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Guest Post: Decolonizing as an SF Writer

I started online on GEnie many years ago. The GEnie bulletin board gave me a chance to meet with my friends and get to know new people (many of whom have since become my friends) online when otherwise I would never have been able to regularly interact with so many people in my writing/reading community.

The online world has changed considerably since that time. Now I’m on both Facebook and Twitter, as well as my live journal and wordpress blog (two platforms, same content).  Facebook and Twitter especially have allowed me to make contact with writers and readers around the world, and I feel fortunate to have this opportunity to open up my own perspective of the greater international science fiction and fantasy world, one that is easy (here in the USA) to overlook, not least because so little fiction that isn’t originally published in English gets translated and made available in this country.

So I’m so very pleased to be able to have a guest post today from Filipina writer Rochita Loenen-Ruiz. You can also read the post at The Future Fire and comment there if you wish.



Decolonizing as an SF Writer
By Rochita Loenen-Ruiz

As I write this, I am thinking of a young writer somewhere in the world who comes from a country just like mine. I write reflecting on the process of decolonization that I am going through as I consider history. This look back may be painful and I may have to face unhappy truths, but still it is important. I need to understand the source of the pain, to accept it, embrace it and find healing so I can reclaim what is mine and become the writer that I want to be.


Towards the end of the Marcos regime in 1986, Filipinos marched through the streets protesting not only against the dictator, but also against the continued presence on our shores of the American bases and the perpetuation of American influence on Filipino politics and economics.

While history tells us that we were granted independence in 1912, we know for a fact that the Americans never truly intended to surrender their foothold in our country. Their presence in the Philippines was guaranteed by the acquisition of a lease that granted them permission to establish and maintain Military bases in the Philippines.

In 1991, this lease expired and as the newly installed Philippine senate refused to grant an extension of this lease, America was forced to vacate the bases.
Ostensibly the Americans have left, but they haven’t really left us and what the American occupation has left behind is a great wound on the cultural soul of the Philippines.

Mark Twain, in his essay, To the Person Sitting in Darkness, speaks out against the Imperialism of the United States and in particular against the actions taken by the Americans in subjugating the Philippines and appropriating the victory of the Filipinos against the Spanish colonizers.

Mark Twain writes in his essay about the mindset of America in those days:   We have got the Archipelago, and we shall never give it up.

When I read this essay, I can feel the bewilderment of the patriots who had fought
and won the war against the Spanish, and I feel utter sorrow in knowing that our supposed allies painted us as being uncivilized and not fit to rule our own country. I also feel indignation on behalf of the soldiers who fought against the Spanish and who realized that they were facing another, more insidious enemy. The thing is, where Spain very clearly presented themselves as conquering overlords, America presented itself as a friend. It was an excellent strategy which confused us completely because what they did to the Filipino was a betrayal of that word “friend”.

Perhaps this explains why there is a keen edge to the anger we feel when we look at this history. We love and yet we cannot love because on the one hand, there is the face of friendship and the knowledge that the Americans were our allies. On the other hand we see the face of the trusted friend who betrayed us. We realize that we were never considered equals but in the eyes of our white allies, we were savages to be treated as children and to be condescended to as “the little brown brother”.

I quote history because as an SF writer who comes from a nation steeped in colonialism, this history is relevant as I seek to reclaim indigenous narratives and to break the impositions of colonialism on my culture.

In his book, “Oral Traditions of the Ifugao”, Manuel Dulawan writes of the colonization of the Ifugao and how the Americans employed public education as a means to neutralize and to Americanize the people. This move was so effective that subsequent governments adapted the principles set down by the American education system without realizing just how much damage this had done and was doing to the existing indigenous culture.

Dulawan writes: They have been brainwashed in the schools and in the churches and made to believe that their culture is backward and not worth keeping or learning. As a result, their sense of cultural values is disoriented.

He describes the effects of this cultural brainwashing as being traumatic, sad and painful and writes of how many of those who inherited or adopted the Christian religion assume the conditioned belief that anything of Ifugao cultural origin is either no good or inferior.

In Ifugao culture, the passing on of traditions and rites are done by native priests who are called Mumbaki. They are assisted in this by the elder tribeswomen who are also trained in the oral tradition. In the past, young girls would spend time with the elder women who taught them the traditions, the chants and the songs. Young boys were sent to spend time with the Mumbaki who passed on to the next generation the oral literature, the rituals of the tribe and the practices which were inherited from the forefathers.

