Critiquing, Diversity

What does a sensitivity reader do?

I first heard of sensitivity readers a couple of years ago. Like many writers, the concept of someone examining my depiction of other cultures and genders intrigued and alarmed me at the same time. In theory, I liked the idea, but what if I failed to measure up? What if I was unintentionally racist or sexist? Then I had the chance to play a sensitivity reader myself, and saw what a difference a sensitivity reader could make.

The writer I agreed to help was writing Lone Ranger fan-fiction. Her goal was to update the Lone Ranger for modern times — deliberately ignoring the disastrous Johnny Depp movie — and she had already added a few scenes in support of her goal. For example, at one point, the story has a scene in which Tonto explains to the Lone Ranger that the law is not on the sides of non-whites. However, she was not sure she had done enough to realize her goal, so she asked for help.

From the first, I was painfully aware of how unprepared I was for the role. I am of Cornish and English descent, and my knowledge of First Nations is specifically centered on the tribes of British Columbia, from whom I buy art and whom I support with a scholarship at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest art. From the first, I made clear that I had no experience of the Apache or Comanches, the tribes mentioned in the story.

All the same I brought two qualifications to the reading. First, I knew that research is one of the keys to depicting other cultures as human. Second, while the local cultures have no cultural relation to the Apache and Comanches, most First Nations share a common history of oppression by the dominant European-based culture in North America, a history full of broken faith and lies on the settlers’ side, and suspicion and of mistrust on the First Nations side. Only the details differ.

Doing the reading

After doing some research, I was able to make a few concrete suggestions. To start with, while acknowledging the violence of Apache raids, I suggested that it should also be mentioned that settlers committed their own share of atrocities against the Apaches.

However, most of my suggestions centered on Tonto. “Comanche” is not what members of his nation called themselves — that would be “Numinu” or something spelled similarly. More importantly, based on the ethnology of Tonto’s tribe, I could suggest some possible traits and habit that go beyond the stolid “faithful Indian companion” of TV and film. For example, he might tend to give older man respect, because the old men governed his tribe. He would almost certainly have knowledge and interest in the buffalo, whom his people relied upon. Probably, he would use a travois to carry his goods. All these are simple points, but even they start to flesh out the character.

What really matters, though, is that the mythos makes Tonto an orphan. Could that mean that he had never gone through the standard initiation for Comanche men, killing a buffalo on his own and going on a vision-quest? If so, that would explain his position as an outsider. He could be expected to feel himself lacking, and a stranger to the culture of his birth. Such feelings would also find their counterparts in the Lone Ranger, which would explain their friendships. Both would feel themselves exiled from their own cultures, and strangers in each other’s. Basically, they would be mirror images of each other.

The Revision

I sent these comments to the author, emphasizing that these comments were basic and she should do more research herself. Several months passed before I saw the revised story.

Unfortunately, she did not seem to have done the additional research I suggested, which I am sure would have improved her story still further. But she had listened to most of my comments, and I found the results interesting.

The simple mention of settler atrocities made mention of Apache raids more ambiguous. Even more interestingly, when added to her habit of giving Tonto more of a voice, my comments had helped to transform Tonto from a supporting character to something of a shared lead. In places, he schooled the Lone Ranger, even correcting his views. He came across clearly as a lonely man, rather than a figure of stoicism. For the first time, he became interesting. Much more than I would have imagined possible, he had become a character in his own right, no longer simply part of the background to the Lone Ranger’s story.

Could I have said more? Undoubtedly. But I was new to sensitivity reading, and working for free. All the same, it was gratifying to see the results of my comments. From the story as well the author’s comments, I had played a part in helping her goals.

Sensitivity reading, like any critique, is probably what you make it. Still, judging from this experience, I am convinced that it can be a useful exercise so long as a writer is willing to listen. Although I think I avoided any major mistakes, I believe that, the next time I attempt to do a sensitivity reading, I can do a better job.

Diversity, Uncategorized

Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t?

If you’ve ever been in an online writing community discussing diversity, likely you’ve seen the phrase “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” once or twice (or twenty times) in various discussions over the past few years. The usual complaint, mostly from white writers, is something along the lines of “I’m expected to write diverse characters, but when I do, I’m accused of appropriation or tokenism! What’s a writer to do?”

If you argue with these people, they will have sad stories about how they were attacked online when they revealed their intention to write a story set in feudal Japan, or how the Black sidekick in their story was called a token character (the Black sidekick didn’t even die first, she died second, so what was the problem?!). They’ll tell you that they were directed by agents to make their stories more diverse OR ELSE but they have no idea how to do this while still avoiding criticism because, you guessed it, they’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

While the “damned if they don’t” portion of the phrase is certainly debatable, there are many in the publishing industry who believe that increased diversity in fiction is a good and positive thing. The diversity reflected in the books published today reflect the diversity of the world we live in, and writing diversity opens up greater opportunities for marginalized people to see themselves represented in the books they read. So, even if writers who do not write diversity are not exactly “damned,” writing diversity is certainly encouraged. Although I certainly take issue with the idea that this diversity is somehow forced of required of writers, I do agree that publishing is better off for having (at least partially) embraced the idea of representation for all.

So what about the “damned if they do?” Are authors who, having given into the inevitability of being “forced” to write diverse books then persecuted for not doing it correctly? Perhaps, a better question is: if writers approach the very idea of writing diversity from the perspective of having been “forced” to do something they never wanted to do in the first place, what are the chances that they’ll do their diverse characters justice? In fact, if someone approaches writing diverse worlds and populating them with diverse characters with willingness and an open mind, then writing diversity well isn’t really all that difficult.

