Tag Archives: race

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

  • Genre
    • Young Adult, Semi-Autobiographical
  • Plot Summary
    • Arnold Spirit Jr, the mildly disabled, perpetually bullied egghead of the Spokane Indian Reservation, gets fed up with the hopelessly outdated schools and transfers outside the Rez. He becomes an outsider both at his new school, where he’s the only Native American, and at home, where he’s seen as a traitor for leaving. The entire world seems out to get him, but it has made one serious miscalculation; he’s got a twisted sense of humor and absolutely nothing left to lose. 
  • Character Empathy
    • In some ways, this book is deeply empathetic. The first person narration immerses you deep within Jr’s point of view, and also invests time in unveiling the hidden reasons why those around him do what they do. In other ways, it’s faithful to the periodic other-person-blindness that infects all teenagers. Jr has enough to deal with; he doesn’t need to deeply empathize with every jerk who picks on him.
    • What makes this mixture work, though, is that the it’s not as simple as Jr empathizing with everyone who is nice to him and hating everyone who is mean to him. Sometimes that’s the case, but other times he understands why somebody is being mean to him. Sometimes he takes for granted somebody who is kind to him. As his relationships evolve, so does his level of empathy with the people around him. 
    • Nobody is simple. Even as cultural differences between reservation Native Americans and small town white people are discussed, no individual’s actions can be boiled down to “they’re an X so they do Y.” Some characters start out enemies and become friends, or start out friends and become enemies, and sometimes they go back again. Everybody is made of conflicting pieces. Everyone is a human being.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Jr. isn’t depressed so much as he has rocketed straight past depressed into “all out of fucks, bring this shit on.” That gives this book a tone not quite like anything else I’ve read. It’s raw and real, but at the same time, it constantly laughs at itself, and from that laughter comes strength, and from that strength comes Jr’s ability to take on the next challenge. He never really expects to win, and most of the time he’s right, but he is never willing to back down. It starts as cringe comedy but eventually becomes genuinely impressive. 
    • Also, there’s this recurring theme of deep profound thoughts interrupted by bad, bad teenage boy jokes, and I am a hundred percent there for it.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • There’s a scene with a white schoolteacher on the Rez that, in so many other books, would turn out white saviory. But this book was written by an actual Native American, that wasn’t going to happen. The teacher has to earn his right to give good advice by first confessing all the racist shit he’s seen and been complicit in. In addition to being a truthful window into oppression and cultural genocide, it makes for a more compelling character in the teacher and a far more powerful scene overall. 
    • All the main characters are great, but I’ve got to mention this coach who I thought was going to be a macho asshole but instead he’s really empowering and sweet. He gives a speech about how crying just proves you care and caring gives you strength, so if you feel like crying, do it and don’t be ashamed. He says the same thing later about being nervous. I loved him so much.
    • There’s another scene where Jr and his friend talk about books and reading and the inspiring awesomeness of learning, but it also has boner jokes, which in my opinion elevates the scene from good to fucking required reading. If you think boner jokes are funny. 
    • The message here is real as shit. It’s not about working hard until your chance comes and then seizing that chance and then suddenly fame and fortune and the American Dream! Jr. doesn’t have a shot at an amazing prep school that will guarantee his admission to Harvard. He has a shot at a dinky rural high school where the books were printed sometime this decade. The point of this book is that, when you’ve got nothing left to lose, do something stupid and reckless and risky that makes you feel like you’ve got hope again. Doesn’t matter if it pays off or not. You die without hope, and it’s the shittiest kind of death; the kind where you go on living like a zombie for ages before you actually die. So hope, even if it might not work out. At least you’ll stay alive until you die for real.
    • The paper form comes with pictures of Jr’s cartoons and they’re hilarious. The audiobook is read by Sherman Alexie, who has a slightly nasal, awkward voice that works for Jr so well, I kept forgetting Jr wasn’t a real person. Both are perfect.
  • Content Warnings
    • Tons of bullying, alcoholism and a few deaths. 
    • Racist and ableist language, including some that is internalized by Jr. It’s an accurate look at how toxic attitudes around can seep into a person’s head, even if they know rationally that they are wrong. The book finds ways to show you Jr is an awesome kid, even when he’s calling himself names.
  • Quotes
    • “I grabbed my book and opened it up. I wanted to smell it. Heck, I wanted to kiss it. Yes, kiss it. That’s right, I am a book kisser. Maybe that’s kind of perverted or maybe it’s just romantic and highly intelligent.”
    • “Life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community.”
    • “If you let people into your life a little bit, they can be pretty damn amazing.”

