Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Essay: Bigotry, Cognitive Dissonance, and Submission Guidelines

First off, before I start, I wanted to say I didn't want to write this blog entry. Not because it needs to be said, not because it's another controversy in the speculative fiction field, and not because I'm probably the least qualified person to talk about it, but rather because it's another case of a privileged White Anglo-Saxon Male who posts something problematic on the Internet, and marginalized groups get to respond.

So instead of starting off with what's wrong, let me begin with what's right. When talking about diverse anthologies and submission guidelines, here are some books that fit the bill:

Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History edited by Rose Fox & Daniel Jose Older | Submission Guidelines
Diverse Energies edited by Tobias S. Buckell & Joe Monti

Mothership: Tales from Afrofuturism and Beyond edited by Bill Campbell and Edward Austin Hall | Submission Guidelines

THE SEA IS OURS: TALES OF STEAMPUNK SOUTHEAST ASIA edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng Submission Guidelines

Kaleidoscope: Diverse YA Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios | Submission Guidelines (disclosure: I work for Twelfth Planet Press)

With that aside, I want to point out two Guest of Honor speeches from the recently-concluded Wiscon 38. One from Hiromi Goto and another from N.K. Jemisin. Here's an excerpt:

"How important, then, that published stories come from diverse sources; from the voices, experiences, subjectivities and realities of many rather than from the imagination of dominant white culture. For even as we’ve been enriched and enlightened by tales from Western tradition, stories are also carriers and vectors for ideologies. And the white literary tradition has a long legacy of silencing, erasing, distorting and misinforming." - Hiromi Goto
"We’ve seen that bigotry directed not just toward black authors but authors of all races other than white; not just along the racial continuum but the axes of gender, sexual orientation, nationality, class, and so on. We’ve seen it aimed by publishers and book buyers and reviewers and con organizers toward readers, in the form of every whitewashed book cover, every “those people don’t matter” statement, and every all-white, mostly-male BookCon presenters’ slate." - N.K. Jemisin
I want to home in on a specific passage from Jemisin's speech:
"A SFWA affiliate member posted a call for civility on his website; in the process he called me “an Omarosa” and a “drama queen”, but of course he didn’t mean those in a racialized or gendered way... And let me emphasize that I am by no means the only woman or person of color who’s been targeted by threats, slurs, and the intentional effort to create a hostile environment in our most public spaces. People notice what happens to me because for better or worse I’ve achieved a high-enough profile to make the attacks more visible. But I suspect every person in this room who isn’t a straight white male has been on the receiving end of something like this — aggressions micro and macro. Concerted campaigns of “you don’t belong here”."
On the very same day Jemisin made her speech, a call for submissions for an anthology titled World Encounters went up (you can find the screenshot from The Radish of the edited submission guidelines as of 2014/05/27), from the same editor who called Jemisin an "Omarosa" and "drama queen" (the original post has been deleted as of 2014/05/28).

Now there are two points I want to tackle: the submission guidelines itself, for the Formalists out there, and the editor. Why does the latter matter? Because as someone whose culture has been marginalized, to quote Hiromi Goto, I don't want to be part of "a long legacy of silencing, erasing, distorting and misinforming." And when you're a writer, your immediate gatekeeper is your editor. You want your editor to be someone informed, someone you can trust. Imagine, for example, if the editor of an LGBT anthology was Orson Scott Card. Wouldn't you, either as a writer or a reader, find that problematic?

Also, to clarify, I don't think there will be a "perfect" editor or anthology. There will always be something that people will complain about, or find problematic. But on the other, that's no excuse for cultural appropriation (especially from people of privilege), and it's easy to screw things up. Case in point, Wil Wheaton's non-apology when using the term "spirit animals," even when it's explained to him why it's wrong.

I. The Submission Guidelines

What if aliens landed on Earth right next door? How would your neighbors react? What about you? What if they landed all over the world? How would people of different cultures respond? What about Earth explorers encountering aliens on their own planets far from home?
The premise is fine. It sounds generic, but nothing problematic yet.

Submissions outside these dates and parameters will be summarily rejected and cannot be resubmitted. I reserve the right to close submissions at any time if the slush pile is too big and I have what I need. No money is promised or contracts offered until the Kickstarter funds. No simultaneous submissions.

Also, people who are living or have lived in NonWestern cultures, especially the ones they write about, will absolutely have a leg up as authenticity is really important to me.

Here, there is an attempt to reach out to marginalized groups, although this would immediately be contradicted by the editor's succeeding paragraph (see below). Also, it assumes that:

  1. The authors will actually write about the culture they've interacted with ("especially the ones they write about") because there's always a possibility that I, a Filipino, might write about Japan, and what do I really know about Japan?
  2. That the authors will automatically be familiar and understand the culture, because the possibility that they are "cultural tourists" couldn't possibly happen, and
  3. As a reader, the authenticity that I care about is what's written on the page, not the author's biography; a knowledgeable person might not necessarily be able to adeptly convey their experiences for example.
Multi-award winner Mike Resnick will be writing a new Africa story for this, and there will be other headliners with reserved slots, including Kay Kenyon and Jack McDevitt, but I will be looking for 10-15 stories from the open call.

