History is complex, its creators myriad. Yet many voices—the majority—are given all the primacy of static in mainstream narratives. In response to calls for diverse representation, some authors maintain that oppressive worlds reflect historical reality. Others suggest that remaining too close to history is be shackled to the realm of elite men. The multiplicity of histories is often overlooked that debate, its people marginalized, its stories silenced.
I asked three writers about their work in accessing and representing historically marginalized voices. My thanks to them for their contributions and time.
- Joyce Chng lives in Singapore. Her YA trilogy is published by Math Paper Press, a Singaporean independent publisher. Dragon Dancer, a picturebook, is forthcoming in September. She writes the Jan Xu Adventures series, an urban fantasy series set in Singapore, under J. Damask. Her website is A Wolf's Tale.
- David Anthony Durham has written several novels, including Gabriel's Story, Pride of Carthage, and the Acacia series. In 2009, he won the John W. Campbell award. Recently, he has written several stories for George R. R. Martin's Wild Cards series. His website is here.
- Kari Sperring is the author of Living with Ghosts (DAW 2009)—winner of the 2010 Sydney J. Bounds Award, shortlisted for the William L. Crawford Award and a Tiptree Award Honours' List book—and The Grass King's Concubine (DAW 2012). As Kari Maund, she’s an academic medieval historian.
- Vanessa Rose Phin, moderator
Vanessa Rose Phin: If there is a margin, there is also a center: a center which usually goes unmarked because it is considered the norm. A modern unmarked state is cis white male. What are some additional unmarked assumptions associated with historical narrative or secondary-world fiction in general, and in your area of expertise in particular?
David Anthony Durham: A few things come to mind for me. I'm thinking in terms of historical fiction, as I've just finished a historical novel called (tentatively) The Risen. It's about the Spartacus rebellion in ancient Rome. Because I was writing about that, I read a lot of fiction set in the period, watched a lot of film and TV, etc. Five unacknowledged assumptions consistently frustrate me.
One is the default to focusing on the lives and experiences of a handful of famous men (who tend to be cis male). Yes, there's a lot that's fascinating about Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Augustus, etc. But I find the notion that the wars they fought always have to feature them as central characters—as if it's all really about them—unfortunate. I'm as interested in the lives of the unnamed masses who lived and died through those same conflicts: foot soldiers, noncombatants, slaves, women, children, the elderly. Any of the conflicts those famous men led involved countless others. I'd welcome more stories about those people. They deserve them.
The second thing is a popular media more than a novelistic thing. The ongoing of Anglicization (not a perfect term for what I mean, I know) of all things ancient Mediterranean. This has been with us for a long time, but it confounds me that we continue to cast movies about Greeks or Romans or Egyptians with white, Northern European/British/American actors—never with actual Greeks or Italians or North Africans. It’s almost absurd enough to be funny. How did the Romans conquer so much of the world? By being British, apparently.
Another issue I have is the gender imbalance in fiction about the ancient world, especially in those written by men. Most works dealing with ancient conflicts are only really interested in the male characters. Women are rarely shown as influential in the making of history. They're present as love interests, as possessions, as decoration, for sex, and quite often to be rescued. I understand, of course, that ancient battles were fought primarily by men, but they involved the lives and fortunes of women just as much. I'd like their stories included as part of the norm.
Am I rambling yet?
A fourth assumed unmarked assumption is that nobody of any intelligence and education really believed in multiple gods. Educated characters may evoke the gods to control the masses, but most of them are either nonbelievers, cynics, or ambivalent. When they do express religious devotion, it's often a thinly disguised variation of Judeo-Christian monotheism. To me this feels flawed, like contemporary authors themselves can't take the ancient notions of divinity seriously, and therefore can't help but have their characters have the same skepticism.
And finally, I feel we far too often default to heterosexual characters, even when writing about cultures that had very different attitudes about sexuality. I'm thinking about a very successful novelist who writes ancient Greek war novels. He avoids the topic of homosexuality (or even sexual acts between men who may not technically be homosexual, but who are acting within a cultural context that includes same sex interactions). I find this boring. It makes both for flawed historical works and for less engaging works because they fail to challenge readers not only see beyond unmarked assumptions, but also to fully engage with the cultural differences of other times and places.
