Her stories have been published in The Apex Book of World SF vol II, Crossed Genres, Bards and Sages Quarterly, M-Brane SF and Semaphore Magazine. Her novels are published under the pseudonym J. Damask by Lyrical Press.
This is the story’s first publication.
by Joyce Chng
Noraishah watched the dance of the eagles in the air, her digital camera poised in her hands. She seemed to have forgotten about it, so transfixed was she to the dizzying spiralling movements of the sea-eagles. They were a mated pair, appearing frequently in the skies. As long as she could remember, there had always been a mated pair of Lang Siput. White-bellied sea eagles.
The pair were joined to each other with outstretched talons, spinning downwards as they renewed their pair bond in a death-defying act. Grey feathers flashed in the air, like a comet plunging towards the earth. When Noraishah thought they would hit the water, the mated pair pulled out of their dive and veered away, calling out in that familiar cry which made Noraishah’s heart twinge. They flew above the shimmering water, flapping their wings.
Realizing that she was still carrying her camera, she lifted it up and took a few pictures of the two sea-eagles soaring on the thermals, their vows now completed and affirmed. Seeing the eagles reminded her that she had come home.
The sea whispered, waves hissing on the shore beneath the small cliff she was sitting on. It was her favorite childhood spot, where she would watch the sea-eagles hunt for food, skimming over the bright surface of the sea. She placed her camera beside her and leaned back, her face to the sun, feeling its warmth on her face.
She looked back to see her maternal grandfather slowly ambling up the cliff. Slowed by advancing arthritis, Tok Wan still looked strong and hale, his body sinewy and lean, a testimony to his fisherman days. Noraisah remembered the fragrance of fried ikan selar cooking on hot coals, delectable of course with hot sambal belachan and lashings of lime juice.
“I knew you would be here,” Tok Wan said smiling, his face seamed with age and laugh lines. His temples were grizzled with brown-white, like eagle feathers.
Noraishah smiled back. She stood up, brushing her blue jeans, before walking back to the house with her grandfather. Behind her, the sea-eagles called out to each other in a love song.
* * *
Her family house looked the same, as if nothing had ever changed. She was sure that the corrugated iron roof was still rusty and in desperate need of repair. The well was there; every morning, her grandfather washed his face with the cold water and filled buckets for daily use. Poultry clucked on the dry earth, hens pecking at the grains of rice, followed by their chicks.
Stepping into the house, Noraishah could see the wooden eagle sculptures on the shelves, the stylized picture of a sea-eagle painted by one of her aunts and eagle feathers adorning the walls. Tok Wan loved eagles and imparted that love to his children. She knew – with a quiet smile – that the neighbors gossiped he was part eagle himself. When she was a little girl, he had brought her along on his fishing trips and showed her the areas where the mangrove grew, where the kingfishers hunted and where the sandpipers fed on low tide sand banks. He had taught her the various uses of plants found in the forest, including preparing the nuts of the sea almond tree. She had missed those excursions deeply, especially during the cold of winter.
Her ibu treated her to a delicious meal of rice and ikan selar, topped off with a glass of icy-cold coconut juice, perfectly sweet to her tongue. The fish was freshly caught and fried to perfection.
She had not had such wonderful food, not when she was in England reading history. Nothing beat home-cooking.
She fell asleep, later, and dreamt of sea-eagles spinning in the sky, their song weaving through the air.
* * *
She woke to see her grandfather staring out of the window, his face suddenly dark and anxious. She followed his gaze, to see bulldozers rolling in, their machinery at odds with the peaceful tranquility of her family home. Dust clouds puffed up in their wake as they rumbled into the forest.
“Pak?” Noraishah asked tentatively, feeling her grandfather’s anger like a growing thunderhead. The atmosphere in the house was suddenly grim, and goose pimples ran across her arms, causing her to shiver involuntarily. The only time when she had seen him that angry was the day he had rescued a fledgling eaglet from a mass of fishing wire, carelessly left behind by holidaymakers from the city.
“They plan to turn the forest into a golf course.” Tok Wan choked out the words, his brow furrowed. He did not like modern things, and did not care for amenities like television and radio. He walked into a shopping mall once and walked back out, his shoulders stiff in disgust.
Noraishah recalled seeing the huge sign at the roadside with “Green Acres Golf” proudly emblazoned across, with a young couple posing with golf clubs and fixed smiles. It was going to be an exclusive club, targeted at the well-to-do and the upper middle class.
After a quick breakfast of coconut rice and leftover fish, Noraishah followed her grandfather to the forest, slipping past the stationary bulldozers with their napping operators. He brought her to the center of the forest where the sun turned the foliage and canopy to splashes of gold and green. The forest was alive with bird song and insect cries. It was also humid and warm; Noraishah felt as if her clothes were stuck to her skin. She slapped an errant mosquito on her left arm, wincing to see the small splatter of red blood. Her blood. It was something she did not see often in England. There was the tinge of salt in the air – the mangrove swamps were close by, framing the forest.
“Look,” Tok Wan said, his anger gone now, replaced by a reverential whisper. “Up.”
She did and her mouth fell open. It was an eagle’s nest, huge, almost as broad as the tree holding it up. It was composed of an intricate network of twigs. Gazing up, Noraishah could see that the nest was fairly new, because some of the twigs bore green leaves.
“Lang Siput,” her grandfather said, placing his hand on the gnarled tree bark. “Our brothers and sisters.” Sea eagles. Their kin.
Noraishah had to laugh. Grandfather could be so literal. What did the neighbors say about him? Part eagle? Yet listening to his rich voice comforted her. She had indeed returned home.
They walked back to the house. By then, the bulldozers had begun digging ugly trenches across the earth. Tok Wan kept quiet and glared balefully at the machines.
* * *
Noraishah did not think much about the bulldozers. She met up with old friends from her secondary school, chatting amiably about old times over cold latte and capuccino. Sitting in the cool interior of the trendy cafe, she could see dark specks in the blue sky. Eagles. She showed them photographs of the mated pair and they oohed and aahed at the clarity of the wings, back lit by the sun, and at the crystalline spray of water beneath clenched talons.
“Tok Wan still talking about his eagles?” Siti teased her, grinning playfully. Noraishah noticed that her friend had put on weight. She was now a full-time mother to a rambunctious two year-old boy. Back when they were teenagers, they used to walk to school together, chatting about boyfriends and their dreams for the future.
“Yes, he does,” Noraishah sighed. The dark specks had disappeared. She stifled an odd pang of disappointment, smiling at Siti.
When she made her way back, she was shocked to see the forest half-destroyed by the bulldozers and excavators, the trees and shrubs all ripped away, exposing awful gouges in the brown-red soil like dreadful wounds. She was more shocked to feel as if her heart was being ripped away as well, and she gasped, placing her hand on her breast. She could see the surveyors and architects in yellow hard hats, inspecting the land and making notes with their tablets and styluses.
Something moved, like a fast-moving shadow, in the forest. It was not an animal, nor was it a bird. It moved like… sludge water. Like the sickly flow of oil, hovering about the broken tree trunks. As each tree fell, it seemed to grow larger, bolder. Hungrier.
Noraishah blinked, shaking her head. When she looked at the forest once more, the thing was simply not there. An optical illusion, she thought resolutely, and walked determinedly towards the house.
Her mother was standing at the doorway when she finally reached the front porch. Wearing a green kebaya and sarong, she cut an imposing figure, her face regal and her dark hair tied in a ponytail, covered by a thin light green shawl. Her expression, however, filled Noraishah with an uncommon dread.
