While most of us know the bloody tales of how the European powers colonized much of the globe, fewer are cognizant of the ways colonization affects the stories we tell today.
Science fiction and fantasy have a lot of bedrock colonial assumptions and strategies that need to be dug up, re-examined, and tossed out. What does decolonial SFF look like? We’ll talk about the tropes and publishing realities that need to be looked at critically and enthuse about our favorite writers and works that are combating the status quo within speculative fiction, as well as those that are striking off in new directions.
The panelists for the titular panel were: Michael Green Jr, Janna Hanchey, Sarah Guan, and Juan Martinez.
How is SFF “Colonized”
In Western narratives, the concept of the exceptional person as the hero permeates a lot. Even when featuring non-Western characters and settings, stories often end up revolving around three things:
- Who will rule
- Who can get resources
How are these heroes created? Power is often inherited — magic comes through the blood, kingdoms by birthright, influence via inherited wealth and embracing feudalism or capitalism. These heroes are often without any disabilities, have the least to lose, and their backgrounds have set them up for success.
Much SFF has been influenced by history — and stereotypes and prejudices — so that stories of peoples that take their inspiration from other cultures have been removed from their context and painted with a heavy 2-dimensional brush. People look at Tolkein as an official version of fantasy options and complain about stories with black elves.
That’s not to say you can decolonize your story simply by changing the physical race of a character on the page. People from different cultures and backgrounds have different values and cultural frames of reference and that needs to be played out on the page.
Other authors focus on the fear that THEY might get colonized. Perhaps in solidarity with nations that have suffered through this, perhaps out of fears triggered by immigration. But, it’s fantasy, so it’s the aliens that are colonizing us. It often allows anyone to identify with the victim… and shies away from demonstrating the long-term or generational impact.
Even Star Trek, which tries so hard and gets a lot right, relies on the “Prime Directive” — a frame that grants our crew moral superiority, when really, they usually try, but don’t always succeed.
While Western culture traditionally idealizes exceptional individualism — how one person can make a huge impact — many others idealize collectivism — how working together, we can accomplish a huge thing.
How do we decolonize publishing?
The publishing industry is overwhelmingly white. While there is an earnest effort to find new stories and approaches, stories that don’t resonate with the buyers — or worse, make the white agents and publishers uncomfortable — can be hard sells. And stories whose authors and/or main characters don’t match the industry are often seen as ‘token authors’. If twenty books are getting published, sometimes it seems as though there’s only one slot for a “black author” and one for an “asian author”, even though those identities cover so many different backgrounds and experiences.
The common advice: “ignore the market and write what your heart wants you to write” works a lot better for some authors than others. When you need to sell a story so you can eat — you might not spend so long polishing it. When your culture isn’t mainstream, selling your heart’s work can be an uphill battle — even more so than normal. Publishing shies away from stories they don’t know how to categorize, that they don’t know how to market.
“I just didn’t connect” has become the default rejection phrase, because it’s nebulous and hard to argue with, but it can also be insidious. As a white American writer, I see that and can think they didn’t connect with my voice, or my setting, or my main character. For those with identities that don’t match mine, whose lived experiences are so different from mine, they’re often left wondering if it’s because of that unshared context that triggers those rejections.
DEI – (Diversity, equity, and inclusion in publishing) is a good start, but means nothing if they don’t buy books that demonstrate that. It means nothing if the publishers aren’t willing to invest actual time and money in promoting books by diverse writers. We need networking centers. We need ways to pay writers overseas — some authors end up getting paid in books because our banks don’t trust each other. Some books never make it to their destination due to poor infrastructure.
Book & Author Recommendations
- Reverse Colonization by David Higgins
- Wormwood trilogy by Tade Thompson
- Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor
- No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull
- “Marked By Bears” by Jessie Loyer
- “Root Rot” by Fargo Tbakhi
- The Silence of Wilting Skin by Tlotlo Tsamaase
- On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu
- Jade City by Fonda Lee
- Queen of the Conquered by Kacen Callender
- RF Kuang
- Cassandra Khaw
- Abbey Mei Otis
- Rita Indiana
How do we decolonize SFF?
First off, we need to recognize that even in our world, the nations that threw out their colonial oppressors didn’t revert back to the nation they were beforehand. The infrastructure — both physically and politically had changed. The culture had been impacted.
When Juan Martinez moved to the US from Columbia at 15, he found himself suddenly seen as “other”. In his writing he likes to explore:
- what frustrates him about Columbia
- the post-Spanish influences
- the Columbian issues with racism and colorism
- his own intersectionalism
To break away from the dominant narrative, we need to step back and see the themes creeping into our writing. Ask yourself some questions
- What is heroism? Could it be surviving the tale, not fixing the world?
- Can we fix a nation with words and conversations? [Or blackmail] Explore the non-violent options.
- Are we coding black or brown skin or non-American as working class or ‘the oppressed’
- What do we “other”? So often in publishing, when someone is speaking in another language, the words will be in italics or have footnotes to explain the dialect. That makes a big assumption about the expected audience.
Steps for white writers who want to decolonize their work (and anyone else who finds their works influenced)
- Read non-white writers!
- Use your reach to uplift diverse writers
- Be willing to enter spaces where you aren’t part of the majority — when those spaces are open to you, don’t just demand entrance
- Respect expert opinions — everyone is an expert in their own lived experience
- Try to ‘decolonize’ yourself — pay attention to the ways it influences your life and choices. Just like racism and sexism and all the isms, it’s not a binary action. It’s a process and you will make mistakes. Learn and do better.
- Remember that critique is a gift — for those who seem willing to listen and learn and improve.
Talking points to combat reactionary narratives
We’re authors. We’ve had our writing critiqued and who knows better than us that knee-jerk feeling to justify our narratives, to explain our intent. When people push back about inclusivity in publishing, in variety in stories, here are a few talking points:
- “We don’t want to be doing things like they were 50 years ago”
- Don’t you want to strive to do better?
- When you say “that’s how it’s always been”, where and when are you talking about? And for whom?
- Sure, write your story.
Recognizing our past
A lot of science fiction and fantasy pays homage to earlier works — earlier problematic works. Does progress mean we need to throw those books out or pretend they never existed? No! Does it mean we’re wrong if we still enjoy them? No! We just need to examine what parts still resonate today, and which parts have not aged well.
One can study them and rewrite them with parodies, or create our own homages where effort is taken to not reinforce the stereotypes or dated tropes of the earlier works.
But every author is a product of their time. We need to remember that people are complex — they can promote worthwhile things while stepping on others. The world is ever-changing and growing. In twenty or fifty years, what will they think of our stories?
A lot of heavy stuff here! Anything the panelists missed?
Any book recommendations you’d like to add?