Ben Peek (benpeek) wrote,
Ben Peek

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Answers on Postcards (Questions and Answers for WFC Panel)


Below are the panel questions that Jeff VanderMeer sent me before WFC, and with them are my answers. They're long because, frankly, I'm a wordy bastard. So this is a long post that I've made longer by breaking up all the words with images. I don't hold in LJ cutting, so it hasn't been done. At any rate, I hope these are a bit interesting for you as I had fun with them, and if you were on the panel (or around the panel) that they were used, I hope they contributed something.

This is also your chance to call me a crack addict.

America had/has Manifest Destiny and the idea of the American Dream. What are the Australian equivalents, in terms of a shared ideal or cultural/social imperative?

As yet, and to the best of my knowledge, Australia doesn't have a movement term such as 'American Dream' for the writing that falls here. There was once the Australian Dream, but, in the last ten to fifteen years with the expansion of technology and the embrace of the government for a policy that supported a multicultural outlook, that idea has fallen away. We're in movement with cultural ideas.

If I were going to pick the one that was emerging, I would call it the idea of the Multicultural State, or, my new favourite term, the Mongrel City. This is, basically, the concept of a country (but found mostly prominently in cities like Sydney) that is culturally and racially fragmented, splintered, and the battle within by people who think this is a bad idea and those who think it's worth supporting. For the first kind, they believe that anyone new should assimilate, lose the culture they were born with, become Australian--whatever that means. On the other side there are people who think the diversity, the mash that dilutes white Australian culture, is a good thing. That's the social/cultural ideal that Australia is dealing with, I think.

What is cultural cringe?

The cultural cringe is the cringe you get when you're associated with Australian products and lifestyle and, well, anything Australian. It's connected mostly to the old white Australia--Akubra hats, saying the words 'g'day' and 'mate' and wanting to go out into the country and blast the fuck out of kangaroos while holding a stubbie... or, y'know, that's just my cultural cringe.

Everyone is a bit different in what sets it off for them, I guess, but it emerges partly out of embarrassment over being associated with something Australian, and wanting to be connected with with a culture outside it. (You'll be noticing at this stage the glorious contradictions of cultural life in Australia.) It comes from a long tradition of not wanting to be associated with what an Australian is, which began for white Australians as convicts.

The clichés of Australians on TV and in movies are images like the croc hunter, Crocodile Dundee, and in general a sense of adventure and athleticism, but that's about it. Are there similar clichés perpetrated within Australian fiction, both mainstream and genre?

I think you need to expand your cliches :)

The Crocodile Dundee, croc hunter, insane bastard who leaps in with wild animals isn't that much of an image outside Steven Irwin now, and we're all kind of ignoring him. Athleticism is there, sure, but sport is a big part of the country--so in this case, I think that portrayal of the sport loving Australian who would rather go out and play cricket than do something sensible like sleep has a certain truth to it.

But the cliches go deeper than that. There's the mystical Aboriginal, rather like the American version of the Mystic Black Man that Morgan Freeman plays in films. The difference is that the Aboriginal Mystic wears less clothes and has more tribal markings. There is the beach loving white Australian. The nerdy, studious Asian kid who always works and never plays. The submissive Middle Eastern woman. It's a long list of cliches and I could go on and on, but they are, truly, a rare find in the speculative fiction side. Most Australian spec fic is so culturally stripped back that you would struggle to find a dominant cliche outside those that are found in the genre in particular.

But, take the genre and place it against Australian Art in general, and they emerge. Perhaps the immediate example of one of the cliches is the Mystical Aboriginal, which can be found in Terry Dowling's Tom Rynosseros series with the Ab'O culture and its mix of technological mysticism. I have to admit there is also a bit of cultural cringe when I think of Dowling's work here, aided by his use of the word Ab'O. The term (I suspect) is based off the racist term, Abo, which has traditionally meant nothing nice and I really want to be distanced from the work, culturally, because of that.

Shame, really, as Dowling is quite a fine writer.

Why is there an Australian writer section in most Australian bookstores?

Because it's Australian Made and is thus Special.

No, seriously, Australia has a thing about supporting Australian Made products. We put little green and gold labels on cheap cans of soft drink and other products, such as clothing, as if this somehow will encourage people to buy the Australian Made Product over the foreign brand. It's a murky path of logic to navigate, but I honestly do think it comes from the best intention of helping local industries. Promoting local companies and local artists to make sure that they and not foreign markets get the money. Sadly, it's a little bit racist and small minded when you actually also study it.

See the little green and yellow mark on the side, near the fingers. Australian Made. The AC stands for Australia's Choice.

How invasive in the US influence on Australian writers—and on SF/F writers in particular?

It's pretty prominent, yeah, but it's not just the US. I'd probably go as far to say as calling it the Western influence and, perhaps, in that way, it's not so strange. Australia identifies itself as a country from the West.

That results, in spec fic, in a kind of cultural free speculative fiction in the mainstream. This is just my opinion, of course (like
everything here) so take it as you please or don't. But there appears to me to exist a culture free spec fic that holds, in its centre, the Christian influenced morals, and which works from there to create bland culture. But I wouldn't call this influence invasive as simply what Australia has always had--we've traditionally been part of the British publishing arm, a colony in the old way of things, and American TV, music and film is well loved here. Can something be invasive when you grow up with it?

Are there particular US/UK writers that resonate with Australians, or Australian SF/F writers?

Well, not with me, no. Terry Pratchett is very popular here, but isn't he popular everywhere? I suspect the resonating happens on a personal level, one on one. I resonated very strongly with Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, but I'm pretty sure the whole country didn't. So I think you would have to go see what people thought individually and, in this case, looked at the individual, not the country.

