Stone Telling Roundtable: Diversity
by Julia Rios
Stone Telling is committed to publishing a diverse array of poetic voices. Indeed, the contributors to this inaugural issue come from many different backgrounds. What do we mean when we talk about diversity in speculative poetry, though? And how can we encourage it to flourish? Athena Andreadis, Lisa Bradley, Deborah Brannon, Peer Dudda, Amal El-Mohtar, Samantha Henderson, Emily Jiang, and Shweta Narayan joined me for a round table discussion in which they shared some of their thoughts.
Julia Rios: Athena, You grew up with the Akritiká (the songs of the Byzantine border guards), and you explain in the very beginning of your article that this makes certain tropes that appear dramatic and surprising to many Westerners familiar and unsurprising to you. Do you think that modern Western readers and writers tend to fall back on what is familiar to them at the expense of exploring other rich territories, and if so, how can we encourage them to step outside their comfort zone? Can you point any curious readers to good examples of your culture in modern speculative poetry or fiction?
Athena Andreadis: I do think that Western writers and readers fall back into well-worn, familiar tropes and mindsets, which is why we have so many Tolkien clones (to give one obvious example in fantasy). It's easy to recommend that both editors and writers get bolder -- which, incidentally, is not the advice you get in workshops. But such boldness presupposes a knowledge of mythology, history and literature across genres. Being multilingual/multicultural also helps, because it allows you to see (and build upon) common patterns and the friction between cultures. Many Greek authors write outstanding speculative fiction, prose and poetry, but almost none have not been translated into English -- and of these, few have been lucky in the quality of their translations.
I discussed this more extensively in my Readercon talk. Here's a brief version of it: Escaping Self-Imposed Monochromatic Cages.
Shweta Narayan: I wonder if (some) ways in which other cultures are presented in Anglophone speculative fiction and poetry can be seen in terms of historical cultural appropriation. It seems to me that a lot of "Greek-themed spec fic (written by non-Greek people) derives more from Neo-Classical Western European notions of Classical Greece than from Greece itself. Similarly a lot of Indian-themed spec fic by non-Indian writers reads to me more like early 20th century English views of India than like India itself. In the Western world we are taught certain persistent (colonial!) mythologies about what certain cultures are like; these are deconstructed in other genres, but still seem to get a lot of airplay in spec fic.
Which says to me that perhaps, if we're going to write about cultures other than our own, we first have to figure out the things we know that aren't true, and then figure out the things we don't know and need to research?
Of course, for that to work, one needs a readership that is willing to give less comfortable and known narratives a chance; and there's always going to be a limit to how far readers can be pulled out of their comfort zones. So given that it's the writer's job not to lose the reader, as soon as we venture out of familiar territory our job becomes one of translation, and not simply presentation. So it's a tricky problem, even with cultures one is familiar with.
AA: I very much agree with Shweta that writing as an outsider becomes more than presentation: each of us is an individual, and as such we have unique interpretations of everything, including our own history and culture. However, to Western contemporary readers, those of us who aren't Anglo-Saxon become both more and less than we are, because we end up representing our culture. This Procrustean bed can become lethal to a writer's originality and spirit.
We have to break the mould of our own culture while retaining what is crucial for each of us, and then transmute it into something unique while keeping the vital roots intact.
JR: Shweta, one of your stories ("Eyes of Carven Emerald" in Clockwork Phoenix 3) actually takes on the historical figure Westerners know as Alexander the Great. What sort of research did you do, and what steps did you take to avoid cultural appropriation while writing that story?
SN: Let's start by saying that I was risking cultural appropriation on both levels -- the inner story and the outer one. There's Alexandros' story, which doesn't "belong" to me in any meaningful sense, and there's also "Clever Anaeet", which is an Armenian folk tale. And I don't think I entirely managed to avoid appropriation; I do the best I can and try to do better each time, but that doesn't mean I get it right. So let me turn that question around and talk about how I didn't necessarily succeed.
