Set Truth on Stun: Reimagining an Anti-Oppressive SF/F
By Daniel José Older
23 September 2013
In a recent Guest of Honor speech at the Continuum convention in Sydney, Nora Jemisin said: "we must now make an active, conscious effort to establish a literature of the imagination which truly belongs to everyone."
I asked a group of writers, editors, and publishers to imagine in both practical and fantastical ways what the SF and fantasy community would look like if it was actively anti-oppressive. This conversation took place over email in August 2013.
1. How do you imagine an anti-oppressive SF/F community? You can think small and practical or sweeping and grandiose, you can talk about the community itself or the literature it produces, take the question anywhere you want to go with it. Examples are awesome.
Léonicka Valcius: I suppose I’d start with a broad definition of community. Professional writers’ associations are important but they are only a small piece of the pie. Social media is quickly melting the barrier between the creator and the fandom. Fandoms are incredible; their passion drives ratings, sales, and ultimately the conversation. I think a discussion of the SF/F community that does not include the readers and fans would be incomplete.
That being said, an anti-oppressive SF/F community would be a safe space for all peoples. I read Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks in university and one of the lines that stayed with me was "When you hear someone insulting the Jews pay attention; he is talking about you." To be anti-oppressive, the SF/F community needs to be inclusive and stand in solidarity with members when they are marginalized (it goes without saying that the community would self-correct if it were to inadvertently be complicit in the marginalization of people). It would be a community where hate is not tolerated and where silence in never an option. An anti-oppressive SF/F community would acknowledge that an attack on one member is an attack on all.
Carrie Cuinn: I imagine a community that isn't aggressively anti-oppressive—it simply isn't oppressive. I'd love to live in a world where sexism, racism, and other forms of Othering didn't happen, to the point where we're surprised when they do. The reaction to those sorts of negative generalizations should be, "Oh, why would you think that?" not the agreement or even silent acceptance we often see today.
I imagine a community that understands there is a wide spectrum of speculative fiction creators and consumers. For example, I used to write vague main characters into my fiction. I liked to present them with little or no physical description, no gender, no race, so that they're a blank slate. They could be anyone. Any reader could see themselves as that person, in that story. I worked very hard to be able to write interesting, emotionally complex characters without saying much about the obvious markers we usually use to judge other people. However, I kept getting told that my characters were white men, simply because some people cannot see that as anything other than the default. They assumed that everyone else would also see every other character in every story as a white male unless they were specifically said to be someone else.
That was so frustrating, but I've changed my recent work to include the description necessary to paint them as not-white males. I'm willing to do that because I want readers to see themselves in my work, all kinds of readers, and if I can't do it by making every character open, then I'll do it by showing a range of people over all of my writing. But I wish that wasn't necessary, and that editors and readers wouldn't assume we're all white men unless we prove otherwise.
Justine Larbalestier: To start with the bleeding obvious our community is located within the larger world. i.e. it does not exist in a magical space outside the systemic racism and sexism and etc of that larger world. Making change within that context is hard.
I think it’s all very well to talk about better representation within fiction, as in the people who write it and the characters written, but in some ways that’s the easiest part to change. (And it’s not easy.)
Change needs to happen to the means of production. Who publishes our genre? (And I’m talking about our genre in the broadest sense possible, including children’s literature and YA and graphic novels and fantastical works published as romance or crime or mainstream lit or something else I’m not thinking of right now.) Who are the people who make the decisions about what gets published and what gets marketed?
When I go into publishers’ offices in NYC—and I’ve been to pretty much all the biggest publishing houses now—even those I’ve not been published by—what I see is an overwhelming majority of white people. And a preponderance of women until, of course, you get to the big bosses. Almost all of these white people, at every level of publishing, are middle class and college-educated. (They’re a lot like me, except usually not born in Australia.)
The result is a plethora of books by and about white, middle-class, educated people.
Off the top of my head I can think of four non-white editors in YA (which is the bit of publishing I know best). I’ve known others. All of whom wound up leaving publishing. (Turnover in publishing is high but even so.)
Imagine if we lived in a world where publishers were as diverse as the world we live in.
It’s not just that NYC publishing doesn’t even represent NYC, which is one of the most diverse cities in the USA, it’s that it’s not representing the rest of the USA either.
I’m sick to death of the argument that NYC publishing accurately represents the readers of the USA because only white middle class people read. Bullshit. We have endless proof that is not true. But I’ll point out one example: E. Lynn Harris, who couldn’t find a publisher for his stories about being young and black and gay because they didn’t believe there was an audience. He self-published to great success, proving there was indeed an audience, and then, and only then, was he picked up by a mainstream publisher. There are many other examples.
