Tag Archives: diversity

Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations – Gender, Race and Difference in SF

2 Feb

I am a white straight male of past middle age and above middle income. That has been and remains a position of privilege, not just in Canada but around the world.

I didn’t earn this privilege; it is almost entirely an accident of history. I didn’t choose my race, gender or sexual orientation; my age is nothing but the inevitable passing of time. My income (which is hardly the stuff of legend) may be, in part, a consequence of my choices but results as much from luck as anything else — a chance combination of genes that made me both intelligent and healthy and the so-far fortunate avoidance of personal accident or natural disaster. Any bad thing in my life has happened to occur at a time when they would do me the least harm; most good ones when I was best able to take advantage of them.

I am well aware that not everyone’s life has run as smooth. For some, they had bad luck or they made bad choices but, for many, their lives are less than they could be because of the systematic barriers they face because of race, gender or disability. These barriers are not accidents of history. They have been constructed over time, put in place by people who look like me (or, by people who look quite different in other societies or other times) so they and theirs can keep what they have and those ‘others’ can keep in their place. Money, power, status, privilege — these are all mine and you can have none of it.

The times are a’changing of course — slowly but inexorably. The ‘infallible laws of history’ ensure, if they ensure nothing else, that change is inevitable, even if progress is always hard won and never certain. Western society (the only one I can really speak to) has been in a revolutionary mode since the Enlightenment. It began when questions arose about the certainty of the status quo — of God in his Heaven and Kings on their Thrones — and barrelled forward with closely-bunched revolutions in America, France, Mexico, Haiti. These were transformative events based on transformative ideas. That all men (and inevitably, persons) were created equal. That Liberty, Brotherhood and Equality were the highest moral values. That a people had a right to self-determination. That one man could not own another.

Some people today view the fight for equal rights for women and gays, the ending of racial discrimination, the fight against income inequality as a betrayal. They would, I guess, take us back to the sixteenth century before the great flame of freedom was lit, when everyone stayed in their place and the privileged only feared each other. I, for one, ain’t going back. The expansion of personhood — and that ultimately is what discrimination entails, the denial of personhood to the other — is human progress and it continues to progress through time. There are set-backs and rear-guard actions by the entrenched and lithified structures of law, church and economy, but the world is a better place ‘in struggle’ then it ever was when ‘people knew their place.’

When I was young, I thought the world of science fiction was better than the real world. It was not only optimistic about the future in technical and scientific terms but in social and political ones. This was the sixties and seventies, after all. Star Trek presented people of different races and ethnicities working together, if not exactly as equals, certainly more equally than anything else in popular culture. Writers like Leguin, Delaney, and Farmer to mention a few were presenting alternative visions (and let’s not forget, Dangerous Visions) of the world. It was hardly earth-shaking, but it was a start. So right from the beginning of my own personal journey through speculative fiction, I never thought it was the bastion of straight white males.

Apparently, according to some — increasingly marginalized — people in the field I was wrong. Could it be true the Women are Destroying Science Fiction? Or that people of colour (POCs) are intruding where they don’t belong and subverting the moral structure (read ‘supremacy’) of real (read ‘white’) science fiction? 

What utter and complete nonsense! In fact, when I sat down to write this blog, I thought for a minute: why am I even bothering to refute such patent and pointless drivel. Some of it is undeniably, if unintentionally and illogically, hilarious but you can look for it yourself. Surely, it will all blow over. Surely, as more and more readers realize that more and more diverse voices make science fiction better, these last bastions of white male privilege will crumble away. Isn’t it obvious to everyone that a genre that embraces the future, that seeks out the alien, that explores the limits of human possibility must also embrace a multitude of gender perspectives, cultural understandings and personal narratives? Including, of course, the white straight male middle aged middle class narrative as one among many — and may the best narrative win.

Well, while it seems obvious to me, it still bears saying over and over again. Revolutions never end. Reactionaries never quite go away.

I’m no Rosa Parks but I’d be happy to give her my seat on the bus.

