Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Essay: No Foreigners Allowed

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

Edit: Deepad's open letter and my response here.

I want to talk about what is labeled as "RaceFail 2009" and "RaceFail 2010". On one hand, it's great that there are people who are concerned--and speak out--when such topics arise. I've witnessed and read about ethnocentrism and it's a flaw that a lot of cultures fall prey to (Germany being the primary culprit during World War II). That there is a small but growing awareness of the literature of other cultures is, in my opinion, a liberty that only occurred because of humanity's continued struggle for "enlightenment" (or progress, if you find enlightenment such a spiritual or abstract term).

It's also all too easy to chide the ignorant or the ones who rally for ethnocentrism in literature (whether they're conscious of this or not). No, what I want to talk about is how the champions of cultural diversity can sometimes get it wrong.

When I read about RaceFail, one of the impressions it gives off (whether implicitly or explicitly) is that you can't write about cultures that aren't your own. This isn't necessarily what RaceFail champions are intending, but I've seen some people come to that conclusion, or are scared shitless by the incident that that's the implied threat of such a debacle.

Which is a tragedy as there is the possibility of genuine insight when an external party writes about another culture, in much the same way that there is value in someone writing about their own culture. In the former, because of distance and a lack of presumptions, fresh perspectives arise. For example, I've heard the Philippines described by a foreigner as "more America than America" due to the proliferation of shopping malls, high-rise buildings, and commercial outlets in Manila (specifically Makati City). Which, in retrospect, is true, but this conclusion would never have come from a Filipino (as it's typically a dream of poverty-stricken Filipinos to migrate to the US). In fiction, we have texts like The Heart of Darkness and The Good Earth which, for the most part, is Westerners writing about a culture that's not their own (although one could make the argument for Pearl S. Buck, who spent most of her life in China).

That's not to say that fact alone is excuse enough to arbitrarily write about another culture. As they say, do your research, but that's easier said than done.

And even if you do your research, the problem still remains that you won't convince everyone. Let's say you manage to write a great scene describing Manila. Some Filipinos reading your text will agree that it's a faithful description of where they live. Other Filipinos, on the other hand, will simply disagree with you. And it's very well possible that both sides bring up valid points, as both have different experiences and perspectives. Or to put in another way, we as critics don't agree on whether a book is a good or not (just look at the disparity of reviews in general, let alone consolidated reviews posted on Amazon). The perception of culture is similarly subjective. Just because one "cultural expert" doesn't veto your writing doesn't mean the next one won't. We can look at the writings of SF authors who write about other cultures: Ian McDonald, Geoff Ryman, Paolo Bacigalupi. Some Brazilians will praise McDonald's portrayal of Brazil. Others won't. Does that make McDonald a good or horrible writer of other cultures? Or better yet, as a writer, should the fear of being criticized as such stop you from writing, especially when you feel you have something important to say?

An example close to home is the novel Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. Oh look, the protagonist is Filipino. But to me, that's a superficial description. As far as I'm concerned, nowhere in the novel does the hero's Filipino identity come into play. In fact, if it wasn't mentioned towards the end of the book, you wouldn't really have guessed that he was Filipino. But that's my take on it. There are other Filipinos who love the book because hey, the protagonist is Filipino, if only in name. The book has personal value to them, even if that's not the case for me. I don't, by any means, have the last word when it comes to the Philippines in science fiction.

The problem with RaceFail is that while yes, it does champion doing research and being careful when writing about other cultures, there's also a sense of elitism that scares off potential writers. Instead of espousing "research about China before you start writing about China", the (un)intended effect is "I won't write about China because I can never do justice to my research of China". And that's a sad state for cultural diversity, because instead of encouraging people to write about other cultures, it halts the dialogue.

My generation was weaned on Star Trek: The Next Generation instead of the original series but there are some observations that can be made with regards to the latter. Yes, Star Trek was culturally progressive for its time, but it's also distant from our modern concept of racial diversity; the main protagonist was still a white privileged male, and while the supporting cast is multi-ethnic, they didn't stray too far from their designated roles (Star Trek's "trinity", after all, is Kirk, Spock, and McCoy). Star Trek is culturally flawed by today's standards, but because it did take steps to foray into cultural barriers--even if it got them wrong some of the time--it was a stepping stone that paved the way for cultural progress.

That's not to say cultural mistakes are excusable, or that they should even be tolerated, but when a conflagration like RaceFail occurs, I want everyone to keep in mind what the primary intent of cultural awareness is. In society, most people see imprisonment as the opportunity for punishment instead of reform, and while the former paradigm is valid, society benefits more from reformed criminals than dead ones. When it comes to cultural appropriation, I want to see positive reform, instead of simply condemning writers for making mistakes. I want to live in a world where writers are educated enough to write about other cultures and get it right, instead of a society where writers don't write about other cultures for fear of getting it wrong (or worse, getting it right and still drawing the ire of fans and readers; each culture has their own taboo subjects after all that someone within that particular culture will be apprehensive discussing in public).

58 comments:

Jha said...

Perhaps I'm reading you wrong, but you seem to be saying that the solution to RaceFail would be for authours to do more research on cultures not their own. Which, yes, is a solution, but is not the only one, since RaceFail encompassed so much more than that.

I'm curious now: is this the main thing you took away from the conversation? Because this is a point that has been debated over and over again, and was a central theme to MammothFail as well, often focused on to ignore other points made. You're doing the conversation a great injustice by condensing it down to this particular point.

Also, Heart of Darkness is a terrible example of a Western writing a culture not his own. And by terrible, I mean, terrible, downright awful and other such synonyms.

silviamg said...

I think this is a thing that has struck me as very particular of the spec community.

If a historical fiction novelist gets certain facts about a certain period wrong, and fans point this out, seldom is there a tug of war between fans and writer discussing whether Henry VIII did in fact eat chicken legs or mutton.

On the other hand, if a writer's representation of a certain culture is viewed as wrong, inaccurate or just simply worthy of criticism, a common reaction is to fend off such accusations. This can take the shape of saying "You are imagining things" or "I didn't mean it."

Both of which don't really do much for the conversation. If I said Henry VIII had two brothers instead of one, that would be a fact. There would be no imagining it. And I couldn't say I didn't mean to write he had only one brother.

