Being me

Tobias S. Buckell on being, if not looking, Caribbean

I describe myself as Caribbean-born. Occasionally, readers express confusion about this point. A number of people have emailed me or stopped me to ask, “What does ‘Caribbean-born’ mean?” Others are curious about why I constantly point out things about diversity in science fiction. What they may not know is what others around me know: I consider myself multiracial, even if I look “white.”

I jokingly have been called “an undercover brother.” Vin Diesel calls people like me “shadow people,” neither one race nor the other, due to circumstances and self-identity. (He also considers himself one — yet another reason for my close attention to his career.) Things came to a head recently, with a few emails challenging me to prove that I was actually multiracial and not just a “poser” who wanted the “advantages” of being hip. For some people, any attempt to identify yourself in ways they can’t control is troublesome.

One reason I’m private about my past is that I had a complicated family life, and my biological parents are radically split for reasons that are none of anyone’s business — except those I choose to share that story with. Growing up was not all fun and smiles on the beach, as people assume. But I was born in Grenada, which is one of the two Caribbean islands that shape what I think of as home. Grenada, with its spice and colourful flowers and forests and people: that is my first home. No matter how split my parents are, my paternal cousins and aunts and uncles are all Grenadian, and that is the blood that runs through my veins. I can’t deny or wish to change that — it’s simply who I am. And I’m proud to have been born there and lived there for the first nine years of my life.

People who want to know something for sure can take a look at one of the rare photographs I have of the Caribbean side of the family. My grandmother, two cousins, my mother, and me, standing on the tallest hill of Carriacou. The rest of them are all brown, and my mother and I stand out.

Yes, I’m one white-looking dude. Genetics is wild. Some seven different genes code for skin colour, and when parents get together it’s a crapshoot. In this case, my sister got a tan-looking skin tone and I got fairly white. But that doesn’t change the fact that my father is who he is. It doesn’t change the fact that I grew up playing cricket on the beach at L’Anse Aux Epines, that most of my friends until I came to Ohio were usually not white, and that I often spoke in patois when I needed it, or a British accent if I chose. It doesn’t change the fact that at school my obvious skin colour meant I was the one who was not normal. Yet, I never had any trouble maintaining I was mixed-race until I moved to the United States. My childhood was Caribbean in its nature, essence, and impact on me. Most people from the Caribbean understand where I come from. Most grant me this without my having to fight for it. All I had to do was merely state it.

So, as for my identity: I’m Caribbean, with an English mother and a Grenadian father. By blood, by birth, and by spending fifteen and half years of my life in Grenada and the US Virgin Islands, I can’t imagine calling myself anything else but.

Some have asked me — both white and black here in the US — why not “pass”? The idea of “passing” is an interesting concept that tells me more about the person who asks. Their astonishment at my not choosing to do that is often an interesting hang-up. But it’s not my hang-up.

This all has an impact on my first two Caribbean science fiction novels (and my third, Sly Mongoose, on the way). My fiction plays with a wide variety of people and genre tropes. I don’t write exclusively “Caribbean SF,” but I am a Caribbean-born science fiction/fantasy writer. And some of my stories are rich with the Caribbean.

Since sixth grade, I was drawing spaceships taking off from island harbours, rather than space-station gantries. I even used some early island settings, but a lot of my early SF aped the SF I was reading: galactic empires, etc. But somewhere in 1998, when I was in college, I decided to really focus on becoming a writer. And part of that involved deciding what I was going to write about.

I began to add pieces of Caribbean background to roughly a third of my stories. A character, a place, and certainly inspiration from island history and anecdotes. But I was nervous about it, aware of the fact that by Caribbean readers I might be thought of as stealing the exotic for my fiction, and by other readers as some sort of fraud.

Later that year, however, I sat down to write my story “The Fish Merchant”, bringing together the things I wanted to write into a short piece: one “Steppin’ Razor” badass character (Pepper), a non-Caribbean but non-Western locale (China), adventure-genre action, and a twist on a traditional SF trope (first contact with aliens).

When I finished my first piece that drew this all together, it was a heady rush: this was the sort of thing I wished I’d been able to read when I was growing up. But I kept on writing more “vanilla” SF. I didn’t want to risk screwing up another Caribbean-inspired piece of writing, and I had a growing feeling that I’d lost the Caribbean. A white-looking Caribbean multiracial expat, who grew up on a boat, both identifying with, but in many ways living on the edge of, Caribbean society — who was I to write this stuff? I had a huge impostor-syndrome issue. And I was still worried that even though I adored “The Fish Merchant”, others would not find it so interesting.

That changed when I attended the Clarion Writing Workshop. Not only did many other students enjoy the story, but I met two instructors who really encouraged me to follow my instincts. And “The Fish Merchant” became my first professionally published story.

When it came time to write my first novel, Crystal Rain, I considered all the concepts and ideas I had, and the most compelling ones drew from the same sources. I felt that Caribbean people had a place in the future, and that if humanity were to populate the stars, Caribbean people would migrate into that great diaspora, and they would have stories as well. Even so, the Caribbean’s proximity to the cultural West means that a great many of my influences are still very much recognisable to anyone.

I read genre fiction because action, high concepts, and a sense of wonder are amazing elements that separate it from anything else I encounter. I like to think, secretly and to myself, that literature is the soul of humanity, its dreams. Feverish, bizarre, reflections of its processing what has happened to us so far, and figuring out how to store that, remember it, and experience it. But the genre I work in is something different: it’s the imagination of humanity, its daydreams, its nightmares, its pleasant fantasies, its hopes, and its inventions. And I want people like me and my brethren to look into that imagination of humanity and see people like themselves looking back. My writing may not be perfect, but I am excited that it is something I’ve managed to gain a readership for.

Hi, my name is Tobias Buckell, and I am Caribbean. And I’m an SF/F writer. I’m proud of both the genre I write in, and my identity.


The Caribbean Review of Books, February 2008

Tobias S. Buckell is a Caribbean-born speculative fiction writer who now lives in Ohio. He has published two novels, Crystal Rain (2006) and Ragamuffin (2007).