Heritage and ‘genre literacy’

A while back there was an old man yelling at clouds to the tune of ‘If you haven’t read this arbitrary set of dead white men who was publishing fifty to two hundred years ago then your writing is worth nothing because you haven’t read your forebears and you’ll just be retreading them, and that makes you a bad writer‘.

I tweeted, snarkily, ‘Nah, anything published before 2000 was stylistically embarrassing and out of touch.’ A different white old man, offended, tweeted that I was destroying heritage. (Heritage of… what? Heritage relevant and important to… whom? Why assume it’s relevant or important to me? Is this seriously someone’s cultural identity? Anyway, I just set all the books published before 2000 on fire with the power of my mind. You’re welcome! Except the ones I like, those can stay.)

The point really isn’t these two specific old white men, or the specific younger white people – on a different occasion – claiming that you should read SFF you don’t care for so you can stay… ‘genre-literate’. Not my word! You are also not allowed to think that which you don’t care for is terrible, by the way. It won awards. It sold lots of copies. Thus Dan Brown’s literary value has been proven unassailable, and also that of EL James.

If you tell any of these people that they have to  read The Ramayana in Sanskrit, or every set of Man Booker and SEA Write winners/nominees from the last ten years, or a good chunk of the western literary canon – if you tell them that, without reading these, you would dismiss them as bad and illiterate writers, they would flip out and never stop.

Let’s quote Vajra (bolding mine).

A big part of postcolonial outsider syndrome is, I think, the shear between mediated and real-world relationships. When so much of US/UK SF culture is based around IRL activity, and when those of us on the outside of it can only interact with the online parts, these very different senses of “community” grind painfully against each other. There’s a wobble, an instability in this relationship that is only exacerbated every time that this grinding churns out the kind of wilful solipsisms that insist that there is no outside; or that the outside is all the same; or that the outside doesn’t matter except insofar as it will conform to and mirror the inside; or that the outsider must acculturate, must assimilate. And by that I don’t mean that being asked to feel like an outsider makes me doubt myself as a writer: rather, it makes me doubt the credibility of the systems and institutions that operate to evoke and enforce that feeling. It’s a reminder of the illegitimacy of the urge to assimilate.

So I didn’t go to Clarion, but I also don’t want to go to Clarion, or to conventions, or to participate in either lit culture or nerd culture. It’s entirely possible that I might never actually meet any of the people in US/UK SF that I know online, and I’m okay with that. Partly for the same reasons that I don’t generally go to similar things in Colombo either (i.e., mostly that I don’t like going to things), but also because I’ve been very lucky. I’m a second-generation writer, born to the trade—I was editing copy in two languages for my father’s novels before I reached my teens, and I learned how to set type in a composing stick for old-school letterpress printing before I learned to type on a typewriter. A fluke, the whole thing, just a total Paralichthys dentatus. Which is why I don’t mean any of this to come across as complaining about being on the outside of things. The opposite is true: I’m painfully aware of just how lucky I am. But not everybody in my position is going to be lucky enough to make this tradeoff. Most other new writers from South Asia aren’t going to have this kind of background or the advantage of the confidence it brings. That’s why it’s important to look closely at the systems in place and point out as many ways to deal with them as we can.

One of those ways, obviously, is what J is talking about. Break on through to the other side. Join in. Do the thing. Another way is mine: be unreasonably lucky and stay mostly in your head.

What I’d actually like to see more of in the world, though, what I think would be best, is a third way, which is that those of us on its outside should abandon the Dyson sphere: not just the metaphor, I mean, but the politics and the affect that it evokes. Perhaps it’s possible to disengage a little more from the imperial hub and its ultimately parochial preoccupations. The purpose of imperial hubs in culture is also distraction. Instead, perhaps we could help create a new mangrove SF, a mongrel SF with many roots, a rhizome to live in. Look at Omenana as an example, or Truancy, or Juggernaut’s SF department under Indra Das. There is an English-language SF, in short fiction no less, fully contemporary, aimed at an international readership, whose roots are firmly in what used be the outside. This is important. This is good, for everyone.

Not to belabor the obvious, but: when you claim ‘genre literacy’ (getting real close to ‘fake geek girl’, isn’t it) and you really only mean – and think – of yourself, and when ‘you’ happens to be a white American or a white Brit, and what you think of as essential to your heritage and ‘literacy’ also happens to be really white, really American or British… and you seem unable to grasp that there are other traditions, other histories, and other lines of media consumption? Uh-huh. Imagine: some of us didn’t grow up on whatever it is that forms the bulk of your childhood nostalgia. We are not obliged to respect your childhood nostalgia. Some of us try to decolonize our heads. That is a thing. Stop being presumptuous.

So here is something absolutist:

Good writers forge their personal canon aggressively. They draw on a variety of media and a range of multinational influences.

Good writers know what is good, and what is bad, and they are honest to themselves and to their writing.

Good writers don’t read or write by committee.

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