I supported a Kickstarter project recently called “People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction!” which was created by the good people at Lightspeed Magazine (the same folks who published the Women Destroy…! and Queers Destroy…! series). I have a story in submission for this project, but even if I don’t get published here, I think it’s awesome for a magazine with a huge readership to spotlight writers like myself who identify as “people of color.” I think it’s a very exciting time to be a fan of genre fiction. There are so many emerging writers with different cultural and ethnic backgrounds who are contributing to and reshaping the definitions of science fiction and fantasy. More unique voices means more unique stories. And that’s a good thing.
As part of the Kickstarter campaign, several writers of color were asked to contribute essays, which were uploaded every few days in the updates section. One of those writers, S.L. Huang, wrote an essay that struck a personal chord with me. In this piece, she responds to the results of a research article: “Asian-American writers were the only subgroup of POC [People of Color] surveyed who more frequently write stories outside their own ethnicities than in them.” This is an alarming trend. I looked over the original article (written by Zetta Elliot) that Huang cites, and while the data is from a survey of writers in YA and Kid Lit, I think it may be applicable to Asian-Americans who write in other genres, too.
Because I’m one of them. Like Huang, I had to examine my own writing to see if the trend applies to me, too. And sadly it does. Looking over the stories I’ve written in the past four years (most of them unpublished), only two feature characters of Filipino descent. I’ve written other stories featuring characters who are Japanese, Chinese, Latino, and even Gabonese, but these are small pieces of the larger picture. All of my other stories featured characters who are white or of European descent. Why is that?
Huang’s own personal analysis revealed a childhood of assimilation, her father wanting the family to be as “American” as possible. Culture and heritage were oftentimes sacrificed for the pursuit of success and the American Dream. But was that the case for me, too?
No, my childhood experience was different. I grew up bilingual, speaking both English and Ilonggo. I went to grade school with several other Filipino kids. I recounted my grandmother’s stories of the motherland with pride, even to my white and Latino friends. I owned several pairs of “tsinelas,” the Filipino equivalent of “flip-flops.” Our family gatherings at Thanksgiving included the traditional turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. But right next to those tasty items, we also had rice, pancit, lumpia, dinuguan, puto (for my Spanish-speaking friends, this is a rice cake and not what you’re thinking), mongo, and ibus. My family embraced American culture without forsaking our own Filipino roots.
So what happened? Why has it taken me so long to incorporate my Filipino culture into my own writing? I think part of the answer lies in my childhood expectations of what “fantasy” was supposed to be. As a kid, I read a lot of books in the genre. Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonriders of Pern” series, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books, “A Wrinkle in Time,” “The Phantom Tollbooth,” “The Lord of the Rings” (though I never finished it), and more. I was so used to reading fantasies written by white, often British authors, that I grew up expecting all fantasy to be based off of European cultures. If I wrote a fantasy story about Filipino knights battling dragons, it wouldn’t seem right. Those stories wouldn’t fit the mold, and I wouldn’t be able to get them published.
Everything changed after I got into Stonecoast. Working with mentor David Anthony Durham during my first semester, I came to the realization that fantasy had been changing. I was so busy trying to write stories that fit into my little box labeled “fantasy” that I became blind to the real problem: the box, my perception of what “fantasy” should be, was too small and totally outdated. The reading list for my semester was eye-opening: African-based fantasies by N.K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor, South American fantasy by Aliette de Bodard, Saladin Ahmed’s short story collection heavily inspired by the Middle East, epic Chinese fantasy by Guy Gavriel Kay, and more. Even when the semester ended, I continued to read short stories by Ken Liu, Nalo Hopkinson, and Filipino speculative fiction writer, Dean Francis Alfar. My perceptions of “fantasy” shifted monumentally. It was like seeing the sunshine after a passing storm.
The rules of fantasy have evolved. I’m no longer afraid of rocking the boat or breaking the mold. I may still have other lingering fears (being Filipino-American, can I truly represent the Filipino experience?), but those are slowly slipping away as I continue to explore my heritage and my culture. Will I keep writing characters who are white or of other ethnic backgrounds? Of course. I need to be able to slip into other people’s shoes as a writer. But I guarantee that some of those shoes in the near future will be tsinelas instead.
Title Quote: “Yes, I will be a writer and make all of you live again in my words.” – from America is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan