Thursday, March 12, 2009

She Was Hoping for a Curry, I Think...

A couple of weeks ago I came across a mention of my work by another author. It was in an aside, as the post was really about something else - a race-related discussion. Acacia was mentioned, and, though the author (who is white) had kind things to say about it and about me, she expressed some unease about an aspect of it. It wasn't a very specific post, but from what I can gather she didn't much like that I'd created a fantasy world that seemed based around the European colonial template, even if my central power was olive to brown skinned, and even if the rest of the world was multi-racial. She said she expected "better" from a writer of color.

I've thought about this quite a bit since then. My first reaction is to agree that Acacia is a European-feeling (Mediterranean, specifically) colonial power, one that's olive to brown skinned and rules a multi-racial world. Ah... That's what I wrote alright. I feel fairly satisfied with that slight tweaking of the standard model, and I'm happy to say I do have plans for... well, for doing a thing or two to change that model before the series ends. I don't exactly think my choices were groundbreaking. Nor that I'm alone. But I do think one of the most effective ways to work forward thematically is to take established templates and swirl some new variety into them.

That, however, wasn't enough for this writer. She wanted more from me. "Better." What do you think about that?

I have to say that I'm skeptical as to whether it's "better" that she wanted. I'm more inclined to believe she wanted "different" in ways that were directly influenced by her perceptions of my racial identity. I'm being very specific about my words here. I don't mean different because of my race. I mean different because of her perceptions of my race. I am, after all, an African-American. Sure, my blood is plenty mixed, but still. I'm black in the simplistic categorization of this country.

And that makes me wonder if what happened with this author is that she - in well-intentioned and generously liberal ways - got excited about the addition of a black writer to the genre. Perhaps instead of another Celtic or Anglo influenced epic, I'd deliver an African variant. Cool! And that is cool. There's plenty more room for that, and I love it when authors do just that. My friend Nnedi Okorafor does that, and her work is terrific. But that's Nnedi. She does it because she's particularly inspired to and quite closely linked to writing Africa-based fantasy.

For me the ties aren't so complete. I'm a kid with long-mingled blood, the product of European and African and Eastern roots. My family's ancestry was mixed in Trinidad and Barbados, in the plantations of Virginia - all colonial systems and some of them very European indeed. I've grown up in mainstream America, but I've spent a portion of my life in Europe and I'm married to a European woman. My kids both have two passports: one US, one UK. They always will.

What I'm building toward is this: doesn't it make perfect sense - considering who I am - that my fantasy world would be built on a European colonial template centered around olive to brown skinned people in a multi-cultural world that's in for big changes? For me that's not imitative. It's not a choice meant to win or lose white or black readers. It's just me, and the things that will come in the future books are built on exploding some of the tensions inherent in this - and in me.

As a black writer should I be required to be the antithesis of pre-existing racial bias in the genre? Should I write "black fantasy" to clash with the firmly entrenched "white fantasy"? Does my worth, in this genre, come from how well I do things differently than white writers? And is my work to be measured by how it deconstructs existing norms? I think there's plenty of value in all of that, but it's not the primary way I work. I don't see why it has to be. Certainly, I've always said that I hope my ethnic identity informs my fiction. But even as I said that I was aware that I meant it in ways that might be less than obvious to readers.

I can't help thinking that the author's disappointment that my world wasn't more obviously different is like the disappointment one might feel going to their Indian friend's house hoping to get an "authentic" Indian meal, only to find that the friend made a lovely Eggplant Parmesan instead, served with a spinach and feta side salad and a pretty good Chilean wine from Trader Joe's. It's a good meal. Yummy. You can't quite complain to their face, but... you were really hoping for a curry.

My point? That Indian friend may make you a curry next time. And proudly. But they shouldn't have to make a curry because that's going to suit the needs and expectations of a particular guest.

Nor should I. If you come to my house for dinner you may get the West-Indian curry that my mother first taught me how to make. Or you may find the sushi I learned to make and love when I was a teenager. Or Thai-inspired dishes. You may find a heaping bowl full of Scottish fish pie, or a display of pungent French cheeses, or homemade pizza. You'll likely be a bit amazed at whatever homemade dessert Gudrun whips up. In any event, come with an open mind and I guarantee a good meal, with something on offer that will hit the right spot.

But I'm getting carried away with this food metaphor and making myself hungry. Back to books...

