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Gearing up for the #nebulas2018 panel on “How to decolonize your fiction,” with Bill Campbell, Rebecca Roanhorse, Fonda Lee, JY Yang, DongWon Song. This is going to be great!
DS: We’re going to talk about decolonization, and about how to represent other cultures in your writing. But first, intros.
BC: I’m in publishing, and we specialize in SF and comics, with a multicultural flair. And I’m originally from Pittsburgh!
RR: I’m a writer, and my short story is nominated for a Nebula. I will be talking about indigenous representation.
FL: I’m up for a Nebula for Jade City and Norton for Zero Boxer.
JY: I’m also up for a Nebula this weekend!
DS: I’m a literary agent.
DS: I proposed this panel, and I’m excited about it. I wanted to avoid the “diversity panel” and talk about decolonization instead. Panelists, what does this mean to you?
BC: Decolonization. It’s an interesting thing for me personally, because I’m half immigrant. My dad’s from Jamaica, so I come from two countries that fought the British. I grew up in a white working-class area.
FL: I think the idea of reframing diversity as decolonization is very interesting. Diversity is how do you include different kinds of people, and is a different conversation than looking at societal structures and assumptions that go into your fiction.
FL: You can have a story that is diverse, with different types of characters, but still works from a certain world view and certain base assumptions about the dominant paradigm and social structure.
FL: It’s a great distinction to make, because it goes past the surface assumption that to make a story diverse, all you need is characters wtih different last names.
RR: The approach is two-fold. You can challenge the tropes of colonialism: man against nature, the final frontier, etc. You can flip the script on those, and talk about collectivity instead of individualism, working with nature, collaboration instead of conquering.
RR: There are other ways to write science fiction.
The second part of decolonization is telling your own stories. If you’re from marginalized community, you don’t have to include white people. We often worry abt white gaze - are they going to understand our stories, judge them?
RR: And if they don’t, will it sell? My novel uses Navajo words, and I don’t translate them. That’s decolonization.
JY: I grew up in Singapore, which was a British colony until the 1960s, and has never really shed its British roots. There’s a national narrative that vaporize the British colonial period: West is best.
JY: It’s been an interesting personal journey for me to realize that I can write stories that are based in Singapore, that have cultural markers I grew up with, but that will appeal to a broad audience.
JY: One of the clearest indications to me of that mindset is looking thru a Singaporean anthology that was written by school kids, on SF ideas. Only 2 out of 20 stories had a protagonist that was clearly not white.
JY: What killed me a little was that when they thought about writing science fiction, it was automatically about white people. I’m hoping to change that with the stories I write. You don’t have to ape everything you see in Hollywood. You can write about things relevant to you.
DS: As we think about “diversity,” a question that arises for me, is “who is this for?” As we consider colonialism and erasure, there’s now a strong effort especially in your works, to center other voices. How did that come about, and what decisions did you make?
FL: I did not set out to write about colonialism. Then I realized I’d written an entire book about an alien race colonizing Earth. Then I wrote Kung fu in space, but also about colonialism.
These things happen. You write books, then you realize the common themes.
FL: This theme shows up because it is so ripe to explore ideas of class and power and society. So much is the way it is because of colonialism.
Remember that colonialism is not a Eurocentric thing. East Asian history is full of colonialism.
FL: It’s not just a conversation about are we being Eurocentric. So much of the power structure and how a society got to where it is, is predicated on who was in charge at different periods of time, and whether those elements were native or foreign.
FL: It creates a richness in world building, more so than “Oh, the elves and dwarves have always been like this.”
I have a lot of frustration with fantasy that is thinly veiled medieval Northern Europe, which is 20% of the history of the second smallest continent on earth.
FL: There is so much more richness to look at, historically and culturally. I wanted to write something different, something that I wanted to read but didn’t exist. But also the desire to break that paradigm. There’s so much more we can draw from.
BC: Racism, sexism, white gaze are all baked into the cake. There are two things that affected me. The first one, the respectability politics of black folks - what will white people think? I kind of don’t care, but I was raised with that.
BC: During slavery, about 5% of the black population was free, and they dressed to the nines, but still were ridiculed and beaten for not knowing their place. What white people thought? They hated you regardless.
BC: The other thing, on a writing level, back when I had an agent. He couldn’t sell my book, and accidentally told me that I wasn’t ghetto enough. I can’t help not being ghetto enough. 70% of black people don’t live in the ghetto. I don’t know what you want me to do.
BC: So I took all of the things that America has said about black people, and put it in a book. I lost my agent. So I became a publisher.
I can’t please you, so I’m here for other people. If you are part of a marginalized community, you have to make it for them.
BC: White people have plenty of entertainment. We need it. You go to space, and whoa, what happened to all the melanin?
DS: There’s a pressure from that white gaze about what that culture means.
RR: The Native American experience is one that most people are probably not familiar with. Actually they’re all around you, but you don’t know what they look like because they’re not wearing feathers.
RR: In my short story, I was trying to show what the expectation of a Native American story would be, vs what the actual experience is. The character was a little bit lost in his own understanding. We often hit expectations of other people’s experience of who we should be.
(The room is PACKED for this panel.)
JY: I struggle with the idea of authenticity. I wanted to write a world with no white people. If you allow white people into your story, sometimes that’s all people focus on. So I’m going to write in a world with no white people, and force people to empathize with these chars.
