by Vida Cruz
Note: This article first appeared in The Bulletin #216 in October 2021.
Quick: you hear of an injustice over the news. What do you do?
Some of us march. Some of us donate to charities and NGOs and fundraising artists. And some of us write stories criticizing the injustice and the social system that made it possible—with a science fictional or fantastic twist. A few classic examples of social critique in the form of speculative fiction include Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (censorship), The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (patriarchy and religious fundamentalism), 1984 by George Orwell (totalitarianism), and just about every Discworld book written by Sir Terry Pratchett.
More recently, there have been excellent anthologies that collect SFF short fiction themed around resistance and revolution: Do Not Go Quietly, edited by Jason Sizemore and Lesley Connor; A Phoenix Must Burn: Sixteen Stories of Black Girl Magic, Resistance, and Hope, edited by Patrice Caldwell; and Nevertheless, She Persisted: A Flash Fiction Project, released by Tor.com, to name but a few.
Like with anything else, the ideation and writing of what shall from here on be called “activist SFF” requires nuance and context. It calls for an examination of the injustice relative to yourself, to your community, and you and your community’s place in the larger society—and even the world. Because getting it wrong can hurt your target audience even more.
But engaging in activism of any kind requires passion, and passion requires emotion. Those emotions that usually motivate writers to create this kind of fiction are anger and compassion. Emotions are neither good nor bad—they just are. And when they’re involved, it is then that you need to examine yourself relative to the injustice. What are your true intentions for writing the piece? Where are you positioned—in society, in the world at large? And whose voices might you be speaking over, given your position?
Being Angry Over Injustice Doesn’t Always Mean Your Anger Should Be Centered
What makes you angry? Unfairness. Injustice. There’s plenty of that to go around, especially if you’re a BIPOC or a citizen of a third-world nation. Now, think of the injustice you have experienced. Do you see it applied to other people in your life? Acquaintances? Strangers you see on the news? Most of us with some life experience under our belts have answers that immediately leap to mind. But let’s take it one step further: can you connect that specific instance of unfairness to an overarching societal issue such as racism, sexism, or classism, especially if those instances aren’t ones that immediately affect you and your immediate social circles? Remember, these individual injustices not only affect others and society as a whole, but link up and enable other injustices as well. After all, if you’re going to engage in activism, you have to realize that it isn’t just for your benefit, it’s for the benefit of as wide a circle as possible.
Please note, because some people purposefully get this wrong: addressing an injustice is always about punching up, toward an authority or establishment or system greater than yourself. Punching laterally or down makes you a bully, a perpetrator of the same injustices you seek to fight against. It should be noted here that “injustice,” which is a violation of another’s rights, does not equate to a personal insult or grudge; too many people often equate a simple disagreement with their opinion as a violation of their freedom of speech, for example.
An injustice can affect you personally, enough to make you want to write about it—whether it’s having your reputation destroyed for reporting sexual harassment, getting fired for having a mental illness, being ridiculed for your skin being “too dark,” or having been bullied for not being able to afford the same trendy gadgets as your peers. Even the smallest incident is rooted in a broken societal perception of what is “normal.”
Some injustices don’t have to have happened to you personally for you to be incensed by them. I do not have to be one of the Filipinos shipped off to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair human zoos to be pissed off that it happened at all—our blood, the islands of our heritage, and the continued exploitation of our bodies and our labor and our cultures for the sake of bolstering white superiority, connect us across time. I use fantasy to imagine what might have happened if the American colonial government had unknowingly shipped among the natives a mountain goddess hell-bent on setting her worshippers free. I use science fiction to imagine a Filipino scientist going back in time to smuggle the indigenous Filipinos to different time periods, most of them free from the stain of colonialism and empire.
As always, there are caveats. It’s one thing to write about your ancestors being colonized, but another thing to take a friend or family member’s trauma and fictionalize it, even if you were deeply enraged on behalf of the latter. It would still not be your story to tell. Your story, very likely, lies in your reaction to someone you care about being affected by an injustice and your struggles in supporting them. But even then, you must tread carefully, as you risk centering yourself while someone else may be in more urgent need of attention. True compassion is about treating people in pain with the respect they deserve, regardless of their relationship to you. If they would like to tell stories about their experiences, about the issues they are trying to advocate for, it is a disservice to both them and those issues if you speak over them, no matter the intensity of your passion or the purity of your intent.
The bottom line is that if the injustice doesn’t affect you, it’s probably not your story to tell, no matter how passionately you feel or how good your intentions are. You could be taking away the spotlight from other writers directly impacted by the issue, writers with insight tempered by the flame of experience and/or the pain of colonial wounds. One need only look at publishing for any number of examples of white, hetero, cis, abled-bodied male and female writers writing about marginalized experiences—and getting much acclaim for their work—while marginalized writers themselves struggle to land agents, book deals, decent marketing budgets, and audiences for their own stories, which are often just as good if not better.
