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MIND MELD: How to Write Science Fiction on a Post-Colonial World

[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]

In recent years, the ascension of several former Third World countries to a better economical and geopolitical standing (the best example of which are the like the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) has been slowly but steadily bringing a change of paradigms in the way science fiction sees the world. Could it be that novels like Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind-Up Girl, Ian McDonald’s Brasyl and The Dervish House, to name just a few, are some of the harbingers of this change? Or, as their authors are Western in origin and haven’t lived in the countries they portrayed, would they still be focusing on the so-called exotic aspect of foreign countries and therefore failing to see the core of these cultures?

We asked this week’s panelists:

Q: How do you Write Science Fiction on a Post-Colonial World? Do you think belonging to a Non-Western culture is essential to write a really good, convincing story about it? Is being an outsider to the culture you want to write about, an enriching or impoverishing experience (or doesn’t it matter in the end)?

Here’s what they said…

Joyce Chng
Born in Singapore but a global citizen, Joyce Chng writes mainly science fiction (SFF) and YA fiction. She likes steampunk and tales of transformation/transfiguration. Her fiction has appeared in Crossed Genres, Semaphore Magazine, Bards and Sages Quarterly and Everyday Fiction. Her urban fantasy novels Wolf At The Door and Obsidian Moon, Obsidian Eye (written as J. Damask) are published by Lyrical Press. Her short story “The Sound Of Breaking Glass” is side by side with luminaries in The Apex Book of World SFF vol II. Her blog is found at A Wolf’s Tale. She wrangles kids and promises she is still normal.

I have to disagree, though a writer from a non-Western culture might understand the nuances of being a post-colonial writer better.

A Western writer who wants to write a convincing story has so many opportunities at his or her fingertips. Thanks to globalization, we have access to the Internet, the chance to talk to people living in non-western countries via a plethora of tools and gosh, libraries. Accessing information now is so easy, so simple – many do not even have to step out of their rooms. At the same time, you can ask a friend who is from the said culture(s) you are writing about to vet it. Do not be afraid to ask questions. Research. Let it be an enriching experience. Worldbuilding does not emerge out of the ether nor do you pluck it out of thin air.

However, bias, prejudices and stereotypes are deeply-entrenched and difficult to remove. A non-Western writer might have internalized racism and might be more disposed to follow the dominant (Western) culture. Or, a Western writer, with years of travel and living in a non-Western country, might have the empathy to step into the shoes of the characters he or she are writing. Empathy and an intuitive understanding might help in writing. Is the writer able to understand the different layers? Is he or she able to acknowledge and accept that a minority group or a non-dominant ethnic group has to straddle worlds, and cope with issues of hybridity, racism and intersectionality?

Being an outsider to the culture (god knows that I am an outsider to white and Western normative perspectives) might give you that critical insight and pierce into issues the dominant culture might not want to acknowledge in the first place. My suggestion is to confront these issues. My science fiction tends to fall under the category of social and feminist science fiction. I am not afraid to look at the issue of inequality.

The thing is … what can you do about it?

Ekaterina Sedia
Ekaterina Sedia resides in the Pinelands of New Jersey. Her critically acclaimed novels, The Secret History of Moscow, The Alchemy of Stone, The House of Discarded Dreams and Heart of Iron were published by Prime Books. Her short stories have sold to Analog, Baen’s Universe, Subterranean and Clarkesworld, as well as numerous anthologies, including Haunted Legends and Magic in the Mirrorstone. She is also the editor of Paper Cities (World Fantasy Award winner), Running with the Pack, Bewere the Night and Circus: Fantasy Under the Big Top (forthcoming). Visit her at

We talked about that very issue quite a bit at World SF roundtable recently! Part 1 and Part 2 are available online. I recommend it, since it is certainly a more nuanced and detailed discussion between several smart people (and me.) Now, for a shorter answer:

It really depends what sort of narrative one plans on writing, but I would have to say that yes, if one comes from a dominant Western culture and plans on writing a narrative involving a non-Western/underrepresented culture from the INSIDER point of view, it is a problem. Mostly because the person in a position of privilege can easily slip into the position of expert or a spokesperson for a culture of which this person is not a member. Also, since such narratives are given a privileged position, they are also likely to displace narratives written by the members of the culture and make their translations less likely.

