The Privilege Index: Addressing Diversity in Fantasy Novels

Every once in a while, amidst the pictures of restaurant food and the inspirational memes and the promotional posts for TV shows I’m never going to watch, I come across a statement on social media that just gets right under my fingernails.  Whether it’s an article in the New York Times or a retweet from someone I follow, sometimes I just have to speak out.

Normally, I get a little adversarial when that happens, but I want to say right off the bat that this is not one of those times.  This is a time for a civil conversation about a very important topic – and, I sincerely hope, an opportunity for me to learn something from people who have different views than I do.

I saw bunch of tweets the other day that basically boiled down to an argument that goes something like this:

Books with mostly/all white characters – or books assumed to have mostly/all white characters when not explicitly identified as non-white – are pushing a white agenda.  We can’t all relate to white characters, so mostly/all white books are not really valuable to a modern audience. 

But if you’re a white author trying to include non-white characters in your stories, you’re probably engaging in cultural appropriation or misinterpretation.  You’re probably just doing it because diversity is trendy right now, anyway, and that’s wrong.  Don’t try to write books about cultures/gender identities/sexual orientations that aren’t part of your own authentic experience, because that’s insulting to people who have experienced negativity, violence, or other pain related to their various identities. 

But books about mostly/all white characters are bad…and around we go in a vicious circle.

Now, hold on a minute with whatever you’re thinking.  First, I am not defending this argument.  Second, I am not attacking this argument.  I am merely recording an argument I have seen.

The counter-argument seems to go something like this:

This logic maligns the rights of white people toscreeeech.

Let’s just put the brakes on that one for the moment.  It doesn’t lead anywhere worth going.

Even though I consider the fact that I’m Jewish to be a major cultural/ethnic marker, I usually check the “white” option on my demographic forms, because Ashkenazi is hard for people to spell. And I agree with the notion that white people are not really in a position to claim that they are being maligned about pretty much anything.  In the literary world, we still probably get most of the exposure and the dollars out there (I mean, I don’t, but that’s not the point) and straight white male voices still dominate the history and present of the fantasy genre.

But I’m not a straight white male.  I’m a woman, which gives me an inherent disadvantage and a stake in this conversation.  But…I’m a privately-educated woman with full-time employment, a small amount of disposable income, and a broadly accepted gender/sexuality identity.  But I struggle with depression and other mental illness.  But I’ve never experienced physical violence due to my gender/sexuality/ethic/racial/religious identities.  But I have certainly been verbally harassed and made to feel shame for some of my identity attributes.

But I’ve this, and I’ve that, and I’ve the other thing, et cetera, et cetera.  Pluses and minuses – the list goes on.  You can tally up your own privilege points with things like this hideously reductive Buzzfeed quiz, but I don’t think that adds much to anyone’s “right” to contribute their perspective.

So instead of spouting out a whole bunch of nonsense that falls prey to the flaws of the Privilege Index point of view, I just want to gather information from people who have all different takes on the world.  To that end, I’ve created a short survey.

It’s just ten questions, some of which are open-ended, to collect some data about how you guys (readers and authors) feel about the thorny problem of diversity in a genre that is clearly undergoing one heck of a major revolution that is long overdue.

The survey is anonymous.  I will not be collecting names or email addresses.  I do not know any of you well enough to guess who you are based on your responses to the demographic questions.  Feel free to say what’s on your mind, but remember to be kind, thoughtful, and honest.

Please note that for the purposes of this survey, I am using the word “diverse” to mean “non-white/straight/cisgender” characters.  I’m aware that it’s a silly definition, because it assumes a whitewashed world is the standard and everything else is the “other,” but it’s a commonly accepted way of framing the issue, and SurveyMonkey will only let my questions be so long.

Click here to take the survey!

I would like to share your thoughts in a follow-up post, but please do be aware that malicious sentiments or hate speech will never see the light of day.  This is an opportunity for discussion, not for being an awful person.

Please share the survey with your friends and fellow readers.  The more responses I get, the better the conversation.  I’m looking forward to your feedback!

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The Desolation of Smaug: A Cautionary Hobbit’s Tale

hobbit-desolation-of-smaug-poster

I trust that watching the newly released extended trailer for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug has already been part of your NaNoWriMo procrastination routine, right?  Go on, watch it.  I’ll wait.

Now.  Let me just say that I’m not planning to review the movie before it comes out (you can read my review of the first one here).  That would be silly.  I have no more information about the full shape of the film than you do (and probably less if you’re gone all fanboy about this on the forums), and I shall, as always, maintain hope that Jackson has done justice to the task entrusted to his Kiwi hands.  However, I have issues.  I have lots of issues that need airing, and that’s what I plan to do right now.

