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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Sir, You Are A Liar!

I got an... uh... interesting email a few weeks back. I get these every now and then: fuming attacks by people that are sure they hate me and my novel about Hannibal, Pride of Carthage. Thing is, they rarely stay on topic that long. They quickly make it clear that they haven't even read my book. They don't seem to know that the book has been published in nine languages, read by many intelligent folks around the world, and that it did quite well in... well, Italy, for example. And, try as they might, they can't help but reveal their true colors (so to speak).

Here's an example of what I mean, unedited in any way - except that I've removed his name:

Sir, you are a liar. Truth always matters. I have studied Hannibal and war all my life and the idea of Hannibal being of southern African appearance is a re-write of history, just as it was wrong to depict the flag raising by the fireman at ground zero of the 911 incident as having a black in the group of three men who did so. When lies are perpetrated upon a people for what ever dreamed up noble reason it tends to lead to rebellion and the rejection of the values of those who perpetrated the lie by future generations. The reliefs of Hannibal and other Phoenician’s that we have closest to the time of his life depict him and they as (Caucasoid) and you know it.

Could there and was there mixing of the blood, possibly but we also know from history that ethnicity and nationalism mattered much more in history than it does today and among the elite classes it would matter even more. These same stupid arguments are made concerning the Pharaohs and Jesus as well.

Jesus was a Jew, a Semite (Caucasoid). While he came for everyone and all races are equally precious in God's site it just so happens that the Jews were Caucasoid. He blended in to the normal Jewish society so well that Judas had to kiss him on the cheek for them to know who to nab in the Garden of Gethsemane. I guess you believe the Pharaohs were from the southern African tribes as well and that they used to fly above the Pyramids. Alexander the Great, Salah a-Din, Gen. Washington , Gen Patton, Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, and many other very famous people were Caucasoid.

Genghis Khan, Confucius, Admiral Yamamoto, Mao and many other famous people were Mongoloid. Shaka Zulu, the Queen of Sheba, Mandela, Martin Luther King, and many other famous people from history were/are Negroid. When writing history and making points to touch the minds and hearts of future generations let us always strive for the truth and never settle for the lies or political agendas of convenience. It is sad that touchy/feely emotions are more important to you than truth.



First off, Pride of Carthage "touchy/feely"? That makes me chuckle.

Second, this left me wondering what "Vr" means. Could be Velvet Revolver. Or Voltage Regulator. Variable Resistor. Valve-Regulated. Vacuum Residue. Voltage Rectifier. Vehicle Representative. Visa Revocation. The possibilities are endless. It's possible it means Very Respectfully, but I'm not sure I buy that...

More seriously, I've never claimed - in fiction or otherwise - that Hannibal was a "southern African". I assume the author meant Sub-Saharan African. If he had read my book he'd find that my descriptions of Hannibal and his family are specific in ways that allow the reader to interpret that specificity as suits them. To me Carthage was an interesting, complex fusion of Phoenician and North African influences. The cultures mixed and mingled in many ways, and there are plenty of historical examples of intermarriage (often to solidify political unions) between Carthaginians and the various tribal powers of North Africa. I didn't have to look any further than Livy or Polybius for examples. All of this is why the root word for Punic was coined to describe them, and it's why Publius Scipio was called the Conqueror of Africa after defeating Hannibal - as opposed to Conqueror of the Phoenicians.

All of these are details that you'll see in any non-fiction work on Hannibal or Carthage. In many ways my version of things is fairly traditional. The difference, to me, is that I didn't want to whitewash the realities the moment I began writing creatively about this material - which I think we often do when visualizing the ancient world. (Friends, honestly, there's really no reason to think that ancient Romans and Greeks were Anglos that spoke with lovely British accents, but that's the norm of recent movies set in the period. It's silly. Though I like a British accent as much as the next person.) I wanted to keep the racial complexity in the book, and to keep it in without most of our Twenty-First Century, post Atlantic Slave trade baggage. That, inherently, means a colorful cast of characters that in all likelihood would not please B. Again, he probably wouldn't like my book if he read it, but my point is just that he didn't attack me for what was in the book; he attacked things he assumed were in the book. I'd argue he brought those assumptions with him, and pounced on me the moment he got me in his sights.

If he wants to base his argument on the use of the term Caucasoid he won't find my book in disagreement with that. But how many people know what the term Caucasoid really means anymore? (Here's the Wikipedia definition.) In its broadest sense it refers to the indigenous populations of Europe, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, West Asia, Central Asia and India. That territory includes peoples of so many different skin tones and cultures that I'm confident B doesn't actually mean it.

For example, how would B feel about Hannibal looking like someone from Somalia, or Ethiopia, or India? I don't think that Caucasian is what he means at all. He means white, which is a selective, very limited usage of an old term that's no longer in scientific usage. He means white, which has very little to do with the classifications he uses, but has everything to do with our lingering modern hangups.

But what about those "reliefs of Hannibal" closest to his time? Two things. First, almost none of those images/bust/statues are really from the ancient world. Two of the most famous statues, for example, were from Sebastien Slodtz (1655-1726) and Francois Girardou (1628-1715). We're talking thousands of years removed from Hannibal's life. Second, none of the coins/busts from the ancient period are certifiably authentic images. Sometimes books that show these images mention this fact. Sometimes they don't.

