SFF in Conversation is a new monthly feature on The Book Smugglers in which we invite guests to talk about a variety of topics important to speculative fiction fans, authors, and readers. Our vision is to create a safe (moderated) space for thoughtful conversation about the genre, with a special focus on inclusivity and diversity in SFF. Anyone can participate and we are welcoming emailed topic submissions from authors, bloggers, readers, and fans of all categories, age ranges, and subgenres beneath the speculative fiction umbrella.
Today, we are proud to be hosting a round table with a great group of authors discussing the concept of “diversity”: the meaning of the word in the context of publishing as well as at a personal level, privileged narratives, intersectionality, and more. Moderated by Charles Tan, the round table is composed by M Sereno, Aliette de Bodard, Zen Cho, Bogi Takács and JY Yang.
Charles: Hi! Maybe we can start this panel by introducing ourselves and what our backgrounds are.
M Sereno: I’m a queer Filipina artist; I’ve lived in the Philippines most of my life, but in the past two years I migrated to Australia and am still grappling with the consequences of immigration and being apart from my motherland. I work full-time creating art and writing to explore reclamation of erased histories and post-colonial queer identity.
Aliette de Bodard: I’m a Franco-Vietnamese living in France. I’m a computer engineer and a writer, and I tackle a lot of themes of colonialism, diaspora and war in my work, as well as grappling with these in real life!
Zen Cho: I’m a Chinese Malaysian lawyer and writer living in the UK. My writing is very much influenced by the stories of my childhood, which included both the stories of my family my mother told us on long trips up north when we balik kampung (“went back to the village”, i.e. my parents’ hometowns), and the books, by British writers mostly, that I got out of the library and hunted down in bookstores.
Bogi Takács: I’m a neutrally gendered Hungarian Jewish person who’s recently moved to the US. My writing has been strongly influenced by Eastern European history even when it isn’t quite obvious, and by the work of other authors in the region. As a migrant and a multiethnic person, I also write about my migration experiences (I’ve lived in Austria and Norway too, previously) and issues of belonging.
JY Yang: I’m a queer non-religious Singaporean Chinese woman who’s never lived anywhere else. I’ve worked as an in-house writer for local animation, comic and games studios, as well as a digital media journalist for a major newspaper here. My writing deals often with themes of identity, power structures, and how they shape narrative.
Charles: To start things out, what do you think of the term “diversity” when it’s used in publishing? What does the word mean for you?
Bogi: I feel that the experiences of minority people and/or people outside the Western literary canon, all over the world, are more interesting and personally relevant to me than the experiences of majority people and/or people of the canon. Promoting diversity in publishing means I’ll have more access to those stories, and also other people will have more access to them too. I freely admit that there is an aspect of self-interest to this, I just want to read the stuff I enjoy or find emotionally resonant, and promote it so that other people can experience it. (“Enjoy” is not always the right word with darker stories!) When I started reviewing in English, at first I didn’t have a focus beside “short stories and poems”, then I switched to “diverse content”, and then to “diverse authors writing whatever they want”. I’m quite pleased with my reading experience now, so I’ll probably stick with this for the foreseeable future.
Aliette: Ow that’s a loaded question. My meaning of diversity is “involving marginalised people”: it can mean having marginalised people as characters or as writers. I personally prefer diversity that involves writers, but I agree we also need to have diverse characters in stories from non-diverse people, so long as such stories are not an accumulation of exotified clichés! (and I’m only half-joking about that last: this is something we need to talk about, as clichés, I find, pop up far too often in outsider depictions of a culture…).
As far I’m concerned, “diversity” immediately raises the question of what we mean by “marginalised”–who is outside the mainstream, and more importantly, what the mainstream is. In today’s publishing world, it tends to be about people who are not on the axis of privilege in Western Anglophone countries (POCs, women, LGBTQ…); but this in turn raises the question of why the Western Anglophone countries are the central experience for publishing, and associated questions about how to promote diversity: whether to break into the hegemony and change it from within (more visibility, but also reinforcing the hegemony’s tendency to see itself as the to-be-all experience), or to promote local talent and local presses.
