Tuesday, January 31, 2006

"I Know Lesbians, and Lesbians Don't Act Like This": Or, I Don't Speak for all the Mostly Straight White Girls in America Who Eat Apple Pie

I went through Cheney's links about "Writing the Other" and read over Pam's essay on The Infinite Matrix on the whitewashing of SF and the "SF Media"'s responsibility to engage with these sorts of issues (I'd argue that blogs and message boards *are* SF/F's media, such as it is, but that's a debate for another day).

What I read were stories like this one of non-people-of-color writers who had gotten the smack-down for writing characters whose skin color or gender was different from theirs. I'm wondering how many black writers get banged around for writing white characters? Or gay writers get harragued about writing straight characters? I didn't see anybody harping on Michael Cunningham for "not getting the Straight Experience right" in his novel Flesh & Blood.

I ha-ha-ed these poor Clarion writers until I remembered an incident in my own Clarion class a few years ago.

One of our older (male, straight) classmates wrote a story with a lesbian character in it. When it came around to another (male, bisexual) classmate's turn to critique the story, he proclaimed, "I know a lot of lesbians, and lesbians don't act like this."

There was a stunned silence. I looked at the story in front of me again. I knew some lesbians, too, and I could certainly see them "acting like this" (I believe the issue was that the woman was aggressive or too smart or something. And I had worked with a woman who was very similiar in temperment - she'd smash you up on her way to the top of the heap - and also happened to be a lesbian). For the record, the lesbians in the room seemed pretty confused by this utterance of absolute fact as well.

"Lesbians don't act like this."

How did he know? Well, he had a lot of lesbian friends, and because his lesbian friends didn't act like that, no lesbians acted like that. There was only one Lesbian Experience.

It's the old, "But I have black friends!" argument. So all of your characters are limited by the handful of personalities you see in your friends of color? If I only wrote about the personalities I saw in my friends' group, I wouldn't be able to write about asshole misogynists or, hell, blade-wielding brown women.

The tension in the classroom was cut when we got around to my buddy Patrick, who ended his critique of the same story with, "You know, I have some problems with your male main character. I know a lot of straight people, and straight people don't act like this."

It was awesome.

I haven't written any books containing an all-white or even majority-white cast since Clarion. In fact, since Clarion most of my stories are full of brown and black people. My next stand-alone novel features an entirely black-skinned cast. In the world I'm building, that makes the most sense. Putting white people on that world would be like putting white people in Austrailia - watch your rate of skin cancer increase. I also want the root of these cultures in this new world to be southern Africa, with some North African influence. That's going to mean a LOT of research.

I also haven't written a book peopled entirely by straight characters since Clarion.

Why the sudden switch post-Clarion?

Well, I realized how much more interesting my fiction was when it wasn't white-washed and straight. And I realized the world wasn't white and straight, either.

I grew up in a little town, 98% white. Our "diversity" was a diversity of religion. Apostolic Lutherans, regular Lutherans, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Catholics - you name it, we had it. I grew up next to a family of Apostolic Lutherans - known derogatorily around town as "bun heads" because the women kept their hair long and usually up in a bun - whose social mores encouraged both women and men to marry as young as 16. They would then drop out of high school and their families would help them build their own house. The men were encouraged to get jobs where they worked with their hands - constructions jobs like carpetry, drywalling, pouring concrete, etc. Contraception was taboo. Families of 13-18 children weren't uncommon. They often married their 2nd or 3rd cousins, and primarily hung out with other people of their faith, and yes, even though they were "white," you could spot a "bun head" from twenty feet away. Hanging out with the girls from those families, well, let's say we all had very, very different views of what constituted a fulfilled life. And talking to them was really fascinating. I've never been a person of absolute faith in much of anything, and being able to talk to people who were - who really believed this was the best way to be - taught me a lot.

In high school, because I was involved in theater, it actually took me two hands to count the number of people I knew who were gay. That may not seem like a lot to people from a big city, but in a little town, that's a good number. And high school kids in theater talk a lot about sex, so throwing out a question to one of the gay guys, "So, being gay, how does that work?" when I was fourteen was pretty illuminating.

