Which This Margin Is Too Small To Contain

Some thoughts on “diversity” in sf/f and discovering that I’m apparently a “writer of colour” and all that. I never actually use these words myself, whether to refer to either myself or anybody else. Though at the same time I don’t object to their use to refer to myself or anybody else either. It’s complicated. I do periodically worry at the meanings of these words, and I guess I’ve been saying stuff like this for a while now:

So let me unpack that a bit.

If essentialism is the pernicious idea that categories are more real than people, strategic essentialisms are a rhetorical technique when you’re aware that the essentialism in question is bullshit but you temporarily accept being identified with a category in order to achieve something, even if that something is just making a point. There are all sorts of good, practical reasons to collectivize identity in this way, but I think it works best when it’s goal-oriented and time-bound. Because when it’s not, then it can also mean just signing up to be reduced to a category for somebody else’s convenience.

This is a high-risk high-reward rhetorical move, in other words. To name a thing is to bring it into existence as a theory-object, and it’s difficult to dispel it after that, never mind to control how it gets used or who else it might get used on.

Consider this category of “POC”, people of colour. This gets used a lot in the sf/f community, who (at least in the circles that I’ve so far engaged with) appear to have generally adopted it as a way to refer to non-white people. I assume this arrived in sf/f publishing via academia/litcrit? idk. In any case, it’s here and being used.

(also I should say that apart from “writers of colour” one also sees “POC writer”, which in particular is a truly godawful construction. “person of colour writer”…? what. I mean, I’m all for mangling language for amusing or interesting effects, but come on!)

It’s a bit disorienting for me to suddenly become a “person of colour” overnight just by wandering into the sf/f scene. I’ve been online in some shape or form for twenty years, but never as myself, never under my real name and identity like this; back in the day it was normal to use pseudonyms, and by the time that convention changed I’d settled into habits. All this—<all-encompassing gesture>—came about because I wanted to publish as myself, under my real name. And when I started to publish in US markets, this “of colour” thing started to become a thing. The very first time I heard the phrase “person of colour” online (fortunately, this was before it was applied to me), I thought it was some sort of slur. This is, as far as I can tell, a common reaction for many non-Americans who encounter the phrase for the first time: a raised eyebrow and a “you called me a what now?” And then, for those who care to find out, googling up a digression about the specifics of the American civil rights movement.

(semi-related: I’m very dark-skinned for a Sri Lankan, but also male. so for me colourism is more a source of amusing anecdotes than anxiety or stress. for some reason, a life’s worth of being the butt of (very mild) colourism has made the whole “person of colour” thing even funnier.)

So, yes: I dislike the overextension of “POC” outside America because it’s so explicitly an American term. I suppose its prevalence in the online sf/f community is a direct result of the sf/f field being so completely American-centric for so long that any international players are still considered incidental? Regardless, it’s a phrase inextricably tied to a time and a place and a history, entangled in the history of “coloured” and probably to “gens de couleur” somewhere in there. It’s a term that’s meaningful only to American minorities who understand its place in their history, who own its reclamation. By all means, use it in that context, where it is an excellent example of a strategic essentialism for the people that chose to use it.

Using it to describe all the billions of non-white peoples of the world, on the other hand, is not a strategic essentialism. It’s just plain old regular essentialism, nothing but a pure statement of American cultural hegemony: by using it this way, you are literally saying that all the multiplicity of histories and differences in the vast majority of the world population are all subsumed collectively into an honorary American minority for, what I don’t know, convenience. The imperial gaze is out of control! All dark-skinned people have dissolved into an undifferentiated brownish sea of sludge! I propose a fully equivalent replacement term you can safely use to describe all non-white people everywhere in every possible context. That term is “mud person”. You’re welcome.

But wait, you say, seriously, what’s an okay way to say it then? Like is “diverse” okay or “marginalized” okay or “minority” okay? And first I gotta say, I’m not the pope of okay here. This is just me talking regular bullshit, not papal bullshit. As someone newly on the receiving end of labels—and as someone new to these labels—I regard them with more interest than censure. I get that a lot of people have clearly already processed these objections and discounted them, given e.g. how frequently I see Asian writers self-apply the term. And that’s fine! I’m not trying to start a land war in Asia. I’m just (belatedly, I suppose) processing it.

(I was going to say that I regarded them with “anthropological” interest above, incidentally, but I suppose I am not so much the anthropologist in this metaphor as the genre-savvy ethnographic subject.)

What interests me is interrogating the language being used, not in policing usage. If you’d rather stick with whatever terms you’re using, that’s entirely your call. I won’t take it personally1.

