For instance, my friend Jaymee Goh knows about postcolonial science fiction and fantasy the way a woman much younger than me would, and in the way someone who was born and has lived most of her life outside the US would, and in the way of someone who has traveled much further into the figurative world of academia than I. So when she was interviewed in early June on the topic of writing postcolonial SF, and a questioner asked, “Do you think belonging to a Non-Western (sic) culture is essential to write a really good, convincing story about it? Being an outsider to the culture you want to write about is an enriching or empoverishing (sic) experience (or it doesn’t matter in the end)?” her reply was much longer and more considered than mine, and also more revealing. I would have said something like, “I refuse to answer your stupid.” Or, in a more cooperative mood I would have talked about my own experience writing about a culture from its outside, which requires work, which I guess might be equated with “empoverishment.”
Not Jaymee, though. She bestowed on the questioner several paragraphs of weighty thoughtfulness while flipping the power dynamic inherent in interview and interrogation right around. She noted that describing non-Western cultures from the perspective of their conquerors, or the perspective of their conquerors’ heirs, is quite a longstanding tradition. My favorite line from her response: "I really have to question why any one writer would ask such a question, and am hard-pressed to come up with any other answer besides 'seeking validation.'" Which validation she then proceeded to deny them.
A couple of weeks before that interchange, I appeared on the “Cultural Not-Appropriation” panel at WisCon 36 with Diantha Sprouse, Sofia Samatar, and Daniel José Older, our moderator. Diantha I’d known for several years, but Sofia and Daniel were new to me.
Daniel is a something of coreligionist—his practice of Lucumi and mine of Ifa are closely related—so that’s a perspective on empire we share, along with US birth and residency. But Daniel’s also younger than me, plus he’s male, and he speaks Spanish. We both differ from colonizers’ cultural paradigms, but in different ways. Our experiences of postcolonialism, and postcolonial speculative fiction, are different. Like yours and mine.
Which is where I would have come from if I’d been seriously answering the question Jaymee got asked. Where I did come from when talking on the WisCon panel about How to Do It Right: from the place of being simultaneously innocent and implicated, and paying attention to what that means.
What we all know, from our many perspectives, is that colonialism bites the flaming donkey weenie. It messes shit up. It messes up most of what could be used to sort shit out and unmess it. It extracts costs from the colonized, costs that are carried across generations. Some of these costs masquerade as benefits. Some are presented as choices.
I do my best not to contribute to the legacy of colonialism in my fiction, but when it comes to certain entanglements I understand that I must use the utmost caution and concision.
I made what I’d call a successful foray into explicitly postcolonial science fiction with “Deep End,” which first appeared in the anthology So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004). Taking Australia as a model, I wrote about a prison ship flying to an extrasolar planet with a freight of disembodied activists; these activists were scheduled to be downloaded into clones of their oppressors. “Deep End” was reprinted in my Tiptree Award-winning collection Filter House in 2008. This summer I’m working on a sequel.
My current novel-in-progress, Everfair, is another deliberate confrontation of colonialism: steampunk set in the Belgian Congo. It arose from my dislike of steampunk’s tendency to privilege imperialism, and especially Britain’s Victorian Empire. It also focuses on the site of one of the worst modern human rights atrocities, an infamous episode intimately connected with the rape of natural resources that lies behind the Industrial Revolution.
To ensure representation of the multiplicities of non-dominant difference, I’m writing Everfair from many viewpoints: white and mixed-race Europeans, African-Americans, and indigenous Africans. Research is sometimes exhilarating, and sometimes heartbreakingly piecemeal, particularly in the case of the indigenes, whose histories were severely disrupted—to say the least—by their decimation. Often the only voice left to tell a tale is that of the colonizer. When using those versions of events, I do what I can to up-end unwritten assumptions. I learn what I can from the examples of nearby, possibly related, people. I dream and make things up.
I know I’m treading on the bones of those who went before me. It’s unsteady ground, even if I’m related to the giants beneath my feet. I walk respectfully, carefully, listening with my outer and inner ears. Repeating what I hear, what you already know, but saying it in my way.
Nisi Shawl was WisCon 35’s Guest of Honor and the editor of WisCon Chronicles 5: Writing and Racial Identity. She is coauthor of Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, a founder the Carl Brandon Society, and a member of Clarion West’s Board of Directors. She edits reviews for the Cascadia Subduction Zone, a literary quarterly. She’s fairly active on Twitter and Facebook, and she promises to update her homepage (www.nisishawl.com) soon.