"You are imagining things" and "I didn't mean it" should probably be banned from the vocabulary of a writer trying to tackle a foreign culture. That, along with decent research, would probably lead to more amicable conversations.

silviamg said...

Sorry, in the post above it should be McChickens or mutton. Hope the idea still comes across.

Charles said...

Hi Jha.

the solution to RaceFail would be for authours to do more research on cultures not their own.

No, that's not what I'm saying. I mean yes, if you want to avoid Racefail, as you pointed out, that's one of the solutions, but it shouldn't stop from there. If that was my point, then yes, condensing it as such would have been an injustice.

The point of the essay, however, is to tackle one aspect of the fallout from RaceFail. Which is the sentiment that if you're not of a particular culture, don't write about it.

Sure, let's say Heart of Darkness is a horrible, horrible example. Does that mean you can never write a book about a culture that's not your own?

Charles said...

Hi Silvia.

Yes, I agree with your sentiments. But the problem with tackling culture is that it's personal, especially to the reader.

With historical novels, it's usually an incident in the past. The reader will want accuracy with Henry VIII, but the mistake isn't impinging on their family honor, culture, etc.

The problem with genre is that culture is personal. It could be "hey, you're misrepresenting Philippine culture!" on my side as a reader (and a Filipino). As an author, there can be an implied threat of "you're racist", etc. Which leads to both sides taking it personally, instead of focusing on the facts. (Also, there is also the assumption that culture is a hegemony.)

silviamg said...

True, but I think the onnus is on the writer to not take it personally.

A writer should probably be aware that all kinds of criticism will be heaped on her. It doesn't have to be race. It could be you got the science in the fiction wrong, etc.

The writer should also be aware that in this day an age it is a lot easier to learn about the readers very personal reactions, and to reply to those readers. Plus, that the audience may be a lot wider than it was. Hence I can get an e-mail from Malaysia with much ease, and that someone from Malaysia may catch mistakes about by Malaysian story.

To make a long story short: writers shouldn't stop writing something (anything, be it about science or another culture) for fear of getting it wrong, but should know they may indeed get it wrong, and may heard about it. A lot or a little.

One of the common complaints from writers against writing near-future science-fiction I've heard is that "10 years from now my prediction for the future may prove to be wrong, so I better not write it." Which strikes me as a pretty silly mechanism. It is essentially self-sabotage.

I used to work a journalist, and you're going to get a lot wrong. And you'll hear about it. It doesn't mean you'll quit the newspaper after the first errata.

So, to answer your question: "should the fear of being criticized as such stop you from writing?"

No, and it probably doesn't deter most writers.

To the other question: does that mean you can never write a book about a culture that's not your own?

I saw write what you know is a good maxim. It doesn't mean I can't write a novel about contemporary Shangai, but it'll be harder than writing one about Canada or Mexico, since I know both well.

The feeling of honesty in your writing is something that can be expressed more easily when you have such knowledge of a place. Lovecraft is very culture specific (New England) and he paints a very vivid picture of his surroundings because he knows them so well. It's hard to imagine someone mimicking that bizarre honesty he has about the eastern United States.

Writing means standing naked before an audience. When you know the culture, I feel it's a lot easier to peel off your clothes.

For example, with Mexico, I can show everything, warts and all, because I am comfortable in its skin.

Whereas with another culture, I'd have to rehearse my striptease more methodically rather than just flinging off my bits to the world.

It may be the same for other writers.

T-Boy said...

Charles, you're missing the point.

The issue with RaceFail is not whether you are "allowed" to write cultures that aren't your own. You are free to write whatever you like, and there are authors -- Western authors, even! -- who have done foreign cultures incredibly well, and have demonstrated not only accuracy, but also intelligence, sensitivity and respect.

Hell, it's conceivable that an author will write a story incorporating elements from a culture that is, in every way, factually accurate -- you know, what research can provide (arguably)! And even then it can fail, because the work uses the elements of the culture merely to outline the actions of the dominant-culture *tagonist (pro and anta), as backdrops or victims or supporters with no point of existence but to serve as background for the actions of the *tagonist.

That's not only insensitive, but that's crappy writing. And that's still fail, no matter how factually accurate you are. And people will call you out, and people will react badly when you respond to them by belittling their experiences and their concerns. Dismissing those concerns as "hysterical" or "oversensitive" will not win you the argument anymore -- it may mean that you will lose, and lose hard.

Charles said...

Silvia: I agree. =)

Charles said...

T-Boy: I wasn't talking about RaceFail per se. I was talking about the consequences of RaceFail.

Whether that was the intent of the RaceFail discussion or not, one of the sentiments is that only people of another culture should write about their culture.

What I don't like is all the rage and, as Silvia put it, writers taking it personally (although I'd like to extend it also to the critics).

T-Boy said...

...

I see. So they were right; this is a variant of the Tone Argument.

The ones who actually did more harm were the ones who outed identities and used their power to stifle debate. Not the ones whose anger was restricted to criticism and commentary on the Internet.

The anger is a natural consequence, Charles. It's sourced from being ignored and belittled for so long. Learn to deal with it, or learn to ignore it.

If anything, I only felt real fear during RaceFail after PNH and TNH used the word "nithing" to describe their opponents, and someone actually explained those words in context.

If I have to deal with an angry person who restricts their anger to the subject, and someone who attempts to pretend for calm, and yet uses a word that used to describe subhumans?

I'd take the anger any fucking day.

Charles said...

So who is "they" in "they were right"?

Oh yes, I don't disagree with you that the ones who did a lot of harm were the people who outed the identities. What they did was wrong, let's be clear on that.

But all the rage and the hate that it created is also harmful.

I focused on this particular subject because it's not really being discussed.

Yes, the Haydens were wrong in that scenario. Acknowledged.

So now, what about the rest? Will this anger help cultural diversity in fiction? I'm interested in safe spaces for discussion for everyone. Condemnation is too easy.

Charles said...

People are, of course, free to disagree.

Charles said...

Either way, I want to stop focusing on RaceFail but on the matter at hand: writing about a culture that's not your own.

T-Boy said...

So who is "they" in "they were right"?

Several of my friends pointed this article to me, and I've been talking to them over chat throughout the day.

But all the rage and the hate that it created is also harmful.