“It’s your grandfather,” her mother said quietly, casting a worried glance at the forest and at the bulldozers steadily removing the trees. “He’s missing.”
“He might have gone to the beach,” Noraishah shook her head. Suddenly she wished she was back in her cosy dormitory room, cut off from all these worries, her only concern finishing her dissertation.
“Not there. I checked.”
Noraishah’s heart sank. Tok Wan wasn’t a man to go wandering around unannounced. Even when she was growing up, he would inform the family, and Grandmother would leave some food for him on the floor, covered with a straw hat to keep the flies away.
“Did he take anything? His parang? Ibu?”
Her mother looked away, her way of saying “No.” Outside, the bulldozers clanged, making an unholy din.
“The forest. He must be in the forest!” The memory of her grandfather standing beneath the giant tree flashed vividly and Noraishah was gripped with an acute premonition. She opened the door, driven by a wildness to look for her grandfather.
“Aishah!” Her mother called out. “Aishah!”
Noraishah did not turn around, paying no heed to her mother, but headed straight for the roaring bulldozers. The supervisor, a plump Chinese man, his stomach round with good food and beer, yelled at her to stop. She paid no attention to his words. The dust churned from the bulldozers filled her lungs, stinging her eyes. She fought it as if she was fighting some unseen evil. Things rose around her, hissing and snarling incoherently at her. There were voices, sarcastic, hateful and mean-spirited. Leave us be. We are here to take over the land. Go away.
She swatted at those voices. Just dust, just dust. She coughed and pushed her way through the remaining thicket, the branches tearing viciously at her skin.
Noraishah emerged into the center of the forest and the tree was there, solid and infallible. She stared dumbly at the eagle’s nest dominating the entire tree, her face covered with dust and streaked with tears. The bulldozers had removed most of the foliage; the tree was a lone survivor in the middle of a clearing.
It was unusually silent. The birds had all fled.
A figure, wearing a blue tattered sarong wrapped around the waist, sprawled beneath the tree, prostrate as if he was praying. Somehow Noraishah thought she might have shouted something. It felt so much like a dream. She, rushing forward, kneeling down, touching the cool neck of her grandfather. Crying loudly. Grandfather! Grandfather! Time seemed to slow down. He was holding something in his right hand. Two tail feathers.
Someone pulled her away and she struggled with all her might, fighting back with the ferocity of a raptor defending her nest. The hands were too strong, too insistent – and she let them pull her away, her vision blurred by tears.
* * *
They buried Tok Wan in the nearby cemetery after performing the rites. Noraishah did not speak for the entire funeral, holding onto her mother who hung limply against her. Their family gathered around both mother and daughter, silent and united in grief.
The tail feathers rustled in her hand.
Her dream that night was filled with screaming. Her screaming. An eagle’s scream.
* * *
After the last of the relatives had left, Noraishah helped her mother clean the house, her beloved ibu not wanting to touch her grandfather’s belongings. It had been two weeks since he had passed away. Massive heart attack, the coroner had reported. That was Western medicine talking. He died of a broken heart. She could not bear to stay in the house, fretting as if she was a trapped bird. She grabbed her camera and ran to the cliff, glad of the temporary respite.
She scanned the heavens for the mated sea-eagle pair. Nothing. They were gone.
Sorrow warred with rage, an unbearable riptide within her. She wanted to lash out and shred the foreman and his workers into bloody strips. They had destroyed the forest. They had taken her grandfather away from her. She pressed her hands against her temples. “No,” she whispered to herself. “No!” She had a degree in Asian maritime history. She was a rational person. Logic. Reason.
Noraishah shuddered, adrenaline coursing through her body. Something beat inside her ribcage. Pounding heart or flapping wings – she did not care. All she wanted was to confront whatever was inside the forest and powering those bulldozers.
She marched towards the forest, or what was left of it. They were already bringing in the piledriver and the cement mixer. Stacks of equipment were arranged next to barrels of oil.
The thing came out to meet her.
It was a mish-mash of many things, like many mouths all open and moving at the same time. A Greed incarnate, always hungry, always wanting more. It moved like an oil slick, making her eyes water just by looking at it. It flowed around her, taunting her, mocking her. It plunged straight at her, trying to intimidate her, to scare her away, a shadow given life. It sought to corrupt her, its dark tendrils insidious and toxic. Feed me, the mouths said like the flickering of snake tongues. Feed us. The forest is nothing. We grow strong every day and when the new place is built, we will feed on the people. Join us. Join us.
Iblis! Noraishah opened her mouth. What came out was an eagle’s defiant shriek, a hunting shriek. Everything happened simultaneously: feathers sprouting from her body, bones shrinking, pulling in and re-structuring. She spread her arms, embracing the wind.
Her new body threw itself at the black miasma, tearing into it with sharp talons.
* * *
Lim had a splendid meal of nasi bryani and chicken curry. It was mid-day: bristling hot and dry, perfect for taking a brief siesta. His workmen were busy trying to clear out the last of the trees, including the one with the eagle’s nest. A few of the men refused to cut it down, because they argued that the tree was sacred. He wondered idly if he should dock their pay.
He did not know what hit him.
* * *
The workmen told the TV reporter that it was a huge sea-eagle which appeared from nowhere, plummeting from the skies like a lightning bolt. Its talons raked across the supervisor’s neck; he passed out from sheer pain and shock.
They swore it was true. A giant sea-eagle, with a wingspan as broad as a full-grown man with his arms stretched out. A huge Lang Siput. A Garuda come to life.
The forest is sacred, they said with awed and frightened looks. We should not harm it. The Lang Siput is its guardian. We should leave!
* * *
From her room, Noraishah watched the bulldozers roll away one by one, escorted by the trucks still heavy with earth. She drew her knees up to her chest, closing her eyes. Brown-grey eagle-feathers, the plumage of a young female eagle, covered the bed, scattered across the sheets. They radiated from her like an aura. Absentmindedly, she rubbed her hands, still twisted as if they were talons. Her talons.
The black thing, the greed-beast, had fled shrieking. It wouldn’t be back for a very long time. The forest had a new guardian.
Somewhere, Tok Wan smiled.
Over at Visibility Fiction, Joyce Chng talks about writing YA and speculative fiction in Singapore. Here’s an excerpt:
Lack of exposure and the tendency for Westerners to fix Asians in pigeonholes are not helping the situation. What are Southeast Asians supposed to write about? Literary fiction about oppressive regimes, sad cultural traditions, tortured souls (who then find solace in a Western world/man/woman etc) and what? If you want us to write about diversity, then let us write about diversity. Diversity in our terms, not your own, Western publishing industry. More non-US protagonists and characters, more exciting scenarios, more diversity in gender and sexual orientation.
You can read more at Visibility Fiction.
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.
This week on the World SF Blog, Joyce Chng interviews Malaysian writer K.S. “Kaz” Augustin.
I’m not sure what to say. I was born in Malaysia, educated overseas, have worked on several continents and, right now, am temporarily back in Malaysia with my family.
I wouldn’t know, to be honest. I don’t target any Malaysian (or Singaporean) publishers for my work. From what I’ve seen on the bookshelves, paranormal stories are very popular, what Charles Tan described as “magical realism” when describing genre fiction in the Philippines.
To atone for this omission, I write a large number of “minority” characters into my books. (It strikes me as amusing that I have to refer to olive/tan/black-skinned women/people as minority characters when we make up the majority of the world’s population, but them’s the socio-political breaks.) And, just to turn things around a bit, my villains tend to–but not always!–have the pale skins! LOL
Two things. If you’re doing this through some visceral yearning, then learning the craft will always stand you in good stead. Reading books you enjoy to then analyse why you enjoy them, playing around with different points of view, taking a few literature courses and so on. If you’re doing this to make a living out of, then remember that, not only do you have to do the first thing, but you also have to run your work as a business.
