Writing Excuses 11.46: Colonialism with Steven Barnes, Tempest Bradford, Dongwon Song, and Shveta Thakrar
Key Points: Colonialism? Contextualizing conversations about race and culture in history. Manifest destiny. What gets appropriated, how it’s told, and who gets to tell. Justifying taking things from other people. Colonialism is two-directional, first the impact on those who were colonized, but then reflection when those people internalize it. De-colonize, don’t diversify. Colonizing erases culture, but it also creates cultures. Navigating that intersection of cultures is our challenge. Colonialist narratives make colonizers feel better about themselves, and those who are colonized or marginalized feel worse about themselves. The meaning of a communication is the response you get, and repeating an offensive communication is not respect. Repeating a trope again and again, the impact accumulates, and leaves a mark, a wound over time. Doing this is a craft problem — why are you repeating what 10,000 people have done? Do something new, exciting, interesting, and specific instead. There are resources out there. Sit down, talk to someone, and do your research.
[Mary] Season 11, Episode 46.
[Mary] This is Writing Excuses, Colonialism.
[Tempest] 15 minutes long.
[Shveta] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dongwon] And we are that smart.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Tempest] I’m Tempest.
[Shveta] I’m Shveta.
[Dongwon] And I’m Dongwon.
[Steven] And I’m Steve.
[Mary] So, you may notice that we are having a complete lack of Brandon, Dan, and Howard. The reason is you, our listeners, have been asking for an episode on colonialism, and we decided to bring in some experts to actually talk to you about what colonialism is and what the impacts of it are in fiction and kind of strategies and reasons why you should avoid it. So, I’m going to have our panelists introduce themselves since they are new to you. We’re going to start over here with Tempest.
[Tempest] I’m K. Tempest Bradford. I’m a science fiction and fantasy author. I’m also a teacher of Writing the Other classes. And I really love gel pens.
[Shveta] I’m Shveta Thakrar and I am a mythic fantasy writer, mostly young adults. I really like sparkly things.
[Dongwon] I’m Dongwon Song. I’m a literary agent with the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. I represent science fiction and fantasy and YA.
[Steven] I’m Steven Barnes. I’m a science fiction and fantasy, horror, and stuff like that writer.
[Mary] Great. So one of the questions that we get most frequently is, “What is colonialism?” There seems to be a lot of confusion from our listeners about what exactly this word means.
[Dongwon] So it’s a big topic…
[Dongwon] And I think that’s why there’s not a really clear answer. I mean, for me, a lot of what colonialism means is about contextualizing conversations about race and about culture in history, especially recent history, especially one in the context of Western imperialism over the past few hundred years.
[Shveta] I’d add to that, a lot of us who grew up in the States had textbooks that talked about a thing called manifest destiny. That was lauded as something great, but I would actually argue the opposite. Because manifest destiny is basically the idea that a certain group of people are entitled to sally forth and take whatever they want from the rest of the world because they can appreciate it better and it’s their divine right to do so. I feel like that still exists in our society today. It definitely shows up in our literature and what gets appropriated and how it’s told and who gets to tell.
[Steven] It seems to me that colonialism is the… You take that manifest destiny idea, that imperialism idea… That basically human beings in search of resources will expand into other territory. If they have a morality inside themselves, then they will come up with a way to justify the thing that they wanted to do anyway. Okay? Because that’s just the way we are. If a mugger mugs you, he doesn’t say, “And you’re a nice guy.” He calls you a son of a bitch.
[Steven] So if you take things from other people, if you need to do that, you create a mythology that says was justified. They are not as good as us. In fact, we are helping them. It’s the white man’s burden or whatever. But Cro-Magnons did this to Neanderthals. Just ask the Neanderthals. Oh, that’s right, there aren’t any Neanderthals left. We do this as a species. Then we justify it afterwards. Part of the remnant of that is our history, is our mythology, is the saying, “You will speak this language. You will worship this God. We are the standard of beauty and right.” It’s awful.
[Tempest] So then that filters down into the stories that we tell. Because one of the tools of colonialism is a tool that basically goes to the heart of who we are as humans. We love stories, and we love narrative. We really love narrative. Any narrative that is crafted to show, “Oh, it’s so great that these people came in and took over this land. Oh, it’s so great that these people came in and imposed their rules and laws and such, because look how horrible off these people were before. But now it’s so much better.” You can find story after story after story of people who have been colonized who are so much better off because these great people came in and took over.
