On Being The Other

Recently I read an excellent interview that K. Tempest Bradford did with Justine Larbalestier and Ekaterina Sedia. Bradford put both in a chat room so they could interact, and she begins the interview saying that she wished they could both be in the same room in the flesh, explaining:

“Not because they both write fantasy or were both born outside of the US (Sydney for Justine, Moscow for Ekaterina), but because they often had very similar reactions to American reactions to them.”

It is a most revealing interview: they miss their respective countries, but they also feel that, in spite of their very particular cultural frameworks, they have found “more people like them in the U.S. than back home” (Justine´s words, with which Kathy Sedia agreed).

I agree wholeheartedly with them, for I also felt the same thing when I lived in London in the early 1990s. I still feel very often this kind of “otherness”.

I´m also the other. Not in the same sense of Kathy or Justine, inasmuch as they live in the U.S., while I returned to my home country (Brazil, though I moved from Rio de Janeiro to São Paulo in 2001). This doesn´t preclude me to be considered a weird guy by some of my friends and my students, but, what the hell, at least we share a common culture and language – I´m a weirdo, but I´m a Brazilian weirdo, ergo I´m a weirdo they can relate to.

It´s a very weird feeling to be the other. This situation reminds me of a Brazilian short story written by Luis Fernando Veríssimo, that illustrates this situation brilliantly: it´s an allegory in which a King´s fool claims to know the whereabouts of a huge treasure (on the other side of a big, Amazon-like river), and for that he´s forced to go on a journey across the river with the king´s corsairs. But (there´s always a “but” in this kind of story) as soon as they land at “the other side”, the other side becomes “their side”, and their former side of the river automatically becomes the other side. You already know what follows.

There is no such thing as the other. A human is always the “other” of another human. We all die naked, as the title of that famous James Blish novel goes. We also live alone (although this is not a bad thing, on the contrary).

In the past, Native Americans were the other of the white man (the same goes to Brazil and the entirety of South America, of course); today, maybe the aliens or zombies fulfill this role (much more in sci-fi movies than in the literature of the genre – think of Independence Day or, to mention a much more recent Will Smith´s film, that horrible adaptation of Richard Matheson´s I Am Legend).

The strange thing today, however, is that only U.S. citizens call themselves Americans; for we used to do that too until the first half of the 20th Century. Brazil´s foremost novelist of the 19th century, Machado de Assis, has published in 1875 a book of poems titled Americanas. Brazilians also called themselves proudly as Americans – because that´s what we are: Americans, from South America.

But, alas, the military coup in 1964 changed that for good; the US government supported the Brazilian military (the coup was allegedly against a possible Communist infiltration in our country). Thus, we stopped calling ourselves Americans (speaking of which, that process also happened in the entire South America and Central America since the end of the 19th Century).

Things are different these days. Today I´m proud to be an American. A South American. A Brazilian. A human being. Like Justine and Kathy, I have a very particular cultural framework (which includes, but is not limited to, Samba, and Bossa Nova, for that matter – I also love American rock, Britpop and punk rock).

But I´m finding more and more people like me in the U.S. and England than back home. And that´s a good thing. Because  I´m not “the other” of Anglo-Americans, and neither you are “the others” of me. We are very much equal, you and I. We are here. We read and write science fiction. We belong to the same universe. Isn´t that great?


11 comments on “On Being The Other

  1. Larry says:

    I suspected it was the unwillingness to be connected with the gringos that led to that separation of American/Americanos, but I wasn’t 100% for sure in regards to South America (in Central America, I understand that William Walker is still a cursed name, 160 years later). But the sense of “otherness” is something that’s so pervasive at times, no?

  2. Fábio says:

    Come to think of it, I don´t think that we in Brazil have some specific figure to blame – It´s more a process, in fact, a process that took us so long that most of us don´t even know exactly what was that about. And the new generation (what is it called these days, the “Z” generation? I belong to the “X” and I know that there was an “Y”) is so unconnected with History that it has been a very harder ob for us, teachers, to even start talking about politics (any kind of politics, even eco-politics) without the students immediately stop paying attention – but I think this happens everywhere, even in US ou Europe. :-)

    But what fascinates me the most in the concept of “otherness” is that we can feel it even at home sometimes – and then, sometimes we can be in a foreign country and don´t feel it at all. That´s the mechanics of weird for you.