On the other hand, an explicitly outsider narratives are just that. I write those myself quite a bit. If a culture is not my own, I feel it is ok to talk to it or about it, but not for it. So I position my text as explicitly outsider narrative. There are of course pitfalls in that approach as well — too often, they tend toward “all these people need is a honky” type of story, where the Western protag saves the grateful natives who have little left to do than to take the back stage and possibly reward the hero with a native lady. Still, this approach seems less damaging overall, as long as one doesn’t assume the position of control but that of a tourist.

On the whole, I would say that writers tend to overestimate their ability to get into someone else’s head: our aliens are rarely terribly alien, and our foreigners tend to have very Western values with some bowing or another form superficial exoticism sprinkled on top and generously thickened with stereotypes.

I would certainly argue that if a reader is interested in a foreign culture, they should seek out translated works from that culture, not faux authenticity as filtered through Western gaze. I’ve long been arguing that reading a book written with a different set of cultural touchstones is a useful experience. Western audiences need books (as many as possible, because no one author is ever a spokesperson for their culture) that do not assume the centrality of Western values, that haven’t been written for Western eyes. Empathy is an acquired ability, and the more we are asked to step outside of our own set of references, the more we are able to see other cultures as something more than exotic and interesting other. Maybe once we have a variety of voices from within non-Western cultures translated into English, we can revisit this question.

Karen Lord
Karen Lord is a writer and research consultant in Barbados. Her debut novel Redemption in Indigo won the 2008 Frank Collymore Literary Award, the 2011 William L. Crawford Award and the 2011 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature, and was nominated for the 2011 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. She has been nominated for the 2012 Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and her second novel The Best of All Possible Worlds (winner of the 2009 Frank Collymore Literary Award) will be published in 2013.

An interesting question that raises even more questions.

What is a non-Western culture? For that matter, what is Western culture? Is it the pale imitation of New York that appears so often on the screen but is barely recognizable to New Yorkers? Why does the virtual population inside the Matrix look so different from the real population of Zion? Why do I keep seeing the Matrix in Western media and literature when Western cities look more and more like Zion?

What is an outsider? Is it the flip or flop of a binary state or a grey area on a sliding scale? What does it mean to be an outsider in a multicultural city or country or internet?

Does it matter if an outsider writes other cultures well enough to satisfy both the few savvy readers and the many who neither know nor care? If the outsider fails, can an insider succeed? Can they make their own culture, language and style of narrative sufficiently accessible to the Western reader? Who is more marketable? Who will be noticed?

Jaymee Goh
Jaymee Goh is a writer of speculative fiction and scholar/blogger of critical theory. She has contributed to,, the Apex Book Company Blog, and Beyond 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.

Jeffrey Thomas
Jeffrey Thomas is the author of Punktown, Deadstock, Blue War, and Letters From Hades. He lives in Massachusetts, and his blog resides at Punktalk.

I remember reading or hearing, once, a young actor lament that in school acting students are encouraged to portray old people, people of other cultures, other walks of life…and then when they go out to audition for movie or TV parts, they find the casting agents are looking for “types” that don’t test the actors’ versatility; that don’t challenge their ability. I don’t feel I need to be old to write a story about an elderly man, a child to write a story from a child’s perspective, a woman to write about a female protagonist. I don’t need to be a gangster, a knight, a lion tamer. What I do need is empathy, and imagination. Okay, and sometimes a little research. But I grow defensive at the suggestion that only people of a certain culture, gender, age, and so on could truly write effectively of a certain experience, subject, or even location. I’m currently writing a novel set in contemporary Vietnam (a country that has known its share of colonists, occupiers, and enemies), which centers around several Vietnamese characters, and it doubtlessly helps that I’ve been to the country eight times and was married to a Vietnamese woman. But I am not Vietnamese. Nor am I, however, one of the mutants or aliens who feel like second-class citizens in my oft-used future milieu of Punktown (a setting in which I have frequently addressed the matter of colonialism). I think it might be put to one’s advantage, being an outsider to a culture and coming at it with a fresh or objective perspective. That Russian fella Nabokov not only had the audacity to set Lolita in New England, but to excel at a language that was not native to him. Ah, that I could challenge my abilities half as wonderfully!

