The OF Blog: A piece that will be hard for many to follow

Monday, August 10, 2009

A piece that will be hard for many to follow

Lo siento, pero quiero empezar mi ensayo en español. Aunque español es sólo mi lengua segunda, me gusta hablar y leerlo cuando a veces deseo alejarme de mi cultura nativa. Quizás no me entiendas. Quizás no quieras que escribo en español o en cualquier idioma. Quizás no te gusta leer mis pensamientos en español porque te amenazan...claro, si crees que quiero amenazarte porque escriba en español, tengas problemas...

But for the benefit of the well-meaning monolinguals, I'll switch back to English, although it would behoove those who can understand at least some of my Spanish to pay attention to what I said there, as it relates directly to my thoughts regarding this piece by K. Tempest Bradford. Bradford continues the discussions that have been brewing in various parts over the past week (months? years?) regarding the selection of anthology pieces by discussing why she believes there should be a sort of mindset change on the part of the editors. She readily admits this is a difficult task, but me being me, I want to look at this from a different point of view.

The future of SF is made up of women and people of color, and people of various cultures and classes, and LGBT folks, and non-Americans and non-Western nationalities (China, India, the Philippines, to name just three).
This quote I think lies at the heart of not just Tempest's argument, but at those made by those who seem to have problems with imagining a world in which the currently non-privileged might come to have a much larger stake at the shape of a certain form of literature. What sort of mindset should an editor (or reader) have when confronted with people who may have different value systems and different ways of expressing themselves. For those who did understand what I said above in Spanish, how would you understand this, written in yet another language?

Rekla sam ti već. Vi što dolazite sa one strane Venecijankog zaliva, koji zovete Jadransko more, teški ste u svakom pogledu. Teško vas je naučiti radosti i ljubavi. Ali, zato i gospodin mora mene nečemu da nauči. Ja nisam do sada imala iskustva s muškarcima. Videla sam dečurliju kako iy čamca mokri u kanal Svetoga Luke, ali to nije to. Moraš i ti meni nešto svoje pokazati. Ali ne sada. Daj mi malo vremena. Žensko vreme ne teče na istu stranu kao muško. I nadam se da je gospodin shvatio da je ovde na nostu bolje proveo vreme no da je lupao glavu nad lošim stihovima koji nisu za pevanje...

Who knows what I said (beside myself and maybe a couple of readers)? After all, I could have quoted from a pornographic novel or that could be a discussion of the week's sporting action, for all many would know. But it (and no, I won't provide a translation or source for this either) perhaps is best that it serves to represent a basic stumbling block. If it is so difficult to understand what is being said when the communication is taking place in an unfamiliar idiom, is it really that much easier when the various participants who supposedly speak the same language have a cultural gap that leads to misunderstandings?

It is only natural for people in general to feel threatened at some time or another by the unfamiliar. Grasping things that lie beyond our ken can be terrifying; is this "good" or "bad?" What if the "good" or "bad" being perceived is something alien to both? How does a writer go about "translating" this into a medium that people of various cultures can grasp to some degree?
That "translation" I think is part of the equation that Bradford dances around a bit but doesn't quite say as directly in this piece as I believe she has in other writings on similar topics. For so long, there has been a sort of cultural imperialism in which the dominant WASP male paradigm shoved aside other points of view (female, non-WASP, those of non-"white" color, LBGT, etc.) off into that "quaint" and sometimes "threatening" category of "Other." Stop and think about this for a bit before reading on: Despite my knowledge (at least on a rudimentary level) of multiple languages, what language is being used to read the majority of this post, regardless of the place of origin for the readers? What do you think might have been the fleeting (or not-so-fleeting) reaction of some who saw that my first paragraph was written in my second language?

How does one overcome these cultural/linguistic barriers (and I believe the two ought to be considered as being closely intertwined, as language use even within a supposedly uniform language can reflect cultural differences)? How should SF editors (and readers) go about correcting perceived injustices? That's the rub, and while Bradford acknowledges this, I am not certain that she couldn't have gone a bit further with her points. If I were offering merely prescriptions, I would suggest that editors (and readers) dare to explore things outside their comfort zones. To be bolder and not to shy away from things that are "different" and potentially "threatening" to their core cultural values. But if we are comprised of these core cultural values, then how do we go about changing undesirable facets without changing ourselves completely? That's the question that many wafflers and pessimists may have in regard to this topic. After all, why would those who have dominated the discourse for so long want to surrender their mantle willingly? "Isn't it good that everyone speaks English? Después de todo, si hablo en español y no me entiendas, sería una cosa buena? No? Then speak English, duh."

That mindset, related to "If only women would write 'relatable' characters with good plotting" or "Why should the people of Earthsea be dark-skinned? What's the big deal about Ged being portrayed as fair-skinned on the TV mini-series?," is a true mountain to overcome, in large part because for those near the summit, it seems like there's little impeding their path through life. Overcoming this is the crucial step, but outside of those in the industry living life for a time outside their cozy boxes, how can people go from viewing others as "different" and possibly "threatening" to viewing "different" as being "something that will educate me more about life's possibilities?"

How would you answer that last question?


Matt Keeley said...

"The future of SF is made up of women and people of color, and people of various cultures and classes, and LGBT folks, and non-Americans and non-Western nationalities (China, India, the Philippines, to name just three)."

What, no room for straight white American or English males? Damn.

But surely such diversity is part of the past of sf too? Samuel Delany comes to mind, of course, but I think sff tends to attract people considered "deviant" or odd.