On the other hand, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is more popular than the Bible, so maybe that says something.

(Optional Interaction: Tell me what work has resonated with you.)

Which US/UK writers tend not to leap that cultural divide?

I suspect I'm the wrong person to answer that question, being that I am a White late twenties male brought up on American and British culture who likes books. I don't much see a divide, in other words. A book deeply ingrained in American culture, like Michael Chabon's Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, won't leap that cultural divide in the way, say, a generic big fantasy will, but that doesn't mean that it's not enjoyable and won't sell. It's just that the book is about America and will sit as an American book in the same way that a book about Pakistan is a Pakistani book. It is, however, more difficult for the second book to breach Australia in the same way as the first.

(Though, he added later, maybe not in non-fiction.)

To what extent do you feel Australian writers feel pressure to make their fiction conform to some hazy idea of what American markets want?

I think there's a fairly large pressure to get into the American market, especially if you want to build a long career. There is a
belief in the Australian scene that you can't have a career if you stay here, and to a certain extent, that is true. Take a look at the people on this panel and ask yourself how they cemented their careers and position, and then think of those Australian authors that immediately spring to your mind, and ask how they did that. To get into America is, I guess, to get into the World, and that can be a pressure on an author who wants to be making a living off their work.

After all, with the exception of Shadowed Realms, there are no professional markets in Australia. And Shadowed Realms is a flash fiction dark fantasy horror market so it's rather limited in what it'll take. This'll play on your mind if you're one of those authors who wants to be part of the SF group things, or if you want to be take seriously alongside people like Jeff
Ford and Kelly Link, just to pick two at random.

The conforming, I tend to think is something that is fading away, in that I don't think you would ever hear stories from professional markets about being rejected because your story had the Harbour Bridge in it. (I've always suspect those stories were easy ways to ignore the fact that you wrote a bad story, myself.) But since I think Australia, and the rest of the West, are busy creating culturally free speculative fiction, the idea that they are somehow conforming to it is, perhaps, not right any more. Instead we're seeing a whole generation who grew up with Tolkien and the such, and are following in the tradition of those imagined cultures.

Why isn't there more Australian SF/F with an "Australian feel" or Australian settings?

There's not the market for it, I guess.

This might, I suppose, sound like a contradiction to my previous answer. In that, however, I didn't think authors were changing
consciously to not write about Australia. However, that doesn't deny the fact that there isn't a proven audience for a steady diet of 'Australian' spec fic. By this I mean fiction that simply isn't written by Australians, of course.

My other theory (and this is just a theory I toss round to see if it sticks, and I'm not sure if I believe it all myself) is that, for
most, it takes a certain patriotism to write about your country, or to have a feel of your country running through it. The problem with this is that patriotism is, as far as I'm concerned, a bad word. Now, I do write about Australia, and Australian things, but I don't believe being Australian is better or worse than being American or British or French or whatever. But I am fascinated by the culture and world around me, and I want to engage in a conversation with it. That doesn't for a moment mean I'm patriotic. In truth, I don't vote, I can't stand my Government, and I've little respect for the army as it goes overseas
to engage in a war I have absolutely no respect for. But I do have a certain love for my Mongrel City, for it holds my friends and family, and it's what I interact with every day. And at times, that's very influential on me.

For others, I don't think it is. I think for many Australian writers to write about Australia requires a strong patriotic, almost love with the physical presence of the land, and country. Being patriotic is, in Australia, more easily connected with being an idiot who fears the 'yellow wave' and who wants to kick anyone not white our of the country. So maybe the reason is a mix of cultural cringe for the patriot.

Are any Australian SF/F writers dealing with aboriginal culture?

Not white writers, no. I don't know if there are any Aboriginal writers producing work in the speculative fiction area.

There is a general belief that, unless you are Aboriginal, that you do not have the right to write about Aboriginal culture. White people took too much away already, so most won't write about it for the social and cultural guilt that comes from that. There is also the fact that Aboriginal culture is not easily accessible to just anyone off the street. It takes time to learn it, to be immersed in it.

I have written about Aboriginals, but I have not written about Aboriginal culture. I have written about Aboriginal characters responding to the invasion of the British, but that is not Aboriginal culture. That's Australian history. It's a nasty horrible thing, and I can and will write about that, in the hope that somehow, somewhere, apologies are made from the Government towards the Aboriginal community. But Aboriginal Culture does not need a white man writing about it and claiming to be an authority figure right now.

Do Australian writers still feel isolated from the rest of the world, even with the ease of communication we have with the Internet?

That you will have to ask others about, but personally, I don't. But then I'm a fairly reclusive sort of guy, and if it wasn't for the internet, I wouldn't even have a presence in the local scene. So to me, it doesn't feel like isolation, and I haven't heard complaints about it. What I do hear, however, is an Us vs Them kind of conversation, in which Australians talk about not being part of the World scene (usually defined as America), that they can't sell their work there, that it is, somehow, a game that is set against them.

It's kind of stupid, really, but that's just my opinion.

That's it. This final picture is of my Mongrel City, Sydney, taken a month or so ago in a plane.

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  • Leviathan’s Blood Film

    Originally published at Ben Peek. You can comment here or there. The paperback release of Leviathan’s Blood is very soon and to…

  • A Bit of Bolano, Schafer, and Cooke.

    Originally published at Ben Peek. You can comment here or there. Here are a few more reviews of books I’ve read recently: 2666,…

  • Interview, A Few Books Read

    Originally published at Ben Peek. You can comment here or there. Just a small update today. If you’re interested, you can get a whole…