The bust here is from the 2nd Century AD. So it's about 300 years after Hannibal's death. That's a lot of years. But from a modern perspective it's damn old and therefore has a feel of authenticity. Only problem is that it may not be Hannibal at all. It's not like there's a carving in the back that says "This is Hannibal Barca". Sorry. There's just not. I took this image from the Wikipedia page on Hannibal. If you look at the text below the image you'll note that it says "This image may not be authentic". Exactly. The more you look up images like this and cross reference them, the more it becomes clear that none of the images we have of Hannibal were made during his life by someone that saw him in the flesh. For me, it's not wishful thinking to question the authenticity of any one image; it's just the opposite.

But, anyway, did I say somewhere that Hannibal was black? No. I've spent a lot of time talking up that Phoenicians and North African mix, and arguing that I can't really know exactly where he'd sit on the complexion spectrum. I've argued that instead of black and white the truth is some shade of brown or tan or copper. I've said that I can imagine Hannibal being considered black if he was somehow transported to the modern era and dropped down on some city street - but that's only because we've defined black so very, very broadly in America. I wrote: I think that because we'd see a brown-skinned man with curly hair, burnished by the Mediterranean sun. That's not exactly a fanatical position. It's filled with possibility, not limitations. That's the way I'll always think of Hannibal, because we're never going to know anything more definite for sure.

How did I respond to B's letter? Well, I wanted to respond with a level head, based on the facts in question and how they relate to my book. I think there are likely a whole lot of ways B and I don't see the world the same way, but I neither felt a need to try and change that with my response nor to use it to vent. Here's what I wrote back:


I never said or wrote that Hannibal was of "southern African appearance". I can understand how you would find that frustrating, and I certainly know that lots of people use figures like him for their own political/social agendas.

About as far as I ever went with Hannibal was to say he and Carthage were the product of an interesting mix of Phoenician and North African influences. That's all. I was always specific about the region being North Africa. And no, I don't have any reason to believe the pharaohs were from Southern tribes or that they flew above the pyramids. That last would be silly.

I can see that these issues frustrate you quite a bit. Personally, though, I've not proposed most of the things you seem to think I have. It seems clear to me that you have not read my book. If you had, I don't think you would have felt the need to write to me as you did. I'm not saying you would have loved everything about it. That seems unlikely. But you'd at least know that I'm not driven by "touchy/feely emotions".


As of yet, I haven't received a response. Thinking maybe I won't. And that's just fine.

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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...

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Chimp

I hesitate to do this since you've probably heard this talked about plenty already, but I realize I haven't discussed it with anyone yet, so I might as well. This cartoon from the New York Post...

There's been a lot of talk about whether or not it's racist, and a lot of time spent noting that Bush got caricatured as a chimp plenty of times and nobody complained. There are a variety of reasons for that, but I'll stick to the basic questions and my answers to them.

Question: Is this cartoon racist?

Answer: Yes.

Question: What? And what if it was referring to Bush? Would it be racist then?

Answer: No.

Question: What? Why not? Just cause Obama's black and Bush is white?

Answer: Yes.

Question: That's just perfect! Can't you see how hypocritical that is?

Answer: No, but I can see how you might think it's hypocritical. For me, though, I can't help but be cognizant that the same imagery means different things depending on the context in which is used. There is not the same historical baggage attached to a white man being caricatured as monkey as there is to a black man. It ain't the same. Same image; different meaning. Weird, huh?

I know that. The guy who drew this cartoon knows that. The paper that printed it knows that. At some level I even think the masses of people defending it know that. They may not understand that they know it, because complex self-examination - with all of its contradictions and overlapping truths - is not something we train for in American popular culture.

Question: So you'd be fine with this if it was about a white president?

Answer: No. I'd still think it in bad taste. Again, though, this image refers to more than just the assassination of a colorless president. This is a New York paper. New York - like many other cities in the country - has a clear and recent history of police killings of black males under questionable circumstances. This image is also playing with that connection. Not only is the president equated with a monkey. He's also being equated with other black men that have been shot down on the streets by law enforcement figures.

Question: So what, are you for censorship?

Answer: No.

Question: But you think they should apologize for the cartoon?

Answer: Not if they don't mean it.

Question: Are you insulted?

Answer: No, I'm fairly pleased with myself. This doesn't change that.

Question: Do you think the president should feel insulted?

Answer: I think the president has been insulted, but I'm sure he has better things to do than choose to feel insulted.

He is, after all, the president.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Shame...

I've sat on this post for a little while, but I'll put it out there now. Awhile back I got a rather nasty response to my post on Meeting Hannibal. This was actually my first blog post ever, but I guess people still come across it. The response reminded me a lot of a few "reviews" I've received for the book on Amazon. I use those quotation marks because I question whether some of these "reviewers" ever read my book before forming their negative opinions of it. I don't like to respond to such reviews, but when somebody comes to me and makes the comments, I do feel free to dialog with them. So, let me give you an example of the type of thing I mean and the way I respond to it (when I get the chance).

So, here's what Mario said, unedited in any way...


As an historian I am amazed at your irresponsibility in portraying this subject that you bill as a "European and African struggle". Firstly, it was a clash between two of the greatest powers of antiquity, driven by the usual motive, greed! Secondly, Hannibal was not black; he was a Carthaginian, therefore a Phoenician, therefore a Semite. There is ample documentation available that attests to this, up to and including DNA evidence that clearly links the Carthaginians to the modern inhabitants of present day Lebanon.

I for one do not doubt that Hannibal very likely had African troops in his army, but all historical accounts that I can personally think of are quite clear in describing his army as polyglot and largely mercenary in nature; it is a testament to Hannibal's genius as a military leader that he was able to turn so many different nationalities into an effective fighting force. It is in this respect that your depiction is largely off the mark.

