Mary Anne Mohanraj Gets You Up to Speed, Part II
Posted on March 13, 2009 Posted by John Scalzi 344 Comments
In her last guest entry, Mary Anne Mohanraj introduced herself and began speaking about race and science fiction and fantasy, concentrating specifically on points useful to everyone. Today, she’s talking on points useful to writers.
MARY ANNE MOHANRAJ:
Part II: For Writers
- You get to write whatever you want, including CoC (characters of color).
- You may worry about being criticized for your handling of race.
- PoC don’t have an obligation to teach you how to write CoC well and avoid criticism.
- Nonetheless, here are some suggestions on how to write CoC well.
- You will get it wrong. This is what you should do.
When I was a little girl, my father brought me fairy tales from the library. I devoured those stories of little blonde princesses, wishing the whole time that my hair was long, and blonde, and bone-straight. It eventually grew long, but without a lot of expensive chemical help, it’s never going to be blonde and straight. But I pretended it would, that some day I would wake up with flowing blonde locks. Because what choice did I have? When I was a little girl, princesses were blonde. That was just the way it was. For a long time, that’s all I had.
Then I found Star Trek. Classic Trek is an early attempt at fictional diversity, with its black female communications officer, its Asian navigator, its Russian pilot, and its Scottish engineer. It’s easy to critique Star Trek now for clumsy tokenism that was pretty far from a reflection of real society, relying as it did on stereotypes and caricatures. But in truth, Star Trek was a ground-breaking forerunner, ahead of its time in many ways. Kirk and Uhura’s kiss was the first interracial kiss on television, and Whoopi Goldberg tells a wonderful story about watching Star Trek as a young girl and running into the kitchen yelling, “Mommy, mommy! There’s a black woman on television and she isn’t a maid!”
Much as I liked Uhura, Spock was the one I truly loved, the character I identified with. Yes, he was male, and green-blooded, and alien. But he was like me — caught between two worlds, never quite at home in either. As a child, there were so few characters in the genre I loved that weren’t white, that I latched on to anyone I had a hope of identifying with.
Is it important to have diverse characters in your fiction? I say yes. For the sake of your readers, of any color, who want to occasionally take a break from the straight white male protagonists of so many many books. So often we’re offered a generic version of that protagonist too — just vaguely a white guy, instead of being a Polish-American second-generation teenage boy whose restaurant-owning father died in the Nazi camps and who now works as a line cook in a grimy diner on the north side of Chicago. It is the specificity, the detail of our lives that makes our characters live and breathe, creating the illusion that the people we write about are real. We live in a complex world of varied and specific identities; if literature is meant to expose the truths of the human heart, we should portray humanity is all its diverse glory.
Sometimes writers worry that if they start explicitly noting characters’ races in their stories, then the stories will become about race, which isn’t what they want to write. Personally, I find stories about race fascinating, and wish people would write more of them, which is what the Carl Brandon Kindred Award was designed to encourage, but that’s really a side note. Because letting one of your characters be black doesn’t immediately make the story be about blackness.
A classic example is Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy, which I absolutely love. I found those books as a child, and I’m not sure I noticed then that the main characters are brown-skinned. It’s possible I skipped right over that, because I was so caught up in her incredible story. But as an adult, re-reading these much beloved books, I was so pleased to realized that these people were brown. (Ged is actually red-brown; his friend Vetch is black.) The books aren’t about race at all, but they handle race beautifully. And when they finally made a tv miniseries about these books, I was so excited — and then utterly crushed when I found out they’d made all the brown characters white. It made me want to cry. Le Guin wasn’t happy about it either.
Another common argument writers put forward for not including race in their science fiction is the idea that ‘in the future, race won’t exist anymore.’ There are two big problems with that idea. One is a simple plausibility issue. If you’re writing near-future SF/F, set in, say, the next two hundred years, then the idea that all of the current Earth-based racial divisions will just disappear is just implausible. It’s not going to happen that fast, if it happens at all. (And in fact, when two or more groups mix, quite often, new groups arise out of that mixture, sometimes more individual groups than you started with. This is where the ‘mosaic, not melting pot’ analogy comes in.)
If you really want to write a future without ethnic division, I’d argue that you have to earn it. You can’t just wish for it or assume it. Figure out how it happens, and convince us. Is a homogeneous world really what you believe in, or are you just being lazy? And what makes you so sure a homogeneous world is desirable?
The other problem is that even if everyone intermarries like crazy in the next few generations and creates little beige babies (like I did), I’d be surprised if race disappears — it’s so deeply tied to culture, and people have incredibly strong emotional ties to their cultural heritage. My daughter Kavya can easily ‘pass’ for white. But I’m going to be exposing her to her Sri Lankan heritage too — I’ll take her there, if the damn war ever ends. Ask her if she wants to learn bharata natyam dance, like her aunt does so beautifully. I hope she’ll decide to learn Tamil, which is a beautiful language with an incredibly rich two thousand year literary history. It’s a language that I can barely speak, and I deeply regret that loss. (I’m working on learning it again. Hard.) I’d also like her to travel to Scotland (her father’s middle name is McLeod). Maybe she’ll adopt the clan tartan, or develop a taste for haggis. These cultural details add so much richness to life (infinite diversity in infinite combination) that I would be very surprised and saddened if they’re all gone, a few hundred years down the line.
As an editor, I value diversity for another reason — because it provides variety of reading experience. When I’m putting together a magazine or an anthology, I’m usually looking for variety in story length, in mood, in subject matter — and definitely variety in character and setting. It becomes monotonous to only read about one particular group of people, over and over and over again — especially if they’re portrayed as being very similar. In real life, even in a small, close-knit community, there are always many different types of people. I want the books and magazines I edit to reflect that, simply to keep my readers entertained and engaged. So I’m always excited when a writer sends me a story that steps outside the typical boundaries.
People criticize Classic Trek for its clumsy tokenism, but sometimes clumsy tokenism is a necessary first step on the road to diversity. If you haven’t tried writing about diverse characters before, a simple first step is to just change one aspect of a character’s identity to be other. Common types of diversity include race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, class, religion, disability, and age; you could vary any one of those elements — or more than one — to start creating a more varied palette of characters in your prose.
1. You get to write whatever you want, including CoC (characters of color).
Let me start by saying that writing characters of color is entirely optional. Really it is. If you want to write about Quakers in space, and can do so as brilliantly and beautifully as Molly Gloss does in her novel, The Dazzle of Day (the entire novel is essentially one long Quaker meeting on a generation starship, and it’s totally gripping), then more power to you. (Okay, now that I’ve used this example, I can’t actually remember if all the Quakers in her book were ethnically white. Just in case they’re not, please feel free to substitute in some other great book that only has beautifully-drawn and fully-realized white characters. There are many.) If you want to write primarily about white people, all I ask is that you do it well.
Ethnic today is often used as a code-word for people of color — or, to be even more specific, brown-skinned, yellow-skinned, black-skinned people. Not white. As if white people didn’t possess their own complex ethnic and cultural heritages. It’s a strange blind spot in the cultural dialogue, and it’s misleading and damaging to erase white peoples’ ethnic background. When you do that, it makes it a lot easier to see ethnic issues as people of color issues, something white folks don’t have to pay as much attention to. It leaves the challenge (and delight) of being aware of and engaging with ethnicity on the people of color, when really, that challenge belongs to every human being.
When I’m editing an anthology, I’m always startled by how many characters in submitted stories are generic white. The generic part is important there — they’re not just white, but some vague version of white that lends no interest to the character or the story. As a first stage in creating more vivid characters, I ask simply that you give your white characters some specificity in their whiteness. They could be immigrants from Ireland, or third-generation Polish-American, or in this country so long that they’re not sure exactly what all of their ethnicities are, but they do know that their great-grandmother left Germany when Hitler came to power, because she didn’t approve of his politics. And she took a few Jewish friends with her, and eventually married one of them. That’s a lot more interesting and more specific a character than the generic white one. Whatever the color of your own skin, you as a writer can take on the job of giving your white characters an ethnic background — or more than one.
So the first step is to make your white characters as real and specific as you can. The second step, if it interests you as a writer and/or you feel that it’s important to the field, is to include some explicitly non-white characters.
But wait — I hear many readers say — I don’t notice ethnicity in my fiction. When I read a story, I get caught up in the story, and I don’t care what the characters’ race is. They could be brown or black or red. I’d argue, gently, that that’s a misleading position to take. If the characters could be any color — they default to white.
Samuel Delany, a brilliant SF/F writer, one of my favorites, who has also written wonderfully about race in the genre, talks about the ‘unmarked state.’ Audre Lorde referred to this as the ‘mythical norm.’ If you open a book and start reading, and the main character has no markings of gender, of race, of ethnicity, of sexual orientation, then the default picture (however sketchy) in the readers’ mind is likely to be straight white male. (This sometimes get overridden if the reader knows what the author looks like, but not always even then.) Go on, test this. Pick up your favorite older science fiction and fantasy off the shelves, with those unmarked main characters, and re-read the first chapter — did you actually picture any of them as a bisexual Asian woman? I’d be very surprised.
So here are two (entirely optional) rules for you to test yourself on, from this point forward in your writing:
a) If you’re writing a white character, make sure they aren’t generic white. My partner Kevin is white; but specifically, he’s of mixed German/English/Scottish descent, whose ancestors came over many generations ago, and he was raised Episcopalian. Give your white characters an ethnic and cultural history, even if it ends up barely mentioned in your story. But be sure you do indicate it somehow — it’s not enough for you, the author, to know their history. Unless the reader gets an intimation of it as well, that character might as well be generic white. Names, clothes, hair, foods, diction, holidays, memories, can all signal ethnicity to the reader without a blinking neon sign over their heads saying “fifth-generation Irish-Croat”.
b) If you’re writing a white character, and if there’s no good reason for them to be white, change their ethnicity. This one’s harder than it looks, because it’s surprisingly easy to come up with reasons that seem good on the surface. But really poke at those reasons, and try to figure out if it’s possible to change the ethnicity without compromising the story you’re trying to tell. Who knows? It might make your story more complex, more interesting — it might make that story better.
2. You may worry about being criticized for your handling of race.
A lot of writers are hesitant to take race on — white writers are worried about writing people of color, and even people of color become hesitant about writing other people of color. I feel some of this too — in particular, I worry about writing black American characters. I worry about getting it wrong, being offensive, contributing to damaging cultural stereotypes, making people mad at me. I worry about this so much that I don’t think I’ve written a single black character yet. Coward. Yes.
Even within my own ethnic background, I worry — when I wrote Bodies in Motion, which starts in 1939 Sri Lanka, I was worried about how much I would get wrong, as someone born in 1971, raised almost entirely in America. I was worried that the locals would feel that I’d appropriated a culture I didn’t belong to — and worse, that I’d gotten it wrong, misrepresented them to the outside world. If I did, that would be not only bad politics, but bad art. I want my fiction to reflect the world and its people as they actually are.
If you start thinking about all the ways in which you can get things wrong, it’s easy to be paralyzed by that fear, to retreat back to only writing characters who are just like you, or so vague that they can’t possibly be mistaken for anyone real. But again — that makes for bad fiction. If you’re going to write well, you have to get past those fears. Your library of characters contains the whole human race, and you have both the right and the responsibility to portray any member of it in your work. You just do your best to get it right.
3. PoC don’t have an obligation to teach you how to write CoC well and avoid criticism.
Look, this one is really a practical issue more than anything else. Most PoC writers and fans I know are quite desperate to see well-written characters of color in the literature. They would love to be able to help you do a good job with this. But they just don’t have the energy or the time! Remember that ratio I talked about in the last essay? In fifteen years of working in SF/F, I have met less than thirty writers of color. I have met several hundred white writers. Imagine — if all of those white writers started writing characters of color (which would be fabulous!), and then turned to the nearest writer of color and asked politely for help with those characters — the PoC would just be besieged.
And the further along you get in your career, the less time you have for your own writing, much less helping other people with their writing — the business of writing takes over. (Not to mention, as we get older, many of us have more demanding day jobs, or partners, or children that need tending.) At this point in my life, I would love to be able to advise every writer who wanted me to look at their story and talk about how they did writing characters of color. But I just don’t have the time — so I reserve those conversations for close friends, and for my students, who have paid for a portion of my time. Most writers of color are in a similar position.
Even if PoC do happen to have time to help you, they may not be inclined to do so. Some people are natural critics, able to notice problems, but without any idea how to fix them. Or maybe they’ve just run into one particular thing that seems clearly racist to them, and so they call it out. Often the response from white folks is, “Tell me how to fix it!” It’s good to remind yourself that that’s not actually their job. Just repeat quietly to yourself: No one owes me help with my story. Well, unless you’re in a workshop. Maybe you should join a workshop?
If you’re not in a workshop, that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck and have to flounder in this morass all on your own.
4. Here are some suggestions on how to write CoC well.
This is what I’d do, if I were writing, say, a Sri Lankan character from the 1960s. Some writers start with research, but I am a painfully lazy writer and research as little as possible. I’d draft the story first, doing my best to make that character as real and interesting and non-stereotyped as I could. I’d use my imagination, and my experience, and whatever empathy I could draw on to try to paint a whole person. I’d think about contemporary Sri Lankan-Americans I know, and try to remember what my grandparents were like, and do my best to extrapolate backwards. I’d write the story.
If you are less lazy than me, you can also do preliminary research — a lot of writers swear by it. Read books set in that locale, ideally written by local writers. Watch movies. If by some chance you can travel to where your story is set, do so! (We offer an $800 travel grant at the SLF specifically to help writers with that, mostly because when I was a poor grad student writing Bodies in Motion, I couldn’t afford to go to Sri Lanka to do research, and it drove me crazy. Not being able to go back also resulted in a few minor errors in the book, despite all my research and cross-checking, which I am still quite bitter about.)
If your story has black folks, and you don’t know any — well, go out and make some friends. It’s easier than it used to be, now that we have the internet. There really are a lot of fans of color out there, and while they shouldn’t feel obliged to read your story and give you feedback (sadly, no one feels obliged to do that for writers), if they become friends, they might well be willing.
You may also want to check out Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s book, Writing the Other. It’s a good starting point for practice incorporating the other into your writing. Some argue that it doesn’t go far enough, and Deepad’s wonderful essay, I didn’t dream of dragons should also be required reading on this subject.
Once I finished drafting my story, I’d take a deep breath, and send it out. I know some writers prefer to keep their work close to their chests — me, I want as much feedback as possible before something goes into print. So I have a readers’ list, which is pretty much anyone who has ever said they might be willing to look at my work and give me feedback. Over time, that’s grown to be a pretty diverse bunch of people. I send the story out, sometimes asking for specific feedback on an issue — i.e., I might say, “Hey, so if anyone here can check whether my Sri Lankan 1960s guy seems realistic and plausible, that’d be a huge help.” Or, “Folks, there’s a gay male sex scene in this story. Obviously, I have no idea if I got this right. Help!” (In that particular case, two gay men wrote back, and both of them said the scene was a little too ‘girly’. I put my head down and revised.) You draft, and get feedback, and revise, and send it out again. Repeat until you think you’ve got it right. Then submit the work, and hopefully someone will buy it and publish it.
5. You will get it wrong. This is what you should do.
After all this — after your research and honest effort and cross-checking and passing the story by members of the community — odds are, you’ll still get it wrong. That’s okay.
Sure, it sucks when someone points out that that some minor character of yours feeds directly into a massive racial stereotype. God, that stings. Maybe you just weren’t aware of that stereotype at all, so it’s pure ignorance on your part. More likely, you were familiar with it on some deep unconscious level, inherited from the sea of racism we’re all swimming in, and it shaped your character-building without your even realizing it. Ouch.
But when this happens, and it will, the key is in how you respond to it. It’s not helpful to immediately go into denial mode. If you honestly don’t understand the criticism, ask for clarification. If, after careful consideration, you disagree with the criticism, that’s fine too. Say so, if you want, and move on. Or, better yet, don’t say so — it’s often better when authors don’t try to defend their work, although sometimes I have a hard time remembering that. Maybe your reader is just having a personal, idiosyncratic response to your story — you can’t define ‘getting it right’ as ‘satisfying every single person of that ethnicity / skin color / affiliation with that identity’. Sometimes you just need to let them have their response to your story, and not take it too much to heart.
If you, on reflection, agree with the criticism, then it’s good to note that publicly. Apologize, if you feel the need, although I’m often not sure that’s actually necessary. I’ve found that it’s generally enough to say, “Wow, I totally didn’t see that. Thanks for pointing it out.” And then move on, resolving to do better next time. You will almost certainly get better at creating character of color, with practice. You will mess up less often. (Or perhaps you will simply make different mistakes, and that’s all right too. Writing is in large part about the journey, not the destination.) Sometimes, if you work hard, with the grace of whatever gods help poor writers and fools (in Hinduism, I think that’s Ganesha), you may get everything exactly, perfectly, right.
One final note. Let’s say you, the white writer, are now deeply interested in Sri Lanka and would like to incorporate Sri Lankan characters into your fiction. I think that’s great, and give you full permission to go ahead and do so. (Not that you need my permission. You don’t!) You write some Sri Lankan characters, and do a great job, and everyone pats you on the back for doing it so well. There’s still one small problem.
I’ve encouraged white writers here to write about other cultures, other ethnicities. But sometimes we run into the problem that most, or all, the representations of a culture are coming from outside the culture. It’s so much easier for you or I to get published in America than it is for local Sri Lankan writers to get published, I can’t tell you. The difference of scale between the American publishing industry and Sri Lankan publishing is enormous. There’s only one major Sri Lankan press that I know of, and when they applied for the rights to publish my book in Sri Lanka, they couldn’t afford the $600 HarperCollins asked, because that translated to effectively $6000 in Sri Lanka, which would have destroyed their annual budget. If I’d realized that was the issue at the time (I didn’t figure this all out until much later), I would have paid the damn $600 myself. But that’s a side issue.
The point is, given this discrepancy, I feel that it behooves me, as an American author who benefits from Sri Lankan material, to do everything I can to promote Sri Lankan authors. Primarily, that means buying and reading their books, posting reviews, spreading the word. I also try to help bring the good ones to America to give readings, and put them in touch with my agent, in the hopes that it might help them get published here.
I wouldn’t say that any writer has to do any of this. As a writer, your main obligation is to write your truth, as honestly and well as you can. If you’ve fallen in love with another culture and want to write about it, please do. But if, in addition, you can do something to help writers from within the culture get their voices heard — well, I think that’s a good thing. And I thank you.
I want to acknowledge the very helpful comments I received on both this piece and the previous one from Kate Bachus, Jed Hartman, Nalo Hopkinson, David Moles, Debbie Notkin, Nnedi Okorafor, and Ben Rosenbaum. I didn’t agree with or take all of their suggestions, and the final version is entirely my own, but both of these pieces are far better for their thoughts and insights.
This is wonderful. And it’s important to note that of course, we’ll get things wrong sometimes. Writing is all about getting things wrong and hopefully doing better in the next book, or story, or poem.
Woot! This is awesome.
Saving this for frequent reference as I write my Greatest Fantasy Novel of All Time/Ego Project from Hades.
Dashing out the door. More-detailed commentary later.
Thanks for this, Mary Anne. I had initial disagreements about the statement, ‘PoC don’t have an obligation–‘ but when you lay out why you say that, it makes a lot of sense. I hadn’t taken into account the real-life burden in terms of pure time and effort that must go into the act of educating, which just goes to show I still secretly believe books are created by magic fairies with a little pixie dust, just like Coke bottles in vending machines.
hi mary ann — thank you so very much for taking the time to put these remarks together. even if i didn’t have aspirations as a writer (which i do), your thoughts gave me much to mull over. it is absolutely essential for all of us as world citizens to talk about race. i’ve been fortunate to live among latino and black communities, and to make lifelong friends who have broadened my horizons in unsuspected and welcome directions. life is too short NOT to want to explore all the diversity and color that inhabits our world!!! thanks again.
Thank you so much for this. Next time I teach creative writing, I’ll be sharing this with my students.
I once had a conversation with a dear friend (and woman of color), where we discussed how white people could best approach writing characters of color. The answer she suggested, which overlaps, I think, with yours, was that the first and most important step was to be concerned with writing characters of color well (just as the first step in any writing is to care about writing well). She suggested that in her experience those who did the most damage writing characters of color did so reflexively, and that giving the matter careful consideration goes along way.
I don’t know to what extent that’s true, but I do know that thoughtful posts like this are a huge help to me in understanding the issue and dealing with it in my own writing.
I like the Star Trek example specifically because it’s so problematic, which reminds me, if not anyone else, that trying and failing to incorporate PoC into your writing is better than not trying. After all, I know I’m not the first to observe that the only woman on the bridge was in charge of answering the phone.
Mostly, though, I like the point that ethnicity is part of who all of us are (I’m 2nd generation assimilated redneck, myself), so giving your characters that background is part of making them real.
One point I’d like to focus around, if possible?
Can we have a bit of focus on how a show can be both groundbreaking in it’s first step *and* open to criticism? Because it’s the immediate backlash against criticism that turn of so many people who’re trying to think critically about the issue. It just takes the critical thinking and translates it into “OMG, you hate Star Trek and want to censor it”!
Um, no. Urhura can both be a groundbreaking character, and we can at the same time go, “Dude, the only black woman on the bridge of the ship, and her job is to answer the damn PHONE?”.
Just because someone breaks ground does not mean criticism of the points where the clumsy first attempt shows stops.
And I’m harder on writers I enjoy when they screw up than I am on hacks who I could care less about. You’ll probably never see much discussion about my thoughts on race in Robert Jordan, because if I want epic fantasy, I’d rather read George R.R. Martin, even though both are set in Yet Another fantasy Europe.
And we can then talk about how DS9 both won at creating a black male character who was smart, powerful, successful, and a family man, and how at the end of the show, and failed at the end by having him sacrifice himself and abandon his family
Steve Barnes recounts it better here
Of course, Sisko was more *intergratd* than Hawk – he had what Steve Barnes calls the full triangle of human development – Career, Physical and Relationship.
Sisko kicked ass, had a deep spiritual life, and a healthy relationship and family. He was less macho than Hawk (A character from Robert Parker’s Spenser novels, FYI) but more self actualized, and capable of real relationships.
It’s sort of telling that, at the end of every *other* Trek franchise, the captain/commander/whatever got to live. Is this because Paramount decided that a powerful black man who’s self actualized and has a good family *had* to die? Not at all. But there’s a big pattern of the portrayal of black people in F/SF (and media as a whole) that this one work was a part of.
None of that takes away the good things that DS9 did by creating an episode like “Beyond The Stars” which left many of us fans asking “Holy shit, they just *did* that. They Talked About Race and Racism in the genre. I thought I’d never live to see the day!” or words to that effect.
…dammit. My browser reloaded and submitted before I was done with my comment. Beg pardon. I had more!
I was going to say– I still feel like there’s a subset of ‘obligation’ that lies, rightly or wrongly, in the hands of PoC readers/fandom when they come across a poorly written character of color in an otherwise well-written book. Maybe the proper word is not obligation, but I vaguely feel like there’s a certain responsibility on the part of the reader (in the communal sense) to tell the writer, hey, you wrote a great book and I loved it — but that character over there? That’s not right. And it’s not right on these grounds that I can explain. I’m not saying that every reader of color has to do that and go into the “what it should have been,” but that there’s a sort of generalized burden on the part of the knowledgeable to help the ignorant step over that initial hurdle and point them in a direction.
Basically, step over the pothole of, “I don’t know what things I don’t know.”
Which I guess is a mishmash of your second point and your third.
Thanks for writing this great and timely essay Mary Anne. I am working through my first novel and only have one CoC that I now need to revise. I’m thinking of taking your advice and making a few more of my Characters non white. I am scared at getting it wrong like you said, but I will try to do the characters justice.
Thank you again, Mary Anne, for another thoughtful post. And again, so much *yes* here.
Josh @7 Jinx on the phone thing.
” to tell the writer, hey, you wrote a great book and I loved it — but that character over there? That’s not right. And it’s not right on these grounds that I can explain.”
I know a lot of people haven’t been following the history of RaceFail, but this whole flaming mess started when Avalon’s Willow did just that.
Historical summary here: http://logophilos.net/blather/?p=1162
It’s brutally hard work to confront and educate, and draining.
BACK TO WORK DAMMIT!
I’m not a writer, but am a pretty voracious reader who’s always been interested in the writing process and this was a wonderful essay. Thanks. A couple of questions if I may…
1) Having white authors write PoC characters is fine… but no matter how hard they try they’re white and were raised white and will probably write a given story differently than a PoC. How can we get more non-white authors to write in the SF/F genre (and generally)?
2) Are there workshops, either stand-alone or in cons, that address the issue? Specifically, that exist to criticize and correct authors who are trying to write outside their own background? I’m very much thinking of paid workshops since I agree with you on the time pressure and that it’s not the responsibility of PoC authors (or PoC people in general) to hold others’ hands through the process.
Wonderful. Thank you.
Mary Anne, thank you. My posts on the first part of your essay left me just begging for exactly the sort of information you just gave us. I found it timely, useful, insightful, and from a viewpoint I can easily (ok, lazily) appreciate.
John, thanks for your hesitation with the Mallet. My guess is you saw me floundering in what is an esoteric environment for me and you already knew I would benefit from this second part of MAM’s essay. You folks that live 200 miles South of me really are the wiser for it. You would think the cloudy, Michigan weather would make us more introspective.
Rick, we talked some about this in the other thread, but we could use more brainstorming here. I think generally, creating a more welcoming (and less racially tense) atmosphere in the fan community is a good first step. It’s in some sense a self-correcting problem, in that every single PoC who joins the community makes it easier for more of them to join. When I first came into SF, I literally did not know a single other S. Asian in the community. Last week, I knew three. Now, after all this discussion, I know a dozen. It’s great!
More ideas, folks?
For workshops, there’s one that goes along with the book I recommended above, Writing the Other — follow the link for details. I don’t know how often they offer it.
I teach a workshop, Writing Identity, with a slightly different focus (in that my students are welcome to write white characters too, as long as they focus on making them as real and detailed as possible within the confines of a given story). I’ll be offering that again next summer, probably July-ish, both an in-person version in Chicago, and an online version. Those interested should join my mailing list to be sure to hear about it when the class opens.
Any others out there?
I also had the chance to discover the whole Racefail thing, after it was brought to my attention. I like to believe that SF/F writers are better than their contemporaries on the subject of race, especially, but OMG.
OMG indeed. Many who went over the line have apologized, others who were silent have chimed in, and I still think there were a mess of people who stumbled into this unprepared and, as a result, did not perform anywhere near their usual standards.
It’s winding down, I think, and Whatever is doing a lot to help. Of course, the flames could always be fanned again.
I was worried about reading your comment, but I’m relieved. :)
Weirdly enough, though I didn’t know what to think about a lot of writers during all this, I never doubted that John Scalzi, should he ever get involved, would show class and thought lacking elsewhere. There is a lot of real class being shown by others, but John is totally awesome.
(Haven’t broken the new teapot yet.)
I talked about this discussion with my wife today. She agrees that PoC are not required to “educate” whites — in an on-demand fashion — about race issues, regardless of whether the person making the inquiries has genuine or benign intentions. To quote, “We are so tired of having to do that! Do your own damn research!” By this she means that books — and film — that discuss the PoC POV are manifold, and that sometimes WP (white people) are just being lazy when they turn to the closest PoC in their vicinity and ask for The Brown Perspective.
On a personal note, I think this is key to understanding how to write authentic PoC in any work of fiction: that there are as many “perspectives” on being a PoC as there are PoC! There is no single Black Perspective — could someone please tell the news networks this, next time they tap Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson for an interview? — just as there is no single White Perspective. All experiences become personalized and all people — PoC being people first and foremost — have an individual outlook, even if their collective experiences have been similar.
So WP writing PoC need to not fall into the habit of assuming that PoC will be in any way uniform in their beliefs, thoughts, actions, etc, simply because they are PoC.
