BHM, Day 4: More on Writing

I should immediately note that it wasn’t my intent to fall so far behind in this series; the reasons don’t matter, but I do intend to catch up in the next four days.

To begin, I want to pick up from POC representation on book covers and move to a ridiculously tough two-part question I myself face as a writer: Namely, who gets to write diversity, and who should get to write diversity?

There are so many “ins” to this question I hardly know where to start. I’ll try to lay down some cursory context, but I doubt there’s going to be much in the way of cohesion when I have. (Apologies in advance: I fear there will be nothing in the way of concluding remarks today, so jumbled are my many latent thoughts on this theme.)

1) I’m currently reading Elspeth Huxley’s Red Strangers, a 1939 book about the Kikuyu tribe at the turn of the 20th century, and how their ways were starkly complicated by the arrival of British colonists. Huxley being a white woman who grew up in Kenya, there are many questions of authority raised by her work. Although from what I can tell she does do a very thorough job transcribing what Kikuyu culture was like prior to Western colonization (neither fetishizing nor moralizing against Kikuyu cultural practices, mythologies, life cycles, and social tensions), I was at first apprehensive about this work, because the Kikuyu are a still-existent people with a text-based literature now of their own. Does the existence of modern-day Kikuyu novels problematize reading about pre-Westernized Kikuyu people through the work of a woman who, while not of their tribe, nonetheless grew up in their region at that transformative time and went to great lengths to record the problems caused to their culture by members of hers? Conversely, regardless of any problems that might be incurred in such a narrative, does Huxley not retain the right to depict the dominant narratives of her day, whomever they might include?

I’m willing to say that so long as the Kikuyu were not able to contribute to the Western literary tradition, someone else writing certain kinds of narratives about them (specifically, narratives that did not expressly slander while the Kikuyu were unable to make canonical defence) was better than having their existence entirely absent from Western canon — so formative is the latter to the understanding many people have about the make-up of the world. But even that has its limitations: today we understand that there are many different kinds of literary traditions, and our multimedia gives us no excuse to prioritize a written text by outsiders over, say, a song or dance sequence by members of a given community. In and of itself, then, I don’t disagree that Huxley’s volume is quite informative (historically and anthropologically) — but if I make it the end, not the beginning, of my exploration of Kikuyu culture, I still feel I’ll be committing an act of erasure against modern-day Kikuyu people, and their legitimate right to speak first and foremost for themselves.

2) I recently re-read Neuromancer and boggled at Gibson’s Rastafarian enclave, the fringe peacenik theologians of Zion colony. In the interim between my two readings of this work, I’ve encountered a wealth of controversy about racial representations in SF&F, and upon my second reading I was particularly torn about the representation of race in this canonical text for the genre. Yes, the ship this community lends Neuromancer‘s protagonists is called the “Marcus Garvey“, but would this kind of appropriation have sat well with Marcus Garvey himself? Is it tokenism or genuine homage? The very tone and style of Gibson’s writing lends itself to cursory character portrait for all persons of all racial backgrounds — but does that excuse the perpetuation of minority stereotypes? In a chapter titled “SF and Race”, from Science Fiction, author Adam Charles Roberts articulates my ambivalence about minority representation in this work better than I ever could:

…but as a text about race it at least avoids presenting race as a hidden issue, something hardly worth talking about.

Samuel Delany, himself a black SF writer and critic, has made a similar point when asked to comment on the Rastafarian characters in William Gibson’s celebrated Neuromancer (1984). Some critics have seen Gibson’s Rastas as a positive racial representation that reflects well on the novel as a whole, a novel, we might argue, that is particularly aware of the varieties of difference. The Rastas live in a jury-rigged orbital colony where they can follow their religion, and their music, in peace; they keep themselves to themselves, although they are not averse to helping Case and his colleagues in their campaign against the international capitalist edifice of Tessier-Ashpool; they are a positive representation, we might think, of strong, ideologically sound, self-reliant otherness. Delany sees it differently. However much he admires the novel as a whole, he sees Gibson’s Rastas as too passive to dramatise the tensions of racial difference effectively; they are ‘computer illiterates;, ‘women are not part of the rasta colony at all’, they are represented as being easily manipulated by the sinister Artificial Intelligence, Wintermute. ‘As a black reader’, he has said, he finds it difficult to applaud ‘this passing representation of a powerless and wholly non-oppositional set of black dropouts by a Virginia-born white writer’ (Delany in Dery 1993: 751).

3) I write and publish in the science fiction community. It’s not my only literary community, but it sure as heck is one with a lot of representational issues, and if I’m going to continue participating in this discursive space I feel like I should aim to do so mindfully. David Anthony Durham outlines some of the race issues he experiences in his blog post, On Being a “Color Blind” Reader, while a brief introduction to the sluggish rise of black representation in science fiction is available here (complete with a good bibliography of academic articles). And then of course there’s RaceFail ’09.

Which is not to say that there isn’t mindfulness within this literary community: three years back explicitly promoted black authors for Black History Month, and the reading list can still be found here. Last year wrote an article entitled “If Tolkien were black”, which deals with canonical issues in both science fiction and fantasy. But these issues don’t go away just because a few articles have paid attention to the existence of marginalization. And these few articles don’t address anywhere near all the issues a white writer faces if she doesn’t want to blindly perpetuate silencing stereotypes in her own work.

To that end, I find articles like author Justine Larbalestier’s explanation for writing non-white protagonists in her work useful, but not comprehensive enough. Some people have told me, “You shouldn’t think about race or gender when you write; just write the best possible story and the rest will come naturally.” And there’s a kernel of truth in that, to be sure — but also a boatload of privilege. The question is how best to subvert it.

Now, as a queer woman, some of that privilege is very apparent to me when I read science fiction: I think I’m pretty attuned to normative female representation, and either the fetishized or absent inclusion of queer representation, in those literary contexts with which I’m most familiar. But I don’t pretend to be anywhere near as cognizant of racial representation in science fiction as persons of colour almost have to be, for how few and marginalized science fiction representations of POC communities still are. And that, for me, is a problem if I truly aim to “write the world”.

So I have questions — as a reader and as a writer — about best practices to support mindfulness, inclusiveness, and accuracy in the development of a truly diverse and representative canon. Questions, but few answers. To close off, then, I yield the floor to a far wiser storyteller than myself, who has her own, quite distinct tension where racial representation is concerned — and certainly a compelling suggestion about next steps for us all.

The Danger of a Single Story — Chimamanda Adichie