In response to some of the discussion in the magazines that want more diversity post and the whole William Sanders thing, author Ashok Banker wrote a post about racism, sexism, and cultural insesnitivity in SF/F. The post makes several good points:
Today’s Science Fiction and Fantasy field, while possibly bearing some strands of DNA from other countries and cultures intermingled in its genetic makeup, is undeniably dominated by American authors, particularly in America.
And a sizable majority of those American SFF authors are white. Virtually all of them are American. And I won’t even venture to guess how many are Christian.
Which itself begs the question: Why is a genre that’s always so proud of its ability to explore worlds unable to integrate the world into its fold? Why is American SFF publishing not representative of American society and culture as a whole? Why is this white enclave dominating the genre and the field?
If anything, the very imbalance in the racial and cultural composition of the field in America itself points to a deep malaise.
The recent attempts by some editors to claim that they’re open to multicultural writing, that they welcome submissions from women writers, that they look forward to international writer submitting work, is itself an admission that these were failings of the field until now.
So is American SFF racist? And sexist, bigotted, culturally insensitive, etc?
Well, I suspect a great number of professionals in the field might be.
There’s also some stuff in the post about how authors of color such as Tobias Buckell and myself “pull punches” and focus only on specific editors and not the community-wide problem. I have a lot to say about that, but I think it’s a separate but related conversation.
Normally I would suggest we all go have a conversation about the race/gender/culture problems over on Ashok’s blog, but he shut down comments (the reason has to do with the stuff we’re not talking about here, which I will illuminate in a related post coming up in a bit). Since we can’t talk about it there, let’s talk about it here. It’s International Blog Against Racism Week, after all!
I’m particularly eager to have a discussion about how certain racist tendencies extend to non-American and non-European authors and the books they try to get published. Justine, Ekaterina and I discussed the sad state of translated books in the US a while ago. I shudder to think how many of those few translated are from non-Western countries. (my guess: not many)
It’s true that American SF is reluctant to embrace the whole world — why? And what can be done to move toward fixing that? Is Ashok correct that segregating international authors into just one issue of a magazine does nothing to help?
7 thoughts on “Two Separate But Related Issues, Two Separate But Related Posts #1”
I’m scratching my head as to how Mr. Banker could accuse you of not speaking up enough about the community-wide problem of racism in SFF. I haven’t been reading your blogs as long as Mr. Banker claims he has, but even so it was YOU who first articulated all the nebulous, half-cooked ideas I had in my head regarding racism in the genre.
Yes, you do name specific people and focus on them. You have to, or how else can you back up claims of racism in the genre? You cannot just say “SFF is racist!!!” and offer no examples to back that up. Furthermore, your focus on specific cases is often topical in nature. E.g., the focus on Sanders and Helix. You blogged about it when the issue was raging all over blogland. Which makes sense. Why wouldn’t you bring up this specific case when it was blowing up such a shit storm? Why would you post a hazy commentary about the general bigotry of SFF during this time and NOT mention Sanders and Helix? Something about the elephant in the living room?
There also seems to be a logical flaw in Mr. Banker’s commentary. He accuses you of “pulling punches”. He also accuses you of being one of those people “focussing their ire, often disproportionately, on individual cases like Sanders of Helix Magazine.” If you’re displaying ‘disproportionate’ anger at NAMED individual cases, how is that ‘pulling your punches’? Isn’t it equally damaging – maybe even MORE damaging – to your career prospects in SFF if you name and shame specific individuals(disproportionately too!) than if you simply make sweeping remarks about the whole genre?
Re: ‘special issues’. I feel ambivalent about putting all the non-white-non-male-non-American-non-Christian-non-whatever writers in one specific issue of a magazine. As Nora (@ #5) pointed out above, it can be useful for bringing more POC (and WOC) writers to light. I recently read an excellent LGBT fantasy anthology, which really opened my eyes to all the great fantasy work being written about and by the LGBT community. But a ‘special edition’? I’ve been ‘special’ all my life and I HATE IT. So in that sense, putting all the ‘nons’ in a ‘special edition’ is just another opportunity for a white person to point and go “Oooh!”. Especially if they LIKED it. For some white people (and POC too), it will be eye-opening. For others, it will be a case of “I never knew all those Blacks/Asians/Arabs could write like that! How interesting! And such exotic stories!”.