My personal choice is to publish in English and in the Western Anglophone world; and I know it’s not the one everyone would make.
Zen: I think it’s just a bit of a shorthand — I find it quite weird to be described as a “diverse” author since the word surely refers to a range of backgrounds, perspectives, etc. So it’s about publishing as a whole — bringing a broader range of voices, experiences, points of view into the centre, focusing on them and equalising the position. I think Aliette makes a good point about “Western” or “international” Anglophone publishing vs. publishing that originates outside the US/UK. Something like We Need Diverse Books is clearly focused on injecting diversity into US publishing, but another way of doing it would be to have the works of publishers outside the US be easily available and promoted to readers in Western Anglophone countries.
M: I confess I’m not very comfortable with the word “diversity”, because whenever it comes up I hear myself asking: “diverse to whom?” I mean, “diverse” is often used as shorthand for “different from the mainstream”, or “something one doesn’t see every day”, yet that usage as I often see it in conversations on Anglophone SFF has its problems — what is the mainstream? Who is this person for whom these things are diverse? Using the majority white western experience as a referent renders invisible the daily lives and experiences of people outside this frame. I would say it is a term that makes sense to outsiders of “diverse” cultures, but is often really odd for insiders. Or, another way of putting it: “diverse” applies to things outside your view of nearness. For instance, I know many people who use this word would apply it to local SFF fiction in the Philippines; I’ve seen that happen often enough, certainly. But Philippine SFF was never “diverse” to me. How could it be outside nearness, when it featured places I grew up in, the air I breathed, the lives my peers and friends and relatives lived? It didn’t, doesn’t, feel different from the mainstream, because the Philippines is my mainstream and the basis of my norms. The Philippines is my center; it has never been my margin. And yet I know that if I were to say this within the context of the majority white west, it would probably sound somewhat strange. Because what to me is my center is to the dominant powers of the world something so far from central it’s almost out of view. So there’s that dissonance there, too.
What this word means for me is lingo specific to Anglophone SFF, for “outside the majority” or “from the margins” in relation to the white, cis, straight, male, Anglophone, western experience — as Aliette said, outside these axes of privilege. I use it the way I use terms like “third world” or “global South”; they are imperfect and lose a lot of nuance, they’re based on a certain frame of reference outside of which they don’t mean much. They flatten us. All that being said it stands for something that I want very much to happen, so I’ve learned to use it just as I’ve learned to use “third world” or “developing country” without biting my tongue. It’s something that can speak to power — in a way, I hope, that will open the minds of people for whom the white western majority experience is mainstream. There is so, so much out there, such a huge multiplicity of perspectives. Maybe one day there will be no need for this word anymore and my experience as a queer Filipina will be just as valid and meaningful as that of a white Anglophone westerner, and we can just be humans — tao, the people — together.
J: Hmm. Diversity. In terms of (Western Anglophone) SFF publishing, I agree with the definition that it’s “stuff that doesn’t centre straight white cis men”, whether by protagonist or by author. To be honest, I’m also wary of the push for diversity, for similar reasons that were already mentioned by others (how to define ‘diversity’, still centres Western Anglophone experience). One thing I’ve noticed from this trend is an increasing number of people from non-marginalised identities writing stories about marginalised identities, and I’ve seen it go wrong. So, while I am generally all for pushing for greater diversity in voices and stories, I also acknowledge that it can be problematic. I don’t believe that bad representation is honestly better than no representation at all. The editorial process needs to be doubly thoughtful on which kind of narratives are getting published.
Conversely, having been identified as part of the wave of “diversity” that’s currently sweeping SFF, I also feel a certain amount of pressure to make sure the stories I write represent “diversity” in a certain way. I know a lot of this tension stems from cultural imperialism– I was raised facing West, speaking and reading words in the language of the colonisers. Western Anglo-centricness is part of my identity, it’s an integral part of my personhood. While in my mind I know this is something I need to fight against, striving to write all “diverse” stories all the time also feels forced. What do I do with the fact that I’m more comfortable writing about Western fairy tales than Chinese ones, because those were the ones I was raised with? This is an ongoing struggle for me. I like Bogi’s metric of diversity being “diverse authors writing whatever they want”, because then it doesn’t force people into “acceptable” narratives either.