Joyce Chng: I majored in history and my interest is medieval history—specifically in social history, chivalry, knighthood, and women's history. My MA focused on Joan of Arc and how she was portrayed by writers and artists in her time. So, when it comes to assumptions and generalizations, I think I am able to answer, in my own opinion, of course.
Additional unmarked assumptions: women's history, gender, sexual orientation, faith/religion.
When it comes to historical narrative or secondary-world fiction, we tend to fall back on the default cis white male and heteronormative version of narrative, which is to effectively erase or whitewash any other histories, genders, orientations, and faiths. Worse come to worst (and we have already seen this happen countless of times in epic fantasy), they are relegated to the margins or footnotes or given stereotypical representations.
Kari Sperring: I had a strange experience a couple of months ago. I was reading the debut SF novel of a fellow British woman writer, and she mentioned almost as an aside that in the future she depicted, not only was the USA no longer important, it didn't exist at all any more, having destroyed itself some centuries earlier. It was just a sentence, but it kicked me right out of the book, because it seemed, well, so impossible. My whole life, I've known that the future is American, right back to early childhood watching shows like Star Trek and reading writers like Andre Norton and Robert Heinlein.
But until last December, I didn't know I thought this. The assumption was so core to my reading habits, my mode of thinking that I'd never questioned it. I'd read non-US futures before, from writers like Nnedi Okorafor and Kambayashi Chohei, and found them wonderfully refreshing. But in my head, somehow, was the unrecognised belief that these were exceptional, oppositional to what was (apparently) most generally accepted. They were marked by their Otherness, by not-being-American, because the future of course must belong to the USA. Everyone says so.
Now, I'm just another white British woman. That puts me fairly close to the accepted center (although being British and being USian are not as similar as many people online seem to think—particularly Americans, and dissonance occurs very often). I stumble over books regularly that dismiss my culture as dead, over, irrelevant (seriously, I've lost count of the books which start off by destroying Europe as part of their future, and the ones in which "the world" that is saved consists of part of the continental USA); or which treat European history and mythology as a grab-bag open to all comers. But I remain privileged. I can't even begin to imagine how painful, how damaging, how distorting this relentless US-centric worldview must be for readers of color, readers from outside the so-called "First World" (an expression I hate), readers whose history has been destroyed, rewritten, and hijacked by colonialist powers (including the British). We live in a world which tells the majority of the population daily that they do not matter, that they are irrelevant, that the future does not belong to them.
That's science fiction. It's a cliché that much secondary world fantasy recycles common ideas about medieval Europe—and, like Joyce, I'm by training a medieval historian. A number of writers have pointed out over the last few years how problematic this is, and for all sorts of reasons. It prioritises white experience and white history, for a start, and that is yet another denial of identity and reality for most of the world. As David points out, too, when it prioritizes "white," it's selective within that, too, reducing the complexity and range of the continent to English speaking people with (largely) a northern European appearance. This happens with Asian material, too, particularly in film and TV, where the differences between peoples and cultures become blurred and misrepresented by casting that starts with name recognition over authenticity. And it's starting to happen with African histories and cultures—again mainly in film and TV, the narratives are those of Americans, focusing on issues that speak most strongly to the US experience, and which flatten and distort wider African experiences.
And then there's the question of accuracy. I'm a historian of the Celtic-speaking peoples in the period 400 CE to 1300 CE, with a sideline in early Scandinavia, so those are the materials I see most sharply (though there are many many more, as I noted above). The cultures I study are complex, fascinating—and almost uniformly misrepresented in popular beliefs and assumptions. The Celts were not a single people with an early sort-of empire stretching across western Europe. They were not feminist, they were not egalitarian, they were not all nature-loving and naturally mystical. They were not one people, they were many, and their practices and beliefs and laws were far from universal. And yet book after book—some of them claiming to be historically accurate—presents us with a picture created by conflating these different practices and laws and peoples and insisting in the uniform, magical, Celt—particularly the Independent Celtic Warrior Woman, a composite figure derived from misunderstandings of the nature of early Irish Law Codes, from treating figures from folklore as accurate depictions and from conflating women from very different periods—from Boudicca to seventeenth-century Brittany in some cases—and treating all these sources as equal and representative of an unchanging culture. This isn't good history, it can make for predictable fiction, and it's frustrating to read about. (I can guarantee that this article will get at least one response explaining to me that I must be wrong about this, too, despite my expertise, because people are incredibly invested in this narrative.) Most of these books are written by people who are not Welsh or Irish or Breton or Catalan or Scottish.
