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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

 

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Back from America, and other stuff

As some of you may have noticed, I haven’t been that active, either here or on social media, etc. Well, that’s because for the past few weeks I’ve been paying a visit to good ol’ US of A. And you know what? I had a ripping good time.

Not all of it, though. We ran into at least a dozen complications with our booking before we even got to the mainland, this namely being the airline forgetting to put my dad’s last name on his ticket (how we even passed the gate in Sydney is an enigma that’s never gonna be solved), the travel agency assigning us to the wrong airline, an airline that we had to pay for both entertainment (a sorry selection at that) and meals. On a 22 hour flight.

Oh, and we couldn’t even sit together.

But we did manage to solve this all in the end, although the process was nothing but painful.

First stop was Hawaii before our connecting flight to Los Angeles, but I can’t say I remember too much of it since I was half-dead and completely jet-lagged. I just remember it being hot, sandy, and stormy. L.A. was a different matter entirely. We spent three days at Disneyland, California and Univerisal Studios park, and I can’t remember a time when I ever felt more like a kid. You’re never too old to go there, seriously.

You may, however, recognize these locals.

 

 

IMG_2431I’d have hoped you’ve seen Back to the Future, right? RIGHT?

IMG_2435 However, you’re less likely to have seen Gone Girl. This was where they filmed the kissing scene next to the sugar factory at the beginning. Yes, I was looking for the boxcutter.

Oh, and we went to this little place called the Hollywood walk of fame.

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And then was the drive to Vegas. Six hours through nothing but this.

IMG_2489It was a beautiful sight, though. You always hear about the Mojave desert, and you see the Mid-Western desert a lot in films. But to actually see the barren landscape for what it is…that’s a different story altogether.

And then, there was Vegas. Oh, Vegas….

IMG_2511I mean, seriously, who builds a metropolis of gambling, sex and booze in the middle of the desert? Americans, of course, and it was awesome. Not the gambling and sex, of course, but you can get some dirt-cheap beer in the States.

The thing about Vegas is that it’s wrapped in a time-warp. You can wonder the streets for hours and hours like we did, and suddenly realise it’s 1:30am. There’s no change in crowds, and (almost) everything’s open around the clock. I also couldn’t help thinking what would happen if there was some sort of apocalypse how lucky everyone in Vegas at the time would be. You’d likely be shielded from the worst of it and in one of the most lavish places on earth. But then they made a videogame out of that, so I won’t be copyrighting that concept!

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Oh, and I couldn’t not share this.

IMG_2540*Slow clap.* 10 points for creativity right there!

Sadly our trip there was pretty short and we drove back to LA in the early hours of the morning for our flight to New York City. We stayed in Brooklyn. Easily the highlight of the trip. It’s such a progressive place: it’s got such a *now now now* vibe to it that you can’t help but kept swept up in it. IMG_2575 IMG_2569

 

 

And then there’s Times Square.

 

 

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Seriously, there’s no place like it on earth. We only had a few days there, but it definitely wasn’t enough. A month would have only allowed us to scrape the surface. It’s a gold-mine of discoveries in that city and I’m roaring to go back.

I also had the opportunity to meet up with fellow author and editor Alex Shvartsman. A good many conversations over various things were had, and an extremely tasty pizza was consumed. I even reviewed his collection for Strange Horizons, which you can check out here.

I just wish I had more time in that place…IMG_2671

 

Oh, and look what I happened to pass by!

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Anyway, we were onto Boston to stay with my aunt and uncle. Now here’s where we ran into a roadbump: I got food-poisoning. Or something. I dunno what it was and at this point I’m afraid to ask. All I know is that our six hour drive from NYC to Boston consisted of me hugging my stomach and needing to stop every few minutes because I was on the verge of puking. Thankfully I didn’t and after what seemed like a drive through Satan’s personal traffic lane we arrived in Boston. It took me a good three days to recover. Three days of eating dry toast, drinking flat lemonade and sweating in bed. Amoung other things, but I’ll spare you the gory details.

Eventually I did recover, and we set out to explore Boston. It was definitely a much more relaxed pace than before – we weren’t rushing around desperate to see everything like before. And I have to say that Boston is a beautiful city. Very English. IMG_2690Oh yeah, did I mention Americans like guns? Like, like like?

No? Well, I am now. IMG_2732

I swear, there were more guns in that room than the entiriety of Australia. Rows and rows and rows of ’em. And yeah, I got to hold one. More than one. Many more than one. And that’s all I’m gonna say on the matter. But still, it’s strange to see these killing machines on the racks as if they were bread rolls!

A few more pictures o’ the landscape, including one that wouldn’t look out of place on another planet! Seriously, look at those veins in the rock!IMG_2743

We stopped at a little quaint village for coffee, and this was our view. You could do much worse.

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Aww, bless your heart, auntie. You’ll make anarchists out of us yet.

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Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and I’m back in Sydney, knee-deep in uni work and other stuff. It’s my last semester, which I have mixed feelings about. I can’t wait to get away from the study and work and turn to making a career out of writing and working in the publishing industry somewhere…but never getting up in the morning and going to your favourite class? No longer seeing your friends daily? No longer experiencing that university spirit? It’s a toughie.

 

Oh, and I do have news. Well, pretty big news in fact. We’ll call it That Thing that I Can’t Talk About™. Unfortunately I can’t talk about That Thing that I Can’t Talk About™ just yet, so it’ll have to be on hold. But it consists of several things, and those things are sales to major markets, including one I’ve been trying to break into for several years now.

But enough of my rambling. I’ll update you when I can.

And ’til next time, America! Keep being weird.