I don’t know how to change publishing. Not as long as most of the internships are either unpaid or poorly paid. For that matter most people in publishing are poorly paid until you reach the top tiers. How does someone without parental support take an unpaid internship? What do they live on? Indeed, many of those college-educated, middle-class people wind up dropping out of publishing because they can’t afford to live in NYC on an assistant editor’s salary. It’s a big bar to diversity.
But, of course, the even bigger bar is who is doing the hiring and who is being encouraged to pursue a career in publishing in the first place.
Kay T. Holt: That there could be such a thing as an anti-oppressive SF/F community is an idea that requires . . . a leap. There are a lot of forward-thinking and forward-acting individuals within the existing community, but oppressive environments are divisive by nature. Their continuity thrives on systematically preventing and enthusiastically attacking attempts, however small, to organize against tradition.
Organization is key, though. Banding together on the internet to call out harassers and demand safety and representation at conventions and in print is necessary work, and it's important we do that as publicly as possible via social media and at gatherings IRL. But the many and varied futures of SF/F still dash themselves individually against the fortress of tradition. This kind of erosion is an effective long game, and not wasted effort. But an anti-oppressive SF/F community needs a short game that beats the ivory tower's defenses if any of us would like to live to enjoy the work of our generation.
Andrea Hairston: Given what passes as normal, what goes without saying, given the current cultural default settings, an inclusive, diverse SF/F community can seem impossible to imagine!
How might that look? I watched highlights of the televised Tony Awards extravaganza. Courtney Vance won an acting award for playing my brother, Hap Hairston, in Lucky Guy with Tom Hanks. Cyndi Lauper won best composer for Kinky Boots—the first women ever to win this award. Kinky Boots is about a factory producing large shoe-size boots for drag queens. RuPaul’s Drag Race was the inspiration for Kinky Boots’ Tony-nominated costume design. Ming Cho Lee won a lifetime achievement award for design work. Seventy-nine (eighty-eight?) year old Cicely Tyson won a best actress Tony for Trip to Bountiful. In fact four black performers took home acting honors, two white women won directing awards, and lots of queer folks were everywhere. Neil Patrick Harris was the host and he camped it up with Kinky Boots drag queens, (a reformed) Mike Tyson, and young girl performers from Matilda. Elders, young folks, queer folks tore up the stage of Radio City Music Hall.
OK, so Broadway is doing a helluva lot better than Hollywood, and we should celebrate that . . . Yet no Asian-American or Native American woman playwright has ever been produced on Broadway, which means their stories haven’t made it onto the "world stage"; so no chance for an award either. Over 90% of the Tony-Award winning directors have been white and male in the last thirty years; 80% of the best actresses and 90% of the best actors were white. And where are the Latino/a performers and directors?
These sorts of statistics are business as usual—the norm across our cultural landscape. Each relentless iteration sustains the status quo. Isolated revolutions are static in all the normal noise. As one of my characters proclaims, "Fuck that noise, Jack." To change the SF/F community, we have to transform the cultural landscape. This is not just about great writing that can reach any audience. We already have a diverse crew of mighty SF/F writers. They are systematically ignored. Change is co-evolution. We need a feedback loop where the beauty, profitability, and significance of our diverse experiences and stories have premium value. That’s not happening right now. Our pain and joy, our wisdom and folly, our rip-roaring fun and heart-wrenching struggles have to become common ground for the speculations we want to do. The complexity of who we are, might be, and have been has to be visible and prominent in secondary fantasy worlds, far flung futures, urban slipstream and mundane realism.
2. How do we get there? What concrete, immediate moves can we make within the industry to make things change, to create an SF/F community that is more than tolerant but actively engaged in the fight against oppression?
Léonicka Valcius: The "Et tu, Brute?!" reaction people have when the sexist, racist aspect of the SF/F community are exposed boggles my mind. The people who make up the SF/F community aren’t grown in anti-oppression petri dishes—they have learned and internalized the same bullshit that is pervasive in our society.
What’s needed then is the reeducation of the community. A self-directed sensitivity training of sorts. Do not misunderstand me though; the onus is on the privileged to learn, not on the marginalized to teach.
Then once you know better, do better. Speak out. When you see injustice, point it out and make noise. Silence is complicity. Don’t accept the status quo.
In addition to all that, we need to create and invest in alternative institutions that are committed to these values. Support the people, blogs, and publishing houses that are already doing the work.
