[GUEST POST] Writing About Race in Science Fiction and Fantasy (Part 2 of a Roundtable Interview)
Dear SF Signal Readers,
Hi! My name’s Zack Jernigan. I conducted this roundtable interview over the last year. Just so you know, I wrote a long, painfully self-conscious introduction about my upbringing as a white, heterosexual male born into a middle-middle-class family and how that contributed to my desire to start a discussion on the subject of Writing About Race in Sff Literature, but I scrapped it. When you’ve received such amazing responses from your interviewees, it’s best to get to them with the minimum of words.
So: Suffice it to say, this is an important topic for discussion. I hope that you enjoy reading part 2, below (Part 1 is here), and that you’ll feel free to comment. I also encourage you to visit the authors’ websites and buy their amazing work.
A Roundtable Interview with David Anthony Durham, Aliette de Bodard, Adrian Tchaikovsky, and Ken Liu
(Continued from Part 1)
Permanent shift. In some ways it feels like a rapid shift, but there’s no going back. A few years ago, when I first began going to cons, there were a handful of writers of color that been around for a while-Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Steven Barnes, Tananarive Due, Nalo Hopkinson, and a few others. It was a short list, and it didn’t take long to rattle through it.
What I noticed, though, was a host of emerging writers at the beginning of their careers. Saladin Ahmed wrote me asking to meet up and chat-long before his first novel was ready. Paolo Bacigalupi was already super cool, but he hadn’t smashed it with his rapid succession of novels yet. Aliette de Bodard and Tony Pi were up for the Campbell Award with me, and Alaya Dawn Johnson and Tempest Bradford were always on the scene.
We were hopeful back then, but daunted too. On the night I won the Campbell, N.K. Jemisin congratulated me, but she also expressed concern that there wasn’t going to be room in the genre for more than a couple of writers of color-that others wouldn’t be allowed in. Her novels weren’t out yet. They are now, as we all know, and doing wonderfully. I remember Nnedi Okorafor worrying about Who Fears Death being too dark, too political, too African to have much hope of success. I consider a World Fantasy Award (which she just edged out Jemisin for) to be pretty successful!
There’s no short list of writers of color anymore. It’s quite a long list, and it’s filled with people working in different genres and writing for different audiences. These authors are winning awards, some of them are selling big, and they’re at the core of the sff community. They’re not just being allowed in on temporary passes. They are at the heart of what’s happening in the genre. That’s helping to encourage some white writers to turn to non-European settings in their work as well. They might’ve wanted to for a while. Now it’s clearly possible.
There may be setbacks, of course, but I think we’ve broken out of the box too fully to get jammed back into it. Exciting times.
There is a shift, a definite shift that includes more diversity in genre-whether it be racial, sexual or otherwise. I’m definitely not complaining about it, and it’s wonderful that writers like Helen Oyeyemi, Nnedi Okorafor, or Ekaterina Sedia are being published and finding a wider audience-and being nominated for awards all over the place.
I apologize for the fact that the next few paragraphs are basically going to be my European cynical self taking a look at the way things are going…
I am somewhat skeptical of the fact that this shift is indeed irreversible: in Europe at least, as the economic crisis looms, we’re closing back upon ourselves and becoming more and more insular and more and more racist, even as immigration and the stigmatization of children of immigrants becomes a hot topic. And I can’t help but wonder if that will lead us to return to “core French-ness” (whatever that means, as it’s a carefully constructed fiction built on the majority views over the centuries!) and exclude anything that looks like diversity from our shelves. Certainly in France, our presidential campaign has focused on the “core values” of Jeanne d’Arc, Victor Hugo and Molière, which is hardly the vibrant diversity I’m (and no doubt many others!) are looking for.
