British writer Joe Orton is famous for his blackly comic plays and and for the tragic manner of his death: being bludgeoned to death by his lover with a hammer. He is less well-known for his fiction. He published one novel, Head to Toe, a brilliant piece of Weird Fiction that languishes in obscurity. I say it’s brilliant, but your mileage may vary. The novel is set on the body of a giant being (referred to as an afreet) and concerns the wild adventures experienced by an ordinary schlub who wanders up on the creature’s body, finding that entire societies live there. The humor is Swiftean farce, but the underlying mood is one of Kafkaesque anomie. The text is marred by some archiac misogyny and the plot is episodic. It still manages to be haunting, full of dream logic. In a way, it’s like an adult, very camp and very queer Alice in Wonderland kind of phantasmorgia.
RuPaul’s Drag Race has been criticized for using certain terms that are considered harmful for the transgender community. The segment “You’ve Got She-Mail” has been removed from the show, and more recently, RuPaul doubled down on the use of the word “Tranny.” Rather than dialoguing about the usage of the terms, RuPaul has descended into the tiresome “PC Fascist” argument, claiming that his critics are “Orwellian.” It’s an unfortunately defensive response.
I understand that the issue is complex. Drag Queens, for instance, actually are “she-males,” and (I can see the empowerment in co-opting a damaging term), whereas transwomen have fought long and hard for their gender identity and calling them “she-males” completely devalues their struggle. The same can be said of “tranny”: it overlaps with the term transvestite. But to victims of transphobic violence, that word takes on a dark, hate-filled meaning. In one of his tweets, RuPaul says, “It’s not the word itself, but the intention behind the word.” In other words, transfolk are just too sensitive! Intention is not magical.
This is an example of privilege is caused by a lack empathy. This lack of empathy is one of my greatest pet peeves. It reminds me of when people use the phrase, “That’s so gay” and immediately become defensive: “I don’t mean it that way! I have gay friends!” (They don’t intend to insult gay people, but saying, “That’s So gay” is so entrenched in everyday vernacular). I am immediately transported back to my 20s, when I was the victim of a physical assault motivated by hatred. “That’s So Gay” was no longer an abstract turn of phrase; the implied negativity had transformed into a life-threatening act.
I am not angry at RuPaul for not getting this point. I am deeply saddened.
I actually don’t think I write horror, as in flesh-eating zombies or vampires or splatter punk. I tend towards dark fantasy or ‘weird’ fiction. But there is a definite darkness in what I write. And the forthcoming collection (not to mention the eBook series, Variations) has at least one piece that could be considered straightforward horror. Someone always asks me why I write what I write. Why so dark, so pessimistic?
Part of me wants to use the ‘channelling voices’ excuse: that the characters just sort of use me as a vessel to tell their stories. And I think every writer has a moment when they feel that: Where did that come from? But if I am channelling voices, why are they such sad, and at times, disturbed voices?
A large part of me being drawn to dark fiction is, of course, I grew up on horror. I macerated in it. I live in DC, where the movie The Exorcist took place, and the true story that inspired it happened in just-across-the-border Mount Rainer. It was a young rite of passage to visit the terrifyingly rickety Exorcist steps in Georgetown. Stephen King burst on the scene in my childhood. I remember, vividly, those lurid covers from the 70s. Cryptozoology was serious business. I used to devour books documenting the existence of Bigfoot, the Yeti, the Jersey Devil, and nearby Maryland’s own ominous Goatman. I even had an aunt who told me her creepily prophetic dreams. Summers we went to Atlantic City where, at the time, there was still a freakshow that featured a fearsome Ape Girl who would escape and bum rush the audience.
Or maybe it’s something more. I learned pretty young that the world is a terrible place, full of disease, torture and worse. I think I write dark fiction and about dark subjects because its cathartic, and helps me work through the fear and anger I have. The ‘voice’ I am channelling is my own subconscious. I contend, in my own fiction, the real world horrors my characters face are often worse than any supernatural demon.
When I was in college, I had the opportunity to see Dr. Maya Angelou read poetry at Smith College. To say say she ‘read’ poetry, however, is imprecise. She performed poetry. She used her entire body, from facial expressions to grand gestures, even incorporating dance movements. And that voice–the most basso profundo of contraltos–emblazoned the imagery in the listener’s mind. She made the words of Dunbar, Hughes, St. Vincent Millay, and Dickinson live. That performance, and her own work in general, will be with me forever.
Rest in peace, Dr. Angelou
One of the things that I hear about stereotypes is, “but there are people who like that.” We all know Southern dudebros who drink brewskis and watch NASCAR. Uptight white guys who can’t dance. Sassy gay best friends. Tiger moms. Fat people who are funny. The Wise Ethnic Elder. Etc. So, how do we, as writers avoid these stereotypes in our fiction? Diverse casts full of these lazy stereotypes can be as tiresome as having a non-diverse cast.
