The Extractivism of Setting and the Traitor’s Text

There is a particular tendency in genre fiction very well demonstrated by this thing that Jayaprakash Satyamurthy found under a rock and dragged into the light last year.

Or rather, there are quite a few things happening here at the same time, and they are adjacent, perhaps, but distinct. Let us disentangle them somewhat.

Sometime in the mid-twentyteens, Bryan Thomas Schmidt put out a subs call for an anthology of fiction from writers around the world—the phrase he used, in fact, was “foreign natives”—except Africa, because he’d already got Mike Resnick to represent Africa. Why did he think Mike Resnick, a white American, could represent Africa in such an anthology? Because of Resnick’s Kenya-themed “Kirinyaga” books and stories, of course. Because in the tiny, insular world of white SFF of his generation, Resnick had carved out that niche. He had become, canonically so in this pocket whites-only universe, the African SFF writer.

A somewhat less ugly example. Has there ever been an article in the Sri Lankan media about Sri Lankan speculative fiction that did not mention Arthur C. Clarke? I don’t know the answer to this question for a fact, but I suspect not.

Quite the classic cartoon map of a tiny tropical island, no? There is more than one coconut tree, at least.

Clarke was, in point of fact, not Sri Lankan, but he lived here in a state of such absolute colonial privilege that they made a new category of resident just for him. Seeing as he was capable of distorting the very concept of citizenship around himself, as a wealthy, famous, white English settler in a newly postcolonial nation, it is unsurprising that he continues to occupy the high ground in the unconsidered literary history of Sri Lankan speculative fiction. It is a negligible feat, by comparison. Unlike in Resnick’s case, the identification of Clarke with Sri Lanka (or rather, the other way around) is widespread in writing about SFF, both local and occidental. The island becomes a funny line in his author bio, a quaintness, much like the number of cats an author might have.

There is something wrong happening in each of these instances, obviously. For my purposes here, the question at hand is not whether the stories are good or not, or whether the authors/editors are good people or interesting artists or not. Clarke certainly wrote some wonderful stories; he may also have been a pedophile, a persistent charge that I’d long dismissed as a common slander against a gay man until the relatively recent accusation from Peter Troyer, as documented by Jason Sanford. Neither Schmidt nor Robert M. Price, the editor of Secret Asia’s Blackest Heart, seem likely to be interesting curators from my perspective, given their contemptible sensibilities, but it’s certainly possible that their anthologies have included stories that I might have liked. Any fool can pick obvious winners. Many fools do.

These things are not irrelevant, certainly, but they also confuse the issue because they are more compelling and more immediate than what I’m trying to point at, which is how canons are manufactured.

This essay is not, of course, actually addressed to the likes of Robert M. Price, an established bigot, or the fashy little press that gleefully publishes these white power anthologies. This is not a callout. Such a thing would be ridiculous. Price’s introduction to this anthology (readable via the Amazon preview) calls Edward Said a leftist propagandist and declares that orientalism is a good and desirable thing. There is no thought to engage with here: it is the desert of the clowns. Rather, I’m talking to the kind of people who write about books: critics, journalists, engaged readers. This is not about this or that particular book. This is about a tendency. A mechanism. A movement or transfer.

Are Resnick’s “Kirinyaga” stories particularly racist? I know I’ve read one or two, but it’s been decades and I don’t remember them at all, so don’t take my word for it either way. Clarke was not racist or even condescending toward Sri Lankans in his fiction, as far as I can remember. On the other hand, I would not bet a single rupee that Secret Asia’s Blackest Heart is racism-free, but who knows? Stranger things have happened. But the presence or absence of racism in the texts is not at issue here.

Nor is this about #ownvoices. It would be absurd to say that only Kenyans can write stories set in Kenya, or Sri Lankans in Sri Lanka. Sofia Samatar isn’t Kenyan either, but “Ogres of East Africa” is wonderful. Putting it in the same context as Resnick’s Kirinyaga is in fact vaguely embarrassing, a condition exacerbated by the fact that Resnick won multiple Hugos in the 90s for those stories while “Ogres” took third place in that year’s Locus poll. This tells you something about how genre literary awards fail, yes, but it also tells you something about genre canon formation. If you asked for Kenya-related speculative fiction from, say, a Hugo-voting audience (as a shorthand for a historically canon-forming, white-dominated, American-dominated body in English SFF), you’re still much likelier to hear about Resnick than Samatar, and long before you hear about Ray Mwihaki or Clifton Gachagua or any other writers actually from Kenya.

Recognition as a writer needs time. You must be published widely, read widely, remembered and reviewed and talked about. Resnick had work published decades before everybody else named here. These are deep structural advantages—whiteness, citizenship in the metropole, proximity to the western-based major publishing industry, early-mover advantage in name recognition. This matters because it turns canons into a kind of colonialism of the speculative imagination.