During the American occupation, the passing on of the oral tradition was suppressed as the native priests and their rituals were demonized not only by the white colonizer but also by the white missionaries who followed in their wake. This meant that the true traditions and the original culture were slowly overlaid with the glaze of white culture and white belief.

Add all this up and it is no wonder that the psyche and the culture of the Filipino is so scarred and wounded to the point where we see the white and the west as being superior to us in all things.

Reading the history of conquest and colonization is a traumatic experience for the colonized. The Philippines went through not one, but two colonizers. I wonder how many colonizers other countries had to endure.

From reading these histories, it becomes clear to me that the erasure and subjugation of existing indigenous narratives were prioritized as these were viewed as being rival to the colonizing power.

Before the coming of the Americans, the Philippines had already endured four hundred years of colonization under the Spanish regime (1521-1898). It was a colonization that started with the suppresion and the eradication of many of our indigenous culturebearers. Where the American colonizers sought to erase the indigenous culture through the use of education, the Spanish brought with them Spanish friars with the intention of subjugating and exerting influence on the native Filipinos through the use of religion.

Reading this part of my country’s history, I see how the image of the strong indigenous Filipino woman was slowly and surely erased to be replaced by the idealized and hispanized version of what a Filipina should be.  The liberated women of our country were shamed and called lewd and bad and this Christianization inflicted a sense of shame and lesser worth in us.

In her essay “Silencing the Babaylan”, writer Gemma Araneta Cruz writes of the Babaylan and of the Spanish response to the presence of the Babaylan:  Fray Alzina (the Spanish priest)  and missionaries like him saw that the babaylan was a  formidable obstacle to Christianization who had to be discredited, if not destroyed and forever silenced.

Who are these Babaylan and what role do these women play in the cultural life of the Philippines?

When these Spanish friars came to the villages, they noticed the presence of strong women of influence. These strong women were the Babaylan who not only had the power to heal, they were the authority on mythological and cultural heritage, they were the harbingers of ritual and they knew astronomy.

It was during these encounters that the Friars saw how the Babaylan were a major force and a possible obstacle to their goal of hispanizing and subjugating the archipelago. It was then that the decision was formed to disempower the Babaylan.

In “Betraying the Babaylan,” Araneta Cruz describes the technique of divide and conquer which the Spanish employed to disempower the Babaylan and effectively erase them. The first thing that the Spanish did was to alienate the effeminate Babaylan from the women priestesses. They also gained the support of the tribal elite in their cause to wipe out the Babaylan through the use of bribery and promises of power. With the male Babaylan and the elite on their side, the Spanish friars went on to accuse the Babaylan of being of the devil and of practicing witchcraft.

While I narrate events that are specific to the Philippines, I find myself wondering if such events were also mirrored in countries that were colonized by foreign powers. How pervasive is that other culture? How much has it stolen from or killed of the original culture?

When I look at my country, I see how much these things have harmed our psyche and I also see the resilience of our culturebearers who employed whatever means was at their disposal to preserve our culture. Even so, the wounds have spread deep and there are certain things that demonstrate to us how deeply rooted colonialism is.

Even to this day, we see young women buying whitening creams because white is perceived as the ideal color. I long to tell my fellow Filipinos, there is nothing more beautiful than kayumanggi (brown).

At Eastercon, a good friend asked me who I wanted to read my work. It was a question that was unexpected and perhaps because I didn’t expect it, I gave the answer that came quickest to me. I want Filipinos to read my work and in particular, I want the people from Ifugao to read my work. Of course, I amended, I want everyone to read my work, but when I write, I am always thinking of the Philippines.

When I heard of the We See A Different Frontiers project, I was immediately attracted to the premise of an anthology that seeks to bring attention to stories coming from people and places who have endured colonization.

As a Filipino writer who engages Science Fiction, I see myself in conversation with the SF that comes from the West. A great part of existing SF narrative is that of the colonizer, but my narrative is one wherein I strive to reconcile my decolonization with the truth of my country’s history, the reality of where I am now and my vision of where I want to be.

I may transgress against the rules of SF because there are many things that I do not know about Science Fiction.  I did not grow up surrounded and soaked in its language as Science Fiction fans and writers from the West.  But I do know what SF looks like when seen with the eyes of the decolonized. It is a different SF, but it is still Science Fiction. As my Clarion West instructor, John Kessel said: Science Fiction is when I point to it and say that’s science fiction.

It is easy to be intimidated, and it is a struggle not to be so. And that’s why I think it is important for a writer of color to see other writers and fans of color in the field of Science Fiction.

