Terry Weyna and I attended the 2013 Nebula Awards Weekend in San Jose, California last week. The event focused mostly on the Saturday awards banquet, and programming was rather light, but I did attend a panel called “Writing the Other,” subtitled, “How do we write about what we cannot know?”
“Writing the Other” looked like the staff of a think-tank. Saladin Ahmed (Throne of the Crescent Moon), Kim Stanley Robinson, (2312, which won the Nebula), Ken Liu (“Paper Menagerie”) and Aliette de Bodard (who would win for the novelette “Immersion”) made up the panel.
Liu, who moderated, said that originally the theme of the panel had been how to write space aliens. Robinson said he agreed with Stanislaw Lem in Solaris; no one could write a believable space alien story because we wouldn’t ever be able to communicate with aliens. End of story. You can’t. De Bodard then weighed in with the argument that even if you could, you mustn’t, because “alien” equaled “non-human” and had been used as propaganda for centuries to dehumanize people of color and justify enslavement and genocide.
So, writing aliens: 1) You can’t, and 2) you shouldn’t anyway. While I was sighing deeply and writing “I am very disappointed right now,” in my notes, the panel went on to discuss the challenges of writing “the human other.” They did all agree that this could be done, although at least two of them, again, thought you probably shouldn’t, (although they had). This got pretty lively.
Saladin Ahmed raised an interesting issue when he talked about writing Islamic characters. Ahmed was raised Muslim and is Arab-American. When he wrote Throne of the Crescent Moon, he was not writing “the other.” He was writing what he knew. Those of us reading it who did not grow up in that culture might have been reading “the other.” A person in the audience, though, brought up the fact that Ahmed’s main character is an elder; elders might represent “the other” for Ahmed.
What do you think? Is there a benefit in writing about, and reading about, cultures that are different from your own? Are there risks? And, to you, just what is “the other,” anyway?