I could write entire essays on how to avoid cultural appropriation, tokenism, and bad representation, but before a writer can tackle any of these (very important) questions, the writer must first must make sure that the attempt at writing marginalized groups is made in good faith. If the writer is only grudgingly including a few marginalized characters in order to ward off the haters, then the accusation of tokenism is sure to follow because your diverse characters are by nature just that — tokens. If you want to avoid being accused of writing token characters, don’t treat your characters as items on a checklist that you tick off in order to avoid criticism.

Likewise, while avoiding cultural appropriation can be tricky, at the heart of the matter is a very simple principle: respect. The writer must show true respect for the cultures and people they choose to represent. Once more, someone who believes they have been “forced” or “damned” to write diversity is unlikely to treat their subjects with the respect they deserve. These might be the writers who believe that being anime fans gives them the freedom and expertise needed to write about Japan, or who writes about First Nations cultures with only the barest knowledge imparted by the mainstream culture, not bothering to do in-depth research. These writers might defensively say “it’s all fiction anyhow, why do I have to be accurate?” There are complicated and interesting answers to those questions that have to do with colonialism and power dynamics, but the simple answer has to do with respect. If you respect another culture, you attempt to it justice.

A big part of the problem lies in the assumption that a writer, white or otherwise, must always produce something that is above criticism, and that all criticism must be avoided. Instead seeing criticism as an opportunity for growth, a chance to do better next time, the criticism is seen as a condemnation. The recipient of this criticism becomes bitter in a way that does not seem to happen with other types of criticism. If I criticize a writer’s plot or characterization, a writer may thank me and make necessary adjustments, but if I criticize the same writer’s depiction of marginalized groups, the bad-faith writer will take this as further evidence of “damned if you do damned if you don’t.”

In defense of the criticism-wary writers, their apprehension is somewhat understandable in a world where Twitter outrage often takes on a life of it’s own and a stray insensitive or unthoughtful remark can undo years of goodwill. Whether or not this is particularly likely to happen to any given writer is a topic for another day, but many writers seem to take the mere possibility of such a thing as a good excuse not to even try. In fact, often in the face of social-media outrage, good faith acceptance of criticism can go a long way towards dousing even the hottest flames.

It seems to me that the “damned if you do,” is often a direct result of taking the “damned if you don’t” approach to writing diversity. If writers approach writing diversity as an opportunity to make their work more dynamic, realistic, and frankly, interesting, instead of approaching it as a task or a chore, they’re more likely to approach it with the sensitivity and respect necessary to write diversity well. The writer writing in good faith, who is willing to accept criticism for the mistakes they make and who vows to listen and do better next time truly has nothing to fear.

Diversity, General Writing, Marketing, Publishing, Uncategorized

Lies Writers Tell Themselves: Forced Diversity

When it comes to diversity, there’s a lot of misinformation floating around in writerly circles. Much of this misinformation takes the form of reactionary strawmen, creating scenarios that make victims out of the (usually white) writers who are resistant to recent changes in the publishing industry and thus the status quo. These writers feel threatened by an increased awareness of the need for diversity.

One of the biggest strawmen is the idea of so-called “forced diversity,” the idea that publishers now refuse to publish manuscripts that are not sufficiently diverse, that editors are asking writers to re-write manuscripts to change the race or sexuality of a character, that agents who specifically request diverse or #ownvoices stories are rejecting everything else. When this argument comes up, righteous indignation usually follows, with grumblings about the author’s artistic vision, censorship, and lots of “how dare they tell me what to write.” Hand-wringing about cancel culture and the perils of being a white writer are usually not far behind, the sense of being “damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” being a major theme.

Here is something that is a fact: for as long as the publishing industry has existed, it has been dominated by white voices. While there have been amazing books written by marginalized voices over the years, publishing itself is a an industry that is predominated by upper middle class white people. A 2015 Publishers Weekly study showed that the industry itself is 79% white, and the editorial departments were 82% white. With publishing so overwhelmingly white, it is hard to take any claims of white victimhood particularly seriously. A look at the current New York Times bestseller list reveals 9 out of 10 books on the adult fiction book list were written by white authors and feature white protagonists. Does it really look like diversity is being forced upon authors who have no interest in writing diversity? Hardly. The idea that the white author is somehow at a disadvantage seems more a case of sour grapes, a ready-made excuse for the endless stream of rejection letters, than any reflection of the actual state of the publishing industry.

That all said, it is true that there has been some effort on behalf of publishing to become more diverse. Agents frequently include diverse books and the #ownvoices hashtag in their wish-lists. Certain segments of the industry are more diverse than others — YA, for instance, on the same New York Times Bestseller list, had 7 out of 10 white authors on the list, and of those there were stories featuring other types of marginalization — namely sexuality and disability. Still though, white authors are in no danger of being pushed aside, still occupying a full 70% of the bestseller list.

The argument about non-marginalized writers being forced to alter their vision to suit the demands of diversity crazy editors and agents also fails to hold up to any close scrutiny. Although this little bit of urban myth seems to get passed around writer circles, I’ve heard no first-hand accounts of an author directly being told “we’ll publish your book if you make the main character Black” or “I’ll accept you as a client if you make the romance gay.” What seems more likely is that authors have heard, perhaps from beta-readers, perhaps from critique partners, and perhaps even from agents, that their book lacks diversity and might be improved if more diversity was added. This isn’t forced diversity, this is a suggestion for improvement.

It has always amused me that artistic integrity and the sacred vision of the author suddenly becomes so much more important when suggestions are made about diversity than anything else. If an editor suggests that a character is unrealistic as portrayed, and that perhaps the author might give that character a different job, or a different socio-economic background, most writers will not take offense. But suggest that a character should be another race or a different sexual orientation (because after all, diversity adds realism to our fictional worlds, reflecting the world in which we live), and authors suddenly are very concerned about their artistic integrity. The former, it seems, is an acceptable example of the editor giving corrections, whereas the latter is an example of an editor trying to control the author.