Consider the other words. The problems with “minority” are hopefully obvious: it’s useless unless you peg it to a particular geopolitical territory. Here I advise against treating an amorphous, increasingly-online metacommunity like sf/f as somehow equivalent to a nation-state: it is not. It does not have borders. It does have centres and peripheries, but those are very much in flux and to some extent a factor of perspective, the famous echo-chamber effect. It has many different overlapping interest groups, instead of a population. It has no minorities. Sf/f is not a country. It cannot have minorities, or for that matter, majorities. So “minority” is meaningless unless you’re specifically talking about a particular country or city or convention membership or newsgroup or what have you.

“Diverse” and “marginalized” are trickier. First, diversity is a property of a group, not an individual. You need a set of entities in which you can measure variation before you can say whether there’s variety or not. And second, there’s more than one way to measure variety.

So it makes sense to talk about “diversity” when talking about contributors to an anthology or magazine, or a publisher’s roster of authors, or to talk about “marginalization” when you’re talking about some category of writers who you would expect to see in those groups but are missing for some otherwise inexplicable reason.

Consider that second point again. Say I have a story published in an otherwise all-white TOC, then yeah, I guess my inclusion marginally increases the ethnic diversity of that publication. But if everybody else on that TOC is also male, then it does not increase the gender diversity of that publication. In both cases, the diversity or lack thereof resides in the TOC, not in me. Whether it’s “diverse” or not depends on the question being asked. I know this is kind of an obvious point to belabour, but it often seems to cause confusion.

For example, a publisher might claim that a given anthology is “diverse” because it has women in it, ignoring the total absence of non-white people. Or there might be lots of non-white people on it, but nobody who isn’t American or resident in America. Or—look, my point is not that every TOC needs to have one of each kind like some sort of deranged Noah’s Ark, which is both absurd and impossible. My point is just that the fact that the word can be used to describe any kind of variety, combined with the fact that there is more than one kind of variety, combined with the fact that some kinds of variety can be achieved more easily than others, tends to act as a either a blind spot or a fig leaf, depending I suppose on how cynical you are about this being a deliberate rhetorical device. And that’s the problem with nonspecific cheerleading for “increased diversity”, and the reason why it can so easily be subverted.

Which is what brings me back to the first point, that “diversity” is a property of a group and not an individual. But now consider this formulation: “a diverse writer”. Used this way, the “diversity” is reified and placed inside the body of the writer. It moves focus away from the editorial policies and acquisition decisions. It becomes a property that is physically attached to some writers, the diverse writers2. And through them, it becomes a measurable commodity that can be bought or sold.

It behaves, in other words, exactly like a nonconsensual strategic essentialism, which is, er, the same as essentialism, the idea that the categories are more real than the people3.

Words like “POC” and “diverse” and “marginalized” and whatnot are all a euphemism treadmill, yeah? The only way off a euphemism treadmill is to stop using euphemisms, or rather to abandon the false categories that were once described by slurs and are now described by euphemisms. Which means recognizing that categories are not more real than people, because individual people actually exist and even the most well-defined category is, ultimately, an imperfect abstraction based on tradition and policy as much as observation.

I don’t have a real answer here, but I do think many of the euphemisms could simply be dropped and that might help a little.

For example, if you really just mean “non-white” sometimes, then maybe say non-white, no? Sometimes it’s important to actually say “non-white”, because by doing so at least you’re acknowledging that the problem you’re trying to solve is a problem of an existing white supremacy. It only promotes white fragility to talk about this stuff without ever talking about whiteness.

(of course, brown-on-black racism in South Asia is also a thing, and casteism/colourism is a big part of it but I think even there, that anti-blackness is mediated through the absent-but-implicit whiteness, i.e., through colonial history and anticolonial nationalisms. to talk about whiteness is to talk about history, not a skin tone.)

Like if you want to talk about the unbearable whiteness of a TOC and if you phrase your argument as “it’s not diverse” instead of questioning the homogeneity of white supremacy, or worse, if you’re asking “where are the diverse writers”? Because of the way these questions recentre the problem, and attach “diversity” as a property to some bodies but not to other bodies, the issue then becomes about baryonic and nonbaryonic humans.

About how much dark matter you need to stuff into a TOC before it undergoes the state change into being “diverse”.

Which just brings up the attendant fauxtroversies, like is dark matter even tangible, really? Can it interact with ordinary matter on the same level? Is this affirmative action somehow? That conversation always ends up being about the reality, the tangibility of the nonbaryonic humans. The phrase “the diverse writer” is a trap because it differentiates that writer from “the writer”4, and thereby implicitly leaves room for the question “is the diverse writer a real writer?”

All of this is not intended to make it impossible to say words anymore, as peaceful as that sounds. Uh, obviously that’s not helpful. I think that if you really want to identify people by made-up ethnocategories, maybe it’s better to peg it at nation-state5 of residence and/or origin, instead of continent (boo) or race/ethnicity/colour (ugh), with the exception of when the people in question explicitly sign up to be identified under any of those things as an act of (hopefully goal-oriented) strategic essentialism.

