With Aliette de Bodard, Alyssa Wong, Isabel Yap, John Chu, JY Yang and Priya Sharma
By Ajapa Sharma & Salik Shah
“The question of how distinct subjective experiences shape aesthetic choices has been of constant concern to us at Mithila Review. This “Asian SF” issue highlights the variations and differences within a seemingly singular idea of Asia. In this round table discussion we have brought to a common space, writers that have both embraced and interrogated the idea of Asian-ness. Hailing from various backgrounds, social locations and experiences, they tell us what it means for them do the creative work that they do. Conducted through a shared Google Document, this discussion makes evident that the aesthetic and professional choices of these authors are not divorced from their complex negotiations with their own identities. We hope that the experiences that the authors have so graciously shared with us provide testament to the meaningful and important contribution of Asian SF to raising important and difficult questions of diversity and difference in an interconnected world.” — Ajapa Sharma
Tell us a little about your background. Are there any particular socio-cultural and political identities important in how you see yourself?
Aliette: My father is French and my mother is Vietnamese. I grew up in France, with a perception that there was going to be no return to Vietnam (because of the Vietnamese/American war), and this affected a lot how my parents approached things. I wasn’t taught Vietnamese as a child except through the osmosis of being taken through the entire Parisian diaspora. I’ve started painstakingly catching up as an adult. In France many people don’t really realize where I’m coming from and assume that I’m Chinese, with all its attendant baggage (which sadly includes Sinophobia as a fairly recent development).
Alyssa: I’m a queer, hapa (mixed race) Asian American. One side of my family is several generations diasporic, with a long history in Hawaii and California. The other side of my family is made up of first generation immigrants. Because my background and identity don’t fit easily into a single box, it took me a long time to realize that my identity wasn’t fractured — I wasn’t pieces of something instead of a whole — but complex. I’m currently an MFA candidate at North Carolina State University, and I teach creative writing.
Isabel: I grew up in Quezon City, Philippines, and identify as Chinese-Filipino — though significantly more Filipino than Chinese. It seems a bit silly, but when talking to other Filipinos I feel the need to clarify: I’m 25% Chinese, but we didn’t adopt most of the culture, and I can’t speak Fookien or Mandarin. I was raised upper-middle class in Manila, so while poverty was a reality I encountered every day, I had a privileged lifestyle. I also spent a lot of my childhood immersed in fanfiction, anime/manga and JRPGs, so while I’m not Japanese, that aesthetic has heavily influenced how I write and the stories I tell.
In 2010 I moved with my family to the California Bay Area, so diaspora is part of my identity now as well. Finally, I struggled with being queer for many years and still do — I’ve only recently come out as bisexual. I’m still hashing out what that means for me as a writer, a Catholic, and a professional in the tech world.
John: In most Asian countries, I suspect, people would consider me American. In the US, I’m Chinese-American. This is a little fraught because Americans of an Asian ethnicity tend to suffer from “perpetual foreigner syndrome.” We are assumed to have come from a foreign country regardless of our actual history. That said, I’m a horrible counter-example because I actually did come from a foreign country (albeit when I was young). I was born in Taiwan. In addition, I’m a cisgender gay man. As John Cho recently pointed out, there are a surprising number of stereotypes that people apply to both gay men and Chinese men.
JY Yang: I’m a Chinese Singaporean, currently in the UK for a very short while as I finish up an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. I return home next month, in August, unless by some miracle the UK Home Office relents on the student visa tangle I’m embroiled in (yeah, not optimistic on that front).
My relation to identity is a bit complex. Where I’m from, I’m the majority. I’m a queer woman, which comes with its difficulties, but I’m also Chinese in a society that is essentially Chinese supremacist (much as the nation as an institution likes to deny it). That confers upon me a certain degree of privilege. It was this privilege that gave me access to excellent educational programs in Singapore, which in turn helped me develop a toolset that enables me to write at the level that I do. So while I may be a minority as a Chinese woman from the “global south” in terms of international SFF publishing, that I’m there in the first place is a mark of privilege. These are realities that I do think about often when I write.
Priya: My father is Indian and my mother Anglo-Indian. They came to the UK in the 1960s and I was born in the 1970s in the northwest of England and grew up in a market town where we were one of two Asian families. My parents never taught me Hindi, much to my chagrin. I see myself as Indian (in terms of my family heritage and history) and British because that’s what I’ve been immersed in from birth (in particular, Northern English).
