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Spingate [Mar. 15th, 2010|05:24 pm]
Over on her blog, triciasullivan asks me what I think about Norman Spinrad's Third World Worlds piece in the April May Asimov's. This after a grumble from me about being sub-poenaed as a witness for the prosecution led to an ugly and unnecessary derail-war on her blog. Only reasonable that I haul it over here, as her place is looking like the Ypres Salient at the moment.

Now, I last saw Norman Spinrad at Utopiales in Nantes last November where I also met Aliette de Bodard. He was in good form, if looking a bit frail, and as entertaining to talk with as ever. Now there's this Asimov's piece. It's explosive. I'm trying to work meanings and intentions out of it. If it's a call for sf written outside the 'Anglosphere' to be published and read in the conservative US market (and SF, moreso than fantasy, is a conservative genre), it's kak-handed in the extreme. I think it shows ignorance of what's going on the field, and is deliberately provocative in a way that falls over into giving offence. However, as a way of stimulating debate about whose voices are heard in the genre, and why, and what other voices there are outside the US value-system; it succeeds all to well.

What can I make of these paras?
Now I must confess that I do not read Mandarin Chinese, any African language, Arabic—indeed any Asian language at all—and I must also confess for we Anglophones, that, with the exception of Japanese, hardly any, maybe no, science fiction written in these languages has been translated into English, or for that matter other European languages, and it would seem that such science fiction may hardly exist at all.

If one includes Latin America in the Third World, a hot-button political minefield I intend to sidestep here, it’s a large exception to this, since there is a goodly amount of science fiction written there in Spanish and Portuguese. But these are languages of European origin, and therefore not entirely culturally disconnected from the self-styled First World. With the exception of the Japanese, I at least, am at a loss to point to any science fiction that I know of that has evolved independently in non-European languages or cultures disconnected therefrom.

I'd like to hear Ashok Banker on that last (and why have most of the voices on this been North American?)--pace Charles Tan Other bloggers and commentators have the reading lists. Go read. Start with The Apex Book of World SF Japan has evolved its own science-fiction which is quite distinctive from US-UK SF. Does he mean that India, China, North Africa, West Africa, South Africa, South America, South East Asia have yet to develop their own SFs, as distinctive and formed by their own cultures and peoples as Japan's? That would be enormously exciting. Certainly then voices like Lauren Buekes' will become even more valuable than they are already.

As the Octavia Butler/Mike Resnick piece, I'm trying to work out what this might mean. Is he trying to challenge US concepts of identity and ethnicity? Is he saying that they are both writing as outsiders? That surely was a matter for Octavia Butler. She can't speak for herself, but her works surely tells us how she saw herself, her culture and her voice in US and world society. As someone points out elsewhere in the blogosphere, safer by far to go after dead Octavia Butler than live Samuel Delaney. Normas certainly knows what button to press.

Am I happy to be held up as an allegedly 'shining example'? As triciasullivan says, 'with friends like Spinrad, who needs enemies?' I'm not trying to be a good example of anything, I'm just trying to write as honest a book as I can, while retaining the author's privelege of, as saladinahmed says, I wish writers -- white, Black, Arab, etc. -- would just say "I have X personal experience with this place/culture, have done Y amount of research, and have tried my best. But that doesn't change the fact that this is SOME SHIT I MADE UP." There are lots of things in our writing we can take a deep stake in -- but 'authenticity' is probably the least productive one.. I do find myself looking and listening much more than talking these days. That's why I blog so seldomly on genre: it's more interesting to listen than to opine.

Is this a useful article to have published? I think it's a careless one that has caused much offense, and the offense undoes what value it might have. Voices do go unheard because of the nature of the mass-market publishing industry and Western readerships. This impoverishes us all. Asimov's could run a reply next month. I wonder what the feedback to the magazine has been like?

Finally, a line says I’m not trying to get into a political argument here, but I certainly could. I think you've already done that, mate.

[User Picture]From: al_zorra
2010-03-15 07:25 pm (UTC)
It's another wave of mess, isn't it. Dang.