I worry, too, that our definition of genre leads us to exclude things that include strong genre elements that don’t follow “standard” tropes, whether they be those of epic fantasy, space opera, etc. This means in turn that the works of numerous (non-Western) literary traditions are being excluded from genre, either published as mainstream/by small presses, or not published at all because their narratives and tropes seem too alien to be related to. This is something I’m seeing, for instance, with a lot of Hispanic-tradition work from Latin America/the Philippines, where we have this particular sense of a world continuously permeated with magic, and of narratives that aren’t always about the good guys winning, at least not in a Hollywood sense-and that, in the best of case, get published as magical realism; in the worst of cases, get ignored altogether, because they don’t fit our notion of genre or of satisfying narratives. But you can of course extend it to other cultures and other traditions I’m less familiar with (like Thai stories, or African stories…).
This leads me to my next worry, which is that I’m seeing a lot of non-Western themes and fiction being published, but I worry that a lot of those are mostly Western Anglophone POCs (US, Can, UK, Aus, NZ…). Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a wonderful thing that those people are getting published and bringing their voice to genre. But I do worry that the distinction between them and POCs living elsewhere (particularly in the Third World) isn’t being made, and that we celebrate diversity even as we make little to no effort to reach across borders to bring in more diverse tropes and more diverse literatures. I’m thinking of books from large Anglophone countries like India, which we basically don’t see in genre (at least in the Western Anglophone definition of it); or books from China or Japan (though Haikasoru has made wonderful inroads in that regard). I basically worry that we’re going to rest on our laurels and feel that inclusiveness has been achieved, without leaping to the next stage of reaching to other countries. I love genre; I feel we’re making great inroads and great progress, but that for a genre that bills itself as mindblowing and boundary-pushing, we still feel very parochial and very inward-looking.
As a reader, the dearth of racial diversity in fantasy-writers and settings/characters-is something I’ve been aware of for a long time. Whilst we do seem to have come a long way from the 30’s pulps where very often to be anything other than white was to be actively and irredeemably evil, there has been quite a history of Umslopogaas-style supporting roles, the noble savages, the foreigners in an otherwise white land with their crazy superstitions or ancient wisdom. These characters are generally the good guys, but secondary good guys, and with a utility that mostly involves being able to either separate souls from bodies, or to perform dodgy magic that the whiter characters wouldn’t necessarily want to mess with. Also, just like the black guy in so many films, they tend to die heartrendingly so that the hero can make it (and wasn’t it nice at the end of Gladiator to have that reversed a little?).
I write in a secondary world that is not strongly based on any particular real culture. The Lowlands of the kinden owes something to classical Greece and something to Europe in the world wars, but it is not those places or times, and the kinden themselves have ethnicities all their own. Even then, though, there is a long tradition in secondary world fantasy of essentially whitewashing imaginary places, ethnically and culturally, and when I started on Empire I made a conscious decision that — because it is a fantastic place — it can be as diverse as I like. Hence the Beetle-kinden of Collegium are dark-skinned, and form the majority of my sympathetic culture, which is cosmopolitan and noted mostly for scholars, merchants, diplomats and engineers. What actual impact this has, if any at all, I’m not sure. It’s not the same, for example, as writing a fantasy set in Africa, or even in a secondary world that is closely modeled on an extant African culture.
Stephen Erikson has a similar setup in his Malazan novels – a variety of skin tones in a completely secondary world. It’s worth noting that (and ignoring the various non-human races which are all sorts of shapes and colors) two of his most engaging heroes, Kalam and Quick Ben, are black.
Fantasy with non-western settings (or indeed non-not-really-medieval settings) is certainly on the rise, as a part of an overall diversification of setting that I think the genre is experiencing-other shifts include, for example, a change from rural to urban settings. There have always been writers out there who have been willing to go that extra mile for an interesting setting (Grimwood’s Arabesque or Effinger’s When Gravity Fails as examples) but this is definitely gaining momentum, with very high profile books such as McDonald’s The Dervish House, Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl and Beukes’ Zoo City thronging awards shortlists for taking readers on a fantastic journey to the near or fantastic future of parts of the world they would not normally see. And yes, you then do have the question of “is this just white guys/girls with a white take on foreign culture?” and that’s a book-by-book decision. The counter-question is, “is it better for white writers to pretend that the rest of the world has no place, either in SF or fantasy,” and I hope the answer to that is surely “no.”
