Interview: Lavie Tidhar Talks About ‘World SF’
Lavie Tidhar grew up on a kibbutz in Israel and lived in South Africa and the UK. Most recently he’s lived in the Banks islands of Vanuatu, in the South Pacific, one of the most remote and isolated places on Earth. He currently lives in South East Asia. He is the co-author (with Nir Yaniv) of The Tel Aviv Dossier a supernatural thriller that explores the nature of belief, as well as An Occupation of Angels, a Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2006 Fiction Honorable Mention, and Hebrew Punk, a collection of his best short stories, which have appeared in Apex, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, Chizine, and other publications.
He recently signed a three book deal with Angry Robot Books for “a steam-powered take on V for Vendetta, rich with satire and slashed through with wild adventure” and is the editor of The Apex Book of World SF which collects stories from around the globe. Tidhar maintains a website at lavietidhar.co.uk/ and a personal blog at cybermonklives.livejournal.com/. He also maintains a companion blog to The Apex Book of World SF at worldsf.livejournal.com/.
SF Signal: How did you get tapped to be the editor for The Apex Book of World SF?
LT: The real question is probably how I got the publishers to commit to it! It’s something I’d wanted to do for a long time. I’ve always been interested in talking to, and reading, writers from around the world. And a while ago a group of German fans started Internova, which would have been a magazine of international SF, and that was a real eye-opener. There were a lot of people involved, from all over the world – writers, artists, editors – but eventually only one issue was released, and it was plagued with distribution problems. I suspect perhaps too many people were involved, on the production stage at least. I’m not sure a magazine or an anthology can be done efficiently by a collective – you need someone in a more dictatorial role!
But it showed me it can be done, and I kept thinking about it, and at some point I approached Jason at Apex and pitched the idea to him. He thought it would be a cool thing to do, so…
LT: To be honest, I’m not sure it’s the right approach! Ashok Banker had a blog post a while back where he argued against this sort of – segregation, I guess would be the word – of writers. If I remember rightly he was talking about the Weird Tales international issue. And I think he’s right! In an ideal world, there won’t be a need for something like this. But of course, we don’t live in an ideal world.
Initially I wanted to do an anthology that would only reprint stories from international writers which had already appeared in the English magazines and so on, and that means either people like Aliette de Bodard or Jetse de Vries – who choose to write in English as a way of reaching a wider audience – or finding those few writers who do get translated, like Zoran Živkovic’ or Mélanie Fazi. But once I’d started, I had the opportunity to include some other material, and of course I took it!
So, for instance, we have two stories from China, because I kept in touch with the people I know there, and I was able to get stories from Han Song and Yang Ping, who are prominent SF writers in China. Or like Tunku Halim, who is a prolific Malaysian horror writer, and he writes in English, but his books are published in Malaysia and therefore are not known to the wider English-reading audience. But I knew of his books, and I was very happy when he gave me a story.
Which I’m not sure answers the question. I’m constantly fascinated with what’s published in other places, and how it might reflect different societies, different approaches to genre, so to me a collection like this seemed natural. Is it important? I think, for the genre to remains vital, yes, it is important. There are some very talented writers out there we never get a chance to read, and to have this kind of dialogue is to open up possibilities. Isn’t SF all about possibilities?
SFS: You mention in your introduction to the collection that there are great South American, African, and Arab stories being published that just didn’t fit in this collection. What are some of these stories and authors?
LT: Well, what I actually say in there is this: “There are no writers here from South America or Africa, for instance – a glaring omission. Speculative fiction stories from the Arab world (where they are enjoying a new popularity) are missing. So are many European and Asian writers. In editing such an anthology, I was guided by what had been published – in English-language publications – in the past several years, and by my own, if obviously limited, knowledge of, and contact with, other writers from around the world. I am hopeful that a second volume would allow me to redress some of this imbalance.”
