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31 October 2010 @ 02:15 pm
Thoughts on Speculative Tourism  
I think I've been poking at this one for a while behind the scenes, with vague discomfort manifesting every so often.

There's this ostensibly pro-diversity phrasing that several zines use; some variant on "We're looking for settings we don't see all the time". I think some newer zines may be taking that phrasing from the Strange Horizons guidelines (maybe because "if SH is using it then it must be fine"?)

But Strange Horizons also says, "We'd like to help make the field of speculative fiction more inclusive, more welcoming to both authors and readers from traditionally underrepresented groups, so we're interested in seeing stories from diverse perspectives and backgrounds." And somehow, I'm not seeing that pop up in other places.

Here's the problem, as I see it: used in isolation, "settings we don't see all the time" frames the problem as the boredom of the privileged, not the silencing of the marginalized. Who, after all, is we? (Yes, narrowly speaking, 'the editors'; but broadly speaking?)

This framing does not distinguish between (a) well-researched, culturally sensitive depictions of places that are Other to the anglophone mostly-UK/US audience, and (b) happy shiny Cultural Appropriation. And the fact is that many published (and even award-winning) "settings we don't see all the time" are in fact appropriative in nature and Othering in presentation. They're speculative tourism. Let's go visit the Mayans! And now the China-Japan-Korea blend! And now Mystic Arabia!

Meanwhile, "exotic" is still a good word in reviews (yeah, I don't get tired of that point).

So while part of me is grateful that more editors are considering any sort of diversity at all, a bigger part is uncomfortable. Because that easy road gets us to "diversity" for the privileged, not diversity in fact.

I do think though that for the most part, the phrasing's being used in good faith (which is part of why I am not going to call anyone out). This doesn't make it less of a problem, just... maybe one that can be worked on, by thinking and talking about it.

Thoughts?

---
ETA: Of course, there's a lot more here than just ethnic/cultural diversity, but it's the one I've been thinking about most; I need to do even more more-thinking on other axes-of-diversity.
 
 
Current Mood: nervousnervous
 
 
( 94 comments — Leave a comment )
Niamh Sageniamh_sage on October 31st, 2010 09:25 pm (UTC)
This is a good and timely (for me) point, thank you for writing about it. I am ashamed to say, it's not a distinction that would have immediately occurred to me, had I seen the two sources side by side. I'll be more observant in the future.
shweta_narayan: mangatarshweta_narayan on October 31st, 2010 09:27 pm (UTC)
I have often missed appropriation/exoticising in actual stories, when it's a culture other than mine -- and only noticed when the same author also exoticized India.

So working on it here, too :) So much to learn!
Dr. Kvetchrose_lemberg on October 31st, 2010 09:28 pm (UTC)
<3
SH is wonderful.

I agree with you; "exotic" (I am being sarcastic here) settings do not equal thought processes, or storytelling, or societal norms. Too often anything that isn't western-style storytelling featuring western-mold characters gets the boot. *sigh*
shweta_narayan: aieeeeshweta_narayan on October 31st, 2010 09:33 pm (UTC)
Re: <3
And it's not just short fiction, of course.

I got to the point where I'm scared to read novels with (supposedly) Indian characters, unless the author name is very strongly saying SOUTH ASIAN HERE!
This changes if I know the author, of course, but in general...
mariadeira on October 31st, 2010 09:46 pm (UTC)
Thanks for putting into words what I've been noticing and feeling. Sometimes I get frustrated because there are stories set in the here and now that don't often get told in speculative fiction and characters that aren't diverse or representative of readers and writers of SF. I'm not against historical SF, but this request seems to only want diversity that is distant and "exotic". I am Mexican-American but reading a story about Aztecs doesn't make me feel more represented in SF.
shweta_narayan: authorpic1shweta_narayan on October 31st, 2010 09:52 pm (UTC)
I am Mexican-American but reading a story about Aztecs doesn't make me feel more represented in SF.

THIS. Yes!