I agree that there is a great deal of genre fiction being published right now that shows promising signs of diversity: written by POC authors, featuring non-Western settings, having non-White characters in leading roles, questioning gender roles and norms, displaying non-Western cultural influences, etc.
Most of these are indeed wonderful developments deserving celebration, but I also see signs that are worrisome. For example, I’m noticing a lot of attempts to imagine Chinese characters and settings in genre fiction, but some of them seem to have taken anti-Chinese sentiment and racial Othering to a level reminiscent of Jack London’s sinophobia.
As another example, I still detect a trend in genre fiction to valorize only certain attitudes towards technology and exploration and identify them exclusively with “the West.” And I see again and again the knee-jerk tendency to dismiss certain subjects and subgenres as “girlie” and therefore automatically unworthy.
I believe trends in genre fiction simply reflect patterns in our real-world politics. As a pessimist, I’m not hopeful about many of these political developments, and thus I also think it’s too early to declare progress in diversity in genre fiction.
I hope I’m wrong.
Three titles come to mind, all authors I mentioned earlier. The thing is, I don’t exactly feel like any of them are examining race, not overtly at least. What they’re doing is simply telling stories of characters of distinctly non-European ethnicity. In a way, just doing that is an exploration of race, I guess.
I really enjoyed Paolo Bacigulpi’s YA novel, Shipbreaker. It’s set in a near-future earth wherein environmental disasters have dramatically altered the world. He focuses on kids that are living at the margins of society, doing incredibly dangerous work, with very few prospects for long or comfortable lives. Paolo’s future is truly multicultural, his characters fanned out along the ethnic spectrum. To me, it’s a much more realistic notion of the future than the many visions that have projected a largely white world ahead of us. It’s not that Paolo is necessarily out to create a revisionist version of the future (if that notion makes sense at all). It’s that his awareness of race and ethnicity informs the future he envisions, creating a particularly credible collage of characters.
Both Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death and Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon feature cultures of African and Arab descent, respectively. Nnedi took everything that excites her about serious approaches to the fantastic and set her story in Africa, drawing on specifically African traditions/situations. Saladin did the same with his particular setting, to wonderful effect. They both feel really fresh, fantastic in all the best ways-but with new cultural/racial components at play that keep things uniquely interesting.
I’m looking forward to reading God’s War by Kameron Hurley. Nightshade kindly sent me a copy recently!
This is a bit of a trick question for me, because SFF is still a very American/Western Anglophone universe, and as a result, many of the cultural/racial conflicts it features don’t speak to me as much as they could, mainly because, even when depicted well (which is not always the case!), they remain fairly specific to the US and US mainstream culture. The racial dynamics in my country, for instance, are very different (and they’re even more different in Vietnam). And, at least from where I’m sitting, the question of race, culture and conflicts is further complicated by US dominance of our cultural markets: it’s not only a question of what ethnicity dominates within a given country and imposes its standards on others, but also of dominance from abroad; and specifically, local cultures and local values being extinguished by the tide of Hollywood imports and American novels that floods every country in the world (I’m not saying American media has no value-of course not-just that they’re abnormally dominant in our bookshops/cinemas, whereas very little gets translated into English for American consumption).
That said, and on a more positive note, I’ve read some excellent work lately: Ken Liu’s “The Paper Menagerie” and “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” both tackle complex tangles of family history, racial conflicts and immigrant identity. Rochita Loenen-Ruiz’s work, like “Alternate Girl’s Expatriate Life”, also tackles similar subjects very smartly and with fluid, poetic prose. At novel length, Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr Fox tackles subjects like the place of women in stories, cultural identity and racism in a very idiosyncratic way. I have also been reading some truly terrible work which featured clichéd descriptions of Asia and China in particular; and it’s this, more than the excellent depictions, that has been encouraging me to write fiction which tackled the problems of cultural domination, immigration and colonization in my current work. My recent story “Scattered Along the River of Heaven” in Clarkesworld dealt with decolonization and the formation of diasporas; and I have another story in their June issue, “Immersion”, which tackles globalization and the silencing of cultural identities.