Bogi: I think my experience has been somewhere in between M’s and J’s… In Hungary, there is a large amount of not only local but to a degree also self-centered literature. (That’s not necessarily a plus, and all the nationalism this implies is very much included.) I think this self-centeredness in part stems from Hungarian as a language not being mutually intelligible with any other language, and also with Hungarian culture both influenced by the Anglo-American and the Russian cultural spheres. At the same time, there is also an awareness of “being on the periphery”, both in non-genre and genre fiction, and thus needing to perform up to some kind of externally imposed cultural standard. As I mentioned in my essay on Locus Online a few years ago, I learned the word “periphery” from a Hungarian children’s SF novel!
So there is a tension between self-centering, very explicitly not giving in to the oppressor and the cultural imperialist, while at the same time there is also the permanent feeling of being on the periphery of an empire and having second-class status. Hungary has been on the periphery of many empires, from the Ottomans to the Soviets, and right now it’s on the periphery of the European Union. (And let’s not forget that Hungarians have also invaded and oppressed other peoples.) Because of these contradictory tensions, what I see is that Hungarians often use the rhetoric of anti-colonialism, but do not really seek ties with other marginalized peoples even when very clear parallels present themselves. As an ethnic and gender minority person, I very much counted as diverse in Hungary itself, so that was a position doubly removed from the Western mainstream norm. It was a very lonely and scary experience and it made me seek out people in similar marginalized positions the world over.
Charles: What do you think is the difference between Western Anglophone “diversity” vs. that of non-Anglophone countries? At this point in time, where do you choose to focus your energies on (or both?) and why?
Zen: I guess to the extent that I focus on diversity at all I’m currently investing a bit more of my time in the Western Anglophone publishing sphere, in the sense that I’m working on novels for US/UK publishers. I have got a foot in the Malaysian publishing industry/writing community as well, though. But — and I suspect I won’t be the only one saying this — I wouldn’t say that I’m focused on diversity really, so much as I am just plugging away telling the sort of stories I find interesting and that I’d like to hear. You tell the stories that feel important to you and hope that there’s some sort of niche out there for them to slot into. “Diversity” as it’s used in Western Anglophone publishing is that niche, and it is important because it’s helpful in getting your work out there and connecting to other people who feel hungry for the kinds of stories that aren’t as easily available and visible as those that are privileged by dominant culture. But as Mia points out, it’s a flattening term and I feel it doesn’t have a huge amount to do with my work, internally.
And yet having a more diverse publishing landscape does open up space for that sort of work to develop. You might not know what sort of stories you want to tell until you see them. So maybe I’m downplaying “diversity” as a “trend” unfairly! I do feel it’s a limited conversation, though — not the most interesting conversation we could be having.
Aliette: As I said–I’m focusing a lot on the Western Anglophone publishing sphere (like Zen, I’ve got a novel for US/UK publishers), because I can’t actually keep all the balls up in the air, and having a career, a writerly career and an infant son is a lot on my plate!
In this context, I’m keeping an eye out for people who are from non-dominant cultures, because I remember when I started out as a total newbie from France, and that it wasn’t always easy to find your place in US/UK SFF–because you have different concerns, different voices, and because not living in the US or UK can be a real barrier to networking (when I started out, online activity was just gearing up. Twitter is a relatively new thing. Lol I’m ancient already!).
At the same time, I’m torn? I guess I want people to be aware of how difficult it can be to publish in Western Anglophone genre if you’re not from the dominant culture; but I also think it can be reductive very fast–you get labelled as a “diverse” writer, and then that’s all you’re allowed to talk about, if that makes sense? I long for the day where we’ll be able to have different conversations; but I suspect the playing field would need to be level for that… (and it’s patently not). I think we need those conversations now, because we need to open up the way; and I’m hoping books like Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings (and Zen’s forthcoming Sorcerer to the Crown!) are a smashing hit for those reasons–to prove that the market is hungry for stuff that’s a bit different (or a lot different!).