Yes, these are very simple suggestions. But that’s because making the change isn’t hard; we just need everyone to do it.
Carrie Cuinn: We get there by, as everyone always says, being the change we want to see. As a writer, I write all kinds of people into my fiction, so readers can see all of us, in science fiction—a genre usually reserved for the "White Hero" and his "brainy but busty" female subordinate. As a freelance editor, I point out to authors when their content is problematic in any way. I teach them that the place for sexism, racism, negative comments about gender identity, physical ability, and so on, belong in the dialogue, where it can be attributed to a character, instead of in the narration, where it's attributed to the author and presented as part of the world. Characters can be bad people, either at the beginning of their arc or as foils for others to learn from, but the world-building and the author should be above that.
As a publisher, I make it clear that Dagan Books, LLC, welcomes contributions from all sorts of authors, and we publish work with all sorts of characters. I don't do that by choosing a poorly-written story about a gay black woman over a well-written one about a straight white man, which is the usual argument against pursuing diversity in fiction. In addition to being run by me, Dagan Books has also hired other editors that are not-straight or not-white. Because I talk publicly about wanting a range of fiction in our books, I get submissions from authors who didn't feel welcomed by other publishers. I'm able to select brilliant writing that also better reflects the society we live in, because I have more work to choose from. I am proud to say we have published and bought stories with female main characters, QUILTBAG main characters, non-whites as the leads, etc, and that work is from a range of authors (including women, trans and non-binary people, people of color, authors with disabilities, and so on). As our anthologies and novellas are published and read, we get submissions from authors who hadn't realized they could find a home with us, and our ability to publish diverse writing gets even larger.
I also write about our community, in addition to my fiction work. Some recent examples of the ways I've contributed to change are a couple of blog posts about sexual harassment at cons—including my own examples, and ways we can improve the convention experience—as well as a huge list of Asian speculative fiction authors, with links to samples of their work. I'm putting together lists of writers of Latino, African, as Middle Eastern descent as well, so I can help other readers expand their libraries beyond the usual "classic" SF/F writers.
Justine Larbalestier: I want to start by pointing out some of the things that are already being done. The Carl Brandon Society, in particular, has been doing a wonderful job getting more people of colour into the field via Con or Bust and the Octavia Butler scholarship.
The scholarship to Clarion is particularly key. Clarion alumni have gone on to not only be some of the most prominent writers in our field, but they have also become editors, started their own publishing houses etc. It is a perfect place to make contacts and to become part of the field. It might be worthwhile to look at setting up scholarships for some of the other writing programs. I recently taught at the Alpha workshop for teen writers. It would be wonderful if we could get more writers of colour attending.
Where white allies like me can be of most use is by not freaking out when race is discussed and by teaching other white people to do likewise. I’m one of many who has been doing this over the years, on panels at cons, and via blogs and more recently via Twitter.
Every time something like racefail happens or, more recently, the SFWA Bulletin episode and Vox Day’s vile attack on N. K. Jemisin, it’s crucial that white allies speak up to say it’s not okay and why. As Jemisin says in her brilliant reconciliation speech it’s the ones who let racism and sexism and other hate slide who are the biggest problem. To quote Martin Luther King: the greatest tragedy "is not the glaring noisiness of the so-called bad people, but the appalling silence of the so-called good people."
If you’re white like me, and you are invited to be on a panel, and you look at the list of other panelists and realise that they’re all white, or you’re a man and see that they’re all male—and I don’t care what the topic is—point it out. If you’re invited to be a Guest of Honor, look at who the previous GoHs have been. If they’ve been all white/all male point it out. Maybe don’t do those panels anymore. Maybe don’t agree to be a GoH at cons that don’t invite any but white people. Suggest other panelists/GoHs to them.
It’s also cruical that white allies listen. That men listen. That straight people listen. That cisgender people listen. Etc. And that we stop making excuses for the big name fans, writers, and editors etc.
I am optimistic about change. I’ve been involved with this field for twenty years now and I’ve seen the field change. I’ve seen people within the field change. When I first attended cons no one was publicly complaining about harassment or assault. We privately warned each other who to avoid. Assault and harassment are now starting to be called out. The perpetrators are not being enabled as much as they once were. People are speaking out.
It’s not nearly enough but it’s something.
Kay T. Holt: Tradition is vulnerable at its bottom line, no matter how impenetrable that market share seems from where it frames us in its shadow. Unfortunately, even with concerted effort, anti-oppressors within the community number too few to offset the buy-in power of SF/F's orthodox fanbase. So the resistance must draw from the mainstream.