Authors, understand this: if someone suggests your book would be improved by the addition of diversity, they are not trying to challenge your authorial vision. They’re not trying to force diversity on you. The person who suggests this — beta reader, critique partner, editor, agent — is telling you that your work does not reflect the world we live in. In the real world, people are not all white, all heterosexual, all cis-gendered. In real life, there’s a guy with a wheelchair buying cereal at the supermarket, there’s a woman wearing a hijab working at the bank, there’s a teacher named Chang at your high school and lesbian couple dropping their son off at daycare. For too long publishing has reflected a warped vision of the real world, and if now it seeks to self-correct, this is not an attack on the non-marginalized writer, but a long overdue chance for the industry to ensure that all readers will see themselves reflected in the books they read.

Because at the heart of the matter is this — diversity and representation matters, and it matters more than the hurt feelings or the righteous indignation of non-marginalized writers, and not just for lofty reasons either. Publishing is, first and foremost, a business, and marginalized individuals are customers too. At the end of the day, the writer may indeed write according to their own “artistic vision” but the publisher too will purchase what sells. If diversity, right now, is selling, then it is a reflection of a demand on the part of a significant segment of the population to see themselves represented in what they read.

If diversity is forced, then it is forced by the readers themselves, and ultimately, publishing is an industry that serves the needs of the reader, rather than the ego of the writer.

Diversity

Diversity: The Strange Case of James Tiptree, Jr.

Whenever someone insists that no one can can write a culture or gender not their own, my mind strays to James Tiptree, Jr. Tiptree’s story used to be well-known in science fiction and fantasy, but recently I’ve become aware that younger readers and writers have never heard it, so it seems worth repeating.

Tiptree emerged in the late Sixties as a star of the New Wave — that loose group of emerging writers intent on experimentation and introducing mainstream sensibilities to science fiction. Primarily a short story writer, Tiptree came seemingly out of nowhere and quickly gained a reputation for brilliant, original writing. The titles alone were a lesson in writing: “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” “Love Is the Plan, the Plan is Death,” “With Delicate Mad Hands,” and countless others that instantly lure you into reading.

At the same time, Tiptree remained a mystery. Tiptree never attended conventions, and from broad hints, the science fiction community understood that the name on the stories was a pseudonym for someone in the counter-intelligence community. Gardner Dozois wrote:

No one […] has, to my knowledge, ever met Tiptree, ever seen him, ever talked with him on the phone. No one knows where he lives, what he looks like, what he does for a living. […] He volunteers no information about his personal life, and politely refuses to answer questions about it. […] Most SF people […] are wild to know who Tiptree “really” is.

Some fans began to try to track Tiptree down. All sorts of speculation abounded.

Meanwhile, Tiptree’s reputation continued to grow. In Again, Dangerous Visions, Harlan Ellison enthused that, “[Kate] Wilhelm is the woman to beat this year, but Tiptree is the man,” and the implication that the male writer was the more important one in no way lessened the compliment to Tiptree.

Robert Silverberg, Tiptree’s editor and correspondent, imagined “Tip” as “a man of 50 or 55, I guess, possibly unmarried, fond of outdoor life, restless in his everyday existence, a man who has seen much of the world and understands it well.” Hearing one fan theory that Tiptree might be a woman, Silverberg declared the idea “absurd, for there is something inelectably masculine about Tiptree’s writing. In fact, Silverberg declared Tiptree more masculine a writer than Hemingway. Similarly, Joanna Russ, another correspondent, wrote that, although obviously a feminist, Tiptree had ideas that “no woman could even think, or understand, let alone assent to.”

You can probably see it coming: in 1976, fannish detective work revealed that Tiptree was not a man. As Tiptree wrote to Ursula K. Le Guin, “The thing is, I am a 61-year-old woman named Alice Sheldon — nickname Alli – solitary by nature but married for 37 years to a very nice man considerably older, who doesn’t read my stuff but is glad I like writing.” For a decade, a woman had passed herself off as a man, deceiving virtually everyone. She never slipped, and what revealed her secret was not her prose.

The Secrets of Tradecraft

When Tiptree’s story is told today, it is often with ridicule for the men who declare her male (but rarely Russ). And there is humor, of course, in over-confident pronouncements being debunked. However, in all fairness, the assumption was not completely unfounded. Although the field was opening up, science fiction in 1967-1977 was still largely written by and for men. By statistics alone, the assumption seemed reasonable.

Even more importantly, all that Sheldon had lied about was her sex. She really had led the adventurous life she claimed. She had lived in masculine company and she knew how men in the company of men talked to each other, and how they envisioned women. The men in her stories are forever eyeing woman and sizing them up. In stories like “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” Sheldon mimics to precision a macho man imagining a woman:

“Sitting up in the bed is the darlingest girl child you’ve EVER seen. She quivers –porno for angels. She sticks both her little arms straight up, flips her hair, looks around full of sleepy pazazz. Then she can’t resist rubbing her hands down her minibreasts and belly.”

At the time, it would have been easy to miss the sense of mockery.

The same combination of mockery and realism appears in “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” when a drugged manly man finds that the world below him is entirely female:

“Gawd…” Bud’s hand clasps his dropping penis, jiggles it absently until it stiffens. “Two million hot little cunts down there waiting for old Buddy. The last man on earth…”

By contrast, the constant feminist perspective is more muted — more a matter of theme and plot and the occasional comment.

The truth is, Sheldon enjoyed playing a role successfully, passing as one of the boys. She was so secure in her double identity that she even started releasing stories as Racoona Sheldon, a pen name that was identified with Tiptree almost immediately (It could have been an effort to mislead with a partial admission). And what are story titles like “The Women Men Don’t See” if not private jokes that nobody except her understood? Sheldon worked hard to maintain her male identity, and used her knowledge of a spy’s tradecraft to maintain it.