I also think it’s valuable to admit that nothing can replace living and working with PoC, when it comes to WP writing PoC characters. Unless you have lived around, lived with, are deep friends with, etc, etc, PoC your chances of successfully carrying out PoC characterization are much less than they’d otherwise be. So if you’re a white writer and have little or no everyday exposure to any PoC I’d suggest you not even bother worrying about injecting PoC viewpoints into your fiction unless you’re ready to have a lot of critical mail hit your in-box when the book or story hits the shelves. It’s like writing military fiction. Can someone who has never been in the military ‘pull off’ military SF? Yes. Scalzi is a good example. But as the recent panels at LTUE advised, people who want to write military SF would do themselves a huge favor by actually serving in the military for a time, so as to get all the “little stuff” correct and lend authenticity. Because military folk can spot phoniness or “hollywoodism” in military fiction about as quickly as PoC can spot phoniness or “hollywoodism” in fiction dealing with PoC.
One other item, connected to the last comment. Please, WP, don’t go around collecting PoC acquaintences like trophies. Nobody gives a shit if you have a black ‘friend’ and a latino ‘friend’ and you think somehow this magically makes you the motherfuckingest ‘progressive’ in your little circle of like-minded progressive WP. Seeking out PoC specifically because they’re PoC is a rather creepy way of going about forming relationships IMHO. Let the friendships — or the love interests — form organically and naturally. And if your life just doesn’t take you places or put you in a position where you’re working with or talking to PoC on a routine basis, don’t bend yourself into a pretzel over it. It’s not your fault. In fact ‘fault’ has nothing to do with it.
Perhaps what I would suggest, especially for young people (ergo, teenagers and early twenties) who look around at their situation and deem it to be far too ‘pale’, is that they pick a large city on either the East or West Coast of the USA, and make a plan to move and live there. Get a job downtown. Go to school. If your only experience up to this point has been White Suburbia in a fly-over state, you’d not be unwise to go live for a few years in a coastal city. Not the ghetto necessarily, but somewhere large and bustling where loads of different people — from all over, not just PoC but all kinds of ‘ethnic whites’ from Europe and the Slavic nations and Russia — come to work and mingle and make their way in the world. You do that, without ever even intending to seek The Color Perspective, and chances are you’ll pick up more than enough exposure to The Other that when you next sit down to attempt a writing project with The Other in it, you’ll find it much easier to tackle.
Thank you for another great post Mary Anne.
I know that you caution writers from asking PoC for help with “getting it right” because they aren’t owed that help but is it still something to at least ask? You mention the possibility of unintentionally tripping into a stereotype; if it was pointed out to you as a writer, do you think it’d be appropriate to ask, “Thank you for the input, I didn’t know that; would you mind explaining it to me so I don’t do it again?” I know that people do not have to help, and certainly aren’t required, but is there anything wrong with asking out of the want to actually get better?
I’m not a writer, nor trying to be one. Having said that, as a reader, I am right up there with wanting more diverse characters in my fiction.
Margaret Maron, a mystery writer, does something interesting in her Deborah Knott series. So often, we ‘default to white,’ because the white characters are defined only by hair color, eye color, height- nothing about race. As soon as we bring in a character of color, we add race to the descriptors. Maron describes all characters using race- ‘a tall, black woman,’ ‘an elderly white man,’ etc. Apparently, most complaints about this come from whites- who ‘don’t see why saying someone is white is necessary.’
I forget, did anyone link to Nojojojo’s “We worry about it too” post? I looked, but I didn’t see it.
MattMarovich, it’s a bit tricky. When people ask me to help, of course I want to help, and then I feel bad when I have no time and have to say no. If I have to do that over and over again, it gets stressful. (This also happens when people ask me to blurb their books, or introduce them to my agent, even though I really would like to help them all.)
So I guess all I can say is do your best to judge the situation. It the person you want to ask is a busy professional and not a close friend, then maybe they’re not the best person to press for additional help. If it’s someone congenial who you think might have time, then it might not hurt to ask. It’s a judgement call.
With Star Trek, it really helps to know the back story. On the one hand, the original series is open to criticisms, it is important to keep in mind that according to what I read, at least, Roddenberry fought the network tooth and nail to get on screen what he did. For instance, the scene where Uhura and Kirk kiss was apparently only grudgingly accepted because it was scripted as not voluntary. (Pretty sick in and of itself.) It is important to remember that pushing the boundaries was difficult even when those boundaries were far from where they should have been.
Sadly, TV SF seems to have stopped dead with Sisko. Both Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica, good as they are, are stuck with non-white characters in only subsidiary roles. Especially interesting given that in the last 10-15 years, movies have made great strides. It wasn’t that long ago that Will Smith could only be the lead if he split the duty with Jeff Goldblum.
Steve Burnap: Edward. James. Olmos.
Mary Anne – great post. I strongly suspect that it will also get more reasoned responses, and less “ZOMG DON’T CALL ME RACIST” comments.
Both Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica, good as they are, are stuck with non-white characters in only subsidiary roles.
Point of fact interjection: Last I checked, Eddie Olmos is not white.
@23, Mary Anne
Ah, I understand that but I wasn’t clear on what I meant, originally; I was asking more about on-the-fly critique versus asking someone specifically to read something to review it. I should’ve been more specific, sorry.
Let’s say I write a piece of fiction that features a non-white character and post it to the internet. A reader says, “Uh, actually, you’re writing into a pretty bad stereotype.” Do you think it would be appropriate to ask to discuss it with them?
I’m actually lucky because one of my beta readers (and a very good friend) is an African-American woman, copy editor, and M.A. in woman’s stuidies and race interactions and has said she will very happily educate the middle class white boy on any possible stereotype issues that she can. 8)
Yes, I agree, there’s some responsibility on the part of PoC to say something when we see a problematic portrayal, or such problems will continue to occur. However, what you suggest is exactly how RaceFail 2009 started, with a PoC fan critiquing a book by Elizabeth Bear. Bear’s initial response was good, though later she repudiated it (and then apologized for repudiating it…). Aside from that, though, a whole lot of people completely lost their shit.
Which gets at another aspect of the burden you mention in #3. It’s not simply a burden of time, it’s also a burden of energy and emotion. Trust me, PoC fans in SF have been through this enough times with enough people that many of us are now very careful about choosing our battles, and husbanding our psychological resources, because what happened in RaceFail? Happens a lot. This is why all the arguments about terminology ultimately don’t matter: it doesn’t matter what terminology you use. It doesn’t matter how nicely you phrase it. The problem is that most people (white and PoC, though I think PoC tend to lose theirs much earlier) have the same set of deeply-inculcated psychological defense mechanisms, and at the core of those defenses is the notion that they aren’t bad people. And the definition of racism used since the Civil Rights Era (not by civil rights activists like MLK and Malcolm X, but by school systems, etc., in the aftermath) catered to this notion, framing racism as something done only by evil people, intentionally and blatantly. So there’s effectively no way for a PoC to have a conversation about racism with a white person without triggering that “OMG, I’m not evil!” reaction, which then requires the PoC to spend lots of time talking the white person down, educating him/her, resisting an angry response to his/her defensive attacks, explaining and explaining and explaining that racism is a system… and often still failing, because the plain fact of the matter is that a white person will accept a better understanding of racism when s/he is good and ready, and there’s really nothing the PoC can do about that.
So imagine that a PoC in SF risks triggering a mini version of RaceFail every time s/he brings up race to a white SF fan/author. Then multiply that by the number of white friends that PoC probably has within the SF community. Then maybe you can see why this burden should not fall solely on PoC’s shoulders.
Mary Anne, man — you know, you’re gonna get hero worship if you keep writing great stuff like this. You realize this, right? ;-)
In all seriousness (and truncated, because, you know, work) this piece has gone a long way toward restoring some of my internal equilibrium, and I thank you for it.
@19 — Well said, Sub-Odeon.
That was 100% organic free-range awesome, MAM. And I now have some cool new books to put on my reading list.
I suspect that a lot (though definitely not all) of the defensiveness is the same defensiveness writers have of any criticism of their work, and fans have of works that they love. “Hey, you didn’t get _______ right” is hard to hear, and it’s that much harder when the not-getting-it-right relates to something important, like race.
MattMarovich, I think it’s certainly appropriate to ask for clarification. They may or may not give it to you, but it can’t hurt to ask!
Indeed, this was fantastic. Thanks for writing this, Mary Anne. I pretty much hated the whole RaceFail, but this article was exactly what I hope these discussions could be but so rarely are.
Whoa, thanks Josh. (nojojojo is my LJ username.)
@31, Mary Anne
Thank you. I was hoping that would be your answer. I figure that at least by asking a person could show they have some kind of desire to try and get it right.
Mary Anne, thank you very much for this.
Is writing about race in science fiction is different than in other genres? If writing near future sf, you make a prediction about how current configurations will change over time. If far future sf, will the cultural forms that we are calling race here repeat in familiar ways, or become unrecognizable? You say you think race will persist, and I think I agree with that – but I also wonder how it will change.
@25 and 26, the problem is that EJ Olmos isn’t obviously non-white. I took his last name to be Greek, and it wasn’t until much later that I realized he was Hispanic. (I finally saw Stand and Deliver after I had started watching BSG, and I almost shouted “ZOMG! Admiral Adama is teaching high school!”)
A better example would be Boomer/Athena/Eight. She’s not a major character?
Re: Edward James Olmos: he’s effectively been written as white, however. There’s no evidence that he has a culture any different from the white Capricans on the show; he speaks no different language, yearns for no different foods, worships no different gods, has no different customs. He wears blue contact lenses on the show so that there’s less strangeness about him having a son played by a blue-eyed white British guy.
Which some PoC fans of the show view as racial whitewashing, and yet another example of how race in media SF is poorly handled.
Those were certainly some good points, but I would couch them in the context that not everyone of every ethnic or social group is going to agree on what is offensive and what is not. In other words, it’s simply impossible to please everyone. Should we be introspective and ask ourselves if what we’re writing would be perpetuating an undesirable stereotype and if it is change it? Of course, but if someone is intent on finding something to be critical about, they will, no matter how careful the author is and they will always justify it by saying, “you’re not red (or black or yellow or blue or white), so how could you know this?”
It’s my firm belief that as a story-teller, I have an obligation to preserve what’s good in our society as well as put forth an effort to make it better. I don’t always use a diversity of characters in everything I write, nor do I feel I have an obligation to, but when it is appropriate for a particular story I do it and try very hard to make them positive in appearance. Every time I see a discussion on race between two opposing views, first one side then the other gives examples to justify their respective opinions and this is a perfectly natural thing to do. I suppose if it goes on long enough some progress will be made, but what usually happens is both sides harden their positions and eventually go their separate ways convinced they were right in their convictions. My view is, as a story-teller, I don’t see this as particularly beneficial to a whole new generation that is going to be much more diverse than our own and that is where we should put our efforts, showing and highlighting the things we have in common — not in airing out inherited grievances and socially engineered prejudices.
Being a rather small minnow in a very large pond, my efforts may not have much of an effect, but that doesn’t stop me from trying. It occurred to me that as a sci-fi writer, it might prove more productive to show how an ethnically diverse group of people could work together against a common foe if these generationally inherited prejudices weren’t part and parcel of the society they were raised in and so I wrote a novel with this in mind and kept the characters in that context.
One thing you mentioned several times is how you [as a reader] would like to see characters from Sri Lanka portrayed. This is a good idea and it would probably go a long way if others who aren’t white made their wishes known, perhaps an author would consider these suggestions and incorporate some of them into a story. To me, this would be far more productive than being critical, because being overly critical only increases reluctance on the part of white writers to write PoC characters in the first place.
We live in a diverse universe and as we migrate out to the stars it should be obvious that if we can’t resolve our differences here on our own planet, we’re in for big troubles should we ever be fortunate enough to venture out into the galaxy.
So imagine that a PoC in SF risks triggering a mini version of RaceFail every time s/he brings up race to a white SF fan/author. Then multiply that by the number of white friends that PoC probably has within the SF community. Then maybe you can see why this burden should not fall solely on PoC’s shoulders.
In my efforts to be an ally, I try to think of myself as a deputy/ambassador or something like that. PoCs are the ultimate authority on these matters, but they can’t be everywhere at once, nor should they have to try to be. Thus, it’s up to me to occasionally break out the cluebat for some of my less-aware fellow white folk. Inevitably, I’m going to screw something up from time to time, which is why we wannabe allies have to engage in our own continuing education, but I want to at least be useful in helping solve the problem, so I’m happy to be deputized, if that’s what folks want from me.
So many things I want to say.
First Mary Ann thanks for these two great posts. Thinking about what you have said makes me think differently about not just my writing, but the bigger picture. I also like that your approach is proactive “do this” not “don’t do that”. Myself I always learn more when someone shows me how something is done right than when someone tells me I’m doing something wrong. In that light – I’d like to see a list of SF/F TV/Movie/Books that people think do thing right. That seems more useful to me than just pointing out where other people get things wrong. It also does not set up the subtext that no matter what you do you can’t get it right so you are damned if you do have PoC characters and get something wrong and damed if you don’t even try to have PoC characters.
Also thanks for ” Ethnic today is often used as a code-word for people of color — or, to be even more specific, brown-skinned, yellow-skinned, black-skinned people. Not white. As if white people didn’t possess their own complex ethnic and cultural heritages. It’s a strange blind spot in the cultural dialog, and it’s misleading and damaging to erase white peoples’ ethnic background.”
I think that is something that is overlooked or swept under the rug. I was a PoliSci major in college and had a prof tell me I couldn’t take a “Ethnic Groups and American Politics” class because I wasn’t ethnic, “Not even Eastern European, or Italian” His exact words. Anyway that is something I’ve been thinking about a lot this week as I get my yearly mad on about the rude and ethnicly insulting things that go on around St. Patrick’s day. Folks who would never say anything about Blacks or Asians feel completely free to go around talking in faux Irish Spring accents and making potato and a six pack is a seven course meal jokes.
Sort of on that topic combined with your point #4. I’d like to see more of the non PoC characters not be WASPS. Really only skin heads living in compounds in Idaho are ethnically white. The rest of us are Irish, or German, Swedes, Yankees, Appalachian, Canadians, Australians whatever… and I’m a little tired of Ken and Barbie sorts generic non/ethnic characters. If you are a writer who wants to add more depth to your characters but is unsure that you have the skill to take on PoC at least try to give your characters realistic European ethnic texture. Heck even give them realistic American ethnic texture, it is not all the same coast to coast.
Building on the Uhura tangent – Nichelle Nichols was just as frustrated with Uhura’s limited role as the rest of us, and planned to leave Star Trek after the first season. Martin Luther King talked her out of it.
It does illustrate something that in the 60s, someone could non-ironically talk about Uhura’s role as being in a position of authority.
brad @38, MAM pretty much covered all of those concerns in her original post (e.g. “can’t please everyone” – see point #5).
Nora, that really is a great piece — I wish I’d thought to link to it in my essay. It dovetails so perfectly.
wow. another great post.
I worry about this so much that I don’t think I’ve written a single black character yet. Coward. Yes.
Thank you for the unfiltered honesty. This and throughtout your posts.
…the key is in how you respond to it. It’s not helpful to immediately go into denial mode.
I have said very similar things in negotiations.
Brian, I have such a hard time with far future SF and plausibility that it’s difficult for me to comment. Given how insanely much has changed in the last hundred years, extrapolating reasonably out much further than a few hundred years seems just bewildering to me. Not to say I don’t occasionally love me some far future SF — Ben Rosenbaum’s The House Beyond Your Sky (http://www.strangehorizons.com/2006/20060904/house-f.shtml) is a fabulous example of it done well. But that stuff, it’s just wacky.
I do think, aside from the plausibility question, that it’s hard to create a future where race has essentially disappeared as factor, without it ending up looking like a white future, just because that’s what our cultural defaults already are. So those supposedly post-racial futures end up feeling like they’ve just erased all the PoC from the equation — a virtual genocide, if you will. Painful for us to read. :-( I’m not sure what the logical way would be out of that trap…
Re BSG: I want to point out that with TV and film, “whitewashing” a PoC actor (or simply allowing viewers to assume they’re white) still involves a genuine person of color getting screentime and name recognition. Over and over we are told that black and latina and Asian characters have to be played by white actors because “we just want to cast the best actors” or the actors who will pull the biggest audiences. Of course it would be nicer to have them call out Adama as non-white! But casting matters too.
No worries, Norah. It was an awesome essay. Wasn’t sure about linking you in here under your RL name though.
Re: Edward James Olmos: he’s effectively been written as white, however. There’s no evidence that he has a culture any different from the white Capricans on the show; he speaks no different language, yearns for no different foods, worships no different gods, has no different customs. He wears blue contact lenses on the show so that there’s less strangeness about him having a son played by a blue-eyed white British guy.
True. This goes back to the stuff I mentioned on the other thread about Eureka. It would be nice to have it occasionally noted that the PoC characters really are PoCs, and not just white characters played by PoC actors. I think it’s probably harder to do this in SF than in fantasy, and harder in both than in generic fiction, because there’s a risk of going all Very Special Episode on it.
I too consider myself to be an “educated WP,” given who I am married to. I would only add the caveat that PoC are not automatically right in all things involving race. This is an area where White Guilt too often lends PoC total authority on race matters and race discussion, which is not the right answer to racism either. IMHO race discussion should be a dialogue, not a talking-to, where one party lectures the other as ‘passive receptacle’ of knowledge.
Mary Fitz #40 –
That was particularly clueless of that professor. In so many ways. He also managed to backhand both European cultures *and* non-European cultures at the same time, which is a very impressive Fail.
(The only thing I’m doing for the coming of the 14th is baking Irish soda bread, or at least attempting a couple recipes….)
I just wanted to thank you for these two posts. They’re actually quite timely, given my current project. I had already pointed folks to part 1, and I’ll be sending them here to read this as well.
(Oh, I had not known about Olmos’s blue contacts, how embarrassing that I didn’t notice. Also does undermine my point a bit. Yuck.)
Mary, just a quick note that I teach Irish literature in my post-colonial lit. class. A couple of my students happen to be of Irish descent, and they were at first totally bewildered to find that we were covering some of their country’s history in the class — then, as we got into that history, quite outraged at everything they hadn’t known about how the Irish suffered under British colonialism. Gave them some nice solidarity with the S. Asians and Africans in the room. :-)
Thanks. =) And thanks for your efforts here, though I’m astounded that you’re willing to put yourself through this. It can’t be easy, and what a drain on your time! I’m in awe.
[Deleted because I don’t even want to start with the trolltastic qualities of this fellow. Luke, you’re in the moderation queue from here on out. Enjoy its snug confines — JS]
Fungi, that video clip you just linked to made me cry. Thanks so much for the link. I love Nichelle Nichols.
One comment I’d like to make is that if you’re researching and putting a lot of effort into one (or a few) character(s), you liable to imbalance the story. Just because you’re used to writing white characters doesn’t mean you’ll do it well when they’re up against a well thought out non-white.
Perhaps it could be said that all main players in a story should be researched enough to make them fit together? Of course, I’m one who believes in doing as much research as possible for every aspect of a story, so I may be a trifle biased on the subject.
Jessie @ #47,
That’s a good point; EJO is getting his first regular long-term TV work since Miami Vice, and that’s important. But I can’t help but feel some sorrow at the erasure of his culture — and for that matter the erasure of Jamie Bamber’s culture. Why is it that only Baltar’s character gets to have a British accent? (I know, it gets explained in the show, but it’s still bizarre.) But I feel this especially with EJO, given the dearth of Latino/a actors in American television, and given that he’s fought to open doors in this area.
RE: BSG and PoC
Oh man, I remember hashing this out at Sci-Fi Weekly in the letters column a few years ago.
IMHO there is a certain subset of PoC — call them African Americans With Chips On Shoulders, or AAWCOS — who will simply not be satisfied with any film or television product that does not put black actors front-and-center. Hence BSG — a nominally diverse SF production by any reasonable standard — gets a “fail” with the AAWCOS crowd because Adama, Roslyn, Tigh, et al, are not played by black actors, and the black actors who are in the show are in “minor” roles, like the Eight or Dee.
Frankly, I am a little suspicious of anyone who watches SF and simply cannot bring themselves to identify with or like or get into characters who don’t look just like they do or do not reflect themselves back to themselves in a 100% positive light. In this regard, who has the more ‘closed’ mind? The producers of BSG? Or the small bunch of nagging viewers — stuck in AAWCOS mode — who cannot enjoy a well-done production because they’re so hung up on their own ethnic identify they cannot appreciate stories about, or actors portraying, people beyond their narrow ethnic ‘cone’ of identification?
I *still* think somebody needs to check in with the Lucas Jackson who is a southern California lawyer to make sure this isn’t somebody playing him on the Internet to screw with him. And by “somebody needs to…” I of course mean somebody other than me.
S-O, those are arguments MAM already addressed, so.
It’s no biggie; I’m already “out” about it. =)
Well yes, Ireland was the Brits trial run at colonialism sort of their beta test of the whole concept. They where there centuries before they got to Africa and Asia, and they are still there.
A. Jerico it’s the 17th and you can have a Guinness or Smithwich with the soda bread, no green beer though. It would be nice to say a prayer for the poor British troopers and pizza delivery guys the idiot militants shot last week while you are at it. If you are the praying type. It’s hell being proud of being Irish sometimes. We are our own worst enemy more often than not.
Just a reminder to people that I can and do bring out the Mallet when I think you’re being an ass.
I understand that some folks think I give too much leeway. My view is that some folks may not be aware they are being potentially trolly and/or lacking in clues, and may, if treated gently by other commenters, find themselves contributing productively. So I try to err on the side of generosity. On the other hand, some people are just aiming to be jerks. I try to take them out of the commenting population when it becomes obvious.
No need for folks to follow up on this comment. Please keep on talking about other stuff. Thanks.
A bit ironic that Olmos wore blue contracts in Blade Runner, for entirely opposite reasons. (To portray a racially mixed, decidedly culturally non-white character.)
Sort of on that topic combined with your point #4. I’d like to see more of the non PoC characters not be WASPS. Really only skin heads living in compounds in Idaho are ethnically white.
While I completely agree with her point four, I take a bit of exception to the skinhead comment…I have to go back four generations the remotest bit of culture beyond generic WASP.
Those were certainly some good points, but I would couch them in the context that not everyone of every ethnic or social group is going to agree on what is offensive and what is not.
This is a good point. Of course there’s no One True Way to do this right.
In other words, it’s simply impossible to please everyone.
This, however, concerns me, because I’ve seen this kind of thinking lead to a problematic conclusion: “I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t, so I just won’t bother.” I don’t know if you were going there or not. I’m just saying that the impossibility of pleasing everyone doesn’t mean you still shouldn’t try.
The thing that kills me about SF writers is that many of them will jump through all kinds of hoops in order to get the science right in their stories. Especially hard SF writers — they’ll research, confer with physicists, even go back to grad school and get themselves a nice shiny Ph.D. in their chosen area of obsession, and then angst over every reader nitpick if they get even the tiniest detail wrong. Yet so many of these same writers won’t put forth even a tenth of this effort to get people right. There’s something wrong with that, I think.
I think a good writer tries to get everything right: characterization, worldbuilding, whatever. And re characterization, that means incorporating the full complexity of human life — including race, since that’s an important part of life for all of us.
I’ve seen enough to convince me re LJ. (The southern California Lawyer that is, not LiveJournal, for the avoidance of doubt). In particular, letters of complaint to his law firm being published triumphally on the net…
Note to self: Stop feeding the troll. Even in his snug confines.
I was involved in that BSG debate (SF is a small world), and I think you’re grossly mischaracterizing it. But since that was years ago and far from here, I’ll leave it at that.
Sorry, Scalzi. Will revert to talking about other stuff.
Regarding pointing stuff out: I know this is what started RaceFail, which sucks, but I don’t think that the escalation of a discussion into fail necessarily means the discussion itself was a bad idea to begin with. Which sounds a little like I’m going 180 on the RaceFail stance I was taking before, but it really isn’t. More of a … uh, piquant 45, maybe.
However, others like SubOdeon (among others) have made cogent points too, so I will sit and think about it!
Mary Anne, I thought your comment on ‘generic white’ characters and identity was interesting. In the context of mainstream fiction, or even a lot of Sci-Fi, your example of specifying that someone is second-generation Polish American makes sense. It sounds to me like what you are arguing primarily is that having characters with a diversity of backgrounds, and recognizing that those backgrounds will shape their viewpoints, is important – perhaps more important than simply specifying the color of their skin/hair/eyes. That having generic PoC mixed in with the generic white characters is better than not, but the goal should be actual nuanced characters of varied backgrounds. Is that right?
My question is how that plays out in fantasy, which in some ways gives more of a free rein to include diversity with less baggage, but also makes identity harder to – identify. You can write about a second-generation Polish American, and most of us will assume he/she is white without you having to describe any physical attributes. But you can’t place that character into most fantasy settings, since Poland doesn’t exist there. So you build a fantasy character with a rich cultural background, and clarify how that background affects their worldview – and you still haven’t given any information about skin color, since the background you’ve created doesn’t ‘match’ any real-world ethnicity.
So then what? I realize that many books describe physical characteristics, like all those blonde princesses, and if you’re going to do that, then I’m all in favor of describing a more diverse mix. But really, in this context it seems like adding physical descriptions simply serves to make characters “other” to whole groups of people, rather than leaving them non-specific so that hopefully everyone can see themselves in them. But then you (and others in links) pointed out that non-specific reads white to many PoC, whereas I had always assumed that the non-specific default was “like me”. Either way, I feel like suddenly we’re back to painting skins different colors solely to include diversity (false diversity, at that), rather than to improve the quality of the story. Is that a necessary evil, much like affirmative action? Or is there some way around it?
the black actors who are in the show are in “minor” roles, like the Eight or Dee.
The Eights are Grace Park’s characters. The “Simons” are number 4.
I don’t want to go on a big tangent here about the pitfalls of deliberate colorblindness, so I’ll just link this.
As concerns writing characters, I’m really curious as to how they could’ve found a way to make EJO Latino in the show. Since the human culture itself is more or less based primarily around ancient Greek culture, I’m not sure how one would incorporate elements of a culture that developed entirely separately from that half a world away. And would those elements be modern Latino, with the influence of Spanish colonists, or ancient, with just the culture of, say, the Mayans?
Or would it have made more sense to assign him a constructed parallel culture, as they did with talking about Baltar’s Aerilon heritage?
As a young(ish) white female writer who came up with a fabulous story idea featuring a young black male protagonist, thought, “No way, I’ll never be able to write this properly,” sat thinking about the story for 2 months depressed that I couldn’t write it because it was a great idea, and then finally decided to go for it anyway… I am bookmarking this post. Excellent and thought-provoking. I’ve read Tobias Buckell’s thoughts on this subject, and found them insightful, and it is wonderful to have other perspectives.
Wow, someone else remembers that debate too. SF is indeed a small world. Good luck with your book by the way.
Sarah, I wish I knew a way around it, because I agree, it feels clunky to start describing skin tones again.
One thing that might sometimes help is to base your fantasy world on a real culture in our world. I’ve been working on a YA fantasy novel, off and on, in which a Sri Lankan-American girl from our world ends up in a fantasy land, complete with handsome prince falling madly in love with her. So I get a bit of the specific ethnicity stuff from our world, of course, since it’s a crossover story. But even for the fantasy world — it’s very deliberately modelled on ancient Sri Lanka. So all the people she encounters do have dark brown skin (and her blonde friend who comes along stands out like a sore thumb), and the two sides of the ethnic conflict at the heart of the book are modelled (very loosely) on the Sinhalese and Tamils in actual Sri Lanka.
That’s not going to work for every book, of course, but maybe it can be a way in? Many fantasy worlds *feel* white to me — as opposed to Le Guin’s Earthsea as I mentioned above, which feels like tropical island culture…
LOL @ CoC.
In my line of work it means ‘Contaminants of Concern’.
Sarah, one way to do that is by creating fantasy cultures that are direct analogues of Earth cultures, as Tamora Pierce does (esp. in her Circle of Magic books). And she certainly is an example of doing research, occasionally getting things wrong, and then trying to do better.
SubOdeon @60, when you start talking about “chips on their shoulders” and “never satisfied” and “who’s really racist” that isn’t contributing to the discussion. I could be wrong and malletfodder here, but I’d like to think that for purposes of this thread, everybody who is participating agrees that there’s an awfully disproportionate amount of defaulting to Generic White Guy in SF/F and it’s appropriate to want that to change for the better.
