After 22 years, it’s finally happening. R. S. A. Garcia is publishing a novel with a major press. Her Caribbean mythology-inspired sci-fi/fantasy epic The Nightward will be released by Harper Voyager in the fall of 2024.
“I wanted to be a writer from the time I was eight years old,” she tells me. “I would buy Reader’s Digest, I would buy The World’s Book of Publishers, to help me on my search. I sent a story off to Writers of the Future, and I still have the card they sent me: that I was the first person from my country who’d applied for this.”
She grew up in Trinidad and Tobago in the ‘80s: a lousy time and place to make it as a SFF writer. The problem wasn’t just the size of her country—it’s got a population of 1.5 million, about the same as Philadelphia—it was the fact that across the Caribbean, publishing houses focused on academic publishing: textbooks, literary works from the African, Caribbean, and postcolonial canons. US markets were far away, accepting only snail mail submissions. And no-one took speculative fiction seriously.
“I could never find someone in the literary establishment who would encourage me,” Garcia says. “Even though a lot of Caribbean works are fantastical—they reference our folklore and our gods—publishers prefer to frame them as contemporary literature, like Derek Walcott. What I loved to write was not what publishers were looking for.”
The Internet was a lifesaver. She found a community for herself on the Online Writing Workshop (OWW) for Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror, and dates her beginning of her publishing journey to the year 2001, when she was rejected by the legendary editor Ellen Datlow, then running the online SFF portal SciFiction; also when she was included in an OWW anthology to raise funds for the survivors of 9/11.
Over the years, she’s kept writing and sharing her work on international platforms (including this very journal); getting longlisted and shortlisted for awards; even publishing a novel, Lex Talionis, with Dragonwell Press, mostly distributed as an ebook. She’s also stayed rooted in her home country, living next to her family, holding down a day job to pay the bills, even battling cancer, never giving in to the temptation to move to the UK or the USA, where she might gain untold opportunities at the beating heart of the global SFF scene… though, she confesses, she never had the funds to go, anyway. “I've been so broke, I couldn't afford higher education, far less moving.”
And now, after two decades, she’s done it. She’s scored herself a major SFF publishing deal, on top of becoming a finalist for the Locus, Nebula, Ignyte, and Sturgeon Awards, plus being longlisted for the British Science Fiction Awards. All without migrating, without changing her style, without exoticising her own identity.
She believes other international writers can do this as well, no matter where in the world we’re based. “The publishing world is waking up to the fact that we can write mainstream too,” she says.“Of course we can! There are billions of us. And we don’t have to be afraid of each other. We all have our own stories. Cream always rises to the top.”
1. The Golden Globe
We’re living in an age of globalised SFF, where Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem and Marlon James’ Black Leopard, Red Wolf are hailed as mainstream classics; where journals like Strange Horizons and Clarkesworld routinely seek out and feature authors from every inhabited continent. In his introduction to The Best of World SF: Volume 1, Israeli-British writer Lavie Tidhar describes how he’s watched authors like Aliette de Bodard, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Nnedi Okorafor, and Lauren Beukes explode in popularity over the past decade. “Between them, now, these writers are science fiction. They have the awards and the hardcovers in the bookstores and the film and TV deals,” he writes. “The future of science fiction is dependent on its global nature, on its international authors, who each bring their unique visions and experience, their own background and culture, and their shared love of the fantastic to their work.”
It’s a golden age of opportunity for those of us who live somewhere over the rainbow, far from the hallowed lands of North America and Europe. But as those of us in the industry know, it’s still bloody hard to get noticed. Most of the writers named above are based in the global North: James is Jamaican but lives in Brooklyn; Moreno-Garcia is Mexican but lives in Vancouver. Time magazine’s “The 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time” consists of a stunningly progressive and multicultural lineup—yet it includes only one living author who was both born in and primarily resident in a non-Western country: Neon Yang of Singapore. (They’ve recently moved to Norwich!)
The truth is, geography still matters. And the topic’s been relatively neglected in discussions of how intersectional oppressions create barriers for writers in SFF—the ways gender, race, sexual orientation, poverty, citizenship status and disability create an unequal playing field in this supposedly liberal and liberatory literary genre.
So what happens to your career if you don’t live within shouting distance of the global publishing centres of New York and London? For non-Anglophone writers, there’s of course the politics and economics of translation, which I don’t think I’m able to do justice to in a single essay. So I’ve deliberately approached friendly authors from the greater English-speaking world—Africa, the Caribbean, India, Southeast Asia and Australia—quizzing them about their writing journeys, trying to get a sense of how we deal with the limitations of distance.
2. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
Though divided by oceans and continents, the responses of these authors have been pretty damn similar. Garcia’s experiences are typical—most speak of the relative smallness of the SFF scenes in their homelands, the lack of respect given to the genre, the insistence of local publishers that only high literature deserved the dignity of printing and distribution, the essential role of the Internet in connecting them to the speculative fiction movement of the global North.
