I was recently in the remote Alaskan town of Barrow for an academic project. Barrow is profoundly different from any place I have been: at 71.3 N latitude, it perches at the edge of the Arctic Ocean. During April, when I visited, the ocean is frozen as far as you can see. The tundra is white and flat, and there is no vegetation. Most of the people who live there are Inupiat Eskimos. It is as far removed as you can imagine from Delhi, where I grew up, or for that matter, Boston, near which city I now reside.
I was wandering through the bright hallways of Ilisagvik college in Barrow, looking for someone with whom I hoped to speak, when I found an efficient young administrative assistant. She assured me she would find the person I was seeking, and took my name down. As is usual in the US I had to spell it for her. “I’ve never heard that name before!” she said. “Where are you from?” There was only curiosity and friendliness in her gaze. I could tell that she was trying, and failing, to place me. My skin was about the same color as hers, yet I looked different. I was clearly not white, or African-American, and I was certainly not Inupiat, like her. The innocence of her question was such that it did not occur to me to be offended, and I explained.
She said: “Wow! It must be really strange for you to be here.”
I must have looked a question as I nodded, because she explained that she had once gone to Washington D.C. Having lived in Barrow all her life, it was her first trip south. South! What was it like? “It was so weird!” she said. “So different!” After that experience she realized how strange her home would seem to people from other places.
The best speculative fiction, like travel, does that to you – it takes you to strange places, from which vantage point you can no longer take your home for granted. It renders the familiar strange, and the strange becomes, for the duration of the story, the norm. The reversal of the gaze, the journey in the shoes of the Other, is one of the great promises of speculative fiction. Much of the time it doesn’t deliver, however. Much of the time you get to go to other worlds with your feet firmly encased in your own shoes, carrying around your perspectives and prejudices as though you had never left home.
This is only one reason why we need diversity in speculative fiction. And by diversity I don’t just mean white writers including other places and races in their fiction – that has its importance, but I don’t consider it here. What I am really interested in is the fiction of authors from different countries, cultures, races, genders, sexual orientations, physical abilities and experiences. The former is – emphatically — not a substitute for the latter. We are still in a situation where the origin (in a geometrical/ Cartesian sense) of the global SF scene is firmly planted in the West, and the ‘norm’ thus defined. Writers from, say, a town near the Gobi desert, or a small town in North India, or people who are transgender, or blind, or bisexual, to pick a few items from the spectrum of diversity, experience the world differently from the ‘norm’. If speculative fiction is about dealing with otherness, with difference, then these voices should be an integral and essential part of the body of speculative fiction, not pushed to the margins.
Much has been written about diversity in speculative fiction lately, by people far more eloquent on the subject, so I won’t repeat too much of what they’ve said, other than to acknowledge the debt and to say, go read their essays, you’ll learn something. I know I did. Having a high melanin content and no y-chromosomes does not mean one is naturally well-informed about diversity outside of one’s own experience. To understand it is also to recognize it as a discipline, a subject at the crossroads of multiple academic areas. That exploration, in fact, puts in context one’s personal experiences, giving them a scaffolding, so to speak. This aspect of my diversity education is still ongoing, and I suspect will always be. So in that spirit, here are some links, a fairly random selection of worthy articles, in no particular order. Please feel free to suggest similar links in the Comments.
Transracial Writing for the Sincere by Nisi Shawl
On Other Cultures and Diversity in SFF by Aliette de Bodard
The many “Movements” columns by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz in Strange Horizons
Race, Again, Still by Nisi Shawl
Escaping Ethnocentricity? by Samuel Delany in Strange Horizons, and the links to other articles therein
Diversity, Appropriation and Writing the Other by Jim Hines which also contains numerous links to useful articles
Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture, or Appropriate Away and Where Are the Wise Crones in Science Fiction? by Athena Andreadis
That Only a Feminist: Reflections on Women, Feminism and Science Fiction, 1818-1960 by L. Timmel Duchamp
Diversity in speculative fiction is a personal thing to me, not just because of my gender or the color of my skin. The first science fiction story I ever wrote, when I was maybe nine or ten, had to do with five people who go off on a spaceship to have adventures. All these people were white and male. I’d never met a white man, yet he was my default. It took me some time to decolonize my brain – to realize that there was a dominant worldview, and that this was a problematic thing. Slowly, through life experience, books, and people, I began to see that there were alternative ways of looking at the world all around me, and that cultures and languages gestated and brought forth these alternatives.
