Thursday, February 5, 2009

Race in Spec Fic

Here's a crappy thing: there aren't a lot of people of color in spec fiction. I don't totally feel one way or another about it, so you're safe from a rant (um, from me; there will be links). On the one hand, all I'm looking for is a story that will hold my interest. Hopefully with something magical. Maybe with robots. If you make a world that I want to live in, or at least visit frequently, I don't particularly care who you people with. Mostly.

On the other hand, I vividly remember the first moment Lando Calrissian filled my eyes. I remember Uhura and Sulu on deck, just doing their jobs, a part of the crew like everybody else. And if these characters meant the world to me on screen in sci-fi--my vacation spot--there aren't even words for finding people who looked like me in fantasy novels, my home!

Yet as an adult would-be-novelist, race isn't a focus of my work. I don't have an agenda; I have characters in my head that clamour to be out onto the page and a bit of natural writing talent that I hope to hone into real skill. My characters aren't multi-cultural because I want to make a social or political statement; they're multi-cultural because my world is.

Recently, a certain section of the blogosphere has blown up with discussions of race. Mostly, I've watched in silence as anger rose and feelings were hurt. I couldn't be much help, except maybe as a target. Dear anti-racist people of color: you've got great points, but you've got to understand that your world view is not the only right way to see things (and your delivery ensures that those who don't already agree with you won't). And: Dear white authors, editors, and assorted spec-fic fans: You aren't necessarily wrong, but it's not all about you. Listen and you might just learn something.

Both groups (in this example of imagination) then turn and rip chunks out of An. But they would be united in kicking my ass, and unity is good, right?

I passed on chiming in. But I believe that the conversation is an important one, and I've watched it get dismissed out of hand in other forums. Through it all, I thought of authors who'd been asked why none of their characters were [insert whatever they may consider Other]. The answer is generally some version of, "I don't know how" or "I'm afraid I couldn't get it right."

Sci-fi/fantasy author, Elizabeth Bear, wrote a great blog post on the subject. If you get there and cringe at the length of the scroll bar, take heart. Most of that length is due to comments on the post. But then, the comments are, at times, really important, too. This is a subject we should all take our time with; Bear titled her post "whatever you're doing, you're probably wrong" and she was right.

And that goes for everyone. When I wrote started the novel that would be my jump from playing with classic fantasy (classic because I can't stretch my imagination enough to call my little attempts "epic") to really writing urban fantasy, I stalled out, in part, due to a Middle Eastern major character. Could I do him justice or would he look Middle Eastern but be a combination of the black and white men in my life?

Back to the linkage. Here is an Open Letter in response to Bear's essay. Harsh? Yeah. Right? Yeah. While I could argue that it should be two posts as Bear isn't responsible for twenty years of Roddenbderry-done-wrong and Sci-fi Channel fuck ups, it's all part of the same conversation. And don't miss out on the link to Deepad's essay there.

....Feel free to come back here and tell me what you think.

6 comments:

selestial-owg said...

Actually, I've noticed the lack of PoC in writing and film. It seems like there is either the token PoC, or the opposite. I could list examples on both sides, but it is something troubling, especially when the book, TV show, movie, etc. are set in a very multicultural place (say NYC).

It's funny because I felt really bad when I finished writing Avalon's Return. I had only one PoC in it, and he died. There was a part of me that screamed that it was wrong. At the same time though, due to the circumstances of the book, the only other characters that I could have changed to PoC would have been either minor characters (the roommate) or bad guys (the ex). I suppose I could have changed the main female character, but that felt wrong.

So, I sat back and looked at my "token black guy". I made him a brilliant college professor. I made him part of a noble plan to save the world. And even when he died, he went out in a big way. So, ultimately, I left his character as it was.

On a side note, one thing I found interesting were people's reactions to how I introduced his skin color. One person said I needed it earlier because it came as a shock to them. Another said that I should hold out until later because "why would it be the first thing she notices"? That those few sentences were a sticking point seemed really odd to me.

I'm going to take a stab in the dark here. The character in question I wrote like any other character - his skin color was only mentioned as part of a description. The letter to Bear mentions "getting it right". I never worried about that when I wrote him. I suppose there are times when that could be an issue, but, in my "silly white girl" mind, they really only come out when people make more stereotypical characters, and I'm not overly fond of stereotypes.

Uh ... /rambling off

An Again said...

You had me at hello. Seriously. What you noticed is something that a lot of people don't, and some will fight to ignore when it's pointed out to them. (...Myself included if it's pointed out where a certain Joss Whedon film is concerned. Don't. Harsh. My. Squee.)

Another said that I should hold out until later because "why would it be the first thing she notices"?

