Broadening The Toolbox Through Cross Cultural Encounters: On Resnick, Africa & Opportunity

I’ve often called Mike Resnick a friend and mentor. And recently as he was honored at ChiCon as Guest Of Honor, I’ve gone back and revisited some of the works of his which have most inspired me. I was not a longstanding Resnick fan. In fact, I barely knew who he was when I read a review in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction comparing various speculative fiction stories which made use of other cultures. Discovering Mike’s passion for Africa and success with stories inspired by it, I looked him up and emailed him about my passion for Africa. The next thing I knew he’d sent me files of all of the stories and I began to read. Then we opened a dialogue that launched me into my Resnick discovery. What I admire so much about Mike’s use of African characters and culture is that unlike so many Westerners he seems to find value in their dedication to traditions and their passion for their traditional ways, while still recognizing some of the weaknesses and failings which have resulted. He’s done a remarkable job of writing characters who feel authentic without making them look silly or backward but leaving it up to us to decide who deserves admiration and who doesn’t. In his trilogy of Chronicles Of A Distant WorldParadise, Inferno and Purgatory–he used African history and political events as the inspiration for planetary colonization, getting inside the minds of alien races as well as human colonists and, in the process, wound up predicting some events which happened in real African history in the cultures he used for inspiration. I think, like me, Resnick has seen the value of observing a culture without making snap judgements based on our own presuppositions and he has sought to present those cultures in a respectful light despite any obvious failings.

[My brief reviews of several such Resnick books can be found as follows: Kirinyaga, Inferno, Purgatory, Ivory.]

Resnick is not the only author to dabble in African storytelling, of course, Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor has used her culture in her writings extensively and Alan Dean Fosters’s Into The Out Of makes great use of African cultures as well. Writers like Paolo Bacigalupi and Jason Sanford have used their own crosscultural experiences with Asian nations in their writing, and Lucius Shepard is well known for his stories of Latin American culture. I myself just had a short story published that employed US-Mexico border culture. And I think these kinds of explorations are rich fodder and rife with the opportunity to break away from traditional storylines and tropes. One of the great advantages for writers of world travels is the opportunity to get inside the heads of those who see the world very differently from how we see it ourselves, study their traditions, customs, ideas, etc. and find inspiration for writing more complex and interesting and nuanced tales. You don’t have to agree with a point of view to get inside the heads of those who hold it. You do have to respect their right to have their own beliefs though, I think. And perhaps that’s where the challenge lies today, particularly here in the United States where ideological political differences more often divide and destroy respect rather than encourage it. It’s hard to accept those with whom we strongly degree, it seems. And media and pundits work hard to keep it that way.

But for me, an upper middle class doctor’s kid, spending time in African cities and tribal villages and Brazilian cities and slums, etc. has made me see the world as a much bigger place than I ever could have imagined before those experiences. It’s widened my box and my lens and allowed me to ask questions I wasn’t accustomed to asking and even consider options which might not have occurred to me before 2000 when I started my world travels. I find some of the customs and attitudes I encounter in these places to be frustrating and misinformed, yes, but I also find some of them inspiring and worthwhile. There are many things of value we could learn from each other if we just took the time. For example, the unity of African community is something that would benefit us greatly in the West. I blog about it here and how much I think we could learn from their sense of oneness and unity. Their focus on conversation and hanging out represents another lost opportunity. Africans love to spend their evenings not in front of the TV, but gathering with neighbors and friends to discuss news, weather, life, work, the universe and everything in between. Even when they do watch television or movies, they invite people to join them. I rarely saw them sitting around alone doing such activity.  Life is a communal experience. Africans seem to find joy in the little things and lack of things which we take for granted as well. It was a stunning reminder to me that those who have often lose appreciation for their condition and that those who are accutely aware of their lack often have a freedom we lack.

This is why what Apex and Lavie Tidhar have done with their Book of World SF anthologies is so important. There are other ways to see the world through the specfic lens, and by taking the time to see them, we can learn a lot about ourselves which we’d never expected and might not see any other way. We can also discover possibilities for viewing the world which never occurred to us. People operating with different experiences, assumptions and histories tend to view the same situations through different eyes. And there are few things better for teaching us how to write diverse and real characters with truly different points of view than seeing the world through the eyes of real people with such varied points of view. Admittedly, what we see isn’t always going to be pleasant. But then the nihilistic trends of the media and much fiction have left behind the happy ending fairy tales of our youth anyway. Those open to the possibilities of positives will find them, while those focused primarily on negatives will not. It’s not even that one should want to or have to write characters of different cultures as much as getting inside the heads of people who push us outside our stereotypes and go-to ideas so that we can write something different than we might have before. Resnick, Okorafor, Foster, and others have done this quite well, which is why, looking back at their work now, I am reminded how much difference it can make for writers to take the time to experience such things for themselves.