Fast-forward a couple of decades after that forgettable little story. By then I was an accidental immigrant in the U.S., and a writer larva, meeting an agent at my first writer’s conference somewhere on the West Coast. Although she represented authors of both genre and realist fiction, she took one look at me and pronounced me a multicultural writer. “You’re a multicultural writer,” she said, in the tone of a biologist triumphantly identifying an uncommon species. “Why are you interested in science fiction?” She went on to say that I should be writing stories about arranged marriages, saris, spices, the lot.
I was taken aback, and indignant. At the time I was quite shy. I suspect I just goggled at her, aghast, while she swept on to her next victim.
That was a memorable conference, in part because it included a mini-writer’s workshop with Ursula Le Guin and Molly Gloss. Ursula Le Guin was the reason why I had decided not just to write science fiction but to try to publish my work. When I was a kid growing up in India, imaginative literature was my staple diet, from Asimov and Clarke to fat little Hindi pocket books of tall tales. I came naturally to science fiction, eventually discovering Ray Bradbury at around 11 or 12 years of age. I ate it all up – it fed my interest in science, which fed my interest in science fiction. Sleeping on the rooftop of my grandparents’ house on fine nights, my brother and cousins and I would lie awake, staring into the bowl of the sky, wondering which of the bright stars had habitable worlds.
But after a while I tired of science fiction. Through my teens and early twenties I read other stuff – mysteries, ‘serious’ literature. Then I went to the US for graduate work in physics.
Despite my knowledge of American geography, culture, history and writing, I wasn’t prepared for the reality of it. Everything was different, from blades of grass to light switches. It was an astonishing feeling to be so far from home, on an alien shore. Although I got used to it, that feeling of alienation never quite disappeared. The distance from home made my old home appear clearer in some respects, more mysterious in others. Questions arose in my mind that had never occurred to me before.
The only thing that spoke to this experience was science fiction. So between teaching and studying and research I started reading the stuff again, sporadically, but something kept bothering me about it that I couldn’t articulate. Later, during my temporary but long absence from academia (after Ph.D. and post-doc) I discovered the works of Ursula Le Guin. A universe of possibilities exploded at my feet. It occurred to me then that my earlier disaffection from science fiction had to do with the fact that there were no people like me in all those imagined futures. Call me slow, but it took me a long time to figure out this terribly obvious thing. I had clearly internalized the dominance of the Western cultural mode, in SF and, as I later realized, in a lot of other areas.
What Ursula Le Guin’s works showed me was that there could be science fiction that was about brown or black people as well as white. But it wasn’t just a question of skin color. That there could be other ways of thinking and being, other philosophies and imperatives in the futures of SF, was a revelation. I had always wanted to write fiction, and had toyed with the idea of writing science fiction. But before this I’d never thought of writing seriously, writing because I had, perhaps, something to say to the world.
When I wrote my first science fiction story as a young mother living in the US, there were no white men in it. The story was about a remote Himalayan village where a social-ecological movement was in progress, and it featured an outcast who, it would turn out, was harboring an alien marooned on our world. It drew upon an experience I’d had when I was seventeen, having just finished high school. I had gone on an expedition to the Himalayas with some other young people to study the Chipko movement, a movement for environment, livelihood, and social justice that had, as its backbone, rural village women.
As I stood on that remote Himalayan hillside and watched a meeting of local villages — as I saw a woman speak with fist raised, and the audience of a couple of hundred men and women listen to her – a fault line appeared in my understanding of the world. Later I realized what it was: in the speech of that illiterate village woman, a doyenne of the Chipko movement, so far from the centers of power, education and modern civilization, I’d witnessed a homegrown, indigenous feminism that owed exactly nothing to, say, Betty Friedan. Somehow over the years I’d absorbed without knowing it this colonial message — that to recover from, and grow as successful as the occupying power, you had to turn to its ideas and its people and its history to make your own shining future, naturally in the image of that power. The only alternative I knew of was a reactionary one – to label all or most aspects of that colonizing culture bad or evil, and to selectively pick aspects from one’s own tradition, inject them with a rigidifying solution, and label these as good. Not a true alternative, then, but the same paradigm reversed, in which the colonizer’s worldview was still the standard, the unit of measure.
