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Inclusivity and Exclusivity in Fiction: Aliette de Bodard on Crossing Over


This is the seventh interview and the ninth post in my series on inclusivity and exclusivity in fiction. You can find a full list of other posts so far in the series at the end of this piece.

In today’s post, I talk with British Science Fiction Association award-winning French/Vietnamese writer Aliette de Bodard about writing, reading, cultural divides, and the bridges that span them.

LUC: Just to bring your work to science fiction and fantasy readers in North America, you’ve had to bridge a number of gaps–ethnic, linguistic, geographical, and more. Does this affect how you choose your characters and how you think about writing?

ALIETTE: I have to admit that I didn’t quite think of it that way! For starters, I was hardly aware of the SFF market as being sharply compartimentalised when I started writing–and, if anything, I would have targeted my work at the UK market, since that’s where I started reading most of my genre. I also seldom think in terms of gaps when writing: rather, I write passionately about things that matter to me, and trust that this enthusiasm will communicate itself to the reader.

But yes, if we’re talking quite plainly–of course my origins, my personality and the milieu I grew up in and am still part of deeply and irrevocably approach how I’m choosing characters and how I think about writing. I would be a very different person if I had grown up white on the US East Coast–my family, my education, my friends, etc. have shaped me as a writer, and continue to shape me.

I tend to pick characters from non-mainstream backgrounds, mainly because I’m somewhat disquieted by how SF, which should be the literature of the mind-blowing and mind-opening, tends to over-feature characters from a certain background (overwhelmingly male, white and American or Western Anglophone) and from a certain mindset (what I would call “tech-loving” with a strong faith that science will make things better). Not, of course, that I have anything against those views myself, but the over-representation of these can be a little overwhelming in the bad sense of the term…

I approach writing as the sum of everything that I have read, which means traditional French/English/Vietnamese/Chinese literature as well as genre from Ursula Le Guin to Alastair Reynolds to Jean-Claude Dunyach. Reading so much in so many traditions has enabled me to see that the “rules” of writing (like “show don’t tell”) are deeply problematic because they enforce the conformity of a certain type of fiction–they’re a great help as you’re starting out, but taken too rigidly they can easily lead people to stifle their own creativity in the search of the technically perfect, but soulless story.

It’s hard for me to tell how much my approach to writing is shaped by my background and which specific bits are “different”–I know that I place a high importance on family in my fiction, and immigration and living between different cultures (obviously a very personal preoccupation!), but I assume there are more subtle effects on themes, characters and storylines that I’m not able to see because I’m too close to them.

LUC: There are a lot of interesting threads in that response, but let me grab onto one particular one, because I don’t think it’s ever even come up in this discussion for me until now: science fiction tending to include people of a certain mindset. I had never thought of it that way before, but it strikes me immediately as having a lot of truth to it. When science fiction stories emphasize strongly tech- and science-friendly characters, what points of view would you say aren’t getting a lot of representation?

ALIETTE: Hum, it’s one of those questions where I don’t think I can give a complete answer to, but I can provide a few examples… By and large, SF is mainstream US, 21st-Century and tech-loving, which means that anything outside those points of view is getting poor representation. I can mention a few things that struck me, beyond the most obvious ones of poor POC/female/non-US representation, but this is obviously very limited!

  • the paucity of stories where family is important, and in particular family outside the nuclear family (SF sometimes gets around to mentioning fathers and mothers, but aunts, uncles and cousins somehow seem beyond the realm of possible relationships)
  • a marked dichotomy between allegiance to a church or allegiance to science, generally failing to recognise either that the two points of view are not incompatible, or that religion doesn’t necessarily mean full allegiance to a church (in many Asian countries, people practise bits and pieces of religions depending on the circumstances, and don’t refer to a single church for prescriptions on every aspect of their daily lives)
  • a presentation of individualistic, lone mavericks who strike out to seek adventures as intensely heroic, and a deriding of people who do not follow that mindset as being cowardly (in Asian culture, people who abandon their families to strike out would be the cowards because they shirk their duties to provide for their relatives, and the act of falling out with your own family would be a tragedy rather than a cause for celebration).

LUC: Recently on your Web site, you quoted Juliana Qian:

Our cultures are exotic, fashionable, fascinating and valuable when contained within or filtered through a white Western lens – then our cultures are glittering mines. But drawing from your own background is backward and predictable if you’re a person of colour. Sometimes white people try to sell me back my culture and I have to buy it. My China is as much the BBC version as it is the PRC one. There are things I want to eat but cannot cook.

