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Wison Panel Discussion: Decolonizing Speculative Fiction. What would fantasy look like if it weren’t dominated by the fear of the Others and frontier politics? What would SF look like if it didn’t centre on narratives of empire and war? What examples do we have of fiction so speculative that it disrupts our notions of Whiteness and imagines a future we want? Panelists: Ian K. Hagemann, Beth A-B, Brian Atteberry, Diana M. Pho
One of the reasons I love coming to WisCon is because I can meet with people who challenge my own sense of who I am. I find the shaking out of the cobwebs in my brain while often uncomfortable, is always rewarding.
So I chose to go the Panel called “Decolonizing Speculative Fiction” because, frankly, I am really tired of war, death and destruction being the only narratives out there, but also because I am becoming increasingly aware of how at odds my actual experience of life is from traditional narrative structures.
In the spirit of WisCon this was not a panel about conclusions, but a panel about asking the right questions.
So. Here we go. First point: What is decolonization? Does it mean getting rid of the oppressor? Even if they leave of their own accord? How would systems be rebuilt after this exodus? Are those who leave traitors or those who stay behind? In the example of Vietnam, given by panelist Diana Pho, those who left are often painted as traitors though this may not actually be the case. For some who left – those who stayed behind are traitors. After de-colonization there can still be oppressed and oppressor.
Second point: what narratives do NOT escape empire and war? Colonization from the point of view of the oppressed is still implicated. Popular “urban fantasy” set in distopian suburbs still imply empire. We all agreed that Game of Thrones is a pretty much a complete failure.
Third point. Some would define fiction as “people in trouble struggling for redemption” If that is framed as “My people are being destroyed” it means a narrative of empire. If it is framed as “I am an outsider” it is a narrative of otherness. The whole narrative structure lends itself to empire and war, so maybe we have to subvert the form as well as the content. At least be aware of it.
A true redemption from colonization usually includes a clear articulation of the oppression, a celebration of the oppressed, and a building of a new culture hat incorporates the memory of opression, but does not allow it to drive the new culture.
Some options that were suggested were:
1. Interiority. Re-imagining events as self-discovery. As long as discovery includes being discovered BY as well as discovery OF (which can totally be a narrative of colonization). Conflict is negative, and discovery more positive. Example “Trouble on Triton” by Samuel Delany
2. Negotiation. It can not only subvert conflict, but can also be told in a manner that subverts the form. e.g. a story within a story that questions/challenges the framing story, or a story made of vignettes. Example “253” by Geoff Ryman
3. Search for understanding. This is not how we usually react as human beings, but it can subvert the usually duality of opposites that can never meet. It explores the ground in between. Colonization is based on classification, it leaves out the balanced (or un-balanced) middle. Example: Annals of the Western Shore by Ursula K. LeGuin
4. Indigenous futurism. Technological advances examined from the point of view of another culture than Western. These narratives not only challenge our notion of culture – but of science. Example: The Kadaitcha Sung by Sam Watson
Other reading suggestions made by panelists were:
Amped by Daniel H. Wilson
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Country of Ghosts by Margaret Killjoy
Clockwork Century by Cherie Priest
Pax Ethnica by Karl E Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac
Another reason I picked this panel was because in the car on my way to Wiscon I was listening to a podcast about the Irish Famine. (http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/episodes/2014/03/17/the-great-hunger-part-2—ireland/) One of the participants emphasized the fact that there are no songs and stories in Irish folk culture about the Famine, in spite of the massive trauma and loss of life it must have meant for most people. He felt that this was because the extraordinary shame of this event had been internalized and was like a festering sore on the psyche of the nation. He suggested that the self-loathing that this trauma engendered in the Irish people could be responsible for the high rates of alcoholism, and other social evils. It got me thinking about the project of de-colonization, and the common experiences of post-colonial nations.