My first short story, which was informed by that Himalayan experience, got me a nice rejection from the editor of a major American SF magazine and an invitation to keep submitting. The story was never published. But the point is that it represented my first attempt to take the origin of the science-fictional coordinate system, uproot it from the West, and set it in my part of the world.
Around that time I came across an essay by Norman Spinrad in Asimov’s magazine, in which he discoursed knowingly about why there was no third world science fiction. Because, he said, third world cultures have no conception of the future. One could write a thesis on all the things wrong with this: 1) there is, thank you very much, a ‘third world’ science fiction, some of it with a pretty long history, 2) science fiction isn’t necessarily about the future, and 3) just like anywhere else, people in the third world do think about the future. That someone could write this in the 1990s with such a staggering degree of confidence was astonishing to me. But it made me think about the question that had been simmering at the back of my brain since the encounter years ago with the agent who had so triumphantly labeled me multicultural. Why would someone from the ‘third world’ write science fiction?
Now one might say that question is no longer relevant, seeing that anthologies with diverse authors are now so many (happily!) that I can’t keep up with them. But speculative fiction is still nowhere near a level playing field, and in any case, each time I explore the question, it gives me a chance to re-affirm a position that still has relevance, and find new insights.
So, again: Why would someone from the ‘third world’ write science fiction?
Apart from the obvious retort “why the bloody hell not?” here are some other ways to answer this question.
In “So Long Been Dreaming,” a groundbreaking anthology (2004) co-edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan, Nalo’s preface reminds us that:
“Arguably, one of the most familiar memes of science fiction is that of going to foreign countries and colonizing the natives… for many of us that is not a thrilling adventure story; it’s non-fiction and we are on the wrong side of the strange-looking ship that appears out of nowhere. To be a person of colour writing science fiction is to be under suspicion of having internalized one’s colonization.”
I am proud of the fact that one of my stories is included in this anthology. But what’s more important to me is that when I first read it, I got to hear the voices of writers from diverse backgrounds, from Native American to Caribbean. I got to see the universe through multiple lenses that boggled my mind, made me at times uncomfortable (trying to stand in someone else’s shoes should not always be easy) and expanded my imagination. My fellow writers had taken the contradiction implied in the quote above and showed how you could unbuild the standard issue edifice of science fiction with the intelligent adaptation of old tools and introduction of new ones. Add some non-Euclidean structural elements, and put the whole thing together with a different aesthetic, an alternative logic, and you have a very different, far more interesting building. Wander through it, look through the windows and try out the furniture, and it might well leave you a little changed when you leave.
But why take the trouble to write SF? Well, if it is human to have a sense of wonder with regard to the universe, if it is human to indulge in imaginative play for the sheer fun of it, and if the ‘third world’ really is on this planet, and its denizens also human, then it should be just as natural for someone in Kolkata or La Paz to write SF as anywhere else.
But for those of us who come from once-colonized countries, the writing of SF can hold a particular significance. While I was born in a free India, my family was deeply affected by British colonialism. My grandmother took part in the salt satyagraha. My grandfather and my mother told me stories about what it was like growing up under the yoke of empire. My paternal grand-uncle developed poor health from his incarceration in a British prison, and died relatively young as a result, so I never knew him. My maternal grandfather, a policeman, walked away from a prestigious promotion because he refused an order from his British superiors to fire on unarmed protesters. When I was growing up, my paternal grandfather, a man of great integrity and intelligence, made me aware of various aspects of the legacy of colonialism – from widespread and terrible poverty, to deep and sometimes violent divisions along religious lines, to the railroad system, to the use of English in the education system and in government. I began to see, murkily and slowly, that one other effect of colonialism was to bind the imagination, to exclude from possibility other ways of thinking than that of the conquerors, other dreams, other futures.
