Monday, July 8, 2013

INTERVIEW: Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard is a hot name in SF/F right now, and for good reason. The author of the Aztec-set Obsidian and Blood trilogy (Angry Robot Books), de Bodard has written a series of critically-acclaimed short stories and novellas set in the alternate-history Xuya universe, premised on China discovering the Western Hemisphere before the Spanish and Portuguese. Her story "Immersion" (Clarkesworld: 69) recently won the Nebula and Locus Awards for Best Short Story and has been nominated for nearly all major awards this year. In addition to being an accomplished writer and all-around nice person, de Bodard is also an outspoken ad eloquent critic racial and other inequalities in mainstream SF/F. The G "sits down" with de Bodard to talk about her writing, the state of SF/F and other issues.

NoaF: Thank you for “sitting down” with us! Let me start by asking a bit about your beginnings as a writer. How did you get your start, and what was it specifically that attracted you to science fiction and fantasy? Which writers or styles would you credit as the critical influences on your own writing?

I'm a relative latecomer to SFF, actually! I'd read a few books in genre when I was younger, mainly those classified as children's books in France (which included Asimov, McKillip, Andre Norton and Le Guin), but I was a voracious reader and I wasn't necessarily aware of genre (I read thrillers, historicals, general fiction and about anything that didn't look like horror). I discovered SFF as a genre when my family moved to London when I was a teenager, and I realised that a lot of the books I loved were on the same shelves of the public library. I started writing after picking up a how-to write book by Orson Scott Card on the library shelves, and realising that there were still living writers (French literature courses have the unfortunate side effect of giving you the impression most authors worth reading are dead).

I really like SF and fantasy because of the freedom afforded by the genre--there's so many opportunities for exploring different societies and different characters, and I think that's what drew me to writing SFF.
The writers that have influenced me most, in genre, are Le Guin and Gemmell; out of genre, Dorothy Dunnett, Elizabeth George; and of course all the Chinese/Vietnamese myths and fairytales I read as a child (but it's a long list and it's continually changing!).

NoaF: Your 2012 story “Immersion” has been very well received since its publication—being voted fan favorite by Clarkesworld readers and garnering Hugo and BSFA nominations for best short story, as well as winning the Nebula and Locus Awards in that category. And as far as I’m concerned, it was hands down the best short story to come out of the genre magazines in 2012. Can you speak a little to this story and what it means to you? The critical and fan reaction as well.

I wrote "Immersion" because I was angry.

It was for a variety of reasons. The strongest one, by far, was the unpleasant sensation that not only did I (and billions other people) did not follow the dominant (Western) culture; but that said dominant culture was utterly unaware that there was even such a notion as cultural differences, or that the massive exports of movies, TV series and other cultural products was killing said differences underfoot--just as surely as the colonisers' schools and "civilising" mission had erased language and culture in colonised countries.

Having just spent two weeks in Vietnam connecting with the maternal side of the family, and having heard numerous stories of life from before the independence, it was something that was very much on my mind; and the dangers of this were what I tried to bring to the fore with "Immersion" and the idea of immersers--seductive but oh-so-dangerous in the long run.I didn't expect the critical and fan reaction, to be honest--the sheer volume of it took me a little by surprise, but it was a lovely feeling to get fan letters and to see the story talked about so much on forums and in SFF circles.

NoaF: The story takes place in the context of the broader Xuya universe, which is premised on an alternate historical timeline in which China “discovered” the Americas before Columbus. Where did the idea for this device come from, and what are some of the things it helps you do, in terms of storytelling, that go beyond standard SF futurism?

The Xuya universe started as a sandbox experiment to have several non-Western cultures interact with each other: I picked Chinese and Aztec because I was a little familiar with them (China and Vietnam have lots of similar cultural anchors, and I had already started writing stories set in Aztec historical times at that point). I think the great interest of an alternate history for me is that it's an easy de-centering: I don't have to justify the lack of Western dominance in my stories because there's never been any, and I'm free to write stories in which the main cultures in space are Asian without making any apologies or excuses for that. In many ways, it's a writerly prop for me: I could easily justify Asian dominance another way, but now that the universe is established I no longer have that niggling little voice at the back of my mind that protests that my futures aren't realistic. 

