Note: This 2-part article is an expanded version of the talk I gave at Readercon 2011.
Recently, I read a round table discussion at the World SF blog whose participants were international women SF/F writers. The focus was, shall we say, intersectional invisibility. One item that came up was the persistence of normalizing to Anglo standards.
Also recently I started Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Mani travelogue. In the prologue I ran into the following sentence: “There is not much here about his wartime service in Crete, where for two years in the mountains he organized the resistance to the Nazi occupation.” In other words, for those who read this introduction (or Anthony Lane’s and David Mason’s swooning accounts of Fermor), the Cretans became sidekicks in their own country, in their own struggle – like the Arabs in T. E. Lawrence’s memoirs.
There are two asides to this. Fermor’s best known doing, the Kreipe kidnapping, conferred no strategic or tactical advantage, although the German reprisals were very real: they slaughtered and burned the village of Anóghia, the home of bard Níkos Ksiloúris. Like most of its kind, the action served to maintain Allied control over the “unruly” native resistance. Additionally, Fermor was frequently airlifted to Cairo, to decompress and receive his wages. The Cretans were not invited along. They remained in Crete, subject to said reprisals. But Fermor was British gentry. It was his version of reality that got heard, became canon history and granted him fame and fortune.
In Part 1, I said that if I wrote about New Orleans, readers and critics would be on me like a brick avalanche. I followed the recent conniptions of the British SF contigent over Connie Willis’ depiction of WWII London. She got terms wrong, she got details wrong, blah blah blah. Care to know how many things Greg Benford got wrong about Bronze Age and contemporary Mycenae in Artifact? Care to know what I think of Neil Gaiman’s “There is nothing uniquely Greek about the Odyssey?” For that matter, you hear endless hymns about Ian McDonald’s books – until you discuss Brasyl with a Brazilian or Hyberabad Days with an Indian.
Myths and history that recedes into legend reach us already as palimpsests. When The Iliad became standardized, the events it recited were already half a millennium old. Such stories bear all kinds of revisionist tellings, and the more resonant they are the more ways they can be re/told. If you want to see a really outstanding retelling of Oedípus Rex from Iocáste’s point of view, watch Denis Villeneuve’s film Incendies based on Wajdi Mouawad’s play Scorched. However, whenever people embed stories in a culture they haven’t lived in and know intimately, I’m wary. This, incidentally, is true across genres. For example, I can’t quite trust Martin Cruz Smith’s Russia, although Arkady Renko is a truly stellar creation. If you read John Fowles’ The Magus side by side with his French Lieutenant’s Woman, the disparity in authenticity is palpable. Marguerite Yourcenar knew Hellás; Mary Renault, not so much.
There is nothing wrong with writers using other cultures than their own, especially if they’re good storytellers with sensitive antennae. But when such works are taken for the real thing, the real thing often gets devalued or rejected outright, just as real science gets rejected in SF in favor of notions that are false or obsolete and often duller than the real thing. It’s like people used to canned orange juice disdaining the freshly squeezed stuff because it contains pulp. Or like James Ruskin forming his opinion of women’s bodies from classical statues and then struck impotent when he discovered that real women possess pubic hair.
There’s another equivalence between science and non-Anglo cultures in speculative fiction. Namely, the devil’s in the details. You need to have absorbed enough of your subject’s essence to know what counts, what needs to be included for verisimilitude. You may get the large picture right by conscientious research; you may get by with bluffing – but small things give away the game even when the bigger items pass cursory inspection. The diminutive of Konstantin in Russian is not Kostyn, it’s Kostya. Hellenic names have vocative endings that differ from the nominative. The real thing is both more familiar and more alien than it appears in stories written by cultural tourists. And often it’s the small touches that transport you inside another culture.
When outsiders get things right, they get saluted as honorary members of the culture they chose to depict and deserve the accolade. Outsiders can sometimes discern things in a culture that embedded insiders cannot see. Mark Mazower wrote riveting histories of Salonica and my people’s resistance during WWII that I recommend to everyone, including Hellenes. Roderick Beaton and Paul Preuss wrote absorbing novels set in Crete that are inseparable from their setting (Ariadne’s Children and Secret Passages). And Ellen Frye’s The Other Sappho may have dated considerably in terms of its outlook – but you can tell that Frye lived in Hellás for a long time and spoke idiomatic Hellenic, whereas Rachel Swirsky’s A Memory of Wind suffers from a generic setting despite its considerable other merits.
Then we have the interesting transpositions, like Jack McDevitt’s A Talent for War. If you don’t know he’s loosely retelling the wars of the Hellenic city-states against the Persians, you enjoy the story just fine. But if you do know, the underdrone adds emotional resonance. By knowing Hellenic history past the surface, McDevitt got something else right almost inadvertently: Christopher Sim is a parallel-universe portrait of Áris Velouchiótis, the most famous WWII resistance leader in Hellás. On the other hand, Ian Sales turned Eurypides’ careful psychological setup into wet cement in Thicker than Water, his SF retelling of Ifighénia in Tavrís (to say nothing of the name changes, with Orris and Pyle for Oréstis and Pyládhis winning the tin ear award).
Previously, the costs and intrinsic distortions of translation stood between stories of other cultures told by their own members and Anglophone readership. With SF/F writers of other nations increasingly writing in more-than-fluent English, this is no longer the case. The double-visioned exiles that camp outside the gates of SF/F might be just what the genre needs to shake it out of its self-satisfied monoculture stupor. The best-known examplar of this is Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) whose bewitching stories have never gone out of print, though her Kenyan memoirs have their share of noble savage/colonial glamor problems. Of course, one swallow does not bring the spring: reading one author per culture won’t result in major shifts; singletons cannot serve as blanket representatives of their culture — they remain individuals with unique context-colored viewpoints.
I think we should encourage cross-fertilization or, to use a biological term, back-breeding to the original stock. We need to listen to the voices from outside the dominant culture, if we don’t want speculative fiction to harden into drab parochial moulds. We need to taste the real thing, even if it burns our tongues. Burt Lancaster (but for the accent) was a memorable Don Fabrizio in the film version of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo; but Ghassan Massoud swept the floor with his Anglo co-stars as Salahu’d-Din in The Kingdom of Heaven. Although, to be thorough, Salahu’d-Din was a Kurd. So he might have had blue or gray eyes.
Images: 1st, Peter O’ Toole in another quintessence of palatable exoticism, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia; 2nd, Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar; 3rd, Lubna Azabal as Nawal Marwan in Villeneuve’s Incendies.