I mean, there are (I’ve talked to them) plenty of WPWCOTS who are unhappy with any TV show, book or movie that does put PoC front and center, because it’s “politically correct” or “bowing to the liberals” or “not really fitting with the SF/F fantasy setting”. But is talking about those people going to move the discussion forward? Nope. Just as it’s not productive to grip about POCWCOTS. And as I said, MAM already addressed the can’t-please-everyone argument.
I’m thinking of the Matrix movies which, whatever you thought about it otherwise, pulled an interesting trick: racial diversity that was invisible to the characters in the movie. Nobody sat around blathering about how Morpheus was black. Neo never announced how cool it was that a good half of the inhabitants of Zion were various shades of brown. There were just all these people, and they did their thing, and that was that. Firefly touched on that as well – it would sure have been nice to have more Asian characters in an allegedly Sino-American fusion culture, but on the other hand, nobody freaked out about white characters with the last name “Tam” and nobody had creepy/scary reactions to Zoe and Wash being an interracial couple.
I’m not going to hold either of those up as the Zenith of SF/F (oh, hush, Whedonics!) but it very obviously can be done, and by white writers, too, without being self-congratulatory or awkward.
And she certainly is an example of doing research, occasionally getting things wrong, and then trying to do better.
Research is really, really, really important in doing this. Otherwise you get well-meaning people trying to write Latinos in Space and doing so by having them wear hologram sombreros and eat at the Intergalactic Taco Bell.
Tal, my bad about #8. (blush) /BSG not-enough-of-a-nerd.
As to latinos in BSG… If EJO is representative of any current culture, I’d say he’s our ‘military’ representative. Adama’s racial roots are essentially buried, and if Lee is any indicator, either Adama is mixed-race himself, or his wife was white and her genes ‘won’ in the womb. Anyway, Adama — to my military sensibilities — represents the military mindset and the military system of loyalty and honor. In this sense Adama embodies the trans-racial nature of the modern 21st Century U.S. military, replete with officers and NCO cadre from every ethnicity and makeup known to humanity. They all share the common identity of ‘serviceperson’ however, and if Adama has shown anything, it’s his unswerving dedication to his military heritage and standards, in spite of everything the events of the BSG universe have thrown at him.
Just my thoughts, on why EJO’s latino culture isn’t necessarily brought to the forefront in that particular context.
Hi Mary Anne,
These were good posts, and some nice comments, too.
I consider myself a neophyte writer, working my way toward competence, and so your suggestions for writers are most welcome. One thing I have been doing is — as suggested — varying a character’s race/ethnicity/gender when it doesn’t matter what it is, and it is sensible to do so. Mostly, it is done on a shallow level, but then, that’s one of the things I’m working on improving with all of my characterization.
I do occasionally find myself stymied when trying to describe the race of a character. Black, white, brown — these are easy and common enough, but many other racial descriptions are geographic, not visual (eg. Asian, Latino, etc.).
They function well enough in contemporary and near-future fiction, but what if I’m writing space opera set a thousand years in the future on a planet far, far away? Or, of greater concern… when I’m writing fantasy, in a world that is not and never was Earth… it makes no sense to describe someone as Asian.
It doesn’t come up all that often in the fiction I’ve read (which is a fairly obvious indicator of the lack of diversity therein), but are there good visual descriptors for different racial types beyond the ones I’ve listed? Surely I can’t be the first person to consider this….
Re: no obligation…
We have seen how Scalzi deals with this kind of thing. He has essays up about “Why I won’t blurb your book” and so on. I presume when someone emails him and says “Hey Scalzi, blurb my book!” he either ignores it, letting the posted essay speak for itself, or sends a form letter linking to the essay. Authors have always had to do this. Somewhere I have either RAH or his wife Virginia talking about when they had to switch from personal answers to forms printed on postcards; they didn’t want to, but there was no choice.
So even when, “It’s not *my* job to fix your crappy writing!” may be an accurate response, it is not a productive or civil response. It would be just as easy to reply with a link to the wonderful essay above and far more useful.
C, if we get enough writers into the practice of actually trying to write characters of other ethnicities than their own, then perhaps we’ll develop that sort of form letter response. :-) I admit, I do have something about ‘don’t ask me about my agent’ on my site’s FAQ…
House, we did talk about far future and fantasy stuff in the comments above already, to some extent. Short answer — I’d probably rely on cultural cues, rather than physical features…
Firefly touched on that as well – it would sure have been nice to have more Asian characters in an allegedly Sino-American fusion culture, but on the other hand, nobody freaked out about white characters with the last name “Tam” and nobody had creepy/scary reactions to Zoe and Wash being an interracial couple.
Yeah, but as with the Eureka problem, if race is only visually visible, has it really been noted?
For instance, if you were writing Firefly as a novel, without the visual references, would you have any idea, beyond perhaps a cursory description of hair texture or skin color, that Zoe wasn’t white?
My other problems with Whedon are too numerous and off-topic to go into here, but I will say that I found Firefly’s treatment of race and culture completely bewildering. I don’t think, for instance, that the near-total absence of Asian characters is something unimportant enough to just be dismissed as no big deal.
Hmmm. Damned good post for pondering upon Mary Anne.
I’ve been building a fantasy world in which I’ve always kind of planned a minor surprise reveal in regards to the racial makeup of the world. I wasn’t planning on specifying race until the ‘other’ of the story showed up but was intending to kind of trick the reader into a false assumption by loosely basing the cultures on those that one would assume to be white.
Gonna have to think on that idea some more… again.
Note: Sarah @ 71 actually covered some of the things I was thinking while I wrote my last post, regarding the difficulties of covering race separate from culture.
Just want to clear up a common misconception: The kiss between Kirk and Uhura was not the first interracial kiss on television. In fact, the earlier Star Trek episode Elaan of Troyius had Kirk kissing an Asian-American actor (France Nuyen). Furthermore, interracial kissing had previously been featured on Movin’ With Nancy, I Love Lucy and The Little Rascals. The honor of the first interracial kiss on television falls to the British soap opera Emergency Ward 10, which stirred up controversy for its depiction of an interracial relationship.
It would be more accurate to say that Star Trek had one of the first interracial kisses on television, or that it was “the first kiss between a fictional white male and a fictional black female to premiere on American network television”.
All information taken from Memory Alpha.
For instance, if you were writing Firefly as a novel, without the visual references, would you have any idea, beyond perhaps a cursory description of hair texture or skin color, that Zoe wasn’t white?
This sort of gets strange, though, with the concept of what black “properly” is. Since it’s a race with many subdivisions and not an ethnicity with certain specific shared traits of cuture and so on, I would have been fairly wary and possibly annoyed with attempts to write her “blacker.”
As far as improving your writing goes, trying to get characters right, I’d say the biggest thing is to just keep writing. Somewhere an editor or something said your first million words are practice. So, it’s good to keep that in mind if you’re thinking your going to write anything perfectly correct the first time.
Oh, that, and I recommend writing short stories. Get those magical negro and other such characters out of your system in 10,000 words or less. Much less painfull than trying to fix a friggen novel length work.
Not that I would know.
Tal @84 – I hope I didn’t sound dismissive of the absence of Asian characters in Firefly; I singled the show out as an example of a way that an SF/F show has dealt with race in a way that wasn’t totally awkward or self-conscious. Certainly that doesn’t mean it’s perfect or that SF/F is now officially postracial.
Jon S., thanks for clarifying — I hadn’t known any of that!
Nkjemisin @ 66
In other words, it’s simply impossible to please everyone.
“This, however, concerns me, because I’ve seen this kind of thinking lead to a problematic conclusion: “I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t, so I just won’t bother.” I don’t know if you were going there or not. I’m just saying that the impossibility of pleasing everyone doesn’t mean you still shouldn’t try.”
I agree with you wholeheartedly. To not try is to accomplish nothing.
About the “omg I’m not evil!” thing…
I’m old enough to have been around in the late 60s/early 70s when people were having their consciousnesses raised about race, gender, and all sorts of other things.
At first, it was Oh! Wow! ALL the characters were female? I didn’t notice! or Oh! Wow! Sure, that doctor could be Afro-American!
After awhile it was “Not *another* story that’s supposed to catch you out for being a bigot!” Or “Not *another* TV episode to educate that assumes we’re all jerks!”
I find I still have a hair-trigger response to stories that have an “I’m going to educate you about your bigotry” feel. The story itself may be terrific–I read one where the response of younger readers was “This is great!” and of older readers was “It’s good, but, OW!” And I couldn’t separate out the feeling that I was being lectured to from the value of the story. I tried. I just couldn’t do it.
I think this may be what you’re talking about–I’ve heard the message so thoroughly that if I fail in even the smallest way to grok race/gender/etc. I’m an evil bigot, that I feel attacked when someone just tries a literary experiment.
Mary Anne talked yesterday about if you make a mistake you address it then move on; that’s freeing. Knowing that PoC are tired of wading through the defensiveness to get to where you can have an actual discussion is also freeing.
Thanks to you both.
Mythago @ #78,
I’m thinking of the Matrix movies which, whatever you thought about it otherwise, pulled an interesting trick: racial diversity that was invisible to the characters in the movie. Nobody sat around blathering about how Morpheus was black. Neo never announced how cool it was that a good half of the inhabitants of Zion were various shades of brown. There were just all these people, and they did their thing, and that was that.
I can tell you one thing: it sure as heck wasn’t invisible to PoC viewers who watched the movie. I can’t speak for others, but I was giddily happy to see it. (And I saw a lot of PoC SF fans saying that it was cool that most of the inhabitants of Zion were brown, since they were a subset of the entire human race.
Also a note: remember that Keanu Reeves is some not-insignificant percentage of Asian and Hawaiian/Polynesian. His characters are rarely played as multiracial, but it matters to some viewers, and reportedly mattered to the Wachowskis.
House said: “what if I’m writing space opera set a thousand years in the future on a planet far, far away?”
(From the “What I have learned” file) First, think about whether you are really writing them as generic humans or not. Are you subconsciously making them middle class American white heterosexuals? (How can you write such a novel in American English without some cultural biases from leaking in? They are part of the language, whichever dialect of it you choose to use.)
You are on the horns of a dilemma, because a novel that shares no cultural referents with our lives does not engage us easily. But the more you mirror our culture in your universe, the more you are susceptible to incorporating your unconscious prejudices.
Find the places modern culture has leaked in. Then you are probably in a place not that different from what MAM talks about.
As an aside, an EW article that was posted last year about diversity in TV: http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20206185,00.html.
There’s a line in there that I like:
I think the challenges of the visual media are to some extent different than the challenges of the written word; you can’t put Grace Oh and Dule Hill in a scene and have your audience default to a perception that they’re white characters. There, the challenge is to make what could otherwise be token characters into real, fully-fleshed characters — or rather, to give three-dimensional characters the opportunity to be played by minority cast-members. I also think there’s a difference between giving members of different races face-time, as opposed to nurturing representation of ethnicity and culture outside the 2-dimensional WASP, to grossly paraphrase Mary Anne.
I think there’s an assumption above in the thread, not necessarily wrong! that simply because one is minority on the outside, one is minority on the inside. (I phrased that really … weirdly. I’m sorry.) However, that’s not the case for everyone. A person can be ethnically Japanese, but have less culturally Asian self-identity than Tom Cruise. I think the challenges for the written word are greater, because the problems on TV are to some extent solvable by simply casting more good minority actors in good roles. In the written word, my expectation are so much higher: I want the face and the character, but I want the culture and the flavor and the identity as well.
Feel free to tell me I have hold of the wrong end of the stick! My mind is open to changing!
The absence of Asian characters on Firefly is particularly odd given the Chinese dialog and references.
Good points, and I realize dragging out the AAWCOS is liable to derail things down standard ‘gripe’ tunnels. I guess I missed it in the last post (??) where MAM addressed the fact that PoC don’t have an absolute last-word on race matters, so I’ll have to go back and re-read since you saw it and I missed it.
As to WPWCOS whining about unnecessary diversity, I personally don’t fret on that one at all because I’m frankly gratified by SF productions which can portray racial diversity in an ostensibly color-blind, functional society. Such as Star Trek, which assumes that humanity will, by the 23rd and 24th centuries, attain a kind of utotpic post-raciality that I still find attractive — in spite of all of Star Trek’s simplifications and flaws.
Your point about self-congratulations is key IMHO, because any time any fiction — film, TV, book, short story — begins to overtly or even subtly pat itself on the back for its racial ‘rainbow,’ our suspension of disbelief starts to fail and it becomes too obvious that the producers, writers, etc, are trying to ‘make a racial point’ and are willing to thwap us over the noses with it.
I think the only time I can recall being even a little put off by a PoC in a movie role, was when they cast Morgan Freeman in the old Kevin Costner Robin Hood movie. In that case the inclusion of the character Azeem seems so sore-thumb dissonant — with the setting and the history of the myth — that it screamed, “TOKEN!!!!”
I liked the first and second MATRIX films for the fact that they portrayed the citizens of Zion as being ostensibly post-racial in their sensibilities. (NOTE: I never saw the third MATRIX installment, FYI…) Though they probably could have taken this racial potluck a single step further if Trinity had been a PoC; though Keanu is, himself, technically semi-PoC — so perhaps we can give this detail a pass?
I suppose I personally long for a future when events have caused humanity to either jettison — or have ripped away — all the pretense and baggage of race. Right now it seems we’ve become, not post-racial, and not non-racial, but hyper-racial. We have become a hyphenated people, with a series of double-standards and shibboleths and other ‘rules’ governing all sorts of aspects of our society. I fear that we’re drifting far from the ideal of the society where “content of character” trumps “color of skin,” and that in our rush to uplift the previously — and many would say, currently — oppressed, we are simply creating new “categories” for ourselves. Categories and subdivisions which exacerbate — not ameliorate — racial tension and racial injustice.
And yes, that’s very easy for me to say as a White Guy (WG) raised in a White Culture (WC) where my cultural norm is also the national default for the U.S.
My wife and I have discussed this — post-raciality versus hyper-raciality — and it’s obvious that PoC and WG’s like me are coming from opposite galaxies.
In the written word, my expectation are so much higher: I want the face and the character, but I want the culture and the flavor and the identity as well.
There’s too much running around my brain about this right now to really get it down coherently, but let’s just pretend that I asked a bunch of questions about assimilation, white normativity and facile stereotypes, and whether those questions apply equally to different media.
Also add in a question about whether race and culture really are two distinctive things, and whether they can be represented simultaneously without stereotyping, or separately without whitewashing.
I agree, and I want to be clear that the value of PoC actors doesn’t cancel out the loss of PoC characters–just that there is value, for the same reason that it’s so troubling when major PoC characters are played by white actors. I’m thinking now, what if BSG had started with Olmos, and cast his son with a visibly Latino actor, instead of giving Olmos blue eyes? That would change the balance of the show even if there was no change to the script, props, anything.
I’m really intrigued by the idea that Adama represents the military somehow better as a non-raced figure. I think the public image of the US military is pretty white, even though there’s a long-growing Latino and black population in the services. (The US Army’s demographics, for instance, show that blacks are over-represented proportional to their presence in the US.) So it seems like a more…effective? accurate? informative? symbol of the military might in fact be a Latino character.
As far as the writing in the far future is concerned; I’m doing that. But in order to do that, I had to contemplate what kind of people were involved, how they live and what kind of things are their inter-cultural biases.
In a way, such writing strikes me as very like fantasy, except that the magic is called science. Your societies will have biases, prejudices and the like. They’ll just not be the exact same ones as those on 20th century Earth.
The absence of Asian characters on Firefly is particularly odd given the Chinese dialog and references.
Yeah. That was such a major head-scratcher for me. It took me out of the story even more so than the minimalist sound design or him having poor Summer Glau walking around half-naked and/or wet all the time.
Sub-Odeon, he may have been referring to this bit, above:
“Maybe your reader is just having a personal, idiosyncratic response to your story — you can’t define ‘getting it right’ as ’satisfying every single person of that ethnicity / skin color / affiliation with that identity’. Sometimes you just need to let them have their response to your story, and not take it too much to heart.”
“what if I’m writing space opera set a thousand years in the future on a planet far, far away?”
Reminds me of a panel that I attended at an Arisia a few years ago – Cat Valente was on it, an the topic was something like “What if Hansel and Gretel had a Jet Pack?”. To which her answer was that it’d be a stupid story that no one would want to read. Actually, her first answer was to shot invisible laser beams from her eyes and incinerated the person asking, but they were too dumb to notice.
We always have been a hyphenated people. Take a look around you next Tuesday for confirmation.
There is SF/F that deals with a totally ‘postracial’ society. The Lathe of Heaven has an example, and it’s not a positive one.
El @ #93
I find I still have a hair-trigger response to stories that have an “I’m going to educate you about your bigotry” feel…. I’ve heard the message so thoroughly that if I fail in even the smallest way to grok race/gender/etc. I’m an evil bigot, that I feel attacked
Me too! Me too!
Gah, I botched that.
Me too! Me too!
And re: the post-racial future — it sounds so good, on one level. But when Kevin and I were trying to come up with names for our daughter, I knew I wanted a Tamil ethnic name for her. And I felt bad about it, because he kept coming up with names like Guinevere, which okay, I love too. But it felt so incredibly important that she have that visible marker of ethnicity, especially when we knew that there was a good chance that she’s look pretty white. (As, it turned out, she does.)
We ended up talking about it for three hours in the middle of the night, and ended up with me bursting into tears, babbling something about my father and sarongs and ‘kunju’ and my mother’s curries and I don’t even know what else.
Her full name, Kaviarasi, is actually a very old, very traditional name (sort of the equivalent of naming someone Gertrude in English). It means ‘queen of poetry.’ When we sent out the birth announcements, I got letters from my parents’ friends, with heartfelt thanks that we’d given her such a beautiful old Tamil name. And those letters made me want to cry too.
I don’t know how we do post-racial without erasing so much of what is most beloved.
Sub-Odeon, when you made your point about going out and just collecting PoC friends, it made me immediately think (no mallet, please) of calling that practice POCemon – gotta catch ’em all. It seems like that is exactly what people do – I’ve got two black friends and one latino: Oh yeah, well I have a Japanese and three Sri Lankans!
I commend the idea of going out and familiarizing yourself with different cultures and races, and making friends thereof, but you make a valid point in how creepy it would be to say “I’ve got a story that has a Jamaican in it, guess I need to go find some Rasta friends.” (Yes, I am aware not all Jamaicans are Rastafarians; that was more or less the point of how ignorant and misinformed that practice would be.)
MAM, I had a few questions about writing that I held onto until I read your Part 2, and I am glad I did. You pretty much answered them, with a couple of exceptions.
Someone in the other thread talked about POC on Eureka being white but played by POC. You mentioned here about how to represent different races and finding part of what makes them different by looking in their past. You have also mentioned how you are comfortably middle class and losing some touch with your Sri Lankan roots, at least as far as language goes.
My question is this: There are POC in this country who have either lost touch with or decided to ignore their roots. They are, or seem to be, indistinguishable from their white friends, with the obvious exception of color. In, lets say, a hundred years, if your family continues on the course it’s taken, you might have lost all touch with your Sri Lankan roots, and now your family, being middle class, has little else to distinguish it from the rest of the middle class families other than race. Likewise, there are plenty of black and Latino and Asian families that may have done the same. Is it a disservice to write that sort of character, especially if that is the point of your fiction, and have little to no differences between the characters except for the occasional mention of race?
Corollary; I have also seen – in the Racefail discussion, not here – when African-Americans try to find good jobs in academia or business, they are accused of trying to “act white” or “pursue the white agenda” of higher education and personal wealth. Have you heard this, and do you think it is part of why some POC complain about the portrayal of some POC in books and shows? Are complaints like that legitimate? To me, they feel like they poison the discourse.
Lastly, you mention that all POC are not the same. If I was to write a well-educated, married, middle-class black man, and then POC complain that he isn’t representative of the black community because he has those traits (these same people usually then complain that not all black people are the same), how should I take that sort of criticism? Again, is that really useful? Personally, I don’t think so, but I may not be seeing it correctly.
Anyway, awesome post, and I’ll be referring back to it in my writing.
LMAO @ POCemon, that’s awesome!
I think what you’re reacting to was the early, Racism 101 attempts to insert PoC into TV and other media (e.g., the “Very Special Episode”). Most GenXers grew up with that, as America attempted to reformat its entertainment in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Era and generally did a ham-handed job of it. I grew up on that too, and wasn’t all that fond of it either, though I appreciated that at least PoC were there. But why did every depiction of PoC have to be about race? Why couldn’t we just be ordinary people in the story — fully-fleshed people, with families and cultural quirks and personal idiosyncracies like everybody else? It’s possible to include PoC, acknowledge their race and culture, and yet not make it the sole focus of their character.
Y’know… one of my favorite recent movies isn’t SF, and it isn’t all that high on the culturometer, but it’s “Bring it On.” It’s about cheerleaders. ::waits for 75% of Scalzi’s audience to immediately tune out:: =P But among other things, it honestly addressed the issues of cultural appropriation, cultural differences, class, and even GLBT issues, in between some fairly silly teen shenanigans. The PoC characters in it weren’t just there to teach the white protagonist about racism; they had motivations of their own and challenges that had nothing to do with her. They weren’t quite as 3D as the protag — we didn’t see their parents, their homes, their daily lives — but that was OK because they weren’t the protags themselves. But they were well-handled, and that made a movie about something I had no interest in — wasn’t the cheerleader type myself when I was in school — genuinely fun and entertaining. (If you’re wondering, it was on TV on a bad-weather day, so I watched it out of boredom, and was pleasantly surprised.)
So what I’m saying is, the media is getting better. It’s rare to see race on TV done with the old ham-handedness. Unfortunately, though, the numbers of PoC on TV are declining, so that makes those few nuanced depictions stand out that much more. =(
One of my Clarion students last summer fell into the last category you mention — fourth-generation Japanese-American, and I think it’s representing her fairly to say that she felt little to no connection with the Japanese part of her heritage.
Now, if I were writing a character like that, my temptation would be to trap her in a room with a Japanese immigrant student, and let them have a conversation about some subject related to their shared ethnicity. I think that’d be fascinating, especially if the immigrant student felt passionately about the subject.
But that’s just one approach. I do totally think it’s valid to represent such folks as they are, without every discussing race in the story otherwise.
I’ll address what I think you might be asking! Correct me if I’m wrong.
I think one of the critical factors there is that you can have a well-fleshed character on a TV show, cast it as you like, and not have its narrative end after an hour. It isn’t set in stone, because as you progress throughout the life of the series, new stories arise and the history changes and shifts. New canon is embedded in the casting choice, and you can decide to explore a story about roots (for instance) or self-identity. The problem with a written story is that the book has a hard stop, until the next in the series, or someone else decides to do fanfiction, or … whatever. That may be why my expectations are higher for the written word up front.
Also add in a question about whether race and culture really are two distinctive things, and whether they can be represented simultaneously without stereotyping, or separately without whitewashing.
The first question, I don’t see why we can’t do them both without stereotyping. As for the second part, I counter your posited question with, isn’t it as bad to tell someone that they’re acting “too white” as it is to tell someone they’re acting “too black?”
I’m not sure I’ve seen much of the blacks trying to act white, so I’m going to leave answering that to someone more familiar with it.
If someone complains about your portrayal of a well-educated, married, middle-class black man, I’d probably point them to the Cosby show and be done with it. Or ask them something like, “What? Black folks can’t be doctors?” The point is to create real characters — as long as there are people like that in real life, then you’re on relatively safe ground, I think.
Although, to be fair, if every CoC you create is an utter outlier from their community, you might want to ask themselves why that would be.
Sub Odeon @ #98:
I think the only time I can recall being even a little put off by a PoC in a movie role, was when they cast Morgan Freeman in the old Kevin Costner Robin Hood movie. In that case the inclusion of the character Azeem seems so sore-thumb dissonant — with the setting and the history of the myth — that it screamed, “TOKEN!!!!”
Er, he was a Moor. The Moors were all over Europe during the medieval period. They ruled Spain for awhile, married into one of the Italian royal families (the Medicis), and traded all over the place via the Silk Road, etc. (Speaking of the Silk Road, Asians were all over the place too.) Medieval Europe wasn’t quite as exclusively white as most fantasy has depicted.
Sounds like the family reunions I’ve had in the US. I’ll invite you to the next one if you like, paranoyd. The food’s outstanding, but you have to smile a lot.
There are plenty of Asian background characters on Firefly – they populate the background in most scenes. I always saw the characters as being just outside of the law, and if the dominant culture was Asian, they would try not to come into contact with that at all, keeping to the backwaters and shadowy bars.
Although, the Blue Sun Corporation does seem like it would be chock full of Asians, being the dominant corporation, so I agree with you there.
Don’t have a lot to add–just want to say ‘thanks’ for the posts, they’ve been equal parts educational and inspirational.
Been following Racefail ’09 on LJ since January sometime. I found a lot of it to be initially maddening, and then painful, and then eye-opening. The signal/noise ratio may have been lousy, but I’m really glad I caught some of the signal.
I think you underestimate Scalzi’s readership’s interest in cheerleaders (or that could just be me).
Re Freeman in Robin Hood, there’s also the aforementioned Magical Negro.
Jessie @ #100,
I can’t speak to eras past, but my 7 years in the Reserve have been an eye-opener.
Before I went in, I’d always heard that PoC got the “shit” jobs and nobody of any decent rank was anything other than a white male.
Boy, is that ever an outdated assumption!
I’ve never seen a more racially diverse work environment than the modern U.S. Army. To include leadership positions.
When I went through Basic Combat Training all but one of my company’s Drill Sergeants was African American. All three of my platoon DS’s were African American, the First Sergeant was African American and female, the company commander was white, but the battalion commander was black.
Back at my unit my platoon sergeant was African American and the platoon Chief — who eventually became my mentor — was a white female. The unit commander and XO roles were filled by a revolving list of PoC and females, to include latino and Pacific Islander. Same for my next unit, and then my current unit even now, which has an African American as First Sergeant and a mixed PoC as unit commander, with the unit makeup following on.
So when I look at Adama he is “transparent” in that he is an instantly believable member of the “green” ethnicity. Ergo, he is Colonial military first, and everything else second. Judging by the latinos I have met and known in the service, this is 100% authentic. Whatever hyphenation people carry with them into the modern U.S. Army, or even off-duty, when we’re all in uniform, we’re all ‘digital camo’ Americans — all uniformed and expected to abide by rank and professional courtesy regardless of race or gender.
@114, I’m not really talking about blacks trying to act white – I wouldn’t really know what that meant. I was talking about people accusing them of “following the white agenda”, whatever that is supposed to be. I think it would probably be closely tied to the “Uncle Tom” epithet that got thrown around a bit as well. That is troubling to me, to think that there are POC who blame other POC for trying to better themselves, in whatever way – that may be part of the cause of the lack of African-Americans in the scifi community, and to a lesser extent, business and the sciences. I have had black friends I worked with in an office tell me their families were unhappy that they were there because they were successful. I just wonder how pervasive that is and if it contributes to the lack of POC in the arts, sf/f writing and fandom in particular.
I think I would probably have to say, though, that those types of comments fall under the “politely listen, then decide if they are germane” category for the purposes of this topic.
I see what you mean, paranoyd, but I just haven’t heard much of that, so I don’t know. I may not have enough black friends. (Lots of black students, but they’re not as likely to have those conversations with their professor.)
Yuhri, I’d love to, if I can bring the wife and kid.
S-O@120, kind of like Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, eh? The main difference is they were able to change the actual color to “green” instead of just claiming it was so.
In the Navy, I can say that there were plenty of POC in most ranks, but my boat, the Leyte Gulf, had the very first black captain to command a cruiser. I only got to know him for a short amount of time, but he was pretty awesome. Unfortunately, the rest of the people on the boat fell along racial divides more often than not, and it caused more than a few issues. Although that could have just been because I was in engineering, and it’s not the most upwardly mobile group of guys. Of ANY race.
Or given Bamber brown contacts, since it’s easier to turn light eyes dark than the other way around, and thus implied that he was Latino. I’m not sure why they didn’t do that, actually; there are lots of white Latinos (referring to Latino as ethnicity here, but a predominantly white European genetic mix — most Latinos are multiracial in some proportion, European [Spaniards] and Native and African). Not so sure how many blue-eyed Latinos of Olmos’ coloring there are, though.
