(Note: I wrote this post in the summer, I just didn’t have time to post it because I was in the middle of moving to the US.)
Malon Edwards is an African American SF writer and Managing Director at the Speculative Literature Foundation. (They have cool grants! Apply!) I really like his Black faery stories, so I’m really happy he read some of my work.
In his blog post he talks about how he held on to familiar and personal details in my story to get through the otherwise completely unfamiliar cultural context. It’s especially interesting to me that Chani’s name reminded him of Dune, because that was something I considered at length while writing.
I wanted to have a protagonist named Chani (a diminutive of Chana) because once a secular Israeli person told me that this was the most old-fashioned granny-like religious name ever. The kind that no self-respecting secular Israeli would give to their kids, I assume? But I really like the name.
Three Partitions was a thematic match, so I named one of the two main characters Chani. (I don’t have that many Jewish stories.) But then I started wondering… “People will be reminded of Dune, and that will be a bad thing”. After a while, I shrugged and said whatever! I’m a Jewish person, this is my cultural heritage and I can give my characters names which are meaningful to me, irrespective of what was meaningful to Frank Herbert.
But upon reading Malon Edwards’ post, I realized that yes, people can be reminded of Dune with this being a good thing. I’m also one of those people to whom Dune (the first book, anyway – I still haven’t read most of the sequels) was a formative reading experience, in multiple senses. Yes, Dune has many problems, first and foremost it being a work by a white American dude featuring Arabic cultural mishmash. But when it came out and much longer after that, it was an influential and one-of-a-kind work. And one which many marginalized people saw themselves in, for one reason or another.
Hence, a few paragraphs on how Dune influenced me as a writer:
First, Dune was one of the very few SF works with Jewish elements that I was aware of until I discovered the English-language online SF fandom. (Do please note that Dune has a lot more Arabic elements than Jewish elements.) Yes, it was exoticizing as heck, but this was what I had. Thereafter, many a sand people story was written by teenage me. I frankly only developed the ability to actually finish my stories in my late twenties, so I should probably say many a sand people story was started by teenage me
Second, I feel strongly about environmentalism, and those aspects of the book really resonated with me. I have to say that I tried to explain this to one of my grade school friends when I’d first read Dune, and she laughed at me. I still feel uneasy talking about this, because that was such a baffling and unexpected reaction. But I still think those aspects were spot on, and the way they were also rendered in the first Dune game was beautiful, too.
(Incidentally, that game has one of my favorite video game soundtracks of all time, and an all-round incredible atmosphere. I still remember the moment when I was playing with my brother and we found our first water reservoir in a sietch.)
Third, it made me realize it was possible to write about pain in interesting ways. (It was not only Dune, but Dune was one of a small handful of such works.) This is one of my themes!
I have to say I only read the first two Dune books… I’ve been putting off reading the rest for a long time now, and now it’s probably too late – I would see them as too problematic to enjoy.
I had a similar experience recently: I read an older SF novel by a Western author with Chinese characters. The author had lived in China and was a Chinese speaker. The book was decent as far as I could tell, and not particularly problematic (so I’m not naming it, because this is not a name and shame). But I kept on thinking while reading, “why am I reading this when I can read about Chinese people in the future by actual Chinese people?” I thought about all the stories and novels I’d read by Chinese authors in China and in diaspora, several of them tackling the same themes as this particular novel, and I felt like I’d read this book by the unnamed Western author all too late.
While the book was decent, Chinese authors were doing all this better, and in this day and age I could actually access their works. As can people all over the world access my stories, discuss them, and share their perspectives. That’s a win all around as far as I’m concerned!