Stealing Stories

8 Dec

Last weekend, I attended SFContario in Toronto. I had a fun time though I didn’t sell many books. We hosted a little party – rated one of the best of the weekend – and spent time with old friends and made a few new ones. I participated in three panels. Science and Politics was fun though pretty one-sided; most politicians, it was concluded, don’t understand science and most corporations can’t be trusted with it. As Derek Künsken said, ‘people are evil and dumb.’ I suspect some of us might have been hung-over. SFContario Idol was, as usual, a hoot as four dyspeptic editors gonged out various stories and lectured (usually humorously) on GOOD writing. Sandra Kasturi of Chizine was particularly vehement on the tendency of female characters to sigh, blush, faint, cry and generally not take control of things.

The most vigorous discussion took place at the panel, Mythology in SF and Fantasy. It sounds harmless enough – almost fusty – a topic for librarians and classicists, perhaps. However, it was, in fact, fraught – symbolic of much that is controversial in the field these days. Issues of race and gender, cultural appropriation, inclusion/exclusion, the borders between sacred/secular and private/public mythos were all open to debate, especially once the conversation moved from the predominantly white middle-aged male panel (there was one white woman among the five panelists) to the much more diverse audience.

It was, largely, a polite and sincere discussion. It undoubtedly helped that practically everyone in the room was aware of and sensitive to the issues of diversity and exclusion that have troubled the SF field over the last few years. There were moments of humor, too. The next time someone opens their panel presentation with: ‘I’m not sure why I’m on this panel’ you probably won’t go wrong by yelling from the audience: ‘Because you’re white, you’re male and you’re middle-aged.’ It’s even funnier if you, too, happen to be a white, middle-aged male.

Cultural appropriation may not be the most difficult matter under discussion but it is certainly one of the oldest. It involves the appropriation of ideas, symbols, artifacts, image, sound, objects, forms or styles from other cultures. In the context of our discussion, it refers to the practice of writers of one culture (frequently though not always western European) to write stories where the main characters, the political and social setting, the myths and beliefs are taken from another – often colonized – culture. An extreme example was Grey Owl – an Englishman (Archibald Belaney) who, as an adult, recreated himself in Canada as an Aboriginal, writing numerous articles and books in the 1930s as an Ojibwe conservationist. Modern views of Belaney are ambiguous. No one disputes his significant contribution to the conservation and parks movement in Canada and the United States but questions continue to be raised about the authenticity of some of his expressions of Aboriginal values. Belaney, whatever his flaws, almost certainly tried to be genuine on one level at least: he lived for years among the Ojibwe and married a Mohawk-Iroquois woman who was his chief advisor. While he undoubtedly profited somewhat from his writing career, he is nothing like John O’Loughlin who sold ‘Aboriginal’ artwork painted by non-Aboriginal artists for significant profits; he was convicted of fraud in 1999.

While appropriation – the borrowing (stealing) of cultural elements for profit or self-aggrandizement – is generally viewed as colonialist, cultural assimilation or even synergy is another matter. Here the exchanges and benefits flow both ways and, generally, are viewed as positive. Appropriation can become synergistic and inclusive. Take, for example, rock and roll. In the 1940s, Afro-American rhythms, melodies and lyrics were used, often without attribution or payment, by white producers and musicians to create rock and roll. Within a decade or two, however, black musicians and producers reclaimed the field so that the next wave of new music – reggae, hip-hop and rap – was black-led. Interestingly, many of these musical forms were then borrowed and adapted by Aboriginal and other oppressed cultures to express their own independence and importance.

The fight against cultural appropriation can itself take extreme forms. I’ve been told that, as a white male, I can only legitimately write about other white males. No women, no people of colour, no non-western cultures and, I suppose, no aliens of any kind. The latter is particularly tough for a science fiction writer. Oddly, if I were to say I was only interested in reading white males writing about white males, I’d inherit a whole world of pain.