This raises an incredibly difficult area, that of diaspora. Due to the wealth and power of a number of countries whose dominant populations are descendants of people who emigrated from Europe, diaspora writers tend to dominate narratives about much of the rest of the world. I would not deny the right of such writers to feel connected to the stories and history of the countries from which their ancestors came—and there are, of course writers who are themselves migrants or who are first generation migrants. But the number and power of these narratives present a considerable problem for those of us who are not part of the diaspora. Put at its most basic, I don't recognise the "Europe" from which most so-called Eurocentric fantasy derives. These stories of countries called Francitania and GrenEnglandia don't feel like anything I know or anything that belongs to me. They mix elements from different cultures and times and muddle the history. They omit the Europeans of color and misrepresent the ways in which women did and did not have agency. They read like something from Hollywood, probably starring Errol Flynn. The stories that derive from my culture have been gnawed to the bone, the bones broken open and the marrow extracted, and fed back to me as mush—and then declared "over" by those who did the gnawing. I hope that those out there whose stories have not yet been picked over can protect them and keep their sense of connection. I feel, most of the time, dispossessed of mine. (There are honorable exceptions, diaspora writers who have created stories that feel true and natural—Evangeline Walton, Katharine Kerr, Marie Brennan, to name but three.)
I am privileged by my color and nationality. Once again, I have here but a tiny glimpse of how huge this problem is. (It is a huge pain to historians, however. Every single time I teach I have to spend hours explaining to students just how misleading films like King Arthur are.) But this plays into the issues Joyce and David mention, about cultural distortion and elision and the reduction of everything into the stories of white men.
I'm also a socialist. Part of the package of Americentricity is the assumption that US forms of democracy, which prioritise the market, support a strong military, and promote both the rags to riches story and the primacy of the individual, are always good things. Fantasies of stableboy kings play into the American Dream (and why do US writers love aristocrats so much?) but are often completely without any real class analysis. The peasants are always happy, or misled, and delighted to have a new kind king (president?) who won't change the social structure but will let them have their local festivals and cut taxes. The colonists on the new planet replicate familiar political structures and need their strong leader (thus repeating the stale and silencing White Male Hero trope). With a few exceptions—Kate Elliott, Ursula K. Le Guin, Ken MacLeod, Aliette de Bodard—both the model pasts of fantasy and the futures of SF are modern American in their ideals. The cultural assemblages and trappings are those that white America (and white Britain) expect—farmers grow wheat, not rice or manioc; clothing is Western; food is eaten with knives and forks, not hands or chopsticks. And to add to this, anything "alien" or outside is flagged strongly, described in detail, Othered—once again denying and excluding those outside the default assumptions of the writer.
There are so many other aspects to this dominance of one culture. An absence of narratives that focus on communities, not individuals. Stories in which all the characters save the protagonist exist solely to further said protagonist's "journey" (do not get me started on the cultural and social damage created by the reductionism, western-centric work on myth of Joseph Campbell). "Strong Female Characters" whose strength and virtue lies in adopting male behaviours, and whose strength derives from abuse and trauma, because woe betide a woman could achieve agency without having been ground down and harmed. Heteronormativity, as David notes. Gender essentialism. Marginalisation of faith, and depictions of faith that are wholly negative—as Joyce says, faith is a huge part, historically, of many, many human cultures, and has not always been an unmarked evil or a source of nothing but harm. But most fantasies treat it as a trimming, and thus add to the ways in which the worlds they depict don't feel authentic. (Again, there are exceptions. Freda Warrington, Carole MacDonnell, Saladin Ahmed, Lisanne Norman, Lois McMaster Bujold, all of whom include faith of some kind in their worldbuilding.) Laziness—writing that does not stop to ask what the basics are, and why they are as they are, that recycles the norms of the writer without question or justification.
Joyce Chng: I would like to comment here, Kari. This is so true. The Americentricity/US-centricism seeps into everything and yes, it does prioritise the market, unfortunately. So, currently, the image of the epic fantasy is white, stableboy, war, and boy-becomes-king. So, what happens to people who are not of the above?
