Saturday, September 5, 2015

You Don't Speak For Me

This post was almost titled "Cutting Off Your Nose to Spite Your Face", but that's lengthy and though it summarizes a portion of what I want to talk about it doesn't quite hit the center of the target.

Frankly, that's what I see a lot of fellow PoC (Person of Color) authors on Twitter doing recently.
By recently I mean Today, because next week the twittersphere will be aflame with righteous indignation over a whole other thing and this post will be irrelevant.
But I've been quiet, and withheld my opinions for some time on several major issues, and later in this post I'll share why...

For now --- The Outrage of the Day

It started with this:

ok. Maggie, i'm just going to say it. I don't think you're the right person to speak on a panel about writing the other. You're not exactly Other, nor are most of your characters. There are lots of people from marginalized groups devoted to doing this education, and their voices should be the ones talking about this. Pls think about how that erases those voices in favor of maintaining the status quo--straight white voice talking. I hope you'll reconsider doing this particular panel.

Dear fancyflowercrown,
I get your concerns. This sort of panel is not the first of its kind: here’s Jim Hines’ talking about when he moderated a Writing the Other panel. When NerdCon asked me to be on it, I had the same thought that Hines notes in the comments of that post:
When I mention “Writing the Other” as a panel idea or discussion topic, most of the younger writers immediately went to race/gender/orientation. Whereas when this has come up in discussion with more established writers, they went to “You mean like writing aliens, right?” 
I assumed I was asked to be on the panel because I’m write about magic and mental illness, and magic that sometimes is a metaphor for mental illness. As someone who is tired of seeing OCD and suicide treated flippantly in novels, I’m looking forward to talking about how I’d like to see writers who don’t have personal experience with those things tackle them respectfully without making the story an Issues story.
But I also assumed I was asked to be on the panel because I, like every writer, write about things that I don’t know firsthand. Yes, the Other can mean race. It can also mean gender. It can mean sexuality. It can also mean writing about someone in a profession that is not yours, from any economic background that is not yours, living an age you have yet to be, possessing a skill that you know nothing about, dwelling in a city or country you’ve never visited. I wrote about horses and Irish music because I knew horses and Irish music, but I remember being a reader who ripped authors a new one because they got either of those complicated elements wrong in a novel — they clearly hadn’t lived it or researched it well enough and yet they tackled it anyway. Now I’m the writer who cautiously steps into lives that I myself have not lived. Fear of getting it wrong stops every writer from going literary places they can’t say they’ve put their hands on. That fear means that a lot of writers choose the safest option: only writing stories about people who are just like them.
This panel is about that.
Which means it’s related to your concern. Because yes, we need racially diverse voices talking about writing racially diverse experiences — the We Need Diverse Books movement is doing some amazing things on this front. But we also need to get people like me — white bestsellers — to write racially diverse novels. As I’ve noted before, I’ve done a shitty job with it, for a lot of reasons, some my fault, some from the establishment telling me not to write about “unpopular” races. I’ve also occasionally done a shitty job talking about how I’ve done a shitty job, because it’s easy for the first reaction to be going on the defensive. I’d like to talk about that.
This panel is also about that.

For those of you only casually familiar (or completely unfamiliar - HOW DARE YOU) with Maggie Stiefvater she's a popular young adult author with a large following/readership.
The things that were said in response to this on Twitter were brought to my attention via retweet from an industry professional that I follow. In essence it encouraged me go check out the timelines of two prominent women of color in the Twitter writing community because they were saying important stuff about "things going on",

These women were beside themselves with disappointment, outrage, anger - basically all the negative emotions. And they were quite vocal about how "the author" should have stepped down and allowed someone marginalized to take her place on the panel. Because a white author had no business telling a story about a person of color.
I rolled my eyes, and kept scrolling (because no one really turns away from a train wreck).
But as I scrolled I found that more and more people were adding fuel to the hate-fire, and it was spreading. Other black authors started wagging their finger and shaking their head at "the author" (they didn't want to mention Stiefvater directly) and at the publishing industry in general.

To be clear - I am keenly aware that there is racism in the publishing industry. I'm not here to defend the traditional publishing industry on that front.
I'm speaking to those people who insist on bitching rather than doing.
I'm speaking to defend (someone who probably needs no defense) Maggie Stiefvater.
I am speaking because I am very scared that someone will see me and (for whatever reason) associate me with those who are being so damn ridiculous.