When I spent time volunteering in prisons, I came away telling people that everyone should go and experience that for themselves because “the inmates are a lot more like us than you’d imagine.” For me, it was a scary and yet sobering reminder that human beings no matter their backgrounds, etc. have more in common than different. The same held true of my experiences in other cultures. I tell everyone to visit a developing world country at least once. See for yourselves what you’ve only imagined from the pages of National Geographic or TV specials about starvation, etc. Go there and experience it and be forever changed. If you’re not changed, you’re doing something wrong. I don’t see how you couldn’t be. Don’t fear this kind of change. It’s the good kind–the kind that makes you smarter, wiser, more aware and more appreciative. It’s the kind that makes you a better person and inspires you to write better stories and live better lives. That kind of change can’t be a bad thing, can it?

I’m grateful that writers I admire have taken the time to make use of those lessons and changes from their own lives. I only hope that I and others can do a better job of it in the future, for there are great stories that deserve to be told, waiting to be told, waiting to be discovered. And there’s a far richer tapestry than we often remember with which we can tell those stories. In a genre where it’s often said “there are no new ideas, only new ways of telling them,” it’s hard to pass up any chance to broaden one’s storytelling horizons and toolbox, isn’t it? I know it has been for Mike Resnick, Alan Dean Foster, Nnedi Okorafor and for me.

For what it’s worth…

Accra, Ghana, West Africa, Summer 2000 with Eyram Gbewonyo

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince(2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exodus will appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Books For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Lost In A Land Of Legends (forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012.  His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on World Encounters and Space & Shadows: SpecNoir with coeditor John Helfers, both forthcoming. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

Writetips: 10 Most Creatively Inspiring Places In The World I’ve Visited So Far

I love to travel and I love to learn. So, to me, one of the greatest things about trips is getting to discover  things:  new places, new languages, new cultures, new people, new points of view. It energizes me. That’s one reason I’ve dedicated so much of my life to travel. From 2000 through 2010, I visited Africa, South America, Central America and Europe, some more than once the same year, donating time as a teacher and mentor in exchange for learning and discovering. I learned as much as any of my students did, and it’s forever changed my life and writing.

This may seem an odd subject for writetips, but hang on. When I was first starting out, I got accused of cliche and predictable writing and one agent said “live more so  you’ll have stuff to write about.” So, I quit Hollywood and went off to be  a singer and travelled the world. I got a Masters degree, founded a leadership development training non-profit, and spent the next decade travelling three times a year to learn  cultures and help them learn the arts, etc. in places where such training is either unaffordable or available only to the elite.  I and my world are so much broader because of that, and I have so much more to write about.

So here’s my Top 10 Most Inspiring Places I’ve Visited (so far–I’m not done by far):

Life in mud huts and people often seemed more content and happy than I’ve been a day of my life.

1) Ghana, West Africa — From the urban sprawl of Accra, its capital, to the slave castles of its Atlantic Coast, to the humble traditional village of Mesamegor where I spent a blissful New Year’s Day 2004 learning  about traditional dance and village life, my four trips to Ghana have been some of the most enriching of my life. I miss it daily and long to go back. For those of us fortunate enough to be born in the First World, a visit to the Third or Developing World is life changing, if you allow it to be. From the ways they view the world differently, to the joys they find amidst such poverty and want, you realize not only how lucky you are but how much you have and how little you appreciate it. It’s reminds you that there are things far more important than possessions, status, money, etc., and it teaches you how to slow down and live by relying on each other and making the most of every moment in ways that forever transform the way you see the world.

2) Dacchau and Bavaria, Germany — A line of bullet holes along a wall, an ashy oven with a distinct smell, barracks with bunks resembling those on slave ships of  Roots from TV at a famed WWII concentration camp built for killing, and  all of this because of a race/religion and one man’s call to hate.  I went there at 16 and images are indelibly burned into my brain. I don’t have scanned pictures but I can call them up whenever  I  want to in my mind. You can’t deny it when you’ve seen the evidence for yourself.  I also floated over the Alps on  glider, a plane shot up into the air by bungee with no engine. It was so quiet, peaceful and amazing. I felt like a bird.

3) The Favellas (slums) of Rio De Janeiro, Brazil — In both Rio and Belo Horizonte, the third largest city to the north, I visited famed hillside slums, places where the murder count

Slums stretch across hillsides throughout Brazil’s cities. Believe it or not, they started as squatters with no infrastructure, stealing electric by cutting into lines, etc.

each month exceeds that of the whole U.S. in a year at times. These were the people who would rob tourists, ran the drug trade, and  acted as maids, servants, bus  drivers, etc. Their lives were hard and lacking, yet when you were  invited in as a guest, no one treated  you better. I never once felt any sense of danger or worry. And it was humbling to be so appreciated by people who have such hardships that I can’t even begin to understand. You can  read about poverty and violent lives, but only by seeing it for yourselves can you begin to try and understand.

