Link of the Week: “Bigotry, Cognitive Dissonance, and Submission Guidelines” by Charles A Tan


I was going to write about this whole ordeal today, but by the time I got the chance to do so, I saw that Charles Tan had beat me to the punch (and by “beat me to the punch” I mean “he blogged about it and in no way actually beat me to anything because I own nothing”).  Instead of going on about the same things and repeating brilliant points already made by Charles, I’ll send you all over to his essay:  “Bigotry, Cognitive Dissonance, and Submission Guidelines.”  Here’s a quote:

Wait, wait, a privileged Western white writer writing about Africa? This hasn’t been done before. 

And Mike Resnick has written about Africa before. He must get it right, right? 

In many ways, the editor’s oversight of this fact is part of a larger, arguably unconscious, racism on his part. Take for example his blog entry titled Broadening The Toolbox Through Cross Cultural Encounters: On Resnick, Africa & Opportunity. Instead of talking about writers from the continent of Africa (and it’s a large continent, so there’s a large pool of writers like Chinua Achebe, Lauren Beukes, and Joan De La Haye), we get Mike Resnick. Nnedi Okorafor gets mentioned but only as an off-hand comment, rather than the focus of the article. 

So when talking about an anthology that’s diverse and inclusive, neither Mike Resnick, Kay Kenyon, or Jack McDevitt are what I’d consider the examples you should be touting as a contributors. Because to many, it appears that you are favoring the already privileged writers instead of those marginalized.


(For the record, I have also written on things said by the editor mentioned in Charle’s post.  My post was on misery tourism, which may be of interest to some of you.)

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

12 thoughts on “Link of the Week: “Bigotry, Cognitive Dissonance, and Submission Guidelines” by Charles A Tan

  1. My blog finder just came across this comment. For the record, I have been to Africa 6 times on prolonged trips, I have won 4 Hugos for stories about Africa and have been nominated for 8 more, and my knowledge of the Kikuyu and Maasai peoples has been praised by Kenyan office holders. Are you suggesting that I -shouldn't- write about Africa, or perhaps that no right-thinking editor should buy them?

    — Mike Resnick

    • That you're knowledgeable about a small region of a continent and the people thereof no more makes you more knowledgeable on "Africa" any more than someone who has repeatedly visited Prince Edward Island can claim to be an expert on North America.

    • What I take from that (to Anonymous) is that one's experiences are representative of one perspective, not an exclusive or necessarily authentic one, particularly when that perspective is that of a visitor. This needs to be acknowledged and understood when it comes to discussions about work by Westerners that is set in non-Western locales (and vice versa; indeed, in academic circles, this is a regular topic of discussion).

  2. This will be my last comment here. The logical extrapolatiom of Anonymous's comments is that never having been a Christian, a woman, an alien, or a blond, I have no business writing about any of them.

    — Mike Resnick

    • Well, no. Logically, the comment concerns knowledge, not whether you can write about something from the position of the outside. This is your confirmation bias at work. Anonymous may believe you have no business writing about things outside of your own identity, but isn't the argument they made here.

    • Of course one can write about it, that wasn't the point I was making, You can write about it from the outside, but you have to accept that criticism coming from the *inside* is likely to be valid. Moreover, you have to be aware you are writing from the outside. What happens too often is a writer gets enthralled with the attention to detail and research they've done on something foreign to their experience and not realize exactly what that represents. I'm straight and might do a lot of research on the gay lifestyle in, say, New York City or San Francisco, or Toronto, and as a result produce a wonderfully received book with realistic characters and whatever…but that doesn't mean that a gay person struggling with their sexuality living in the closet in a heavily religious area of the US (or a more repressive country) is going to be able to relate to that, and I shouldn't claim that it would.

      You saw it happen right here: someone with specific knowledge about Kenya feels free to generalize that to Africa. Those are not synonyms.

  3. Mr. Resnick was apparently unable to get my point, so let me be explicit: the writing done about Kenya and based on Kenya (or at least a given subset) of it, and the knowledge displayed therein may be entirely authentic, and I'll take his word for it. That does not mean that he gets a free pass on the assumption that he knows *anything else* about the rest of the continent more than the average person who spends 5 minutes looking something up on Wikipedia. Indeed, he might be utterly out to lunch when it comes to subjects outside of that narrow, specific level of knowledge which he has.

    More importantly, he shouldn't fool himself that he can. He should recognize that all his knowledge of Kenya doesn't mean anything if he's writing about characters from the Sudan, or Ghana, or Morocco, or Zaire.

    To paraphrase something I saw someone else say today, just because you've spent a lot of time in Copenhagen does not mean you know anything about the people who live and work in Vatican City. Or Berlin, or London, or Tromso, or Athens, or Madrid. Or, in American terms, someone might be an expert on the culture in Kentucky, but that doesn't mean that they are therefore also an expert on the culture in New York City, Salt Lake City, or Seattle. Or Canada, Mexico, and Cuba.

    If a writer tried to argue that their extensive knowledge and award-winning writing based on Kentucky culture therefore made them qualified to talk about those other places in North America, they'd be rightly laughed at. But with Africa, it happens all the time.

  4. Just saw this. I've also written novels about the histories of Zimbabwe, Uganda and South Africa. I can hear the response already: "Well, he may know -those- African countries too, but he'd damned well better not write about Burkina Faso or Ghana."

    — Mike Resnick

    • I'm sorry, Mike, but you're either not reading what anyone is saying here or deliberately misreading. You keep repeating a point that nobody is actually arguing. Here, let me quote from one of the other commenters:

      "Of course one can write about it, that wasn't the point I was making, You can write about it from the outside, but you have to accept that criticism coming from the *inside* is likely to be valid."

      In other words: yes, you *can* write about it. What people are saying is that having experience in a place doesn't absolve you from one's status as an outsider.

      You're coming to this with your emotions on your shoulder, but in doing so, you are consistently repeating a straw man. To a lot of people, that's akin to sticking your foot in your mouth over and over.

      If you're not going to listen, then commenting here is pointless.

  5. You have a point. I still have literally 2 drawers full of hate mail for having the audacity to write as a black man, let alone a black African man, that I'm a little sensitive about it. As for "criticism coming from the inside", I've never received a bad review (and in truth, only a handful of reviews at all) from Africa.

    Mike Resnick

    • Hate mail sucks. But you shouldn't let that prevent you from addressing legitimate criticism. Not everyone criticizes things you write or say because they hate your guts. Some people do it because these topics matter to them (indeed, the Africa topic is one that matters to me as a postcolonial scholar).

      I think the problem you're going to have in relying on reviews from the African continent is that they are not necessarily representative of the general population of any individual country, nor are they particular prevalent or accessible (that may be just be a product of one country haven't a limited amount of space for the hundreds of thousands of books released *just* in the West every year). Even so, what the reviews tell you doesn't necessarily invalidate whatever criticism you might receive anymore than two people disagreeing on a book doesn't automatically invalidate one another.

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