01 Mar 50 Shades of POC
This started with what I call a completely non-scientific poll. A few weeks ago I penned this blog post about my feelings as a Mexican SFF author, which led to private messages with others writers telling me they felt the same way. Stereotyped. Dismissed. Trapped. I thought that if those people felt like me, couldn’t more writers be quietly nodding along? There are after all many things POC writers talk about in the privacy of direct messages but which we feel afraid to divulge in public. No one wants to be seen as “difficult” or a “hater.”
Hence the non-scientific poll where I ask people three questions. I emphasize the non-scientific part, but even as a lark it produced interesting results.
Poll time! POC author, have you ever been told your work is not ‘ethnic’ enough?
— Silvia Moreno-Garcia (@silviamg) January 23, 2017
POC author, have you ever been criticized because your work was not ‘educational’?
— Silvia Moreno-Garcia (@silviamg) January 23, 2017
Last question. POC author, have you ever been told ‘the character’s ethnicity wasn’t justified by the story’?
— Silvia Moreno-Garcia (@silviamg) January 23, 2017
Sometimes when you deal with stuff as a POC you start to think this is all happening in your head, that you are imagining things. You become anxious. It was good for me to know that I wasn’t alone, that others have been told their work is not ethnic enough or that it should be educational. The struggles I’ve faced are the struggles others encounter.
To prod a bit further I contacted a few POC SFF writers and asked them to expand on some of these issues. What follows are their answers. I hope these will serve as food for thought. Editors and reviewers need to do more than cheer about “diverse” books. They need to think and explore what “diverse books” means, how they engage with these texts, and their blind spots. Perhaps the questions and answers that follow might open up some of these conversations. At minimum, they may show other writers they are not alone.
I will point out that although I tried to speak to a variety of writers who work in the general arena of SFF/speculative fiction, this is not an all-encompassing panel. Nor is it the final word on anything.
As a final note: I’m co-editing original short fiction at The Dark. We could always use more stories from POC writers. Check the guidelines. I’ll also note that we only buy 2 original stories a month, but there are many other magazines which you could try if you don’t make a sale to us. Check the biographies of the panelists, as several of them mention venues where their work has appeared. It’s also worth noting there are markets dedicated to publishing POC, including Omenana and FIYAH and LONTAR, which may be of interest to you.
– 50 Shades of POC –
A discussion with Maurice Broaddus, Indrapramit Das, LeKesha Lewis, Rebecca Roanhorse and Valerie Valdes.
Have you ever been told your work is not ethnic enough? Or the opposite, that it is too ethnic, ghetto, etc?
Oddly enough, I’ve been told that I’m not ethnic enough and that my work was too ghetto. Time and time again, I was told at writing conventions that I’m “the whitest black guy” they’ve met. Granted, at these conventions, I’m usually one of three attending typically (and they are unfamiliar with the concept of code-switching). One editor, upon our first meeting, critiqued my handshake as being “not how real brothers shake hands.” It’s like they have some vision of how their ethnic experiences should be and I’m frustrating their expectations with my reality.
My urban fantasy trilogy, The Knights of Breton Court, often received the criticism of being too ghetto. It’s a re-telling of the legend of King Arthur set in the inner city told through the eyes of homeless teenages and gang members. But I wasn’t being complimented on the immersive world-building experience. It was very much a “why did you bring me here?” “this is too real” “I don’t want to see those people” type of commentary.
On the flip side, I had another editor solicit a story from me for a themed anthology about space colonies. He asked me to “do that urban thing you do.” My reaction was to write the story I wanted because the “urban” thing is not the only story I have to tell or portray.
Not quite, but I have been told (or rather, my agent was told) by an editor from a major publisher that my debut novel The Devourers required “a better understanding of Indian history to really appreciate” than they had, which I took as a polite way of saying it was too Indian for a Western market (the novel, I should add, requires no prior knowledge of Indian history to appreciate, especially if you’re the kind of reader willing to contextualize entirely imaginary histories of places like Middle-Earth and Westeros, but at least the editor put their opinion in a personal, subjective context). Going back, I found that most agents and editors who rejected the novel actually gave reasons other than its “ethnic” qualities, and were very kind in their feedback, so I might have gotten lucky. Many did find it to be a “hard sell,” which I expected, because it’s a cross-genre speculative fiction novel set in India, written by an Indian.
