We Need to Talk About America: Diversity in SFF

In recent years the SF/F community has attempted to increase the diversity of the work being published and the authors publishing them. Which is a good thing. Obviously.

But there’s one tiny elephant in the room that we’ve all managed to somehow avoid talking about, and that’s international diversity.

Afrofuturism, anyone? Soviet SF? Chinese SF?

By this I mean moving outside the US and looking for ways to bring cultures and nationalities into the mix. Yet somehow this is almost non-existent in the Dyson sphere that is contemporary fandom. Barely anyone’s discussing the nationality of authors and ensuring that we’re buying stories by writers from Russia, Brazil, South Africa and Australia. People are happy to discuss the dominant presence of other groups – but there’s naught a whisper of Americans dominating the space or making our genre more nationally diverse. When diversity is mentioned, it’s to be measured up by American standards and how to diversify the American pool and what it means for Americans. Hardly anyone’s pushing to get non-Anglo authors in ToCs or viewpoints from other cultures, and that’s not even covering the almost-all American sweep at that is the Hugos. And that’s problem. It’s been a problem ever since I first came into the genre.

So my question is: why?

It makes sense in a way. US is the publishing center of the world. NYC is its home, most agents reside there, amoung a hundred other reasons, not least of all the presence of Hollywood. The genre is where it is today because Americans popularized it and brought people into the fold – you can’t change those facts even if you wanted to. I am in no way suggesting that we relocate or try to push Americans (or anyone) out. It’s counterintuitive to punish people for simply existing in the genre, as if they don’t deserve to be. There’s no need for any form exclusivity.

Which is why I’m writing this. We don’t need to take publishing away from the US, but the US needs to broaden out and acknowledge that not only are things different in other nations and cultures, but that non-Americans want this point to be acknowledged and publicized.

The insiders are setting the rules and applying diversity within themselves while the rest of us sit on the sidelines. A prime example of this is the Hugo awards: an award that has been overwhelming dominated by Americans at a staggering 80%. It’s not the only award that has a shockingly high lack of international diversity; even the British Fantasy Awards has a number of Americans on its list. And this problem isn’t limited to awards, but short fiction as well. Tim Napper and Darusha Wehm provide the stats over here, along with providing a riveting discussion on the matter.

Yes, it’s getting better. Agents and publishers and editors are far from ignorant on the matter, and The Three Body Problem winning last year’s Hugo is a glorious start, but there’s still a long way to go. There are people out there that recognize this problem. And then are those that don’t. By way of an anecdote: this discussion was brought up on a forum with resulting comments along the lines of “Americans created the awards, be grateful” and, “you can’t comprehend our traditions” or the inevitable: “if you don’t like it, get out and make your own”.

People, who are offended, mortified even, at thought of increasing diversity or covering a blind spot might soil an “American tradition”. It’s these sorts of people who hold fandom back.  And as someone who’s sitting 20,000 kilometres away and unable to have a physical presence in fandom, least of all attend a con or workshop, it’s frustrating in the most dourest of ways to see people reacting with such hostility to the suggestion of branching out. As Vajra Chandrasekera writes in his Strange Horizons column (amoung other things): it’s called WorldCon. So why isn’t it representing the world?

Our genre is not what it was thirty, or even five years ago, and we all need to acknowledge that – especially as something so encompassing and influential as US publishing has the potential, perhaps even the obligation, to do so. The rise of translated works like Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s Hex is proof of that things are moving in the right direction. But more on that subject down the line.

One of the most prime examples of this is the whole Puppy wars farce. I do not wish to discuss that mess – but I will say that the entire topic is fundamentally an American one – between Americans and about what American all genre fiction should be. The rest of the world is just watching and waiting for the acid spewing and bickering to stop. It’s exasperating to watch the genre be held back by banal bickering when we could be doing so much more.

In my PoC Destroy SF essay, I said that diversity cannot possibly exist in America alone. I still stand by that. Diversity needs to move past what one sole nation (regardless of what that nation is) acting as arbiter. And that means branching out on a number of levels: bringing non-Anglo, non-English speaking authors into the fold. Accepting non-American views and cultures and languages.

I’ll explain.

*

It’s not just the genre itself that’s dominated by Americans, it’s the terminology. The rhetoric and argot – to the extent that it’s almost language. A prime example of this is being the American-exclusive term “people of colour”, which I wrote about in the aforementioned Lightspeed essay. Tim speaks about it here – but I had A Very Prominent Person (I’m not going to give her the dignity of name-dropping) lecture me publicly about my own identity and how I’ve got an obligation to align my thinking and cultural viewpoint with that of an American one.