With the caveat that I’m not very plugged into the French scene and I could be very wrong about this, I think France has different aspects of diversity: very often, “diversity” in the US/UK tends to be reduced to POCs from the US/UK, erasing the POCs from outside those venues–in France, we have a larger diversity of origin for books. We translate a lot of books, though I wish there were more from the Third World; but there’s not much discourse about being POC here; and when there is, it tends to be focused on ethnic origin rather than lumping everyone in the same basket? (I think part of it is France’s assimilationist immigration policy, which tends to want to erase everyone’s origin aka “we’re all French now!”, although this, too, is changing. Again, my perception and my personal experience–imagine it can be very different for other French POCs).
M: My meanings of diversity shift depending on who I’m talking to, where I am, and I’m not used to thinking about it within the Philippine sphere. Let’s use the definition “outside the mainstream” for this part. When I was in the Philippines I remember wanting a lot of positive queer representation, a lot of gender representation that went beyond essentialism and ciscentrism, portrayals of indigenous peoples that centered them rather than the denizens of Imperial Manila; more disabled people living their lives and being badass and thriving in full flesh; people from the working class, people in poverty, being defined by their humanity and individuality, just like everyone else — oh, so many things! I would call that a need for diversity too. But there wasn’t a lot of dialogue about it in the local scene, at least not that I remember or was privy to, and definitely not the way we have all these We Need Diverse Books and diverse reading lists and diverse recommendations series (Bogi does a fantastic one by the way, totally go follow em on Twitter for it) for the western Anglophone “international” scene.
Despite that, I know there’s been change — I read a children’s book (Ang Bonggang Bonggang Batang Beki) where the protagonist was this young bakla, and rather than being about the tragic queer kid it was about this absolutely fabulous kid using fabulousness to triumph! That was great. The move towards diversity in the Philippines is happening, but I find that there’s less discussion about it than I would like, and people are really hesitant to call out homophobia, for instance, much less transphobia or ableism or classism. The surrounding culture shapes the discourse, of course, and for all that social media has given people a lot of interesting new platforms and venues for discussion, we’re still in the process of shaking off attitudes internalized from colonial eras as well as — for many people — reconciling reason with faith.
So I think– the difference between western Anglophone diversity and local Philippine diversity? They’re born in different contexts and have different barriers to overcome. One, for instance, has to deal with the consequences of being colonized for centuries, having its growth massively slowed after a long period of dictatorship, and ongoing imperialism both cultural and economic. The other… has to deal with the aftermath of being a colonizer? Heh. Sorry, I couldn’t resist, but really there’s a lot that goes with that — so much structural injustice that needs to be demolished and taken apart; I believe empire inflicts its own ruin upon itself — it’s an apples vs oranges comparison.
I’ve been focusing my energies on the western Anglophone scene — it is kind of “two birds, one stone” for me, because I know a lot of Filipinos (caveat, privileged Filipinos — I want that to change, too, which is a discussion in itself) also read the publications I submit to, and it’s good for me to reach out to people all over the world. Another thing, perhaps mercenary to mention, is that by being published “abroad” one finds a certain voice that’s privileged due to lingering colonial attitudes — and if I can use that to reach out more and say, hey, we are actually really cool, kabayan, we don’t have to keep conforming to colonialist ideals any longer; damn the nay-sayers around us and in our heads, let us blaze bright — why, all well and good! I think we try to expand the tools we have to get our stories across; I don’t see that as a bad thing. Also there’s this burning rage in me whenever I see someone stereotype Filipinos in the “global context” — there are so many many horrible stereotypes of us! — and that rage needs to be fed every so often. Take that, we are actually badass and we’re going to eat your face! Haha! But that is personal desire.