Nonetheless, my biggest problem with your book is that you insist in portraying the Punic Wars as a racial struggle, and for that you should be ashamed of yourself. Whatever foibles the ancient Romans may have had, race based bigotry was not one of them. One of the biggest reasons why they were as successful as they were was because, generally speaking, when they did conquer a territory, they respected local customs and placed the locals in charge.

If your objective is to re-write history to further your own political agenda, I will personally thank you to avoid historical subject in the future.

Oh, yikes, scathing, huh? The shame. I should just hang my head and walk meekly into obscurity, having been unmasked... And I would if what Mario said was true. But it's not, neither in terms of the things he claims I included in the book or in terms of the things he thinks I overlooked.

I appreciated that he came to me personally, because it opened the door for me to respond. This is what I posted...


Thanks for writing. I'm inclined to believe that your response here is based more on what you might think I've written in the book than what is actually in the book. I say that because you seem to think that I've asserted things in the book that I haven't. You seem to think that I disagree with you on things that I don't. Perhaps, also, some of the terminology I use troubles you. Let me clarify a few things.

When I say European and African I don't necessarily define African as black. I use the term more broadly, simply referring to the fact that Carthage was based in North Africa and had considerable support from other North African powers. I surely know that Carthage had Phoenician roots (and that's mentioned plenty in the book), but there is also a clear history of intermarriage (often political) with North African tribes. None of this converts Carthage to black African, but I do believe it mixed into their culture elements that complicated Carthage. After all, when Scipio conquered Carthage his honorific title was Africanus, conquerer of Africa. The ancients were okay with using this terminology. So am I.

You also seem to think that I make some strong case for Hannibal being black. I don't, though. I make a case, as mentioned above, that there was an Africanness in Carthagian culture, but I don't seek for that to replace the Phoenician or Semitic influences. I include them all. My Hannibal is brown skinned, but so are many, many people still living in the region. "Brown" is a wide category.

My book is all about how Hannibal managed his polyglot international and multi-ethnic army. It's about the issues he had dealing with his North African troops, and even more about the difficulties he had securing allies (and mercenaries) among the Iberians, Celts, Gauls and Latins once he's in Italy. I give a lot of detail to all of this. So I'm in complete agreement with your comment that it is "a testament to Hannibal's genius as a military leader that he was able to turn so many different nationalities into an effective fighting force". Absolutely. That's what my novel is about. When you follow it with "It is in this respect that your depiction is largely off the mark" I start to suspect that you haven't read my book at all. If you had you simply would not say that.

I continue to wonder when you write "my biggest problem with your book is that you insist in portraying the Punic Wars as a racial struggle, and for that you should be ashamed of yourself." If I HAD done that I would be ashamed of myself. I'd also be a bit confused, because all of my work (all of my work, sir!) is about looking at the complexities beyond our simplification of racial struggles.

Pride of Carthage is very much a novel about greed, pride, about defending your nation, about the toll of war and the damage it does to both sides. It's about ambition and large personalities and the callousness of fate. It is NOT about a racial struggle. No where in my book does Hannibal hate anybody for their race. He hates them for their nationality, you bet, but not because he has some modern conception of our racial biases. Also, no where in my book do any of the European powers look down on North African peoples for their race. This simply was NOT a dynamic in the book.

Mario, I appreciate the opportunity to respond to you. Next time, though, read the book that you're attacking first. I'm happy to say that a lot of people have. Including a lot of Italians. The Italian language edition of the book did very well in hardback, enough so that my publisher negotiated a nice contract to publish a mass-market paperback version as well.

At the moment I'm engaged in other projects, but it's quite possible I will return to historical subjects in the future. It's been rewarding for me so far, with three award-winning historical novels published in eight languages...

As for my "agenda"... I won't encourage you to read my work. Don't worry about it. That's fine. If you do read it, though, I believe you'll find it's pretty hard to put your finger on what my agenda is. In fact, I have considerably less of an "agenda" than most people. Strangely, I think that befuddles people with agendas somewhat...



So that's what I said. I wasn't at all sure if I'd get any response. I didn't have to wait long. Mario came back later that day. This is what he said...


I will take the time to read your novel, thoroughly, and I appreciate you taking the time to clear up some points. Having grown up in Italy, and being a product of their school system, albeit an older product, I must confess that I never had much love for Hannibal or Carthage, when I was growing up they were the enemy. Interestingly Italy and Tunisia actually signed a peace treaty formally ending the Punic Wars only about ten years ago as I recall.

I still get the impression however that you are looking at the subject a bit too much from a modern point of view. What the Romans did to Carthage and the Carthaginians may be horrific by our standards, but not terribly unusual in antiquity. The ancient Assyrians were by and far a far more blood thirsty lot than the Romans were, just witness their bas-reliefs depicting impaled prisoners on display in front of cities under siege, not to mention one of Genghis Khan's favorite hobbies was building pyramids with severed heads.

The one comment that I found particularly troubling on your web site was that the Punic Wars were a "struggle between European and African" civilizations; troubling because as you may be aware of from some of the blogs discussing the possible production of a Hannibal movie, a number of extremists from both sides of the color line are rearing their ugly heads.

I frankly have to say that comment leaves a great deal to be desired; a more correct and less inflammatory description of those horrible wars would have called them a gargantuan struggle between the two pre-eminent Mediterranean powers of the time, as both countries were along the Mediterranean coast.

With all of that being said, I must apologize to you for letting my hot Sicilian temper get the best of me, and not considering some of my comments a bit more carefully myself; as I was taught by the Ursuline nuns in my childhood, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Best regards,


Right. Okay. Well... When I showed my wife that she responded with disgust. How, she essentially asked, could anyone have the gall to attack you when they admit they haven't read the book (or read it "thoroughly")? How irresponsible! How annoying! How idiotic!