Long Hidden, Edited by Rose Fox and Daniel Jose Older

long-hidden

  • Genre
    • Short Stories, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Alternate History
  • Plot summary
    • This isn’t just any short story collection featuring authors of some minority or other. These are the stories that, for so long, people in Western Society haven’t been able to tell. These are the stories of the resistance, of the people who had to hide their identities in the margins, of the ones who were too busy surviving to write and who, if they had, would have had their voices muzzled by the colonizer’s need to only see narratives that paint them as heroes. 
  • Character empathy rating
    • Varies by author, but on the whole, these are stories unafraid to make you empathize with characters who are dirtied, broken, and ready to fight with nothing to lose. 
    • The focus is on protagonists of color, but you also get protagonists who are trans, disabled and political dissidents. If you’ve always hungered to see yourself in a story, odds are there’s someone like you here.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • These stories will make you feel fierce. There is always a heartbreaking element to them. Some characters survive and triumph. Others are broken, but take their oppressors with them. But whatever happens to them, they are wild, they are angry, and they are free. 
    • In short, if you liked the way Rogue One made you feel, get this anthology.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • If you want to sample a lot of award winning authors of color at once, this is a great option. 
    • An encyclopedia of East African ogres
    • Gangsters squaring off against sirens
    • Baba Yaga teaming up with striking coal miners
    • Enchanted soldiers rising to challenge the conquistadors
    • In short, all the cool monsters and fierce fairies you could ask for
  • Content Warnings
    • Not for the faint hearted. Blood, guts, violence, dark magic and scary monsters, the scariest of which are often human.
  • Quotes
    • “I dream in shades of green. The dusty hue of swallow herb; the new growth of little hand flower; the deep forest shade of cat’s claw. Plants are my calling and, as in waking life, they sprawl across boundaries.” – The Dance of the White Demons, by Sabrina Vourvoulias
    • “Out in the middle of the Cross River there is an island. It appears during storms or when the river’s flooding or sometimes even on clear summer days. And sometimes it rises out the water and floats in the air. The ground turns to diamond and you can hear the women playing with the sparkling rocks. I call them women, but they are not women. So many names for them: Kazzies. Shuantices. Water-Women. The Woes. I like that last name myself.” – Numbers, by Rion Amilcar Scott
    • “You got to sell your heart for freedom… I’ve been watching them round up your people. Soldiers come knocking at the door, don’t give nobody time to gather clothes. Everything you had is gone. They take the children in one wagon, the parents in the other, just to make sure nobody runs. You think they dreamed that up special for you? The ones who run – well, they don’t listen to their hearts, do they? Their hearts are as cold as ice.” – Free Jim’s Mine, by Tananarive Due

Sister Mine, by Nalo Hopkinson

sister-mine

  • Genre
    • Urban Fantasy, Afro-Caribbean Fantasy
  • Plot summary
    • Makeda deals with family drama, an ailing father, and growing up. It’s a little harder to do all that when your father is a disgraced nature spirit, your twin sister is a demi-goddess, and you’re the token mundane in an extremely magical family.
  • Character empathy rating
    • The characters in this are not only empathetic, but extremely likable. Makeda in particular has an individuality that I look for in all my favorite books. So often I’ll like every character in a book except the protagonist, who is just paper. Makeda is a snarky, impulsive, pig headed hot mess who reminds me of some of my best friends, and I want to go have a coffee and craft store friends date with her.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • Fun! Even though things get serious and you will worry for the characters (the last few chapters will fly by), this book feels like an extroverted childhood friend; wild and bouncy yet deeply comfortable.
    • It’s also completely original. There wasn’t a single page where I felt like I was following something that could appear in any other urban fantasy novel, which is such a relief. I love the genre in theory, but, like much of fantasy writing, it can get mired in cliche and formula, when it should showcase human imagination at it’s wildest. 
    • And while it’s light and fun, it’s not shallow. The characters have rich inner lives, and when the scenes turn towards ancient magic, it really does feel like you’re seeing something just beyond normal human ken. Makeda’s arc is well constructed, and the end of her story left me thinking, in the best way.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Jimi Hendrix’s guitar is a character. He’s great
    • Also features Death as a favorite, if somewhat stiff uncle
    • A child medium scene where the kid was actually written. Half the time even kids in realistic fiction don’t feel at all like real kids, so I’ve come to peace with the fact that fantasy-novel magical kids are going to talk like tiny Yodas. Then Nalo Hopkinson comes along and completely nails a normal child who happens to channel the voices of the most eldrich gods.
    • A nursing home that has to deal with constant invasions of deer and raccoons because it’s the personification of the primal life force in there, and he kind of can’t help calling nature to his side.
    • Bisexual representation! Nalo Hopkinson is really good in general if you’re looking for some good queer fantasy
  • Content Warnings
    • There’s some consensual incest that isn’t nearly as off-putting as it sounds. Like, you know how, in classic myths, half the gods are technically married to their siblings and then cheat on them with sexy horses and stuff? This book… plays with how that would play out in a modern era. It doesn’t sound like it should work, but it totally does.
  • Quotes
    • “Beauty and ingenuity beat perfection hands down, every time.”
    • “I’m going to check the world’s best source for spawning new urban legends, the Internet. What, you thought I couldn’t even type? The Web is just another threshold between one world and another.”
    • “When your elders are millennia-old demigods, you’d best take the injunction to respect your elders seriously.”
    • “Why? Because I played god with you? Baby girl, that’s what I do. And not lightly, either.” He thought about that for a second. “Well, yes, sometimes lightly. You know what they say about all work and no play.”

The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison

I’ve taken a break from this series because I didn’t like the format I was using. I’ve been playing around with new ones and I hope you like this one. Also, I’m going to make an effort to make these a regular Monday feature, so check back next week for another recommendation!

