Not Latina enough: Is the requirement for #OwnVoices changing?

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Referring to my last blog: That is such a troubling statement about Latina heritage on File 770 that I think it needs another look. For anyone interested, here’s the full quote: “Macmillan f’ing up by publishing American Dirt, a novel rife with negative Mexican crime and drug stereotypes (which was written by a white American woman who says she has “Latina” heritage because she has a Puerto Rican grandmother), but not publishing books by actual Latinos.”

You’d think Cummins would be the new face of multiculturism: she’s of Irish and Latin American decent, was born in Spain and lives and works in the US. However, this particular File 770 poster says the publisher f’ed up because they published her, but not actual Latinos, indicating that Cummins has, instead, lost her claim on Latin heritage. One might consider this contradiction a mental glitch, but seeing that the perception is widely shared, I have to assume it really is an expression of the current climate surrounding #OwnVoices writing—the “current climate” does seem to be something the File 770 regulars are on top of. Apparently Cummins, at 1/4 Puerto Rican, isn’t considered Latina enough to have written this book, or even to qualify for minority status in Macmillan’s stable of writers.

So, there are a few conclusions that I can draw from this situation. First, Cummins, secure in her belief she is Latina, and her publisher Macmillan, apparently never thought about being challenged on this book. Next, you’re not a Latina, African American, Native American, disabled, LGBTQ, or anything-else writer, unless you’re out; plus, coming out after you’ve been Twitter mobbed won’t help your case with the mob. And last, the requirements for #OwnVoices writing may have actually tightened so that 1) descendants of first generation ethnic minorities may no longer count, especially if they don’t retain ethnic names 2) an ethnic minority can only write within the narrow limits of their own background and/or 3) an ethnic minority can’t be successful enough to get a seven-figure advance.

These possibilities have repercussions, of course. Should minority writers now consider whether they’re “brown enough” to write something ethnic? Specifically, can only Mexican Latinas now write about Mexico? Cummins isn’t the only minority to fall into this trap recently. About the same time as this controversy, Isabel Fall withdrew her publication at Clarkesworld because of similar criticism. Certainly Fall never questioned her own credentials to write the story, but should her trans status have been publicized in advance to head off criticism? Does the response to both Fall’s story and Cummins’ novel suggest that authors need to publish any minority status they might qualify for on their books/websites/blogs?

This has been a growing trend, of course, but is it now required? Or is that obligation actually an invasion of privacy? Should writers be required to put their ethnic heritage, their gender identity, their age or their medical status out there for a discussion about whether they’re qualified to write their particular story? Should publishers request proof of minority status before going to press so they can post it and head off criticism? And last, is this minority status automatically cancelled when a writer becomes financially successful?

Since Cummins is judged not-Latina-enough to write about a Mexican Latina character, maybe we should now have another look at who’s publishing as an #OwnVoices minority. For example, should we question Native American writer Stephen Graham Jones, who grew up in Texas and has a white name? Or Rebecca Roanhorse, who claims African and Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo heritage but writes about Navajo characters? Should we maybe question the light-skinned Nisi Shawl about her qualifications to represent the black experience?

And last, that question about financial success is still hanging there. Cummins has obviously hit the mainstream taste with this novel. It is sitting pretty securely atop the New York Times Bestseller List. So, why doesn’t the Latinx writing community support her?

Militant progressives take aim at “brown” authors (a.k.a. more on author bullying)

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It’s been a little while since I checked in on the author bullying scene. A quick review of articles this week shows it’s an ongoing problem, and that the environment for young adult novels is currently well into the toxic range. Here’s a Vulture article that names Twitter and Goodreads as a source of much of the problem, where a certain militant group uses social media to police upcoming or newly issued books that might “harm” teens through what are deemed inappropriate social justice messages.

What’s actually going on here? Censorship? Book burning before the fact? Jealousy? Experts seem to think it has to do with ongoing culture wars. YA continues to be mainly driven by white authors, despite calls for more diversity, and some people of color continue to report rejection due to a sort of quota system. So, looking at the specifics of this, mostly the authors (and their publishers) being attacked this way are white women. That suggests a certain “mean girls” culture could be involved, but still, the attackers use progressive clubs to beat their victims. The Vulture article quotes a NYTimes Best-Selling author as saying there is, “a sense shared by many publishing insiders that to write outside one’s own identity as a white author simply isn’t worth the inevitable backlash.” You could think that this backlash might be an effort to shut down white authors so publishers will have to publish more acceptable POC writers, but interestingly, the community sometimes turns on authors of color who don’t toe the line, as well. For example, I’m curious about what Jamaican author Nicola Yoon did to get lambasted. Is the YA community really trying to shut her down?