Genre is literature. This fact is a threat to marketers in general, and a direct threat to traditional SF/F culture in specific. Much of what defines 'genre people' persists in the very traits that anti-oppressive members defy. Mainstream audiences are alienated from SF/F by the same literary and interpersonal traits that bar non-conformists from success within the genre and community.
A successful anti-oppressive SF/F community can engage mainstream participants by rejecting genre mores and broadcasting fiction that invites speculation from all the people traditional SFF rejects.
Andrea Hairston: Reality is not a question of facts. It’s a question of what we’re willing, what we’re eager to believe despite the facts. Women playwrights who get produced in New York City are actually more profitable than male playwrights. (Does that sentence make you pause? Make you want a footnote?) New women playwrights have to come out the gate at the top of their game. New male playwrights get more opportunities to find their way; producers believe in men’s potential, risk nurturing their abilities through mistakes and growth, and acknowledge and honor their successes. There’s a harsh climate for all playwrights, but for women it’s so harsh, they give up. Women get smacked upside the head with negative bias. They know producers aren’t going to believe in them, and many self-select out of the game. Despite the facts. We live in a mythological world. The crap coming at us is invisible, but plain as day; it’s poisonous, deadly, but it’s supposedly our own fault for giving up.
So if we want that anti-oppressive SF/F community, we have to transform the toxic climate that permeates our public and private moments. People need to feel possible, despite the ass-kicking, head whipping, spirit snuffing facts. Hey, we don’t have to be Euro-centric to make it to the future! Showcasing artists "outside the mainstream" who have succeeded is wonderful, but we have to jumpstart, kickstart radical change. We need to interrupt the cultural default settings that devalue the artistic production and life experiences of people with disabilities, women, people of color, et. al. This requires social engineering. We have to engage readers, writers, editors, and publishers. We need platforms to showcase the works—flash mobs, podcasts, blogs, videos, readings, trailers that get the word out, that celebrate the meaning, value, and mad fun of our work. Orchestras have done auditions behind curtains so that gender or race or some other visually coded bias/discrimination is interrupted. We could try gender/race neutral acquisition, evaluation, and advertising. We must shake up the gate keepers who proclaim there is no profit in revolution. It’s not personal. Capitalism just can’t help siding with oppressive ideology because that’s what sells. This is lazy, self-serving mythology. See women playwrights above.
3. Where do you place yourself within that journey? How do issues of social justice affect how you do your job? Or do they?
Léonicka Valcius: This was a huge concern for me after leaving university. I learned so much during my Caribbean Studies major but how would I apply any of it? A friend commented that it was easy to discuss injustice and inequality in the safety of the classroom but in the real world there were bills to pay. So I was scared. With my career choice, I was either ignoring the cause (I’m unlikely to reverse the effects of neoliberalism by working at a children’s publishing house) or worse, selling out.
To allay these fears I try to make all my actions, including my work, reflect my values. As a reader, book buyer, and marketer, I actively seek out books written by people of color. I speak up when I think something isn’t right or could be done better. I create spaces that facilitate these conversations, and connect people with various ideas to find solutions.
I read books by people of color. I blog and tweet about those books. I buy those books and check them out at the library. When an aspect of publishing (a bookstore, an event, a "best of" list) lacks diversity, I complain about it loudly and publicly. When there is a conversation about books (say at a conference) I’ll ask a question about diversity. If there is an opportunity to suggest panels, I’ll lead one on diversity. If there’s an article about diversity in publishing, I share it with everyone I know. And because this is not enough, I am working towards hosting a conference specifically about diversity in Canadian publishing and starting some sort of association for bookish people of color. I’ve become that girl.
As you can see, none of what I’m doing is hard. Anyone could do it. Everyone should.
Carrie Cuinn: I'm in the odd position of having a certain amount of privilege others don't because I look white, but also don't have the privilege that comes with being male, straight, or economically well-off. I have people of color in my immediate family, and am connected to others through friendship, work, or romantic reasons. Growing up poor, in an agricultural part of California known for its migrant workers, and then living in large cities like San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento, and Philadelphia, I see how social injustice has affected not just me and the people I care about, but people in general.
Working in genre fiction, of course these issues affect me professionally. I still hear from working writers that women don't write good science fiction, and I grew up in a generation where women either wrote "science fantasy" or used a male pseudonym. Part of my desire to write scientifically strong SF, in addition to my other work, is a rebellion against everyone who said I wouldn't be able to, just because I'm not a man.
