SFF in Conversation

SFF in Conversation: Culture, history and novels – A conversation between Aliette de Bodard, Zen Cho, Kate Elliott, Cindy Pon, and Tade Thompson

SFF in Conversation is a new monthly feature on The Book Smugglers in which we invite guests to talk about a variety of topics important to speculative fiction fans, authors, and readers. Our vision is to create a safe (moderated) space for thoughtful conversation about the genre, with a special focus on inclusivity and diversity in SFF. Anyone can participate and we are welcoming emailed topic submissions from authors, bloggers, readers, and fans of all categories, age ranges, and subgenres beneath the speculative fiction umbrella.

Today, we have the pleasure and the honour to host a round table with a group of fantasy novelists who all have novels recently published or out this month.

Five incredible novelists, one awesome roundtable. Prepare to be amazed.


Q: How is your novel informed by culture and/or history?

Kate Elliott:

All my novels are informed by culture and history, starting with my own personal cultural background and the culture and history of the places I grew up and have lived in. Everything I write is grown in that earth, as it were. It builds on the experiences and assumptions that are part of my psyche. Whatever I write has to pass through my mind and everything my mind tells me about how I perceive the world and how I think the world is and how it should be in a “perfect world” if there was ever to be one of those (about which I’m doubtful). I can’t escape me, nor can I claim I am objective; I write out of my experience, no one else’s. When I see writers who claim they write from a contextless place or that they measure the world “objectively” in terms of culture and history or that they have achieved the ability to channel someone else’s experience, I am pretty sure they are ignoring this truth.

Having said that, I must clarify that this doesn’t mean I can only write novels about ME. We have curiosity, imagination, and empathy for a reason: To build gates and windows into places that aren’t us. Story creates connection.

Court of Fives

Court of Fives is set in a fantasy world inspired by Greco-Roman Egypt, the history of Hawaii’s annexation and cultural renaissance, the sports/obstacle course game show Sasuke/American Ninja Warrior, and the 19th century novel Little Women. Across time and regions, cultures have met and mingled and influenced each other, and as the child of an immigrant I think that mindset of how things connect and how they change each other is what I often bring to my writing. I’m always exploring the crossroads.

Aliette de Bodard:

Kate has stolen a lot of the answers I would have liked to give–of course everything that I write is infused with my own background, which includes culture, and my personal history!

That said, I have a particular fascination with history and culture. History is a wonderful source of inspiration. The variety of what humans beings have been up to in various places and various times is staggering, and not always conforming our pre-conceived perceptions of the past. History, for me, is also stories–what we deem worth preserving, what narratives we’re enshrining and which ones are getting erased are all very powerful preoccupations in my writing. Culture, for me, a worldbuilding essential: like the air we breathe, it influences everything that we do or think, and yet it is very easy to ignore it.

Different cultures have different ideals (in Confucian Asia, the ideal man is a cultured scholar; in 21st Century France or US, culture is not valued as much), different beliefs, and even different ways of doing ordinary things (a Vietnamese meal is a multipart affair with several dishes presenting a balance of flavours, as opposed to a Western one with only one main dish and one overpowering note).

House of Shattered Wings

My novel, The House of Shattered Wings, is set in an alternate post-magical-cataclysm Paris, where the society is a meld of modernism and Belle Epoque social mores–and where the new class system is based on safety (who has it, who can offer it, and who lacks it completely), and on magical abilitiies (which are a way to survive in a new, dangerous environment) rather than on wealth and birth. It creates a different environment from the one we’re used to; and in turn characters with different mindsets and behaviour. And it also has a mix of characters who are mortal, and of one who aren’t (Fallen angels and people from Vietnamese legends), which in turn creates different dynamics between them.

Cindy Pon

I’m such an intuitive writer that it wasn’t until after I had finished my first novel, Silver Phoenix, and been published for a few years that I realized how much I was dwelling in the in between as a writer–my perspective, being Chinese American. I remember speaking with my mother’s friend from China, and when I had explained to her what my story was about (a girl sets out on a journey–meets boys along way), she was flabbergasted. A girl traveling alone? Impossible, she said. And her feet would be bound, she declared. Why don’t you write about an American boy (“American” being white) who travels to China to have adventures.