What I always liked about Capoeira was how it was presented to me from the first contact with it -- the operative word is 'play' (in Portuguese, of course), and it is connected with both a creolized, syncretized African religon, then, naturally certain Brasilian musics, and, as well, a kinetic historic memory of life on slave plantations. But that was then, and we've not been in Brasil for far too many years due to many reasons, including cost.

But that's neither here nor there.

It's about trying with good heart and best of ability to do it right.

Fiction is STILL fiction, no matter what. It isn't history, though yes, it is very useful to study along with history and music to receive a much better context for understanding.

Love, c.
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[User Picture]From: ianmcdonald
2010-03-16 12:22 pm (UTC)
I was trying to find that debate you had in (I think) someone else's blog about the term 'Third World': where people in the Phillipines don't mind using it: it was an interesting insight.
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[User Picture]From: al_zorra
2010-03-16 04:57 pm (UTC)
It was in one of James Nicolls topics a few days ago.

However, again, to make things even more complicated, just back from a grad comp lit conference at UCLA called Ports of Call, where Vaquero delivered a keynote address -- a Philippina gave a paper in which she did not use 'third world,' to describe the Philippines -- nor did anyone else from anywhere else -- who ranged from Urdu-speaking India to, mostly, from the Middle East, and they'd have been displeased if it were used.

Evidently in this Rome of academic U.S. etc.

Love, C.

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[User Picture]From: ianmcdonald
2010-03-17 09:29 am (UTC)
As they say, it takes a Jew to tell a Jewish joke. 'Third World' is an expression I shy away from myself.
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[User Picture]From: asphalteden
2010-03-15 07:50 pm (UTC)
My sense from having worked with Norman for a few years on his column (and having not read that particular essay, by the miraculous grace of the god of poor editors), is that he shoots from the hip quite a lot and runs with it. Certainly I'd come across half-baked stuff in older columns over the years and dismiss it as "just Norman," except those weren't ever about anything people on the internet cared about. Not offering it as an excuse (and not feeling like I'm obligated to offer one anyhow!), but it's probably him running his mouth and not thinking about it enough.

Obviously, I don't know anything about reader response anymore. I don't get the impression a lot of the people yakking on the internets read the magazine, but what do I know. If Norman did drop in a follow-up print piece, it wouldn't appear until October/November, long after the half-life of stuff like this. I'm a little surprised Norman doesn't have a blog. Doesn't everybody in the biz need to get their endless thought-bloat out online these days?
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[User Picture]From: ianmcdonald
2010-03-16 12:19 pm (UTC)
"I don't get the impression a lot of the people yakking on the internets read the magazine": you are exactly right here and that is a big fault of the intahwebs: the ability to dogpile into a judgement without bothering to look at the source material and to jump on quotes out of context. Okay, I've quoted a few pieces myself, but I hope I've tried to understand what Norman was saying, rather than the immediate emotional reaction --and offence is certain;ly the go-to emotion of online. Certainly he's a contrarian, and I get the sense that in this he's deliberately questioning US values and identity politics the way they're considered universal to the rest of the planet --these assumptions need to be examined. I do think, as I've said, that he crosses the line into offence, --but as I've also said, the ant-pile of 'Anglophone' SF needs poking from time to time. Thanks for commenting by the way...
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From: (Anonymous)
2010-04-12 03:58 pm (UTC)