Folks, I’m going out on a date with my wife tonight, so I have to leave for for a while. Please continue to be excellent with each other while I’m away. Thanks!
@99 For me? Yes, race and culture are two different things, although they overlap in the same way that race is a subdivision of species. Sub-saharan Africans in particular have been lumped together in US culture (if not Western culture altogether) to an extent that I find unreasonable — why is it, for example, still necessary to explain that Africa is not a country to some people? Or that even within some African countries (many of whose borders were arbitrarily imposed by outside powers) there are different ethnicities? Some of which actually don’t look alike, or get along much, for all their skin is (somewhat) uniformly dark? Nobody gets upset or contests very hard with a writer who wants to draw differences between an Italian and a Swede, or even a Norwegian and a Swede, but lord, the arguments that crop up over differentiation between a first-generation Nigerian American and a Diaspora black American and a Francophone (or Anglophone, or Latin, or Papiamento-speaking) Caribbean can be something to behold. The question of which of these is “black enough,” or “authentically black,” I should caveat, is a bit of a sore spot for me. My father was an immigrant, as were my maternal grandparents. Even in the U.S. I was raised among those people. There are quirks to my way of acting and seeing the world and my behavior in it that did not fly very well in my youth among my peers — on the other hand, there are people from my grandparents’ country who will happily inform me that because I was born here, I have no claim to my ancestry and no right to even talk about it. I am indeed sore, very sore, about what I have a “right” to claim, or write about, or discuss, so please try to take my words here in that light. I am not trying to attack anyone.
I’m in the West. I’m a Western woman. By choice or emphatically not, assimilation has already happened. There are, of course, some vestiges of whatever African-culture-that-was-mine, but I could argue that for anybody, some threads moe tenuous than others.
Now I have my problems with “Firefly,” make no mistake. I was not amused by the fear-and-horror “humor” scene over Reverend Book’s hair — confused first, before I realized long after that I was actually pretty mad — or similar “fun sarcasm” about work-appropriate hairstyles by Buffy herself (and while I did for some time try to excuse the lack of Asian presence in the show with “It got canceled”…they could have done better, without Herculean effort).
But how would one go about making Zoe “blacker”? What makes Zoe “black” is her body. What made her Black-hyphen-whatwastheirplanetagain-ian is something else again. What makes Gina Torres a Latina and me not-a-Latina is not our bodies. (Having the obsessions I have, that I daresay some other black women share — and I daresay, some other black women share :-) , were I writing a novel I probably would have touched on hair care, in a way that did not make her a damn figure of fun.) I don’t recall if she and Mal were both born to the same planet, but if the show were to tell me something about Zoe’s culture, that would be what I would appreciate them exploring. The show is set so far after the destruction of our own planet, I don’t know if it would even be accurate to describe her as longing for a particular type of food or music or weather (as I might do were I fictionalizing myself).
That may be why my expectations are higher for the written word up front.
Makes sense, though I suppose that could be applied to any non-serialized storytelling, yes?
As for the other stuff, here’s a clumsy hypothetical:
Say I have a character who’s a musician, and who is also black. Said character has a grand assortment of universal traits such as a desire for love, for career advancement, daddy issues, a fondness for roses and a tendency to speak in breathless, run-on sentences.
Is it always enough to stop there? Is it always enough to have a character who could switch races halfway through the story and no-one would notice?
If it’s not, then you have to decide where you’re going to go next. You have to find a way to add in character traits that are racially distinctive without being caricatures.
I think it’s that point that starts tripping people up, because too often, people will just go for a stock character trait set. Your musician will become an urban hip-hop star with colorful slang. Or a boozy blues guitarist with a Nawlins accent. Or, as mentioned above, the “sassy black chick.”
Or, you do the other stupid thing, and try to “raise up” your black character by throwing in a heaping handful of hackneyed, middle-class WASPery: She’s a virtuoso cellist, rides ponies and calls her parents Mumsy and Dad-Dad.
I suppose the question in all this is, which is more of a risk: Writing a character that could be mistaken for white, or writing a character that wears a hologram sombrero and eats at Intergalactic Taco Bell?
Obviously, research and good writing will avoid most of these pitfalls, but I do think there’s probably a side on which it is better to err, and I’m curious as to what most folks here think that would be.
Sadly, TV SF seems to have stopped dead with Sisko. Both Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica, good as they are, are stuck with non-white characters in only subsidiary roles.
Sadly, (and I’m not making a personal slam but a general comment), there’s a whole other can of RaceFail involved in reading Hispanics as “whites”.
Also, all way back in the dawn of part one, I wrote:
It is not my obligation, as a person of mixed race heritage, to educate you on your bullshit — and damaging — assumptions about whether I “look” or “act” in an ethnically appropriate manner.
Could I also respectfully suggest that it is not the obligation of Edward Olmos or any other actor to accept roles on the basis of your standards of whether they “look” or “act in an ethnically (or gender/sexuality) appropriate manner.
Mary Fitz #63 –
17th works better in my schedule. And I’ve never understood the green beer thing non-Irish have for the holiday. o.O
I don’t pray, but I will think about them.
Yuhri, paranoyd, Mary Anne, others –
Re: “Not always a minority inside” – I personally would describe it that way.
I don’t have family for reunions with, or any Asian friends who aren’t also detached like me (and who probably don’t have self-hate, but it’s not like you can tell in the less extreme), so I’ve never experienced the situation Mary Anne speaks of. I don’t think I’d be very happy… learn a lot, sure, but extremely unhappy.
@128 — Your definitions of “white” and “black” are too monolithic for me. I’m sorry; I am not trying to be contentious.
Sorry for the multi-post, John. I was just reading David Durham’s blog and, conveniently, he wrote an interesting piece today that dovetails nicely with Mary Anne’s Part 2 for writers.
She was hoping for curry, I think
You could let her be a neurologist and then have her boss keep making racist comments about drugs and gangs and such and then you find out that actually, yes, he was in a gang as a kid, but one way or another got out of it…oh wait, that’s that doctor on House.
But seriously, that’s one way to handle it. Let them have a complex ethnic heritage, not falling into either of the pits your describe.
Mary Anne (and Marc, and others), thanks for the response. I’m actually not a writer (I’m the same Sarah that sometimes posts in your comments), so I guess I’m coming more from the standpoint of what I enjoy reading as a reader. And you’re very right that one way of addressing race in fantasy is creating analog worlds. The problem is, there are a lot of alternate Europe’s out there, and even alternate other continents. As much as I love many of those books (including Tamora Pierce), after awhile it starts to feel like a cop-out to import whole cultures from the real world. For me as a reader, it often breaks me out of the fantasy and forces me to decide how much of my real-world knowledge I need to import to understand the characters. I can only imagine how much more work it must be to create cultures from scratch, but as a fantasy reader I really appreciate it when I see it.
Someone mentioned Roberson’s Tiger and Del, and I suppose that’s an alternate solution. Those books focus on the desert south and the icy north, and so climate becomes something of a proxy for skin color. I wouldn’t have described Tiger as black, per se, (or middle-eastern or any other race from our world) but I certainly envisioned him as dark-skinned, because his home is always described with the sun beating down.
At the same time, I also think there are worlds in which neither of those solutions really works, and then you’re sort of back to square one. Maybe the answer is just to do a better job in worlds that allow it without excessive forcing (which is many of them), and hope that’s enough to encourage broader participation, which will then encourage a wider variety of fully-imagined worlds.
OK, my last @129, comes across to me as more snarky than intended — and I was quite sincerely making a general comment, not a passive-aggressive drive-by on Steve Burnap. Don’t want to get the bitter on, but being of mixed race heritage talk about “acting too white” and “looking too white” just pushed a lot of bad buttons, and this is not the place or the time to vent.
I should probably note for the record that the clumsy hypothetical at 128 wasn’t at all an actual dilemma I’ve faced. I was mostly trying to get into the heads of writers who have clearly had that sort of question come up, and ended up doing a spectacular bellyflop in trying to resolve it. ;)
Noyd: POCemon! Dude, you have invented a new word! I love it! =^)
nkj: If credible evidence could be presented that Moors were living in England during the time when Robin Hood is set, then I’d not have an issue with it. That Moorish culture and people were present and accounted for on the Continent during the same period doesn’t necessarily equate to there being a Moor in the Robin Hood tale in England. This was, IMHO, an example of tokenism taken too far.
MAM: post-racialism is a touchy subject, no doubt, because for many PoC the phrase ‘post-racial’ is just code for fully assimilated into white culture. Personally, I don’t think any future post-raciality need be of the White Culture template. In fact, if demographics are an indicator for North America, I’d say that in 300 or 400 years, the U.S. — if it still exists — is probably going to be hispanic-dominated and English will be rolled over into secondary status beneath Spanish.
Anyway, you cited the example of the fourth-generation Japanese writing student, and I’ve always thought it’s somewhat unfair that our younger PoC are saddled with dual expectations: to conform and integrate with broader U.S. society, and “stay true to their roots” as PoC. Here again is where I think race and culture get mixed up unnecessarily, and if I think of a post-racial future, I think of a future where nobody feels compelled — based on their physical appearance or who their parents are — to feel any sort of allegiance to any given race, ethnicity, or culture.
Again, maybe that’s just code to PoC ears for “assimilation into bland whitness” but as I noted above, the dominant culture of the future need not be WASP-oriented, and in fact is probably going to be something different altogether.
Without letting the cat too much out of the bag, I am currently working on a military fantasy book series that features an ostensibly African American protagonist whose tribe — this is in the far, far future following a total collapse of current civilization — has been consumed by a larger, more powerful tribe of Native — ergo, hispanic — Americans. White people don’t really show up much in this saga at all, because I postulate that the caucasian bloodline in this far-future setting will have been extinguished or absorbed, such that caucasians have become figures of myth, a bit like Quetzalcoatl.
You mentioned you wanted more SF & F to focus on race matters, and I tend to agree, in that SF & F is a nice lens through which we can examine race and racial issues — which are important and not easily discussed or examined, regardless of who you happen to be. Again, without letting too much of the cat out of the bag, my protag has to make a lot of choices, regarding assimilation, regarding his future and his children and his allegiances, given primitive and often harsh conditions, against the backdrop of major war.
Ah hell, that just gave away WAY too much. (he he)
Your story about your daughter is poignant. I know very little about Tamil culture, beyond that which was lifted for John Barnes’s “Earth Made of Glass” and the follow-on books in his Thousand Cultures novels. I have no doubt that bringing her name forward ‘from the past’ as it were, was an emotional decision. I’m not sure a post-racial future means we have to abandon our cultural heritages or allow a single heritage to overtake and consume all others. I do think it means relegating cultural allegiance and identity to a very specific secondary role in someone’s life, a bit like being a fan of a sports team. Though perhaps that’s a bad analog given the fanatacism and mania of some sports fans.
GO UTAH JAZZ! BEAT THE LAKERS!!! DIE L.A!!!
Oh shit, did I just type that?
Yes, yes I did. =^)
Mary Anne #133 –
I think that’s the key. Don’t write your characters as “just” a specific kind of black/white/brown/red/yellow person. Heritage is complex and crosses race and cultural boundaries. And so is reaction to that heritage and culture.
And learn about cultures rather than the different “classes” of people. White isn’t the only “race” to have a variety of widely different cultures, each of which may view the others with, ah, different considerations—nor is white lacking in such cultures. The same statements apply to black, yellow, brown, red, etc.
Just as you wouldn’t want cardboard personalities, you don’t want cardboard histories either. And while that history may never be mentioned overtly, it still colors that character’s personality (as things about characters that only the writer knows do).
Paranoyd: because it never, ever, ever gets said often enough, I want to thank you for your service in the USN. Kudos, sir. How many years were you in? And at the risk of going totally O/T would you describe it as an overall positive, or overall negative, experience? Mine in the USAR has been overall positive, but Reserve is a whole other Oprah, compared to full-time Army. Anyway, if that’s too O/T for this thread, my bad. Just wanted to shout out to another servicemember.
Just as you wouldn’t want cardboard personalities, you don’t want cardboard histories either. And while that history may never be mentioned overtly, it still colors that character’s personality
Yes, that’s what I was getting at. I wanted to see how other folks addressed the question. :)
Me, I’d probably write the character as a virtuoso electronica composer who loves Creole food and makes up her own slang using mashups of catchphrases from Fat Albert and The Jeffersons. ;)
Sadly, (and I’m not making a personal slam but a general comment), there’s a whole other can of RaceFail involved in reading Hispanics as “whites”.
I genuinely forgot about Olmos. Perhaps that is a “fail” on my part. Perhaps it has to do with my Southern California upbringing or perhaps it is because his “son” is obviously not Hispanic. Given that I am such a Bladerunner fanatic, it is an odd omission.
Hispanic is itself an odd concept, though, given that someone can have entirely European genes and still be “Hispanic”.
RE: RaceFail and “acting too white”
To me this is a whole other thread, and crosses into internal racism and culturalism within the PoC communities. This is one of those ‘dirty laundry’ subjects that PoC hate to talk about in front of WP because it reveals an additional, complicating dimension to race and culture discussions, re: racism and culturalism being a damaging function within as well as from without.
My wife gets that sometimes. Seems like every fucking body needs to cram her into a slot. Is she black? Latino? Pacific Islander? What? Based on how she styles her hair, and how much sun she’s getting, she could pass for all of the above. Until she opens her mouth, at which point it’s clear that she is ‘culturally white’ and for some PoC they hate ‘culturally white’ PoC even more than they hate racist WP.
IMHO this is basically RaceFail 2: The Quickening, and while it would be tempting to discuss it here, I’ll resist the urge and try to stick to the main topic of Race 101 and SF & F.
Makes sense, though I suppose that could be applied to any non-serialized storytelling, yes?
Paused to give it some thought, and — actually, I have to say no. I mean, specifically thinking about movies. Again, this has more to do with the visual nature of the medium (and right now I’m thinking more about fluff movies rather than, you know, Oscar-winners) but you can’t watch a movie and assume an African-American actor is actually Caucasian. And yes, maybe the story is such that you could swap out Random White Actor X and replace that minority actor with no detrimental effect, but in the case of the visual medium where the evidence of presence is so irrefutable, I think the bar is lower. It’s not something you can blink and miss. As an odd corollary, when it’s not interchangeable ethnicities, when the background is steeped in one culture or another and the source material (if there is any) is so unarguably of a different culture, the swap out is, I would argue, 100 times worse than it is in the written text. I don’t know why it is — because I’m visually/aurally inclined, maybe? Or the reach of movies is so much broader? It’s a massive influence for the newer generations? — but to see Colored Hero replaced by White Hero makes me feel as though I am being erased. Ack.
Craig@129 and paranoid’s link @132 sort of lay out what I was meaning in terms of my qualms with the phrase “whitewashing.” I believe I know what you were trying to say, Tal; I just felt there was a corollary point worth making.
Sub-Odeon #142 – So much yes. Sorry for the me-too comment, but you put well what I’ve been trying to just try draw a schematic of in my head….
Fecking brilliant. Exactly. Wonderful. YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
S-O, I did my time in the Nav and moved on. I loved the boats, the ships, the ports, the knowledge I gained and the experience. I had huge issues with the politicization of the organization, the lack of appreciation of individual merit if you were not “in with the in crowd”, and the small mindedness in the middle management.
I would do it again, but if I knew then what I know now, it would be a different and more rewarding experience.
Sub-Odeon – please check the link by Nojojojo I put in, would you?
(looks up-thread for link…)
C-@all the back to 95
“You are on the horns of a dilemma, because a novel that shares no cultural referents with our lives does not engage us easily”
I remember the first time I read a book that was outside my cultural reach. It was an eye-opening experience– for the first time, I understood how someone could feel left out of a story, and care little how “good” it was, and therefore have little interest in reading it. It made the literacy rates for minority students so much easier to understand.
On the one hand, I am looking forward with great interest to the Verb_Noire products. On the other hand, I wonder if I will “get” them. I’m hoping that it will be a matter of working my way up.
As a black woman who’s gotten the “acting white” insult thrown at her more than once, I can take that one on.
And yes, it’s in part the reason for the dearth of black writers in SF. This is a two-part thing: first, that a lot of black Americans have internalized the messages of racism, which suggest that black people aren’t supposed to be smart, aren’t supposed to read books, aren’t supposed to waste time thinking about the future (especially when their energies are needed to deal with problems in the present), and aren’t supposed to care about “white things,” whatever those are deemed to be. Which is where the second part kicks in: science fiction and fantasy have made themselves “white things” in the eyes of most black Americans (and probably all PoC, but I’ll stick to what I know), by virtue of the underrepresentation of black writers and characters. SF/F likes to describe itself as open and progressive in its treatment of diversity, but because it isn’t actually, well… people notice. So among black people, it gets treated as what it actually is: by mostly white people, about mostly white people, frequently ignoring the existence of non-white people, or in some cases even deliberately eliminating them (e.g., those lovely post-racial futures).
Pam Noles (another black woman) talks about this in her essay, “Shame”:
I had the same experience growing up. Whenever I would bring an SF novel to school, my black friends would tease me or ask questions like “Why do you read that stuff about white people in space?” My white friends were equally unhelpful, saying things like, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know black people read books”, or “I didn’t know black people liked that space stuff.” So I spent a lot of time defending my reading choices. Sometimes I even hid them — took the lurid skiffy book jackets covered in white characters off, leaving only the neutral pictureless binding. I pretended the books were mainstream/literary fiction, which was less heavily “coded white” than SF, and considered more appropriate for young black girls to read.
I probably would’ve graduated from hiding my SF books to not reading them at all, and leaving the genre, if things hadn’t changed for me as I grew older. Dr. Ronald McNair — a black astronaut — died with the Challenger and was treated as a hero by the black community, which made for some positive reinforcement. Dr. Mae Jemison, the first black female astronaut, turned out to also be a member of a black sorority I wanted to join as a teenager, which let me know that it was possible to be a skiffy geek and still be fully engaged with black culture; again, this challenged my perception that SF was “a white thing”. Also, my father saw my interest and tried to help me — he stayed up late to watch Star Trek TOS with me, and we made up stories about Uhura to give her a more complete background (quasi-fanfic), and joked that it was a good thing Spock concealed his emotions or he would tell McCoy to shove his anti-Vulcan slurs up his ass. He tried to introduce me to Carlos Castaneda and other non-white authors of speculative material (not labeled SF, but still pretty fantastic), to show me role models, but I wasn’t really into the magic realism stuff. I liked spaceships and aliens and science stuff. Fortunately, around this time I discovered Octavia Butler’s “Xenogenesis” novels. Her books had white characters on the cover too (the early editions were whitewashed), but inside they were black, and I saw that a) it was possible to write stories about the future, featuring black people, that weren’t A Very Special Episode-type crap, and b) it was possible to be black and write science fiction, and make a career of it, and be damn good besides. So at that point, I decided I wanted to do the same.
But look at all the factors that had to align in order for me to overcome that early pressure not to read or write SF. I had a supportive parent who made a concerted effort to help me see that my chosen genre wasn’t completely “white stuff”. (Just one supportive parent, I’ll note. My mother didn’t like that I read SF; she was never convinced that it wasn’t just “white stuff”.) Several cultural events occurred which allowed me to link geekiness to blackness in a positive way. A role model appeared, writing just the right kind of stuff at just the right time. And underlying all that was the fact that I was middle-class and had enough leisure time to read, unlike many of my peers.
Sometimes I’m amazed there are as many black SF fans as there are, quite honestly.
Sub Odeon @137:
I would think Shakespeare’s use of a Moorish character (Othello) suggests that Moors weren’t exactly unknown in England. And again, the Silk Road didn’t exactly stop at the continent’s edge. But since it sounds like you want me to produce DNA from dead Moors mingled with British soil, I’ll leave it at that.
Thank you for a post that we can all benefit from. Especially as I’m currently only a consumer of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror.
Crap. Mary Anne, I don’t mean to hijack the thread with my long-ass posts. I’ll pipe down. (Need to get some writing done today anyway.) Sorry!
That Pam Noles essay never fails to move me, no matter how many times I read it.
Excellent comment. Thanks.
(From the QUEEN of long comments….)
No, Nora — that was great. Illuminating for me, and I imagine for a lot of other folks!
@ # 149 – Actually, I find English language translations of European Fantasy/Science Fiction to be a lot more distant than F/SF by native speakers. One of the most amazingly strange books I’ve ever read was The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy. It was also incredibly beautiful for all of it’s strangeness.
nkjemison@111 “Bring It On”
costarring Eliza Dushku
(waits for the 75% that tuned out to quickly tune back in. Eliza steals the movie, BTW …)
A friend of mine who likes to run convention ops as a hobby (don’t ask) had me working a large anime convention in the Bay Area for a number of years. The difference in congoing crowd, both in years and ethnicity, is startling. The anime crowd was much younger and much browner.
In addition, the nearby Borders outlets have manga sections that rival or surpass their SF/F sections. Granted, Borders isn’t known for having a particularly good selection of SF/F, but the manga sections are about as large as the romance sections.
My general impression is that if SF/F is going to hook in a younger generation, a good chunk of it is going to be either through ‘imports’ like anime/manga, or through media fandom. Until the Avatar Fail came along, I would’ve held it up as the best example to date of taking themes from a variety of cultures and putting them together to make something unique and inclusive.
Then the live action movie came along and that was pretty much that.
Someone has. When I contacted the company the Lukas Jackson, attorney works for, he responded by posting the email I sent to the company (along with my contact information) over at the Asimov forums. Screenshot here:
I would be very much obliged if people would stop making the “but what if it’s not the same *person*?!” argument now. He has publicly demonstrated that he has access to the firm’s email, in the same place as he has taken credit for the authorship of the LJ Lukas Jackson’s writing (and insulted the critics of the LJ Lukas Jackson’s writing, while he was at it.) He’s lost the right to the benefit of the doubt.
MAM: Thank you, so much more than I can tell you, for this post, the previous one, and your comments throughout.
Oh, and I’ve finally found four words to articulate what really bugged me about the complaint about “non-white characters in only subsidiary roles.”
Tyler Perry and Viola Davis. The latter may have only has a ‘subsidiary role’ in Doubt — but it was a role where, IMNSHO, she (yet again) handed the headliners their figurative arses on a sterling silver platter. Frak the Dark Knight cry-babies, she was the only one robbed at the Oscars this year. And if the only substantive roles studios are willing to give women of colour of Davis’ calibre are in Perry’s misogynistic minstrel shows (again all IMNSHO, and millions pretty obviously disagree), then screw it.
NKJemisin – amazing post. You have answered so many questions.
I’d read that essay by Pam Noles a while ago. That’s probably where I got the idea that, like you said, sf/f is considered “white stuff”.
I have to admit to ignorance that there was black man on the shuttle. The only person we all heard about was the white female teacher. It makes sense that there would have been at one point or another at least one black person in space, but I guess I never even thought about it. (Yes, I know what that’s called. ;) )
You’ve given me and the group here much to think about. It’s going to be a much bigger task, I’m realizing, to get sf/f more integrated and colorful since we not only have to deal with trying to eradicate or at least minimize institutional racism in the publishing world and fan community, but also the internalized racism of the different cultures of POC. I’m not really sure there is a lot the white community can do there, other than keep presenting POC as positive role models in our sf/f media and make the community as welcoming as humanly possible.
Thank you. Very much.
Sub-o @ 137 – If credible evidence could be presented that Moors were living in England during the time when Robin Hood is set, then I’d not have an issue with it. That Moorish culture and people were present and accounted for on the Continent during the same period doesn’t necessarily equate to there being a Moor in the Robin Hood tale in England. This was, IMHO, an example of tokenism taken too far.
Did you totally miss the part where they met outside of England, in Jerusalem, during the Crusades?
nkjemisin #150 –
That was a wonderful and educational comment, for me and others. No need to worry about its length.
I look forwards to your book when it comes out!
M. Ellis @ #159
Yeah, I was involved with the Northeast anime con scene for awhile, and loved it. You’re right in that there are a lot of PoC there, not just Asian. There was a real sense that here was a nonwhite literary/artistic tradition, heavily loaded with fantasy and SF imagery, and it welcomed fannish input to a far larger degree than Western stuff did (e.g., fanfiction, doujinshi, cosplay, etc.). The cons I went to were as much cultural immersion as media fun; there were origami lessons, Japanese language lessons, sake tastings, etc. Anybody could be on a panel; all they needed to be was enthusiastic enough. Anybody could lay claim to this material; it was non-white, equally aimed at men and women and young and old, and just plain fun.
When I went to my first SF con I was bored mindless and deeply uncomfortable. So many old white guys. I was the only black person in the place, and one of a handful of people under 40. Panels full of grandstanding and droning. I didn’t go back to any SF con for several years, until my career reached a point where I needed to go for networking purposes. Still didn’t enjoy them much, until I discovered Wiscon. Wiscon’s got the feel of those anime cons, somehow. Maybe it’s the egalitarianism? Dunno. I’m told a few other cons are similar — DragonCon in ATL, for example.
@nkjemisin 150 Dude. It sounds like I’m younger than you but in my life I’ve run into the same situation. I learned very early on as a child to just accept the fact that I was always going to be accused of “acting too white” because I loved science fiction, fantasy, Shakespeare, technology, comics, video games and [insert a thousand more things here that have been racialized as “white” over time]. I think the topics you’ve brought up are really interesting and I agree.
Also, while there are lots of SF and/or F fans out there who not white I still play the counting game at cons, especially lit cons, of when I’m the only person in the room who is not obviously white (And yes, reading Latino/a individuals as Caucasian is a problem that I haven’t been able to solve perfectly yet.) and when I might be one of few in a room. However, I’ve grown up usually being the only one or one of very few PoCs in a room so I don’t even notice it anymore.
I love the post and the conversation here.
NJ – You might like Readercon.
Josh Jasper@163: The trouble with that is that “Robin Hood went to the Crusades” is itself ahistorical given that the whole thing that drove the original Robin Hood story was that Richard the Lion Hearted was off fighting the Third Crusade. (The Second Crusade being 50 years earlier.) It is also doubtful that there were particularly many Moors in the area around Jerusalem at the time. That was all the way at the other end of the Mediterranean and IIRC, the Moors weren’t particularly warlike.
Technically, a Moor could have traveled to England, but given how negatively the English were treating all non-Christians at the time (antisemitic violence, making Holy War on the Muslims), it seems extremely unlikely that one would have.
(The fact that Morgan Freeman has binoculars 600 years before they were invented is a whole ‘nother level of inaccuracy.)
Not that I’ve seen Robin Hood in decades. I thought it was godawful for many, many reasons unrelated to this discussion.
Thanks very much for the great post and the brilliant insights. My brain will be buzzing with this for some time, I can tell…
I’m struggling with a related concept lately, which is the degree to which I “WASP” my foreign characters. It’s slightly tangential to the basic discussion, but I find it hard to reconcile: If I have a character from China, living in China, speaking Chinese throughout the entire story… to what extent does that character need to appear to be a PoC? His background, his experiences and all his baggage is context-appropriate, but he sounds largely American in most of his dialogue.
I’ve had some pushback on that front, where people think the language he speaks is too fluently English, and he needs to have a “more Asian way of talking”. I can see the point, but it feels like the act of making him overtly PoC-ized will handicap his character. What’s more, if I had to do it to all his acquaintances too, where’s the differentiation between them? (“What do they call Chinese food in China?”)
To bring it back to the abstract: what is the line between white-washing a CoC, and simply removing “spoken words” from their defining characteristics? Is it more distracting to have a non-ethnic ethnic character, or a less-eloquent version of what you had in mind?
(I’m not looking for advice, just posing the question. I’m fascinated by the issue of language and barriers to communication — both linguistic and cultural — and I thought it dovetailed somewhat)
I wonder if part of the reason people feel so free to adapt anime and manga as theirs is because the Japanese have such a history of adapting outside influences, putting a spin of their own on it, and then going with it. I’m not always comfortable with the way it’s done. One particular use of a thinly disguised Israel/Palestine situation with a Japanese character playing the part of a dropped in Gandhi could be used as a textbook case of cultural appropriation gone horribly wrong. And they managed to do another complete racefail on the Earthsea anime. But I can’t deny the attraction of someone looking at the overall picture of what’s available, the culture of fan participation, and choosing to go that route of fandom instead of the old line SF/F, much to the latter’s loss.
