The OF Blog: Internalizing the Differences

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Internalizing the Differences

Ever since I read this post over at Fantasy Bookspot a couple of weeks ago, I have been pondering and rethinking my own take on the gender issue when it comes to story telling. I was going to post something about this a few days ago, when my attention was diverted by the arrival of a story collection that Nalo Hopkinson co-edited called So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy. Reading that collection and the comments that Hopkinson and fellow editor Uppinder Mehan made about the hows and whys of these stories taking place was thought-provoking.

Although there are very few photos of me available online, I would probably be presumed by most readers to be a Caucasian male. While my religious background (Catholic) and sexual orientation (heterosexual) may or may not be easily determined by reading electronic black words on an electronic white backdrop, there is much in what I have chosen to read that reveals (perhaps) an ambivalence towards my own US Southern upbringing.

A great many readers will claim that gender and race do not matter when it comes to reading a tale. I say to that, "Bullshit!" It does matter, even if it might only take subconscious forms. From the types of tales that people are trained by their sociocultural backgrounds to prefer to how one views the world and its relationships with the fictional stories written within in, people cannot help but to view things through their own prism.

I used to have bookmarked (before my old computer blew up and I lost all of those countless links) an article written by an African-American woman (sadly, I'm forgetting her name now, as it's been about two years since I read this) who talked about how important it was to her to read of brown-skinned people in stories such as Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea series. I recall that article sparking a lot of discussion on the various blogs and websites...then fading into the backdrop.

So when I read the stories contained within So Long Been Dreaming, I could not help but think of that article and how the stories presented in this collection come at the issues of Exploration and First Contact (among other SF/F tropes) not from that of the Explorers, but of those being Explored. Stories that dealt with issues such as forced assimilation or of self-denigration due to pressures from a somewhat alien and yet overarching "other" culture. Stories that are not just based on our various pasts but also on our presents and possible futures.

When I read novels by a Nalo Hopkinson or an Octavia Butler or a Laura Restrepo (to name just three of the many women authors that I've read in recent years), I cannot help but to detect a "difference" in their writings, a je ne sais quoi that is eluding me now but which I want to understand better, to internalize it into my own understandings of the world around. Speculative fiction, or fiction of any sort for that matter, deals at its core with how we view the world and its peoples. As much as we might wish to "escape" from the oft-sad realities of how groups of people have treated other groups of people, there are still many elements of "the White Man's Burden" visible and active under the surface of a great many tales. Some extol those elements, while others struggle to deal with it, but yet there it is...that 800 lb. gorilla looming over us.

Perhaps that is why that when I read a Hopkinson or a tale by a Latina such as Isabel Allende, I cannot but help notice the different texture and paralanguage behind the written words printed on the pages of their novels. That does not mean that I value them more or less than those of WASPs or men of other cultures, only that there is a "difference" in there...and I am often drawn toward that, trying to process it, understand it, and relate it to my own understanding of the world around me, which is perhaps one of the few ways that cultural diffusion can truly triumph over cultural imposition.


Joe Sherry said...


I think that the way I processed that thread at FBS was about what my choices were in reading novels and not to do with where we come from in how we understand the novels.

I'm a reasonably young (28) white male. It should be obvious that Octavia Butler, for one, is coming from an entirely different perspective in her novels than I will ever be able to reach. But...the fact that Butler is coming from a different direction does not prevent me from reading, or more specifically, seeking out her work.

That's what I thought the thread was mostly about: Do we consciously or unconsciously avoid or seek out authors of other genders. As I mentioned in that thread, my father consciously avoids female authors. Our town librarian pointed that out to me a decade ago.

Most of the authors I would list as "favorites" are female and looking through my reading this year the books are fairly well split between male and female authors.

So, I do say that gender and race do not matter in reading a tale in the sense that gender and race does not influence whether or not I will read a given tale. The gender and race of the author quite obviously influences how they write the tale, what they write about, and how they present what they write about. It just doesn't influence my choice to read it.

Larry said...


I want to agree with you and what you say is very reasonable. But there is something behind all of this that is nagging at me, perhaps it is my academic background in cultural history, that leads me to question the subconscious decisions we make and how we interpret matters.

When I'm reading someone writing/living from a different perspective, I cannot help but notice it. It does matter to me that there might be some cultural codes subconsciously or deliberately embedded in the text that I might not get. It matters to many if the author is of a similar background to them. That cannot be dismissed.