Throw on top of that the fact that I've been interested in race relations for most of my life, and it's constituted most of my academic work. I lived in South Africa for a year and a half. I don't know what it's like to have black skin, but I know what it's like to be the only white person on the bus, in the hall; the only white person on the street for as far as I can see. And I remember coming back to the States and sitting in the airport in Minneapolis waiting for my connecting flight and feeling like there was something really *wrong* about the airport, something really *off.* It took me a good ten minutes to realize what was bugging me:

Everbody was white.

I'd gotten so used to being a minority in a sea of dark faces that I felt physically "off" when I wasn't.

So I've read widely, talked to people who are very different from me, and even if I'll never "get it" that's OK - I'd rather "get it wrong" and have somebody go, "Uh, you realize you just did this racist thing, right?" than not do it at all.

Because I understand how important it is to see yourself in fiction, in media. I grew up seeing images of women who spent all their time shopping and gossiping about boys and playing with makeup. I saw women who were small and thin and had huge breasts like Barbie dolls. And for years I tried to conform to that ideal. I thought there was something wrong with me. I thought I needed to spend my time vying for male attention so I could be a "real girl." What I desperately needed was to see a big, strong, smart woman like me who could go out and write books and take kick boxing classes and be smart and still get laid if she wanted to. I woke up one day and thought, "It's not me that's all wrong. It's the society. Fuck this."

Jenn told me that after the first time she watched the Buffy episode where Willow and Tara get together, she was floating around for days on a wave of happiness.

It's so fucking cool to see the possible.

The first book I remember reading that broke down all of the cultural assumptions I'd been fed about women was Tamora's Pierce's book, Alanna. It blew me away. I think I was 10 or so.

For years I'd soaked up media that told women were all weaker (physically and mentally) than men (my parents thought otherwise, but I was very steeped in media as a kid). I was told women didn't fight in wars. They couldn't. They were weak and inclined to stay home and raise babies and clean the house. Staying home and raising babies might be a lifelong aspiration for some men and women, but it wasn't for me. And yet the options I saw weren't that great. If I was too smart, headstrong, and successful, I'd never get laid and I'd be socially ostracized ("Why aren't you married yet?" "Why don't you have a good man?" "Sorry, we're only inviting couples").

And here was this other 10-year-old girl who decided to say "fuck you," and dressed up as a boy and went through knight training. And you know what? She was good at it. She wasn't the best - she excelled at some things and not others. She wasn't perfect, afterall. But she held her own with the boys and became a knight and even got two or three boyfriends in the process. She did what she wanted to do and wasn't socially outcast for it.

Stories are important.

I want to see myself.

Jenn and I got into a series of conversations about the lack of good/happy lesbian films available at our local Hollywood Video, which morphed into a talk about good books with lesbians characters, and the ghettoizing of "gay/lesbian/black" fiction sections at Borders (Neither Sarah Waters nor Nicola Griffith's books are in the "gay/lesbian lit" section. Why is that? Cause they're good books?). And it reminded me again of the importance of being able to "see" yourself in fiction, in media. So much of what we're fed is blatanly directed at a straight white male audience that you can feel the walls closing in while enormous breasts jiggle at you on the screen. You feel like something's wrong with you.

I've been dying to see for big, strong, intimidating female heroines my whole life (Xena was just too cheesy a show for me at the time). However funny the idea of Buffy being a tiny girl without muscles was, she was still a tiny girl without muscles, as was River in Serenity. Not that little women can't be buff - my 115 lb, 5'3 former martial arts instructer would kick my ass for saying that - but she was *buff.* And you could *tell* she could kick your ass.

I'm tired of little-girl heroines who are supposed to be super-scary, but aren't. Because if they really were, guys wouldn't find them attractive or something, they'd be intimidated, and wouldn't watch movies or read books with characters in them who could kick their ass. There's a swath of fantasy over it - sure, yea, ha, she's a superhero, but in real life, I could crack her in half.

So I know something about wanting to see something that isn't there.

It's why I write what I do.

You write because you go out and look for something and don't find it. Somebody has to write it. Why not you?

There's a reason I love Russ and Griffith, but there's not enough to go around.

I would rather write a story about a big butch black lesbian woman who was 6'3 220 lbs and get a bunch of pissed-off letters from black lesbian women who told me where I fucked up than write about a little straight white woman whose "intimate" scenes with male lovers describe her as "child-like" and perpetuate the white-washed SF/F world.