Aftermath

Sheldon continued to write for another decade after her unmasking, meeting many of her correspondents, and adding to her reputation before her suicide alongside her husband in 1987.

She was not the first woman to begin a writing career under a male pseudonym. The Bronte sisters originally wrote under male names, and George Elliot was the name assumed by Mary Anne Evans. In science fiction, C. L. Moore was not known as a woman initially, either. But none maintained the deception with the success that Alice Sheldon did. Her success shows that, contrary to common assumptions, identifying personal details about the author from their stories is unreliable.

Of course writers can depict other genders or cultures. For obvious reasons, woman do so more often men, but I also remember how F. M. Busby was thought a woman because of his sympathetic women characters and his use of initials (Ironically, with no intent to deceive, but because he was Francis Marion Busby). Writing a gender or culture not your own takes motivation and knowledge, but unquestionably it can be done.

And who can be surprised? If writing is not about empathy, what is its point?

 

Diversity

The Dangers of Cultural Fundamentalism

Academics – especially junior ones – who concern themselves with the portrayal of other cultures are often fundamentalists. Under no circumstances, many insist, do you have any right to depict any culture other than your own. You are being disrespectful, the argument goes, and denying a member of that culture the chance to tell their own story, as though there is only one story, and, once it has been told, the story can never be told again. None of this is up for debate among these intellectual fundamentalists, and any questioning of the official line forever brands you as a colonialist exploiter. I suspect, though, in the effort to avoid the mistakes of the past, other mistakes are being made.

I understand the reasons behind this position. To a large degree, I sympathize with it. In the past, attempts to depict other cultures have been full of racism and inaccuracy that no caring person would care to perpetuate.

Yet, at the same time, the position seems to me anti-literature. Not in the sense that literature is above criticism, or in Ayn Rand’s position that the rights of the artist are more important than anything else. Rather, my reservation lies in the fact that literature – especially the novel – is all about attempts to understand others. At its best, writing is an empathic leap into the mind-set of others. Deny that basic function and you remove one of the main purposes of writing, generally leaving only polemic.

Rather than decry every attempt to portray other cultures, I prefer to advocate for responsible portrayals, based on a solid knowledge of the culture depicted, and in consultation with members of the culture. If nobody from the culture is making the same points, you might be doing the service of a good ally and using your privilege to bring general attention to important issues.

My position has solidified since I wrote a blog in early August 2019. It was a reporting of a conversation on Facebook between First Nations artists about Emily Carr, one of Canada’s greatest painters. Since Carr often depicted First Nations villages and sculpture, and even sold tourist wares, I had expected her to be denounced. Instead, while the words “cultural appropriation” hovered in the background, the artists who commented showed considerable respect for her work. Carr had made herself accepted in the villages where she stayed, and her work, if not traditional First Nations style, was credited with helping the modern revival of the art. She was seen as an ally, and remembered fondly.

That in itself was a revelation. Yet equally enlightening was the response I received from culturally Woke people. I was attacked as just another interfering white person – despite the fact that I was reporting First Nations opinions. Unsurprisingly, the conclusions that came from my reporting were rejected out of hand. Theory said that such opinions did not exist, so the evidence must be wrong. Or possibly, I was  imagined to be tacking my conclusions onto the comments I reported, although the relation between the comments and my conclusions could hardly be missed.

Yet in contrast, I received no negative comments whatsoever from those I quoted. I took that to mean that I had reported accurately and that responsible ventures into other cultures could, in fact, be acceptable under the right conditions – tricky, but acceptable.

Recently, this opinion was reinforced by a blog by Ursula K. Le Guin. Le Guin was talking about Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, about how an Afro-American woman became the source of one of the most famous lines of cancer cells in medical research. Skloot, a white woman, carefully documented the complexity of the story, which Le Guin described as full of “thefts, discoveries, mistakes, deceits, coverups, exploitations, and reparations.” Skloots was also able to gain the trust of the Lacks family:

“These were people who had good reason to feel that they would be endangered or betrayed if they trust any white person. It took her literally years to win their confidence. Evidently she showed them that she deserved it by her patient willingness to listen and learn, her rigorous honesty, and her compassionate awareness of who and what was and is truly at risk.”

Le Guin’s review echoes the story of Carr. It shows that entry into another culture is slow and difficult, and requires the utmost integrity to succeed. If approval is lacking, it may even need to be abandoned. Yet despite what the academic fundamentalist say, it can be done to the satisfaction of those depicted. Instead of, “How dare they write that?” the questions that should be asked are, “Is the portrayal accurate? Is it honest? Is it is accepted by those depicted?”

So excuse me if I pay less attention to theory and more to those depicted. Their opinion matters far more than that of those who claim to speak for them without the trouble of first receiving permission.

Diversity

9 Things to Avoid When Trying for Diversity

Today, diversity is a fact of life – and, increasingly, of fiction. Look at the publication lists of any major publisher today, and you can’t miss the interest in the experience of women, ethnic minorities, and LGBQT+ communities. However, writing diversity is not as easy as sympathy or a will to justice. Unless you think about what you doing, your attempt at researching and writing diversity can falter from carelessness, misguided good intentions, or unexamined assumptions. If you are not careful, you can even bog down in outdated perspectives in a new disguise.

Here are nine potential ways efforts at diversity can be a problem:

Thinking It’s About You

A few years ago, I came across an article entitled, “How to write a sexist character without being sexist.” However, a more accurate description would have been, “How to write a sexist character without the character’s opinions being mistaken for yours.” That intent has always seemed to me a distracting intrusion of the writer into the story — as well as an extreme case of insecurity. It’s also a waste of effort, because any story can be misread by some reader, no matter how careful you are. If you want to express your social opinions, write an essay.