In the course of this journey, I have been told that I need to learn English better. That I can’t possibly grasp the nuances of the English language the way a native English speaker does and that I will never be published as an SF writer.

And then, there are people who say that because I write in English, my narrative is contaminated and no longer true to the culture I come from.

The people saying those things may believe those things to be true, but I persist because I hear the voices of those who have admonished me from the moment I engaged this genre.

I hear the voice of my elder sister telling me: Don’t be stupid. Is this your dream or what? Are you going to let yourself be silenced by those words?

There is my precious grandaunt who told me: there are no limits. If this is what makes you feel passionate, then you must keep on writing it.

And there are dear friends like Aliette de Bodard who, when I was thinking of giving up, asked me: So, are you going to wait until someone else appropriates your culture?

And so I go and commit SF yet again.


*This essay was inspired by a twitter exchange between Djibril al-Ayad, Kate Elliott, Requires Hate, Aliette de Bodard and I.


Rochita was the first Filipina writer to be accepted into the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop. She attended the workshop in 2009 as the recipient of the Octavia Butler Scholarship. Her short fiction has been published in The Philippines as well as outside of The Philippines. She has a livejournal at http://rcloenen-ruiz.livejournal.com

Mirrored from I Make Up Worlds.

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Aw, thanks for writing this (and to Kate for publishing it!).
the erasure and subjugation of existing indigenous narratives were prioritized as these were viewed as being rival to the colonizing power.
Ooh yes. And it's still ongoing to a large extent--those are scars that will take a long time to fade. There was also appropriation and co-opting of existing narratives in the colonisers' POV, erasing their complexity and cultural subtlety in the service of mere propaganda.
I'm reading a Vietnamese poem at the moment, "The Tale of Kiều", which has a fascinating history: in a bowlderised version, it was taken up by the French as a symbol of the collaboration they desired from the Vietnamese, so it ended up pretty much widely reviled during the transitional period--but then it became a symbol of resilience in exile and a metaphor for the Vietnamese diaspora. Funny how things change... (also, it's about the travails of a prostitute and the status of women, which is pretty... advanced considering the writer was a man).

*hugs* I love the moments of sharing when we are able to talk about the histories our countries and the pain our elders have endured for our sakes. It is very precious to me, to know that we can speak of these things and understand because the pain of our elders is a pain we feel.

This is the beauty of the written word and of the word when it transcends words. I think of how those intellectuals engaged in revolutionary efforts were insurgent through the pen and managed to convey secret messages through stories and poems and in so doing they kept the fire of resistance burning.

I think this is what we are doing too. There is a revolution going on. The revolution may be in small pockets of this writing universe. There is an outburst here, a flare over there. Somewhere there is a skirmish. In other places, an all out battle-- it may be still at a guerilla warfare stage, but the revolution is under way. And we--well, we just can't sit back and watch the fireworks. We can't allow ourselves to be pushed back into silence. So, what do we do? We have to jump into the fray exercising our imaginations and wielding our pens. :D

I prefer to wield flamethrowers--oh, wait. Pen is fine :D

I love the moments of sharing when we are able to talk about the histories our countries and the pain our elders have endured for our sakes. It is very precious to me, to know that we can speak of these things and understand because the pain of our elders is a pain we feel.

I've told this story before but will mention it again.

As you know, we moved to Hawaii ten years ago because my spouse got a job here. Hawaii was "annexed" and became a US territory and later a state, and while Hawaiian culture remained strong for many decades it was eventually pushed into the corners and fringes. In the late 60s and early 70s as part of the big wave of change that happened all across US culture at that time in many intersectional manifestations, young people of Native Hawaiian descent decided they needed to take back their culture which was by this time almost moribund. They began to study but more than that and most importantly they went to the neighbor islands, the rural areas, where kupuna (elders) who still knew things lived. Those elders were a bit surprised to be approached because many of them had by this time figured that they were the end, but when they realized the young people were serious, the education really began. This period is called the Hawaiian Renaissance and it not only rescued the language but so much else and is of course still ongoing.

Anyway, the Bishop Museum has the most extensive collection of Hawaiiana anywhere in the world. It was recently renovated but when we first moved here the exhibition hall had not been changed probably in 50 years, it was that old fashioned. I went with a relative and as we moved through the exhibit the relative commented that the exhibit had that Victorian era obsession with "royalty" and that when they renovated and updated they would get rid of all the references to kings and all that. And I said, well, no, they won't, because the existence of the Hawaiian Kingdom is a political statement that this was once an independent sovereign kingdom before annexation. People don't forget that here. They don't intend to forget it.