[Shveta] Yes. We civilized people saved the savages, basically.
[Dongwon] Right. Just to jump in, I think one of the most useful things about colonialism as a concept, when it comes to having a critical conversation, having a conversation about craft and politics, is there’s a two-directional aspect to colonialism. There’s an impact that was inflicted on the people who were colonized. But then there was a process by which that culture was also internalized by those people, and then re-projected out into the world. So it both is something that went to them and is now something coming back from them, right? So what ended up happening is you have a lot of these totally fascinating intersections between these cultures that were created at a point of economic and military conflict, but now have permeated all of our culture and all these different ways. So, Indian literature, Asian literature, Caribbean literature, Latin American literature, all of these things have been irreparably and intrinsically impacted by this. So the more we can contextualize that, the more we can acknowledge how Western influence really changed how these people talk about… How they talk about themselves, how they tell their own stories. That gives us a context for figuring out, “Okay, what are the stories we’re going to tell in the future?” And, “What are the options that are in front of us in the future?”
[Steven] I think it also poisoned the tellers. Those who impose their mythology upon the world. Take a look at what has happened since 9/11. America has gone through a huge number of changes, because we found out we weren’t invulnerable. Okay? At the same time that women were taking their power. Gays were taking their power. Having a black president. In other words, if you grew up as a white heterosexual Christian male, it must feel like the sky is falling. I mean, literally, because for generations, you believed… You might be polite about it, but you were able to believe that you were the center of the universe. I mean, I’m going to be nice enough not to say it to you. I will grant that you are my equal. Don’t you dare think you’re better than me, though. And privately, we all know…
[Steven] So what happens when the colonizer is forced to wake up to the fact that people are just people? Awakening from the Matrix, as it were. It’s painful. We can see that pain and that fear and that anger on certain segments of our political spectrum right now. They’re panicking. It’s like the thing to do is to encourage them to grasp that this has happened before. It’ll happen again. We’re going to get through this.
[Tempest] Right. But then it comes out, that pain and fear that you were talking about, in ways that are really, really not helpful. There was a recent, as to the recording of this podcast, a speech that Lionel Schriver, I think that’s her name, gave the Brisbane Writers Festival that was all about how “Ah. Cultural appropriation. I’m just so tired of people telling me that I can’t write about Mexicans with sombreros. I’m putting on a sombrero right now, and I’m going to talk about… It’s just great because we fiction writers, we just write fiction and we can do anything because it’s all made up.” And other nonsense.
[Mary] Oh, and don’t forget. There are no identities. [Inaudible We don’t have an identity.]
[Tempest] There are no identities. We’re just all the same, so I’m going to wear the sombrero. That, in and of itself, is a problem, because it… The whole discussion of cultural appropriation is so complex. It’s way more complex than that. It also then was the occasion for other people to roll out of the woodwork and be like, “Well, you know. The wearing of a sombrero was a bit much, but she really made some good points.” I’m like, “She made no good points.” Just in case anybody was not aware, there were no good points made in that piece.
[Dongwon] So, to make a fairly complicated point, one of the things… So I don’t really like the term diversity. We spend a lot of time in publishing talking about “We need diverse books. We need more diversity.” The reason I don’t like the term diversity is because it still centers the conversation on the dominant paradigm. So the term that I like is de-colonize, not diversify. So that is why I like having conversations about colonialism, rather than racism, or even cultural appropriation sometimes, because it forces people to understand context and history, right? This debate about diversity isn’t about the color of your skin, because who cares. It’s about culture, context, and history. Colonialism forces you to acknowledge that as a term.
[Steven] Oh, gawd. This, just recently… I was on Facebook. I’ve had… I had a chance to wake up to the fact that most people cannot separate who they are from their culture. That most meditation forms are about observing your thoughts, stepping away so you know you’re not your thoughts, you’re not your emotions, you’re not your experiences. There was one woman who… There is a question that I ask in order to identify racists. It is, given the same history, do you think white people would have done better with slavery and its aftermath than black people have? This one woman says, “Well, I think that white people would have done better because of our culture.” All I could think of was you don’t grasp that culture is your language, your religion, your history, your names. That is exactly what was stripped away. That the inability to separate, to even understand what human beings are at that core level, is underneath so many of the assumptions people make about how we operate in the world.