When I write, I try to be aware of what I'm doing. I recognize that I've got a character in God's War who might be seen as "The Magical Negro." I personally don't think he is (and there are other black characters in the book, of course, and pretty much everyone else is brown), and I just killed off my gay male character knowing full well I'd just sacrificed The Gay Male Character (though there are lots of other gay people in the book). But you know, first and foremost, to me, he was a person. Which means that's how I write all of my characters: person first. And then he's also a half-breed gay guy with really good organic tech skills and an interest in Nasheenian politics. I'm a person too. I can relate. The rest I have to come up with through lots of talking and research, and imagining.

I'm a fantasy writer. That's what I do. You know, imagination and extrapolation?

If I can create whole worlds in my head but can't write a heavily-pigmented character, what kind of fantasy writer am I?

Nobody blinks when a woman writes from a male POV. That's just expected. Even men write female characters all of the time (who do you think writes 90% of those Hollywood scripts?). Some of them do it badly, yes. And I'll rant about it when they do. But would I rather get the opportunity to critique something badly done or just have 90% of all movies without any women in them at all? Better yet, why don't *I* start writing Hollywood scripts that kick ass like Girlfight? (now there's a woman I believe could kick my ass).

The trick is to be aware of what you're doing. If you know what you're doing but want to do it anyway, go for it. But know what you're getting into and how some people might read it.

To tell the truth, I *like* writing about race and race relations. There aren't any strange creatures in any of my fantasy books. There are culture wars. It so happens that one of the markers of race in my books is, indeed, skin color. I've got POVs in the fantasy saga from two white people (one male, one female, both "mostly" straight), one straight brown guy, one half-breed bisexual woman who can sometimes "pass" for white, and one black lesbian (I've taken out the brown gay guy POV and replaced it with hers for pacing reasons). There are also other markers: height, religion & other belief systems, eye and hair color and styles, facial features (and amount of facial hair and styles of such), clothing, transportation, mythology systems, diet (taboo foods, habits), fighting styles, and etc.

It ain't all about color. Color's often just the easiest to spot.

And, of course, I'm reminded in all of this that I *am* "The Other" in some circles. In business meetings. On conference calls.

As K once said to me, "You know you're in trouble when you're the Diversity in the room."

Just like an Other, I'm not writing about All Women any more than I'm writing about All White people (when they make an appearance). I couldn't imagine anyone assuming I was.

Like Duncan said:

Being gay is a similarly "othering" attribute to give a character, but you know what? When I write a gay character I'm not writing about the Other. I'm gay and I ain't no Other, thank you very much. So I'm not writing, as if for the edification of some heterosexual reader, about Gays! or Gayness!, Gay! life, Gay! culture, Gay! identity, like there's some great universal experience all us Gays! share in our day-to-day, Gay!-to-Gay! existence. I'm not waving the rainbow flag and standing up as spokesmen for the Gay! cause, for all my Gay! comrades-in-arms. I'm writing about a fukcing character, a gay character, this specific gay character, their life, their culture, their identity, their personal experience... The idea that by making a character black and/or gay you must therefore be talking about "the black and/or gay experience" is, not to put too fine a point on it, utter bollocks.

And when I write about a character of color, or a gay character, I sure ain't pretending to speak for "all people of color" or "all gays" anymore than I'm speaking for "all white people" or "all women" when I write white or female characters. It's absurd to think I would be.

I write books I want to read. They deal with my pet themes: war and gender - which includes feminism and definitions of masculinity - race and race relations, genocide, sexuality, ways of constructing families and extended kin groups and sexual relationships.

And if you think only white people deal with that kind of stuff, you're cutting off a huge range of experiences from which to draw from. And you're Othering a whole nother generation of readers by telling them that they don't exist, that the future's only for the straight white people, that only straight white people dream that things can be really different.

6 comments so far. What are your thoughts?

Wendryn said...

I went to a mostly black high school & grew up where I was often the only white person. It was normal to me. I visited a friend at her high shcool and my first reaction was that there were too many white people. I'm living in Nevada now, and the feeling is still there. I feel better when I can visit the Bay Area or a big city - at least it isn't all white all the time.

I appreciate people who can write outside of generally accepted SF/F. I love LeGuin's work because her people are people and, while the race/color piece is there, it isn't the point of the books. Too many people who write with main characters who are not white and/or not straight make that the whole point of the story, like that is all the person is, all that's important. Maybe to the writer that is all that is important, but the people I grew up with didn't think so, and race wasn't a huge deal most of the time.