Arguably! But in comparison to what happened to those who criticized the Haydens and coterie? One person got outed, threatening her job and potentially her life. And others got silenced, made to feel like their contribution was useless. Isn't that elitist?

Your putative "elitist" effect from all this "anger and hate"? I don't necessarily think it doesn't exist, but in my view? They're there because people have been silenced.

The word isn't even "elitist", it's "exclusionary", because people have been excluding those who have been demonstrably not allies in this. And yeah, you know what? Exclusion happens, and it's not always bad.

And right now people are talking, and thinking intelligently about incorporating elements of culture that are not their own, and not necessarily tossing out ideas without input from other people as sanity checks...

It's not perfect, but is this bad?

Charles said...

T-Boy: The problem with this conversation is that it's still hung up on RaceFail itself, which isn't what this topic is about per se (although it obviously touches upon it).

And quite frankly, this reaction feels more like defending RaceFail, rather than reacting to what I posted. (And I'm not condemning RaceFail. It's like a war; it had both positive and negative results. I'm looking at one of the latter effects, and how it can be remedied.)

As you pointed out, lots of horrible things happened in RaceFail (on both sides, I might add). And I'm not denying that. Nor am I denying the positive effects. The fact that we're discussing it is proof of that progression.

But based from your comments, you're fighting one form of exclusion with another kind of exclusion. And that's where I have a problem, hence this post. The consequences of such talk isn't dialogue, but a flat-out halting of communication between both parties.

Again, sure, all the hate and rage is justified--but in the end, while there are some positive benefits, what does it accomplish? Is it to simply silence other writers? Or to reform them? The way I see it, there's more of the former rather than the latter.

You see some people talking about things and that's good. But I also see some people cease talking, hence this post.

So my thesis: people writing about other cultures, permissible or not? If it's not related to that topic, forgive me if I stop replying, as it's merely adding fuel to rage that's related to RaceFail, instead of this topic that I brought up.

Jha said...

The point of the essay, however, is to tackle one aspect of the fallout from RaceFail.

Of all the aspects of RaceFail you could have written about, you just had to pick the one which has been discussed again and again. Often, to the detriment of people whose cultures are being written - and RE-written; therein lies the rub.

I trust you will be writing more on other aspects of RaceFail's fallout. I will be supremely disappointed if you don't, because out of everything, this particular aspect strikes me as the one least relevant to the discussion of world SF (and the one that causes the greatest frustration).

So now, what about the rest? Will this anger help cultural diversity in fiction? I'm interested in safe spaces for discussion for everyone.

First I would ask, who is this "rest" you're talking about?

Because I, being part of the audience and observers who had little to say during RaceFail itself, since I was neither involved in fandom nor the writing industry, would say that the anger has been extremely helpful wrt to RaceFail. The rage that exploded brought out so much more into the conversation. The anger led to a refusal to be silenced.

As for safe spaces, by setting up a conversation frequently bemoaned by white authours who feel they need "permission", you have already set up an unsafe space for discussion - for PoC and other minority writers and readers whose experiences have been consistently ignored - until RaceFail. But then, we're quite used to it.

Again, sure, all the hate and rage is justified--but in the end, while there are some positive benefits, what does it accomplish? Is it to simply silence other writers? Or to reform them? The way I see it, there's more of the former rather than the latter.

Again, who are these "other" writers you speak of? Because the writers I see being called to be silent are the ones with power, who have always had a large platform from which to speak. They will not stop talking. Even when they should.

If some writers are halted from speaking, it is so that writers who are often silenced can be heard. This is hardly a bad thing.

So my thesis: people writing about other cultures, permissible or not?

The answer: Of course it is, but be prepared for criticism if you get it wrong. Which is a good thing. And be aware that if you have privilege, you have the power to be taken more seriously than a person who is from that culture itself. Which is a bad thing.

And seriously, comparing RaceFail to a war? Seriously?

And if you didn't want to be talking about RaceFail, you shouldn't have brought it up in the first place.

coffeeandink said...

Hi, Charles,

I would strongly request and recommend not linking to the Fanhistory wiki -- the maintainer has repeatedly outed fans in media fandom and has a history of biased reporting and stirring up controversy to attract to attention. It is not a reliable source for any information.

If the link to supporting evidence gets stripped out, it's:

http://cofax7.dreamwidth.org/718139.html

Charles said...

Jha: Just give me a few min. to respond.

Coffeeandink: Sorry, I was unaware of that. Linked removed.

Charles said...

Jha:

I trust you will be writing more on other aspects of RaceFail's fallout.

This particular topic stuck to mind, because the other topics seem to have other champions--or at least it seemed so to me. (And, uh, I was meaning to write it back during Norman Spinrad's rant, but didn't have the time.) Do you have other specific topics you want me to talk about? (Obviously, won't promise an immediate response, but hopefully I'll fit it in a Wednesday slot.)

First I would ask, who is this "rest" you're talking about?

Off the top of my head, it's writers who want to write about other cultures. Or people who want to criticize some aspects of RaceFail. You're right though that in part, this favors what you consider privileged writers.

Rage for me is a two-way street. You're right in the sense that it gave voice to those who didn't have voice before. But it also silences other voices.

by setting up a conversation frequently bemoaned by white authours who feel they need "permission", you have already set up an unsafe space for discussion - for PoC and other minority writers and readers whose experiences have been consistently ignored - until RaceFail.

My problem here is that you're presenting a dichotomy. If I give voice to one, I'm automatically shutting out the other. Can't I have both parties talking?

Again, who are these "other" writers you speak of? Because the writers I see being called to be silent are the ones with power, who have always had a large platform from which to speak. They will not stop talking. Even when they should.

I won't out them. But I can talk about my own experiences. Heck, RaceFail stops me from writing about other cultures. But as Silvia pointed out, that might be my problem as an author.

If some writers are halted from speaking, it is so that writers who are often silenced can be heard.

Forgive me if I don't share this belief. I want open voices on both sides. Perhaps that's naivete on my part, but then so be it.

The answer: Of course it is, but be prepared for criticism if you get it wrong. Which is a good thing.

Sure, totally agree on this.

And be aware that if you have privilege, you have the power to be taken more seriously than a person who is from that culture itself. Which is a bad thing.