[Mary] I think that’s a great place for us to pause for our book of the week. Tempest, you were going to pitch that one for us.
[Tempest] Yes. The book of the week is Everfair by Nisi Shawl. That’s new this year. It’s actually a really great book for this conversation. It is a steampunk book set in the Belgian Congo. It has 11 viewpoint characters. Each of the viewpoint characters comes from a very different background. Some of them are people who are indigenous to the area, some of the people are from the group of people who are the colonizers of that area, and all of the reasons we’re still trying to build this big… They built a utopian society, and all the ways that they’re trying to work through like what it means to be in a utopia, and how you deal with the well-meaning people, the well-meaning folks in a group of colonizers who are like, “We’re here to help.” Other people are like, “Well, that’s great, but don’t expect us to be grateful for it, just because you’re here to help. Because you may not even be all that useful in helping.” But there’s so many different things going on. Plus, it’s steampunk! So everybody just loves to read awesome steampunk. It’s a really beautiful, deep and complex book that explores a lot of the things that we’re talking about here from a lot of different perspectives.
[Mary] So, to guide us back in, I want to use an example that I think will resonate for all of the listeners… Most of our listeners are going to be listening from America, Britain, Australia. Remnants of the British Empire. English-speaking. You may think that I’m about to talk about the British Empire, but I’m not. One of the things that we all have, and the reason I’m bringing this up, is an example of how long and pervasive colonialism can be. Why do you think we have Latin on our money? Why is the classic of Greek mythology still taught in schools? It’s because of the Roman Empire. Like, England was a Roman colony at one point. Can anyone talk about original English culture, or has it actually been largely erased by Rome? Now, we don’t have to get deep into that, but the point of that is, that colonization happened sev… Hundreds of years ago, a thousand plus. I… Muh, huh, huh, hah.
[Mary] But the point of that is we still have lingering imprints from that colonization that happened to pretty much everybody in the English-speaking world, and a great deal of other parts of it. So when we’re going back into this and were talking about the damage of colonization, and the… I love what you said, Dongwon, about de-colonializing. Can we talk a little bit about the ways that has a specific impact on the erasure of culture?
[Dongwon] It’s tricky, because it erases culture. I mean, as Steve very saliently pointed out, culture was removed. But culture also was created, right? There’s… One of the things I find very interesting. So I live in Portland, Oregon. There was a restaurant that was launched in Portland Oregon recently that was called, I believe, something like the Saffron Imperial Company. It was an incredibly misguided name, and people got very mad at it. I think now it’s called like the British Overseas Food Company or something like that. It’s still a very bad name, but…
[Dongwon] What was… I loved the concept of it, which was let’s take a look at what kind of food arose in the intersection of these cultures. Their application was highly flawed, and erased the identities of a lot of the people who actually make and eat those foods. You go to a place like Singapore, you get to eat an incredible intersection between Malay food, Indian food, Chinese food, and British food. I had high tea that had jellyfish in it and curries.
[Dongwon] There’s something about that that is very exciting to me. That’s the kind of things that I want to see created in the world. At the same time, that… All of that came from incredibly painful interactions and things that were destructive of existing cultures. So navigating that is our challenge.
[Shveta] I agree. You said earlier, Dongwon, that there’s no going back from what happened. That’s true. But I want to point out an example that I think we are also inured to that we don’t even notice. Look around at what everybody’s wearing. If you go almost anywhere in the world now, you’re going to see people wearing these Western clothes. They’ve actually come to replace a lot of other cultures’ clothing. Which, unfortunately, often gets called costumes. Please don’t do that. It’s… That’s very telling. Or when people come here from other cultures, they often feel the need to take [anglo knees?] to fit in. This is all a way in which we still have colonial thinking is the default. But this is how you get along. If I may, Tempest, I want to bring up a book that in my mind is a good example of how we need to be careful in how we tell others’ stories. Because there is a novel that won the World Fantasy Award, I think, it was back in 1984. The Song of Kali by Dan Simmons. I was… I think I was in my very early 20s when I saw it in a bookstore. I was so excited because I hadn’t seen anything really so far that… I’m Hindu. I hadn’t seen anything in Western literature that really showed me. So I got really excited and I went to read this book. It broke my heart, because Dan Simmons turned my goddess Kali into a bloodthirsty monster and had everybody who worshiped her be just horrible criminals and it was so hurtful. Then to find out that that won an award. Because people didn’t even know any better here. Stories really have such an impact, and we have to be so careful about how we tell them and who gets to tell them. Because we do still have such colonialized thinking that allows people to think this is fine.
