Writing About Asians

During the many workshops and LitCritter sessions that I've been a part of -- especially the ones where poetics and personal writing patterns were discussed -- I've mentioned that I wanted to write more fully realized depictions of Filipinos (and I guess that extends to many marginalized minorities in general).

One of the traps you fall into is second guessing yourself. Is this character a stereotypical minority or worse, just a walking cliche?

That's why, even if I don't start out thinking "I'm going to write a story that will redefine Filipinos in the eyes of the world", it's useful to have a list of pitfalls NOT to fall into so that I can double check my initial draft against it.

I found one on the Media Action Network for Asian Americans site. Naturally, these are biased toward an American audience, but they could be extrapolated for local applications.

A quick summary of the high points:

Stereotype: Asian Americans as foreigners who cannot be assimilated. Because they are racially and culturally distinctive from the American mainstream, Asian people have been widely seen as unable to be absorbed into American society.
Stereotype-Buster: Portraying Asians as an integral part of the United States. More portrayals of acculturated Asian Americans speaking without foreign accents.

Stereotype: Asian Americans restricted to clich�d occupations. Asian American professionals are depicted in a limited and predictable range of jobs: restaurant workers, Korean grocers, Japanese businessmen, Indian cab drivers, TV anchorwomen, martial artists, gangsters, faith healers, laundry workers, and prostitutes.
Stereotype-Buster: Asian Americans in diverse, mainstream occupations: doctors, lawyers, therapists, educators, U.S. soldiers, etc.

Stereotype: Asians relegated to supporting roles in projects with Asian or Asian American content. Usually, when a project features Asian subject matter, the main character will still be white.
Stereotype-Buster: More Asian and Asian American lead roles.
Comment -- I did the opposite in my short story "Gunsaddled", haha.
Stereotype: Asian male sexuality as negative or non-existent. Although Asian women are frequently portrayed as positive romantic partners for white men ("Sayonara," "The World of Suzie Wong," ad infinitum), Asian men are almost never positively paired with women of any race. Consequently, Asian men are usually presented either as threatening corrupters of white women or as eunuchs lacking any romantic feelings. For example, in the action movie "Showdown in Little Tokyo," the Asian villain forces himself upon a white woman and murders her before threatening the Asian female love interest. Predictably, the white hero kills the Asian villain and "wins" the Asian woman--while the hero's Amerasian sidekick is given no love life at all.
Stereotype-Buster: More Asian men as positive romantic leads.
Comment -- Hold on now! My man Brandon Lee didn't get Tia Carrere in "Showdown in Little Tokyo", but he did portray a very integrated and modern Asian American. He came off as a fun, likable, and competent, and he had some great lines in there.
Stereotype: Asians who prove how good they are by sacrificing their lives. In the "classic" movie "Gunga Din" (1939), the Indian water-carrier of the title confirms his loyalty to the Imperial British army by warning it of an attack by nationalist forces. Gunga Din is killed in the onslaught. For decades afterwards, movies have portrayed "positive" Asian characters affirming their loyalty to the lead white characters--and thereby affirming their "goodness"--by sacrificing themselves so that the white characters may live.
Stereotype-Buster: Positive Asian characters who are still alive at the end of the story.
Comment -- I'm all for this! By the way, anyone ever notice that the Philippine National Anthem ends with (roughly translated) "it is our joy, when someone is oppressing [our country] to die for it"? Maybe we should change "mamatay" (to die) to "magtagumpay" (to triumph).
Lots of other thought-provoking stereotypes in the article. Check it out!

Writing Women

It's no secret that I have difficulty writing female characters -- which should not stop me from trying. Now, I have no real conscious agenda about pushing women's issues in my fiction, but it does annoy me if my fictional females end up weak, stereotypical, objectified (and worse, all three).

So it amuses me to find some interesting articles concerning the state of female characters in fiction and movies and TV. One of the most interesting ones is the Bechdel test, which I found out about here.

The rules for this test are as follows (taken straight from the site):

"1. It has to have at least two women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man"

It's so simple, and yet surprisingly a lot of movies fail this test. 

