This was my writing prompt:
It’s a new year. How soon before racefail2013 happens? Let’s get the ball rolling now. What is the current state of people of color in the sf/f/horror genres? Who are your favorite writers of color? Who are your favorite characters of color? What are some of your favorite non-Western European settings?
I… well, shit, I don’t know what I think of that. I consider these worthwhile questions, really; it’s just that I’m becoming ever less convinced that what the discussion needs is more white writers talking about it. Beyond stating that the genre here in the anglophone world could be — and would benefit from being — m0re diverse, I don’t know what I can say that will really shed light on a problem that’s so obvious. (Why do I say it’s obvious? Well, for one, we’ve got a week’s worth of white writers commenting on race here at The Night Bazaar. This is not an indictment of Night Shade, of course, as they routinely try to gather more diverse voices. Nonetheless, it does say something.)
So, instead of trying to be some kind of advocate for writers of color, characters of color, and non-Western cultures, I’ll just tell you why a person like me comes to the conclusion that he’s not meant to speak his mind on any given topic concerning people of color and non-western perspectives. It might not do much to make the field of sffh literature any more welcoming (it hardly would have done that, anyway), but it might inspire other white writers and readers to shut up and listen a little more to those who continue to receive the shitty end of the stick from the privileged white class.
(If the term “privileged white class” bothers you, fuck off now. And if your immediate reaction is to say, “But white people got it bad, too! We’re a minority now!” then you can fall on a sword.)
I used to think, and assert vocally — not all that long ago, I might add; as little as two years ago — that it was a virtue to speak for people of color, to highlight the injustices done to them, to try to write from the perspectives of people of other cultures — in an effort, basically, to wrap my mind around what it meant to be someone else, in an underprivileged situation. I thought of it as a highly compassionate act, this donning of another person’s skin through writing.
“How else,” I’d ask, “will you learn to understand other people?”
I, like a lot of relatively young white male writers who wake up with an injustice-boner, spent a lot of time trying to find the voice of people in other cultures — in truth, not so that I could increase my compassion but because I wanted to show that I could. I wanted to be viewed as a person who cared about the global community. I didn’t want to be looked at as one of those authors who blithely accepted the state of the world and wrote about it without awareness. I…
I. I. I. God it hurts, there was so much I.
To be perfectly honest, there’s still a lot of I, but I’ve at least begun to doubt (thanks to many discussions with writers of color, and women, and in general people more humble and intelligent and compassionate than me; also, bloggers such as this person) that asserting my voice on all issues is the best thing for a guy like me to do. Such an approach is kind of like saying, “Because of a vast system of oppression resulting in massive inequality, I have a LOUDER VOICE than any twenty brown people. Everybody everywhere’s already kind of forced to listen to people like me, soooooo… Maybe me talking more is the solution to such inequality!”
Makes no goddamn sense, does it?
I’ll go ahead and answer for you: No. No it doesn’t. Not a lick.
Still, even knowing this, understanding it intellectually, I struggle to shut my mouth and just listen to the voices of others far more suited to discussing the issue of diversity. I struggle not to jump in and defend myself and assert that I’m not one of the bad people. I struggle to admit the reality, which is that there is a continual racefail event occurring, and it is guys like me opening their overfed mouths to speak on the subject of race.
Now, please understand, I’m not a “race traitor” or a “self-hating caucasian” or any such ridiculous thing. (And I shouldn’t have to qualify this, but: my words most explicitly do not espouse any kind of belief that white folks are irredeemable, that we suffer from some kind of inherent negative trait. No, this is all junk inherited by way of privilege, and the blindness that comes from privilege.) I love my heritage. I love my skin color. I believe that my culture — white American and Western European culture; varied in expression as it is — has contributed positive things to the world.
I’m not interested in discussing such things, however; even the most valid of them have been discussed ad nauseum, and used as justifications for far too long. What I am interested in, instead, is moving away from a louder cry of empathy and toward silent proof of out HAVING LEARNED AN IMPORTANT LESSON: We are not meant to speak our minds, always. We’ve, just like everyone else, got two ears and one mouth, so it’s about time we stop stealing other people’s mouths so that we might shout more at greater volume.
