SFF IN CONVERSATION: A Diverse Mythical Creatures Round Table – Part 1

We are hosting a round table with Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Shveta Thakrar, Octavia Cade, Marie Brennan, Whiti Hereaka, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, E.C. Myers, Aliette de Bodard, Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Bogi Takács and Joyce Chng, building up from this prompt from Shveta Thakrar:

I’ve always loved faeries, always, always, but ever since I looked around one day in my early twenties and realized that was pretty much all I knew about, I’ve been hunting stories using folklore and mythical creatures from around the world. Until then, it never occurred to me to wonder why I didn’t see the nagas and apsaras from my own South Asian heritage in any media outside Amar Chitra Katha, the comics I’d read as a kid. At best, they might show up in the cloth painting or statuary a Hindu household tended to have, but beyond that, they might as well not exist. And once I realized that, I got angry–and started writing my own tales and thinking about what else I could do?

So when I saw Strange Horizons posted a column on types of fey beings, I mentioned on Twitter that I would love to see a global version that would introduce people to creatures they might not have heard of. Ana of the Book Smugglers saw my tweet and approached me about hosting a round table on her website. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity!

I still love faeries, but now I want more. I want to see the mythical beings that exist outside Celtic and British lore, too, and want to see them star in stories that everyone knows, no matter where they grew up. I want it to be common knowledge that J. K. Rowling did not invent naginis, and I want our fantasy novels and movies to encompass the true richness of global lore and myth. (When I say myth, it’s referring to the original meaning of “sacred story” as opposed to “lie.”) Highlighting one branch of folklore at the expense of most of the rest is othering and dismissive, but even more than that, it’s cheating ourselves of the rest of the beauty and wisdom out there. Folklore, whether or not you believe in its creatures, exists to show us other ways to be and to remind us to stay open to wonder and magic. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I am starving for all the flavors of magic I can find, so as far as I’m concerned, bring on the world treasure trove of stories!

Part 1 with Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Shveta Thakrar, Octavia Cade, Marie Brennan, Whiti Hereaka, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz is here

Aliette de Bodard shares some thoughts on writing diverse cultures into fiction.

There are tons of great points here, some I want to highlight:

Read your sources; read primary if possible. Reading primary sources written by people from inside the actual culture is very important, because there’s a boatload of really fairly outsider books out there that are still held up as examples of accuracy. Not saying you shouldn’t read books by outsiders (it’s also important to have reference points you can use if you’re not from the culture, because some things are so obvious that insider books won’t stop to mention them at all), but you have to be very careful and very critical of what’s inside them. 

Be aware that you’ll never write insider narrative, because you’re not an insider. That in itself is not necessarily bad, but be aware of two things. The first and most important point is that outsider narratives have a tendency to string together bloody offensive clichés (generally the perception of the dominant culture you grew up in) and are totally oblivious to that fact. I have lost count of how many narratives on China* featured any combination of the following: over-formality between members of the same family (because everyone knows that Chinese is a formal language! Guess what. Most communications within the family are brutally simple, because the respect is already implicit in the relationship itself); use of broken English (because all immigrants/foreigners speak bad English!); reference to women being tiny and fragile and exotic, or a combination of all three (a cliché that might not be a problem; but if you’re in a Chinese-dominant universe, where—guess what—everyone is equally small and “exotic,” it is most certainly totally unjustified); everybody or nearly everybody being experts at martial arts (not to say martial arts didn’t exist, but you have to be aware that they certainly weren’t mainstream, and that a Confucian court official is unlikely to be an expert in them—more like really suspicious of those dubious sporty techniques since Confucians hated sport). And the list goes on…

*I’m using China as an example because there aren’t so many Vietnamese narratives lying around. If any Chinese people are around and would like to correct me, feel free!

If you get past the stage of clichés (and a vast majority of outsider narratives don’t, so do take some time to think on what it is that you’re writing and how you’re presenting the culture), the most frequent and insidious problem of outsider narratives is tone-deafness, aka putting the emphasis on what seems shiny to you (and totally commonplace to insiders), and/or casually using important, traumatic details with no idea of their importance. For instance, referring to people or features of the Vietnamese/American War as an easy way to set the background for your story? Those are NOT casual mentions; they’re linked to events that took place barely a generation ago; and they’d be pretty traumatic for most Vietnamese. Similarly, if you geek out on durian in your food descriptions, that’s a bit like your French characters geeking out on strawberries—sure, if you’re a foodie (and even then, they’re unlikely to describe strawberries in loving detail, but will rather focus on what makes those strawberries so extraordinary compared to the standard ones). That’s just the small stuff—there’s also the big stuff such as cultures simply not having the same emphasis and the same values as the one you come from (being a scholar in Ancient Vietnam? The most prestigious and famed occupation, the dream of all mothers for their sons. Being an academic in 21st-Century France? Opinions will vary, but there’s certainly not 90% of the population for whom this is a dream job).