I had no idea the youth had had the presence of mind to go to the elders in remote areas to learn from them. That's...I mean, that's dream come true stuff. That's best scenario behavior, in terms of already-established culture loss and a movement to return to it. How utterly wonderful.

Hawaii, like many Asia-Pacific cultures, strongly respects the elders. One of the things colonialism does is cut the tie between grandparent and grandchild and tell the grandchild that the old is old, tired, out-moded, needs to die, etc. Which is why I really really do not like any of that "don't trust anyone over 30" or "let's just wait until the old farts die off" talk, because while I understand where it comes from, it is unthinkingly colonial in some very strong ways.

Aw, that's great. And full of hope for the future of other colonised or decolonised countries.

I love your story, Kate. There is a similar movement going on among the indigenous community. I think growing up among the Ifugao people made me more sensitive to tribal issues in the Philippines. I was happy to find out that there is now an Ifugao Heritage center dedicated to passing on the culture, rites, traditions and chants to the younger generation. This is all thanks to the efforts of activists and culturebearers like Manuel Dulawan.

There are other efforts elsewhere in the Philippines. One that stands out to me is the Mangyan Heritage Center. My connection to the Mangyan came about through the work of my father who went there regularly to offer free medical help to the Mangyan tribe. I learned about the Heritage Center through the Fil-Am group of writers. It turns out that the guy who translated Mangyan poetry from their language into English was a Dutch expat who chose to live as one of the Mangyan for 50 years.

A lot is going on to reclaim what's been appropriated, what's been erased, what's been suppressed. But, as one Filipina teacher said to me during a lecture given by the translator of the Mangyan Poetry, "Isn't it a shame that we need a white person to tell us to be proud of our own heritage?"

That's how colonialism has affected the mindset of a lot of Filipinos. It is a shame. A very deep shame.

What an awesome essay.

It had to be written. Thanks for reading. :)

What a terrific essay. Thank you for posting that.

It's a wonderful essay indeed. I am very glad to see a younger generation reclaiming the past.

Thank you. I keep on thinking of how reclaiming the past and reconciling ourselves to history is what's necessary for us to move forward. It seems to be an ongoing theme not just in my writing life but also in my life beside writing. I have to smile because this was also a subject of a discussion I had with another Filipina who I do volunteer work with. We face the past, we embrace it and then we free ourselves of its shackles. :)

Thank you for posting this. DO keep writing as you wish. There are those of us even in the USA who hunger to read your stories, all the stories.

Thank you for reading. I shall keep on writing and I hope young writers who read this will be encouraged to keep on writing as well.

I've backed the anthology project and am looking forward eagerly to seeing what everyone in it has to say. I believe it's really, really important.

The Twain essay is amazing. Not surprising considering the man, but he was so far outside of his time in the way he looked at the world. The assumptions he condemns were everywhere. And they were promoted as good and moral and right and godly and true. Even he had to suppress many or most of his real thoughts, or lock them and only allow them to be published long after his death, because of the damage they would do to his family if they were known.

I think he would be amused to know that these days, his attitudes are considered right and proper, and those of his own era are the ones that have to be whispered or hidden.

Thanks for backing the project. :) I'm very happy to hear it.

My respect for Twain deepened when I read that essay. I think it must have taken great courage to speak up against popular sentiment and government policy. It's impressive and moving particularly after reading accounts of the Fil-Am war and after reading the prevailing sentiment of ruthless takeover.

Twain is a great guy, but he was (as Kit pointed out elsewhere) sadly racist against American Indians. A man of contradictory parts.

Thank you so much for this essay. When we were talking about this at Eastercon and you said that in order to be taken seriously in the Philippines you had to first be published in America/Europe, I was horrified. In hindsight maybe I shouldn't have been so startled by the general principle, but the inequity and sinister erasure seems much more extreme than anything I would have imagined.

Imho science fiction is in dire need of a revolution in the form of increasing diversity of all kinds, especially worldviews from outside the dominant USian frame. When I read your SF, it has a new angle and the way it hits the SF canon and bounces in another direction is striking.

I'm so glad you didn't give up.

I also want to say thank you for encouraging me to write SF. If I could mention all the people who encouraged me, it would be a very long list.

Probably the easy route for me would have been to embrace realist literary fiction--which is what I started out writing. My first published short story was a realist work. I was quite shocked when it got picked up by a national paper. After that, everything I wrote had an element of the fantastic/weird/impossible which made papers send me rejections that read: we like the writing but we don't publish things like these.