I don't disagree with any of that, but I'm a pretty easy going guy. I'm happy for that significant raising of the civility of the tone, and this is how I responded.


Well, thanks for that. It's great, actually, that with just a little bit of dialog we can get a lot closer to understanding each other. Ideally, I'd hope that people taking me to task for things would do so after having read what they're taking me to task for, but moreover I appreciate the tone of your response and your willingness to give the book a shot. Thank you for that.

As for my looking at the conflict from too modern a perspective... Well, that's hard not to do. I am living now, and I am writing for readers living now, and those readers are sifting through the material from a modern perspective. I surely try to present things in context, but that's only ever going to be an attempt. I'll never get it exactly right. Nobody else will either.

I know the ancient world was a bloody place. My book never suggests otherwise, or gives any one side a higher measure of barbarity. All the salient plot points (at least in terms of the events of the war) I gathered from the ancient sources. Within that, there are plenty of instances of Roman treachery (as in instances when they violated their own conceptions of honor). There are plenty of instances of Carthaginian cruelty as well, and often Hannibal's success springs from his doing things that the Romans simply would not have considered accepted battle tactics. It's all in the book.

I don't imagine you'll love every aspect of it. At times you may disagree wholeheartedly with me. At other times you may just be skeptical. At others you may roll your eyes. But I think most of the time you'll find a good deal of balanced detail in the book. I've no doubt, having read your response to my response, that you will find things of worth in the book.

As for that line about the Punic Wars being a "struggle between European and African powers..." You make a good point. When I wrote that I defined both those categories in ways both more liberal and more specific than I imagine most readers will take them. By that I mean that statement doesn't equal the contemporary racial frictions that are part of our more recent history. I think people that read the book understand that, but the statement has to work for people that have not read the book also. With that in mind I think a revision is in order.

How about if I use some of your words and some of mine...

"a titanic clash of the two pre-eminent Mediterranean powers of the time".

That sounds good to me. I'll edit the original post.

I do think there are ways that the war and its results were shaped by (and then further shaped) the fates of European and African cultures, but I admit that's a much more subtle and complicated matter than our modern rhetoric acknowledges. It can't be explained in a sentence, that's for sure.

Oh, and I agree that the "debates" around whom should be cast in a Hannibal movie often show people at their worst. Very little of the strident arguments people have are really based on those distant historical times. Most of it is about our contemporary hangups, and it can get pretty ugly to listen to. In most cases, I find arguments on both sides based on limited and selective information - so limited and selective, in fact, that it hardly counts as information.

For my part, I've never offered a casting choice, except to say I'd hope they would find an actor that really had the gravitas to embody such a complicated character. Actually, I've mentioned the Japanese actor Ken Watanabe (from The Last Samurai) - not because I think he should be cast, but because he's the TYPE of actor they should be looking for, one that can contain the intelligence and cruelty, vision and perseverance and suffering of a figure like Hannibal. It's an amazing conflict that could merit an amazing film. I doubt we're going to get one, though.

Anyway, Mario, I do appreciate having this back and forth with you. It's easy to hot under the collar and shout at each other. It's a lot more substantive to talk things through a bit. Glad we got to do that.



ps - Do you still read Italian? There is that Italian version of the book (Annibale), published by Piemme, if you're interested... The paperback version, by the way, went out with a first printing of 45,000. Which, ironically, is the largest first printing I've had anywhere...

I didn't get a response from this post, but that's alright. What do you think? Am I too nice? Too amenable? Sometimes I feel that way, but it's true to my nature. (My wife, on the other hand... She's got a temper. Man, you should have heard the way she tore into the gardeners the other day for blowing dust on the laundry...)

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Great Minds Think Alike... Athough Sometimes They Don't KNOW They're Thinking Alike...

I had an interesting exchange over the weekend. I noticed a post over at the blog Of Science Fiction. It was titled My Belated Response to the Latest Blog Wave - Racism in Writing. (That link takes you to the original post.) In it the author, texasboyblue, responds with thoughts spurred by my Color Blind Reading Post.

What struck me on reading it was that I dug everything he was saying. Agreed with all of it and thought it was well-written and thoughtful.

What double-struck me was that something in the tone of it suggested that texasboyblue didn't know we were in complete agreement. So I dropped him a little note basically saying, "Nice post. I agree. You know that I agree, don't you? If not, please check out my original post and I think you'll see we do."

Well, texasboyblue did recheck my post. You can read his response here, if you'd like. As far as I'm concerned, it was a wonderful outcome. A small thing, but nice to make that connection - and interesting to know it worked out because we were thoughtful enough to read each other carefully.

I mention it here as food for thought. I think we're somewhat conditioned to expect to disagree with people who are different from us in obvious ways - especially on things like race. Sometimes we hear disagreement when there isn't even disagreement. And when there is honest disagreement that's where all our focus goes - instead of also saving a little energy (and thought) for developing common ground. That's a shame.

On the other hand, this little exchange between me and this gentleman in Texas shows that with a little effort and respect common ground doesn't even always have to be built - sometimes it already there and all we have to do is see it.

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

A Rambly Response That's Meant to Give a Bit More Context to Where I'm Coming From

So I put out my invite to folks at the George RR Martin Forum that were talking about my "Color Blind" post. I said if they wanted to come over and talk with me directly I'd welcome them. I didn't get a lot of takers.

