Behind the Curtains of World SF&F
Over the last year and a half I’ve been talking to creators in the SF&F world from all over the world for a podcast called Geekdom Empowers.
In trying to highlight creators who are usually not highlighted in the media, I came across vastly different individuals. Each had his/her/their own story and went down their own path. But there were a lot of similarities for authors from across the world.
I’d like to share some of the patterns I’ve been able to spot. There is, after all, a lot of food for thought here.
A Western Invention
Speaking with Chinese and African SF&F creators (author Gu Shi comes to mind), one thing keeps popping up again and again. It’s the thought that science fiction is a Western thing. That science fiction, as it’s perceived by the Western world, is a Western invention. It’s not that it doesn’t exist in the East or Africa. It’s that it’s perceived differently and that the stories are different. In some places it’s even perceived as part of regular storytelling. In some places, science fiction, fantasy, and folklore blend into each other.
European creators said the same thing but phrased it differently. It’s not that science fiction is a Western thing, rather that it’s an American/British thing.
When speaking about this to an audience at ICon2022 in Tel Aviv, a teenager in the audience couldn’t grapple with the idea that science fiction could be different from what he knew. I tried to explain how SF can change according to the lore of a specific people. But I was unsuccessful. In the end, I sent him to read a few books.
I think the same journey the teenager will now go on is a journey we should all take. Discovering the world’s cultures while the world’s cultures discover how to be unique and not be local copies of American SF are both endless voyages of exploration.
Can We Have Local Superheroes?
I interviewed Jarrel De Matas from the Caribbean Science Fiction Network, in which he highlights only SF&F creators from the Caribbean. He talked about how in one book about superheroes, the characters ask themselves whether there could actually be superheroes from the Caribbean.
Of course, why wouldn’t there be, right? But that attitude is prevalent everywhere that is outside the US, UK, Australia and Canada. This process takes place in every country separately. I’ve seen it begin in Israel more than 20 years ago. Can we have local heroes or are we just copying what the Americans are doing with local names? Is it ridiculous when we do it? Will people accept it? If the story is truly local, will it ever be translatable?
The Publishers’ Easy Solution
Let’s talk about the mainstream SF&F publishers.
Publishers and readers in smaller countries know that someone did the job for them. Someone went through a huge slush pile of a country with more than 300 million people, took out the best of the best (supposedly), and of those only the bestsellers will be translated by publishers in smaller countries.
That mentality, which has great financial justification, means that even a great local SF&F author can’t compete because they didn’t go through the huge slush pile and because they haven’t proven themselves as a writer of bestsellers on that scale. And so they are discarded by both publishers and the readers.
How Small Publishers Make a Big Difference
Now let’s talk about small publishers.
I talked to editor and publisher Elana Lozano from Crononauta, a small publisher in Spain, which only publishes female and non-binary SF&F authors. She described her belief in how big changes can’t come from the big publishers. Big changes have to come from small and brave publishers. One reader at a time the small publishers change opinions, break new ground, publish books and stories that the big publishers can’t take a risk on. And very soon, the lines have moved and what had previously been unacceptable is now taken for granted.
The Economic Barrier
I spoke to Nigerian author Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki before he was a Nebula Award winner and multiple Hugo Award finalist. He talked about the economic barrier around Nigeria. How big companies refuse to transfer money to Nigeria, how banks try to talk magazines out of paying authors in Nigeria because they believe the country is full of scams.
He talked about how without e-mail it was previously impossible for Nigerian authors to be published in the big SF&F magazines because the regular snail mail simply didn’t work in Nigeria.
After the interview, he self-published his Africa Risen anthology on Amazon, and Amazon refused to pay him after books were sold.
It is easy to think that we live in one big global village now. That opportunity is equal around the world as long as you have the Internet. But that simply is not true. Not yet. Economic barriers from centuries ago still exist today.
We Don’t Have to Translate into English
When speaking to Italian author and publisher Francesco Verso, I learned about his journey of hunting down world SF authors across the world who have never been translated outside their own countries. There are gems that easily disappear into history.
He finds as many as he can and then publishes them, translated into Italian and Chinese.
He says that books don’t have to be translated into English to be known. And he is right.
The Success Stories
There are also many stories of success that weren’t possible even ten years ago, as the US and UK are slowly opening up to more international stories.
A lot of the authors I interviewed are getting published regularly in US magazines. More and more of them are winning prizes. Pakistani author Usman T. Malik won the British Fantasy Award and the Bram Stoker Award right out of the gate. He tells the story of how it was up to him and a handful of others to create an SF&F community in Pakistan.
The founders of Kugali began as a podcast that wanted to cover Pan African SF&F creators of all kinds and ended up building a Pan African comics and animation company that now signed a deal with Disney.
The internet helped skyrocket the career of artist and writer Juni Ba when he first published his art online. In the first half hour his art began to be hailed around the world.
And there are so many stories as well.
It’s a long journey and many aspects of it are invisible to most people. As each country goes through the discovery of its authors’ unique voices, the creators and publishers there often believe that they are the first and only to go through it.
The truth is that this process of self-discovery is happening across the world in hundreds of different communities, and its stages are almost always the same.
Guy Hasson, January 2023
Guy Hasson is an Israeli author and filmmaker. Six of his books have been published, including Secret Thoughts. He is currently working on the Lost in Dreams universe, which follows a girl who is lost in dreams from birth to death. The first book in the series, The Forgotten Girl, comes out September 2022. The podcast (English) follows her life in the Dream between the events of the books is coming out with daily episodes and is already towards the end of its second season. It is called The Squashbuckler Diaries Podcast. In his other podcast Geekdom Empowers Guy interviews geek fans and creators who are often not highlighted.