Checklist characters

Hang around any online writer’s group, and sooner or later you will come across an aspiring writer who is going to Do Things Properly. Their cast of characters will include at least one disabled character, one ethnic, and one for each letter of LGBTQ+. Aside from the unlikelihood of a perfectly distributed group of people getting together, the result is an awkwardly large task. The fact that many of those characters are likely to exist only to fill out the roster only interferes with the storytelling. Unsurprisingly, this tokenism gone wild rarely results in a finished book, let alone a publishable one.

Assuming that those you write about are willing to help you

Your research or a sensitivity reading may matter to you, but are probably unimportant to those you write about. They have lives that don’t include you, and many have grown tired of misrepresentations.

Believing that one person speaks for an entire group

No, not even if they hold an elected office. Get a variety of comments so that you know the range of opinions. Then depict that range.

Thinking you know better than the group you depict

The willingness of a group to be portrayed, or to have its stories told varies. Some cultures are exclusionary, and view their stories as property. Others have stories that can be freely told, and stories that are family property. A few might even be unconcerned who depicts them or tells their stories. It should go without saying that these preferences should be respected without any qualification. Your opinion does not give you the right to say what is appropriate one way or the other.

Insisting that the right to storytelling or depiction is a matter of blood

Too often, people who pride themselves on their sensitivity maintain that you can only approach certain topics if you belong to the group itself. This position is embarrassingly close to racialism.

Moreover, it quickly descends into an absurdity that is never discussed, but hovers at the edge of awareness. If only one of your parents belongs to a culture, do you still have the right to depict it? What about only one grandparent? Are the rights matrilineal, patrilineal, or bilineal? What if your ancestors belong to the culture, but you were raised in another one? Culture is not a matter of genetics.

Denying expertise

You do not need to belong to a group to understand it. However, the assumption that rights in a culture depend on the family you were born into discounts this self-evident fact out of hand. For example, my blogging partner, Jessica Larson-Wang is American, but lived in China for nearly two decades and married a Chinese citizen. Obviously, she has picked up some understanding of the cultures in China. Yet a surprising number of people insist she has no right to express that understanding, much less write about China herself. Possibly, her knowledge might be incomplete or contradicted by another source, and must be evaluated like any other sources, but an unexamined rejection is simply absurd. These days, outside experts may even be hired by a culture for their knowledge — and if they are good enough for members of the culture, they should be good enough for you.

Woke-splaining

“Woke-splaining” is a word I have coined by analogy to “mansplaining.” Just as a mansplainer is a man who explains to women what they already know, a woke-splainer insists that, by virtue of their social and political opinions, they know better than the members of a group they write about. Sometimes, they may actually do so, but the fallacy lies in the automatic assumption. For instance, one commenter attacked my article about whether the painter Emily Carr was guilty of cultural appropriation, insisting that what was discussed was not really cultural appropriation. Yet I consulted several of the First Nations that Carr depicted — most of them artists — and every single one of them saw some of her work as appropriation, and discussed it in those terms. Sorry — you don’t get to make judgments on the assumption that you know better because of your views.

Assuming that cultures are static

History shows that cultures continually change, often as the result of contact with other cultures For example, the cultures of the Pacific Northwest have altered drastically in over two centuries of contact with European settlers — not only through subjugation and epidemics, but also through the introduction of steel tools and paints and dyes that have enhanced their arts. True, through those two centuries, a core of customs and values has survived, but to deny that change happens goes against observable fact. Yet fantasies in particular are prone to depit cultures that have stayed the same for centuries, especially low-tech ones.

What makes static representations ironic is that they uncomfortably echo the views of capitalists and imperialists. When a culture is seen as a brand, as a commodity of value only when it can be sold, consistency of product is a necessary virtue. Yet to insist on that consistency is to deny the humanity of the people of those cultures – and that’s the opposite of what diversity and writing ought to be about.

Last Words

I realize that much of what I say here will provoke reflex outrage in certain circles. Many people act as though, having declared themselves supporters of diversity, they have no need to examine their own attitudes. However, that kind of arrogance easily overshadows the point of diversity: respect for others and the depiction of everyone as human and equal. It is no longer enough just to declare yourself empathic or against cultural appropriation. You have to avoid the arrogance that comes with holding correct opinions, and learn about and listen to those you are writing about.

At the same time, don’t let this list scare you away from diversity. Attempts to depict other people and other cultures are as old as the novel or the short story – especially if you are writing fantasy or science fiction. However, these days, writing other cultures is under closer scrutiny than ever, and the standard is higher than ever before. We all make mistakes, and the point is not to be perfect, but to try and do better next time.

Diversity

When Cultural Appropriation Is Forgiven: The Strange Case of Emily Carr

Cultural appropriation is generally easy to condemn. When someone borrows a painting style from another ethnic group, or wears a badge of rank from another culture, there is seldom any ambiguity. If nothing else, the appropriation is often poorly done. But what if the appropriation is art of the highest calibre? What if those whose culture is appropriated not only forgive the appropriation, but are honored and inspired by it? These are some of the questions raised in the case of Emily Carr, who is generally considered one of Canada’s greatest artists of the twentieth century.

Emily Carr was an impressionist who between 1910-40 painted the wilderness and First Nations villages in British Columbia, including totem poles and mortuary sculptures. She would wander the coast with a pack horse and her pet monkey, a well-known and respected eccentric. Her work shows limited knowledge of First Nations art forms, and she almost never attempted to work in them or to imitate them. All the same, her work has a brooding, restless atmosphere all its own.