First, The Traditional Publishing Industry...
It should come as no surprise to any of you that money makes the world go 'round. We should all be able to agree that it's not right, but that's not the point. Okay.
To be honest - I have no idea what convention or festival Ms. Stiefvater is speaking at. What I do know is that the people who organize this convention didn't do it for free. I can safely assume that Ms. Stiefvater isn't doing it for free either.
Here in little ol' Amarillo Texas we have AmaCon. It's us trying to reach out and entertain our community of die hard fans, and loveable geeks. I'm guessing you've never heard of it. I've never been. You know why? The organizers can't afford to pay anyone of note to come (I think this year we hosted the original Green Ranger - Tommy - from Power Rangers). Yeah. That was our big special guest.
You see to get people like me out of bed, spend money, and wade through the masses in a public place I better get to see someone I admire, respect, read, or enjoy watching on television. Which means that the people organizing the event have to spend money on Big Names so that their event is worth seeing. Well done events bring attention to new or exciting things coming up in the entertainment world, an economical benefit to the hosting community, and allow fans to interact (however briefly) with the creators or stars of the things they love.
I would think it strange or a bit unfair if there were a PoC author of equal sales/fandom status as Ms. Stiefvater who was overlooked for the diversity panel. That would be an oversight. That would be cause to investigate claims of erasure or racism. But frankly, there's not. And the conference/festival organizers know that her name will bring people ($$$) in.
And Ms. Stiefvater gets paid for this appearance, I'm sure. So those asserting that she should have stepped down and promoted someone else to her position are not only taking food out of her mouth, but they also forget that SHE isn't the one who organized the diversity panel. She can refer and suggest someone better suited all day long, but if the conference/festival organizer doesn't think her recommendation is of equal or more financial value then they don't have to listen. She's a successful artist doing her job.
While we're on the subject of the publishing industry and money. Let's talk about how the publishing industry makes money.
Now, one of the things that REALLY irks me about Twitter-Outrage is that people will kick and scream all damn day long, but no one follows through with steps to fix the problem. I'm not going to do that today. This isn't just me telling those people that they're jackasses. I'll go the extra mile and offer a solution to the perceived problems at hand.
As for racism in the publishing industry - BUY BOOKS WITH DIVERSITY BY DIVERSE AUTHORS.
It's really that simple.
As for events/panels/spreading the word: Have you/your agent/your publisher made it known that you are willing to travel to _____ event? Have you/your agent/your publisher reached out to events you'd like to attend and offered your expertise?
Do we know who else is on the diversity panel with Ms. Stiefvater? Is she the only white, straight woman on it?
Do we know if anyone else was asked, but wasn't available so Ms. Stiefvater took their place? Was she really first choice?
Have you written and sold so many great books that your point of view isn't ignored? Are you someone the literary community and readers enjoy watching?
Have you clicked the "Contact" tab on the convention/festivals webpage and written to the organizers expressing displeasure with _____? Have your friends? Have your publishing constituents?
Have you boycotted support for _____ until they correct ______?
Basically have you tried anything other than pissing in the wind and encouraged others to do the same?
If the answer is Yes then the rest of this doesn't necessarily apply to you, and please reach out to me personally and share your experience.
So many people - Allies, the oppressed, those who just like to be mad about something - shine a spotlight and give some egregious headline, blogpost, book, or author 15 minutes of hate-fame. But it is so. very. rare. to see "I read _____ by _____, and it's quality (LGBQT, PoC) fiction!" or "_____ wrote about _____, and it's going to be so amazing, you guys!" or "This (NYT bestseller) is _______ done right! GO BUY IT NOW!"
And on the occasion that those affirmations of positive change are spoken into the twitterverse I have NEVER seen it take up a person's entire timeline. People don't do 20-tweet dissertations on all the things the author/book/agent/publisher did right. It's a mention. It's a rec in someone's direct message's not enough. There's not enough joy when we get what we want. Like spoiled brats at Christmas (or holiday of your choice) we open the next present and SCREAM for HOURS AND DAYS about how it isn't what we wanted.
Tired. It makes me real tired.