I don’t like the way “message fiction” is used as a pejorative and how people like me can be reduced to the label “diverse writer”. (Aliette already said it much better than I did!) I don’t write thinking “this must be diverse”. I write thinking “this is really cool and I want to share it with other people” or “this is a story I want to tell, this is a voice I want to sing in”. I want to tell good stories — in poetry, in prose — without wondering whether they’re “too ethnic” or if I need to tone my language down. It’s wonderful that I can actually submit to places these days, because I don’t think I could have without other people going ahead of me and, like Aliette said, opening up the way. People who have written about their own inangbayan and their own tongue’s stories (when I first read Zen’s “The House of Aunts”, oh wow, it was a revelation) — and their own science fiction (J’s “Patterns of a Murmuration”, omg!) — and spanning stars in a way (Aliette’s magnificent Xuya universe) that let me see, whoa, this is a thing that can be done — unapologetically, joyously, and damn well.
J: Diversity in publishing, in Singapore, is very much different from SFF in general. In terms of the English lit scene, it’s overwhelmingly upper/middle class, English-speaking Chinese folk that get published. A lot of it is poetry, and fiction tends to be non-genre, although genre fiction is getting a bit of interest recently. The main concerns here fall along the lines of are people reading Singapore literature? Are people actually reading at all, period? The literary scene here is very small, and quite niche. We don’t talk about a diversity of voices much at all. And while it might be radical for me, a queer Chinese woman, to be published in the Western SFF world, it’s not at all groundbreaking for me, a English-speaking, college-educated Chinese person, to be published and to find success in the Singapore literary scene. So it’s definitely different. I have race & class privilege here, and stories like mine are the ones which are most often told.
I think mainly for those two reasons — small market size, and I’ve more or less “broken” into the Singapore writing scene — I focus my energies on the Western Anglophone publishing scene. I think part of it is also because it’s far more challenging for me to get published there, and I enjoy challenges 😛 I do know that the stories I write for local markets and Western ones are different– the former tend to be almost entirely political, and critical of aspects of Singapore society. With the latter, they tend to be less polemic, and more interrogative of genre and storytelling as a whole. If that makes sense. Part of the reason, I think, is because while the Western genre scene is long in the tooth, short-form genre is still fairly new to Singapore. So I focus on telling straightforward, point A-to-point B stories. Dealing with cyborgs and apocalypses is novel enough for the Singaporean market without me playing around with narrative voices and chopped-up timelines on top of that. I always feel like it would be asking too much. Whereas with stories bound for Western SFF markets I know I can fuck with storytelling conventions and still get away with it. (In fact it might even make an otherwise mundane story exciting!)
Bogi: This is a very emotional question for me. As a teenager I used to be very active on the Hungarian SF scene, and when I started to write, I ended up experiencing a great deal of hostility, even before online harassment was such a major and frequently discussed topic. I eventually left the scene altogether, and my involvement with it now consists of the occasional small comment in one or two reasonably friendly blogs. As far as I could tell, this was primarily about my ethnicity and gender (even before having come out as trans) and not as much about my person – random strangers went out of their way to tell me how horrible I was and how awful my work was, with even some major Hungarian SF writers joining the chorus. The very few people who stood by me also ended up leaving the scene for the most part, so there was nothing motivating me to stay. I think this is the first time I’m speaking in public about it, and most of these events took place over a decade ago. I was really hurt.
I felt I really didn’t want to write fiction for such a hostile audience. Later I found out that it was a lot easier to write nonfiction in Hungarian – I used to write popular-science articles for magazines – as most of the hate mail was received by the magazine, not me in person. The editors only shared a few handpicked ones with me!
So I don’t know… I could conceivably write for Hungarian Jews in particular, but besides the fact that that’s not a very huge audience, I had bad experiences as a gender nonconforming person in Hungarian Judaism. (If you need a safe and reasonably traditional community, ask me! I did find one.) Intersectionality can be really difficult.
That left me with writing in English, even when I was very insecure about my English. If my German was better, I’d certainly have considered writing in German too, there is a considerable enthusiasm for Eastern European authors in German-speaking countries right now. Alas, I can get by in German, but I’m nowhere near able to produce satisfying prose or poetry.
Charles: Zen did touch an important point that there are other interesting conversations we could be having. For you, what are these conversations that either we’re not addressing yet?
Bogi: Just a handful of bullet points, because I could be going on all day…
Respectability politics and how people want to see e.g., QUILTBAG stories where the QUILTBAG people are exactly the same as straight people, whereas stories actually engaging with QUILTBAG cultures often get the short shrift. I very much had this experience with my story This Shall Serve As a Demarcation.