There are other problems as well. Do you put all the black authors in one issue? All the Asians (define ‘Asian’, ha!) together? And the Latinos? Or mix them all up? In what proportion? Do we set a quota – x number of black writers, y number of Chinese, z number of Arab – for the sake of ‘diversity’ and ‘desegregation’? Growing up and living in a country (not America) where racial quotas are routinely used to propagate racist agendas with the excuse of promoting ‘racial equality’ and ‘racial unity’, I have BAD feelings about quotas. And what about white writers who write non-white characters (e.g. Ursula K. LeGuin)? Isn’t it also important to highlight the non-whiteness of these characters (written by white writers) to show the white readers that POC characters are NOT just something for POC writers and readers? That we can – and should – ALL attempt to write more than one colour? And what about non-American writers (white or otherwise)? Do we have a non-American-non-white issue? Non-American-but-white issue? An American-non-white issue? Non-American-non-white-but-female issue? Non-American-non-white-female-but-lesbian issue? Is your head starting to ache?
Another thing. Mr. Banker’s statement (as quoted in comments of Part 2 of your posts on this matter): “And I do agree, the problem with racism in American SF is systemic and endemic and finally, the only real way to deal with it might be for PoC to completely boycott the genre publishers and professionals in the USA and form an independent caucus to publish, edit, write and otherwise promote their own work, if only for a transition phase before the country is ready for complete and unconditional integration.” Uhhh…is it just me or is that unbelievably naive? If POC SFF writers were to do as he suggests, we would DEFINITELY end up in a ghetto.
Take, for example, AA romance novels. For those of you not familiar with the romance genre, romance novels featuring African-American (AA) MCs are almost always packaged and sold as a separate line from the mainstream (i.e. white and heterosexual) romance novels. This creates two effects:
1) the AA books get stuffed in one tiny, dark corner of the romance shelf (in the same way other ‘ethnic interest’ books get stuffed in one corner) where non-AA readers rarely venture . This is bad news for sales, because the majority of romance readers are white (in America) and/or may unconsciously ‘deselect’ novels featuring non-white characters (some non-white, non-black readers may do that too).
2) Black writers often end up feeling pressured into writing AA romance. Even a black romance writer who writes white MCs in his/her novel may find the book being marketed as an AA-romance novel. Which then leads to effect #1 above.
These problems would not be solved if POC writers only submit to POC publishers. In fact, the ghettoisation will be worse because the POC publishers will have less clout than the big name, predominantly white publishing houses. So POC writers published by POC houses (or the ‘independent caucus’ Mr. Banker touts) are likely to end up even worse off commercially than POC writers published by the usual houses. Poorer commercial performance means poorer public exposure. It also means fewer POC writers will actually be able to make a living doing this. So the readership for POC writing drops and the number of POC writers drops too. End result? SFF becomes even more racist than it already is.
OK, I think I’ll have to shut up now. Sorry for monopolising your blog space for this long-winded comment, but I had to get it off my chest. Many thanks for the thought-provoking posts and keep blogging.
It’s true that American SF is reluctant to embrace the whole world — why? And what can be done to move toward fixing that? Is Ashok correct that segregating international authors into just one issue of a magazine does nothing to help?
Taking the questions backwards — I’m of two minds about the idea of segregating the internationals. I agree with him that it’s ghettoization, and I can’t see how that’s ever a good thing. However, it also calls attention to the fact that a whole movement/culture/critical mass exists which defies the American-white-male-centric assumptions of all SF readers. This has power. Would there be as many black SF writers these days if not for Sheree Thomas’ DARK MATTER anthologies, which showed that we’ve always been involved in SF, far beyond Octavia and Samuel? I truly don’t know.
