Sofia Samatar recently suggested [*] that SF genre writers and readers have "a tendency to focus on content rather than form", even or especially when engaging with marginalised perspectives. Does our genre inevitably tend towards the form and structure of western, English-language stories, regardless of what cultural tradition(s) are reflected in the content? How can a non-western or non-Anglophone writer engage with science fiction and fantasy while also operating outside of the conventions of western-style storytelling? Is it possible for western writers to engage with non-western traditions in an authentic way and produce a story that a wider audience will recognize as science fiction or fantasy? What are some of the different forms offered by non-western cultures that need to be told?
Amal El-Mohtar, Aliette de Bodard, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, JY Yang, Nick Wood
The panel started with 3/5 present, so here's their introductions. I missed some of this because I was attempting to multitask.
JY: from Singapore
Nick: born in Zambia, moved to South Africa as child, white African
Amal: Canadian of Middle-Eastern extraction, currently lives in Glasgow
Amal: what do people think of as _Western_ form & structure?
JY: act structure, require protagonist
Nick: emphasis tends to be on individual, character development
Amal: del Toro re: _Pacific Rim_, wanted Jaegers to be operated by teams of 2+, focus strongly on teamwork; re: act structure, doesn't do that at all, has double beginning
Amal con't: re: 3-act structure, individualistic focus, do they have something to do with each other / lead to each other?
JY: wouldn't say that are directly correlated. Used to be scriptwriter for children's animation. Can have 3-act structure without focusing on single character, but wonders if see two modes together more due to cultural (emphasis? didn't quite hear)
Nick: with loss of extended family in Western tradition, focus on nuclear family identity and lone identity
Amal: in own writings, have you come across this as obstacle in selling or representing own work?
(Aliette and Rochita arrive)
Rochita introduction: writer from Philippines, "breaking the status quo is one of my favorite hobbies"
Aliette: from France, mother is from Vietnam, (distort? destroy?) sf on regular basis
Amal: back to question
Rochita: when look at SFF as established now, center of narrative is white cis male adventurer; think about how to undermine that, have to change center of storytelling, move out of West to SE Asia for instance
Amal: is changing locale alone enough to fundamentally change story?
Rochita: yes, in some way, subverting by changing content, but mindset of story as well; (author whose name I missed) said to move away from colonized mindset is necessary no matter what language written in
Aliette: have to get lots of worldbuilding in as few words as possible, because unspecified means Europia (ETA via shaded_sun). Frex, in Vietnam, more important to be scholar than knight, knights had terrible reputation; context for story of, for example, mother sacrificing self for son to get education
Amal: white feminism would read that example very differently. Q to Nick: literature that's more community-focused & how that focus changes narrative?
Nick: grew up with African fairy stories in Zambia, when got to South Africa found all the black children disappeared from stories & access to black literature very difficult, many stories banned. Pornokitsch has recommendations from Nine Worlds? (I think I misheard this, because I can't find anything that looks relevant.) [*] Kgebetli Moele, _The Book of the Dead_, two parts, first part is narrated in ordinary fashion by person with AIDS, second part the narrator is the AIDS virus, which subverts ideas about narrative and agency. Also a book I missed about living in post-apartheid Johannesburg suburb and family connections.
Amal: examples where felt needed to change structure to explicitly challenge Western norms or that people reacted to as a challenge?
Rochita: communal literature, grew up in mountains where storytelling was communal through chants, indigenous narrative is considerably different. When writes in English, has been told that is distance between reader and story, but when uses native words/phrasing, feels more intimate, and also less closely within genre boundaries.