When did you first become aware that you were actually reading or writing genre fiction — science fiction, fantasy or horror? Do you find the marketing, academic or critical distinction between genre and literary fiction problematic?
Aliette: I became aware of it very late, because the French library where I got most of my reading from didn’t use to have a genre classification: they had a giant “fiction” category which gathered everything from Zelazny to Victor Hugo to romance novels. It wasn’t until we moved to the UK that I realized many of the books I liked came from the same bookshelves labeled “Science Fiction and Fantasy” — and I was 16 at the time.
I think that genre is a double-edged sword: on the one hand it’s practical to have an idea of what you’re going to read (I have horror memories of trying to find something I’d enjoy reading in the Paris library, sorting through books with non-distinctive covers and cover copy, and coming up with random novels that turned out to be not that interesting). On the other, I think it very easily becomes a prison, one that can prevent a writer from venturing further afield (you can’t write this and that because it’s not genre), and also an exclusionary tool (I have seen, all too often, the “it’s not real SF so it’s worthless” tactic used, particularly to dismiss fiction written by women and people outside the dominant Western Anglophone culture).
Alyssa: I mean, when I was a kid, my parents used to read me stories from the Bible, which seemed pretty fantastical to me. Miracles, multiplying food, pillars of fire, people getting chopped to pieces… it had everything in a story that a small child could want. I was six or seven when I started reading the Goosebumps book series, which is explicitly horror, and a couple of years later, I had figured out that I preferred books in the fantasy and science fiction section of the book store.
I do find the distinction between genre and literary fiction problematic, because I don’t think that they’re opposite ends of a single axis. A story can be both literary and genre! I actually think that genre and realist fiction are on opposite ends of a spectrum, with commercial and literary fiction spanning an entirely separate axis. So you can have a literary speculative fiction story, like Kelly Link’s work, or a commercial realist story, like Clive Cussler’s novels or any pulpy real world thriller series, without there being any contradiction between literary/genre.
Isabel: Prior to attending Clarion in 2013 I actually did not read much genre fiction. I grew up reading a lot of middle grade where there weren’t many distinctions — I devoured Babysitters Club and Tamora Pierce and A Series of Unfortunate Events and Harry Potter simultaneously. When I started reading “more grown up books” it was also free game — I loved Gregory Maguire, Angela Carter, The Shadow of the Wind and Brave New World. I also discovered Diana Wynne-Jones then, which totally shifted my world.
I learned about the term “speculative fiction” from an open call for submissions I saw on a Philippine literary website (hi, Panitikan.com.ph!) in 2008. I sent in a story to the anthology called Philippine Speculative Fiction Volume 4, which became my first non-university publication. Around that time there was some debate in the local lit community about the term, including arguments about whether any poetry could be called speculative because isn’t all writing speculative? I remember being puzzled and slightly annoyed at the drama at the time, because it seemed unnecessary and divisive.
However, I can now appreciate why specifically promoting genre fiction is important. Growing up, I hardly ever read any stories by Filipino authors that had fantastical elements in them, outside of our mythology/folktale books. The first one I recall was The Dust Monster by Gilda Cordero-Fernando — still one of my favorites. I was so enchanted by her slipstream romantic ghost story — and immediately wondered, why aren’t there more of these? Until then, all the examples I had to go by of “what I could write as a Filipino” were realist stories. I think things have changed quite a lot now and they do tackle speculative stories in academia more, which is heartening.
John: I guess I became aware of genre during the golden age of science fiction, i.e., 12. Those books were in their own section of the library and I pretty much worked my way through them alphabetically by author. (Note: this was not a large library.) That said, I read both The Hobbit and Dune for school along side The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird.
I’m not a big fan of the genre vs. literary dichotomy. These days, I see the distinction way more in marketing than in academic or critical circles. People need to know where to find the book in the bookstore (or library). Karen Russell is marketed as a mainstream literary writer, but significant chunk of her work is clearly speculative.
JY Yang: I don’t come from a family of readers. I started reading SFF in my teens, around the time I was 13. At that time my best friend and I printed out a list of all the Hugo and Nebula winning novels up till then and tried to get through the entire list. I don’t think we succeeded: A lot of the titles were hard to find in libraries and bookstores, and this was in the 90s before you could buy everything off the Internet. (Plus, we were kids — we had no money!)