Still… I think the evils of ghettoization may outweigh the goods of raising awareness. I can recall asking the question of SFWA awhile back re how they were taking steps to diversify the genre. Among other odd reactions — 24 hours of utter silence, a protest that SFWA wasn’t racist, blah blah blah — several SFWA officers and members proudly pointed out to me that SFWA was doing an anthology to focus on European-made works. I kind of skritched my head at this and felt a vague sense of uneasiness, but couldn’t figure out why at the time. I think Ashok has put the finger on what I was feeling, which was a) a sense that showcasing the Euro works in one book was not so much diversifying as tokenizing, and b) puzzlement as to why in the hell they would focus on European works when they’re not nearly as disproportionately represented as other cultures’ SF. (I was just griping to KT this weekend that I desperately want to read some Chinese SF. According to Vandana Singh, the biggest-selling SF magazine on the planet is China’s SF World. Yet we never see any of it. I mean good grief; this is the year of the Olympics. You would think some US SF mag out there would’ve thought to do some cross-cultural marketing by reaching out to a Chinese partner mag, and maybe doing a translation exchange or a collaboration of some kind. Or you would think we’d be seeing hyped-up “the China issue” of some of the big print mags. It might be their best-selling issue, like “the black issue” of Italian Vogue.)
Backing up to the first question — I agree with Brian; the reason SF is so un-diverse is because the SF creative population is so un-diverse, and those mostly white and male American authors are unsurprisingly inculcated with the same racial and gender and cultural privilege that we tend to see in any predominantly white and male American sample. This privilege tells them that they don’t have to think about anyone but white American men, and so they don’t, unless pushed out of this habit. Moreover, SF has always been the literature of fantasy wish fulfillment (even hard SF), so naturally it brims over with the wishes of white American men — a minority which has set itself up as a global locus of power, and is therefore doomed to eventual overthrow. Of course they write endless futures populated by guys named Bob and Ted; to write anything more realistic would require them to acknowledge that long dark night that’s coming, which is not something most people would be comfortable with.
I disagree that this population is predominantly Christian; like Amy, I think the SF field is dominated by the intelligentsia/technorati, and that tends to be an agnostic or outright Atheist group. (If anything, they are devout techno/science-worshippers.) However they’re still American, and still raised in a Christian-centric country, so even the Atheists have absorbed most of the philosophical baggage of Christianity, and this shows whether they intend it to or not.
What to do about it? I have a few ideas.
-Despite the resistance, I think it’s important to keep pushing the idea of diversity with SFWA. This org is best-positioned to make the case to the entire field that diversity is a desirable and useful thing, and the top-down approach usually works best when you’re trying to implement any kind of systemic change. Unfortunately that usually requires a progressive leadership, and SFWA does not have that. ::sigh:: But I still think it’s worth a try.
-I think we all need to vote with our wallets. There are markets out there which publish fiction which is more representative of the American population — still not wholly representative, but certainly better than what’s seen in the Big Three — and we need to patronize those markets. Have you donated to STRANGE HORIZONS yet? We also need to join the organizations working for change. The Carl Brandon Society isn’t just for writers of color; it’s also for writers of any race/ethnicity who want to see the SF field change. So everyone who shares this goal needs to send $25 that way too.
-Maybe we need an international SFWA. SFWA itself is officially supposed to focus only on the interests of American writers, but the world is a smaller place now, and maybe we need a different kind of org to deal with it. After all — I can’t help but think of this, since I’m about to sign a contract with a British publisher’s American imprint — SFWA can’t help with international contract negotiations and the like, which are an increasing part of the SF industry. So maybe it’s time we tried something different there too.
-At the same time I think some changes will occur naturally. The creative face of SF is darkening a bit; there are more writers of color than ever these days, including writers from other countries. I believe the numbers of WoC will increase exponentially and eventually reach a critical mass that will have enough power to enact real change in the field. And I think this change is inevitable whether we recognize and attempt to direct it or not, because frankly I think the lack of diversity is one of the things that’s held SF back in simple financial terms. I think it’s been regarded as an increasingly niche genre not just because of its subject matter, but because of its focus on a minority population (white males) that is only becoming more minority’d as time passes. The same goes for a number of other genres which have failed to keep up with demographics — spy thrillers, Westerns; I think all of them will suffer as their audience dwindles. We’re already seeing the SF manifestation of this in the short fiction market; the old white-male-centric magazines are slowly failing as their audiences literally die out, and those magazines which have taken proactive steps to reach out to a wider audience are thriving. It’s inescapable that we’ll start to see globalization affect the genre soon. I can’t be the only SF reader hungry for the fiction of other countries. I think the manga/manhwa boom is only the storm surge of a vast sea change; an entire generation of SF readers is maturing who are used to being able to acquire the creative material of other cultures whenever they want, even if it was developed in other languages. They’re used to scanlations and fansubs; they write fanfic about the Monkey King and they sign their emails with lines from the Rubaiyat and they KNOW, having grown up in this Bushian apocalyptic world, how bad things get when we fail to understand other cultures. They know this to the bone, in a way that their parents and even older siblings simply can’t grok. And if we don’t start to provide it to them, they’ll dismiss us as idiots and go fucking get it themselves. They’re already doing it.