Farah Mendlesohn
Farah Mendlesohn used to edit Foundation, and is now Immediate Past President of the IAFA. She won the Hugo for The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, and nominations for Rhetorics of Fantasy, The Inter-Galactic Playground, and On Joanna Russ. The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature is her most recent book.

Celebrate 2066! Throw off the Yoke of Our Norman Oppressors!

One of the biggest problems for me of most attempts to write about post-colonialism is the relatively short time spans in which writers (and frankly, politicians) think liberation and recovery can be achieved. There is no excuse for this, because for most westerners there is, in their history books, an example of a post-colonial nation that demonstrates just how long it can take (not) to recover from the effects of an invader.

One of the side effects of the arguments about cultural appropriation and post-colonialism has been to make some of us who live in the UK take a good, long hard look at our own culture, the way it has evolved and the way it is written about. Through this particular lense, the issue that emerges is that most people do not realise the degree to which the UK is a post-colonial state made up of nations in different phases of post-colonialism. The UK is made up of four main nations (there are islands as well which are often forgotten about: Orkney was once a nation): the “central” nations, the two that engaged in colonialism, were England and Scotland. I already see eyebrows going up because if you have been listening to the Scottish nationalists you’ll think Scotland was conquered by England, but strictly speaking it was the other way around (James VI of Scotland and I of England inherited the throne and turned up in London with all his Scottish friends, and later, the Civil Wars went on a lot longer than they needed to because the Scots backed Charles I, so that when Charles II returned the Scots could be understood to have won. The choice to fight for the Pretender was not strictly speaking a Scottish/English argument, it was a choice between lines of descent and Scots were on both sides.) You can see these two as equal players right up to the nineteenth century in all sorts of ways, such as the copyright laws which favoured London and Edinburgh and the rise of the Scottish universities. Scotland had a vibrant industrial base all its own, and retained its own profits. Scots were of course major players in the British Empire, notably in China and India—most of the big opium trading houses were Scottish.) Scotland retains its own legal system which is one of the most interesting indicators of its real relationship, and does quite well out of redistribution of central funds. It is the Scots, rather than the English, who created plantations in Ireland. Scotland can argue that it lost out in the various rows between north and south (and between its own north and south), but as we’ll see in a minute, that is not unique. In the meantime, depending how you count it, two or four of the post 1945 Prime Ministers have been Scots.

In contrast, Wales and Ireland (north and south) were conquests. Wales has little industry, and the industry it had—coal—is a typical “provide the raw material for the conqueror” industry. Ireland was stripped of most industrial development, and its people stripped of their land. Through most of the seventeenth century the English sold Irish prisoners of war to the West Indies as slaves (in 1637, 69% of the total number of slaves in Monserrat were Irish). (1) During the Civil Wars attitudes hardened and while, as a bit of a fan of the English Commonwealth I’m prone to pointing out that backing that fool Charles I did nothing for the Irish cause, I cannot overlook that the behaviour of the Parliamentary Armies provides precursors of Kenya, Vietnam, and Yugoslavia, or any other war you wish to name where the invaders become convinced that the other side are anathema. (This history is part of the Irish curriculum yet I have become fascinated by the omission of any of this history in fantasies set in Ireland, although the English part of the Civil Wars is well represented).

Then the Irish had the famine, not caused by the British but exacerbated by infra-structure which led to the “motherland”, agricultural policies designed for England and a general belief that the Irish were all barbarians. In Wales, though the situation was less extreme, similar attitudes can be seen in the stripping of the Welsh of their language: well into the twentieth century Welsh school children were beaten for speaking Welsh in school, and Welsh servants working in England regularly had their names changed. There has been one Welsh Prime Minister. In Northern Ireland, until the Civil Rights revolts of the late 1960s, the use of a ratepayer franchise deprived many Catholic Irish of the vote, while awarding multiple votes to Protestants.