It was my turn to be gobsmacked. I’d grown up fed on stories of white boys having adventures. I write what I write because I never read a fantasy novel in my youth that featured an Asian girl on a heroine’s journey. But this was not what my mother’s friend knew. She had been raised in China with Chinese stories, and continued to watch them here in the US, not consuming mainstream media at all. She had never felt the lack that I felt, having grown up in California since I was six. For her, my heroine, my perspective was too westernized. And on the flip side, I encountered readers who felt that my heroine was too meek. She wasn’t “strong” enough. She needed help from others, she obeyed her parents wishes, she simply didn’t fall into the category of “kick ass” YA heroines and its ideals. I was too much for some and not enough for others.


The more I read and researched Chinese culture and history, the more I realized that I wasn’t trying to write a historical. I wasn’t trying to be Amy Tan. And my perspective is decidedly in between. How can it not be? It is the core of who I am. I think this extends very much so to Serpentine, a story about a handmaid who was raised her entire life to be a servant and companion to her mistress. And what happens when everything she thought she knew begins to change.

Zen Cho:

The bound feet trope really annoys me, Cindy! It was obviously a horrible practice, but a lot of women in China didn’t do it because they weren’t Han or hey, their family wasn’t rich and they had to be able to work.


Yes, very true about the feet binding. My heroine is of a higher class in Silver Phoenix, so possibly. But still, I found I had to often deal with Western notions of Chinese history based on what little has filtered here and told I’m wrong. One was marrying age. A white reader thought they were all married off at twelve or thirteen. Not true!


One of the interesting things for me about reading Dream of Red Mansions was realizing that only Daiyu–the delicate one–had bound feet because the Manchu didn’t do that (or if they did, it was much later), and that her delicacy might in part have been because of her bound feet.

I see these comments about marriage in Euro-medieval history all the time too. People don’t realize how marriage customs varied and girls weren’t all married at fourteen. Ugh.


What Cindy says about dwelling in between resonates with me, as does what Aliette says about history being stories–in particular, the stories we choose to preserve. I’m really inspired by the stories in history that I haven’t heard before, I think because the stories I read for a lot of my life left so many things out, and because the history I learnt was incomplete.

Sorcerer to the Crown (UK)

The truth is an ungainly thing and it’s hard to tell everyone’s perspective of history. But there are perspectives that it is convenient for dominant culture to dismiss. Sorcerer to the Crown draws hugely on those half-forgotten, suppressed histories, even as it uses a storytelling mode arising from and serving the purposes of dominant culture. It’s inspired by Regency romances and luxuriates in that very romantic view of a fictionalised era–all those dukes and plucky debutantes!–even as it tries to critique it.

I think it’s really important to understand that the world is full of different stories and viewpoints. And one way to remember that is to keep telling each other different kinds of stories about our history.

What counts as our history and our culture can be a difficult point for people who live in between. But I think those of us living on the edges of a dominant culture have a special advantage in seeing and conveying perspectives others haven’t noticed. At least, I hope so!

Tade Thompson:

I think my novel is slightly different from everyone else’s in that it’s alternative history, but it is history that perhaps a Western audience may be ignorant of. Making Wolf is definitely informed by culture and history. I see it as a conversation between American Noir tradition and Yoruba culture, but using the worldbuilding techniques of speculative fiction. It’s a crime narrative, but I wanted to demonstrate some elements of West Africa that are made invisible by the regular Western news outlets. There is an accepted story of what Africa is which frankly annoys most Africans that I know. Like every single human grouping, Africa is complex and does not fit into the rather simplistic journalistic frame that most media and charity organisations would like it to.

Making Wolf

To echo what Kate has said, the book reflects my personal history as well. This is part of what writing is, though. The narrative is filtered through my experiences and my education and my culture. What emerges should be something that only I could have written.

One of the commonest responses I’ve received to my work has been, “but Africans don’t–‘

Yeah, they fucking do. No matter how you attempt to complete that statement, it will be wrong, and the use of that sentence demonstrates unexamined privilege, ignorance, or both. It’s like the foot binding. Someone reports footbinding during their travels to Cathay and all of a sudden the cocktail conversation is that “Chinese women have their feet bound from a young age”. It becomes Cindy’s experience when she shared her story, “but Chinese women don’t travel alone”. Yeah, they fucking do.

I should point out also that the West is not alone in this. Recently, Homosexuality was outlawed in a number of African states, with some commentators stating that being gay is “unAfrican.” This shows an amazing lack of awareness of both history, anthropology, and (heterosexual) privilege.

Q: Do you worry about alienating readers who are not familiar with the cultures/histories that influence your novel?


I honestly don’t. I write first and foremost for myself. I’m a selfish writer, because in the end, writing is very challenging. And I have to love it to make it to the end of a novel, then revise multiple times. I have to write for myself.

