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I've been thinking about writing this post for a while, I just wasn't sure how to because there's always the "stating the obvious" thing.

So to start with, a month or so ago I had a chat with another writer friend, who was angsting about "how" to write POC in her novel, because she has fears of being perceived as racist or accidentally racist. Which I guess happened because she read the new Donna Tartt book, and I guess Tartt was criticized for writing all POCs as servants and whatnot? Anyway, my (ever so deep) response was, "Dude, just do your research and write people AS PEOPLE."

which, you know, obvious, right? And yet.

So I just finished reading the new Diana Gabaldon book, Written in My Own Heart's Blood. Which, I largely love her because man she does historical research RIGHT. But she's one of those cases where she tries to write diversity and comes so CLOSE and yet SO FAR. Because she writes POC in broad strokes but doesn't seem to understand that she's doing so, or that, for instance, coming at historical stereotypes from the opposite end is problematic, ie. that writing Native Americans as nobly doomed and JUST AS PROBLEMATIC as writing them as scalping maniacs. And its one of those cases of, see, putting all that attention to detail and family trees and characterization that you put into the Scottish people? Doing THE SAME THING to the Mohawks and the Black freemen and slaves.

Like I said, should be EASY. AND YET.

Here's the other thing, particularly about historical fiction (And this needs to be its own post sometime): Historical fiction is ALWAYS just as much about the time in which it was written as about the time it depicts.

So, for instance, Downton Abbey. (I fucking hate Downton Abbey but damn is it a useful Cliffsnotes sometimes.) Thomas, Teh (sic) Gay Character, is largely treated sympathetically even as he is often a douche. But there's one episode where a character informs the police of his Gayness and Lord Grantham has to talk to the cops and be all "he's just as God made him" and there's a moment and Thomas is left alone. And some people were all "Ohmigod, that is so not historically accurate!!!!" Which, of course not, because in 20fucking14 you can't demonstrate that sort of intolerance without being *read* as intolerant yourself--it's a storytelling decision to maintain sympathy. BUT, when they *do* choose to demonstrate period-accurate intolerance to the Jewish characters? That TOO is a decision, and we HAVE to understand that by doing so the writers are trying to demonstrate that as an old intolerance that is dead and thus "safe"--and never mind how contemporary Jews are getting the same crap as always because it is "invisible" and "historically accurate." We're saying that anti-gay is not okay but that anti-Semitic is normal.

Now think about what that means.

Meanwhile, back to Gabaldon. She has a history of some deeply problematic things, but there were two in this book that REALLY stuck out at me. The first is there's a scene where Claire is doing surgery on a twelve year old slave girl who was raped and impregnated by her master, lost the baby, and now has internal damage she's correcting. And during this scene Claire offers to the girl's mistress to sterilize the girl, ostensibly to protect her from more rape!babies and whatnot. Meanwhile, said girl is, you know, unconscious on the table. When IN THE CONTEMPORARY US there are black women sterilized without their consent consistently, this is a HUGE FUCKING PROBLEM. Claire ends up not doing it, but the fact that Gabaldon had her seriously THINK about doing it WITHOUT CONSIDERING THE ETHICS OF THIS is just--AUGH! White privilege at its whitest and privileged-est.

The other scene that got me is a discussion of rape. Keep in mind at this point that BOTH of the POV women characters and one of the male POV characters have been raped at this point (that's a whole new level of WTFery/find a new way to inflict trauma, Jesus). Anyway, one female character tells raped!character that her daughter was raped by her brother-in-law, and came to tell her about it, and she said "Don't say anything" because Highland blood feuds and blah blah blah, and hey, brother-in-law, at least you don't have to explain this one kid to your husband, right? And right now in our culture when we have, well, Rape Culture, I found this to be the most insulting and fucked up thing! And because we ARE having discussions about it, daily, weekly, this scene plays its own part in our cultural dialogue in the topic because it's impossible for the author to not know what she's saying, white privilege and all. I still love the writing by itself but I really want to make Gabaldon take some consciousness-raising classes and whatnot.

Anyways, as a sort of conclusion: All writing is a deliberate choice on the part of the author. It may be an unexamined choice, but it is still a choice. When it comes to historical fiction, you can't really say "that's how it was back in those days" because that writing isn't coming from THEN, it's coming from NOW, and it's coming from YOU. And you have to be aware of that last bit before all others.


( 5 comments — Add your .02 )
Jul. 25th, 2014 12:47 am (UTC)
YES to everything in this post. As a writer of color, I have NEVER worried about writing a non-black character because, as you said, people are people. Although I appreciate your friend not wanting to get it "wrong", if she stays away from stereotypes, she should be okay. This is exactly why a person needs a diverse group of friends and colleagues; it would be hard to get anxiety about writing non-white characters if you're at least familiar with other viewpoints.
Jul. 25th, 2014 05:51 am (UTC)
Right? And yet at the same time, this woman is someone who has traveled extensively and worked up and down the class ladder. I think a lot of her anxiety is because we are schooled to privilege the white voice even as we're teaching other voices, if that makes sense? And that there's a form of literary schooling that says "write what you know, which is white people." And I mean, one of the things that struck me this summer in my classes is how bloody white they were. And it's like, what does that say about my fields or these programs? I know there are black librarians out there--why only the one at RBS? I know there are black student writers out there--why only the handful I saw at Kenyon? What are the demographics of these interests and who applies and who is accepted? Sometimes diversity is hard not because of you but because of where you are, unfortunately.