We could blame England here, but I prefer to blame the Normans. England, too, is a post-colonial country, invaded in 1066 and still showing the scars. Before 1066 England was a relatively recently unified country with regional governments. You can see this still in the major bishoprics: York is as important as Canterbury. In order to control England, the Normans ended up raising the north, destroying everything in their wake. This, combined with a decisive shift of the institutions of authority to the south of England, left the north as a kind of backwater, and it has never recovered. The Norman influence changed the language: English “won” in that we do not all speak French, but English contains within it a hierarchy of sophistication which is essentially post-colonial: Latin for law, French for food on the table (beef/lamb), Anglo-Saxon for the animals which become food (cow/sheep): you can tell who farmed and who ate. We are fast approaching the one thousandth anniversary of the Norman conquest and the land ownership patterns the Normans introduced still structure our law, and tell you who owns the land. The largest landowner in the country is the Duke of Buccleach, who is descended from the invader Hugh de Gras. The Percy family arrived in 1066 and left the Lords only in the first round of reforms of the constitution in the twenty first century. Recently I watched an episode of a programme called Who Do You Think You Are? The protagonist, Norman featured, sitting in a kitchen larger than many an apartment I have lived in, described himself as “slightly posh”: he turned out to be a descendant of the Plantagenets.

Like any colonised nation Welsh and Irish culture has been alternately derided and appropriated: the fairy and folktale revivals of the late nineteenth century were partly national revivals, but in the reading I’ve been doing of British folk tale collections in the early twentieth century the pattern is clear: the Welsh, Irish and the north British (Scots and the north of England) have fairy tales, the English (and now the Americans) write them down, study them, and later, use them as the basis of fantasy novels. Many of us are beneficiaries of a colonialism our ancestors were not present to participate in (I’m a Jewish immigrant but I am as much English to a Welsh or Irish woman as I am White to a Jamaican).

A thousand years after a pattern of conquest began, and there is no complete assimilation, the language is inflected with the hierarchy of the conquerors, land ownership, industrial and transport infrastructure is still directed by the socio-geography of the conquerors, and hierarchies of culture run rife. You can travel England and once outside the conurbations you can still see the genetic markers of different invading waves, a thousand years after they arrived. (2) I’d like to see this reflected in our fiction: a more rounded and honest exploration of the past should be a much greater part of our extrapolation and fantasy than it currently is.

  1. See
  2. Try it. Start in Liverpool and take a train across to Sunderland. Welcome to Viking country.
Jeff VanderMeer
World Fantasy Award winner Jeff VanderMeer grew up in the Fiji Islands and has had books published in over 20 countries. His books, including the bestselling City of Saints & Madmen, have made the year’s best lists of The Wall Street Journal, LA Weekly, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many more. He reviews books for, among others, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post Book World, and the Los Angeles Times, as well as being a regular columnist for the Omnivoracious book blog. Current projects include the short story collection The Third Bear, the UK publication of his noir fantasy novel Finch (Atlantic), The Steampunk Bible (Abrams; with S.J. Chambers) and the anthologies, co-edited with his wife Ann, The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Fictions (Atlantic) and The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities (HarperCollins). He maintains a blog at and serves as assistant director to the teen SF/F writing camp Shared Worlds.

This is a complicated question for which the easy answer is yes, but that answer renders down all nuance, complexity, and perspective with regard to the question. The fact is that there are crappy writers everywhere, all over the world, and many writers do a horrible job of writing about their own country. I certainly know this is true of many US writers who tackle the US. There’s also the question of how influence works. Borges was very influenced by writers from the United Kingdom. Murakami claims to not be influenced by other Japanese writers at all. Influence, interest, etc., works in mysterious ways and some writers from other countries have no interest in writing explicitly about their homeland. The homogenous or heterogeneous nature of a particular country makes a difference too. No one writer can claim to be able to capture those complexities from all angles in many cases no matter where they are from.

Added to this is the very nature of the writer’s job, which is to inhabit imaginary characters and imbue them with meaning, empathy, and life. If we say that a writer from one country may not write about another country, do we also mean a male writer may not write a female character, for example? The point being that we are always to some extent conjuring up people who are their own separate countries, and contain multitudes. But with every character, for example, regardless of location, a good writer is aware of what that particular person would notice and not notice about their surroundings; the writer from outside of a setting they’re writing about is more likely to give readers the tourist guide version, but a good writer understands that this isn’t the right way to go about it—the shitty writer will never learn this, and will have problems with characters and setting even if they’re writing about their own neighborhood.