I don’t know if I’d call the purported split between genre and literary fiction ‘problematic’ — I think that’s a function of publishing being, in the end, a business. You have products that need to be marketed, so you need shorthands. I tend to see a bigger divide between ‘literary’ and ‘commercial’ fiction, in terms of what the industry and critics demand of the form and the storytelling. You can have straight-up SFF stories that are classified as ‘literary’ (Atwood, David Mitchell, Emily Mandel’s Station Eleven), and entire swathes of books that are set in the mundane world but will never be considered ‘literary’ (“commercial women’s fiction” for example).
I do find it a little irritating. I’m in a program that, like it or not, focuses very much on literary writing, and I constantly get feedback on my project that I’m signposting too much, that it reads very YA because I explain things to my readers. Essentially I’m being pushed to write stories where I pass the bulk of the work to the readers, because art is interpretation or something like that. And fine, I’ll do it for the grades, but that’s not the kind of novel I actually want to write. I want to write stories that don’t make people’s heads hurt when they read them.
Priya: I come from a family of story lovers. My father loved to tell us about how Ganesha got his elephant’s head and about Hanuman. I loved all myths and fairy tales. My mother gave me “The Mayor of Casterbridge” by Thomas Hardy when I was twelve (it opens with an alcoholic selling his wife and daughter) and made me watch films like Hitchcock’s “Marnie”. My brother always had DC and Marvel comics lying around. James Herbert and Stephen King followed, then Clive Barker. I’ve always loved the dark and the fantastic.
Discovering work by writers like Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Atwood made me realise there are different points of views that previously didn’t have a voice. Then I read The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende which opened up a wider world of literature from authors like Ben Okri, Salmon Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
As to labels — some of the stuff I’ve mentioned will be found in the literature section rather than genre ones but they are works that could sit in either. There’s a lot of intellectual snobbery around “literature,” even though they’re assimilating genre themes because there’s a public appetite for it — Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro or Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger, for example. Horror is getting under the radar in crime fiction. Fantasy has re-energised YA books. I think publishers are the people that find it problematic, not readers. As a reader I love work that falls between genres.
The world has become a global city. Where do you feel most at home — the fictional landscape of your stories, the geopolitical currents of our wired world, or an actual place which exists more or less as an act of memory?
Aliette: I have a habit of writing really dark dystopian fiction, so I don’t really feel at home there! I think home is a place you make. For me, it’s wherever my family is (and by now I have family in lots of places, because they went far and far away after the war), and where my friends are. There’s a number of things I’d want from home, ideally: I know that when we lived in the UK I missed French bread and Vietnamese dishes terribly, but come back to France and suddenly I terribly missed those dried, tangy cherries they sold in the supermarkets (a lot of my ideas of home are tied with food — with smells and with tastes — and so are a lot of my memories).
I do try to write futures where I feel at home — they may not always be pleasant, but I want them to feel like places that can be lived in, and more crucially places where people like me have a place. I don’t want the future to be all white and all western — it’s not that I have anything against these, just that there are plenty of these already, and that I want my fiction to focus on cultures and features that are part of me, and that I feel don’t get as much of a hearing in today’s fictional landscape.
Alyssa: I don’t really feel at home anywhere, but that’s fine. I think there’s something very appealing about finding the strange in the mundane, and in making the familiar feel alien and new. When I write, I focus on drawing out, subverting, and distorting readers’ perceptions of home. I enjoy exploring themes of physical isolation and emotional disconnect in my stories, whether it’s about not feeling comfortable in your own skin or on the streets of your hometown, or being utterly secure in your own identity but struggling to form meaningful relationships with the people you love.
Isabel: I love reading the other responses and seeing pretty much everyone say that they don’t really feel at home anywhere… since that’s exactly how I feel. After living in the same place for 20 years, I moved to the US and have felt pretty rootless since. This is largely because the people I love and the things I care about are now scattered all over the world, especially since I studied abroad in Japan and worked for a year in the UK. This sometimes makes me feel sad, because I’m basically always missing some aspect of my life. But it’s also given me more freedom, and an expansive world to enjoy and learn from. I feel most at home with my people, and that’s in different places and for different reasons, and that’s okay.