My fiance had a funny experience. He's been around a huge variety of people all of his life and has never felt out of place. Sitting down to dinner with some of my coworkers who run in very different circles (financially speaking) than we do, though, he felt out of place. He was, for the first time, the Other, despite being white and male.

You can't write about All People, All the Time. YOu are writing about a specific person. People who say that lesbians don't act that way are limited in what they have seen. People come in all different sizes, shapes, attitudes, political leanings, sexual orientations, colors, etc. - trying to define someone by one piece of them is unfair and very limited and limiting.

I liked Alanna, too.

I'm bisexual, but people don't necessarily register that. I don't hide it; I don't trumpet it. Same with my politics, my religious views, and a lot of other things. I don't fit any mold, but it isn't a big deal to me anymore. When I was little, the fact that I wasn't tiny and delicate bothered me some, but I've made peace with it. I like reading about other people who don't fit into neat little boxes, either. I'm glad you are writing people, not what everyone knows "those people" are like. 

Posted by Wendryn

Rajan said...

I agree with you. And I went through the same kind of shift - where the characters in my stories stopped being 'white' and started being a variety of darker colors. The novel that I recently finished is mostly about brown people (with only one exception) and the novel I'm revising right now has both, but deals with the whole colonization aspect of a white culture invading. Actually, recently I was stymied on another story idea I had until I reimagined it with a multicultural slant that took it out of the traditional European fantasy world mold and that gave me a way back into the story. I find it far more interesting to write diverse characters. 

Posted by Rajan

Anonymous said...

Well put Kameron. The self limitations on the form & style for whatever reason are just amazing to contemplate & still worrisome. I tried to make this point in a previous post in early Dec., but it never took in blogger. I think that similar rant was here: [http://brutalwomen.blogspot.com/2005/12/where-are-all-female-magicians.html]

Still I think I can reprise my comments (just found, BTW) here. My problems with all too many SF authors are the singular lack of imagination, and a tellingly pervasive ignorance of most of history too.
It also speaks to a larger issue than this. Seneca Falls was mostly an elite response to the official legal oppression of the times. It would take most of a century to become a more widely based popular movement. Still history and private dairies tell us of many, many remarkable, independent and strong women who asserted their rights and liberty in the face of stiff opposition, and in the almost complete absence of organized allies. Where the hell are these women in SF? They were there in the 1830's, in Crimea in the 1850's in the worst conditions imaginable, they ran the Sanitary Commissions during the Civil War saving lives and inventing the more successful wings of battlefield medicine. So where the hell are these voices in SF? Why the complete lack of imagination that seemingly is only happy to exclude such women in favor of nifty, reliable but severely constrained plot and tired character devices? This is why new voices are needed, and why you can be successful in exploiting this glaring lack. Cheers & Good Luck, 'VJ'  

Posted by VJ

VJ said...

Still more on this point here via Boing Boing:

[http://www.boingboing.net/2006/01/30/black_sf_writers_and.html] and here's the original essay from Pam Noles: [http://www.infinitematrix.net/faq/essays/noles.html]

And if Cory D. is such a fan of Clarion, how come he's not mentioned you lately? Just a thought. Cheers & Good Luck! 'VJ' 

Posted by VJ

Kameron Hurley said...

ha ha. I don't believe I'm famous enough to make Cory's hotlist.

Wait until I sell a couple of books. 

Posted by Kameron Hurley

Professor Kim said...

FWIW, Toni Morrison was roundly criticized for the white characters in Tar Baby. And I do know of female writers who have been criticized for their male characters. Alice Walker comes immediately to mind.

That said, I appreciate your argument. I write nonfiction; not fiction, and I teach people to be journalists. Journalists are almost inevitably called upon to write about people who do not share our identity,whatever that is. The key is to make an effort to have learning and life experiences outside of one's own comfort zone, which you clearly have done.

At the same time, I think we have to acknowledge that when a person who is in a privileged position writes about "the other," that responsibility is even greater, and in some ways more challenging to fulfill. We can not step outside of who we are, and we cannot let our self-consciousness about who we are paralyze us for fear of getting it "wrong," whatever that means. The best we can do is to open ourselves up to the feedback that comes from people inside of the experience we are trying to portray. 

Posted by Kim Pearson