These days, I find myself looking back and taking stock of the road I chose to travel when I decided to embrace science fiction. Last year, I lost one of my dearest and most beloved supporters—my great aunt, Evelina M. Orteza. When I began writing work that was considered non-realist in nature, I was a newcomer to Manila. I had no idea how publication worked, I didn't know where to publish, and as I perused publications it became clear to me that finding a magazine that would publish what I wrote would be a definite challenge.
I was in college when I made the decision to try to send one of my short stories to a national paper.
Who knows? I thought. Nothing tried, nothing gained.
To my shock and my surprise, it was published in two parts. In our social circle, I was suddenly transformed from an occasional writer into a published writer. In the year that followed that first publication, I wrote with enthusiasm. I wanted to imbue my work with the same sense of wonder that I felt when growing up—unfortunately, these efforts came back with the response, “It's good, but we don't publish these kinds of stories.”
I didn't know or understand what I was doing wrong. Was my first publication a fluke?
This was in the early 1990s, when the atmosphere of publishing was still very much nationalist, socialist, and realist in nature. Fantasy and science fiction were not even spoken of in our schools; I did not encounter the terms until much, much later.
I was on the verge of giving up on writing when my great-aunt came home from Canada, where she was a professor at a university. My aunt was pretty famous in our family because she had invented a word and that word had been included in the dictionary (my father still reminds me what the word was, but my brain is a sieve and I cannot remember). I was very hesitant at first—how to show this accomplished academic my pathetic attempts at writing? I was also terrified. Would she tell me that I had no business writing and I should simply focus on making music, as that was what I was supposed to be studying anyway?
There are those who probably understand the fear that goes into that first moment when you share your work with someone you know will not be so easily impressed. To my eyes, my work appeared infantile and immature. It took great effort to keep from snatching back my notebooks and saying, “Never mind, you won't like them anyway.”
I didn't see my aunt for about a month. She was traveling and I didn't know if she'd read my work or simply put it aside as being juvenile work. Then came the big family get-together, the moment I dreaded the most. Should I ask or should I not ask? My aunt solved my dilemma by pulling me aside and saying that she wanted to speak with me.
“I read your work,” she said.
In the months before I showed my work to my aunt, another writer had said to me that Filipinos would never be able to write in a way that would satisfy a native English-speaking audience.
To write or not to write? Do you stop because you will never be good enough or do you keep on going even when you have been told you will never satisfy the reader? Who was I writing for anyway and why did I feel this relentless compulsion to put words on paper, to explore what ifs, to understand the world, to share my own discoveries and the excitement that I felt when I embraced both possibility and impossibility?
“There is no market for your work,” someone also said to me.
Is there even a point to writing when you know you will never be able to share what you've written? Is it enough to just write about worlds and characters, to explore societies and cultures on pages that you keep only for yourself?
Even then, I was keenly aware of the conflicting sides of my nature. The desire to be private and to keep to myself while at the same time wishing to shout about the things I had discovered—Look. See. Isn't this world wonderful? Aren't these characters just great?
So there we were, my aunt and I. My aunt who would only really engage with science fiction and fantasy much, much later, after I started publishing online and after I went to Clarion West.
“You must keep on writing,” my aunt said. “No matter what people say to you, you must keep on writing.”
“There is no market,” I said.
“Maybe not here,” she said. “Have you thought of trying abroad?”
“But Filipinos will never write well enough to satisfy an English-speaking audience,” I protested.
“How many languages has F. Sionil Jose been translated into?” she asked me.
I didn't find out about genre or the possibility of being published in genre until I was much older. By then, I'd published poetry and nonfiction in a number of local publications.
It wasn't until 2009 when I saw my aunt again. I went to visit her in her home in Calgary right after I attended the Clarion West workshop. There, we sat and talked together about science fiction and fantasy, about the use of language, about culture, about human nature, and about the fact that as a writer it was necessary for me to always keep an open and adventurous mind.
I think of my aunt today as I sit down to write. As I look at the engagements and the conversations going on in genre, I find myself remembering the long conversations that we had in the few days that I was at her home.
I think of how engaging with the fantastic is a voyage of exploration and discovery, and I think of how the creative self can only unfold into fullness when given free reign.
Science fiction invites us to explore, to engage the world, to consider possibilities—it invites us to play and revel even in improbabilities. It is perhaps the gift that allows us to retain what is childlike in us—that allows us to keep in touch with the wild self that is always eager and curious and wants to know more. It is the genre that allows us to envision possible solutions—that allows us to keep hold of what it is that makes us human.
