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fiction theory

The artist is not afraid


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You're hurting my head again, SF/F
default3, writing!wench
fiction_theory
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.

and

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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(Deleted comment)
First, I think you may need to anticipate that there will be
some very negative responses to your reply. Because this is an issue that a lot of people are upset about and while I respect everyone's right to agree or disagree, I think you and I will end up agreeing to disagree on this one.

I get that there's differences between entire races of real people and entire fictional universes, but to immediately write off a concept as racist based on surface analogies

There's big, big differences. Because these things that we're talking about in literature and SF/F are things that extend into the real world. It isn't just that this one book did this one thing that people didn't like.

It's like Native American/First Nations children can't find books that represent them in mainstream literature. It's that they've been flooded with poorly researched stories that don't tell the truth, or that minimize them and act as though they were just some little blip on the radar in the face of European development.

It's that all of this is a symptom of racist attitudes that still exist in our society, that affect real things in people's lives. Like, how they get treated by law enforcement officers, and their chances at getting a job or a good education, and so on and so forth.

This is not just based on surface analogies. This is based on the fact that this book is contributing to something that has been very real and very hurtful to a lot of people. The reason, at it's core, that it upsets me is because this book, like so many others, erases Native Americans/First Nations peoples from history as though they didn't matter. As though their existence is negligible and doesn't matter.

Yes, this one book posits "what if they weren't there". But so has basically every other book, including history books and textbooks and other fictional books that glorify cowboys and settlers and white people and cast the Native Americans as savages, as impediments to progress.

I think maybe reading some of the comments around here in the threads that are far, far smarter than mine that may clarify the issue. This isn't just coming from me. This is coming from people who have read the book, from PoC who were hurt and offended.

Um, oops, I just wiped out all the European people. Does that make me a racist?

No, it wouldn't, but not for the reasons you think.

I can only think of one other book that has dared to imagine a world without Europe (Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson). I can point to stacks and stacks of books where Europe is the only continent that matters (want me to start alphabetically or chronologically), and apparently even aliens that come to Earth feel that only Europe is worth paying attention to, that the millions of people in China, in India and so on and so forth don't matter.

Also, stirring up lots of controversy may have had the opposite effect: I hadn't heard about this book, now I want to read it.

Well, I didn't stir up the controversy. And so far, I've not seen anyone from my side of the argument who has called for a boycott or blacklisting Patricia Wrede or anything like that.

For me (I can only speak for myself), the point of this was to voice why I was hurt, why hearing about this book hurt me. Why not seeing the reviewer at Tor.com even bring up the problems inherent in so easily imagining an America without the Native Americans hurt me. This is why I wrote this entry.

And if Ms. Bujold hadn't jumped in and said the things she said, I imagine that none of this would have gotten started and this entry might have remained another obscure offering on the internet.

(Deleted comment)
as for Tor's reviewer not bringing up the inherent issues, they're Pat Wrede's publisher, aren't they?

Not really (though you're not the first person I've seen assume that during this discussion). Tor has published some of Wrede's books, but nothing since 1997. (Their sister imprint Forge did reprint two of her older books in 2002).

Thirteenth Child is published by Scholastic, which has published most of her recent YA stuff. Wrede's recent non-YA books have been published by Harcourt.

I won't comment on all of this, but I should point out that assumption 2) is just that -- an assumption, not a proven fact. Various people in several different threads have been discussing why it is, in all likelihood, false.

Um, oops, I just wiped out all the European people. Does that make me a racist?

No, because the action of you writing a story that erases white people in one book does not carry the same cultural weight or context as yet another book that erases Native Americans from a continent. Institutional -isms, like racism and sexism, take into account the past and ongoing struggles and biases and disadvantages oppressed people have compared to those with privilege. Those with privilege do not suffer from those 'isms, though they may suffer from racial prejudice or sex discrimination, etc.



(Deleted comment)
Just to ask for clarification on your story before I go on and comment: you both had to take the driving test? I'm not sure how making both of you take the driving test relates to anything. It seems fair if you both did.

Maybe I'm reading it wrong. That's why I'm asking for clarification before I keep going.

Sorry this is so late. RL caught up with me.

I don't want you to think I just ignored your request. The main discussion of the fallacy of the Africans/Native Americans caused the extinction of the land bridge is here:
http://sami.dreamwidth.org/1333674.html?format=light

But this is also discussed in mnay subthreads throughout the MammothFail discussion, most of which can be found here:
http://linkspam.dreamwidth.org/880.html?format=light

Also, here's a helpful Google Search:
http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=%2B%22land+bridge%22+%2Bmegafauna+%2Bmammothfail&aq=f&oq=&aqi=

As for the second part, I can't speak about your personal experience, as I don't know the people involved well enough, but there are any number of reasons, including racial prejudice, as to why anyone distrusts another human being, and this applies parents distrusting teenagers or college students.

I don't have time to discuss Racism 101 tonight, but I would wholeheartedly recommend two lists of links to essays I and others have found extremely helpful in this discussions when the same arguments come up over and over again. They helped me to move beyond my education's very second-wave-white-people-mode of thinking about prejudices.

JFYI, just because some of us are PoC does not mean we always grow up with a nuanced understanding of prejudice. I was raised in very white settings, some more liberal than others, but even the liberal ones probably thought they were more progressive than they actually were. All the while, I was writing off the racism we experienced as symptoms of different problems -- because I was schooled to believe that racism was about cross-burning and white hoods and the N-word and swastikas and separate seats on the bus, and not anything more complicated or subtle.

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