Should writers be ready to present a pedigree?

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Recently I mentioned a friend whose literary agent told her major US publishers are no longer interested in books about black characters written by white writers. Is this a paradigm shift in the marketplace—publishers backing off prior requests for diversity of characters because of concerns about authenticity and cultural appropriation (i.e. members of a dominant culture taking cultural elements from an oppressed minority to use in their work)? It could be a market trend toward segregation by ethnic heritage.

So, assuming we’re headed in that direction, how are we going to define it? In the larger culture, there’s been a movement toward more strict definitions of ethnic heritage because of questions about affirmative action benefits. Recent examples include Nkechi Diallo (a.k.a. Rachel Dolezal) who is accused of falsifying African American heritage and Elizabeth Warren, accused of fabricating Native American heritage. The discussion about Warren’s status is especially interesting. She recently released DNA results that indicated native heritage somewhere along the line, but this was met by jeers that one ancestor didn’t entitle her to call herself Native American—that she had to show tribal membership in order to be a “true” Native American.

Jewishness is tricky, too. Because of benefits available to Jews, there are requirements for documentation. DNA testing can identify Jewish markers, but an mitochondrial DNA test is necessary to identify the required matrilineal connection. This is important in Israel, but hardly ever mentioned in the US. People with matrilineal Jewish heritage in the US may know it—but maybe not, as their names may not be traditionally Jewish—while people with traditionally Jewish names may not have the required matrilineal DNA. Confused yet?

Less tricky, the Jim Crow “ one drop” rule means that anyone with any African American heritage at all is considered black in the US. This makes it very easy DNA-wise to be recognized as African American. Many “white” folks who have run their DNA recently have found they actually qualify as non-white under this rule. Sure, there may be squabbles about black culture and not being black enough, but that’s beside the point. A rule is a rule. Right?

So, how are publishers going to sort this out? Do they take the word of writers about their ethnic heritage, or is greater documentation going to be eventually required? If my DNA shows I had an African ancestor somewhere along the line, can I claim that heritage for special consideration from publishers? What if I have a Jewish gene? What if my name is of Latin origin? Or does the fact I look mainly white mean I’m out in the cold?

Several times I’ve hosted arguments in the comments section about whether Larry Correia and Sarah Hoyt qualify as Hispanic and/or minority. Should we also have a conversation about Rebecca Roanhorse, who claims Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo and African American heritage? The African American part is easy because of Jim Crow, but is she really a tribal member? A “true” Native American? And should she be writing about Navajo culture and not her own? Or is that cultural appropriation?

Should I start work on documenting a racial heritage pedigree? I don’t want to be left out of the “own voices” paradigm shift. Ah, what to do…

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Diversity versus cultural appropriation—Best current practice?

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Here’s a current report on the subject from professional writers in the field.

Thursday night after Halloween, I went to a program at the local writer’s guild that included African American poets and musicians. Excellent program. Then afterwards, some of us went across the street for a couple of brews and had a great conversation about art and marketing your work. One of the gals in the guild is an established novelist who writes research-based historical-type fiction, and she mentioned that she’s having trouble finding a publisher for her latest work: a story about a civil rights riot that took place in 1919 and includes African American characters.

Far be it from me to judge the racial heritage of others, but the writer looks pretty German. Her agent has told her the problem is the African American characters in her book. According to Agent, major US publishers are no longer interested in works from Caucasian writers that feature African American characters—not just lead characters, mind you, but any kind of prominent characters at all. Presumably this is based on the recent movement to call out cultural appropriation from “privileged” white writers.

So what am I doing today? I’m going back through my marketable works to remove anything that might identify characters by race or ethnic heritage. Sure, that really cuts down on the diversity, but that’s the end result of the cultural appropriation and/or “own voices” movement, isn’t it? A curtailment of ally-ism in support of minority issues (e.g. my friend’s novel on civil rights riots)? Less diversity in the works available for sale? Greater segregation of the market?