As for my short fiction, I’ve been submitting to pro markets since I was a teenager, so I don’t really remember that far back, but I don’t think any of those editors have ever said my work is too ethnic (or not ethnic enough). I’m also not sure that editors in general have a very solid notion of what Indian fantasy and science-fiction, or cross-genre fiction, should look like, as opposed to the expectations (Western) editors might have for work by, say, Black American, Latinx, Native American, or even East and South-East Asian writers. It’s not that there aren’t stereotypical ethnic expectations of Indian-born and Indian-raised writers submitting internationally, but I think they’re more confined solely to a litfic tradition, since most famous Indian writers write realist or magic realist work. When it comes to Indians writing in speculative fiction/genre fiction/sff, I think the ideas of exotic stories with mangoes and sarees and monsoons, or culture-clash novels with Indian immigrants in the UK or the US, or arranged marriages etc. don’t quite vibe universally within the established frameworks. We’re seeing a lot more South Asian (native and expat/immigrant) sci-fi and fantasy in Western short fiction markets, but those tend to be a bit more progressive than mainstream book publishers.
But overall, I think the “ethnic” expectations (Western) editors have of Indian writers doing speculative fiction is still quite blurry, because, for the most part, editors simply don’t expect Indian (or South Asian) sf/f to come their way. Mainstream literary publishers, on the other hand, will almost certainly find Indian speculative fiction or cross-genre fiction a ‘hard sell,’ since they know exactly what they want from South Asian writers, and it’s not weird genre-blurring stuff or genre fiction. Note that my novel was ultimately bought in North America by a mainstream genre imprint, Del Rey, not a mainstream “literary” imprint; we also got an offer from a smaller independent North American genre publisher; I’m grateful to Del Rey and my editor there, Mike Braff, for so enthusiastically taking a chance on an Indian debut author telling a very cross-genre story that mixes all kinds of international mythologies. And similarly, to my agent Sally Harding and her co-agent Ron Eckel, who worked tirelessly to push The Devourers to all kinds of publishers.
“This isn’t what I think of when I think of black stories.” That’s —verbatim— the most memorable critique I’ve had from an industry professional about the authenticity of my writing. The SFF manuscript I was querying at the time had a secondary world setting and varied ethnicity in its ensemble cast but the central protagonist was a Black girl. I’m Black. I grew up in and maintain interests and social circles effortlessly inclusive of non-Black people. So I wrote authentically to my experiences but apparently lacked whatever Black feature or element this white person was seeking. I should mention, though, that I was more than happy to disappoint.
The “not Black enough” thing isn’t foreign to me. My dealings with colorism and all its intersections of privilege within the Black community have rendered it a bland and unoriginal criticism. The grating thing about this encounter, however, was that this particular professional was vocal about seeking #OwnVoices stories by Black writers and then policed my work as inadequately fulfilling those two very broad parameters. You can’t really write something that’s not-OwnVoices-enough. It either is or isn’t. My deficiency was in the Blackness of the story.
This led me to review my other rejections, all of my other critiques and exchanges with industry professionals. What if “I didn’t connect with the voice” is code for “I could forgive the lack of connection if the voice was Black enough”? Suppose the form rejections are just ways to avoid the conversation entirely? Maybe requesting “Black stories” means “exotic African locales fit to westernized narrative structure” or just the Black American struggle aspect of the diaspora. Perhaps if they could get a story or two that are really Black, they don’t have to publish a bunch that are just kinda Black.
This isn’t to impugn the whole lot of agents and editors, of course. I don’t doubt that there are many of them sincerely working to diversify the work they champion. And I don’t doubt that the majority of times my rejections and critiques were perfectly well-reasoned and had nothing to do with my Blackness quotient at all. But just as some are sure to be unlearning unconscious biases, there are pros who are aware of their biases and despite being in no hurry to correct them, they’re willing to check off that Black Writer box if it means not getting dragged in the next diversity report.
I had an agent reject my debut novel by telling that it was an “amazing Native American tale” but that the agent just couldn’t connect with the characters. What that sounds like to me is that there was a level of exoticism and novelty in a book set on a futuristic Navajo reservation, but that the actual people, the humans populating my story, just weren’t what the agent expected. No feathers, no flutes, no one’s nobly suffering or crying a single tear over the environment. They’re not “torn between two worlds”, and, in fact, they exist in a world primarily absent of white people. There’s also none of the poverty porn and alcoholism that literary fiction has embraced. When you put it all together like that, no wonder their minds boggle. It’s unlike any Native American story they’ve ever been taught. I think my presentation of Natives runs so counter to the popular narrative that people often don’t know how to process it, so they praise my work (which I appreciate) but ultimately reject the humanity of my characters. It’s like, as good enlightened book people they feel like they have to say nice things because I’m Native and there’s that pesky genocide and land theft hanging over our interactions, but they have no idea how to relate to my story without the familiar recognizable tropes.
