It’s a common misconception that writers create characters or situations that have a direct parallel to their lives or the people they know. It’s not always that straightforward, and many times happens on a deep, unconscious level. For Black History Month, I’ve invited a few writers to explore how history — whether personal or family or country or world — affects their fiction.
Today’s Guest Essay is by Tobias S. Buckell
I grew up in Grenada: a white-looking mixed race boy with an English mother and a Grenadian father. Unlike a lot of the ex-pats in those areas, we didn’t have a lot of money, so even though I attended private schools I was usually the minority, both in terms of being mixed and looking white. I lived in various parts of the English-speaking Caribbean until I was 15, so it’s still the bulk of my life. Until next year, when I turn 30, in which case I’ll be hitting the tipping point of having lived in the US as long as I’d been in the islands. My identity is pretty complex, but it’s basically Caribbean.
Growing up I was raised by my mother alone. In order to get me out of her hair she encouraged reading–reading big, fat books. Because one didn’t have cable TV on a boat, which was what I grew up on. I started reading Science Fiction and Fantasy at a young age, and fell in love with the genre.
So when I started writing it in high school, it was not surprising that I started drawing launch galleries on Caribbean islands. I named starships after Caribbean politicians and heroes.
Because SF/F featured few minorities as heroes, or primary civilizations that were positive about non-Westerners, I wasn’t sure where I fit in. During my apprenticeship, so to speak, I wrote a ton of standard military-SF thriller fiction, and other oddball stuff. I started getting to the point where I was feeling like I had my finger on what I wanted to really write in 1999, while a junior in college. I started using non-Western settings, Caribbean heroes, and standard SF archetypes and tropes to play around with. One of my submission stories to the well known SF/F 6-week workshop, Clarion, was a story that I felt melded all those interests. It was called The Fish Merchant, and featured a Caribbean cyborg assassin loose in China during a First Contact situation. That became my first short story sale.
Later, when I started my first novel, I took a Caribbean-settled world cut off from the rest of the universe, developing on its own. I wanted to place Caribbean people out in outer space, something I’ve actually gotten hate mail for doing (I was told by the emailer I had no business writing about 3rd world people in outer space because only westerners had the ability to pull of the technological grunt work do ever reach the stars). I guess my writing set out to provide an antidote to attitudes such as that.
I’m a die-hard multiculturalist as a result of my experiences and very existence. I believe the strength and amazing story behind the U.S. is that more than any other country it’s made taking in immigrants a mission, and more than any other country we’ve managed to handle doing that without dissolving into armed conflict. There is an element of society that is seeking to make ‘multiculturalist’ a dirty word, but we have only to look at other societies ‘purges’ and racial wars to realize that turning our backs on that grand experiment is a path lined with blood and tears. My small contribution to the world is to imagine a multicultural future struggling with some of the same things we do today, laced with large doses of adventure so that no one ever feels preached to.
A diverse future is not a bitter pill to swallow, but an adventure.
But that isn’t to say this is my only focus. I think one reason for puzzlement some people have about me is that I don’t sit and hammer this message via fiction or whatever. For me it’s one wedge of a giant pie of interests I have that include futurism, general gadgetry, art, adventure story telling, and the fun of a rip-roaring tale. To that extent, this is stuff where I’m saying: “the future is multi-cultural, let’s take that for granted and now let’s go have fun.”
A Caribbean blogger once pointed out that a lot of fiction that gets raised up and promoted by white people reading fiction by people of diverse background is the stuff that is painfully aware of the past of white cultural domination or slavery or colonialism, and that while there is a tremendous gravity to doing that (both because, well, it is a giant elephant in the room which diverse writers rightfully should and do tap into and mull, and because of a sort of self-flagellating self importance on the part of non-diverse readers who keep circling around the subject of the horrors of their past and self guilt, which I think rewards looking backward more than forward) we do need more stuff that looks at what things could be, or is at least forward looking. Several people have indicated that is what they get out of what I’m doing, and hopefully I get to do more of it over time.