It’s not an area I’ve been particularly seeking out so much as picking up by osmosis. Works by up-and-coming American authors such as David Anthony Durham and Saladin Ahmed are a good sign that the writing pool is more varied these days, which can only be a good thing. Zoo City by Lauren Beukes is (as well as a thoroughly engaging story) a fascinating story about prejudice and apartheid, and Lavie Tidhar’s Osama has a similarly thought-provoking look at the tensions and paranoia between the West and the Middle East. Col Buchanan’s Farlander is an epic fantasy with a black main character-albeit a warrior foreigner in a white culture. The world of Mieville’s Perdido Street Station is a fantasy take on a very modern urban environment replete with immigrant communities who face familiar reactions from the human majority-I have read some critiques (not of Mieville-aimed more at the “vampire/werewolf as persecuted minority” end of urban fantasy) which attack using non-humans as minorities, as setting them apart from “humanity” has all sorts of problems, both demonizing and beatifying, neither of which is useful. Mieville’s take in the three books of that series is, I’d argue, a model in exactly how the concept can be done right.
Another series of note is Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Dead, a very good example of a fantasy world where the ethnicities of the various nationalities, and the way they are portrayed, owe relatively little to the real world, and Erikson’s effect there, of having a secondary world that isn’t just a mishmash of bits of the real world with culture/color/religion imported in wholesale blocks to populate the map, is something I’ve also striven to do in my own work.
I’m going to go a bit off-path on my answer here.
I’m a lawyer, and I think some of the most fascinating works that examine race today are written by Supreme Court Justices. Many of the Court’s decisions, for example in areas like the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, affirmative action, and discrimination, deal with race either explicitly or implicitly. You can see many stories and assumptions about race being told or revealed as you read through these opinions, concurrences, and dissents. And many of these stories I would label speculative fiction.
And yes, these decisions have inspired me in my fiction. Fiction can’t help but engage with the real world we live in.
David Anthony Durham is the author of the Acacia Trilogy of fantasy novels, as well as the historical novels Pride of Carthage, Walk Through Darkness and Gabriel’s Story. His novels have been published in the UK and in nine foreign languages. Four of them have been optioned for development as feature films.
Aliette de Bodard is a Franco-Vietnamese who works as a Computer Engineer, and pays far too much attention to languages, cultures, and good food. She lives in a flat with her husband, more computers than people, and two tentacled Lovecraftian plants in the process of taking over the living room. Her fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and the Year’s Best Science Fiction, and has garnered a Writers of the Future Award and a BSFA award, as well as nominations for the Hugo and Nebula. Her trilogy of Aztec noir fantasies, Obsidian and Blood, is published by Angry Robot. Visit http://aliettedebodard.com for more information.
Adrian Tchaikovsky was born in Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire, before heading off to Reading to study psychology and zoology. For reasons unclear even to himself he subsequently ended up in law and has worked as a legal executive in both Reading and Leeds, where he now lives. Married, he is a keen live role-player and occasional amateur actor, has trained in stage-fighting, and keeps no exotic or dangerous pets of any kind, possibly excepting his son. The self-styled foremost UK writer of insect-themed fantasy fiction, his series, Shadows of the Apt, begins with Empire in Black and Gold and book 8, The Air War, is out August 2012. Catch up with him at www.shadowsoftheapt.com for further information about both himself and the insect-kinden, together with bonus material including short stories and artwork.
Ken Liu is an author and translator of speculative fiction, as well as a lawyer and programmer. His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, among other places. He has won the Nebula and been nominated for the Hugo and the Sturgeon awards. He lives with his family near Boston, Massachusetts.
Zachary Jernigan was inspired to start the above discussion after tackling the issue of race in his first novel, No Return, and his second Asimov’s story, “The War is Over and Everyone Wins” (January 2012). He lives in Arizona, where the sun is always shining and the politicians are always pissing him off. Now and then he blogs about sff literature and his many goofy hangups at zacharyjernigan.blogspot.com.
Filed under: Interviews
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