So, you must be thinking something happened recently to provoke another blog from me on author bullying. You’re right. This week’s victim is Amelie Zhao, a young Chinese immigrant to the US who recently scored a three-book publishing deal with Delacorte. Her debut book Blood Heir was due for publication on June 4, 2019, but she has pulled it from publication due to attacks from the YA community. Apparently this has to do with a slavery theme where “oppression is blind to skin color.” Here’s a comment by “Sarah” from Twitter: “I’d love it if somebody who looks critically at what they read would write a detailed review that proves all the bigotry in this book so white people and Asians finally start listening because I’ve seen a lot of systematic shutting down of any brown person who brings up concerns with this book.”

This is an interesting comment because of the expectations it reveals. Sarah is soliciting bad reviews of the book? How does she know it’s “bigoted”? It’s not even published yet, so has she actually read it somehow? And what’s wrong with Zhao’s theme? Do people with a particular skin shade now own the rights to oppression? Also, notice that Sarah has lumped whites and Asians together on this in opposition to “brown persons.” Sorry, I missed something here. Are Asians not considered “brown” any longer?

Well, apparently not. Asians are apparently successful enough that they’ve got white backlash now.

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?

Are negative reviews politically incorrect?

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A recent discussion about reviews has caused me to Google about on the subject. In the last couple of blogs, I’ve noted opinions about the trend toward positive reviews, but there are some more pointed opinions out there on the issue of negative vs. positive reviews. This is the third and last blog on the subject.

Rafia Zakaria, writing for The Baffler, has thrown her support firmly behind critical reviews. Unless it stings, she says, then it’s not worth anything. She also has some interesting ideas about why and how the current trend has emerged.

First, she notes that the tone and style of contemporary book reviews reads like ad copy—generally including a summary and some non-conclusions, but nothing of critical engagement or analysis of how the work might relate to the environment it emerges from. Her conclusion is that this style is based mainly on a political ethics that requires non-judgement. In other words, all readers are expected to “check their biases and privilege” before reading and not make any kind of judgement about the content or quality of the book. Ergo, writing only positive reviews is a commitment to equality and fairness for all.

However, this raises questions about affirmative action. According to Zakaria, the purpose of limiting negative reviews this way is (implicitly) to assist underprivileged and marginalized authors, whose work may be hard for readers to relate to. She suggests that critical reviews are seen as a kind of “textual violence” and therefore “a tacit endorsement of inequality, of exclusion, and marginalization.” As a marginalized minority writer herself, she feels this is a matter of the privileged taking offence on the behalf of the marginalized while at the same time suggesting that minority authors’ work is too sub-standard to stand up to a real review.

Does she have a point? Are reviews now required to serve marginalized writers through non-judgement? Is this a tacit statement on the poor quality of their work?

Then what about the other side of this? Because of the pressure for positive reviews, many reviewers won’t read something when they feel they can’t give it a good review. This means people who have written something truly different are shut out of the market. Because of the current publishing climate, this could include people with unpopular political viewpoints, people who are expressing an uncomfortable reflection of society, or people who are too rooted in their own cultural viewpoint to suit the current marketplace. Of course, minority writers who are accepted and heavily promoted by big name publishers are going to get reviews in big name publications, but what about everybody else? Is the emphasis on only positive reviews shutting out reviews of all these other works?

Review of The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera

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This is the debut novel for Rivera. It runs about 500 pages and was published by Tor in October 2017. Rivera is Puerto Rican and currently lives in New York City.

Qorin tribeswoman and warrior Shefali Arsalayaa writes a letter to her friend and previous lover O-Shizuka, Empress of Hokkaro. In this letter, Shefali details their childhood together beginning at age three, and follows Shizuka’s growing conviction that the two of them are divine, favored by the gods and destined for great deeds. Shizuka becomes an accomplished swordswoman while Shefali favors a bow. The two of them slay a tiger at a young age and then move on to tackle the demons that are sucking life out of the kingdom. This is a difficult and dangerous task, and they both suffer for it. They become lovers, but are separated when Shefali is exiled by Shizuka’s uncle, then Emperor of Hokkaro. Can the two of them find one another again?