The answers aren’t easy, and I can only put it in the context of my own writing. I grew up overseas and my only authentic way of writing about that experience was to write stories set in other countries and to, eventually, create Ambergris, a fantastical city that synthesized elements of what I had seen firsthand into a setting that was in fact none of those places. Now, having explored that avenue, and having lived in Florida for over 20 years, I find that I can finally relax into exploring and using North Florida as a setting—my latest novel, Annihilation, is basically set in that wilderness. Could another writer not from Florida, or not from the US, describe North Florida better than me? I don’t think it’s out of the question. The perspective might be from the outside looking in, but that can be valuable. Being too close to something can mean you don’t see the broader outlines of it. And there’s also the question of what a writer is meant to do anyway: which is to stand outside of things, to observe and give insight from the outside. (It is a huge mistake to think of the U.S. is one homogenous unit, one entity that is the same culturally and socio-economically—and a writer who does think that creates stories that will be rife with error and cliché.)

Then you add to this other elements—like the fact that the official representatives of the indigenous peoples of Australia have, as I understand it (someone please correct me as necessary—I’m traveling, with limited internet research time), said rather firmly not to use their culture in fiction. Well, that has to be respected and if you don’t, then you’re quite frankly an asshole. Then there are the more complicated cases: one blogger from a country says it’s wrong to use that country or culture as a setting if you’re not from there. But another blogger says it’s perfectly fine in their opinion, and you have correspondence with other writers who are of varying opinions about it. You can’t privilege one opinion over another in such cases, I don’t think. At the same time, you have to ask yourself: what are you passionate about writing? What is personal to you? I don’t really, myself, understand the impulse to write a lot about places you’ve never even been to. Travel doesn’t guarantee a lot—it’s not an immersion in the culture generally—but it at least guarantees you’ll have some idea of how a place looks, feels, the texture of certain locations, etc. (Unless you’re the kind of traveler who likes to just camp out at the Hilton, in which case you’re probably not a very good writer anyway.)

Then you add in this, too: writers can’t write well when they are self-conscious and worried about the reaction to what they’re writing. You wind up with simplistic sops to received ideas about what’s acceptable and what isn’t. These are the stories that deal in stereotype just as much as the most problematic ones from the past: here, the country’s cultures are fetishized, beyond criticism, and the people in them are noble and kind and just, and not really individual complex human beings at all, just in the other direction.

And what about historical fiction set in other countries? Is a contemporary writer from that country expected to be more of an expert in that history than someone from outside of that country? I know I’m not at all an expert on the Civil War in the US or certain other aspects of US history. I think it’s entirely likely that a writer from, say, Nigeria, could do a much better job of writing about the Civil War than I could, if they had done their research. (Indeed, they might have something much more interesting to say than I would, even if we had both done our research.)

Rikki Ducornet cites in an interview having a Native American writer as a student who was agonizing over writing about 18th century Japan, concerned about cultural appropriation, and that this made Ducornet very sad because the imagination needs to go where it wants to go, and if you don’t allow it to, you stifle your creative impulse in such a way that you can damage it. Some would say weighed against that is the possible damage created…except that this issue of damage is a nebulous one, one that can be debated in certain contexts, but hasn’t really been even though the issue is complex.

But there are still *other* things to factor in, like  level playing field. The fact is, there are many amazing voices from other countries that haven’t yet been translated into English or Spanish, and without translation into English or Spanish right now, these voices are invisible to large potential audiences. It is of course unfair that this is the case, but it is the case. (And in the future, it will still be the case, even if it means that Chinese is predominant and English is a thing of the past.) So Ann and I work hard to bring new translations, new voices, into the conversation in the English-speaking world—the common tongue we use to get past the fact we have so many tongues—even though we understand the limitations of this. Which is to say, those elements lost in translation that can be greater or lesser depending on issues like the writer’s style, the language in question, etc. And, yes, from the viewpoint of a level playing field, do we need one more US writer writing about, say, Thailand? Probably not. (The glut of stereotypical and increasingly rote Thai murder mysteries by non-Thais is a good example.) The other thing about these voices is they’re likely to have their own very different views of  this very issue we’re discussing…which is another reason that trying to say one way is the right way will only lead to grief in the end.  And what about the fact that we are talking about this subject from the context of fantastical, speculative fiction, even though this renders invisible a lot of material published from other countries with non-realist tendencies translated into the mainstream by publishers like Dalkey Archive Press? And related to this the hegemony of the US/UK model of commercial genre fiction–the fixation on certain types of plots, etc. What if the very people who seem to want to see translations don’t really want to see work that is too unfamiliar? This is really another argument for translation: to change the idea of what is “familiar” or “expected”.

