as a scribe for the sage Vyasa in the Mahabharata.
Villupuram/Ganesh didn´t even seem to have felt the transformation of his flesh; the abnormally grown elephant head, however, had substituted the former one, a beautiful head doted with silky white hair and a long salt-and-pepper beard, and also bright dark eyes framed by prescription glasses.
His two human arms now were four, ending not in elephant paws but in bloated hands, not quite human as well. The upper left hand held a cup of tea with fingers fat as sausages, the upper right one grabbed a saucer, and the two lower ones flipped through the pages of Satyajit´s story.
“Let´s see, then. This paragraph here, for instance,” and the Elephant God showed Satyajit something he felt his former student must see.
* * *
Satyajit knew what Villupuram was talking about. After he said goodbye to his friend, he went home in a kind of daze. He strolled around, watching the streets in the rush hour brimming with people in full godmode and simple mortals, walking to and fro, minding their own businesses.
When he got home, he spent hours reading again the pages of his story, slowly, deliberately. He tried to find any error, grammatical or logical, but to no avail. His teachers at the University had already told him that every writing needs a time to breathe, like a good wine. Only with a certain amount or drawer time the author will really be able to read it without acting like a jealous father.
Maybe it would be all for the better. Maybe his story – an utopian tale in which every single human being had the powers of a god – should be rewritten, or even abandoned for good.
* * *
Later, Satyajit watches the blood-red sun setting slowly from his window. He stopped his writing for a while, and automatically called to mind the words of the Bhavagad Gita: Set thy heart upon thy work, but never on its reward; Work not for reward; but never cease to do thy work.
Writing is just a means to a greater end, not an end in itself. He should have known this by now.
His father came into his room to tell him it´s time to leave for the Festival. He would meet him and his mother in a while: he rose from his chair and walked to the rosewood bookcase near his bed, picking from the topmost shelf one of his favorite books: Ten Little Tigers.
The entire collection is still there: Death on the Amazon, Murder on the Punjabi Express, and many other books featuring the adventures of the famous lawyer/detective Mohandas Gandhi and his loyal friend, the American journalist later-turned-Buddhist monk, Thomas Merton. Maybe these are the kind of stories he is meant to write. There is no blame in that. He just needs to figure out if that it´s what he truly wants to do before trying to write his next story.
Book in hand, he goes to the windowsill. The moon is rising. It´s the full moon of May, the Vesak: the time of year when, according to Buddhist tradition, Siddharta Gautama was born, reached illumination, and died. Satyajit and his parents will follow the ritual procession all the way to Hunchback Mountain to celebrate the Vesak at the feet of the gigantic statue of the Enlightened Buddha.
From up there, they will watch the fireworks and see the lights of the entire city of Vaisakha Nadi, with its big river cutting the land in half, the River of May, which gave its name to the capital city of the Indian colony of Virupakshanagar, in South America.
And it has been much more beautiful since the Blossoming, when the gods started to incarnate in the bodies of humans, for they will always dance and congregate with simple mortals in festival times.
It´s going to be a beautiful night, Satyajit thinks to himself. Literature can wait until tomorrow.
Ganesh, in the Afternoon (c) 2009 Fábio Fernandes. First published in The Nautilus Engine.
World Cup Feelings – Really Global Ones
By Fábio Fernandes
By the time you read this, it’s quite probable that the World Cup has already come to an end. Brazil, alas, is already out of the game, but that happens. What’s really important is that the FIFA World Cup has managed to do something extraordinary, and for decades now: to unite most of the world around a major event.
Note that I said most of the world. Not every country is crazy about soccer – or football, as it is called in Europe, or simply futebol, as I call it in Portuguese. (From now on, I will refer to it as football, because that is how this sport is referred to in the countries that really care about it.)
Not that the countries that don’t care about football should be covered in tar and feathers – I just feel sorry for them, because they miss all the fun! The emotion, the sheer energy of the players in the field running after the ball is something unique – everyone should go to a stadium at least once in their lifetimes to experience it.
(But, hey!, some of you will promptly say to me. The same applies to baseball, for example. What about the thrill of the game, all the fastballs, home runs, and whatnot. I won’t argue with that. I’m sure it’s awesome as well.)
Some people I follow on Twitter, most notably people from the US, simply can’t understand some key notions of the game, like the tie. For them, no match should end with both teams failing to score a goal, or – even worse – scoring the same amount of goals each (perish the thought!)
Maybe it’s a cultural thing, but certainly it’s not something you are born with. It’s more like an acquired taste. Or love at first sight. It may happen for both sports, and it does. Country notwithstanding.
Recently, Glenn Beck (for those of you who don’t know him – I, for one, didn’t before the World Cup began – he is the utterly conservative host of a news show in Fox News TV channel in the US) said that he hates “soccer”, and, guess what? Because it’s global!
(Years ago, I believe I already established that America is a concept that goes far beyond the borders of the country called United States, encompassing no less than three continental landmasses, North, Central, and South America, so I won’t tackle the subject again here – please refer to this guest post in Jeff VanderMeer’s blog.)
As for Beck, I take the liberty of quoting him from another site, Media Matters for America:
BECK: I don’t get the baseball thing, but the soccer thing, I hate it so much — probably because the rest of the world likes it so much, and they riot over it, and they continually try to jam it down our throat.”
It appears that Beck is not alone on this, and thinks that soccer is part of a kind of socialist conspiracy against America of something like that.
I’m not trying to reasoning with those arguments. I just wanted to say a thing or two.
First, going back to baseball, I’m truly sorry, but you can’t possibly call World Series a championship series comprising only one or two countries. If only Japan, Cuba (yeah, I know I’m dreaming), or even Brazil (we have baseball here too, but we’re less proficient in it than the US in soccer – for now, that is) were also on it, then the American professional baseball World Series would really be global. But then, according to Glenn Beck, it could be dangerous.
Second, and that maybe will strike you as a curiosity: in Portuguese, we often use the word socialize as a verb, but not with a political meaning. We just happen to use it sometimes when talking about sharing stuff with our friends. (For instance, let’s socialize this book, shall we? Or, let’s socialize the bottle, when you’re in a bar – you got it).
Does that sound odd to you? Maybe it does. What the hell, Brazil is a different country, so it should sound odd to you after all.
I don’t even know if this rarticle (part rant, part article) will be published, because it apparently doesn’t have anything to do with science fiction. But that’s just on the surface. Since we’re having a global conversation here, those were just some thoughts I thought I should share with you all. Or socialize.