Monday, May 18, 2009

Sci-fi/Fantasy Fans Against Racism

I am a nerd. Moreover, I am that flavour of nerd that derives great enjoyment from science fiction, fantasy, and horror, in both textual and audiovisual forms -- a taste that has informed my media consumption since my dad first read me various versions of the Arthur myth, some Ursula LeGuin, and J.R.R. Tolkien as bedtime stories starting when I was six or seven.

There is very little I can do to conceal my more general nerdliness from anyone who spends more than a few minutes in conversation with me, but I do tend to be rather sheepish about advertising my specifically fannish tendencies when it comes to speculative fiction. I won't get into the reasons for that sheepishness -- it would distract from the point of the post -- but part of the reason for me posting this today is that I realized that that tendency on my part was on the verge of keeping me silent in a situation in which my political convictions would otherwise be pushing me to say something.

So. Apparently there was a great deal of controversy that began in January '09 when some white sci-fi/fantasy authors and editors and fans said and did some fairly clueless racist things. Some fans of colour and allies pointed those racist things out, and the usual sort of thing happened that tends to happen when white folks get called on racism, in real life or online. This series of events has been called RaceFail 09 (see here and here). I was vaguely aware of RaceFail 09 as it was happening, but only vaguely, because I mostly do not have much to do with organized fan contexts (see above, re. "sheepishness").

More recently, different white sci-fi/fantasy authors have said different clueless racist things -- a good summary is here. It was that post just linked, which I found via a post on Alas, A Blog, that got me reading about all this stuff on Friday afternoon when I really should have been doing other things. This newer situation has variously been called RaceFail 2.0, MammothFail, and other things as well. (Two posts linking to other posts on this issue can be found here and here.)

Now, part of what caught my attention was the content of the original boneheaded move by author Patricia Wrede, who I had never previously heard of. A lot of what I read and write, and a lot of what appears on this blog, has to do with Canadian history from below -- that is, history considered in ways that explicitly foregrounds experiences of and resistance to oppressions. As well, I have developed increasing conviction over the years that you cannot get to the root of anything politically in North America unless you deal with the history and present-day reality of colonization and genocide of the indigenous nations of Turtle Island. So it caught my attention to learn that Wrede is writing an alternative history fantasy of North America in which indigenous people do not exist, and in which the chattel slavery of Africans brought to the Americas does not exist either. As others have noted in various things linked in the links above, you might be able to justify this particular fantastical revision of history if what you were doing was examining the ways in which the shape of the social world in contemporary North America depends in profound ways on histories to which indigenous peoples and enslaved African peoples have been integral. That could actually be fascinating and useful, given the ways in which those of us who are privileged tend to be completely out of touch with the ways in which our privileged realities depend on people who are oppressed to our benefit (white folks on racialized people, men on women, etc., etc.). But the comments from Wrede quoted in the above posts make it clear that it was a decision made primarily because having indigenous people in her story would make things more difficult for her as a writer, and their absence has no particular impact on the history she intends to tell.

This is the main comment from Wrede that gets cited:

The *plan* is for it to be a "settling the frontier" book, only without Indians (because I really hate both the older Indians-as-savages viewpoint that was common in that sort of book, *and* the modern Indians-as-gentle-ecologists viewpoint that seems to be so popular lately, and this seems the best way of eliminating the problem, plus it'll let me play with all sorts of cool megafauna).

This choice is happening in the context of a realworld history in which white people have been trying to make the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island disappear for some time now, and one in which one of the dominant stereotypes that indigenous folks must face in much of the U.S. and some parts of Canada is that they don't exist. And the idea that the two stereotypes she references are the only possible ways to write indigenous people is kind of stunning in its refusal to even acknowledge the possibility of writing indigenous people as, y'know, complicated, nuanced, three-dimensional human beings in complicated, nuanced, three-dimensional societies.

The other major contribution to RaceFail 2.0 comes form fantasy author Lois McMaster Bujold -- I have never read her work either, but I know that some friends like it a lot. Her point, I think made in the course of discussing the stuff from Wrede, was a claim that people of colour have only recently started to read, write, and enjoy speculative fiction, thanks to the internet. Bujold and others claimed, as neo_prodigy summarizes, that the reason "POC speculative fiction fans don't exist is because we're too poor/uneducated, weren't exposed to it by other family members and other absurd bullshit."