Translations, especially from Russian and other Eastern European languages. (In Hungary there is so much more fiction translated from the Russian. It is a very striking difference in comparison to American genre and non-genre literatures.) I know that some people have struggled to place Russian translations in English-language markets recently. I also see very few Spanish translations that are not Borges or Cortázar, and translations from… practically any other language.
The nondiversity of longer-form editors and agents in the US directly affecting the dearth of novel-length diverse fiction. (I did write about this a bit in my Diverse Editors essay.)
Rose Lemberg just discovered the other day on Twitter that there were surprisingly few SF stories focusing on reproductive rights, even though this is a major political topic in the US. I find that very odd! There are also few stories about older people, especially older marginalized people, that center them and their experience. There is a list of older women in SFF that I’m aware of, assembled by Catherine Lundoff, but I haven’t seen a list of, e.g., older trans people. Rose has an upcoming novelette where the topic is discussed, Grandmother-nai-Leilit’s Cloth of Winds coming in BCS Summer 2015, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing it published.
Zen: On reproductive rights, Bogi, just this morning I was reading a post by Sumana Harihareswara on her Randomized Dystopia, where she draws on the UNDHR, CRC and CEDAW for rights that aren’t as frequently denied in US YA dystopian fiction! Reproductive rights could definitely use more attention, but as she points out, the freedom to form self-help groups gets even less coverage in current SFF. (Though I feel like that particular right is one of deep interest to early feminists like Roquia Sakhawat Hussain and Charlotte Perkins Gilman.)
The other conversations: I guess the question for me is who are the “we” that is having the conversation. Is it the field as a whole, which means that white middle-class American voices and concerns are likely to predominate? Is it people who aren’t part of the dominant groups that are traditionally most represented in US/UK SFF, who for their own reasons (some of them discussed above) are working within US/UK SFF? Is it people who are working in communities and markets outside the US/UK? J makes a good point that she isn’t marginalised in the Singaporean publishing scene; I would say I’m in a similar position to her in the Malaysian scene, though the axes of power and privilege are different in Malaysia. At the same time, on a global level, the Malaysian publishing scene as a whole is hardly privileged, and we are just beginning to work out our own thoughts and feelings about our place in the world.
At the moment one of the conversations I’m most interested in, even as I’m trying to carve out a career in Western publishing, is how we can make art and stories and maybe even money without depending on the West as a source of recognition, validation, distribution and resource. It frustrates me when people treat US/UK publishing as the be-all and end-all, even as I participate in that by publishing in the West.
M: Yes, respectability politics is a really tangled thing and something I’d like to see addressed more. Like how if you’re an immigrant, you’re meant to write immigrant stories; if you’re a person of color, you write about racism– And, well, obviously these stories need to be told! But there is so much more to us than our marginalized identities and sometimes I think that gets overlooked. Zen talks about postcolonial fluff in one of her interviews and I think she makes such an important point, that we need to have room for stories where we have fun and go on adventures and do amazing things, and not just… suffer, I suppose. Because this is a lens that the privileged see the disprivileged through, and it diminishes the wonderful breadth and depth, the sheer multitudes of our stories.
There is, too, that thing about “not being [X]” enough, that horrible word: “authenticity”, and sometimes I feel that we as marginalized writers face a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. Of course there’s nothing to be done but to keep on writing — but it would be useful, I think, to be more aware of these harmful standards by which we judge ourselves, these lenses that the privileged would impose on our marginalizations, and in discussing these things, push back against them.
I also want to really wade deep into discussions about translation and multilingual fiction. I want to read more translated stories! And I want to read stories that sing with many tongues, even though I may be getting only an incomplete picture of the whole; I want to talk about what it takes for readers to be open to such stories, I want to see conversations about how to make that happen more. About making room, in English-language venues, for the many many Englishes that people have. Because it’s not just the countries of the anglophone West that have English, and it’s wearying to have to fight to say that yes, my English is not wrong.