Cultural Appropriation and the Dilemma of Halloween Sales

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So, it’s been kind of entertaining to watch people try to sort through the costume issue this week. First, Megan Kelly lost her job at NBC for saying white kids should be able to dress up as black characters for Halloween. Then a lot of other people checked in, horrified at the idea of white kids dressing up as person-of-color characters. Of course, this would be the worst kind of cultural appropriation for “privileged” white kids—pretending to be some white colonialists’ black-face vision of POC like Moana, maybe, or characters from the Black Panther movie. It just not done in this enlightened age. But then the issue of costume sales came up. This is a $9 billion market in the US.

I was in a pretty good position to assess the costume market this year. I worked a Trunk or Treat event for a small church in a little town up near the Tennessee/Kentucky line. This is middle America, folks, trending heavily to the working class, with a few professional families mixed in. The most creative was a Transformer costume built out of cardboard. There was the usual collection of ghosts and zombies; one Jason Voorhees and a Freddie Kreuger. A couple of Wonder Women came by, a Flash, a Batman and one Superperson, However, a good third to a half of the costumes were Disney or Marvel characters—princesses for the girls and superheroes for the boys. Quick calculation: this works out to be maybe $4.5 billion in US sales.

So, what are Disney and Marvel supposed to do about the cultural appropriation dilemma? Given that $4.5 billion is on the line, this is a huge crisis.

The problem, of course, is that these companies have worked themselves into a corner through trying to provide “diversity” in their productions. A few years back, providing more diversity was considered progressive. There’s still a push for it—all productions need more POC, more POC as lead characters, more role models for POC children to identify with. But then, a recent shift in focus has identified this movement as cultural appropriation instead of diversity. When Disney makes a film featuring native Hawaiian characters, for example, the (privileged white) company is appropriating a minority culture, making millions in profit off the backs of the native Hawaiian characters. Should Disney be allowed to do this? Or should only native Hawaiians be allowed to make films about their own culture?

Worse, one of the most popular movies this year was the hugely successful Black Panther film. Only 13% of the US population is African American, so if only children of African heritage are allowed to wear these costumes, it puts a pretty strict limit on sales. So how did the companies react? By promoting sales to white children, of course. There were all kind of people out there giving them permission.

Doesn’t profit always trump cultural sensitivity?

Review of The Changeling by Victor LaValle 

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This novel is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award. It’s dark fantasy, published by Spiegel & Grau and runs 431 pages. This review includes spoilers.

Apollo Kagwa lives in Manhattan and works as a vintage book dealer. He finds his true love Emma Valentine and becomes the doting father of baby Brian, named after Apollo’s father, a white man who disappeared mysteriously when Apollo was a child. Emma develops postpartum depression, and when Brian is about 6 months old, she starts to insist the boy isn’t her baby. She chains Apollo to the steam pipes, cooks the baby with boiling water and then disappears. Apollo serves a stint in Rikers for holding Emma’s co-workers hostage, and when he’s released, he starts a search for his missing wife. He finds a coven of witches living in the East River, minions of a troll living in Queens, and finally locates his wife, who has staked out the troll’s cave. Can the two of them destroy the troll and rescue the real baby Brian?

So, this is a pretty impressive novel, including multiple themes and motifs. It’s a post-modern work and also feels slightly surreal. The story is apparently based on Maurice Sendak’s children’s book Outside Over There, which makes recurring appearances in the novel. In the Sendak book, Ida’s little sister is stolen away by goblins. Her parents don’t notice, so Ida enters the magical world herself to bring her sister back.

Accordingly, the first hundred pages of The Changeling are a pretty normal, positive story set in New York City, covering themes of marriage and family, work and missing and present fatherhood. Then it suddenly plunges into an alternate reality and we start to see the underlying currents of magic. This is socially and technologically up-to-date, with the troll’s minions hacking through Facebook into the private lives of families, watching their children. The troll’s minions have a contract to provide children to the troll in return for prosperity and white privilege. They make alt-right noises and oppose the witches, symbols of female power. There are also themes of living while black, and how parents damage their children. LeValle makes a few casual comments in the book that are really cutting. One that really struck me was how magical glamours hide the suffering of the weak. Apollo’s name is symbolic. He is the involved father, the sun god against the forces of darkness.