  • the-bluest-eyeGenre
    • Drama, Realistic Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Plot summary
    • A series of vignettes, set in a Black community in a late 30s Ohio town. They center around Pecola, a neglected dark skinned girl who comes to believe that, in order to be happy, she needs blue eyes. 
  • Character empathy rating
    • Toni Morrison loves her characters. She loves their darkest thoughts and their most hopeless moments and the day when life strangled the will to be good right out of them. She writes them with so much gentleness and heart that you cannot help but love these ugly, broken people, even as they destroy each other.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • This book is all scenes that are hard to read, but you can’t put it down, because they are too beautiful. There are so many books that I’ve tried to read, because they are Informative and Very Important Grown Up Books That Will Change Your Life. More often than not, I leave them half finished, because they are so ugly I can’t read them and keep going through my day. Then I join the ranks of lying intellectuals who say, “oh yeah, I’ve read that. I too am cultured.” That didn’t happen with this book. It hasn’t happened with any Very Important Grown Up Book written by Toni Morrison, because she doesn’t lecture. She just loves so deeply that your heart breaks with her.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • Talks about a period of Black history that often gets erased
    • Audible.com has a version that she narrates, and it’s amazing. Her lilting, smoky voice fits the novel perfectly
  • Content Warnings
    • If child abuse or sexual abuse are triggers, this might not be the book for you. 
  • Quotes
    • “All of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed. And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us. All of us–all who knew her–felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness. her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we has a sense of humor. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous. Even her waking dreams we used–to silence our own nightmares. And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt. We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength.And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life. We substituted good grammar for intellect; we switched habits to simulate maturity; we rearranged lies and called it truth, seeing in the new pattern of an old idea the Revelation and the Word.”

The Electoral College and the White Supremacist’s Advantage

In these first few weeks of the Trump Administration, we’ve seen truly awful executive orders. We’ve also seen a historic rising up of people, organizations, and businesses. Even normally lazy and intractable politicians are taking the hint. This isn’t shaping up to be the smooth ride Donald wanted.

While this encourages me, it isn’t actually him who scares me the most. He’s the current manifestation of something that has been around a lot longer, will probably outlast him and is a lot more dangerous; the white supremacy movement.

How to create a truly diverse and equal world is a complex conversation with many different valid perspectives, but any decent human being should agree that it should exist. If your fundamental goal is to deny the humanity of anyone based on their race, language, nation of origin or ancestral ethnicity, you are not a legitimate political movement. You are an organization of hate. In recent years, white America has patted itself on the back for racial progressiveness, all the while ignoring dog whistling, southern apologists, and the piles of evidence for ongoing institutional racism. Now that white supremacists have put themselves back in the public eye, they have an opportunity to put themselves back on the table as a political perspective that we treat as normal. That cannot happen.

It is well known that your odds of being racist inversely correspond with your actual experience with people from different races. This effect can be mitigated by taboos against discussing race, institutional racism and socially acceptable racism, but in general, when people are allowed to socialize with other ethnic groups, discuss their differences and also find common ground, the idea of institutionalized racism becomes abhorrent. As America moves towards both greater demographic diversity, and also a greater social conversation about race, white supremacy loses more and more footholds. This excellent development means that, as time goes on, they only have a few regions of the country where they even have a chance to spread their ideology.

Simply put, they are better off in rural regions than urban areas.

This advantage doesn’t come from any moral superiority of city dwellers, but simply the fact that in a city you become more and more likely to run into people who are different from you on a daily basis. You are more likely to get inoculated against white supremacy, even in a society where racist institutions still exist. Rural areas are more isolated, and so easier for white supremacists to infect.

Now, the fact that they are so isolated should give white supremacists a disadvantage politically. This is where the Electoral College comes in. Because of the Electoral College, every Presidential election, voters in highly rural get their votes weighted double or treble over voters in states with major cities. With every Presidential election, they get a chance to control the public conversation about race. They get a chance to appoint Supreme Court Justices by proxy. They get a chance to dictate global policy. Without the Electoral College, white supremacists today would have no chance of putting their platform on a global or even national scale. With it, well, we are all seeing what has happened.

I think we will defeat Donald Trump. He’s too easy to mock and rally against. What scares me is the prospect of someone taking advantage of the galvanized white supremacist movement that he created. I worry that someone will come along who is smoother, more subtle when it comes to concealing their crimes, and altogether far less easy to mock. Not only do I think this is possible, but right now I think it’s inevitable.

What isn’t inevitable is that person’s victory. Even now, with so many racial problems still infecting our country, I believe our population has become too diverse for a true white supremacist to win the national popular vote. But as 2016 has proved, it’s possible for even a very unlikable one to win the Electoral College.

Activism against the current threat is wonderful, and we should keep doing it. But we should also have an eye on the future. The Electoral College is life support for neo-nazis. We need to unplug it.

This is part of an ongoing series on why I care so much about the Electoral College and the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. If I’ve convinced you that the Electoral College is something to be concerned about, or just want to know more, please check out the NPVIC’s site. If you want to take action, the best way is to call your state governor and representatives and tell them you want your state to sign the NPVIC. On their homepage is a search bar, where you can type your zip code and find out who they are. 

Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Agnostic Atheist: The Day After Christmas

This episode opens with Chris, the annoying bookend morals woman, telling us all how we can experience the joy of Christmas even after we have gotten bored with our toys. Okay, place your bets now. Is it A. going to church a lot B. taking all of Whit’s advice all the time or C. giving to others?

Well, actually it’s C. Yay!