Like so.

Canon is a tricky word. I am using the term lightly; I mean those works and writers who are widely recognized and repeatedly cited, which of course produces multiple and varied groupings depending on who you ask and for what purpose. Every such canon is formed by citation and repetition. Every act of curation contributes to it. Every anthology of African or Asian fiction, every article. Even a listicle adds a pebble to the pile. And in speculative fiction publishing, white Western writers, which is to say, specifically, white writers from the metropoles and settler colonies of the long British-American empire, especially those of previous generations, have had decades of a head start. Their canonization for work that draws heavily on the third world—as setting, as prop, as raw material—was built on the same lines as all other colonial enterprises, like the settler-colonial squatting that Resnick or Clarke perform.

Many, many traditions abound in writing fiction about place. They are often and easily confused. At minimum, you could make a crude distinction between work by the people who are, in the important sense, from there (i.e., including diasporas) and work by the people who aren’t (i.e., including resident white expats.) This does not automatically mean that the former is good and the latter is bad, or even that one is necessarily more authentic than the other. In the first place, authenticity is a trap and best avoided by everyone. And it is quite possible that sometimes an outsider will see more clearly than an insider. But this is not an evenly balanced sometimes, and it is especially not so when that place is a third-world colony of the empire. The contemporary publishing industry remains nearly as concentrated in the heart of the metropole as it was then. The imbalances of access and proximity have changed but little, and those imbalances are governed by long histories of orientalism, exoticization, and exploitation even if any given work is not. The question is not (or at least, not only) “is this book racist?” but how much easier it was for that book to be published (and reviewed, and cited, and canonized) than a contemporary work by an author from the place the book is writing about.

An example. Clarke’s Fountains of Paradise, a book precisely as old as I am. Fountains is set in a version of Sri Lanka, and written by someone who had at that point been resident in Sri Lanka for decades. Here, too, I read the book so long ago that I don’t remember it at all. I have no quarrel with it and I’m not trying to cancel it—I feel like I have to keep making this disclaimer to forestall people summarizing this whole essay as me trying to cancel various books or people. Fountains probably won a Hugo and a Nebula and so on.

Yup, there they are.

This is a good example of a book that falls, for me, squarely on one side of that line about writing about place. It is (probably) a fine book in the tradition of books that use Sri Lanka as setting or inspiration, but Clarke, as an almost ludicrously privileged Englishman sahibing it up in the colonies, had several orders of magnitude more access to the Western publishing industry than anybody who lived on the island in 1979. My father’s first novel (Tilak Chandrasekera, පස්වෙනියත් පුතෙක්) came out that same year, as a matter of fact. It was “self-published”, as many local books were at the time, and by local standards it was quite successful, going on to multiple printings in the 80s and 90s.

My brother drew the cover art (both the original design in 1979 and this updated one for the fourth reprinting in 1990.) Self-publishing was a family business. Even I (eleven at the time) was recruited to proofread this one.

පස්වෙනියත් පුතෙක් is not speculative fiction, but it is absolutely a book about place, what would probably now be called autofiction—for my father in his first book, that place was the village in Kurunegala where he grew up. A village that, in the 1930s-40s that the book is set in, was in fact arguably in the jungle, or at least jungle-adjacent. (You could find some jungle there even in the 80s: I once managed to get lost in it as a boy. What can I say, jungle happens. Even the Mahabharata describes us as जाङ्गलवासिन, jangal-vasina, jungle-dwellers.) Clarke had arrived in Sri Lanka when my father was still a teenager, though out of the jungle by then and living in the same city. By the year these two books were published, Clarke had been living on the island for more than half of my father’s life, already a fixture. My father had no quarrel with Clarke either: he spoke of him admiringly, and bought me a copy of the Sinhala translation of 2001. They didn’t really live in the same country, as writers, for all that their houses were perhaps three kilometres apart for the decades of their later careers. They were by no means writing about the same place, and success as an author meant such wildly different things to them that they were not even on the same planet.

This is why it’s so much more complicated than writers who are from there and not from there. A work that is in a significant way about place could, then, be many different kinds of text.

For example, you have the imperialist’s text, which sees a place the way colonial administrators saw it. Leonard Woolf’s Village in the Jungle is a classic of this type, with Woolf having been himself the very same kind of colonial administrator who appears in the text as the only oasis of sanity and rationality in a gothic horror of native madness and violence.

Clarke’s renditions of future Sri Lankas are a less heavy-fisted version of the same: the island is urbane and genteel and tropical and, most of all, small. The expat’s text, the postcolony that is merely the metropole writ very small, mimicking the upper-crust Colombo 7 life that Clarke understood.