JY: But I feel like writing very Asian stories is rejecting part of who I am, because Singapore is very westernized and British. Ancient Asian history only is not authentic to me. I have been colonized. Those parts are embedded in me.
JY: I feel like I am performing Chineseness, which is something I am not comfortable with. Now I write stuff that is more true to me, as post-colonial but not decolonized person. It is weird and tangly.
FL: I can empathize. I am westernized as all hell, and was accused of being a banana as a kid. I get asked what dynasty of China I based things on. No, I made it all up.
My solution to that is to give less fucks. You have to write what is authentic to you.
FL: My book about boxers in space is just as authentic to me as my Asian fantasy. I am not just an Asian fantasy writer. I have lots of stories in my. That’s a risk you run when you write non-white-centric stories: that is your one identity.
FL: My book is a blend of western and eastern influences. That’s my identity. You have to write for your own authenticity. No one is ever going to write authentically from an entire sub population. You can only write your own truth.
BC: Authenticity is a fetish. I don’t care if it’s authentic, I care if it’s good. Is this restaurant authentic? I don’t care. Did I love it? That’s what I’m paying for. What’s authentic? There are millions of black Americans. What is the authentic experience?
BC: That’s used to take things away from you. Fetishizing authenticity is an asshole move. You can’t box people in that way.
DS: A lot of the history of SFF is colonialist and pro-empire. Even the idea of the final frontier. Go back to Tolkien, everyone is conquering everyone,and outsiders are evil. It’s okay to love those things. We have complex thoughts about imperfect things.
DS: Given all that, what brought you to this area, this toolset, to tell your story?
JY: Because I like the “pew-pew!”
I like to build the world from the ground up, to decide what I put into the world. If I want to explore a certain theme, I can build a world around that, without offending too many people.
JY: It’s an interesting toolbox, to customize a world. And also the pew-pew!
FL: I grew up on Star Trek, Star Wars, giant colonial space empires. But I realize that now I enjoy exploring the after effects. The rebels fight the empire, the new planet is discovered. Those are the easy stories. What happens next?
FL: There are so many rich “now what?” questions that I really love exploring in fiction.
RR. Me too. I grew up on Dragonlance, the Belgariad. I spent the first half of my life writing white farmboys going on quests. But I lost interest, couldn’t see myself in the stories any more. Then I found urban fantasy, with powerful women in a contemporary setting.
RR: THere’s something there for me, but there’s a trope about the main character being half-Native, which gives her magical powers. So I wrote my own novel, with the things I want to read.
Fantasy has opened up and is willing to engage in more ways.
BC: I’m an idea person, and very political. Genre gives you that space. Race isn’t the only thing I think about. Genre lets you think about technology and its effect on people, for instance.
DS: I’m wondering about this sense of where the market is at. Black Panther is one of the biggest films in history, about a nation that never experienced colonialism. Are we in a different media/consumer environment now?
BC: We have an anthology about Afrofuturism, and Black Panther has been great for us. But largely, as a small publisher, that doesn’t affect me. Everything is a bare-knuckle brawl. We published the anthology because people said we didn’t exist.
RR: I don’t think my book would have sold ten years ago. No Big 5 publisher would have bought a fantasy with no white people, only Navajo speaking a lot of Navajo. Things are changing. But also, things are trendy. Hopefully we’re not a trend.
FL: I also vacillate between optimism and pessimism. But I hope we’ve seen a sea change in the kinds of stories that people will read and seek out. More and more novels are not medieval Europe default. That is fantastic.
FL: On the flip side, we need to be cautious about the success of Black Panther. That doesn’t mean everything is roses now. We have one, so we’re past racism. Nope! Until we have more than BP, until we have an entire slate of content, we haven’t made real progress.
BC: We also do a lot of black comics. The success of a Marvel movie doesn’t sell Marvel comics, let alone other comics. It doesn’t expand or contract anything, it just is. “Now that BP is big, all you people will benefit.” Nope.
JY: I love BP, but also in terms of diversity we can’t just bank on things with huge commercial potential. I want to see more. Indie films, weird art house shit. Not just stuff that only white people can do. You can’t only have diversity if it’s going to make you lots of money.
JY: It has changed, but there’s more to go. Commercial success isn’t the only marker in how well we are doing.
DS: Do each of you see an endpoint to this conversation about diversity, representation, decolonization? When can we stop having this panel?
BC: Twenty years from now, just demographically, we won’t be having this conversation. Quote from another black artist: “I can’t wait for the day when I can be mediocre.”
BC: Not only will these panels fade away, but you’ll see mediocre shit by brown people, and everyone will react like it’s the best thing they’ve ever read. That’s when we will be done.
RR: We’re moving in the right direction. As we open up to more writers and readers from marginalized communities, we wont need this any more.
FL: I don’t think we ever will. It’s 2018, and we’re still having conversations about sexism in genre. The tenor will change. We’ll move toward discussion of the legacy of those effects. Progress is an illusion. It goes all sorts of directions.
FL: Conversations will change. New voices and perspectives will enter. I don’t think they should go away, because then we forget about them and go backwards.
JY: At the point when we have diverse authors who can be mediocre we can stop having these conversations, but that may not happen. I wish I had a crystal ball. I just want to write stories that I like.
DS: We’ve only barely touched a very big topic, but thank you to the panelists.
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