Radagast is back

This, it goes without saying, is a horrible thing.  If you don’t think it’s a horrible thing, then I can’t help you.  I simply can’t.  You can leave now.

Lots of random Elves are back

On the surface, this is not a horrible thing.  The history of the dwarves has always been intimately tied in with the Elves, and exploring it can in the film can help non-Tolkienites understand the reasons behind what goes down in Mirkwood, etc.  Do I have a problem with Legolas being there?  Not really.  If my memory serves, he wasn’t mentioned by name in The Hobbit, but it’s not stretching artistic license too far to give him a role – although how big of a role he gets remains to be seen.  But then there’s the girl.

Oh, yes.  The girl.  The girl is symptomatic of the disease that we all knew would plague this unnecessary trilogy from day one: story bloat.  It appears that Jackson has confused widening a story with deepening it, which is an amateur mistake he should be ashamed of.

There is more than enough backstory he could have drawn on to bring color and richness and drama to his tale without inserting a random elf chick, and that offends me both as a book-to-movie purist and a story teller.  It also offends me as a female, because it means that Jackson has once again fallen into trap number two…

The token woman is back

Jackson really likes his Elvish women.  From Arwen’s weird and drawn out quasi-death scene to Galadriel’s party crashing in An Unexpected Journey to Tauriel’s strange nearly-word-for-word repetition of what Merry said to Treebeard at Entmoot, the token female Elf is alive and well in Middle Earth.

In The Lord of the Rings, the Silmarillion, the Lays of Beleriand, and more of Tolkien’s works, women play a very strong and vital role in shaping events.  In The Hobbit?  Not so much.  Why?  It’s very simple.  The Hobbit is not a story about women.  It’s a story written by a father for a little boy about adventure and dwarves and dragon slaying, and women simply don’t enter into it.  It’s not misogynistic.  It’s not maliciously exclusive.  It’s just not a story where females fit into the narrative of events.

So why add them?  For me, and many others, I find it much more offensive that a filmmaker would add a token to pat on the head and wave around then it is to acknowledge that some things just don’t need our presence.  It irks me deeply on many levels to see that Jackson is continuing this disappointing pattern, even with ten years of comment and criticism under his belt.

Also back? Armitage, Freeman, McKellen, and their little dragon pal, too

There is nothing wrong with any of this.  I will happily watch Richard Armitage glower his way through anything, even if he is three feet tall.  I am not disappointed about seeing Aidan Turner again.  Sir Ian McKellan has always been flawless, and I remain pleased with Martin Freeman’s continuing cross-universe inability to control the behavior of Benedict Cumberbatch.  Carry on.

What do you think?  Are you in agreement?  Are there other things that bother you?  Is Jackson a cinematic god that can do no wrong?

Close to home

IMG_9215With The Spoil all grown up and free to wander the big, wide world, I’ve started to turn my attention to my next project.  After spending so much time and effort getting that behemoth out the door, it feels weird not to have a document open every evening, either to tinker with or guiltily ignore.  Next on the list is supposed to be The Paper Flower, but I find that I’ve run into a couple of big roadblocks already.

I’ve been toying with this book (or trilogy, for so it shall be) for more than a year, developing characters I like but changing the plot at least three different times, moving people around like chess pieces to try to figure out where they belong and what they should do within a general framework that I’ve never been quite happy with.

Last year, I wrote what I thought was the entirety of the first book, but abandoned the second less than a chapter in.  Why?  Well, a few different reasons.  One was that it sucked.  I mean, really sucked.  People were wandering around, moaning and wailing, not really doing anything besides dropping cryptic hints once in a while about an event that never materialized.  My main character, Sareisa, was gloomy and indecisive, struggling with tragedy after tragedy with no redemption in sight, and the entire novel was weighed down with grief and sadness.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Characters have to struggle in order to eventually triumph, and things need to go wrong in order for people to make them right.  But I wrote Sareisa at a time when I was caught in my own battle with depression, feeling lonely and abandoned, stuck in melancholy that I thought would never clear.  I got better, and I thought Sareisa would get better as I looked at her in a new light this time around.  I’ve made her character stronger, more resilient, and less self-pitying, which works for the book.

But reading some of the things I wrote back then has been hard, because so much of Sareisa is simply a reflection of myself.  Even if some of the events that she goes through are (thankfully) nothing like my own life, her emotional trials, her thought processes, her fear and yearnings, her indecision and pain are deeply personal to me.  There are three paragraphs that make me cry every time I read them, because they are, essentially, a distilled version of my own battle to feel like I belong in the world, that I am worthy of love, and that some day I will find some sort of happiness that will overcome the sense of isolation that has been so deeply ingrained in me.