On the not so great side, LeValle doesn’t employ much in the way of style here, meaning we don’t feel a lot of foreboding, threat or suspense. The prose is fairly straight-forward and matter-of-fact, as are the descriptions and narrative. Some of the detail seems really unnecessary, like a section on breast-feeding. Touches of humor are very mild, mostly associated with being black in the wrong place. The post-modern approach is sort of scattered (as always), and takes away from the power of the story.

Final impression: Smooth, easy read. The social commentary here is first rate. Best for lovers of horror.

Five stars.

Wrap up of the 2018 Hugo Reviews

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Now that I’ve reviewed all the works, it’s time to take a look at the Hugo finalists, and how they fell out this year. Most notable is the absence of Vox Day’s Rabid Puppy inputs, which in the past couple or three award cycles has provided the male diversity. That means ordinary cis men were totally shut out of three of the four Hugo fiction categories for 2018, with Best Short Story, Best Novelette and Best Novella featuring only women, trans and non-binary authors. The Best Novel category also featured two finalists who are possibly political appointees meant as a slap-in-the-face to Vox Day, these being his nemeses N.K. Jemisin and John Scalzi. That leaves the white-male-masterful-crusader Kim Stanley Robinson as the really big wild card in the whole thing.

The next notable feature was the high rate of correspondence between the finalists for the Hugo and the Nebula Award. For the Best Short Story category the only difference was that two men nominated for the Nebula were replaced by women or trans writers. In the Best Novelette category, the same thing happened, but one additional woman was nominated. The most significant difference was in the Best Novel category, where only two of the finalists were the same. This strongly suggests how the same limited system produces both sets of nominees.

Next, the Hugo Awards drew from the same restricted number of publishers as the Nebula. In the novel category, this included: 4 from Orbit, 1 from Tor and 1 from Solaris. In the novella category: 5 from Tor.com and 1 from Uncanny. The novelette and short story categories showed slightly more diversity, drawing from Uncanny, Clarkesworld, Tor.com, Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Apex. Looking at these results, it’s clear why Rocket Stack Rank only reviews particular magazines. This is pretty much the list of shorter-than-novel publishers with inputs into the Nebula and Hugo Awards. Print magazines are doing so poorly, RSR can probably leave Asimov’s, Analog and F&SF off pretty soon without missing anything important.

Looking at what’s normally counted for diversity, the Hugo has done reasonably well. Best Novel includes 3 women, 2 men, 1 trans, 1 Asian and 1 African American writer. Best Novella includes 5 women, 0 men, 1 non-binary, 1 Asian and 1 African American writer. Best Novelette category includes 4 women, 0 men, 2 trans and 3 Asian writers. Best Short Story includes 6 women, 0 men, 3 Asian and 1 Native American writer. Those who recall my comments from last year will know I’m glad to see a Native American writer appear in the finalists, but we’re still short of Hispanics. These figures work out to be 75% women, 12.5% trans, 8% men and 4% non-binary. Looking at the counted racial categories, it works out to be 55% whites, 33% Asian, 8% African American and 4% Native American. Clearly the preferred finalists are young white and Asian women, while men, African Americans and Hispanics are all hugely underrepresented based on their population demographics. The one finalist works out okay for Native Americans, who are about 2% of the US population.

A couple of things stood out in the themes. First, the list included several repeat appearances from previous years, and also followed the Nebula tendency to nominate the same author in multiple categories. These included Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Sarah Pinsker and Yoon Ha Lee. The list of Hugo finalists avoided the tendency the Nebula finalists showed for editors, publishers and other industry insiders, but included at least a couple of short works written by popular novelists within the universe of their novels. I took this as unduly promotional. Like the Nebulas, there seemed to be a strong preference for stories with non-binary or trans characters.

This list leans heavily to fantasy and soft science fiction, with a serious lack of ideas and/or hard science fiction. I don’t think Nagata’s work qualifies, regardless that it’s set on Mars. The real stand-out, different work here, again, was Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, which actually attempted to deal with hard science, real politics and real threats to humanity’s future. This is the kind of important work I’d prefer to see appear on the awards ballots.