None of this is to say that we, privileged white authors, cannot achieve a state of communion with others, that we cannot learn and feel a measure of just solidarity, or that we shouldn’t, heaven forbid, write about it now and then.
But. But, but, but… I think we need to stop arrogantly assuming that because it’s there to write about, and because it’s a free fucking country, that we’re qualified to write about anything there is to write about and which our freedom entitles us to express ourselves concerning. Since colonial times, we white folks — and especially white Americans — have never been good at moderating ourselves, at restricting our expression, but I posit that it’s probably high time we do so. For art’s sake, and our collective character’s sake.
Proceed cautiously, basically. I mean, good grief, especially if you are attempting to write about another culture, ask questions of those people in that culture. It maddens me that anyone is so stupid as to make this basic mistake, yet I know I have. It’s humbling work to bridge the gaps between white, American me and pigmented, un-American you. So much easier to just assume, to simply fake it, to write yet another work that fails for everyone in the culture you’re writing about.
But hey, you’re selling a book to more white people (an assumption backed by decades of language that supports the concept of a ground state — a “default setting” of whiteness), so what does it matter?
Remember: For art’s sake. For our collective character’s sake. Write fucking better. Hold back on speaking for someone else. Ask someone who would know, “Did I get this right?” and “Should I even be attempting this?”
Progress is slow, for me. I’m a late bloomer, or an arrested adolescent, or whatever you want to label it; the point is that it’s taken me a long damn time to realize how many things I’m not even close to being an expert on, the least of which are other human beings. I think I get the general stuff: This hurts. This feels good. This is probably immoral. Etc.
But the things that appear smaller — skin color, culture, gender and sex? The fact that these factors are just as important to defining a person alluded me for a long, long time. Perhaps it’s the overall feeling of “culturelessness” that many white Americans feel that contributed to it; I don’t know. All I know is that I’m grateful — grateful to have been exposed to people who were kind and patient (or angry, or confused, or for whatever reason in love) enough with me to keep bugging me to open my eyes. I’m grateful also that, by the time I started publishing fiction, some of these lessons had sunk in. I’ve still made some dumb mistakes, painfully recently, and probably I’ll continue making mistakes. But at least…
Ah. Always with the self-justification (see last week’s post for a quick update). Always with the I, I, I.
Fact is — and yes, I’m aware of the continuation of all the “I statements” and I’m simply, unfortunately, unwilling to stop them just yet — my first novel could be one giant bucket of racefail. I’d like to think that because the world I write in is entirely make-believe, with no Africa (or Asia or Australia or any of the other dozen continents on Earth; no, I’m not good at geography), I didn’t write any racialized bullshit into Vedas, one of my main characters, a man with black skin and Afro-textured hair.
But I can’t be so charitable to myself, in part because I was around for the editing process, wherein two embarrassing things got taken out of my book:
1.) I described Vedas’s hands as being “large enough to palm a watermelon.” Ross, my awesome editor, caught this one. One just doesn’t describe a black man as having hands large enough to palm a watermelon, he wrote in the manuscript’s margins, for which I was grateful and suitably horrified.
2.) I described Vedas’s people as “tall, broad-shouldered, casually athletic.” I caught this one myself.
I’m very glad those descriptions are out of the story. Still, I can’t be so naive as to think that two instances of fail are the only ones in there. There must be embarrassing things I missed.
I live in fear of having those things pointed out to me.
At the same time, the possibility causes me an odd feeling of excitement. I almost welcome someone noticing where I’ve come up short, where I’ve made an ass of myself.
Why? Because making an ass of myself is another reminder that I’ve got so much more listening left to do.
Zachary Jernigan is an author who lives in the state of Arizona, where the weather is nice and the political decisions are horrifying. His first novel, No Return (Amazon link), is already available to those who use Netgalley for review purposes. It’ll be out properly on March 5th of this year.
The cover design was recently finalized, and you can see it there on the left. Isn’t it brilliant!Read More...