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The artist is not afraid

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You're hurting my head again, SF/F
default3, writing!wench
I imagine some kind of buzz is getting started concerning just how much FAIL is inherent in Patricia Wrede's new novel The Thirteenth Child in which she decides to retell the history of the Americas by erasing the people who were here long before Europeans decided to come. Instead of finding people, the Europeans who come over find magical animals and as a bonus, none of those troublesome native peoples who so stubbornly refused to see that they were dirty, ugly, and wrong and standing in the way of shiny new WHITE progress!

There are probably a lot of people who are saying things about this much better than I am. And there is some very useful links about the entire situation compiled by naraht on DW.

But the smartest and most accurate comment is from holyschist on DW who said:

Basically, to imagine an America (perhaps a world) without genocide and slavery, she erased the victims.

I can't believe that there were people who read this novel and thought that somehow it was okay to do this. Seriously. There were editors and agents and thinking human beings who all green lighted this project. And this is not to say that the novel probably wasn't well written or even interesting. I'm sure it is. I'm sure Patricia Wrede got all the mechanics right.

But saying a novel can't be hurtful and wrong if it's well written is like saying a gun isn't a weapon because it's pretty. You can put flowers and hearts and chrome on it all you want and it will still blow a person's brains out when you pull the trigger.

Same with literature. You can write a spectacular book and still hurt so many people with it. I believe that deepad said as much in "I Didn't Dream Of Dragons" (the link takes you to DW, not LJ because her LJ has been f-locked). But of course, if RaceFail09 taught us anything, it's that a bunch of people aren't listening

The discussion at Tor.com about the book and papersky's review of it is kind of disheartening. Well, some of it. Some people are definitely speaking up and saying that they were very bothered by what's going on.

Some are getting defensive, which is to be expected. I find it especially disgusting that somehow Lois McMaster Bujold thinks that somehow she comes out on top by saying we can't change the past and then listing a few charities and magically, she's done her part to change racism. Because it's always nice when White Ladies fix racism with the click of a button. The problem just needs you to throw some money at it and then nobody can accuse you of having racist attitudes because you donated to charity.

I get smacking urges as a historian whenever I see someone saying this kind of crap:

The past is beyond anyone’s reach, and history is fractal -- one sperm over, and we would all have been our siblings, and our own self-centered universes would never have sprung into being at all

Because it's bullshit. The past is not beyond the reach of people who are still getting smacked in the face by it, the people who are getting fucking erased in mainstream literature. It is not beyond the reach of those who are using it to their advantage. The people who have the privilege of being able to revise the books, texts, and mainstream narrative of How Things Came To Be The Way They Are.

Nor is history fractal. History is a living thing (cliched, but pretty true) and it can be edited, changed, revised, but it is not fractal.

Think of it like this: in math, two points make a line. If you move any of those points, the line changes and becomes different. The past is a point. And yes, it is possible to move that point, at least in the way that actually matters.

No, you can't time travel. But you can tell people something different happened, you can change perception. And in the human world? Perception is reality. What actually happened in the past takes a backseat to what we are told happened and what we believe happened. This is why our criminal justice system is so problematic, because when we put somebody on trial, we're not really making a decision on objective truth. We're making a decision on whether a jury believes the evidence is sufficient to put them in jail. Whether they actually did or did not commit that crime often doesn't matter.

It is not the past, but completely 100% objective truth, that is beyond anyone's reach. Which is why it is so incumbent upon us, if we know that none of us is going to be entirely accurate, to make sure that our inaccuracies aren't hurting anyone. That is why we must realize the limits of our perceptions, our realities, and do our best to make sure that our narrow views aren't costing someone else dearly.

This is why it matters if you write an AU in which you wipe out one group of people and then decide that it's okay, because you'll have another stand in as your People of Color because somehow, they're interchangeable.

And on a biological note: no, one sperm over and you would not be your sibling. That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. You might be a different gender, have different looks, etc - but you wouldn't be your sibling. Because your sibling came from both a different sperm and a different egg all coming together at a different time and gestating under different conditions than you did.

So, again, the stupid is burning. And this is just another reason why:

a) authors (especially well known ones) should really stay out of comment threads, bulletin boards, LJ discussions and other places like that. Because the chances of looking like an ass just multiply exponentially.


b) Tor.com is not actually a site for SF/F. It's a site for a clique of certain SF/F folk to hang out and do what they want (including posting reviews of completely irrelevant TV shows that aren't even SF/F because it's their favoritest show ever and they're special snowflakes) and pretend like it's supposed to be a cool SF/F site.

But that's all kind of irrelevant. What matters is that I speak up and that I make it clear why I'm so terribly offended.

As a woman? I know all too well how easy it is to be erased even when you're a queen. I know how easy it is for historians who are uncomfortable with acknowledging sexism and the ways in which women have been abused to just simply pretend they weren't there. I know about the first time a male history student boldly proclaimed that "women just didn't matter to history until recently" and the utter rage I felt because not only did he say it, but so many others agreed.

As a queer person? I know about being explained away, denied. I know how easy it is for historical queer figures to be swept under the rug, or stripped of their obvious sexuality. I know about English teachers in high school who posited the theory that Oscar Wilde wasn't really gay, that his trial was just political and all the accusations were false and he really was straight. Because of course, enjoying a play written by a gay man would be wrong.

I think it's even more heinous to write this kind of thing as YA. Because I'd really hate to be the kid who is Native American or First Nations or derives lineage from there and has to realize that they couldn't be in that book, because in Wrede's world, they don't exist.

Just for the record, I wouldn't exist either in that universe. And not because of some inkling of Magical Indian Princess blood. I mean my grandfather, my father, me would all not exist at all. Not to mention many members of my extended family and many, many friends of mine.

This book just erased my grandfather and his entire people. Cut him off and said that his people and his family and his past and his heritage weren't as interesting or worthy of consideration and respect as a bunch of Europeans coming over and discovering magic mammoths. Because heavens forfend that, in the quest to imagine a world without slavery or genocide or conquest, you erase the offenders instead of the victims.

And let's not even consider the possibility of writing a novel where Europeans live and keep their hands to themselves and the people of the Americas get to ride the magic mammoths and have awesome adventures? Because that would require considering them as interesting and worthy of respect as Europeans, and obviously, that isn't happening.

So thanks for that, Patricia Wrede. It's nice to imagine a world where I couldn't possibly exist. It's like every other fantasy novel I've read where women or bisexuals either don't exist or don't matter, except this time it's with race.

Also? I hope that Lois McMaster Bujold is kidding about the entire idea for this story starting with Wrede watching Walking With Mammoths on the Discovery Channel. I really do. Because I hope this author did not just erase an entire people, contribute another book to the piles of books that completely insult and demean Native Americans and marginalize them further, and posit a world where I'm not worthy to exist because she saw something on the Discovery Channel. Please tell me that this did not all get started because somebody said "Ooh, mammoths are cool!" and then couldn't think of ANY OTHER WAY to possibly put mammoths and people together without erasing Native Americans.

Because that would just extinguish my remaining faith in the SF/F establishment and take a few hit points off my faith in humanity in general.
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requested response

Hello, Fiction_Theory, total stranger off the Internet.

I am here by your explicit invitation: I have read your post all the way through.

It's been an interesting week. Yeah, I, too, am wondering by now why I didn't see using this premise was going to be a problem. The white-privilege theory has been gone into at length by other posters, so I won't recap it here. But what I wonder is how much of it is that I come out of the science fiction, and not the fantasy side of the genre. SF stories have been rearranging the world through time travel or alternate history -- including quite a number before that used a premise of an empty NorAm -- for decades, not to mention all the many ways the entire planet has been devastated or blown up. (One of the very first SF novels I ever read, back when, was _When Worlds Collide_. Gave me nightmares, at age 9.) But it never once occurred to me to take it personally.

I did use to sit in my third grade class and try to imagine what would happen in a nuclear attack, which I took very personally; but that wasn't a response to *fiction*.

The other and more hopeful point is that never before have so many Readers of Color existed to *have* the conversation, or been able to communicate with each other to do so. When I went to my first midwestern convention in 1968, there was exactly one black fan, male; it's only in late years that I've had cause to wonder how brave he must have been to venture in. Octavia Butler, at a library program, once described a young black reader meeting her as a black SF writer, and saying in some wonder, "I didn't know we *did* that!" As far as I can tell, the biggest single factor driving the current shift and growth in diversity in genre readers has been the invention of the Internet.

This is the first occasion I know of that a book out of the former tradition has intersected the new audience.

My comment on the parent thread over at Tor about boggling at tribal websites isn't due to my race -- it's due to my age. I was even *more* boggled to learn that every capital ship in the US Navy has a website. Do you all take the Internet for granted *already*? I asked the acquaintance who'd first told me this, a few years back, who actually does study current Native American affairs academically, if the Net was making a discernible difference in communication and empowerment for these folks; at the time the answer was "working on it", but I'll bet that's shifted along by now.

Re: reproductive biology: if ferex, a Y-bearing, trisomy-23 sperm had intercepted the egg that would otherwise have been me, back in February of 1949, the person conceived would not have been "me" in any recognizable fashion. One can share half or more (or less) of one's genes with any sibling. It does not make one that sibling. That boy would have had an entirely different life from mine and, given the Down's Syndrome, not at all unlikely given the ages of my parents, would probably be dead by now. The universe that he constructed in his head, over his life, would bear little resemblance to the one I've constructed in mine. My parents' lives would also have been very different, subsequently. My career, my books, and my children would never have existed. All from one tiny, microscopic change.

I think any alternate history requires a more massive suspension of disbelief/generation of complexity than any FTL scheme. And yet people fool with the genre in apparently endless fascination.

If there is anything else you wish to say to me, I'll stop in tomorrow and read it.

bests, Lois.

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Re: requested response

The other and more hopeful point is that never before have so many Readers of Color existed to *have* the conversation, or been able to communicate with each other to do so.

I wasnt even going to get involved in this round of racefail, I'm sorry to jump in to a strangers journal, but I have to respond to this.


That statement has nothing to do with people of color and their reading. Its about your lack of awareness of people of color who are reading. And if you are basing your theories of participation on people of color going to conventions? You need to stop.

This is the first occasion I know of that a book out of the former tradition has intersected the new audience.

You have no idea what conversations people of color have had, are having, and will have.

I am NOT any sort of new audience. I am a woman of color and I am in my forties and I have been reading scifi and fantasy for a very, very long time.

Edited at 2009-05-11 05:23 am (UTC)

Re: requested response

The other and more hopeful point is that never before have so many Readers of Color existed to *have* the conversation

reread that over and over.

Re: requested response

You. Are fucking kidding me. Right? Tell me you are a big excuse of a parody. You actually believe that people of color are just interacting with other people of color because you once saw one black person in a con.

This better be a joke.


I don't know if you've been catching the responses from the people who are answering your reply, but you should. You shouldn't just catch them, you should pick them up, take them home with you, and study them intently. Because they're very good replies and I pretty much agree wholeheartedly with them. Those people below (especially folks like karnythia and yeloson are far wiser, far better, and far more worthy of being listened to than I am).

And I'm not sure how much of a dialogue we can have here, because you really didn't address any of my points or answer the one question that I specifically asked to have answered on Tor.com. You did not tell me what you would say to a First Nations/Native American reader who picked up Wrede's book and then asked why all their people had to die in that book.

Until you answer that question, we're at an impasse here. Actually, that's not true.

I'm not at am impasse. I will continue to do my best to not only check my own racist beliefs and attitude and to help improve the SF/F genre so those attitudes aren't driving away some of our best and brightest fans and talent.

I'm not sure what you'll continue to do, but I would suggest not continuing to do this, because it isn't working out for you. And that's sort of the definition of fail.

I find myself somewhat boggled that you would think that somehow before the internet, fans of color didn't exist or that SF/F readers of color didn't exist. They are not a phenomena of late. They've been with us white fans the whole time, but SF/F has so clearly hung out the Whites Only sign in so many places ranging from conventions to professional publications that we've been driving them away from participating in the SF/F mainstream.

They were reading the books that white fans read, enjoying the comics and movies that white fans enjoyed. But they didn't show up at the gatherings where white fans did because, well, there was a very clear (if unspoken) Whites Only sign.

I know, because as a female SF/F fan? I remember the old No Girls Allowed sign and how I'm still fighting that as well. So, yeah, SF/F has historically had some troublesome exclusivity both in fan gatherings and in professional publications

Which is only to the detriment of the genre, I find. I believe in SF/F as one of the best genres and exquisite literary gifts of our age and civilization. But I also believe that the Whites Only sign that's been hanging over our heads since our inception is going to be our death knell until we make it clear that we don't just tolerate diversity, we actively seek it and relish it.

Just because you don't know about something doesn't mean it doesn't exist or isn't real or isn't important. It just means you ain't heard that Bird Is the Word.

The thing is? Neither your age nor what side of the genre you come from really matters at all. I especially find the age argument to be specious and offensive.

The internet may well be amazing to you, but why is it that of all the things on the 'net ranging from pictures of cats to sites about collecting weird things did you get particularly amazed at Native American tribes having their own websites, especially given the context in which you mentioned it, which was in a thread which very explicitly dealt with issues of old racial prejudices and attitudes playing out in a new book.

I don't think you mean to offend anybody, but I also think that the intention is never as important as the end result. An unintentional slap hurts no less than an intentional one.

So, I would urge to really read and consider the responses below and then sit down and really meditate on what they mean and use your very mighty creative ability to see where those folks are coming from before you make any more replies on this topic.

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This hurts. This hurts alot. I raed my first Vorkosigan book fifteen fucking years ago. As soon as I had my own job I bought your books, just like I bought every library book that I read and re-read and re-read again in my childhood, because I believe that the joy I got from those books deserves recompense.

And you have the fucking nerve to sit there and say that "this is the first occasion I know of that a book out of the former tradition has intersected the new audience"?

Fuck that. And fuck you.

The following quotes are from the "Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate and Tricia Rose." This essay can be found in:

Dery, Mark. Flame Wars: the discourse of cyber culture. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994. Print.