Science fiction allows us the possibility of transgression. When I wrote the story that got me my first rejection, I was beginning to connect with that long-ago experience as a seventeen-year-old, of seeing the world through a different lens that repositioned the origin, the center. Some years after that I experienced an electric shock of recognition when I read Claude Lalumiere’s essay “Fear of Fiction: Campbell’s world and Other Obsolete Paradigms” It validated my own feelings about golden age fiction (what Athena Andreadis prefers to call leaden-age fiction), and my excitement at the notion that SF could be transgressive; it didn’t have to be stuck in the Western-in-Space mode with its problematic sub-text of conquest and dominion. What other mode of literature exists that can let us construct not just new gizmos but also new ways of thinking and being? We can use the imagination to come up with alternatives, from energy sources to social relationships to propulsion systems. In the multidimensional space of possibilities, we can uproot the origin of the usual 3-d coordinate system and reposition it so that we have the view from different places, different races, genders, body types and abilities; we can, to expand on this lovely mathematical analogy, add new axes, throw away the old Euclidean straight lines and use curvilinear coordinates. Perhaps surfing this space of possibility holds the promise of freeing us from that terrible, invisible, insidious thing: the colonization of the mind, which remains well after the colonizers have gone home.
That this is still relevant is sadly true today. Consider for instance the current model of development, with its frenetic pillaging of finite resources, and its wanton lack of regard for both human beings and the environment on which we depend for such things as, say, breathing. Consider the sadness and irony of a situation in which most people – including some of the poorest and most exploited in the world – have no possibility of a livelihood except through the very industries that have destroyed their environment and their livelihood. Consider that the so called developing countries like my own are on a rampage to build more malls and high rises, while leaders talk glibly about lifting millions out of poverty. Consider the monstrous challenge of climate change, and that the great corpocracy that brought it about still continues along the same destructive path. I once heard a young man in the local Indian grocery store say that in a few years India could be as developed as the USA, wouldn’t it be something to be proud of? All those malls coming up, and the highways! Who doesn’t want them? And I thought about how we can only see one way to employ people, one way to keep us well fed and comfortable, even if that one way doesn’t reach most people on the planet and destroys the very basis on which life depends. It occurred to me that ultimately climate change is a problem of the imagination. We can’t imagine an alternative economy, alternative social relations and livelihoods in which we could take care of the earth and each other, and prosper. Instead we invoke false dichotomies like civilization versus nature, or economy versus environment, and we keep doing the same thing because we can’t, for the life of us, imagine anything different.
This is true, of course, in the center of empire as well as in the colonies and former colonies. Which is also another reason we need people from everywhere to take off their blinkers, their tinted spectacles and special lenses, and behold the world in its variegated, dizzying, kaleidoscopic richness. To read good speculative fiction from multiple perspectives is to get a little drunk on unfamiliar liquors, so that one can no longer walk straight and oblivious through the pathways of one’s unexamined assumptions. We need to intoxicate the imagination. How else than through speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy that has realized its transgressive potential?
Part of science fiction’s richness is the fact that it allows us to engage with non-humans, with the physical universe. The realist genre is so human-centric as to be not only boring but pathologically solipsistic and ultimately false. With some rare exceptions, much of modern mainstream literature exclusively involves human beings interacting with human beings in a human-built environment, as though this was even possible. When was the last time you read a mainstream book in which an animal, or a tree, was a main character? Such themes are, of course, not considered worthy of adult consumption and are relegated to children’s books. But there’s Moby Dick, after all. And in the works of Barbara Kingsolver, humans interact not just with each other but also with trees, butterflies, insects, birds. So it isn’t as though it can’t be done, even in mainstream fiction. But SF naturally brings humans into play with the physical universe, and with non-humans. How refreshing! And how crucial, because here we can re-examine, and delight in, our connection to the non-human world. And, for those of us from very old cultures, how familiar! Because the great epics I grew up with, like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, also portray human drama against the active, interfering, interacting backdrop of the non-human universe.
India has always had a rich tradition of imaginative literature. From multiple Ramayanas and other epic wonders to village tall tales, to the embroidered yarns of grandmother storytellers, there has always been a recognition of the fluidity of narrative, of reality itself. The notion is implicit that borders are only suggestions and conveniences, subject to custom, whim, and social imperative, but constructs, nevertheless. Thus when Anil Menon and I decided to edit an anthology of modern-day stories inspired by the Ramayana epic, we found ourselves reconnecting with something that was already in existence. We were doing something simultaneously old and new, enabling the multiplying of Ramayanas as others had done in the past. And in fact for me some of the most liberating and validating experiences of being a writer have been exactly of this kind: to speak, through my stories, to my own history — to converse with, interrogate, give thanks to, or argue with Somadeva, Premchand, Rassundari, Premendra Mitra or Kalidasa. To walk in the shoes of an elderly Muslim mathematics teacher, to see how the world he inhabits might look from his eyes, against a backdrop of mathematical obsession and sectarian violence, to give voice to a long-dead poet who wandered through the forests of Northern India collecting stories to soothe his queen’s troubled heart, to ask a question of Rassundari, who made history by writing her own history back in the 1800s!