Then, too, why do we read novels in the first place? I don’t get my history from novels. I don’t get my stance on social issues from novels. In fact, even while I’m immersed in a novel I’m also questioning it and entering into a conversation with it during which I don’t accept everything it is telling me. In other words, this idea of accuracy is a moving target to some extent. What is accuracy in a novel or story? How does the idea of acceptable levels of accuracy change depending on the type of fiction, the approach, the characters, etc?

So all of  these things come into play, and the question is not simple and the answers are not simple, and these are the kinds of question and answers that a writer revisits all the time during their career, and you never settle on just one answer, and you are continually re-evaluating, both in general and in the context of the particular piece of fiction you are writing at the time. All that is required? Love, respect, empathy, and a willingness to keep writing your way to a more perfect answer.

Karin Lowachee
Karin Lowachee was born in South America, grew up in Canada, and worked in the Arctic. Her first novel Warchild won the 2001 Warner Aspect First Novel Contest. Both Warchild (2002) and her third novel Cagebird (2005) were finalists for the Philip K. Dick Award. Cagebird won the Prix Aurora Award in 2006 for Best Long-Form Work in English and the Spectrum Award also in 2006. Her second novel Burndive debuted at #7 on the Locus Bestseller List. Her books have been translated into French, Hebrew, and Japanese, and her short stories have appeared in anthologies edited by Julie Czerneda, Nalo Hopkinson, and John Joseph Adams. Her current fantasy novel, The Gaslight Dogs, was published through Orbit Books USA.

No, I don’t think you need to belong to a non-Western culture, necessarily, to write a convincing story about post-colonialism, or to create a post-colonial world. That would be like saying I need to be male in order to write effectively from a male point-of-view, or in the army if I want to write a military story (both of which I’ve done and considering the feedback I’ve gotten over the years from numerous men in the armed forces, I did okay). Obviously knowing anything from the inside can only help and inform your work, but if it’s not possible to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and delve deep to understand and express points-of-view that might not be “native” to our own, then writers everywhere ought to just give up. Especially speculative ones. I’m not an astronaut but I’ve written space opera. The point of writing, to me, is exploration, and for that we need to get outside of our comfortable modes of thinking and test ourselves (and the readers). Every experience can be helpful, and what we lack in experience we can make up for with education (and I don’t mean necessarily in school) and sensitivity.

Vandana Singh
Vandana Singh writes science fiction and fantasy and teaches college physics. Her Ph.D. is in particle physics, but she has yet to write a story about quarks. Apart from the aforementioned story collection, she has several short stories in various anthologies and magazines, and two standalone novellas from Aqueduct Press (Distances and Of Love and Other Monsters) as well as an ALA notable children’s book, Younguncle Comes to Town. She lives near Boston.

Theoretically I don’t think it is essential to belong to a Non-Western culture, but it helps. I think it is easier for Western writers to write about a made-up culture, perhaps far future or on another world, that has been colonized, than to write about an existing colonized or formerly colonized world here on Earth. One thinks of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds or Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles as examples of SF making a statement against colonization. I think in theory it is possible for a writer from the West to write a good SF story about a real-world post-colonial culture, but I haven’t come across such a work as yet. Granted, I don’t read as widely as I’d like, but I’ve been disappointed with some of the big names that have been celebrated for their works in non-Western settings. One of the problems is with emphasis. What stands out to a Western writer often does not carry the same weight within the culture, so that to natives of the culture the work appears to have the wrong balance (for lack of a better word). Try speaking aloud a sentence in English while deliberately messing up the stresses and the emphases — even if you pronounce things right and get the word order right, it will sound off. That, metaphorically speaking, is how works set in India by Western SF writers sound to me. I think to get it right you have to not just visit but live in the country, perhaps with a family, and immerse yourself until you lose self-consciousness as a foreigner, and at the same time do your research, study the history and the customs, and be aware of the prejudices and stereotypes through which you might be viewing the other. So self-awareness and a critical examination of one’s own culture and its participation in the subjugation of the other is necessary if the work is to be more than exotic froth. (Of course, this is not necessary for adulation and awards and popularity: consider for instance the accolades the SF community gave to the xenophobic potboiler that is Dan Simmon’s Song of Kali).

