Roundtable on ::ahem:: Non-Western SF

Stefan Dziemianowicz

When I was younger, I was made more aware of the allegorical and mythopoeic possibilities of science fiction through my reading of writers like Lem and the Strugatsky brothers. Of course, we readers in the west face something of a problem assessing the perspective that “writers from outside the Western narrative” contribute. The non-Western writers who tend to get translated–which is to say, the non-Western writers whom English-speaking publishers are willing to take a risk on in the belief that they will sell–tend to be the writers who appeal most to Western sensibilities.

Siobhan Carroll

And who do not necessarily engage heavily with the specifics of the culture they hail from. Many of the Swedish murder-mysteries creeping up the bestseller lists, for example, don’t strike me as requiring a Swedish setting. You could transplant some of those stories to anywhere with dead bodies, sexual violence, dour detectives, and snow.

I guess that’s one of the reasons I really admire the fiction of my CW compatriot Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, who tries to generate her SF stories from specifically Filipino settings and political conflicts. She’s got an absolutely beautiful story about a jungle that doesn’t adhere to “traditional” narrative conventions at all, but which is captivating and rich and memorable. And, last I heard, unsold. She also has some lovely works like “Return to Paraiso” out there, but damn, I want to see that jungle story in print.

Karen Burnham

Hah, it’s nice to know it’s not just my questions that prompt instant deconstruction!

I think Fabio, being based in Brazil, is acknowledging the huge market dominance of Anglophone sf, and is working to challenge that dominance through many activities, particularly this current translation/internation sf magazine issue. So the question (as I read it) isn’t meant to be exclusive, and I’m hoping that the conversation can be inclusive–expanding our understanding of sf to accommodate lit from lots of countries, not just US/UK/Commonwealth.

I think a lot of people have been making efforts along this line recently, and for a lot of the reasons Cat says. We need different imaginings to give us new perspectives. So you had James and Kathy Morrow’s SFWA European Hall of Fame and few years ago; Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s epic The Weird has a lot of translated stories; Nick Mamatas is putting out an anthology titled The Future is Japanese with stories both in English and translated from Japanese; Cheryl Morgan and others established the SFF Translation Award; Fabio, Charles Tan, and others are involved in the World SF Blog, etc.

It’s a good time to be reading when our tent is getting so much bigger, I’d say.

Ellen Datlow

As an editor, although I’d been very interested in seeing non-English story submissions from around the world while at OMNI and SCIFICTION, it has been traditionally difficult to do so as in the past, there were very few people willing and able to competently translate that material into English for submission. At OMNI I commissioned a Russian story from a US/Russian translator. She gave me about 5 stories to choose from by providing a paragraph summary of each. I chose one. She translated the story. I bought it but utterly hated it. There were two Japanese stories submitted to me already translated into English. I bought both and was very happy with them. The problems I saw over the years from translated material is that the translator must have a gift of language to make the translation “sing” as it did in its original language. Clunky, literal translations do no one any good.

Today, there seems to be more non-English language material being submitted to English language markets and I think this is excellent. The World SF blog and Lavie Tidhar has been instrumental in this change. Just in the past few years I’ve been seeing more stories being published in sf/f/h from writers with a non North America/European background and am encouraged.

Stefan Dziemianowicz

Writing as someone who has enjoyed burrowing into Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Weird, and who has been blown away by some of the non-Western contributions to that anthology that I was not already familiar with, I would say non-Western writers in the early to mid-twentieth century seemed less hidebound than Western writers by the notion that the weird or supernatural element of their story had to have a rationale. There’s a stronger sense of “the weird for weird’s sake” in their works–something that becomes more common in Western writing in the 1960s and later.

Mind you, I don’t want to generalize. The non-Western writers in that book are a very select company. And not being able to read the original language their stories were written in, I have no idea if the “looseness” of their themes and plots isn’t due to the translation.

Cecelia Holland

Since the 60’s we’ve been more aware, also, of the limits of our culture.

Being a writer of historical fiction I have found the most inspiration in stories from outside the so-called “western narrative.” My novel Until the Sun Falls was based as much as possible on the Mongol secret history. The Tale of Genji is an excellent lever for prying somebody out of a western mindset. The whole point of historical fiction (for me anyway, I don’t do dresses) is exactly that–to present a perspective not otherwise available to the western reader.

18 thoughts on “Roundtable on ::ahem:: Non-Western SF

  • May 1, 2012 at 5:11 pm

    I find this discussion disappointing. Can you not see what Fabio is trying to achieve here? What imbalances he is trying to redress? It’s a shame that when the question was about non-Western SF/F, the participants spent such an inordinate amount of time unpacking Western SF. The issue of post-colonialism is far too grave for a simple question to be picked apart in such a fussy, academic manner, and the real issues sidestepped.

  • May 1, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    Hi Regina,

    I don’t remember where my brain was during the roundtable, but these are the thoughts I just shared on twitter, for what they may be worth:

    Octavia Butler once said something to the effect of, “Of course science fiction is for black people. Black people have a future.”