I grew up with the folk tale, and didn't even know it was Armenian when I was little; it's part of my narrative world at a deep level, and as a child I interpreted it as a story from the north of India. I think this is why I felt comfortable taking pretty major liberties with it to make it part of my story world. But I can't say whether that was an okay move or not; at some level my childhood interpretation of the story as an Indian one was appropriative, and I don't have the right cultural context to judge it now.
Alexandros I knew pretty much nothing about when I started thinking the story out. I knew he got as far as the Indus, he was brilliant, and he died young. I wanted to reinterpret him from an Indian point of view as "the threat from the west" rather than the more Eurocentric "great conquering hero", but that's about all I had to start with. Fortunately for me, his history is pretty well-documented. I did a lot of reading and stared at a map of his route till I was dreaming about it. I spent hours talking with my friend Michael Ellsworth, who likes geeking about Alexandros, and who helpfully figured out language-and-period-specific proper names for me.
Facts aside, I tried to get his perspective right -- his world-view, his motivations, his emotional reality. It's a fiction, of course, built out of other people's views of him. I'd recently internet-met Athena at the time, and since she mentions an interest in Alexandros on her website, I asked her to beta-read my first draft (she helped me realize that his yearning wasn't on the page at all) and reworked it based on her suggestions.
But I also grabbed hard at the part of him that resonates most strongly with me -- the cultural outsider who strains relations with Greek men by taking on Persian mannerisms (I also gave him a (somewhat unlikely) relationship with his general Kleitos because the narrative needed it). And there's potential appropriation there, because I emphasized aspects of him that worked for me, and skewed his character accordingly.
Overall, though, I'm more concerned about having possibly misrepresented another culture's folk tale than about having possibly misrepresented Alexander the Great. I really don't think I can do much harm to Alexandros, given how much has been written about him already and how powerful a figure he is -- but there's some chance my version of "Clever Anaeet" might be mistaken for canon, so I worry about that.
JR: Thanks, Shweta! This next one is for Peer. Like many of the contributors to this issue of Stone Telling, you have both a strong and distinct voice, and a familiarity with a second language. How much does your experience with signing shape the way you think about and write in English? Do you ever encounter resistance to the way you write from members of either the Hearing or the Deaf/Hard of Hearing communities?
Peer Dudda: I'm sure that familiarity with other languages has shaped how I think about and write in English, although I'm rarely conscious of it. I can say that being a polyglot has taught me a lot about the flexibility of English grammar and how different arrangements of words can convey shades of meaning. In terms of "Train Go Sorry", I did make an explicit effort to keep the English text as close to ASL as I reasonably could. This means that most lines of the poem have similar word order in both languages, which (I hope) increases accessibility for Deaf readers. "Train Go Sorry" grew out of my childhood experiences of being neither "hearing enough" to really pass as Hearing, nor "deaf enough" to fit in with Deaf culture (because I was raised Oral - without access to signed languages). I anticipate some strong reactions from both groups, because the experience of hard-of-hearing people (children in particular) is so heavily marginalized and erased, caught between Hearing people who want cochlear implants to make children "Hearing" and Deaf people who are struggling to preserve their language & culture and to advance their own civil rights. There's a lot more I could say on the topic, but "Train Go Sorry" is one thin thread in that larger discussion.
JR: Are there any resources you would recommend for people who are interested in exploring that topic more?
PD: I'm not aware of many resources that focus primarily on Hard-of-Hearing people - I'm busy living it, so I rarely feel a need to look for information on the topic. However, there are some starting points available:
Sound and Fury, a documentary about two siblings with Deaf children who both explore cochlear implants as one of a suite of options. Good overview of the general debate about CIs, but it tends to have a Hearing-centric point of view and doesn't really do a good job of explaining either point of view to the other group. It also doesn't discuss how being HoH (which is what CI users are) is different from being either Deaf or Hearing.
Eyes of Desire: A Deaf Gay and Lesbian Reader, edited by Raymond Luczak. I've only read the first volume, but it does a good job of exploring the intersection of being deaf and GLBT*, with a couple pieces by HoH people. I highly recommend the essay "The Zebra" as something that really rings true for me (the essay focuses mostly on being HoH rather than being GLBT*).
There are also LiveJournal (and probably DreamWidth) communities for the hard-of-hearing, and the Hearing Loss Association of America has a wide range of resources available, though these are targeted towards the HoH themselves.
