Content and Form: Writing SFF in non-Western Modes

LONCON3_logoAmal El-Mohtar M—edit Goblin Fruit, journal of poetry
Aliette de Bodard—France, mother from Vietnam, destroy sff on regular basis
Rochita Loenen-Ruiz—writer from Philippines, breaking status code
JY Yang– editor of short fiction, write short forms
Nick Wood—Zambia born, South African naturalized

First question, what do you think of as distinctly Western forms and structures?

JF Yang—wondering what forms talking about
In terms of storytelling, idea of 3-4 act structure, must have a protagonist.

Nick—emphasis tends to be on individual
individualistically based mode
character development, not community or variety of stories and characters

Amal—Pacific Rim He wanted the Yaegers. Important to see them operated by teams. Every part of film is about directing team.

Wesley Grimm has a double beginning.

Questions: 3 act structure and indiv thrust—do these have something to do with each other?

JF Yang—would not say 3 act structure and individualistic style of storytelling … Can have a 3-act structure, without focusing on single character. Wonder if stories that get told in Western culture are all individualistic? Historical/cultural bias.

Nick—with compression of time in history, Western tradition focus on nuclear identity and lone identity…

Questions: In your own riding have you ever come up against Western forms as obstacle? Has it informed markets?

Rochita—sff way established, white male narrative
how to undermine the trope? change the center of the storytelling
Have somewhere else be the center.

??Will just changing the locale change the story fundamentally?
Rochita—Think in some way, yes. Change content. Mindset of story. Writing of separate language.
Need to change way look at story.

Aliette—talking about difficulties of placing writing
how to get across a lot of world building in as few worlds as possible
otherwise it is very medieval tropes, Westernized genre
dealing with Vietnamese culture, more important to be scholar than knight
knights had horrible reputation. They were the flunk outs of scholarship.
Have to describe, otherwise readers’ culture will assume primary place.

Amal—mother sacrificing herself might be described by white feminism may be read very differently, not understanding what is at stake

Nick–African lit is more community focused.
Grew up with fairy tales about communities. When moved to South Africa, that went away. Stories from South Africa had no black stories. Stories have started to flow through since apartheid.

Hillborough—surviving in former white suburb of Johannesburg
Kgebtly Moele –The Book of the Dead—first narrator is suffering from AIDS, second narrator is an AIDS virus

examples from own writing or elsewhere, felt you needed to change structure of story. Are you ever explicitly challenging Western norms? Moments where after the fact, you realize something else was challenging to the readers?

tribal literature, grew up in mountains, storytelling told through trance, single person and a chorus—who respond/develop…
more you go back into indigenous writing/work, you come to work that is different
Working now on experimental work that draws narrative (narrative from native language), very different from how I write in English. Someone said I distance in the English-language story.
in indigenous language my work is closer.

Questions: Speaking/reading in more than one language. What you read will reflect what you write?

JF Yang—national library has Read Singapore every year. Translate it into Mandarin Chinese. Took “xx Menagerie”… I was reading the translated version. Written in simple language. But in Chinese, very dense, poetic. In Chinese, simple translation, it read like someone’s grade school composition.

Sometimes there are some things that translate well, but often not.

English style is not the same as Chinese.

Aliette—had same experience. Translated my work from English into French. Odd. For translating Vietnamese poetry, most untranslatable thing, tones in Vietnamese writing impossible to show. Language has set nuance.

Amal—in Arabic there is a pronoun for 2 people, one for 2 women and one for 2 men. Plural = 3+

You are native French speaker, but you only write in English. Do you write in French?
Aliette—Whenever I try to write in French, I hear my HS teachers reprimanding.
Would have to re-learn to write.
Very weird thing about my novel translated into French. Been speaking too much in English. I don’t have the snap instinct anymore. Translating is a different job. So very bravely did not do my own translation.

Nick—Very rusty Afrikaans, a little of 2 other languages.

??Have you ever read stories in a different story?
struggling with Afrikaans.looking for an English link. Sometimes the Afrikaans word is unique. A overlap and nuances that are hard to pin down.

Another question:
Do you think possible for Westerners to write non-Western SFF well?

Friend … editors said “couldn’t connect to the story” She finds that shocking.

Rochita—Western writer would need to decolonize. Those who come from history of empire need to throw off colonial mindset.
Problem with pushback against stories that are completely different, have someone who is subtle-y Western. Non-Western readers would say that they could identify with it.

Necessity as well for everyone to decolonize.

Don’t see non-Western modes as shiny, new.

Amal—less appropriative, more ordering of mind

Aliette—very similar, not sure what I could add
You have to … What I have seen I authors who think they have read their research… But they will still perpetuate the clichéd Asian…
That is annoying.

Of course the writers feel like they have done your job.

Have to see from within the culture, because otherwise won’t recognize what should be different.

Just slipping cultural tags in, you aren’t structuring non-Western…
Western paradigm is dominant.
People who exist within that paradigm are rarely challenged. If you look at it as a paradigm,

Amal–Think of people as aggregations of stories. WE are talking about changing our own internal structures.

Nick—leave them to the imagination. Bring up fact that I was part of empire. When writing, used white characters for fear of stereotyping, etc.
Looking at it seriously. This is a partake mentality… Black characters need to be in the study too.
Have readers who help me with the cultural aspect.

