Guest Post

I Don’t See Color – Michi Trota

Welcome to the second week of guest blog posts about representation in SF/F. Today’s essay is from Michi Trota, whose photo (at the bottom) is SO MUCH COOLER than any of my author photos. Not that I’m jealous. Nope, not me. Sigh.

There’s a line in this piece that really stuck with me:

Skin color was nothing more than interchangeable window-dressing if we were “all the same underneath,” right?

It resonated with something an artist was talking about this past weekend at the “Diversity in Nerd Culture” panel at No Such Con, about how changing the race of a character like Perry White can be problematic if it changes nothing except skin color, treating race as something that has no effect on who someone is. It was a good panel, and I’m still processing a lot of what I learned.

In the meantime, thank you Michi for sharing her story and kicking off the second round of posts. And tomorrow, Nalini Haynes will be talking about the “evil albino” trope.


Almost all of the women in science fiction/fantasy fandoms that I have felt the strongest affinity for have been white. Partially it’s because there just aren’t many Asian (particularly Pacific Islander) women in supportive (much less leading) roles in the fandoms I grew up with. Most of the TV shows I loved watching as a child had a terminal case of Smurfette Syndrome in which the single girl on the team was white (Voltron, Battle of the Planets, Silverhawks, Starvengers, Starblazers, I’m looking right at you). And when there were characters who were Asian women, they almost universally conformed to some variation of Asian stereotype: the awkward (science/tech) nerd, the ingénue pop star, the Dragon Lady, the grades-obsessed student, and almost always without a love interest (or at least one who reciprocated their feelings).

No one wants to see themselves as a walking cardboard cut-out, but that’s not really the problem with seeing characters who look like you being played as stereotypes. It’s not that I didn’t find anything of myself to relate to in those stereotypes – yes, I played the piano, I was a hyper-competitive honors student, and I even studied kendo for a few years – it’s that many of them felt painfully familiar. Seeing those moments reduced to caricatured facets and bad punchlines that all but screamed “Look how DIFFERENT and EXOTIC these characters are!” made me want to run in the other direction. When you’re the only Asian kid in your neighborhood and get weird looks for bringing chicharrón with spicy vinegar and garlic pork-filled siopao to the annual block party, you really don’t need any more reminders that you’re not like everyone else.

So when I discovered comics, I ignored spunky teenaged, fireworks-spouting Jubliee because I wanted to be like the poised and telepathic/telekinetic (and occasionally cosmically powerful) Jean Grey or the sarcastic, ass-kicking Domino instead. I played Sonya in Mortal Kombat instead of Chun-Li in Streetfighter. Robotech was probably the defining fandom of my childhood, and it had lots women in positions of authority, many of them tough, intelligent, independent and just as likely to do the rescuing as be rescued. But I hated the single Asian girl, the pop star Lynn Minmei. Even though she was one of the most influential characters of the series, I found her shallow, self-absorbed and selfish. It was her romantic rival, the no-nonsense Lisa Hayes, who I empathized with. She was brave, responsible and resourceful, and in the end, she got the guy.

At the time, I didn’t see anything odd about this. I grew up being told that not “seeing color” was the best way to avoid racism. Regardless of the color of their skin, people were not different “inside,” and treating everyone as if they were the same meant that you were not racist. So if everyone was “the same,” there was no reason I shouldn’t want to be more like Lisa than Minmei, or see myself more in Jean Grey than Jubilee. After all, Psylocke was still the same person after her mind was switched from her British white woman’s body to that of the Asian assassin, Kwannon. The writers wanted Psylocke to not “look like everyone else,” so why not makeover the white girl into an Asian? Skin color was nothing more than interchangeable window-dressing if we were “all the same underneath,” right?

But if people didn’t really “see” color, why was I the only one getting asked about martial arts and told I spoke English very well? Why did I always have to play Sulu during make-believe Star Trek at recess? If people still treated me differently, maybe it was because I wasn’t acting enough like everyone else or trying hard enough not to see skin color, especially my own.

There’s a passage from David Byunghyun Lee’s powerful essay about growing up Asian in America that encapsulates what I’ve struggled for most of my adult life to articulate about my relationship with racial identity:

“[W]hen [our parents] saw that their children could perform as white, they encouraged it without teaching us or telling us to love our Asian side. And as the line between performing as white and being white blurred, so did the line between thinking white people are better and thinking that being white is better. In hindsight, our biggest mistake was having believed in the line at all.”

Nowhere has the absence of that line become more apparent than in my own writing. Every piece of fiction I’ve ever written has been based around white characters. The short story I wrote about a family dealing with parental loss like mine? All white characters. The aborted fantasy tetralogy I spent years outlining and rewriting the first five chapters for? The main characters were all white, and the setting was another Tolkienesque pseudo-Western Europe. When I Mary Sue’d myself into my fan fiction, I wrote myself as a white girl. Apparently it never once occurred to me to write any Asian characters, much less as protagonists, even when they were supposed to be me.

In my personal essays, there is next to nothing about my experiences as an Asian American, outside the mentions of the Filipino food my mother made. I can easily write thousands of words about what it means to be a woman who loves geeky things and what it was like to be the only woman in my local comic book store every Wednesday. I can write about the shock of recognizing internalized sexism within myself and the embarrassment of realizing cotton candy pink blush is really not my color (simple bronzer, on the other hand…). I don’t have to force myself to acknowledge my relationship with gender.

