Wednesday 24 August 2016

Sofia Samatar GOH Speech for WisCon 40 (2016)

GOH Speech for WisCon 40 (2016)
Posted for Sofia Samatar

Today is James Tiptree, Jr.'s birthday, and to celebrate, the Guests of Honor from WisCon 40 are putting our speeches online. This is my speech, delivered at WisCon on May 29, 2016. You can also read speeches by Justine Larbalestier and Nalo Hopkinson. Many thanks to The Future Fire for giving my words a home!

In the next few minutes, friends and colleagues, I’d like to talk to you about flight.

The critic Alastair Fowler once said: “Genre is much less of a pigeonhole than a pigeon.” I’ll say that again: Genre is not a pigeonhole, it’s a pigeon! I’ve always loved that image: genre taking flight. In reality, however, many of us who write some type of genre fiction often do find ourselves pigeonholed in unfortunate ways. We can find we’re expected to write to a template, to follow certain conventions or risk the rage of the comments section: “That’s not science fiction!” On the other hand, by non-genre readers, we’re often simply dismissed. A friend of my husband’s parents, on learning that I write fantasy, quite literally laughed in my face.

But for me, genre is a pigeon. It allows me to take flight. I wrote my first book in South Sudan, and my second in Egypt. I worked pretty much in isolation, showing my work to only one person—my husband Keith, fortunately an excellent reader. I’d never taken a writing workshop—just two college courses, one in fiction and one in poetry. I didn’t even know enough to follow writers on the internet—well, in South Sudan I didn’t have internet, but even in Egypt, where I did, I just didn’t know what you’re supposed to do. Only later did I learn what you probably know already—that there’s a thing called Clarion, that people often publish short stories before novels, so other people will have heard of them, and so on. I overwrote horribly and would spend years trimming to find the stories buried in my mess, but the point here is not that my writing process sucks, it’s that I loved it. I was flying.

I started the Olondria project in 1998. By 2004, I had very ugly drafts of two novels. I decided to start seeking a literary agent.

Dear Ms. Samatar: We read your material with great interest and enjoyed your vivid sensory details and clear writing style. However, I am sorry to say we must pass on representing this particular project. Your work seems to fall somewhere between fantasy and literary fiction, and we have trouble seeing how to market it in today’s competitive book publishing industry.

Dear Ms. Samatar: Thank you for the opportunity to read your manuscript. Unfortunately, I’m going to pass. I love your writing, but your work is not typical commercial fantasy, and while that makes it attractive in some ways, it also makes it a marketing challenge that my agency is not prepared to take on.

Dear Ms. Samatar: It is with an incredibly heavy heart that I am writing this. I adore A Stranger in Olondria. When I first started reading it I thought it could cross over into mainstream audiences. Your writing is beyond beautiful but at the end of the day the fantastical places just kept me from envisioning how to sell it. I wish you would just write some historical fiction! With your flare for incredible narrative language, it would be an instant bestseller.

I have a lot more letters like that but I won’t bore you. Let’s say goodbye to 2004. And 2005, and 6, and 7, and 8, and 9 for good measure. Those were some depressing years. The good news is, I revised my work a lot—I had decided I would never send the same manuscript out twice, so after each rejection I’d read the entire book over again, trimming, tweaking, tightening, rewriting. And I wound up with a pretty good novel. I wish I could tell you that I eventually found the right agent for that novel, but I never did. What I did do was come here, walk up to the Small Beer table, buy some books—which is crucial, always buy a book!—and say, “So. I’ve written this novel…”

What does all this say about the potential for writers to really explore the possibilities of genre fiction, to push genre, to get it off the ground? Well, it suggests that the odds against succeeding with this kind of project are pretty high. So why do it then? Why not simply follow the rules, if, like most of us in this room, you’re lucky enough to know them? Well for me, the reasons for taking the risk are the same as the reasons for writing in the first place: truth and pleasure.

