13 March 2009

Race and Culture and Writing and Stuff

Those of you who read science fiction blogs already know about the massive discussion of race, "cultural appropriation", etc. that's been going on. I've been watching from the sidelines for the past week or so -- work of various sorts kept me away from blog reading for some time, and I stumbled unwittingly on it all after there had already been thousands of posts and comments made, feelings hurt, bizarre and even reprehensible behavior displayed, and lots of battle lines drawn. For various reasons, I felt shellshocked reading it all, but every now and then would come upon a post that seemed really insightful and helpful, and I want to point to a few of those here.

Not by design, but purely by where my interests seem to lead me, I write a lot about race and gender -- not out of any sense of authority, but rather its opposite. I am attracted to questions of identity because identity is such a compelling question for me: how do we create it, value it, judge it, display it, use it as a tool and a weapon and a curse and a blessing and a scream against all the uncertainties of the universe? I'm a white guy from New Hampshire, so it may seem particularly weird that race, gender, and sexuality interest me so much, but various experiences fairly early in my life made me hyper-aware of my own ignorance, and when, as an adolescent, I first came to grips with my own unwitting racism and sexism and heterosexism (despite my own queerness), and with the systemic racism and sexism and heterosexism of my society, I did so through reading, because it was what I knew best. Once I got to college, I was able to start throwing myself into situations where white people were not in the majority, and I did and said things that seem astoundingly naive to me in retrospect, and I'm sure I did and said things I don't remember that were at best ridiculous but perhaps even offensive to the people around me. Live and learn. I keep trying to.

So when I read Deepad's "I Didn't Dream of Dragons" post, I thought: Wow. Cool. Interesting. Helpful. Well said. This should lead to some great discussion. I followed some links and discovered it had been part of quite a discussion, indeed, though not exactly the one I was hoping to find.

There are now a variety of ways to get summaries of what happened, and some of them are linked to in the first part of Mary Ann Mohanraj's excellent two-part post at John Scalzi's Whatever blog. Here's part one. Here's part two. Follow Mary Ann's links if you're curious, but be sure to read her posts. They are extraordinarily lucid and thoughtful and reader-friendly meditations on what it means to write and read in a multicultural society. There's tons of discussion in the comments, too.

There's much in those posts to highlight, discuss, argue with. I want to add a particular highlight to something Nalo Hopkinson said that Mary Ann quotes:
It’s pretty tough to live in a system and be unaffected by it. That’s like floating in a pool of shit and claiming that you don’t smell. So whenever you have the urge to silence people by shouting, “I’m not racist!” it’s probably a good idea to take a long, hard think and ask yourself how in the world is that possible? Really, it isn’t. Not until a whole lot more about the world changes.
Those words belong on billboards.

At the end of part two, Mary Ann raises a point that may have come up in the immense discussion, but I didn't read enough to come upon it. It's vital:
I’ve encouraged white writers here to write about other cultures, other ethnicities. But sometimes we run into the problem that most, or all, the representations of a culture are coming from outside the culture. It’s so much easier for you or I to get published in America than it is for local Sri Lankan writers to get published, I can’t tell you. The difference of scale between the American publishing industry and Sri Lankan publishing is enormous. There’s only one major Sri Lankan press that I know of, and when they applied for the rights to publish my book in Sri Lanka, they couldn’t afford the $600 HarperCollins asked, because that translated to effectively $6000 in Sri Lanka, which would have destroyed their annual budget. If I’d realized that was the issue at the time (I didn’t figure this all out until much later), I would have paid the damn $600 myself. But that’s a side issue.

The point is, given this discrepancy, I feel that it behooves me, as an American author who benefits from Sri Lankan material, to do everything I can to promote Sri Lankan authors. Primarily, that means buying and reading their books, posting reviews, spreading the word. I also try to help bring the good ones to America to give readings, and put them in touch with my agent, in the hopes that it might help them get published here.
It's easy for those of us who live in places where there is a publishing infrastructure to forget that plenty of writers face nearly insurmountable challenges to finding an audience (Charles Larson's The Ordeal of the African Writer gives useful insight into some of these challenges). The internet has been a big help to some writers who would otherwise have no way to get their work out to people, but it's not a replacement for what an actual publishing industry (and a culture of reading/ community of readers) can provide.

Despite the plethora of posts,there are important questions that still remain to be discussed. Mary Ann did a good job of showing that some of the tension in various discussions came, as it often does, from people using different definitions of words such as "racism". I'd love to see more discussion of other words, as well -- for instance, "culture" and "appropriation" (there may be wonderful posts about this that I am simply unaware of). Strategic essentialism is, I think, vital to combatting a systemically racist, sexist, heterosexist, etc. society, but I'm still such a postmodernist that I'm wary when I see words for vast abstractions used without admitting how vast, abstract, overdetermined, paradoxical, and just plain difficult they can be.

Really, though, all I wanted to do was exhort you to read "I Didn't Dream of Dragons" and Mary Ann's two posts. They're some of the best things I've encountered via the Internet for a while.