I don’t believe this is true or even useful; fortunately, I have heard it less and less. The point of writing and reading is to get into other heads, other value systems, other ways of knowing. The power of human imagination and empathy is not insignificant. The ability to learn about others and identify with them is one of our great hopes for the future. And, of course, diversity is a much deeper and more beautifully complex idea than can be expressed in the simple categorizations of race, gender, religion, ethnicity, language or whatever other marker we use to describe people. To talk about Aboriginal culture or European culture is to denigrate those we are talking about – assuming that all members of those cultures are identical, as if diversity within cultures isn’t as great or greater than diversity between cultures. We may defined by our culture, language, race, religion but none of us are limited by them. Disputes arise within cultures over what is truly authentic, what is sacred and must be kept private and what is public and can be joyfully shared.

Like all relations, those between cultures and the individuals within them are a delicate dance, whose steps must be negotiated on an equal footing. The answer to cultural appropriation is simple: tear down the barriers that prevent people from telling their own stories. In a field where inclusion and opportunity rule the day, the fight over whose story is it will cease to have much resonance.

The discussion at the panel had an interesting footnote. The next event in the room was a book launch for Douglas Smith’s The Wolf at the End of the World, a novel that incorporates significant Aboriginal myth and characters. Doug described how he carefully researched the book, how he traveled to a northern Ontario First Nation to understand what life was like there and to talk to leaders and elders in the community. He shared drafts with Aboriginal experts. He still felt ‘nervous’ about it, which he explains in an afterword where he gives full credit. What struck me – other than the approving looks of Aboriginal members of the audience – was when Doug described the horror of what he had learned about the oppression of Aboriginals in Canada, especially the terrible damage of residential schools. He was visibly overcome with emotion as he told how that had changed him. Which is what learning about the other is supposed to do.

News of the Week

So apparently, Amazon doesn’t just drive publishers crazy.

Bundoran Press is about to celebrate one year under new management. Look for anniversary and Christmas deals here tomorrow for a few days — more to follow!

My Can-Con schedule and other thoughts of the day

29 Sep

Can-Con

Perhaps not of huge interest to those outside the Ottawa area, but it’s of interest to me. As Editor Guest of Honour at Can-Con: The Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts and Literature, I have a pretty full schedule next weekend. I thought I’d share it with you.

On Friday night, I’ll be attending and speaking briefly at the Opening Ceremonies. I don’t expect to replicate the wide-ranging and, some say, amusing, talk of last year but never fear: Robert J. Sawyer, the author guest, is always informative and entertaining. I look forward as well to hearing what Mark Robinson, Science GOH, and other special guests have to say. After the opening, I’ll drop in to the Aurora Pin Ceremony to congratulate nominees for this year’s Aurora Awards. Then, it’s off to the Chizine party for a drink or two.

Saturday starts early with the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association AGM at 9.  I’ll have to leave early as I am on a panel at 10 with Sandra Kasturi and Brett Savory on Book Pitches: how to do them or, more likely, how not to. From 11 to12, Rob Sawyer and I will interview each other in what may be the highlight of the Con. Rob and I have been friends for going on twenty years so we have some stories to share. We won’t be baring all (no-one could possibly want to see that) but it should be fun and maybe occasionally surprising. I get a nice long break after that – though I will be dropping in to hear readings from Bundoran Press writers, Tom Barlow and Neil Godbout at 3 p.m. Right after that I’ll be taking book pitches (sign up at registration). I’m in the market to buy one or two novels this fall – maybe it will be yours. Saturday ends in a big way with our room party from 9 p.m. on to celebrate the launch of I’ll Meet You Yesterday by Tom Barlow.

Sunday I’ll be at the Aurora Awards Banquet from 11 to 1 p.m. I’m the MC for the event and, as a special treat, get to award a lifetime achievement Aurora to Robert J. Sawyer. There are eleven more trophies to hand out, culminating in Best Novel which comes with a $500 Cheque from SF Canada. I go straight from the ceremonies to a panel on plotting mysteries with Violette Malan, Rob Sawyer and Tom Barlow and finish off the day with The State of Publishing Today with Sawyer, Malan, Sean Moreland and David Hartwell, senior editor with TOR Books.

