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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So, what is cultural appropriation, really?

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Since I’ve been discussing cultural appropriation, I had a quick look around to see what kind of opinions are out there on the subject. First, it looks like most commentators are really adamant that cultural “appropriation” is bad, while cultural “appreciation” leading to real cultural exchange is good. The problem is in deciding which is which.

Checking the definition, I found that Wikipedia defines cultural appropriation as the adoption of elements of a minority culture by members of the dominant culture. According to the article, it’s power imbalance, historically caused by colonialism and oppression, that makes something actually cultural appropriation rather than cultural exchange.

Next, how does this work in practice? Well, there are a few issues. Some writers point out that the definition describes what is generally a local or national problem, while things can look very different on a global scale. In the US, the dominant culture is defined as “white” and the oppressed are considered to be minority persons-of-color like African Americans, LatinX and Asians. These writers also note that “white” is really just a social construct used to describe the currently dominant culture in some regions like the US and EU, because the collection of ethnicities within the term is anything but uniform. “White” in the US currently includes Jews, Arabs, North Africans and East Indians, for example, along with previously oppressed groups like Irish and Italian immigrants, who were at one time defined as “non-white.” And what about Polish jokes? Is this an indication that “white” Poles are oppressed in the US the same way they traditionally have been in Europe?

This is a caveat that dominant cultures are not always just “white” as the current knee-jerk reaction assumes, but vary by time period and region. More clearly, what would be considered the dominant culture in the Middle East, for example, South America, Asia or Africa? These areas have a lot of diversity, but the dominant culture could never be defined as “white.” Is all of African culture off limits to “whites” because of colonialism? Or what about Asia? Much of it was never colonized by “white” Europeans at all.

Actually, the definition of “white” can be dangerously misapplied. For example, the 2018 Eurovision contest provided an instance where a “white” woman was vilified for appropriation of Japanese culture. Netta Barzilai performed the song “Toy” while dressed in a kimono and backed by maneki-neko cats. If you assume Barzilai is part of a dominant “white” culture that oppresses the Japanese, then the charges might be accurate. But is this true?

Well, no. Where’s the power imbalance in this case? On a global scale, Barzilia is Jewish and from Israel, a small, perpetually endangered and persecuted country, while Japan has always been a military, cultural and economic juggernaut. The problem is the assumption that light-colored skin automatically means “oppressor” and a darker complexion means “oppressed.” The end result in this case was wide-spread bullying of a light-skinned, oppressed minority woman who actually put on a great show.

Shouldn’t we be paying better attention?

Identifying with Characters Different from You

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Some time back, after reading Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, I wondered in the blog about how deeply readers from different ethnic groups and different cultures identify with the protagonists in stories. This seems like a timely subject, as there’s been a recent movement in the SFF community toward “own voices,” complaints about cultural appropriation and comments about how POC need to be the only ones to write about characters that reflect their own heritage. The scenario in the novel was that Ruff’s (culturally appropriated) Jim Crow era African American characters were represented as enjoying the works of classical SF writers now attacked as racist (Asimov and Bradbury). It’s uncertain whether Ruff meant this as irony, but he writes it dead-pan, as if his characters really are classic era SF geeks.

The novel is quite a mash-up of social taboos, and given the current climate, I’m really surprised there weren’t more complaints about the book being a) published and b) nominated for awards. However, it did raise the interesting question about identifying with characters from other races. I didn’t really get an answer from POC in the comments on my blog, so I went looking. Here’s an interesting perspective from Turkish-American Elif Batuman writing for the New Yorker.

As you might expect, Batuman describes no problems in using 1) suspension of disbelief and 2) imaginative projection to identify with alien characters. For example, to read period works, Batuman says, you have to BE the privileged, upper class male Englishman in Lady Chatterly’s Lover. This means that for the purposes of reading, you have to shift your perspectives of race, gender, social class, religion and whatever other characteristics are present in order to feel what the character is feeling and worry about his or her conflicts. Along the way, you broaden your own horizons and learn about other worldviews, some of them historical, some fantastical, some science fictional, etc. This makes perfectly good sense, and I’m sure it’s been experienced by avid readers everywhere.

Where this breaks down, Batuman says, is when she runs across references to “Turks” in these old books that betray attitudes toward her own ethnic group. This event jars her out of her projection and back to the reality of evaluating “expired social values.” As I read this, mention of Turks is one problem that she snags on, and the other is the insulting quality of the references. Presumably the first really can’t be fixed in contemporary writing, but the second one can.

Everyone is pointing out that the SFF community readership is getting more diverse. So, is “own voices” the solution for problems like this? Will it remove the speed bumps to suspension of disbelief? Or (there’s always the Law of Unintended Consequences to consider) could “own voices” just reduce diversity by segregating the SFF readership into more strictly separate groups?