More generally, there are reams of information about deafness and Deaf culture available both on the internet and in libraries. It takes a bit of work to sort out the HoH-specific stuff, but it does exist.
JR: Emily, you're also straddling two worlds. You say in your poem that you are Asian when convenient and girly when inconvenient. What gives you solace and strength in your quest to be yourself instead of what it seems the world wants you to be?
Emily Jiang: The idealist in me wants to believe that people's identities are primarily core, that what you see is what you get no matter what the environment. The pragmatist in me, however, has observed the vast behavioral differences of the same people in different environments. Ultimately, I believe many people feel torn between satisfying their own personal desires and conforming to the expectations of their societies, and there are different ways of resolving these conflicts. Personally, I try to reach a balance in cultivating a warm, supportive environment to nurture my creativity and spending time in solitude and introspection.
I am also interested in the challenge of writing poetry and fiction that is both speculative and multicultural. My training stems from a more mainstream literary approach to the creation of story, and while I was in grad school, I often argued that writing good speculative fiction was often more difficult than writing good realistic fiction because the gap between what the world of the reader and the world of the speculative story is so much wider. Yet the length of speculative and realistic fiction are often the same. Thus, the writer of speculative story has the same amount of words that need to work much, much harder to convince the reader to believe in the speculative world.
In some ways, the multicultural writer also has this challenge to win readers, so if you add the multicultural component to the speculative setting, we have in essence a two-pronged challenge for the literate-primarily-in-English-only readers - to feel grounded in a speculative world that is also multicultural. I think the same can be translated to speculative poetry.
But after writing all this, I realize that I haven't directly answered your question. So here's my response to "What brings you solace and strength?"
Laughing with my friends and hearing the echoes reverberate in a restaurant, in a living room, in rehearsal, in a dance hall. Playing the piano and feeling my fingers transform from wood to wings. Dancing with someone I know so well I can predict his every move. Singing an aria in the shower and hitting every high note. Re-reading a favorite book and knowing I am not alone. Giving a real hug, not those fake polite hugs that pretend more intimacy than a handshake. Talking at, yes at, a best friend for hours and that friend talking right back at me. A thank you, unexpected, from my mom. A smile, so rare, from my dad. A word of compassion from anyone. All it takes is one word. Or three. Tasting the steam rising from a cup of fresh tea--Earl Grey for mornings when I need to be up, Jasmine Green for afternoons when I need to calm down, and Masala Chai for those days when my soul feels battered and all I want to do is sit and hermit, reducing my world down to the size of a teacup.
JR: Lisa, in your article about Gabriela Mistral, you note that she uses speculative elements to highlight real life emotional trauma. There's been some debate within the speculative poetry community about what makes for good poems. Some poets seem to prefer humorous or scientific concept poems, while others feel poetry is empty without the heart of emotional exploration. Do you think there is an ideal balance between those things, and would modern poets do well to follow Mistral's lead?
Lisa Bradley: Mistral felt obligated to bring to light the experiences of marginalized, powerless people. Their stories were not the honored, accepted stories, and she sought to remedy that. I think she'd advocate for the validity of all art forms. We need poems for everyone, for every stage in their lives, for every emotion and experience.
I definitely prefer an emotional core to the poems I read again and again, but I don't see the value of discounting any poet's chosen style or subject. That said, I think if poets choose to steer away from emotional content, they should understand they're automatically reducing their potential readership. Not everyone has the same sense of humor; not everyone chooses to read about science or fantasy worlds; but enough readers have felt happiness, sadness, triumph, regret, fear, anger, and relief that if the poet builds upon an emotional core, s/he can rest assured there's something for the general reader to respond to.
JR: Samantha, your poem features a same sex couple, which is somewhat rare in the genre, as are poems which express non-traditional gender and relationship models. What led you to venture into that territory, and why do you suppose speculative poets have not explored these topics in more depth?