I also write these issues into my fiction, as a way to explore the boundaries of what we can accomplish with fiction, and also because I'm writing my own experiences, clothed in SF/F. I recently put out a small collection of short fiction called Women and Other Constructs, because I had enough stories about women as robots, women as objects, that I could package them together as a book. Though it's getting amazing reviews, I still find readers who are surprised they like it so much, because they assumed that by focusing on social justice, this collection had sacrificed writing ability—and they were thrilled to find I could both talk about issues and write a damn good story.
I think that'll be my last piece of advice for this topic: if you're going to write beyond the norm, practice your writing skill. Be a great writer, who's more than a Voice or an issue. Don't give those who want to discriminate an excuse to dismiss your statements just because your writing was poor. I see that so often—authors who write one novel, become momentarily famous because their perspective was fresh, but who, on second reading, aren't very good. They get written off as a selling their identity for popularity, and ignored in the future. You need to wrap your story, your journey, in the finest fiction possible. Do that, and you'll find readers. They'll share your work, and you'll have an audience. In front of your audience, you can make your stand, and know you'll actually be heard.
That's how we change the world.
Justine Larbalestier: Issues around social justice affect everything I do. I was brought up in a family for whom it has always been a primary concern and have always surrounded myself with friends for whom it is also important. It’s very much a journey. And my understanding of axes of oppression changes and grows every year as I confront the ways in which racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, etc. have shaped who I am. We all have much to learn and, more importantly, unlearn.
So it’s inevitable that issues around social justice, representation, politics etc shape my writing. And when my novels are published they are often discussed and criticised in ways that further enrich my understanding of all these issues. (I’ve written about that here.
I also teach writing. Something many professional writers do, if only indirectly via their blogs or writing tips on Twitter etc. I do so both online and at workshops like Alpha.
When I teach writing I do so through these lenses. Encouraging students to think about who is telling the story and how their race/gender/sexuality/etc affects who they are in the world and what they can see and what they can do. What assumptions are they making? Which leads to questions such as: Why is the two-hundred-years in the future world they have created entirely white? Why do the women take their husband’s name and only do stereotypically female work? For that matter why is marriage still only heterosexual? What happened to blast the world back to the 1950s?
Those who attend workshops I teach and respond to my tweets and blog posts on these subjects often pull me up on my own assumptions. As I said, we’re all learning.
Kay T. Holt: Crossed Genres Publications usually responds to oppression in the SF/F community by calling for and publishing stories that offend oppressors. For this reason, CGP is called an activist press and has been put on hate group 'hit' lists, but we interpret that static as a measure of success. Our mission makes the comfortably entrenched genre bosses sweat, and although we are a small press, we are not alone. And we are less alone by the day.
Andrea Hairston: I go to Wiscon, Readercon, ICFA, and Arisia and my SF/F community at these gatherings has worked very hard to transform the default setting. The Carl Brandon Society, Clarion West Writing Workshop, and the Tiptree Award offer pathways and possibilities, honors and assistance. We have to do more and create a broad pathway with mega-hope. Trying to be any sort of artist is like reaching for the next galaxy. Having hope means you will become an impossibility specialist!
So I imagine an SF/F community as rich and lush as our diverse world. I want stories, novels, essays, plays, and films that I can’t quite imagine yet—the new world we could make if we put our minds, hearts, and bodies into it. I want POC, gender- neutral, or disabled characters who aren’t blind seers, tragic saints, or spiritual handmaidens for the able-bodied "normal" folks. So I am writing these characters in my novels and stories and plays. I want writers and critics challenging me from various perspectives to rethink who and what it is possible to be.
I want folks showing me how we can be different together. Break the default setting. Set truth on stun.
Carrie Cuinn is an author, editor, bibliophile, modernist, and geek. In her spare time she reads, draws, makes things, takes other things apart, and sometimes publishes books. You can find her online at @CarrieCuinn or at http://carriecuinn.com.
Andrea Hairston is the author of Redwood and Wildfire, the 2011 Tiptree winner, and Mindscape. A performer, playwright, and the artistic director of Chrysalis Theatre, she's also a professor at Smith College. She bikes at night year-round, meeting bears, multi-legged creatures of light and breath, and the occasional shooting star.
Justine Larbalestier is the author of six young-adult novels, most recently Liar (2009) and, with Sarah Rees Brennan, Team Human (2012). She lives in Sydney and New York.
Kay T. Holt has edited numerous novels and anthologies as co-founder of Crossed Genres Publications. She writes for GeekMom and Science in My Fiction. Her fiction has appeared in several anthologies and magazines. Kay grows wild near Boston with the family, pets, and houseplants of her dreams. Find her online @sandykidd.