    Of course science fiction is about non-Western people. Non-western people have a future.

    Americans (me included) can get tunnel vision, but reality is global.

  • May 1, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    SF is the literature of the imaginary. How can the imaginations of writers from outside the Western narrative contribute new perspectives to this literature?

    Great question, Fabio. As you know, I’m developing an anthology of first encounters from cultural perspectives beyond the western. How would people’s culture affect an alien encounter differently than Western cultures? I have done a lot of work, travel and study in various places from Africa to Europe to your own Brasil, and I have found rich cultures and peoples with diverse and fascinating customs and beliefs. I believe there are things they know, wisdom and insights, that the rest of us might benefit from. For example, the traditional cultural views of community in many African nations, for example, where everyone belongs to everyone and everything you do affects the community as a whole, is very inspiring and could be very helpful in our “me first” culture of the U.S. The way Latin American families take care of their sick and elderly, even living peacefully with multiple generations in a house, this too is inspiring. Attitudes toward future, conservation, sharing, economy, health, etc. So many things which may push us outside our boxes and comfort zones but, at the same time, may open our eyes to a bigger world than we’d imagined. These have great benefit for speculative fiction readers and for fellow writers. Opening my eyes to new cultural viewpoints has both changed me and solidified my own views. I don’t shy away from it because it’s different. I seek to understand the reasoning behind it and the motives, knowing that, while I may disagree or not entirely agree, they are also human beings of equal value and as a writer, being able to see things from different POV is invaluable to my success.

    The global reality is so much bigger than what we typically see. It’s good to be forced outside that sometimes and willingly step outside as well, take the blinders off or have them washed away and be refreshed in our own view.

  • May 1, 2012 at 7:14 pm

    To clarify this discussion, the original prompt was: “Fabio Fernandes is in the middle of a fundraising effort to support a special International issue of the magazine Future Fire” followed by the question. There was no mention of colonialism or first-world perspectives. I think having those contexts supplied would have resulted in a different discussion.

  • May 1, 2012 at 7:34 pm

    I found this round-table frustrating on several aspects. It’s sad that because there was no “explicit” mention of colonialism or first-world perspectives it would not be considered crucial to the discussion.

  • May 1, 2012 at 7:41 pm

    I think the fact that Fabio is doing an anthology of non-Western perspectives on Colonialism is becoming too central. It’s obvious that was added to frame the discussion by an editor. It appears, per Siobhan’s comment, it was not sent to the commentators for framing their discussion, so they cannot be expected to read minds and discuss this topic in that framework. The fact that Colonialism is important is not being denied or negated. And it can be discussed now in these comments if people so desire.

  • May 1, 2012 at 8:34 pm

    I’d like to apologize for the shifting frame between the original discussion and what you see on the website. I added the summary pitch for Fabio’s Peerbacker effort after the fact, and the Roundtable group didn’t see it originally. I can imagine a significantly different discussion that may have occurred had that been part of the original topic, and with luck we’ll have that discussion in the future.

    It’s clear that people care deeply about this topic, and I hope that concern will translate to a higher profile for The Future Fire’s fundraising efforts. As of now only two people have clicked through on the Peerbacker link, and I *really* hope that number goes up.

  • May 1, 2012 at 11:21 pm

    @Siobhan: how can you read the question “How can the imaginations of writers from outside the Western narrative contribute new perspectives to SF?” without seeing that it’s about colonialism and first-world perspectives?

  • May 2, 2012 at 1:36 am

    @Regina – I assumed this was a discussion about translation, and I therefore read “outside the Western narrative” as “unaffected by the historical narrative created by colonialism.” In other words, I thought the question was explicitly taking postcolonial writers *off* the table. That’s why, in my initial response, I asked whether “the ‘Western narrative’ encompass former European colonies.” That’s also why I ended my initial response with the suggestion that we think about living non-Anglophone writers and segued into a list of postcolonial works we could discuss. In short, I wanted to analyze postcolonial SF but I thought (as, apparently, did many of the other respondents) that the context of this dicsussion was “international” SF, broadly defined.

    I’ll add that I found the “how *can* the imaginations… contribute new perspectives to SF” formulation a bit off-putting — as though SF writers from different countries weren’t already making contributions to SF by writing fiction. I jumped in feet-first in part because I didn’t want a rambling discussion of “well, maybe other people *can* contribute if they do x y or z.” I wanted to talk about the contributions contemporary authors had actually made and were currently making.

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  • May 4, 2012 at 8:08 pm

    I. A. Richards, would thou wert living at this hour!

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  • February 3, 2013 at 6:58 pm

    I don’t know whether it’s just me or if everyone else experiencing problems with your blog.
    It looks like some of the written text on your content are running off the screen.
    Can somebody else please comment and let me know
    if this is happening to them too? This may be a issue with my
    browser because I’ve had this happen before. Thanks

  • November 2, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    Would anybody here be able to advise me on some non-western science fiction Zines? Its for a library that I am putting together.
    Thank you.


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