KS “Kaz” Augustin writes space opera(!) and some contemporary and fantasy romance. Her website is at http://www.ksaugustin.com Under the pen-name Cara d’Bastian, she is also writing an urban fantasy series set in south-east Asia. You can catch up with Kaz’s and Cara’s blogs at http://blog.ksaugustin.com and http://caradbastian.blogspot.com respectively. When not writing, Kaz is private tutor to two very good children. They’re not Einsteins, but they’re willing to think and try things, which is all she asks.
I am delighted to introduce this week’s original feature, a round table on women in SF, from a global perspective, with some of our favourite authors. Without further ado:
(Global) Women in Science Fiction Round Table
With: Aliette de Bodard (France), Joyce Chng (Singapore), Csilla Kleinheincz (Hungary), Kate Elliott (US), Karen Lord (Barbados), Ekaterina Sedia (Russia/US)
Kate: It’s difficult for me to articulate all the strands of thought interweaving in my head when I think about this. I’m going to throw this out just as a kind of fragmented opener that barely touches on the core issues and is mostly definitional, for which I apologize.
One place I could start is with Joyce’s mention in her excellent rant on the World SF blog of the very term “World SF.” I’m glad the World SF blog exists; I think it needs to exist. At the same time, “world sf” becomes a bit like the current use of the word “ethnic” in American English: it denotes a particular thing that has to be marked because it isn’t the thing that doesn’t have to be marked. Just as we have an entire discussion about “women writers” instead of “writers.” World SF still exists outside the default, and can be ignored or included depending on the needs of the discussion, because the discussion is indeed still US/UK-centric and, of course, Anglophone-centric (which I admit is great for me, being a native English speaker).
It would be easy to criticize sff as a genre form of cultural imperialism, but I don’t think the global world culture is so easy to categorize these days. Not that the reach of advertising dollars and multinational companies don’t skew the larger global cultural picture, because they do, but we have only to look at the global music scene to see how musical styles from one place can both reach out and be woven into music from another place. Sometimes this is appropriative, but more often it reflects (I think) the normal human tendency to gather and weave.Caribbean-American writer Tobias Buckell just posted a fabulous account of AnimeKon, held in Barbados (Karen can speak to this as she was there). To me one of the salient points I take away from his post is that sff, anime, manga, and film has become/is becoming a shared global cultural mix. To my mind, the way it will remain vibrant and urgent and alive is insofar as it is embraced, changed, mashed up, and transfigured by that global reach.
Karen: I’m glad Kate mentioned AnimeKon. While we were there, I asked Tobias things like ‘how does the gender balance here compare to other cons you’ve been to’, ‘are there more males than females buying your books’, and so on. I’ve heard that Dragon Con has a similar good mix of gender and age, but other cons can be very age- and gender-specific. To me it isn’t unusual to see all kinds of people enjoying all kinds of SF/F, and daring to create it too!
I think that some genre boundaries become self-fulfilling prophecies. It might be a consequence of the kind of marketing mentality that says to the reader ‘If you liked Author X, you will love Author Y!’ It may make for easy marketing, but it trains readers to be unadventurous, and then pushes new authors to fit into established moulds if they hope to sell – or even get published, for that matter. Potential new readers are being passed over because a lot of genre publishing rarely takes risks. You have to look to small presses, literary presses for that.
I realise I haven’t really addressed the questions, but that’s because they’re not so much loaded as … not entirely relevant to my experience? Yes, the conversation has been UK/US-centric thus far. Does that mean that gender in SF/F is more of an issue in those countries? Or that too few have sufficient knowledge of literary traditions in other countries to broaden the discussion? Science fiction more appealing to men? Not according to me, nor to my female friends. Have I written science fiction? I have, but it hasn’t been published yet (though the manuscript did win an award). It didn’t feel different, or special. Was it supposed to? I have a major in physics and a minor in astronomy. Does that exempt me? Someone did tell me once, years ago, that physics isn’t a girl’s subject. I think I laughed in his face.
Csilla: What struck me most in Joyce’s rant was the bitter truth of world SF being exotic curiosity. As Kate had mentioned, the discussion about women writers and even any discussion about SFF is heavily US/UK-centric, making it seem more important, which is a misconception fed by the fact that even though English language serves as an intermediary when it comes to SFF, only 3% of all books published in the US is a work in translation (I don’t know the percentage for SFF but my guess is it’s even more dismal). There are wonderful gems of SFF literature all over the world, by women and men alike, and the English-speaking world, the great common marketplace of the SF doesn’t even know of, and by lacking an edition in English, other countries remain also ignorant of these (with a few exceptions of course). Take “Vita Nostra” by Maryna and Sergey Dyachenko (Ukraine), or the WonderTimes tetralogy by Etelka Görgey (Hungary) (http://sfmag.hu/2011/01/11/etelka-gorgey-wondertimes-religion-family-saga-and-science-fiction-in-four-volumes/): they will only be recognized globally if they get translated to English. That is a task a non-English speaking writer has to bend to – on the other hand, being present in English also opens a lot of doors (doors that are by default open to native speakers).
World SF is a colourful and invisible mass, with only limited permeability. English is the language that should serve as an intermediary yet it shouldn’t only be the responsibility of the writers themselves to translate and promote their work. The view the world gets about world SF is distorted: the ones who master English or are able to get a good translator get published (if they are lucky) while others remain mostly unknown. World SF is an iceberg with only the tip visible and it would do well to raise awareness of it for SFF would only benefit from the cultural cross-pollination. Non-English speaking writers get plenty of influence from translated US/UK works. This should be a two-way channel.
I am not saying of course that everything that gets published in other countries is brilliant. It isn’t. World SF has the same percentage of crap as US/UK SF. Hungarian science fiction, for example, is mostly stuck in time and is definitely dominated by men – to tie the conversation back to the original women writers discussion. This is partly due to the fact that there was a long hiatus in the publication of science fiction, and even before that, the translated works were mostly Golden Age works, with only a handful of women writers like Ursula K. Le Guin and Andre Norton. Neuromancer came in only in 1992, and Hungarian writers were slow to follow. The retro character of Hungarian science fiction is also a direct result of publishing and awarding mediocre works that are ignorant of the themes and changes in global science fiction. Although there are Hungarian science fiction writers who read and write modern works, we never had a New Wave movement, and only have isolated attempts at quality. As there are only a few Hungarian female role models in SF, women are discouraged and leave the genre, which only enforces the artificially upheld notion that science fiction is only for men. Even awareness that this is a problem is lacking.
After SF Signal’s Mind Meld Gábor Takács, editor of the Hungarian magazine SFmag made the statistics based on the majority of Hungarian science fiction short stories in 2010 to see how many women were published (19%) and how many stories feature a female protagonist (7%). (http://sfmag.hu/2011/06/17/zsoldos-dijra-jelolt-novellak-ertekelese-statisztika-es-osszegzes/) Our only science fiction award, the Péter Zsoldos Award has a 14 years old history, yet there has not been a single woman winner either in the novel or the short story category (in spite of the jury having strong chairwomen). Many of the women who write SFF in Hungary are not even published and have to turn to POD or self-publishing, and not because of the lack of talent. Before being recognized as part of world SF they need to be recognized in their own country, hardships that those who have the privilege of being men or US citizens or native speakers are not aware of.