The problem with Adventures in Odyssey isn’t that a hundred percent of the official morals are terrible message. In fact, most of the time, I do agree with them. What has bothered me about AIO, as I’ve been revisiting the episodes, isn’t the message as much as the execution. The best message in the world can be spoiled by the way you convey it.

It opens with a kid named Annie hanging out at Whit’s End. She has been told to get out of the house by her parents, who are sick of her whining about being bored. Which is really their fault; after all, they only gave her a doll, and a moving teddy bear, and new shoes and a coat, and jewelry, and some kind of combination.

Yeah, she’s kind of a brat. Whit listens to her spoiled tirade, with admirable patience, and then invites her on his yearly trip to bring Christmas to a church Foster Creek, a place that has never before been mentioned and never will be again.

Annie: Isn’t that like a, well, you know?

Whit: A ghetto?

Annie: Yeah.

Whit: Well, some people call it that.

Uh, no Whit. You just called it that. If you don’t like the word, come up with another one, otherwise fucking own it.

As they drive through Foster Creek, Annie squeals over the dirt and the houses that Whit confirms are made of literal cardboard. In the church, we meet Reverend Pike, who gushes over Whit’s arrival and everything he has brought. He’s clearly coded as Black by his voice, but he isn’t using AAVE. Frankly, he’s using a voice I usually associate with the Uncle Tom-ish butler in a movie made around 1930. We also meet Tommy, a troubled boy who Reverend Pike is trying to look after.

Tommy also doesn’t speak with AAVE, but rather speaks exactly like Whit and Annie. I remember specifically noting this as a kid. Normally, Odyssey uses accents constantly, both to establish character and to disguise the fact that they are re-using voice actors. The accents they use are usually for minor, one-off characters, and they usually correspond to stereotypes. Characters will be given Italian accents because they are passionate, Scottish accents because they are brusque, New York Jewish accents because they are stingy and quarrelsome, New Jersey mafia accents because they are delinquents, all in a small town that is otherwise portrayed as culturally homogenous. Now they are going out of their way to portray this as a place where you would expect, going by stereotypes, to hear AAVE, but it’s conspicuously absent. Instead, to signal that Reverend Pike is nice, he is given a voice that screams “Uncle Tom,” and Tommy has a standard Midwestern voice.

I could argue here that it’s entirely possible that Tommy just speaks that way, or is code switching around Annie, but that wasn’t the interpretation that honestly came to mind when I was a kid. Nor do I think it was the interpretation AIO intended. When I was a kid, I knew Tommy would speak AAVE in the real world, but they were making him speak “normally” as a sort of kindness. I was surrounded by people who treated AAVE as, not an English dialect like any other, but a sign of incredible ignorance at best and actual moral decay at worst. AIO was bestowing some dignity on him that his natural accent would strip him of. The pastor’s accent though, one that is associated with submissiveness to whites, was perfectly acceptable, and in fact established him as a “good one.”

I didn’t grow up with anyone who expressed active hatred towards Black people, but a different kind of racism was ubiquitous. It was primarily expressed in a “we won’t mention that Black culture exists, because it’s such a horrible thing” approach. And let me be clear; it’s still very damaging. It enables the more violent kind of racism, but even on it’s own, it sends a constant message that Black people are inferior, while patting itself on the back for not mentioning it.

Now, thanks to others speaking out, I’ve unlearned that message. I now understand that AAVE is just like Bostonian and Cockney and Irish English, and that Odyssey’s omission wasn’t “PC.” It was erasure.

Anyway, Whit apparently wanted to bring Annie to the nursing home to meet some of his friends, but he is reminded by the pastor that they won’t let children in at this time. So he’s forced to leave her behind, with Tommy. Naturally, being the official bad kid of the episode, he drags her off to ogle a crazy cat lady. On the way, though, they are harassed by a gang called The Locos. The Locos definitely have accents. I don’t honestly know what kind of accent it is. It doesn’t sound like even a reasonable approximation of how any real people talk. It’s just kind of generically offensive.

Tommy abandons Annie, who is rescued by Mrs. Rossini, the crazy old cat lady. Annie learns that Mrs. Rossini is lonely and unsure who to trust in this neighborhood, and has developed a tough exterior to drive away the Locos, but otherwise is rather sweet. They drink cocoa and talk about her cats, Christmas, and Mrs. Rossini’s life before her husband died and the neighborhood turned bad.

Mrs. Rossini is a nuanced and interesting character, and seeing Annie open up and learn about the perspective of someone less privileged was actually very interesting. But it’s also maddening that, of all the characters in this ghetto, the only one who gets any development is the only one who could easily be interpreted as white. She, like Tommy and Annie has a standard Midwestern accent. Her Italian surname, while conceivable on an African-American, is more likely to belong to a white person. She mentions living in this neighborhood when it was nicer. Your average white conservative child is utterly ignorant about redlining. There is almost no chance they would interpret this as “this area was nice before banks began discriminatory lending practices, and city planners cut us off from all resources with a superhighway and deliberately neglected our infrastructure in favor of taking care of predominantly white neighborhoods, therefore creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of racial inequality.” When I was a kid, I interpreted “it was nice once,” as “it was white once.”

Anyway, the police catch the Locos and Annie is safely returned to Whit, and they all have a nice Christmas party together at the church. Annie is now excited to return and help Mrs. Rossini out, and Chris spells out for all of us that the Official Moral of this episode is to experience Christmas joy by helping others.