John: Hm. I’m not sure I actually feel particularly at home anywhere! It may be a defining characteristic of me that I always feel like I stick out in one aspect or another. (Whether this is how others see me is a whole other question.)
JY Yang: In my head. All in my head.
Writing is definitely a huge form of escapism for me. And since this year, when I realized that actually, I should be free to write exactly what the fuck I want and not everything has to be serious and weighty, it’s been a lot more fun!
Priya: As a child I felt out of step with everything but I’ve had family and friends who have been unconditional in their love and support of me. I’ve had an education that’s allowed me to shape my own personal world. These are things that have given me the confidence to feel at home in myself.
I need the tangible world and my own head is a place to retreat to make sense of what troubles me, frightens me or excites me. I’m not sure that I connect to the wired world in the same way as most people. That’s not to say that I’m averse to it — I love what it’s enabled it many ways, but I wouldn’t say it’s a place of default for me.
Across Asia and Africa, the colonial past has been critical in shaping collective memories and the literary works produced in these regions. How, if at all, do you think has science fiction and fantasy by Asian-origin writers addressed the concerns of the postcolonial condition and some of the inequalities instituted by colonial histories? What are some of the issues and themes that you are interested in, or would want new and emerging writers to explore?
Aliette: I think Asian-origin writers come to fiction with very different and very interesting takes, and that these address the postcolonial condition because Asian-origin writers are always navigating it. I know I certainly do! France and Vietnam have a fraught history, and Vietnam itself, of course, also has a fraught history with China, all sources of tension that still exist now. I read a lot of history, and I find it very frustrating to see colonialism simply swept under the rug as something from the past — as if the past didn’t influence the present! My stories tend to be about how culture affects worldbuilding, how characters navigate history and memory and the consequences of war, how past events and past injustices can have a huge impact and linger on long after they are over.
I think new and emerging writers should focus on the themes that matter to them — it’s really all you can ask a writer to do (and what they end up doing, anyway *grin*).
Alyssa: Race and colonization are very heavily knitted together in my writing, as are diaspora and identity. The Philippines has a long, complicated history of being colonized, and my family carries that in our blood. So when I write, and especially when I write stories about Asian American characters, there is an ever-present feeling of otherness, either felt by the characters themselves or imposed on them externally, that I explore. These are tensions I navigate every days as an Asian American woman, living in a country that has forgotten its own history of colonization, subjugation, and otherness.
I want new and emerging writers to explore the themes that speak to them personally, and I’d like for them to do so with an awareness of their own family histories. I don’t think I ought to ask for anything more.
Isabel: I think the colonial history is so woven into Filipino identity that it’s really impossible to separate from any art we produce. 300 years of Spanish rule is why I’m Catholic. The Americans coming over is why, when I open my mouth in California, I get everything from “You have no accent!” to “You still have some of that FOB-y accent!” Filipinos love anime, ramen, and visiting Osaka, but in the back of our minds we still feel the brutalities wrought by World War 2: the comfort women, the Death March.
I care about this history, and I care about the present state of disapora and “brain drain” as well. I’m hyper-cognizant that I’m part of it! I haven’t explored these explicitly in many stories yet, but I expect they’ll surface eventually. Even when I’m writing secondary-world fantasy I sometimes factor these things in. Like, I debate with myself about whether I should call my mythical-Manila a kingdom or a rajanate or a sultanate. In the end what I want most is to write good, accessible stories, but I also want to be responsible and authentic as a creator.
I do see these issues being tackled explicitly by people more and more. There’s the #RPF16 tag that runs during Araw ng Kalayaan (Independence Day), and in between the naughty Jose Rizal jokes you do get the sense that Filipinos are reimagining our difficult history. There are steampunk stories that reclaim the postcolonial narrative for that subgenre (Paolo Chikiamco’s On Wooden Wings comes to mind), and writers like Zen Cho who want to tackle these themes but also — ALSO — make sure the stories are fun and enjoyable. As for what new writers should focus on, I’d say write what you want to write, about the things that matter to you, for the readers that are uniquely yours.