Josh @ 167:
I do like Readercon. Been a couple of times. But compared to the hyperkinetic creative and cultural frenzy of an anime con, Readercon is like a sluggish old turtle. An interesting one, but… well, still a turtle. =)
nkjemisin and angie k – in the other thread I related my white, middle-class, male level of uncomfortable with cons as well. While I know we are largely uncomfortable for different reasons, I can definitely empathize with the sentiment, if not all the causes.
Oh, yeah — most manga fucks up cultural appropriation like no tomorrow. But they do try it, which is better than pretending other cultures don’t exist. I imagine they’d do a better job of it if so many mangaka didn’t draw inspiration from American media, which is the world’s chief exporter of racist stereotypes (among other horrible things).
I don’t know if that’s the reason for the more welcoming feel of it, though. I honestly can’t put my finger on it.
OK, back to work now! I have to finish 1000 words before Battlestar Galactica! Getting offline. =)
There’s a tradition in stage casting of ‘color-blind’ productions. This isn’t Romeo and Juliet recast for specific cultures, but (I assume) choosing the best actor for the role and not worrying about ethnicities. Maybe Romeo’s black- but his parents aren’t. Since the real culture to bring out is that of Romeo, the color becomes both important- a POC on the stage!, and unimportant- I as an audience member stop thinking ‘why is that black guy have a white family’ and just see him as Romeo, perhaps leading me to think of the next POC I see as more than just a stereotype.
Regarding classic Star Trek and it’s tokenism: I’ve been watching some episodes of other SF shows from that era on Hulu with my teen daughter (Specifically The Time Tunnel and Lost in Space). The lack of POC and the way women are portrayed was startling for her. For me, it reminded me again why I became a fan of Star Trek and SF; the chance to experience a variety of viewpoints and ideas.
@169 MCM ”What do they call Chinese food in China?”
中国食物 (Assuming that prints out correctly.)
Is your chinese character Han chinese, or one of the myriad other nationalities? Does he or she prefer one particular regional variant of chinese food? If they’re one of the minority nationalities in China, do they speak a regional dialect, or has it been fully subsumed by Mandarin? (If so, how do they feel about that?) Is the PRC still unified, or has it split up, resulting in civil war and a new diaspora, or even re-united in a more EU-style government, or perhaps a resurgent Imperial China complete with all the old trappings, updated for a post-communist society?
Maybe the chinese character is Han Chinese, living in China, but the child of a greater ‘Chinese Return’ after ethnic tensions in southeast asia got very bad, forcing his close family to return to China after having been in the Philippines for over a hundred years. He feels like he should be re-assimilated into ‘the mothership’, but he keeps feeling like an outsider, partly because because as a child his grandmother liked to fix Filippino cuisine, and the neighbors kept complaining about the smell, which was embarrassing to him no matter how much he loved her, and despite the national exams technically being open and his having passed with an excellent score, his career progression isn’t shaping up to that of his peers.
Or maybe he’s about as boringly mainstream Han Chinese as your average early Heinlein character was white male american teenager, and doesn’t really bother to question his assumptions of Chinese cultural, technical, and national superiority too closely.
Bringing this closer to home, do you talk about going out for ‘American food’? Or do you talk about going for, say, hamburgers and fries, or BBQ. If it’s BBQ, is it texas style, or carolina style? Do you talk about ‘american music’ or do you talk about jazz, hip-hop, rock ‘n roll, the blues, ragtime, musicals, and so on?
@Pam Adams 174 I love color blind casting. When I was in high school, years ago, my theatre director worked like that. The best actors for the rolls got cast and he did not spend time explaining why one parent in a family was African American, one was Caucasian and they had a Korean-American child. Some plays he casted with race in mind (Othello) but pretty much every other play could be color blind casted (Tartuffe).
Cairsten @160 – I think you may have taken my post as a defense; it wasn’t meant to be anything other than a question. I’m perfectly willing to accept “yes, someone has” and leave it at that. I’m kind of surprised that in the bloodbath that is the legal job market right now, somebody would persist in such an obvious level of doing things that, hypothetically, would pop up first on a Google search.
MCM @169 – just make it fake China. Fantasy writers have been doing all sorts of things with fake Europe for ages that give historians stomach cramps, so I don’t see why you can’t do the equivalent of dropping 14th-century German polearms into the hands of a 10th-century Silican peasant. ;)
@170 M. Ellis
While that Gandi type Character maybe based on Gandi sometimes, Japan has a very pacifistic cultural identity that is visible in many areas from after WWII. At least visibly and spoken/outspoken. (The horror of war, the denouncing of war etc at) So I don’t think that it would be safe to say that the Gandhi type characters are a whole sale ripoff. It’s more of a cultural dialog between the two extremes in their culture because interestingly there is a very violent ultra-nationalistic identity that some Japanese citizens adhere to.
As for the mideast setting, it might be simply that that particular conflict has been going on for half a century in different forms and some Japanese might find something to identify with in respect to their own cultural “war” between the pacifist inclusive nation and the violent ultra -nationalistic nation.
He’s a partner in the firm with, evidently, no fear of being forced out. Whether this is because he’s working on a false assumption or whether it’s because his partners are like-minded, I don’t know.
This sentence reminded me of a book I read many years ago, the title of which eluded me. A little Google-magic came back with “Race Against Time” by Piers Anthony. Not, as I remember, a particularly strong novel, but an interesting concept. IIRC, it’s basically the far future, and enough racial mixing has taken place that everyone is the same colour, but they’re trying to breed race back into humanity. Or something. Anyone else remember this one?
I just wanted to (sort of) address the people who were writing stories in deep-space far-in-the-future stories and don’t know how to include POC in those settings. Forgive me if someone’s already done so in a better, more eloquent fashion; I tried to skim most of the comments but here’s my (somewhat long-winded) $0.02.
This entire discussion (by which I mean RaceFail ’09, not just this one post on Scalzi’s blog) has really hammered the point home for me that I NEED to start writing POC characters. I used to avoid writing POC because (despite my parents being Indian) I grew up in Canada, read English books, and was otherwise as Western as can be. (Not to mention the issue of race and cultural identity brings up somewhat painful memories of growing up, so I try to avoid those. A lot.) I tend to write stories that are either AU sci-fi or sci-fi set a bazillion years in the future, so I’ve kind of been struggling with this dilemma myself.
One of the things I realized, going back and re-reading a lot of my stories, is that a lot of my characters have default-European names: Jack or Allen or Audrey names that make it easy for readers to sub in the default white Western norm. I realized I’ve never used names like Khaled or Ahmed or Kwan names that kind of imply that the characters aren’t necessarily the white default.
Another thing that has helped a lot is to realize that characters don’t exist within a vacuum. This is something MAM covered much better than I could ever do, but I realize that most of the people I know DO in fact inherit traditions and cultural values and even food from their relatives and ancestors, even if it’s something as small as eating perogies for Thanksgiving dinner. And even though I am pretty much the most boring person ever, who reads comic books and eats pasta and buys Ikea furniture and am otherwise as default Western as can be, I still know another language and can read/write Arabic and know how to make curry chicken from a recipe my grandmother once gave me.
Even characters in the future must have grown up somewhere, made food dependent on their geography, grown up with pop culture heroes specific to their region, heard stories from their parents and grandparents that affected them in some subtle way. Of course it may not necessarily be the same as the languages/pop culture/food that exist today but everyone has some kind of identity somewhat based around their geography/culture and people will always be affected by it. Even in the United States, there is a vast difference between a person who grew up in the North and a person who grew up in the South if only because of accent, geography, and food.
People, I think, will always be diverse.
Probably his law school buddies. Sadly, a lot of lawyers don’t understand that their reputation actually matters outside the doors of their office. And I’m going to leave it at that rather than muck up the thread further.
M. Ellis @176 – it’s my understanding that the Japanese term for corn dogs is “American dogs”. It’s always interesting to see how different cultures look at each other. :)
@ 179 kino
I agree, Japan does have a strong post-war pacifist cultural identity, something that has a fascinating interplay with the ultra-nationalist side of the culture. (Pre-war, not so much. The pacifists were mostly the Communists, and they were sufficiently marginalized that they had effectively zero political power.)
However, assuming the translator got it halfway close to right, the names of the countries in question were close to ‘Israel’ and ‘Palestine’. I’ll give you that the use of cameras as a vehicle of non-violence was a rather nice touch. However the ‘Japanese outsider comes into the country and winds up leading the resistance’ seemed… unlikely. And, to my mind, very American. (How many times have we seen the natives finally line up for successful rebellion behind the white hero?) The whole situation wasn’t quite ‘throw the book across the room’ to me, but it was very, very close.
Later on an angel-cum-demon blew up the moon, so that was all very in genre.
josh jasper @157
Well, yes there’s some Lem that I still don’t understand. But what I meant is something more like MAM’s point about writing Sri Lanka in place of the Sri Lankans. Writing for Americans about a foreign culture, you explain things to your audience when you feel like it will be unfamiliar to them. If you imagine your audience shares your experience, then there will be things you don’ t think need to be explained. There’s a difference between writing from inside a culture for other members of the same culture, and writing for outsiders. Mostly, I like the chance to see into other worlds without an interpreter, but sometimes, I do get lost.
@mellis 170: And they managed to do another complete racefail on the Earthsea anime.
Right, so the Japanese score a racefail because… well, not conforming to Anglo-American representational norms is racist?
Even Le Guin herself — not exactly a woman known for biting her tongue — wasn’t willing to go quite that far (http://www.ursulakleguin.com/GedoSenkiResponse.html), and AFAIC epic pass to Le Guin for saying “I cannot address the issue of race in Japan because I know too little about it” rather than elevating her cultural and social perspectives into immutable natural law.
I really don’t mean to come across as flinging troll-shit across a civil discussion, but another useful discussion might be had about the epic CultureFail where Anglo-American authors just assume they’re the centre of the cultural universe, and the other 95% of the human race can STFU.
This is amazing.. someone writes an “instruction manual” about “how” to write people with slightly more melanin in their skin, with whole portions on how to do and what to behave, and everyone responds with respectful awe. Maybe these people who fetishize the blacks and “Magic Negroes” should spend some time in Africa and see the end result of their “civilization.” Exactly like what’s happening in South Africa right now… white flight writ large. And it’s funny how many whites are so desperate to move away from blacks into the burbs, yet they’re oh-so-sensitive to the concerns of those blacks in public forums. Is this some kind of joke?
Wonder how long it’s gonna be before we have burning tires around our hung necks.
@176 M. Ellis: I get what you’re saying, and I glossed over it too much (not wanting to bog the point down).
So let’s say he’s from somewhere in Xinjiang and his family are XPCC employees, but he’s drafted away to help subdue an uprising in Shanghai, which gives him a double dose of culture shock as he’s confronted with a massive city and a dangerous assignment. His childhood sweetheart is non-XPCC and he was going to have trouble marrying her because his father has delusions of being part of a proud frontiersman dynasty… and that assumes he’ll ever make it home alive. He’s been part of a multicultural mix his entire life, but he’s never felt as much like an outsider as he does now.
That said, how does he say hi to his friends? Does he say: “Hey guys, what’re you doing Friday night?” Or does he say: “Hello friends. What you doing Friday?”
That’s probably pushing it too far, but you see my point? He’s speaking Chinese to fellow Chinese. If I try and make him an “average guy”, I tend to want to make him talk like a young WASP (with whatever location-specific quirks he’d have). But I’ve been told it’s better is for him to speak like a Chinese immigrant to the U.S., with broken English, to solidify his “other”-ness.
Hmm. Or, put another way: when writing these Chinese characters, can the smart-ass guy speak full’a contraction’s’n stuff, right? And does the drill sargeant cut with all the crap and get right to the point, son! Or do they all have to say “Herro meestah, how you doing?”
My tendency is to use the shorthand for whatever character they are, regardless of their CoC status. If the character is speaking in their native tongue, they’ll speak in a voice that’s similar to my native tongue, just about different things. If it’s a Korean immigrant living in Xinjiang, THEN they’d have different mannerisms in their speech, because not native to the locale. But the PoC in their native settings should — I think, at least — speak in “normal” sentences like you and me.
Which brings me back to “What do they call Chinese food in China?” Should I be thinking about it as “Chinese food” or just “food”? I’m inclined to say “food”, but maybe that’s the wrong approach. Is that notion effectively stripping them of their cultural context?
I think I confused things even more just now. Sorry bout that.
@178 mythago: It is an alternate China, to a certain extent. I do the same thing with other locales, too. Russia, Czech Republic etc. But again, if I “alternate-reality” my settings too much, am I just sneakily converting PoC locales to WP locales to save myself some suffering?
Craig @186, you’re being a little too harsh in the other direction. The main characters in Earthsea were brown and black (except for Tenar, whose white skin is clearly unusual). The Studio Ghibli version made them apparently white. LeGuin declined to comment on it because she didn’t know enough about whether there were cultural reasons behind this.
I’ve been told by some anime fans that characters in anime are drawn white with different eye and hair color because it’s easier to tell them apart that way. (That is, the viewer tags the guy with the spiky blue hair vs. the guy with the huge blonde ponytail.) I realize that this sounds like an “they all look alike” argument, and I have no inside information, but am curious if anyone knows whether this is really true or an urban myth.
I wouldn’t call this entire thread ‘respectful awe.’ Rather, I’d say it’s an ongoing, civil discussion about the topic. Not sure of the focus of your outrage about that, I have to say.
The way I’m reading that is that she was particularly impressed with it either, but that she didn’t have a context to be able to tell whether the film whitefaced her characters, so she was reserving judgment on it. From what I remember of it, I think she was right in thinking it was whiter than she might reasonably have expected. I don’t think that M. Ellis is so far off-base as you might think?
Hi, mythago. There are several debates about this! (Not least relating to that whole “Aang isn’t white!” “Yes he is!” thing.) There’s an article here: http://www.matt-thorn.com/mangagaku/faceoftheother.html
Not a subject matter expert here, so I can’t speak for its truth. But I have only rarely seen an anime characters as white, even while Caucasian viewers around me have assumed otherwise.
On asking a POC for help with a POC character – my librarian mother taught me that the best form for a question asked of a busy or higher ranked person is “Could you help me with X, or point me in the right direction?” This will usually get an answer. You can then also follow up with “I did Y and got Z out of it. Thank you so much.” This will often lead to an opening for being able to offer real help.
Steve @168: Yeah, I think if we start talking about ahistorical elements in Robin Hood, having a Moor show up will be the absolute least of it!
MCM @ 169: I wouldn’t use American slang, but if you’re writing ‘in translation,’ so to speak, I think using anything but fluent English is pretty condescending. If you read good translations, that should help to see what the right ‘feel’ is.
Yuhri @191, thanks for the link. (I don’t see Aang as white either.) I’ve heard this argument in the context of “Why don’t the characters in anime look like Causasian?” “So you can tell them apart.” “You SO did not say that.” “No, seriously–“
Yeah, I’ve started shortening it to ‘NO. REALLY. BIG EYES ARE NOT CAUCASIAN. YOU JUST THINK THEY ARE.’
@188: I recommend again you read some stuff in translation. The official TokyoPop translation of Saiyuki does a lovely job of differentiating between ‘voices’ and ways of speaking (and that’s a Japanese author writing Chinese characters, presumably speaking Chinese).
Perhaps I am being a little harsh, but to engage in a little honest self-criticism, I’m as prone as anyone to wade into cultural contexts I know little (if anything) about, and start telling the natives to put on some pants and start acting civilized. For better or worse, my cultural referents are overwhelmingly from an Anglo-American perspective. And it doesn’t hurt to be reminded, now and then, that cultural imperialism (or plain arrogant arse-hattery) can just be a more subtle form of racism.
Josh: Steve Burnap at #168 pretty much covered my feelings, regarding “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.” I would also add that from a pure story perspective, Freeman’s character, and the entire crusades things, seemed like a big distraction from the actual, traditional story. And as much as I support modern re-invention where old folklore is concerned, this particular example of ‘modernization’ seemed unnecessarily clumsy to me.
nkj: being aware of a peoples’ existence, and having them show up on your doorstep, are different things. It’s also worth noting that Shakespeare lived several hundred years after the period during which “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” appears to take place. So I’m not exactly sure how citing Othello shores up the hypothesis that Robin Hood — presuming him to be, in fact, a historical figure — went to Jerusalem and brought back with him a Moor as companion. But your mild snark has been received loud and clear, and I’m not going to belabor the point. I thought Freeman’s character in the movie was unnecessary. You may disagree, for your own reasons. I am fine with that.
No. I don’t believe it.
I’m a big enough girl that it shouldn’t catch me off guard-esp. after following this conversation.
I’m going to go have ice cream now.
… And somehow the main character having an American accent wasn’t at least a big a distraction?
Anyhow, I much preferred the Mel Brooks version.
Regarding having races in a f/sf world without just importing the races in our world – has anyone else read Sharon Shinn’s book “Heart of Gold”? It’s about racial conflict between blue people and gold people, neither of which matches up completely with any earthly race.
If the topic of Japanese depiction of race has come up, it might be worth bringing up Afro Samurai, which is apparently popular in Japan and has just hit American shores as a video game.
I’m posting it without comment because I have not actually seen it and don’t feel I know enough to make one.
I think table 187 ordered the mallet, medium rare.
How about we just agree that the only reason there was a movie at all was so we could watch Alan Rickman kick ass?
A Different Jess@198:
It’s not an unreasonable response for someone who’s never actually thought too hard about the subject, and who has a completely different daily experience and markers for identifying people they encounter.
NB: I recognize Caucasian friends by their hair and eye color primarily. Those are the things about them I check first. My best friend once dyed her hair and I didn’t recognize her for, like, 5 minutes.
When I moved to SF after college and got an apartment on the border of Chinatown, I discovered how accustomed I’d gotten to doing that. Once I got readjusted to being around so many Asians, I started to look at hairstyle and facial features.
nkjemisin@28: …oh. Oh! *brain goes click*
I’ve always sort of felt like “if you want the stuff to change then, yeah, you ARE going to have to educate. You SHOULDN’T have to, but you do.”
Hence I have spend a lot of holidays with my confederate-flag-flying family members pounding my head into a brick wall. A brick wall littered with pointy things.
But…those few grafs just gave me an epiphany.
Picking of battles and opportunities-both a good idea and a right.
…and I’ve also learned a lot reading the nojojojo posts in RaceFail. Thank you for sharing, and risking, so much to help.
I saw Afro Samurai. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what to think. I’ll leave it to someone like nkjemisin, who clearly knows more about both anime and black culture than I do, if she’s seen it.
I’m curious if anyone (especially Mary Anne) has any thoughts on the following. The time I’ve been tempted to write “generic” characters is when doing a low-to-no-budget script for actors (say a play or a student film or the like). Unlike in Hollywood, where they can put out specific cast requests and be assured of getting them filled, if you can’t pay much — or anything — then your choice of actors is much narrower. (Frankly, you’re lucky to get anyone.)
So in those cases I’m tempted to write generic so I can cast the first good actor to come along, regardless of ethnicity (or age or even gender, although for some reason I find that harder to fudge in the writing). If someone’s willing to work with my script, and they’re good, I can’t afford to say no — or, usually, find the time to rewrite the script to take into account the actor’s ethnicity.
Obviously this limits, and arguably damages, one’s scripts and stories. But in some cases — if the ethnicity or age or gender or anything else is not damn specifically important to the story — the temptation is to simply write them so that you can cast anyone.
I can see the problems in this (although of course if you’re lucky it leads to having a cool and diverse cast too — although not parts written specifically to fit). But I’m not sure I see a good way around it.
Yuhri@203. …huh. I never thought of it that way. When I think of how I identify people, it ranges a bit. Usually faces. Sometimes individual aspects, like hair style or color. Sometimes clothes, if it’s someone I only ever encounter in a uniform. I almost NEVER notice eye color unless they have exceptionally striking eyes.
Also re: Alan Rickman: hells, yeah. I LOVE it when he does Funny Bad Guy. “and cancel Christmas!”
Going back to the first thread’s shout-outs for China Mountain Zhang- there’s a lovely moment where our hero, a gay New Yorker Chinese/Puerto Rican gay man passing for ‘pure’ Chinese tries to make refried beans in a wok. He’s not very successful, but they taste of home.
Yuhri @203 – Oh, I thought the scenes with him and the evil witch character were pretty hilarious too.
Re: Chinatown and being around Asian people – it sort of came as a shock to me that, not only can’t most Americans tell what Asian language is being spoken in front of them, but can’t recognize typical Japanese features from typical Chinese features.
I have a bit of a problem that comes out when I attempt point 1, b). I’ll call it “the problem of the jerk.”
There’s a character in a story I’ve been working on for a long time. He is white(ish). He doesn’t have to be, he just has been so far. I could switch his race. (This particular story is set in a only slightly AU modern America).
The problem is, though he’s a “good guy” he’s also kind of a jerk. He prefers short term, noncommitted relationships with women who are silly and vulnerable. He’s exceptionally violent and is in a career that requires violence. He’s sloppy and doesn’t really know how to talk to or show respect for women. He’s pretty strictly non-intellectual.
The problem of the jerk is this: I’m afraid that by changing his race, his personality problems would be seen as commentary on whatever race I switch him to. If he remains white/nonspecific, they aren’t. This is an issue I have with a lot of characters, characters who I originally conceived as white or a nonspecific race.
You get the same problem with a lot of the stereotypes/problem types. I have another character whose race doesn’t matter. She appears out of nowhere and helps people… so there’s the danger of her being a “magical negro” type if I change her race. There’s a character who dies early on. There’s a character who has a terrible weight problem. There’s a character who is a drug addict. I’m not saying that these characters are only defined by these flaws, but the flaws are all really central to the plot and character.
So far, all the listed examples of positive PoC characters are people who have their stuff together, like Sisko and Zoe. Basically, my question is this: do you think it’s possible to write a “jerk” or “sacrificial/subserviant/oracular” character as a PoC and not have it come across as bad? Or is it probably better to just leave these characters as nonspecific?
A good hypothetical example of this is Rorschach from Watchmen. He’s consistently one of the most popular and beloved characters from the book. He’s also a bad-smelling psychopath. Would it be possible to write someone like him as a non-white character without really upsetting people?
At this point I’ll probably default to trying different cultural assumptions on these characters, and then just removing the racial identifiers if people have a problem with them. Still, I thought I’d ask the question.
@206: I think it depends. (Helpful, huh?) The original script for Alien was pretty non-specific as to gender, cultural background, etc. and it worked pretty well– Ripley was originally written as a man. But then people have to cast their actors accordingly. And, of course, Alien has a bone-simple script– nobody gets a backstory.
@210 Arrrrr: I don’t mean to be glib, but you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and I don’t expect you to care less, but I’ve got pretty big problems with writers who expect a thank you note for patronisingly idealised minority characters. Sorry, but I don’t think there’s anything racist or sexist about Grace Park’s Boomer on BSG; I actually love the show for actually getting outside the whole tired madonna/whore bullshit, and instead (yes) women get loaded, fuck, do terrible things out of the best of intentions (and vice versa) and generally screw up because they’re flawed, imperfect human beings. Even the Cylons. :)
I’m not interested in “positive” or “negative” representation of blacks or gays or women. As Mary Anne so eloquently says, “if literature is meant to expose the truths of the human heart, we should portray humanity is all its diverse glory.” And from my POV, that includes leaving the simple angels and devils in the childrens’ story books where they belong.
…oh bother. I was scrolling down the page and I just discovered that you responded to me waaaaaaaay up there, and I never even saw it.
However, I have now read it! And your argument is persuasive. My mind is adjusted accordingly. Thank you for the perspective.
I vote experiment. Keep the stereotypes in mind and avoid them when you can, but if it’s a three-dimensional character and you make a good faith effort, I think you can only benefit from the attempt. Like Craig, I’m not interested in perfect characters of any race; flaws and snags make them more interesting.
I’d respond, but I got nuthin’ for ya. Sorry! I’m looking forward to seeing what might have Mary Anne has to say, myself.
Arrrrr #210 –
The description of your jerk sounds like my father. Who had many more faults than virtues when last I left him.
If I could give advice, remember that your jerk is human, no matter what his race is. Because he’s a jerk, it’s even more vital (though it’s vital in any case) to make him a three-dimensional character. This is before we even add race of any kind to the equation.
But sit back and think about how, if you changed his race, that might have affected how he grew up in the culture(s) where he did grow up (for instance, a South Vietnamese who spent his time in Laos with his father, growing up a few years after the Vietnam war. That is, until the age of 10, at which point he and his father flee and end up in Hawaii; and thence migrate to the mainland six years later into Texas).
Fleshing a character’s background out this way gives you more flexibility later when you must come up with viewpoints and motives.
There’s no love lost between me and my father. He was a violent man who nearly killed my mother and strangled me as a child. He was still, however, highly professional in his job—and he still cried when they kept passing him over for promotion, and the family, broken as it was, was about to lose the rent.
@ 206: I’ve seen a lot of student films that feature characters with specific ethnic backgrounds that play into the story itself: what I’d suggest is one of the following:
(1) When you send out a casting call, depending on what site you do it through, you can generally specify ethnicity.
(2) Keep an eye out for other student films that you like, with actors that you think give good performances, and then see if you can contact the director(s) to see if they can get you in touch with the actors.
Alternately, if ethnicity/culture doesn’t make a significant impact/appearance in your film, write a generically “Western” character and then cast it, keeping an eye out for POC? In that case I would only suggest that you avoid casting characters in stereotypical ethnic roles that have racist implications (that is to say, a Hispanic plays the maid, a black character plays the thief, and so forth).
And thanks for adding that: Better to make an honest effort, fall on your arse and learn something from it than not to try at all. As Mary Anne said: 5. You will get it wrong. This is what you should do.. I don’t expect anyone to be a souless write-bot, and if you try that’s the real epic fail. (And am I the only person who sometimes prefers an ambitious failure than a competent book or film I’ve forgotten after five minutes?)
@210…. from a reader’s perspective, I guess I’d like to see characters whose race is noted somehow to, well, be that race for some reason. This includes white. To me it’s like noting any other important characteristic of the character – it should be there for a reason. This goes beyond the jerk problem for me… if an author is going to write about a character, don’t just spray-paint them a different color, write them so that their skin color informs who they are.
A black person of my age who grew up in Seattle will have had different experiences than I. I remember a kid who lived a block away… the only non-white kid in our circle… at all. The area was just overwhelmingly white. That HAD to have some impact. I’m sure he had different experiences as he grew up *because he was black* – this was the 60s and 70s. My point is that if you described us at any point in our adult lives we’d be different people and part of that difference are the race tinged experiences we’d have had. It should be the same with characters – if you’re going to bring their race into the story, let that be a factor in who they are just as it would be in the real world.
I’m not sure what to think about SF/F authors who feel comfortable about writing of alien beings vastly different than us… but who can’t be bothered to fully realize a human being of a different color. That just seems odd to me.
Makes perfect sense to me. The alien being isn’t going to get pissed off and come after you with a knife, fork and savory beurre blanc sauce for poor representation.
[I’d planned to stay out of this. However, I let my buttons be pushed. I apologize in advance.]
But I’ve been told it’s better is for him to speak like a Chinese immigrant to the U.S., with broken English, to solidify his “other”-ness.
You know, I’m a Chinese immigrant to the US. Perhaps you should be wary of generalizations, lest people call you out on the half-baked assumptions ingrained in your work.
Or do they all have to say “Herro meestah, how you doing?”
I’ve heard a wide variety of Chinese accents. None of them sound like this. For one thing, the Chinese dialects I’m aware of do not have an ‘r’ sound in the way Americans think of it. They do have a perfectly good ‘l’ sound that sounds identical to the one used in English.
I don’t have the time or the space for a crash course on comparative phonology. Suffice it to say that actually attempting to render the accent within the dialog is a bad idea. If I saw this in a story, I would stop reading it immediately. Life is far too short.
