Some time ago, in a younger life that seems far, far away, I decided I wanted to write. I was going to write speculative fiction, like the sci-fi and fantasy books I’d spent so much of my younger life reading. I was going to be a PoC writing awesome speculative fiction that no one had seen before, away from the run-of-the mill elves, dwarves and what-not. And the very novelty of my work would gain accolades and applause.
Prolific science fiction writer Ray Bradbury died this week, at the age of 91. I read my first Bradbury book in middle school–The Illustrated Man— and it *blew my mind.* It wasn’t my first speculative fiction book by any means. I’d long torn through Middle Earth, traveled Narnia, tesseracted across space and time with Meg and Charles Wallace and tried my hand at inventing with Danny Dunn. (Yeah, let those memories sink in). But the stories in The Illustrated Man were on another level–it was like everything I loved about the old Rod Serling hostedTwilight Zone episodes my mother got me into, but on paper…and with words! From the creepy virtual reality nursery story “The Veldt” to the hauntingly sad “The Exiles” (we made Santa cry!) to every-kid’s-revenge story “Zero Hour,” I knew I’d never look at sci-fi the same way again. Most startling of all was a story by Bradbury called “The Other Foot”–startling to my young PoC eyes, because the main characters were something I’d hardly seen before. They were black.
“I think that, especially if you’re a Westerner doing another culture, you have responsibilities to do the best darn research you can (and not just appropriate the cool bits). You must take care not to promote harmful stereotypes ; especially since, as a Western writer (especially, but not only, if you live in the West), you must be aware that your narrative is going to be privileged over that of locals. That gives you extra responsibility to get it as right as you can.”–Aliette de Bodard
French-American author Aliette de Bodard’s comment was made during a recent roundtable at The World SF Blog (TWSFB) on the issue of depictions of non-Western societies and cultures in speculative fiction. In this case, de Bodard was specifically addressing those writers in the West who take the (brave) plunge and attempt to write about cultures and societies outside of their own. I actually applaud this, and suggested in a recent blog that speculative fiction authors (of any racial/ethnic background, and specifically those in fantasy) should make this attempt more often. Yet, as I also noted in that same post, this comes with risks. As an outsider, it’s all too easy to fall back (intentionally or no) on stereotypes or exoticism as a means of depicting “difference.” So, continuing with this talk of spears, sorcery and black double-consciousness, how does a black Western writer create African fantasy that avoids (or at least tries to avoid) these pitfalls? I don’t have all the answers. Surprise. I don’t even know if anything I have to say qualify as answers. Double surprise. But here are some personal thoughts anyway, for what they’re worth…
This morning, as I was thumbing through the hordes of #OWS tweets from yesterday (Happy Post May Day!), I came across one from Orbit books. “Read about how fantasy authors steal ideas from history,” it said, and directed me to an article by author Karen Miller (KE Mills) of the Rogue Agent series titled, “Stealing from the Fantastic Past.” Great, I thought! I’m a historian-apprentice, I like fantasy, don’t mind a little theft, this should be interesting. And it was.