Of course, we could all just start calling people by their names instead of their categories, but that’s probably a bridge too far.

Today’s unrelated reading recommendation & palate cleanser: “Item Girls” by Kuzhali Manickavel in Granta: “In the night, she slides her finger into The Dark One, who tries to think about post-racial America, the antioxidant properties of dry beans, steam pressure washers, Maoists. Instead, she thinks of the bite of sugar at the back of her throat, armies of sunlight dancing on her back, the ocean rushing from her mouth like it is ready to drown.”

  1. Unless you take me up on “mud person” for serious, in which case fuck you in advance. 

  2. For me and many other writers, this also puts us into a position of needing to worry about and fetishize our performance of our own authenticity. This rhetorical trap is sheer elegance in its simplicity: so many of us walk ourselves right into it and have a lot of trouble getting out again. The work made from inside this trap is what I call “authentica”—an awful lot of South Asian litfic is authentica. I want to talk more about this, and how for example it ties into nationalistic projects or anti-imperial projects and the ways in which this is both interesting and terrible, but unfortunately this is an extended ramble that this footnote is too small to contain. 

  3. Gender essentialism falls into a similar trap of considering the theoretical categories of “male” and “female” to be more fundamental than the actually-existing individual members of the human species who manifest a great variety of individual characteristics. Hence “reconstructive” genital surgery on intersex babies to “assign” them to a known category, because that category is fallaciously granted a greater degree of reality than the actual baby. It’s like the reverse of that parable or something. 

  4. Here’s another way this sort of thing gets out of hand: I said “Asian writers” earlier as if that was a real thing. But it isn’t, really! Quite apart from the sheer vagueness of “Asia” as a category—so broad as to be meaningless! Might as well say “Earth writers”—without further qualification, you can’t help but have it mean writers from Asian countries resident in those countries as well as writers from Asian countries who are expatriates in non-Asian countries as well as to some extent writers in non-Asian countries whose ancestors were expatriates from Asian countries, and sometimes maybe even writers from non-Asian countries who are resident in Asian countries, and that’s not even asking what languages they’re all writing and publishing in, and for whom? These are all wildly different constituencies, so much so that it’s not meaningful to even attempt a strategic essentialism between them all. There’s no common project here. So “Asian writers” is essentialism in it’s bluntest possible form, because the assertion contained here is that there is some mysteriously hyperreal category called “Asian”-ness that is attached inextricably to the persons of all those different kinds of people despite the fact that they have absolutely nothing in common. See also, like, all of Africa Is A Country. Continentism is a thing! 

  5. Why do I say this, when nation-states are also terrible fake things that need to be abolished? Well, at least they are legal/geopolitical entities distinct from the physical person of the writer, and are existing big dumb objects that can be pointed at. And “lives in X” or “is from Y” is relatively uncomplicated; it works for baryonic and nonbaryonic writers alike in the same way, which is a sort of flattening, at least? idk. 


I object—isn't that a great opening for a blogpost?—to the idea that writing short sff criticism requires one to read it all, or even as much of it as possible, or that it's necessary to keep up with what's "current", because this is a road to exhaustion. The compulsive neophilia, the false urgency to "keep up"…even the mere fact that magazines are still often built around "issues" is only a nostalgic skeuomorphism! Which would matter less if the "old issues" were less disposable, and if all their contents did not become mysteriously sepia-toned at the turn of the week or the month or the quarter. But they are, and they do. Periodicals are like a metaphor for a linear model of time. There is the cresting wave of the temporary present, this month's issues, moving inexorably into the future, leaving the past behind. Except that this model is just as illusory as that linear model of time, of course. What would the sff short fiction scene look like if it it wasn't putting the temporary in contemporary?

To state the blatantly obvious, short sff is already too wide now to be read in its entirety by a single dedicated reader, even if you only look at the thin slice of the "present". The relevant xkcd is about all books written in English (which passed that point five centuries ago), but if you converted that to sff short fiction written in English I think you'd probably find that a similar point was reached somewhere between the original c. 1920 Writer's Market (I wonder how many markets it tracked?) vs. today's Duotrope (which tracks just over five thousand). Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of magazines over the decades, popping in and out of existence like virtual particles, each with multiple issues, each issue with multiple stories…

This has only become much more of a thing, like orders of magnitude more of a thing, a true Cambrian Explosion of a thing, with the arrival of online magazines (which, as far as I can tell, have also been a thing since at least the 90s but didn't really get mainstream credibility until the mid-00s). So, if there was a time that you could read all or most of it, that time has been gone for a decade at the very least, and probably much longer than that. All these worlds are not yours, except Europa. Attempt your fandoms only there.