General reply to the whole tib g

First of all, I had abut 6000 words to write the whole thing. Admittedly, in retrospect, this maybe led me to be less clear about the Butler/Resnick comparision and African American versus African African. Just because my ancestors came from say Romania, doesn't mean my consciousness was formed by Romanian culture or language. Same thing for African Americans, that is people whose ancestors came to the US from Africa a couple of centuries ago. Obama, on the other hand, had a Kenyan father, contemporary family roots in Kenya, spend time there with them, and was able to write very well as a Kenyan-American.
As for the rest of it, I was writing for an American magazine read mostly by Americans and entirely in English, and I stand by the gist of what I said:
A few books published obscurely does not mean that "Third World" or even just non-Anglophone sf gets very much publication in the US. I myself and my ex-wife N.Lee Wood worked on a bi-lingual anthology for our Romanian publisher. I have even reviewed in Asimov's a few books available only in French, which I do read well enough to be able to have a literary opinion. Had a bit to do with the SFWA European sf translation anthology.
So I stand by most everything I said, though I could hav said it better if I had twice the wordage.
And from what I've read in the blogosphere, a lot of the blogs are in effect promos for a single antholoogy published by a small press.
Am I wrong about the dirth of sf written by Africans (not African Americans)who are culturally Africans and not Americans? I did mention the Japanese. I have had a bit of contact with what Chinese sf there is. Indian? Malaysian? Thai? Does such stuff exist? How much of there is it? How imitative is it of Anglo-American sf? Given that very little non-Anglophone sf of any kind is translated into English, how can any one person know or find out? This is a major problem. I don't have an easy answer--except a few efforts I've made one language at a time, none of them non Indo-European--any of you foamers at the mouth have actua sigificant information?
Finally, and I know I'm going to catch more shit for this, but it needs to be said. African Americans are culturally far more American than African as they discover when they visit African. This does not mean that there is no such thing as African American culture, literature, poetry, art, music, etc. But it is not rooted in African experience. It all evolved through centuries of the experience and history of African Americans in America, not in Africa, and indeed is just as American as "white American" culture would be if such a thing existed. Which it doesn't. African American and "European" American culture and consciousness have co-evolved together over a long period of time, and both are as American as trailer trash cuisne and soul food.
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[User Picture]From: ianmcdonald
2010-04-12 08:11 pm (UTC)

Re: General reply to the whole tib g

Hi Norman, thanks for calling in, you're very welcome. Hope you're feeling better. In my little piece I was trying to unpack what you were saying in the article, and seeing where people could get upset --race is the national narrative in the US, (in GB it's class, in Northern Ireland religion) and red buttons have been pressed. Culture, race and identity are complex issues involving things that go to the heart of people's sense of self: one thing I firnmly believe is that there are no genes for culture. It's non-inheritable. It's nurture. But I'm sounding schoolmarmy here. The fun bit is the writing going on out there. There's an increasing amount of Non-Western/Anglophone SF out there --I'll rattle up a couple of links later-- but in the West it's a publishing problem rather than a writer problem --it's getting it seen and read. On the upside, there's a lot of fresh and interesting new voices to be discovered and read, even if it takes a bit of searching. I do hope that this is the decade when SF becomes the global literature it's always aspired to be. It's the literature of changing and dynamic societies --eastern Europe in the 90s, now China and India. Is it any wonder we're now going apeshit over a reactionary SF form like steampunk?
Anyway, thanks for dropping in. Getting a good little visitors book in this blog. You should definitely chat with Ashok...
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[User Picture]From: lil_brown_bat
2010-03-15 11:17 pm (UTC)
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.

...wow. He really wrote that?

(and Steven Barnes vanishes in a puff of smoke)
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[User Picture]From: lil_brown_bat
2010-03-16 03:12 pm (UTC)
As was Octavia Butler. That's what makes the comment so confusing, in context.
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From: ex_triciasu
2010-03-16 06:17 am (UTC)
Thanks so much for the Charles Tan link. There's a major education to be had in the comments as well as the post.

I'm not on Facebook anymore, but as I recall Ashok Banker used to be quite active there. I wonder if he's posted anything.
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[User Picture]From: rparvaaz
2010-03-16 02:37 pm (UTC)
I have read one book and a few short stories by you that have been based in India. I have read the first 3 books of Banker's Ramayana series...Whether you want to be one or not, you really are a shining example of an author who bothers to do research. Banker, otoh, is someone who made me wish that his books were written by a foreigner because that at least would have meant that there was *some* sort of a reason for all his conceptual errors.

Having said that, I have lately seen one or two well-done Indian SFF books in English. Unsurprisingly, they are based on the vast body of Indian mythology.