John: At LonCon 3, I was part of a panel about the fiction of the Asian diaspora. About the only conclusion we managed was that the writers of the Asian diaspora are so varied that it’s hard to draw any meaningful generalizations. Also, science fiction as we know it is steeped in imperialism and colonialism, generally portraying them in a positive light. That said, when I first started writing I remember musing that I saw a lot of stories about colonization but relatively few stories about immigration. Now, that’s hardly an observation original to me, but I think observation grew out of the dissonance between my reading and my life experience. So I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that writers from areas that have been colonized would treat colonization differently. In the case of Aliette de Bodard and “Immersion”, she does it brilliantly. The story is an example what has historically been missing in that it depicts the painful costs of colonization and assimilation.
I will always be interested in immigration and the immigrant experience. As I mentioned above, there is so much fiction about going in and taking over a place but comparatively little fiction about what it’s like to being air dropped into a foreign land then being expected to fit in where you blatantly do not belong. Perhaps the key difference is a matter of privilege.
My advice to new and emerging writers is always to write what they are passionate about. I do think writers of Asian origin (like other non-hegemonic writers) have the issue in that we are damned whether they do or not. There is intense pressure to write about our culture, but when we do, we may be regarded as “one trick ponies.”
JY Yang: I can’t really speak for others! For me personally, the challenge — and occasional pleasure — in writing has been trying to reconcile the tensions of being Asian, raised in Asia, but in a country and society that, due to the legacy of colonialism and ongoing cultural imperialism, was highly Westernised, and held Westernization up as the pinnacle of All Things Good. My family, especially on my mother’s side, is working-class Chinese: incense-burning, deity-worshipping salt-of-the-earth types. My sis and I they called jiak kentang — potato eaters — English-speaking, American-TV-watching, out of touch with our own heritage. In school, to have something called cheena was an insult. Yet at the same time my Chineseness and Singaporeanness isn’t something that can be stripped from me, despite many misguided years of trying (due to unexamined self-hatred!) Where I am right now is somewhere in between. I’m not Chinese enough to be Chinese, not Singaporean enough to be Singaporean, and definitely, absolutely not Western enough to be Western.
To be honest, I feel somehow dishonest no matter what I write about, be it Chinese culture, life in Singapore, or anything that’s set in the West. Right now, I’m getting away with it by writing a lot of secondary world fantasy and space opera — make up an entire world so I don’t have to think about my relationship to the real world so much! I’m cheating. I don’t know if I’ll ever pull together all these disparate chunks of identity into something coherent — it’s a work in progress.
Priya: I can’t pretend that I write about the postcolonial condition. I wonder if that phrase reduces the issues around it to a single experience which will vary greatly, not just from country to country, but also be shaped by class and education within those countries.
I think that there are writers from all over Asia being featured in mainstream Western scifi and fantasy venues, which is fantastic. It’s a platform for people to voice their own personal truths about events and affect the larger consciousness. I also think that places like Mithila Review are crucial — it would be exciting to see Asian based venues growing and an exchange in readership and fiction between sites globally.
(As an aside, what JY said about being called jaik kentang resonates with me. When I started university one of my fellow students- who was of Indian heritage also — called me a coconut. Brown on the outside, white on the inside).
Speculative fiction has been both complicit as well as critical in its handling of dominant gender relations and heterosexuality. Early works in this genre were particularly sexist but we have also seen the ways in which critical feminists have reshaped the genre to challenge the gendered structures of our social imaginaries. Do you think Asian SF has had a different trend? Would you say Asian women writing speculative fiction in English are more visible than Asian men?
Aliette: No, I don’t think so. I think we have the same problem with Asian authors writing speculative fiction than general speculative fiction: the men still have more name recognition and still have more sales, etc. (I read somewhere that 85% of recommendations made by people would be for male writers, which is rather depressing but doesn’t surprise me. Even people who mean very, very well will tend to recommend men more than women because they’ll remember the men more). And even the history of the genre is skewed: people remember far more men then women (I’ve read versions of SFF history that mentioned one or two women, generally Ursula K Le Guin and Octavia Butler, whereas there were so many of them! But they get erased, never mentioned, seldom reprinted — even though a lot of them are still alive and still writing!)
And things have certainly changed, to be sure; but ask around and you’ll see that all the women are quietly sharing stories of becoming invisible, and that we all have that feeling of dancing on the edge of the abyss whenever we win awards or have bestsellers — that this one achievement is as good as it gets and that everything is downhill from there on.
