I’ve made it a point over the past several years to seek out SF written by people from other countries and cultures, Indigenous people, LGBTQIA2 people, minorities, etc. The most recent book I read was Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time: An Indigenous LGBT Sci-fi Anthology. I was discussing it with a friend and he asked me:
“Are the stories any good?”
I had been talking about the Two Spirit and queer authors and characters, the Indigenous settings and perspectives, the prefatory material which lay out the history and politics and which argue the need for stories like these, and my friend noticed I wasn’t talking much about the stories themselves. Thus, his question.
I fumbled a bit to answer. Yes, some are good, a few excellent, some just OK. I voiced my belief that there’s benefit to reading stories like these even if they’re not good: I appreciate these works because of what they can teach me, how they challenge my assumptions and show me very different experiences and understandings of the world.
But the truth is also this: I don’t always know whether the stories I read are any good. I’m not always qualified to assess the quality of these works.
I recently attended a book discussion on Afrofuturism / African Futurism in SF and one of the other participants said this (I’m paraphrasing):
“If you don’t understand the wider culture and history behind someone’s story, you can’t know whether it’s well told or not. You don’t understand the context and the storytelling traditions necessary to make that judgment.”
I take that lesson to heart. Different cultures have different storytelling traditions and different ways of using storytelling tools. All my experience with assessing the quality of written works is from a Western and white perspective. I don’t assume I know enough about other storytelling traditions to know if they’re well told or not. I don’t know their standards. I believe that assessing other cultures’ stories by Western storytelling standards fundamentally misunderstands what those stories are.
I can say whether or not these stories affect me and how powerfully. But that, too, is a miscalibrated standard to use: I don’t know enough about the cultural referents and traditions of these stories to be certain whether I’m receiving their full import, nor fully appreciating their artfulness.
What it boils down to is this: Different cultures use storytelling tools differently. Different cultures have different relationships to character, action, pace, setting, style, tone. Different cultures rely of different referents, different cultural values, different standards of mastery. These different ways of telling stories require just as much skill and art as any other style. If something in a story strikes me as weird or inexplicable, that doesn’t mean it’s badly written—it means I don’t understand how the tool is being used.
Add to this the complication that every author is an individual with a unique way of practicing their art. I’ve been cautioned about reading too much cultural significance into what could just be authorial style. Again, I don’t always know enough to know one way or the other. I’ve learned that it’s good for me to seek out and engage with my uncertainty.
So I do my best to suspend judgment when I read stories born out of other cultures and other experiences of the world. My goal and my role is be receptive, to hear the stories these people choose to tell about themselves, about their history, their world, their perspectives, their lived and dreamed experiences. I try very hard to simply be grateful for the experiences they offer.
Opening myself to the experience of stories from other cultures, sometimes vastly different than my own, encourages me to be humble. It brings me face-to-face with the limits of my understanding. It keeps me aware that my experience of the world isn’t definitive—the world treats different people differently and everyone’s experience is as real to them as mine is to me. Different experiences allow people to make sense of the world in different ways—just because something doesn’t make sense to me doesn’t mean it doesn’t make sense. At the same time, stories like these expand me. I grow through these perspectives. I learn more and different ways of making sense of the world.
More than anything, these stories build connections between different people and cultures. They build empathy. That happens whenever we engage in shared storytelling, regardless of the assessed quality of the story.
“Are the stories any good?”
I’m not convinced that’s a relevant question. That’s not what’s important.
I love the opportunity to share different experiences and different stories with as many different kinds of people as possible.
This is why I love being a librarian.