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In my previous column, I covered the history of RaceFail in SFF publishing—the sprawling conversation in which we watched so many people who we thought should have been advocates and allies failing to understand issues of race. Cycles of this conversation crop up again and again, because racists do not die off so easily with a burning argument on the Internet. I also discussed the mutually reinforcing mechanisms of Eurocentrism and whiteness. In this column, I will discuss historical Orientalism and how liberal multiculturalism tries to address it—and mostly fails.
Orientalism is what Edward Said identified as a way of thinking about, or a system of knowing, the Orient in relation to the Western European experience of colonising. The Orient is a nebulous geopolitical concept that has historically covered the Middle East, the southern Indian subcontinent, all the way to the East Asian countries, also nebulously known as the “Far East.”
If hearing “The Orient” conjures up imagery of exotic faraway lands with decadence and barbarism hand-in-hand for you, you can thank Orientalists of yore. Orientalism was a field of studies within which colonisers learned about the lands that they sought to control. Sometimes they were for hands-on learning—learning the languages of the locals probably helps you quite a bit—and other times they were… speculative: one could spend an entire lifetime learning about the Orient, expounding on it, claiming expertise on it, without having ever been there.
In the establishment of Eurocentrism—the mode of thought where Europe or the West is superior—Orientalism is also about representing the Orient as a foil for Europe. The Orient is not merely a faraway land that has to be controlled remotely for economic purposes—the Orient becomes a place of barbarism, “where they cut off your ear / if they don’t like your face,” as in the deleted lyrics of Disney’s “Arabian Nights” opening to Aladdin. It can be where excess is enshrined in general through overly-spiced foods and layabout afternoons, with nude woman draped across harems. It can be a place of repression, poverty, and backwardness. It can be anything the West does not want to be.
As with all things, Orientalism has mutated. Instead of the historical Orientalism which studies and creates the Other in order to colonise it effectively, Orientalism today invents the Other in order to address some ideal of representational disparity in popular media and bring novelty to the marketplace of cultural production, and that includes publishing, as books are artifacts of culture. They communicate and transmit values, they reinforce ideas and perspectives, they give voice to authors and speakers we have deemed important.
In the larger sphere of science fiction publishing, there is a growing understanding that writers of colour have disadvantages and barriers. Once, we were dismissed with the assumption that we simply “were not good enough” to make it into the tables of contents of many anthologies. Then the reasoning became that we didn’t write stories that editors were looking for. Permutations crop up over and over: this work is too much of a race story (simply because the characters are racialised and have problems ‘regular’ main characters don’t); this work spends too much time explaining something that isn’t the science fictional element (because you can get people to learn Elvish but not Spanish); the work doesn’t do enough to make the non-white character seem non-white enough (because they don’t eat expected food or behave the stereotypical way).
Much is made of the white experience of the Other in publishing, largely because much of publishing is still predominantly made of white people, on all levels: from the agents who perform the initial gatekeeping, to the editors who determine what stories get through the submissions portals into production, to the distributors. So much of the white experience is prioritised that writers of colour find themselves truncating their words to make their writing “accessible,” or are asked to explain little things.
This is a trial by whiteness: that we must cultivate our selves into their ideals of our Otherness, or fail to be recognised. We have to do it, because the alternative is a dreary white landscape with some splotches of colour whenever white authors deign to represent us in their work. We have to do it, at least in order to pave the way for other possibilities. We have to do it, because if you do not use your voice, your oppressor will speak for you, and say things you would never say. We have to do it, because the world is a multicultural place despite the dire state of Anglophone genre publishing.
There is danger in representing ourselves, in being seen. We are not necessarily equipped to have discussions describing experiences with systems of representation. In our eagerness to see more difference, we do not always take into account how difference is exploited and marketed. Within the discourses of multiculturalism many of us have grown up in, no matter what our ideological stance, we instantly become representatives for multiculturalism. It’s easy to encourage representations of the Other, because the Other is ourselves, and we often desire representations within the frameworks we were familiar with.
It is not a bad thing to assert ourselves into a dominant framework. We grew up in it, and we must have a place in it. The question is: what place do we want in it? How shall we envision this, beyond what we are told we can have?
The term “multicultural,” in theory and by implication, should signify the presence of multiple narratives, agents, and cultural or ethnic groups in a text. In its most radical form, proposed by Ella Shohat and Robert Stam in the 90s, multiculturalism opens the possibility for dialogue between communities. However, multiculturalism is usually spoken of as cultural differences between groups; this may be called other buzzwords such as “diversity” and “minority literature” in fields like literary publishing, which expands the definition of cultural difference beyond racial lines to include narratives about sexuality, gender, class, or disability. Any narrative that can be considered as being outside the cultural norm can be called “multicultural” or “diverse,” and marketed as such to take advantage of the novelty value.
As a result, the radical potential of multiculturalism and diversity is watered down to its commercial value. We have seen this happen with “#ownvoices,” the hashtag invented by Corinne Duyvis to help readers find marginalised authors that write narratives featuring some aspect of their own identity: disabled authors writing about disability, or writing disabled characters; authors of colour representing their communities and experiences in their fiction. It started great. There was a hashtag to rally around and showcase your work in as a marginalised author! And there were the hungry readers waiting to find you via this magic portal of a hashtag! Things were good. For a while. Eventually, #ownvoices became a marketing tool, just another piece in the arsenal to sell representations of culture. It became a yardstick of authenticity, as if a work was inherently more valuable simply because it was written by a person who happens to share the identity of the main character(s).
And it also became a measure by which one could claim allyship. In her book Represent and Destroy, Jodi Melamed talks about liberal multiculturalism’s preference for how “books (and other cultural commodities) … stand in for people”—rather than engage with communities in real life, it is easier to turn to representations of them instead, to learn about the Other, in order to speak about them confidently. Much like the Orientalists of old did, except this expertise is not to advance the colonial project, but to claim an anti-racist stance, which is in its own way a colonial project.
Liberal multiculturalism is about a presumed universal audience—which still defaults white—and thus prioritises the detachment of cultures from communities, of artefacts from context. Even this column must speak to a presumed universal audience—an audience of colour, but still assumed universal, and thus detached from the specificities of our trials as a result. It prioritises the acquisition of cultural knowledge, not necessarily dialogue. But what dialogue can be had in institutions where power is held by a single demographic? Where minorities working in them must hold their tongues in order to keep their jobs and sanity?
But again: we have to do it. We deserve to hear our voices, and the voices of our marginalised peers. We risk being misrepresented and misheard, and we risk being ignored or struck down, but being able to hear each other, hear echoes of ourselves in another person’s voice, and being able to have that exchange is surely worth it. If the centre has the power to create frameworks for thinking about the Other, then parity means taking the power to re-frame ourselves. As much as whiteness will study us to apprehend us on its own terms, we live, write, and create as ourselves.
Far East Studies is still a thing, because humanities academia thinks about many things except, one must suppose, physical geography.
One can think of them as the first weebs.
Paul di Filipo's comment excoriating criticism of Mike Ashley's Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF remains iconic for comparing the work of women and people of colour among, presumably, regular white male writers with this metaphor: “My ream of copy paper is all white, with no sheets of lettuce included!” Apparently we cannot demand that a table of contents be representative of the readership, ala “the composition of the entire cosmos”—that's too unreasonable. The Internet does not forget! The Internet does not forget! http://theangryblackwoman.com/2009/08/05/this-is-why-science-fiction-cant-have-nice-things/
To be fair, sometimes the colours are very nice and nuanced!