Mark Dery: You mentioned, in an earlier informal conversation, that the black presence in science fiction fandom was on the rise. What leads you to believe this?

Delany: Simply going to SF conventions and seeing more dark faces. One only wishes there'd been a comparable rise in black SF writers. When you look around at the various areas of popular culture--take comic books--you find a notable increase among black creators--Brian Stalfreeze, Denys Cown, and Kyle Baker (whose graphic novel Why I Hate Saturn is a contemporary satire involving black and white characters talking to each other about their problems with some rather problematic observations on feminist thrown in), Malcom Jones, Mark Bright and Mike Sargent with his James Scott project (but one could double the length of this list with names like Derek Dingle, Trever wan Eeden, David Williams, Ron Wilson, Paris Cullens, Malcom Davis and Bill Morimon). But there still seem to be only four black, English-language science fiction novelists: Octavia Butler, Steve Barnes, Charles Saunders, and me--the same number there was ten years ago.

Science fiction is the kind of genre that until you have the readers, you can't have the writers. But the readers are there today. So I'm kind of wondering, I confess, where the new black writers are hanging out."

[It's also tragic that only in the 15 years since that interview was made, only a handful of authors can be added to the list. And that for so long it was just Delany.]

"To say, as you do, that "blacks do not figure largely in the literature" of science fiction is perfectly true. But there are still far more extensive, far more thorough, and far more interesting presentations of blacks in science fiction (as well as what Sister Souljah calls so astutely "the white problem') than the couple of pages Bill [William Gibson] devotes to the Rastas [in Neuromancer]. Frankly, if you're going to go to white writers for your science fiction template for thinking about the problems blacks have in America, I'd rather see a serious discussion of Robert Heinlein's appalling fascist 1964 novel, Farnhams Freehold, in which the black house servant, Joseph, after a successful nuclear attack, abandons his white family (in which, after the attack, he was made second in command by the reigning white patriarch) and becomes head of a movement of blacks who have solved the post-holocaust food problem by killing whites and eating them...Heinleim is consciously ironizing powerful cultural myths of cannibalism precisely for their troubling anxieties."

[FYI, those are just some random snippets I had typed up for use in a paper I was writing. The full interview is AMAZING.]

Edited at 2009-05-11 02:18 pm (UTC)

Re: requested response

My career, my books, and my children would never have existed. All from one tiny, microscopic change.

On the other hand, you wouldn't have written THIS COMMENT, and I'm starting to think that would have been worth the cost.

I don't know how many other non white readers of fantasy and sci fi I've talked with about how we wished growing up there were people like us in the fiction we read...this means that we WERE reading it. We did exist. Heck it’s conversations like these that drove me to start writing in the first place. I was tired of the monochromatic spec fic. Just because white folks didn’t hear these dialogues, or weren’t listening, doesn’t mean we weren’t there. Folks didn’t see a lot of non-white ate cons because it wasn’t a welcoming place. It’s not always welcoming now, but many non white fans are coming anyways. It doesn’t make us any less or more real. We’ve always been there.

The other and more hopeful point is that never before have so many Readers of Color existed to *have* the conversation, or been able to communicate with each other to do so.

Even if you're uninformed enough to think POC weren't around reading in your genre, that doesn't excuse you not writing as if POC were there anyway, to make sure there's a welcome sign there when they come. "Oh, I think I'll just design everything for white people only until someone of color speaks up that this feels a bit, you know, uncomfortable." But because POC were disappeared from your head, you think it's OK to disappear POC from your works as well--i.e., when you're thoughtless, and it happens to everyone, the proper response is an apology, not further justifications.

Re: requested response

I am a fan of your works. Your Sci-fi was one of my favourites in the genre, because it was so very different. Feminist. I can handwave the slightly problematic biology, but that's the power of fantasy, right?

I liked some of your fantasy, like the ones with the Gods and all, but Miles had always been my favourite of your works. Strong women, Ivan, and especially By and his cousin.

I am a person of Colour. I am Asian. I am from Singapore. I read most of your books in Singapore.

I don't seek out my authors because of the fear of what they would do as human, what they would say, and I don't want to know that they have feet of clay.

And you say this? That you're so surprised that there are fans of colour?

When i had the money, I thought I would buy your entire series.

Not anymore.

Re: requested response

I hope that all the people telling you how pig-ignorant your statements that imply that only since the internet do POC read sf/f are manage to penetrate your fog of apparently well-meaning ignorance and casual racism.

The idea that "Black people don't read/don't read for pleasure/don't read genre fiction" is old, untrue, and racist in its assumptions. Perhaps you ought to shed some of that old, not delightfully retro, marginalizing thinking before you feel it's time to postulate on how this newfangeldy internets are the only thing getting POC reading.

As it stands, you've only made me more convinced that my dollars don't need to be spent on Tor's products...way too much publicly available racism stupid from way too many highly placed people within the company.

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