I suppose one could bring in globalism here too - Rushdie is a fantasist of a sort, for example, but he's the product of several different cultures. Or consider the impact of Japanese pop culture on today's youth... though of course that pop culture is in part based off American pop culture of earlier decades...

But how many Americans sff fans will notice all this non-Western stuff? Americans tend to read very little in translation.

Mathias Johansson said...

"Editors who understand this truth also better understand that broadening one’s perspective, one’s taste and one’s goals to seek out and encourage fiction from these quarters is not to fill out a set of quotas."

I liked this part. Seriously, if one judge everything after it's inherent value, and I am talking about approaching the matter objectively, one ends up with a "good" cross-section of humanity by default.

Take films for example, I have never set out to meet a quota but those I deem the best ranges from brasilian 30s, french 50s-60s, Japan to modern-day america and Terrence Malick. What I am lacking is female directors, no matter the period. This is perhaps partly my own fault (those whose canon influnce me probably have a male-director-perspective) but mostly that women haven't been "allowed" (this is a question of structure, not open opposition) to become directors in high enough a degree to produce the same total amount of films as male directors (as opposed to the relative amount which I have no reason to assume would be different) and therefore produce quality works in a resonable amount.
I would assume the experimental scene have a larger proportion by it's very nature, no matter which medium we're talking about.

Eddie C said...


Bollocks. You have to give me more authors of colour than Delany and Butler, and certainly more queer people, before you can say that "sff tends to attract people considered "deviant" or odd."

The nerd is a species attracted by sff, and they are somewhat odd (I am one myself), but the type of nerd attracted is overwhelmingly white and male. And that has a lot to do with how the genre is presented. I've been reading sff since before I hit puberty, and I don't think I found any realistic, sympathetic gay protagonists until I hit university (being a gay teenager who can't even escape with someone you relate to in david eddings-esque fantasy is a bit sad). And the covers of my Earthsea books had illustrations of a wonderfully pale Ged - it took me 2 or 3 reads (as a 9-12ish year old, in my defence!) to realise LeGuin had written him brown.

This isn't to say that there aren't gay/black/asian/ etc sff fans, because there are. But what does one see at conventions, seriously? Does one instantly assume that, if it sounds Western, the name on the front cover of the latest SFF best-seller is white?

As for what to do about it, I don't know. Privilege is, largely, and invisible and unconscious thing to those who are privileged. Which is why I think making a very loud noise about poor practices is a valid tactic. Radical feminists pissed a lot of people off. So did civil rights acitivist. So do Maori activists down here in NZ. But they all got results (not to a perfect state, by any means, but the problems with those dynamics, at least in the political sphere, appeared on the public radar).

That's half the battle, I guess. Making fans, authors, and (especially) publishers realise that there is a large commercial market out there for sf that questions cultural assumptions, not just technological ones.

Fabio Fernandes said...

"But how many Americans sff fans will notice all this non-Western stuff? Americans tend to read very little in translation."

Matt´s got a point here. That´s why (not the only reason, evidently, but it´s one of them) I started to write in English. Another reason is thatm strangely enough, there seems to be no room in my own country, big as it is, to write good science fiction. Almost all SF that´s being written in Brazil right now follow in the steps of Asimov and Clarke because that´s the diet the writers here have been feeding on for quite some time now.

Things have changed a lot in the last five years. William Gibson´s Sprawl Trilogy has been translated, as well as Snow Crash - but at the same time, we´ve been seeing new editions of Asimov´s, LeGuin´s (ok, she IS good, but they only republish here 2 of her books, The Left Hand and The Dispossessed).

Also like Matt said, pop culture in in part based off American pop culture - but here that is changing fast. There is also Japanese pop to consider now. Lots of uncharted territory here to write great new SF - but so far almost no one seems interested.

So it seems to me that one of the possible ways to bring this globalism closer to home (to all our homes) is for us to have a lingua franca. I´ve made of English my lingua franca, but I think there is quite an interesting future in mixing it up with Portuguese, for example, just the way Larry did above. Just my two centavos (which, by the way, aren´t worth anything here, heh. ;-)

Matt Keeley said...

"Bollocks. You have to give me more authors of colour than Delany and Butler, and certainly more queer people, before you can say that "sff tends to attract people considered "deviant" or odd.""

James Tiptree Jr.? PKD had some issues, though he was a straight white male. Plus all the radical writers like H.G. Wells or Edward Bellamy. There are more ways to be odd than being gay or non-white.

Eddie said...

Matt - true, but Tempest's comment, and then (I think, not to speak for him) Larry's post was about the place, or lack thereof, of women, non-white ethnic groups, non English-speakers and other minorities in mainstream sff. If by "odd" you just mean a bit offbeat, then you're really talking about something that isn't hugeley relevant.

Matt Keeley said...

Fair enough.

I must say, I think this whole post raises all kinds of questions about labeling and race - who, exactly, qualifies as non-white? Or non-Western?

I'd also argue that many of the best "fantastic" fiction in translation isn't going to come from genre-oriented publishers, it's going to come from more "literary" publishers like the NYRB or New Directions.

Re: Women:
I think women have done very well establishing a place for themselves in sff - they may not be the bestsellers, but authors like LeGuin or Kelly Link get wonderful critical reviews, and lots of women write more "mainstream" and commercial-friendly sff (Bujold, Friedman, Cherryh, Hobb, etc.) On the other hand it's interesting how many women writers publish books under pseudonyms or with only their initials. Robin Hobb, C.J. Cherryh, C.S. Friedman - I think sff books by women tend to sell fewer copies, so there's a tendency to disguise and androgenize.

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