I have never really been very good at "standard" SF futurism, in the sense of presenting suitable extrapolations of the future: I think it's really hard to make sensible predictions of the future past the 30-50 years mark (and even then, that is hard!), partly because science progresses in leaps and bounds that are by definition not predictable (ask anyone in the 19th Century, and they probably would have been unable to predict quantum mechanics or general relativity), partly because the scope of what humans can do in any circumstances is so vast that it renders any predictions all but impossible; and partly because any fiction produced in, say, the Western 21st Century will be rooted in the characteristics of that time period (it's not a bad thing. Just unavoidable--might as well try to get rid of the air you're breathing). I'd rather focus on imagining stories that are possible futures and use them to open readers' minds to different mindsets and different worlds, rather than on getting plausibility right at the expense of everything else. But that's just me; I'm aware other writers do extrapolation without any of my qualms!

NoaF: Moving on to more general topics, what are the biggest challenges you have found in the process of writing and getting published? And what have you taken away from working through these challenges?

For me, the first challenge was learning to handle exposition--I have a tendency to create very rich and complex worlds, and it's very hard to get across the basics of what the reader needs to understand the plot without boring them. It's the main issue I struggled with when I was writing my first short stories (and my first, trunked novels). I also had huge trouble getting my wordcount under control: writing short doesn't come naturally to me, partly because of my worldbuilding and partly because I'm not a naturally concise person. My first stories were flirting with the 10K limit, and for the longest time I couldn't manage anything under 8k with any amount of regularity: it took me some time to understand that I couldn't have rich worldbuilding, complex plots and more than a handful of characters and still have a *short* story on my hands...

I had a big anxiety about getting published, because I write in what is a second language for me, and I couldn't see many people with that kind of background being published in the field; but it turned out I was freaking out for nothing on that score!

NoaF: We’ve had some interesting conversations on twitter about social identity in SF/F. Would you say that your personal background and social identity—working as a scientist, being an ethnic French and Vietnamese woman, having been raised (primarily) outside the Anglosphere, etc.—informs the way you write or subjects you write about, if at all? In what ways?
Er, yes, I guess? I can't really see how it would be otherwise--everyone's personal background, history and social identity influences the way they write; it's hard to entirely get away from who we are! I don't mean this as cultural existentialism (I don't see that being, say, Franco-Vietnamese means that you necessarily end up writing certain kinds of stories), but to some lesser or greater degree the style you use, the subjects you're drawn to, the protagonists you pick, etc., are all influenced by your writerly subconscious, which in turn is influenced by everything that you do. 

It's hard for me to point to specific ways that this influences my writing, because it's a hard thing to untangle from the mass of things that make up my subconscious; but I know that I place a high focus on families and non-violence as a way to solve problems; and this partly comes from growing up in an environment in which family was paramount, and in which violence was always a last resort. I'm also drawn to limninal characters, the ones who straddle the boundaries, because that was a feeling I often got as a child. And of course a slightly unfortunate tendency to have detailed food porn in my fiction because that's also very important to me (both to the French and to the Vietnamese culture).

NoaF: Outsiders often think of SF/F as something “straight white male nerds” do. While that’s always been a problematic stereotype, I think it’s fair to say that the genre has privileged certain voices over others. Yet it seems to me as if the attendant privileges and assumptions of exclusivity involved in that are being unpacked and problematized at an unprecedented rate. In practical terms, more and more publishers and readers appear to be seeking out fiction that reflects something other than the straight white male gaze. And in short fiction especially, that’s where a lot of the real exciting stuff is coming from—when I compiled a list of my favorite recent short stories a few months ago, I was struck by the fact that there was only one white male author on the list. This wasn’t by design—these just happened to be the best stories I’d read. Does that mean there’s a paradigm shift of sorts going on? If so, why? Or maybe not “why,” as the obvious answer to that is “because these writers are good and their stories are interesting,” but rather—why now and not, say, 10, 20 or 30 years ago? What’s changed or changing? What still needs to be done?

I'm cautiously optimistic about what's happening in the genre: we're certainly seeing a slow shift to more visibility for authors of colour (who have started appearing on awards lists), after seeing a slow shift to more visibility for women. It's however, not a huge shift: there are still huge problems for women/POCs working in the field (two or three recent debacles illustrated that point all too clearly), a worrying tendency of a large amount of people to dismiss "girly writing" as either YA or "not real SF" ("not real SF" has been a favourite normative tool for about as long as I can remember); and huge visibility issues for non-Western, non-Anglophone writers in spite of the efforts of places such as The World SF Blog and Europa SF. I have high hopes that things will get better, but I think it's going to take a lot of time and a lot of work...

