Roundtable on ::ahem:: Non-Western SF

Siobhan Carroll

…they may valorize different virtues and demonize different sins than the usual Anglophone European SF/F audience is accustomed to.

I was chewing on this point before I saw your response, Marie. I admit that this is one of the things I see as lacking in many texts I’d otherwise point to as “representing non Anglo-American points of view.”

Specifically, I was pondering Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, which I happened to read alongside Halima Bashir’s autobiography, Tears of the Desert. Both narratives feature strong African women who undergo female circumcision, make their way across a war-torn country, and take dramatic steps to defend their communities. But Bashir is a Muslim Zaghawa woman speaking out about her experience of rape and abuse, and she does not present herself in the ways that an American feminist would. For example, she legitimates her decisions by relating how she consulted male authority: her father, then her husband. Okorafor’s fictional protagonist, on the other hand, is a much more American-style feminist figure, and her relationship to male authority is hardly marked by humble obedience.

I enjoyed Okorafor’s book very much, but I caught myself wondering at times how much the Anglo-American conventions of SF dictated its narrative structure and the characterization of its protagonist. American SF readers seem to want active, strong, individualist protagonists to serve as their vehicles of wish-fulfillment. We can tolerate the occasional jinn instead of a dragon, but how tolerant are we of characters who embody different cultural values? Women who consult men before acting? Granddaughters who value filial piety over escaping the severed bouncing head of evil grandma?

And, in the case of Who Fears Death, Okorafor’s shapeshifting protagonist gets to heal herself of her genital mutilation. As her circumcised female friends point out, its very easy for her — she gets to go through this horrific “rite of passage,” and thus can claim to fully belong to her community, but she also gets to escape the physical consequences.

I was rather puzzled by this moment in the novel. I was relieved, of course, that the character got healed. But I found myself wondering whether this undoing of trauma was dictated by the convention of SF wish fulfillment. Or, whether it was undertaken because someone thought that American readers wouldn’t want to identify with a character who was sexually mutilated — which is a slightly different matter.

Marie Brennan

I was rather puzzled by this moment in the novel. I was relieved, of course, that the character got healed. But I found myself wondering whether this undoing of trauma was dictated by the convention of SF wish fulfillment. Or, whether it was undertaken because someone thought that American readers wouldn’t want to identify with a character who was sexually mutilated — which is a slightly different matter.

Or wouldn’t want to identify with a character who accepts that mutilation, rather than trying to heal it. My training (as you know, but others don’t) is in anthropology, and one of the hardest aspects of that discipline is the necessity of that kind of perspective shift. I read a book on the topic of female genital mutilation in one of my classes — I think it was Veiled Sentiments by Lila Abu-Lughod, but I may be crossing that with a different book — and it presented the arguments of women who support the practice, women who think it is good and admirable and a thing to be desired. As a reader who feels strongly otherwise, I could barely stretch my brain to understand those arguments on an intellectual level. If I’d been asked to identify with them in fiction? I don’t think I could have done it.

That’s an extreme example, of course, but we could outline a whole spectrum leading back toward my own value-set, or that of another reader. I have a hard time fully enjoying a story in which the protagonist sacrifices her own dreams for the good of her family and community. But I can do okay with one where the protagonist transgresses for really important and laudable reasons, then accepts punishment for it anyway — even though my own impulse is to say she should be forgiven. I find a lot of value in stories that push against my assumptions (that good intentions should get you out of consequences, or that it’s better for the community if individuals pursue their dreams), but I may not enjoy them as much, on an emotional level.

Rachel Swirsky

Or wouldn’t want to identify with a character who accepts that mutilation, rather than trying to heal it.

More likely this, I think.

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

  • May 1, 2012 at 5:11 pm
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    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.

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  • May 1, 2012 at 5:19 pm
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    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.

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  • May 1, 2012 at 6:04 pm
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    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.

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  • May 1, 2012 at 7:14 pm
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    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.

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  • May 1, 2012 at 7:34 pm
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    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.

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  • May 1, 2012 at 7:41 pm
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    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.

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  • May 1, 2012 at 8:34 pm
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    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.

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  • May 1, 2012 at 11:21 pm
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    @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?

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  • May 2, 2012 at 1:36 am
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    @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
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    I. A. Richards, would thou wert living at this hour!

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  • February 3, 2013 at 6:58 pm
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    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
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    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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