Me and Science Fiction: Writing What You Donít Know

By Eleanor Arnason

The Canadian author Hiromi Goto wrote in her blog:

I gotta say it: how many more white vampires must we read about? How many more white girls gotta be saved? Jesus chrrrrrist!

Don't get me wrong. There are tons of books out there that I've loved and adored, respected and cherished, written by white authors about white characters. But that's the point. There are tons of those books out there.

. . . And I am so hungry for novels of the fantastic that are written from a non-Eurocentric subjectivity. I do think that white writers can write about cultures not their own, especially if they do their homework and truly consider what appropriation of voice means. . . . But what I want to see and read are stories that delve deep and long into diverse cultures, histories and legends. I want to read stories from people who wish to share with me tales of magical creatures I've never heard of. Of ghosts that have no feet. Of babies who grow heavy when they latch upon your back. I want to read about tiny tree spirits and heroic monkeys, why jellyfish have no bones. And not just content, but the kuuki, that comes with the subject matter. The turn of phrase, the tying of two disparate strings into a different kind of connection. The moment of fushigi, or kimo, that has to do with language, culture, context and history.

The resonance of culture is difficult to measure. It's not the accumulation and arrangement of a numerous facts. Essentialisms aside, one's culture(s) creates a particular context of experience and understanding of the world. There is a grammar of seeing and perceiving that comes from being from a specific culture.

I have started with a long quote from Goto, because what she says is important, and she says it better than I could.

Science fiction is (in part) about escaping from the here and now, but when it's good, it's based on reality and experience. White experience is only a small part of human experience. If the field is going to survive through this century and grow, rather than become a collection of sterile clichés, then it needs writers who do not come from Euro-American culture and who can draw on their experiences.

We as readers need to watch out for books that draw on different cultures and buy them and read them. If we like them, we ought to promote them. Writers need fans and sales. The field needs variety.

What about science fiction and fantasy writers who come from the dominant white American culture, as I do? Goto argues that writers can't write as deeply and authentically about cultures not their own. This sounds right to me. But I would argue we should try. We shouldn't give up the pleasure of writing beyond our areas of expertise. Science fiction and fantasy are about stretching.

The obvious first step is to include people from different backgrounds in our fiction. This involves finding typical first and last names from other cultures and attaching them to characters, and paying attention to skin color, since this is an important marker in many human cultures. I lose suspension of disbelief when I read stories set a future where everyone has European last names and most people are white. It tells me the author has given no real thought to his (usually his) current culture or to likely futures.

Maybe this problem has disappeared, and I haven't noticed. But it seems to me I still pick up books where everyone is named Brad Smith and Liza Jones, and then I put the books down.

The above is only a first step. The author is still writing in the world of traditional science fiction and fantasy, and that is world is by default white and Western European. If I put a nonwhite, non-Euro-American character into my fiction, the chances are pretty good that he or she will come across as a white American. That's what I know, and that is the history of our genre.

The protagonist of my novel A Woman of the Iron People is named Li Li-xia (last name first) and from Hawaii. I always saw her as Chinese or mixed race. Readers have told me that they imagined her as white.

The logical next step is to learn about existing human cultures and then write about them. I've tried to do this a couple of times in the past few years. One story, "Mammoths of the Great Plains," is mostly about the Lakota. The other story (not yet published) is about Br'er Rabbit and tells how he became trapped in the body of an African-American man and moved north from his home in Georgia to work for Mr. Henry Ford in Detroit. I wrote the first because I wanted to imagine a world where mammoths had survived into comparatively modern times along the Missouri River in North and South Dakota. I wrote the second because I was utterly fed up with Irish elves in America and wanted to write about an American magical being. Both stories are about American history; both are about race; and both are about survival under adverse conditions.

I took reasonable precautions for both stories: did research and had the stories checked by people who knew more about Native American and African American cultures than I did. In addition, both stories are largely set in places I know—the Upper Midwest, the Twin Cities, Detroit. But I was still writing about cultures not my own.

What I am doing may turn out to be like chinoiserie, the eighteenth-century European art form which tried to imitate Chinese art, but became something in its own right, which said more about Europe in the Rococo Era than about China.

I'm not sure how I would defend myself against the charge of hinoiserie or cultural appropriation. Maybe the best response is no defense. But I'm not going to spend the rest of my life writing about aging white women in the American Upper Midwest. If I wanted to do that, I would have written mainstream fiction. Or mysteries.

What about aliens? Don't they get us away from the problem of writing authentically about other cultures? We invent them. No one can tell us we have gotten them wrong.

I love aliens and have created many species. But a bunch of straight white guys with Anglo-Saxon names meeting aliens does not seem realistic or satisfying or fun. So I put in humans from different backgrounds (and sexes and sexual orientations and identities) and am back to the problem of how I write what I don't know from the inside.

So far I have been talking about the question of authenticity. But I'm edging toward a complex tangle of issues: influence, borrowing, and cultural appropriation. When is it okay to borrow from other cultures? And what exactly are we saying when we do it? What is Hayao Miyazaki doing, when he sets a story in a background drawn from a Swedish city or a Welsh mining town?

European art in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was strongly influenced by Japanese ukiyo-e prints and sculpture from sub-Saharan Africa. This was not the kind of imitation that chinoiserie had been. New ideas about how to portray space and three-dimensional shapes sank into European art and changed it deeply. So what is this? Is it cultural appropriation, when the way you see is transformed?

It would take another, much longer essay to untangle influence from appropriation, exoticism, and racism, and to distinguish between imitation and transformation. I simply want to point out that we live in a world of borrowing. It's also a world of hierarchies and prejudice. Borrowing can be dicey in this environment. Clearly, one may end by looking like a fool or bigot if one borrows badly. But science fiction should be as diverse—and full of borrowing—as the world around us.

A lot of younger SF writers and readers are making a serious attempt to discuss diversity and prejudice. Some are people of color; others are white. What they mostly are is intense and engaged. If you are interested in these topics, and you should be, you ought to search for these folks on the Internet, where they hold many of their discussions. A place to start might be with this or this.


Eleanor Arnason published her first story in 1973. Since then she has published six novels, two chapbooks, and more than 30 short stories. Her fourth novel, A Woman of the Iron People, won the James Tiptree, Jr. Award and the Mythopoeic Society Award. Her fifth novel, Ring of Swords, won a Minnesota Book Award. Her short story "Dapple" won the Spectrum Award. Other short stories have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, Sidewise, and World Fantasy Awards. Eleanor would really like to win one of these. Her blog address is http://eleanorarnason.blogspot.com/.

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