Silver Phoenix

Having said that, I do think that being one of the few Chinese American authors writing Chinese inspired YA fantasy in the US, I am marginalized. It’s not so much that I alienate readers, it’s that my books are alienated by US readers. I see it the other way around. I’ve had some readers who have told me that they loved my novels, and expressed surprise because they weren’t Asian or really into Asian culture or manga or anime. As if by virtue of the fact I wrote a Chinese inspired fantasy, it isn’t a fantasy novel for everyone. Or at the very least, everyone that loves a good fantasy read. Sadly, I do believe that Asians are still very much “othered” in books as well as western media.


I worry about it the same way I worry about everything! I don’t let it influence what I write about, if that’s the question: like Cindy, I write first and foremost for myself (and especially my younger self, who was lapping up any books that looked like they were vaguely in the vicinity of Asia). I am aware that non-Western cultures are less … mainstream and less appealing to readers, though, which is a definite problem; and that the perception of those cultures, as Cindy says, has often been very skewed by a couple of Single Narratives that don’t allow much room for anything else, ie the Magical Martial Artist, the Inscrutable Oriental, the Delicate Asian Flower…

(And I worry that because there’s so little Vietnamese-influenced fiction in SFF, people are going to take my narratives as an Only Truth, whereas my fiction is of course influenced by my upbringing, daily life and biases, etc.!)

On a Red Station Drifting

I do think there’s a slight difference between writing to readers not familiar with the culture and readers who are, in that you need to explain more to the former. For instance, in Vietnamese historicals, “quan” is a scholar-official, and if I were writing to an audience familiar with it, that’s all I would really need to say for readers to get a definite mental picture: of course it would differ slightly depending on personal history, perceptions, etc; a bit like using “duke/aristocrat” in English, where people have a clear mental image but different expectations.

When I’m writing for an audience unfamiliar with this, I have to unpack a little more what a scholar means in Vietnamese history–about examinations as a way of rising through society, about the importance of learning, etc. To be fair, you always have to do this to some extent when writing fiction, because you need to give the reader context, but the more distant you are from your reader’s expectations, the more explanations you need to give, and this in turn affects how I write. Most people in Western Anglophone countries are at least passingly familiar with the fabric of “medieval feudal society” (what you have to contend with, in addition to the problematic vagueness of the term, is people having partial and slightly inaccurate ideas of what it entails); they are, by and large, not familiar at all with the fabric of, say, 19th-Century Vietnam, which operated on very different societal and cultural assumptions (you have to get the basics across, and that’s a lot of work).

There’s of course a narrow needle to thread (and I’m never sure if I do thread it successfully) between providing explanations for context, and making readers familiar with the culture bored or angry or alienated because they feel you’re over-explaining.


Over time I’ve become intrigued by how the expectations we bring as readers (and as writers) both creates and enforces alienation. Recently I put together a talk on expectations, narrative structure, and openings for a Guest of Honor appearance at SFeraKon, a lovely convention in Croatia. As I look at the openings of novels I see how much any reader’s reaction to and interaction with a book is dependent on their familiarity with the deepest level of assumptions in the text (what kind of society is this? who populates it? how does it function? does the reader know what a horse is without it needing to be define?) as well as their expectations about what will happen (the bride introduced on page one will be dead by page five; the cynical wreck of a man will be redeemed by duty, sacrifice, or love by the end; the hapless nerd-bro will become the hero).

As a reader I like to think that I am open to things that run counter to my expectations but over time I’ve come to observe that often it’s easy to react negatively to stories that don’t give us what we expect in the way we expect it, even when we are being offered fiction labeled “innovative” or “bold” or “weird.” The degree to which we make assumptions about the culture/s in which a novel takes place, and how we expect that culture to look and a story in it to unfold, and (as Aliette says) the kinds of characters we expect to see: All this influences how we read. When stories don’t fulfil those expectations (as Cindy says, for example, if they don’t fulfil the reader’s idea of “this is how an Asian fantasy should look”), some readers feel alienated or (as per Cindy, again) they themselves alienate the text.

For me as a writer there are a couple of things I take from this.

First, ultimately I have to write for myself. As an American, I have advantages in writing epic fantasy and sf for the English speaking US/UK/Oz/NZ market because there are elements of American sff/popular culture that I’ve absorbed so I’m comfortable with them, and they often show up embedded in my texts in ways I may not even recognize or may only become cognizant of later.

At the same time I’m aware that when I deviate from certain expected narrative tropes, it will put off some readers, sometimes because they genuinely feel there is something “wrong” with the story (even if there is nothing wrong with it) and other times because they can’t get into the story.