To me this process of engaging with my past, my history, is part of becoming free. For someone from a post-colonial nation this is a necessary step to complete what happened on August 15, 1947, even though I wasn’t born until quite a long time after that. And yet…
I have sometimes been described as a postcolonial writer. This is true under certain circumstances, in certain contexts, but it is not all I am. Labels are limiting things. All those years ago the agent who labeled me ‘multicultural’ was trying to put me in a box. Of course my writing is informed by my background, but my background also includes, for instance, physics. I’ve come across situations where my being a female with a Ph.D. in physics has made some men uncomfortable and territorial. Once, as an experiment, I said something overly self-deprecating about my physics background, and the guy I was talking to, a successful SF writer, quite literally relaxed. You could see his posture, his facial expression change. He smiled, he sat back in his chair, as though to say “ah, I am still in charge.” Inside I was laughing my head off, but I was also a bit horrified. Yet this was not an isolated instance. Time and again I’ve come across male writers who feel they define and own SF, especially hard SF. I’ve had scientific story ideas of mine challenged, not out of curiosity (“so how would this work?”) but out of an apparent desire to prove me wrong (“this can’t work”). I enjoy discussing physics aspects that underlie my stories, am always open to constructive criticism, and arguing amicably can be fun, but when the sub-text is “you’re female so what do you know?” then I get seriously annoyed. There are also too many women writers I’ve come across who are so turned off science (for very good reasons I suspect) that they don’t want to engage with it. One dream I have is to gather together a bunch of women SF writers from across the diversity spectrum, ‘science types’ or not, and work through a bunch of physics ideas, and write stories that redefine and broaden and take over hard SF. But that is a rant for another day.
Part of the point I am making about labels being limiting is that postcolonial writers, or multicultural writers are expected to write only about their backgrounds, to be spokespeople for their countries and cultures. Yet if science fiction is to be truly liberating, and if part of its freedom is to allow us to step into unfamiliar shoes, then there is no reason why such a writer shouldn’t, like Vikram Seth, write a story that has nothing to do with his/her background. Why can’t I write about a Russian businessman, or a white Southerner in Texas? Not as default, but as a deliberate and fully informed choice to explore another reality? Well, of course I can, although I’ve been a bit slow to extend myself so far from my comfort zone. An upcoming story of mine has the most international cast I’ve ever created – white Southerner, Inuit Canadian woman, Indian boy, Brazilian woman, Chinese man. Writing it scared the hell out of me.
A non-Anglo writer writing about whites, or any other culture not her own, has to abide by the same considerations as a white writer writing about the Other. Do your research, talk to people, be aware of harboring stereotypes and assumptions, show your work to multiple people from the group you’re writing about. If you make mistakes, admit them, apologize, and do better next time. That said, note that a white writer writing about a non-white culture has a much greater effect than a non-white writer writing about anything. Consider that xenophobic rant, Dan Simmon’s Song of Kali. Because we live in an unequal world, that book speaks louder than, say, Premendra Mitra’s Ghanada tales, set in approximately the same place. (I suspect that the slew of fine Indian English writing in the realist genre might have done something to redress the imbalance there – but in SF the situation remains sadly skewed, despite plenty of fine Indian writing in English or in translation). Consider Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312, on which I wrote a lengthy critique (while not at all a hate-fest, like the Simmons work, it is deeply problematic). Both the Simmons and Robinson books have won praise, adulation, and awards.
Identity is a weird thing. It is important to own it, if one so desires, but also to recognize its multiplicity, and its context-dependence. In this is our freedom. I don’t just mean that a postcolonial writer might also be a scientist. In this country I am part of a racial/ ethnic minority. But I am also economically advantaged (definitely not rich, being a college professor, but doing all right) and physically able. In India I happen also to be upper caste (somewhat compromised by my parents’ inter-caste marriage) although this matters far less in Delhi than in a small town in Bihar. I am also part of the highly educated intelligentsia, which means I have a whole lot of privilege in that regard. Being aware of this, I must tread carefully when I am in a situation where these things matter. So I wear many hats, but I need not wear all of them all the time. When I am walking in the woods or across fields, and there are no other humans around, my being Indian, or female, or even human, doesn’t matter. It is freeing to sometimes be simply an animal walking in the forest.