I agree with Zen about finding a way to not depend on the West — this is a hugely important conversation, and I think it would benefit the community a lot if we had it! It isn’t so much “smash the current system” as it is to build more systems, ones that are our own, so that in doing so there isn’t just “the” publishing scene but a ton of different publishing scenes — how I would love it if Manila became a widely-recognized hub of SFF! I think right now there’s so much more opportunity to find ways to get one’s work out there and it’s actually possible for someone to say, “right, I want to do an anthology featuring marginalized voices, let’s do it,” or “here is this cool project, let’s make it happen” without autofailing just because they don’t have the support of the major US/UK publishing houses. And I think talking about how we sustain that, and how we continue to support marginalized creators and encourage our growth and development, is a really necessary conversation.
Regarding that last point, I want to have conversations about community — about how to build community, how to have these means of support for marginalized creators, so that even in an oft-hostile environment you know someone has your back. I’ve been lucky: I’ve met people in the field who are incredibly talented and generous with their time, knowledge, and support, and their encouragement has made all the difference to me. Without them, I think I would have stopped writing months ago! How do we make support available to marginalized voices? How do we reach out? How do we help marginalized people create places of belonging within SFF? Nalo Hopkinson tweeted about a lot of possible ways: funding for new editors doing diversity work to be mentored by established editors, community workshops, discussion spaces for marginalized creators — is that something we can do? How do we give concrete boosts to marginalized creators in terms of visibility and opportunities? Discussing how to give support and build a community where marginalized creators can not just exist, but flourish — and this isn’t a one-time thing, it’s an ongoing effort — would be good; certainly it would help more voices speak and be heard.
Aliette: agree with Bogi on translations–from non-English languages into other non-English languages (because non-English markets tend to be flooded with translations from English), and also from non-English languages to English, where there is a paucity and a lack of infrastructure to pay translators–a vicious circle aka “we can’t translate this because a translator would be too expensive! Translators are too expensive because we hardly do any translations!”
The different kinds of Englishes–there’s a tendency to assume that native speakers of English can only be from the Western Anglophone countries (US/UK, and by extension Canada, Australia, New Zealand etc.). I’m shocked at how many people do not realise that English is an official (whether native, vehicular or simply widely used) language in many other countries: you’d think that they’d realise former countries of the UK colonial empire would keep English as their (not always happy) legacy. But I routinely see people correcting Singaporeans, Nigerians, etc. on their usages and accents, as if the only acceptable way of speaking English were the US/UK version.
And totally agree with Zen on who is “we” having the conversation.
J: I don’t have very much to add: I agree with Zen and M about needing to discuss how we can decenter the West when it comes to publishing, and with Aliette on the different Englishes.
There’s also been a conversation I’ve had a few times recently, about the pressure of being seen as a “marginalised writer” and how that raises a lot of questions of “authenticity” (who defines what is authentic? You surely? And yet…)
Charles: You all raise good points, and I think these views stem from the fact that we were not raised in the US/UK where a lot of the distribution of wealth and benefits is distributed. Do you think we will be able to solve the problems you mentioned? How important is intersectionality in our pursuits?
Aliette: I certainly hope so! I think it won’t happen on its own, which is why I think it’s important to do the work–to support writers from outside the hegemony, whichever way they want to go. It’s slow, and there’s days when you feel everything is sliding backwards; but it’s only in small steps that we’ll go forward, I think?
(and intersectionality is key! We can’t hope to solve any of this if we don’t take into account multiple axes of disenfranchising)
J: I like Aliette’s optimism! I do agree it will be a difficult path– we’re dealing with the effects of hundreds of years of colonialism and cultural supremacy, so there’s a lot of resources sunk into the existing infrastructure; to build up something out of it is going to take time and hella determination.
M: I want to say yes! Hah. Awesome writers like my co-panelists inspire and encourage me. Of course moving forward will be painful and difficult, and there will be times where it will seem like things are getting worse rather than better. But I hold a lot of belief in the possibility of positive change, for all that it will take a long time.
Intersectionality is absolutely necessary! If we move without holding that foremost in our minds, we’re just changing the shape of oppressive power structures rather than dismantling them.