Wait, wait, a privileged Western white writer writing about Africa? This hasn't been done before!

And Mike Resnick has written about Africa before. He must get it right, right?

In many ways, the editor's oversight of this fact is part of a larger, arguably unconscious, racism on his part. Take for example his blog entry titled Broadening The Toolbox Through Cross Cultural Encounters: On Resnick, Africa & Opportunity. Instead of talking about writers from the continent of Africa (and it's a large continent, so there's a large pool of writers like Chinua Achebe, Lauren Beukes, and Joan De La Haye), we get Mike Resnick. Nnedi Okorafor gets mentioned but only as an off-hand comment, rather than the focus of the article.

So when talking about an anthology that's diverse and inclusive, neither Mike Resnick, Kay Kenyon, or Jack McDevitt are what I'd consider the examples you should be touting as a contributors. Because to many, it appears that you are favoring the already privileged writers instead of those marginalized.

I won't even comment that an author that was touted in the original version was eventually rescinded in the edited version, after it was brought up to the said author's attention.

The goal is to have stories by a few known and upcoming Western writers but also include some up and coming foreign natives writing from their own cultural view as well to give exposure to SF from outside the Western world as long as it matches the theme. I will be limiting the number of Western writers included to be sure we get those outside voices.
Words matter. Here, we have a contradictory paragraph. On one hand, it claims that it wants to give "foreign natives" a chance. First off, you don't call writers of other cultures foreign natives. It's foreign to you and they are natives to you (when was the last time people referred to themselves as natives?). It already tips the editor's hand that the book is from a Western paradigm. On the other hand, it's also the Western writers that seem prioritized here. I mean that's why we have guaranteed authors like Mike Resnick, Kay Kenyon, and Jack McDevitt (none of which are, ahem, "foreign natives").

Stories can be Past, Future, Present, on Earth or off, let your imagination run. But I don’t want a bunch of alien POV stories.

I’d like varied POV from different cultures, so I want 1 or 2 from alien POV but not half the anthology or a third. I want some set on Earth and some off. Some could be on starships, too. But I don’t want all. So if you are setting them on Earth and if you are using American POV or Alien POV, please let me know so I can encourage balance.

I would accept a really good story longer than 7 k, but contact me and it will be under much more scrutiny. 3-5k is my sweet spot, honestly. 5-7 is okay but, again, not ideal because I have so many great people wanting in and I’d love to have as many stories, authors and cultures represented as possible. Of course I will take the best stories. If it works out at 12 instead of 20, so be it. But I’m just telling you what I’m shooting for.

This is just horrible writing. This can be summed up "I want X, but not too much of X, or too little of X." That's not to say you won't be making these decisions as an editor, but it's usually made after you've received all the submissions, not before.

I want this to reach a broad audience, including education uses, so if you use foul language, humorous setting is going to be easier sell than serious and if you drop more than two F-bombs in a story, you are lessening your chances. Same goes for “goddammits,” “shit,” “asshole,””mf,” and you get the picture. I am not trying to be a prude or force my beliefs on you. I just want to balance an audience because people need to learn about cultures and perspectives and that has educational value. To quote the description at the top: “we’d like this to be a collection parents and kids can read and discuss to learn and encourage interest in SF and other cultures.”

This means I also don’t want political stories. No bashing other people groups, cultures or belief systems/parties. This is not to be divisive but uniting, because my experience has taught me there are a lot of other viewpoints in the world we Westerners can learn from, but hearing them won’t happen if we turn people away.

First, all stories are political. In fact, the paragraph banning "goddammits," "shit," "asshole," etc. is a political decision. When someone says they're not political, what they really mean is that their politics belongs to the status quo, and they don't want to challenge that. One example is Nintendo's recent statement regarding same-sex marriage in a their video game, Tomodachi Life:

“Nintendo never intended to make any form of social commentary with the launch of ‘Tomodachi Life,”

What they really mean by "no social commentary" is "we are against homosexual partnerships."

Second, we go back to the dominance of the Western paradigm in the anthology. That's why words like "we Westerners" are used. What is the point of soliciting stories from Non-Western writers, if inevitably, their stories will be Westernized to cater to a a perceived Western audience?

I love action but I’d also like a bit of levity so humor is good. I don’t want all humor. And I don’t want all action but I do need some of both. (How’s that for being specific.) That being said, sex and graphic violence also should be kept out.  Pretty obvious. Enough said. Smatterings of foreign words for flavor are fine, but we should be able to interpret it in context. You can play with (translations in parenthesis too) but too much of that just increases word count and makes it harder to read.
Again, more bad writing (I want X, but not too much...). With the bolded part, the editor betrays their lack of understanding of other cultures and the craft of writing.

First, for great writers, foreign words are included in the text not necessarily because they're flavor, but because they're essential to the story. Second, if an author chooses (or does not choose to) translate a word and place it in parenthesis, there's a reason for it, and it's not due to extending the word count. Third, if it's harder to read, that's because the author doesn't condescend to the reader.