  3. Larry says:

    The Y/Millenials were those in the US born after 1978/1980, I believe, with the newest ones being of the late 1990s, I think. I never really bothered with those labels after a while, since they never could define our “X” generation that well :P

    As for students not paying attention, I think that’s an intergenerational habit of teens, alas. If it’s not directly affecting them, they aren’t interested. And I do agree about being able to feel “otherness” at home. I’m a Catholic convert living in the Bible Belt. It’s quite odd at times, not to mention my bilingualism being looked upon as something odd and vaguely “Un-American,” whatever that means.

  4. Sir Tessa says:

    I’ve always been a bit other, not because I felt particularly out of place, but because others found my fit odd – it’s a state of mind that is cemented when you grow up as a half-caste in a very white neighbourhood.

    I found travelling alone in Japan, being quite distinctly not Japanese, childlike in my language and entirely illiterate, to be immensely liberating. To sense that you are other is to be nibbled at by doubts and small details, to know that you are, without a doubt, entirely Other with a Captial O is a relief.

    The majorities are being worn down, at least in Melbourne. Soon we’ll have a city full of others.

  5. Fábio says:

    Larry, the matter of religion also interests me. I was born a Catholic, and left it to follow the Theravada tradition of Buddhism when I was 16. Only now I´m making a comeback to the Catholic religion through the readings of Thomas Merton – but every time I mention it to a more religious person, he/she tends to look oddly at me.

    And the matter of being “Un-American” is definitely a weird concept to me – here, there is not concept of being “Un-Brazilian” (maybe we should have it sometimes – now we´re watching here a spree of corrupt bankers being arrested and being released right after that through a series of holes in the net of our legal system. Truly, we live in Gotham City here – and there´s no Dark Knight, alas.)

  6. Fábio says:

    Sir Tessa, I agree totally with you. The majorities are being worn down in Brazil as well. We still have racism (not a South African apartheid-era one, but a veiled racism that is still a thorn on our side), but Brazil is a very mixed country (Bahia is a predominantly black state, Rio and São Paulo are very mixed with Caucasian, African, and Japanese ethnic groups, Recife is full of Dutch descendents,and so on) and racism is being, let´s say, “dissipated” each generation. We are also in our way to be a nation of others.

    But I never been in Japan – that has to be a truly alien experience.

  7. Sir Tessa says:

    It’s an interesting proess of denial in Australia. We’ve always had a large influx of immigrants from all over and our location makes us attractive to students from Asia and the Pacific. The previous Government wasn’t fond of the concept of multiculturalism, and pushed the image of Australia as being white, upper-middleclass and somewhat 50’s in attitude.

    Just going outside into the street reveals that to be inaccurate at best. I figure it can’t be that long till people actually realise it. It’s amusing, as people here are quite welcome to foreign cuisine, just not the foreigners themselves, heh.

    Japan was a strange counterpart, as there hasn’t been much of an influx of immigrants there. It might sound redundant, but Japan is incredibly Japanese, and full of Japanese at that. I take a diversity of backgrounds in those surrounding me for granted, not being able to see even that walking the streets compounded the sense of other.

  8. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Sir Tessa just posted this amazing video related to this topic:


  9. Fábio says:

    Yes, I know what you mean. Years ago, I watched a Chinese movie (I think it was an Ang Lee film in his Taiwan years) in which one of the first scenes was shot in a MacDonald´s – and, amidst all the Chinese people, there was an Anglo white boy who complained about his sandwich IN MANDARIN! Man, that was estrangement all right (but I felt strangely elated for this cross-cultural glimpse the movie offered).

    Checking in IMDB: “Eat Drink Man Woman” (1994).

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