So some of these are simply harder to get hold of than others, some simply are not published in the English magazines and anthologies at all. I am still trying to find a source for Arabic SF in translation, for instance. Now, the Spanish managed it – they did a similar anthology a while back, and it featured Arabic fiction – and I was hopeful for a while I’d be able to replicate some of that, but it didn’t work out. We’ve covered Arabic SF in the World SF News Blog – a companion project to the anthology which I am very happy with. So rather than providing a list of names, check out the “Arab Science Fiction” tag on the blog. Now, the same is true for African writers. You simply don’t get that much SF written in Africa (in comparison to Asia, say). South Africa being the exception. So it makes it harder. Again, check out the “Africa” tag on the blog for a lot more information. But from the beginning I knew it would be impossible to have a truly representative anthology – not unless it was a thousand pages! So I was happy to focus more – for example, featuring two stories from one country, rather than trying to include as many places as possible. The thinking being, of course, that a second (and third!) volume would allow a much broader picture. And since launching the World SF News Blog I’ve learned a lot more about Latin American SF, for instance.
So if the first volume is focusing more on Asian and European writers (though again, woefully incomplete in that, too) a second volume would allow me to look more at South America and Africa, I hope. I hope we sell enough copies to make it worthwhile for our publisher, so to a large extent it depends on the readers. Me, I’m just waiting!
SFS: What defines “World SF”? Does it mean that it was originally published in language other than English? Or that it comes from a land where English is not the primary language? What, in your opinion, is the best definition?
LT: It’s a good question. I wish I had a good answer! Like all definitions, it can be quite hazy. To me, it’s first of all the kind of SF written in languages other than English, but that doesn’t take into account that small – but visible! – part of writers choosing to work in English despite it being their second – or even third! – language. And then, English has become such a universal language that in many places it has acquired its own regional flavor – take India or Malaysia or South Africa. And then, what about writers from one background living in another? Is Nnedi Okorafor an American writer or a Nigerian writer? Identities today can easily have two or three layers. You know, I have two different citizenships and a permanent residency somewhere else – I can vote in three countries! So what am I? Who am I? I try not to think about it before the morning coffee…
But I think there’s a very serious question of how we depict different cultures. You know, what’s the difference between Ian McDonald writing about India, and Vandana Singh writing about India?
… that Ian McDonald gets nominated for a Hugo?
Which I think sums it up, if a little crudely. Is it a question of who’s the better writer? I think they’re both very good writers. Or does it mean the English-language readership, the American and British and Australian readers prefer an India as viewed from outside, or from inside? There’s a very interesting review on Strange Horizons that tries to deal with that question. The point where it becomes interesting is where it says, “Singh’s stories were written initially for an American audience, and her stories cannot be painted wholly as a sort of primer for another type of science fiction. . . . This is Singh as teacher of two classrooms. It is here where Singh parts ways with Ian McDonald, a British writer whose novels are about, but not of, India.”
You know, I’m hogging this question a little, but this makes me think of reading Philip K. Dick when I was younger. I read a lot of American SF, but I think my heart will always belong to PKD because he was the only one who put me in his books.
I grew up on a kibbutz in Israel. It’s a sort of socialist cooperative. Or was when I was growing up. And you know – in the midst of all these American SF novels, with their bright American futures, there was PKD – and he had kibbutzim on Mars! That was me, up there! Not John W. Campbell Jr.’s superior white western Europeans, but people like me! There were Jews in space! Socialist Jews! Campbell wouldn’t have liked that, maybe – but to me it was a revelation.
So what is World SF? And more importantly, what shape is it going to take in, say, the next two decades? That’s the real interesting question. And that’s something that has to be answered by both “sides” of it, the English writers and readers and the non-English writers and readers. But the future simply isn’t American any more. The Asian space race is a reality, China and India are massive economic powers – the balance of power is shifting. It’s going to be an interesting century to live in…
SFS: Were there any particular challenges in working with authors for whom English is a secondary language?
LT: The main amount of work I had to do was translation-editing the two Chinese stories. They were both translated by their respective authors, and as soon as I read them I could see I wanted them – but I had to do the work almost of co-translator, of editing and polishing and teasing out the meaning in a way that would make the reading as smooth as possible. That’s a very tricky job.