This happened again with someone else attempting to convince me that the term “people of colour” was used around the world and in Australia on every level of situation, from formal to everyday speech.  It’s one of the many examples of how the very subject of diversity is expected to fold around an American viewpoint and apply its standards.

It’s as if these people are enraged that there could be another differing perspective. We align ourselves with the American perspective or we’re completely invalidated. Aliette de Bodard speaks about it in her brilliant PoC Destroy SF essay: there are people out there who don’t understand that not everyone shares the same hegemonic US-ian view, described as “strangling everything else”. Again, there’s nothing wrong with having an American viewpoint. But we all should acknowledge our cultural differences and how others have alternatives views and that’s perfectly okay.

But that would require some thought beyond the onion-thin deep and we all know how the perpetually enraged are incapable of such.

More Slavic SF? Dlaczego nie?

There are perspectives I don’t understand: cultural or otherwise. But I accept that these views differ and we agree to disagree. That’s what tolerance is. And it’s not fun having almost everything you say and do be skewered through a perspective that eschews your own. It’s a classic tactic: instead of putting up with an opposition, you don’t just tear it down. You seek to invalidate its very existence, as if it cannot possibly be valid in the first place. As if the non-conformity in of itself is not an option on the table.

So when these certain Americans go out of their way to tell non-Americans that their views are invalid and that they have no business understanding or commentating on an American tradition or bringing a new view to the table: it’s telling us we  can either dumbly agree or not be part of the conversation. Simple. It’s easier to do that instead of accepting a difference: there cannot be a difference because there’s only one point of view.

And guess what? It sure as hell ain’t the rest of the world’s.

 

*

Earlier up I said that America is center of publishing: that we can all agree on. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easier to get published if you’re in America, but it does mean it can be harder if you’re not. Mostly this comes down to funding. There’s just more money in America and so that’s where the action is. I’ve had industry veterans, authors, agents and even editors tell me that in Australia almost all the publishing houses are nothing more than dusty outposts of the mainframe US department. The sales figures (mostly due to the population), the distribution, marketing, what have you, absolutely pales in comparison to that of the American ones.

I’ve had several of these said editors tell me to get a US agent, not even a UK one, (let alone an Aussie one), and treat the rest of the world as a foreign market, such is the chasm between publishing borders. Hell, the imprint of Harper Voyager down here in Australia – the publishers of A Song of Ice and Fire doesn’t even pay advances. As for our awards and conventions? They don’t even begin to compare. And let’s not even pretend that connections and getting to meet Important People in person don’t matter. Even as something as simple as sharing time zones with the majority of industry professionals makes it all the harder to get noticed.

So you see why us international fans/Mad Max-ians want a crumb of the colossal pie that is American fandom and publishing?

And we have the privilege of speaking a mutual language. Imagine how much harder it is for writers and fans in places like Poland, India, and Spain to be included.

I’ve had editors tell me to remove or change things in my stories because cultural conflicts before. I’d love to write a novel in Australia or even somewhere like Japan or Malaysia, but I’m afraid that it won’t have commercial appeal to an American audience. I had a friend write an urban fantasy set in Australia and had an agent tell her that it wasn’t “exotic” enough to sell, nor was it in America, but she could have a much better chance of selling the novel if the setting was changed to a major American city. (Some) readers don’t seem to want to do the legwork to engage with foreign principles (see why The Killing was given a remake). They’re more than happy to read about a future planet or alternative society but hit a roadblock when they see a phrase or cultural reference from a neighbouring country.

I’d didn’t know that huge authors like Jay Kristoff and Greg Egan were Australian authors – they are both so popular and making a splash in the US markets I presumed they were American or British. Egan doesn’t even allow his stories to be reprinted in the Best Australian SF/F short fiction anthologies and win Australian awards; such is his disdain to be shoehorned into the label of an Australian writer.

Again, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with considering an American audience in mind. I’m a sucker for that creepy small-town horror /rural American subculture that Stephen King exploits every few years and I love New York City as a setting as much as anyone else. But it’d not America being America that’s the problem: it’s the hesitance, perhaps even refusal, to branch out and accept other views, other stories and other voices. It’s getting better, but it’s also got a long way to go. American publishing is a mammoth-sized tent, and there’s enough room for all of us. Let’s make WorldCon actually represent the world.