NoaF: You’ve written about the poor representation of mixed-race/multicultural individuals in science fiction and fantasy, and specifically, on the tendency of authors to exocitize mixed-race characters, and to position them as somehow inevitably “torn between two worlds” in inevitably problematic ways. Could you speak a little to that topic? What would you like to see change in how SF/F authors portray mixed race/multicultural characters?

I complained about this topic on my blog, but the gist of it is that mixed-race characters in SFF are either entirely absent (as if people from different races/countries) never thought of marrying, or, if they are present, do a surprisingly good impression of the Tragic Mulatto, doomed to angst and suicide simply by virtue of their blood.

One book I read had a character pick a lobotomy rather than continuing to be suspended between two worlds, which made me want to throw it against the wall until it broke; and plenty of other books fling around terms like "mongrel" and "half-breed" without realising how freaking offensive there are. I really wish more SFF authors thought about the meaning of words that they used; and thought about the implications of what they're saying about mixed-race characters. But this goes for ethnic minorities as well; reaching for the cliché self is unfortunately very easy, and I know I've done it several times. It takes work to avoid perpetuating the dominant narratives of your culture.

NoaF: Another hot-button issue in SF/F is where or how to draw the line between a sophisticated exploration of a culture you weren’t born into/raised in and icky cultural appropriation. I’m one of those people who wants writers to draw on more than just “their own stuff,” in part because of boredom with the endless parade of “alt-Britain” fantasy and “America in Space” science fiction, but also because of my own, complicated personal background. Unfortunately, I also find a lot of attempts—particularly by Western authors—to be horribly appropriative. As far as I’m concerned, you’re one of the people who got it right, with your Aztec-based Obsidian and Blood trilogy. How did you approach writing about another culture/history? What were the challenges and how did you attempt to overcome them?

At the time I wrote Obsidian and Blood, I deliberately set out to tell the stories of the Aztecs as a civilisation in their own right--not Barbarians, not doomed savages--which is why I picked a time long before the Conquest as a setting for the books. I tried to do the best research that I could by consulting a variety of sources that were as close to primary as possible (ie not the Spanish or Western-filtered accounts that were written during or after the Conquest), though those written sources are hard to find, and above all I tried to keep in mind that this was a civilisation with a mindset that was very different from our 21st-Century one and that I shouldn't try superimposing my cultural mores on them.
In retrospect, this is very much a harder exercise than I envisioned--as I said, it's really hard to leave behind your own culture, which informs everything you write, and I'm pretty sure I committed a number of mistakes in writing my plot and characters. 

I'm not saying I wouldn't do that kind of exercise again, but if I did I'm not entirely sure I would pick the Aztecs again: they're a really marginalised culture, and there are so few books about them that I get the uncomfortable feeling that people will take their impression of what the civilisation was like from mine; and that I'm basically drowning out the voice of their descendants in case they want to write such books. I have less qualms, for instance, in writing about Ancient China and China (partly because China is closer to my cultural baseline due to several centuries of Chinese colonisation in Vietnam), and partly because there are many books written by Chinese and hyphenated Chinese, and I don't feel like I'm taking the privilege of speaking for them, if it makes sense?

NoaF: Now that we’ve neatly segued back to your work, what can your fans look forward to in the next could years: more short fiction or a return to writing novels? Say, how about a space operatic trilogy set in the Xuya universe? Not that I’ve thought about this topic already or anything…

(Laughs.) I have thought of writing a space opera book set in the Xuya universe, but I don't feel mature enough on that yet! At the moment I'm focusing on a urban fantasy novel set in a post-apocalyptic Paris with fallen angels and Vietnamese dragons, but due to pregnancy fatigue the entire thing is going far more slowly than I thought it would... I'm also working on a number of shorts for anthologies, at least one of which is set in the Xuya universe.

NoaF: For the last question, I’d like to give you a chance to plug your favorite authors. Who should nerds of a feather readers have on their radar?

I'm going to focus on people that might not necessarily on the radar already: Zen Cho's fiction is always poised halfway between poignant and hilarious, and it's easy to see why she's on the ballot for the Campbell Award for Best New Writer this year. Rochita Loenen-Ruiz writes beautiful stories in complex, lived-in worlds inspired by her Filipino heritage. Benjanun Sriduangkaew has been everywhere this year, and doesn't need my help to plug her stories--but her use of the language is searing, and she's great at examining our assumptions about gender and culture in rich and complex societies.