[Tempest] Right. Because it… It’s sort of related to the cultural appropriation discussion in that people say, “Well, I should have access to that. I should be able to do that. It’s fiction. It’s whatever.” But the thing that is, I think that colonialism is designed to blind us to, is the fact that colonialist narratives are designed to make the people in the group who are the colonizers feel better about themselves, and the people who are in the group that are being colonized or marginalized feel worse about themselves. There’s a study that Debbie Reese who is a Native American children’s literature advocate. She pointed me to this recently. The study is called Of Warrior Chiefs and Indian Princes: The Psychological Consequences of American Indian Mascots. This study specifically was about showing mascots, like the Redskin’s mascot or there’s like a baseball one as well, where it’s supposed to be an Indian…
[The Atlanta Braves?]
[Tempest] Okay? Showing these images to children who are from a native nation and then showing them to children who are like white Western children. Studying the self-esteem, how the kids felt about themselves before they showed them these images and after they showed them these images. The Native American kids felt worse about themselves after seeing these images. But the white Western children felt better about themselves.
[Steven] What’s really bad is when they say that we’re respecting you. This is a gesture of respect. The meaning of a communication is the response you get.
[Steven] So if you say, “I want to respect you,” and I use a symbol and you say that hurts. The first time, that was my bad. I’m sorry. I don’t do that again, if I care about your feelings. But if I continue to do that, if I do it a second time, I do not respect you. I am telling you “I will do what I want to do, and you will react the way I want you to react or shut up.”
[Mary] Right. I think one of the things that people need to remember is that appropriation and this kind of twisting of cultures was a tool of colonizers in order to suppress and control. One of the… Again, a classic example is the Christmas tree. A Christmas tree is really not Christian. It was appropriated. Can any of you talk, really, at any… About where that comes from? You might be able to be like, “Oh, yeah, I think I read on Snopes that it’s…” But that is a culture that has been erased.
[Dongwon] If you want to see… I’m going to break what’s his face’s law here, but if you want to see sort of a failed but very famous example, is the Nazi’s appropriated an Eastern symbol of peace and serenity in…
[Shveta] My svastika.
[Dongwon] And now it stands for one of the most hateful things in Western culture.
[Shveta] So I get told by white people I’m not supposed to have it.
[Mary] Well, I think that that is going to lead us to the end.
[Steven] They’re saying that we can keep going.
[Mary] They say we can keep going.
[Mary] One of the things that we’ve been talking about, and I think this is a good transition, is the damage that can be caused by colonialism and ignoring the cultural context that Dongwon keeps bringing up. Thank you. That ignoring that cultural context when you are creating new fiction can cause you to reinforce harmful paradigms and reinforce existing damage.
[Dongwon] So here’s one specific example that drives me absolutely bananas. Psylocke of the X-Men is a walking example of colonialist conception. She is… She was literally Capt. Britain at one point. She is the whitest of white ladies, and was at one point mind transferred into a sexy Asian body and has stayed there, as she is now a much more popular character. She has remained in this state for a very long time, and it’s very damaging, because you have literally a white person who is pretending to be Asian because it’s more exotic. Now she’s a ninja, and now she wears much, much sexier outfits. It’s a very problematic Asian. In sending a message that the value of Asian women isn’t their history and their culture, it’s how they present to the world. Oh, look, they can be ninjas. It’s not the kind of stories that lead to people understanding Asian women as people to be engaged with in their context in history.
[Mary] Right. One of the real world examples of that is that we have a science fiction writer, Alyssa Wong, has talked about it on the podcast that she is often fetishized. It is a result, I think, of these narratives that have been internalized by the reader.
[Tempest] That’s very true.