Ironically, I got "too Asian!" when I wrote Rider and Speaker, the YA novels set on a desert planet (Dune!). The protagonist is not only queer, but she is Asian and disabled. Throughout the story, I wove in details about her life and her customs (food, festivals, traditions). I wrote her, based on my own experiences. So, imagine the surprise and shock when I read the "too Asian!" review.
Asians too fall into the trap of the white US/UK fantasy tropes. In the end, they end up disliking who they are, because they have been conditioned to hate the Other.
The thing is—how can we change the current status quo?
Can we accept true diversity?
Kari Sperring: Oh, Joyce! “Too Asian”! That shows up yet another toxic aspect of this global dominance of one kind of culture in SF—anything that is not the supposed norm is required to make itself as accessible and simplistic as possible, lest it scare or confuse the white reader, whose comfort is paramount. That is so patronizing, so damaging, so eliding, as it forces white experience into the center of everything. Which is toxic. And, as you both note, it colonizes the minds of those outside the assumed culture in very harmful ways.
Vanessa Rose Phin: I want to center on your mention of epic fantasy, Joyce—in some ways aptly named, for a form that has become, in part, fantasy's centrist element. The epic poem creates a narrative definition of a culture, stemming as it does from oral traditions, from history unwritten but sung. Yet world epic poetry is pluralistic: we have multiple epics, from multiple cultures. And those epics are creative, have the possibility of redefining what it means to be within a culture. At the same time, epic fantasy and golden ageism walk hand-in-hand, in which marginalized people are omissions and, as Kari notes, medieval European cultures are largely viewed through a limited diasporic lens. What does the future of epic fantasy look like to you? Does it have a future?
David Anthony Durham: I think this question points to one of the greatest possible areas of a boom in epic fantasy. Because we've been so focused on Europe, we've left a wealth of other settings and cultures largely unexplored. There are certainly people starting to do great work with new settings. How do I know? Because there's been a backlash, as seen by the state of this year's Hugo ballot. There will be push back, but I'm an optimist in the long run. Many of the old blinders have been removed. That's irreversible, and it's going to make for some interesting, diverse works going forward. That's good for everyone, though not everyone understands that.
For writers of color, I think we're looking at some really liberating new possibilities. A student of mine at the Stonecoast MFA Program (which is one of the few MFA programs that respects genre writing) is writing a series of linked epic fantasy stories. As he was describing them to me, I asked what the setting was. It was the default. Medieval Europe. But the writer in question is Filipino. He'd just described the trip he was about to take for a family reunion in the Philippines. It sounded wonderfully diverse and culturally rich and full of specific detail. Considering that, I asked if he'd ever thought of using Asian instead of European settings. He hadn't. It hadn't occurred to him that he could, but from the moment I mentioned it he was clearly excited by the idea. And he should be. I've read several of his stories now and they absolutely gain something new and refreshing from his being able to dig into sights and sounds and flavors we haven't quite seen in epic fantasy before.
Considering that I was mentioning a specific person and situation, I thought I should run by him what I was going to write, just to make sure he agreed with my version of things. He did, and he wrote this in response, "I have no problems whatsoever with what you've written. I think it accurately describes my situation at the last residency. I grew up reading fantasy novels mostly inspired by European culture, so that influenced where I drew inspiration for my own work. With your guidance, this semester has forever expanded my definition of what 'fantasy' can be. I'll always be a fan of the 'traditional' fantasy tale, but now I'm aware (and quite the fan) of other epic fantasies that don't feature castles and knights. My perspective has changed for the better."
Isn't that great? Among other things, I love that he's not abandoning the fantasy he grew up reading. He's just adding to it, expanding his horizons, seeing new possibilities. That pleases me.
Joyce Chng: David, that's the problem many writers from non-US/UK countries are facing at the moment. Many of us grew up on White Medieval European History and were told—somehow or rather—that our own cultures and myths are sub-par and not as legitimate as white ones. That's the tragedy, I think. I hasten to add that I feel uncomfortable with the use of "writer of color" or POC, because this term has been coined to describe the experiences of non-white people in the US and UK. I would be happy if there is a term to describe the experiences of people who are non-white elsewhere.
Let's go back to White Medieval European History and how it has affected the mindset of writers everywhere. Many non-white writers have to love their own cultures and myths, because these are what make us "us." It's not just castles and knights, but also that we have to un-learn the false/skewed/narrow-minded perspectives of what we have learned.