First, a parable:
I used to hang out with a MTF transgender woman who I will call Stevie. Stevie was transitioning at the time, and she was very girly, almost stereotypically so. She loved designer handbags, and getting her hair and nails done. One time, we were out at a bar, and she told me her story. Before her transitioning, she had been an Army Ranger. As in, she would scope and infiltrate hostile enemy territory and knew how to kill a man, barehanded. Behind the BeBe dress, and hair and make-up was a complex person with a rich history. The point is, she was both a girly girl and someone who could back you in a fight.
What I learned from “Stevie” was that even people who appear to fit a type have aspects of their personality that exist below the surface. Your task as a writer is to figure out the stories behind the public personas. Give your background characters histories and agendas. Imagine the babushka in your story has a degree in chemical engineering , and it will change how you write her.
The frat dude bro? Was raised by two women.
Your Rush Limbaugh listening blowhard? Might have once been in jazz band.
In short, humanize your stock characters.
If you want to see an explempary version of a humanized stereotype, watch the character Felix Dawkins (played by Jordan Gavaris) on the clone thriller Orphan Black. He’s flamboyantly gay and full of sassy quips. But, both the writers and the actor give him his own life, history and complexity that makes more than just a Camp Gay from Central Casting.
I just posted a new piece of flash fiction, called Wolf-Child, over at Wattpad.
I have decided to have a presence on Tumblr, where I will be sharing interesting articles and images that inform and inspire my fiction. I’m calling it Glossolalia and you can investigate it here:
There was a British miniseries in the late 1960s called “The Prisoner,” which dealt with a Secret Agent who was mysteriously transported to a remote location, where he was subjected to sinister experiments in drug and mind control. The 7th entry in Tanith Lee’s cross-genre loosely-connected series of dark character studies, references that seminal work, adding her own distinctive vision.
More cannot be said about the plot, which occurs in contemporary London and its suburbs, save that the aloof main character Carver belongs to a shadow security corporation called Mantik Corp, and he gradually becomes aware that he is being manipulated. There are allusions to mythology, and elaborate textual puzzles made up of word and image/color repetition. Lee uses a tight third-person limited narrative style, so the reader doesn’t know more than the character. As a result, the author is messing with the reader’s mind as much as she is the characters’.
As for the genre? I’d call it a Kafka-esque esiponage thriller, but the ending is completely unexpected, both in tone and execution. You’ll just have to read it…
The recent #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag that trended on Twitter resurrected that old canard: angst over writing diverse characters. I thought I would offer my own experiences with that.
First, some background. Much (though not all) of my fiction is centered my own identities as a gay African-American. Even though I am marginalized, I, like everyone, have blinders on and am guilty of being solipsistic.
A few years ago, I wrote a story where an editor said that the female character–who was a background character–was portrayed in a sexist manner. (She had a touch of the Manic Pixie about her). My immediate reaction was to get defensive (which I did internally; I believe I said aloud, “Really?”). So, the story lay dormant for a year. When I was invited to a workshop, where at least half of the participants were women, I took this flawed piece there. While the women (and some of the men) did not outright say that the woman in the piece was sexist, they pointed out that my Manic Pixie did not live beyond the page, and had fallen prey to some tropes. Re-reading the piece, I saw what they were talking about. I revisited the piece after I had absorbed the critiques, and fixed the story. Which, by the way, probably still has some flaws. Most art does.
There are several lessons I learned:
1. Everyone has blind spots and unconsciously uses shortcuts and stereotypes.
2. When people call a character portrayal sexist/racist/homophobic etc., they are not always talking about you*; they are talking about the piece. It just means that something from the dominant culture just slipped through, or you have a blind spot.
3. When you have a piece of fiction where you are unsure of the voice or the characters, workshop it.
I can’t stress the first point strongly enough. Some of the most egregious examples of stereotyping come from black authors. (Ever watched a Tyler Perry drama?) African American fiction is rife with skin/food metaphors, full of cocoa-mocha-caramel colored heroes & heroines. Various rape tropes, particularly the pernicious rape=rough sex, was (and maybe still is) a feature of the salacious bodice-rippers my mother used to read (and I secretly read), many of which were written by female authors. So, this isn’t about a “gotcha” moment or moral superiority or “Oppression Olympics”. It’s about refining your craft.
The second point does need a disclaimer; there are writers who are proud bigots*. But most people are not consciously cruel. And here’s another thing: you don’t have to agree with the critique. There are people who can’t separate a repellent POV from the overall tone of the work, people who are lazy readers, and people who miss the point. I view ‘writing diversely’ as another way of saying ‘writing mindfully.’ You already go through the piece word by word, semi-colon by semi-colon, examining everything you have written put on the page. You also need to see what things you’re saying, and examine the subtexts.
The third point: getting feedback on difficult pieces is essential. ‘Nough said.
Finally, a fourth point. Read diverse fiction. I believe that many people who worry about writing diverse characters or fall into the lazy stereotype trap don’t actually read diverse fiction. Make a point to read your genre of fiction (and beyond) from a wide range of authors.You’ll absorb techniques and get insights. You’ll get ideas. You’ll get inspired. Those voices are out there, waiting to be heard.
The recently released Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History edited by Daniel José Older and Rose Fox sounds like a good place to start.
I’ve become more active on my Facebook Author Page, since I am in the planning process of a couple of upcoming events. If so inclined, please “like” my page….