(Young Adult and Romance are exceptions to this, though.)
Alyssa: I don’t think it’s true that Asian women writing speculative fiction are more visible than Asian men writing speculative fiction. Like, straight up no. Cixin Liu alone is a huge name, and in the US speculative fiction scene, Wesley Chu, Ken Liu, and John Chu (hi John!) are all big names. While there are many female rising stars and heavy hitters in the US short fiction speculative fiction scene, including many of the folks here, I still feel that male Asian writers get a lot more name recognition when it comes to adult SFF novels. I think that the only genre I’ve seen more female Asian author names than male Asian author names is in Young Adult fiction, and in the US that’s still a very white field, so Asian YA authors of any sex or gender are rare.
Isabel: I don’t think Asian women writing in English are more visible than men. Though I would be pretty proud if that were the case, it’s too early to tell. (I mean, this is why projects like Women Destroy SF exist.) I think we’re seeing a group of short fictionists with intersectional marginalized identities start to come into the awareness of a slightly broader readership, or maybe the convention-going readership, so it might appear that way. For the Philippine spec fic community in particularly there’s always been a good gender balance reflected in our anthologies. You’ve got Nikki Alfar, Dean Alfar, Kate Aton-Osias, Charles Tan, Eliza Victoria, Ian Rosales-Casocot, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Victor Ocampo, and the list goes on…
John: I don’t think I can talk about “Asian SF” in this context. The area is too vast and the writers too diverse for any meaningful generalization. Even if I limit it to Chinese spec fic, it’s still way too broad and, as usual, I run into questions of what is spec fic. I mean, is Journey to the West spec fic? I do think that critic feminists are reshaping genre worldwide, but their influence is not evenly distributed.
The idea that Asian women are more prominent in SF than Asian men does not match at all with my experience. For example, when Chinese media covers overseas Chinese writers, they’ll mention Ken Liu, Ted Chiang, Wes Chu, and, sometimes, me. I don’t see, say, Lily Yu mentioned nearly as often. I’m thrilled see writers like Hao Jingfang and Tang Fei break into English short fiction markets (in translation) but I don’t think they are more visible than, say, Chen Qiufan or Liu Cixin. (Certainly not the latter.)
JY Yang: As with all umbrella terms, I struggle to define to myself what exactly constitutes “Asian SF”. But I don’t think it’s particularly immune to sexism because patriarchal attitudes extend across cultures, plus Asian SF is still operating in the same publishing industry as other forms of SF and so is not exempt from the biases therein.
I’m not sure where the idea came from, that Asian women in SF are more visible than the men — this is the first I’ve heard of it and it certainly doesn’t line up with my experiences. There are definitely a lot of talented young Asian writers coming up who are women, for sure. Particularly in SFF short fiction. But to be honest, the numbers really constitute too small a sample size to make a statement about trends.
Priya: I think there are still a lot of challenges about how sexuality and gender identity are written about- regardless of origin, be it Asian or not. LGBT has become a blanket term and there’s a vast range of nuanced experiences within that label that haven’t been represented or explored.
I don’t think I can comment on trends in general in Asian fiction. It would be great to see some actual stats done on this. I really liked that Lightspeed’s Queers Destroy Science Fiction featured writers from a variety of backgrounds, including John Chu’s work.
I’m not convinced that Asian women writers are more visible than men.
How do you feel about being part of a global SF community? How open and diverse do you think the field is today compared to a decade ago or before?
Aliette: I think we need to think hard on what we mean by “diverse”? What different groups are we putting under that umbrella? (If “diverse” means “non-white or non-US”, then the impression of minority it might give is actually misleading because “diverse” means most of the world — so not only larger numbers, but also grouping together people who might not necessarily have many common points: “diverse” covers, say, a Black American writer, a Black Caribbean writer, and a Han writer from China, all very different people from a cultural point of view). And also what do we mean by the field, is it the Western Anglophone SFF world we’re talking about? (in a way, we are because it’s still setting the tone for the rest of the world, because there is such a terrible imbalance that sees Western Anglophone books being translated into many other languages, while books from outside that sphere very seldom get translated — it’s changing, see the Three-Body Problem, the efforts of Clarkesworld and other venues to publish more translated SF — but it’s changing again, very slowly. There are SFF communities outside the Western Anglophone world, though, and those are also the field).
