I Ain't No Other
In other news, I've been mulling over the excellent Pam Noles essay, "Shame", and the various responses and thoughts it's kicked off around the blogosphere. There's lots of links collated here by Matt Cheney, along with his own thoughts about writing "other identities". Weirdly there's been another couple of synchronicitous news items and features over the last few days that have focused my attention on this. So, in that strange way where you're considering an idea and everywhere you turn you see "signs", as if Fate is telling you, "Yup, that's the right idea" (do other writers get that, I wonder or is it just latent schizophrenia on my part?), I've decided to make the main character of the near-future thread in FUR black.
I have to confess, I have some cowardly reservations. Given that the book is so much about our ideas of what's "civilised" and what's "primitive" I really don't want the race of the protagonist to be a part of that theme. I don't want to it be seen as some kind of earnest message about racist assumptions about culture, as if it's a radical idea that the middle-class academic who represents civilisation is -- *gasp* -- a black man, because that strikes me as, well, condescending. Add to this the fact that this character is going to be, at the start of the book, something of a voraciously sexual philanderer -- playing with that contemporary realist trope of the lecturer in trouble for shagging his students -- it seems to me there's a risk of this being taken some sort of comment on the racist white obsession with black male sexuality (worse still, Christ knows, it could be taken as an example of that sort of racism). But if there's any statement being made in this choice I want it to be simply that, in this day and age, this character could be black, white, asian, bloody anything.
Unfortunately this may not be how it's read.
I mean, I think that's part of the fear that prevents writers from writing about the "other", about minorities that they themselves are not a part of. On the one hand, you run the risk of tokenism by throwing in a subsidiary character in a stereotypically supportive role (the Magical Negro, the Black Partner Who Dies). In fact even if the character is not stereotypical, isn't there a certain prejudice inherent in minority characters being so often, cast in minor roles? I mean it's OK to have yer hero's best mate black (or gay, say) but the hero themself? We can't hae that! On the other hand, the very nature of this prejudice is such that, simply by making your protagonist a member of a minority you run the risk of what you could, I suppose, call "symbolism", treating that character as some sort of universal representative of their race. As long as it's "unusual" to have your main character from a minority, that "unusual" choice of character will be seen as purposeful; the character will be seen as an "other", maybe even "The Other". I mean, obviously you must be making an Important Point if you make your main character black.
Feh. It doesn't matter a fuck that I'll be making my protagonist American, which is as much an "other" to me as black. It doesn't matter a fuck that I'll be making him an academic, or middle-aged, or a thousand different types of "other" to me. He could be a fifty-year-old, ginger, cigar-smoking Irish-American from Boston, New York or Chicago and not one of those attributes would characterise him as "Other". No, what makes him "Other" is the prejudice based on skin colour. Its a fucking vicious circle. If your protagonist is black you must be talking about "being black". Why? Because a protagonist's "being black" is unusual. Why is it unusual? Because of prejudice. Well then, let's tackle the prejudice, let's break it down, let's make the character black and treat it as essentially unimportant. It doesn't matter that he's black any more or less than any other attribute; it's not a defining characteristic; his "being black" is no Big Deal. But, hey, surely it is a Big Deal. Why? Well, if your protagonist is black you must be talking about "being black".
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 assumption of generality, of universality -- that in giving a certain attribute to a character the writer is thereby talking about all people in the real world who just happen to share that attribute -- is, to my mind, itself a product of prejudice. You can give a character a moustache and nobody thinks you're bloody well talking about "the moustache-wearing 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.
Fuck that shit.
So in the same way that my near-future Gilgamesh is going to be American, in the same way that he's going to be an academic, an anthropologist, upper-middle-class and a whole bunch of other things I'm not, he's going to be black. Because Pam Noles is right. Because it's a chickenshit cop-out to let the prejudice sustain itself, to surrender to the fear of failure and in doing so help perpetuate a state where its unusual for the main character in an SF novel to be black. Christ knows, I'm not a Sumerian king either. I'm not a Mesopotamian wild man. I'm not a European settler in Eighteenth Century British Columbia. I'm not a Native American of the Tsimshien tribe who grew up feral in the wilderness. I'm not a furry. And I'm not black.
So fuck? That's what research and imagination are for. It's what us writers do, ya know... this "making stuff up" malarkey.