Personal Essay: "We’re Going Places" by Jeremy Szal
When we set out to destroy science fiction with this Kickstarter, we didn't want it to be your ordinary, run-of-the-mill campaign. We wanted it to be full of smashing, crashing POC voices, telling what it really means to be POC reading and writing science fiction. One of the ways we hope to do that is by sharing a series of personal essays about the experience of being POC in science fiction.
Personal Essay: "We’re Going Places" by Jeremy Szal
Let’s conjure up that wormhole and step back in time. It’s 2007-ish. I’m twelve years old. I’d just moved from the beach suburb of Sydney, Australia to a village in the Austrian mountains. Half-Slavic, half-Arabic, dark-haired and olive skinned, compared to the students in the all-Aryan, all-Catholic school I’m as alien as anything out of Culture space. I don’t speak the language. I don’t understand the customs. I make the stupid mistakes that kids do, but because I’m an auslander somehow I’ve committed some sort of blasphemy. I’m dragged up in front of the class many times and told I’m retarded, that I don’t belong here. That I’m just another lost case. This one teacher in particular enjoys the process of humiliating me. He does it again and again. I feel eyes bolting into me and I just want to hide.
One day I stumble upon the very small English section at the local library. I discover science fiction and speculative fiction. My young head starts to soak up Stephen King, Michael Grant, and Eoin Colfer. I am shown these incredible worlds, full of characters just as displaced and confused as I am. Characters who faced their situations with bravery and guts, characters who stood up to nightmares and slowly, slowly adjusted to their demons. Characters who used absurd science gadgets and insane biotech to execute mind-blowing plans and formulate complex ideas. I am introduced to aliens, starships, monsters, whole galaxies and cultures. And I do it all sitting in an overstuffed armchair, holding a weathered paperback in my lap.
And suddenly I’m not so alone anymore. I have friends I can communicate with in a mutual language. I have worlds I can visit. Places that wouldn’t reject me, wouldn’t look down at this scruffy dark-haired kid from Down Under who tended to speak his mind and land himself in the deep end.
Let’s get back into the wormhole and warp years into the future, into the present. As a writer of science fiction and unabashed geek, I stumble across online fandom. Then I see a phrase I’m not familiar with.
“People of colour.”
Wait. What the hell did you just call me? I do a little digging and discover it’s not some sort of dehumanizing slur from the Civil War. It’s a term in America, used by Americans, for Americans, to describe people outside America and to describe people like me. Crisis averted?
Suddenly I’m not just an individual. The wealth of complex and multi-faceted cultures that this entire world has to offer—mine included—had all been funnelled down to a single, stagnate, Americana-exclusive phrase, negating all the wonders and intricacies of the world’s cultures. Blending them together to make a colourless mush. I hiked all the way to this online fandom, where I was thrown into this blender. Because it’s more convenient to use the static term “people of colour” then to acknowledge the richness and wealth of grand diversity that exists in our world and its peoples. It’s a literal example of a toxic black-or-white fallacy that threatens to simplify individuals. And as someone who is multiracial, it just muddles things further.
It’s something we need to move away from. Diversity cannot exist if it exists solely within America and is dominated by American terms. So how do we do that? How do we move past that singular ideal?
And suddenly it strikes me that I had the answer all along. Science fiction has been doing this since its inception. Thinking outside the box, broadening our scope, introducing us to new concepts, ideas, and cultures from all over the globe. I discovered it long ago, sitting in that library and cracking open those yellowed paperbacks. They’d been asking questions that people didn’t want the answers for, peeking over that carefully constructed gate of respectability. Opening a dialogue to the stars. Science fiction was always that one person in the back row who shook his head and muttered, “That just doesn’t sound right. The future needs to change.”
But you and me, kid? Yes, you, that ungainly twelve-year-old with an unhealthy love of monsters and starships? Say goodbye to that teacher. He’s ancient, and he’s bound to kick the bucket one of these days. As for us? We’re going places. We’re going to the future. And with any luck, we’re going to change it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Born in 1995, Jeremy Szal is a Writers of the Future finalist and the author of more than forty publications. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared (or are forthcoming) in Nature, Nature: Physics, Abyss & Apex, Strange Horizons, Grimdark Magazine, Perihelion SF, and now Lightspeed. He is also the assistant editor of Hugo-winning podcast StarShipSofa. He’s written multiple novels and is currently on the hunt for a literary agent. He carves out a sun-baked living in Sydney, Australia, but somehow prefers the snow. Find him at: http://jeremyszal.com/ or @JeremySzal.