Writers all over the world would benefit from being judged on a global scale. World SF needs the raised awareness as much as women writers do — and needs a lot more publishers who raise that three percent.
Aliette: this is raising a lot of points, and, like Kate, I’m not quite sure how to tackle them in an orderly fashion. While the world is a more complex place than it was during the Cold War, I don’t think we’re quite past the cultural imperialism of the US–or, at any rate, that science fiction hasn’t quite got over it. As far as the genre is concerned, English is the language, and Western Anglophone the reference (not the case, for instance, with mysteries, which can get translated more easily, though there are still a lot of problems). SF in particular has very strong US roots and US sensibilities: in France, we had a period of our SF aping the Golden Age (we got over it, but it was painful while it lasted). I’m not saying it’s deliberate imperialism, just the sort of unconscious bleed-out from a dominant culture, coupled with the tendency not to question its “superiority”.
Reading Joyce’s article, the one other thing that I wanted to comment on was the use of “minorities”. I think a clear difference needs to be made between minorities in the US (who might have a hard time getting heard because of the White-dominated publishing industry), and non-US, non-Western folks (who, not being part of the dominant culture and the dominant country, have an even harder time). I don’t think the distinction is clear enough right now, and it leads to people lumping everything together and claiming that the debate is inclusive because US POC are having their say (which is an important thing, but again not the whole of the scene). What I saw of Racefail, for instance, was heavily focused on US sensibilities and US perception of racism. Again, I’m pretty sure other corners of the web had other discussions, but the dominant voice was that of US people.
The fact that the discussion is centred on SF is… I’m not quite sure how to articulate it. I appreciate the Russ Pledge, I really do; but it does leave a slight impression that SF is the important genre, and that fantasy doesn’t even bear mentioning. Of course, it’s always the case when you start putting genre boundaries; but there’s something about this that bothers me. You could argue that we’re making the Russ Pledge because fantasy doesn’t need it; but I’m not even entirely sure that this is the case. All major fantasy bestsellers are written by men, and there are known biases in that genre as well. I’m not quite sure what to think. Still, I guess we have to start somewhere in order to tackle inequalities.
Hum. I realise I haven’t tackled a lot of the questions either… Have I written science fiction? A little–it didn’t feel like me to be appealing more to men than to women, though science fiction written by women does tend to appeal more to me than that written by men. I’m not entirely sure why; probably personal taste. Tales entirely focused on science at the detriment of everything else tend to leave me cold, but that’s because I’m a scientist myself, and science in novels, even if really well done, reminds me too much of work (but my husband, a physicist by trade, is equally bored by that kind of tale, so it’s probably not a gender thing).
I’m curious. Do you think that what women write (and read) tends to have a slightly different sensibility than what men write? (I’m not saying it’s a rule, just a trend) Not sure how to articulate it, but even my husband, who is very open-minded and progressive, reads way more men than women; while I read both equally.
Kate: Karen, what were Toby’s observations about gender and age balance at AnimeKon?
I should note that I agree with Aliette about cultural imperialism. I was trying to say I think it is no longer only cultural imperialism that gives sff/anime/etc its global reach. The degree to which these subjects and forms show up cross culturally speak to a more universal form, if you will, of how they connect with certain readers and viewers as we move further into the 21st century. (And, off topic, I agree completely about Racefail. It was a hugely important and valuable discussion, but it was deeply US-centric and at times unaware that it was so.)
I learned more about Hungarian sf (and the difficulties faced by women writing in the genre there) from reading what Csilla just wrote than anything I had ever known before, which to me is symptomatic of how fenced-in the Anglophone US/UK market can be and how difficult it is to get non-English works translated into English, much less sell them to consumers. For example, I was introduced to Argentine writer Angelica Gorodischer through Small Beer Press’s 2003 edition of Kalpa Imperial, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin, yet when I check Amazon.com, I don’t see any English editions of her many other works.
Regarding the history of sf, I’d be curious to hear from Ekaterina, because it seems to me that Russian and Eastern European sf writers were deeply influential in the evolution of the field, not to mention that the word “robot” comes from a Czech writer.
This discussion brings me to think of the resorts that dot the world, where Westerners can travel to “exotic” destinations while remaining in the comfort of familiar surroundings whose decor varies in pleasing but not too demanding ways. The obstacles facing world sf writers are really profound, and for women, I think, doubly so.
I have more to say (or at least questions to ask) about Lavie’s question about the greater discussion focusing on science fiction and leaving aside fantasy and urban fantasy/paranormal, especially as it affects the visibility of women who may be writing not in English in those genres which often do not get the same level of respect sf does. But I’m thrashing around trying to make sense of my chaotic thoughts. And that’s leaving aside Aliette’s question about reading and writing sensibilities! My time zone is headed for bed; I’ll return in the morning.
Csilla: Thank you, Aliette, your thoughts on cultural imperialism. It reminded me that there was a time when the Western dominance in SF was a relative thing. Ekaterina could tell more about the Soviet fantastika that defined the SF literature of the whole socialist block in Europe and Asia. We grew up reading People Like Gods by Sergey Snegov, Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers, The Cyberiad and Eden by Stanislaw Lem, books that had defined our perception of science fiction as much as Ursula K. Le Guin or Asimov. With the borders opening it seems to me that we have traded this diversity and co-existence of cultures for the previously banned works of Western science fiction, unconsciously giving in to the notion that Western SF is somehow superior.
Now that I think back, the Soviet SF books I read were mostly written by men with only a few women writers. I am sure the contribution of women in the Soviet fantastika must have been greater than the handful of stories I encountered, but Ekaterina surely knows more about it. Just like Kate I am also curious how fantastika has changed during the past years.
Joyce: Okay, jumping in right here as I manage to get some time on the computer to do non-work stuff. What Aliette has asked is very pertinent: I believe that what women write (and read) tends to have a (slightly) different sensibility than what men write. Then again, I would expand on the question. What are women expected to write? If we are expected to write romance, then that is just stereotyping. If we write science fiction, are we expected to write ‘soft’ science fiction?
I think as women SFF writers, we are expected to conform to a certain stereotype. What happens to women who write hard science fiction?
Joyce: I feel that – as what I have ranted – is that the discussion is still very US/UK-centric. It is fine that the POC and minorities are speaking out in – say – the States, but that is still very US-centric/dominated. I also feel that women from places like Southeast Asia might not have the same experiences/common ground to talk about and we end up grappling and confused. There is a lot of intersectionality – what are Southeast Asian women (with different experiences/backgrounds) going to say? What are Southeast Asian women supposed to say? Likewise, when it comes to SFF, what we experience might be similar but vastly different as well. Often as such, we end up trying to conform to foreign-sounding standards and end up feeling confused.
I grew up watching Star Trek and many other American SFF shows. At the same time, I watched wu xia series (Jin Yong, anyone?) and listened to Chinese legends. So in a way, I am straddling in between two worlds. I was not American (because I am not), but I grappled with issues of identity and self-perception. The educational system in Singapore was based on the Anglo-Saxon system, thanks to British colonialism. I think and speak in English… and struggle with my Mandarin Chinese. I speak Cantonese than Hokkien, my mother tongue, simply because my mother was brought up Cantonese by her mother.
How am I going to approach SFF with this skein of experiences?