So, to sum up, we foreigners, interlopers, aliens, we write SF for as many reasons as there are stars in the sky. I can’t speak for everyone, so here are my thoughts as to why some of us might write SF, and why diversity in SF is absolutely necessary:
a) Despite our important differences, we are also human, susceptible to wonder, to the creative impulse. “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”
b) We need to be comfortable with moving our coordinate systems around so that we can see the world, the universe, from multiple gazes and perspectives
c) SF allows us to question, to challenge, to bring into visibility our belief structures, our assumptions about ourselves and the world; for writers from post-colonial nations to imagine their own futures, their own alternatives, is a deeply revolutionary, freeing act
d) We need new paradigms, new ways of relating to the non-human universe, if we are to survive the climate crisis. The postcolonial, so called ‘third world’ nations, and indigenous communities within the ‘first world’ are being/will be most deeply affected by climate change, despite having done the least to cause the problem. SF gives us the tools to write those other paradigms into being.
e) We can reconnect with the kind of literature some of us grew up with, the oldest works in the world – in which humans interacted with rocks, trees, stars, animals, demons and tree spirits, and not just with each other. Modern literature’s obsession with the exclusively human is a sign of a deep malaise, apart from being utterly boring and unrealistic.
f) SF’s mandate to extend the imagination, so we can walk, even if uncomfortably, in the shoes of others, also allows us to wriggle out of categories and pigeon-holes. I might be a postcolonial writer under some lights, but under other illuminations, watch out! I might be something else entirely.
Finally I want to say a few words about language. There is a corollary to Nalo Hopkinson’s quote above. If science fiction must be subverted to avoid internalizing our colonization, what of English? Those of us who write in English – how can we realize the revolutionary potential of SF, the freedom implicit within it, if we write in the tongue of the colonizers? Is it even possible to do so? And if so, surely we have to do something to the way English is written, to change the tools, to unbuild the House of the SF Establishment?
To begin with, I believe that works in English cannot substitute for works in the languages of writers from diverse linguistic origins. I first got a sense of this when I read an English translation of a story by the great classic Hindi short story writer, Premchand. The translation was competent, but much had been lost compared to the original story. I thought about this again some years later, when I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Pablo Neruda in translation. Even in translation they blew my mind, and changed the way I thought about language; but it made me wonder what I was missing. So it is important for people to keep writing and publishing in their own languages. But cross-pollination is necessary too. Because English is the dominant language in the world, translation, for all its drawbacks, then becomes crucial, if we are to read those works and be influenced by them. We need a global SF conversation, and if it has to be conducted mostly in English on the world stage, so be it, even if we can only chat in our separate courtyards in Tamil, or Chinese, or Portuguese. For me reading in Hindi is necessary to maintain my sanity, even if I don’t get the time to read as much as I’d like. I also write a little in Hindi, solely for myself. One’s first language is such a personal, essential thing, as I’ve written about in this older blog post about drowning in English.
Having said this, however, for me English is not a foreign language. Considering the number of English dialects in India, and its co-existence with the 18 other languages of the subcontinent, and the fact that I learned it only a few years after Hindi, it feels to me like an old coat, comfortable and familiar. It is, to me, beautiful in its myriad forms, in its astonishing adaptability. Yet the fact that I write primarily in English now is a source of discomfort. I think it is important for me to engage with that discomfort. I have not yet experimented with the language very much in my writing, to see what new tools I might forge by using it differently – others have done that, and done that well. I’ve sometimes used Hindi words if the situation called for them. When my children’s book, Younguncle Comes to Town, was published in the U.S., one critic complained about the frequent use of unexplained ‘Hindu” words. I found this extremely irritating, not only because he’d mixed up the language and the religion, but also because he wanted everything to be clearly explained and handed to him on a platter as though that was his due. I remember struggling with English words and idioms when I was a kid, and ultimately figuring out their meanings from context. Others can do the same. It is a good exercise. People who come across words in an unfamiliar language, such as the Spanish in Junot Diaz’s The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, might consider embracing that discomfort and seeing what it does for them. They might also consider that in speaking, even for a moment, in his or her own tongue, the author could be exercising a hard-won freedom. The current discussion at Strange Horizons explores these issues better than I can here, but I want to point out one other important thing. Words in foreign languages aren’t just window-dressing. They can signify much more.