Amal: (question about being bi- or multi-lingual that I didn't finish writing down)
JY: in Singapore, every year have "Read Singapore" where gov't takes works and translate into four official languages, Ken Liu's "Paper Menagerie" was a selection. When read in English, found poetic; but when read in Chinese, found almost grade-school level, because works originally written in Chinese tend to have very rich, nuanced prose style, so the style just didn't carry over
Aliette: one of stories translated to French, tone changed drastically, no French equivalents for some things. Vietnamese writing has tones, many contextual forms of address, these are incredibly hard to convey
Amal: Arabic has a pronoun for two people (two men, two women), plural is actually 3+. To Aliette: you write primarily in English, but native language is French?
Aliette: have complicated relationship with both languages, but French = hear all high school teachers saying "ooh, shouldn't write this." But quite different set of rules for writing in French and English, would have to relearn a lot, and too busy already. Her novel was translated into French and she didn't do because she's not good translator. Translator: "yes, but no author's been in a position to complain about my work before!"
(something I missed)
Amal: from program description, "Is it possible for western writers to engage with non-western traditions in an authentic way and produce a story that a wider audience will recognize as science fiction or fantasy?". Kind of loaded but wants to hear people's opinions, in own words. Ex. Shweta Narayan's stories, (heavily paraphrased after the fact) a lot of Western people find them uncomfortable because the colonizers lose
Rochita: first thing for Western writers is to decolonize, not just those been colonized but those from former empires need to do. Engage with other cultures not just because shiny and new but because see as of equal value.
Aliette: very often see people who think have done research and proud of it, but still perpetuate tired stereotypes of non-Western people, because they are not seeing from within the culture and understanding what's important
Amal: perfect illustration of content & form, if see something new to you as purely content that can slot into storytelling and general worldview, very likely to be appropriative, because not changing way that you see the world. People who exist within dominant paradigm can dismiss challenges to that paradigm because so rare, but if actually see as _a_ paradigm among many, adopt flexibility instead of brittleness.
Nick: Samatar's essay talks about caution that stories of imagination don't also turn out to be stories of empire. Growing up wrote about white characters because scared to write black characters, realized that was apartheid mentality to think that couldn't write black characters, they exist and need to be in story just as in real world. Had to think very carefully about assumptions bringing into story, have cultural consultants.
Amal: asks for specific examples of moments when came up against assumptions or explicitly decolonializing
Rochita: all the time. Once decided to identify as writer from Philippines, went to Clarion on Octavia Butler scholarship, means something, what does it mean? Bring in something of own, (something I missed about tradition that nourished). Always believed that SF = most progressive genre, if possible to push against all these things anywhere, possible here.
JY: grew up in Singapore, English is first language, still very colonial mindset (only ended <50 years ago), media consumption very heavily US/UK based. Grew up thinking that couldn't set stories in Singapore because just not cool enough. Language plays into this, Singlish is what speak. Only started writing Singapore-set stories when reached age of late 20s, but has problem of writing dialogue of characters because Singlish and British/American English prose for narration don't fit. Trying to write story entirely in Singlish; done one that's all dialogue, not sure if can otherwise.
Aliette: was working on novella "On a Red Station Drifting", which is space fairy Vietnamese culture (or possibly space fairies in Vietnamese culture?). Couldn't figure out how to make it end, because brain was coming up with Western ways of ending--blowing up everything and fight way out!--and what really wanted was for characters to communicate with each other and realize had to accept what was happening and go with flow
Nick: story in _Postscripts_ "Of Hearts and Monkeys"; kernel was "corrective rape" (of lesbians), couldn't make work, then read folk stories from Zambia and childhood, about monkey been tricked to lose heart (similar story appears across Africa): monkey tells opponent that left heart at home, so gets opponent to bring back, then jumps into trees and when asked, what, you aren't coming down: no, my heart is my chest, just like yours, you'll have to kill me to get it. Hoping to use that as kernel for book (details missed).
Amal: (terrible paraphrase) relationship of reader to page is very individual, so form affects reader experience. How does oral mode affect writing?