Yesterday, though, Altherion popped over and made some points. I'm very glad he did. I responded to several of his questions in the comments thread for An Invite to the Folks at the Martin Forum, but I wanted to post about the last few things he said here. Altherion, I hope you don't mind my using your comments. It just feels like a great opportunity for me to demonstrate the type of dialog I'd like to have with people, a type I think is too rare. I kinda wrote this as a response to Altherion, but it's here for any that are interested.

The parts that Altherion wrote are in bold. When he’s quoting from my earlier post it is also italics. The stuff in regular script is new material.

To address your original point (the one that started the thread): I was not born in the US and its divisions along racial lines are foreign to me. That is, I do not intuitively understand why you (and, judging by the other thread, many others) make such a big deal out of the amount of melanin present in the skin of an individual -- although it is very clear that it is important to you. I believe you when you say it has had it is part of your daily life and it has affected your career. But I simply do not see where you get the certainty to make statements like this one:

Small test... I'd be interested to ask each "color blind" reader when was the last time they read something by a black author. They might shrug and say, "I don't know. Remember, I don't pay attention to an author's race." My translation of that - they probably haven't read a black author since a college lit course, because if they had they'd KNOW they had.

How would they know? For example, my answer to this test is: a few months ago. But the only reason I can tell you this is because somebody in the thread at Westeros mentioned that Samuel R. Delany is black. I did not know it from reading his story and I don't see how I would have learned it otherwise.

Great point about Delany. I actually can't speak specifically as to whether I think there are obvious racial undertones in all his work because I haven't read him. I shall, but I haven't yet. I think it's possible that the story you read might not be influenced by race in any obvious way. But Delany is one in a million. He's a very unusual man that carved a path for himself into sci-fi. In many ways, he carved that path toward you, going where few black authors go.

So you might have read a story not at all informed by race. Bare in mind, though, that at least some of his writing was very specifically about race and sexual orientation. Delany is very openly gay and openly black, as he discusses in depth his memoir, The Motion of Light on Water. Also, his Dark Reflections is about a black gay writer that pretty much seems like Delany himself. I only know that from looking him up, and from the fact that I’ve read interviews with him before.

In any event, a Delany story doesn't change my belief that in the vast majority of cases (and I wasn't talking just about sci-fi or fantasy) black writers do write material in which the racial aspects of our culture play a role. For us it's hard not to, because it so does play a role. Think of Octavia Butler, for example. I haven't read all of her works, but everything I have has centered on a young black female protagonist dealing with many things - including race. I would be amazed to to discover a white writer that would choose to write book after book with black protagonists dealing with race (along side vampires, social disintegration, slavery, etc.). It has never happened that I'm aware of. The fact that Octavia wrote what she did is wonderful - and it came out of her identity as a black woman - a dark black woman, at that.

That leads me in to answering why I make such a big deal about melanin... Let me start by stating the obvious so that you know what we have in common... The color of peoples' skin doesn't matter one bit to our shared humanity. Not at all. I've known that all my life, and in a great many ways my work as a novelist is about bringing that truth to as many people as I can. That's always a theme that's in the back of my head, sometimes in the front.

*Begin Spoiler Alert regarding my novel Walk Through Darkness – Don’t read this paragraph if you might ever read that novel.*

My novel Walk Through Darkness is about a white man that comes to understand he has a black son. That son is spending his life in bondage, as a slave because his mother’s colored skin matters most in Antebellum America. The man chooses, for many reasons, to seek out his son, to acknowledge him, to connect so that he can know the future of his line and so that the son can learn about the man and the family that’s part of his heritage. He risks everything to do this. He does it because every now and then – I believe – people can and do rise above our easy classifications of race and do better. I believe that. I wrote a novel about it. My commitment to such belief is professional, financial, and very personal.)

*End Spoiler Warning*

As I've mentioned in earlier posts, my wife is white and European, my kids are mixed race and multinational. Of course I don't think that the color variations between us matter at all. Okay?

BUT (you knew there would be a but, I'm sure)... that's the ideal. That’s the truth I know with all my heart and intellect. I also know that race does matter because the way of the world makes it matter every single day. I'm fortunate to be able to say I've never suffered any major racial attack, but let me give you some small ones. These are just a few snippets of life in my skin. Small things, but very real.

Grade School: I went to a predominantly white school. I can't tell you how many times I heard kids make racist jokes. If they knew I'd heard they always assured me they didn't mean me. "We're talking about them." Well, yeah, but that them includes many people in my extended family. I knew this, even if they didn’t.

Every time a black adult walked into the school I was invariably asked by other students if he or she was my father or mother. Obviously, that question was the first thing out of my peers' mouths because they saw that person’s skin, and they saw mine, and they made instant conclusions because of it.

Several years we did Square Dancing units in gym. At the end of the unit we'd have a big dance. Each time we did this I was partnered with another black kid. It was assumed. It was taken for granted that Joyce was going to be my partner. (Yes, I remember her name.) It feels - in my memory - like I was walked across the gym floor and had my hand slipped into Joyce's by my smiling, well-meaning teacher. "Here, here's your partner. She's just like you so it's a perfect match.” I doubt that was said that way, but it was meant that way and I knew it. It didn't matter that Joyce was in another teacher's class and that we avoided each other like the plague. We still became partners that one day of the year. I doubt we said a word to each other the entire time we danced.

In class photos in grade school I was always seated at the center point. The one dark face on the page. The photographer put me in the middle, I guess for some sort of symmetry. Why? Because of my skin. And I knew it was because of my skin. Just like I knew the local bullies’ names for me and my best friend were based on my skin. I was "Dirty Durham". He was "Mud-mate." Isn’t that brilliantly cruel? I was dirty. My friend was covered in mud for associating with me – and there’s a sexual bite to it also. I’m amazed that those kids were so effective in their slurs at age ten.