For example, years ago a review of King’s Dragon (volume one of Crown of Stars) complained that “the armies were too small” when in fact the numerical size of the armies described in the book are correct for the time period and region I modeled the book after. This particular reader’s erroneous idea about history alienated him from the book.

Cold Magic

Would the first volume of the Spiritwalker Trilogy, Cold Magic, have needed less world building if I’d set it in an alternate British Empire, as I easily could have? Sure. But alternate British Empires are a staple of the field. It’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to explore a more alternate history that examined a world without the usual parameters of Western European colonialism. Yet in sff, the more closely a world fits expected parameters, the less set up it needs, and thus the faster it is paced. Creating a world that doesn’t fit easily into expected contours can alienate readers if they reject it as too unfamiliar (or as “wrong”). It can also alienate them if they feel the pacing is “slow” because they have to absorb so much more information to get a sense of place rather than being able to skim over world-building “short-cuts” like the Inscrutable Oriental Court or the Savage Tribe That Goes Wild At Celebratory Parties or something as simple as people living in a made up fantasy setting who hold basically the exact same “views” as modern Americans like to think they have.

So I do worry about (to paraphrase Aliette) threading that needle of world creation to unfold a world without boring or confusing (and thus alienating) people. Even so, many elements of reader reaction are beyond my control, so ultimately I have to write the story I want to tell.


It’s funny, isn’t it, because you’d think most people read genre to access different worlds. We all know that sense of wonder and delight when you start reading a book and get transported to a new world, full of different cultures and expectations … yet it has to be a very standard kind of difference. Try to incorporate different cultures and histories which exist in our world and people start to balk. Like that hilarious Junot Diaz quote: “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they think we’re taking over.”

I don’t worry about alienating readers because I write about cultures or mindsets that are outside their expectations. For one thing, I think readers are often underestimated by the industry. I confess I’m always mildly surprised when a white man tells me they enjoy my work, but that has happened!

I’ve found being a bit different has often been an advantage in my writing career. I call it the “viola effect”–an acquaintance told me he had learnt to play the viola because if you play the viola you get the chance to do public performances earlier on than, say, a violin player. Viola players are in demand because fewer people learn to play it than the violin or the cello. So if you’re a bit different there will be people who are hungering for what you do, because there’s so little of it out there — there will be people longing for that Chinese American fantasy, or that tender South African YA. That’s real and something to remember when you’re facing all the various discouragements of a writing career in a white/Western-dominated Anglophone publishing industry.


What I actually worry about more is being acceptably different. Colonialism isn’t just about the taking of territory, but about the taking over of cultures and minds–there’s a reason one of the most standard tools of colonialism is preventing subject peoples from speaking their own languages. I am the product of colonialism: I would not live where I live, think and speak in English, or do the work that I do, if not for it. In a sense Malaysia itself is the product of colonialism–people often refer to the characters in my historical fiction as “Malaysian” and I always get a bit annoyed, because the construct that is “Malaysia” did not exist before 1963.

I think of my country and myself as recovering from a long colonial hangover. It’s like we were products that were made for the purposes of Empire and now we have to figure out what we’re for, if not for that. So I worry that my work is too easy for Western readers to digest. It’s too mainstream. And yet being a little mainstream, a little recognisable, is a good way to convey messages that may be unwelcome. Sorcerer to the Crown arises out of the fact that I’m a product of colonialism. But it’s intended as a reminder. It’s saying: “So are you, Britain.”


No, I don’t. Alienating people is a risk that all writers take. If you don’t alienate at least one person/group with your writing there’s a possibility that you’re doing it wrong. If writing is the expression of a perspective, then surely there must be an alternative perspective. There should be a kind of Newton’s Third Law reaction to any prose or poetry.

What I’m saying is, I don’t think unfamiliarity with the culture or history will be the aspect that alienates people. Making Wolf is about people and people are messes. If you truly delve into character you will unearth uncomfortable things. Motives, desires, thoughts, shadow selves, neuroses, all these emerge from any personality on deep examination.

The circumstances, history and culture that shape personality may differ, but the patterns of human character are essentially the same. Reading fiction from other cultures or subcultures can, in this way, be an antidote to racism. I have never felt racism or xenophobia or any kind of bigotry should survive under true mindful and reflective education. But, you know, humanity. Full of blind spots and selective cognitive abstraction.