That's the bit that bothers me. While I love that we live in a time where more people make a real effort to 'judge a person by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin', it's idiotic to pretend to be blind. Why would it be the first thing she noticed? Because she doesn't have a brain injury. As soon as we see anyone new, our minds register the obvious--gender, color, attractiveness, size. If we're into clothes or there's something of note, we'll file that away, too. Our minds do it even if we're telling ourselves that man/woman/black/white/Inuit/insert Other is just like me and I shouldn't judge based on blah blah blah.

...Yeah, I'm having a mental twitch there.

One person said I needed it earlier because it came as a shock to them.

This one makes sense to me (acknowledging that all I've read of the book is the pitch). White male is the default in our culture. If someone says, "I'm going to see the doctor," there's a good chance that our minds will flash up the image of an older white gentleman. I've avoided male doctors as much as possible since my first gyn exam (how's that for too much information?), but I still do it unless I'm given the cues that let me know the doctor is female or Cambodian or something.

I'm going to take a stab in the dark here. The character in question I wrote like any other character - his skin color was only mentioned as part of a description.

See, and here's the thing...We can't please everybody. Some people are going to read your story and not think twice about your one black guy. Some will be pleased that you made an effort (and maybe they'll read this and be more pleased that he'd been there before you ever read my babbling and the links). And others are going to be pissed that you had one person of color and he died.

In *my* world view, it's fine that he's written like any other character.

selestial-owg said...

Well, the main reason it wasn't something she "noticed" was that he's her professor. She sees him all the time, so his skin color is just a part of him.

But *shrug*.

TV kills me though. "Ugly Betty" takes place in the NY fashion world. Lots of Latinos where Betty lives, but at Mode, she is the token Latino, and Wilhelmina is the token African American. I'm SURE there are a ton of PoC who are models - could they not have a few more just filling the halls at Mode?

One show I like for its multi-culturalism (at least of the main characters) is Lost. You have the mixed-race couple of Bernard and Rose (LOVE THEM), Sayid, Sun & Jin, Ana-Lucia (before she died - I miss her character), Hurley, Miles. I am still of mixed feelings over what they did with Walt & Michael, but I have a feeling Walt still has a part to play in everything. But the point is, the main cast is very diverse for network TV.

I don't think it's necessarily important to notice it EVERY time a show is stupid, but to pretend it isn't there is idiotic. People are short-sighted and don't like to look too far into things. It's sad.

Anyway, is it okay that the fact that you quoted "Jerry Maguire" (or Kenny Chesney, who was quoting "Jerry Maguire") made me giggle?

Julie said...

You know race isn't something I've thought a lot about. (I'm white, so it probably makes sense.) I tend to leave my character descriptions vague unless they are MC's. I do have one POC in my UF novel. She's the wife of a white guy and in South Carolina that's still pretty extreme. She's not a main character, I just noted it because my character was mildly surprised by her.

I think part of the reason I leave a lot of character descriptions vague is that I want people to be able to come up with their own mental images. I tend to describe their personality more. For example several of my characters in my UF could be either white or black, especially given that they are in Charleston and their names aren't really specifically white or black. I hope that some people who read it interpret them as other than white, but many will probably assume that they are white.

On the other hand, as I said, race isn't something I think a lot about. I'll note people's race as selestial mentioned, it's one of the first things I see when I meet someone, but it's not really how I judge them. I admit there are preconceptions based on appearance but a lot of my preconceptions are based on grooming. Ie in a dark alley I'm more likely to point my gun at a scruffy white guy than a smartly dressed black guy.

I wonder if perhaps I should have better descriptions in my UF, and perhaps make more of my characters obviously Poc. I don't know, I like to leave descriptions up to the readers.

And by that I mean, OMG LKH describes way to freaking much. Love her early books, but seriously, do I really need to know the weave of the fabric in her tight little skirt that show's off her tight little ass? No. Though I would guess that I could use a little more people description in my own writing.

Wow, now I'm totally rambling and on tangents. Seriously, I'm stopping now.

Thanks for sharing.

An Again said...

I think part of the reason I leave a lot of character descriptions vague is that I want people to be able to come up with their own mental images.

This is something that probably falls under "to each their own." I want a happy medium--not so extreme that I'm bogged down with detail, but not too much left out--where I can see, more or less, what the author saw. Maybe the author imagined the character to look like China Chow and my mind brings up Lucy Liu, but I want to know we've both got a young Asian Woman in mind.

Julie said...

"This is something that probably falls under "to each their own." I want a happy medium--not so extreme that I'm bogged down with detail, but not too much left out--where I can see, more or less, what the author saw. Maybe the author imagined the character to look like China Chow and my mind brings up Lucy Liu, but I want to know we've both got a young Asian Woman in mind."

When it's important, I make it known for sure. My Main characters I try and be reasonably specific on. Most of my backup characters are the ones I leave vague.

However I do think I need to be a little better at describing some of my people. :)