Samantha Henderson: I haven’t observed (and I might be wrong) that speculative poets fail to observe non-traditional relationship models more than mainstream poets, or mainstream fiction writers for that matter. If they do, it’s possibly because speculative poems often aren’t so much concerned with talking about a relationship so much as an sf-nal or fantasy (or horror or what you will) situation -- in Suzette Hayden Elgin’s words, “a reality that is in some way different from the existing reality;” or colloquially, “the shiny.” Speculative poetry based on fantastic themes does explore relationships more than sf-nal poetry, in my opinion; such poems are often from our mythic or folkloric heritage, which do tend to feature traditional sexual roles (but are especially interesting when they fragment them).
I didn’t write “The Gabriel Hound” with the intention of portraying a same-sex couple so much as with the desire to reverse the trope of the outsider/other denying its nature, Little Mermaid-like, in order to be with a human, and thus being destroyed. Kir’s love for the hound and the hound’s for Kir is of mutual intensity, respective to their species, and since the hound in more rooted in the Fae world than Kir in the human world, it’s impossible for her to do as Kir requests, to take the “shape of a woman,” without being destroyed. Kir therefore quite consciously chooses to join the hunt as a hound, knowing she is doomed, in order to be with her, because of the intensity of her love (which might or might not be sexual).
JR: Deborah, in your review of The 2010 Rhysling Anthology, you mention concerns about the lack of diverse voices in speculative poetry. You hold up Goblin Fruit as an example of a venue which encourages diversity, but I'm wondering what both you and Amal might like to see more of, and how you both think the speculative poetry community might cultivate more variety in general.
Amal El-Mohtar: I'm honoured that Deborah holds Goblin Fruit up as an example of a venue that encourages diversity: it means we're getting something right!
I think one way of encouraging diversity is to be less proscriptive about what constitutes genre. To say, for instance, that science fiction has to have robots, space ships, black holes, and intra-dimensional travel in order to be recognisable as science fiction is somewhat akin to saying fantasy has to have (European) castles and (European) dragons and (European) magic.
I submit that a little excavation is in order: what is it about those things in Western culture that grants them appeal? If instead of focusing on narrow definitions and rigid labels we sought to understand what makes those markers significant and effective, we'd open up a lot of doors -- and by "we," I mean editors even more than readers. I think that in stating Goblin Fruit's mandate to be publishing "the fantastical" as opposed to simply fantasy, we state that we want elements that divert from a mainstream reality -- which has also come to mean, for us, diversion from stock tropes. The poems we choose for Goblin Fruit are ones that showcase voices we would not normally hear or know to listen for, voices tucked between roots and waves, voices out of air and darkness, voices out of stone. This is why we re-tell fairy tales, after all, and write fanfic, and sing new flesh onto old ballad bones: to say, I know this story, but you don't yet know my part in it. Let me tell you how it was, or how it could have been.
To see Stone Telling do precisely this -- enter the field desiring something new, something that hasn't been quite desired before -- is profoundly exciting to me, and a flying leap in a good direction.
As to what I'd like to see more of? I just want to keep being surprised -- which to me always means less of the same, not more of it.
Deborah Brannon: As Amal mentioned in her reply, I would suggest that it is right now especially incumbent upon editors to advertise for and seek out different perspectives and voices of experience, even (and especially!) if they must read venues where this is already successfully done (like Goblin Fruit) and solicit submissions from poets found in their wider readings. This effort on the part of editors would hopefully yield a multi-fold effect: to widen the field of evidence that there is very much a place for these diverse voices in the speculative field, thus encouraging other editors to do the same, and to show those voices themselves that there is a place for them to sing out loudly everywhere. I would hope that this would result in the growth of variety.
I am delighted with Amal's testimony regarding what she looks for to publish in Goblin Fruit, and further delighted by Rose's inception and production of Stone Telling. I'd also like to hold up Erzebet Yellowboy's Demeter's Spicebox over at Cabinet des Fées (there's a tab above the main news box for Demeter's Spicebox) as a potentially excellent example of nurturing diversity, where she's hoping to build a storytelling quilt of fiction and poetry through different cultural interpretations of specific fairy tales by invited writers.
JR: See this entry in Erzebet Yellowboy's journal for more about her interest in nurturing diversity.
Thanks to everyone for an excellent conversation!