Janet Chui (marrael) wrote,
Janet Chui
marrael

Late thoughts on MammothFAIL and looking in from afar

I know I'm late, but it wasn't that I wasn't paying attention. It's just that I couldn't see it as just a storm in the SF/F teacup, and I found that hard to talk about, then to post in public. A lot of people had a piece to say about MammothFAIL as SF/F fans. My piece about MammothFAIL is as a non-Caucasian non-American who sees MammothFAIL as a symptom of something larger and about more than race. To me it is also about media domination and ethnocentrism.


I think MammothFAIL is, alas, another reflection of (white) America's at-times blinkered view of the world: that America is a white Christian nation, that darker people are just inferior, that the wider world doesn't exist or is generally lacking and lagging in everything. Let's be honest: These viewpoints are apparent in American news coverage of the world and in its politics. So can I say it? I think most Americans are missing out on the richness of media and storytelling (and not just mythology) that exists outside its borders; it really isn't just Hollywood, Bollywood, the BBC, and Anime (apologies to the Otaku), or just literature from these corresponding countries either.

Patricia Wrede was one of my instructors during the 2002 Clarion science fiction and fantasy writing workshop. She was the perfect introduction to the 6-week camp, easygoing, sociable, friendly, even motherly. I couldn't find a thing to criticize about her after her week, and honestly, I'm still struggling now. I don't think I'd have picked up the book that started MammothFail anyway--but I'm incredulous that no editors, proofreaders or sounding boards for the book at any point thought there was a problem in wiping the Native Americans out of history. I confess the first thought I had was: Were those who had been involved with the book all white people? Did none of them know any Native Americans, or Native American descendants? (Hell, I know a few--and they're fantasy fans to boot. Heck I know them BECAUSE of that.)

MammothFail has made me realize I'm lucky I know the people I do, even if very lazily. (I'm bad at phone and email.) But they're all of different backgrounds, countries, ages, colours, passions, professions, skills, beliefs and so on. Yeah, the Internet makes it easy to expand one's circles and horizons. But it's also doable without the Internet. When I was in my teens (pre-Internet), I had over a dozen penpals (same age group) from all five inhabited continents, and from both first and third-world countries. We kept the "snail mail" correspondence up for years, even when not all of us were good in English.

Growing up Chinese in multiracial Singapore (not in China) where the Chinese make up over 70% of the population, my friendships and experiences could have been restricted to the safe cocoon of the Singaporean Chinese middle class majority, but that was not the example of my parents. My Peranakan Chinese mum in particular was armed with enough languages to converse happily with our neighbours of every race and income bracet, and she did. I toddled along on her shopping trips, and still remember some of these mixed adult conversations from when I was four. My mum's sisters were equally open and well-traveled from their jobs with Singapore Airlines. So through books and firsthand stories, my little world became HUGE. It extended to our galaxy and beyond, because my father was also a science-fiction and astronomy fan, and so I dreamed of deep space and alien landscapes more than I dreamed of being a princess.

Books from everywhere and on anything--fantasy and history, fairy tales, mysteries, ghost stories, travel, mythology and science... I read all these and more. I loved the Mayans and the Egyptians, I also liked stories of the Monkey King, and Asian folk tales, and Maori folk tales... stories about how children in other countries lived, it went on and on. Books started me out on the long journey to know more, not just from books, but also firsthand from other places and people. (I'm so grateful now to my parents and for growing up in Singapore, with our cultural mix and great libraries, because what I was exposed to as a child was just amazing. I think I have taken it for granted.)

My knowledge of the world continues to have huge holes in it, but maybe describing my background of exposure will help explain my incredulity at Lois McMaster Bujold thinking non-white SF/F fans did not exist pre-Internet. It's tough watching anyone make that mistake. (Has she never received fan mail from a POC? Or asked her publisher where her books have been distributed? I can tell her now her books have been in Singapore since I can remember.)

I can't even fathom the logic of that view; SF/F existed pre-Internet and outside of Western writers. And the Clarion SF/F workshop has had non-white and non-American participants in it. (Like Me.) Coloured people, foreign people have been present at American SF/F conventions, at booksignings as well, and yes, we're also all over the Internet, in forums dedicated to our favourite SF/F books, movies and the genre.

(So, yes, countries with brown and yellow people can also have electricity, trains, books, and computers. English is frequently spoken and understood. I know this is obvious to everyone reading this by now, but I've lived and traveled enough in the US to have run into many Americans who seemed genuinely shocked by this.)

I really shouldn't be surprised by such gaping holes of knowledge anymore. I know there is an imbalance of media in our world, that more of it flows out of the West (or just America) than it does in the other direction. I compare the books and music available during my childhood with the books and music of Jason's childhood and I think I got the better deal. The books I read growing up came from the US, from Britain, India, Malaysia, China and locally. (I won't even start on music/TV/movies we got in Singapore...we got programming from all over Asia, everything except porn.) The books were populated with people of all colours and continents (many of them fellow victims of British imperialism, you could say). Sure, White Man was superior in most of the books I was consuming, but it wasn't true in everything either. And even as I child, I figured out that the dark-skinned people in the books written by the British were being viewed through colonialist eyes.

I wonder now: Has the mostly one-way flow of traditional media out of America been so widespread so long that some (half? most?) Americans never ever realize it? America doesn't lack for entertainment and literature; It has so much of it, that one could easily spend a whole life in fantasy worlds provided by purely American (and white) creators. And for some strange reason, that escapism would seem capable of extending itself into real life and the Internet, and rendering people of colour (with their fantasy stories and real stories) invisible.

Can this silliness end now, then? Countries whose populations are not primarily white have histories of storytelling, literature (some of it even imaginative), and, they also have readers who read books from elsewhere. For me, MammothFAIL has been intriguing to watch if only because POC and POOC--People Of Other Countries--are stepping forth and identifying themselves as such. I'm getting transported back to my childhood, the good memories where I could feel my world expanding and expanding. It's happening now again as I'm still going through the people posting in this thread, signing in from everywhere with their stories.

So, hello America. The world is just awesome. (Yeah, the Discovery channel gets around.) The best thing is, it's open for exploration.
Tags: culture, fantasy, mammothfail, media, race, science-fiction
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