Thursday, 26 September 2013

Inclusive HIstory and SFF + a New Series Idea

I have a BA in Medieval Studies.  That 3 year degree taught me a lot about several hundred years of European history.  But over the past year or so I've started to realize just how little I know about history, even a period of history I studied in some depth.

I'm also discovering how biased my studies were, through some fault of my own, but also due to how history is taught and the heavily western centred system we have.

For example, I recently read a book about how regular Egyptians lived in ancient times.  One of the things that came out in the book was that the word 'Pharaoh' is Greek.  When you think about it, it makes sense that we don't use an Egyptian word, since ancient Egyptian wasn't understood until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone (rediscovered in 1799), by which point historians had already appropriated language from the only primary sources they could find, primarily that of the Greeks.  But why am I only discovering this now?  Why haven't some of the native words replaced the Greek words?  Why did I discover that ancient Egypt was called Kemet (or, as Wikipedia corrects it: kem.t) from the history book I'm currently reading?  (Here I'll acknowledge that while it's possible I was taught this at some point, the fact that it's not in common use - the book on ancient Egypt didn't mention it once, for example - is surprising.)

I've been following Medieval POC (people of colour) on tumbler, and the author's made me question so many things I thought I knew.  Easy things, that once you think about them for 2 minutes are so clear.  Like the fact that the Roman army, which conquered parts of Africa, would have had black soldiers.  Then consider that Rome also conquered most of England.  What's the likelihood that no black soldiers made up the conquering army?  How did I get through university believing England was a land of white people?  And that ignores trade, travel and other factors that mixed societies and races.

Look at a map, Africa and the Middle East are right there.  Right across the sea from Europe.  They're so close it's ridiculous to believe they had no contact or intermixing.  I've also discovered that Asian invaded and occupied Eastern Europe for decades.  More to research, more to learn!

So I'm trying to learn more about history - accurate, inclusive history.  Going outside the Eurocentric education I got.  I'm questioning the things I've never thought to question before about the past. 

The more I learn about history, the more I want multicultural fantasy and science fiction.  I've been keeping my eyes out for translations and different points of view.  It's why I read and reviewed The World of the End so quickly.  Science fiction translated from Yiddish?  Yes, please!

Of course, that doesn't make every story of interest.  Sofia Samatar's A Stranger in Olondria had a nice cover, so I put it on display at the store, but the synopsis doesn't interest me at this time (I'm still burned out on fantasy, and have been pushing myself to read the fantastic Throne of the Crescent Moon.  I'm almost done and should have a review up soon).  I've been focusing more on science fiction lately, but maybe when I'm more interested in fantasy again I'll pick this one up.

Whenever things like race fail and diversity in SFF come up the question is always, "What can I do about it?  I'm just one person after all."  What we forget is that change starts with us.  With each individual that makes up the whole.  If we educate ourselves, if we share stories with more diverse characters and storylines, if we are the change we want to see in the world, then over time the world will change.  We educate the generation coming behind us.  Do we want them to have the same issues with SFF that we have?  Do we want them to have the same lack of diversity when it comes to race, sexuality, etc.?  

A few months ago I started asking publishing professionals, predominantly authors, for book recommendations for a column on SF Signal.  The first people on my list were ones I know / have had contact with in the past.  Now that the series is going, I'm hoping to branch out more, to find authors who are lesser known.  Authors largely neglected by the SFF community.  (Is it just me or do N.K. Jemisin and Octavia Butler seem to be the only women of colour (WOC) most people know?  They're great writers and deserve to be on those lists, but there are quite a number of other WOC writing SFF who never seem to get mentioned.)

One of the things I do at the store is note down books by people from different backgrounds.  These notes help with recommending books and doing my displays (which become reading lists on my blog).  I've developed a decent list of POC SFF authors.  A few minutes spent googling them - and reading some of their blog posts - has increased those lists.  The internet is such an amazing tool and so woefully underused.  One of my new goals has become to actively look for novels by people different from me - even ones I'm not sure I'll like, for whatever reason, and review them.  Publishers won't publish books they don't think there's a market for, so let's give these books a market!

I'll be starting a new series called Reading Unbound, where I go over some of these authors on my blog.  I'd love to hear author suggestions and what information you'd like to get out of the series.

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