I suppose I do think that the author's sense of unease with aspects of Acacia were the result of expectations she shouldn't have brought with her. Thinking positively, I will take it as a reminder that I do write from a naturally different perspective than most fantasy writers - and I should be mindful of making the most of that. Thing is, I never lost sight of that. I do, in fact, have a plan, and this plan is shaped by who and what I am as an author of color. Yep. It is, and it is in ways that don't need to be obvious to most readers.

Thing is, how this plan manifests and develops is up to me. To me. Not to someone that - even with the best of intentions - wants my writing to be an antidote for illnesses she's identified.

What do you think? I'm not putting this out there with complete certainty. It's more that I'm thinking in writing...

Labels: ,

25 Comments:

Blogger slkcivil said...

I guess I’m going to start the comments off here…
I tend to agree with you. I have experienced “other’s perceptions” of me towards my work as a female civil engineer, in a predominately male field. I didn’t want to believe it was true; I was raised that I could be and do anything I wanted. So, I did. However, the perception of others is very real. I think it is tough for some when one doesn’t fit in a typical box; but who wants to be in a box!?!
While I am not saying I’ve experienced the exact same thing; I haven’t, but I understand what you are saying here (or at least I think I do). Just as I am free to be an engineer (or writer, or whatever), you are free to write in whatever fashion and from whatever perspective you want! If anything, I think more experience and more culture brings that much more to the story. (By the way, I just got my copy of Acacia from B&N in the mail and can’t wait to read it; after my 2nd short story is written, of course.)
I hope that didn’t come off too strong or that I’m not way off track here by what you meant, but it just struck a chord with me. I could go on, but I won’t… ;-)
Loved the curry example!
~Shauna

2:03 AM  
Anonymous Sengei Tawn said...

I am writing a scifi set of novels with people of all kinds of color as there are well, several planets involved! I have genetic reasons for doing so b/c it's a part of the plot. One of my main characters is Indian, as in India. In another novel my main character is from a country on the African continent. I'm white. I chose the race of my characters because of the story not their race. And because I want to stretch as a writer. And because everyone has same problems in life. Giving voice according to these characters is tied into their experiences in their respective countries. Telling the story is what it's about.

2:36 AM  
Anonymous Greg said...

As usual, David, your thoughtfulness pretty much sums it up. If The Kerfuffle Which Must Not Be Named had been conducted with this kind of clarity and care, it would have been a lot more useful.

4:04 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Shauna,

Thanks for writing, and for getting a copy of Acacia!

Sengei Tawn,

Good to hear you're keeping diversity in your scifi. And that's not because of soft and fuzzy notions. It's good because it makes sense!

Greg,

Thanks. I have to admit I didn't engage in the kerfuffle. I knew it was out there and that there were important issues being discussed, but the whole thing just seemed so full of discordant noise. That's not my sort of discussion.

11:11 AM  
Blogger Ink said...

I saw that particular post by that particular author and I was wondering if you'd seen it. I figured that someone must have sent it on to you, and I was curious if you would respond, and how. And a thoughtful and interesting response it was, as I expected.

I've read a bit of the, ah, online brouhaha but didn't participate. It seemed less a discussion than a free-for-all. John Scalzi said, rather bluntly, that he decided to avoid participation not because there weren't important issues being debated, but rather because the debate itself was being conducted so poorly (my paraphrase there - if I butchered it, well, mea culpa).

I appreciated your take on things. It seems a subtle bit of typing that's going on, built on expectations... and expectations are dangerous. A thing is what it is, and a story operates on its own internal logic, and that, really, is the only one that matters. And I think stories are often far less rational things than many seem to believe. I've often found that a story chooses me... an image, an idea, a character, a voice... it gets inside somehow and consumes brain space. The only way to relieve that tension is to write it down. And as a writer you're not always in complete control of how that story takes its form, of the odd imaginative reality a story grows out from. The reasons, say, for writing about Hannibal might be complex and well-buried (and far different than the "expectations" of readers and critics).

I also thought it somewhat interesting that the author's comments were about your uncompleted story... when the whole debate started over what that writer considered a partial and incomplete reading of the story they'd written. I did kind of feel, though, that her comments were a sort of emotional response, a defensive posture where they were saying "Look, I havne't been too hard! Really, I've been too soft, and here's an example of how I have to be more rigorous and aggressively equal in my interrogation of stories." Which is maybe a reaction to be expected after what they've been through. It seems a lot of people got somewhat carried away in the heat of the argument. And the internet is forever! There's something to be said for living in a slower culture. Maybe we can all start writing letters again... (paper letters - such novelties now! Am I the only one who misses getting a letter in the mail?)