Australia’s a bit of an outlier. “We are greatly disadvantaged in many ways, being so far from the epicentre of conventions and major publishers," says horror author Kaaron Warren. “We still have to travel a loooong way if we want to make those in-person connections.” Still, she remembers an already thriving SFF scene when she began her career in the 1990s, with local authors like Sean McMullen and Terry Dowling already building an international reputation for themselves.
It’s easy to attribute this to Australia’s First World status, or its connections with the UK and the USA as a fellow nation of majority-white English speakers. But Warren identifies one specific event as a game-changer: WorldCon, first held in Melbourne in 1985. Though she didn’t attend this in person, she understands how her career blossomed in the wake of all it created: how it brought SFF writers together, connected them to global storytellers and inspired the creation of a national infrastructure for publishing and distribution. As a result, she was able to sell her first twenty stories locally before venturing out in search of international publication—plus, she’s managed to get international distribution through an Australian publisher, IFWG.
Compare this with the struggles of Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki in Nigeria, where there’s very little infrastructure for SFF writers. He’s tried to combat the lack of speculative fiction publishers by starting his own imprint, Jembefola Press, featuring writers from across the African continent. But in spite of widespread interest at home and abroad, he’s had to fight battle after battle to ensure these voices are heard.
“International publishing platforms and payment systems are not available in most African countries,” he explains. “Amazon kicked out my works. I had to have a whole-ass war with them to get my money back. I had the same issue with Smashwords and Draft Digital. ”His solution was to make a number of his publications free for download, such as the nonfiction anthology Bridging Worlds: Global Conversations On Creating Pan-African Speculative Literature In a Pandemic, which he edited last year. “Unfortunately it means I don’t make a lot of money—or any money!—because you have to sacrifice profits for distribution. You have to sacrifice sustainability for being heard.”
On my home turf, I’d say we’re somewhere between these two states. In both South and Southeast Asia, we’ve had long histories of SFF publishing in local languages, and in the case of Singapore, an actual boom in English language horror from the 1980s to the early 2000s. But it’s only within the past two decades that we’ve started to reach out beyond our shores; that publishers and critics have begun treating English language SFF with a modicum of respect.
One of the folks responsible for these developments is Dean Francis Alfar, often regarded as the reigning daddy of contemporary Philippine speculative fiction.“I started getting published in the late 1990s, early 2000s,” he says. “I always tended to look abroad, because the short story market here was so small and so contested: there were only a handful of publications, and they were very specific about what they wanted—and it was not fantasy.”
To date, Alfar’s best-known literary work is a tale first published on Strange Horizons in 2003: “L’Aquilone du Estrellas (The Kite of Stars)”. Following this, however, he devoted his efforts not to seeking international fame, but to cultivating the local SFF scene. In 2004, he edited Philippine Speculative Fiction: Volume 1, an anthology series that would eventually expand to eleven volumes. He published and produced his work in Manila—a novel, three short story collections, comics, plays—and used his influence in university creative writing programs to encourage young writers to explore the fantastic. With his colleagues, he’s built an ecosystem of Philippine writers, publishers, critics, and readers, where speculative fiction flourishes and is celebrated.
Once again, however, there are problems with distribution. “The book buying market is still not strong enough to support any kind of big publishing industry for spec fic,” Alfar says. “Print runs here are still small. You’re considered a bestseller if your book sells 1,000 copies.” National borders raise barriers: even in nearby Singapore, I can’t buy Philippine publications off the shelf. Ebooks are occasionally available, but these can be just as expensive as physical copies, and the industry’s rife with piracy.
Sure, some writers have had success with regional publishers, such as Scholastic Asia and Penguin Southeast Asia, and the National Book Development Board’s been trying to sell international rights to Phil lit at the Frankfurt Book Fair. But it’s an uphill battle, especially if local authors compare what they can achieve with the success of émigrés like Candy Gourlay and Isabel Yap. Writers are ghetto-ised, not just by culture, but by residential address. Too far away from the metropole, and you’ve fallen off the map.
3. Journey to the Centre of the Earth
As readers may have guessed, this topic’s personal. Like a million other SFF writers out there, I’m trying to get published globally, querying with endless agents, submitting to open calls, using whatever means I can to become part of a literary conversation beyond the vibrant but minuscule scene we’ve got in Singapore.
Occasionally, I’ve had the chance to push my work abroad. This is when I’ve been truly shameless. In 2018, I was invited to the Singapore Unbound festival in New York, days before my collection Lion City rolled off the printing press in Singapore. I DHLed a few copies over and thrust them into the hands of whoever I thought might be influential, which might’ve paid off, actually, because Henry Wessells of The Endless Bookshelf blog ended up talking about it on his blog. I’ve paid for one-on-ones with visiting writers, tried to forge friendships at the Singapore Writers Festival, desperately hoping that something will lead to some kind of breakthrough opportunity. My interviewees don’t think it’s a terrible idea. When I mentioned applying for the Clarion Workshop to Warren, her reaction was, “That’ll be the making of you.”
