It’s that time of year again, Black History Month. And in 2017, we may need it more than ever.
“Don’t accept no food from Mr. Ramkisoon. Neighbor say Mr. Ramkisoon hands not clean.” The names have been changed to protect the accused, but this was the warning given by my parents before I got on a plane bound for our house in Trinidad. For those who might not be aware of the phraseology, the concern about Mr. Ramkisoon’s unclean hands has nothing to do with his hygiene. It was a warning that Mr. Ramkisoon possibly dabbled in some “simi dimi,” or more likely had done something foul to earn a curse placed upon him. My parents (who now live in the US) had it on good information–an Indian neighbor on our block who kept them apprised of the goings on back home. Like the song say, “Trini talk talk talk talk talk…”
So here were my Afro-Trinidadian parents, who are nominally Christian, concerned with superstitions rooted in Hindu (specifically Indian-Trinidadian) folklore. Welcome to the cultural mash-up of my childhood, or as I like to call it, a little bit chutney and a little bit pelau.
“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…