I liked your "thinking in writing" comment, too, as I feel much the same about writing fiction. For me a piece of fiction is about writing towards something. It's a search, an exploration. It's not about passing on information I already have, but rather an attempt to understand and feel something new, something beyond me. What's wrong with writing about ideas derived from European Colonialism? It's a huge part of our world, and if the conflicts inherent within that topic draw a writer... then writing is a way to come to terms with and understand some of those tensions.

The only problem, I suppose, is if a single topic (and how it's handled) becomes endemic and uniform and endlessly repeated. Hopefully the genre can embrace diversity and variety, but placing that burden of diversity on any one writer is ridiculous and illogical, a sort of bizarre reversal of the White Man's Burden (and a faulty construct if ever there was one). Writers have to write from themselves, I think. The fiction, first and foremost, has to serve the writer's own needs, has to answer their own questions. And in so doing hopefully it answers the needs and questions of others, too.

Thanks again for the thoughtful response. Always a pleasure to stop here. (And sorry for taking up so much space... my fingers are addicted to little black keys. A soothing sound, that, providing a sort of rhythm and structure to thought, a drumline to lay your melody across. Ah, see what I mean? Words...)

My best, as always,
Bryan Russell

12:30 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Hi Bryan,

As ever, I appreciate your even-handed comments. Thank you.

I was aware that emotion and defensiveness was part of what was going on in that post. Any time one feels compelled to state "I'm not a racist" you know the discussion is charged.

I should make it clear that I'm only commenting on the part related to my novel and the things it got me thinking about. I'm not trying to tackle the many larger issues that so many folks have been debating, nor have I read most of the posts of that heated discussion.

2:51 PM  
Blogger Ink said...

Thanks, David. And damn you. I'm really hungry now...

:)

My best,
Bryan

3:34 PM  
Blogger Dirk said...

I read the original post also and was baffled by what she was talking about.

I guess I just don't read books with the same sort of critical perspective she does.

And what's the deal with 'ogres'? Is that a nono or something?

Whatever. I liked Acacia.

4:40 PM  
Blogger Kate Elliott said...

A friend of mine got a PhD at a very prestigious university with a specialty in 19th French Intellectual History. So one day he showed up for an interview (at whatever the equivalent of the MLAs are for historians) for a position teaching 19th c. French intellectual history, and the professor doing the interviewing took one look at him and said, "oh, we're doing the interviews for the Chinese history position tomorrow."

The interviewer could not quite believe that a man of Chinese-American ancestry (his people have been in this country long than my people have) would be teaching anything except . . . well . . . you get the picture.

4:50 PM  
Blogger Kate Elliott said...

Oh. He didn't get the job.

4:51 PM  
Blogger paranoyd said...

Hey, what fantastic timing, David. You managed to give some voice to a few of the concerns raised over on Scalzi's blog by Mary Anne Mohanraj in a 2-day piece on POC in sf/f. Today's is about writing POC. I linked to your post over on the Whatever since it seemed germane to the conversation and everyone over there is being pretty cool. (If they were showing their asses, I would not be involved, nor would I have linked you to them, so there you go.)

I hope they take a read. Every bit of knowledge helps.

Oh, and when can I expect some of that Scottish fish pie? Maybe you could post some of Gudrun's recipes? I do love to cook, only slightly less than I love to eat.

6:05 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Dirk,

I didn't connect that much with the ogre comment. By "ogres" she presumably meant the Numrek. Problem with them? Well... I imagine the complaint has something to do with the observation that lots of other races (elves, dwarves, orcs) in fantasy seem to have been used as thinly veiled depictions of real life racial groups. I get that. I've thought it on many occasions. Perhaps my Numrek deserve some critical scrutiny along those lines. That's not for me to decide.

I will say that I've no particular real world racial group in mind when I wrote them. Don't think I did, at least. They're no more Mongol hordes than they are raiding Vikings than they are that Russian dude from Highlander. Actually, they begin the story pale white-skinned and end it suntanned and hanging out of the beaches in Talay. To me they're a bit hard to pin down, and because of that I can't by myself pin down the criticism of them.

Also, I know the role they play in the next book and the reason behind the... Oh, no, I probably should go no further on those lines. I've a book to sell come September.