Statue of Emily Carr by Joe Fafard

Like for many people, Emily Carr was my gateway to genuine Northwest Coast art, which I consider one of the greatest traditions in the world. However, after I learned about appropriation as an adult, my appreciation of her work became a guilty pleasure. Was it okay to like her work? Or should I be embarrassed about my taste?

https://d3d0lqu00lnqvz.cloudfront.net/media/media/7838fa5b-a490-47d0-9566-0c31280fa95e.jpg
Emily Carr, “Big Raven”, 1931

In 2018, the subject of Carr came up in a Facebook group dedicated to ferretting out fraudulent First Nations art – a major problem in the art world, with containers full of fakes being shipped regularly to British Columbia from southeast Asia. Since the group was full of artists, I expected to hear her denounced, loudly and indignantly. However, to my surprise, that wasn’t what happened.

Just the opposite, in fact. Nor was the fact that Carr lived at a time when such issues were viewed differently mentioned by most of the commenters.

It’s not that Carr never culturally appropriates, or that people are unaware of the issues. Recently, Gayton Nabbess, who studied at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Coast Art, but is not First Nations himself, did not hesitate to respond with the term when asked about Carr’s work. And in the original thread, Brad Letwin described Carr’s ceramics, which were intended for the tourist market, as a classic example of cultural appropriation. Yet Sonny Assu, a post-modernist whose Interventions on the Imaginary sequence involved painting over some of Carr’s work with his own designs, defended her, saying her ceramics were done “reluctantly” to make a living, and debunked the widespread notion that she sought to record a dying culture. Although Assu’s feelings were mixed, he had obviously come to respect her works.

However, for others, the question of cultural appropriation hardly arises. Kwagiulth artist Carey Newman commented,”She didn’t set out to ‘save’ us or preserve our traditions,’ or proliferate our art forms. She didn’t make our work more famous or relatable, she was a painter, not an anthropologist, and when she painted us, she lived amongst us. One of the things that I truly appreciate about her works of villages and totems is the vibrancy and vitality that they communicate. Not a narrative of extinction, not a record for preservation, but a reflection of what she saw and felt, which, considering the cultural superiority of the day, is remarkable on its own and speaks to her independent thought. I guess I’m saying that I don’t see it as harmful, nor do I think of work as harmful in any other way.”

Similarly, Haida goldsmith and carver Gwaai Edenshaw wrote that Carr was “honest and unique. She was not taking money out of the pockets of the masters whose shadows land in her paints. She was a member, engaged with the community. If anything her work has increased the reach of our market.”

Others in the thread praised her for the historical record she left. Haida artist and activist Dan Wallace observed that her work “shows actual family ties to the poles that were there at that time.” Veteran artist Richard Hunt wrote, “When people say, ‘Did you really live here?’ I say, “‘Yes, look, Emily Carr painted our pole here!'” Gitxsan artist and teacher Arlene Ness said that “it shows the power of our culture that the totems, culture, and communities captured her. The depth to her paintings reveal the impact the Northwest Coast had on her. She then belonged to the Northwest Coast. She stayed in the villages and was welcomed and accepted. Gitanyow and Kispiox (upper Skeena River/ Gitxsan) are two of the places she made home temporarily…. She is regarded favorably in my area.”

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Emily Carr, “Kispiox Village”

I mention these comments because they are such a contrast to the usual narrative of cultural appropriation. While the culturally sensitive insist that appropriation is never acceptable, the reactions to Carr tell a more mixed story. Some may be surprised, but in Carr’s case, influential art, honesty, participation in the culture, and giving something back in return for hospitality and inspiration have combined to make appropriation, if not altogether acceptable, at least forgivable. And if members of the culture she painted and her artistic peers can respect her work, who else has any right to complain? The acceptance of Carr should not be mistaken for an unrestricted license for appropriation, but it does show that the issues can be more complicated that many people admit.

Emily Carr, “Zunoqua-of-the-Cat-Village”, 1931

Diversity

Diversity: The Added Bonus

I take pride in my efforts at fiction. I like to believe that, eventually, readers will enjoy both my stories and my writing. I have trouble, though, understanding those whose response to even the barest mention of diversity is to insist that nobody can tell them what to write, and to denounce diversity as an infringement on their freedom of speech. I just don’t think that my work is so sacred as to be beyond reproach. Besides, in my experience, diversity is not only right, but its own reward.

Resistance to diversity, of course, is a struggle against historical inevitability. Increasingly diverse populations want diversity in their fiction. You can already see the demand on best-sellers’ lists, and it is only going to continue. Moreover, the call for diversity is one of the best things that could have happened in fantasy. Far from shunning it, or acquiescing with grumbles, any writer with ambition should welcome diversity for the new stories and maturity it brings when you attempt it.

To explain what I mean, I need to talk about my work in progress. Ordinarily, I dislike doing that – it seems a form of boasting, and a claim to a status that I do not currently have. I also believe that talking about an unfinished work to anyone except my critique partners is the surest way to ensure that it is never finished. But please bear with me so I can make my point:

My current work in progress has its origins in a long-ago D&D campaign. From there, it morphed in a failed attempt to sell an outline for a Choose Your Own Adventure type of book. With these origins, my first attempts to write a novel was heavily imitative. It had a wise old dwarf, and a horde of evil barbarians, against whom my Chosen One hero would eventually prevail. Kind readers would have called it generic, a faded photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of J.R.R. Tolkien and T. H. White. Blunter readers would have called it garbage.

Increasingly, so did I. All the same, I struggled on, increasingly puzzled about why I could barely get past the first few chapters. And why couldn’t I get more than the haziest idea of what would happen later in the book? For once in my life, persistence was not paying off. I put the manuscript aside many times, and took it up again just as often, never making much progress.

Then people began to advocate diversity and representation. Books that practiced diversity started to appear. Reluctantly, I acknowledged that, as much as I admire Tolkien, he might not be the last word in how to write fantasy. After all, Tolkien had published over sixty-five years ago. Virtuous elves and evil orcs might have been fine in his day, but just maybe the world had moved on a little?