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 Wintersong by S. Jae Jones

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This book is part of my effort to review minority authors. It was published through Thomas Dunn Books/Macmillan in February of 2017. Jones is Asian, a native of Los Angeles, and this looks to be her first published novel. There’s a sequel coming in 2018 called Shadowsong. This review contains spoilers.

Liesl is the middle child, dark and plain, while her older sister Kathe is blond and beautiful and her younger brother Josef is a violin virtuoso. Liesl wants to study music, too, and dreams of being a composer, but her father only lets her play accompaniment to her brother. As a child, she finds a boy in the woods who calls himself the Goblin King, and they promise to marry, but as Liesl grows older, she has to give up her dreams to take responsibility for her family. Then the Goblin King comes for his bride. Because Liesl has rejected him, he takes Kathe instead. Can Liesl save her sister by giving up her own life?

Jones has used the German legend of the Erlkonig as the basis for her story, with some other allusions drawn from European culture and the movie Labyrinth. The story is set in the 1800s when touring violinists were the rock stars of the era. According to the Erlkonig legend, the bride gives up her life and retires to the Underground to make sure spring comes to the world above. It’s not very Asian, but somehow I haven’t heard a peep about cultural appropriation.

On the positive side, Jones has put together a really promising plot. The issue of having to give up personal dreams to take family responsibility seems to be a common theme from Asian women writers. Here, Liesl escapes the clutches of her family, but moves into another stifling situation. Her husband offers her complete freedom to play and write music, but there is no audience—she is confined to the Underground. The Erlkonig is a strong romantic interest on the one hand, but on the other, it’s clear that staying with him will slowly drain away her life. There are choices between evils here.

On the not-so-positive side, I didn’t much like Liesl or the petulant, demanding, erratic way she conducts herself around people who love her. I think her character could have been used more positively to send messages about discipline, cooperation, communication, focus and hard work to achieve what you want. Of course, this might be just my viewpoint speaking. I had similar complaints about The Last Jedi.

Three and a half stars.

More on Virtue Signaling vs. Independent Thinking

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In the last blog about social issues, I commented on David Gerrold’s essay ”Humanity’s R&D Department: Science Fiction.” where he discusses the requirement to virtue signal in order to preserve your reputation in the SFF community. My response was that this prevents independent thinking, or even any kind of reasonable discussion about the current direction of the publishing community. I also mentioned that it was an example of “groupthink” where a desire for conformity leads to dysfunctional outcomes. I’m sure a lot of people will disagree about this, so let’s look at some examples:

  • Readers recently complained on the Tor website about K. Arsenault Rivera appropriating Asian culture in her recently published novel The Tiger’s Daughter. This fell into silence when some more perceptive individuals pointed out that Rivera isn’t white. I gather that means it’s an attack that should be reserved for white people.
  • Writer Jenny Trout led a child rape and racism campaign against Fionna Man for writing a fantasy novel titled Thomas Jefferson’s Mistress about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. The campaign succeeded in getting the book removed from book shelves, but then it turned out that Man is an activist African American woman writing about her own cultural history.
  • Speaking about the results, author N.K. Jemisin complained about the 2013 SFWA election in her Guest of Honor speech at the convention Continuum in Australia, “Imagine if ten percent of this country’s population was busy making active efforts to take away not mere privileges,” she said, “not even dignity, but your most basic rights. Imagine if ten percent of the people you interacted with, on a daily basis, did not regard you as human.” This seems like a stretch as an attack on the SFWA, but other people piled on regardless.
  • Generally virtue signaling provokes an avalanche of “me, too” responses, some of which can turn into vicious attacks like the one against Fionna Man. This is where the conformity problem comes into play. Everyone knows they need to publicly express certain views (as Gerrold pointed out), so once an issue is suggested, they pile on the opportunity to show their conformity. This is regardless of whether they have put any thought into whether the attack is justified or what effect it might really have in the long term. Some people really don’t care.

    Last year there was an argument at File770 where posters discussed freedom of expression and how it should be used to dictate morality. Posters apparently supported the idea that it’s fine to attack people regardless of the accuracy of your claims because this publicizes you own views (virtue signaling) and also indicates what views should be considered morally wrong and unacceptable to the public. This also assumes any injury done by the attack is socially advantageous because it will intimidate others who might be tempted to express the “wrong” views. There was no concern about what kind of personal damage this does to individuals who are erroneously attacked.

    Meanwhile, Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, says in his new book Principles: Life and Work that independent thinking is the most important principle for an “idea meritocracy” to rebuild our society in a better way. What should we do about that?

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