So it isn’t so much a matter of us doing anything to cause diversification, as us getting ready for diversification. Or it will bypass us, plain and simple.
So this conversation is likely a really good one to have, but… I’m really not taken with Mr. Banker’s initial commentary. Really not. Gets my back up something awful.
So let me try to talk about why at least semi-coherently.
1) Because he’s framing it as though he’s doing something that other people aren’t, mending a failure in the conversations other PoC are having. Claiming, for example, that you don’t have the balls to do enough, Tempest. But his actual argument is composed of 6 parts nothing-new and half-a-dozen parts vagueness with nothing to back it up. Take for example “I’m asking hard questions”. What are they? This exactly the sort of handwaving that annoys me most, especially when it’s supposedly contrasted with the less ambitious job other people are doing.
And okay, maybe he’s unclear. But HE’S AN AUTHOR.
1b) But, okay. As far as I can tell, the accusation is this: there’s a deep malaise. Which is vague, and may or may not mean “The Establishmet is (almost) all racist.” Well. Assuming that’s what it means. While there’s certainly a lot of implicit privilege in many SFF venues, er, what does he want people to do? Point fingers without data to back ’em up?
More: at the same time, he says comfortably that he doesn’t give a damn about writing for American audiences and, y’know, changing anything. So… whatever he’s saying… is easy enough for him to say.
2) What’s this “severely limited American definition of what’s SFF”? Okay, a *lot* of it is limited, but I do not think it is *definitionally* limited. I mean, do we even *have* a definition of SFF that we all agree on, limited or not? Did I miss the memo?
3) The only real specific idea I’m seeing that isn’t on the blogs he links to is this: there are more PoC in mainstream literature. Well, of *course* there are more PoC in mainstream literature; mainstream fiction seems to have an entire industry of pointing and going oooooh ethnic! It’s not free of exoticization, and it’s not free of pigeonholing. (I’m sick to tears of people assuming that I must of course be interested in Indian books and not books concerning other cultures, for example.) The numbers can tell us something is wrong in SFF, yes. But numbers alone don’t tell us that all is well in mainstream fiction, or that SFF’s bonk on the head needs to come from mainstream trends.
4) I’m not convinced that Mr. Banker is as free from prejudice and narrow vision as he’d like American SFF to be.
Full disclosure: I looked through his first book when it came out, quite excited about a Ramayana retelling. It…was not my style, let us say. Anyway, I looked it up to see if I’d been unkind, and I found the author turning up on amazon.com to urge people to buy only the Indian editions of his books:
“…Also, significantly, [the Indian editions] aren’t packaged as ‘Fantasy’ or ‘SF’ like the firang ones, which is a ridiculously transparent attempt at cashing in on the commercial success of the fantasy genre a la LoTR and Harry Potter. Please, people, my Ramayana series is a retelling of an epic, and that’s exactly what it should be called, ‘Epic’. I’d venture to call it ‘Itihasa’, but even Mythology… But certainly not Fantasy as in one of the ubiquitous Tolkien rip-offs that are churned out in droves by western publishers.”
Fantasy == ubiquitous Tolkien ripoffs? This does not strike me as a broad and encompassing sort of categorization from which to work. It seems, in fact, prejudiced. And. If this is what the gentleman sees as fantasy, then no surprise he sees no cultural diversity in it. Though I suppose it explains the “severely limited American definition” up above.
He also talks about the epic pre-dating “the entire tradition of western literature”, which is, er. Questionable, shall we say? Since the Ramayana is probably more recent than the Iliad? That gets my skepticism up too. It’s… well honestly, it’s the sort of comment I associate with frothing Hindu nationalists, the sort of people who have a vested interest in claiming that Hinduism is Older And Better Than Everything and the historical record be damned.