As for how they should speak, one way of dealing with your problem is the way David Henry Hwang used in his play, Golden Child (not to be confused with the Eddie Murphy movie). The sections that take place in the US are written in standard American style. The sections that take place in China (and two generations earlier) are written in a style that approximates a literal translation into English. It’s not as brusque as an actual literal translation might be. However, for example, he left idioms intact. (i.e., people say “eat bitter” and you’re just supposed to know they mean “suffer.”)
Which brings me back to “What do they call Chinese food in China?” Should I be thinking about it as “Chinese food” or just “food”?
M. Ellis answered this beautifully in #176. I suggest you take his advice. If you were writing a white American in the United States, would you say that he went to eat “food”, or “American food”? I suspect you’d talk about tuna casserole, the Cincinnati chili, or whatever best reinforces character and locale instead. It isn’t any different just because you’re writing about a Chinese person in China. Dig into the specifics. China is a huge country with lots of regional cuisines. I’m sure you can find something.
John Chu #219 –
Apparently when your buttons are pressed, music comes out. :) I didn’t say anything re: that question because the last thing that would have come out of me would be music.
Phonetics—reminds me of some segments in American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, a graphic novel that threads together the tale of Monkey (the early parts of Journey to the West, Yang’s childhood, and the feeling through of his identity. A very good read.
I know that Japanese (yeah, yeah, I learned a little, tiny little, Japanese, but have never bothered to go back to Vietnamese, which is still too painful to think about) has no Western ‘l’ sounds, but the ‘r’ they use is a softened ‘r’ and near enough the ‘l’ family that such “renderings” of these accents are the vocal equivalent of blackface.
Sorry. Off chest now.
A Different Jess @198 – maybe that came out garbled. I’m not trying to belabor it, just that I have been told that this is the case (and no, big eyes have nothing to do with race; NOBODY has eyes the size of dinner plates).
I don’t want to derail this, since the topic here is about non-PoC writers incorporating PoC characters and views into their work, and not the larger issue of how media companies portray PoC characters in their work. So I will keep this short and leave you the last word.
My belief is that Earthsea was handled much the same way the live action Airbender is being handled, or the live action version of Earthsea was handled here: someone looked at the tradeoffs between showing the characters as they were described as written, and the market for what they believed the adaptation could command, and decided that it was better to make the adaptation as it was made rather than risk a smaller market for the product.
I don’t believe the person making that decision necessarily wanted to make that decision. Perhaps they did, perhaps they didn’t. But I don’t think the Ghibli folks get a pass where SciFi or the people making Airbender don’t. The Dragonball movie is getting criticism for white characters in main roles, but I read the original Dragonball comic, and the throwaway portrayal of a black ‘jungle’ character (African, Papua-New Guinea or other) with a bone through his nose and other stereotypical trappings was jarring. Perhaps the author was riffing off of Mad Magazine. I don’t know that the reason matters to a reader who comes upon it unaware.
Tying it back to the main point: everyone gets it wrong sometimes.
Josh @ #209: That is a good point, about languages and typical white blindness to subtlety among Asian-derivative peoples. I’m a bit surprised that so many American whites can’t tell the difference between Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, etc. Be it language or people. But then most white Americans can’t tell the difference between, say, a Pol and a Russian — or Polish or Russian — either. I suppose it’s simply a matter of exposure, factored with one’s natural (in)attentiveness to subtlety and detail.
Arrr @ 219: Methinks there are just some people who won’t be happy no matter what you do. Yes, too often, PoC were forced into the role of Black Hat in the fiction and film of yore. But PoC shouldn’t be set up on a pedestal either. I say, go with your gut. You might get a little hate mail from whichever group or persons dislike the fact that your heavy is a hermaphroditic quadroplegic rockabilly fighter pilot, but I think this is a small thing. It’s not your job to write fiction that flatters any particular group, due to current racial pressures and political correctness. Being sensitive to the race factor is one thing. Letting it dictate and control your characterization is probably a problem that will negatively impact your fiction overall. JMHO. And as noted by others, people are complex. WP, PoC, doesn’t matter. Make your heavy complex, with conflicts that resonate, and you’ll be successful, no matter their racial makeup.
@46- “I do think, aside from the plausibility question, that it’s hard to create a future where race has essentially disappeared as factor, without it ending up looking like a white future, just because that’s what our cultural defaults already are.”
On the other hand, consider what’s likely for any character coming from whatever dominant culture there may be in the future, and how many of those traits you’d associate with “whiteness” in the US now– the character would presumably be used to things working a certain way, would likely be at least a bit sure of the superiority of his native culture, would consider outside cultures strange (whether appealing or dismaying depending on tastes), etc, etc.
Much of this discussion of race seems to focus on suggesting an attitude of inclusiveness of people outside the dominant culture…but what is the likelihood that a far-future person coming from within her own culture would share the attitudes you’re attributing to whites and perhaps never give them a second thought?
Great post. Thank you.
[As an aside: the majority of Quakers in the US and UK are white, but the majority of Quakers in the world are not. I don’t know if it’s still true, but in the 1980s the largest concentration of Quakers in the world were in Kenya are are Black.]
mythago and A Different Jess –
“Why aren’t big eyes an indication of race in manga?” goes back to the question of “what nationality is that smiley face?” What do you mentally default to when looking at a circle with two dots and a little curve drawn inside it?
Asians see Asians in manga. Apparently some Westerners see Westerners in manga.
Personally, I see Japanese in manga, European/whatever in smilies.
@187 – I’m a Norwegian/Italian/Irish/Pennsylvania Dutch-American white girl who moved to the city, away from the suburbs, a few months ago. In South Seattle, in fact, where the vast majority of my neighbors are PoC – Cantonese, Vietnamese, and Somalian immigrants in particular. Did I do it consciously to be exposed to more diversity? No. I wanted a shorter commute and a social life, and the place I found is outstanding. That I’m the minority for once is something that never occurred to me. And now, I live 4 blocks from some of the most amazing dim-sum imaginable, and this pleases me to no end.
@everyone else. Outstanding discussion, and I’m learning a lot from it. Especially since I’m in the literal sketching stages of a possible graphic novel. I don’t follow anime, so I know nothing of the ‘why they all look Caucasian’ issue, but my main way to differentiate characters is using different hair styles for each one. The main character is a member of the Sámi indigenous people found in northern Scandinavia, and he does have olive skin, but that’s hard for me to draw in black and white with pen and ink. (For the record, I don’t know if the Sámi count as a PoC, as some of them have blond hair, blue eyes, and white skin – but also with non-Caucasian features, like eyes with epicanthal folds. Others look almost Asian in appearance. But they are definitely an ethnic minority.)
I do have an interesting anecdote about a bus ride I had a while back. On the bus, I sat in the front, the only white person in the row. Another white woman got on, went up to every PoC in the front, bowed to them, and thanked them for their wisdom and spiritual teachings. I…got a glare. But – but – but! I have Thor and Odin and Loki! And Hexes! And Italian diaspora stories! And Irish Catholic Saints! (I take no claim to the green beer, however. That stuff is foul.) All these AWESOME things are in my background! And it’s almost Syttende Mai – Norwegian Constitution Day on May 17th! We will have hotdogs wrapped in LEFSE! But, no. A glare. I’m still trying to process that encounter.
I’ve loved how these discussions have been going, and I’m looking to participating in them more in the future.
Just read through all of the comments as of this point tonight, and I wanted to issue another thanks to Ms. Mohanraj for this post and the previous. Also to nkjemisin, whose commentary I’ve found very valuable.
As I said in a comment on the previous MAM post, I’m a (white) writer whose first ebook is going to come out this spring. My heroine is a young black woman who’s half-fey–so she’s mixed-race in more ways than one.
And, after reading these two posts and the commentary on them, I’m very grateful. It’s given me a lot to think about and good fodder for discussion with my editor to improve the book. Most tellingly, I think I won’t actually change anything of substance in the plot–but it’s given me a whole different and hopefully better way to think about my heroine’s life experiences.
Which in turn I hope will make her a better read in general. So thank you all for giving me an opportunity to not only learn something, but to act upon it as well. I very much appreciate it.
…wow. If I’d been on that bus, as a person of color, I would have been … well, I would’ve laughed myself sick first. And then I would’ve been mildly offended. My reaction would have been a, Spiritual, my ass. Learn from everyone or learn from no one.
The anecdote is incidentally reflective of a common trope in fantasy. What is it called, specifically? The native guide?
On depictions of race in anime and manga, a couple of points worth noting. First, because Japan doesn’t have much in the way of domestic ethnic minorities apart from Koreans and lately Chinese (and a handful of Ainu up north), the subject of race is generally a bit exotic and theoretical to Japanese writers and artists. Second, as an art form, anime and manga have developed an artistic tradition (a problematic artistic tradition, yes) of depicting race non-realistically. And third, even well-meaning Japanese writers and artists are as capable of screwing up race as a well-meaning white SF writer.
Whereas American film and TV, we know they’re supposed to know better than that.
(Moving from anime and manga to video games — it’s almost a relief to see the FAIL process play out so consistently on the other side of the Pacific as Capcom deals with the fallout from Resident Evil 5.
Last summer it was “I think it’s very important as we go along and start other projects to learn from other countries and learn from other companies who are working in the video game and entertainment sectors, learn from their experiences, and not have the same problems again.” Very promising!
But the criticism continued to mount, and nobody gave them brownie points for trying, and a few months later it was “Japanese people who hadn’t done anything wrong were being bombed in Tokyo and other places during the war… [These are] just things that have happened in our pasts. That’s maybe not something that we should try to be too sensitive about… At the end of the day, we’re making a piece of entertainment. We’re not making anything that has a political message to it.”
@219 John Chu: I’m sorry, I think I’m coming across very wrong here. I’m not saying I WANT to write like that, I’m saying it’s how people who are reading my stuff are reacting to my LACK of that kind of approach.
My characters are all speaking “normally”* to each other (which is to say, with individual tics like any other characters would), but my readers are suggesting they’re not “authentic Chinese” because of it. They’re suggesting I should apply a stereotypical Chinese immigrant effect (similar to the kind I was quoting) to the dialogue to make it more “real”. My question is: is there any truth to that? By making my characters speak as if they’re Americans in an American novel (more or less), am I “whitewashing” them and removing their PoC souls?
Hmm. It seems like this is far more clear in my head than I can express. I’m just running into this notion that dialogue somehow impacts the authenticity of a PoC portrayal for some people, and if/how I can resolve that. If it’s going to pull people out of the story, I feel like I should, but on some basic level it feels dishonest.
(As for the Chinese food comment, you’re taking it much more literally than I intended, and I’m not sure how to rephrase it, so I’ll just abandon it wholesale. It’s just a rephrasing anyway)
Sorry, I didn’t intend to throw a wrench into the thread here. I think I’m just self-doubting my approach and wondered if it might be a bigger philosophical question. Though from what I’ve read about translations here, I think I’m on the right track. Hopefully, anyway.
* I am fully aware that “normal” is a loaded word in this context, but I can’t think of a better way to phrase it without interrupting the point.
Yuhri #229, Spinifex #227 –
As a PoC I would have been offended (including be offended at the glare at you, yeesh) and thought the person quite thoroughly silly.
It’s called “the Noble Savage” stereotype.
MCM… from a reader’s perspective I’d not want you to alter how someone spoke because of their ethnicity alone. It *might* be correct to do so if you’re trying to portray someone who just emigrated here and you’ve laid background about them so we know their command of English is imperfect… but I your readers are wrong to want Chinese characters to speak some Chinese influenced version of English.
In your place (and remember, I’m not a writer) I’d look to incorporate their Chinese-ness into their character. What would they have been through because of their background? Are the first generation immigrants or 4th? Did they grow up in San Francisco in the 60s? Atlanta in the 90s? Atlanta… in the 40s? Did they go to college? Where? Do they have mostly Asian friends? Mostly white friends?
In other words, don’t take the easy way out and say “They’re Chinese… see them speak in the cute Chinese accent!” That’s the easy way out like making a black character use street slang etc. But ask yourself this… WHY are they Chinese? What made you write a story with Chinese characters?
@Yuhri “Makes perfect sense to me. The alien being isn’t going to get pissed off and come after you with a knife, fork and savory beurre blanc sauce for poor representation.”
Does the sauce have chives? And perhaps some white truffle? mmmmm
And (to be serious for a second) PoC critics/readers/etc can’t at once complain about no PoC characters and then react violently to any off depiction. Some will warrant that reaction, but if they jump down the throats of writers who are trying (vs correcting them in a more reasoned manner)… well guess what? The writer will stop trying. Or more likely see the flak other writers of their acquaintance have gotten and not try in the first place.
Sorry again for the double post, John, because I was wondering whether to respond to MCM #232…
MCM #232 –
I think your questions are honest, but I think your beta readers have unwise opinions. For me, and just about every Asian, that’s a quick way to entirely lose us as readers.
I suggest playing this as with any other dialogue game writers do—listen to some real dialogue. Listen to how Chinese immigrants really speak—not just a surface listen, but listen to their word choice and pacing and pattern. Rendering “accents” is a very sloppy shortcut for this process.
I think your beta readers have found a problem with your characters’ voices, perhaps, but they don’t have a good suggested solution.
Dazzle of the Day opens with the POV of a character, Dolores Negrete, who is IIRC Hispanic; I think the generation ship is clearly ethnically diverse, too.
M. Ellis wrote:
But I don’t think the Ghibli folks get a pass where SciFi or the people making Airbender don’t.
And I wasn’t suggesting they should, but it might help to remember why Miyazaki doesn’t allow Disney to cut a single frame of Studio Ghibli films. (And anyone who can intimidate Harvey ‘Scissorhands’ Weinstein into acting like a human being gets mad props from.)
Look, my point is that just because I watch a lot of Asian cinema that doesn’t make me any kind of expert on the culture — especially something as loaded as racial and gender representation –, and it is a very good look if I keep taking the STFU pills until I know something about the subject. It’s also a useful reality check to hear, occasionally, how seriously fucked up our cultural norms look from the outside.
Something that is coming through in a lot of the comments here is how race in near future settings will continue the trend toward multiculturalism that some of us already have experienced. I was intrigued by Mary Anne’s comment that as a person of Sri Lankan heritage, if she wanted to write a Sri Lankan character she wouldn’t do her research first. Instead she would write what comes to her and then do some book/web research or check with other people to make corrections or fill in the gaps. She also recommended travel for writers wanted to express different viewpoints. To a greater extent that is what people will be doing more and more to express their own heritage or more accurately, multiple heritages in the future – not simply expressing the culture of the household they grew up in but also actively deciding what they want to express and learning about it, perhaps on some future nets, by travel or just by observing others around them.
We’ll need a good reason inherent in the logic of our – even near – future stories to have characters who are not racially mixed – on a future generation ship, a Mars colony or even a future American city of fifty years from now, other things than skin color would have to serve as a marker of cultural background. Although people may be able to choose their skin colors. Certain race or ethnicity in some form is going to be celebrated by people in the future – isn’t that human nature? But as Mary Anne said earlier, look how much has changed in the last hundred years.
“But as Mary Anne said earlier, look how much has changed in the last hundred years.”
Absolutely. Earth hasn’t had a genocide now in about….oh…nevermind, there’s Darfur. But before that, there was a long gap…er…okay, Yugoslavia. But before that there was a definite reduction in…okay, Rwanda, nevermind.
Alright, so right now we tend to not kill each other ethnic divisions nearly as much in the last couple of decades as we did during WWII. You can assume there’s a trend if it makes you feel happy.
I absolutely agree with you that racial conflict, atrocities and genocide will continue in the future. Asking serious questions about future of race is a necessary subject for near future sf. My point was really that race is something that people define for themselves (as individuals and communities) and they way they define it for themselves is going to change in the future, as it has in the past.
Much of the world’s population, due to global networks and ease of communication (and probably cheaper travel, though we have a looming climate/energy crisis), will live in “multicultural” or “diverse” homes and communities. Some people will choose to remain in communities of people similar to themselves, and that will be a valid personal choice, and I can think of a lot of very good reasons for doing so. But it may become difficult to do so in a fully networked global community. Right now, any user of Google Translate can go surf websites in Chinese, Arabic, Indonesian or Hindi. What will happen to cultural boundaries in a few years when nearly every child in the world has a networked laptop with seamless translation? That is a central sf question, and my feeling is there is a long way to go in exploring it better.
Sometimes I think some science fiction got sidetracked by this idea of a “Singularity” or other shift to a posthuman (and therefore somehow post-racial) place we will all go in the near future. But Mary Anne is probably right that we are not going to become post-racial anytime soon. Posthuman does not necessarily mean post-racial or post-ethnic. But it seems certain that people will have greater freedom and choice in terms of having new technologies, communities and models for expression of their identities, in terms of race, culture, sexuality, and other aspects. Does that make sense?
Stephen @206, I’m writing some stuff for theatre now too, so I sympathize. I wonder how much flexibility you have in revision? I.e., can you write your script with that ‘openness’ to ethnicity, etc. initially, and then, once cast, take a few intensive days to revise appropriately? Of course, I’m not sure what happens if an actor drops out three days before performance and they get someone new in…
Hm…actually, I guess the main way we handle it in live theatre is color-blind casting. I write for a local S. Asian theatre company, and while we try to fill roles from inside the ensemble, sometimes there just aren’t S. Asian actors available. So I do have, in the current play I’m working on, a white girl playing a S. Asian, and I just have to trust her skills to play the role successfully. It’ll probably be a little bit disconcerting for the audience initially, but if she’s good enough, I’ve found that they quickly forget her skin color and start thinking of her as the character.
I know film doesn’t do this as much as theatre does, so I don’t have as much good advice for you there. But I hate to sacrifice characterization if I don’t have to.
Arrrrr @ 210, it’s a good question. One fairly simple fix, if your story is big enough to encompass this in its cast, is to have more than one person of the ethnicity in question. If the jerk is Chinese-American, but one (or two) of the side characters who isn’t a jerk is also Chinese-American, that’ll help alleviate the effect.
There may be other ways to handle this, but that’d be my first instinct.
Oh, and everything everyone else said. Make them real, warts and all. I’m sleepy.
Cicada @ 224, I think we’re talking about different kinds of things. For example, in my recent story “Jump Space,” one of my characters comes from a world settled by S. Asians, and one that is still S. Asian dominated, although it also holds the major galactic university and a ton of immigrants as a result. So she would grow up with that dominant heritage, and she might well think similar non-inclusive things about outsiders as I think you’re referring to. “Damn galactics buying up all our land…”
But her world is still emphatically *not* white, and her culture is very present; she actually wears a sari for normal, casual dress, for example. I think you can definitely have another cultural group (either one we’re familiar with, or a new one) be dominant in much the same *way* whiteness is now, but not have that future look white.
I’m not sure that answers your objection, so if I didn’t understand you, please clarify.
Ben #236. Dang. Good for Gloss, but clearly I should have re-read her book (or at least the first chapter) before posting. Maybe I’ll do that today — her book is so calm, it may be the perfect antidote to the stress of this whole discussion. (Although y’all in this post have been, on the whole, quite lovely and non-stressful.)
Arachne Jericho@220 I love American Born Chinese. About the phonetics, he uses it only the case of a blatant, over the top caricature. Whereas all the other characters (including all the other Chinese characters) are realistically drawn, the caricature is drawn with slanty eyes, buck teeth, and literally yellow skin. If that’s not enough of a clue, Gene Yang named him Chin-Kee.
If you do this to subvert the stereotype and heighten the main character’s need to belong and his confusion over his racial identity, I figure you get a pass. If he hadn’t done it in this context (or a similar context), the result would have been unbearable.
MCM@232 Beta readers aren’t always right, especially about how to fix things. One of the things I find tough about writing is the proper parsing of feedback.
There are implicit assumptions in your text that I’m sure you don’t realize you’re making. I don’t have time to unpack them all. However, one example: “By making my characters speak as if they’re Americans” The US does eventually allow immigrants to naturalize. Some of us do become American.
Also, it reads like you’re thinking of the way they speak as this coat of paint you can slap on your characters to instantly make them more Chinese. Of course, any well-drawn character is so much more than the way they speak.
Folks, I think some of you are assuming that MCM is talking about immigrants, and I thought that the original post was about representing Chinese in China, yes? #169
That’s a different question, and a tougher one in some ways. In Bodies in Motion, I had stories set in Sri Lanka. In some of them, the characters would be speaking in English (legacy of colonialism), but in others, they might well have spoke in Tamil or Sinhalese. If that’s the language of the entire story, but you’re telling it in English, it does raise an interesting question about how you represent that.
I handled it as best I could by thinking about my parents’ English, which, while excellent, holds some idiosyncrasies of idiom specific to Sri Lankan English. My mother tells us to ‘off the light’ for example — they skip the word ‘turn’ in that phrase. I tried to keep that kind of voice and phrasing in mind when writing the relevant passages (essentially ‘translated’ from Tamil), although I didn’t use the specific English phrasings either.
MCM, I’m not certain what’s the best approach, but I think for the most part it’s better not to mess too much with language (unless you happen to know some traditional Chinese idioms that would be appropriate to your story — and don’t load too many of those in either!), and let the Chinese surroundings come in through setting, clothing, habits, etc.
Okay, now I feel particularly idiotic about the Gloss example. Here’s the first paragraph of her novel (about Quakers on a generation ship, who speak the constructed language Esperanto among themselves), which I want to take the trouble to type in because it gorgeously illustrates one way to address race/ethncity/heritage:
“My family once considered themselves Tico, but the old Hispanic tradition of community has so long ago disappeared from this continent, subsumed in the monoculture of the West, that I consider my only culture to be Quaer. Still, the Friends who are joining us in this migration have Japanese names, English, Norwegian — these Friends are strangers to me. Moreover I don’t speak Esperanto very well, and maybe I’m too old to learn it better, or maybe too tired. Esperanto is a language without much grace: In the rainy season, who would want to give up saying invierno, which lies sweetly on the tongue, in trade for the crabbed little sound of vintro?”
The book isn’t about race. But look at how beautifully she brings us into a sense of place, culture, heritage, and loss — such appropriate themes for people on a generation ship, setting out to find a new world.
Quaer should be Quaker in the quote above. Sorry.
Mythago: Come to think of it, maybe that’s one of the really good things about exaggerated cartoon drawings, like the manga style? Really, you can read just about any race into those faces. The thing that reads “white” to me in most of the manga I’ve seen is less the ridonkulous round eyes than that most of them seem to be pale-peachy-pink instead of the sort of buttery-brown-gold shades that I associate with Japanese people (apologies if those are offensive descriptors.) But then, in the legends and some of the Asian movies I’ve seen, it seems like paleness is held up as a standard of beauty? Exceptionally beautiful concubines are described as having pale skin, and the geisha still cover themselves in white paint. And those standards were there way before contact with EuroWhiteFolks, yes?
I’m woolgathering, now. Beauty standards are a whole ‘nother BLOG, let alone post. These are just more things to chew on.
@248 Mary: Now that you’ve mentioned Gloss and quoted her, I think I’m going to have to check her work out. That really sounds intriguing.
I like the idea of using turns of phrase as a way to denote a cultural difference. I’m working on a late Victorian story right now and am painfully aware that – at the moment – the speech patterns of the characters aren’t quite right to the time period. Yet. (Ahhh, research.)
(Research, as an aside, is a two-edged sword. It’s vital to a story but one can obsess so much over it that you never get the story done.)
I’m re-reading it now; two chapters in, and am reminded of what an odd book it is. Very slow-paced, very precise and careful in its language. Lots of intense emotion in the characters, but very restrained in expression, by culture and the close quarters of the tiny generation ship. Really lovely, if you’re in the mood for this kind of thing.
@234 et al: Thanks all for the input. I am really just talking about Chinese in China, or (for that matter) Russians in Russia or Brazilians in Brazil, without the immigrant experience. Immigrants are a whole other issue, because you’ve got the cultural adaptation to play with… and somehow I think I’d have more leeway in writing those types of characters, for some reason. (because they’re more “present” in the minds of readers…?)
I realize my readers are wrong in a lot of ways, but they’re largely liberal-minded, intelligent people, and I’ve now had 8 different people make the same general comment: “These characters aren’t really Chinese, they’re just Americans with Chinese names.”
But even if the readers are wrong (suggestions for linguistic blackface suggestions are definitely not sitting well with me), there’s something to be said for a large percentage of an audience having the same reaction. If that many people are going to find the character inauthentic because they’re PoC and too “like us”, then can you really just ignore it and defer to a higher level of social awareness? Because ultimately, whatever knocks the reader out of the story is something that knocked them out of the story. The characters are well-rounded and complex and steeped in their surroundings, but their level of verbal dexterity somehow makes them seem “false”. It bothers me, I guess (moreso after a bad night’s sleep of worrying about it).
Or, here, another way of looking at it: if you’re writing a space story with an alien race, and this alien is the most non-humanoid creature you can imagine… would it bother you to read their dialogue as articulate, naturalistic English, or would you find that distracting, and want some level of alienness?
MAM: the idioms are probably a great way to go, and I agree, used very sparingly. It might just be a matter of setting the stage early, with one character dropping one naturally, and then hopefully the non-dichotomy will feel acceptable. I find it odd to need that at all, but I don’t want my whole story derailed by this issue.
(Side note, possibly of interest: of all my testers, none of the recent-immigrant Chinese had any issues with the dialogue style. It’s only the non-Chinese readers that saw that… some WP and some PoC. So it’s like a hyper-sensitivity to PoC rights, almost. Never saw it coming, either)
[Deleted for stupid — JS]
MCM, have you read Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds? It’s probably not going to work as a direct parallel for you, since it’s not told in a realistic style — more folk-tale-ish. But still, you might want to look at the first chapter at least, for an example of a work set entirely in China but told to us in English:
“I shall clasp my hands together and bow to the corners of the world.
My surname is Lu and my personal name is Yu, but I am not to be confused with the eminent author of The Classic of Tea. My family is quite undistinguished, and since I am the tenth of my father’s sons and rather strong I am usually referred to as Number Ten Ox. My father died when I was eight. A year later my mother followed him to the Yellow Springs Beneath the Earth, and since then I have lived with Uncle Nung and Auntie Hua in the village of Ku-fu in the valley of Cho. We take great pride in our landmarks. Until recently we also took great pride in two gentlemen who were such perfect specimens that people used to come from miles around just to stare at them, so perhaps I should begin a description of my village with a couple of classics.”
If you can set aside the exaggerated folk tale element, there’s still a slightly different syntax/formality to the language, I think, than if you were telling the same story about a village in England.
A Different Jess@250:
I’m a pinky yellow-green right now, with a shade of orange at the moment because of my addiction to small snack carrots….
Your adjectives are a lot more attractive than mine!
Pallor as beauty is in other cultures as well, and related (I suspect) to the fact that the rich could afford not to look like the poor. Also, Japanese standards of beauty in the distant past was to some extent influenced by Chinese and Corean standards. That’s a little simplistic but, you know. 10-second reply.
Not to put words in the mouths of your beta testers, but were they thinking along the lines of Kai Lung type “Asian-speak,” maybe?
Second recommendation for Bridge of Birds, one of my all-time favorite works of fantasy.
Mr. Scalzi, you are a man of taste and discernment. “Bridge of Birds” is one of the finest bits of Chinese Fantasy to be written.
Note for those who don’t know this book; William Hughart is not (as far as I know) Chinese. What he is, is a long time scholar of things Asian and it shows. (He’s also an expert at giving you research data dumps by putting them in the mouth of a character who – by their nature – is a veritable fount of same.)
Two other writers who – I think – manage to bring out the voice of the cultures their writing are William Marshall and James Melville. Mileage, of course, may vary.
Or, for a mainstream example, Ha Jin (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ha_Jin) is a brilliant writer who does satiric tales set in China during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. He came to America from China when he was 28, and writes about China exclusively in English. This is the opening to his story “Resurrection,” from the collection _Under the Red Flag_:
“Damn you,” Fulan cursed her husband, Lu Han. “Now the whole Ox Village knows you slept with my sister. How can I go out and meet their faces?”
Fulan took their four-month-old boy off her large breast, turned him around, and thrust her other nipple into his mouth. She said, “Shame on you. Can’t take care of your own cock. Even a studhorse knows not to mount his sister. Shameless — why don’t you go out, find a tree, and hang yourself?”
