Interview – Tobias Buckell
Tobias Buckell is a Caribbean-born speculative fiction writer who grew up in Grenada, the British Virgin Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He has published stories in various magazines and anthologies. He is a Clarion graduate, Writers of The Future winner, and Campbell Award for Best New SF Writer Finalist.
Find him online at http://www.tobiasbuckell.com.
You don’t blog a lot about race, but you seem fairly comfortable talking about it when it comes up. What questions or issues around race seem most common? And which do you wish would come up more often?
I don’t blog much about it because complicated conversations are often hard to get into in a text-only form. Nuance is lost. Misattributions come quickly. Despite my not blogging about it much, there’s a whole cadre of people online who call me ‘a race blogger’ for having mentioned it a handful of times, which just goes to show you how quickly it all gets messy. I also come from a perspective of hoping my work speaks for itself, rather than having to go out and engage.
My simple statement is that, when compared to the general demographics of the USA and the world, SF/F under represents non-Caucasians and is often actively hostile or rooted in a colonialist point of view. Rather than argue it, I prefer to write books that demonstrate that adventurous, fun, well written SF can be had that is inclusive.
Many people try to make multiculturalism out to be some form of totalitarianism that forces people to write lesser books because they have non-white characters. Nothing could be further from the truth. That’s a self serving racist meme. To combat it I write fun-packed novels featuring non-white characters in major ways as an antidote. It’s a way of saying ‘here is the solution.’ Multicultural, big idea SF, with explosions.
The visions most people are writing of the future fail to engage with the fact that the future isn’t going to be less diverse. The present is more diverse than many writers are showing the future to be, yet somehow, all these space adventures with pretty much only white people seem to dominate. . I try to step things up a bit. Lead by example? Damn, I hope so.
I occasionally get semi-racist mail that goes something like “damn, this was a fun book, but I don’t believe minorities will ever be out in outer space in these numbers because of [insert colonialist paternalistic worldview here].” But they keep reading. And I figure, it’s one crack in the door, right? Aside from those troubled readers, if some non-Caucasian readers who don’t usually feel like they’re included in our visions of the future find out they are, then I’m justifying my existence even further.
Look ma, the future is filled with lots of different kinds of people. It doesn’t seem like that radical of a statement to base a leg of my writing philosophy on to me.
For a while in 2009, RaceFail seemed to dominate the conversation in the SFF community. What do you think were the impacts of that conversation? Has SFF changed as a result of RaceFail09?
To be honest, I spent most of 2009 in and out of hospitals and in and out of recovery due to a heart defect, so I missed almost the entire thing. I was disconnected while I tried to get my health back. From what I did see, it was a fast and furious discussion, with lots of misunderstandings and failure just about everywhere, which is why I don’t like text as a primary medium for argument. However, it has hit a few people upside the head.
On the other hand, a number of people learned nothing more than a vague idea that some people are ‘sensitive,’ and missed the point. Racism, both past and in subtle continuing forms, buries a lot of hurt that will often surface. I remember being at a seminar once where a midwestern white woman explained she’d been raised racist and never had a black friend, and was trying to change; she was then chased from the room by the runners of the encounter group for being a racist. And white privilege often manifests as lashbacked rage. The two combine… explosively. I have never been thanked or gracefully ignored for pointing out racist behavior, even the most obvious, vile kind. I remember a person in a van next to me calling someone a nigger. When I turned around and said ‘what the hell? Dude?,’ you can guess who got yelled at, called over-sensitive and leftist, and eventually called racist for calling them out on their actions. Yeah, somehow
But I think one thing that came out of it was recognition that the internet is not just comprised of white fans of science fiction. And people have started to think a little bit more about the larger issues after the fact.
The controversy around whitewashing the Avatar: The Last Airbender movie similarly raised awareness of groups underrepresented on television and in film. The creators of the A:TLA television series had no say over casting for the film, but they seem as upset about it as their contracts with Nickelodeon will allow. How important is it for characters’ racial identities to be translated into new media along with the plot? What measure of creative control would you want written into the contract if a filmmaker wanted to base a movie on one of your books?
You know, I used to think it would be hard to whitewash my books, as all the characters were non-white, until I read a review accusing me of being racist because my ‘white main characters’ spoke ‘good English’ and my ‘black characters’ spoke ‘bad English.’ I was really confused until I realized that, against all narrative descriptions about brown and lighter brown, the reader had mentally translated lighter brown skin color to mean white and read my main characters as such. Then they’d constructed their critique based on that. It was weird. So I guess, with white readers working that hard at times to turn my characters into something they’re not, I wouldn’t be surprised at whitewashing.
Writers have so little control over what Hollywood often does to their books that I doubt I could write that level of creative control into a contract and still sell rights. I mean, LeGuin is far more powerful and famous than I am and she couldn’t achieve that.