But I digress. The point is this sort of "stick the firehose in your mouth" approach does not represent some sort of critical ideal; it's an impossible standard so attempting it (and failing) means nothing. If anything, I think this is damaging to the soft tissues in your mouth, and liable to upset the digestion. If it's impossible to read everything that's current, it's many times more impossible to read everything that is past, but the gulf between these impossibilities is uninteresting because for all practical purposes they are equally out of reach.

I do appreciate when people actually take on these impossibilities head on–I've said this before about Lois Tilton's reviews, and I see Ethan Robinson's taken to a similar firehose-drinking approach lately–but I'm not talking about these people, who are professionals of the don't-try-this-at-home variety. I'm talking to totes would-be amateur reader/critic types like myself, or possibly just to myself. Because every time someone says "there should be more short sff criticism" I see people immediately falling into the various traps of keeping up/burning out or getting their critical objectives entangled with the related but also separate goals of curation/promotion/signal-boosting or, most wastefully, with the hamster wheel of award nominations. Which all seems so unnecessary, or at least besides the point.

(I'm speaking as a reader here, not as a writer; as a writer I tend to feel like hey, all promotion is good promotion, which is another reason writers are the worst. ugh, writers)

There's nothing more dreary than "here's what I thought of this story that I would not have finished or even started if I didn't need to finish this issue for review purposes." There seems to be a innocence-to-experience pipeline from that laudable impulse of "I want to review/talk about short fiction" to increasingly tired, obligatory reviews that peter out into mere recommendation lists and fade rapidly into exhaustion and burnout. This seems so avoidable, especially for the amateur reader-critic who has no obligation to put a firehose in their mouth. Why not be willing to slow down and actually explore your taste as critic/curator? What is it that you're looking for? What truly intrigues you? Can you separate this from other things you might also be doing, such as promotion or curation or signal-boosting?

(when I find people who are willing to admit to having developed a taste, I often find myself reading their commentary regardless of whether I share that taste or not. when people commit to this kind of thinking-out-loud, it's compelling in a way that a roundup of links and shit-sandwich critiques1 can never be.)

I'd hazard that one part of the problem is that nuance in criticism requires you to say negative things, and many people are uncomfortable with navigating this interpersonal minefield and all the unexploded ordnance still lying around from the various culture wars, and the other, more insidious part is that even the thought of abandoning the urge to "keep up" brings up many different anxieties. There are so many hooks piercing the body of short fiction and constantly dragging it forward off-balance–the "issue" skeuomorphism declares last month's stories out of date in the same way that the awards treadmill declares last year's stories out of date, all of which is compounded by the sheer volume of new material being produced every week, all the subscriptions you take out to support the magazines you love, which start to pile up in your house or your reader or your phone and to build up to a kind of virtual weight in your mind, a sisyphean burden.

So why not abandon the idea of keeping up, which was never a really-real thing, and whose sole real effect seems to be to drive people away from actually-enjoying the short story? If you have to slow down in the face of the tens or hundreds of thousands of short stories we're all drowning in, then by all means do it one story at a time.

Which is where I'm coming from with the reading recommendations that I make in these posts. They come from slow-moving obsessions with particular writers, particular styles, particular moods. They come from me looking for the work that I feel some sort of kinship with as a writer. They come from me looking for work from this century that maybe we only even have at all because of that very internet-age opening up of possibilities2. It's a new age of plenty, and I'm very happy to be a part of it in my own small way as a writer, but even more than that, I'm happy to be part of it as a reader.

So these recommendations that I make, they come from treating my reading of sff short fiction as a kind of dérive. It's not a geography of the scene-at-large that I want, nor is it a map of myself-as-reader, but the intersection between the two.

Eventually I want to come back to each of these same stories that I'm recommending now and talk about them some more–this is what I mean by not treating short fiction as disposable or temporary, also–or rather, actually talking about them at all, since all I'm doing right now is giving the recommendation. But I do have stuff to say about all of them, in the sense that in making these specific recommendations I'm outlining a model of the speculative in fiction that makes sense to me. But I'm not rushing to try & articulate it, either, because I'm only starting to try and understand my own taste in fiction. I may be some time at this.

Today’s unrelated reading recommendation & palate cleanser: "The Mongerji Letters" by Geetha Iyer in Orion: "But the polar bear you stuck in the inner envelope suggests you are keen to continue in the family trade. That first explosion of teeth and air bubbles as the creature snapped at my face—what flair! I learned to swim backwards that day, you know? It took a week to bail out the living room and pour the Arctic Ocean back into the envelope."

  1. You know, "here are two things I liked and one thing I didn't like about this story". It's tedious, like some sort of secondary-school essay format.  

  2. Before internet times, me being a short fiction reader was pretty much just wearing a paper bag over my head and reading whatever decades-old white-sff anthologies the British Council library deigned to throw at me, so this level of access to contemporary short fiction is kind of a big deal for me.