Rochita: thinking about how to combine Western sound and sound that is ours, experimented with telling stories in mode that (oral storyteller?) did, address reader as "you" who is also the character. Even Filipino low-land readers had to make shift to connect with story. Finds very enriching because get to mine things that are connected to self and heritage. Writers inhabit the story, so when can make use of traditions, like putting own skin into story.
Amal: beautiful and slightly scary way of putting it.
Nick: African call-and-response tradition, similar, story as dynamic performance
(cross-talk about relationship to filk)
audience: how is Singlish different (to JY); is there any storytelling tradition that believes that suspense can be dispensed with?
JY: Singlish: mostly English, but Chinese, Malay, Chinese dialect that name I missed; grammar is different; does have own syntax which continues to develop. Not considered to be proper English even though it's language speak in daily life. [I believe this would be a creole, if I remember my John McWhorter books correctly, but my eyes just literally crossed so I need to speed up this process.]
Amal: entire schools of comics that aren't about plot or suspense but are experiential: _This One Summer_ by Mariko Tamaki, Jillian Tamaki: friendship of two girls during summers at lake
Rochita: slice-of-life, entering a moment or a scene and experiencing it
Nick: _The Whale Caller_, Zakes Mda, about title character's relationship with whales and relationship with a woman, things happen but no sense of overarching conflict
JY: whole genre of slice-of-life anime/manga; recent story in _Strange Horizons_, "Storytelling for the Night Clerk": told in two strands, first has events, second just goes home to lover: but response to what happens in first, how life differs between contexts
Amal: expectation that short story has to have moving parts and accomplish something, like automaton, but some stories can be sculptures and it's about your eye following its contours
(I mean this in the nicest possible way: this is how you know Amal is a poet and I am not, in way she describes things.)
Rochita: not everyone's able to appreciate these / find these acceptable
Amal: very Western idea, that conflict is heart of story (7 kinds of story, all about conflict)
audience: if writing for Western audience, how do you handle exposition and how much in-depth?
JY: writes specifically for two separate markets, Singapore-based presses and Western SFF publications. Does take very different approaches: local stories, dive straight in, layer a lot more culture references. Western audiences, even if setting in Singapore, almost have to treat like alien planet, weave context and explanations in.
Aliette: when finished first draft of "Red Station", added another 50% in length to explain cultural references that (betas/editors?) hadn't got, also had to treat like alien culture
Amal asks for specific examples
Aliette: family relationships, Vietnamese pronouns: endearments/terms made people think friends or lovers were literally siblings
Rochita: now fears is terribly lazy writer!
Amal: definitely something to be said for just challenging people!
Rochita: yes, perfectly okay with people not understanding! Rebellious. When white people wrote stories they didn't explain things about America to me, I figured it out.
Amal: definitely very legitimate, I've grown up doing this work to understand a dominant culture, you can do some work to understand mine! And Google is a thing . . .
Nick: (missed start) . . . names recognizable by Western audience, calls specific mountains by Zulu names which wouldn't be recognized, compromise was to translate Zulu term rather than use Afrikaans
audience: story as automaton, describing difference in Western mind between prose & poetry, happy for poetry to be sculpture
Amal: I was going to ask if any of panel wrote poetry springing off that comment! Feels that poetry demands density of attention, and that changing structure of story in way that's unexpected may demand that kind of attention as well.
Aliette: In "Scattered Along the River of Heaven", scholar finds self at head of revolution and writes poetry about important moments of her life, narrative intersperses that poetry. Hard, a lot of poetry is cultural references, and needed to look like poetry in English, which is very different in Chinese & Vietnamese. When was translated into Chinese, translators said, we can see you had actual Chinese poems that you used for inspiration, can we just have those to help with the translation?
JY: doesn't think good at poetry, told in school not good at literature and (poetry is super-literature), but may try again
Rochita: first story started as poem seed
. . . and then that was time. None of this was super-new to me but it was lively and engaging and useful reminders, so yay for that.
[*] Here's the whiteboard rec list for the African SF panel at Nine Worlds; thanks, shaded_sun!