About the authors:

Zen Cho is a Malaysian writer living in London. She is the author of Crawford Award-winning short story collection Spirits Abroad, and editor of anthology Cyberpunk: Malaysia, both published by Buku Fixi. Her debut novel is Sorcerer to the Crown, the first of a historical fantasy trilogy published by Ace/Roc Books (US) and Pan Macmillan (UK). Find out more about her work at her website.

Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris, where she has a day job as a System Engineer. In her spare time, she writes speculative fiction: her short fiction has garnered her two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award and a British Science Fiction Association Award. Her novel The House of Shattered Wings, set in a devastated Paris where pseudo-feudal Houses fight each other for dominance of the city (with fallen angels, addictive magic, dragons, and entirely too many dead bodies!) will be out August 20th from Gollancz in the UK and Commonwealth, andAugust 18th from Roc in the US. Visit her website http://www.aliettedebodard.com for fiction and Franco-Vietnamese recipes, and her twitter @aliettedb for daily life, capsule book reviews and more.

Kate Elliott has been writing stories since she was nine years old, which has led her to believe that writing, like breathing, keeps her alive. As a child in rural Oregon, she made up stories because she longed to escape to a world of lurid adventure fiction. She now writes fantasy, steampunk, science fiction, and YA.

It should come as no surprise that she met her future husband in a sword fight. When he gave up police work to study archaeology, they and their three children fell into an entirely new set of adventures amid dusty Mexican ruins and mouthwatering European pastry shops. Eventually her spouse’s work forced them to move to Hawaii, where she took up outrigger canoe paddling. With the three children out of the house, they now spoil the schnauzer.

Cindy Pon: I am addicted to twitter and bad reality television. And some good ones too, like Project Runway. Silver Phoenix and Fury of the Phoenix, my two young adult fantasies from Greenwillow Books are available now! My first published short story, “Blue Skies”, is also available in the Diverse Energies anthology (Tu Books). Serpentine, the first book of my second Xia duology will be released September 2015, published by Month9Books. A children’s picture book with my chinese brush art is also in the works! I’m represented by Bill contardi of Brandt & Hochman. When I’m not writing or painting, I like to read, daydream, travel, eat and watch films in the theatre. I am a new hobbyist in reef keeping and have an 8g saltwater tank that I spend much time on and adore. I love pastries, americanos and Taiwanese food! I’m the co-founder of Diversity in YA with Malinda Lo and part of the We Need Diverse Books advisory board.

Tade Thompson lives and works in the South of England, though his genetic roots lie in West Africa. His background is in psychiatry and social anthropology. He is the author of a number of short stories, most recently ‘Child, Funeral, Thief, Death’ in Apex Magazine. His debut novel ‘MAKING WOLF’ is to be released September 2015 by Rosarium Publishing and is available for pre-order. He blogs and tweets intermittently at tadethompson.wordpress.com and @tadethompson.

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  • Paul Weimer
    September 8, 2015 at 6:01 am

    For example, years ago a review of King’s Dragon (volume one of Crown of Stars) complained that “the armies were too small” when in fact the numerical size of the armies described in the book are correct for the time period and region I modeled the book after. This particular reader’s erroneous idea about history alienated him from the book.

    Weird sidebar here. The computer game CRUSADER KINGS was criticized by a couple of reviewers because the “armies were too small”. Once again, the reviewer had no idea that 100,000 man armies were NOT running around early medieval Europe. Not even the Mongol incursions into Poland were all that large–something that the Leo Frankowski Engineer novels got wrong, wrong, wrong.

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    September 8, 2015 at 1:07 pm

    At Tade’s suggestion, I’ll repost my comment here:
    Just my unsolicited two-cents but, my unfamiliarity with the culture/history within which a story transpires is one of the things that attracts me to speculative fiction (or any fiction, for that matter). Sometimes, I’m two or three chapters in before I have a clue as to what some concepts/vocabulary/history/etc. essential to the story are. Heck, that’s half the fun. Often, the gradual disclosure of concepts I’m unfamiliar with is a suspense I find desirable. If I said I knew exactly what was going on in the first paragraphs of “The Girl-Thing Who Went Out For Sushi” I’d be lying. But damn if I don’t crave those getting-to-know-the-unknown moments! And in those instances where the author has done me the compliment of assuming a level of knowledge beyond that of my actual ignorance and the disclosure is not forthcoming – well, that’s fun, too. I bust out the dictionary, the encyclopedia, Google, call more knowledgeable friends, etc. I realize that may not spell ‘Fun’ for some folks, but it certainly works for me. I’ll shut my trap, now. I enjoyed reading the discussion/perspectives. Good stuff, kids – keep it up!

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    Nice article. And now I have some more books for my “to read” list.

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