More generally, I think the difference between representation in different subgenres is a complicated one. I feel maybe there's... more of the exoticization/appropriation in historical spec fic, more of the "everybody's white" in contemporary and futuristic spec fic, and more of the "Exotic villains" thing in secondary world fantasy? But I have no data, and wouldn't really know how to go about getting it. (I'd love to see it though!)
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JoSelleupstart_crow on October 31st, 2010 10:02 pm (UTC)
This is very timely for me. I'm writing up the guidelines for several of Drollerie's imprints, and I'm going to go over them to make sure I've expressed more of the latter than the former :).
shweta_narayan: mangatarshweta_narayan on October 31st, 2010 10:04 pm (UTC)
Thank you for that!

If I'd seen something on the Drollerie site that implied the former, I'd have felt comfortable poking you. But not needing to is so much better :)
-pd-: Audiogramyarram on October 31st, 2010 10:04 pm (UTC)
"[U]sed in isolation, "settings we don't see all the time" frames the problem as the boredom of the privileged, not the silencing of the marginalized."

I am tired of stories where the magazine editor has clearly thought to themselves, "Oooh! A story set in Asia! Let's ignore all the things wrong with how the characters are named and how they address each other with honorifics from the wrong language(s) and publish it! It's *exotic*!"

...granted, I also wasn't thrilled with the story that featured a late-deafened character. The deafness was used as a plot twist, and not very believable to my reading of it. *sigh*
shweta_narayan: aieeeeshweta_narayan on October 31st, 2010 10:08 pm (UTC)
Let's ignore all the things wrong with how the characters are named and how they address each other with honorifics from the wrong language(s)...

...Assuming they know the difference in the first place.

...granted, I also wasn't thrilled with the story that featured a late-deafened character. The deafness was used as a plot twist, and not very believable to my reading of it. *sigh*


*headdesk*

I wish I were surprised :(
Trinkertrinker on October 31st, 2010 10:37 pm (UTC)
I'm writing because I'm a bit stuck -

I'm in the middle of writing a review of _Cryoburn_ based on the way Japanese tropes are used in the story. Any idea if there might be a paying market for that? And if not, who the best outlet for that review might be?

(I've done some looking, but I'm woefully understudied in the realm of SF/F publications, nevermind FoC publications within that.)

*sigh*
holyschistholyschist on October 31st, 2010 10:42 pm (UTC)
driving by
Strange Horizons would be my first thought. I hope you find somewhere--I'd love to read that.
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holyschistholyschist on October 31st, 2010 10:43 pm (UTC)
Followed link here from somewhere--thanks for this. It's an excellent point and one I often remind myself of, since I still fall into the trap of framing this issue from the privileged perspective.
shweta_narayan: mangatarshweta_narayan on October 31st, 2010 10:58 pm (UTC)
I'm glad it's helpful!

And OMG LOVE your icon!
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pingback_botpingback_bot on October 31st, 2010 11:02 pm (UTC)
November 1, 2010 Links and Plugs
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Annetxanne on October 31st, 2010 11:10 pm (UTC)
Thank you for putting this into words. It's something I'll be aware of as I look for French texts for my classes. Fortunately the availability of texts written by people of color is increasing, although it's still a challenge to find them in this country.
shweta_narayan: authorpic1shweta_narayan on October 31st, 2010 11:25 pm (UTC)
Oooh. Thank you for taking it into account (and in a domain where I'd totally not thought about it myself *sheepish look*).
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Kate Elliottkateelliott on October 31st, 2010 11:13 pm (UTC)
Speaking as someone who has spent her entire career deliberately trying to write a more inclusive and diverse sff, I think the line between (a) and (b) is not only very thin but that sometimes works can be both at the same time in different ways, if that makes sense. Speculative tourism is a spot-on phrase, I think.

No matter how well researched and culturally sensitive I try to be (and I do) my perspective is still constrained because even as I struggle against my own myopism, there are some ways in which I will always not get some things right. Which is not to say that isn't a problem for every writer, on some axis, just that it matters to try to keep one's eyes open.

That's why I think the diversity of perspective now emerging more prominently (see forex the steampunk posts on tor.com) will allow sff to remain relevant as it adapts and transforms in the 21st century.