Yes, truth. Fantasy expresses truths that often can’t be told through realist narratives—truths of emotion and perception that fall outside the rational, truths at the level of dream. As artists we need to tell our stories truly in all their variety. When genre becomes rigid, we lose this possibility. It becomes impossible to find publishers for work that challenges genre boundaries, for work that looks in any way different, and that includes work with protagonists of color, queer protagonists, disabled protagonists. Now it may sound like I’m talking about two very different things right now, and in a sense I am—one is an issue of form, right, the need to be able to tell fantastical stories that don’t follow genre fiction’s rules, and the other is an issue of content, of what kind of characters are represented in the fiction, whose story is being told. But form and content are always related and so are these two issues. The formal issue, the problem of that genre rigidity that demands stories follow a certain form, is a diversity issue, it is a race issue, it is a feminist issue. Right, because although it’s great to see diverse characters on fantasy and science fiction book covers, and we need that, it’s not enough if the story inside the covers follows the same old pattern. And in fantasy, to speak of my own subgenre of epic fantasy, the pattern requires war, it requires conflict, it requires accepting that violence is the only way to solve that conflict, it requires a single hero who rises above his fellows, and I say his advisedly, to crush his enemies—hey, that’s not a story that works for some of us. Some of us are not interested in that story, and I put it to you that the reason we’re not interested is that that pattern grows out of and supports a system that is hostile to us.

It’s worth the risk, I think, of spending years trying to get published, the risk of being a “small author,” to tell your truth. It’s worth it to make genre stretch its wings. We need pigeons, not pigeonholes; we need forms that are flexible and malleable enough to express the truth of our differences. The great genre-busting writer Carole Maso asks, and this is a long quote but it’s deep, so stay with me: “If writing is language and language is desire and longing and suffering, and it is capable of great passion and also great nuances of passion—the passion of the mind, the passion of the body—and if syntax reflects states of desire, is hope, is love, is sadness, is fury, and if the motions of sentences and paragraphs and chapters are this as well, if the motion of line is about desire and longing and want; then why when we write, when we make shapes on paper, why then does it so often look like the traditional, straight models, why does our longing look for example like John Updike’s longing?”

In fantasy and science fiction we might ask—why does our longing so often look like Isaac Asimov’s longing? This is the genre of possibility! After all, many people are drawn to the worlds of fantasy and science fiction because they feel like outsiders, they feel like they don’t belong in this world. The tropes of fantasy and science fiction can be powerful vehicles for expressing the sense of dislocation experienced by those who are physically and psychologically on the outside. I myself am drawn to these genres partly due to the experience of growing up between cultures that everything around me insisted could not exist together: half of my family are Somali and Muslim and the other half are Swiss-German Mennonites from North Dakota. What does that make me? It might mean I’m from the future, it might mean I’m a citizen of an alternate universe, but either way it complicates my relationship to this world. It makes me long for ways of being I don’t see in the world around me, and that’s not John Updike’s longing, it’s not Isaac Asimov’s longing, it’s particular and I believe worthy of expression.

Longing brings me to desire, it brings me to pleasure. Pleasure, I said earlier, is, along with truth, the reason for taking the risks involved in making genre fly. I’m talking about writing. I’m talking about the free play of the imagination, about being in the zone. Writing is magic. Writing, I’ve always thought, is basically a more intense form of reading, which is to say, a slightly less intense form of flying. That experience is worth any risk. It’s worth confronting our fears of rejection, of being perceived as “too confusing” or “too literary” or “too feminist” or “too black.” It’s worth confronting our own socialization toward genre patterns of individual heroism and triumphalist violence that may not express our real longings. It’s worth trying to find out what those longings are, and that’s a risk too, it can be terrifying. “How can you hesitate?” demands the great writer Katherine Mansfield. “Risk! Risk anything!”

Thank you.

James Tiptree, Jr.

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