I also translated one of the anthology stories myself. I’d read Nir Yaniv’s story in the Hebrew a while back and loved it. I translated several of his stories over the years (one of them was the first story by an Israeli writer ever to appear in Weird Tales), and I was very happy to find it was still available.
So those were the two main challenges.
SFS: There is much mention of the unique perspectives that non-Anglophone writers can bring to the genre, but little specificity. What are some of these new concepts that these writers are adding to the grand story of the genre?
LT: You know, I don’t know? I mean, that’s the exciting thing, isn’t it? What could be out there. Until we seriously initiate a dialogue, I don’t think we can even begin to answer that question. You can see it with crime fiction, which does get translated a lot more – the way European writers are using it in a very different way, for example, as a sort of political or spiritual examination of societies, lives. If you look at two genre-related novels – Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Dumas Club and Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow – they had a huge impact on me, because they did something new and fresh and exciting with old concepts.
It’s a dialogue in the same way the Italians took the American Western and did something new and exciting with it, or the way the French took American Noir and changed it and handed it back – the way Chinese martial arts fantasies have had such an impact on American filmmakers or Japanese comics had all around the world.
If you look at the second book I’m doing for Angry Robot, for instance – I had a lot of fun with it because I took American Noir, and I took Wuxia, the Chinese martial arts genre, and I sort of mixed them up. Wuxia-noir! And I took bits from Japanese and Italian pulp, stuff like Machine Girl, this very gory Japanese movie, and worked them in. I love bizarre movies like the Italian Cemetery Man (that was the American title), which is actually in English – it’s probably the single weirdest metaphysical zombie comedy ever made. It’s as if Philip K. Dick wrote a zombie movie.
There are so many good things out there – I think that’s the main reason to be excited about it! Who knows what strange gems we are going to discover.
SFS: Because there is a limited pool of native speakers, there is a limited pool of writers. Does this mean that native publishers may be publishing stories with less quality because there are so few stories in their tongue to choose from?
LT: Well, if you think China has a billion Chinese speakers… limited might not be the word to apply. Ha! Saying that, of course, I think you’re right in that there usually is a limited pool of writers, and for those writers to continue writing there has to be a market for them, there have to be magazines and book publishers and an audience interested in this kind of fiction. So it’s hard. In fact, one of the most important factors in recent years has been Harry Potter. The success of the books led to publishers all around the world looking for more of the same, launching a sudden wave of new genre titles. I know it’s happened in China, I know it’s happened in Israel – I see the bookshops in Vietnam and Thailand are suddenly full of YA fantasy. Some of the locally produced stuff is terrible, of course, but then, so is some of the English-language stuff.
SFS: Is there bias from English readers against non-English SF?
LT: I don’t think there is – I think it’s the traditional problem of not having the material to read, and that has to do with issues of sourcing and translation and money. European publishers are a lot more open to translations, but I think the English publishers are – cautiously – catching on – we have French and Polish fantasy novels being published by mainstream publishers now, for instance. Again, international crime fiction is being widely translated now and it’s not doing badly at all. Japanese Manga is incredibly popular now, and there’s Haikasoru, the new imprint from Viz publishing Japanese SF novels. So no, I don’t think there’s a reader bias, as such, but it is certainly more of a risk for publishers, and sometimes it is up to smaller presses, like Apex with the The Apex Book of World SF, to take these chances.
SFS: In your introduction to the collection, you also mention that non-English SF is getting wider penetration due to technology. But isn’t the same true of English translated into the native tongue? Is the penetration of Anglophone fiction into other countries going to harm or help world SF?
LT: No, it isn’t – American SF (less so with British SF) has always been translated into other languages. It defines what SF is, or was. If you look at the non-English SF magazines, most of them run translations – SF World in China, Nowa Fantastyka in Poland, Ennea in Greece – almost the only example I can think of for original language-only magazine is the Israeli Chalamot Be’asoamia, that was specifically set up to publish Israeli writers. F & SF has agreements with various publishers to print non-English language editions, for instance. So new technology doesn’t play a big part in that – it’s actually a very well-entrenched model.