Jennifer Kesler mentions in her blog, the Hathor legacy, that she had temporarily accepted the Hollywood wisdom that "the audience only wanted white, straight, male leads" only to discover that "there was still something wrong with my writing, something unanticipated by my professors. My scripts had multiple women with names. Talking to each other. About something other than men. That, they explained nervously, was not okay."

The full blog entry can be found here.

Fiction Wishlist -- Nov 09, 2009

In no particular order, I'm looking for the following books to read:
  • Book of Secrets by Chris Roberson
  • The New Space Opera (1) by Dozois & Strahan
  • The New Space Opera (2) by Dozois & Strahan
  • The Quiet War by Paul J. McCauley
Book of Secrets involves a secret history, and pulp characters that seem to have been involved in major historical events. The New Space Opera 1 & 2 are primarily due to my interest in the sub-genre. The Quiet War is primarily a Space Opera / Military Science Fiction read for me.

Welcome to... The Farthest Shore!

From Estranghero Press comes The Farthest Shore! From the site:

What is The Farthest Shore? Why create an anthology of secondary worlds written by Filipino writers? But then again, why not? After all, the field of Philippine Speculative Fiction is still wide open so why not write something not necessarily of our world?

Award-winning writer/editor Dean Francis Alfar and series editor Joseph F. Nacino are the brains behind this anthology to show the world the range and breadth of Filipino writers. This is also their paean to that subgenre of speculative fiction as well as Philippine speculative fiction.

Check it out!

Writing Speculative Fiction: Markets

The blog "Philippine Speculative Fiction" found at http://specfic.philsites.net/ has a very useful list of short fiction markets (Philippine-based and International).

Go there and check it out!

LitCrit Monday: Critique Session Guidelines

Taken from the LitCritter Google Group pages: a very brief summary of the philosophies and methodologies for LitCritter Critique readings.
If you're planning on attending any of the LitCritter sessions this year, here's the current draft of the LitCritter Session Guidelines for newbies:

Before the Critique Session

  • Read the text the first time purely for enjoyment - Read the text like you would have before learning anything about literary criticism. Keep track of your reactions, whether they are "good" or "bad" but don't dwell too much on the reasons why just yet.
  • Read the text the second time using a critical lens - Read the text looking for plausibility and consistency. Analyze which elements make or break the story: character, tone, plot, language, POV, etc. Take notes or write up your critique so that when it's your turn to speak, you don't fail horribly.

During the Critique Session

  • Respect my authority! - The moderator's job is to make sure that the text being discussed is thoroughly critqued, that everyone in attendance gets to speak their mind within the time constraints, and to prevent too much digression from to topic. Please be kind to the moderator, because some cruel day it could be you!
  • Everyone's entitled to their own enlightened opinion - At LitCritter sessions, there is a mixture of newbies and old hands, a melange of readers who are narrow of focus and readers who are wide of vision, a cacophony of congruent and contradictory opinions. Remember that the goal of these sessions is to learn from one another, not to shoot down differing opinions. It often helps to ask questions and find out why your opinion differs from that of the speaker's.
  • If you never ask, you'll never know! - if something's bugging you about a text, ask the group about it. If you think there's a literary term for something, but you can't remember it or don't know it, ask  about it. If you hear a term that you're unfamiliar with or we reference a story or author you're unfamiliar with, ask about it. If you think we're just making up terms as we go along, ask about it.

When Delivering Your Critique

  • You gonna hafta 'splain yerself! - Avoid broad statements without clarification, such as "I liked it" or "I didn't like it". Explain why you liked or didn't like it, and try to use traditional (and non-traditional) literary terms during your critique. If people still don't seem to understand, other ways. The act of explaining things sometimes crystalizes our reasons for enjoying a text. And besides, rants are always more fun when they're longer than just one sentence.
  • Hey! Author! Leave that text alone! - When critiquing a text, minimize discussion on the author's history, the author's intent (whether actually stated by the author or recounted by some other source), the time period that it was written in, etc. While these can be helpful in understanding the text, the LitCritter stance is that the story / the text must be able to stand on its own. Our own stories won't always have us available to explain to each and every reader, so if we want to learn to write stories that work without the author (or editor or fans) explaining things, we critique stories with the same philosophy. In literary speak, privileged reading trumps authorial intent.
  • Rules? Where we're going there are no rules! - While some books may claim that there are certain rules to storytelling, we don't believe that; many stories have been criticized for being "formulaic" and "trite" and not just by us. Taking a page from business, there are no rules, only 'best practices'. So don't criticize a text for breaking the rules if it works, and don't stress over a text that does things by the numbers but fails to engage or entertain. Try to find out why.