Tor’s announcement bills this as Mongolian inspired, and Shefali might be, but Shizuka and her culture come across as heavily Japanese. This generated knee-jerk complaints on Tor’s website about a “white” woman appropriating Asian culture, which degenerated into something of a mess when others pointed out that Rivera isn’t white and others questioned whether non-whites can appropriate culture. Certainly Rivera hasn’t written the book about her own cultural heritage.

Good points: The Tor editor described this as “stunning,” and the prose is very well done. The imagery, especially Shefali’s descriptions of her lover, is sometimes striking. Characterization of the two main protagonists is also well-done, as the two of them have depth and substance. There’s a suggestion of power plays in the court, but the intrigues aren’t the main story.

Not so good points: I like women’s adventure, but the literary device of the letter made this primarily about the love story. It also removed all immediacy from the action and events. Who writes a 500 page letter detailing whole lives and mooning about the attributes of their lover? The result was that I got bored about 1/3 of the way through and had a hard time finishing. Despite the imagery, the world isn’t well defined, and I had a hard time integrating the steppes and the kingdom. Characters other than Shefali and Shizuka tend to be flat and don’t always ring true. There’s a huge gap of years here, and no indication of how Shizuka displaced her uncle to become Empress. Did he die childless? Did she off him in some way? Inquiring minds would like to know.

Three stars.

More on Double Standards. Is it racism?

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In the last blog I asked why Benjanun Sriduangkaew and Sunil Patel have been treated so differently after bad behavior within the SFF community. Under her persona as a lesbian Thai writer, Sriduangkaew has been promoted in various high profile magazines despite being exposed as a notorious online bully. On the other hand, Patel has recently been blacklisted by several publications because of complaint by women via Twitter that he engages in “manipulation, gaslighting, grooming behavior and objectification of women” (but not apparently direct sexual harassment). So, why the difference? Is there an issue here? I checked around on the Internet for different opinions on the matter.

Here’s one from last fall where Billy D offers a fairly standard view that the Twitter charges are vague, non-specific and unsupported by any real evidence.

Here’s an interesting opinion by Natalie Luhrs. According to Luhrs, “…if Patel were a white man, I don’t believe the people he abused would be getting nearly the same degree of support from the community.” She goes on to give examples of white men who have been accused of similar behavior without much effect. She also notes that Patel has moved to position himself strongly within the community, but he’s actually just an up and coming editor/writer without much of network that would give him real power and influence to resist the charges.

These opinions are interspersed by announcements by publishers about cutting ties with Patel because of the complaints. These include Lightspeed, Book Smugglers, Alliteration Ink, Mothership Zeta and Around the World in 80 Books Blog, who pulled an interview with Patel.

No one has brought charges of sexual harassment, but clearly Patel is out of line in a major way. Luhrs thinks his behavior would be considered standard in a white man. So, is the problem here really that Patel is a dark-shinned man-of-color? No one has uttered the word “racism” in this discussion, but Luhrs’ comments about Patel’s status in the SFF community lend to this idea. In previous blogs, I’ve noted that men-of-color clearly have lower status than women-of-color. Patel is ambitious, and he’s probably following the standard formula as outlined by John Scalzi, which is “sucking up and punching down.” However, he’s missed the fact that this only works for men with “white” privilege. The result is a serious offense.

I’m not coming out in support of Patel’s behavior. However, he’s clearly being treated differently than Sriduangkaew–or, for example, YA author Greg Andree, who was accused of similar behavior but escaped unscathed.

So, is the issue racism, or not?

White Tribalism

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Another social trend highlighted by recent politics is the emergence of white tribalism. Here’s an article by David Marcus about how the current social/political climate has increased this development. Normally “whites” come from a polyglot of racial/ethnic backgrounds, from Nordic to Mediterranean to Slavic, all mixed together without maintaining any kind of identity as a single tribal unit. However, this lack of identity has recently shown signs of shifting. The key social trend Marcus identifies as leading to this change is political rhetoric that makes everyone the representative of their race. He thinks progressives are only accelerating this trend with a policy of insisting whites should confess their privilege and otherwise “own it.” According to Marcus, this does nobody any good, and instead leads to solidification of a white racial identity and greater entrenchment of white privilege.