I would hope that whoever loved my books enough to buy the rights would get that core aspect. Mainly I’d hope, if that ever came to pass, the controversy would sell more of my actual books and I could laugh all the way to the bank. But I know it would be a sad thing to have to live through and put up with, particularly the disappointment of the fans.
In the past, you’ve described yourself as ‘light, not white’. It points to an important distinction between race and skin color, but the term isn’t widely used in the US. Given that race is a social construct and skin color is an unreliable indicator of cultural identity, is there any sensible way to generalize people? Or would conversations about these subjects benefit from a more specific lexicon?
Smarter sociologists than I struggle over this discussion. I’m not sure if a more specific lexicon would be of benefit. Brazilians have a vastly larger vocabulary for skin tones and the power/privilege that comes with them, but there is still racism and prejudice. It just scales really differently, right? In the US, it is surprisingly dualistic, black or white. Where I grew up there seemed to be an awareness of various scales of identity. I guess in the Caribbean there was more willingness to allow various modes of identity not available, or not as easily given, in the US. While I grew up comfortably identifying as mixed in the islands, here in the US I had pressure from white people and quite a few black people to ‘pick one or the other.’ I see that now even with the current president. Very few people approach him as a mixed race individual, with a mixed family background.
My stepdad’s mother just told me the other day that Obama was all about ‘putting whitey down,’ or something silly and offensive like that (here’s an aside, what is with old white people who think black people sit around talking about ‘whitey’ all the time? Who even uses the word ‘whitey’? It’s been 40 years since anyone has ever used that outside of a standup comic routine) which I said must mean she believes the same thing of me, as both the president and I have mixed backgrounds. And what a silly thing to believe, as you’d have to be invested in killing a part of your own family.
It’s good advice for writers to avoid writing flat or stereotyped characters, but this seems especially wise when writers give their characters races different from their own. What other good writing advice gets even better when applied to diversity?
Yeah, a stereotyped character of a different race develops another layer of negative meaning in many cases. I often tell students to add in lots of diverse characters, as it forces you to make them different from each other. Showing different types of people and personalities helps avoid those issues. It’s a case where even more diversity can help you avoid the obvious mistake!
The other good writing advice is research! Read biographies, personal essays, letters, websites or blogs, of diverse people. I find these rather helpful.
You’ve mentioned in the past that you like your stories to have realism, especially with regard to the consequences of your characters’ actions. But in an action story, isn’t justice as much a complication for dangerous protagonists as it is for the villains? Or is that complexity another way you conjure realism?
It is complex. And most revenge stories, if placed in the real world, would reveal the hero to be nearly as psychotic as the villain. Consider a car chase through a crowded street and all those people’s lives put at risk. The moral center of action stories often goes off the rail if you sit back and consider it too closely. I was really intrigued by Matt Damon comparing action movies to pornography in an interview once, in that the plots really were an excuse for a sequence of ‘money shots’.
The problem is, if you undercut the basic shots of an action plot with too much analysis of the nature of action, you’re liable to pull the rug out from the reader’s fun, and then they can get annoyed. I’m always on this highwire act, balancing my own desire to write something that just oozes with explosions and fun against the realization that what is going on is somewhat psychotic. Like how easily it is in action to torture good information out of someone. It doesn’t work like that. And torture is just frigging immoral. But the action plot sets it up so that it’s an unnatural situation ‘ticking bomb, obvious bad guy’ and we feel that ‘in this case it’s okay.’ So then as you’re writing, you have to ask ‘am I contributing to this?’ I’ve actually been trying to undermine the torture is okay thing as much as possible. One day I have plans to write a torture scene where the heroes act on the information they get and really fuck things up badly, because the person told them what they wanted to hear to make them stop torturing him.
In the Halo book I wrote, one of the characters has been tortured in his past, and he shoots down a suggestion to torture someone. I got a nice letter from someone who did interrogation. They thanked me for not writing a typical action interrogation scene, as the reasons the character gave were exactly the reason the best interrogation works, by just giving Stockholm Syndrome enough time to take hold; those captured and held in a comfortable jail eventually happily give over the information needed.
You’ve also commented that you like your stories to have some basis in real science, and that’s certainly reflected in the setting for your book, Sly Mongoose. What other interests outside of writing do you enjoy applying to your fiction?
Language, history, sociology, whatever I happen to stumble across. Right now I’m fascinated by alternative power, technology, boats, and sail power.
What do you have coming out next?
The Alchemist and The Executioness is a book that Paolo Bacigalupi and I wrote – two novellas back to back in the same universe. It’s fantasy, which neither of us have done much of, and right now it’s available as an audiobook from Audible.com.
After that, I’m just now finishing up my novel Arctic Rising, a near future book about the Arctic Circle after most of the ice is gone and the resource rush happens. I also have a young adult novel finished and floating around out there, sort of a mix between Have Spacesuit Will Travel and Rendezvous with Rama with a Caribbean kid as the hero.
Beyond that, my plans are top secret and in progress, so I’ll wait until they’re nearly done or announced elsewhere!