Lu wanted to jump up and yell, “Your sister’s no good either, a cracked melon already! If a bitch doesn’t raise her tail, no dog can do anything to her.” But he remained on the bench, motionless, biting his thick lips.”
Umm…John, now I’m feeling like I should have stuck an ‘explicit language’ warning on that piece before quoting — feel free to do so or delete the piece if it’s not in keeping with your site’s language preferences. Not sure if you have a policy on that.
Arachne @226, I was thinking of anime rather than manga (the latter tending to be in black-and-white); it’s probably the hair color and eye color that seems odd. I mean everybody has the freakishly large eyes so I don’t think you can call them “round”, exactly.
re language – and maybe the concern about screwing it up can be alleviated by treating it not as “OMG don’t want to be racist” – of course you don’t – but about thinking of it as simply a different cadence and phrasing. Ursula LeGuin has a well-known essay where she talks about not writing dialogue so that your characters sound just like modern-day people; she takes a scene from a well-known fantasy series and changes the setting from the steps of a Council hall in a fantasy world to Congress in Washington, DC, and it’s true, the dialogue is pretty much exactly the same. Of course fantasy sometimes does this very badly.
I’d recommend the Very Short Introduction to Linguistics for anyone trying to get a handle on this stuff; it really is very short, and it’s a fascinating look at how people’s speech patterns change and are affected by their culture.
I might also recommend the works of Ernest Bramah, who wrote the Kai Lung stories. (Kai Lung’s Golden Hours, The Wallet of Kai Lungetc.) in the first half of the 20th century. He invented a sort of fake Chinese English that looks like it may have influenced many later stories set in China. It’s over the top, I suspect in part because that was the style in the author’s time, but there’s a lyrical quality to it.
Random excerpt from Kai Lung’s Golden Hours:
“My father is all-wise,” ventured Chang Tao dutifully, but observing the nature of the other’s expression he hastened to add considerately, “but my father’s father is even wiser.”
“Inevitably,” assented the one referred to; “not merely because he is the more mature by a generation, but also in that he is thereby nearer to the inspired ancients in whom the Cardinal Principles reside.”
“Yet, assuredly, there must be occasional exceptions to this rule of progressive deterioration?” suggested Chang Tao, feeling that the process was not without a definite application to himself.
“Not in our pure and orthodox line,” replied the other person firmly. “To suggest otherwise is to admit the possibility of a son being the superior of his own father, and to what a discordant state of things would that contention lead! However immaturely you may think at present, you will see the position at its true angle when you have sons of your own.”
@255 MAM: Wow, thanks! I HAVE read “Bridge of Birds”, and yet somehow it completely slipped my mind when contemplating this subject. I’m going to have to find my copy and give it a re-read. Absorb some wisdom.
Just as a final thought, I wonder if my situation would have been different if I’d had some obvious Chinese-culture cred to start. There might be an element of people assuming I’m writing beyond what I know, and they’re trying to call me on it. Maybe it’s a pitfall inherent to the story I’m trying to tell, and there’s just no universal way around it.
Anyway, thanks all again for your thoughts! I will see how my next revision flies…
Chinese sf seems to be going strong – I noticed the following novel by the respected sf writer Liu Cixin described in the People’s Daily:
“Bygone Stories of Earth portrays Ye Wenjie, a young Chinese girl plunged into despair by the cultural revolution, in which her father, a science professor, was murdered by his crazy students. She receives hope in the form of a message from aliens in outer space who say they are coming to conquer earth and cleanse it of evil.”
I’d be very interested to read a Chinese sf novel that deals with the cultural revolution. What would it take to get such a novel translated? Sigh.
Any impressions of the state of the Chinese sf field? What with their space program, I imagine it is growing quickly.
Follow up question: has anyone read Taiwanese sf writer Chang Hsi-kuo? Five Jade Disks, Defenders of the Dragon City and Tale of a Feather are available in English translation from Columbia University Press.
There’s not much talk in the west about Chinese myth cycles, an unlike Norse, Celtic, Finnish, etc… you tend not to see much of it in popular fiction. My favorite myth cycle it The Creation Of The Gods
There’s a synopsis here, but it really doesn’t do it justice.
As a general source for shot vignettes, there’s also The Classic Of The Mountains And The Seas
and Tian Wen: The Book Of Origins.
Chinese Mythology is a pet subject of mine. Nothing academic, but I do love it.
Oh yeah, and the Chinese Science Fiction World has a circulation of 300,000. Major magazines in the US have a circulation of far less, from what I’ve read. I could be wrong about that though.
I didn’t read the 267 previous comments, so shoot me if I repeat someone.
It’s nice to see a well thought out, reasoned piece on this topic. However, I saw very little about “race” in it. It was all about culture. I think race is a fiction – there is no scientific definition of it at all. It’s in the eye of the bigot.
I do find it sort of interesting that no one has mentioned Kim Stanley Robinson’s “The Years of Rice and Salt.” One of my favorite AU books of all time, it’s the story of earth if almost all of Europe had been completely wiped out by the black plague, leaving European culture virtually nonexistent. Because of this, nearly all the characters in it are non-white, most of them being Arab or Asian.
Miles, that get covered over here, particularly in the comments, and I don’t think needs to be covered in this thread.
Josh, thanks. I also saw SFW described as having half a million. Half a million copies in print circulation. Print.
Yet my hasty search for English translations of Chinese sf turned up only the aforementioned Taiwanese author (and I would imagine Taiwanese sf is also widely read on the mainland), plus a 1989 Praeger Trade collection edited by Dingbo Wu. There must be more out there.
There’s no scientific definition of love, marriage, what makes for good food, what makes a sunset beautiful, what makes a person angry, happy, laugh, enjoy work, want to punch your boss….
That doesn’t make any of it not *real*, just not something science doesn’t talk about. And it’s certainly not unimportant. Quite the reverse.
Arrr, that was a good alternate history. Kim Stanley Robinson also pointed out that a space elevator base station would likely be located in an equatorial region and thus access might be controlled by a developing country.
Kim isn’t the first to come up with that idea — Clarke wrote a great book about it, The Fountains of Paradise, in 1979. It’s set in Taprobane, a Sri Lanka analog.
This is a fascinating and enlightening discussion. But I’m a little confused by something. What are we actually talking about here? ‘Race’ by which you seem to mean skin colour or culture? It seems to me the discussion is actually about representing people from a different culture to our own, not people with a different skin colour, though that may be an element of their difference from us.
Though I have a complex racial background, for instance, I’d think of myself as belonging to an element of English culture which may be seen by some as predominantly white. So to represent me fictionally surely my culture and influences would be the most important way to shorthand my character rather than to focus on my skin colour which may stereotypically belong to one or many other cultures?
Isn’t what’s important here to write people as individuals rather than positive role models or negative stereotypes of a ‘racial’ type? Surely a successful non-racist society in reality or fiction would be one where cultural heritage and diversity are retained without confining them narrowly to one skin tone? Or am I not getting the point here?
[Deleted for stupid. As a further note to people who want to flame me for whatever reason, send it to e-mail, don’t drop it into the comment threads. Thanks — JS]
If you haven’t visited the first part of this discussion you may have missed some earlier questions similar to yours.
Mary Anne, I just finished The Last Theorem, and had been wondering why Clarke didn’t write more Sri Lankan characters earlier – but I completely forgot about Fountains of Paradise, which I have had for a long time, and now I will finally read it!
Jo B, so far as I understand, the use of the word “race” in this fashion may be more common in the US than some other countries (you are in England?), and that you are correct in thinking that discussions about “race” in the US could be called “cultural heritage” in some other countries. I also would be more comfortable using the term “heritage” in this discussion but “race” is the common American term and how this conversation began (some months ago now).
As regards language, I have a weird quirk about this:
I’m seriously annoyed by movies/tv that have “foreign” characters speaking in accented English (or whatever the dominant language of the audience is) in their own countries/among their own people. It’s just so unnecessary, IMHO, and takes me right out of the story. Either have them speak in their own language and provide subtitles, or just have them speak the same way that the audience speaks.
If they’re characters with diverse native languages speaking a common tongue then sure, an accent makes sense. But if they’re just speaking among themselves? I’m not sure why an accent would be necessary.
I look at it this way: As a member of the audience, you’re in sort of a “fly on the wall” situation. If you’re going to feel silently incorporated into the story, then the story has to speak the way you hear. And if you’re going to understand what someone who isn’t speaking your language is saying, then you either need a translation, or you need a Babelfish. And a Babelfish isn’t going to speak in an accent, yes?
If the Babelfish does speak in an accent, then it’s an acknowledgement of the involvement of the audience that, IMHO, breaks the fourth wall.
Obviously, subtitles aren’t exactly an easy trick to pull in print, so the Babelfish solution really is the author’s only option.
A good friend of mine is an ASL interpreter. Something most folks without a hearing impairment don’t know is that ASL is a shorthand language. Because it takes so much longer to sign a word or phrase than it does to speak it, sign language necessarily has to drop the unnecessary parts of the language from which it’s translating, and just get to the gist of it: Nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, etc.
So if a person speaking English said, “The small boy quickly ran to the store,” the ASL interpreter would sign something to the effect of “Small boy go store fast.” Extra flourishes in the original statement can be interpreted with body movements and facial expressions, but the words themselves have to be short.
This is how I think people should write translations of foreign languages: You write for the language of your audience.
Also, as regards slang and idioms. Literal translations of these aren’t usually used in formal translations unless there’s a point to be made from them. Someone who might say in French that a person was a pig’s tail might have that phrase translated in English to “jackass” or some other equivalent that would make more sense to the reader/listener. Heck, this even happens when producing different regional editions of a book. “Sorcerer’s Stone” v. “Philosopher’s Stone,” anyone?
Authors are, essentially, interpreters when we’re writing people who are speaking a foreign language. We’re there to tell our audience what that person is saying. And just as a professional interpreter would not deliberately translate a phrase in an accent (other than their own), I don’t think authors should, either.
No one has yet mentioned David Wingrove’s Chung Kuo series.
All set in a world where the Chinese have taken over and stuck people into a huge tower, where one’s status is defined by both skin color and what floor they live on.
“What do you see in a smiley face?”
The overwhelming urge to blow it up! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist)
In addition to “The Bridge of Birds”, Barry Hughart also wrote “The Story of the Stone” and “Eight Skilled Gentlemen” using the same protagonists and world. Of the three, I think “Eight Skilled Gentlemen” might be the best. I consider it a tragedy that Mr. Hughart’s original intent to write seven books in the series was derailed by what he felt was unfair treatment by his publisher. If I ever win the lottery (highly unlikely since I don’t play) I would offer to pay his advance myself and publish it independently. I’m sure that I’d get it back quickly enough, since the omnibus version of the three novels starts at over $100 on used book stores online and goes up from there.
There was a basic amorality all through the Chung Kuo series that bugged the crap out of me.
I’ve seen comics use either a different font or special characters for non-English dialog. Maybe that’s not ideal, but it does convey to the reader that the text is a translation, metaphorically speaking.
This is similar to a bigger issue in that both far future space opera and non-earth based fantasy have to have English dialog even though “English” makes no sense in the context of the story. (I loved the bit in one of Brust’s Paarfi novels where Paarfi complains in an afterword about the translation.)
I’m late to the party again. A lot of “yes” here, as so many have said. But the problem I have is that if you write a character as a PoC, it isn’t just their color that defines what their character is, unless you want to create a character who is so identified with their race that it is the center of their motivations.
It’s not just the color, it’s their economic status, the culture in which they live and so many other things. If someone put a character like Barack Obama in an SF novel, would the author be applauded for creating a strong character of color, or would the author be criticized for creating a character of color that was too unbelievable? Obama is atypical, but that’s the point. He’s “has the color but not the scars” because he grew up in an environment that is vastly different from the low income (rural or urban) environment endured by so many both non-white and white. Heck, he grew up an an environment that was different from just about everyone of any color.
The thing is, it’s possible for a CoC to be a realistic depiction within the setting of the work, but still cause most PoC to go “that characters life doesn’t reflect my reality at all.” It doesn’t mean that the character is unreasonable within the work.
If the characters could be any color — they default to white.
This is one I have to disagree with, in part. If a work has the majority of characters of specified race, a reader is likely to assume that any non race-specific characters are of the same race. But if all or most of the characters are genuinely race-neutral in the writing, the cultural and racial stereotypes that determine the race are in the reader’s head, not the author’s. In that case, I would say “they default to the race that the reader identifies with”.
For example, I’ve found that when my daughter and I read the same story, she often views a character as a girl that I always assumed was male. The most common situation where this happens to us is for animal characters, since most humans are clearly identified as male or female. So is the Roadrunner a boy or a girl? On the other hand, I’ll freely admit that racial identification is a bit more complicated than gender identification (witness MAMr’s identification with blonde, long-haired princesses).
Last serious thought: Writers who are lazy about their characterizations are probably lazy about their milieux as well. So it isn’t necessarily ignorance about race that causes poor characterizations of PoC. Or as MAMr says, it could be fear: If you start thinking about all the ways in which you can get things wrong, it’s easy to be paralyzed by that fear, to retreat back to only writing characters who are just like you, or so vague that they can’t possibly be mistaken for anyone real. Writing characters different from yourself is a research opportunity, not a roadblock. Just don’t do the research by tapping the PoC at the next table on the shoulder and asking them to explain your character to you.
On a lighter note: I have this “dream” that there might come a time after they leave the White House when some member of the Obama family gets pulled over for “driving while black”. And then the Secret Service agent will tap the local police officer on the shoulder…
Which omnibus edition? The Subterranean one, or the Stars Our Destination one?
I have both. And the original hardcover of Bridge Of Birds, as well as a lending copy I have to re-purchase every few months.
In that case, I would say “they default to the race that the reader identifies with”.
This is probably true. But it still defaults to white for many PoCs, because of the effects of white normativity.
For instance, if you’re a carrot stick, but almost every representation of vegetables you see is row upon row of celery sticks, when you’re presented with the idea of a default vegetable, you’re probably going to imagine it to be a celery stick, and not something like yourself.
Josh, I was looking at the SFBC edition, which I lent to my sister-in-law and which disappeared when she divorced my wife’s brother (along with a copy of Tim Power’s “The Drawing of the Dark”, the only book I know of to mix Arthurian legend and beer).
I’m not bitter, truly I’m not.
@279 Tal: I completely agree! It’s a major annoyance for me too when a group of Russian characters suddenly say “Come, let’s speak English!” and carry on with accents. That’s why I try and write all my characters as if you’re reading the translation of what they’re saying, in natural English. We’re pretending for the moment that we understand that language too, and this is what we’d hear. It’s just a question of not jarring your readers with the notion. That’s my issue of the day.
(Incidentally, it is very hard to write a conversation between two characters who don’t speak the same language, trying to use a third to convey their message. Just perfecting the nature of the broken-ness of their attempts is mind-bogglingly difficult, but ultimately so rewarding when you know you’ve captured a bit of awkward reality. I’m thoroughly obsessed with the idea of a non-Babelfish world. Homogeny is boring!)
Papapete – Ow. Some people have *no* manners.
Anyhow, I think Subterranean is sold out. V. sad. And anything Tim Powers mixes will be super tasty.
I just checked abebooks.com and prices have come down radically. I can get it for about $50! Woohoo!
Thanks Josh. Your post prompted me to look. My day is made!
@MCM “…the characters are well-rounded and complex and steeped in their surroundings, but their level of verbal dexterity somehow makes them seem “false”.”
Hmm. A couple of thoughts. If we’re taking Chinese in China… are they supposedly speaking Chinese which you’re simply rendering as English? Or are they speaking English? If the former, I’d expect a high level of verbal dexterity (presuming that fits with the character in general). If the latter I can see how some imperfections in their English would add realism (depending on the level of fluency you give them), but I don’t think that will solve your issue. You’ve set yourself a very hard task if you’ve not lived in China and don’t have in-depth knowledge of the culture etc. It’s not just how they talk… it’s the fact that they come from a very different culture that’s not rooted in the Hellenistic background we take for granted and that they’re still there… Conversing in American idiom would work if they were second generation immigrants here… but since they’re in their native country… that’s going to be very hard without some in-depth experience on your part.
MCM #288 – Thank you. :)
For some reason it’s linguistics, pattern, and cadence that drive me the craziest.
Papapete #286 –
*bitters for you*
At least you can buy it again for a less gouging price. I remember when the book cost easily over $150 in the used market.
@291 rick: They’re speaking Chinese, not English. In fact, English never comes into it. The issue is less about the way they live (which I’ve had vetted by several Chinese friends, because I was mindful of butchering things), but more the fact that English readers are discounting the entire effort* because the dialogue is fluent English, not stilted. The problem is that no matter how well-drawn they are, the characters seem false by virtue of their articulate speech patterns. It’s an odd kind of subconscious culturalism, I think. Hard to diagnose, and even harder to fix.
My next project involves a lot of French people speaking French to each other, and I wonder how much that will bother people. Can I solve the problem by throwing the odd “bonjour” or “merci” into English conversation? It feels like cheating, but maybe that’s the secret…
* I should clarify: they’re not discounting the entire work, but they say their enjoyment was diminished because they were constantly aware the characters “weren’t really Chinese” because of the way they spoke. In philosophy, action, backstory etc, they were totally believable… it was just the fluency of their English that ruined it. Linguistics undermining character development. Oddness.
MCM @293 – perhaps it would help to pick up a basic book on learning Chinese? Not because you expect to become fluent, but often a very basic overview of a language will give you an idea of the grammar and flow of that language, and how you can pattern your English rendition of their speech to give the right flavor.
A couple examples I’m thinking of are For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, English-language novels in which the characters spend 99% of their time speaking in Spanish or Yiddish (respectively). But the way the author phrases the English makes it quite clear that these people are using a different language, and it’s done in a way that never descends into caricature or offensive stereotypes.
Ms. Mohanraj, I just wanted to add my thanks for your thought-provoking and incredibly well-written essay. I look forward to reading your fiction.
Not bad- only about a hundred comments since I dropped out last night.
MCM@293- perhaps if the English were a little more formal- or if the Chinese beta readers don’t see a problem, I might shrug this one off.
Mary Anne, thanks for the Molly Gloss suggestion. I just went online to order it from the library- hooray for university interloan!
Mythago, interesting suggestion, but I wonder if you don’t need to be fluent or at least very familiar with the foreign language in question first, to pull that off properly.
Hmm. It seems like the readers’ expectation of how language is used by non-English speaking characters is in fact a really tough issue to deal with. I’m not a professional fiction writer, but for what its worth: different cultures have recognizable devices used in everyday conversation. Like arriving at a British person’s home, you know, the first thing is they offer a cup of tea, or whatever. Just a small, simple thing to add to the beginning of the conversation, but doesn’t require deep linguistic knowledge. And I guess you could research the conversational devices of unfamiliar cultures by asking native speakers, or watching subtitled films. The danger would be if your device were perceived as a stereotype, it might give offense, so you’d want to run it past a native speaker. Just a thought!
@244- Are we just talking about cultural accoutrements as a form of window dressing at that point, though?
Why is it significant whether your characters are wearing saris, kilts, business suits or denim jeans?
Perhaps this might be something that shows off a division in science fiction– “soft” science fiction tends to focus on essentially interactions of people during different circumstances, while “hard” science fiction tends to focus on the interaction of the characters and the universe itself. Culture and race are less significant a factor in the latter– exploding stars don’t care how much melanin you have or what kind.
I’ve been thinking a lot about The Years of Rice and Salt while reading comments about the inclusion of other races in fiction. As mentiond above, white people are almost wiped off the planet by the Black Death at the beginning of the book. A bit later in the book, you see a single white woman in the harem of a king (this is hundreds of years later.) But what really stuck with me is the feeling I had toward the end of the book when we see Orkney, whichis still populated by free (white) natives. If I had that feeling at a few hundred pages, what must it be like for a PoC to feel represented after a lifetime of not finding themselves in the fiction they read?
First, thank you Mary Ann Mohanraj, for these two posts. The first was so articulate and effective that the hundreds of comments about it were almost completely civil and on-topic (so much so that Scalzi just stood around most of the time holding that salmon, with nothing to do :-). This second was also articulate and informative (and persuasive, at least for me). It’s a subject I’m very interested as I’m just starting to write SF, and the issue of color and ethnicity in my stories is one I’m concerned about.
It seems to me that the thing all writers need to do, white and writers of color alike, is to create characters with depth and individuality, people with histories, families, home towns, and ethnic backgrounds. I personally prefer not to write default characters, because I’m not of the default ethnos. While I’m white in most mirrors, I’m of Eastern European Jewish extraction; my grandparents all came to the US as adults. Since I was born here, I’m comfortable with writing about a lot of other common American ethnic groups: Irish Catholic, German Protestant, Italian Catholic, English Southern Baptist, the ethnoi of people I’ve known, some I grew up with.
One question that I started asking was how I should choose the background and traits of a character. I don’t know what methods established writers use, but one that seems to be working is to start with the character of someone you know and modify as needed. One character appeared in her first scene and was very clear about who and what she was, but when I thought about it, I realized that her mother was heavily based on a woman I worked with for several years, who is a first-generation Chinese-American. Now I don’t know a lot about how it is to be Chinese in the US, but I have worked and socialized with a number of Chinese-Americans, and the story I’m writing isn’t about their community, but about some of their ethnic group living in the default white culture. And I’ve seen people doing that, so I’m not completely ignorant about it, though I probably miss most of the subtle points. But this seems like a good way to start out.
I like your statement that I’m going to get it wrong, and that isn’t a catastrophe as long as I’m ready to admit being wrong and move on. In a discussion on Making Light I said something similar:
I’m not a professional fiction writer, but for what its worth: different cultures have recognizable devices used in everyday conversation. Like arriving at a British person’s home, you know, the first thing is they offer a cup of tea, or whatever. Just a small, simple thing to add to the beginning of the conversation, but doesn’t require deep linguistic knowledge.
I think this could be useful, with the caveat that without research, it could be very easy to trip into a stereotype. You’d have to be very clear on the particular social habits of the region, class and possibly even occupation of your characters. After all, it’s not like a librarian in Seattle is necessarily going to do and say things the same way as a club owner in Miami.
Brian @297, it’s not as good as fluency, but it can at least get you in the door – especially books designed for people on business or who are trying to pick up conversational ability, so that you can avoid common mistakes or talking in a “correct” way that nobody really uses. Those books are also generally full of information about culturally-appropriate behavior, e.g. explaining that you use certain verb forms for addressing your boss. (There are interesting language-learning books directed at, say, English speakers learning Spanish, which outline common mistakes and pitfalls so you can anticipate and avoid them.) Good podcasts are handy for this as well, and free.
Bar exam training classes talk about how all you really need to pass is a “glib understanding” of particular areas of law; not enough to appear before the Supreme Court on the topic, but at least enough to get by. Writers often get this kind of fluency to be able to talk about advanced physics or biology, and there are ways to get the same level of “I can manage at a cocktail party and not piss people off” in culture and language.
Although I don’t mean to suggest that’s all anyone should ever do to learn about other cultures, of course. I’m just throwing out ideas about how to write semi-intelligently without “Hey, PoC? Could you spot check this for me, again?”
Mythago, I see what you mean.
MCM, in your position, I’d want to do some counter-questioning. What is your readers think Chinese conversation should look like on the page, and why do they think that? It’s good to think about what readers are looking for, but it’s not always good to give them what they think they want in every regard. Heck, if you learn something useful from it you can even stick a brief note up front, “About the Language” or some such.
I have read *almost every* comment on both these pages… it’s taken most of a perfectly good Saturday…
#44 Greg London,
I came to these two posts very late, and part one had been closed down. In it, you talked about your difficulties with a Magic Negro, and the ways you tried to fix that stereotype. Well, here’s my suggestion; make the hero black as well!
Then you’ve got two black characters, and both of them can contain faults and strengths that the other hasn’t got, rendering each one of them only half as responsible for representing their entire race…
Your question, about POC who’ve lost their ethnic heritage and now seem to live identical to their neighbors with the obvious exception of color…
The color is always the exception. And it’s always obvious, to everyone in that town that doesn’t know them intimately. I don’t know one single comfortably middle-class All-American black person who has not been confronted with her color at some point in her life. I vividly remember a rather well-respected artist coming to visit my family. He walked in saying; “Jigaboo, someone just called me a jigaboo. Damn, gotta get used to that word…”
And that wasn’t so long ago, maybe 1992? And it wasn’t in a small town, either, but Los Angeles.
So you can write your characters in that non-ethnic way, but your teenaged character might walk into the house in tears because the police stopped her and asked her where she was going, or the cashier at Macy’s didn’t believe she would have the money to pay for her jeans– That’s part of a POC’s experience of our current society, and you, as a writer, can use these incidents to show your character’s personality, by how she handles it.
MAM, and John, thank you so very much for these posts and the conversation!
MCM: Regarding the universal response of your readers… I’ve heard that when readers tell you there’s something wrong with your text, they’re generally right, but when they tell you what to do to fix it, they’re generally wrong. YMMV and all that, but I’ve found this mindset very helpful in evaluating criticism.
In this case, you know the problem your readers have is “They sound American and not Chinese,” so you’ve already gone as far as polling readers can take you. Your next step is asking yourself “How can I convey ‘Chinese’ more clearly?” and not asking the readers, “Well, what does a Chinese person sound like?”
I think you’ve already received some excellent advice to work from, but thought this bore an extra mention. ^_^
Writers often get this kind of fluency to be able to talk about advanced physics or biology, and there are ways to get the same level of “I can manage at a cocktail party and not piss people off” in culture and language.
I think this is an excellent point to remember in general.
Writers really do have to be jacks of all trades, and that always necessitates research. I think most good writers would, as a matter of course, research something about beet farming if they were going to write a beet farming character. Researching things about race, class, ethnicity, religion, etc. should be an automatic part of that process, too.
Bad writers assume they know everything there is to know about their story five minutes after they come up with the idea. Good writers know there are weeks of research ahead of them before the first words ever make it to the page, and several more during the writing process itself.
1. I love, love, love the Kai Lung books! Really funny fantasy is my idea of a good time. The Years of Rice and Salt was fabulous as well.
2. But these books, plus Bridge of Birds and others that have been mentioned as being full of wonderfulness with non-white characters and cultures even though their authors are white, appear to have been mostly commented on by readers who have no way of knowing whether the depictions therein are accurate, demeaning, offensive, or whatever. In other words, they’re largely being discussed as Books White People Enjoy That Look Real Sensitive to PoCs As Far As We Can Tell. How are they perceived by those who share the ethnic heritages presented in the books?
3. According to his blog’s most recent entry, Lukas Jackson got fired from his law firm—”because I refused to engage in shady things that my boss wanted me to.” So if anybody’s looking for a lawyer with high ethical standards . . .
On not noticing characters of color in fiction— I’ve done this in person, usually to the hilarity of the person involved. I grew up in a very mixed-race area, so it’s less surprising, because the “little beige babies” so often default to “nice tan” in my sunny hometown.
I think the weirdest one was when a years-long friend of mine told me how her brother had been called names in a drive-by when he was on a retreat near a known white supremacist compound. I thought of what he looked like, said “WTF?” and she said, “You know, my dad’s Mexican.” Then I thought of her blonde sister, how I’d always wondered where she got those cheekbones… People often come from different places than you think they do, and it’s exploring that direction that makes life interesting.
F.J. Bergmann #308 –
I dunno, I’m Vietnamese. Bridge of Birds worked for me. And so does Liz Williams’ Inspector Chen series. I haven’t read the Kai Lung, Years of Rice and Salt, or China Mountain Zhang books, but now I want to.
Mind you, it’s true that I’m just one very odd data point, and technically I’m not Chinese or Japanese, so may not know what I’m talking about.
Thanks MAM for writing such lucid and cogent posts, and thanks to the numerous posters who’s comments have given me much to think about. Also, please excuse the length of my post–I have some lengthy quotes I want to share!
Has anybody here yet thought about how China Mieville handles race in his books? Here’s a fascinating quote from him:
I think much grief could be avoided if authors wrote characters of different ethnicities from themselves as people informed by their race and the world’s attitude toward them, but not necessarily defined by it. China strikes at the heart of the matter when he states that it’s racism that’s causal, not race.