Wolf At The Door was written as a challenge to norms (that Southeast Asian urban fantasy is just as interesting and perhaps more diverse than the US/UK ones). I write urban fantasy, yes… but I am also interested in ‘soft’ science fiction. Many of my SFF stories deal with future worlds colonized by Terrans. These Terrans often deal with their own identities beside coping with new flora and fauna. Are their languages going to change or are they going to remain the same? Will they change their traditions or integrate new experiences into them to form cultural hybrids? I explore such issues in my SFF stories. I do believe science fiction is changing. Note: I hasten to add that science fiction will only change, when people are willing to change and incorporate new ideas/ideologies/beliefs. Science fiction is no longer an old boys’ institution.
I hope to see more Southeast Asian women writing SFF. I believe there are many (I am one of the editors of a new anthology – “Hybrid”!) and I do see women writing. I also hope to see more non-US/UK women writing SFF. I am heartened from what I see in the roundtable discussion! Perhaps the iron gates will open… in the future.
Karen: ‘Soft’ sci-fi – that’s like what Ray Bradbury wrote, right? Let’s assume, purely for the sake of argument, that women are inclined (nature or culture?) to write and to enjoy a certain type of fiction. Is there a hint of judgement attached, that the male-dominated subgenres are, if not more lucrative, more prestigious? More likely to be ‘true’ sci-fi? I have a vague impression, completely unsupported, that more women write speculative fiction that crosses from genre into literary (there’s another arbitrary boundary with value judgements attached). Do male writers who produce soft, near-literary sci-fi find themselves overlooked when it comes to awards and mentions from genre reviewers?
I think that the problem isn’t whether women write or read different things. It’s the imposition of boundaries and the assigning of value that’s the problem – whether that boundary is genre vs literary, world sf vs Western, or women writers vs men. As a reader, I don’t want to miss out because the next great SF/F writer happens to be the ‘wrong gender’ and has been discouraged from writing what they’re best at writing.
Kate, I just checked in with Tobias to make sure I’m not misquoting him in public! He says that he found the AnimeKon gender balance and age distribution to be much closer to Comic Con than WorldCon (with Comic Con having the better age and gender mix), and in fact the female attendance at AnimeKon was even better than Comic Con. He also reminded me that the gender balance extended to the organisers (one male, two female), something which we both agree must make a difference.
Kate: Karen, absolutely on organization. I’m chuffed by these observations about the balance and distribution at AnimeKon. Also, I’m watching you write in real time as I’m writing this. Kind of cool. Now I have to go walk the dog, though.
Kate: Without wanting to take anything away from the genuine problems women writers of science fiction have in, say, the UK, where it is clear they are deeply underrepresented compared to how many are and could be writing sf, I think you’re all identifying a potentially bigger point.
By focusing on sf are we privileging it as a more “serious” or “prestigious” form of writing? Are urban fantasy and paranormal looked down on because of their subject matter and approach–their sensibility, as Aliette says? Are there more non US/UK women writing urban fantasy? Are these women being ignored both because of the issues relating to English translation and because of the status of urban fantasy itself? Would a man writing sf be more likely to be picked up for translation than a woman writing urban fantasy or paranormal, because sf is taken as a more “serious” and therefore more “important” genre? Is there a “sensibility” in female written uf or fantasy or sf that is seen as less serious and important, so therefore can be derided or dismissed?
I’m not one to agree with essentialist views of gender. There may be essential differences between male and female, but to my way of thinking our cultural blankets obscure what those might be. However, I do think that just because of culture and societal conditioning and expectations that many women may well write with a view or focus whose sensibility may differ in some ways from that of men. At the same time as women’s “concerns” are often dismissed as trivial or unimportant, the way we as women view and examine the world is often dismissed as “the wrong way” or not “the right way” and thus women fall afoul of being judged as not worthy of a greater readership. This can influence how women writers are read, and how they are reviewed, and whether they’re published at all or can get past the gatekeepers.
Some months ago in an online venue, I read the comments section of an article whose subject I don’t recall except that it was about fantasy or sf. But in the comments several well known male fantasy writers said the most demeaning and insulting things about urban fantasy and paranormal; it was so sexist it shocked me, not that it should have, but it did anyway. They were younger men (i.e. younger than I am); I really thought they would have known better or been beyond that, but they weren’t. It made me sad. I suppose it’s possible to argue that if urban fantasy/paranormal sells well, then publishers will be more likely to take on translations, as they do with mysteries, yet I do wonder even with mysteries if anyone has done a statistical study of the male/female breakdown of how many non-English-language mysteries have been translated into English. As Aliette points out, does the greater representation of women in fantasy (as compared to sf) mean equal representation in all aspects, such as promotion and bestseller lists? In epic fantasy I would say emphatically no; in urban fantasy I would say yes–within the English language market. Yet I still don’t think that makes it easier for the non-English writer to move into the English language market, especially not for women.
Kate: A brief comment which I won’t make again. It is so hard to step outside my US-centricity, even when I try to be conscious of it. So thanks for putting up with it here.
Karen: Kate, I should have stopped to read your comment before editing mine. That’s exactly what I’m getting at, the question of respect, and also inclusion. Why dismiss urban fantasy, or YA? Or why move the goalposts of definition to conveniently exclude from your genre a writer who might be outside the usual demographic of the genre’s writers and readers? Why should authors need to ‘neuter’ their names in order to appeal to male readers? For some reason, I’m thinking about the crime genre. Men happily read female crime writers, don’t they? Are the expectations different?
And 100% agreement with the need for more translated works, especially home-grown literature as opposed to imitations of golden age SF/F.
(By the way, I’m trying to be as ‘global’ as I can in my comments, but I’m an anglophone from a former British colony and can only do so much!)
Aliette: I was mentioning it earlier, but crime also feels fairly global, at least in France. I don’t have the data by genre, but I have read crime novels from a lot more sources than US/UK (Sweden, South Africa, China…) ; whereas most non-French SF and fantasy is translated from English. And yes, a lot of the big names in crime are female; it doesn’t seem to be the case in SF, at least in Anglophone countries.
On the question of inclusion: I agree with Karen and Kate that it’s a very problematic one, especially since the boundary between SF/fantasy/horror is so fluid–you can basically define it as it suits you. And, while the Russ pledge in urban fantasy would have no interest (except for men!), I think a modified version of it would have merits, ie not draw attention to the women writing it, but to the quality of what is being written. UF is very easily dismissed in the debate, and it’s making me quite ill at ease. In “male” terms, one possible analogue of UF would be military SF–which is overwhelmingly written by men–but I don’t see it being military SF being dismissed quite as fast as UF.
I’m not conversant enough with the French SF/F scene to tell whether there is misogyny at work. Certainly our biggest selling SF writer, Pierre Bordage, is a man; and one of the only French SF/F writers to be translated into English is Pierre Pevel. But on the other hand, you have people like Jeanne A-Debats, whose short stories and novels swept up all the major awards in France; or Charlotte Bousquet, who won the Prix Imaginales this year. I don’t know, it just doesn’t seem that matters are that bad here (but again, there might well be invisible factors at work that I don’t see). France, from my (somewhat biased and limited) point of view, has more of a literary sensitivity, and I think the French are not quite as fast to pigeonhole novels into one slot or another: the various genres and subgenres of SF/F do exist here, but you get books which cheerfully ignore all labels and go on to win awards and sell a reasonable amount of copies (though by Anglophone standards, “reasonable” would be pitifully low). Similarly, our two biggest sellers at the moment, at least according to Amazon, are George R R Martin and Robin Hobb (both translations, I know, but at least we have gender parity…)
I do wonder about those rare SF/F books being translated into English–aren’t nearly all of those written by men (not to mention bestsellers in their home countries)? I can think of Pierre Pével, Sergei Lukyanenko, Dmitry Glukhovsky, etc., but I have to admit I can’t put my finger on a single woman in the lot…(also doing my best, but remember I’m seeing the French SF scene through a tiny little pinpoint of living in the country and reading some of the books. I haven’t actually hung out with that many authors and got “the inside picture”, so to speak)
Ekaterina: I’m sorry to disappoint, but since I am living in the US now (and for the past twenty years) I’m not as current on Russian SF as I should be. However, there are certainly a few prominent women writers — for example, Dina Rubina who is not strictly SF, but certainly uses enough fantastic elements to be considered at least speculative. Then there are wonderful Maria Galina and Maria Chepurina, Mariam Petrosyan, and Yulia Zonis. And of course female writers are translated in even smaller numbers than male ones, although Petrosyan’s DOM V KOTOROM… is probably one of the best three books I read in years, just remarkable.
