Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Conversation I WANT to have.

Bringing things back around to conversations I want to have, I relate the news that there's to be yet another casting call in Philadelphia (Feb 7th 2009) and Aang Ain't White are trying to round up folks for a more attended (as in more than 4 people) protest against Avatar: The Airbender (The Live Action Movie) and their call for ethnic folk as background extras while all the Asian heroes are now and determinedly white.

I've done two posts on the Avatar Disaster: Hollywood: "We Don't Know What Asian Looks Like" AND All the world's white, the rest of us merely live in it. The latter post is what I wish to somewhat expand on now.

I posted my fears in that entry. I talked about how irritated and frustrating and helpless it feels to realize that I could write a book with minority characters, even specifically black characters, but if I don't stay within the very stereotype caricature/characterization/descriptions that I find troublesome - any a huge chunk of white people reading what I write, simply won't see colour. They won't see non-white ethnicity. It really is enough to make someone scream.

I have nothing to say to the individuals who've looked at the animated Avatar: The Last Airbender and don't see a non-white fantasy culture filled with non-white peoples.

It's still so odd to me to use the phrase Non-White. I began to use the phrase Non White Peoples because it felt more like a definition of, instead of a definition against. But since January 13th, I've found myself thinking I can see another side of the phrase now, the importance of it - the need to distinguish that I, me, my culture, my family, my peoples, my history, a solid portion of my ancestry - ARE. NOT. WHITE.

I'm not you. I am not just exactly like you. My experiences shape me. And my experiences involve NOT BEING WHITE. It's amazing how a phrase that used to make me feel so uncomfortable, has become a phrase of empowerment - a phrase to shout.

[ I had a mention of this somewhere on this blog before, as an apology to someone I'd had conflict and misunderstandings with over the phrase. But I mention it here again, because I think they might be reading now and because I can feel the meaning (possibly, I'm not in their head) behind it now. So hey Spiralsheep - I think I got 15 percent of it now and why we crossed wires.]

Because, Dark Blue Heaven Looking Down , I'm tired of the Mr./Mrs. Potato Head Assumptions. I'm tired of people not taking the time to research people because they don't believe that people can differ from one another. And I'm tired that they also don't seem to look or are too ignorant (or is it laziness - or is ignorance + Laziness = Privilege) to grasp the concept that there are groups of people all over the world who're not like them and it's important to accept that, respect that, observe that and INCLUDE that in their presentation of the world. You know, Earth. This little ball of air and mud and water balanced in the dark blankets of the sky.

The world of fantasy should not be all White People + Various European Architecture + Magic (possibly dragons). The world of fantasy also shouldn't be White People + Various Asian/South Asian Architecture + Magic. It's not White People Gaining Power From Kachina Dolls. It's not White People + Dark Savages + Magic. It's not White People + Voudoo (Hoodo, Obeah, Santeria). It's definitely not White People + All 4 of the previous mentioned practices, mixed up and rolled into one.

Seeing things that way, is what has lead to Avatar: The Last Airbender (Clorox Movie Remix).

I was watching a Britcom last night. And something hit me harder than it would have if the last few weeks had not just happened. Someone was coordinating a visit to the Caribbean for the protagonist couple; a villa in Barbados. And they said "And I've arranged for a car to pick you up in Bridgetown." For the record? That's like having a flight arrive at LAX and someone arranging a car to pick you up in Oakland. The physical distance is not the same - but relativity wise? Oh yeah. The Airport and the City of Bridgetown are in two different parishes. The airport is far enough away to almost be on an opposing shore (but it is near a perpendicular one to Bridgetown). Yes, the island is small - but it'd still be a walk, in the hot sun, into town to get that car.

I sat there watching it and had this slap in the face moment of shock. Barbados is a former colony of Britain. When I was in school, we had to learn a whole lot about England because Independence was only 30 odd years away. Barbados' nickname Is 'Little England'. And yet someone couldn't find a map, make a phone call to ask a question - to care about their facts. It's just a little island somewhere in the Caribbean that gets mentioned as a place British people go to for sun and fun.