Like, tonight, Scott and I went to go see a production of The Tempest at the CU campus. And I joke about how Boulder is like Firefly, all white people pretending to be Asians, but you know, you look around this Shakespeare festival and it's white people. And you go into The Tempest--which is undeniably about slavery okay, I mean, this is THE colonial play (see also Cesaire's une Tempete, which rewrites the play in Haiti with Ariel as a mulatto and Caliban as an African slave), and it's a white dude in a green suit. And just, you know, how would this play change if for once Prospero was an old black man? I mean, I'm fairly well versed in Shakespearian adaptations and I have NO idea if that's ever been done.

I've rambled so freaking off topic. But too--look at how both of our favorite icons are white dudes? And you and I are both feminists invested in diversity, and yet what we covet (and it's Hiddleston and McAvoy, so we can't totally be blamed here) is white dudes because that's what we're taught and what our culture has given us.

This has been a sideways ramble. It's late. I hope some of it makes sense.
Jul. 30th, 2014 11:35 pm (UTC)
Wow, you were throwing the knowledge bombs at me! I agree that diversity, like real estate, is all about location, location, location! I have chosen to live in a predominantly black neighborhood, but get mad when I hear about "white flight", but where we find ourselves is indicative of what we prize, what we're "comfortable" with.

Regarding your time at Kenyon and the lack of black librarians, I think that speaks to resources and a lack of them. There are more white people at Kenyon because those are the people that KNOW about Kenyon, I had never heard of it before your posts and I travel in academic circles. As a black woman who loves books, a career as a librarian should have been on my radar, but it never was because no one in my circles talked library science as a viable career.

I'm only familiar with the most famous of Shakespearean plays (moment of honesty: I'm not a big fan), so I trust that your assessment of The Tempest is correct (because you're like, stupid smart), but the staging you suggest would make too many people "uncomfortable" so that will probably never happen.

Also, your point about our icons hits me where I live because I struggle with the fact that I am predominantly attracted to white men, on the one hand, hey, you like what you like, but on the other, have I drank the Kool-Aid??? The Kool-Aid obviously being that white beauty is the only beauty; I don't believe that in connection to women, but have I allowed myself to believe this when it comes to men???

As always, you make me think, and I THANK you for that sincerely. Why couldn't you live in the Chicago area so I could sit in your face and talk about ALL THE THINGS all the time???
Jul. 31st, 2014 01:31 am (UTC)

And there is so much kool-aid out there. And all kinds of everything. And we're also so restricted in what we're exposed to: there are so few roles for POC in popular culture so we don't get to see them. Like, I'd never heard of Michael Ealy before Almost Human, and I signed on to that show for Karl Urban, but when I watched ALL I WANTED was more Ealy. And then it got cancelled, because tv gods are cruel.

And class issues--that's probably the thing I'm most aware of because I've climbed up from lower-middle class surrounded by working class to upper-middle class surrounded by upper-middle class (aw man, when my wedding offended both our families because Scott's family was convinced we were being cheap and tacky and my family was convinced we were being ridiculous and conspicuous consumption, augh!), and just--I'm always amazed by things other people don't see or take for granted and whatnot. Like with Kenyon, I knew vaguely of it, but for some reason it never occurred to me that things like that were things that could be applied for! I guess I assumed that people got picked up like Hogwarts letters or something. And it was like, when I saw undergrads there, I thought, why didn't anyone ever tell me this was a thing I could have had? Which, okay, realistically I wouldn't have had the money, but *maybe* my college program could have helped, but who knows, because--it was just stuff that was never out there.

And now I'm just addicted to social justice stuff on Tumblr, and I'm always learning new things there, and that just feeds into my brain.

And also if I was in Chicago I would drag you to Shakespeare because it is SO MUCH FUN! Like, seriously, I find it annoying how often it is taught and received as Dead White Men Make Great Art, and it's like, no!! He was hilarious and he did interesting things with women and POC that totally gets eliminated in our culture, and people keep wanting to sanitize plays for Art's Sake, and just, no!! I posted the other night cos we went to another play where they were playing with historical constraints and inviting audience participation, and it was fascinating because the audience Did Not Know What To Do! Because you RECEIVE Shakespeare, you don't play with it--and it is SO different when you do!!!! /nerd

No, I lied, more nerdery: I love the Hiddleston versions of the plays, but that's the same sort of thing, they are all So Serious/Much Art and it's like--guys, every other line is a sex joke, LIGHTEN UP! Shakespeare is dirty as hell and he'll be like Whedon, make you laugh up til you cry, and vice versa. Ok, /Shakespeare nerd for real!

Uh, so far off topic now. But basically everything is mediated and weird and just constantly being aware of that, and if you were here we could geek out SO MUCH and everyone else could roll their eyes. (Aw, man. Snowpiercer! Have you seen Snowpiercer??)
Jul. 31st, 2014 02:41 am (UTC)
And another thought, I read somewhere about someone who as an experiment decided to only read women writers for a year, and that's something I'd like to try--except I'd like to do POC writers and then international writers, just because those are too groups I don't get enough generally and in the US we *really* don't do generally!
( 5 comments — Add your .02 )

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