During my trip to Alaska I had the privilege of speaking with an Inupiat elder and intellectual, a Ph.D. in education, who spoke eloquently about language. Her language, Inupiaq, is still spoken, but mostly by elders. A concerted effort is under way to teach it and popularize it among the young. She told me how certain words had become rare in usage, because the contexts, the concepts associated with those words had disappeared.
One might use this as an analogy to argue for the inclusion of words from other languages in a work of English. Some things are untranslatable directly, because the context does not exist in English. How to make the context come alive? Write a story, and bring to life the words that are appropriate to that situation. May a thousand worldviews bloom.
The situation with regard to diversity in speculative in the US appears, from my personal experience at least, to be shifting. When I first started getting published, back in the early 2000s, I felt very much alone. When I went to cons, I was the only brown face, standing awkwardly in corners, getting ignored or stared at. Some of it, I think, had to do with the fact that I wore Indian clothes, which I like to do whenever I can. (India might be among the last places in the world where indigenous clothing has survived and thrived alongside jeans and t-shirts). Gradually things started changing. The first African-American writer I discovered was Octavia Butler, and I still remember the mixture of wonder and relief when I read Parable of the Sower, and my inarticulate awe when I met her at Readercon. But then there were other people and their stories – the ever-inspiring Nisi Shawl, and later, the irrepressible Andrea Hairston, and courageous and enterprising people like Sheree Thomas, and K. Tempest Bradford, and even later, a contingent of young, fiercely intelligent black writers who came along and turned upside down all the conventions of fantasy – Nnedi Okarafor, N. K. Jemisin, Alaya Dawn Johnson, to name a few. I read about alternate Russia through Kathy Sedia’s marvelous literary inventions, and wandered through Angelica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial, courtesy of translator Ursula Le Guin. Mary Anne Mohanraj burst upon the world and started Strange Horizons, which is still going strong today. Sometime later, Lavie Tidhar and Charles Tan started the World SF blog; Michael Iwoleit and colleagues took their fledgling international SF zine to the next level and Internova came online. Feminist SF took off with Aqueduct Press and Timmi Duchamp, bringing immensely readable, thoughtful, intelligent works into being. The Carl Brandon Society was formed to increase racial and ethnic diversity in SF.
I will never forget the Boston Worldcon where I met, for the first time ever, a fellow Indian and a brother – Anil Menon, whose science-fictional imagination and generosity I greatly admire, to say nothing of the fact that he is a walking encyclopedia. Then, I could not have imagined that a few years later he and I would, along with Suchitra Mathur, a professor at IIT Kanpur, conduct an SF workshop in India that would draw forth the considerable talents of a new generation of Indian writers. Or that we would co-edit an anthology together, and some of our authors and others would go on to make a mark in major ezines and Year’s Best volumes – Indrapramit Das, Aishwarya Subramanian, Swapna Kishore. Now there are so many Indian SF authors from India and abroad that I know I am leaving out several names even when I list only the ones writing in English: Shweta Narayan, Manjula Padmanabhan, Rimi_B._Chatterjee, Payal Dhar, Priya Chabria, Amish, Samit Basu. Arvind Mishra and other Hindi writers have been having national SF conferences for a while in India, keeping the field dynamic, and translations are happening gradually. Strange Horizons, ahead of other venues, as always, has paid a lot of attention to diversity in SF, including hosting a special on Indian SF.
There are new writers from what were once far-flung places changing and enriching SF, rebuilding the Edifice with new tools and sensibilities – a contingent of writers from Asia and the diaspora such as Aliette de Bodard, deservedly winning some of the most coveted awards in SF, writing stories that knock one’s socks off, such as “Immersions.” Joining Dean Francis Alfar from the Philippines we now have stories and columns by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz illuminating that landscape, and I appreciate her articulation of the struggles to find one’s voice and to be heard. Ken Liu not only writes startlingly graceful stories but translates a number of Chinese writers, some of whose works I will not forget easily. Today I might contribute to an anthology such as End of the Road, and discover in its pages that my neighbors include not just my old pal Anil, but also new names writing kick-ass stories: Zen Cho, Benjanun Sriduangkaew. (See here for a long list of Asian spec fic writers). Joining this vocal international contingent is Sofia Samatar, with an African-Middle-Eastern background, who writes unforgettable, richly textured tales. I’ve only begun to discover the works of Daniel Jose Older, Saladin Ahmed, and Sabrina Vourvoulias. For the first time there are so many writers of diverse backgrounds that I can’t keep up with them. And when I read them, I am rendered sockless with wonder and delight. And yet there are not enough, they are still marginalized, and the gates of the establishment have opened but a little.
