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What a brighter future, or not

July 24, 2009

Whether we intend to or not, we absorb the stories we consume.

I absolutely do think that the implicit politics of our narratives, whether we are consciously “meaning” them or not, matter, and that therefore we should be as thoughtful about them as possible. That doesn’t mean we’ll always succeed in political perspicacity—which doesn’t mean the same thing as tiptoeing —but we should try.

So for example: If you have a world in which Orcs are evil, and you depict them as evil, I don’t know how that maps onto the question of “political correctness.” However, the point is not that you’re misrepresenting Orcs (if you invented this world, that’s how Orcs are), but that you have replicated the logic of racism, which is that large groups of people are “defined” by an abstract supposedly essential element called “race,” whatever else you were doing or intended. And that’s not an innocent thing to do.

Maybe you have a race of female vampires who destroy men’s strength. They really do operate like that in your world. But I think you’re kidding yourself if you think that that idea just appeared ex nihilo in your head and has nothing to do with the incredibly strong, and incredibly patriarchal, anxiety about the destructive power of women’s sexuality in our very real world.

These things are not reducible to our “intent”—we all inherit all kinds of bits and pieces of cultural bumf, plenty of them racist and sexist and homophobic, because that’s how our world works, so how could you avoid it?

Even the stories that are different, don’t get to be:

The notion that “black books” don’t sell is pervasive at every level of publishing. Yet I have found few examples of books with a person of colour on the cover that have had the full weight of a publishing house behind them4 Until that happens more often we can’t know if it’s true that white people won’t buy books about people of colour. All we can say is that poorly publicised books with “black covers” don’t sell. The same is usually true of poorly publicised books with “white covers.”

Are the big publishing houses really only in the business of selling books to white people? That’s not a very sustainable model if true. Certainly the music industry has found that to be the case. Walk into a music store, online or offline, and compare the number of black faces you see on the covers there as opposed to what you see in most book stores. Doesn’t seem to effect white people buying music. The music industry stopped insisting on white washing decades ago.

Unless it’s someone else’s ideas of what’s “good enough for you”- a new type of separate but equal logic:

The imprint’s website touts itself as “Bringing you the future in minority literature today!”.

Are black people deemed so stupid that it doesn’t matter if the books they read have mistakes? It doesn’t matter if they make sense? It doesn’t matter that they get something good?

Are black stories so inconsequential except for the part where writing about the hood, and drugs and sex and violence and child neglect and child abuse, makes the publishers money?

Or, maybe it’s “too good for the likes of you” and therefore must really be about white people:

Over the course of this protest, I really have underestimated how insular a LOT of Americans are, especially when you get into towns that don’t have a lot of multiculturalism, like. It’s just plain ignorance.

For people who’ve never learned/seen/been exposed to anything Asian beyond fortune cookies and sweet-and-sour chicken balls, I suddenly understand that when they watched the cartoon, all they see is ‘fantasy’. All the architecture, clothing, food, writing, names, movements – EVERYTHING that is so plainly and clearly Asian to us? Is just to them….a fantasy. It’s all made-up. They don’t know that so much of the world is based on real cultures, they don’t get how much attention to detail and research the creators put into the cartoon, because they’ve NEVER SEEN THESE CULTURES, IRL.

These conversations keep happening, not because we’re a magical herd of non-existent unicorns, or a “new demographic”, but we’ve been underserved and underheard:

…a young Hispanic girl I met at a signing thanked me for writing an Hispanic character. Because when I did an appearance in Queens the entirely black and Hispanic teenage audience responded so warmly to my book with two non-white main characters. Because teens, both here and in Australia, have written thanking me for writing characters they could relate to. “Most books are so white,” one girl wrote me.

Because no white teen has ever complained about their lack of representation in those books. Or asked me why Reason and Jay-Tee aren’t white. They read and enjoyed the trilogy anyway. Despite the acres and acres of white books available to them.

Because I don’t live in an all-white world. Why on earth would I write books that are?

And people act as if these discussions are out of the blue, when we’re even trying to be nice and do them person to person:

The conversation went on in this vein for a little longer, all the while certain parties not appreciating my suggestions. I think I especially riled someone when I asked if Realms had a monthly boob quota sheet in the office somewhere. But honestly, I wonder.

I overheard Warren and Doug talking about the issue together a little while later and got the impression that Warren felt I had a valid point and Doug felt that I initiated the conversation just to annoy him. Nevermind that I didn’t initiate the conversation with him; I went to the person with the power to decide stuff.

And for getting too “uppity”, we get to face the classic dehumanizing punishments, even if people come up with new ways to say the words they so clearly mean:

Now, leaving aside the fact that he’s gotten a whole lot of stuff wrong here — like Tempest’s name, the point of the conversation, the fact that someone else entirely did the mock-up cover, the fact that he wasn’t even mentioned in the convo, much less called a sexist (this time) –

N.W.A.

For those of you who don’t know, this was the name of a Nineties-era “gangsta” rap group called Niggaz With Attitudes, which made a fuckton of money bringing good old-fashioned hood values to the generation of middle-class white boys who bought their crap. I digress.

Niggaz.

Niggers.

Harlan discovered Octavia Butler (he had a black friend! dead now tho), so he gets to call another black woman a nigger.

Ya rly.

NOT COOL.

This year began with white sci-fi and fantasy authors showing their asses. Repeatedly. It’s not just what you say, it’s also how you treat people when they respond. Who you take into consideration vs. who you call “orcs”, “nithings”*, “sockpuppets”, “NWA” (because clearly people of color don’t read books and form coherent sentences…). It’s a history of whitewashing movies, tv shows and stories. It’s that for the generations that Earthsea books have been bestselling classics, you still can’t get a brown person on tv or even in cartoons.

It’s the fact that I started with a quote from China Mieville and half the folks who disagree would still be on his jock, and yet fail to see the connection.

Come on people. You say you’re intelligent, bright, and creative.

Just imagine that you’re walking around in a world full of people and those people deserve respect as fellow human beings. And that we don’t need magic or new technology to get there, but we have what we need right in our hands, right now.

It’s almost fantastic, isn’t it?

ETA: And here’s a great post full of links from a woman of color who self publishes.

* And then be afraid of violent retaliation, when in fact, the history of the word Nithing demands violent retaliation as the expected response?

“If the accused did not retort by violent attack, either right on the spot or by demanding holmgang, yielding either the challenging accuser to take his words back or the accuser’s death, he was hence proven to be a weak and cowardly nithing by not retorting accordingly.”

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