An established Filipina writer at one of the national dailies sent me an encouraging note telling me that I was writing things that no one in their paper was used to reading yet. She said that I should just keep on writing them and someday I would get my stuff published. I still have the scraps of paper she wrote those notes on because by the time those notes were written, this writer had already lost her voice and couldn't speak without pain.

After reading so much on the subjects of diversity and expectations and such, I realized that what it means to be be truly decolonized means I allow myself to imagine sf as I want it to be. It's been very freeing and I think SF is like poetry in the way it allows us to be subversive and insurgent in ways realist work doesn't allow for. That really appeals to me.

to be be truly decolonized means I allow myself to imagine sf as I want it to be


Lately I've become a little cynical about SF so when I read this it gives me hope.

It's been very freeing and I think SF is like poetry in the way it allows us to be subversive and insurgent in ways realist work doesn't allow for.

I'm just so encouraged by your emergence and especially the recent sale you tweeted about that seems to bring things full circle in terms of acceptance by the mainstream. It seems like you are turning the boat in the direction you want to go, first for yourself but also for all the people you are opening a way for by reclaiming the nature of what a story is. I admire your courage so much.

Kipling's ghastly phrase, "the white man's burden", comes from a ghastly poem urging the United States to take over the Phillipines.

I'm going to put a link to this essay up on Facebook.

I read about that as well. Thanks for linking, btw. :)

Are you going to let yourself be silenced by those words?

I am glad you are taking encouragement from your sister, grandaunt, and friends. I am so *grateful* for stories written in English but with roots elsewhere. I know it's not primarily for people like me that you're writing, but all the same, I'm very grateful.

... and I think it's a shame, criticisms such as the one you mention about your narrative being contaminated. Where and what are pure narratives? We exchange and mingle forms and styles of poetry, prose, theater, we borrow words and themes and stories--I want stories about, exactly, these admixtures. This is where so much of life is lived!

>>We exchange and mingle forms and styles of poetry, prose, theater, we borrow words and themes and stories

Yes. This. Because that's what art is all about. We converse and exchange ideas and in this way the divide between cultures, races and genders is bridged little by little.

I have awesome people who pull me up when I'm down and their words just remind me to keep on when I find myself going down into the dumps. :)

BTW, Rochita, about the "nuances" of the English language -- English is a creole language itself, a stripped down, messed up blend that's developed over a good many centuries. Nothing sacred about this mix of Frisian, Saxon, Welsh, Norse, French and Latin, with garnishes tossed on top from around the world.

Both Joseph Conrad and Vladamir Nabokov wrote in English as a second language. They did okay with it.

If anyone tells you "but they were geniuses", the proper answer is "how do you know I'm not one too?"


I love that. Hahaha. I'll remember it for next time.

Thank you for writing this.

In the course of this journey, I have been told that I need to learn English better. That I can’t possibly grasp the nuances of the English language the way a native English speaker does and that I will never be published as an SF writer.

Say what??? Your use of the English language is better than that of probably 90% of the people who have it as their first language.


--g, former copyeditor/proofreader a.k.a. paid nitpicker

*big grin* I do have to confess that the dictionary and the thesaurus are my best friends. I can deduce a lot through context but I do meet words that I have to look up just to be sure I'm using them right or to be sure I'm not misunderstanding what people are saying.

I think this is where second-language people approach writing differently from first language people. Because it's something that we've had to teach ourselves/pick up for ourselves, the writing is probably more deliberate. It's hard to describe exactly because I know all writing is deliberate...but perhaps this is what makes me a slower writer as well. I tend to turn over a phrase more often and look at it and consider if it says exactly what I want it to say. Or maybe I'm just obsessive. lol.

In my (very cranky) opinion, there are many writers who would benefit from closer acquaintance with a dictionary and thesaurus. And Strunk and White. And maybe an AP Style Guide or Chicago Manual. (I have no problem at all with writers who don't necessarily follow the "rules" - provided that they've got a discernable grounding in those rules to start with. If that makes any sense.)

One of my favorite ever writers is Isak Dinesen; I always felt that her writing had a slightly different flavor than that of others, maybe because she was Danish but writing in English. It wasn't ... gah. words... something that I'd class as "exotic" (horrible, horrible, usually used as a supposed compliment toward those that aren't Western European/American mainstream), just... *shakes head*

sorry, babbling, will wander off again.

Also, that last was me, glinda_w, LJ's not letting me log in for some obscure and frustrating reason.

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