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Review of “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM” by Rebecca Roanhorse

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This story is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula, the 2018 Hugo Award and the 2018 World Fantasy Award. It was published in Apex Magazine. Roanhorse is biracial Native American and African American and lives in New Mexico. This review contains spoilers.

Jesse Turnblatt is a Native American working at a business that provides “authentic” Native American experiences to tourists through virtual reality. His boss isn’t really concerned about how his employees feel about the offerings, but Jesse really needs to keep his job, as a recent bout of unemployment has strained his marriage. Luckily, most people just want a simple Vision Quest. Jesse has a customer, so he enters virtual reality, presenting himself as a noble savage with muscled abs, and goes into his routine. However, this doesn’t seem to be what the customer wants. Instead, the man is waiting for him at the neighborhood bar afterward. The man looks white, but thinks he’s part Cherokee, and just seems to want to talk about Native Americans. They become friends, meeting a couple of times a week at the bar to talk. Then Jesse catches cold, and when he recovers, he finds “White Wolf” has taken over his job, his friends and his household. Jesse falls into depression, goes on a bender. Is there anything he can do about this?

So, the big question here is about what’s reality and what’s not. It might be hard to figure out, but Roanhorse has given us plenty of clues: a quote from Sherman Alexie at the beginning and a disconnect at the end that suggests it’s VR. But then, it’s the author’s reality, too. You can read this as fantasy, if you want, as reality that’s suddenly dropped into surrealism, or as SF, where it’s all just a virtual reality experience. Whichever, Roanhorse’s message is clear.

Good points: It’s very well constructed, and the meaning slips up on you gradually. There’s a feeling of foreboding about it when Jesse starts meeting the guy in the bar, so you suspect things aren’t going to go well.

Not so good points: This is a social justice message, but the narrative seems mainly intellectual, and it only skims along the surface. It’s not deep or disturbing enough to represent the disadvantages Native Americans actually face (or worse, have faced in the past). Roanhorse let us off the hook at the end.

Four stars.

Thoughts on the 2017 World Fantasy Awards

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I’ve pretty much finished all the reviews of the World Fantasy Awards fiction nominees. I’m not going to look at the collections, so it’s time for a wrap up of what I thought.

What really jumps out is the considerable overlap this list has with other major SFF awards, especially the Hugos. In order to complete reviews of the whole World Fantasy list, I had to read 2 novels out of 5 nominees, 1 long fiction out of 5 and 3 short stories out of 5. All the others I had already reviewed as part of either the Nebula or the Hugo Awards. This makes my reviewing job easier, but again, it points out the inbred nature of the SFF awards and the lack of diversity in sources the works are drawn from.

Speaking of diversity, this list is notable for leaning heavily to black and white nominees and totally shutting out both Asian and Hispanic/LatinX/Native American authors. Counting up the ethnicity, it looks like there were three black authors out of fifteen or 20% of the nominees, which well beats the approximately 12% African American population demographic in the US. The list gets extra diversity points for having one nominee of Arab descent, but Arabs are currently designated white in the US.

There are a couple of folks who are LGBTQ and advertize disability diagnoses. Again, the absence of Asian and Hispanic/LatinX/Native Americans could have to do with the lack of diversity in sources the fantasy audience draws from. Gender breakdown was 4 women to one man in the novel category, 2 women to 3 men in the long fiction category and 5 women to 0 men in the short fiction category. This adds up to 10 women to 5 men, following the current trend to strongly favor women writers in the awards nominations. There was also fair diversity of publishers except in the long-fiction category, where Tor.com published 4 out of 5 of the nominees.

I’ve already reviewed each of the works for quality, content and logical coherence. All of these were well written, with a few real standouts. I don’t have any complaints about the winners. They were first class in all categories. I did note some strong political messages in some of the works. This is a troubling issue. Doesn’t it affect readability when the author’s political views are so obviously promoted that they take over the story?

Again, many congratulations to the World Fantasy Winners!

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