Friday, March 19, 2021

Reading Non-Western Stories: A Note to My Fellow White Readers
 I saw a Twitter post this morning with a screen shot of a rejection from an agent to an AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) author, and the agent was basically saying, “Your manuscript is great! But it has a lot of foreign worldbuilding elements that our [white] readers aren't going to connect with, so I’m passing on it.” I'm paraphrasing, but I've seen this sort of thing happening plenty of times before to authors of color. It always surprises me because white readers are perfectly happy jumping into complex fantasy and science fiction worlds full of aliens and elves and trusting that it will all eventually make sense, but we can't extend that same good faith to authors who write stories set in real (or semi-real) but non-Western settings.

Another thing I saw on Twitter this week was a tweet from Joyce Carol Oates (which I'm only screenshotting and not linking to because it's a totally crap take): 

What got me grinding my teeth in particular was the "come of age reading great novels of ambition, substance, & imagination" part. She illustrates her point with examples of notoriously white, Western authors. Is Russian fiction "Western"? For this purpose, I say, yes, it is. She's comparing apples to oranges for one thing-- auto fiction is basically a genre of memoirs/autobiographies where some elements are fictionalized, and I don't think Faulkner ever wrote anything like that. Another thing is, in 2021, a purportedly progressive, feminist author is still standing on old,  mostly male, Western canon as examples of what constitutes "ambition, substance and imagination". UGH! Really?

With me being due to write a post for ATB, it seemed like an appropriate time to say: Hey, white/Western readers, we have biases we may not be aware of. We've become accustomed to Western (of primarily European and North American origin) themes, language, structure, belief systems, etc. And we, often unknowingly, impose those customs on whatever we're reading. Because of that, we're missing out on exceptional literature and shutting out some really great authors. We can do better.

One of my side-gigs is being a co-assistant editor at Cast of Wonders. A lot of what I do in that role is reading submissions and making decisions with my co-assistant editor and senior editor about which stories we'll accept for publication and audio-production. We're open to receiving stories from authors of all backgrounds, and we've made a point of trying to produce more stories that show the diversity of the authors who submit to us. Sometimes that requires opening our minds to stories that are not written in formats that are familiar to us as primarily Western and/or white readers. Sometimes we fail, despite our best intentions.

Recently my co-assistant editor, a member of the AAPI community and a talented writer himself, brought this shortcoming to our attention. Primarily his point was that often our comments as slush readers reveal our biases against non-Western structures and elements in ways we aren't aware of. He linked to great thread on Twitter by Suyi Davies Okungbowa to demonstrate and exemplify ways this bias appears in our editorial language and what it indicates:

The point of this post isn't to accuse anyone of racism. Rather, it's to remind myself and readers like me that we can and should question our biases. We can be more critical of our responses to media that include unfamiliar themes, settings, and cultures. It's also my attempt to challenge us to stretch our analytical muscles, to broaden our minds by purposefully broadening our media selections. 

Maybe learning how to be receptive to non-Western story structures will take some practice. Maybe we'll have to use Google to help us understand, to look up the meaning or translation or location of something. I promise it won't hurt, and it might actually do us some good.

Here are some places where we can start--stories that I (and some helpful friends) enjoyed and challenged me to think a bit outside of my white/Western comfort zone:

"This is How you Remember" by Phong Quan (a short story and audio story) :

"Common Grounds and Various Teas" by Sherin Nicole (a short story and audio story):''

"The Forbidden Books of  Da Lin Monastery" by Andrew K Hoe (a short story and audio story):

"Paper Menagerie" by Ken Liu (a SFF short story):

Ken Liu's "The Grace of Kings" (a novel)

Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (a semi-memoir):

"Lagoon" a novel by Nnedi Okorafor (a novel):

"Ficciones" by Jorje Luis Borges (Magical Realism short story collection from their South American roots):

"Black Sun" by Rebecca Roanhorse (a fantasy novel):

"Welcome to your Authentic Indian Experience" by Rebecca Roanhorse (a short story)

"The Devourers" by Indra Das (a novel):

"The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday" by Saad Hossain (a novella or very short novel):

"Brown Girl in the Ring" by Nalo Hopkinson (a novel)

"The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God" by Etgar Keret (short story collection):

“Black Leopard, Red Wolf” by Marlon James:

No comments:

Blogger Template by Designer Blogs