And yet, when I look at the field today, I find myself wondering.
Just recently, a young writer wrote me to apologize for making use of my culture without asking for permission.
I sat there looking at the email and my heart broke as I thought of the anxiety that must have preceded the writing of this letter.
I became aware of genre debates soon after RaceFail took place. The discussions at that time made me anxious about the way I approached the culture in which I grew up. Should I write about it? Was it right to write about it? If I wrote about it, would I be commodifying my culture? What if I got it wrong? What if people got angry? What would I do then?
One of the things that I carry with me is Nalo Hopkinson's reminder that for every person who gets angry about what you've written, there are those who will also be happy for it.
"And then," she added. "There will always be someone who will tell you that you got it wrong. But that's okay."
That conversation at the beginning of my journey as a science fiction writer continues to stay with me and encourage me.
I chose to write, drawing from the culture I grew up in. I chose to embrace that legacy with mindfulness, knowing that I too would be undoubtedly criticized by some and hoping that the work would become a challenge and an encouragement to others.
My knowledge of what went down during RaceFail is limited to reading online accounts and hearing about it secondhand. I was on the sidelines looking in—confused and uncertain and also unsure if I was even in any position to say anything. Today, I know that there are still residues of what went on in 2009. With the rise of call-out culture, with the increase of online toxicity, we see a growing anxiety—the sad thing is, I see a growing anxiety in those who possess more marginalizations than others.
Women, writers of color, creators who are LGBTQ, these are often the groups who are most vulnerable to rising toxicity in online culture. We speak of encouraging and building up diversity, while at the same time we fail to think about the kind of atmosphere marginalized voices need in order to continue to thrive and create.
I reflect on the #requireslove hashtag created by Nalo Hopkinson as I look at the vulnerable among us. Many of us have come of age in a society and in a culture where anger and hatred have run free. We know what it's like to be afraid—to hide because being visible will make us a target. Many voices have fallen silent because to speak is to invite criticism, is to welcome a pile-on, is to bring the mobbing crowd. We speak softly and tiptoe around one another hoping that the atmosphere of disquiet will dispel if we ignore it long enough, if we don't speak about it, if we don't speak up, if we don't name ourselves.
If I am silent, I will not be a target. Why should I speak up for others when no one comes to my side in my time of need? Then, let me erase myself. Let me fall silent. Let my voice fade away into nothingness.
I write with pain in my heart, grieving over this because I cannot see how we can continue to be a field that explores and engages in dialogue with the world and with each other if we allow such toxicity to prosper.
I write because I care about the writer who sits at their desk, already apprehensive and afraid—uncertain of whether their words are even of any worth. I write thinking of the encouragement I have received, and I think, Who am I to forbid? Who am I to say you cannot do this or you cannot do that? Who am I to box in another person's wild and creative spirit?
I think of how engaging with the work means engaging with the world means engaging with other cultures and engaging with human beings. I think of how we are driven by this desire to know more and to explore more. We want to know, we want to understand, we want to see beyond our limited vision. We also know that we are limited—thanks to conversations like RaceFail, writers have become more aware of the need to approach the work with more mindfulness and care.
But I am not a gatekeeper of culture. Indeed, no one person can speak for an entire race or an entire people or an entire folk. I can only speak from my point of view as an individual. To my mind, culture does not belong to one person. It belongs to a multitude. Even in the same region, practices differ: the way we worship, the way we celebrate, even the way we plant or harvest rice differs from province to province, from tribe to tribe, from mountain to mountain.
This does not mean to say that we should not criticize a work or speak out when we see cultures being exoticized or objectified. Indeed, it is because we speak out that we see a growing awareness and a reaching towards more mindfulness.
A few days ago, someone shared an article with me that I want to add to this column. Asam Ahmad, in Briarpatch Magazine, wrote “A Note on Call-Out Culture.” It's a thoughtful and thought-provoking article that I hope you who read this will take the time to read.
At the close of his article, Ahmad writes:
Given the nature of online social networks, call-outs are not going away any time soon. But reminding ourselves of what a call-out is meant to accomplish will go a long way toward creating the kinds of substantial, material changes in people’s behaviour—and in community dynamics—that we envision and need.
We who write and work in science fiction explore the world through our work. We are in a constant ongoing conversation, not only with existing canon, but with the world around us, with the cultures we come into contact with, and with the people who come into our lives.
Where colonialism is about shutting out and putting down and saying you are not good enough, my culture says, “Come in, learn of me as I learn of you. Let us build together. Let us bring into being a society that is truly diverse, truly inclusive, truly human.”
Do not allow yourself to fall silent.