As I’ve mentioned before, Odyssey is very selective about how you are supposed to reach out to. Anyone who would cause you to question your ordinary way of thinking is treated as foolish at best, dangerous at worst. The neighborhood Whit takes Annie to is one where her values and norms might be questioned, but the only person she connects with is someone who is exactly like her aside from being older and poorer. Whit, too, doesn’t seem really connected to these people. In contrast with Mrs. Rossini, Reverend Pike is flat, and your classic recipient of the white savior trope. Annie bonds with Mrs. Rossini and plans to return regularly to bring her cat food and check up on her. Everything that Whit and Reverend Pike say suggests that Whit only comes to Foster Creek once a year, to play Santa Claus and receive their gratitude. Whites are characters. Blacks are background.

This is especially disturbing because I feel like the audience of AIO is primed to absorb toxic messages about race. It’s an overwhelmingly white subculture. It’s also an isolated kind of white. I was lucky. I grew up on the coast in an incredibly diverse county, and had many friends to educate me. I’m not sure your average AIO listener has it. Mostly they are kids in white towns who grow up hearing lots of angry rants about immigrants stealing our jobs. Plus, they are raised to treat AIO episodes as practically gospel, not to analyze and criticize them, and the show overall discourages it’s listeners from listening to those dangerous liberals who might educate them about race.

Final Ratings

Best Part: Mrs. Rossini. I wish she had been Black, but that doesn’t change the fact that I liked her.

Worst Part: Seeing how long I ranted about them, I’m gonna have to say all the accents.

Story/Moral: Normally I separate these, but this time it feels right to consider them together. This episode has good bones. The basic structure is both an interesting story and a valuable lesson. Then it animates it almost entirely with a very subtle and insidious kind of racism.

This episode isn’t about race. This episode is about charity. But what is charity when you don’t bother to see the recipients as human? When you don’t listen to their real needs? When you show up for accolades on Christmas and don’t look at the issues impacting their everyday life? What is charity when the only people worthy of real understanding and help throughout the year are the ones who are just like you?

It’s an exercise in self-congratulation. This episode preaches charity, but it doesn’t really teach it.

D-

Book Review: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

kindred

What it’s about: Dana, a young Black writer from 1976, is transported back in time to save one of her ancestors. Unfortunately for her, that ancestor happens to be a white slave owner in the antebellum South.

Praise: When I was a kid, I read so many “protagonists are pulled back to another time for unknown reasons” novels. But none of them ever talked about how the rules of the world impact the characters. It was unsettling to follow Dana into a world where her essential status as a human is suddenly revoked. Octavia Butler researched the hell out of this. It is incredibly detailed and accurate.

It also focused on something that most stories about slavery ignore; the mechanics of normalization. Books written by whites often neatly divide those of the period into villainous slavers and heroic abolitionists. Or, if written by Southern apologists, bad slave owners and good slave owners. This book shows how a society that made evil the norm inevitably tainted everyone immersed in it.

Science fiction at it’s best often uses fantastic premises to make us see social issues in a new light. But when the writers come from a limited pool of perspectives, the issues they explore and the ways they explore also become limited. This book is a great argument for why publishers need to actively seek diverse narratives.

Criticism: Despite all that, I had trouble getting into it, mainly because Dana spends most of the book focused on the practical problems of survival. I prefer relationship centered stories, and I often only learned her feelings for the other characters when she reflected on them in their absence. I think this was necessary to the story. It was, I think, showing another survival technique of hers. She couldn’t keep existing in this world and also relate to people normally.

Recommended? Depends. Are you reading these reviews of mine for suggestions on places to start checking out good diverse literature? Or have you realized that our tastes are very similar, and my likes and dislikes are a good guide to what you’ll enjoy?

I didn’t care for it, but not because it’s badly written. In fact, it’s considered something of a classic. It just so happened that what it focused on and what I most like to read didn’t overlap well. So, if you read the premise and praise and said, “ooooh!” don’t hold back. If, on the other hand, you like the same things I like, might I suggest some of Octavia Butler’s short stories instead? There’s a collection called “Bloodchild” that I absolutely loved.

If Stranger Things Had a Black Protagonist

Spoilers ahead. Seriously.

I recently wrote about how to do a better job coming up with racially diverse protagonists, as opposed to writing an all-white cast, realizing what you’ve done, and trying to find someone re-writable at the last minute. One of the tips was to mentally recast stories you like.

Stranger Things is ripe for this exercise. It’s a great show with talented actors, but it does not do well with race. The setting is Hawkins, a small Indiana town in the ’80s, which would realistically have a white majority and a few Black families. The fact that there are only a few Black characters isn’t what I’m objecting to. They still had full control over who they picked to represent that Black minority, and unfortunately the writers picked Lucas.

Lucas_Sinclair_001

Lucas barely has a personality. He is the sidekick who carries the conflict ball. Worse, he frequently insults my favorite character, Eleven, and that absolutely poisoned my ability to like him. Given how popular Eleven ended up being, I’m certainly not alone in that. If your audience keeps wishing your only Black character would shut the hell up, you’ve gone seriously wrong.

The last couple of episodes did redeem him somewhat, so I hope season two will make better use of his character. Still, I can’t help but wish they had represented the Black population of Hawkins with a protagonist, instead of a sidekick.

