Notes from New Sodom

... rantings, ravings and ramblings of strange fiction writer, THE.... Sodomite Hal Duncan!!

Sunday, January 29, 2006

I Ain't No Other

Hurrah! VELLUM made the Locus Recommended Reading List .

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.


Blogger paul f cockburn said...

I remember after the first episode of Queer As Folk went out, Russell T Davies and the producers suddenly found themselves in the centre of a sandstorm of gay people criticising them for producing something that wasn't fully "representative" of their own gay lives. Their response, of course, was that no great drama ever came out of trying to be "representative"; Russell was writing a story about these three characters and he ultimately went where their story dictated.

Subsequently, I remember reading a shockingly homophobic comment on the BBC's late and unlamented Doctor Who newsgroup (soon after the new series was announced) where this homophobic prat wrote something along the lines of, "I didn't see Queer As Folk" but I believe it was a comedy about gays and their sex lives." Of course, I almost immediately added a comment along the lines of (a) don't fucking dare to comment on things you haven't seen and, (b) QAF was "about" friendship, family, how relationships change and a whole lot of other stuff - it just happened to largely feature characters who were gay.

What really annoys me about some of this situation is that it's got tied up with political correctness. The argument that only a black person can write about black people because a white person will never get it right. Or that the only people who should be able to write about disability are disabled people. (Or, only disabled actors should be allowed to play disabled characters.)

It's turning fiction into autobiography, and reducing us all in the process.

So, yeah. Make him Black. Make him American. Just make him as damn real as you can.

8:38 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hal, yes, by all means write a black protag. But also by all means don't toss away all the doubts you stated above, declaring them to be a load of PC nonsense. That's too easy. (And easy = bad.) Those doubts have a real basis in our literary history, because they reflect the fact lots of writers before you have written appallingly transparent crap when treading in these waters.

Yes, I can see the pleasure inherent in typing "Fuck that shit," but don't let that pleasure keep you from holding your doubts close, even if it means squirming a little extra as you wonder if "an American black guy" would really say the thing you just had your protag say. As Delany writes in "Of Doubts and Dreams," listening to their doubts is what makes good writers great.

Plus: Don't have your protagonist lecture a white kid named "Jimmy" about HEART OF DARKNESS, and then die heroically. (Not that anyone would actually do that.)

11:33 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

I don't know if it's PC per se. I guess in the sense that it's a stepping on eggshells sorta reaction, lest we cause offence, the "othering" I'm thinking of is tied up with notions of PC. But I'm thinking of it more from the aesthetic angle: the failure to use black characters can come, a lot of the time, I reckon, not so much from trying to avoid causing offence as from trying to not muddy the theme with issues you don't want to focus on.

For me it's more, I think, about segregating out certain attributes as defining features so that if you have a black character you *must* be talking about race, or if you have a gay character you *must* be talking about sexuality. So: writers who don't want to divert focus from their core theme avoid giving their characters those attributes. So: when writers *do* give their characters those attributes it's unusual, notable, and therefore -- the presumption is -- meaningful. Which just reinfores the *special* status of those attributes which means, I think, implicitly accepting / reinforcing the prejudice.

But I absolutely agree that easy = bad, that doubt is essential to a writer, that taking the hard path, the less obvious option, is necessary to avoid the cop-outs and cliches and to *add* the challenges and complexities that make for good writing. What I'm dismissing with my "Fuck that shit" is just the sort of second-guessing yourself (and your readership) which leads to complete inaction, to not making the hard choice out of fear of failure. So I guess what I'm saying is, while I think it's wrong-headed to approach a character with a generalised approach based on this or that attribute -- to wonder if "an American black guy" would say this or that, I'll be squirming like hell writing "this American black guy", wondering would he say this or that, would he do X or Y.

Oh, and, yes, that character in KING KONG... aaaaargh! Why the fuck couldn't he have been the captain of the ship? Why the fuck couldn't he have survived? Why the fuck couldn't his relationship with "Jimmy" had some fucking purpose in the last hour of the film instead of being squandered utterly as part of a pretence to thematic depth?

But that's another rant.

11:24 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey hal--

i don't reckon it's all that difficult to avoid the black character being about blackness and the gay character being about gay issues and so forth. a book that might interest you, however, is toni morrison's PLAYING IN THE DARK (man, have i been recommending that book of late...) which makes an interesting argument using hemingway and a few other big american novels.

on my own belief, i tend to think a lot of the 'token speaking' voice for minority characters can be avoided if you give a cultural weight to whiteness, and don't populate your entire secondary cast as white folk. it's not just about dealing with the textual weight that blackness or gayness has, but about also dealing with the textual emptiness that being white or straight also comes with.

1:10 pm  
Blogger Fish Monkey said...

This is a tough one. Have you considered having a black protagonist without mentioning that he was black? You can sneak in enough description for it to be apparent, but not obvious.

I think many of your concerns re: if you write a black character, he will be perceived as the representative of his race etc. stem from the fact that we mention blackness, like we mention gayness, as something *different*, deserving of a special note. I still wait for a character to be described as 'tall, white, hetero male'. Or talk about someone as 'my straight friend'. Now, that would be a day!

4:32 am  
Blogger Nathan said...

Fish Monkey: there are already examples of that (using white as a descriptor, instead of using it as a default), although they are precious few. Most examples, admittedly, come from black writers. However, Neil Gaiman's AMERICAN GODS and ANANSI BOYS both feature black protagonists, not explicitly described as such; and (at least in the latter case, since it's fresher in my mind) is a character is white, it is described as such, whereas if a character is black, no ethnic descriptor is given.

