Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Moving from Mainstream Reading

The other day, K. Tempest Bradford posted a challenge to XOJane: Stop reading straight white cis male authors for a year! Typically, people are up in arms because how can they stop reading their straight white cis male favs! And how dare anyone tell readers what to read! And isn't excluding people based on their identity discriminatory anyway! But this challenge comes from a very particular place. In much of the English-language reading world, most of the authors who get the most attention tend to be straight white cis men, especially in the science fiction fantasy world. In trying to read widely, and read what the mainstream rates the most highly, it's easy to fall into a trap of reading the same type of writer, over and over again.

As Silvia Moreno-Garcia points out, narrowing one's reading to particular themes, lists, and kinds of authors is actually a very normal and useful exercise. In English degrees, you will have classes like "Writers of the 18th  Century" or "Literature of the Fin de Siecle" or "Women Writers." My own English Hons. degree demanded that students take a particular range of courses that ensured we read a corpus in each century from the 16th onward, and took specialized seminars besides (the ones I took were on "Democratic Individualism" and the aforementioned "Women Writers"). It was a very valuable education; I learned about how writing trends shifted and reflected the norms and changes of the society that it was written in. Each century has its zeitgeist, captured by the literature of the time.

I only came to this realization much later. At the time, I wanted to do the Honours program because I felt that as a writer, I needed to read widely, and the Honours program was conveniently arranged that way. I was also doing a Creative Writing minor, and thought that in order to make my writing resonate through the ages, I had to read other thing that resonated through the ages first, to see what made them so great.

An English degree, however, doesn't necessarily make you a better creative writer, although the reading widely helps. An English degree is mostly designed to help you become a better literary critic. Also, the choice of texts can be quite arbitrary, depending on professor specialization and commonly-accepted canons rather than any intrinsic quality to the texts. A canon is really just a reading list that academics, or some reading body, has decided upon collectively.

I digress.

As a writer in what is often a fairly white-saturated field, I used to write all sorts of things mimicking what I read--exciting space operas with battles and intergalactic friendships, epic fantasies which I often combined with romance tropes, because I fancied swordfighting, and lots of sex, at the same time. It was all quite childish. I do not repent it.

What I do repent was, when I participated in the writing workshops of my Creative Writing minor, submitting stories that I felt represented "universal themes" of love and despair and family. I wanted everyone in my class to get what I wrote, so I wrote stories that I felt they would get. The revisions for those stories were quite frustrating because I was trying to make them more palatable according to my classmates' feedback, but in the end actually made them worse.

The stories I was proudest of were these two: a story set in Menzoberanzan, an underground city from the Forgotten Realms franchise, and a story about a young woman returning to Malaysia to fnd herself out of joint with her family's new affluence and mother's cancer. (In the latter story, I am prouder of the class dissonance, not the cancer. The cancer is pretty clichè.) Only one person in the class understood the first story; practically no one could really critique the second one because they didn't know Malaysia well (but everyone went after the cancer, because, as I said, it's pretty clichè).

I still struggled with writing stories about Malaysia then, because aside from Konserto Terakhir, I hadn't really read a lot of Malaysian literature. I would browse the local writers section in MPH and it was kind of boring. So I kept right on reading my Tolkien and RA Salvatore and David Eddings. I bought Dosteovsky and Stoker and "classic" writers, just to say I read them. I read a lot of Shakespeare. I still love a lot of Shakespeare (obviously, or else I wouldn't hav edited an entire volume of steampunk Shakespeare stories). And I didn't think that the reading audience for all these writers would be interested in stories about Malaysia anyway.

When it occurred to me just how whitewashed and male-centric my reading had been, it stung quite a bit, and I promised myself to stop buying straight white male writers for a while and read books by more non-white science fiction and fantasy writers, and also white women writers. I have never turned back since; I found that their works resonated with me more, and accompanied with my new understanding of how stories could be told in so many different ways than what I had been stuck to, I became braver to combine two things I felt I could write proudly: fantasy, and Malaysia. Thus I wrote my first full, finished novel: a high fantasy novel, with a whole quest and a map and exciting sky adventures and fights and whatnot, set in an equatorial country with landscapes echoing the Malaysian mountains, forests and beaches.

(I have shopped it out several times. Rejections don't sting because no matter what, this novel is still my happy place. I wrote it for my cousin who also likes reading fantasy novels, and I thought how sad it was that girls like us never get to be heroes in the books we both read. I still fiddle with the book but there isn't much about it I do not like.)

When I studied for my PhD qualifying exams, one of my reading lists was on Malaysian literature. I read both in Malay and English, and to my surprise, found that the Malay novels of the rural countryside, with their attendant problems, resonated strongly with me, as if I could find echoes of them in my novel. And I'd never read them before, and rather regretted not having done so. I also read Malaysian-Chinese war poetry, short stories of urban life (which I find decidedly alienating, but I guess that's the point because so many of the ones I read were about alienation), and diaspora narratives. I read names I only vaguely heard of before (because my family didn't follow the local literary scene at all and we didn't have friends who did, either) and I'm quite glad for it.

I still read my straight white male fantasy favourites (although, only David Eddings has really stood the test of time as a comfort read). I enjoy many white writers who are occasionally racist and otherwise problematic. However, if I had not made myself promise to avoid reading mainstream writers for a while, I might well have missed out on the literary trajectory I am on now. I found voices that speak more to my heart and encouraged me to look in there for my stories, rather than look to an audience who aren't really like me for prompts.

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