Your Problematic Faves: The Terry Gilliam edition

Damn, this one hurts.

When I in junior high, my favorite movie was Time Bandits. It was a darkly surreal (bordering on absurd) take on Time Travel Tropes. The hero/protagonist was a pensive boy, Kevin who was the child of two rather crass, materially-obsessed parents.  Kevin meets a group of time-traveling little people. The boy and  the troupe time-hop from the Napoleonic Wars to the Middle Ages to Ancient Greece to the Age of Legends, having adventures that mingle action, grotesquerie and humor in equal measure. It had a bleak, Roald Dahl-like undertone, unique in a movie ostensibly for kids. I saw the movie many times. I was obsessed. The kid who play Kevin was even name Craig (Warnock)!

I never got into the love for Brazil, but Gilliam’s expansion of La Jetée, 12 Monkeys, was a revelation. It was a taut horror film masquerading as a sci-fi political thriller, and convinced me that Brad Pitt was more than just a pretty face.

I wasn’t exactly a Gilliam fanboy, but his movies and his aesthetic opened up what speculative storytelling could be for me. It could be dark, brooding and stylish.  Then, Gilliam began saying some problematic things. First, his statement on #MeToo was disturbing victim-blaming claptrap. And now, he has joined Lionel Shriver in pushing that hoary canard that encourage Diversity in art is somehow produces diminishes quality.

“Gilliam said: “It made me cry: the idea that … no longer six white Oxbridge men can make a comedy show. Now we need one of this, one of that, everybody represented… this is bullshit. I no longer want to be a white male, I don’t want to be blamed for everything wrong in the world: I tell the world now I’m a black lesbian… My name is Loretta and I’m a BLT, a black lesbian in transition.”“(From the Guardian)

There are many things wrong with this statement.

Once more, for those in the back, Diversity Initiatives seek to address past exclusions and give a seat at the table to under-represented populations. No-one seeking out incompetent or untalented people of marginalized communities and giving them a show/book contract. Being talented and competent is a pre-requisite. Quotas are a reactionary fiction/strawman. Expanding the field in no way, shape or form damages “white men from Oxbridge.” There’s no committee of comedians saying, “Wanda Sykes’ mere existence on the scene invalidates and unpersons Monty Python,” or “John Mulvaney is no longer funny now that Kate McKinnon is in town!”

Also, making “Black Lesbians in Transition” the punchline of a joke kind of underscores the importance of Diversity Initiatives. To Gilliam, black lesbians and transgender folk aren’t real people. They certainly aren’t passionate artists whose perspective and stories haven’t been told. 

I doubt he could name even one black or trans lesbian artist. I doubt he imagines that a black gay boy loved Time Bandits. When people make statements like that, they are sending a message to their non-white, non-straight, and non-cis audiences. The message is, you don’t matter.

Gilliam:Shriver

 

 

Sci-Fi Alien(ation): Diversity Under Attack Panel at CUNY Graduate Center

Photo by Sam J. Miller
Photo by Sam J. Miller

 

This past Friday, Dr. Andre Carrington, Jennifer Marie Brissett and I discussed the issues of racism, homophobia and diversity in the Speculative Fiction community on a panel at the CUNY Graduate Center. We covered the Hugo Award unpleasantness, access to publishing and instances of racism and homophobia both as authors and as fans. The classroom was full, and people had to be turned away! The audience and the panelists were lively and engaged. You can watch the video here. Thanks to people who came out and to Dr. Philip Kadish for arranging this panel!

 

Diversity in SFF–Some Small Presses doing good work (a signal boost)

At the World Fantasy Convention, I saw two small presses in the dealer’s room that are releasing work that includes diverse voices.

Rosarium Publishing produces a wide range of titles in the SFF/graphic novel categories that put people of color at the front and center. Recent titles including Mothership: Tales From Afrofuturism and Beyond; the graphic novel Malice in Ovenland and an artbook featuring the work of black artist John Jennings.

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Valancourt Books focuses on gothic horror and gay literature, with the two interests often intersecting. They’re currently reprinting the work of the late gay horror writer Michael McDowell.

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Writing Advice: How to Avoid Stereotyping In Your Fiction.

 

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.

Jordan Gavaris as Felix Dawkins
Jordan Gavaris as Felix Dawkins

 

Writing Advice: The Agony and Ecstasy of Diverse Fiction

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.

 

longhidden

 

The specter of Gratuitous Diversity and other fictions

When I was 3 apples high, I went to my mostly white school’s library, and chanced upon a book with a title that intrigued me, Andre Norton’s Lavender-Green Magic. I read it in 2 gulps, not only because it had witches (a perennial favorite subject of mine), but because it featured African-American (or in the parlance of 70s, Afro-American) kids living in a mostly white town. My mind: blown. Up until then, all the fantasy book I’d read either had pseudo European characters or talking animals. I loved the idea that someone who had an experience similar to mine could have magical adventures like those kids in Edward Eager books or the Narnian adventures.

lavender-green magic

A few years later, in the full swing of adolescent angst, I can upon my older brother’s copy of Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany. (The iconic paperback version, the one with the engorged sun showing through a destroyed cityscape). Thumbing through it, I read about characters who had unique and somewhat underground sexual appetites—and their sexual identities were integral parts of themselves. Again, my mind was blown. Gays and other sexual minorities were just people….in a science fiction novel!

