30 Nov Mirror, Mirror: Quien Soy?
Note: I am trying to gather enough funds to attend the Toronto Spec Fic Colloquium, where I am invited to speak. Learn more here: http://www.gofundme.com/specfic2014 and please share.
Felicity Savage’s recent blog post for Amazing Stories views diversity in speculative fiction as narcissism and bids people of color (POCs) to be satisfied with them being portrayed as non-human races (orcs, for example). She argues that realistic representations of people do not have a place in speculative fiction, only in literary fiction.
This, of course, runs contrary to a previous post of hers in which she laments portrayals of women as action heroes or warriors, labeling them unrealistic. Savage seems to know little of history as we have had female fighters (duelists, combat pilots and soldiers) but let’s assume female fighters are not common in today’s Western society. Her argument is that portrayals of women that do not reflect reality should not exist.
That is the complete opposite of her diversity argument, in which she states that real-world diversity should not be reflected in fiction. POCs should not seek to see themselves mirrored in fiction.
Savage’s argument can be divided into three parts:
- POCs desire to be represented in fiction is narcissistic.
- POCs should be content to be represented in non-human forms, such as orcs.
- Any fictional representation cannot match reality and therefore is futile.
POCs desire to be represented in fiction is narcissistic.
“The call for diversity is usually interpreted with deadly literal-mindedness as a call for more characters who are female / black / Asian / what have you. Why are we all so keen to see ourselves on the page?”
Savage wonders why POC writers might want to see themselves in fiction. Though the mantra “write what you know” is a common one for writers, she seems to be baffled by the concept that POC might want to write what they know, but does not question why non-POC writers would writer what they are familiar with.
Culture is a part of our writing. The person who taught me what storytelling was, using oral tradition, was my great-grandmother. She infused my world with folklore and historical accounts of her childhood the same way a non-Mexican might have grown hearing of Cinderella and Snow White. I carry those stories, those myths, and my experiences growing up, in me. Just as we all do.
We write infused by our histories, our families, our culture, our language. Growing up speaking Spanish is different than growing up speaking Mandarin. Sentences, proverbs and metaphors are different. When I write, all that comes with me and spills onto the page in small or big ways. That is not narcissism. It is a writer’s voice. And a writer must have a voice. Otherwise you are simply reading a recipe or a press release. A voice takes you places, creates rhythm, brings a story to life.
Savage seems to think a writer’s voice, for POCs, is a bad thing. She asks us to cut off our hands.
POCs should be content to be represented in non-human forms, such as orcs.
“What speculative fiction does well is diversity on the species level. Our aliens, dragons, orcs, and even or especially our far-future selves ask us, in as many ways as there are books, what it means to be human.”
POCs have often been represented in non-human forms, no doubt about it. Aliens may behave oddly like Native Americans or seem to embody Africans. This is one way writers can add some of the struggles and tensions faced by POCs without having to include POCs. It’s an easy way to solve an issue. I need not bring an Asian character onto the written page if he can be embodied by a mythical, non-existent creature. It’s a very neat solution, but not a very good one.
Furthermore, fantastical races are often tied to certain traits in unpleasant ways that smell of eugenics. The orc is born evil, just as the elf may be good. Nobody asks what the non-POC human is born like. No innate characteristics are assigned to him.
It is also perplexing to see that our “far future selves” will not be POCs, which seems to be implicit in Savage’s statement. In short, if we were to imagine a Vancouver 100 years in the future in which most of the population is Chinese and influenced by Chinese customs, Savage would probably view this as a narcissistic, unrealistic future. But Vancouver has a high Chinese population nowadays.
Reality, of course, can only be extended so much for Savage’s reality must remain fairly 1930s pulp-fiction-like.
Any fictional representation cannot match reality and therefore is futile.
“There aren’t really any books out there that reflect my identity. It’s too damn complex. And I bet yours is, too. I will own to reading mum-lit occasionally, for the lulz.”
No fictional representation can match reality. This is true. At a micro-level, I doubt there are many characters who are Mexican-born, Canadian immigrants who writer in their spare time and work at the faculty of science of a BC university. But there are also not many James Bonds, and we have a whole slew of action heroes like him.
POC diversity does not mean POC readers demand a micro-representation of themselves, down to their marital status and spending habits. However, they would probably enjoy it if once in a while there was an action hero who is Mexican. Or Black.
Why should a Latino reader be interested in a Mexican James Bond? Because he’d come with different baggage than a British one. He’d have different impulses, different ways of doing things, different concerns. Conceivably, this would also make him interest to non-Latino audiences who might find a new and different world, with different characters, compelling.
This is not about painting James with a coat of brown and saying DONE. Our James would be different, to the core.
The Difficulties of Reading Stories by POCs
I imagine Savage’s disinclination towards diversity in fiction comes from a fear that such fiction would be didactic and difficult to understand. No one wishes to read a textbook on Mexican culture in order to understand a novel, for example. Savage may fear there is a learning curve when engaging which such characters and worlds.
Yes, there is a learning curve when you read a book set in Mexico with Mexican characters. The author, however, will help you navigate it and find your way. Furthermore, there is often a learning curve in speculative fiction. When you first read The Lord of the Rings you had to learn about a different geography, different language, different customs. Game of Thrones forces us to wade through many odd customs and histories (and sometimes, to tackle hard to pronounce names). Dune bombards you with names of planets, complex cultures and alliances, and even a new ecology. Yet we are willing to jump into these alien worlds. But not a story set in Ghana. That becomes didactic, annoying, the kind of stuff the “right-thinking crowd” consumes only because they must.
Speculative fiction should not concern itself with diversity. As Savage states: “Please let’s leave this stuff to lit-fic, shall we? Dissection and interrogation of contemporary identities is exactly what lit-fic does, and it does it well.” We are told here that speculative fiction must only be pulp fiction. No serious interrogations of reality, the world, must accompany our speculative fiction. Serious questions are answered by serious literature. We are here to entertain, to offer you soulless robots and furry aliens and muscular European barbarians. Do not ask for me.
Savage asks us to keep it small and simple. Not to engage our imaginations or look beyond the borders of what we know and regularly consume. As a response, I have written this blog post. Also, for this weekend, I am offering a PDF copy of my debut collection.* Be warned that it is set in Mexico. It asks you to wander into a strange new land, with no map in hand. But that’s what ideally speculative fiction has asked us to do. To step into the unknown.
Update: For another take on this same issue see: http://theothersideoftherain.wordpress.com/2013/11/30/diversity-is-not-narcissism-a-response-to-felicity-savage
* I offered this until December 1. If you are still interested in reading the collection I am happy to send you the PDF file on the condition that you please review it. Thanks!