Hopper

Hopper

The thing about demographics is that your age, race, gender, orientation etc are always a part of you, but at some points in your life they are major factors, and at others they are minor. It’s fine to recognize that you aren’t qualified to write a Black Person’s Story (TM). But that’s no reason to never write Black protagonists, because everyone’s life is made of thousands of little stories. You can pick the stories where a person’s race isn’t the biggest element.

Hopper is a perfect example of this. His primary identity, in this show, is as a cop. He is pulled between his fear that he’s overstepping his jurisdiction to find a missing child, and his worry that he isn’t doing enough. He battles obstructive authorities, sorts through red herrings and struggles to see the truth. In this setting, those conflicts wouldn’t be changed by his race.

Hopper is also a good illustration of how the spotlight itself can act as a vaccine against stereotyping. In the course of his investigation, he sometimes resorts to violence. If he were a secondary character, those moments might comprise most of his screentime. Even though it’s heroic violence, it could still potentially feed into aggressive Black man tropes. But because he’s a protagonist, he’s allowed a greater degree of complexity. He gets backstory, moments of introspection, doubts, vulnerabilities, and even scenes that showcase his gentleness. He’s balanced and multi-dimensional.

I am white, so take everything I just said with a grain of salt. I might have completely overlooked something problematic; if you think I have I would love to hear from you. This goes for everyone below as well. But on the whole, based on what I’ve learned so far, Hopper feels like the safe choice.

Joyce, Jonathan and Will Byers

Joyce and Jonathan

If Hopper is the safe choice, this is the risky one. The Byers are dirt poor. Mr. Byers is a deadbeat who abandoned them a long time ago, and Joyce struggles to find enough time to spend with her sons. Furthermore, this isn’t a poor town. The Byers are outliers, looked on with suspicion by most everyone else. If you made them the only Black family as well… I’m sure you can all see the problem.

In this case, being protagonists wouldn’t fix anything. Hopper is shown being violent and gentle, confused and canny, confident and conflicted. The Byers don’t ever stop being impoverished. If the spotlight is the vaccine against stereotyping, they have the egg allergy.

Another issue is that Will and Eleven’s resemblance to each other is a plot point. This means Eleven would also have to be Black. Eleven’s mother is a catatonic addict. Sure, she took drugs as parts of an experiment, but you see the problem. Also, there’s an implication that Eleven’s biological father didn’t even stick around long enough to learn her mother was pregnant.

That’s not to say nobody could write the show this way. But if you wanted to do this, you couldn’t ignore the racial issues. You’d have to change the show, to actively discuss race and poverty. I, as a white writer who was raised in the middle class, would not feel comfortable doing this. My life so far hasn’t given me anything special to say about those issues, but my privilege would elevate my voice. I’d end up talking over people who really have experiences to share.

The Wheeler Family

Mike is the classical  children’s protagonist. He’s brave, smart, and precocious, but still figuring out who he is and how to take care of things on his own. He’s part of a group of friends, but in this story he takes the lead, and their actions revolve around him.

Mike

For some reason, this character is always coded as white, but there’s no reason for him to be. I can think of Black cops, like Hopper. I can’t think of any characters like Mike who are Black, and I can’t think of good reasons for that. So I’m already liking this option.

Then there’s Nancy. When I imagine her as Black, she actually gains depth.

Nancy

She’s a good girl going through her rebellious phase; kissing boys instead of doing her homework, tasting beer, generally seeing what it’s like to not live up to her reputation. You can relate to her identity crisis, but it’s fairly prosaic. There’s nothing to set her apart from all the other characters like this.

Suppose, however, she was the only Black girl her age in a small, predominantly white town. She would exist in a world where she is spared some of the uglier, more overt displays of racism, but still has to deal with a constant feeling of not quite fitting in. She still sees a culture that doesn’t consider her type of beauty the “right” kind, and that will project a trashy image on her regardless of what she does. A few scenes could be enough to paint this picture. She sees a scene from a Blaxploitation film on TV, flinches and changes the channel. She stares a little too long at a blonde model in a lipstick advertisement. A shopkeeper is a little too watchful of her, and she imagines snapping at him, but doesn’t. All her life, she has overcompensated, by being a clean-cut, straight A student, and she’s sick of it. We would understand that Steve, who is edgy but rich and popular, offers an opportunity to cut loose while still fitting in.

The bulk of her story could remain the same. Stranger Things wouldn’t have to be about race, like in the example with the Byers. Race would just become a facet of Nancy’s character arc, which helps distinguish her, and raises the stakes of her conflict.

In fact, this change would actually solve a story problem. You know that scene, at the end, that made us all go “WHY??????!!!!!!!!?????” Imagine she’s the only Black teen girl in town. Imagine she has to decide between Steve, who elevates her status, and Jonathan, who associates her with stereotypes she’s desperate to avoid. I’m still mad at hypothetically-Black Nancy, but at least her decision makes sense, instead of being character assassination committed for no goddamned reason besides prolonging a love triangle.

Now, I’m not saying that making the Wheelers Black is the one true correct story choice. Rather, it’s the one that makes me, as a writer, go “ooooh!” Now I’m interested in someday writing a story with Black characters like Mike and Nancy.

That’s why I like this exercise. I think the reason we got stuck with Lucas as the token Black kid is that the writers weren’t excited about writing diverse characters. They were thinking, “better put a Black kid in there somewhere so nobody will yell at us.”