One of the strangest comments I got from an agent was that she wanted to represent me because she grew up hearing coyotes howl in the hills around her childhood home. (The trickster, Coyote, makes an appearance in my novel.) I’m not sure what kind of empathy that was meant to convey to me. My characters deal with abandonment, violence, betrayal, love, death…a whole gamut of human experiences, but the “connection” came from coyotes? It wasn’t even a “ethnic best friend” pitch. It was literally associating the lived experience of being Native American with coyotes.
I’ve been told both, in different ways, by different people and under different circumstances. I’m drawing mostly from awkwardness in workshop situations, which are usually populated by well-meaning people who are still themselves learning how to approach criticism.
One way I received the “not ethnic enough” comment was in being told to write what I know. In one sense, that’s a perfectly reasonable recommendation; mining your own personal history for ores and gems typically leads to a better story than panning for gold downriver from someone else’s claim. Unfortunately, what I knew from growing up reading books by white people, for white people, about white people, was a whole lot about how to write white people.
That said, the underlying message that frequently emerged in the same conversation was one of exoticism and voyeurism: not just write what you know, but write the things that are weird about your culture, for an audience that isn’t like you. For a mixed-heritage person who internalized a lot of negativity growing up, who wasn’t used to seeing herself represented in stories, who doesn’t even like black beans (¡qué vergüenza!), it felt extremely othering. Sorry, mija, no dragons for you, stick to what you know.
There were also comments that made assumptions about my upbringing or heritage that didn’t necessarily apply. Write magical realism–that’s your thing, right? Were you in a gang? What was the inner city like? Are you a Santera? Why not just write stories in Spanish instead of English? And write about food! Always more food.
On the other hand, once I finally got over myself and did start writing the stories of people like me, people I knew and saw around me every day, then I got pushback from the other direction, mostly about the language. There was too much Spanish in my stories. I wasn’t explaining the Spanish. Could I include a translation somewhere else in the sentence?
Have you been criticized because your work was not educational?
No, my work is more commonly met with an air of surprise. As if both me and my characters were unexpectedly intelligent/articulate.
No, though I have been asked fairly frequently to explain diversity in speculative fiction, and suchlike. I don’t mind, usually, but it does get a little exhausting. We’ve a long way to go before POC (and non-Western) writers are seen as writers, first and foremost, rather than “diverse” writers. I wish the gatekeepers of the publishing industry were asked more often about how to increase diversity and inclusivity in literature, rather than just POC writers who, by writing and submitting their work, are already doing something about it.
I also have to explain, quite often, how or why an Indian writer writes in and speaks English (again, if asked without condescension, I’m happy to educate people on why I’m not some kind of anomaly in this regard–but there is often a note of condescension in that question that makes me want to erupt into flame; I mean, this is how history, language, and colonialism works. A lot of countries have languages that aren’t native to the region, but the idea of brown people in Asia speaking and writing fluently in English is still one that flummoxes people in the West.) That was a long parenthesis.
Not criticized but I am solicited for more educational work or asked why my work isn’t more instructional in terms of addressing real world Black issues. On a couple of occasions, I’ve had people express surprise that I don’t do more of that because I do wax political, educational, and pro-Black in my social media. Until recently that wasn’t a popular thing outside of certain circles. But my interaction with the publishing industry is relatively new in a time when a lot of white folks and nbpoc (non-Black people of color) are just now addressing anti-Blackness and engaging in dialogue and activism around Black causes. As a result, I think the expectation is that I should be using my writing to make statements about race relations or the newest Black-adjacent injustice to catch the public’s attention. The sense is that we should be teaching people through our stories how to engage us, give them glimpses of some little-seen but poignant aspect of our existence to help them navigate the volatile social social climate. While these are things I will frequently include in essays, the topics on which I think they want to be educated don’t often make it into my SFF.