Yes, that's true. But right now, I feel there's a shift. And the shift is that you have to be part of a culture to be considered worthy of writing about that culture. (That's a subjective perception on my part however, so feel free to disagree.)

And seriously, comparing RaceFail to a war? Seriously?

Sorry, my analogies aren't clear. I'm comparing it to war in the sense that war has both good and bad effects, and both sides can have the best intentions, but it nonetheless leads to harmful results. Some would even say it's necessary. (And as pointed out, RaceFail brought about a lot of good.) I don't mean to compare the two in the context of, well, war leading to actual casualties.

And if you didn't want to be talking about RaceFail, you shouldn't have brought it up in the first place.

Well, I brought it up because it's the consequences of RaceFail, so I did give it a cursory nod, but it's not the thesis of my essay. Just look at this reply--how much time was spent talking about RaceFail topics, and how much time spent on whether it's permissible for people to write about other cultures?

Jha said...

My problem here is that you're presenting a dichotomy. If I give voice to one, I'm automatically shutting out the other. Can't I have both parties talking?

I would like to say yes, you can, but the reality is, no, you can't. Even at a panel, moderators do not allow two people to speak at the same time. Why? Because that's fucking annoying, for one, and for another, if two people were to speak at the same time, chances are, only one will get heard of the two. Who will be heard? The one with more privilege.

Online, yes, we can all speak at the same time. However, there is a qualitative difference between a fan's blog who gets only 50 readers a week and a writer's block who will get 500 readers a week. Both will have something to say on the same subject. Only one will be heard by more people.

Being heard is not a two-way street. You're essentially saying, by giving underprivileged voices a chance to be heard, we silence those of the privileged. Which sounds an awful lot like "reverse racism". When the reality is, those with privilege have silenced, fully, many of the underprivileged, simply by opening their mouths.

Heck, RaceFail stops me from writing about other cultures. But as Silvia pointed out, that might be my problem as an author.

Yeah, that's definitely your problem. It's also my problem, so you're not alone there. In fact, I've also been wary of writing about my own. Which I shouldn't be. But it's good to acknowledge it as a problem.

But right now, I feel there's a shift. And the shift is that you have to be part of a culture to be considered worthy of writing about that culture.

Definitely subjective on your part, and it sounds obnoxiously like those MRA type who whine about "the pendulum swinging too far" wrt gender issues.

Just look at this reply--how much time was spent talking about RaceFail topics, and how much time spent on whether it's permissible for people to write about other cultures?

You cannot talk about whether it's "permissible" to write other cultures without talking about the power dynamics involved in writing another culture. And these power dynamics is what RaceFail was heavily about. If you don't talk about the power dynamics, permission is inconsequential - people are going write about other cultures whether or not they're given permission. That is the prerogative of the writer. Just as it is the prerogative of the reader to critique a writer's work that they feel unjustly represents them.

Do you have other specific topics you want me to talk about?

Yes, the development of SFF within developing countries would be interesting. The impact of fan spaces on the genre. Projects spurred by minority participants in response to RaceFail. The relationship and responsibilities of reviewers and writers to fans. Just to suggest a few.

Anonymous said...

Charles, you keep coming back to the question as to whether or not people can write about other cultures. In this discussion, Jha gave a pretty good response:

"Of course it is, but be prepared for criticism if you get it wrong. Which is a good thing. And be aware that if you have privilege, you have the power to be taken more seriously than a person who is from that culture itself. Which is a bad thing."

That's all. You can write about other cultures, but do your research; be considerate of others; and be prepared for possible criticism. Not that criticism is new to writers, right?

You also say that no one has discussed the question as to whether or not people-- whites included-- can write about other cultures. I actually found that much of RaceFail09 centered on this topic. For example, this post http://rydra-wong.livejournal.com/146697.html, with links to many of the discussions that occurred at the time, includes many conversations on precisely that.

For example: "White people, its not all about you, but for this post it is": http://deepad.dreamwidth.org/29598.html

I understand that you're frustrated with all the criticism. The thing is, most spaces, at most times? Are not safe for minorities. What you're feeling now is how we feel all the time.

- bell

Polaris said...

Charles,

I feel I should point out that the first sentence of your post says: I want to talk about what is labeled as "RaceFail 2009" and "RaceFail 2010". I don't think it's entirely unwarranted if your readers want to engage you on the topic. For another thing, to chide them for talking about RaceFail instead of your post misses the fact that your post, in fact, is engaging in the the debates and dialog begun by RaceFail. You are dealing with the same topics and responding to previous events - how does that not make you part of it?

I should also point out that your tone throughout your post and your responses is extremely condescending towards people who are raising valid points, which you are dismissing on purely arbitrary grounds. If you are going to talk about race, and cultural appropriation, and especially if you are going to defend the white, Western, patriarchal norm (which this post is certainly doing, whether that was your intent or not), it does your argument no credit if you refuse to engage in debate about the points raised in critique of that norm.

One more thing, more of a point of order: I have to take issue with your statement that Germany was the prime practicer of ethnocentrism during WWII. What Germany practiced was genocide, racism, and anti-Semitism. I doubt you want an essay on the topic, but I could certainly give you one: the important thing is, these are not equitable terms.

Charles said...

Polaris:

For the sake of simplicity, let me refer to your three paragraphs as points one, two, and three.

On point one, I just want to limit the scope. Because talking about RaceFail is quite expansive, and as Jha mentioned in her first response, to condense it to one particular point is to do it injustice.

As for point number two, when it comes to condescension, there's nothing more that I can do than to apologize. (What's been said has been said.) As for culture appropriation, you're right that it's not my intent to defend white writers per se (I'm selfish in that sense as I'm thinking of myself), but if that's what comes across, well, nothing more I can do at this point. It's either apologize or elaborate more, and work on my writing skills in the future.

Third, Deepad chides me on that part, and since I don't really want to elaborate more on that part, I'll accept the criticism.

silviamg said...

Charles,

I think your argument is “Why can’t we all get along?” A succinct answer is we can’t always do so, and you can’t always have a fair and even discussion (specially online) between several parties.

Moving on you, you wonder if one of the bad points of discussions on race is that it might limit the output of writers.