B: Even in the short while I’ve been around, I’ve seen positive change, so I am certainly hopeful. In my series of recommendations, I try to have one new writer I haven’t recommended before for every week, and I don’t seem to be running out of people! There is also an increasing amount of discussion about the topics we’ve touched upon, and I feel like I’m constantly learning new things. Intersectionality is very important for me, both as a person with multiple marginalizations and as someone who is also privileged in many ways. As the latter, I want to make sure I do not always center myself – I want to use my resources to promote other people to the best of my ability, because there is so much great writing out there.
Z: I think we can absolutely get to a more equal place. Even in the five years since I started writing and publishing original fiction, I’ve seen so much change in “the field” — quotes because it’s obviously not just one field, but a number of overlapping fields. The two I’m most familiar with are US/UK-dominated SFF and Malaysian English-language writing. In the US/UK SFF space there are all these exciting new writers — including people on this panel! There have always been non-white and non-Western writers in the field, of course, but I think what feels a bit different is how connected people are and the fact that we can hopefully use that to build community and support each other in concrete ways, so we don’t end up in the position where there’s just One Exceptional Person from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds.
When it comes to Malaysian writers, again, I’m seeing both community-building and commercial success on a scale I hadn’t seen before. New publishers are putting out SFF and horror and comics by local writers all the time. So that’s encouraging. I don’t know where we’re going, but I do think we’re going somewhere new. I’m optimistic!
M Sereno is a queer Filipina artist who lives with her partner and two ridiculous pomeranians in regional Australia. Her work finds her up to her eyebrows in ink and paint; she specializes in creating highly detailed worlds within worlds, and is working on a series of art and written work that builds on queering Filipino mythology and its monsters. Find her art at http://likhain.net, her writing at http://awitin.likhain.net, and her Twitter at @likhain.
Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris, where she has a day job as a System Engineer. In her spare time, she writes speculative fiction: her short fiction has garnered her two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award and a British Science Fiction Association Award. Her novel The House of Shattered Wings, set in a devastated Paris where pseudo-feudal Houses fight each other for dominance of the city (with fallen angels, addictive magic, dragons, and entirely too many dead bodies!) will be out August 20th from Gollancz in the UK and Commonwealth, andAugust 18th from Roc in the US. Visit her website http://www.aliettedebodard.com for fiction and Franco-Vietnamese recipes, and her twitter @aliettedb for daily life, capsule book reviews and more.
Zen Cho is a Malaysian writer living in London. She is the author of Crawford Award-winning short story collection Spirits Abroad, and editor of anthology Cyberpunk: Malaysia, both published by Buku Fixi. Her debut novel is Sorcerer to the Crown, the first of a historical fantasy trilogy published by Ace/Roc Books (US) and Pan Macmillan (UK). Find out more about her work at her website.
Bogi Takács is a neutrally gendered Hungarian Jewish person who’s recently moved to the US. Eir speculative fiction and poetry has been published in venues like Strange Horizons, Apex, Scigentasy and GigaNotoSaurus, among others. You can visit eir website or find em on Twitter, where e also posts diverse story and poem recommendations five times a week.
JY Yang is a lapsed scientist, recovering journalist and short story writer who lives in Singapore with an indeterminate number of succulent plants named Lars. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Apex and Lightspeed. Queer, Chinese, can be found on Twitter at @halleluyang grumbling about Scandinavian languages and sometimes at misshallelujah.net talking about short SFF fiction. When she grows up she wants to be a dragon.
Charles Tan is the editor of Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology, and the co-editor of Philippine Speculative Fiction Volume 9. His fiction has appeared in publications such as The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories, Philippine Speculative Fiction and the anthology The Dragon and the Stars (ed. by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi). He has contributed nonfiction to websites such as The Shirley Jackson Awards, Fantasy Magazine, The World SF Blog, and SF Signal. In 2009, he won the Last Drink Bird Head Award for International Activism. He is also a 2011, 2012, and 2013 World Fantasy nominee for the Special Award, Non-Professional category. You can visit his blog, Bibliophile Stalker (http://charles-tan.blogspot.com/).