A Sale, A Review, and A Problematic Story

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.

Good Example, Bad Example: Firefly, Language choices, and Admitting I Was Wrong

Last week I wrote a guest post for BookLifeNow where I talked about being aware of your language choices when writing stories set in the future. It’s a first step kind of post, covering a few different points, and encouraging writers to think more about the topic. One of the issues I brought up was writing a multi-cultural future:

 It’s terribly easy to slap on a few “exotic”** words and think you’re creating accessible multi-cultural characters but if you don’t know what the words mean or how language evolves over time, it sounds slapped on. It shows very quickly that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Mixing languages gives you a more honest feel, but that means you’ll either have phrases your readers don’t understand or you have to find a way to explain everything in context.

I gave two examples of this – Firefly, the popular but short-lived scifi television show, and Godzilla, King of the Monsters, the 1956 American reboot of Gojira (the Japanese-language production of the classic rubber suit monster movie). In one, the characters used two languages mixed together in the dialogue, and the other used the original Japanese footage cut together with scenes of a white guy, speaking English, asking “What did he say?” It was my way to help people visualize the difference between having “phrases your readers don’t understand”, or having to “find a way to explain everything in context”.

In that sense, I felt, it worked. But one of the readers rightly argued that Firefly was problematic in its portrayal of Asians (and, I agreed, its treatment of women). What “worked” as an example for my blog post didn’t work for the reader, who said:

I, the viewer, was very confused because I kept trying to parse the Mandarin they were speaking. Their diction was, on the whole, terrible. So, no, for me, I did not know what the inserted language meant. (And what’s so wrong with subtitles? If we had subtitles, we could have had a more realistic portrayal of the integration of English and Mandarin rather than the derogatory portrayal of Mandarin as being “that language you swear with.”) …. to me, the way it used Mandarin is symptomatic of those problems, not separate from them.

In that sense, no, Firefly doesn’t work at all. I meant it in a different way than it was taken, but there are times when intention doesn’t matter as much as what actually got said, and this is one of them. My motivation for writing the post was to get people thinking about their language choices, particularly as it pertains to race, and this is all part of that conversation. It’s a conversation we should be having, not just about a show that was cancelled a decade ago, but about how we write fiction now. A few places to start:

Mike Le asks some important questions in Frustrations of an Asian American Whedonite (there’s video of Le asking that question at Comic Con and Whedon’s response here).

You can download and read Jennie Fong’s paper “Stuck in a Blender: Genre and Racial Hybridity in Joss Whedon’s Firefly“, which suggests that:

Instead of a completely blended East-West culture, Firefly only persisted in detaching Asian cultural signifiers from their cultural significance. By blurring distinctions among the different Asian ethnicities and borrowing from Asian cultures without acknowledging the population, Firefly fell into the trap of cultural appropriation rather than cultural blending.

and that this actually influenced the network’s decision to cancel the show.

Thea Lim points out Whedon’s tendency to put Asian characters in the background in her essay for Racialicious.

And someone put together a brilliant Firefly recast showing the characters portrayed by Asian actors (found on tumblr). Very fine actors on that list.

Look, it’s easy to get defensive when our words get taken in a different way than we’d like, but do you want to be right, or do you want to be better? I’m going to keep working on my writing, and the way I talk about writing, which means getting a few things right and acknowledging when I don’t. Hopefully you’ll all stick around, and we can work on these issues together.

5 Movies I Didn’t See in 2011 (But Saw This Week)

I love movies. I love how a great director and great actors can take a script, which is just the skeleton of a story, and flesh it out with sets and sounds and camera movements and jump cuts to make emotions. Turning it into the warm body of a film, with strength and heart. When I was young I attended the Academy of Art in San Francisco, and worked on a degree in Screenwriting (with a minor in Cinematography), wrote a few films (and saw them produced), and learned a lot about the film-making process. Though I figured out that screenwriting was basically organizing thoughts and notes to create an outline for someone else to finish – and therefore not enough to keep me interested – I still use some of what I learned then in my writing now.

When I went to UPenn I studied mainly Art History – which is one of the best degrees for a writer in terms of teaching you about art, culture, history, and how to think – but I also got a chance to take a couple of film criticism classes. I loved them! I’ve done classes on Japanese film, both pre-WW2 and post, noir films, and adaptations, and those four classes together showed me most of what is being put back into (recycled, adapted, homage’d) modern movies. Over the years I have learned to write screenplays, see a script cinematically, and think critically about film. But the biggest thing that informs my view of film is that I have watched so many of them. I’ve even worked in movie theaters in order to have access to all the celluloid I want. This has led me to watch a lot less “Hollywood” blockbusters, because I can see the predecessors in the work. Which is to say that I’ve watched enough classic, indie, and foreign films to know all the myriad ways that Hollywood is ripping them off. Why pay to see what’s already been done, and often done better, by someone else?

I ended up only seeing one movie in theaters in all of 2011, my all time low. I saw Contagion, which was wonderful, and that was it. This had, honestly, more to do with my year than with what was available, and so I started off 2012 by renting a handful of “hit” movies that I actually had wanted to see. In the last three days I have watched the final Harry Potter film, Super 8, Captain America, Thor, and Fright Night. What did I think?