I feel like anything I’ll say I’ll be repeating myself, because basically I feel like I’ve been banging my head against the wall with this topic — the one-way street of SF, where English-language works get translated all over the world, while the reverse is not true. While we can talk about English being an equalizer language (as Csilla mentioned), it also works as an effective tool of exclusion: it is so dominant that the expectation is for the rest of the world to speak English, not to try and understand them. And even foreign writers who DO write in English are by no means on the level playing field with the native speakers: there is a pressure to write in one milieu, there’s a tendency of editors to assume that every non-standard usage is a mistake, there are not-so-subtle hints that maybe one didn’t write one’s books, etc etc.
Joyce’s post certainly brought up a ton of issues, and it is difficult to sort through all of them at once. One thing is true: it seems that the mainstream tolerates only one level of otherness (as in deviation from white male default) at a time. You can be a woman or a POC or a non-Anglophone, but if you’re more than one of those categories, frames of reference become increasingly divergent from the conditioned default (because let’s face it, with the penetration Hollywood and Western media have all over the world, pretty much everyone is exposed to and is expected to relate to a white American dude as a hero. Once you start introducing separators — race, gender, nationality — you lose chunks of audience. Sure, some people find different perspective interesting and refreshing, but many more find them alienating and difficult, especially when they are reading “for pleasure” (another weird phrase, because why the hell else would you read?) Really, the advantage of being a cultural dominant is that you don’t have to know how to relate to anyone else, and I have no answer as to how that can be changed. The irony is that as some of the US-based SF is becoming more internally diverse, it seems more closed off to the outside influences. If that makes any sense.
Joyce: Just to comment on the urban fantasy=female authors – the bookstores here in Singapore stock up on many US titles. Does this show that Singaporean readers are still fixated on US or indeed UK titles (and authors). There is one Singaporean author SM de Silva (female) who self-published her urban fantasy novel Blood on The Moon – but even then the reception of home-grown UF authors is not there. Many readers are still reading US and UK titles (okay, I hope I don’t sound as if I am whining…)
Then again, I have an impression even within the SFF world, paranormal romance is received with disdain or at least with a curl of the lips (that signify disgust/dislike?). I wonder why though. Is it because it’s been overdone or that paranormal romance (italics for emphasis) equates women’s writing?
Aliette: I know UF used not to sell at all in France; and it’s only in recent years that we’ve started having huge hits (our big editor Bradgelonne started a “Milady” imprint, and I understand it’s been selling like crazy, even more than epic fantasy). In many ways, it does feel (again), like the one-way street: the US are the trendsetter, and everyone else is following in their wake with a slight delay–but there is no import of, say, French or Chinese or Singaporean trends back into the Western Anglophone world (like Ekaterina, I’ve been banging my head against the wall at this state of things for a while).
Coming back to what Ekaterina is saying about US SF: I have also noticed this phenomenon of US SF becoming more diverse, but closing itself to external influences. I wonder how much of that is a feeling of “having paid their dues to diversity”, so to speak? There’s both the notion of each step from the norm being more and more costly, as Ekaterina said (US POC are already “different” enough for many people); and the equation of US minorities with their countries of origins. I suspect that the general perception is that SF is more diverse because minorities are finally having their say (and this is a good thing, don’t mistake me), and that people equate this with the notion that everyone in the world is having their say (which I don’t think is the case, even though there have been efforts with imprints like Haikasoru, and activism from Cheryl Morgan, Jeff Vandermeer, …).
In fact, thinking of Haikasoru, it occurs to me that quite possibly the only subgenre where this isn’t a one-way street is SF published in mangas. Not quite sure why that is, or why it’s limited to this particular medium?
Joyce: Oh yes, I agree with the feeling of “having paid their dues to diversity”. Have that masterlist with token POC/minority characters and they feel like they are good allies with a pass to get away from POC censure. Then again, what is a good ‘ally’? Cluebat: Everyone in the world is still not saying their say.Then again, why should US/UK take the lead?
Csilla: It seems to me that we are trying to tackle in one go problems that are interrelated yet cause serious headache even separately. The situation of women writers in general, the borders world SF has to tear down, the underappreciation of urban fantasy: they could be all traced back to the existence of a privileged class and privileged traits. It’s difficult for me to find an approach that could give an answer to all the questions above, so I will try to focus instead on fantasy as the conversation turned that way, although Aliette and Kate pretty much covered the main points.
What you said made me think about non-Western fantasy and science fiction, speculative fiction so different from what we used to label SF that even the writers and readers don’t realize it’s SF. This strangeness may come from the stylistic approaches of the mainstream, the themes and sometimes merely from the fact that these works reflect very strongly the angst and mentality of a certain nation. All non-Western countries have these books, but we are so used to being told what SF is and what SF should be that anything that doesn’t follow the US/UK trends automatically falls into the mash category of the mainstream (and I am not talking about magic realism, nor those who study literature, just the general idea of SF that lives in the heads of an average reader). Now that I think about it, it’s exactly these works that could contribute the most to the dynamism and diversity of global SF (as “world SF” is used to define non-US/UK SF I have the need of a more universal term, is there one…?) and perhaps bend a little the boundary of what is SF.The problem is, just like Ekaterina said, that the more the fiction deviates from the default, some of the audience is lost. Strangeness is a spice that is tolerated but people like to enjoy it with moderation.And this is the drawback of English language serving as a mediator. While being published in English is clearly the most effective way for a non US/UK writer to make her work available to readers all over the world, English language publishing is not a non-profit organization. The preferences of the editors and publishers shape the genre, and they go for what they know will be selling, because it’s familiar or at least not too strange to be a turn-off, just strange enough to get favorable reception. And why would readers pick up a foreign novel if most of the review sites don’t even mention it and are all about Western publications?World SF writers may try other venues if the big publishers turn them down, and they do, but they need compensation for the lack of privilege or else it won’t be a big surprise that in a race where some people run free and some in sacks, those with tied feet will always falter behind the privileged.I hope this makes sense. As I have never lived in the US/UK I don’t have a firm understanding of its SF industry so my guess at what publishers or readers like or not like is just a speculation.
Joyce: Yes, you made sense, Csilla. People are still in sacks and those with tied feet are still faltering. That’s my main beef/worry/concern when it comes to Western publications. Diversity is one thing. But actually walking the talk is another.
Csilla: Aliette, I have seen that France has a wonderful and rich comic culture – here in Hungary when French SF comes up it’s the BDs that are mentioned, Metabarons, Enki Bilal’s and Jean-Claude Gal’s works etc. Perhaps they could serve as the foot French writers could plant in the door to keep it from closing?