As I am expecting an Africa story from Mike Resnick, seek authenticity.  He’s famous for his Africa stories and I have no doubt whatever he does will be brilliant. After all, he’s got Nebula and Hugo nominations and awards for these stories. Which means, if you write Africa, expect to be compared.
First, writers are only as good as the work they submit. No competent editor would blindly accept a story that hasn't been written yet. Because it could be crap, and that's regardless of your politics.

Second, some would argue Resnick's stories are inauthentic. And it doesn't also mean that another writer, say one hailing from South Africa, will write an inferior South African story.

This editor has been to Africa, Mexico and Brazil and studied the cultures, countries and religions extensively, for example, so please research any culture you choose. Do not write what you think they are. Do not write stereotypes. 
Africa is a continent. Mexico and Brazil are countries. To equate the two is an inability to understand their cultural nuance, especially from someone who proclaims they have studied the culture, countries, and religions extensively.

I am inviting a few Western writers whom I know have traveled and have strong cultural knowledge, sensitivity and passion for places they visited.

Translation: because despite my previous claims that this anthology is for writers outside of the Western world, this is really for my Western writer friends (because we don't have enough of those!).

Not every Mexican is the same, for example, but please have it so your Mexicans are real enough my actual Mexican friends would tell me you got it right. (I do have friends around the world who will read for cultural authenticity before I make final selections, so I want authentic.)

Here we have a contradiction. On one hand, the editor is making a claim that Mexicans are diverse. On the other hand, he also wants a Mexican archetype that will ring true to every Mexican (or at least his friends, because his friends represents Mexico). Which is faulty because you can't please everyone in a culture, because that's the definition of diversity. I can write about my own Filipino experience, and it might ring true to some Filipinos, but will sound faulty for others.

Also, it seems the barometer for cultural expertise is "they are my friends from around the world," which honestly isn't very methodical.

Here's a Bingo card from The Angry Black Woman:

What are the odd little cultural quirks people exhibit which would strike outsiders as odd but insiders as perfectly normal? Use those in your story for humor, confusion, etc.
Yes, because we should pander to our Western audience. And not because cultural quirks are essential to the story.

Must be willing to respect the editor’s editing requests. No assholes allowed. Seriously. Also, if you have slandered my name or resent me for not sharing your views, don’t bother. I guarantee I won’t.
To borrow an image from The Radish:

I guess the editor can slander and resent other people, but not the other way around.

II. The Editor

So Thomas Bryan Schmidt claims that "[he] has not said or done anything racist or sexist in his entire life" (source). Despite in the same blog post, he labels N.K. Jemisin as an Omarosa. Or, you know, his history of name calling, whether it's due to a person's gender or race.

Look, full disclosure. I've said lots of racist and sexist things in my life. I've screwed up, horribly. So I wouldn't make any attempt to claim that I'm not racist or sexist. But I'm willing to tackle, to change, and to correct myself. I don't always succeed.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt isn't that person. He has two main problems:

1. He never blames his own writing for conveying the wrong message. For example: "I should apologize to them that THEY misconstrued and misinterpreted my words?" Or statements like this:

Regardless of your politics, that's just a bad policy for someone whose profession is writing and editing. People don't need to know you. They can only read the words you use.

2. When people try to explain, educate, or address his points, he ignores them. If he hasn't heard of you, you get banned. If he has and you're famous, he'll try to placate you.

Disregard, disregard, disregard, ban.

III. My Experience

As far back as 2012, I witnessed an exchange between Bryan Thomas Schmidt and a friend. The former had an ambiguously-worded tweet that could be interpreted as defending Save the Pearls. Bryan then wrote a blog post condemning my friend. I replied, in private and politely, why I thought his blog post was wrong, and informed him that I would be posting a rebuttal on my blog. He then took down the post, called me a bully, and banned/blocked me.

I told this and showed the transcripts to an author/editor friend of mine, and he told me neither he nor his wife would support bullies. So back in 2012, I shut up.

Maybe posting this account makes me a bully. But by not speaking out back then, it's paving the way for injustice. In 2013, Bryan posted about #SFFCivility. In 2014, it's the Submission Guidelines mentioned above. Because I have no doubt, some people will submit.

And it goes beyond those projects.

I love SF Signal. I was a contributor. I stopped contributing after 2012. It's not because Bryan Thomas Schmidt was also a contributor to the site, but that fact wasn't encouraging either. I don't know how the current members of SF Signal feel about him. [2014/05/30 Edit: He was no longer a contributor to SF Signal since the last quarter of 2013.]

Adventures in Sci-Fi Publishing produced interesting podcasts before 2012. After that year? I wouldn't know. I stopped listening by then. Bryan Thomas Schmidt was a sponsor of the show, and guested a few times.

#sffwrtcht is also run by Bryan Thomas Schmidt. It's been consistent and a valuable venue for authors or publishers looking for some publicity. Bryan claims that it's inclusive, but how can it be inclusive when the owner calls people names like rotting meat, deletes tweets/comments/posts, and immediately bans people unless they're famous? So yeah, it's not a venue for me. [2014/05/30 Edit: The hashtag was apparently appropriated by Bryan from a female creative and was never acknowledged.]

I'll just be here, with the rest of #TeamRottenMeat.