I sat there thinking about Avatar and the Three Major Kingdoms and the obvious Asian Cultures and realized that I had no right to think M. Night didn't have his own internalized colonialism to battle. I sat there and realized the Producers, Paramount don't care, don't have to care, because it's just a culture filled with non-white people, with cool costumes, and interesting weapons, where white heroes go to have fun and daring. I sat there thinking about phrases like 'the melting pot' or 'the salad' and realized that we, non-white peoples are seasonings! Jerk chicken is so fascinating. Sushi is so odd but interesting. Mexican food is something to build a fast food franchise out of. Chinese New Year, is an excuse to eat a lot of chinese food and see interesting acrobatics and dancing dragons.





And I had the really, really odd thought that things are still Separate but Equal. Hong Kong Cinema. Bollywood. J-Pop. Afropop - more than I'm not aware of or I'm not thinking about right now. American Comic Books vs Manga. All the resentment I've heard at how the newer generation isn't reading comic books but are devouring manga - or how girls are devouring manga.

Avatar - Their heroes (white heroes) with Asian dressing. The dressings change, the heroes stay white. Seriously, think of the movie 21. White heroes, Asian original recipe. Think of movies that have predominately black casts - they're made by particular directors, star particular actors and are marketed to... Black Americans.

Separate but Equal - or at least the dogma. Nothing's really equal (it never was, it still isn't). Not when cultures are being used as props and people are being used as flavour and real life stories are good for inspiration but Mina Suvari works better than an actual African Descended Actress. The People of the Middle East are oooh, so scary. But lets shoot a movie with a tanned Jake Gyllenhaal in sand and use the word Persian.

Don't be afraid of writing characters of colour. It's just a piece of white chicken breast with a little; bbq sauce, hot sauce, duck sauce, soy sauce, yogurt, brown stew, ginger.....


So the conversation I want to have now is - what next? How do we start? Do we use the internet and go small press the way various erotica writing female writers have utilized it - making a space for themselves? How do we make space for ourselves? Do we embrace the labeling? Do we embrace the separate little bookshelves in the bookstore? The African American Lit. The Asian Experiences. The Jewish Commentaries? With their little signs? Do we accept those labels? Do we try to burst out? Where do we move next?

Because we're using a hell of a lot of energy on that otherstuff - and that's fine. Not sitting down and taking this Separate and Really Unequal stuff - that's good. But it has to be more than that, doesn't it? Can we start a movement? Are we willing to sacrifice time and energy to that? Do we have leaders to help us with that? Can we have another Renaissance? Can we do for fantasy fiction what happened with Jazz? Can we take instruments but make something new?

Personally I do not want to claim Magical Realism. So if someone wants to start with a good naming....

But do we, can we, have OUR versions of the stories? Our versions of Wagon Train To the Stars? Or maybe it'd be Journey To The New West? Do we have our versions of Hunters of the Paranormal? Do we have our versions of The Clock Is Ticking...!?

I think technology as it currently stands could make this easier, but I don't know. I'm not sure. It's why this is the conversation I want to have. Because I'm tired of being drowned in the sweet, champagne tears of white people making it all about them. We have this conversation about three times a year, every year. We use up so much of our energy on educating - whether we want to out not. Clawing, energy soaking hands diverting conversations like Snow White's Stepmother:

"Mirror Mirror On The Wall - Who's The Hurtiest Of Them All."

"Oh Whitey Fair. Oh Whitey Bright. Your pain in truth's not light, but the pain of the PoC is quite a sight."

*StepQueen attacks!*

"Mirror Mirror On The Wall - Who's The Hurtiest Of Them All?"

"Oh Special Precious Hurting One. Your tears run long and sweet. But nothing yet defeats the pain of PoC verbally beat."

*StepQueen attacks!*

"Mirror Mirror On The Wall - Who's The Hurtiest Of Them All?"

"Your pain is deep, that much is true. But really, it's not at all about you."

"Mirror Mirror On The Wall - You lie!"

*StepQueen smashes*

I don't want to keep pleading with Huntsmen not to rip out my heart (The Allies Who Aren't). I don't want to have to live in fear of haircombs and ribbons and apples (Minority Cultures As Props For White Heroes). I'd rather move to a whole new kingdom.

