In the latest installment of our “Recommended Reads” series, junior Esther Wolfe, a Literature and Philosophy major, recommends So Long Been Dreaming, an anthology of post-colonial science fiction edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan.
Everyone from intimate friends to bewildered strangers knows that I am a massive fan of science fiction. However, being in love with the genre is complicated for an undergraduate who is also interested in specializing in postcolonial studies. The rise of colonial and imperial systems and technologies played a deeply correlative role in the emergence of science, speculative, and fantastic fictions, and this trajectory shows up in the conceptual and thematic landscape of many classic texts. Within postcolonial study, this relationship has produced critical analyses of existing science fiction (both canonical and marginal), as well as postcolonial rewriting within the genre.
The short story collection, So Long Been Dreaming, is a stunning example of postcolonial rewriting of science fiction. The collection, put together by editors Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan, is authored entirely by post-colonial writers, including African, Asian, South Asian, and Aboriginal, as well as North American and British authors of color. In their stories, the authors shift the colonial/authorial gaze to the “wrong side of the ship,” producing science fiction written, not from the perspective of the colonizer landing on the beach, but of the native standing on the shore. In the act of the shifting the gaze, the collection also shifts the act of speech and representation, speaking back to a colonial experience of silencing and marginalization, of being spoken “for” and “about.” After so long being represented, these authors now represent themselves, articulating their own experience and identity as colonized persons by turning the colonial analogy of science fiction back upon its maker. The result is a powerful act of counter-speech, a transfer of agency and expression of autonomy. Just as de-colonized nations engage in a literal process of re-claiming colonized territories after liberation, the authors featured in So Long Been Dreaming restructure the systems of colonial dominance imbedded in the genre, de-colonizing and reclaiming the literary space of science fictions.
The stories in this collection are arranged into thematic sections, each of which probes a distinct postcolonial context. In “The Body” section, authors explore the relationship between the body and postcolonial identity. In their shared stories, the authors create what are often searingly raw accounts of what the scholar Ella Shohat calls the “traumatized postcolonial identity,” an identity that exists in hybridity and ontological plurality. It is characterized as a state of identification and non-identification, belonging and not belonging, being and not being, the result of the loss of bodily autonomy in colonial spaces. In the brilliant story “Toot Sweet Matricia,” author Suzette Mayr articulates this relationship by telling the story of a nameless female narrator, whose female relatives, as well as her lover Matricia, are all selkies. The selkies are mythological creatures, both seal and woman, who become trapped in their form (on land and in marriage), by sailors who steal their selkie-skins as they sunbathe naked on the rocks. The selkies experience a violent loss of bodily autonomy in the form of the theft of their skins, their most private and identifying selves. As the result of this treatment of their bodies, the selkies are literally hybrid, neither wholly seal nor fully woman. Through the metaphor of the selkies, Mayr illuminates an experience of hybrid postcolonial identity, exploring issues of race, gender, and sexual identification. The characters swim through these categories throughout the narrative, the narrator saying, “If you are the kind of woman who slips from world to world, slides through sewers and between the walls, propelled by will alone, the more you travel the in-betweens, the more you play the either-or tourist, the more you realize home was never really home.” In the metaphor of the selkies, the relationship between the colonized body and postcolonial identity is a state of being and not being, of in-betweens, or “sliding through” and “slipping from.”
In the “Future Earth” section, authors claim agency and power in the act of imagining futures, an act which, both in history and science fiction, has been claimed as a colonial enterprise. Colonial science, “progress,” “development,” and “modernity”—all acts of future-imagining defined by the colonizer and imposed on the colonized—here are questioned, dismantled, and stripped. Classic science fiction stories often elaborate racist, colonial ideologies, and colonial anxieties through the figure of “the alien.” In the section, “Encounters with Aliens,” the authors turn the agency of this analogy from colonizer to colonized. Rather than defining and maintaining racist colonial ideology through the figure of “the alien,” the literalized, non-human Other, the authors confront this ideology and turn the analogy back on its maker, using the “alien” to articulate the “othering” and dehumanization experienced by the colonized under a colonial system.
Within colonial ideology, native groups and nations are often portrayed as being without a history, or with their history rendered as a pre-evolutionary stage in the trajectory of Western development and modernity. Both legitimize colonial subjugation, either through scientific naturalization or by characterizing colonized peoples and lands as a Tabula Rasa, a “blank slate” to be written upon. This colonial ideology also shows up in classic science fiction stories, particularly within “lost race” fictions. In the section, “Re-Imagining the Past,” the authors confront colonial ownership of history, turning the colonial “Tabula Rasa” into a space for indigenous agency. In “The Living Roots,” author Opal Palmer Adisa creates an alternative history of the Carribean and of slave liberation in the Caribbean islands. Her story follows Essence, an ancestor of Caribbean slaves. In the story, the ancestors of the slaves live underground, having escaped their captors by learning how to live in the Earth. They become “one with the yams,” and call themselves “The Starch People,” carefully returning to the surface to teach other slaves how to escape. Their hair, a source of power that takes nutrients from the earth, is grown into long dreadlocks. Cutting the hair of the enslaved, pressing it with combs, is “simply another way they were being trained to work for the benefit of others, and more importantly, they were being trained to dislike and distrust themselves.” In the figures of the Starch People, Adisa welds to reality and creates histories that counter the colonial denigration of ethnic agency, language, and bodies as blank histories to be exerted upon. Adisa’s story evokes an indigenous history, a literal and figurative form of “Living Roots,” that (as the title character’s name of Essence further suggests), is shared by all Carribean slaves.
There are many more stories in this collection, ones that I hope other readers will discover for themselves. But in a contextually rich, powerfully deconstructive text like this, even its para-texts can’t be ignored. The title itself, by invoking the duplicitous meanings of the word “dream,” alludes to the transfer of agency and power-restructuring the authors of this collection are engaged in. The colonizer viewed the colonized as having a stagnant history, a sleeping state of existence, as only having half a life; to dream is to have a mind and a living consciousness, and the act of “dreaming,” of imagining futures, is to actively participate in self-actualization and awareness. In “Dreaming,” these authors have created a powerful act of counter-speech, a celebration of postcolonial identity that is often joyous.
So Long Been Dreaming. Eds. Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan. Vancouver, B.C.: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004.