Now, my understanding is that there are ways that dominant practices in the production of science fiction, fantasy, and horror have not always made it easy for racialized people to find a place. The publishing industry has its own particular history of racism, as do organized fan contexts. The dominant modes of storytelling in science fiction and fantasy have also tended to be based in standpoints that map readily onto whiteness, onto the colonizer, onto the imperial being, which could also be offputting to some who must navigate those oppressive realities in real life.

Because of these active exclusions, I have understood it to be the case the people of colour have tended to be modestly underrepresented as writers and fans of sf/f/h in English -- definitely not absent, but moderately less present. But because of this controversy, I'm no longer so sure that even that is true. Whether it is true or not, I'm sure these things are: Racism in both social contexts associated with sf/f/h fiction and in sf/f/h writing exists and makes these environments less hospitable to racialized people. Yet racialized people are and have always been present in those contexts, as both writers and readers. I mean, it is just a basic, basic thing that oppression creates its own resistance. That resistance can take lots of forms, it may or may not be visible to the oppressor, and it may or may not be easily recognized as such by those of us who claim we want to be allies. But it is always there. So of course there are fans of colour, and have always been. Of course. No matter how hostile an environment we white people might make fan contexts and publishing contexts and some of the dominant tropes of the genre -- people that are erased, excluded, pushed to the exit by relations of white supremacy and the ways in which they are expressed in how writing gets published and what writing gets published, will always, always, always be refusing to passively accept that treatment. Always. And white folk who want to be allies should be refusing to passively accept it too. As well, the ways that human beings take up stories and images is active -- people are fully capable of embracing elements of a narrative that fill us with wonder, with hope, with passion, that speak to us in some way, and really embrace them, even as we are critical of other elements.

So some things have been happening in response to all of this. One is this amazing, inspiring callout for racialized fans of speculative fiction to make themselves visible by leaving a comment. Another is the day of blog-based action to which this post is a response, called "Fen of Color United" or FOC_U. The callout was for racialized people to post stories or poetry or fanfic or analyses of the issue and to generally show a refusal to be silent and invisible, and for white allies to speak out in solidarity. So that's what I'm doing.

I'll end with this: Read what you already love but be deliberate as you experiment with new voices. Read authors of colour. Read authors that play with critical politics in their work. And as you do all of that, embrace the juxtaposition of extracting joy and wonder with actively critical reading, of producing joy and wonder with actively critical writing.


Red Jenny said...

Interesting. One of the reasons I pretty much stopped reading SF and fantasy was because so much of it showed rather juvenile stereotyping. Of course, some authors directly challenge stereotypes with their imaginings of alternative societies... Someone should compile a good list of progressive SF and fantasy. That would be cool...

Scott said...

Hi Jenny!

Yeah, there's lots with juvenile stereotyping, for sure. It has been kind of disillusioning to examine some stuff that I loved as a kid with my present-day eyes, and not be super impressed by what I see. But there is also lots of cool stuff out there.

There are various lists that I've stumbled across from time to time, though none recently, so I'm afraid I don't have any ready link to suggest...

What sort of stuff do you read now?

Bridgett said...

To jump in-- The 50 Books by Writers of Color challenge on LiveJournal is a great place to find SF and fantasy works that don't fall into the stereotypical traps. (You can also find some good and interesting authors just by following the racefail linkspam around!)

Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt is also a great example of alternate history done the right way-- a huge portion of the population of Western Europe is decimated by plague, and the development of the planet changes significantly as a result.

(Very nice post, btw!)

Scott said...

Thanks for that link, Bridgett!

Red Jenny said...

ooh, thanks Bridgett. The Years of Rice and Salt sounds really interesting. I think I will have to check it out.

I also would mention Spider Robinson - some of his stuff is pretty interesting

the rev. paperboy said...

Jenny, you are preaching to the converted in my case - Spider Robinson being the guy who got me into science fiction in a big way in the first place - but I'd chime in a vote for Kim Stanley Robinson too, the Mars books rule. I'm not really part of SF fandom, reading as little SF as I do these days, though I'm told Orson Scott Card of "Ender's Game" fame has revealed himself to be a bit of a tool and I'm current enough to know that "Little Brother" by Cory Doctorow is tha' bomb. I like all the old Heinlein, but I'm no libertarian. My most current fave is Neil Stephenson, who as far as I've seen to date, can do no wrong!

Michelle said...
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