I am not against anyone writing white/medieval epic fantasy. If that's your voice, go for it. But I also encourage people who are non-white, to write their own epic fantasy. I encourage people in Southeast Asia to write their own epic fantasy. Your voices matter. Your cultures matter.
Publishing, however, has to overhaul its thinking regarding "Asian fantasy not able to sell." Look at Ken Liu's The Grace of Kings. Agents have to be more adventurous in seeking diverse writers, not just people in the US or the UK.
Kari Sperring: I don't know what will happen with epic fantasy. I'd like to think that we will see more writers like Joyce, and Saladin Ahmed, and Zen Cho, and Nalo Hopkinson, and Karen Lord, and Victor Ocampo—and David's student—who write out of different experiences and cultures using different Englishes, different assumptions. I'd like to see more books in translation, too, books that were written for other audiences—like those of Liu Cixin and Amish and Miyabe Miyuki. That is where the future lies for me. But the kyriarchy clings tight to power and its structures are hard to dismantle, so I fear we still have a long way to go. And that's sad.
Vanessa Rose Phin: To your writing—with which marginal voices have you been most concerned, and how have you worked to represent them, specifically?
Joyce Chng: I am most concerned with women's representation, gender and sexual orientation. I want to challenge perceptions.
Most of my fiction is women-centered, and examines gender and sexual orientations. In my YA webserial/series Oysters, Pearls and Magic, the protagonist/main character is queer. Her society allows Triads (polyamory) and also Apart (who have chosen singlehood). So, her partners are Josh and Auri. In my YA trilogy set on a desert planet, the main character is also queer and later forms a relationship with a woman who is also her classmate in the academy.
Likewise, I want to see more fiction with mothers as the central characters. My urban fantasy series feature Jan Xu, a mother who is also leader of her pack/clan.
I also want more re-mything to be done. Our current myths stem from heteronormative and patriarchal societal systems. I want to change the myths, make everyone speak for themselves. I write poetry and flash fiction about the phoenix and assorted mythical birds in The Book of Phoenii where the main phoenix characters are women.
David Anthony Durham: It's the things that rub me the wrong way that I'm drawn to include in my work. My Spartacus novel has ten point-of-view characters. Only Spartacus qualifies as famous. The others are slaves of various varieties and ethnicities. There are several noncombatant points of view. There's a child. An "old woman"—at least that's what people call her. There's only one Roman POV, and he's a landless, lowly foot soldier, in many ways trapped by the same system that holds the slaves in bondage. So it's not all about the famous men.
In terms of ethnicity, many of my characters are central and northern and eastern Europeans, but only when it's historically accurate. Germans and Celts abound, but they're playing Germans and Celts! I make a point of differentiating them from more Mediterranean populations in the same ways that the ancients themselves did. I also wanted to avoid Hollywood's tendency to use slavery as the primary vehicle for getting people of color in the background. Most of the slaves in this uprising were white, many of them much fairer than their enslavers. I hope the book reads true to that.
As for gender balance, I'm part way there. There are three female point of view characters, but beyond that other women are central to the novel—not just in terms of their personal stories. Several of them explicitly shape and influence larger events.
On polytheism, I try to respect the pantheons of gods and represent how they'd have been worshipped. I don't really think any of my characters in this one are religious cynics. They've all got too much at stake, and they look to their gods for all the help they can get.
I've had gay characters in all my books since my first novel. Sometimes they've been there but their sexuality wasn't disclosed because it didn't matter. Sometimes it was specifically a part of their identity. I think I've done that even more in this one. Two of my ten point of view characters are gay men. Their sexual desires are as much a part of their story as with the straight characters. Also, there are several same-sex erotic encounters between characters who aren't overtly same-sex oriented.
Kari Sperring: As a historian, one side of the training I received in that profession is to be aware always of whose voice is not present, whose voice is ignored, and whose voice is denied agency. So for me, writing always feels like a balancing act, negotiated between the assumed center—whose voices and privileges and needs have been so drummed into me that they operate almost at an unconscious level—and the margins, the silent majority whose stories are deemed not to matter. I tend to write secondary world fantasy, perhaps as a response to this. The unconscious programming is always with me, but in a secondary world I have more freedom to question it (or should have, though reader expectations can lie elsewhere). Having said which, I am just another white woman, and as such, I am probably more part of the problem than any solution, whatever my intentions.