Amal—give me examples of moments where you felt yourself needing to challenge in your won work

Rochita—shift when I decided to present myself as Philippine sf author
what is truly my own?
Looing for own voice outside the Western story-telling
Constantly trying to push and find
How far can you push the genre?
Seen sf as genre of possibilities.
Constantly trying to find border.
Stories think succeeded most are ones which did not get published.

JF Yang—Singapore, colonialism left 50 years ago
grew up thinking I couldn’t write about Singapore because not cool enough
partially language comes into this, English different
took me quite a while, in my 20s, late 20s, I run into issues of language. Writing in proper English. Then when I write dialogue that is Singaporian…
Doesn’t exactly fit with the prose.
Ongoing problem for me.
Want to try at some point—stabbed at it—trying to write stories in Singlish. But I don’t know if there is one with non- standard narrative structure and in Singlish.

Aliette—space fairy internet culture
can’t igure out how to edit
one character chased by soldier court, space station will be cut off by Emperor—This is not working.
My brain realized that I was working with Western story endings. I want my two main characters to discuss and decide to go with flow.
Took me about a year to get that ending written.

Nick—parts and monkeys story
hard to pin together
corrective rape in South Africa
issue was around trying to think of story that manages theme and plot arc

read stories from Zambian stories, “Heart of a Monkey” is a cross-African variation… Monkey been tricked to lose his heart. “I actually let my heart at home. Left it in the trees.” Tricks them into taking him home.
Had narrator narrate as a frame story
Would like to develop the same structure
resonance of old stories in a postapocalyptic future

oral traditions and how they interact…
Storytelling oral = community
reader to page is individual
Mode of communication changes the content of the stories.
Does this effect your writing?

Rochita—been thinking about htat
one thing interesting is how to combine Western and Eastern sound
Eastern are also bound to certain story telling traditions
told a Philippino tale. Tried to replicate experience of chorus telling story…
Already so much of a mindset, makes harder for folks to read. Reviewers said “oral tradition” and hard to connect in my stories.
Mine things connected to self and heritage.

You inhabit your story as a writer.
When can make use of tradition, you are putting your own skin into the story.

tradition of praise singing, call and response, oral tradition

Audience Questions

2 questions: JF Yang—how Singlish different? Mostly English. Has elements from Chinese, Malay, dialect of Chinese that was spoken by immigrants. Grammar different.
“Could you not do that?” = “Not any hard to that?”
phrases and words not being used when I was a kid are being use now
not proper English, but is what we speak regularly

For entire panel, modes that dispense with suspence?

Amal–Comics. Are about experiencing.
This One Summer.
Nothing suspenseful there.
Friendship between two girls who meet and grow up going to lake every summer and knowing each other only there.
One narrative. No hooking and suspending you.

Nick—man’s relationship with whale and with woman and the conflict between the woman and the whale
no suspense

JF Yang—entire sort of manga “slice of life”
just looking at. No main conflict.
Some people do have difficulty understanding this story. Different way of telling story.

Got story published. 2 halves of story. First was first person POV. She is connected to a building and has to work for state talking for the building.
Talked about her day. When she went home.
–didn’t understand second half of the story, but second half is a response to first half
Her life is different from how she is being used.

Amal—short story must do something
stories are like a sculpture
still stories
not about moving parts, but having eye following structure of story
nothing happened in your story

Rochita—not everyone able to accept
“Where’s the conflict?”

Amal—notion of crucial conflict is also Western.

To what extent do you consider audience? Like to read, but get disconnected.

JF Yang—Do write specifically for 2 separate markets. I write for Singapore public presses. Also write stories for Western markets. Both written in English.
For local, dive straight into the story. Layer in cultural references.
For Western, treat Singapore as if it were an alien planet. You have to weave the details into an explanation.

Aliette—when I turned in draft, all critiques were lost
1.5x volume to explain cultural references
Let’s think of this as if alien culture.
–example of family relationships. Address with Vietnamese pronouns. Lots of people thought they were related. (big sister = older friend)

Rochita—must be a terribly lazy writer
Never bother to explain anything.
Maybe I am just rebellious. I am writing the story. I didn’t have to understand the story reading Western culture stories.
I am writing this story. My background is mountain Philippino. That’s how I write story. Accept it or not.

novella written with Nigerian
editor said to make sure names are recognizable to Western audience
southeast mountains are commonly name as Dragon’s Mountains in Afrikaans—but original term not recognizable. So used translation of Zulu “barrier of spears”

story must do something, like an automaton—Western (story with moving parts)
Describing difference in Western mind between prose and poetry.
Distinction is true.

Amal–Do any of you write poetry? do the same questions and structure apply within poetry?
“Better World Building through Poetry” panel yesterday
density of attention—switch that takes place

Aliette—wrote a short story about a scholar who is reluctantly at head of revolution
writes poetry about important points of her life
interspersed into 3rd person narrative
The poems had to be culturally relevant to her and had to sound like poetry in English. Had to get very creative.
Interestingly when translated into Chinese, they asked for the “actual Chinese poems” that were the inspiration.

Nick—struggle with poetry

JF Yang—don’t write poetry
terrified of literature
told not good enough to write literature
poetry is literary
Reading your (Amal’s) poetry makes me want to right.

Rochita—my first successful story came from an experimental form of poetry
love poetry
not always successful at writing it

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