But there’s a strange kind of guilt that comes with this hustle. The fact that I’m able to expend the time and money to do all this is a function of financial privilege, not open to most Singaporeans, let alone most Southeast Asians. The same is true of most international authors who venture into the Western SFF scene: though we’re at a relative disadvantage, the fact that we’ve the time and confidence to share our writing in English usually means we’re part of a local elite in our own nations.
Indrapamit Das is thoroughly aware of this. “SFF writers who live in India tend to be very diverse in terms of their styles and what they’re doing, but they’re still very often Hindu and upper caste,” they say. “It’s entirely predicated on having access to resources, Internet, education, etc, which most Indians don’t have.” They themselves are no exception to this rule. As a member of the upper middle class, they were able to embark on an MFA in Vancouver, with the help of a scholarship and loans. It was here they first drafted their breakthrough novel The Devourers. It was also in Vancouver that they found an agent, who ensured that the book would reach both Indian and global readers, with a Penguin India edition in 2015 and another from Ballantine Del Rey in 2016.
The Devourers has since gained a strong following in the USA, winning a Lambda Literary Award for LGBT SFF/Horror in 2017, and thus a host of queer fans. Meanwhile, in India, the nation with the largest English-speaking population in the world, it hasn’t even earned out its advance. The reasons for this are complex: Indian publishers are less experienced in marketing SFF, plus the novel lies in a strange space between genres. On top of all this, there’s the matter of geography. Das is based in Kolkata, which is known as a literary city for the Bengali language, but not for English language publishing. A home in Mumbai or Delhi would grant the author a more secure place in the national arts community. Within the borderlands of global SFF, there are further margins and inequities that aren’t obvious from a distance.
I’ve wondered, of course, if the most strategic decision for my career would be to migrate. But that’d be a hell of a gamble: to uproot myself, to leave behind my partner, my family, my entire social network, all for the sake of an artistic pursuit that can’t pay the bills even for its most decorated laureates. More to the point: I don’t want to. I still harbour a stupid love for my country, my region, perhaps even the condition of being somewhere on the frontiers of global culture, and I believe being here nourishes my writing, even if it limits the number of souls who’ll actually read it.
Plus, there’s hope for the future. Every one of my respondents revealed some cause for optimism in their respective SFF literary scenes. Notably, there’s a trend towards transnational initiatives. Across the Caribbean, there’s been an explosion of literary festivals, such as the Bocas Lit Fest in Port of Spain, exposing readers to local SFF and instructing writers on potential paths to publication. In South Asia, there are projects like the magazine Tasavvur, which defies rising ethnonationalism with its joint board of Indian and Pakistani editors. And in Africa, Ekpeki’s been able to build cooperative networks with authors from all quarters of the vast continent—Egypt in the north, Ghana in the west, Kenya in the east, South Africa in the South—without territorialism.“I foresee the continent being like a thriving orbit of stories,” he says. “I foresee them defining pop culture that can span the globe and the Earth.” We’re seeing the birth of an infrastructure that isn’t centred in the West, grander and more ambitious than what Australia began building back in the 1980s.
Furthermore, although I’ve expressed a little envy towards emigrant writers, I’d like to state for the record that none of the writers I interviewed share these sentiments. Rather, they found their careers inspirational. Nalo Hopkinson, Akwaeke Emezi and Zen Cho aren’t our competition; they’re the vanguards of culturally diverse SFF. They’re clearing a path that we ourselves may tread someday.
Back in 2005, the journalist Thomas L. Friedman championed the wave of globalisation in the 21st century in his book The World Is Flat. Today, that title’s more notable for its shortcomings than its innate truths. As much as we’d like to believe it, our planet isn’t flat: it’s a treacherous terrain of unequal opportunities.
Nevertheless, slowly if not surely, the axis of power is tilting. It’s shifting our lands closer, chipping away at our borders, making them porous enough that if we prick up our ears, we can hear each other speak our stories. And it’s changing the light, so a few more of us may have our time in the sun.
Some quotes have been rephrased for clarity with the agreement of the interviewees. Many thanks to Dean Francis Alfar, Indrapamit Das, Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki, R.S.A. Garcia, and Kaaron Warren for their gracious help.
Lavie Tidhar. “Introduction.” The Best of World SF: Volume 1. Head of Zeus. P4.
“The 100 Best Fantasy Books of All Time.” Time. 15 October 2020. https://time.com/collection/100-best-fantasy-books/. An argument could be made for the addition of Kacen Callender, who is a US citizen but was born and resides in the US Virgin Islands.
 “Bridging Worlds: Global Conversations On Creating Pan-African Speculative Literature In a Pandemic”. Oghenechvwe Donald Ekpeki, 10 September 2022. https://odekpeki.com/2022/09/10/bridging-worlds-global-conversations-on-creating-pan-african-speculative-literature-in-a-pandemic/
The limits of this networking have already become apparent. My instructors urged me to approach Mysterious Galaxy to stock my short story collection Lion City, but I found that was impossible—my Singapore-based publisher wasn’t linked to Ingram, their sole distributor.