Anyway, Dirk, glad you liked it. :)

Kate,

I've heard many, many first hand tales along those lines, and I could tell a few myself. I have to say that one of the most disappointing aspects of my time in academia has been discovering how petty, sexist and racial insensitive and/or malicious people in academia can be. I don't mean to suggest that we're worst than the norm. We're not. It's just that I had hoped going into academic life that all that time reading books and thinking and talking and sharing ideas would lead to a much greater level of enlightenment. Alas... not quite.

Paranoyd,

Thanks for the linkup. Whatever love is always welcome.

And I'd be quite happy to have you and family over for dinner some time. Gudrun's fish pie absolutely rocks. I mean it. It's like ambrosia. Seriously. Let's hope it happens some time.

She has put up one recipe on her blog. It's for a beetroot soup that, again, you'd have to try to believe how good it is.

Here's a link: Beetroot Soup.

8:43 PM  
Blogger paranoyd said...

I am so making that.

9:28 PM  
Blogger Jess said...

Dude. Literary crit, epic spec fic AND food porn?

I think I'm crushin' on you a little bit. =p

Also, I think I have to go back and read Acacia again. I'm guilty of Default White =( trying to Fail Better) and when I read the "ogres" bit in the Post That Dare Not Speak Its Name, I was sorta confused...but I remember the Numrek. And, y'know? I remember just reading them as Icky Beasties, with no racial connection in my head. Perhaps that's just my privilege showing-I never made the connection between Tolkien ogre/orc/troll/yuckies and any particular Real World racial affiliation, either. It's a given to me that, in fantasy, sometimes the bad guys are LITERAL inhuman monsters.

Anyway. I get why folks avoided RaceFail. I'm glad I paid attention, personally, because I don't know that I would've ever understood-or even encountered- a lot of those issues.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am a better person because of an internet flamewar.

...and if that's not a sign I need to have a bowl of ice cream and go to bed, I don't know what is.

Anyway, sorry for the threadjack/ramble/overshare. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. I always enjoy visiting here.

10:23 PM  
Anonymous Luke Dailey said...

God. At 3:48 in the morning (damn you, post-Spring Break insomnia) I don't feel nearly articulate or thoughtful enough to attempt as meaningful response to this as I'd like to, but...I just wanted to say that almost every one of your blog posts reads like a really, really good mini-essay. I get more mentally involved in your blog posts than most of the literary works I have to critique for my professors. Ha.

Anyway: my semi-articulate, condensed reaction: I think you very perceptively raise a great point. Everyone is typecast to a degree by other people's expectations of who they should be, and I suppose it's not that surprising for a writer to see that extend to their work. You pick a book written by a perceived southern good old boy type, and you expect to find some extension of that character seeping into the writing.

Your case is magnified, I suppose, since fantasy is a genre typically marked, even in its more fantastic iterations, by Eurocentric values and cultures. When you take into account the racial aspect of your previous novels, I suppose it's not completely naive (if not very well thought out) to expect Acacia to offer an ethnically differentiated take on fantasy.

This way of thinking is fundamentally flawed. It reduces you to a caricature of yourself (an African-American writing fantasy) and attempts to gauge the merit of your creative works by how distinctly they reflect that.

Her comment was obviously made without much thought, much in the same manner (returning to your food analogy) that a brash guest might inadvertently vocalize their disappointment at not being served curry. It is in both cases a shortsighted assumption that aspects of your identity are, in fact, your identity, and that furthermore these aspects govern who you are, how you act, what you make (be it curry or genre-defying fantasy), etc.

Well, that was a lot more rambling that I planned, and I didn't even come close to even approaching some sort of conclusion. Hopefully I touched upon something at least somewhat prescient.

4:26 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Jess,

Glad to be of service, and glad to hear the flamewar was edifying.

You wrote, "sometimes the bad guys are LITERAL inhuman monsters". I agree. Of course. Perhaps sometimes authorial choices are questionable, but it's also true that as humans we SHARE a long standing fear of the inhuman - or the almost human. We always have.

In this first book the Numrek occupy that role. That's not all they are, but it's rather a big part of it. Though they had tenuous agreements with some, everybody - of whatever race - was essentially fair game for them.

Luke,

Nice comments. Thanks for them. I liked the way you pointed out "a shortsighted assumption that aspects of your identity are, in fact, your identity". Nicely worded. I'm not thinking so much in terms of me right now, but that statement is true in so, so many circumstances. I do think that understanding it enough to put your finger on it is a really valuable thing to do.