Not to say it isn't an uphill battle and a long road, but there is some really exciting stuff going on. Perhaps intersectionally similar in some ways to the way the field expanded in the 70s with women writers; that period changed the field substantially (against some significant flashback), and I am convinced this is what is happening now on a different axis.
shweta_narayan: mangatarshweta_narayan on October 31st, 2010 11:24 pm (UTC)
No matter how well researched and culturally sensitive I try to be (and I do) my perspective is still constrained because even as I struggle against my own myopism, there are some ways in which I will always not get some things right. Which is not to say that isn't a problem for every writer, on some axis, just that it matters to try to keep one's eyes open.

Yes, this exactly! And it's true even when (for example) I'm writing "my own culture", because I'm simultaneously part of a relevant privilege group (anglophone brahmin) and an outsider (expatriate).

To (ha) appropriate something a professor of mine said about the academic side of things: "Of course we're wrong. The goal is to be less wrong than we were before".

Perhaps intersectionally similar in some ways to the way the field expanded in the 70s with women writers; that period changed the field substantially (against some significant flashback), and I am convinced this is what is happening now on a different axis.

I don't have your perspective on the 70s (I was, um, around! Though about 2 feet tall and not yet reading...) but from what I've heard about it, this seems exactly right to me.

And the presence of multiple zines that care about diversity is a sign of that! ...And so is not necessarily knowing how to phrase it. Which is why I care enough to post :)

(And yes, I'm loving the Tor.com steampunk posts.)
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joycemochajoycemocha on October 31st, 2010 11:26 pm (UTC)
If we want to expand it to disabilities, can we please get rid of the canard that Heddon or Heldon's book is a "good" one about autism?

Quite frankly, as the parent of an adult with high functioning autism, and as a special education teacher who sometimes works with people with autism (which, btw, there's significant argument in the world of POA about people first language--some like it, many don't, best to be cautious when addressing someone with autism and find out what they prefer), I've yet to find a book--ANY book--that comes close to reflecting my experiences and observations about autism and Asperger's Syndrome.

(Moon's book is probably the best of a bad lot, but I Still! Have! Issues! because it's all about a "cure" for autism...and most people who identify themselves as Autie or Aspie view autism as a part of who and what they are. And other books are downright patronizing, not even reflecting the frustration of a parent not on the autistic spectrum in dealing with a child on the autistic spectrum)
shweta_narayan: authorpic1shweta_narayan on October 31st, 2010 11:35 pm (UTC)
I would love to see a longer post about this -- if you have an earlier one, are there keywords I should search on? (But, um, if you don't, this is not a request -- I know you have plenty to be spending spoons on!)

Moon's book is probably the best of a bad lot, but I Still! Have! Issues! because it's all about a "cure" for autism...and most people who identify themselves as Autie or Aspie view autism as a part of who and what they are.

...I read it as problematizing the notion of a 'cure' for exactly that reason, but I may well have given her too much benefit of the doubt at the time. Oh well, that isn't going to happen again anytime soon.

(Oh and, re: books, do you have an opinion on sartorias' Inda?)

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joycemochajoycemocha on October 31st, 2010 11:35 pm (UTC)
Me, I want to get away from Generic European fantasy settings. I also want to see some good examinations of colonialism that don't just continue with the same old Manifest Destiny, Brittania Rules the Waves, etc, etc, etc.

I do think the experiences of many fur trappers gone native are woefully underutilized. And there's a lot of Shiny! focus on Culture that would resonate much more clearly (and have a better, less-appropriative focus) if the same focus were on Place instead.

(For example, my ongoing argument after reading Patricia Wrede's Thirteenth Child is that it is not truly a frontier fantasy because it lacks that strong sense of place, the ecocritical necessity of the environmental interaction with those Europeans learning a new Place, that underpins so many of the authentic frontier narratives in North America. American pioneers had challenges from the indigenous peoples but what really knocked a lot of them out was Place that was alien to their understanding, not Culture. Wrede fails to establish that authentic sense of Place in her story. Card gets it in his Alvin Maker stories--Wrede doesn't. For example, early pioneer narratives about the Great Plains talk about the effect of the constant, incessant wind on the mental stability of the Europeans settling the country. But do you read that many fantasy stories about Person versus Place? Not really--and it's a serious lack.)
shweta_narayan: authorpic1shweta_narayan on October 31st, 2010 11:39 pm (UTC)
I'd like to see more Place too.