I could go on for a while about Grade school, but let's move forward...

High school: There was lots of confusion in high school. I don't mind admitting that much of it came from black students. I tried hard in my freshman year to fit in with the black students (I was in a much more mixed neighborhood and school now). But I wasn't "black enough", and try as I might I just couldn't get it right. That's actually a long and complicated story.

And easier one to grasp is this... First love. (I'll be embarrassed if she reads this, but it's true and she'll remember it too.) When I was a Sophomore I met a girl that I was absolutely giddy over. She was lovely and smart and she liked me! She had quite an olive complexion and I felt that I couldn't have been luckier to have connected with her. Until her parents met me. They didn't say an unkind word to me, but the next day this young woman, teary in the school hallways, said that she couldn't go out with me. Her parents forbade it. Why? Cause I was some shifty character? Because they just didn't want her dating yet? Because I had a bad reputation? No. None of those. Because of my skin. Because they were white and they didn't want the world looking down on their daughter for being with me. They told her that. She told me that. It effectively squashed our little romance before it had begun.

More recently: Driving with my wife and kids on the motorway around Denver, CO. I'm driving along having a conversation with my wife, the kids were in their car seats in the back, listening to Harry Potter on the iPod. I noticed a large, big-tired truck pull up on the passenger side. I kept talking, but noticed it as the truck slowed and dropped behind us, and then pulled up on the driver's side. It stayed right there beside us for a while, and eventually I looked over. There was one guy in the car, a white guy, and he was driving with one hand on the steering wheel. With the other, he was stretched toward me giving me the finger. He just held it there, seemingly asking for me to respond. I didn't. I actually just kept the conversation going with my wife. She's knitting and hadn't noticed any of this. I knew it would freak her out if I did say anything, so I didn't. Eventually the guy gave up and sped away. I watched him as long as I could, until I saw him take an exit. Relief…

Now, as I drove on I wondered if I'd cut him off or something. But I hadn't. Did I have some offensive bumper sticker on the car that he was responding to? No... The most likely answer to what went on there is that he's a racist, maybe an Aryan. (This was around Denver, after all. I think they have a presence there.) He drove up beside us, saw my pale-skinned wife, noted the kids in the back seat, and then saw me. He drove around to inform me of just what he thought of my domestic arrangement. And why did he think anything of me? Because of my skin. Because of my wife's skin.

Are you seeing how this stuff matters? What if he’d been with friends? What if I’d done what I had every right to and flipped him the finger as well? It’s not too much of an exaggeration to think I could’ve ended up in a violent situation, maybe a news story. It does happen to people, and it happens because of other peoples’ reactions to the skin they wear.

One more thing: this one is more internal, more about me instead of the outside world. I'm aware every time I go some place alone with my kids that some people seeing me with them may not immediately understand that I'm their father. I'm not a very dark guy, but at a glance I'm a person of color and they're white kids. If you look closely I'm in them and it's there to be seen. My father is there to be seen. My mother is. Just as my wife's mother and father are. I know that completely.

But, think for a minute what it would be like to entertain in the back of your mind that somebody seeing you with your kids may wonder what you're doing with them.

Has anything ever happened because of this? No. Maybe people don't think about it. Maybe only I do. But I do, and that will likely never go away. Consider also that I could be a bit darker and my kids could still look the way they do. (Genetics are strange like that, as Tobias Buckell will tell you.) If I was darker I'd fear people misunderstanding who I was in relation to my lovely eight year old daughter even more. Are you hearing some of why I'm reminded daily that race matters? Hearing that so much of it is external, but that aspects of it can't help but be internalized also?

As you can probably tell by now, I'd much rather live in a world where skin color did not matter this much and the way I am trying to contribute to bringing it about is by not acting based on it and preventing others from doing so. For example, if I shopped at Borders (which I do not) and noticed that they segregate by race (meaning, by author rather than by subject), I'd complain and when this would most likely have no effect, I'd stop going there. But I would never buy a book from the segregated section just because it was from there -- that strikes me as a racist action.

Altherion, I'd much rather live in a world where skin color did not matter this much too. God, would I ever! But wanting it and wishing for it isn't going to make it happen.

And that's a big part of my objection to "color blind" reading. It's hard for me to separate it from wishful thinking. Of course I want to live in a world not so plagued by racial strife. It's simply that I don't think we get nearer to that by announcing that race just doesn't matter and hoping that doing so makes the problem go away. It does matter - and I hope some of the examples from my life illustrate that. If those examples give you pause for thought - good. If you read other black authors you'd find those experiences not at all unusual (they're often a lot worse), and you'd read many more things that would give you pause for thought. I firmly believe that we'd all understand each other better if we read more widely, and reading widely has to be intentional.

Would I want you to read something from a "segregated section just because it was from there"? Of course not. And I never said anything like that. My original post was about 1) pointing out that there is a segregated section, 2) noting that if you don't know it's there or go to it you're not being presented with enough options to make that "color blind" claim mean anything and 3) encouraging you and others to read diversely because there's so much great stuff out there, and reading outside your normal parameters offers a wealth of experiences and perspectives that can enrich your understanding of what it means to be a human on this planet.

Altherion, I'm about as picky a reader as you can get. I have very high standards and I set a lot of books aside because they're not up to them. I'd never ask you to read a mediocre book out of some literary Affirmative Action. But encouraging you to read diversely isn't the same as asking you to read just anything by authors of color. For example, if you were interested in knowing a bit more about what it's like being black in America I could suggest a list of excellent novels. I wouldn't point you toward mediocre titles. I'd point you toward some of the best books being written by some of the world's best authors - who happen to be black and happen to be writing wonderful fiction that explores race in our complex, interconnected world. That's all I ever meant when I began this.