I would say we could roughly divides all writers in three broad categories:

a) Heard of RaceFail and does not care. She believes the discussions is nonsenses and ignores it.
b) Has not heard about RaceFail. Hence, it doesn’t affect her. Frankly, most writers will probably be in this category.
c) Has heard of RaceFail and cares about racial issues.

You are concerned that writer c might be so sensitive, that she may curtail her stories because of the threat of negative criticism.

To which, I’d say, all kinds of writers have written about controversial, potentially explosive stuff for ages. Nabokov’s “Lolita” and Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” are two of my favourite books, yet their publication was not greeted with claps and smiles from everyone. It also didn't stop lowbrow stuff like "Mandingo" from making it into the world.

If a writer can’t face criticism, then I’m not sure she is ready to be a writer. If hypothetical writer c is so sensitive, that she decides not to pen a story for fear of a backlash, I’d say that’s just a sign of the writer’s immaturity.

On the other hand, listen to that little voice in your head. Gut instincts can be a good thing. If you have written a story about another culture, and your gut instinct tells you there’s something off about it, then maybe there is something wrong about it. You could send it out to other people to look at, research it more, sleep on it.

Of course, if your gut instinct told you the story was peachy, and then you got lots of negative feedback, that’s information that should probably be dissected and referenced in the future.

In the end, I just can’t sympathize with someone who is scared shitless and doesn’t write because of that (and I can only think very young and/or new writers would fall in this category). Like I said before, writing involves baring yourself, and if you’re scared of baring it all, I’m not sure you should be in a profession that involves a lot of stripping

N. K. Jemisin said...

Charles,

Here via Deepa's open letter to you.

I'm not planning to spend a great deal of time on this, because despite your assertion that RaceFail didn't discuss the issue of power and who is "permitted" to write about other cultures, I would say the bulk of RaceFail's posts were about precisely that. Which makes me suspect that you haven't taken advantage of the wealth of information and thought on the subject that RaceFail provided. If you're not willing to do your research on something before you write an article critiquing it, it doesn't surprise me that you're not willing to do sufficient research to write about other cultures -- but as Silvia has noted, this is your problem, not a problem with RaceFail or critics of inappropriate depictions.

But I have to spend time on one of your points, because I literally saw red when I saw the examples that you cited: The Good Earth and The Heart of Darkness. Really? Really? You're citing two of the most infamous examples of inappropriate cultural appropriation and racism in literature to suggest that people who critique this stuff are elitist? Conrad's book has literally destroyed lives. It helped to forge the Western cultural zeitgeist that classified Africa and African-derived people as innately savage and ignorant, needing the paternalistic intervention of Western powers and white enlightenment (through helpful innovations like slavery, colonialism, and in America, Jim Crow) to be civilized. And the "yellowface" casting of white actors as Chinese people in the film version of "The Good Earth" contributes even today to the inability of Asian actors to get jobs playing their own people in Hollywood.

Crappy fictional depictions of PoC aren't just offensive (which they are), and aren't just bad writing (which they are), they also perpetuate the kind of everyday racism that restricts and hurts real people in the real world. People who protest this aren't elitist. I would argue that people who perpetuate racism, and insist that they should be allowed to do so without criticism or anger in response, are the real elitists.

hederahelix said...

Yes, that's true. But right now, I feel there's a shift. And the shift is that you have to be part of a culture to be considered worthy of writing about that culture. (That's a subjective perception on my part however, so feel free to disagree.)

As a white woman, I have to disagree with this.

I absolutely agree that there are a lot of white people who as a result of RaceFail and the ensuing conversations who are, for the first time, beginning to consider whether they can and should write about other cultures in a respectful way.

I think, on the whole, that's a good thing because too often in the past white folks, particularly in genres that utilize the fantastic, often (although not always) tend to use the cultures of folks of color as a resource to be mined without being mindful of the ways that doing so can result in reductionist portrayals of cultures that they may be less familiar with than they should be when they write about them.

However, saying that is not the same thing as saying that no white person can ever write about non-white cultures that are not theirs.

At this point in my life, I would feel comfortable setting my works in some non-white cultures because I've done a lot of work educating myself about cultures that are not my own, and I have close friends who are white allies and POC who I know well enough to trust that they would tell me if I screwed things up.

In other words, I've never had any POC tell me that I can't write about their culture. I teach about non-white cultures at my day job several times a week. Nobody's ever told me that I can't talk about those books because I'm white.

The difference is that I have gotten past the fear of being called a racist. I've let go of a lot of my own baggage about the fact that when it comes to race, whether I like it or not, and no matter how much in other contexts like social class, gender, or sexual orientation this is not true, *when it comes to race*, I occupy a position of privilege. I'm confident enough in how much processing I've done on some issues that if someone said "Hey, your portrayal of X in this story/your reading of this text is racist and bothered me," my response would be "I'm sorry. I screwed up. Let me see how I can make it better."

I also know, however, that while I feel pretty educated about African American culture, I don't know nearly enough about, say, Aboriginal culture. I think that it's important for us as white folks to spend a little extra time thinking about what we do and don't know as much about and, as a result, which cultures we could write or teach about well.

I do think that writers--fiction or non-fiction, professional or amateur, fantastic or not--need to be aware of our own limitations and blind spots.

I think it's a good thing that RaceFail and subsequent discussions have brought that issue onto the radar screen of more people.

But I also think that the whole "Well, I'm scared to write about it because I might get it wrong" is a bit of a cop out fueled by white guilt. It seems to me it would be more productive to spend time worrying about how to educate ourselves so that we can move beyond that guilt than to waste time feeling like we can't write about X because someone else took that away from us (esp, since that's not what I think happened). All that energy spent being anxious, scared, or upset that we've been told we don't have an inalienable right to screw up representations of someone else's culture could be spent actually educating ourselves about that culture instead.

ithiliana said...

Here from various links on my LJ friendslist. Luckily, people I know have said all I might say a lot better than I could, so I just want to say that here is a model for doing what I think you want to do better than you did:

http://www.jimchines.com/2010/03/writing-the-other/

http://www.jimchines.com/2010/03/racist-sexist-and-homophobic/

Jim's posts are very much worth reading. I predict that your post, especially if you persist in the idea that you have something original to contribute to the discussion (which your post does not show) and the self-defensiveness about valid points that have been raised many times before, is likely to lead to another 'wave' of Racefail.

Robert N. Lee said...

