First, the good:
This week, I sold two SF haiku to Scifaikuest for their August 2014 print issue, and a new review of my latest publication said:
“CL3ANS3 is a beautiful story” and ”Cuinn’s voice and the picture she was able to weave inside my mind was absolutely amazing, her prose was top-notch.” Yay!
The not so good:
A few months ago I shared the opening of a story I was writing, “The Night Hours“. It’s got lots to love: 1930s Innsmouth, a non-white hero navigating a Mythos noir mashup, a strong female character, and more. I thought it would be the start to a series of these stories, maybe even a collection. I researched, wrote, rewrote, finished the story and –
I’ve become hesitant do anything with it. In writing about a main character not normally seen in this type of fiction (Lovecraft’s work was notoriously white-washed, and I’ve been pushing back against that for years) I started from a place of appreciation but ended up wondering if it’ll be read as appropriation. Why? Because too often, white authors will write about non-white characters – usually Asian – to add an exotic flavor to their fiction. Exotic because they assume we’ll read the inclusion of this “other” character as unusual, strange, mysterious, and even sexy – but definitely not normal, average, typical, day to day, or white. And flavor because often these characters are described as food, with “chocolate”, “mocha”, or “cinnamon” skin, and they’re sprinkled into the story for the characteristics the author assumes their race implies, in the same way that a dinner of dim sum and fried rice would be mentioned – because hey! that’s weird food – but when a character eats cereal for breakfast it’s left out.
I wrote that character because I wanted to see something in fiction that I don’t often see – a strong, non-white, lead character doing all of the typical noir things, including getting the girl. I picked a Filipino man as the lead because I felt I knew enough to have a good sense of the character without having to guess at anything. I didn’t want to risk getting it wrong, and if I’d written about a native of the Sudan, for example, I would be inventing instead of relaying. He is like any other guy, white or not, because the real life Filipino men he’s inspired by (not based on any one but an amalgamation of several I’m close to) are the same as white men, which is to say, they’re normal and unique and typical, depending on the moment, just like everyone else. This isn’t a revelation to me and it certainly shouldn’t be to you.
But while a lot of the readers on this story loved it, I noticed an odd split: all of the non-white readers adored it, while some (not all) of the white readers thought it wasn’t believable. I was told that this story would only sell to “certain” markets. One person even asked why the MC had to be a Filipino when I’d “obviously” written a white man and then changed his appearance. I’m already aware of the fine line between celebrating and othering, when it comes to writing about people and places you’re not legitimately a part of, and these crit notes were making me nervous. There’s a lot of non-white authors who’d say that you shouldn’t even try to write non-white characters if you happen to be white, because it’s not your story to tell.
I respect that point of view and I at least agree with part of it – you shouldn’t tell someone else’s story without drawing on your own experiences in some way. But I disagree with the implication that only people of a certain race, color, background, sex, gender, identity expression, neighborhood, and so on should write about characters with those qualities. We should all write everyone, and we should all be careful to write real people with whom we can relate, instead of using a character’s external appearance or birthplace as shorthand.
I want this story out in the world because I think it’s entertaining, well-researched and well-written. I also very much want it out in the world because the idea that [insert any non-white person here] can only be admirable, strong, manly, sexy, or brilliant if we first write a white version and then paint ’em a different color is something I don’t ever want to hear again. We make SFF a more diverse place by including more diverse characters, regardless of the author. But if readers look at this story and think I’m exaggerating someone’s abilities to make a point, and so use it as proof they’re right to assume non-white peoples are less than in some way – I’m failing my friends and people I love by contributing to that. That’s not fair to them.
The fact that I’ve had to say “non-white” and “white” several times in this post isn’t fair to them either, by the way. We are all so much more complex than a simple “this/that” division could ever express. Do you really want to be “just a white guy”, a stereotype, a bad guy in a certain kind of films? Neither do I.
I don’t have a good answer to this problem yet, and so I’ve got the story tucked away in a file until I decide what to do with it.