I need to reply to that FBS thread soon, as I think hearing other viewpoints, such as yours here, would be helpful in helping my clarify my own thoughts on the issue. But I do want to close by stating that while I personally am not going to choose/reject an author based on their background, I just cannot help but notice it while I'm reading the story in many cases. That most of the time it is a positive thing is a bonus, but also just serves to illustrate that "colorblind" might be wishful thinking more than current reality. How we deal with those perceived differences, how we internalize it, that I think is the key here.

Eric B said...

What's a paralanguage?

Neth said...

As with most 'enlightened' people, I like to think of myself as colorblind, genderblind, orientation blind, etc. when I choose a book. For the most part that is correct. However, I'd be an idiot not to realize that by choosing books that appeal to me I am selecting books of a certain cultural perspective (whether it's white, anglo-saxon male heterosexual, American, scientific, or whatever).

I like what I like, and who I am is a big part of that - and if I were to look at the books I most often read - white male authors from the US, Canada, and UK are what I prefer. Does that mean I don't enjoy books writen by women? Or from other cultures than mentioned above? No - my reading record also supports this, but they are in the minority.

Do my reading habits make sexists, racist, ethnocentric, etc.? No they just demostrate that my cultural up bringing has lead me to enjoy a certain type of literature.

Of course this doesn't even begin to get into availability and noteriaty of books an authors. Maybe my tastes are more a reflection of what the market provides and tells me that I should like. Maybe it has nothing to do with my tastes, but the marketing and choices of publishers and the greater society I live in.

Maybe it's something else entirely. There are many reasons for reading choices - I'm sure a PhD could be written on it (and I guarantee it'd be an especially tedious one). It's do to lots of reasons, but none of them change the fact that race, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, and many other factors inherently shape the perspective of both authors and readers and this influences pretty much every aspect of our lives, including reading preferences. Differences can be celebrated and aren't negatives. Specific reading preferences are not necessarily bad - though I certainly believe in the power of challenging those preferences by moving beyond them at times.

So, in short (well, acutally quite long and wordy), I think I agree with what you are getting at.

Larry said...


Paralanguage refers to non-verbal communication, such as body language, pitch or tone of words, things like that. I perhaps could have been more precise and said that the semantics of how the syntax of a sentence or paragraph is structured will reveal quite a bit about the author than the words themselves will. But that gets into metanarratives and the threat of this going into very deep waters is high.

And Ken,

Yeah, I know what you're getting at. It's just that when I'm reading something, I have found myself very often viewing it as a dialogue between myself and my perceptions of what the author is trying to accomplish (or how the author is seeing the world). I just cannot be "blind" to what I perceive underlying the words of the story. And a study on such things would be the furtherest thing from "tedious" in my opinion! I still need to bug one of my best friends who's finishing up her Ph.D. in Anthro at UF to see if she still has that list of books a friend of hers had on "Performance Theory", as that would provide quite a bit of food for thought in regards to how peoples of "repressed" cultures communicate by expropriating and altering the "accepted" means of communication. But that's a topic for another time, I's almost midnight here!

Danae/Ro said...

I'm not quite sure how to begin responding to your post, Larry.

I'm young, I'm female, I'm bisexual and I'm Indian. I hope to be, one day, well-read, but I'll settle for just being, one day (much as I am now), happily reading.

And for a very long time, I just read whatever was recommended to me, or that caught my eye, or was just so famous I had heard about it.

Quite a lot of the time, what I read was written by someone who was white, and often that someone who was white was male.

I'm not going to say that this is something to feel guilty about. But at some point in the last six years, I have been aware of the differences in the "paralanguage" of texts by female, non-white, non-European/American authors. And I started to search more actively for them.

To get to the crux of the matter: I think that unless you actively look for non-male/non-white authors, the bulk of your reading, if you live in, say, Bangalore, is likely to be authored by white men. At first glance there seem to be more of them. Most of my friends back home who do not consciously filter end up with such books.

I don't know for sure how it happens. But it does.

In and of itself, it's not a bad thing. It's nothing to feel bad about, whether it's by conscious choice or not.

But I do like the extra textures I'm feeling now, on my mental tongue, so to speak. I'm glad I had the right influences, that someone told me to look farther afield.

(Also: Dear Gods of Literature and Culture and Stuff That is Fun and Cool: Please don't let Globalisation win too much.)

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