This brings up the question of how different it is for someone within a group–whether we’re talking about, for example, Russians, transgendered people, or people with physical handicaps–to write about that group than for someone outside in terms of how the writing itself is viewed. How does this affect your work, or the work of other writers whose work you follow?

ALIETTE: It’s all but inevitable that someone within a group will perceive it in different terms than someone outside a group: it’s what I call “insider” writing vs “outsider” writer. There are two different problems: who is writing this, and for whom it is intended. I’ll leave aside the obvious combinations of outsider writer for outsiders only (which is a very dodgy proposition and fairly exclusionary) and insider writer for insiders only (posing no particular issue: write what you know for people who know it as well). That leaves the “crossing overs,” i.e., outsider writers writing for an audience which includes insiders and insider writers writing for an audience which includes outsiders.

If you’re an outsider, it is possible to achieve a sufficient degree of empathy with the group to make your depiction of it from the inside plausible, but it takes a lot of hard work, and I think people don’t understand how seldom this happens: the authors who pull this off, say, for Vietnamese culture, can literally be counted on the fingers of one hand, and generally have thoroughly immersed themselves into it for years. A few more authors will produce a passable description, and the bulk will unfortunately perpetuate majority stereotypes or latch onto what seems to them shiny elements of a culture–elements that are totally natural to insiders (one of my favourite examples from Sino-Vietnamese culture includes the over-emphasis on face, which is an unconscious thing–people don’t spend their time going, “oh, I’m going to lose face if I do this” every two lines!). Hence the importance of thinking very carefully about what you’re doing when depicting a culture and of getting beta-readers from said culture to correct you.

If you’re an insider, you have a slightly more difficult problem. I’ve already said that the elements of a culture that appeal to outsiders are not necessarily the ones that insiders think most important, and also that many things that seem natural to you (like food) will require explanation in order to make sense to outsiders. There’s a hard line to draw between making your culture a little more “accessible” to outsiders, and between twisting it out of shape so it appeals to the market.

In my work, I’ve done outsider and insider depiction: when I do outsider (such as in the Aztec books), I do my best not to exoticise or demonise practises that the main characters would have found totally natural, like human sacrifices. When I do insider writing, I find myself very often having to explain behaviours and attitudes that are perfectly normal to me, but that make no sense to outsiders (like filial piety or Confucianism): the first draft of my novella “On a Red Station, Drifting” basically had every (non-Vietnamese) reader terminally confused, and I had to do my best to clarify what I meant without having the impression that I was putting the “crunchiest bits” of my culture on display for Westerners (I enjoy writing about my background, but I certainly don’t want the feeling that I’m debasing it in order to sell better!).

LUC: I was interested when you mentioned those authors that you could count on the fingers of one hand, because while we’ve all seen examples of mishandling of other cultures, examples of people who do the job really well seem harder to come by. Are there any writers that come to mind to you offhand who really do an exceptional job, whether they’re outsiders whose writing rings true to insiders or insiders who make a real connection with outsiders?

ALIETTE: It’s going to be hard for me to point out outsiders who really do insider narrative well, as I can’t really appreciate anything beyond France and Vietnam in fiction; and a lot of portrayals of both, as I said above, are very debatable to say the least. That said, one of the works I thought did a great job of evoking the spirit of 17th-18th Century France was Kari Sperring’s debut, Living with Ghosts: the intricate plot and delicately-drawn characters made me think of a modern-day, more nuanced Dumas.

There are more than a few people who are insiders and who create a real connection with outsiders: the first one who comes to mind is the unstoppable Ken Liu, whose fiction is basically everywhere, and who creates really strong stories driven by Chinese culture. I can also cite Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, whose idiosyncratic Filipino SF is bound to make a huge splash (check out her “Alternate Girl’s Expatriate Life“, which tackles emigration, mixed marriages and power dynamics in a very spec-fic way), and Zen Cho, who has a knack for mixing comedy and poignancy in really well-realised stories (her “House of Aunts” is a really awesome not-quite-our-vampires story).

As far as novels go, can I point out to Thanh Ha Lai’s truly awesome “Inside Out and Back Again”, which shows emigrating to America from the point of view of a young Vietnamese girl and the resultant culture shock; and to Joyce Chng’s Wolf at the Door and sequels, urban fantasy set in a vibrant and rich Singapore and featuring a very strong main character in the presence of werewolf pack leader Jan Xu.

