Haikasoru (the publisher of English translations of Japanese SF/F) is currently running a mini-essay contest for a copy of Mirror Sword and Shadow Prince by Noriko Origawa. They’ve asked folks to respond to the following question:
When readers think “fantasy” they often think of stories taking place in a pseudo-medieval Europe. Is this just due to the facts of publishing—that’s what gets labeled fantasy, and it will change with audience tastes—or does it represent a problem by limiting the field of what can be successfully published?
In all honesty, I think the Western thematic dominance of fantasy is a product of two things: 1) the fact that the largest amount of “popular” and “read” literature is produced in the West, and, therefore, is assumed to be for a Western audience over a non-Western one; and 2) the European “fragment,” as it is sometimes called in postcolonial studies, is always in the habit of making itself the center of knowledge, even within fields of fictional exploration which have traditionally been considered in the modern period to be “lesser literatures.” (By fragment I refer to the constant barrage of European methods of knowledge, culture, and so on which clearly form the basis of most Western nations despite those nations referring to themselves as “melting pots” or other derivations of the term. In the U.S., then, we have historically disenfranchised non-Western and also non-white people (i.e., foreign) and gone to great lengths to reproduce Western culture by imposing educational curriculum, deciding what is “acceptable” to be published, shown on television, and so on at home and elsewhere. That’s not to say that Western culture is bad, per se, just that our culture is one which, like many cultures in a dominant position, wants to make sure it remains in a situation of authority even while it sees itself as a utopian “better place.”)
The first of the points is a fallacy, since a great deal of literature is produced outside of the West, but it is true insofar as the West has, for a long time, controlled what gets seen by the most amount of people. The West has always had the largest distribution channels for everything form literature to film in the modern era, and, thus, has always had the means of choosing what does and does not get seen. Couple this with colonialism and imperialism and you see the West’s attempts to reproduce its European-infused literary products elsewhere while reinforcing its appropriateness at home. To turn to film, it is amusing and somewhat terrifying to know that Rambo was at one point, and probably still is, one of the most popular American films in the South Pacific, in part because it gave a visual of an American (Western) image which had already been inserted into tutelary colonial systems (of governance).
All this informs why publishing companies in the West typically publish fantasy with a European-influenced setting, and also why so little non-Western-esque fantasy has been written by people in the West or translated or brought over from elsewhere. It creates the conditions under which non-Western work can be considered “unmarketable” while reinforcing the proliferation of Western-influenced fantasy. Things have always slipped through the cracks (a movie here, a book or short story or what-have-you there), but never as much as they have in the last ten years.
The good news is, as I see it, that things are changing. The SF/F community is seeing an influx of non-western writers, non-western themes, and so on. This is a good thing. A very good thing (no matter what anyone else says). We need the diversity as much as countries just now forming their science fiction or fantasy canons need the space and time and support to develop through their own Golden Ages. Let’s hope it keeps going that direction.
Now click through and leave your own essay!
Correction: I meant to say that Rambo was popular in Southern Asia, not the South Pacific. It might be popular in the South Pacific too, but I am only familiar with its reception in Southern Asia. Pardon me for the incorrect factoid.