4) Venice Beach, California — In many ways, the quintessential California beach, at least as far as Los Angeles goes. From surfers  to street performers (some of whom make 50k tax free or more  year) to  beach volleyball, rollerblading, and lots of hot, fleshy bodies, not to mention sunsets and even whales  and ships, Venice Beach has it all and it’s an experience to be remembered. I went several times during my time  in L.A. I’ll never forget the 300 lb woman in the thong (I wish I could) but I’ll also never forget the night I went there after a day spent skiing in  the nearby mountains and sat in shorts to watch the sunset over the mountains to the north. Whenever I think of California life, it comes back to me so clearly.

5) The Florida Keys — I wish I could afford to live there, because the Florida Keys remain one of my all time favorite vacation spots. From standing in Hemingway’s home to lighthouses, jetskiing, petting sharks and whales, collecting sea shells, waterskiing, and glass bottom boats, I just love what Southern Florida and especially the Keys have to offer. I move from relaxed to excited in waves and go home exhausted but yet the next day I’m ready to do it all again.

My parents on the streets of Ouro Preto, winding hills with amazing architecture–note one of the many churches up at the top

6) The Gold Cities of  Minas Gerais, Brazil — Brazil is huge and rich  and walking through these cities  with their hundreds of churches, often slave built, with elaborate interiors, exteriors, and gold embossed finishes, amazing Portuguese style Colonial buildings and streets, etc., felt like stepping back in time and into history. I’ve visited them three times  and still find myself in awe and discovery every time. From the old mine you can ride down into on an old fashioned car system, to panning for gold, to horseback rides, to mountain  scenery, to amazing cuisine, to the museums (including an amazing mineral museum with specimens from all over the world), Minas’ gold cities truly are wonders of the world.

7) Amish Ohio, Iowa and Pennsylvania — They may thrive on simplicity of life, but there’s something truly inspiring about people so devoted to their beliefs  that they’re willing to ignore the obvious benefits of so many technologies and possessions in  order to cling to a way of life. Some look at them as odd annoyances, but, to me, they’re fascinating and an example of the kind of  integrity and  discipline many of us can and should learn from. In a world of backstabbing, mind games, and soundbyte thinking, these people preserve a lifestyle they’ve cherished for hundreds of years undisturbed by our distractions, stresses, etc. Their Ohio and Pennsylvania neighbors have told me of their kindness and of admiration for  them. And from my few encounters, I can say, the admiration and respect is well deserved.

8 ) The Birmingham, Alabama Civil Rights Museum — Sit on a bus and hear the white driver berate you and send you to the back; witness the church where two young girls died at the hands of bombers in the name of hate; this amazing, fantastic museum chronicles the history of Civil Rights in the U.S. powerfully and provocatively and my visit  there has remained one of the most powerful museum experiences of a lifetime  full of them. Between the hands on recreated experiences there and my own times standing in  slave dungeons on Africa’s Gold Coast, amongst others, my understandings and views of tolerance, commonality, and the dignity and value of humans and human lives are forever informed and reformed by such amazing experiences.

9) The New Mexico Museum of Space History and International Space Hall Of Fame, Alamogordo, New Mexico — This museum in this small New Mexico city was something I’d driven by several times and thought meh. But just before relocating, I  went there with my parents. Want to try and land a space shuttle? Try the simulator here. It’s incredibly hard (my dad and I each crashed, although I almost made it). Space suits, launch sounds, equipment, meals, and photos of key figures in space  exploration history plus real ships on display, including a simulated Gemini capsule so you can see if you’d fit. Truly amazing! And they’ve got an Imax theatre and planetarium as well. Well worth  a trip. The emergency shuttle landing zone which  was used once or twice is also here along with the amazing White Sands missle range and original ground zero from the first nuclear bomb test, and white sand dunes where  you  can sled in boiling summer heat. From SF writers like Asimov to scientists, the hall of fame alone inspired my imagination and encouraged my dreaming.

10) The Colorado  Rockies — Majestic, mighty, beautiful:  there’s nothing and no place quite like them. I loved the Alps, especially the Matterhorn, but from a young age, the Rockies captured my heart, reinforced my belief in a higher power, and reminded me that when God paints, it out shines anything man can do or imagine. The breeze off the mountains tingles my skin like the breath of heaven blowing down.  It’s a spiritual experience for me and my own love of and passion for the Rocky Mountains is part of what bonded me with John Denver and his music so much and still does.

Well, in no particular order,  those of 10 places which have inspired me greatly in  my life and creative work. As we all know, inspiration and experience are key to good writing. So what’s the writetip for this week? It’s to live a little, explore, discover, and learn whenever and wherever you can. Your readers will thank you  for it. Your editors, too. But no  one will be enriched by it more than yourself. Where have you gone or always wanted to that inspires you and why? I’d love to compare notes in comments. And Friday, I’ll be guest posting on my blog tour about how my world travels have informed my world view and influenced my writing. For what it’s worth…

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novels The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Book Clubs Year’s Best SF Releases of 2011  Honorable Mention, and The Returning, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and several short stories featured  in anthologies and magazines.  He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 for Flying Pen Press, headlined by Mike Resnick. As a freelance editor, he’s edited a novels and nonfiction.  He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter under the hashtag #sffwrtcht. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF PublishingGrasping For The Wind and SFSignal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.