Wouldn't you?


  1. I wonder at your comments about small presses. A friend of mine has started making a significant chunk of money writing erotica and having it published as e-books.

    It's not, as I understand it, cheaper than a physical book, because one still needs to pay an editor, a web designer, a cover artist, advertising costs, and the like. But it seems doable. There are certainly models to follow.

    I'm not sure if that's the answer, but when you brought up small presses, that's what came to mind.

  2. Deepad

    Could you please repost? I'm not sure how I managed it, but I pressed the wrong button. I'm totally sorry.

    deepad has left a new comment on your post "A Conversation I WANT to have.":

    Thank you. This is the conversation I wish to have too.

  3. *whistles* Now this? This is...mindblowing for me. This? This conversation I want to have. This is... Wow.

  4. I'm right there with you. I want us to get to the next phase and get to creating.

  5. Have you heard about the current hottest theater ticket in NYC, "The Shipment," written by playwright, Young Jean Lee, running at the Kitchen?

    It is described, at leat by the NY Times, like this:

    [ "An Evening in Black and White From a Playwright Who Is Neither." ]

    Love, C.

  6. I'd would like to join that conversation as well

  7. magic realism, feminist fantsay fiction, erotica of all sorts-- they are doing pretty well as etexts. I know people who are selling their own manga via subscription. I know of two different women who have created epublishing sites to cater to one tiny niche or another that was being ignored by the bigger publishers.

    And readers of color is not a tiny niche!

    yeah, think about epublishing!

  8. Just wanted to chime in and agree that the epublishing option might be worth considering. I know there's a market for erotica/romance, for example, and I'd love to see more fantasy/scifi epublishers.

  9. A data point for PoC publishing online is the John Dies at the End, by David Wong e-book. It started as a popular online novel, got printed by a small press, and is now being republished by a major publisher. The book is due out in late 2009. It also looks like there's going to be a movie.

    And personally, I really want to have sf/f discussions that center PoC as the default. It doesn't even have to include me, as an Asian-American. For me, part of deprogramming against racism involves not centering white as the default, or as the measuring stick.

  10. Absolutely love this post. It's making me think a lot about the way I write, especially about the worldview of my characters.

    These discussions SHOULD center POC as the default, because you know what? POC *are* the default. You are the majority of the world. There are more Chinese nationals than all the white people in the entire world (I'm estimating here). And that's just Chinese people.

    As much as I love Tolkien, I'm really tired of the white idealized British medieval ripoffs posing as fantasy fiction. I want to read something else.

    I think the market is out there. Mainstream publishing is always X number of years behind, in my view, trying to catch up. The fact that you're having this discussion and feeling empowered in this way from the things that have happened is incredibly exciting to me, because I see good things coming from it for American fiction.

  11. kalima62:

    Not just American fiction. There are Non White Peoples who're British as well who have stories and tales and sagas. And between the two of them, we're still only talking about English Speaking countries.

  12. My apologies. Since I'm American I tend to think in those terms. I know nothing about the publishing world in other countries, so I can only speak to my own. Certainly a similar discussion in other countries can only help their fiction as well.

    Best wishes for your project.

  13. Hi there,

    I don't think we've interacted before, but I've been following the spiraling racefail pretty avidly since its inception. I'm going to put my professional hat on here: I edit the SF/F/H and mass market book reviews sections for Publishers Weekly, and the latter section in particular gives me a decent overview of "mainstream" fiction, by which I mean mass market originals that come out from imprints of major publishers. With the exceptions of Kensington's Dafina and Brava imprints, pretty much everything I see is white white white white white. I'd love to see that change.

    If you want to promote fiction writing by people of color--and I specify fiction only because I don't know a blessed thing about nonfiction publishing--there are certainly big downsides to being either an imprint of a big publisher (not much independent control, not much variety to what you publish) or a small independent press (not much money, hard to get anyone to notice you). There is, however, a third way.