Thanks for reading this far.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

An Invite to the Folks at the Martin Forum

So there have been many different sites out there talking about issues sparked by my post on being "color blind". One of the more lively ones was at the GRR Martin's Westeros Forum. I was chuffed (British word, means happy, thrilled, bucked up) they were talking there. Thing is, I found the tone of the conversation a bit different than at my own site. People were saying lots of things. There was a significant balance in it - and I'd been summoned - but still I thought the further it went along the less it had to do with me. I began wondering why these folks didn't drop over here and pose their opinions to me.

So I asked them to. What follows is what I posted there. I'll be curious as to whether my invitation lures anyone...

Hi, so yesterday or so I posted here saying I was glad to see folks talking. Said also that I found the discussion interesting, and that often when I disagreed with a point it wasn't long before somebody chimed in with what I thought was wisdom. There were so many different points, though, and so many folks were talking to each other, that I didn't really feel inclined to weigh in. I was tired, too.

All this is still true. I'm still tired. But I've also been thinking about a few things… It began earlier today when I remembered that a few folks here seemed to doubt my assertion that there even was a black literature section in Borders. (And it's specifically Borders that I mentioned.) I think somebody else said explicitly that there WASN'T such a section in Borders. That did disturb me. For one, they didn't ask me about this, but spoke here. For another, I was a bit surprised that something so basic to my whole discussion would be casually set aside.

For the folks that lean that way - on what is that assertion based? A gut feeling? The fact that you haven't noticed it before? The notion that you don't like the idea of such a thing and therefore assume it doesn't exist? And if that's your line of thinking... where does that put me? Did I make it up? Do I not know where my OWN books are shelved in one of the major chain stores in the country? Or am I willfully making it up?

I didn't open the discussion based either on lies or on vast misunderstandings of factors that have affected my life for years. Let me be clear...

Borders as a chain does have a section of the stores cordoned off for Black writers of fiction. It's not there just for people that are writing about black issues, although most of the writers there are doing that. B&N does not have such a section. Borders does. It's not the same as a Black Studies or a Black History section. I've been to these sections many a time. (Have you?) I've seen my books there, and I've seen many other authors' books there. The discussion of what such a section means is one topic. Exactly which books by what authors may be fluid too. It's also possible that your Borders is in such a white area that the African American section has been eliminated. There are plenty of variables, but I say without fear that such sections do exist in many, many Borders.

So that's what I was thinking about earlier. But this evening I saw this post from Tia Nevitt at Fantasy Debut. It's a thoughtful post, but what struck me was when she pointed out that she thought responses on my blog were... politer than they might be. She said, "I think most white people feel held back most of the time. I hate to generalize, and this may not be true in your particular case, but for the most part, I think this is true." I agree. I found the responses on my blog largely supportive and introspective.

Which makes me wonder... Why are you all talking here to each other instead of talking to me? I was glad to be summoned, but I started this on my blog, and I can't attend to this Forum as I do to my own turf. Bring your opinions over there, where I'm obligated to respond. I do think it's great that you're talking to each other about this, but when it comes down to suggesting that I've lied or made things up I’"d much rather you bring that to me. You want to know if there's an African American lit section in Borders? Ask me. Tell me to prove it. I'll walk out of my house, get into my car, go up to Borders and take pictures. (I'll get some white folks to pose in them, just for balance.) Challenge me on it. Don't just talk amongst yourselves.

A lot of you are talking about what I said or meant here, but not all of you are doing me the courtesy of asking ME about it personally. Some of you have misinterpreted and misappropriated things I've said rather drastically. I'd rather you didn't define what I've said or what I mean - not unless you're speaking directly to me to find out how I'd respond. I can't answer all of it here, but I will if your address comments, thoughts, questions to me.

So bring your thoughts to me. HERE'S THE PLACE. Let's talk. Call me on something and I'll answer. I'll always do so with respect, and I'll always try to be clear and try to hear your side of things as best I can. We might both learn from it.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

A Linky Post

Hi. I'm still stuck in to three days of "New Faculty" stuff here at Cal State. Not my favorite way to spend time. I just thought I'd take a minute, though, and link to a few things...

Over at the SF Site an interview I did with Jeff VanderMeer just went up. It was a pleasure to do. Jeff's a professional at all this stuff. (And he knows The Church - as in the band! Very cool.)

Do you know about the Page 69 Test? It's a site that has authors look at page 69 of their book and write a bit about whether or not it represents the entire book, etc. They tapped me and I took the test. You can read it here.

There's still a good deal of debate going on regarding my "Color Blind" reader post. (See below. )I find it all very interesting, and there's been more said them I'm actually able to comment on. Other than here on the blog, there are discussions up in quite a few places now. You could definitely check out The Fantasy Review, Neth Space and Fantasy & Sci-Fi Lovin' Blog for some other perspectives/discussions.

In particular, the George RR Martin Forum has quite a lively discussion going on.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

On Being a "Color Blind" Reader...

Hey, so if you popped in here because you're a fantasy reader who's been wondering if my novel Acacia: The War with the Mein is worth your hard-earned dollars I've got good news for you. It is. There are many posts here that talk about it and give good news and talk about fantasy stuff. This post, however, comes shaped by another aspect of my life on this planet. It's one of those race-related posts.