Slowly, like a spring thaw, my manuscripts began to change. The dwarf changed to my version of dwarves, became human, and a member of a minority. My barbarians stopped being brutish and primitive, and became another culture, driven from their homelands by the ancestors of my main character. Suddenly, my crude concepts of good and evil became a clash of cultures, with something to be said on both sides. My pallid love interest became a young woman caught between two cultures and inclined to be sarcastic about her situation.

Best of all, I realized that, instead of imitating earlier fantasies, I could draw on my own experience. For over a decade, I have collected Northwest Coast art. In the process, I have become tolerated in certain First Nations circles locally. Those who had started out as barbarians in my novel became a beleaguered culture threatened with extinction, and my hero’s proud family history tainted with genocide.

The result? Suddenly, I knew what I wanted to write. My handful of chapters doubled, then tripled. I knew what was coming – not in a detailed way, but with a reasonable sense of the marks I had to hit, and how the story must end. I stopped struggling and learned to enjoy writing. I now believe that my inability to write was my unconscious, frantically telling me I was doing things the wrong way. Accepting the call to diversity freed me to write, because it changed the nature of my relationship to my materials.

I now believe that accepting diversity made me into someone who might one day have a decent chance to become a professional fiction writer. That, of course, is not its main purpose, but for me it was an important side benefit. It’s very satisfying to be able to do the right thing and help yourself at the same time.

If diversity places demands on writers, it gives as much as it demands. It gives us a new perspective and a new maturity. It gives us new stories to tell – deeper, more thoughtful stories. Original stories. Stories for our times, and stories truer to the historical past that is the basis of our fantasy. Even if diversity and representation were not right in themselves, writers should welcome them as gladly as they would anything that makes them better writers.

Better writing in return for being socially responsible? That seems more than fair to me.

Characters, Diversity, General Writing, Worldbuilding

Virtue Signalling versus Writing with Virtue

I strive to be a sensitive writer. Like most writers, I stress about whether my stories do justice to the people and places they portray. I want the people who read my stories to read then and take away something positive, and I hate the idea that my stories may perpetuate harmful stereotypes or depictions of marginalized communities, or perpetuate negative tropes that we as readers and consumers of media have become more and more aware of over the past twenty or so years. Sometimes, as a white cis woman, I find myself wanting my own writing to scream on my behalf, at the top of its lungs: I am one of the good ones!

But when writing does this, at the expense of organic story development, it is, at best, empty virtue signaling, a sign that the writer cares more about appearing to be the right kind of storyteller than in telling a cohesive story, and at worse offensive in its own right, a tone-deaf declaration of the writer’s supposed proper attitudes rather than a demonstration of true ally-ship. How can a writer weave ideology into the story seamlessly without having ideology taking over the narrative or worse, giving the impression that the writer cares more about being perceived as the write kind of writer than they do about writing the right kind of story? Here are three points to consider:

Character’s attitudes should be based upon their backgrounds and experience. Whether your characters are closed minded bigots or open and accepting, their attitudes can’t appear out of nowhere just to have an excuse for the writer to show off their own political or social attitudes. In my current work in progress, I have a lesbian character living in a society that is relatively homophobic. She is the main character’s best friend, and the main character knows about her sexuality and is very accepting. So how would a character who grew up in a homophobic society, with traditional parents reinforcing that society’s traditional values, end up being accepting of her friend’s sexuality? Personal experience. My main character was once forced into a marriage that she didn’t want, and it had disastrous results for her personally. Since then, she has always hated the idea of anyone not having the right to choose who they love. Gradually, from her own experience, her attitudes became more accepting.

Character attitudes come from their background, which is different from your background as an author. If you want your character to embody certain progressive ideals, then make sure they have personal history that supports this. This is less important in modern contemporary fiction, because our own world is full of diverse beliefs and attitudes, any of which could influence our characters, but it is very important to consider in fantasy, particularly medieval or pre-industrial fantasy. If your world is a typical medieval world but your main character embodies modern progressive ideals with no backstory to back these up, you run the risk of creating an empty vessel for your beliefs and not a fully developed character.

Worldbuilding needs to be internally consistent with its history and culture. In our world the dominance of heteronormative marriage practices, including patrilineal hereditary monarchy, arranged marriage, arose out of patriarchal views that saw women as property. Although eventually most human cultures mostly moved past the point where women were literally bought and sold, this was the starting point for many human cultures. If you want to create a quasi-medieval culture where, for instance, people can marry whomever they want, then you need to create a world that supports that right down to its very foundations, not a patriarchal Medieval Europe with magic.

I found a great example in the recent YA book Lady Smoke, by Laura Sebastian. In a part of the book where Sebastian is introducing royalty from several neighboring kingdoms as potential suitors and suitresses for the main character, she included a culture in which “marriage wasn’t limited to being between men and women.” One character explains to the main character that this kingdom isn’t a matriarchy OR a patriarchy. Heirs are chosen and adopted by the current ruler as children. Since producing children wasn’t the goal of marriage, and rule wasn’t decided through the male line, who married who became irrelevant. And this wasn’t the product of pages and pages of explanation or worldbuilding, it was a couple of lines of dialogue, but it added a hint of realism, showing a world that was both progressive but logically consistent. In fantasy circles you’ll often hear the refrain repeated, “it’s fantasy, write whatever you want? Why recreate the prejudices of our world in your fantasy world?” I wholeheartedly agree with this sentiment! However, too many writers take the easy way out with worldbuilding, creating social  The cultural norms of our own world did not appear at random, but rather grew out of historical and social factors, so make sure that whatever norms exist in your world are logically consistent.