Drowning out: apropos of outsider and insider writing, if you’re not from the culture (and especially if you’re from a more dominant majority), be aware that your narration will be that of the privileged (whether you’re the most privileged strata of your society or not), and that as such it has a strong likelihood of being taken *more* seriously than actual work by people from the actual culture. This is problematic on two levels: one is that, as said above, outsider narratives can give a more or less false image of a given culture (and thus promote problematic representations, again on a more or less serious level, reinforcing the majority perception of that culture); and, second, because, for good or evil, works set in an “exotic” culture are perceived as part of a limited market (ie, if your work features, say, Aztecs, the perception is that there aren’t many slots for Aztec novels, because those “are all the same”. I know no one says that of works set in the US and featuring straight white men, and that this is an unfair perception, but it doesn’t change that it exists). And because the market is limited, that means that publishing that kind of work removes space for insider narratives to exist (again, in the actual state of publishing. Change is coming on that front, but like all changes it takes time). Again, not discouraging you from writing what you want to write (I’d be the last one in a position to do so!); but it’s good to ask yourself why you’re writing what you’re writing; to be aware of the consequences; and to promote writings by people from the actual culture in addition to your own—because they have voices of their ownbut more trouble getting heard.

But the whole article is pure gold. Go read it!

Julienne’s aunts are the archer who shot down the suns and the woman who lives on the moon. They teach her that there’s more to the city of her birth than meets the eye – that beneath the modern chrome and glass of Hong Kong there are demons, gods, and the seethe of ancient feuds. As a mortal Julienne is to give them wide berth, for unlike her divine aunts she is painfully vulnerable, and choice prey for any demon.

Until one day, she comes across a wounded, bleeding woman no one else can see, and is drawn into an old, old story of love, snake women, and the deathless monk who hunts them.

Scale-Bright. Urban-mythic fantasy novella from Immersion Press (2014), with an introduction by Aliette de Bodard. Interstitial cities, mortality, and a  young woman coming to grip with a world full of legends come to life. Chinese myths, queered.

Contains: kissing, demon ladies, and warrior gods trying to be aunties.

Out now in ebook and hardback.

‘It’s going to be difficult to contain my excitement over this novella and in any case, why should I? It has everything going for it—prose that beautifully encapsulates both the fantastic and the mundane; deft storytelling that folds and combines three different stories into one; and a strong focus on relationships between lovers, friends and families. In addition: ladies kissing and fighting and finding themselves.’ – Ana Grilo, Kirkus Reviews

'Let me give you a little teaser right off the bat: if you like Catherynne Valente, you’re gonna love Benjanun Sriduangkaew.

Striking a delicate balance between gorgeous worldbuilding and graceful and deep characterization, it’s hard to decide which to spend my words on, the characters or the world.  And oh wow did I love these characters.’ – Little Red Reviewer

Aliette ou le style au féminin

Aliette venait de déjeuner avec son cousin dans les parages de la rue de Sèvres, et rentrait chez elle à Lamarck-Caulaincourt travailler un peu. Techniquement, elle est encore en vacances jusqu’à lundi, mais cette jeune styliste ne décroche jamais vraiment. Comme sa colocataire n’est pas là, l’appartement est très calme et c’est le moment parfait pour se nourrir d’inspirations diverses et jeter plein d’idées sur le papier. La musique fait-elle partie de ces sources d’inspiration ? Assurément ! A ce moment, elle écoutait « Gravediggress » (elle se rend d’ailleurs compte en me dictant le titre qu’elle avait toujours cru que la chanson s’appelait « Gravediggers »), un très gracieux titre du dernier album de CocoRosie. La musique poétique et inclassable des deux sœurs la touche particulièrement et stimule immanquablement son imaginaire. Elle écoute beaucoup de musique faite par des femmes : Florence + The Machine, Lykke Li, Bat for Lashes… Sans vouloir généraliser, elle a plus de facilités à entrer dans leur univers.

Obsidian and Blood by Aliette de Bodard (Book Review)

Before I started reading Angry Robot novels back in 2012, I hadn’t heard of Aliette de Bodard.

In the morning, you’re no longer quite sure who you are.

You stand in front of the mirror—it shifts and trembles, reflecting only what you want to see—eyes that feel too wide, skin that feels too pale, an odd, distant smell wafting from the compartment’s ambient system that is neither incense nor garlic, but something else, something elusive that you once knew.

You’re dressed, already—not on your skin, but outside, where it matters, your avatar sporting blue and black and gold, the stylish clothes of a well-traveled, well-connected woman. For a moment, as you turn away from the mirror, the glass shimmers out of focus; and another woman in a dull silk gown stares back at you: smaller, squatter and in every way diminished—a stranger, a distant memory that has ceased to have any meaning.