I don’t have all the answers. There are always exceptions, irregularities and points that I’m surely missing. I am in no way the arbiter on this discussion, and this isn’t supposed to be the end-all commentary on this subject. As an editor myself there are ways I could improve, absolutely (this being a starting point). But right now, based on what I’ve seen and experienced as a fan, writer and editor, American standards don’t just expand to the point where they swallow everything else: they render other viewpoints and perspectives obsolete. If we want to achieve diversity (as we all should), then we need to not only recognize these views but to also move out and transplant diversity outside of America and welcome the rest of the world. In the sort of stories that are published, by international authors, in the awards system, the cultures in which these said stories take place, and other aspects that I’ve skimmed. I’m saying this because I’ve noticed it from the moment I came to fandom and I’m sick of feeling like I’m the only one.

I don’t pretend to have the solution, but I know what not to do, and that’s to continue on doing what we’re already doing.

 

 

Film Review: Suicide Squad

So. I just got back from a preview screening of Suicide Squad here in Sydney. My smart smart sister managed to procure two tickets to the event through a competition. And we went. Not only did you get a free shot of whiskey, every single seat was supplied with a mega-sized box of popcorn and a drink. They also gave away an Xbox One for best cosplay, but sadly we didn’t win it.

(ETA: Since some folks over on Reddit and Neogaf (thanks for linking guys!) are concerned about spoilers, I’ll say there that this review is spoiler free. You may read without peril).

Oh, how was the film?

It was pretty damned amazing.

It’s easily one of the best superhero films around. It’s the absolute epiphany of grunge, the alt-punk aesthetic dripping from every frame. It leans towards the unconventional and stylistic, especially towards the beginning where all the characters are introduced to use by way of a montage. It’s bursting with psychedelic colours; it’s in your face and down your throat and it’s proud of it. As much as I love the gritty urban realism of Nolan’s rendition of Batman, it’s a breath of fresh air to see the zaniness leaping off the screen.

That isn’t to say that it isn’t intense or dark or visceral; it’s all of those things and more. It pushes the “PG-13” rating to the limit and then some (some day I’ll actually be able to process US-ian rating systems – or anything the US says or does – through my Aussie brain). The action is razor-sharp and just as wild and insane as you’d expect, although sometimes it’s so chaotic that untangling the cacophony makes your head hurt.

But it’s not the straight-forward story, by-the-by scenario, or even the (somewhat lackluster villain) that makes the film inciting: it’s the characters. They’re constantly hurling razor-sharp remarks, deflecting the verbal blows and bouncing it right back. There’s a chemistry here that can only be compared to magnets: opposites attracting in the most warped of ways. These guys are insane and they know it. And they don’t care. They relish it.

At least half of the cast has a compelling personal history and/or demons looming over them that drive their motivations – if they don’t constantly pop up through the film they loop around by the end. Make no mistake: this is about as character-driven as a superhero film as ever been. In all other Marvel and DC films the camera is distant and detached, more interested in the space around the characters than themselves. The opposite is true here: we get treated to close ups and medium close ups of the entire cast, peeling back their layers and their histories and motivations. The camera cares about these people and their attachment as a group, as by extensions so do we. There’s a point around 3/5s through the film that I was waiting for, when their relationships all started to cement, their personalities evolving. There’s one incredible extreme close up at the film’s climax that sent shivers down my spine, the relationships and banter and collective charisma building up right until this point and executing it flawlessly. Easily some of the most fleshed around characters that any superhero film has ever offered up. The highlights were Deadshot and (of course) Harley Quinn, but I would have loved more backstory on Killer Croc and Captain Boomerang, although we did learn one of them has a fetish for pink unicorns. Have a guess which one.

The film isn’t without it’s solid flaws. Leto as the Joker was underwhelming, particularly with the character being given minimum screen time. The film also went through re-shoots and they stick out like a sore thumb if you’re looking hard enough. The pacing is somewhat inconsistent, and to say that the villain is meh is an understatement. Leto’s Joker doesn’t hold a candle to that of Ledger (RIP), but we all knew that from the start.

But these are small flaws in what’s certainly one of the better superhero films to grace our screens. The characters are a sadistic joy to watch in all their gory train-wreck glory, the action is solid and the dialogue top notch. Highly recommended.


 

ETA: Whoa, 25,000 views in less than twenty hours. You guys are amazing and I love you all for reading my rambling, incoherent mess that is somehow a review everyone wants to read. If you liked the review please do check out my other published short fiction (mostly science-fiction) and critical reviews, all catalogued over here on this page under “Bibliography”, it’s all free to read, and it perpetuates my fantasy of being a writer/critic. So if you checked that out it would be awesome. PS: I also co-edit a podcast.

Feel free to leave your responses in the comments. I seem to be getting a lot about Leto’s Joker. By all means, keep ’em coming (and thanks again for reading, it means a lot to me!)

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