But I'm simply not interested in reading yet more about colonialist Europeans, I'm afraid.
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pingback_botpingback_bot on October 31st, 2010 11:42 pm (UTC)
Speculative Tourism
User jen_qoe referenced to your post from Speculative Tourism saying: [...] already read it, you should go check out the fabulous Shweta Narayan's post on Speculative Tourism, [...]
Athena Andreadis, aka Helivoy: Shadehelivoy on October 31st, 2010 11:49 pm (UTC)
You know my views on that, broadly. However, it's also true that we all write with less than perfect knowledge -- even of our own cultures -- and "Write (only) what you know" doesn't widen horizons either. So awareness and sensitivity combined with an exploring mindset and research is probably the only approach that will be even remotely successful.

Being Part of Everyone’s Furniture; Or: Appropriate Away!

Escaping Self-Imposed Monochromatic Cages
shweta_narayan: mangatarshweta_narayan on October 31st, 2010 11:54 pm (UTC)
You know my views on that, broadly.

Yes :)
And I am writing with the assumption that "exotic squee" is not good. Or it wouldn't be worth saying.
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dsmoendsmoen on November 1st, 2010 07:20 am (UTC)
Based on an earlier comment I deleted and a nudge from Shweta, I thought I'd put this here. I'd put it in my own LJ, but the conversation here's ongoing.

I was born when there were 49 states. As a child, the west coast had a lot of people emigrating from Hawaii (once that became easier), and after WW2, a lot more attention came to Hawaii. Duke Kahanamoku became the goodwill ambassador and introduced surfing to California and the rest of the world.

So, in a sense, the fact that I have a vampire surf instructor (in Venice Beach, fwiw) is, at its roots, related to earlier cultural appropriation, but I'm not sure anyone would call me on that. The Waltah Clarke stores that flourished in the 50s and 60s and early 70s, offering large-size women really bright clothing? Also appropriation to some extent, but how much? This shirt, however, was classic appropriation. (Perhaps not in original intent, but definitely by the time it got to be re-sold by this shirt company given the description.)

But being raised with some aspects and knowledge of Hawaiian culture: some of it is a part of me and my culture and the time and place where I was raised. People were excited about Hawaii. Some of it was exoticism, I'm sure. To me, Hawaii wasn't exotic, it was the place where people told stories with their hands, where people who wanted to spend time on the water (like I did) were normal.

That said, I'm not Hawaiian. I don't have that deep cultural lineage. What I got as a chid is a veneer. I can now read limited Hawaiian, but I don't have a native's understanding. I understand, at least some aspects, the migration of Polynesians and some of the underlying reasons for the language changes.

The books I've written that involve some aspect of Hawaii have nothing to do with the "new state" and "exotic" culture I experienced as a child, but there's no doubt in my mind that I'm drawn to write about Hawaii/Polynesia because of my childhood experience.

In writing this, I think I finally understand why I like mid-tone bright colors so much: they were all over the muu muus I saw so frequently as a child. That transition made bright colors on women okay -- such a change from the staid fashion of the 40s.

People living in Ireland feel appropriated by Irish-Americans. We're not really Irish, after all. Yet, even despite the fact that my family hadn't been back in a hundred years, there's some aspects of Irish culture that are undeniably part of my heritage.

So it's hard for me to know where those lines of appropriation/not appropriation are, even when limiting myself to my own dominant culture. When it comes to the Hawaii of my youth and how my understanding and knowledge have evolved, it's even more difficult.
delux_vivens on November 1st, 2010 09:26 am (UTC)
have you seen this piece by karenhealey?
shweta_narayan: mangatarshweta_narayan on November 1st, 2010 05:24 pm (UTC)
No!
That's great, thank you :) I only know karenhealey for being awesome about her initially-racefaily cover art (I think I'm remembering that right) and I definitely want to know more about her process.
The Green Knight: Autumngreen_knight on November 1st, 2010 02:23 pm (UTC)
used in isolation, "settings we don't see all the time" frames the problem as the boredom of the privileged, not the silencing of the marginalized

That distinction would not have occurred to me (hello privilege!).

At the same time, I think it's important for readers (and fellow writers) to be able to say 'hey, don't exclude and marginalize "on my behalf" - I'm not as narrow-minded as you paint me.' - we just need to find a way to say it that doesn't contribute to the problem.
shweta_narayan: mangatarshweta_narayan on November 1st, 2010 05:26 pm (UTC)
That distinction would not have occurred to me (hello privilege!).


