“Nor do I feel responsible for the generally low state of the Negro—as one Negro friend pointed out to me; the lucky Negroes were the ones who were enslaved. Having traveled quite a bit in Africa, I know what she means. One thing is clear: Whether one speaks of technology or social institutions, “civilization” was invented by us, not by the Negroes. As races, as cultures, we are five thousand years, about, ahead of them. Except for the culture, both institutions and technology, that they got from us, they would still be in the stone age, along with its slavery, cannibalism, tyranny, and utter lack of the concept we call “justice.”–Robert Heinlein
“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…
When the inspiration first came to me, to try my hand at writing fantasy outside of the usual medieval European framework, I knew exactly where I wanted to begin. I hadn’t read Charles Saunders. I thought for certain I was doing something new–a speculative fiction Jackie Robinson. I’d read enough fantasy to know the basics. I had to create a world, a setting distinct from the Eurocentric fantasy I’d grown up with. I chose Africa with hardly a second thought. Most fantasy works by white authors were set in some version of medieval Europe. Black people were from Africa–that’s what I was going with. Besides, I was no slouch on Africa. My parents had filled our house with books on African culture, art and history. I was taken to see African theater. I’d visited Africa at least once. Being a political junkie, I even felt it my responsibility to read African newspapers to keep up with what was going on. Heck, I listened to Fela! Sure, as the child of Caribbean immigrants, I was more than a few generations removed; but in my mind Africa was something always near–in my music, in celebrations like Carnival, in my fashion, my thoughts. So when I began creating worlds out of varied kingdoms, and scoured through the folklore and myths of diverse African cultures for magic systems, gods and monsters, I never thought of it as “appropriation.” Africa was mine. Wasn’t it?
Recently, the World SF Blog held a roundtable on the issues of non-Western narratives in speculative fiction. Touched upon in the talk, were problems of inclusion, the lacking (or often-ignored) presence of non-Western writers in the genre and the entire post-colonial project when it comes to writing and the non-Western world. It was an insightful discussion that can be read in its two-part entirety starting here. What received the most discussion by the panelists however, was the topic of how Western writers depict non-Western settings, including issues of exoticism and the sometimes futile search for “authenticity.” This left me with my own set of questions. What about the “other” that exists within the non-Western world? What about those people within the larger dominant society, who are marginalized from its center similar to the ways in which a colonized geographical space is distanced from the metropole?
The clamor for diversity in speculative fiction has long been heard–and answered. In fantasy, this has come about partly in the form of writers of African descent creating their own realms of spears and sorcery. Termed “Sword and Soul” by some, this sub-genre of fantasy uses an often fictionalized Africa as a backdrop, creating heroes, stories, lands and adventures outside of the Eurocentric norm. Yet a cursory glance shows that most of these writers (self included) are several generations removed from the Africa of our imaginings. So what happens when the Westernized-other seeks to depict the non-Western world–one which remains both prominent and elusive in his/her imagination?