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.
(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.
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.
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.”
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.)