If calling the witch hunt a witch hunt makes you a target of said witch hunt, it's a witch hunt. There aren't any issues at the bottom of these mob hysterias that aren't common to all such events: disturbed and conniving people starting and running them, for starters.

Just disgusting. Thanks for delineating the core issues and staying away from the muck, though. This crap just makes me way too mad.

Robert N. Lee said...

Oh, and the actual proposal, here? If you wrote about a black character and you're white, any black person should be able to level any criticism of your book at you and you just have to take it. If if that criticism is deranged and she admits she didn't actually read your book.

You aren't allowed to answer, or you're expressing white privilege. Even if you're not white. If you're smarter than the person you're arguing with, you're also expressing white privilege, even if he has more and better college degrees than you do.

If you say "I think you're all behaving like a bunch of brats" and get added to the racist or non-ally list, and protest that you're married to a black or Latino or Asian person, that you have non-white children? OMG, are you the worst racist ever, then, look it's on the bingo card that about a thousand white Livejouralers who don't know anybody who isn't white will pull on you.

Oh, and the Haydens did absolutely nothing wrong - the stories floating around about them are fabrications. These aren't good people, doing this stuff, and there's a whole pile of lies on one side of the table, only.

Anonymous said...

Charles, I just wanted to point out that no one was outed during Racefail -- someone claimed to be because their name was posted in another person's blog and they did not want it to be, and then it came out that the "outed" person and others had been regularly posting their real name on their own blog and elsewhere in public.

Since the louder voice was the individual claiming to be outed, that is the story that makes the rounds.

The claim FanHistory's admin outed anyone is equally as spurious and selective of its facts, and also like the above "outing" claim, a charge based wholly in the politics of fandom and its numerous interpersonal squabbles.

(A desire to stay out of those same politics, and to avoid being lied about and publicly vilified for not holding up the party line, is why this is being posted anonymously. Apologies.)

Jim Davis said...

I'm not clear on how the novel The Good Earth is racist because Hollywood practiced racist casting (which Pearl Buck had no say about) in the film version. If you follow that logic, then Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's must be a key racist text because of Mickey Rooney's awful Japanese stereotype in the movie. (I've never read Buck's novel, btw, so I'm not defending it, just pointing out the illogic of your attack.)

As for Heart of Darkness, I don't see how it helped to forge "slavery, colonialism, and Jim Crow" given that it was published in 1902, well after all three of these were established. (And did colonial officials really need Conrad's novella--itself a critique of policies like the Belgian occupation in the Congo--to spur them on?) Also, it's a common mistake with Conrad to assume that Marlowe and his other first-person narrators are stand-ins for him; it's not obvious Conrad shares Marlowe's racial and cultural attitudes--or that he intends for the reader to, either.

Heart of Darkness is very far from a sterling representation of Africa or Africans, and it certainly has its offensive aspects. Claiming, however, that it's a kind of proto-Turner Diaries--racist propaganda without any redeeming qualities--does it a disservice, and really makes me wonder if you've read it since high school.

Robert N. Lee said...

"Charles, I just wanted to point out that no one was outed during Racefail "

And calling that "outing," never mind "rape" is incredibly offensive. If you want to be anonymous online and you're not very good at hiding your tracks, you probably shouldn't go around picking fights with people. They tend to fight back, and if you didn't learn in grade school that you don't get to pick a fight, then cry that you got hit, you're worthless, IMO.

Oh, and don't claim to have been "bashed" around me, either, unless you've got bruises to show, real ones. I had a friend in high school who got bashed a lot. One time, the guys took him out in the woods and raped him and screamed "FAG" at him over and over. Then they dumped him naked on the side of the highway.

If that didn't happen to you, you didn't get "bashed." And if you decided to pick a fight online and you don't like your name used online, and the person you attacked did that in response, you didn't get "outed," either. Those words actually mean something, and you don't get to swipe them and apply them to your butthurt that everybody in the world won't immediately agree to your lunatic demands.

"Claiming, however, that it's a kind of proto-Turner Diaries--racist propaganda without any redeeming qualities--does it a disservice, and really makes me wonder if you've read it since high school."

Remember, the Failers, like Tea Baggers, are perfectly comfortable "critiquing" work they've never experienced. That's how Racefail all started, an angry person who didn't read a book crying persecution because people who had argued with her. Because finishing books is white privilege or some shit.

Given that a bunch of people talking glibly about "Heart of Darkness" this week seem to think it's a novel, or a book unto itself, or don't know even vaguely when it was published, none of these people have read it at all. I mean, it's not like they don't run around condemning work just because the next blog over said to do it all the damn time.

Ultimately, you just don't get to tell me how to write. Other writers know that. Only wannbes who never will don't.

aliettedb said...

Both "The Good Earth" (pub. 1931) and "Heart of Darkness" (pub. 1902) are very much a product of their time, which is also very much not our own. They present the world as they knew it at the time, and this includes a colonialist lens because most people of the early 20th Century wouldn't have envisioned the world otherwise. There's certainly plenty of questionable stuff in there, but if you were to deny them value on the basis of this, you'd have to throw a lot of other books out. To take a non-Western example, most Chinese literature during the imperial times is incredibly misogynist in a very matter-of-fact way that's terrifying--and some of it is incredibly racially smug in a way that never fails to get my blood pressure up.

I can't excuse literature written today that takes racial stereotypes and perpetuates them, but stuff from a century ago gets a lot more slack in my book.

I do agree with Jim on a lot of points, though. "Heart of Darkness" was published in 1902, well after colonialism had become entrenched in Western minds, and it's more the other way around: it reflects the mentality of its time rather than forges it. Of course, it no doubt did contribute to reinforce existing stereotypes, but I sadly very much doubt it established them. Plenty of fertile ground was there already... I haven't read it in a while, but I seem to recall it's not really flattering to the Westerners either.
As for "The Good Earth", it does seem a bit unfair to blame the book for the faults of the movie. Hollywood being one of the most racially-blinkered set of people around, it's hardly a surprise, but I don't think Pearl S. Buck had much of a say in who was cast in what role (actually, a quick look at Wikipedia confirms that Buck herself wanted Chinese actors for the movie, but had to cave in to Hollywood pressure).
Yes, the book itself is somewhat problematic, but it does present an interesting point of view on China, that of the outsider: Buck had lived in China for most of her life, and she saw it through the lens of a white European expat. Does it make it authentic? I'm not sure, it gets a little iffy at this point. Does it make it colonialist? Insofar as it's the product of a colonialist period, yes, but I think Buck was making a genuine effort to depict the daily life of a people she'd lived side by side with. Sure, some things are wrong in the book--but as Charles said, I think you can still take something away from it, even if it's only the way outsiders perceived the civilisation.