-David.

1:14 PM  
Blogger Beth Armstrong said...

I was curious how this discussion could be expanded / explored when looking back at your writing career rather than looking soley at Acacia. It wasn't where the discussion cam from but I would be interested in how you see this. An evolvement of your writing? Just different gene / themes so horses for courses. A long bow to draw? Nick

3:46 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Saying Acacia doesn't do enough to showcase your heritage is like saying The Godfather isn't Italian enough because they don't spend more time eating spaghetti and meatballs.

Truth is, the way race is dealt with in most popular fantasy is to explore the culture clash between Humans (white people), Dwarves (short white people) and Elves (pointy white people.)

In Acacia, race and ethnicity actually mean something. Different people are actually really different.

Furthermore, in Acacia you did something most white people would have missed: You made the dark people different from each other.

Most Americans can pick out the subtle cultural differences between French, Germans, Italians, Swedish and other peoples of Europe, but they think of Africa as one giant homogeneous country filled with tigers and brown people. They do better with Asia and South America, but not by much.

Acacia is a world of real ethnic diversity just like the way our world actually is, not one that's strictly black and white like we think it is.

12:22 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Nick,

A long bow, indeed. I'm thinking that's a larger topic than I'm up for right now. I will say that when I was writing about African-American history (Gabriel's Story and Walk Through Darkness) nobody seemed to find a disconnect with their expectations. At least, I don't recall that. When I switched to ancient Mediterranean history that changed. Actually, I've a bit I want to post about that soon...

Ben,

You wrote, "You made the dark people different from each other."

Thanks for that. I certainly tried to. The Balbara and Halaly and the Bethuni are all black people, but I made sure to point out how very different they were physically and culturally, including featuring the strife they had between themselves. I can't say this is incredibly imaginative. It's the world as we have it, though the world as we have it isn't always the world as we see it.

Ben, thanks for the careful reading.

12:48 PM  
Anonymous Stephe said...

David, when I first read this post a few days ago, I didn't quite trust my reaction to it. It was around 3 in the morning and I was really brain-tired, the perfect environment for helping a molehill become a mountain, if you know what I mean. (I have issues being a black writer who doesn't write what she's "expected" to, so I'm careful when that button gets pushed.) I got some sleep, then read it again while relaxed.

Same reaction. A nasty taste in my mouth.

I became obsessed with knowing exactly what the author said before forming a solid opinion. So I searched for an hour and found out. (Very smart, by the way, how you didn't bring The Unmentionable Debacle I ran across back to your site to skew the meaning of your post.)

I can't think of a nice way to sum my feelings up, so I'll just say them straight out. That author has one hell of a nerve telling a writer of color how he should write his characters of color in his own fantasy world. I'd say the same thing if she were black. And I seriously doubt she would have written what she did if you weren't "a black guy."

The "ogre" thing baffles me. I didn't see ogres anywhere in ACACIA. And the Numrek reminded me of no particular real world racial group at all. They were new to me and unique unto themselves, all the way through the book. All of your character choices felt natural and true, in fact, rather than "plugging this person/race into the story just for the sake of blahblahblah." Keep doing what you do.

If anything, this author's comments showed me just how "inside the box" she still is. I'm impressed with how thoughtfully you handled this when it obviously had to sting. What is all this craziness that's been cropping up for a while with black writers being expected to write black a certain way, or write nothing but black? This is a nightmare.

6:52 PM  
Anonymous Stephe said...

All that, and I failed to mention the coolness of the curry parallel. Sorry! :)

6:54 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Hi Stephe,

I hear you. I don't have anything to add right now. Just wanted to acknowledge.

Best,

David.

4:38 PM  
Blogger Supermouse said...

My overwhelming reaction to reading this post is to want to read Acacia. (Here via Skalzi via Livejournal).

What you said about the Indian woman and the curry... that rings so very true.

5:42 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Supermouse,

What a nice overwhelming reaction for you to have. I encourage you to indulge it. You're in the UK, yes? Just so you know, the UK paperback version just came out a few weeks ago. I'm hoping it's in a store near you!

-David.

11:22 PM  
Blogger Supermouse said...

I buy online, usually towards the end of the month. A recent bid to broaden my reading has been eating away at my book budget, but this paperback will make it to April's list. Thanks so much for the info about the paperback, it's sweet of you and very much appreciated.

7:57 PM  

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