I don’t mean to imply, by the way, that the diversification of SF needs to happen at the expense of canonical Anglo literature, in and out of SF. There’s plenty of room at the table. I love the elegant precision of Jane Austen’s language, the wit and passion of Shakespeare, the terror and gorgeousness in Ray Bradbury’s works. But it’s time to make room and let others have some space. Besides, think of the conversations we might have if the playing field was level. I can talk to any white reader or writer of literature in English about Shakespeare, or quote Byron and Keats from memory, or discuss reasonably intelligently Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. But they cannot talk to me about the poetry of Ghalib, or quote from Kalidasa, or relate the pivotal beginning scene in the Ramayana, even in translation; it’s likely they’ve never even heard of them. Similarly I am quite ill-informed about the literatures of China, Laos, Mongolia, Paraguay, and most of the rest of the world, because my education system, a legacy of British rule, focused on what was considered to be important; what little I know is from my own reading. Now I look for good translations all the time. Imagine, if we knew more about each other’s literary heritages, how we might converse! How we might influence each other!
And indeed the presence of so many SF writers from all over has made it easier to ask questions and consult, and learn, if one wants to set a story in an unfamiliar place; I’ve benefited from the generosity of Fabio Fernandes for a story set in Brazil, and Miguel Esquirol for one in Bolivia (all responsibility for any shortcomings in the stories being mine alone, of course). Now we have new writers and editors who have sought to change things by deliberately seeking alternate visions, such as Athena Andreadis, whose feminist space opera anthology I am honored to be part of, and whose insights never fail to educate me. There have been so many racefail and genderfail conversations in SF, and I have learned so much from them even by being on the sidelines, that I can only say – thank you for your time and intelligence and anger, you gave me strength. I’ve learned a lot more about other underrepresented groups through those forums – from people with disabilities to the non-binarily gendered. It would have been so much harder without the many allies of diversity in SF, not just writers but editors who put together interesting anthologies that sought out different voices, now too many to name, but including Alex Dally MacFarlane and Jeff and Ann VanderMeer. At a personal level, writer friends who have supported me: Sarah Smith, Shariann Lewitt, Pam Schossau, Kurt Kremer, Steve Shervais remain crucial to my literary survival.
So, here’s to celebrating the new SF world, and here’s to acknowledging how much more work needs to be done. Let’s keep calling out instances of narrow bigotry, of suppression of marginalized voices. Let’s keep talking, being honest, owning what we write, owning up when we mess up. Let’s keep using words from our mother tongues, our other tongues, so that those unused to it can get at least a glimpse of the world from our various perspectives.
And most of all, let’s keep writing. There’s too much hatred in this world, from trigger-happy troubled souls who go on shooting sprees because they hate women, as has just happened in California, to greed-fueled war machines all over the world. Even in the midst of heartache, especially in heartache, our words matter.
As the poet Faiz said,
Ye Daag Daag Ujala, ye Shab Gazeeda Seher
Wo Intizar tha Jiska, Yeh wo Seher tu Nahin
Abhi Chiraghe Sare Rah Ko kuch khabar Hi Nahin.
Abhi Giraniay Shab Men kami Nahin Aii
Najate` Deeda o Dil ki Ghadi Nahim Aii
Chalay Chalo-ke` Wo Manzil Abhi Nahin Aii.
This blemished radiance, this night-stung dawn,
Is not the dawn we waited for.
Now, there is no hint of the end of the road
No ceasing of the darkness of the night
The time when our hearts and minds will be liberated
Is not here yet
Keep going, for our destination is still ahead.
And because it is hard to keep going, sometimes, let me end with the poet Sahir Ludhianvi:
Parvat parvat, basti basti gaata jaye banjara…
Le ke dil ka ektara
Over mountains, across settlements, singing goes the wanderer
Carrying within him the lute of his heart.
May our wanderings be fruitful, and our songs heard.