[Steven] You mentioned the spiritual other, the magical other. There’s also the sacrificial other. That… This is all… The world, the language, religion, everything else arises from a particular point of view. We measure everything against this point of view. So often, people of color exist in order to ennoble white people. That the sacrificial other is often the only one of a particular group, he is Gunga Din, he is Morgan Freeman in almost any movie he’s ever done…
[Steven] He exists in order to make white people feel good about themselves. In my mind, the worst example of this I’ve ever seen was in the Green Mile. Not the book. The book was okay. Stephen King has his issues. But there’s something about his genius, his quality, that allowed me to feel that he was touching something universal there. But the movie was loathsome. The director of the film left out one tiny little thing that Stephen King had put in. That is that in the book, the Tom Hanks character, the guard, thought that maybe John Coffey was innocent and he was trying to get him freed. In the movie, he knew for a fact that John Coffey was innocent, but did nothing to save him from the electric chair. I sat there in a theater and realized that John Coffey was not a human being. He was a symbol who existed in order to give… To be human Viagra for Tom Hanks or to be smuggled out to save an ailing white woman. This idea that he had hopes, needs, dreams, a life of his own that was being snuffed out because he tried to help two little white girls. I thought to myself that that director completely missed the boat, complete… Did no… Oh, he’s not a human being, he’s a symbol. He’s JC, he’s Jesus Christ. No! He’s a human being. He didn’t ask, “What would it feel like to be a person of color and be sitting in the audience and see the only person who looks like you being treated that way?”
[Dongwon] This kind of goes back to a topic from an earlier podcast about micro aggressions. Any individual example can be very frustrating. But it’s easy to say, “Ah, it’s not that big a deal. It’s one story.” Right? But when every time you see a certain type of character portrayed, every time you see that trope repeated over and over again, there’s an accumulation of that impact. That starts to leave a mark, and that starts to leave a wound over time. It’s very hard to overcome that.
[Tempest] Well, one last thing I’ll say on that is basically just… That’s also a craft problem. Because then if you… If that thing is happening over and over and over again, then why are you doing that? Why are you participating in something that’s gross and offensive, but also what 10,000 other people have already done? So much of this kind of thing comes down to, you’re just doing things that 10,000 people have already done. Once you start moving into the things that are more specific, the things that are more unique, then you are moving out of the realm of the hurtful things that 10,000 people have already inflicted.
[Dongwon] And nine times out of 10, it’s so much more boring to tell that story. Tell something new, tell something exciting and interesting and specific. That is going to be far better and far more engaging.
[Shveta] Yes. I want to add quickly that if you’re thinking I’m afraid to write about people not like me. Good, be afraid. But there are also plenty of resources out there. A lot of us have taken the time to put those resources out there for you to learn how to do a better job. If you’re thinking about writing issues, remember that issues happen to people. So you don’t want symbols, you want people.
[Steven] The best way to do that, sit down and talk with a person who is of the group you want to write about. Just one human being to another human being across the table. Ask them. Get them to take a look. I remember Harlan Ellison calling me up and asking me to take a look at an early draft of Mefisto in Onyx. Because he cared about the fact he was writing about a black man. It was as simple as that.
[Mary] Just remember though that you’re… When you’re doing this, that you have probably internalized the idea that you’re owed an answer. You’re not.
[Steven] So also read. Read books by those people, read books about those people, read their voices, read the history, know what happened, and know what the issues are. There’s tons of great literature out there, both fiction and nonfiction. Don’t limit yourself to the genre you’re working in. This is just general writing advice. The wider and the more you read, the better of a writer you’ll be.
[Mary] That is great advice to end on. So we are going to end by giving our listeners some homework, or a writing prompt. Which I…
[Tempest] That’s me.
[Mary] You got that?
[Tempest] I got the writing prompt. All right. So. What I want you to do is I want you to take a character that you know very well. You want to start… Do this exercise the first time with a character that’s not yours. With some character from a book, TV show, movie series, whatever…
[Tempest] Yeah. That you know all about that character. Or you feel like you know all about that character. Write a character sketch of them. Like one page, two pages. Then change that character’s… Something about that character’s identity that has to do with their race, their ethnicity, their culture, their… Where they come from. Make that change. Think about it. Then sit down and write the character sketch again. Really think about what would be different about that person, about their history, about their life, about the way they interact with people that they’re on the superhero team with or their friends or whatever it is. How those things might be different? How they might be impacted by that major change?
[Mary] That’s a great prompt. So I’d like to thank our panelists. I would like to thank our listeners on the Writing Excuses cruise.
[Mary] You guys are out of excuses. Now go write.