I bring these examples up not only to talk about the importance of diversity in speculative fiction, and also, to challenge a common strawman argument against it. A little background: the author Alex Dally MacFarlane wrote a provocative article entitled Post-Binary Gender in SF:Introduction on Tor.com, an inaugural post of a series which promises to examine SF that studies that issue. I read the piece, enjoyed it, and moved on. Then I saw, much later (via Jim C. Hines’ blog), that MacFarlane’s article (predictably) rattled the nerves of certain quarters of the SF community.

The chief complaint (once you wade through the de rigueur cries of PC Fascists/ GroupThink/Thought Police) is the concern about Gratuitous Diversity.

It’s the idea that having a cast of characters that reflects the diversity of humanity will automatically result in Aesop fiction full of Sally (or Simon) Soapboxes. I have yet to read a piece of fiction where giving a character an idiosyncratic and unique background (ethnic or sexual orientation or, in MacFarlane’s essay, a non-binary gender orientation) actually destroys the work. Including ‘popcorn’ fiction. One of my Clarion instructors, Pat Cadigan, stressed the importance avoiding ‘default’ mode protagonists: Joe/Jane Q. Public and his/her various incarnations as Mary Sue or Gary Stu. (It wasn’t a commandment, either—rather, Cadigan meant it as one more tool in the authorial kit). If a character is a Sally (or Simon) Soapbox, and the fiction has the quality of an Afterschool Special, that’s a failure of execution. The spectre of Gratiuitous Diversity is mostly just a strawman. (I’d love to see examples of a work of fiction that’s improved by flat characters). I say “mostly,” because I think that certain tropes and stock characters—the Noble Savage, the Magical Negro, for instance–arise from deformed Aesops and well-intentioned fiction. And there’s the case of a certain wizard (we’ll call him ‘Rumblesnore’) in famous series posthumously (and post-serialization) outed as gay, which was arguably shoehorned in. (I remember the articles/blog posts amongst a certain cohort that claimed the author was courting the politically correct crowd). But even then, Rumblesnore being off-screen gay doesn’t hurt the his character or the story; it was the execution that was lacking.

There is no such thing as Gratuitous Diversity. There’s just poorly executed fiction.

On Diversity & Dogwhistles

A couple of years ago, the online zine Expanded Horizons published a short piece of fiction that I’m immensely proud of, entitled “Conjuring Shadows.” The story is about a transgender conjure-woman in the Harlem Renaissance.  Expanded Horizon’s mission statement is this:

The mission of this webzine is to increase diversity in the field of speculative fiction, both in the authors who contribute and in the perspectives presented. We feature speculative fiction stories and artwork, as well as essays about speculative fiction and fandom from diverse points of view.

So that is my dog in the current fight.

I hate drama. I really, really do. It’s toxic to me. I don’t like confrontation. But there are times when you have to take a stand. Every now and then in the speculative fiction world, some person will write an article about how Diversity/Political Correctness etc. is horrible. They think they’re taking a stand against didactic Aesop-styled fiction. What they are really doing is dog-whistling, save that the dog-whistle is as loud as a klaxon.

What I, and other minorities hear is: “You don’t write good fiction,” or “Why are black/gay/feminist/trans people harshing my squee?” Is it any wonder that POC don’t go to cons? I’ve pretty much stopped going to cons BECAUSE of the lack of diversity. And I don’t think I’m the only one who feels that way. THAT is the effect of these jeremiads.

On “Wool” by Hugh Howey—and how to avoid alienating readers.

I finished reading Hugh Howey’s novel/series Wool, after reading the hype surrounding the book. The author has been considered something of a golden boy, a success story from the story mines of self-publishing. There is much to admire about the book. The first four sections are extended character studies that move the story forward while leisurely exploring the dystopian/post-apocalyptic worldscape of underground warrens, Ruined Earth and complex secrets. The major characters are older—an old sheriff, an aging mayor—and there are female characters that don’t strictly adhere to action-girl badass/ Mary Sue tropes, which is refreshingly adult. I tweeted about it, and called it a kind of an adult Hunger Games. Derivative of 70s style dystotian fiction (I.e., Logan’s Run, Soylvent Green), Wool managed to breathe life into stale scenarios. The last section of the book picks up speed, and the pace keeps the pages (or page-swipes) turning.
There are some problems, with the book. For instance, some of the world building has logic holes, and like (too) many SF books there is a homogenization of the cast. (No noticeable people of color in the future, eh? And LGBT are invisible or non-existent?) But it’s a promising effort, nevertheless.

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Just as I finished the book, Howey’s infamous and unfortunate sexist post hit the twitterverse. A brief rehash—Howey had an encounter with an unpleasant person and in cutting the person down, used gendered insults—referring to the person’s looks and ending with a crude, dude-bro cri de couer.  This misstep didn’t stop me from enjoying the novel. It didn’t anger me. It disappointed me. This is what the situation reminds me of, what I call in shorthand, the Anne Coulter Question.

Anne Coulter is simply the worst—part Atalanta, throwing apples of discord in politics, part living Id of far rightwing ethos. But when people comment on Coulter’s looks, and in particular, the often repeated claim that she might possibly be trans, I think it’s worse. There are so many wonderful ways—as writers, even—that we can put down unpleasant people. As writers of the imagination, with new and novel ways to pinpoint disagreeable people and their beliefs. It is supremely disappointing and, frankly cheap, when we resort to terms like bitch or that’s so gay or I bet she has a dick.
I do recommend the book and look forward to what Howey the fiction-writer brings to the table in future works. I just hope he doesn’t disappoint again with ill-advised blog posts. Don’t alienate your readers.