It came about responding to a comment that Larry from OF Blog of the Fallen made about reader responses to the interview I did with John Sclazi. I enjoyed reading most of the comments, and found some of them wonderfully encouraging and supportive. But, as with any thing race-related, there was a mixture of different opinions.

Larry's comment was, "After reading some of the comments at Scalzi's blog, I cannot help but notice how many readers unwittingly underscored your point about the acknowledgment of color/race by claiming that they were "color blind." I remember quite well taking a diversity class in a local university's social work program and being confronted with the fact that being "color blind" is quite a privileged position to be in the first place."

Yes. I hear you. On race issues people often "unwittingly" say things in denying racial concerns that actually prove how valid those concerns actually are. The "color blind" thing... Okay, before I say much let me make it clear that when I talk about this issue I'm not out to make any personal attacks. I'm just offering a perspective informed by a lifetime of inhabiting the skin I do. It's about asking folks to consider that they might not have all the answers - and that they might not have thought the entire thing through as much as they think.

My wife, for example, is Scottish. And I don't mean just that her surname is Scottish but she actually was born and raised in Des Moines... No, she's really Scottish, accent and all, red-haired, born in the Shetland Isles and raised in the Highlands and Islands. I met her in Edinburgh, and when I brought her across to America a year later she was new to all of our particularly American racial issues.

Now we've been together ten years. We've lived here and abroad and are raising two mixed race kids. Just yesterday she was commenting about all this by admitting that she had been and would likely have remained clueless about the myriad ways race impacts people of color's lives on a daily basis. She didn't know a thing before. With her open mind she'd likely have embraced the notion of being "color blind" - without realizing how misguided it is.

Fast forward ten years. Ten years of living with me, of discussing issues with me, of watching race affect my career, of reading about black history and reading black literature, ten years of pondering what our intermingled racial legacies mean for our children. AFTER all that, she admits, she understands things so much more now. Part of what that means is that she has no problem understanding the hand race plays in so, so many things. She knows just how racist the workings of the world are in ways that she had no inkling of before. She also admits that even now she has a ton to learn and knows that she'll never really understand the world as viewed from beneath dark skin.

Contrast that to the good people (most often white, I'd wager) that say they're "color blind" and that all this seeing racism in everything is just silliness. I think that most of them say that with the best of intentions, but every time I hear it I'm curious about a few things.

Small test... I'd be interested to ask each "color blind" reader when was the last time they read something by a black author. They might shrug and say, "I don't know. Remember, I don't pay attention to an author's race." My translation of that - they probably haven't read a black author since a college lit course, because if they had they'd KNOW they had. They'd remember it, and likely they'd have learned things from it.

Okay, second question... For white readers that shop at Borders - when was the last time you went browsing for a novel in the "African-American" literature section? They'd likely respond with, "The what? There's not an African-American literature section. Black history section, sure, but..." To which I respond that yes, yes there is a section of Borders - usually a small corner about a shelf and half wide - where the vast majority of fiction by black authors is shelved. It's where Alice Walker goes. It's where you'll most readily find Toni Morison. It's where I found Edward P Jones' The Known World for the first time. (After he won the Pulitzer and MacArthur "Genius" Grant and about every other literary award possible Borders might have saw fit to move him into the regular literature section. Might. But he began in AFAM.)

Honestly, this section of the store really exists, and all you have to do to get into it is to be black (not even American, just black at all).

I know all of this because that's where my first two novels (Gabriel's Story and Walk Through Darkness) go - when they're actually stocked at all. Yes, Pride of Carthage is in general fiction and Acacia is in fantasy, but my publisher had to push hard for the big chains to see the work instead of the color of its author. I know this. They told me this. And they said one of many reasons to get out of that tiny section was that it would immediately mean the stores would buy more copies, display them where people might see them - and therefore we’d sell more copies.

Does all of this sound like a racist conspiracy theory? Well, I can see how it would if it isn't part of your daily life. But it is part of my life and career to push through these boundaries and have my books placed within the general population. I know it. My publisher knows it. The bookstore executives and buyers and managers know it. The only folks that may not know that race is very much considered at all stages of publishing are a great many of the customers themselves.

So, to the "color blind" reader that has no idea they have NO CHANCE of coming across most black writers in the center of the store... I argue that the fact that you don't read with an awareness of color means that you're being a willing accomplice to institutional segregation. In that regard, being "color blind" also means being blind to a host of inequities, perspectives and realities that you would be able to see if you chose to acknowledge color and to see how much it affects all our lives. Doesn’t make being “color blind” seem so enlightened, does it?

So what's the remedy? Part of it, in this case, would be to put away that blindness and see the colors! When I come up with a reading list for a course I make sure it's racially diverse, and gender balanced, and I try to remember that we don't all have the same sexual preferences and that should be represented to. Do I have to scrape the bottom of the barrel to come up with good titles? Of course not. There's great literature written in all these perspectives and more. Don't be blind to them. Seek out diversity and you'll realize how rich it is, and how important it is.

By the way, my bookshelf isn't color blind. That's why I've included photos of it throughout this post. It's a rich tapestry of all sorts of writing from all sorts of places. It's literary and genre, white and black, European and African and Asian, straight and gay, old and new, etc, etc... I'm proud it, and I know it didn't get that way by accident, or chance. It's the result of many, many conscious decisions on my family's part. I think that's the only way we can know that we're doing the best we can to be racially sensitive and aware and informed. We have to act - and buy and read - consciously. And it's worth it. It really is.

So take the blinders off. You many find it's a very good thing.
(This is just my fiction collection, by the way. I've got the non-fiction in another room, respectfully granted the same sort of space and love.)

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