Aliette: (just a tangent on BDs) Csilla, I think it’s been tried before. A couple of French BDs were translated for the US market, and they didn’t work so well. More than anything, it highlighted the differences in conception between a French BD and a US comic: a French BD is a series of long episodes that are usually published a year or so apart, the individual episodes being quite thicker than a comic (usually 50 A4 pages, sometimes more). They can be standalone episodes, but also part of an ongoing series: Universal War One, for instance, one of my fave time travel SF series, is a complete story in six volumes. Comics are usually released issue by issue (sometimes day by day for the online strips); and I know there have been some problems with that when Marvel tried to publish translated BDs: there was backlash, centred on the fact that the individual episodes weren’t complete, and that people would have to wait a long time for the sequel. I think that, because the individual episodes were far longer than a single comic issue, readers expected them to be complete stories in and of themselves.
There are also very different expectations on storyline, and even on art, which I don’t think help the BDs reach into the US. But if there’s a way to export them elsewhere, I’d be all for it. BDs are a treasured part of my childhood, and they shaped me way more than golden age SF/F.
Csilla: Aliette, thank you for your answer. It’s interesting as it also highlights the difference in mentality and expectations; other Europeans usually have no problem reading BDs.
Karen: Csilla said something I found really striking: ‘speculative fiction so different from what we used to label SF that even the writers and readers don’t realize it’s SF’. The boundaries of SF are drawn differently for different cultures, or simply don’t exist. Redemption in Indigo is speculative fiction, but most of the Caribbean readers I’ve talked to don’t encounter it as fantasy. Our literature has a long tradition of incorporating supernatural elements, and for some readers ‘fantasy genre’=elves & orcs.And here’s my favourite bit from Csilla, bolded:
This strangeness may come from the stylistic approaches of the mainstream, the themes and sometimes merely from the fact that these works reflect very strongly the angst and mentality of a certain nation.
Now, as a reader, I want that. I want to read a book or short story so evocative of another time or place that I am positively inspired to go to the library or the Internet and research the non-fiction sources of the tale. I want stories that test me so much with their difference that I need to read more authors of that country, to get into the habit of listening to their particular idiom.The irony is that traditional UK/US SF/F has so much created its own idiom that it does not realise the extent to which it has become opaque to the mainstream reader. The tropes and homages are all known to the insider, but to the outsider they add another layer of difference and difficulty. And yet much of ‘global’ SF, with its lack of adherence to the UK/US rules, could end up being more accessible to the mainstream reader, especially those who are allergic to Tolkien and technology. It probably just has to be marketed right.
We Don’t Even Factor At All!
by Joyce Chng
Disclaimer: I am going to write this as catharsis, to get something off my chest. I have been watching the “Women in SF” debate juggernaut from the beginning, starting with the SF Signal Mind Meld right down to the Solaris Rising mess. Thoughts have been percolating in my head for a while, but I find myself hem-hawing, partly because the debate touches something raw inside me and I feel if I do speak up, I will end up ranting…
Most of you would have known about the “Women in SF” debate currently ruffling many feathers in the SFF community. It started with the SF Signal Mind Meld (I am mentioned as well – thanks Lavie!) where many men commented about being “genderblind”. Of course, the comments went down in as well, to the dismay of many, including me. Before we could even catch a breather, the Solaris Rising anthology had everyone arguing again.
As some of you will know, I am from Singapore. I am a woman and I write SFF. When it comes to SFF in Singapore as a genre, you get crickets chirping. No doubt there are anthologies dedicated to the promotion of speculative fiction, but the general reception of SFF in the literary scene has been chilly. For a start, there are people who write SFF here: Dave Chua and the Happy Smiley Writer’s Group, to name a few. We are trying to get SFF recognized as a legitimate genre. [Note: We have Han May who wrote Star Sapphire, a SF romance…].
Malaysia also boasts KS Augustin and Zen Cho. Women SFF writers, by the way. Even the Philippines have a good group of women SFF writers like Eliza Victoria.
Why am I so angry still?
Because Southeast Asian women SFF authors (and others from non-English speaking countries, mind you!) do not factor in the overall debate. Not. At. All. We are “World SF”, but other than that – nadah. I hate to bring in the SFF publishing scene: we just don’t sell at all. The publishing industry has iron gates which we can’t even climb. The US and UK communities (because They Matter) will keep on supporting traditionally published authors (Big Publishers Win, yes?). But as for the rest of the world, we are not in the equation. Diversity is an ideal. The big-wigs spout promises about welcoming minority writers. Yet I don’t see it happening at all. Remember RaceFail? Remember? The iron gates are still there.
As I have read somewhere (and totally agree), we live in an imperfect world. In a perfect world, we do not care about race, gender, religion and geographical locations. Reality hurts: we do. The Russ Pledge is there to remind us to read books by women authors and writers. Women are writing. Women are still hitting a wall of institutional ignorance. Then factor in places like Southeast Asia – women authors become exotic, World SF… something extraordinary, like butterflies in amber, reduced to stereotypes and tropes.
Odd, because I grew up thinking that science fiction is universal, like Star Trek’s IDIC. The science fiction writing community is still a Western/Anglo old men’s club. Women are still stuck outside. POC women are not even invited in. We linger at the fringes, picking the scraps. It’s not just a matter of getting the usual condescending and patronizing “Sit down, calm yourself. Don’t be silly!”. Instead, we will be getting “Who are you? Are you a famous (Big Publishers Win) author? Oh, you are small press. Shut up.You don’t matter. We don’t care about you and your voice!”
My friends have told me that I just have to ignore them. Why do I give my energy to people who do not even care? Well, I think my friends are right. I keep working at my craft and find like-minded people. As for the “Women in SF” debate, I will keep on fighting…
Aliette de Bodard reviews J. Damask (Joyce Chng)’s first novel, Wolf at the Door – the world’s first Singaporean werewolf novel!
So, I finally got a chance to read J. Damask’s Wolf at the Door (published by Lyrical Press)–and really, really liked it. It’s a urban fantasy set in Singapore: Jan Xu is part of the lang, the Chinese werewolves: her pack is her family, and the thing around which her world revolves. She has married and settled down with her partner Ming, who isn’t a werewolf; and she has two small girls, whom she raises half like humans, half like wolves.
Then Marianne comes back. Marianne is Jan Xu’s sister, but there’s a catch: raised like all werewolves, Marianne failed to shape-shift when she hit puberty. Though considered a member of the family, Marianne has always chafed at what she saw as second-class membership of the pack, and left Singapore after quarrelling with Jan Xu. But now she’s back, boyfriend in tow–and she seems to have ideas of her own about where to take the pack…
This is original on several levels: the most obvious is the setting, which shows us not only Singapore seen through the view of an insider, with no exoticisation or over-description of familiar items and locations. It’s very casual about everyday life, but nevertheless effectively manages to convey not only Jan Xu’s life and her excursions to all ends of the city (including a hunting reserve in Malaysia), but also to effectively base its mythology on its setting, making the most of Singapore as a crossroads, teeming with immigrants who each bring their own folklore (I loved the bar which had vampires mingling with nagas). I also liked the way Damask ties her werewolves to Chinese folklore, rather than to European myths; it’s very nicely done.
The second thing is the emphasis on family. A lot of urban fantasy is focused on the single girl (who might have children of her own, but who is still secretly looking for The One); and while those are definitely strong stories, it was really nice to see a book which focused on, well, what happens after the wedding and the childbirths. Marianne’s returns has repercussions on Jan Xu’s family life, and her relationship with her husband and her two girls: some of my favorite scenes take place in the quiet times at the flat, when the emphasis is on how she and Ming can deal with the consequences of what happened, and how to best shield the girls from it all. Jan Xu also has strong ties to her extended family, which nicely dovetail into the pack mentality of werewolves.