Unfortunately, i do not know enough Indian languages to judge if this trend is catching on in non-Hindi, non-Emglish Indian literature. But, fwiw, we even have two SFF movies now and a few more in the pipeline...
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From: (Anonymous)
2010-03-17 03:55 am (UTC)
Ian, well said. I think Spinrad has spun himself into a cosy enough web without anyone needing to spin him further. He's emblematic of the trouble with SF professionals - and American SF professionals in particular - who really display an astonishing lack of worldview. Especially troubling for a genre that one would hope embraces all worlds, if not just this blue ball of dirt.

Unfortunately, this genre of mud-slinging at non-US SF writers isn't exclusive to Caucasian 'White' Americans (I add the 'White' because what most Americans don't realize is that a substantial swathe of so-called 'Asians' are in fact a variety of Caucasians in genetic terms). As you can see from the comment directly above mine, I've been attacked by other Indians as well. For lack of research of all things! While you've been praised for your excellent research. How sweet but misguided. To me the best part of your writing - which I do enjoy hugely, in case I haven't made that clear yet on several other fora - is the fact that you aren't bound by research and instead go forth and gloriously explore new bylanes of the imagination. I think your work is splendid for daring to go boldly where no Indian SF author has had the balls to go before - perhaps precisely because Indian authors tend to be bound by an obsession with sticking to the facts and completely missing the point of what SF can do which straightforward realistic fiction can't.

There are a few new SF novels by Indians - mostly Indians settled in the West, oddly enough - and they display a terrible lack of imaginative courage, generosity and basic talent. That's apart from some glaring errors of fact the old bugbear 'research' rears its head again. I actually don't count myself among them because I've only written one full-length SF novel titled Gods of War among my 21 published books so far. I know that my Ramayana Series is often mistaken for Fantasy or even SF, but it's not that at all - it's more of a liberal re-imagining of the ancient Sanskrit epic on its own terms. It's also intended for Indian readers of the current generation rather than western genre readers and it's mashup of Vedic and post-modern elements doesn't go down well with Indian purists (as the commentator above has already griped). For one thing, I use the word 'abs' on the very first page, then refer to stone towers and toss in Urdu, Gujarati and Thamizh words in the first chapter of a novel purportedly set in Vedic times. My, my, that won't do at all, of course.

My point is that Norman Spinrad isn't alone. The real reason why SF doesn't flourish outside western nations is because there's a gross misassumption of what SF really is and what it can (or should) do. Most self-labelled SF authors in India at least take great pride in parading their scientific and lifelong research credentials. Which alas leaves no hope or future for those few of us who are simply looking at using the tropes and devices of SF or Fantasy or Horror to gain new exciting (yes, and thrilling) perspectives on our own culture. Simply will not do. We must be more serious and project the propah ethnic image. You bad boy, you! Using Americanisms in an Indian Vedic epic? No rice-pudding for you tonight! You will spend the next two weeks rereading Octavia Butler and studying how to write a good non-Caucasian SF novel suitable for American publishers, editors and readers, while studying for your third Masters degree in Science.


Meanwhile, Ian, may your tribe increase. I ache to read more good SF set in non-US non-European locales which provide as thoroughly immersive and enjoyable an experience as your own. I really don't care who writes it or the colour of their skin, religion, sex, ethnicity, nationality, et al. Just get on with it and do it damn well, and to Pandora with the rest!
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[User Picture]From: ianmcdonald
2010-03-17 12:14 pm (UTC)
'Summon Banker' is powerful voodoo. Thanks for dropping by, Ashok, you're most welcome.
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[User Picture]From: rgstejskal
2010-03-19 09:17 pm (UTC)
I become easily befuddled by long and tirelessly tiresome articles about almost any artwork be it political or otherwise. I was reminded of the stink made by some when Paul Simon worked with South African black musicians, including them on Graceland. He was "exploiting" them.

Every artist remakes the world over in their own image. It's that perspective that allows us to re-see the world.

As an aside, my world traveling brother is often fond of saying that there are countries beyond 3rd world. Most of Africa he calls 5th world.
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