Has any Western writer succeeded in writing about a non-Western, post-colonial culture? I loved Geoff Ryman’s The King’s Last Song, and I loved particularly that the heroes were Cambodians — but who
am I to judge something written about Cambodia? I will leave that to people from Cambodia to decide. I can only judge a work about India, and I’ve found everything from horrendously colonialist crap to sincere but severely flawed attempts. If anyone knows of an exception to my experience, I would love to be informed about it.

I think that while it is a great endeavor for Western writers to try to write deeply and honestly about post-colonial cultures, and that it is an important exercise in extending oneself to identify with the other (part of the pleasure and challenge of SF) for me the more important issue is to bring out the voices of writers from post-colonial cultures. I say that with the qualifier that colonialism is not really dead — it is alive and kicking in the form of globalization —- but leaving aside that for the time being, I believe that writers from post-colonial cultures have a great deal to contribute to SF. When their SF is not imitative but informed by new perspectives and intelligent critique of the dominant paradigm, when it emerges from entirely different experiences and assumptions than the Western norm, then it has the potential to enrich the genre and challenge the old and tired and potentially destructive ways of looking ourselves and our possible futures.

About Fabio Fernandes (21 Articles)
Fabio Fernandes is an SFF writer living in São Paulo, Brazil. He has several stories published in online venues in the US, the UK, New Zealand, Portugal, Romenia, and Brazil. He also contributed to Ann and Jeff VanderMeer's Steampunk II:Steampunk Reloaded, Southern Weirdo: Reconstruction, and The Apex Book of World SF Vol. 2.
Contact: Website

7 Comments on MIND MELD: How to Write Science Fiction on a Post-Colonial World

  1. requireshate // June 6, 2012 at 12:53 am //

    Jaymee Goh: 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?

    Thank you, Jaymee. <3

    Jeff VanderMeer: And, yes, from the viewpoint of a level playing field, do we need one more US writer writing about, say, Thailand? Probably not. (The glut of stereotypical and increasingly rote Thai murder mysteries by non-Thais is a good example.)

    This is it, exactly. I’ve yet to see any of these books by non-Thai writers which are anything but offensive on every level imaginable, and yet they’re the ones with the commercial success–the ones that shape the view of what my country and culture are like. Despicable.

    • X2Eliah // June 6, 2012 at 3:07 am //

      The issue here might well be that the offensive books (allegedly – being from a western culture I’d rather not judge what’s offensive or not) are selling precisely because they pander to stereotypes that are too deep/basic to be instantly noticeable – after all, if the authors are of X culture and have Z stereotypes, and if the by far largest audience is also of X culture with mostly Z stereotypes, then surely that novel will fit them well and sell well enough – possibly better than something by non-X-er with notions actively opposing Z.

      • It’s definitely a question of shared touchstones between the writer and their audience: I use “touchstone” in a sense of narrative conventions, stereotypes, and values.
        That said–I don’t think having an explanation makes it excusable to commit raw Orientalism or any bad form of cultural depiction…

        • The same goes for “exotic”. Stereotypes are offensive and should be stopped. Asian women are “exotic”. Asian countries are “exotic”. We are not a travelogue. Westerners tend to treat Asian countries (be it adopted or host) as “exotic” or the “other” – the people living in these countries are also exoticized.

          • “Westerners tend to treat Asian countries (be it adopted or host) as “exotic” or the “other” – the people living in these countries are also exoticized.”

            Isn’t that a stereotype of a “Westerner”?

    • Woah, Hategirl is posting on Sfsignal.

  2. Thanks, Fabio.

    I knew you could do a better job than me in curating and bringing forth this important topic.

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