That’s not how either good writing or good representation works.

How to Come up with Diverse Protagonists

A couple years ago I wrote a post titled What to do When All Your Characters are White. I liked it, but in retrospect, it describes short-term solution. Panicking about representation partway through planning a novel is not exactly the ideal situation. It’s better to have character ideas that naturally run across a spectrum of identities.

Some might argue authors have no control over what inspiration they are struck with, but I disagree. Personally, I have gotten better at this over the years, although it’s still a work in progress. So, as a follow-up to that old piece, I thought I’d share some of the things that have helped me avoid the problem of whitewashed casts in the first place, instead of just patching it up at the last minute. I’m focusing on race, because that’s the area where I’ve needed the most improvement, but I think these tips can apply to any kind of diversity.

1. Honestly identify your comfort zones.

This was a tough one for me, but it was an important step. It’s uncomfortable to tell yourself something like “I’m more nervous to write Black characters than any other race,” but when I did I could work on it, and it’s not a problem in the same way any more. I think white people have a sort of collective don’t ask don’t tell policy when it comes to worries about race. None of us are supposed to admit that we have gaps in our knowledge, or stereotypes, or anything of that ilk. But if you aren’t willing to recognize what needs to be worked on, you’ll never improve.

The Chaos
The Chaos, by Nalo Hopkinson: a weird, fun novel about confronting your inner demons.

2. Research pro-actively, not reactively.

Something I’ve noticed about research in general; last-minute research works best for details and side characters. The quality of your story improves if the main elements draw on subjects you are already familiar with. This means you should never wait for a story idea before researching something of interest. If you want to write mysteries, make it a habit to read about crime, the history of police work, law, forensics etc.

By the same token, if you realize at the last minute that your 1930s Chicago crime thriller needs more Black people, and you only have superficial knowledge of race relations in that time and place, you might have to decide you don’t have the expertise to write more than a few minor characters. But the more time you spend educating yourself about race relations and other cultures, the easier it will be to write more and more significant characters from all backgrounds. This also applies to educating yourself about racist tropes and what people really want to see more of. It’s easy to stumble blindly into a problematic trope. Educate yourself by reading media criticisms written by POC, and awesome blogs like Writing With Color.

Saving Face
Saving Face: an wonderful comedy that wouldn’t have worked without the author’s intimate knowledge of Chinese-American culture.

3. Re-imagine your favorite stories with diverse casts.

Writers are inspired by other writers. I think this is a major source of the ubiquitous white man protagonist. Sherlock Holmes inspires House. Clark Kent creates a genre for Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker to be born into. King Arthur creates a trope of Secret Royalty with Epic Destiny, and sets the default to “straight white teenage boys.” What happens if you take your favorite white characters and make them Black, Asian, Hispanic, etc? Do they actually change? Does it bring up new issues that could be fodder for an interesting story? Would this story be too challenging for you right now, and if so is there something you can do to bridge that gap? See point two.

sister-mine
Sister Mine, also by Nalo Hopkinson: fits into the Gods-on-Earth subgenre, but with loads of Afro-Caribbean mythology

 

4. Remember that everyone around you is a protagonist.

As writers, we love talking about gaining inspiration from all around us. But is that unadulterated inspiration? Or are we still influenced by the narratives around us? The think often we are. The interesting looking white guy gives us an idea for a main character. The story our Uber driver tells about growing up in Cameroon just inspires a scene where that white guy gets in a cab with a Cameroonian driver.

We all know everyone is the protagonist of their own story. But I’ve found it helpful to actively look at everyone around them and imagine the story where they are the main character. Some of these are stories I couldn’t write. One Uber ride didn’t give me enough material to capture all the nuances of Cameroon. That’s not the point. The point is getting into the habit of seeing everyone as equally protagonist-y.

Little Mosque
Little Mosque: a fantastically funny show where the Muslim community gets the spotlight.

5. Read and watch work by non-white creators.

Saved for last because it’s the most important. First, as I said before, art inspires art. This could be a whole post of it’s own, but short version; I’ve grown up in a world that mostly puts white artists in front of me. This means that my inspiration for non-white characters has largely come from white artists, who themselves were copying other white artists, who were inspired by other white artists… This process can’t create original, lifelike POC characters who represent the diversity that’s out there. If you want a fresh outlook, go straight to the source. Find musicians, actors, comedians, directors and yes, writers who aren’t white.

Second, while I think white people have a responsibility to undo some of the damage our ancestors have done, it’s important to not go so overboard that we talk over POC. You need to respect the actual voices of the people who you are trying to represent. You need to elevate their voices directly, not just borrow them. There are also plenty of reading lists on the internet. Also, every book/film/TV show pictured on this post was written by someone who isn’t white, so if any of them appealed to you, there’s your starting point.

Warning; if you follow this advice, at some point you will be angry because all these authors with their awards and their amazingness and yet I’ve never heard of them why????!!!!!

BloodChild
Octavia E. Butler: you are so wonderful. Where have you been all my life?

Three Levels of Characterization

Good writers do not cast stories entirely with xeroxed copies of themselves, mostly because that would be no fun. If you’re wondering whether I mean no fun to read or no fun to write, the answer is yes. Imagining you aren’t you is fun, and imagining you are you isn’t imagining at all. Writers are generally the kind of people who never stopped playing make-believe, so by the time they start publishing, they are pretty good at feigning the perspective of somebody who is different from them.