One thing I find non-Natives want is details on traditional Native ceremonies. It’s something that I, and many Native authors, chose not to include in our stories because we’ve had our ceremonies bastardized in dangerous ways by New-Agers, collected and commodified by anthropologists, and often there’s just a taboo against talking about sacred things. I allude vaguely to the sacred nature of corn pollen and tobacco, pretty generic things found in a lot of Native traditions, and then I make stuff up, too, because this is fantasy and that’s what fantasists do. A Native friend of mine who read my book warned me that people were going to read what I said about Navajo culture and not be able to distinguish between what was real and what was the stuff from my imagination. She was being kind, but the implication was that I had a duty to educate and get it right. What a burden, and one I reject. If you want to learn facts about Navajo culture, visit the Navajo Nation, talk to historians and culture keepers. Don’t read a damn fantasy book.
Not really, but sometimes there is the expectation that I be a representative of “my people,” whoever that means at the time. Sometimes that’s Latinx folks, sometimes it’s Cubans, when really “my people” are second generation Cuban-Americans who grew up in the suburbs and mostly spoke Spanish with their abuelos.
Have you ever been told the character’s ethnicity wasn’t justified by the story?
I love watching editors dance around saying this. It doesn’t happen anymore as I think people know what they’re going to get with a story of mine. When it did come, it usually took one of three typical ways:
“Can you change the names?” – This was one of the early criticisms that some of my work received. I’ve had some of my characters names described as “soap opera-ish,” “flamboyant,” or “over-the-top.” When I asked the editor what she meant by that, she responded with “what are you accusing me of?” so I left it alone and kept it moving.
“This is not something everyone can relate to.” – Sometimes it was because of language, too much slang or patois that could lock a reader out. Or situation and experience as too out of the mainstream for the average person to find relatable.
“This isn’t very marketable.” – This was THE big criticism. Basically the feedback was the less “ethnic” I could make the stories, the more broad the appeal.
This was all pushback I received more in the horror community/early in my career than in the sf/f community.
I’m glad to say I haven’t, as far as I can remember (again, this might tie into the expectations–or lack thereof–for specifically South Asian characters in speculative fiction). Reading the other answers, I’m definitely getting the impression this happens fairly often, which isn’t surprising, though it is a shame. That said, I myself did this to my own writing when I first started as a teenager–defaulting to white characters because that’s what I mostly saw in books and movies and TV in the genres I was writing in. It was only once I got the U.S. and started doing Creative Writing classes in college, surrounded by mostly white students and faculty, that I consciously started writing brown people because it struck me that I had allowed myself to be brain(white)washed by global cultural white supremacy (I did not think of it in such specific terms at the time, of course).
I get “I almost forgot [the character] was Black” and similar comments that characters are easy for the reader to re-skin, for lack of a better term, because I am not constantly making reference to ethnically defining traits. The situations in which they find themselves, their environments, their diction isn’t what some folks might expect of Black characters. It’s odd because it’s SFF. A little deadwalking, empire crushing, interplanetary treasure hunting, and magic engineering are all extraordinary situations into which anyone should technically fit but only white characters (as the majority of SFF) and the odd alien/fantasy species seem to belong in them.
No, and in my debut novel, I wouldn’t even know how to divorce my character’s ethnicity from the story, they are so deeply intertwined. I’ve been lucky that my editor totally gets that. But I have other stories that aren’t necessarily set on the reservation and I wonder how those will go over. I worry about being pigeon-holed, and being expected to write only Native characters and Native stories. I have a great dark fantasy romance and the main character is a white guy (in a world of POC). I can’t wait until that one goes out and people say, “But, Rebecca. Where are the Indians?”
Yes, unfortunately. The story wasn’t about the character’s ethnicity; they simply happened to be Latinx, and spoke in Spanglish a few times. The implication was that if there wasn’t a compelling reason for the character to be non-white, I should just make them white. That’s the default, right?
It seems obvious that even when editors and reviewers have good intentions they are engaging in ways which can be damaging or hostile to POC. What can editors and reviewers do about this?
Once I’m engaged in ways that are hostile, I lose track of intentions. I just want my work engaged with critically and intelligently. Every story has a context, they just need to realize that and examine my work within it.
I think there are editors (many of whom I’ve been lucky to work with) who are doing things right–by engaging with writing by POC on its own merits, rather than as part of a monolithic ‘diverse fiction’ market or ‘trend’ to cash in on or get brownie points for paying lip service to. The best thing editors can do is, as LeKesha mentions below–read, research, and discuss work by POC widely, and communicate (listen to, especially) with POC writers who are continuously calling out, and talking about, the ways in which the publishing industry excludes or marginalizes them.