The voices which speak strongest to me are those of people who have been discounted—writing always feels like a balancing act, negotiated between the assumed center—whose voices and privileges and needs have been so drummed into me that they operate almost at an unconscious level—and the margins, the silent majority whose stories are deemed not to matter, people away from the centres of power, people who do not conform to social norms of gender and sexuality and behavior, people who are expected to be walk-ons in their own lives. I wrote the first draft of Living with Ghosts in my 20s, and there are elements in it—not least the number of characters who are aristocrats—that I probably wouldn't include now. At the time, I was working on my PhD, and it was all about the highborn (for reasons of source material). I found it hard to imagine a story wherein power lay predominantly with the poor and dispossessed. The society in that book is based in part on seventeenth-century France (the real version, not the Hollywood one) but a version where the very real but hidden power of certain women was made explicit, along with the costs of that. And two of the main characters come from the lower classes: Joyain belongs to the middle class, while Gracielis is both foreign and a member of the underclass, always suspect, always unsafe and often treated as a toy or an ornament. I don't know how well I succeeded in creating his voice—I'm not a feminine, bisexual cis man—but his sense of alienation, his objectification, and the way even Thiercelin sometimes treats him more as a tool than a person, were issues that mattered to me and still do. But most of the characters in that book (and indeed that world) are bisexual: I wanted to tell a story in which that state is unmarked and the character arcs were not restricted to "queer issues." But I think David is right: we need to see more QUILTBAG characters at the centers of stories, facing and dealing with problems that are not just about their sexuality and their bodies.
With The Grass King's Concubine, I took the story outside the city that dominated the first book and into the underworld. The voices in that book are more explicitly away from my local cultural norm. A lower class man, a privileged but young and socially constrained woman, an embodiment of air in earth, and twins who are more ferrets than humans. The voice that came hardest to me was that of the woman, Aude. I had to fight my programming that denies women agency in their own lives every step of the way. It was much easier to depict shapeshifting female ferrets as full people than this young woman. One of the many things I love about Joyce's writing is her female characters: I struggle to achieve that level of representation and I'm acutely aware that I fail in particular to include the stories of women with children—and to depict such women as people with agency whose lives contain more than just that role of motherhood. I tried, too, to make the culture of the underworld less western European than that of Merafi in Ghosts. Apart from the Lunedithin (in Ghosts), I don't picture any of the characters in my books as white northern European, because the world is not mainly white northern European. Like Joyce, I want to change the myths, to shift them away from the single white narrative that dominates now. But whether my characters read otherwise I can't judge. I know they don't read American, but beyond that, I'm sure I failed.
Joyce Chng: It's like this: the things I write do not sound and come across as American. I am probably a failure in the eyes of the US SF scene (and probably to the rest of the world), because hey, my stories are not US-centric.
But they are MY stories. I want the stories in between, the tales of women and men who do not fit the tropes, the shadows and the gaps, because they also have their own words and stories to tell and speak. The smudges we see in the "big picture": that's us. We can't be stark and clear-cut all the time. The knife edges hurt.
When I give women agency in my stories, the usual nay-sayers would be there hissing like beach lice scurrying across the boulders, afraid of the intrusion and the light. Sure, I don't write American. But I am Singaporean. And I am not American. Women have agency in my stories. Women are their own characters in my stories.
In Dragon Physician, a current web series/YA novella I am writing, the main character is a teen boy. But I don't think he fits the masculine/you-must-be-strong-all-the-time stereotype. He cries. He is emotional. He is insecure. Things you do not want to see in epic fantasy. Likewise, I am also picking at gender assumptions in the novella. Why do girls have the privilege to ride dragons? Do matriarchies really work?
Again, I am looking at the smudges, at the gaps.
But, like Kari, I am sure I have failed too, in the eyes of the US SF scene.
Vanessa Rose Phin: Samuel Delany said in a recent Strange Horizons piece that you can't escape ethnocentricity. When creating fiction featuring marginal voices, how do you fill in the gaps unaddressed by primary sources? Does your personal and cultural reception feel like a burden, or a feature?
Joyce Chng: I write, I research, and I try to make intelligent guesses. (Come on, a lot of historical research is intuition!) I feel that there will always be gaps regardless how we try to fill them in. We try our best to address the issues, but we are only (very) human and mortal.