As to Western Anglophone SFF — well, it’s still rather harder to break into if you either don’t speak English or aren’t Western (actually, if you’re not in the US/UK/Aus/Can/etc.). It’s a human thing: it’s easier to make connections if people have met you, and it’s easier for people to meet you if you live nearby… I am lucky enough to be able to travel to the US and UK: I’m under no doubt that being able to meet people in the flesh has considerably helped with my career. That said, it has gotten better. It’s definitely gotten better, even in the eight short years I’ve been in it. Like all societal changes, it’s frustratingly slow I think?
Alyssa: In the US, I think it’s gotten more publically open and diverse. In the last decade, yes; in the last century, for sure. There have been very deliberate pushes within the publishing industry, like the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement, and with social media rapidly globalizing the field, more underrepresented voices have found platforms with which to speak. Has this solved all of the problems inherently built into a field with a history of racism and old money? Nah. Do we still struggle all the time to be heard and to get published? Yeah. But change is happening in the industry, and globalization and easier access to information means a push for less ignorance, as well as a demand for accountability when racist material or discriminatory practices happen. So it’s better… but it’s also not a start, since people of diverse backgrounds, seen and unseen, have been pushing hard to get their work published and make change happen for decades. I think it would be a disservice to them to indicate otherwise.
Isabel: I didn’t have any awareness of the broader publishing world or the genre community until I attended Clarion (yes, I learned many things from Clarion). I always wanted to be a published writer, but I had no idea how to get there, especially if I wanted a broader/global readership. Since “joining” the SFF community in 2013, I’ve felt both the extreme ups and downs that comes with being a newer writer in this hyper-connected age. So many folks are incredibly welcoming, encouraging, and supportive. I’ve met peers who inspire me to be better and encourage me to take care of myself, and mentors who keep me going when things are tough. I don’t think I could have embraced my queer identity or kept writing through a lot of personal upheaval if it wasn’t for the global SF world. However, there is a lot of drama and bullshit and in some cases straight-up awful behavior, which have been a real struggle to ignore. The good outweighs the bad, but it has definitely not been easy.
I’m also fairly certain that I would not be part of this round table if I never moved to the US, if I never attended Clarion. The field is still heavily Western-centric, and access to the community hasn’t spread much beyond North America and the UK. It might be easier in the Philippines because we have SF advocates, and the internet has grown way more expansive since I was a teen (meaning you can now essentially Tweet or Facebook-friend people, and form real connections that way!), but I still think there are lots of aspiring writers in Asia who just don’t know. Or even if they do know, there’s no way for them to get to Clarion or join SFWA or attend Worldcon. Of course, none of these things are necessary to being a writer or even being a part of the community — but they do help. There’s still work to be done to make things even more accessible, and that’s something I want to help improve when I have more experience and resources.
John: I remember being the only Chinese man at a con. That’s not the case any more. The community is still highly centered on the West. More specifically, it’s still rather Anglo-centric. If you don’t speak English, you’re going to have a hard time communicating with the global SF community. If you don’t write in English, it’s going to be really difficult to get your work read by the global SF community unless it is translated. Getting works translated into English is its own mini-epic saga.
Are things better now than they were a decade ago? Sure. And I hope things will be better a decade from now than they are now.
JY Yang: It’s definitely more open than it used to be even a decade ago, and I think it’s largely due to the Internet making it easier to talk and meet people and form communities from all over the world. It would have been extraordinarily difficult for someone like me, working and living outside one of the big publishing hubs, to do what I’ve done in the 90s, for example. So the opportunity, at least, is there. It’s more accessible. As a result of that accessibility it is definitely more diverse. But I think there’s a lot more work to do. (Also, everything Isa said re: Western-centricism and breaking in. I’m too lazy to repeat because it’s been something I’ve said over and over.)
Priya: I was still a fledgling writer 10 years ago but the simple act of being able to find markets and submit online has made the submission process a global one. Being in touch with writers from all over the world has been fantastic- some of whom are people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting (I’m looking at you, Isabel and JY). I do think the markets, in general, are looking more widely now for different types of stories.
In a recent interview, Ted Chiang said that he has had experiences with the publishing industry that made him quit writing for years. Tell us about your experiences — both low and high points in your career. What role do editors play in encouraging diversity? Who are some of the unsung heroes responsible for making the field more open, diverse and encouraging to new and upcoming writers?