It’s not perfect. There is a set of flashbacks to Jan Xu’s past as a teen vigilante (sort of The Famous Five, except with dragons and other supernatural creatures), which feel a bit out of place: I love the background and the fact that they place Jan Xu’s friends as strong individuals (and I would really love to see those expanded into a YA novel), but the way they’re scattered throughout the story feels a little haphazard, and I felt those sections could have greatly benefitted from tidying up. But, all in all, it was a very nice and interesting read, and definitely worth a look if you’re tired of urban fantasies set in the US.
Wolf at the Door, by J. Damask, published by Lyrical Press
E-book, $4.50, Cover art by Lynn Taylor
WSB contributor, Singaporean writer Joyce Chng’s new novel, Wolf at the Door, has just been released!
Singapore, 27 February 2011 – A rocky relationship between you and your sister may result in more bloodshed than you think – especially if the two of you happen to be werewolves. J Damask [Chng] has come out to tell a tale of the four animal clans – Wolf (狼), Dragon (龍), Phoenix (鳳) and Tiger (虎), all in the Urban Fantasy, “Wolf at the Door” set right at home in Singapore.
The book is released April 4.
Published by Lyrical Press, Wolf at the Door is J Damask‟s first full-length Urban Fantasy novel set in Singapore. The story revolves around female protagonist Jan Xu, a Chinese werewolf from the Wolf clan, out to resolve a rocky relationship with her sister Marianne before they end up engaging in a tooth and claw fight to their deaths.
“I wanted to challenge myself to write an urban fantasy set in Singapore,” Damask commented. Having various short stories and novellas already under her belt, Damask‟s challenge presented her with a motivation to write Wolf at the Door.
Damask is also an active member of the Singapore Chapter for the National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo), organised by the Office of Letters and Light in California, USA. Going back the forum name “jolantru_blackwolf”, Wolf at the Door was actually an attempt at Nanowrimo that evolved.
“I actually started writing it for Nanowrimo 2009,” Damask said.
Wolf at the Door will be available on Lyrical Press, Amazon and Fictionwise for $4.50 from 4th of April 2011.
Why did I ever write an urban fantasy set in Singapore? What possessed me, anyway?
These were the thoughts that crossed my mind when I started the process of editing my urban fantasy novel. It was the start of January 2010. The novel… mess.. whatever it was began as a challenge to myself: write an urban fantasy set in Singapore, my country. Granted that I also wrote it for Nanowrimo and I had recently given birth… So, I was insane. But at least, I did it. Wrote the story out within the space of a month – relatively easy as the landscape was familiar and the world-building was already done, somewhat, in my mind. The world of the Lang (Mandarin Chinese for ‘wolf’) grew, followed by a whole menagerie of shifters and non-human types.
Then I started looking for publishers. Would an urban fantasy set in Singapore sell? Would it find readers, for crying out loud? And with a nom-de-plume like “J. Damask”… it would, right? [How do you pronounce ‘Chng’ anyway?]
My first forays in looking for the right publisher were (not surprisingly) bleak. I was told that it wouldn’t sell, that it wasn’t marketable. What? I thought urban fantasy was selling like hot cakes. You know, leather-clad babes with angst and surrounded by a coterie of drop-dead handsome men. Considering the chilly publishing industry in Singapore, I was half-tempted to self-publish the story of a werewolf mom, dealing with non-human shenanigans and family politics. [Hey, wait.. you mean no sexy babe in leather and hunks with abs of steel???]
Oh yes, did I mention the chilly publishing industry in Singapore? It’s a pet peeve/hot button issue of mine, so bear with me.
Singaporean publishers are not friendly to genre submissions. True that horror is popular (and there is a whole series of ‘ghost’-written stories to whet the public’s appetite on all things ghoulish), but general science fiction and fantasy… nadah. Currently, the local SF/F books in the bookshops are by small independent publishers who dare take the challenge to produce genre books. Yet the general population seems hooked on poetry books, recipe books, memoirs and self-help books. And assessment books and academia. Oh, having a big name helps. A big plus if you are writing “post-colonial” literary fiction too. Not that what I am writing is considered “post-colonial”…
Given such an environment, I didn’t know where to send Wolf At The Door. I was already active in web-fiction and was in the process of writing a web novella at the same time. Was self-publishing the only way? Should I end up presenting the novel as a crowd-funded web project?
Hell, was it my only way out? [Did I dig myself into a quandary?]
Disappointed but not wanting to give up, I probed further and found Lyrical Press. I thought: “Heck, why not?”, crafted a query letter, synopsis, tidied the MS up and – with a prayer – sent it on its merry way.
Imagine my (dance-around-the-house) delight when I saw the acceptance email. I was unagented. I was a relatively new author, unlike the big name authors from big publishing houses. But hey, I did it. Lyrical liked my stuff.
[Of course, as any industry pro would tell you, submission is the easy part. There began the edits. I have a brilliant editor who whipped the MS into tip-top shape like a personal trainer.]
There you have it. The novel’s life-story, my life-story (edited and abridged) and the Singaporean publishing environment.
Any questions? Bueller?
Why small press? Well, that’s another blog post all together.
Over at the Apex Blog there are two new posts from Singapore.
First is State of Singapore SFF: Hopeful for the Future, by (WSB contributor) Joyce Chng. She writes:
We do exist. We do write SFF. We just need enough publicity to get the word out.
I sometimes surf the Internet for that elusive Singaporean SFF writer I might have missed. And in forums, I have found a few, all trying to find kindred spirits and like-minded folk. I even hang out in a local gaming store where you get gamers, geeks and the SFF author – and why is looking for Singaporean SFF writers so difficult?
Are we just too shy (blame Asian reticence) when it comes to promoting our reading? Are we just too… quiet? Are we unable to find the right venue/platform to publish?
There is hope though.
People are writing and getting their works out. Check out Happiness At The End Of The World by the Happy Smiley Writers. They have a collaborative SFF novel titled Bubble GUMM soon to be released and launched. Check out Crossed Genres, Expanded Horizons and M-Brane SF – and you find Singaporean writers there. Check out the Singaporean chapter of Nanowrimo and you find a horde of SFF writers writing … SFF. We do exist. We even have a Google group for it (just look for “Speculative Fiction Writers Of Singapore”). – read the rest of the post.
The other post comes from Sarah Coldheart, a pseudonym for another Singaporean writer. In Speculating Speculative Fiction in Singapore, She says:
Singapore is not a part of China nor is it a part of Malaysia.
It is a first world country (albeit a small island) with a high rate of literacy amongst its people with the majority communicating in English to each other.
And yet Singapore speculative fiction is a speculation in itself.
Here in Singapore, our fiction titles are overwhelmed with ghost stories. Not the sort where it is some supernatural fantasy, no. They are folk tales or urban legends that are generally told around campfires or by young students wanting to have supernatural encounters.
Ask any Singaporean here about local books and the first thing they’d think of is ghost stories. There are very few fantasy or science fiction books being published here as the publishers are more into churning out assessment books or self help books. We’re a very academic orientated country after all. – read the rest of the post.
Finally, this gives me an excuse to post something I meant to post last year! Here are some of the faces of Singapore SF/F, taken on my visit last year. Photo courtesy of a random guy outside Starbucks on Orchard Road.
Joyce Chng, Sarah Coldheart, Dave Chua, Yuen Kit Mun, Anders Brink, Lavie Tidhar, Edwin Tam, JF, Lisa Poh