Aliette de Bodard lives in a flat with more computers than warm bodies, and writes speculative fiction in her spare time–her Aztec noir fantasy trilogy Obsidian and Blood was published by Angry Robot, and her short fiction has garnered her a British Science Fiction Award and nominations for the Hugo, Nebula and Campbell Award for Best New Writer. When not writing, she blogs and posts recipes over at


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Inclusivity and Exclusivity in Fiction: Steve Bein on Alterity

Society and culture

This is the fourth interview and the sixth post in my series on inclusivity and exclusivity in fiction. You can find a full list of other posts so far at the end of this piece.

Today’s interview brings in Steve Bein, an award-winning writer of science fiction and fantasy whose new novel series from Roc, The Fated Blades, features a female police detective working in Tokyo.

LUC: In your novel Daughter of the Sword (due out from Roc October 2nd), your main character is a Japanese woman, and one who’s trying to make her way in what in her world is an extremely male-dominated profession. She’s hardly the first Japanese character to emerge from your pen, either. What brought you to write about a character so different from yourself? Was it something the story demanded, or did the story emerge from wanting to write about such a character?

STEVE: I’m very interested in questions of alterity and alienation, and so a lot of my protagonists don’t feel at home in their worlds.  Mariko is one such case.  I think one reason I’m so interested in this kind of character is that in many important respects I rarely feel at home myself.  Alienating and ostracizing my protagonists allows me to sympathize with them, and I think a lot of readers also sympathize with a character who feels out of place, especially when that character is cast out unfairly.

On the other question, the story demands a Mariko, or at least a protagonist that is Mariko-like.  She needs to be in a position to investigate crimes linked to a medieval sword (no spoiler there; the flap copy reveals as much) and she needs to be female (and to reveal why would be a spoiler, so I ain’t tellin’).  Once that much was clear, then I got to think a lot about how to sharpen her difficulties, to alienate her further, and what that would do to her character, and how that might initiate feedback loops (i.e. the ostracized reacts to being rejected and that reaction prompts greater rejection).  But of course the fact that she really had to be so different from me posed huge challenges in the writing itself.  She’s by far the hardest character for me to write.

LUC: What are the specific challenges of writing Mariko, and how did you try to address them?

STEVE: There are two big challenges with writing Mariko, the first having to do with story structure and the second having to do with the fact that she’s a Japanese woman and I’m not.

This novel follows three of the greatest swords ever forged as they exert their influence over about a thousand years of Japanese history.  Mariko gets about half of the book, and the other half takes us to different periods in Japanese history, where we see the swords in the hands of samurai warriors WWII officers (and ninja too, if you read the companion novella, Only a Shadow).  Each of those stories is a brick in the wall, and Mariko’s story is both brick and mortar: her story has to hold together on its own and it has to tie all the other stories together in one cohesive arc.  So one reason she’s tough to write is because her story has so much work to do.

The other big difficulty in writing her is the fact that she’s the only female protagonist in the book.   She’s the most important protagonist in the book, but all the rest are guys.  I’m sure the women in my life will be happy to tell you that I don’t really understand women.  Obviously it’s a mistake to speak of “women” as if they all think alike, feel alike, etc., but nevertheless I think male blindness is a reality and I think women perceive and react to and live with social realities that a lot of men never notice.  It takes a lot of thought, a lot of observation, and a lot of rewriting to get a female protagonist to feel female.

LUC: What are the dangers of getting a character of a different ethnicity, background, gender, and profession wrong?

STEVE: You don’t want to get Japanese culture wrong, out of respect for the culture and also because the anime rage is now twenty-odd years old, and that means there’s a huge number of Japanophiles out there who are very likely to catch any mistakes you make.  Japanese culture is easy to caricaturize–easier than most, I’d say–and so it’s all too easy to go from a thoughtful book to a chop-socky flick just by inattention to details and nuance.

I’ve lived in Japan, I’ve taken students there, and I’ve spent a lot of time indulging my fascination with Japanese culture, so all of that mitigates (and I say mitigates, not eliminates) the danger of getting the culture wrong.  Getting police culture wrong is a different story altogether.  The lingo is different, the attitudes are different, the political climate is different.  Of course you literally wrote the book on subculture slang, so you know about that aspect of it, but it’s more than language.  One of my closest friends became a cop, and it’s been very interesting to observe what it’s done to his psyche.  He just doesn’t look at society the same way anymore.  He’s seen the seamy underbelly, and I think trust and brotherly love just don’t come easily to a person after that.  I’ve interviewed a lot of cops for this book, especially female cops, to get other perspectives on the profession.  I think writers have to do that sort of thing if they really want to get the details right.