That this small, human thing seemed like such an unthinkable possibility was the great, hidden sorrow of her life.  However hard she tried to resign herself to her fate, it was that tiny kernel of hope which kept her awake far into the night, begging the gods for some relief from the torment: acceptance of her current state or a solution to it – anything but the terrible pain of hope deferred that tore her brittle heart into pieces.

I find it hard to write a story so steeped in sadness.  When I read, I want hope and adventure and glory and all the things that are missing from my own sense of self.  When I write, I want to be swept away on the tide, not reminded of my own failings and shortcomings.  I hate writing this book.  I hate codifying and exposing these things about myself.  I hate Sareisa – I condemn and revile her – because I hate that she is so similar to me, and can’t overcome the things I fight with every day.

And yet, this story is a powerful one.  It’s a story I want to tell.  It delves deeply into the lives of women, rich and poor, constrained and free, in a society that alternately reveres, ignores, frees, and cages them.  They say an author must feel everything they want their readers to feel.  If I ever buckle down and write the story that must be written, I will be happy if my readers feel even a fraction of it.

But for now, I struggle to find the inspiration, the drive and the motivation.  I struggle to grasp that moment of clarity, where the plot falls into place like the last piece in a puzzle, and the way forward is as clear as day.  I haven’t had that moment yet, but that doesn’t mean I won’t.  Like Sareisa, I must push on through the dark, and hope, with no real assurance, that there is a light on the other side.

Females and Other Strangers

 

As promised, here’s my first stab at taking the co-hosting chair on the amazing and fascinating podcast, Friends and Other Strangers.

Join us as we talk about feminism in the modern world: a little bit of history, the search for a female identity in a quickly changing social landscape, the dangers of Victorian fashion, and me going on about a lot of random stuff, like I do.

It’s great fun, so please drop by and take a listen.

Beautiful Blogger Award

My goodness.  I’m being inundated with accolades.  One might have been a fluke, but two gets me thinking I might be doing something right (although I just accidentally typed “write” instead, so that was a short-lived feeling).

It’s been really awesome to cultivate this site, share my work and my photos, and meet a fantastic group of creative, funny, passionate bloggers.  I am, in fact, quite honored that any of you stick around to listen, let alone think I’m worthy of any mention at all.

A special thank you to Katherine Givens for the nomination and her very kind words. Please go check out her site.

The rules are similar to the last award, although this time I don’t have to share any deep, dark personal secrets, just nominate seven bloggers to pass it on.

These are more recently discovered blogs, visually pleasing or otherwise charming and interesting.  I hope you’ll give them a visit.

1. In My View

2. Essence of Kate

3. Eating Towards the Finish Line

4. A Nine Pound Hammer

5. Purveyor of Words

6. Emily Anne Shaffer

7. The Thoughtful Life

Thanks again.

In other news, this week I recorded a  full-length episode of Friends and Other Strangers, the wonderful podcast run by someone who is, oddly enough, a little bit of both.  Join us as we talk about modern femininity, the struggle of women to define themselves throughout history, and my struggle to keep my accursed router from deciding it’s tired and needs a nap.  I’ll post a link to it on Tuesday when it goes live.

Other than that, have a very happy Towel Day.  In a rather pleasing coincidence, this is my 42nd post.  So just remember: don’t panic.

Anything You Can Do…(Part II)

Warning: this post contains possible spoilers for The Last Death of Tev Chrisini.  If you haven’t made it past Chapter Eight, please proceed with caution.

I wanted to write this post about evil women, but to be honest, I’m not sure what to focus on.  The insecure high school Queen Bee doesn’t really interest me – most of the time they only exist as poorly drawn plot-pushers for the sweet and innocent heroine – and the Old Hag is a sociological/anthropological/historical study about the envy of youth, beauty, and fertility that I don’t have time to get into, and probably wrote a paper about in college anyway.  The Evil Queen?  Now there’s something, but she does overlap with the Old Hag in a way (think Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, or even The Little Mermaid, where youth and beauty tropes abound).

No, my favorite evil women are the ones with motivations that escape the traditionally female sphere of womb envy, which is pretty much the sum of things when you get down to it.  Give me strong, smart, ambitious women who take the leap into the typically male-dominated realm of desires.  Power.  Revenge.  Dominance.  Even lust, in appropriate doses.