3:27 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I second the recommendation of Toni Morrison's PLAYING IN THE DARK. In fact, I started re-reading it last night. Three connected lectures about the role of black characters in American literature by white writers. Difficult reading at times, but very interesting.

7:08 pm  
Blogger Nalo said...

fish monkey: also, I know a writer named Pat Picciarelli who in one story I read described all his characters the first time he introduced them by gender, age, height, and race (along the lines of "male, Caucasian, approximately 27 years old..."). Probably no surprise to learn that Pat's an ex-cop, and IIRC, the protagonist is a detective.

Hal: no matter what I do, many people assume that all my protagonists are black, any vernacular I give them is Jamaican, and any lore I create for them must be a retelling of a Caribbean folk tale (because, you know, it's impossible to be from the Caribbean and make a folk tale up). I once read someone's comment that he couldn't follow a story of mine because, he said, "as usual" with me, it was a retelling of an African folk tale. I have yet to work with African folk tales, and though the story was a riff, it was riffing off Shakespeare's "The Tempest." The characters even had the same names and more-or-less the same relationships to each other. I am apparently a writer of Caribbean science fiction, not a Caribbean writer of science fiction. I throw up my hands. And I *so* feel your pain.

But when it comes to writing about black characters (or insert your favourite identifying adjective or adjectival phrase), there are a couple more things to take into account: one of those is cultural specificity. If your black character is in a predominantly white culture or community, you have a very different feel than if she's in a predominantly black one. Argh. I hate talking about blackness and whiteness as though they're the only two that exist, eternally locked together and eternally polarized. So take it that I'm talking about blackness and whiteness for the purposes of this conversation.

Anyway; cultural specificity less to do with describing racialized features than with making the culture and the way that the protagonist fits into it feel convincing.

The second, related thing: it's well and good to make a point of having characters of colur behave the same as white ones, but the kicker is, that can end up feeling as though they're acting white. For black readers, deracinated black characters still render us invisible. (And "deracinated" feels to me more like a removal of cultural specificity, not a removal of racial characteristics.) It's like saying that queer people are just like straight people; well, yeah we are, for certain values of "just like." But some of the cultures and norms of queer and straight communities have significant differences from each other, and I _like_ diversity. I don't want it all homogenized.

So for me, the dilemma is more about how to dismantle race in my fiction without contributing to the way-too-prevalent tendency in SF/F/H to erase people of colour. Or make us into goblins, or Klingons, or something.

7:34 pm  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

Ben, Olaf: I'll definitely be picking up that Toni Morrison. (I think i spotted you recommending it elsewhere, Ben, actually... somewhere out in the blogosphere).

Fish Monkey, Nathan: The protag is first person so there's not likely to be much explicit description. I don't tend to think of myself in phrases like "scrawny, white, Scottish faggot, 34 years old, with long hair, a moustache and goatee..." and so on. So it might well be the way he describes others that enclues the reader more than anything else. Or just events and experiences he goes through that wouldn't happen to a white guy (as per below).

Nalo: Anyway; cultural specificity less to do with describing racialized features than with making the culture and the way that the protagonist fits into it feel convincing.

That -- and what comes after -- pretty much nails it bang on, I think. I mean, tokenism and otherism/symbolism are the two problems my rant above focuses on, but the alternative is not simply the shallow complacency of "Oh, well we're *all the same*, like, *deep down*, you know, *under the skin*". A deracinated character, one who's basically just another white person given the literary black-face of a few throwaway descriptors, is not worth the paper they're written on. That's just laziness and ignorance on the author's part. Feh. While I'm kicking against letting this or that attribute automatically render a character "other" to the reader, against allowing that attribute to render them a cipher, if you're creating a character with some "othering" attribute, to blithely ignore the real-world effects of that "othering" process on the character's past and persona is equally shallow. As is the assumption that their experience of "othering" won't be quite different depending on the culture they come from. That upper-middle-class academic is going to take a different path through a different part of the landscape than a lower-working-class school-kid.

Oh, and that Caliban's sister story -- "Shift" from the New Wave Fabulists issue of Conjunctions, right? That's a fantastic story. And the commentator who thought it was an African folk tale... Christ! They were clearly an imbecile or an ignoramus, or -- by the sounds of it -- both.

11:57 am  
Blogger Nalo said...

Yes, it was "Shift." Glad you liked it. I wouldn't call the guy who protested eiter an imbecile or an ignoramus. Felt to me like he was frustrated and chagrined at not having been able to understand the story, and was trying to allow, if grudgingly, that it might not be my writing at fault, but my choice to riff off a culture with which he was unfamiliar. 'Cept he got the wrong culture.

6:32 am  
Blogger Hal Duncan said...

I wouldn't call the guy who protested either an imbecile or an ignoramus.

Ach, I just refuse to accept that anyone with any degree of education and intelligence might fail to spot a "Tempest" reference. I recognise that this expectation may well be wholly unreasonable, but for me that play is in one of those "Why surely everyone must recognise that this is the best X in the world" boxes.

You know... the kind of box that leads to conversations like:

"Oh, cool! A Tempest reference!"
"The Tempest! The Shakespeare play, you know."
"Oh, I haven't read it."
"I haven't read it."
"Hmmmm... still not getting you. Can you run that by me again?"
"I... haven't... read... the... play."
"Nope. Sorry, it's like I hear the words but I just can't make sense of them."

I have a similar reaction when someone (bizarrely!) fails to recognise that "T.V. Eye" by The Stooges is the best song ever recorded.

1:05 pm  

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