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December 2014

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i pity the fool

Every damned time the topic of diversity in SFF comes up, somebody says something about "Well, if the story demands that the character be queer/disabled/black/trans/female/postcolonial/feminist, that's one thing. But if you're just putting it in to be politically correct***, then you're bound by ideology, and that's bad art."

...
... ...
... ... ...

...because able Western white cis het male is the default. Because the viewpoint character being an able Western white cis het male totally doesn't inform the narrative, and has no influence in the way the world is presented, because that's the only viewpoint that really exists, and the rest of us are all flavor text. We're spices. We're here to be observed and consumed. To break up the monotony a little bit, or to provide an Issue that can be discussed in the course of the narrative. Because by writing crippled queer fat black Asian gay lesbian trans intersex non-neurotypical African Sikh Muslim Hindu Latino female whatever, we're sure as hell not reflecting the narrative, the experience of millions of real people who have a real existence and a narrative and a right to exist and tell stories and have voices and be heard.

And those people only can be in stories if they're their to illuminate some aspect of the crippled queer fat black Asian gay lesbian trans intersex non-neurotypical African Sikh Muslim Hindu Latino female whatever experience to the able Western white cis het male gaze****.

Because we sure as hell don't have our own stories to tell.

*facepalm*

You know what?

I am reminded of the old joke about Heaven being full of parties, and Saint Pete giving somebody the tour so he can decide who he wants to hang out with. And when they finally get to the one quiet room, the new recruit is all excited, and is like, "ZOMG WHO'S THIS!?"

And Saint Pete says, "Shhh! It's the Westboro Baptists! They think they're alone up here!"

...screw those guys. I know where the party is.

I invite all y'all to mention in comments recent***** books by authors or with protagonists of diverse backgrounds that are very worthy of further attention.

I'll start.

Karen Lord -- The Best of All Possible Worlds
Caitlin R. Kiernan -- The Drowning Girl: A Memoir
Ellen Klages -- The Green Glass Sea
Saladin Ahmed -- Throne of the Crescent Moon
Charles Yu -- How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

(and many more)



***A brief digression. If you will bear with me, please let me explain a bit about my relationship with the term "politically correct." As far as I know, it originated as a critique of Stalinist policies in the 1940s, and "political correctness" was then considered to mean "in line with Stalinish policies." But I first encountered it in the radical lesbian separatist/feminist movement of the 1980s--which is my native culture and the reason I claim I can't actually write insider stories for anybody who still exists except elisem, Suzy McKee Charnas, and Elizabeth Lynn**--and at that point it was an ironic usage that referred to being in line with the kind of anti-male, anti-het, anti-trans rhetoric--the kind of doctrinal purity--that is today described by the term "radfem."

I own me a lapel button that reads "Politically Incorrect." I bought it for twenty-five cents at the New England Women's Musical Retreat in 1982. I was nine years old*.

I have not entirely adapted to the modern Right Wing/antifemnist/ usage of "Politically Correct" to mean "people who don't suck at compassion." I feel a little appropriated, to tell you the truth. And a little put out.

Fuckers.

*My street cred. I shows U it.
**I went home again. It had turned into a convenience store.
****Charlie Stross calls these the 7Ps: pale protestant parochial patriarchal something penis people (ETA: "Pale Patriarchal Plutocratic Protestant Penis People of Power")
*****Let's say, this millenium

Comments

Yeah, it really gets to me that the people who are chanting "You must be true to THE ART, and only put in characters that are appropriate for the story THE ART wants you to tell" so often just coincidentally end up reading, recommending, and writing books that are overwhelmingly about straight white dudes. Apparently THE ART is a bigot?

So, books with protagonists/authors of diverse backgrounds:

Breadcrumbs, a bittersweet and brilliant MG retelling of a Hans Christian Andersen story, in which the protagonist is a PoC child adopted by white parents, in a midwest town where almost no one else looks like her.
Rivers of London (aka Midnight Riot), set in a London as diverse as it actually is, with a protagonist of mixed race.
Fox & Phoenix, a YA adventure fantasy novel of distinctly non-European derivation.
Liar, by Justine Larbelestier, has a mixed-race bisexual protagonist. (Also, there are maybe werewolves.)