I am, of course, using the terms “male” and “female” in the sense of broadly determined, traditionally assigned gender roles and attributes, because the pre-industrial, pre-women’s lib worlds I work with, that’s just the name of the game.  Please be aware that I am quite well informed on gender issues in general, and do not necessarily support the dichotomy that I’m discussing as a model for the real world.  [This public service announcement brought to you by the Alumna Association of Mount Holyoke College  – or would be, if I could afford to give them any money]

But it’s difficult to write a woman like that who is believable, and free of really obvious cliches, who is complex enough to stand as anything but the token obstacle for the hero/heroine.  It’s not something I’ve spent too much time addressing in my work, where my antagonists are typically Evil Men, and good women struggle alongside good men in trying to defeat them.  The notable exception is Vaorra, but even though she is an evil women, she has no real will of her own.  She obeys her master, an Evil Man, and inflicts damage on his behalf.  Her foil is Sanemki, another woman of strength and skill, but also of intelligent discernment and self-control, who is the agent of the Chithura, a Good Woman.  Order vs. chaos.  Guess which one wins?

But in the end, they’re both servants, doing as they’re told to further someone else’s goals.  So I wanted to write an Evil Woman who didn’t obey anyone.  One who has no master and is her own mistress.  How do you do that without falling into the Evil Queen trap?  Well, why not make a goddess?  Uh oh, another cliche.  I also just dislike the word “goddess”, with all its floofy, new age, Pagan/Wiccan, and sexual connotations.  It’s a silly word.  Female deity?  Let’s go with that.

In SZ-K, I have to create an origin story for the Moreivi.  It wasn’t really that easy, and I’m not sure I’m entirely happy with it yet.  In a rather ordinary world, that doesn’t use magic in its day-to-day, where does a tribe of immortals come from?  “Over the ocean” is a little too Tolkien, and since I’m not planning to write my own version of the Silmarillion, it’s a bit of a cop-out.  It works all right in Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, but it wasn’t jiving with me, even though I do have a big ocean that doesn’t get much positive press.  But “Other” people have to come from somewhere Other, after all.

I settled on “from the mountains”, which will all make sense eventually.  It’s where the Risdena ended up hiding, because their leader was searching for the Moreivi’s secrets when he decided to retreat there.  But where did they get their immortality?  Here’s an excerpt from the explanation:

It was the Stone Daughter who had forced them to leave Yhen Lidra [the Moreivi’s home city]: Naddorei, a deeply ancient, terribly malevolent spirit, who dwelt in the hidden roots of the mountains.  The story told that she was the mother of their people; that her husband Ayakkult, the sun god, had given the first Moreivi into her womb in order to tame her wicked ways and teach her love, but she chose to shun her offspring, and threatened to destroy them.  Ayakkult locked her away for her disobedience, and took the Moreivi under his care instead, teaching them right from wrong and doing his best to suppress the seed of darkness that had been planted in each of them by virtue of their birth.

The Stone Daughter is evil because she is the antithesis of Ayakkult, the protecting sun god – she’s Satan, if you will.  There’s no male or female motivation for it: it’s just her nature.  I wasn’t sure how that fits into my view of evil women, but I think I like it.  She’s not jealous, shrewish, or petty, like the Queen Bee; she isn’t envious of anything, like the Old Hag or Evil Queen.  She doesn’t want power, she isn’t ambitious, and although she does want revenge against the husband who locked her away for thousands of years because of her misdeeds, that’s not her primary goal.  She is chaos, and I like that chaos is a “she”.

Do I necessarily like that the good guy is a Good Man?  I don’t know.  A male main deity is like, so last century, after all.  But it does make sense within the structure of the universe, and I think it’s all right.  He’s not really as important as she’s going to be.  He’s not uniformly benevolent, either.  The Moreivi are driven out of their home turf of Yhen Lidra when the war between Ayakkult and the Stone Daughter makes them take sides, and they end up going to war with each other.  Losing their home is their punishment for being stupid, and giving into evil.  Ayakkult ends up purging them and taking away whatever claim they had on divinity, leaving them to wander the mortal world, knowing they had lost the right of heaven.  It’s kind of sad, really.  But I better wrap this up if I want to have any hope of anyone reading to the end.

So anyway.  There’s a couple of thoughts on evil women.  I’m not really trying to argue for any particular point – I just think it’s an interesting topic to muse upon for a while.  The next Anything You Can Do will probably be about my kick ass women (more on Sanemki, and introducing Anshema and Eisa from SZ-K, and Zayhri from The Paper Flower), and how tricky is it to balance the high society ladies and the warrior chicks without the social order seeming completely stupid.

Do you like to read about evil women?  Loathe them?  How do you make them work in your own worlds?

Anything You Can Do, I Can Probably Also Do Adequately (Part 1)

This is the first of possibly many discussions of female authors and characters in the fantasy genre and fiction at large. 