And, very importantly, especially for white editors–use the position to actively seek out POC writers rather than hope they’ll submit, if their body of edited work is skewing disproportionately white (and/or Western). The same goes for reviewers, of course–seek out the books you or your publication might not normally review, give them that little bit of extra exposure (that’s how you do exposure, not by making writers work for free). Oh, and publications need to make a genuine effort to hire more editors and reviewers who aren’t white (to be fair, I do see this happening more in sf/f than in literary fiction publications).
Read widely, research widely, talk about what’s being read, ask questions (respectfully and mindfully of the labor involved). There’s also a measure of honesty I don’t necessarily expect but I’d like to see from industry pros. It doesn’t have to go up on Twitter in a thirty-point thread. That’s always going to end up being at least a little performative. This is just personal inventory: If you are not a member of these groups, what stories do you expect of Black/Latinx/Asian/Native/Of-Color authors when you seek them? And then unpack why you’re applying any restrictions at all.
They can unpack their expectations and assumptions, like we all need to do. They can travel, they can read diversely, they can meet some Natives, make some Native friends that will call them on their nonsense. One of the great things about my editor, and one of his selling points quite frankly, was that he had spent a summer on the Navajo Nation. He’d slept in a hooghan, gotten lost in the desert, experienced something of my world. His knowledge of Natives wasn’t limited to bad history books and Dances with Wolves. But, unfortunately, his experience is probably the exception rather than the rule.
Nothing much to add to what’s been said. Interrogate your own prejudices and predilections and privileges, read diversely, and don’t get defensive when you make mistakes. Learn, grow, do better.
With nearly one hundred stories published, Maurice Broaddus’ work has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Weird Tales, Apex Magazine, Asimov’s, Cemetery Dance, Black Static, and many more. Some of his stories have been collected in The Voices of Martyrs. He is the author of the urban fantasy trilogy, The Knights of Breton Court trilogy. He co-authored the play Finding Home: Indiana at 200. His novellas include Buffalo Soldier, I Can Transform You, Orgy of Souls, Bleed with Me, and Devil’s Marionette. He is the co-editor of Dark Faith, Dark Faith: Invocations, Streets of Shadows, and People of Colo(u)r Destroy Horror. Learn more about him at MauriceBroaddus.com or follow him at @mauricebroaddus.
Indrapramit Das (aka Indra Das) is the author of debut novel The Devourers (Del Rey / Penguin India), which was shortlisted for the 2016 Crawford Award. His fiction has appeared in several publications including Clarkesworld Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, Asimov’s Science Fiction, and Tor.com, and has been widely anthologized in collections such as The Year’s Best Science Fiction (St. Martin’s Press). He is an Octavia E. Butler scholar and a grateful graduate of the 2012 Clarion West Writers Workshop. He grew up in Kolkata, India, and did his M.F.A. at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where he wore many hats, including dog hotel night shift attendant, TV background performer, minor film critic, environmental news writer, pretend-patient for med school students, and video game tester. He is currently working as a consulting editor for Indian publisher Juggernaut Books while writing a second novel. You can find him on Twitter @IndrapramitDas
LeKesha (L.D.) Lewis is a medic and ASL teacher in Florida, and the Art Director at FIYAH Literary Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction. Her essays “On Walking My Fault Lines”, “Incidents at the Intersection of Black Mental Health,” and “Things I Learned from Nina Simone” are featured on BlackGirlNerds.com. You can find her novelette CHESIRAH in the inaugural issue of FIYAH. Follow her on Tumblr and Twitter @ElleLewis6.
Rebecca Roanhorse is a writer of rez-based fantasy and Indigenous futurisms. She is also a lawyer and Yale grad. She lives in northern New Mexico with her daughter, husband, and pug. Her debut novel, Trail of Lightning, is slated for publication with Saga Press (Simon & Schuster) Summer 2018. Her recent non-fiction work, Decolonizing Science Fiction and Imagining Futures: An Indigenous Futurisms Roundtable and Water Is Life: A Roundtable About Coasts and Rivers Affected by Climate Change, can be found at Strange Horizons. Find her on Twitter @roanhorseBex.
Valerie Valdes copy edits, moonlights as a muse and occasionally plays video games if her son and husband are distracted by Transformers. She also teaches for The Brainery, which offers online writing workshops focusing on speculative fiction. Her latest work is published in People of Colo(u)r Destroy Horror. Join her in opining about books, BioWare games and robots in disguise on Twitter @valerievaldes.