I am not sure about the burden or feature bit. It's not a burden, it's not a feature, but it's definitely part of me. It's certainly layers (not sure if you equate layering to burden). Sure, my personal and cultural perceptions (how I perceive things) feel like a weight, but I have learnt how to carry it better (?).
So, as I have said, I dig deep and I intuit. Most of the time, it works (well, at least for me). In Oysters, Pearls and Magic, Mirra (the main character) hails from a village of women pearl-farmers and divers. I wrote the YA novel to remember my own heritage (my paternal grandparents were from Hui'An, China—they have their own distinctive ethnic costume, even though they are technically Han Chinese. My dad thinks they are like a minority group). One phrase that kept popping up was "daughter of the sea." When, much later, I read an article about the Hui'An women, I was pleasantly surprised to find that they are also called "daughters of the sea." I didn't know that when I wrote the story.
David Anthony Durham: That was particularly a challenge with the issues of religion and worship in The Risen. Gaps abound. There's vastly more unknown about, for example, ancient Thracian worship than there is written about it. I had the names of few gods to go on, a scant few references to what they believed, some stories of the gods, and a little bit of research on the witchcraft practices of contemporary people in the same region. Even when there are ancient sources describing Thracian beliefs, they're doing so from the position of outsiders.
What I try to do is take the few things I have to work with and imagine my way into expanding it. Key to that is trying to make myself a believer. I try to find the logic behind how my characters explain the world through their interactions with the gods. When I'm describing a ceremony that includes animal sacrifice, I'm right there with them, believing what they believe about what they're doing and what it means about their relationship with divine forces. I certainly can't claim that I'm getting it right, but I can argue that it feels right and true for the characters as I understand them.
Kari Sperring: Oh, that's hard! For me, the most important thing is to listen, and listen with care and thought and respect. Marginal voices should speak for themselves, not through the filters of the privileged, and I tend to think that my role should be to signal boost and promote, not to speak for myself in most cases. As a historian, I look in the lacunae, the holes in my sources, and ask myself what is not being said and why. Material like law codes can provide clues as to the attitudes of the powerful to the powerless: early Irish law may not tell us directly about the lives of women, say, or slaves, but the value it places on them, the actions it sanctions from them, and the ways it speaks of them are revealing. (Early Ireland was a pre-monetary society, but units of value were expressed in terms of cattle and slave girls. That a woman could be currency does not suggest women were seen as fully people. Nor do the laws that explain in detail how much less a woman was worth—part by part—than a man, or who was responsible for her, or who was paid if she was injured or killed—it wasn't her.) Like both Joyce and David, I research, and I try to imagine my way into the spaces, to learn to appreciate fully the differences from my experience, and to write as truthfully as I can, though I am, as I said, pretty privileged. It's true that I'm heard less than a man would be, and that due to my age (52) I'm also considered less valuable. But those are easy things, by and large, and I benefit far more than I deserve in the degree to which others listen to me. Which is why, most of the time, I'd rather signal boost than speak out: my voice should never drown out those of others.
Vanessa Rose Phin: David mentioned that he tries to get into the mind of a Thracian believer; Kari mentioned trying her best to be unfiltered. How invested in presenting historical perspective are you, given its primarily male elite source material, especially in ancient/medieval sources? Do you feel you are translating the past, or discussing the present/future with the trappings of the past? Where do you draw the line? Do you struggle with this, or does the story always seem to go where it wants to?
Kari Sperring: One of the effects of being trained as a historian, and of having taught and researched history for most of my adult life, is that I can't not look for the historical perspective. It's part of how I'm wired and it infuses every part of my life. I can't write—or read or watch or talk—without being aware of context and coded meaning. This is both a blessing and a curse. As a fiction writer, I value it highly, because, as I said above, I now automatically look for the gaps and elisions, and examine the center for its biases and assumptions. Part of worldbuilding for me is to ask how the society I am depicted got to where it is now, and why, because our histories shape us. On the other hand, I am the worst possible person to go to a historical movie with, because I mutter and complain about modernisms all the way through! And I am a hyper-picky reader of historical novels, too. We can't leave ourselves behind when we write (though we can and should try as hard as possible to be aware of our particular assumptions and privileges when writing), so for me all writing is engaged with the present. That's one of the things I love about writing, in fact: that I can reflect and refract present needs and issues and beliefs alongside those of the past. All writing, fiction or non-fiction, is a palimpsest of the author's context. There are no totally transparent books—if you don't believe this, go and read a book from your own culture that is fifty to a hundred years old, and which is represented as "just a good story" and see just how odd and remote some of it will seem to you.