But that raises the other danger, which is getting so enmeshed in the details that no one but an expert can read your book.  I’m constantly thinking about the sorts of things you can say in English that you just can’t say in Japanese, and sometimes that can get in the way.  For example, in the next book I refer to a character’s face as “cherubic.”  Cherubs are of Mediterranean origin, so no Japanese guy in the 1500s could describe someone as cherubic.  But go too far down that road and you’ve got to write the book in Japanese.  Maybe I’ll change the cherub reference and maybe I won’t, but at the end of the day what flows best with the sentence is more important than what’s 100% authentic.

LUC: What approaches to inclusion and exclusion do you expect to take in your fiction going forward?

STEVE: I don’t really care for the language of “inclusion and exclusion.”  It’s not as if I deliberately exclude any particular category of people in my fiction.  There are lots of genres I have no interest in, but I can’t say the same of characters.

That said, I buy the old maxim that good fiction is interesting characters in difficulty, and the characters that interest me tend not to be straight white able-bodied men.  I have no idea why this is true.  I only look at my body of work so far, and my protagonists include a straight white cabbie, a straight white physics student, a Tibetan astronaut, a Kenyan astronaut, a Japanese secret agent, an intelligent computer, a teenager who lost her arm in an accident, a samurai boy born with a lame leg, a blind and elderly professor, and Mariko, a Japanese cop who spent a lot of her childhood in the States and is alienated because of it.

A couple of early readers of Daughter of the Sword have assumed Mariko is a lesbian.  I don’t give her a boyfriend or a girlfriend in the book — she’s far too busy to have a dating life — so I assume this must be people unconsciously applying the meme that tough female cops are lesbians.  You certainly see a lot of that in police stories, but I don’t like subscribing to tropes like that.  I would say that if I wanted to make Mariko a lesbian, I’d have to go through the manuscript again, examining all of her scenes, all of her internal monologue, and see what assumptions I should and shouldn’t be making about her view on the world.  I’d want to figure out what kind of women she’s attracted to, and revisit her relationship with her parents and her sister — all kinds of stuff.  The actual changes to the manuscript might be few and far between, but they’d be important

So going forward, I don’t anticipate much change in the types of characters I find interesting.  Whoever they are, I feel like the writer’s job is to get in their heads, figure out what they’re sensitive to, what they’re blind to, how the world looks different to them than it might have looked from another perspective.  It can be small stuff.  I’ve got two aging dogs and all of a sudden references to dying pets are cropping up all around me.  They were always there; I just wasn’t sensitive to them before.  Mariko has her own cues, her own pet peeves.  Every character will  have them if you explore deeply enough.

LUC: What kinds of inclusivity or alterity would you like to be able to find more of, as a reader?

STEVE: I like aliens that are actually alien.  I don’t mean anatomically, I mean psychologically, emotionally, relationally.   China Mieville’s Ariekei in Embassytown or the buggers in Card’s Ender’s Game novels are a lot more interesting to me than Star Trek aliens who are just like us apart from the little knobby things on their heads.

I’d like to see more fantasy stories that start from somewhere other than the generically European backdrop that’s almost universal these days.  (I shouldn’t even say “these days.”  I don’t know of a time when this wasn’t a basic assumption of the genre.)  As it is now, you’re almost required to write fantasy this way.  I had an editor reject a story because the protagonist had tan skin and a bow and wasn’t Native American.  She didn’t entertain the possibility that fantasy worlds could be populated with human beings that don’t fit neatly into any of our racial and cultural assumptions.  In fact, the opposite view is arguably the better one: those assumptions of ours are ours, and different histories would necessarily generate new sets of assumptions.

Steve Bein is a philosophy professor, martial artist, photographer, world traveler, and award-winning author.  His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’sInterzoneWriters of the Future, and in international translation.  His first novel, Daughter of the Sword, comes out this October and you can pre-order it on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.  The companion novella, Only a Shadow, comes out this September, and you can pre-order it for your Kindle or Nook.
Steve will be giving out samplers of Daughter of the Sword via Facebook while supplies last.  You can like him at to get yours, or get there by visiting his web site,

Posts so far in this series


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