Aliette: Editors are crucial — they’re both the filter through which stories get picked, revised and published, but they can also actively encourage diversity by seeking out writers of colour. But every rung of the publishing ladder have their role to play: agents, artists and art direction folks, marketing and publicity, and reviewers and readers. I’d like to focus a bit on readers and reviewers: they’re the ones spreading, through word of mouth, the appetite for diversity by highlighting books — visibility is a crucial thing, especially for marginalised writers, and it’s always important to have people supporting that.
Alyssa: Editors play a very important role in encouraging diversity in publishing. Specifically, they have the ability to solicit work directly from authors of marginalized backgrounds, and they also have in-house clout. Even if they’re fairly low down on the ladder, they still have positions of power. They are, to quote Hamilton, already “in the room where it happens,” and they have the ability, however slowly, to change corporate culture and impact diverse writers’ lives — for better or worse.
Some of the industry’s unsung heroes include those editors, short fiction, long fiction, and poetry, who actively reach out to and solicit authors from underrepresented demographics. Other folks who I’ve found very welcoming are many of the established, successful SFF writers, who invited me and my friends into their communities when we were just starting out.
Isabel: Thus far I’ve only written and published short fiction, and I’ve only interacted with a handful of editors and other publishing professionals, so I feel like my experiences are pretty limited. Definitely the high point is getting to connect with other writers, so that we can grow with each other, uplift each other, and enjoy great writing together. For example — I’ve been insanely fortunate to meet the other writers in this round table in person, and they are all delightful human beings. I do think that in some conventions I’ve felt that people are only excited to talk to you if “you’re someone,” and that’s been tough to navigate sometimes. Personally, I’m always more interested in stories than industry stuff, though I understand why people often want to talk about publishing.
Editors are extremely important in encouraging diversity. I’ve been really fortunate with all the editors I’ve worked with, who have been nothing but encouraging and supportive. I think readers and reviewers are definitely unsung heroes — the folks who take time out to dissect your work, promote it on Twitter, or even quietly share it with others offline — they make it possible for publications to give newer, diverse authors a platform. And there are definitely writers who have worked hard to make the space safer and kinder to emerging voices, who I continue to be incredibly grateful for.
John: Editors are crucial. Without editors who make it a priority to read widely and to select the best from the broadest swath of writing they can find, the field would be filled with those who are like who have already been published. I have been extremely fortunate. It’s impossible for me to overstate the effect Ann and Jeff VanderMeer have had, not just on me, but the field in general. They have always read broadly. They have always made a point of finding the best work from across the globe. International SF is their default and that’s how it should be.
JY Yang: Editorial support is hugely important, or at least it has been for me. I have been so, so fortunate to have editors who have reached out and asked me to send work to them, to have peers and veterans in the industry who support my work and encourage me when the inevitable self-doubt kicks in. It’s so crucial because you’re not just dealing with the usual roster of brain weasels that every writer is plagued with, but all the struggles with identity and representation that marginalized writers must contend with. Knowing that an editor is willing to give your work a fair shot, even if it’s not the usual thing you see in magazines, can be heartening.
When there are ongoing, active biases in the industry I think it’s not enough to just have a passive open-door policy. You have to actively seek out marginalized writers. It has to be a considered fight against.
Priya: I’ve been very fortunate in that the writers and editors I’ve met online and in person have been hugely welcoming and encouraging. I would be very upset if someone took a story from me because they were positively discriminating. I don’t want to be published because someone wants an Asian woman in their magazine. I want to be published because they’re convinced by my work and what it has to say. I think (I hope) more and more editors are looking more widely as they want to feature work that has different things to say about the world.
I know this won’t be everyone’s experience though. To be honest, if a magazine didn’t want me just on the grounds of my ethnicity then I wouldn’t want to touch them with a barge pole. I’ll take my work elsewhere. If they don’t like the story, that’s a decision I respect.
I’ve been encouraged/asked to submit work by a variety of different people — Ellen Datlow, Andy Cox of TTA Press, Paula Guran, Sean Wallace and Mike Kelly, Dev Agarwal for Focus (the BFS publication on the craft of writing) so I owe them a big thank you for that.