However, when those differences cross into the land of privilege and oppression, writers get scared. They get nervous about writing someone of another gender, race, orientation, religion, or with a disability.

On the one hand, it is strange that the same writers who will happily write a medieval knight, a cold-blooded alien or the monster under your bed can react with panic at the idea of writing a regular human being with somewhat darker skin. And yes, I’m laughing a bit at myself when I point that out. Just because I recognize the absurdity, that doesn’t mean I can’t experience it.

At the same time, there is something reasonable about the fear. The monster under my bed isn’t ever going to criticize me for misrepresenting it. It doesn’t have to deal with the consequences of all the misconceptions I’ve just reinforced, or subtle elements of racism I’ve unintentionally introduced into my own story. It doesn’t exist, and it doesn’t care. If I’m wasn’t more worried about writing a black character than a nighttime bogeyman, that would be a sign of very skewed priorities.

Of course, because the monster doesn’t exist, it also doesn’t have any reason to care if I choose not to write about it at all. It doesn’t need to be better represented in the media. Somewhere between the crippling paranoia and blase carelessness is a kind of sensible caution that should motivate writers to write underrepresented characters, and do that writing extra well.

I have a system for thinking about real world characterization traits. First, I imagine three concentric circles. The innermost one is for personal experiences. Everything I have done, every word I could use to describe myself, everything that I am goes into this circle. Then, just outside is vicarious experiences. Into this goes things that I am not, but that I have experienced indirectly through listening carefully to people who have chosen to open up to me. When my Mom tells me a story about her nursing job, when I read somebody’s autobiography, when a Korean-American friend invites me to their home and I pay attention to the differences and similarities between their family and mine, I can put all those things under vicarious experiences. In the third, outermost circle go things I can only research remotely, through dry articles and research papers and without any direct experience to temper them.

The research done in the outermost circle can be useful. Even when it comes to things I’ve experienced personally, some fact checking can expand my understanding. However, if I try to characterize somebody based mostly on traits I can only study remotely, I will end up with a flat, bland, stereotyped character. That kind of information comes in averages and generalities, and it cannot convey the flavor or sense of a culture. The middle circle of vicarious experience is more useful for that, but must be used carefully. I cannot expect to know everything about Korean culture from one family dinner. I might be able to pick out some details, useful for a scene at a Korean character’s house. More useful are the vicarious experiences I have repeated. A lifetime of my Mom’s stories has given me a good sense of what it’s like to work in a hospital, but one conversation with a Muslim about what they believe can’t guarantee I can write a convincing Muslim. Most useful for writing realistically, of course, are the traits in my innermost circle, the things I have personally experienced.

Here’s where the illusions begin.

People are never just one thing. They are hundreds of things piled up on each other and interweaving. They go through stages of being one thing and then another, they find one part of their identity more important than another, and they find other people react more strongly to some sides of who they are than another. The trick of writing convincingly is tearing apart everything in these circles, the parts you’ve experienced, the parts your friends have experienced and the parts you know intellectually, then weaving the parts back together, keeping the things you are familiar with dominant over the ones where your experience is limited. I can’t claim any personal experience of blackness, and my vicarious experience, though I’m working to improve it, is still sparser than I’d like it to be. That’s all right. I can still write about a man who grew up in a mostly white neighborhood, works as a vet and identifies most strongly as a cosplaying nerd, and sometimes has the experience of walking down a street at night and seeing a woman shuffle away clutching their purses, quickly but not too quickly because, after all, she doesn’t want to look racist.

Now, the reason to keep the traits you know best in the foreground goes deeper than just accuracy. It’s also about respect. It is fundamentally disrespectful to speak for someone who isn’t you, unless you’ve earned serious trust from them. It’s hard enough to do this with individuals, and essentially impossible to do it with an entire demographic. If I may switch from the perspective of the privileged writer trying to represent other groups, to the marginalized person who other people are trying to represent, I hate it when somebody tells me about this movie about a trans person, and just from reading the IMDB page I can already tell that A. the cisgender writer was trying to tell The Ultimate Story of What It Means to be Trans, and B. they got it wrong. That’s not the story that anybody cis gets to tell. Write about being a delightfully quirky Irish foundling trying to find her mother and make it on her own, while also happening to be trans. I love that movie. Or, you know, about an identity thief who happens to be trans. That works too.

That’s the real point of the three circles. Recognize that your ability to write a human being and speak for a demographic are two totally different things. Recognize that people’s experiences are multidimensional, yours included, and that you can expand your repertoire, but not instantaneously. One of my favorite research resources is the NaNoWriMo reference desk forum. It’s a good way to get obscure questions answered by an expert, but on every page you will get somebody asking, “so I want to write about this deaf person, and their entire reason for living is to find a way to regain their hearing and finally become whole, obviously, so I need to know how that can happen, and also I don’t know anything about being deaf-mute, so could you tell me what that’s like please?” Then you get a couple people saying “here’s what I found out on Wikipedia” before somebody finally says, “sigh… I’m a CODA/interpreter/actual Deaf person, and everything you wrote is already wrong.” Nobody can become an expert in a whole different way to perceive the world overnight.

In conclusion; think about what you know. Recombine that to create new and different people. Work on expanding what you know, and be patient with the process.