Anonymous said...

"Charles, I just wanted to point out that no one was outed during Racefail -- someone claimed to be because their name was posted in another person's blog and they did not want it to be, and then it came out that the "outed" person and others had been regularly posting their real name on their own blog and elsewhere in public."

This is factually incorrect. An outing not only took place, the one who outed refused to take the outing down. Had it been taken down, nothing would have happened.

It is cute how you pretend things didn't happen, though. Luckily, they are well documented, so...nice try whitewashing the event. But you still fail.


"Oh, and don't claim to have been "bashed" around me,"

This is a comment that proves you are both unintelligent and ignorant. "Bash" is a term that is used on the internet in a specific context. Using it in this context has been started by people like you. You cannot blame others to pick it up and use it in this context.

You have to understand that language has different meaning in different contexts. If you have even a basic education, surely you should know that much.

Heck, even the dictionary could reveal to you that 'to bash' has several meanings, not all limited to physical violence.

How come racefail-defenders and people pretending the outing (another word that is used correctly - look it up) fail even at understanding the meaning of simple words?

Robert N. Lee said...

""Bash" is a term that is used on the internet in a specific context. Using it in this context has been started by people like you. You cannot blame others to pick it up and use it in this context."

People like me? You mean like bisexual abuse survivors in biracial relationships, those kinds of people? Oh yeah, we must irritate the fuck out of you Livejournal children with our real world concerns.

"People like you." Jesus.

Robert N. Lee said...

"I would strongly request and recommend not linking to the Fanhistory wiki -- the maintainer has repeatedly outed fans in media fandom and has a history of biased reporting and stirring up controversy to attract to attention. It is not a reliable source for any information."

HAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

Yeah, the one documenter in this whole sorry mess that tries to maintain any kind of objective standards, they're the lying bad guys.

That's awesome.

Oh, BTW? People who are worried about their jobs and online stuff either (a) aren't online, (b) don't engage in any controversies that might reflect badly or (c) know how to cover their tracks if they're going to try to play anonymously.

People in actual danger just plain aren't online, so I know that story's bullshit.

Somebody used your real name, good god.

Jha said...

Heh, so much for "safe space".

I think Heart of Darkness has value insofar as it demonstrates the colonialist mentality. However, that means it has value in depicting the colonizer's experience. Like a great deal of other literature today. It is thus not the greatest idea to hold it up as an example of "someone writing a culture to which they do not belong".

We should keep in mind that no work exists in a void - each piece of work is a product of its environment and also adds to its environment. This is the joy of creating art - we craft it out of what we know and transmit it back out for others to learn from. A work gets moreso important when it is canonised as "great literature".

To return to the value of writing as an outsider, however, we should consider several things - who is writing? What are they writing about? On whose terms? The key thing pointed out in RaceFail is that a great deal of literature is written from the perspective of the colonists or their descendants. Part of why this is decried is because often the colonized and their descendants are not given enough of a platform to be recognized for what they, too, can contribute, particularly to an environment where they are already marginalized.

Robert N. Lee said...

"I think Heart of Darkness has value insofar as it demonstrates the colonialist mentality."

Really, that's the only reason you think it has value? Hmmm...let me pull one quick possibility, apropos to the larger discussion.

Oh, I know: Conrad was both a direct witness to the kinds of horrors he wrote about in "Heart of Darkness," and a consummate outsider: a Pole writing about Belgian colonialism in his second language.

That's sort of interesting, too.

Robert N. Lee said...

Oh, BTW, you should really pick up the habit of reading shit before you discuss it, Jha. There is no possible way you could get a reading like "'Heart of Darkness' is about the colonizer's experience." You'll know why in the first page or so.

Robert N. Lee said...

"Conrad's book has literally destroyed lives."

It's not a book, it's a novella. You should really read it. And no, it hasn't.

"It helped to forge the Western cultural zeitgeist that classified Africa and African-derived people as innately savage and ignorant, needing the paternalistic intervention of Western powers and white enlightenment (through helpful innovations like slavery, colonialism, and in America, Jim Crow) to be civilized."

No it didn't. It was written during the decline of British and European colonialism, in the twentieth century, by a Polish expatriate to the UK who became a fiction writer in mid-life - as I said, in his second language, which he had picked up over the previous decade, working on ships.

You really should read it. It's great, and Charles was right, even he admits he never read it, either: it is one of the most amazing balls of meta-outsiderness and despairing comment on the human condition ever put to page.

Is what it is.

Robert N. Lee said...

P.S. Conrad's being Polish is significant because Poland has never been a colonizing nation.

Ta da. See what happens when you read stuff instead of reacting to blog posts?

Anonymous said...

Robert N. Lee, I'm curious. What would you like to gain from this discussion?

Robert N. Lee said...

I want this nonsense to stop. There are all kinds of real issues to discuss about race and social justice, but none here. This is just about people starting fights to cause chain reactions that just keep going. It happens all the time online.

I suspect many people discussing "Heart of Darkness" this week have only read Achebe's take on it, which...rather breaks the rules Failers set forth. I love Achebe's fiction, and have defended him in the past against accusations of misogyny and...uh, "Uncle Tomming," which is absurd. But he missed the boat, here: he's evaluating a core Western twentieth century myth without bothering to find out why it's regarded so highly by Westerners.

There's no mention, for instance, of T.S. Eliot in his appraisal. And Eliot's selection of a quote from the story is significant because "The Hollow Men" is an attempt at a prophetic work. And that's how "Heart of Darkness" is largely regarded in the West: as the words of a modern day Jeremiah, laying bare bloody, unforgivable sins, and pointing with God's finger. That's why it's such a central part of the modern canon.

So...Achebe Racefailed on one of *my* myths. Whatever, he's still also one of the greatest fucking writers of the twentieth century.

silviamg said...