SpecFic Friday: Trope Expedition

There's a wonderful site on the Web called TV Tropes. It catalogs -- in an semi-organized and irreverent fashion -- many tropes that are found on TV shows, in fiction, in movies, and in anime/manga.

However, if you're thinking that tropes are merely a list of things to avoid in the interests of originality, think again. As the site itself says:

Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word clichéd means "stereotyped and trite". In other words, dull and uninteresting.

While there will be a longer discussion on the subject or tropes, reader expectations, genre conventions and that whole ball of yarn, this is the first of a series of short articles on tropes that are found in the three most well-known aspects/genres of speculative fiction: science fiction, fantasy, and horror. So let's get started.

Science Fiction Trope: The Standard Science Fiction Setting

  • Time frame: the far future.
  • Situation: humans (or human-like aliens) are engaged in a war with a terrible enemy (usually alien).
  • Complication: an even bigger threat -- long hidden in the depths of space -- has turned its attention to their corner of the universe.

Sound a bit like your planned space opera? Fear not; you're in good company.

image taken from www.b5tech.comE.E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series is perhaps the most well known example of this from the era when space opera was a derogatory term. David Brin's Uplift series has this, as does Dan Simmons's Hyperion Cantos series of novels. In other media, DC Comics's Legion of Super-Heroes, and TV's Star Trek, and Babylon 5 are all sources of good to fantastic science fiction (marred by the occasional stinker).

So what are some key elements of this SF setting?

  1. Easy Faster-Than-Light (FTL) Travel - It takes around 8.3 minutes for the light of the sun to travel to the Earth at the speed of light, making the sun approximately 8.3 light minutes away from Earth. If you want to get to the nearest solar system to ours (Alpha Centauri, as opposed to Proxima Centauri -- the nearest star), even at the speed of light it'll take you 4.4 years to get there.

    Therefore if your science fiction setting involves you want star-spanning empires and the like, you need an FTL solution. However, invoking FTL has a host of consequences, not the least of which are time dilation and time travel paradoxes.

  2. Space Navies - to help people really unfamiliar with space travel (including the authors), there's a tendency to make naval analogies to every element of space travel. Whether you consider your rocketships to be might space fleets complete with frigates, destroyers, battleships, and spacecraft carriers or more akin to submarines, there will be parallels to modern or historical blue water navies all throughout your setting.

    The purpose of all this: to provide some semblance of the understandable to your reader, who's probably already floundering due their lack of understanding of the vast and hostile nature of space; to suggest that there's an infrastructure behind space travel and space empires; and to evoke the romance of the Age of Exploration, of clandestine submarine missions, of epic WWII Fleet engagements.

  3. Space Marines - you can bombard ships and planets into nothingness, but if you want to secure them for your own use, you gotta send in people.

    Assuming that you're portraying the military as reasonably competent (and not as cannon fodder), the purpose of these characters is to give some idea what the situation on the ship or at the ground level is like.

  4. Good Empire / Bad Empire - some sort of star-spanning (or even galaxy-spanning) political entity that is analogous to a modern nation or union. Important if you want to enrich your setting with all the familiar problems of our modern world -- trade embargos, human rights violations, political ideologies, religious ideologies, bureacracy, factions galore, etc.

  5. An Element of Mysticism - this can be front and center like the Force in Star Wars, or of questionable validity like the Minbari religious beliefs in Babylon 5. We refer to it as mysticism, since religion (with all its doctrines, mysteries, and dogma) tends not to be tackled in most space operas and science fiction settings.