5) Given the comments on what is and isn’t fantasy, I fear we have an Indian author of Indian mythic fiction saying that the “Fantasy” tag is “totally inappropriate in the context” of a retold Indian myth. While he says that in the cotnext of his own work, the statement is claiming that the sort of thing I do (often, though not always, Indian-mythic-fantasy accessible to non-Indian audiences) doesn’t count. If so, I’ve been sidelined more effectively by Mr. Banker than by the entire field he’s wanting to challenge. Which, aside from annoying me, just seems counterproductive here. I mean, sure, if you exclude everything that isn’t White-Christian from consideration, Fantasy is totally White-Christian. So is everything else.
Okay, I’m out of coherence. It just hurts my teeth.
I was thinking last night (like I have nothing to do – well, I guess it has to happen once or twice a year). I had to read carefully and realized that it was Ashok who was including “Christian” in his dominating group in SF/F. While Christianity is the dominant religion overall in the US – if my daughter’s former school was any guide, there were a great number of parents and their kids who said they “only read The Bible.” So they weren’t reading or writing any type of SF/F books. Maybe they would be buying that prayer for money book on a wild and crazy day.
SF/F of the past was, I think, white male agnostic or atheist-dominated. As I’ve already heard from some friends, when I point up that they love to hate on Christians and are very focused on them (what about other faiths? Well – that would require some learning about and exposure to, which might make their heads explode with the thought that – spirituality is a component of life for the majority of people and not all believe in Jesus Christ – and golly gee I can handle that, so why can’t they?).
I had absolutely no idea of any of this when I started writing. It never crossed my mind. Of course as I became older and read more, I realized the various issues or problems in the genre, but I really didn’t know how far “off” my perspective was from the genre, and what a struggle it would be to try to write what I had to say.
For me, the two battles were 1) dealing with the fact that in-genre doesn’t respond to language at all – it responds to ideas or stereotypical meme tales, and sometimes the more crudely expressed the better; and 2) dealing with the fact that in-genre was so . . .
Sick. Not me. Crazy. Like the Mob Wars guy who thinks a great name for the game would be “Rap1st.”
What I want to say is, if there’s anything I can do, last night I was thinking, that in maybe 2002 or so, I spent about 6 months researching a book that I didn’t write. It did become the book that I’m finishing right now, but what I have now is very different from the original research I was doing. I was researching “the heroine’s tales” in as many cultures and languages and information I could find. How were they told, what was a heroine? I filled up a big 3 ring binder. At the time, anybody who was in my life who was of the traditional persuasion was telling me loudly and actively that I was “wasting my time.” “Just write!”
I think those old comments about “You need to write a million words before you write anything good” mean something VERY different for diverse writers. I had to purge myself of an awful lot of stuff that wasn’t “me.” I would think that even the greater body of more talented writers than me would have to do some work along those lines too. We are so steeped in the traditional tales and voices that it’s not easy.
I think it’s just that SFF is not nearly as all inclusive as us (well-meaning as some are) white folk would imagine. Sad truth. Much like so many liberals who do work on the behalf of minorities but can count their black friends on one or two fingers (guilty as charged).
“If anything, the very imbalance in the racial and cultural composition of the field in America itself points to a deep malaise.”
Does it? Or does it simply point to the fact that America still IS very much a white-dominated, Christian-dominated (and indeed male-dominated) society? Why would we expect SF to magically be any more inclusive simply because it is supposed to be “forward-looking” (which in itself is a questionable assertion – a lot of SF is forward-looking in terms of the hard sciences but not the soft ones, though obviously since the sixties there have been authors making serious explorations of the social future as well as the scientific one)? I’m all in favour of seeing different cultures explored in SFF, and I’ve critiqued many a story where colonists on a new planet are all mysteriously called Frank and Ted and John and sure, it grates like all hell. But I’m really not convinced that you can expect the American-centred genre to be any more reflective of global culture than you would expect, say, Hollywood to. Seeing how America shows itself to the world – it shows itself as overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly male. SFF is but one tiny facet of that.
(For contextual purposes: I speak as a white male non-American who writes predominantly female MCs, frequently of a different ethnic background to my own (though I also mostly write second-world fantasy, which rather mitigates any social impact my writing may or may not have)).
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