David Anthony Durham: Considering all the things I've claimed I try to do, now I'm worrying that Kari would mutter and complain through my books! Joking, but that concern is always there to some degree. All I can do is try the best I can and hope that readers get enough satisfaction out of the things done right. I can't claim that I'm translating the past. For me, that would be too grandiose. I don't have much confidence that I'm getting things right. What I try to do is imagine the past as best I can, to honor the people I'm writing about and the things they'd have believed—as best I can understand them. But there are limitations. I am who I am, and I'm writing for readers in the here and now. All I can do is try the best I can.
I once answered a question about the accuracy of Pride of Carthage, my novel about Hannibal and his war with Rome, by saying, "Well, I doubt that I got a single word right in terms of exactly how things went down, exactly what Hannibal and others said and thought." Hannibal was a real person and each moment in his life did unfold in a specific way, with specific actions and thoughts and words spoken, but all of that is lost to us. Kinda depressing, that.
And yet, that's exactly where fiction comes in. It's territory fiction writers can and should dive in. The best we can do is 1) study the history and 2) imagine it creatively. It's not objective accuracy I'm after. I'm highly skeptical of that, actually. It's creative engagement—with all of its flaws and contradictions, limitations and unique potential—that I'm interested in. That's what I look for in writers that I read as well.
Vanessa Rose Phin: Which representations do you look forward to? Whose writing excites you right now?
David Anthony Durham: I just look forward to seeing more fantasy set in all of our world's cultures. People are doing it. Just looking back five or six years, I feel like there's been a boom in diverse fantasy—or at least the start of one. Fantasy inspired by various African settings, by India, by different Asian cultures, Latin America, the Middle East: I'm for all of it, as well as the particular subjects and marginalized groups that Joyce and Kari mention.
What's excited me in recent years is watching young writers of color emerge into the SF mainstream. Back when I published Acacia: The War with the Mein and began to go to SF conventions, I met a gang of newly published and aspiring authors that have done marvelously since. To name a few: Saladin Ahmed, Aliette de Bodard, N. K. Jemisin, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Nnedi Okorafor. I love their work, but moreover, I'm just pleased to see them doing so well. And I'm on the lookout for the next wave of new authors.
Kari Sperring: What David says, really. I want a future in which writers of all backgrounds can and do write out of their own contexts, telling the stories they want to tell, without being hampered by the demands of an elite, being marginalized or being allowed only to tell stories that make privileged readers feel comfortable. At present, we still have a situation where many hegemonic writers feel they can tell any story they want, using any source material, but where writers who don't come from that hegemonic centre are told they must be "relevant," which usually means translating their experience for privileged readers. Writers from outside the current hegemony should not be forced only to tell so-called "ethnic" stories (awful patronizing term!). So I'm hugely heartened by writers like Zen Cho and Aliette de Bodard who do not let themselves be restricted by the expectations of the dominant culture.
And I want this diversity to reflect other factors, too. It's still easier and safer for cis-people and heterosexual people to write stories about trans* people and people of other genders and people who are not het. We need more writers like Roz Kaveney and Craig L Gidney. We need more working class writers, and writers who are differently abled and writers who are not neuro-typical, telling the stories they want to tell.
Oh, and I would love to see age being taken into account more. We look always for "new young writers" but new writers can be of any age, and it often takes longer for women writers and non-hegemonic writers to break through, due to the extra barriers they face.
Joyce Chng: More authors and writers from my region—Southeast Asia. Honestly, there is a lot of talent here. Just that many agents seem to talk a lot, but I do not see many fantasy authors emerging from that scene. Honestly, the willingness to walk the talk is what I want to see. The willingness to accept new writing from Southeast Asian SF writers. Otherwise, it is just lip service and feeding the status quo.
I want to see Southeast Asian steampunk, Southeast Asian fantasy, Southeast Asian science fiction.
I want to see less disdain for independent and small press authors, because honestly, the diversity is happening in this exciting aspect of publishing.
I want to see nuances, layers, aspects, intersectionalities in SF writing.
That's what excites me now.
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