As for Ms. Stiefvater...
I have seen thousands of instances where authors have been criticized for erasing PoC from their books/worlds. It's literally happening right now. RIGHT NOW on twitter.
So a bestselling author DOESN'T erase PoC from his/her work, and then they get dragged through the shit because they didn't do it "right". Or they don't have the right because they're not _____. When their books receive attention and praise the bitter voices in the marginalized community say "it's not fair", "that's not my experience", "they're just doing it for ___"
Her response even hints that she might not speak up about racial diversity at all. Her area of expertise is mental illness. And there are those that cried out that "neurodiversity isn't the same!" - Do you understand how you sound? It's a DIVERSITY panel. It damn well better not be people talking about the same kind of diversity - THEN IT'S NOT DIVERSE!
She listened to the questioners concerns. But frankly, she's already obligated herself. There is no stepping down - probably not without financial consequences which aren't any of our business. So though she hears the questioner her name's on the ticket and it's set in stone. But what she did do was thoughtfully highlight how she intends to interact on this panel: speaking from her experience and how she is learning to write within and outside of it, encouraging others to take chances and write outside of themselves, and be a small part of a voice for people who aren't at her professional level who aren't there to speak.
Which brings me to those people accusing her of perpetuating the "White Savior" complex.
Not once did she indicate that she would be speaking about Racism, specifically, on the diversity panel. She's been harshly criticized in the past for NOT including PoC in her early work. She has mentioned taking steps to correct it. She now has PoC in some of her stories, and now people are screaming "it's not her place".
You don't want a successful voice who listens to you, who allies themselves with you, and speaks truth and honesty when you cannot be heard?
You'd rather go it alone (or as alone as you can be in publishing) and wag your finger at people you've reprimanded for (or for not) writing the other and become successful enough to speak at conventions and festivals?
Fine - then here's where I offer you a solution: DO IT.
All that wind, all that energy you waste whining about something that is completely outside of your control. Being nasty, negative, and destructive when you could be creating, building, refining a book that your agent can sell; a book that tens of thousands will read, and will garner the success that you know you deserve.
When that day comes people can drag your name into childish online attacks, and when you defend yourself they'll call you a thoughtless monster who's just a cog in the machine. But I think you'll find (should you achieve that level of success) that you'll know how you came to be that successful. You'll remember how hard you worked. You will know the sleepless nights, the blood, sweat, and tears you shed and when they come for you demanding more blood (for an unintentional slight) I hope you react with as much tact and poise as Ms. Stiefvater has.
People also mentioned her comment about "unpopular" races. She didn't say it. She was quoting someone (presumably an acquiring editor) who did. She's not the villain there. And on twitter I have seen an editor namelessly chastise another for passing on a project because it had an unbelievable amount of diversity (a black homosexual protagonist - Hey that sounds like me!) in it.
The racism/sexism/homophobia within the publishing industry is alive and well. And when someone is in a position of power to change it NO MATTER their race, gender, or orientation I think we all agree they should take the steps to try.
Stop nailing the wrong people to the cross, we need the wood to build something better for ourselves.

Finally...the nerve of you to make me a victim.
Ms. Stiefvater and her response was the match that lit the dumpster fire of a conversation about racism in publishing. It always circles back to PoC authors saying-without-saying that white people are basically the enemy, and their close (usually white - but marginalized in some other way) friends petting their heads and say "don't I know it!"

Charlie Pride, Oprah Winfrey, RuPaul, Will Smith, Don Cheadle, Toni Morrison, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, Caitlyn Jenner, Sean Hayes, Ellen DeGeneres, Rosie O'Donnell, Whoopi Goldberg, N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, Soman Chainani, Sabaa Tahir, Halle Berry, Marie Lu, Malinda Lo, Lupita Nyongo, Idris Elba, Chris Colfer, Clive Barker.....