Sarah Rees Brenan made a similar point in her blog while discussing how to write compelling female characters. She said:
Sarah’s post is entirely brilliant, and well worth the read; I’d advise everybody to head on over and check it out.
Finally! Stephen King said that we shouldn’t limit ourselves to writing what we know, but rather to what is true. It’s our job as writers to imagine the ‘other’; as long as we do our best to be honest in our attempts to recreate that which is different from us on the page, we’re heading in the right direction. He said:
When writing characters that are fundamentally different from ourselves, I think the key impulse (followed after by diligent research) should be to think of them as complex people first, and have that concept be a composite informed by their gender, sexual preference, race and religion–but not defined by any one of them.
Just a couple of notes related to the discussion on Robin Hood up above (e.g. 98, 115, 137, 152, 163, 168, 179, 197, 199, 203). Specifically the character Morgan Freeman plays in “Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves”.
1) Robin Hood is folklore, not history (even though there MAY be a historical basis for some portion of the legends). I really don’t CARE that much whether a specific retelling of the Robin Hood legend is “historical” or not (within fairly broad limits), as long as it’s fun to watch/read/hear.
2) Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves did not introduce the idea of adding a “Saracen” character to the Merry Men. An excellent little BBC series (1984-1986) included the character of Nasir as one of the key members of Robin’s band. Which innovation may have started a new tradition…
3) Note that several of the knights in King Arthur’s court (in the Vulgate and/or Malory versions) were “Saracens”, although all of them that I remember did convert at some point.
(Palomides, the most prominent “Saracen” knight, did not formally convert until some years after he joined the Table Round.)
I’m arriving late at reading through all the comments here, so this is a sort of running response to things as I read through them.
Thanks for the essay, MAM. I found particularly interesting the points that go, essentially; “White people have ethnicities too” and “If you shy away from writing characters of colour, you are still writing about race”. The latter particularly as it dovetails with those authors who never ever mention homosexuality or adultery, the absence of which sticks out to me like a sore thumb (nb; I am not, however, a homosexual adulterer. :P)
A note, however, regarding #75, #77 et al; while it’s true it’s possible to model fantasy cultures on real-world cultures, I wish to Hell people wouldn’t do it. As someone who’s read a /lot/ of sociology and anthropology and history, /I can see it when you do it/ – and it looks like /laziness/ to me. There are books I cannot read because I can’t help but think that they’d be more interesting if the author had set them in the real world, instead of writing a story set in Feudal Japan-with-the-names-changed. Why not write a story set in *real* Feudal Japan?
But then, I make up cultures as a hobby (and yes, they do vary in skin colour too). Mine is probably a specialized and very minor niche for complaint.
And regarding #98, #115 and so forth concerning Morgan Freeman in Robin Hood; yes, he’s meant to be Moorish … so why not find a Middle Eastern actor? Not to say there weren’t Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa – there were, and plenty of ’em – but they’re not, technically, Moorish. IIRC we first meet Azeem in the Middle East somewhere, so really he should be as African as any other Palestinian or Syrian or Iraqi or Arabian.
Sub-Odeon @ 137: It’s mentioned in passing in some of Stephen Barnes’ novels in the /Thousand Cultures/ series that World War Three occurred between, essentially, a pan-American Hispanic civilization (with substantial holdings in Southeast Asia) and the Second Japanese Empire – and one of the casualties of the war is Ciudad de Pittsburgh. I liked that little note.
I’d like to note, however, that however far your future, it’s probable that caucasians will hang on somewhere – I’m thinking here of my own New Zealand, which is predominantly White Anglo-Saxon Agnostic, and conveniently miles from anywhere. I’ve often thought that we’ll end up as some kind of psuedo-Japan-alike, ossifying into some kind of rigidly formal society isolated from the rest of the world. Your novel may not range so far afield, of course. :)
Smaur @182: I can heartily recommend “The January Dancer” by Michael Flynn – it has a whole host of ethnicities created by cultural mixing and interstellar colonization, and names like “Kalim de Mornay”.
Regarding race in science fiction; I tend to think that, in the future, distinctions of race (as in skin colour, very loosely) will become secondary or invisible compared to questions of technology; between the people who have replaced their brains with machines and the ignorant rubes who want to hang on to their meatbrains, or between the genetic purists and the inhuman four-armed asteroid dwellers, or between humans and robots (a term which derives from the Czech word for “slave” – Persons of Machine Ascent reading the fiction of today will no doubt find it horribly offensive, as Scalzi mentioned in /The Ghost Brigades). Culture will remain important, whether or not it is linked to skin colour. Also I tend to dislike the idea of the Singularity. But then I grew up reading Le Guin, not Heinlein.
Mythago @261: Is there a link to this Very Short Introduction to Linguistics? I’m fairly well-versed in that field, but I’m always open to reading about it from other perspectives to fill in the cracks.
Brian @273: A space elevator base station pretty much *has* to be in an equatorial location, because geosynchronous orbit is only around the equator. Usually they’re put atop Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya.
Tal @279: Sadly, a lot of moviegoers are not readers by choice; they find subtitles jarring and get thrown out of the plot. I agree with you, however, and would generally prefer subtitles.
Steve Burnap @282: Ian Banks in /The Player of Games/ does something similar when assigning gender to the apex gender, a third and intermediate sex of aliens. Banks assigns them male pronouns, but notes in an aside that Marain (the language of the Culture) has no genders in its pronouns, but that if you are reading in some more backwards language the novel has been “translated” to refer to the apex as whatever your dominant gender is (since the apex are dominant in their society).
There’s a similar problem in sci-fi with characters speaking “Terran”; what is Terran? Why would the six thousand-odd languages of Earth converge upon a common mean? It’s far more likely that our space-going descendants will speak Trade, or Lingua Ceti, or everything is run through Universal Translation Protocol #17-C.
Phill @311: This is a whole other kettle of fish, but can be largely boiled down to Tolkien’s views, on race and (particularly) in theology, influencing his successors. In my own writing I’ve tackled this the other way around, by treating other fantasy races (“species” to science fiction, of course) as biological species, and working out how their traits influence their psychology. So one species has extremely macho males and subservient females, because they are far more sexually dimorphic than humans; another has males and females who are functionally equal in mannerisms (because they are, conversely, much less sexually dimorphic); and a third are stinking, cannibalistic non-sapient apes (because they are based on a former flatmate). But these are starting points for their personalities, not end points, and I’d say that if all orcs act the same, it’s just as bad as saying “All you [X] look the same to me”.
One of the things that sticks in my mind, years after having decided to actively avoid John Ringo’s books, is that he wrote Chechen guerillas as more blank, faceless evil foes than actual cannibalistic retarded invading space aliens. That really bugged me. Still does.
My own opinion on race/ethnicity is probably even more blind than most American’s, because a) as noted in Part I, I come from one of the whitest cities of the whitest island of a predominantly white country, so I am not much exposed to multi-ethnicity, and b) the relationship of white New Zealanders with our own cultural identity is fraught with indecision and confusion; the country was colonized by settlers seeking to create a “better Britain”, and following the World Wars and post-colonialism we’ve abandoned our Britishness and have been busy casting about for a replacement ethnicity … which means we generally appropriate Maori culture and imagery against a background of standard Commonwealth Anglosphere culture. We have very little culture of our own generated in the 169 years since the Treaty of Waitangi, and what there is is poorly suited to distinguish us from our Australian neighbours, since it’s common to most Anglo-majority English-speaking former colonies. I myself have English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish ancestry, and do not feel a strong connection to any of them.
It is, unfortunately, difficult to speculate as to what form New Zealand culture will take in another two hundred years, when we’ve had more time to diverge from our shared heritage with other nations, to fight a few more wars and generate a cultural identity all our own.
… Hm. That last bit may be a bit off topic, but I think I’ll leave it in there. If nothing else it highlights the ethnic alienation of (my particular) segment of caucasian society.
#308: Chiming in on the Bridge of Birds question… I’m half-Chinese (English speaking only) and went thru a phase of reading every English translation of Chinese novels I could find. Hughart’s work compares favorably to those novels for me. I can’t speak for my full-blood Chinese cousins (as they aren’t fantasy readers) but when a white man can give me the same feel as Journey West, we’ve probably got a winner.
I would note that the statement that elves are “definitionally noble” in Tolkien’s work is not accurate. One could consider Tolkien’s elves to be, in some sense, more “noble” on average than humans. But it’s clear in the Silmarillion that Elves are quite capable of being far from noble. And there are hints of this even in LOTR.
It does appear to be true that orcs are automatically evil, although they aren’t all evil in the same way. However, orc culture and orcs themselves have been warped by very powerful beings for thousands of years.
Great post, Mary Anne.
It’s going to be interesting trying to figure out the effects of this whole discussion in the upcoming works of the people involved. I’m willing to bet that there are strong, balanced, beautifully complex CoC being written as we speak. Maybe that’s what kept John busy, who knows? :)
re: language – Anyone here remembers Jack Vance? Diversity, and diversity through language, especially, was something he did beautifully.
Wow, what a comprehensive post.
Skin color might well be a less important marker in the future, but people could choose, or even fight, to keep their heritage despite dramatic technological change.
On the space elevator, I was struck with how the location of the base station can be used by an author as a way to further develop a character of color – as in Nirgal’s coming home to Trinidad in Blue Mars. Though it could come down in international waters or an extraterritorial zone, I guess.
Hey, has anyone read the Chinese science fiction mentioned in 264/5?
Very Short Introduction to Linguistics
Oh god, over 300 Comments here. I can’t read all that. So I risk running over the same ground, no doubt. Nevertheless …
>>>If the characters could be any color — they default to white.
No, I can’t buy that, no. Strip away the contemporaneous cultural crap and human beings (well, “normal” ones, anyway) are supposed to share universal traits.
I understand the authenticity argument you make about, say, characters set in a different time (just go look at some old B&W movies that haven’t stripped out the casual line of dialogue that was prevalent at the time: “I’m Free, White, and Twenty-One.”) — because, in my own case, I’ve tried to watch “Mad Men” and can tell those aren’t people from the 1960s (because I lived then and know what adults from then were like). (A British series, “An Englishman’s Castle,” had a Nazi-conquered England in which a TV writer had to do a series and complained what he was being told to write were people who never existed in the pre-conquest time back then!)
It’s interesting in particular to me that you mention Sri Lanka because I’m currently reading “The Last Theorem” by Clarke & Pohl, which has Sri Lankans as the main characters. Really, aside from cultural references (such as practices for a wedding), I don’t seen anything in those characters that aren’t universal in scope. Have you read that book? Would you accuse Clarke of defaulting to white?
#315, Michael I,
It may be so, that Elven culture is described with more nuance in The Silmarillion– but it isn’t in the Trilogy, and that’s where the huge majority of people stop reading. I’ve never read the follow-up books, although I own them. Couldn’t bring myself to care, because the narrative close was so satisfying at the end of “Return Of The King.”
And that’s where we as writers need to be aware– not at the end of a series, but at the beginning. Avalon’s Willow didn’t finish the first book of the trilogy, because those first chapters were so wounding–n in context with her life experiences, E.Bear says that if she had kept reading, she would have felt vindicated. It depends, of course, on the aims of the writer, but if I’m writing for the popular market, I think I want to give a few hints, relatively quickly, that my readers will have a reason to stick with me.
This is indeed something that’s been covered earlier in the thread, Mike. It’s worth going back and reading.
312: The new BBC Robin Hood also has a Saracen member of the band. A cross-dressing woman, in fact. Which is awesome, if you ask me.
(No comments on the quality of the rest of the show, however. ;) )
There ARE hints even in LOTR that elves are not automatically noble, but they are subtle and can easily be missed.
For example from Appendix A, Part I (first paragraph):
“Feanor was the greatest of the Eldar in arts and lore, but also the proudest and most selfwilled.”
“Against the will of the Valar Feanor forsook the Blessed Realm and went in exile to Middle-Earth, leading with him a great part of his people; for in his pride he purposed to recover the Jewels from Morgoth by force.”
Just the way it is phrased suggests that a lot of the story is NOT going to be particularly flattering to Feanor or many of his followers.
Also there’s the entry in “The Tale of Years”: “Sauron endeavours to seduce the Eldar. Gil-Galad refuses to treat with him; but the smiths of Eregion are won over.”
(There’s also the point that both Elrond and Galadriel refuse the Ring because they know claiming it would eventually turn even them into a new Dark Lord.)
A couple more things.
As regards the Elves: I think whether one thinks of them as inerringly noble depends on whether one considers their habits of being insular; dismissive of non-Elf people (particularly Dwarves); snobbish; overly concerned with image; disdainful of passion bordering on asceticism and more or less unwilling to lend their aid to the war effort because they’d rather go sailing (there were no Elves at Helm’s Deep!) to be positive traits or not.
Perhaps the Professor himself saw these as good things, though I’m guessing he probably didn’t. I certainly don’t. I think they’re pretty, but egotistical asshats. Give me a low-bullshit Hobbit anyday. ;)
On “Terran” language: I think this is entirely possible, depending on how far in the future one wants to project. After all, English has become the dominant language of online communication and international commerce for most of the world already.
The one thing I’ll give Firefly (which I otherwise detest) is that it was probably accurate in assuming that future language would be largely English and Chinese.
I think other languages will survive, but only in an archival or formal sense, like Latin.
I also think the same may well apply to religion. Alan Dean Foster has a “United Church” idea in his Commonwealth universe, and I think that’s probably going to be true, assuming we don’t all go agnostic when/if they find the Higgs Boson. ;)
>>>This is indeed something that’s been covered earlier in the thread, Mike. It’s worth going back and reading.
OMG. I knew it.
Now Scalzi has given me Homework.
I must obey.
Stella Omega #320: “It may be so, that Elven culture is described with more nuance in The Silmarillion– but it isn’t in the Trilogy, and that’s where the huge majority of people stop reading.”
I have to quibble, here, and I’ve read the whole Tolkien canon several times. We do see varied glimpses of Elven culture in The Hobbit and the LOTR, enough to understand that not all Elves are “noble”. Think about the Mirkwood Elves in The Hobbit, who put the Dwarves in prison and try to extract a ransom! Think also about the long standing feud between Elves and Dwarves: both are depicted in the novels as prejudiced and self-centered. Legolas and Gimli need to overcome these cultural bias before becoming friends.
Another thing: the Riders of Rohan and other Humans are afraid of Elves at first, and we are meant to understand that they have some good reasons, because Elves are a lot more powerful and wise than Humans and can be dangerous to them through ignorance, even without bad intentions. In fact, most Elves (especially those of Lorien) are depicted as ignorant about Humans and other mortals folks, aloof and distant. Only a few High Elven characters (Elrond, Galadriel…) take an interest in what goes on in the world outside their own people’s lands.
At least we can assume the total demise of “Esperanto”?
Before, during, and since I am more than a little anal-retentive, after I write anything entertaining enough to fill someone’s afternoon potty break, I develop a character’s profile, stuffed with details. This discussion has clearly added to my onus to do so. I really do not enjoy characterization and it shows in my work. Of course everything I wrote last week sucks and needs to be totally reworked, but this happens every week. How the rest of you ever find the time between rewrites to get anything published baffles me.
That “said”, it is a fine time to mention that one need not relate a character’s entire life history to the reader. This is all reciprocal with setting, plot, and pace. I will sit down and assign a percentage of the whole to each, that I want my work to represent. If you’re still with me I will extrapolate one level.
A fast pace would lend itself to less characterization.
A limited setting would be helped by rich characters.
A shallow plot could be hurt by characterization.
This by no means applies to anyone other than myself and I argue with it as often as possible. In the future, I will attempt to avoid cultural homogeneity without some plot-intrinsic value to be had. I think humans, at least, will never divest themselves of their rich, cultural heritages. Even if I were to go with a homogeneous, human culture, I sincerely doubt the efficacy or realism of its turning out to be western, judeo-christian, blond haired and blue-eyed.
I want there to be inequalities and unpleasantness between Poc’s, even if “white” isn’t one of them. It need not be central to the plot, but my characters will be realistically representative of their backgrounds. I think the invitation this leaves open for hate mail is still narrow, assuming – as I do – SF readers are superior and more discerning to their mainstream equivalents.
Personally I would think that a shallow plot could be helped by characterization. If I’m interested in a character, I would be willing to read about her or him, whether it’s saving the world or going to the corner store.
We few, the Proud, shall win to victory and gain access to the cornucopia of our neighborhood Quick Stop! Yeah, ok Ms. Adams. I guess you and I are there. Saving the World is almost required to be in the shallow plot category these days – with many of my best blue-eyed, blond protagonists. Stargate This and Stargate That….let’s hope Mr. Scalzi can lend a hand with the next spin-off, without reverting to that old hack who wrote Missing in Space, or something like that.
#323, Michael I,
A paragraph in the appendix? Dude, that’s totally too subtle! *grins*
Irene, at #236, has a more compelling argument, thanks Irene. But really, I am not much interested in the minutia of Previous Tales as I am in what comes next…
so let me quote myself;
And that’s where we as writers need to be aware– not at the end of a series, but at the beginning. Avalon’s Willow didn’t finish the first book of that trilogy, because those first chapters were so wounding– in context with her life experiences. E.Bear says that if she had kept reading, she would have felt vindicated. It depends, of course, on the aims of the writer, but if I’m writing for the popular market, I think I want to give a few hints, relatively quickly, that my readers will have a reason to stick with me.
That’s more to the point, IMO.
Thank you for this article.
I can remember when a gay white friend pointed out to me my own bigotry. I’ve owned it ever since. A lot of what I write about springs from my desire to invert the racial stereotypes that still plague science fiction and fantasy.
I shudder at The Lord of the Rings in a way that most people don’t get unless they realize the subtle thematic message behind LOTR. I always preferred the Narnia books because they didn’t quite make me feel I was guilty of being a threat simply because I’m dark. The Dark Knight and 300 also left me cringing because of the blatant propaganda.
If I hadn’t been reacted to so strongly because of my physical appearance, I think racism wouldn’t feature so much in my work. I remember writing a story and having the all the white male members of my crit group tell me that the story would be so much stronger without the racial elements. The most interesting thing is that the racism had to do with African descended issues with “racial purity.” I wasn’t accusing any white characters of racism, but pointing out the internalized racism that African descended people inflict upon each other. Now I find my next problem is finding an audience.
I, as a visibly African Descended person, also relate to the Star Trek identification. Vulcans fascinated me because they were what I was different. I was delighted to have Uhura and Sulu to look at and feel included. Bless Gene Roddenberry. That’s why I’ll always be an Old School Trekkie.
Live Long and Prosper!
@ #332 – I think a larger point is that the atmosphere for may readers has gotten so toxic that claims of later vindication are suspect anyway. There’s a huge amount of smug self congratulatory stupidity, over-defensive majority types who get off on derailing the discussion, or just plain malice out there.
My opinion of Willow’s analysis is sort of secondary to me getting why she’s so pissed off, and being supportive of an atmosphere that works on fixing that, because I’m deeply ashamed of how POC (and other minorities as well) get treated in media, *and* how defensive people with privilege get at the slightest hint that they might need to talk about it, much less be in total control of the discussion.
And now I’m going to go listen to some hard driving Bhangra dance music.
Josh, thank you;
…secondary to me getting why she’s so pissed off, and being supportive of an atmosphere that works on fixing that…
Yep, that’s the bunny!
I’m a fix-it kind of person, too. Among the empathy-motivated reasons for wanting to fix it, I tend to go looking at the mechanics of fixing it in my writing.
Josh and Stella, I’m not a person of color (though I am a minority in the place where I live), and I don’t want to comment on a book I haven’t read, but… I think that is the general message to take home from this thread (and perhaps Mary Anne’s original posts?) is that potential problems can be mitigated by taking much more care in developing characters from the very start.
Just speaking generally, if I cracked open (or booted up) a long book or series that dealt with an issue of cultural identity, I’d expect at least a well written and thoughtful vignette right near the beginning that indicated a sophisticated approach that the author is going to take throughout to such an important theme. Even if I wasn’t personally offended, just to convince me to keep reading.
That might be a general issue related to all these multi-book series. I prefer – am more used to? – each book keeping me involved in a compelling story in and of itself – but that may not fit the business model.
It seems that even though the serious and urgent problem of race in sf has been around for a long time (can someone ask NYRSF put the 1998 Delany piece online? I couldn’t find it), one reason we are seeing so much discussion now is that the dead tree biz that has dominated science fiction since the beginning is losing its grip. New forms of reader-author-publisher relationships are about to be negotiated. It is really fascinating.
Can I add another word of thanks to MAM, as far as I can see is really the one who has walked up to the plate and engaged the larger sf community about a conversation that began mostly on livejournal where it has been hard to follow. She deserves even more praise than she has already been getting. What I really appreciate is that she and so many other people politely continued to engage in a serious debate despite some nastiness that might have derailed the thread.
Thank you for your time and sharing. The inclusivity, honesty, and discourse style language within these two posts allows for the issues not emotions to shine through. A true gift, as such sharing of information is certainly not compulsory on any level, and the hurt and anger surrounding these topics is certainly understandable. I’ll admit to having stayed on the sidelines out of desire to avoid the flames. I’m not proud of it, but there it is.
It can be difficult to own one’s white privileged position, especially when a true desire for goodness is at heart, but still the active word is “own.” It is a choice. One that is more easily made in venues such as this one, and in the end, the information, resources, and considerations have reached a portion of the intended audience. I can at least speak for myself, and say: “I hear what you’ve said, and it will stay with me.”
Again, thank you for this. It is a model by which I hope many follow. I certainly plan to do so, myself.
@ #333: Personally, I shudder at the blatant agenda in the Narnia books and the rest of Lewis’s oeuvre.
And to me, one of the most memorable passages in LOTR was when Sam and Frodo see the Oliphaunt, and the dead Southron warrior who is clearly intended to represent an African. They find him magnificent and are convinced that he was coerced or deceived into joining Sauron’s forces. I believe that Tolkien had two intentions in writing this: to make clear that the use of darkness as a metaphor for evil was _not_ intended to be racial, and to put a human face on individual opponents, which, for his time and culture, bespeaks enormous thoughtfulness and care.
I’ve noticed several people here referring to PoC or members of other “ethnic groups” who, from having lived in the US for a few generations have “lost their roots” or lost touch with their roots or lost their heritage. I think that this notion is itself racist.
I myself am, as far as I know, of French-German-Irish extraction. (I’m also a full-blooded Homo-American, and descended from a long line of women on both sides of the family.) I don’t know when my French and Irish and German ancestors crossed the Big Ocean. My late father used to tell me that in his childhood (he was born in 1923), his family spoke German at home, but I haven’t confirmed this. All of the relatives I ever met from childhood on spoke American English. I’ve never been to Europe or the British Isles, and the foreign language I speak best is Spanish, with high-school French a distant second. I took one semester of college German, and hated the language so didn’t go any further.
So. Am I out of touch with my roots or my heritage? Perhaps so. But my roots are here in the midwestern mongrel USA. When you transplant a plant, its roots are where you put them, not where they were before; when a maple seed blows on the wind until it lands somewhere and germinates, its roots are there, not with the tree that generated the seed. The metaphor of roots just doesn’t work very well, I don’t think. My heritage likewise. Is that English imperialist Shakespeare part of the heritage of an Irishman, I ask you? Are the caricatures of Frenchmen in his history plays acceptable to a Frenchman? The notion that a person’s roots or heritage are many generations and an ocean away seems to me a variety of racial essentialism that I find troubling in people who are trying to be anti-racist. Robert Reid-Pharr deals with this issue in his book Once You Go Black; see page 127, for example, where he quotes a lyrical passage by George Jackson and then comments:
“I continue to return to this rather stunning quote from Jackson precisely because the beauty and economy of the prose belie the incredible sloppiness of the thought. Jackson has no recall, no memory whatsoever of the African continent, the middle passage, enslavement. Indeed in his admittedly noble efforts to reclaim the lost African body he shuts himself off from the most basic realities of Black American history and culture. That is to say, confronted with the reality that there is no authoritative history of the slave, Jackson constitutes a sort of Baroque poetics of the black body – fecund modifier substituted for stale fact.”
Reid-Pharr also addressed this point in Black Gay Man, where he noted that for most African-Americans, the slaveowner is part of their heritage as well.
For that matter, my French quarter is probably descended from another stew of ancestors. Have I lost my Roman roots, my Gothic heritage, my African foremothers? Should I make a pilgrimage to Catal Huyuk and dress in ancient fabrics to honor my matrilineal Asia-Minor heritage? I’m sure no one here would think anyone needs to go that far, but how do you decide where to draw the line? When people talk about “roots” and “heritage” they always seem to be invoking a timeless period before history, when there was no change, when bloodlines were pure — and there is no such period. Some commenters here have pointed out that Chinese culture, for example, is not monolithic but contains many subgroups; I’d only add that those subgroups didn’t keep themselves as separate as their current representatives might like to think.
Has anyone here mentioned Marge Piercy’s pioneering proto-cyberpunk feminist/multicultural sf novel Woman on the Edge of Time? One of many details that made a big impression on me when I first read it was the importance of breaking the link between skin color and culture, so that there would be pinkish-grey-skinned and black-skinned Mattapoisett Indians and pinkish-grey-skinned and brown-skinned and black-skinned Harlem Blacks. One of the primary aspects of racism, it seems to me, is the assumption that skin color is somehow connected to, if it doesn’t cause, cultural traits. I think that one thing that has hurt anti-racism in this country is that so many anti-racist activists have been nervous about breaking that link altogether. The notion of “ethnic group” has been one way of sneaking the link back in surreptitiously. Vijay Prashad has also discussed such questions, in The Karma of Brown Folk and <iEverybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting.
“As regards the Elves: I think whether one thinks of them as inerringly noble depends on whether one considers their habits of being insular; dismissive of non-Elf people (particularly Dwarves); snobbish; overly concerned with image; disdainful of passion bordering on asceticism and more or less unwilling to lend their aid to the war effort because they’d rather go sailing (there were no Elves at Helm’s Deep!) to be positive traits or not.”
The elven point of ear.. err, view, becomes more understandable if you keep in mind that each elf has seen unnumbered generations of men do the same mistakes again and again, seemingly never learning.
Elves in MMORPGspeek:
“I’ve tried to help the rookies, teach them the basics, give them hints, coach them to become 133t, time after time, year after year, and every time they mess up. And every day there are new newbies, and they commit the same mistakes, time and again, and create the most awful messes. And every time they mess up me and the guildies have gone to help them clean up their mess, using up our irreplaceable legacy items, consumables and tokens. And every time we do that one or more of my guildies just throw up their hands and say ‘I can’t take this, I quit!’ and quit playing. And the guild is shrinking and shrinking. And I’m getting tired. Its not *fun* anymore. So from here on the n000bs will have to clean up their own messes.”
Mary Anne, thank you for such a wonderful and eloquently written essay. :>
Thank you — especially Mary Anne Mohanraj (whose daughter has a beautiful name!), and also all those who gave me things to think about in the comments. And lots of links, eek, I’m going to be reading a while longer…
Not having read your work, this is pure speculation, but I wonder whether your readers are having issues not because “the dialogue is fluent English” per se, but because the dialogue contains specific cultural elements that clash with the Chinese setting?
For example, I like Bujold’s Vorkosigan books for their plots and characters, but just about every book has a linguistic clanger or two. If I recall correctly, in one case Miles is looking for just the right adjective to describe a woman, and finally settles on “zaftig.” Even granting the filter of translation from whatever future language Miles actually knows, there is nothing in Bujold’s worldbuilding that would suggest that Miles would have any way of knowing that word. It doesn’t fit the overall culture. It threw me right out of the book.
If this is the issue here, you might ask your readers to flag specific words or passages which stood out as problematic, and see if they contain cultural references that don’t jibe with Chinese characters in China.
Then again, it’s also possible that this isn’t the issue at all, in which case ignore this comment and go with the excellent advice other people have already offered. :-)
Between this half of the essay and the previous one, we’ve logged more than 1,000 comments, which is, frankly, amazing. But comments here are slowing down, so I’m going to go ahead and cap off the thread. Thanks once again to Mary Anne Mohanraj for all her work on the essay and in the comments, and thank you everyone for participating and asking questions. I really appreciate both.