It took a longish time for me to figure out what was bothersome for me, too. We're all works in progress :)

At the same time, I think it's important for readers (and fellow writers) to be able to say 'hey, don't exclude and marginalize "on my behalf" - I'm not as narrow-minded as you paint me.'

Yes! It's really important to be diversity-friendly; and I don't think that most/any of the people using the phrasing I find problematic really mean yes send us ExoticSqueeTM! :) It's just... what you said, yeah.
elysdir on November 4th, 2010 10:15 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting this; good food for thought, as usual. I've been mulling it over, and while I don't have a lot of coherent thoughts yet, I do have a question.

SH's version of the line in question is:

"We like settings and cultures that we don't see all the time in speculative fiction."

I probably wrote that, but I don't remember when or why or what exactly I was thinking of. It may have been around the time (fairly early in SH's history) that a friend (who was a nonfiction editor at SH at the time) pointed out to me that almost all of the fiction we had published up to that point was set in English-speaking countries.

So the line was certainly well-intentioned. But after reading your entry, I wonder if--even given the context of the rest of our guidelines--our version of the "settings" line is still kind of exoticizing. I suspect there was some exoticizing going on in my head when I wrote that line, if I wrote it. (I probably did, but I'm not certain.)

So do you think we'd be better off cutting that line entirely, given that we already say the "more inclusive" thing?

Or--especially given that the rest of the paragraph is already set up as contrasts ("we like x as long as it's not y" kinds of things)--maybe we could add a qualifier, perhaps something like "We like settings and cultures that we don't see all the time in speculative fiction, as long as they're well-researched and not exoticized." Or something along those lines.

Whatcha think? I don't mean to be saying You Must Educate Me On How To Phrase Our Guidelines; feel free to ignore this question, and we'll think about it more and decide what to do. But if you or your readers have thoughts or opinions on this, I'd be interested in hearing them.

PS: In case anyone reading this is hesitant to criticize SH about this kind of thing, please don't be; we want to try to get this stuff right, and we're aware that we're likely to fail at it sometimes, so we appreciate it when people help us fail less, though of course it's nobody else's responsibility to do that. I'm including this paragraph only because I know how awkward the editor/writer power dynamic can make things; I don't want anyone to think "If I say something negative, they'll never publish me!"
shweta_narayan: mangatarshweta_narayan on November 4th, 2010 10:24 pm (UTC)
in which fence-sitting ensues
So of course I can only speak for myself -- but I don't find the line in SH inherently eoticizing, given context. It's when it's taken in isolation that it gets problematic to me.

Having said that, I must note that I am biased. SH is the first place I ever found that outright said it gave a damn about non-Eurocentric fiction; so I remain full of squee over that and may be missing something because of it.

Now to argue the other side! I do like "We like settings and cultures that we don't see all the time in speculative fiction, as long as they're well-researched and not exoticized." even better :)

And, given that (if I'm right and other people are getting that phrasing from you) SH is something of an exemplar of how to do it right, it might be worth erring on the more-careful side and changing it even if the current guidelines are fine?
Re: in which fence-sitting ensues - elysdir on January 1st, 2011 02:28 am (UTC) (Expand)
Re: in which fence-sitting ensues - shweta_narayan on January 1st, 2011 07:57 am (UTC) (Expand)
pingback_botpingback_bot on November 7th, 2010 05:59 pm (UTC)
Sunday Linkfest!
User fantasyecho referenced to your post from Sunday Linkfest! saying: [...] Shweta Narayan has thoughts on speculative tourism [...]
Tales of the urban adventurerdmp on November 7th, 2010 06:14 pm (UTC)
Here's the problem, as I see it: used in isolation, "settings we don't see all the time" frames the problem as the boredom of the privileged, not the silencing of the marginalized. Who, after all, is we?

Yes. This.

I especially get fidgety when people use the word "multiculturalism" without, y'know, actually supporting the people those culture they claim to love so much. They say things like, "Look at these clothes/food/movies/etc and aren't they *awesome* because they aren't European white people things?" and feel so proud because they are so diverse in their tastes and should have brownie points for their good intentions...


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