June 2003
2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Aliens (and Monsters) are often used as stand-ins for humans (or aspects of humanity) we can't acknowledge.

Editorial License: It's Not Easy Being Green
by Ernest Lilley - Editor

Last month I reviewed Nalo Hopkin's excellent collection: Mojo: Conjure Stories, about the magic brought over from their ancestral homelands by Blacks.

After Nalo saw the review, she wrote to say:

I'm glad that you enjoyed the anthology, and honoured that you took the time to review it. I liked the comment, "These are, invariably, tales of folk justice, and they tend to work towards a balancing of  scales. Coming from the mythos of a people shanghaied and enslaved, there is a lot of balancing that needs to be done." Though I did pause at the final line of your review (the only place that gave me pause), "To read the stories is to dig deeper into alien minds, and to strain to see the world through alien eyes." It made me wonder to whom you were addressing that explanation, that you thought they would be seeing human beings--human beings who perhaps look much the same as they do--as aliens. For some of your readers, certainly, living in black skin would be an unfamiliar experience, history and social context; unfamiliar, but one hopes not so other as to be alien.

So  I thought about that for a bit, wondered what I had meant by that last line...and wrote the following short essay on the alien perspective.

Dear Nalo,

Trying to reconstruct my intent, I'd say I was trying to provide the reader with a little cognitive dissonance so that they could stress over the question you picked up on. I agree that it does seem to be a case of me trying to be too clever, but for the vast majority of readers, being black is something they can only imagine, and collections like this afford them the opportunity.

In the SF community, "alien" does have the flavor of non-humanness, which provides it the utility of sufficient separation from the reader that aliens are often used as stand-ins for humans we can't acknowledge.

The stories featuring whites, like Neil Gaiman's entry, often show them to be blinded by the assumption that there's nothing really different about this other world, and coming away changed by the experience of the other-worldly.

The author of "The White Man's Trick" neatly handled the task of comparing and contrasting blacks and whites in his story...maintaining on the one hand that whites are blinded by their inability to grasp the differences, but by stating that those differences are ultimately independent of the body, as we discover when the minds are switched. Or do we?

On the other hand, the stories from the other side show a commonality that binds reader to the character through a powerful sense of identification. I have no trouble relating to "She'd Make a Dead Man Crawl" or understanding, though uncomfortably, the father's fear in "Trial Day".

All eyes not our own are alien eyes, and to see through them requires the imagination to conceive of another world view and the courage to look back at ourselves and see the alien that we then become.


Ernest Lilley
Editor, SFRevu

2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
columns - events - features - booksmedia                    home  /  subscribe