Women are like flowers. No matter how well-hydrated you keep us after cutting off our feet, we will eventually turn brown and die.

One of the points I touched upon in my recent interview was the issue of female writers in fantasy.  I didn’t really get to discuss it in detail at the time, but it’s something that’s always on my mind when I’m writing, as a matter of course, and especially since I tend to gravitate towards creating male characters doing manly things like beating the crap out of each other with pointy objects, saving the world from the peril of evil, or withholding their feelings in a misguidedly noble and slightly irritating manner (I’m looking at you, Lerien).

As I mentioned in my discussion, I find it much easier to write male characters (to be expanded upon in a later article).  Part of it, like I said, is the fact that it’s simply easier to write guys doing interesting things freely without appearing grossly anachronistic in a pre-women’s lib world.  As much as I like the spunky heroine character, when drawn well, it so often veers into a hyper-self-aware, totally liberated, 21st century woman in a world that suddenly loses its authenticity as she finds little to no social resistance when gallivanting across the land on her quest to do whatever it is she’s doing.

Now, it’s fine if you’re going to craft a society where that’s acceptable – more power to ya – but authors so often try to have it both ways: they want everyone to tell Spunky Heroine that she can’t do what she wants, because that provides the (somewhat overused) tension, but they don’t bother following through with the fact that in reality, Spunky Heroines are often brutally and irreversibly thwarted for daring to be spunky in the first place, because otherwise you’ll have a very short and depressing book.

I suppose being trained as a historian, and being interested in and knowledgeable about social issues in the pre-industrial age gives me a certain perspective on the matter.  I believe that you can create any world you want, when writing fantasy, but the ones that ring truest to the reader are the ones with the relatability of gritty, historical realism.  Since many traditional epic fantasy worlds are based at least partly on the culture of medieval Europe, that means there’s a certain expectation for women’s behavior, and for men’s behavior towards them, that doesn’t lend itself very well to the Spunky Heroine succeeding in vanquishing her foes.

Were there powerful, educated, shrewd, ruthless women in our real history?  Of course there were.  Are their stories compelling enough to be inspirations for authors?  Absolutely.  We’ve had our warrior queens and political masterminds, schemers and murderesses and noble patrons.  They’re fascinating, and they should be remembered and explored.

But if you look closely at their lives, from Cleopatra to Boadicea to Catherine the Great, you see that they primarily work within and/or manipulate the confines of a woman’s place in society, but they always, always fall victim to the prevailing social norms.  They can’t transcend it in a modern way (or what we like to think is the modern way), even when they do seem to buck the overly simplified trend of “man rules, woman obeys”, because the world is ultimately a prison made of other people, and there’s only one real way out.

And I think that’s where it gets difficult, as a fantasy writer – or at least one with a mind towards history.  On one hand, there’s a certain expectation by the reader that must be fulfilled.  Whether you want the Spunky Heroine, the Damsel in Distress, the Wicked Queen, or the Sweet Wife/Mother, there are rules to be obeyed in a genre built nearly entirely upon archetypes to begin with.  It’s immensely difficult in any type of fiction to make an interesting, original character that doesn’t fall under an umbrella like that.  The best fantasy authors use those rules to their advantage instead of trying to break them just for the sake of trying to be different.

But – and this might be controversial – I’m going to say that it’s doubly difficult, as a female writer.  I think that when a reader sees a woman’s name on the cover of a book, they start reading through a certain lens that can be unfair to the author.  I’ve faced skepticism about my ability to write male-centric stories, especially military fiction, being a girl whose only experience of the topic, admittedly, is what I’ve read by (exclusively male) historians and authors of historical fiction.  I’ve gotten that weird look when I say, “yeah, I write fantasy”, until I add, “but there are no vampires or floofy angels or dancing faeries” and the expression changes to one of still-slightly-disbelieving relief.

Do male authors get that look?  I’m not sure – you tell me.  All I know is that it happens all the time, and it’s really annoying.  Fantasy is not a genre that garners a lot of respect in the real world to begin with, and that doesn’t make it any easier.

Do I particularly care?  No, not really.  I like to think my work stands on its own merits, but it does make me understand the urge for female writers to use male pen names, just to avoid the problem entirely.  That will only perpetuate the problem, of course, but that’s another issue all together.

As I mentioned above, I think I’ll be returning to this subject in the future, especially as I navigate through the plot of my current project, which is, at its core, centered around familial relations and the emotional cost of love, which can be handled in a variety of ways.  I find the place of women as writers a fascinating topic to explore, and I’m very interested in hearing your opinions on the matter.  Feel free to comment, although please remember that civility is an equal-opportunity employer.