    The purpose: if part of the author's intent is to compare and contrast the power of hope, determination, and faith against the impartiality of science and technology, then you have quotes like Star Wars's "Trust your feelings, Luke." Sometimes, the mysticism becomes functionally magic, allowing the author to break certain laws of physics for dramatic effect.
Explore the trope further for a wealth of interesting and often humorous observations about this meta-trope.

Writing Science Fiction: A Toolkit of Links

When you start to write a science fiction story, assuming that the science is important to you, it's often good to have some handy online references for your research.

For example, if your story involves a star in the sky blowing up and a mad scramble for everyone to get to cover -- wouldn't it help to do some research and discover that the nearest star to the Earth aside from the sun is Proxima Centauri? And wouldn't it be good to know the distance (approximately 4.2 light years)? And that if you're seeing it in the sky, the event happened a little over 4 years ago? And that you shouldn't be describing the sound of the star's explosion because, not only does sound travel slower than light, it doesn't carry at all in space.

Even if you're nodding because you knew all this, you brilliant reader you, it doesn't help to double check right? Here then is this week's list of useful science fiction links.

Wikipedia - No brainer, right? And yes, I know that any one can edit this "free encyclopedia", so yes, one should take some of the data on this with a grain of salt. However, pertinent articles usually have good links to other reference sites, making wikipedia visits useful enough to mention.

Grading SF for Realism - Not a science resource per se, but a useful page that helps explain what hard science fiction is, and helps define the degree of science "hardness". It helps authors grappling with the problem of plausibility by coming to terms with the level of scientific accuracy they'd like to achieve.

Project Rho's Atomic Rockets - A must read for anyone interested in writing about space ships and space combat in the science fiction genre (and perhaps even in the science fantasy genre). Aspects of rocketship science, design, and problems are explained clearly, with some occasional dips into heavy science-speak and mathematics.

Time Dilation Hurts My Head

When trying to create a Science Fictional faster than light drive, even assuming that you can handle the "breaking physics as we know it" aspect, you normally still have to deal with time dilation.

It's a pain because it messes up logistics, which is key for things like -- oh say -- military planning. If time moves faster for people on the ship that people off that ship, or if two ships moving at different near-light speeds try to coordinate with people who aren't anywhere near light-speed -- ah, forget it.

Gotta come up with a cool name that sounds like "hyperspace".

Jeanne Cavelos and the Pleasures of Science Fiction

Jeanne Cavelos -- director of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, bestselling author of seven books and numerous short stories and articles, and winner of the World Fantasy Award -- has an intriguing post about the Pleasures of Science Fiction. Go there and read it, then come back.

For those you who weren't reading closely, she lists the following pleasures:
  • Pleasure 1-Recovery
Recovery -- a term coined by the late, great J.R.R.Tolkien in his essay "On Fairy-Stories" -- is an after-effect of being immersed in a fictional reality. According to Tolkien, it allows one to "regain a clear view" of the truth of reality. After reading a book or a short-story, we look at our reality with new eyes, with an altered perception.

For me, this is certainly true. All of my favorite SF novels have given me "fictional reality hangover", normally requiring a mental gearshift in order to adjust to the 'real world'.

However, there must be at least one fundamental truth that resonates in the text. Otherwise, it is the equivalent of wearing x-ray specs or filtered lenses -- your perception is merely altered but you see nothing truly new.
  • Pleasure 2-Escape
Escapism is common criticism leveled at SF in general. It's nice to see SF authors 'own' this term and tout it as one of the principal reasons to read SF.
  • Pleasure 3-Cognitive engagement
Say what? I take this to mean "science fiction makes you think", and will simply agree.
  • Pleasure 4-Exposure
This is not a cruel practice mean to cut down the number of children. This refers to the therapeutic method of exposing someone to their fears.
I prefer to think of this as a mind-expanding practice of exposing people to new ideas, new principles, and new frameworks of understanding (and thus feel this is very close in spirit to Pleasure 1) -- especially ones that are unfamiliar and threatening and maybe even terrifying.
  • Pleasure 5-New insights into the human condition
Hm. Very well, though I think all good literature should have some element of this. I suppose that SF's primary contributions are exploring macro-level impacts on the human condition, as well as some radical changes to the status quo of the human condition.
A common theme here is showing how "even in the future, we're still fundamentally human", which is comforting and perhaps in some cases true. It's rare to see books that deal well with radical shifts to human culture and the human condition -- enough to make us wonder if the characters are even human anymore.