Of course, anytime I’m not at the panels mentioned above, you can probably find me at the Bundoran Press table in the Dealers’ Room.

Diversity

There was a considerable tempest in the twitterverse this past week when successful Canadian novelist, David Gilmour, (Governor General Award winner and Giller Award nominee), made some rather outrageous statements about his love of ‘manly-men heterosexual’ writers and his general disdain of any who didn’t fit that category – specifically women and Chinese writers. He also said there were no Canadian writers he loved, which I guess means he never reads his own books. If he wasn’t an instructor of first and third year students at University of Toronto, I doubt if his comments would have attracted much attention, but he is and they did. Some of the reaction was, perhaps, as over the top as his own stupid remarks, but others found the right combination of mockery, correction and disapproval that the comments deserved. Gilmour himself claimed he was joking and, besides, distracted and, oh yeah, being picked on. You would think a manly-man would be better at taking responsibility for his words and deeds.

Every writer – every reader – has writers and books they particularly admire. There is nothing wrong with that. Anyone who likes all books equally has no discrimination; no taste. However, some people’s tastes are more limited than others. Gilmour apparently is only interested in reading books by people like him – that is, middle aged white men. That’s what he’s passionate about. I might suggest it is less passion than narcissism; gazing endlessly in the pool to see your own reflection.

Still, I’ve read and admired some of the same writers – Fitzgerald and Chekov, for example – and have my own favorites, some of whom certainly qualify as ‘manly-men.’ Everyone knows I’m gaga for Papa (Hemingway for the non-aficionados). There are lots of male writers I admire – though they are not universally white and middle-aged. But I can and have gotten plenty passionate, curious, moved, enraged, engaged, lost in, thrilled by any good story, by any good writer – and those certainly aren’t limited to white males, dead or otherwise. I can’t imagine reading to see myself reflected feature for feature, experience for experience, emotion for emotion. I read to discover – both new things about the world and new things about myself. Personally, I learn more by reading books that challenge my world view, that propose alternative ways to think and feel, that present a different culture, life experience. Is that always fun, self-affirming; a good time had by all? No – but it makes me a better writer and a better person. Everyone should read a good book they hate at least once a year. Then they should try to explain why it’s a good book to someone else. If you can’t – then maybe you need to question whether you really have anything of value to say in your own writing.

Travel Writing

One of the first things you learn in writing class is: write what you know. It’s a useful place to start but a lousy place to finish. Clearly it leads you into the trap of only writing (and reading) what you personally experience. Since most of us don’t know nearly as much as we think, it would lead to a lot of books about growing up in suburbia or working as a barista while composing the Great Canadian Novel. (Yes, I know, there are a lot of those, but how many do you need to read to get the gist?) Obviously, for genre writers particularly, this maxim quickly gets turned into: write what you can learn and understand. Otherwise, mystery novels would only be written by violent psychopaths and space operas by alien visitors who have actually flown through space.

One of the great sources of inspiration for me and for many writers is travel. It doesn’t necessarily mean going to Paris or the African savannah. Walk through an unfamiliar neighbourhood in your own city – or even a familiar one, trying to see it with the eyes of a stranger. I recently read Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Much of it takes place in a small area of rural Sussex – a few roads and fields, gardens and hedgerows. You can feel that Gaiman trod those very paths – day and night, seeing them with both familiar and strange eyes. When he steps off the path into worlds of wonder, it still feels real, the way things out of the corner of your eye seem both real and wondrous at the same time.

Travelling is not tourism and vice versa. Wherever you go, you have to look with your eyes and your imagination; see the space both as citizen and foreigner. Living in a new place can be tremendously educational and inspirational but so can trying to see with fresh eyes the place you know so well you don’t look at it anymore. To write what you know, you first have to forget you know it.

Okay – time for a walk. Right after I scrub the toilet (as my wife, Elizabeth, says it’s all well and good to be a great literary figure, but the bathrooms still need to be cleaned).