From a different medium, Family Man is a webcomic (some of it also collected into graphic novels) with a Jewish-by-race, Christian-by-family not-quite-atheist protagonist in 1768 not-Germany. Also there are maybe werewolves. (Straight white man protagonist, yes, but there's a lot of complicated minority/Othering stuff going on with him and the eventual second protagonist, so I think it qualifies.)
The Amulet is a children's graphic novel series by Kazu Kibuishi that's strong, increasingly complex fantasy with great art.
Weirdly, the more true I am to The Art, the less 7Ps my work gets. The Art apparently wants stories about, like queer women from me! (And everyone else.)

And I am a card carrying woo-as-all-get-out "I write The Story as it is!" writer. And I guarantee the better I've gotten at that, the more diverse the backgrounds, outlooks, body-variables and other issues have gotten.

So I dunno. I guesx their Art is a dick.
Yeah, I found that my Art got a lot less monofocused once I started thinking about these things. Funny how that works.
From a different medium, Family Man is a webcomic (some of it also collected into graphic novels) with a Jewish-by-race, Christian-by-family not-quite-atheist protagonist in 1768 not-Germany. Also there are maybe werewolves. (Straight white man protagonist, yes, but there's a lot of complicated minority/Othering stuff going on with him and the eventual second protagonist, so I think it qualifies.)

♥♥♥

It's weird, I find a lot more fiction outside the 7P's in webcomics than on bookstore shelves. I could name you, like, a dozen webcomics I read that qualify, and I struggle with a dozen books I've read. (Iothera, O Human Star, Skin Horse, Decrypting Rita, Lotus Root Children, ...)
Some of it, IME, is that webcomics tend to have a central cast rather than Protagonist with supporting cast, so it's a lot easier--as it were--to have a more diverse cast that's prominent and front-and-center. But I think a lot of it also that webcomics, being direct-to-audience media projects that tend to have very small (if loyal) fanbases, have (or perceive themselves to have) an awful lot more freedom to write what they want, and not only what they think will sell.

There's also a tendency for webcomic writers/artists to be younger overall than published authors. Hm. Now I am pondering all the reasons why webcomics would skew more towards diversity. Interesting.

I read only one of the webcomics you list there, but I could list lots more with interesting diversity within the cast. Questionable Content has queer and trans and disabled and PoC characters, Gunnerkrigg Court cares a great deal about the relationship between two girls, The Amazing Adventures of TJ and Amal is about two gay men (one white)... Heck, even if you jump over to Hark, A Vagrant, it's 90% history jokes, and actually notices that an awful lot of people in history are not actually 7Ps.
Those are all good points.

I wonder how much too, in addition to skewing young, the authors skew outside the 7P's. Is it tokenism to write yourself into your autobio slice-of-life comic if you're Indian or gay or a transwoman or...? Obviously not.

And it's easier to see the difference -- I can't remember the passing mention of those characters' skin tones in the book, but I surely remember how they were drawn and colored in the comic.

(I suppose many of the authors also skew liberal-urban -- eg. Jeph Jacques is, as far as I know, a het white cis male, but he lived and his comic is set in friggin' Northampton. If the only characters you ever saw were het white and cis, the readers would speculate endlessly about the terrible plague which wiped out the rest of the city and left these characters the only survivors. And that's an interesting point too -- the feedback loop is much shorter. I wonder how much that's an influence.)

TJ and Amal -- ooh, I hadn't encountered that one yet. Sold! Thanks!
TJ and Amal is great! I picked up on that one because I went to a webcomics gathering to see the artists from Girls with Slingshots and Questionable Content and Something Positive. (Now that I think about it, SP is probably the first webcomic I read that had non-het characters in it. Huh.)