    What I would suggest is something that a couple of independent genre publishers have done with some success: approach a major publisher that doesn't have a PoC-oriented imprint and tell them that you want to form a small press with a targeted line and you'd like them to be your distributor. They don't have to shell out the money to buy you outright, and you get more autonomy than you would have as an imprint. Baen Books has an agreement like this with Simon & Schuster; Hard Case Crime has a similar one with Dorchester. By riding the coattails of a major press, you get their connections to bookstore buyers and their discount deals with printing presses and maybe even some access to their publicity departments, all without compromising your vision or your integrity.

    If you decide to go the fully independent route, chat with the folks at South End Press about how they make it work; they've been around for a while and they know the drill. You could also put out a call on places like the MediaBistro bulletin board, requesting the input of non-white publishing professionals in determining the best way to aggressively open the publishing industry up to editors, publicists, artists, writers, and readers of all backgrounds.

    I wish you the very best of luck with this. If this well-meaning white ally can offer any assistance, please let me know.

  14. Rosefox:

    Thank you very much for your comment and contribution to the conversation. I'm going to go re-read it now (and possibly another three times).

  15. You're very welcome. I'm also getting into a similar discussion at zvi_likes_tv's journal, if you haven't seen that.

  16. You go girl! (In my subculture, this is a phrase of respect. Just in case yours is different.)

  17. Avalon's Willow:

    Beautiful post on painful material. The metaphor is just too apt.

    We (my personal 'we', white Americans) are a racist AND a consumerist society -- POC voices whether native or foreign are too often perceived not as speakers or authors, present on their own terms, but as objects of consumption, goods, present on our (white) 'purchasing' terms. That is still the fundamental stumbling block I really think: white consumers still just cannot see 'subject' instead of 'object.'

    Or at least the creators and marketers of white-targeted culture don't THINK they can, and tailor their business accordingly, and as long as they consider this immutable truth, they perpetuate it.


    Thank you for the editor's and publisher's perspective...but I'm curious, does the small press arrangement you're speaking of mean that the small press gets to determine the tenor of their own marketing, or are they still beholden to how the distributor wants to spin it? I.e., do you have enough power to get around the trap of it being publicized as "only of interest to POC -- whites please ignore" or even "whites, read this because it is POC and therefore exotic or broadening or some crap -- oh yeah and it's good too"?

    (NOT that having a successful small press with an exclusively or heavily POC customer base is not a great thing that could lead to even greater things. But then you're still in Separate but Equal land, and what if one wanted to break out of that final sandbox?)

    My personal theory is that once the society accumulates a critical mass of undeniable hits that are a) POC-centered and b) beloved as stories, not as marks of enlightenment, then the barrier will be broken through probably for good. But I have no idea if that's right, nor am I sure what an action plan for achieving that would look like even if it was.

  18. It just seems weird to have Aang as white.

    Aren't they afraid of distancing themselves from the fan base?

  19. This is a conversation I want to have too.

    Often, in "literary" fiction, the new "ethnicity" is hot (think of 'Kite Runner' or 'Half of a Yellow Sun'). I see this as the establishment sitting up and noticing that, 'Blimey, these people can write too'. What you'll find, though, is that these books are written with power and on their own terms. They don't necessarily follow the Western fiction formula. They tell the stories as they are told in their respective cultures.

    Being black African myself I was, as a young boy, confused by my first exposure to (translated) Japanese fiction because of the way the narrative might end in the middle of the story, or how the most important or visually stunning aspect occurs at any other part of the story except the third act. But I adjusted and came to enjoy it.

    In my tribe, for example, we have a culture of telling stories that the whole audience knows intimately, this familiarity with narrative being the point since the telling of stories has a pathic function rather than new information transfer. The telling is to keep the tribe together, to induce comfort in the knowledge that the world is as it was yesterday (sorry, veering into anthropology).

    My point is people of colour in speculative fiction have got to start telling their tales not as Western adaptations but in the mould which they would have used were they told in their native habitat.

    And, yes, I just made fiction out to be alive with habitat requirements, because that's what they are in my culture.

    My suggestion is not about the logistics of getting our stories out there (which is a real challenge to be dealt with by people more qualified than I). It is about maintaining the integrity of the stories.

    Don't write Chlorox versions of your culture.