My fingers are getting tired.
Those people (and many more) made it in their respective fields. Some of them are singers, some are actors, some are performers, and some are authors. ALL of them represent a marginalized community.
It's a stupidly short list, and not by any stretch of the imagination comprehensive. When compared to white people in the same professions it's comically short. I get that. It's not okay. Not okay at all.
None of them claim to be a victim. They address obstacles that their race or sexual orientation presented to them as they followed their career paths, but NONE of them were stopped or were broken as a result.
So you can go on about racism in publishing all day long. How it passes over authors of color, and maintains the status quo. You're not wrong. But if you pick up your toys and go home (or even threaten such a thing) you are contributing to the problem.
None of these people kicked, screamed, and pissed their pants when they were starting out. They forged ahead. They played the game because that's how you win.
And yes, right now, as PoC in the entertainment business (because authors are basically entertainers) the deck is stacked against us. It's not fair, but there is AMPLE evidence that we can still win.
It goes back to what I suggested earlier. Shut up for a minute, and focus that rage, that indignation, into being the Best. Be undeniable. Be so great that even in a subjective business like publishing you cannot be overlooked. That's what the bestselling PoC/marginalized folk you know did.
The trouble comes with once you're there. Once you've do you HELP the person who is you from 10 years ago? Got a PoC friend who can't write a book, but is a great CP or beta reader? Encourage them to become an agent. Encourage them to pursue a career in the business side of publishing.
Be the change you wish to see blah-blah-blah...
But to sit there and say "we're all just pushed to the side", "how dare they not take us seriously".
They can't take you seriously if you have nothing but your ideas to offer. Put pen to paper and write that book. Then when you're done make it better. Play the game, Win the game, Change the game. That's the only way change happens.
I don't want victory handed to me because people shouted "that's not fair". Do I want it to be fair? Yes. But I also know that millions of people complain about things they can't change every day. The one thing I have control of - the one thing YOU have control of - is how great you are.
So I (normally) don't RSVP to the Pity Party of the Week. I close Twitter and get to work because when someone gives me the chance to show them what I've got I want to be proud of what I've made - not worrying about how much vitriol (regardless if it was well-meaning or accurate) I can spew into the void.
I am not going to fall on the "I'm black and oppressed" sword. In my previous post you'll see that I've grown up culturally white. So when my characters are out there for all of you to see I'm scared that PoC twitter will say I didn't do it right. That I didn't capture the black experience in my YA fantasy novel.
I brought MY experience to the table. I've said this before in yet another previous post - but race IS NOT culture. So when white authors write people of color I don't get mad. Because the character is a person more than they are a black/Asian/native/deaf/blind/gay/lesbian/trans person. And each and every human experience is different. You want to read your experience then WRITE your experience - and make it good enough to sell. That's what I'm trying to do.
To be clear - I'm not denying (and will never deny) that PoC people are marginalized or oppressed. I will say that it's not an excuse. Others made it - you can too. It's harder and it's not fair, but until you start dealing the cards you have to play the hand your dealt - in the entertainment business (The justice system is a whole other ball of wax, but that still requires your active participation.)
Don't push away the people that can help us. Don't draw a line in the sand. Don't fight so hard against unity because you want so badly to be different. We are all different. It takes all of us to be great, and in the publishing world, no one goes on this journey alone. Diversity should be inclusive of Everyone. People of all races are trying the best ways they know how to change it. Don't spit in their face because it isn't the way you would do it, or the way you want it done. Don't like it then do it yourself.
But DO SOMETHING because all this whining makes my head hurt.

One last thing...
You aren't going to win by fighting. Not that way. Not in the entertainment business. Oprah isn't Oprah because she ruffled feathers and pissed people off.
It goes back to being undeniable. It goes back to being charming. To listening instead of speaking, to leading by example, to being someone we want to root for - To win you have to be your own hero. You have to be so charming, so charismatic that people WANT to listen to you.
I can't think of a single successful entertainer (in any medium) that aggressively complained their way onto a bookshelf or television screen.
I'm not saying the system isn't broken. I'm not saying your opinion is wrong. I am saying that there is a better way to fight this fight. And if you're not fighting and just complaining I am telling you to shut up and get out of the way. The rest of us have things to do.


1 comment:

  1. THANK YOU for writing this!

    I'm a YA Fantasy writer like yourself. And I'd love to see more diversity in the genre. I don't want to read about white-washed worlds and I don't want my kids to have to read about white-washed worlds. So when I write, I explore an array of cultures and a lot of my characters are people of color.

    The trouble is, I'm white. Better yet, I'm a white suburban mom. And while I want to write diversely and to do it well, in an informed and compassionate way, it's kind of a scary undertaking. If you don't write diversely as a white author, you're likely to get an earful for perpetuating prejudice in the publishing industry. If you DO write diversely as a white author, you're also likely to get an earful for presuming to comment on experiences you've never had.

    I realize my frustration over this is nothing by comparison to the difficulties marginalized groups go through. But when did writing cease to be an exercise in imagination? When did it become set in stone that we can't thoughtfully and respectfully write what we haven't experienced? That is the point of effective fiction--to allow both the writer and readers to see the world through another set of eyes, and to broaden our horizons and our understanding.