Call For Submissions - Philippine Speculative Fiction V

Editors Nikki Alfar and Vin Simbulan are now accepting submissions of short fiction pieces for consideration for the anthology "PHILIPPINE SPECULATIVE FICTION V".

Speculative fiction is the literature of wonder that spans the genres of fantasy, science fiction, horror and magic realism or falls into the cracks in-between.

1. Only works of speculative fiction will be considered for publication. As works of the imagination, the theme is open and free.

2. Stories must cater to an adult sensibility. However, if you have a Young Adult story that is particularly well-written, send it in.

3. Stories must be written in English.

4. Stories must be authored by Filipinos or those of Philippine ancestry.

5. Preference will be given to original unpublished stories, but previously published stories will also be considered. In the case of previously published material, kindly include the title of the publishing entity and the publication date. Kindly state also in your cover letter that you have the permission, if necessary, from the original publishing entity to republish your work.

6. First time authors are welcome to submit. In the first four volumes, there was a good mix of established and new authors. Good stories trump literary credentials anytime.

7. No multiple submissions. Each author may submit only one story for consideration.

8. Each story’s word count must be no fewer than 1,500 words and no more than 7,500 words.

9. All submissions must be in Rich Text Format (.rtf – save the document as .rft on your word processor) and attached to an email to this address: nikkialfar@gmail.com. Submissions received in any other format will be deleted, unread.

10. The subject of your email must read: PSF5 Submission: (title) (word count); where (title) is replaced by the title of your short story, without the parentheses, and (word count) is the word count of your story, without the parentheses. For example – PSF5 Submission: Meeting Makiling 4500.

11. All submissions must be accompanied by a cover letter that includes your name, brief bio, contact information, previous publications (if any). Introduce yourself.

12. Deadline for submissions is October 15, 2009. After that date, final choices will be made and letters of acceptance or regret sent out via email. Target publishing date is February 2010.

14. Compensation for selected stories will be 2 contributor’s copies of the published anthology as well as a share in aggregrate royalties.

Kindly help spread the word. Feel free to cut and paste or link to this on your blogs or e-groups.

Booklaunch: A Time For Dragons

At long last, A Time For Dragons is out!

According to Vincent Michael Simbulan, this book is a collection of new dragon stories by Filipino authors to present the dragon in new and inventive ways, and renew and refresh the dragon for a more sophisticated and mature audience. The kickass cover and all interior art is by Andrew Drilon.

Here's the Table of Contents:

"Glass" by Nikki Alfar
"Dragon Brother" by Cyan Abad-Jugo
"The Annotated Account of Tholomew Mestich" by Elyss Punsalan
"The Clockwork Dragon's Heart" by Vincent Michael Simbulan
"Moondown and Fugue" by Alexander Drilon
"Gunsaddled" by Alexander Marcos Osias
"Lex Talionis" by Paolo Chikiamco
"The Final Tale of Zhang Bai Long" by Elbert Or
"A Fishy Tale" by Apol Lejano-Massebieau
"Johnny Tatô and the Dragon of Pasig" by Joseph Nacino
"Capture" by Gabriela Lee
"3:30pm with Sir Galahad" by Kate Aton-Osias
"A Change of Guards" by Oscar Alvarez
"The Fossil" by Angelo R. Lacuesta
"A Little Knowledge" by Dominique Cimafranca
"The Bridge" by Yvette Natalie U. Tan
"Fallow's Flight" by Dean Francis Alfar
"Dragons Among Us (Essay)" by Charles Tan

And here are some pictures of the launch:

My Wife:

Authors & Editors (the RPG):