Monday, September 16, 2013

My part (and your part?) in Diversity in SFF

Last Friday Aliette de Bodard posted a must-read discussion of diversity, racism, cliché, and other features of the diversity-in-SFF discussion. And when I say must-read, I mean it's HERE, so go read it.

I've been thinking a lot about these issues since I read her post, and there are several that strike me deeply as I consider what my part is going to be in the rise of diversity in SFF. First of all, it is rising, and this is a good thing, and I'm planning to help it along to the best of my ability. But what is my ability, here? I think there are two components: identity, and work.

Identity is the intractable component. When we think about diversity, we can think about all kinds of aspects of humanity - race, sexuality, ability, gender identity, gender, etc. These all come together in individuals in different ways, and not in ways that we can control for ourselves, which is one of the reasons that discrimination is so damaging. Thus, my own identity as a white, able, heterosexual, atheist cis-woman in a comfortable financial situation is intractable. I'm active in discussing sexism, and feminism and separation of church and state, and in those topics I can use my identity as a license of authority - of a sort.

Nobody can legitimately claim dominant authoritative knowledge about the world because nobody can know everyone else's experience. I have sometimes in my life been told that my opinion on a topic was invalid because I hadn't shared the experience that another person had had. Sometimes I felt indignant about this; at this point in my life I'd probably be a little less so. However, it's very clear to me that no one person, no single social group owns the truth of the world. The world is like this - and it is like that also. We know only what we see, and what we are exposed to. The difficulty arises when we try to write our own understanding over that of someone else.

Both self-advocacy and advocacy on behalf of others are important. I know what I can use my voice to achieve; I also know that voices carry farther when they are supported by others. This is why I try to seek out diverse voices in the SFF community and amplify them - re-tweet them, or share them, or talk about how cool they are when I get the chance. This blog has on some level always been about expanding cultures in SF/F, and I see that goal as being quite congruent with the goals of diversity in SFF. I'm working on how I can make them even more so.

There's another important message I'd like to get across here, which is part of the advocacy message. When I talk about diversity in SF/F I mean just that - diversity. Not just "me, me, me, include whatever component of diversity benefits ME." Carrie Cuinn just wrote a really great article that says it far more piquantly. Diversity means just that - diversity. The presence of all kinds of people. Hearing all kinds of voices.

Which brings me to the topic of work - and by that, I mean the content of the stories we write. I can easily say up front that different stories have different demands, but one of the fundamental goals of diversity-in-SF/F is authenticity. Why should we demand technological authenticity and not concern ourselves with social authenticity?

Authenticity means diversity.

There are no social groups that do not have smaller subgroups. There are no life philosophies that are held unquestioningly by all those who are supposed to hold them. There are no families - even happy ones - where the people don't have to work hard to understand how to interact with individuals with very different needs. That's why when I make aliens, the aliens are never uniform. They always have some kind of diversity within them. When I wrote the Varin world, I created the seven castes, but then I made sure that there were subgroups within those, and conflicts, and people considered both lucky and unlucky at every level. Even if there is prejudice and discrimination, all the different kinds of people are present. That means there is always another way of viewing the situation, even in a secondary world where you are (ostensibly) not dealing with the cultural conflicts that occur here in ours.

When you are using our world, even if it is just an inspiration for a fictional world, keep this in mind. A non-diverse world is not authentic - or, you'd have to do an extreme amount of work to convince me that it would be. Also, whenever you are using the real world, you need to be using the real world as it is. Diverse, and messy. And chances are, you'll find yourself having to work with characters from groups you're not personally familiar with - worldviews you've never experienced. This is where research comes in. This is why Wikipedia isn't enough. You don't know who wrote that Wikipedia article - and you do know that whoever wrote it was aiming for a discourse style that is associated with academic reference books. It has information - but it has no flavor. It doesn't have the language it needs to tell you what you really need to know. Dig deep. Find original sources. Find the authentic voices to inspire you.

At the same time, realize that you will never be a member of that minority group you've been researching. Don't take that as a reason to back away, never to write about that character who might be so important - just realize that if you are not an insider, you are not an insider and can't make yourself one. I write stories set in Japan because I lived there for three years. I have friends there. I find it fascinating and deeply inspiring. However, living there as long as I did made it abundantly clear to me that I would never be an insider. And that's okay. I can portray the environment, and deal with cultural issues and themes, without claiming that I am the last authority.

Aliette recommends that we be careful when we ask members of a particular cultural group to look at our work for critique - specifically, that we shouldn't take a single member of that group as representative of the whole, and that we should realize that their critique may be influenced by their social relationship with us (the authors). This is excellent advice. I personally like to look for critique from members of the many groups I portray - as much as possible, from people I can trust to be brutally honest with me. If I've screwed it up, the last thing I want is for someone to let me make that mistake because they're afraid to hurt my feelings. This is one of the reasons I like to look for a diversity of critique - the potential readers of a story are as diverse as the people who may appear in it.

The stakes in this movement are high. Feelings are going to be hurt (I know that this is a risk any time I talk about it with anyone, for me, and for them). But it's important to realize that most of these -ims are not about personal animosity. They are about systems of discrimination that are so complex and deeply ingrained that most of the time we can't even perceive them - systems that must be actively countered by as many people as possible in as many ways as possible. So go out and learn more about World SF, and about diverse authors and experiences. Learn about linguistic diversity and realize that the sacred construct of the "native English speaker" is a myth that shouldn't be keeping you from reading the brilliant work of world authors.

I'll be doing my part - keeping my eyes and ears open, appreciating others' work while I diversify my own. It's no use assuming there is any one way to do this; each of us has to find our own way from the intractable to the tractable, and contribute as best we can. All I know for sure is that there is so much that hasn't been heard - so much real emotion, real experience, and real originality out there waiting to be discovered. There is room for it, and a huge, largely untapped audience for it. SF/F is all about discovery, and new frontiers, so this seems a most natural place to look for the genre's future.

It's something to think about.



  1. Nice post. Another one I'm sharing with my writer's groups. Glad I found your blog, as you so often cover things I'm pondering with regards to my own writing.

  2. Thanks for turning me on to Aliette's blog. I'm now following.

  3. Thanks for this post, Juliette, and for pointing people at my irregularly-scheduled "Dear Jackass" rants :)