In the run-up to the election, I had thought the extremes weren’t really Clinton vs. Trump, but Sanders vs. Trump. Hillary Clinton looked to be pretty moderate in the beginning, but shifted hard left to pick up Sanders’ supporters. You’d think that white tribalism would be something mostly found on the right, but here’s an article by Barrett Pitner that points to white tribalism among Sanders’ supporters who felt they were entitled to win (and have the benefits Sanders was promising) because of who they were. According to Pitner, both Trump and Sanders were mining white tribalism in their political rhetoric.

On the other side of this vision of whiteness, here’s an article by James Lawrence who thinks this kind of white tribalism is only a “flash in the pan” because people of European descent are basically moral universalists. He’s getting somewhat out of the realm of practicalities and into theology here, but I think he’s right that there has to be new middle ground in the current political split.

Black male privilege

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Here’s an interesting perspective. Since African Americans are one of the minorities that count, who would think any segment of the black population would experience privilege? Here’s the report, though, provided by sociologist L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy (2014) in Brittany C. Slatton & Kamesha Spates (eds) Hyper Sexual, Hyper Masculine?: Gender, Race and Sexuality in the Identities of Contemporary Black Men (p. 75). According to Lewis-McCoy, black men experience privilege. This seems contrary to common knowledge. Evidence shows that black men in the US typically experience the most discrimination in employment, relations with the police, early death, imprisonment, etc. So where does the privilege come from?

According to Lewis-McCoy, the very fact that there are only 83 men per 100 women in the black community leads to privilege, especially if these men are accomplished. This includes entertainers, sports figures, college graduates of all kinds, writers, doctors, artists and sociologists. Because of their relative rarity, these men experience a strong systemic privilege relative to other minorities, and especially to black women (though not to white men, of course). The obvious example in this case would be in affirmative action. Looking back at the previous blog, if we reserve affirmative action for the most oppressed minority, this is certainly black men, and according to Hugo award finalist David van Dyke’s very insightful comments on the last blog, this translates to advantage.

Additionally, all black men in the US experience privilege, according to Lewis-McCoy, when it comes to accountability. Expectations for black men are low because of high levels of discrimination, so everyone takes it as a matter of course when things go wrong, never looking at the underlying personal deficiencies. Everyone blames oppression instead. This leaves black men with an out as far as personal responsibility goes. Because it’s clear they can’t accomplish anything for themselves, their families or their community, many don’t try. Instead, according to Barbara Reynolds, a certain group engages in acting out as a form of protest, which they mistake for effective activism.

The other big privilege for accomplished black men that Lewis-McCoy identifies is in negotiating sex. You can read his article for more info on that.

Looking again at the SFF community, the conventional wisdom holds—I don’t see much privilege for black men here. Instead, they are hugely under-promoted. Sites like this generally only include black women writers. How did Samuel Delaney ever make it?

What is Whiteness?

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According to Jamelle Bouie, the recent election is a case of “white won.” If that’s so, maybe this is a good time for another look at what that word “white” means. I’ve already mentioned in a previous blog that white is more a set of power relations than about race. This means that whiteness is about power and privilege and not really about skin color at all.

One of the mistakes that neo-left activists have made, according to David Marcus in a response to Bouie’s article, is that this group has equated privilege with skin color, assuming all white people are privileged and demanding they should admit this and apologize for oppressing people-of-color. According to Marcus, the struggling white working class (along with a big chunk of the middle class) has responded to this demand with a hard swing to the right. He suggests that “whites” will no longer accept that minorities should be allowed to pursue their own interests to the detriment of whites, and that things people-of-color say will no longer be ignored in the political arena.

So given that this is really about power and privilege, who turns out to be white and who turns out to be a minority? This is an interesting topic. First, people of Arab ethnicity are currently making a move to withdraw from the “white” race into a MENA (Middle Eastern/North African) category. Although Arab-Americans have been designated as white for the last 70 years in the US, they increasingly feel they don’t have the privilege that whiteness should confer.

Next, it occurs that Asians are actually “white.” This is a social phenomenon that goes back several decades, when suddenly Asians became invisible in diversity counts (and started to sue about discrimination in university admissions). If you’re interested in further reading on this topic, see an article here by Eugene Volokh written in 1998. Non-Latino Hispanics also turn out to be invisible in diversity counts, and I’d hazard a guess that Native Americans are mostly invisible, too. So that leaves only blacks and Latinos as the minorities who actually count.

Next blog: How does this affect the SFF community?

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