Robert, I'm sorry. But what do you want to stop? The conversation? Charles asked a question and he got some answers. It may not be the answers he or you want, but they are answers.

As for people "starting" fights, I hardly consider replying to a post that asked a question starting a fight.

As for it to stop, it's up to Charles to moderate the post and not allow any more comments if he's tired of reading the comments.

Anyway, I think this answers Charles' question about dichotomyies and having both parties talking.

Robert N. Lee said...

"The conversation?"

No, the asshole behavior over trivial shit. Also, I'd like people to stop attacking my friends and people I respect over nothing and calling them racists.

That's all.

silviamg said...

Joseph Conrad is your friend?

In all seriousness, it's an unmoderated post and that's precisely the whole problem: everyone's going to say what they will, no matter how trivial it may seem to anyone else.

Robert N. Lee said...

"Joseph Conrad is your friend?"

No, other writers who live right now are my friends. And they get tarred with this bullshit because they go "This is bullshit." Which...is bullshit.

"In all seriousness, it's an unmoderated post and that's precisely the whole problem: everyone's going to say what they will, no matter how trivial it may seem to anyone else."

How have I tried to stop you? I can also say whatever I want to say in response. And you don't get to redefine my responses. I got enough of that growing up, thanks.

silviamg said...

I'm not trying to stop you. I'm saying you are going to continue to be frustrated because you consider the whole discussion trivial.

It's like going to the Star Trek convention and being annoyed because there's not enough Star Wars.

Robert N. Lee said...

I'm not frustrated, I'm furious. I guess I get to check off "Tone Argument" on my bingo card, too.

Robert N. Lee said...

Oh, and I guess while Conrad isn't my friend, obviously, and you were doing a diversion saying that, "Heart of Darkness" kind of is. It's one of my favorite English works, ever, and I hate to see it trivialized and maligned by people who clearly haven't read it.

Also, one geek to another, I will confess a certain connection I feel to Conrad, because English isn't my first language, either. Although I unlearned and relearned as a toddler, so I can't really claim the amazing of changing languages in your late twenties and writing so beautifully in the second. It is to weep, truly.

Anonymous said...

I'm confused, anon, because as you say, this is all well-documented.

Are you saying it isn't a fact the "outed" person posted their own name repeatedly on their blog prior to the "outing", and linked their real name and pseudonym elsewhere, and that others had done so long ago as well without issue?

Are you saying posting their name in public did not became a problem issue only after the fight they had with that other person, because of that fight, because up until then even they were posting their name openly in their blog and elsewhere as not-a-secret?

How is pointing these things out "whitewashing"? Actually, wouldn't conveniently leaving those facts out more accurately be "whitewashing"?

And what event are you saying is being pretended as never having happened? That someone posted someone's name? Yes, that happened.

But no one is pretending an outing never happened. An outing really didn't happen. That's the point. An "outing" was claimed, but the details don't bear that up.

Isn't ignoring the person's prior postings of their own name "pretending that something didn't happen"? Just so an "outing" can be claimed to have occurred?

"Outing" is the revelation of private facts someone doesn't want made public like a name, a lifestyle, etc. But you can't be outed if that stuff isn't in-any-way secret or private.

We all knew the "outed" blogger's real name. They told us in public a number of times, on their blog! So did others. It wasn't secret, private data by any stretch.

But when the "outed" person told everyone it was secret and private after the fight, even though we all knew better, everyone was so hot to get riled up they decided that was true, and repeated it until everyone "knew" that was what happened.

Using information the "outed" person freely posted all over the public internet can not be "outing". It might be asinine to not remove it when asked. But it isn't outing.

And you lecture on not knowing what terms mean. Then insultingly declare what side people are clearly on?

Maybe some of us, who really have been outed, don't like the fact that person abused the term for their own gain, demeaning what it means to be outed just to win a private squabble. Maybe that was a slap in the face to some of us.

banzai cat said...

well, i don't know about you guys but your discussion about conrad's work on the larger issues and its effect is fascinating.

don't stop!

Robert N. Lee said...

I'm still waiting for anybody to respond to anything I've said about the story. I guess they're reading it tonight?

Will Shetterly said...

Charles and T-Boy, I understand why Coffeeandink objects to links to a site that tries to present both sides of a story, but surely she won't mind a couple of links to her own site:

On May 2, 2005, she accused me of outing her:

http://coffeeandink.livejournal.com/901816.html

Five days later, on May 7, after I had removed her name from my blog at her request, she began removing her full name and her distinctive LJ handle from her public posts on her LJ and asked others to delete their links to her:

http://coffeeandink.livejournal.com/908181.html

That is correct: She had been "outing" herself for at least three years and continued to "out" herself for five days *after* she accused people of "outing" her.

Around that time, Tempest Bradford deleted the hotlink for Cofeeandink's legal name and LJ from Fantasy Magazine. I hope you won't mind a link to another writer to document that:

http://sierrawyndsong.livejournal.com/6886.html

Yet, after all that, Coffeeandink outed herself yet again sometime after March 29 by hotlinking her name and LJ at the Jane Austens World site, apparently because she did not yet have the hang of pseudonymity.

I've assembled what I know here:

the pseudo-pseudonymity of Coffeeandink.

Will Shetterly said...

As for some of the works in question, Achebe's a great writer, and so is Conrad. I recommend both highly. But as a critic, Achebe must bear the same charge that's leveled at Conrad: he's a product of his time.

Robert N. Lee said...

"But as a critic, Achebe must bear the same charge that's leveled at Conrad: he's a product of his time."

Sure, but you'd have to read both to know that. And (whisper) I don't think most of these folks have read Achebe, either. Or they'd probably OMG RACEFAIL him, too. There is a contingent of lefter folks who read more challenging work than Failers do who...do basically the same thing to Achebe. (It's all about the brutal portrayal of African gender imbalances, basically.)

You just have to read more challenging work if you want to take offense at it. Cartoons are easier, I guess.

Charles said...

This has honestly become a "let's air our grievances" comments section, which is the last thing I wanted.

Also, Robert, thanks for taking a stand, your content (not all of it but most of it) and tone is antagonist and has derailed the conversation.

It's probably best to drop it, and at this point, no one's willing to talk.

Charles said...

Closing the comments section now.