If you want to write about an injustice that doesn’t directly affect you, you need to explore why this injustice elicits such strong emotions in you. Maybe it reminds you of a traumatic experience of yours; maybe the answer to processing those emotions isn’t through writing a fictional story about it. Anger and passion to correct an injustice is admirable, but the ways in which you try to help also matter, and it’s important not to speak over or take up space from those most directly affected by the injustice you’re seeking to address.
Don’t Mistake Condescension for Compassion
Compassion is a powerful emotion. It’s different from empathy (being able to feel another’s pain), as compassion implies a drive to do something about that pain. It’s what drives people to join the Peace Corps or become missionaries or write activist SFF calling attention to a certain plight. Compassion can inspire people to make donations toward buildin houses in the Philippines after a devastating typhoon, but it can also drive missionaries to teach one’s “little brown brothers” to speak English and strive for “the American way of life” in the new colony at the beginning of the twentieth century. Even a compassionate narrative can devolve into condescension when it’s slanted toward centering the “savior” instead of the people being “saved.”
What this means is, when writing from a place of compassion, the story should be about how the affected people or community try to deal or heal from a war or natural disaster or even a pandemic—together. It should not be about how an outsider tries to save them, but how they are trying to save themselves. Maybe the story shouldn’t even be about saving, because one’s definition of being saved may be different from another’s. It’s also possible that such people don’t want to be saved. They just want to tell true stories featuring people who look like themselves who lead full, complex lives.
Writing compassionately about the plight of others requires the writer to not position themselves or possible saviour characters as the champion of those the writer wants to help. Writing compassionately about the plight of others isn’t the same as writing trauma porn or poverty porn, either—again, the people these injustices happened to just want to tell their stories and have someone listen to them openly and without condescension. If you can do that as a listener and as a reader, perhaps as a writer, you can portray these stories in the same manner.
Writing about characters both human and mythological trying to rebuild their lives after a natural disaster is exactly what I did in my story “In the Shadow of the Typhoon, Humans and Mahiwaga Cooperate to Survive,” which was published in the anthology An Invite to Eternity: Tales of Nature Disrupted (Calque Press, 2019). In it, a diwata, her husband, and a humble reporter undertake a magical relief operation across central Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. The diwata, Maria Cacao, brings relief goods and solves disputes among survivors, but her journey is not the focus of the story—she is merely a guide illuminating several coping mechanisms among the survivors and how much work there is left to be done by everyone. Although the destruction wrought by Typhoon Haiyan impacted me deeply, I was not in the regions where it struck. I was a journalist at the time, hurrying to write down tons of narratives—for various reasons, I couldn’t go there myself to help, but I realized that if I wrote down their stories, these could be read by people who could help. I would not annotate these articles with my opinions on their situation and my feelings of pity. I would simply show, scene by scene, not how wretched their houses and towns had become but how, in the midst of such overwhelming grief—“Where can I find my family? How do I make a living now? Where will we go from here?”—that they were still trying to pull themselves up and move forward. They were the center of the story.
Some great fiction that models this sensitivity I’ve been discussing include “Asphalt, River, Mother, Child” by Isabel Yap, which deals with the Philippine drug war through mythical lens, and “Blessed are the Hungry” by Victor Fernando Ocampo, which deals with Philippine poverty, inequality, and religious colonization inherited by the inhabitants of a generational ship.
True compassion is about treating people in pain with the respect they deserve, regardless of their relationship to you. If they would like to tell stories about their experiences, about the issues they are trying to advocate for, it is a disservice to both them and those issues if you speak over them, no matter the intensity of your passion or the purity of your intent. If you want to be a sensitive writer of socially relevant fiction and a good ally, do backstage support work, and don’t look for accolades or grab the mic from the performers.
Even if you only think of yourself as a writer, there are other, much easier ways to engage in activism in SFF than writing stories. You can support other writers, especially marginalized ones—buy and/ or boost their work, back their Patreons and Kickstarter projects, contribute to relief funds and grants for marginalized writers, show them that you have their backs if and when they come forward with harrowing stories both inside and outside of publishing. And if you come up with your own anthologies, conventions, publishing houses—hire more marginalized writers and pay them! Pay them well and pay them on time. It’s difficult making a living in this industry, which is why we have to help each other climb.
Good intentions in activist SFF are, well, good—but they mean less than nothing if they are not mindful of power differentials and backed up by concrete actions.
Vida Cruz is a Filipina fantasy and science fiction writer, editor, artist, and tarot reader. Her short fiction has been published or is forthcoming from Strange Horizons, PodCastle, Expanded Horizons, and various anthologies. She is a 2018 Tiptree Fellow and in 2019, she published her first fantasy short story collection, Beyond the Line of Trees. Currently, she’s a freelance book editor with The Darling Axe.