Then we have whatever this is. A burdensome thing. Perhaps we could call it the kipling text.

Whether the orientalism renders the objectified as infantile, monstrous, exotic or what have you, what matters for all these texts is that there is a distinct flavour of that place, something like a spice, that can be taken out of it, mixed into a dish, a taste that the discerning reader can pick up, perhaps even become expert at picking up. Can you tell River of Gods from Song of Kali in a blindfolded taste test?

Consider an even more casual encounter with place: the tourist’s text. This is the author’s note from Trouble in Nuala, which is the first novel, published 2016, of a self-published cozy mystery series now at least ten books deep. The Inspector de Silva Mysteries is “set in the 1930s amidst the rolling green hills of colonial Ceylon” and is written by a white British woman, Harriet Steel.

This is the extractivism of setting at its smoothest and most efficient, its pathway having been cleared by a century or two of the texts that preceded it, that hacked their way through the jungle and laid down rail into the village.

Now in my sixth year as fiction editor at Strange Horizons, I have read a very large number of short story submissions and there have indeed been some, not many, stories that use Sri Lanka as a setting. A few are even authored by Sri Lankan writers, on the island or from the diaspora. Most, however, are not. Certainly, the worst have been strong examples of the tourist’s text. They have a certain distinctive quality of overextraction and give a great bitterness in the mouth. What’s hardest, as an editor, is that I try not to be more demanding of the Sri Lankan setting than I am of any setting. Or rather, I try to be no less demanding of any setting. What is true of the island is true of the world.

But there is also more than one kind of text in the other(ed) and orthogonal tradition, the writing of those who are from there. The tourist text can be written in both, and often is. And there are many others, both on the island and off it, often overlapping: the witness’s text, the refugee’s text, the exile’s text. Too, there are the comprador’s text and the patriot’s text, the paired science fictions of muttering uncles, seen more often in the newspaper opinion columns than on the bookshelves. And then there is the ideal that I think that any writer with some shards of conscience and consciousness might aspire to, the traitor’s text.

The traitor’s text must refuse authenticity—which is a fetish of the patriot, the tourist, and the imperialist. The traitor’s text is an ideal, being the work that must critique both the big empires and the little ones, so the comprador’s text and the patriot’s text are also traps that await all of us who are, undeniably, from there. Pits shallowly disguised with dry leaves. The traitor’s text is the measure, for me, of what writing about place must reach for. It’s available to anyone, whether you’re from there or not, but some things about it are just harder to reach if you’re not.

It’s important to say, I think, that I use setting in this essay deliberately. I do not say culture. I talked this over with Nandini, who pointed out that my use of the extractivism metaphor puts this essay in dangerous proximity to unintentionally reifying culture in the process of trying to do the opposite. This is one of the traps in talking about this, that it can so easily be confused with a superficial argument about appropriation. This is not about appropriation: this is about the problems of setting in fiction that trouble us all because we live in the same empire-haunted world, ruined by colony and postcolony alike, this tainted, unstable ground. There is no true and authentic fixed thing, and no one can, or should wish to, lay claim to it. Imagine the horror, if there were such a thing that you could hold in your hands, that you could never put down or toss away, how it would burn and cut. Jungle is not an object: it is a process. It jangles, it jungles. Sometimes jungle is inauthentic, being merely colonial-era plantations gone back to the wild. Sometimes the jungle in question is urban. I live in the city, crocodiles in the canal down the street, I’m in a WhatsApp group (alongside three hundred of my overly meme-happy neighbours) run by the local grama niladhari, who issues updates on vaccination schedules and so on. The title of his job, essentially the lowest rung of local government, has changed several times over the decades (gammuladaniya, grama sevaka, grama niladhari) but the prefix remains intact. It means village.

By its very nature, the traitor’s text must be layered. It is complex, because the world it describes is complex. It cannot essentialize. It cannot be condescending or onanist. It can never be cozy. This necessarily makes it a more difficult text to engage with than all the others, which makes sense because the traitor’s text can only exist in response to all the others: it comes after them, logically if not necessarily chronologically. When I write a horror story about a village in the jungle, it comes after Woolf, and must struggle with Woolf, and this would be true in many senses even if I had not read Woolf (I have, but as often happens, I only read the book after having already responded to it several times over.) This canon exists because Woolf has over a hundred years of citation. Woolf even has authenticity, having been in and around the very situations he writes about. This is why authenticity doesn’t matter in fiction. I do enjoy Village in the Jungle as a gothic horror—and that ending is magnificently written—but to enjoy it, you must understand that the bulk of its power and horror is in how and why Leonard Woolf came to be the person to write it.