Thursday, March 11, 2010

Tackling Foreign Cultures In Your Writing

An article, "Third World Worlds", has raised rants and indignation at some of the points made regarding writers tackling cultures foreign to them. The Bibliophile Stalker wrote about something similar last year, and follows it up with this new article in light of "Third World Worlds". An excerpt from his latest post:

Last year, I wrote an essay entitled The Dilemma of the Term “World SF” on my blog. Right now, a couple of people in the blogosphere feels indignant at Norman Spinrad’s latest column, “Third World Worlds”, and I bring up my previous essay because Spinrad’s editorial tackles some of the themes which I originally brought up. What gets lost in some of the rants is that Spinrad does bring up some important and valuable points. For example, he writes about American and British writers tackling foreign cultures in their fiction (and I’d like to add writers like Geoff Ryman and Paolo Bacigalupi to that list). In some cases, they work, while in others, they don’t. Whether it’s the former or the latter however, it begs the question: can writers like Mike Resnick and Paul McAuley and Ian McDonald be considered World SF writers?

There are several points in Spinrad’s essay that I find problematic but his column is an interesting exercise in discourse because, at the very least, he’s consistent. I don’t know Spinrad (whether personally or his work), but it seems to be that he’s operating from a cultural paradigm. Take for example this quotation of his that has drawn the ire of several people:

So, for now at least, and in the apparent absence of a significant body of science fiction written by born and bred Africans, this Caucasian American is probably the closest thing there is or has been to an African science fiction writer, with the exception of Octavia Butler. Who did write the same sort of thing, and did it well, and was Black to boot, but I use that politically incorrect word rather than “African American” because aside from her genetic heritage she was no more African than Mike Resnick.

People are interpreting this as Spinrad saying that Mike Resnick is African American due to his fiction (more so than Octavia Butler) but where I’m coming from, that’s not what he’s saying. It’s more of the reverse: Octavia Butler is American (and not African) because she grew up and was raised in America. There is some merit (but I’ll air the opposing paradigm later) to this line of argument. Take me for example: I’m genetically Chinese but was raised in Philippine culture. I consider myself more Filipino than Chinese. Or take South African writer Lauren Beukes (who is of French and Dutch descent). To quote her, in an interview I conducted last year:

In answer to your question, I think of myself as South African full stop. Those European ties are so old, so frayed, they’re not even a sepia photograph, they’re a faded oil painting dating back 350 years when my family first came to this country.

What Spinrad neglects, however, is the opposing paradigm, which shouldn’t easily be dismissed. It’s the classic argument of the expatriate: does Kaaron Warren stop being Australian just because she lived in Fiji for a time? Or our very own Lavie Tidhar, who has traveled all around the world (and is currently still seeking a home!), is less of an Israeli just because he doesn’t live in Israel? Or, following Spinrad’s line of thinking (growing up in the said country’s culture), doesn’t that qualify Tobias Buckell as a Carribean writer because he was born and raised in Grenada before moving to the US? And America has several writers who’ve traveled in their youth, whether it’s Jay Lake or Jeff VanderMeer.

Or let’s talk about me. Sure, I consider myself Filipino, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have anything to contribute to the Chinese experience. My Filipino life is different from the Filipino life of an American-Filipino, a Korean-Filipino, a Spanish-Filipino, etc. in much the same way that my Chinese experience is different from that of a Chinese living in mainland China vs. one living in Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, etc. My Chinese heritage, from genetics to the rituals we practice, does have an impact on me and who I am, even if I consider myself Filipino.

The problem with picking just one paradigm is that it’s reductionist. Butler is an African American writer of science fiction because of several factors. Yes, genetics plays a part, but so did her upbringing, even if she was raised in America. Just as there is no Platonic Filipino, there similarly is no Platonic American. There is no single true American experience, any more than there is a single American accent. America is a plurality of cultures: I visited L.A. and San Francisco and the Filipino-American culture in each place is different. How much more when we compare the Filipino-American experience of California vs. New York? Or perhaps the Chinese-American culture vs. Latino-American culture in Texas? There’s room for overlap but each one is also distinct.

Click here to read the whole piece.

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