The Americans have done it again. The conservative wing has rigged the Hugo Awards, turning it into a list of ideological screeds, petty revenge stories, and comedic gay erotica. The progressive wing will no doubt punch back, like they did last year, and vote in ‘No Award’ for the particularly egregious categories. They’ll cheer. Hurrah. No-one wins an award.
(click on PDF icon, above right, if you prefer back script on white)
And the vitriol will continue. Angry, accusatory blogs on either side will saturate the debate with venom. No-one wins in the American culture wars.
The rest of the world, in particular.
As Jonathan McCalmont argued in Interzone: “…foreigners are always going to fare badly when American genre culture decides to tear itself apart in the name of progress and inclusivity.”
But let’s rewind a little. When I first started writing a few years back I heard there was this controversy in the genre. That diversity was being blocked, or rolled back, by a conservative praetorian guard of writers. My first thought was to man the barricades: to fight with those fighting for this thing they said was diversity, a concept I’ve always correlated with equity.
I worked in international aid for fifteen years. In that time, friends and colleagues of mine have been shot at, beaten, kidnapped, murdered, blown up, car-jacked, abused, and imprisoned. These horrific things were done to them because they tried to build a school for girls, or they ran a women’s empowerment program, or simply because they had the temerity to stand with the poor against a corrupt and violent social order.
So, you see, social justice, equity, are things I have a passing concern with.
The problem, I soon discovered, is that this debate is not about equity, and sure as hell isn’t about diversity. Rather, it is an inside-the-bubble conversation between two groups of American writers, each attempting to claim victim status. Worse, the boundaries of the discussion almost completely exclude non-Americans, and even within the US context there was little mention of disability, and none of class.
This particular tributary of the American culture wars is little more than tiny elite – the middle and upper-middle class of the most powerful country in the world – debating and defining diversity in the genre as a whole. It boils down to insiders arguing how to make awards more representative of 45% of the population (the middle and upper class) in a country accounting for 4% of the global population (the US).
The World’s Awards
Americans have been nominated for, and won, the Hugo for best novel over 80 per cent of the time since the awards began. That number has not changed. It is never going to change. ‘Hugos are the World awards’ it proclaims on the Hugo website. Sure. Rather like the World Series is the world’s baseball series.
When Americans talk about diversity, they’re not talking about the world. They are talking about a diverse range of US writers.
Example one: I saw numerous people complimenting the diversity of this year’s Nebula Awards. While is true that the winners are an extraordinary bunch, it’s also true that the nominees for best novel were all American, the winners in every category were American (except Mad Max – but the magnificence of that film can overcome any barrier).
The Nebula awards are saying the best stories written, world-wide, in 2015 were all from the US. I disagree (while the Nebulas are for stories published in the US, clearly works by authors from all over the world are eligible).
Example two: Several US magazines publish annual research data, the object of which is to provide a survey on diversity in the field. A laudable exercise in awareness-raising. The problem is, in every case except one, these surveys do not include non-American authors as a metric.
Example three: the much-admired Destroys series by Lightspeed (which, I should add, I support, purchase and recommend to others) has had between 80 – 90 per cent US writers on every table of contents. I know, I checked. The one exception I could find was the essays section of People of Colour Destroy Science Fiction, which made a notable attempt to include non-US views.
Of all the aspects of diversity this series could focus on, the one they ain’t ever going to do is The Rest of the World Destroys Science Fiction (I doubt Working Class Destroys will get a guernsey, either).
On the rare occasions those from the rest of the world are included in the debate, it is in terms outlined by a very particular, hyper-educated, privileged use of language; and in terms universalized to the American context. The rest of the world is conceptualised as an American minority.
As Sri Lankan writer Vajra Chandrasekera has argued:
“It’s a bit disorienting for me to suddenly become a “person of colour” overnight just by wandering into the sf/f scene…
I dislike the overextension of “POC” outside America because it’s so explicitly an American term. I suppose its prevalence in the online sf/f community is a direct result of the sf/f field being so completely American-centric for so long…Using it to describe all the billions of non-white peoples of the world, on the other hand, is…just plain old regular essentialism, nothing but a pure statement of American cultural hegemony: by using it this way, you are literally saying that all the multiplicity of histories and differences in the vast majority of the world population are all subsumed collectively into an honorary American minority for, what I don’t know, convenience.”
A friend of mine, Jeremy Szal, a non-white non-American writer, was harangued publicly and at length online by a prominent, wealthy, award-winning white US ‘progressive’. She lectured Jeremy because he refused (as Chandra does) to conceive of his identity in American terms, or with American terminology. Jeremy’s anger at this incident led him to write this essay in People of Colour Destroy Science Fiction.
Now, all of this should come as no great surprise.
As a matter of course, hegemonic powers seek to project their values and institutions on to subordinate nations. This is often deliberate – through international economic or political institutions, but in the area of culture is often a corollary of that immense power rather than a deliberate plan. This is true in the small microcosm of genre fiction.
As Bourdieu argued, spokespersons for political groups instinctually: “…base universal value on themselves, appropriate values, requisition morality, and thus monopolise the notions of God, Truth, Wisdom, People, Message, Freedom etc. They make them synonyms. What of? Of themselves.”
He was discussing larger, more powerful political groupings, but the concept remains true of the main agitators on either side of the diversity debate.
Such is the hegemony of American thought they genuinely appear not aware that diversity might include the rest of the world. Worse still, many of us in the rest of the world have started to take sides in this debate. Adopting their language as we have adopted sides. Fooled into thinking we are participants, when any objective analysis shows we are merely bystanders.
What is to be Done?
Well, it wouldn’t hurt if we rest-of-the-worlders encouraged each other to vote for the rest-of-the-world. We’re all guilty of conforming to that hegemonic gaze, imagining diversity as applying to within-America choices only. We should be voting for nominees from our own countries, plus those regions that have never furnished a winner.
Because shouldn’t we be searching for new and unfamiliar ways of thinking? Isn’t science fiction meant to expand the mind? Hell, I always thought it was.
God I’d like to see a winner from Zimbabwe or Singapore or Australia or Brazil or Spain or South Africa (all countries, by the way, that have never won best novel at the Hugos) that otherwise would never have been heard over the White noise.
It wouldn’t hurt to do this, but the problem is it ain’t going to help much, either. It changes nothing, really, about the power relations in the field. Americans will still take up all the shelf space in the book stores, their opinions still broadcast worldwide.
No matter how conscious we are of hegemony, Americans will continue to take home 80% or more of the awards. The SFWA will still be called the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. WorldCon will remain a forum devoted to US domestic politics, and those writers at the margins will stay there.
So a more practical idea would be a ‘Best Foreign Novel’ category, much like ‘foreign film’ at the Oscars. Like the Oscars, it will still be possible for a foreign book to win the main prize, but like the Oscars, because the entire infrastructure of the industry is so massively biased against foreign works, this will be exceedingly rare.
Yes, the problem remains that Americans in the main will be the ones deciding which foreign work is considered and which isn’t. Yes, those novels will be understood primarily through a US prism of understanding. Yes, it’s insulting to get relegated to a peripheral category. But still. At least the rest of the world will have that small moment to shine, be read, be discussed. At least our token inclusion becomes a rather larger, if still tokenistic, inclusion.
Maybe the best diversity can hope for: a mandated tokenistic inclusion.