Characters must interact with their world in realistic ways. Let’s say you create a world in which arranged marriage is the norm – common in many quasi-medieval fantasy worlds. If your characters resist arranged marriages and choose to marry for love or other reasons, what are the consequences? If they avoid consequences entirely, your reader will have a hard time suspending disbelief. Let’s say your world has slavery, but your main character is completely opposed to slavery and wants to dismantle the system and free all the slaves. How will the world react to this? George R.R. Martin actually handles this quite skillfully when Daenerys frees the slaves of Essos she has a very hard time handling the former slave owners, and as soon as she leaves, they’re pretty much right back to their old ways. It is great to have a character that fights for the rights of others, but those fights are rarely easily won. Just look at our own society – still feeling the effects of slavery over 150 years after slavery ended. Don’t make things too easy on your characters in order to showcase your own personal feelings about the issues. As Chairman Mao once said, “revolution is not a dinner party.” Your characters can change their world, or change their own place within the world, but the change should have lasting and serious repercussions.

Ultimately, stories can be a great way to showcase our own ideals and attitudes. The best stories are often indeed the stories that have a political or social message, and sometimes those messages are overt, not subtle. The artist can also be an activist, but the artist must never forget her duty is not just to the message, but to the art as well.  Orwell’s classic 1984 is not just an ant-fascist screed, but a good, compelling story. More recently, Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give spotlights police brutality, but at its core is the of a young girl trying to find her place in the world. Just as our beliefs do not exist for the sake of performing them for others, our works should be more than displays of our own virtue, signals that we stand on the “correct” side of the political and social divides that characterize modern life. Ultimately, our stories have to be able to stand on their own as stories and not rely on the virtue of the message to prop them up and avoid criticism. Weave your message into your story in a natural and skillful way and no one will know where the story ends and the message begins — one will be entirely indistinguishable from the other.

 

Characters, Diversity

Writing Other Cultures

Depicting other cultures is one of the hardest tasks in writing fantasy. Done properly, it requires experience and research. Moreover, the standards have never been higher. Many say that it should not be done at all out of sensitivity to the oppressed, although the commonly suggested alternative –inventing a culture — frequently results in a patchwork that risks being even more offensive.

Besides, writers will try to depict other cultures anyway. The effort is too much a part of the empathic impulse that lies at the heart of writing. John Le Carré said that a good writer should be able to watch a house cat cross the street and know what if feels like to be pounced on by a Bengal tiger. In the same way, a writer should be able to experience and observe a culture and convey to readers what it feels to belong to it.

So how do you write another culture and minimize the chances of offending or getting everything wrong? Some risk will always remain, but here are seven guidelines I have found useful:

  1. Do your research: A quick crib is not enough. Anthropology has a long history, but its studies are uneven in quality. Even Franz Boas, one of the founders of modern anthropology, sometimes marred his work by relying on a single informant, or by throwing out raw data as irrelevant. Unless you know the range of observation and interpretation, you can easily fall prey to skewed opinions. For instance, Wikipedia’s entry for the potlatch of the Pacific Coast is based on late versions of Kwakwaka’wakw practices, which are vastly different from the northern potlatches. The most reliable studies are usually those done by academics hired by members of the culture.
  2. Experience the culture: Being a tourist gives you limited exposure. Visit a culture you are depicting as often as possible. Make friends with members of the culture, and, if you can, live among them. Don’t be surprised, though, if members of the culture often have better things to do than answer your questions.
  3. Discard all stereotypes: They are not only hostile, but inaccurate. Only mention them when — as often happens — members of the culture make fun of them. Tolkien got away cultures that were entirely good or evil, but modern writers cannot. Barbarians who talk like they are brain-damaged are equally outdated.
  4. Remember that even positive stereotypes are racist: A friend of mine who is a Haisla artist tells me that buyers often lecture him on how spiritual and in touch with nature he must be as a status Indian. He is more amused than the angry, but the point is that these assumptions are as inaccurate and offensive than the negative pictures of the First Nations as drunk and uneducated. Treat your characters from other cultures as people, and throw out the Noble Savage and the Mystic.
  5. Do not treat any character as a representative of their culture: No, not even a chieftain or king. Be particularly cautious about ethnic villains– if you must have them at all, make sure that their culture is not the reason for their opposition or evil. Show a variety of different characters from the same culture to remove even a hint of stereotyping.
  6. Never show your main character being immediately accepted by another culture: Nor should your character immediately gain status in another culture or impress everyone with magic, technology, or tricks. H. Rider Habbard’s characters might gain acceptance by claiming to control an eclipse, but those imperialist days are long gone (unless, as S. P. Somtow’s characters once did, yours make the mistake of trying to impress the Maya with their advanced knowledge of astronomy). An outsider generally gains acceptance slowly, and with the help of allies. Go down to the neighborhood pub and start treating the regulars as old friends, and the resulting startled looks will help you quickly understand this basic guideline.
  7. Remember that cultures change how they are expressed over time: Often, the change comes from interaction with other cultures. For example, European contact, and access to steel tools and bright new paints and dyes propelled the art of the Pacific Coast to new heights — a process that continues today in interaction with mainstream art. Similarly, contrary to stereotypes,most of the First Nation people on the coast in the early Twentieth Century were raised Christian. However, the old ways did not disappear: the feast for the birth of a child became a celebration of baptism, with traditions continued under the eyes of unsuspecting missionaries. Today, older spiritualism has been revived by some, and most are as agnostic as the dominant culture.

Of course, even if you follow all these suggestions, you can still expect some hostility. Some commenters are too dogmatic to accept any depiction of a culture unless you have the correct ethnic origin. Sometimes, too, a history of oppression and misunderstanding will cause people to reject your depiction — sometimes without having read it. However, in my experience, depicting another culture is like trying to speak another language when you travel: If you have done your best to learn and are obviously trying, most people will be pleased that you are at least making an effort, even if you don’t get everything right.

And, yes, a lot of effort is required. But how can you portray what you do not understand? And anyway, who said that writing was supposed to be easy?