Roundtable on ::ahem:: Non-Western SF

Stefan Dziemianowicz

It’s funny–when I read this difference of opinion, I’m put in mind of the original television program Star Trek, which tried to conjure an aura of cultural diversity through the variety of cultures, ethnicities, and terrestrial/extraterrestrial origins represented by its crew members.

Of course, nothing could have been further from the truth.

Karen Lord

(Well, with respect to Star Trek, that was probably about as much diversity as that audience’s era could appreciate, so in a way it did the job symbolically.)

But to clarify my lack of conviction on the language acquisition point, cultural contexts change and shift. If my country ‘learned English’ back in the 1700s, what were the Western values then? Were these values applied to my ancestors (e.g. sex associated with marriage, rulers have obligations to the ruled)? As the values shifted, to what extent did we take those values on board? Did the other cultural values present (Indian, African, Chinese) overrule or modify them to produce a creolisation or hybrid?

English-speaking I may be, but I’m aware of the value systems of different eras and different cultures. I often consider more than one when I’m writing, and sometimes I leave out one or two. I have also gained awareness of cultures where I do not speak the language.

In conclusion, I really can’t see Western/non-Western as a binary. Learning language is not the only way to gain cultural awareness. With respect to values, globalisation can make us all creoles.

This is not to say that we don’t have a discussion point, but I believe it’s important to acknowledge that the boundaries are, if not diffuse, at least porous.

Karen Burnham

As we’re talking about the Western/non-Western binary which is probably a spectrum, I’m also thinking of the question of audience.

I remember reading Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s The Wizard of the Crow, and it is an amazing book that I love. However, I suspect that I read it very differently than would a reader in Thiong’o’s native Kenya. It’s trivial to say that no two readers read the same book, because we bring our personal experiences to bear on the story. However, again looking at a spectrum, I’m betting that myself and a person who has lived in Kenya read very different books compared to me and another random American who has never traveled to Africa.

Same book, two different audiences, an infinite number of readings. I suspect that no matter who reads The Wizard of the Crow, they will find it to be phenomenally good and interesting, because it is a deep complex work that can support that many readings.

Siobhan Carroll

Western is a slippery, not well-defined term, but I’m not sure how to replace it

Like the term “white” it is used to constitute a large umbrella community that erases the significant differences between members of a newly-constituted “majority.” We no longer have English people and Irish people, we have white people. We no longer have Caribbean writers and German writers, we have Western writers. And therefore we all now belong to a monolithic group with an shared culture and history. But we shall not discuss what that “shared” culture or history is, nor will we allow anyone to “earn” membership in our group, because it is important that majority membership be unquestioned, unexamined, and naturalized. Why are you one of “us?” Because you were born into “us.” To suggest otherwise — that there might be active qualifications for belonging to this community — would quickly lead to this illusion of unity falling apart.

And of course now that we have an “us” we must have a “them.” I’m still stuck a little bit on who our Other is in this discussion. Middle Eastern SF writers? Non-anglophone writers? “Foreigners”? I rather suspect that the reason “non-Western” writing is proving hard to pin down is because in the wake of the Cold War, “the West” has lost traction as a term that obviously defines “us.”

Sorry if I sound cranky. I just don’t want to start this discussion by turning a diverse group of writers and nations into a homogenous, unexamined blob.

I’ll start on the question of international SF by listing some of works on my current reading list: Padmanabhan’s Harvest, Ghosh’s The Calcutta Chromosome, Okri’s The Famished Road, and Kunzru’s Transmission. All of these works are using SF elements to grapple with postcolonial politics. I wouldn’t say that they’re writing “outside” a western narrative, given that they rely heavily on recognizable Anglo-American narrative techniques. But they are writing speculative fiction from postcolonial perspectives, which would be one form of departure from the SF “norm.”

Marie Brennan

Very much this. Pick a criterion for “western” identity, and I will give you examples of groups we would generally classify as western that don’t fit into that box, or non-western groups that do. (“Religion should be subject to the state.” Not according to a lot of white theocratic American evangelicals, it shouldn’t. “Sex should be associated with marriage.” Most cultures across time have promoted that ideal, because of the way genetic relationship and economic inheritance have been tied together.) It’s the world’s messiest Venn diagram, and while there’s an amorphous mass in the center where lots of things overlap, not everybody will share every criterion, nor are the boundaries easily pinned down.

Which is not to say that the concept of western-ness doesn’t have power; obviously it does. But it’s very much in our best interests to poke at it with sticks, and use other words when a more accurate term is available. In the case of the roundtable question, I think we’re generally looking at Anglophone SF/F (including Australian, South African, etc.), with a secondary angle of European derivation. English-language stories based in a Chinese or Nigerian or Indian worldview, or non-English-language stories, are two types of Other in this scenario.

The two things that come to mind for me, when I consider stories of those types, are that a) they may very well be in conversation with something other than Anglophone European SF/F (other traditions of literature, or local folklore), which means they may be asking different questions and advancing different arguments than we’re used to; and b) they may valorize different virtues and demonize different sins than the usual Anglophone European SF/F audience is accustomed to. I enjoy both those things, but I also recognize I can bounce off them if they go too far from my own frame of reference. If you’re only hearing one side of the conversation, or have trouble seeing why a certain action should be considered virtuous or wrong, then the narrative will lose a lot of its power for you.

(True story, though at this late remove I’ve forgotten most of the concrete details: one of my folklore professors once had us listen to a tale that I think may have been from the Swahili tradition (her area of specialty). For much of the tale, the heroine was being chased and threatened by the demonic severed head of her grandmother. When she finally found a way to get rid of the head . . . she was punished for her lack of filial piety. This was, needless to say, not the reward most of us expected, nor what we considered to be satisfying outcome. I would need to know a lot more about relevant the culture and folktale tradition to have any hope of understanding why the story ended that way.)

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
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  • 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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