And world SF has always been defined by the American model of science fiction. Either trying to write just like it – even setting stories in America, and using American names for characters and so on – or, and more recently, trying to define against it, by writing stories that are set in local milieus with local characters, stories that react against the American model, while still being influenced by it.
What new technology does do is narrow the gap in publication. It makes it easier for writers from non-English countries to reach the English world – but reach each other, too. I think, in the long term, this is going to be quite significant. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to put together something like the The Apex Book of World SF without the Internet.
SFS: What particular problems do non-Anglophone writers have in getting published?
LT: It depends who you’re writing to. If you write in your own language, you have the same problems as anyone else. Finding a publisher… many countries either do not have a market for genre fiction or a very small one, and in many instances they would view a local work with suspicion – people for whom SF means American SF. I’d heard arguments that you can’t write science fiction in Hebrew! And that the language isn’t suited for it, for instance. You’d be surprised how common arguments like that are. It’s a challenge for writers, to try and prove you can do science fiction – fantasy, horror – that is unique to them. And then to try and sell it.
Which isn’t to say you shouldn’t try!
If you’re trying to reach the wider, English-language readership – and by implication, the opportunities of being then translated into other languages too – then you have a much bigger problem. You may be able to choose to write in English and compete on the same terms – as I mentioned earlier, Aliette de Bodard is a good example of that, being French but writing in English – but that’s not an option open to everyone and also, I have to say, not always the best option either. After all, English isn’t any better or worse than any other language. Commercially, it makes more sense to write in English, yes, but artistically, each language is its own beautiful challenge and has its own reward.
In my case, incidentally, the choice of writing in English was certainly motivated by wanting to earn from the writing. I still write in Hebrew too, though very little in comparison. Still, I derive as much satisfaction from a Hebrew-only novel like my recent collaboration with Nir Yaniv, Retzach Bidyoni (A Fictional Murder) – a humorous murder mystery set, of all places, in an Israeli SF convention – than I do from writing The Bookman for HarperCollins. The difference being, of course, that I get paid significantly more for the latter than the former.
I would happily write in Bislama – the South Pacific pidgin spoken in Vanuatu – if I could publish it. Instead, I try to work it, a little at a time, into my English fiction. I did write a 15 minute screenplay entirely in Bislama – Waet Devel: Taem Drakula I Kam Long Vanuatu (White Ghost: When Dracula Came To Vanuatu), which was a lot of fun to do but, of course, like its title character, will never see the light of day!
SFS: What stories in The Apex Book of World of SF surprised you most?
LT: That’s a tough one! I’d have to say Tunku Halim’s “Biggest Baddest Bomoh”, where a man in love seeks the help of a witch doctor – it’s a classic horror story that knows it’s a horror story and is very, very funny, and with a real Malaysian flavor to it. And Aleksandar Žiljak’s “An Evening In The City Coffeehouse, With Lydia On My Mind” – a story I got hold of quite serendipitously – and again caught me unawares with where it was going, this cyberpunk, Men in Black thing that suddenly veers in very weird, and again startlingly funny direction. And reading S.P. Somtow’s “The Bird Catcher” for the first time was a revelation. Just the first paragraph was enough to know I wanted it:
“There was this other boy in the internment camp. His name was Jim. After the war, he made something of a name for himself. He wrote books, even a memoir of the camp that got turned into a Spielberg movie. It didn’t turn out that gloriously for me.”
SFS: What did you learn from the process of collecting these stories?
LT: That there’s some wonderful talent out there. And that there’s a real hunger to communicate across languages. And that one volume is nowhere near enough!
SFS: Any closing thoughts for potential readers of The Apex Book of World SF?
LT: Just to say that I hope you try it. Not because the writers are from China or France or Croatia or Malaysia, but simply because they’re good stories. And they’re fun. Frederik Pohl said of these stories that “they deserve to be heard”. I think he’s right, and I only hope you agree.
Filed under: Interviews
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