Writing about my relationship with race, however, is a struggle.

When I write about being Asian, I instinctively move to the emotionally neutral realm of academia and sociological concepts. Writing about my relationship with race is like trying to talk with a distant relative who engenders no discernible feelings. Rebuilding that connection requires peeling away thirty-six years of scar tissue I never knew that I had, and while each layer reveals new depths of understanding, it also forces me to deal with the consequences of self-alienation.

What does it mean when I say that “I don’t see race?” It means that because I learned to see no difference between “white” and “color,” I have white-washed my own sense of self. It means that I know more about what it is to be a white person than what it is to be Asian, and I am a stranger among both. It means that I built my identity on a warped foundation but never noticed the asymmetry until I not only tried to create new worlds upon it, but began exploring my own as well. In the absence of acknowledging how being Asian is an inescapable part of who I am, I’ve become a cipher to myself.

Navigating the pitfalls and traps of gender stereotypes as a woman has been daunting, but I’ve never lost sight of my internal compass there. Exploring what it means to be an Asian woman, not just in distant terms of abstract social constructs, but in the language of my deepest self, means chasing my own personal white rabbit down the hole. And I have no idea what I’ll find on the other side.


Michi Trota is a writer, speaker, communications manager and community organizer in Chicago, IL. She writes about geek culture & fandom, fire performance and occasionally bacon on her blog, Geek Melange, and is a member of the Chicago Nerd Social Club’s Board of Organizers. In her spare time, she spins fire (sometimes in cosplay) with the fire+bellydance showcase, Raks Geek, and at the Chicago Full Moon Jams (for which she also manages communications and event planning). Her mutant power is making anyone hungry merely by talking about food. Which she does a lot.


Photo by Braden Nesin.

Gender in Genre – Katie

We wrap up part one of the guest blog posts with this story from Katie about the relative lack of good trans* characters.

My thanks to everyone who shared their thoughts and stories on the blog this week, and to all of the readers who responded so positively. My plan is to post the second half of the guest posts in the last week of February, with a round-up at the very end with links to everything that’s appeared here, along with some additional stories that I wasn’t able to include (because there were so many responses).

Have a wonderful weekend, all!


I find it almost laughable (I’m much too cynical to actually derive amusement from this) that for all we can accept with fiction, we cannot seem to accept diversity without at least a “…but…!” comment from someone. I’m not going to make a hyperbolic statement about how accepting dragons means accepting homosexual relationships – I think it’s a ridiculous, weak argument that makes no sense on any level – but instead just talk about how representation has let me, personally, down.

I identify publicly as trans*. I don’t know where on the spectrum I fit, but somewhere in the trans*/gender-queer area. I’m female identified, but I won’t go into the other details. Anyway. I find it so, so, so, so hard to find trans* characters I can identify with in books. Heck, I struggle to find trans* characters in books full stop.

I owe a lot to Mark Charan Newton, who allowed me to beta read some of his third Legends of the Red Sun novel, The Book of Transformations, which introduces a trans* character by the name of Lan. I won’t spoil the story, but we meet her whilst she’s presenting as a woman (but with the body of a male – she’s one of those lucky few who can pass with only a minimum of effort), but is singled out because she acts oddly within a group of female performers, none of whom know ‘what’ she is. Eventually she does get to transition (some cultists perform a possibly semi-magical genital reassignment surgery on her), and she spends the rest of that book (and the next) kicking ass.

I adore Lan. I do. And I wish I could kick ass like she does, or even just pass. Or be in a position where I could present. Anyway. Lan is a character I look up to and respect and love, but she’s almost alone in that respect, because I just can’t really find any trans* characters. Even if they are done well (such as by Guy Davis in his old Baker Street comics), it seems like victimisation is inevitable. Murder, assault, being outcast, etc. are all common situations applied to trans* characters (yes, even the beloved Neil Gaiman is no exception to this), and even if they survive the story it’s often not without some sort of violent conflict. In some other cases (e.g. Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl), the trans* character comes with slurs, and they’re portrayed as being a little bit weird, and again, it just… doesn’t sit right with me. Victim or freak. Freak or victim. Why must it be – somewhat ironically – a binary choice?

On a similar note, I find the ‘Q’ and ‘A’ aspects of the QUILTBAG community to be almost untouched. Whilst authors like Malinda Lo might tackle the ‘Q’ with relation to sexuality in their books, and often with another person acting as a catalyst (e.g., girl thinks she’s straight – or doesn’t question that – until a certain hot girl walks past), I don’t feel it helps people like me. People who just question every aspect of themselves continuously. There’s no… instantaneous or strung-out-over-300-pages answers, there’s just questions, and its position as a valid identity seems overlooked, if not ignored. As for asexuality, rarely – if ever – have I see this, and genuinely it’s in the sense that it’s less the character is asexual and more the book is.

I don’t want to feel like all I can buy are specifically trans*-themed books, because… well, what I want is to see trans* people and gender-queer people and asexual people and questioning people in the same sort of books we’re now seeing gay, lesbian and bisexual people in. I don’t doubt that the trans* and gender-queer revolution will come, just as it has for many other minority groups, but of all the genres that has the potential for dealing with it in many ways – even providing optimism for true transitions, etc. – I find what’s on offer to be lacking.

I guess what I’m saying is I don’t feel like there’s much out there that represents me. Yeah, okay, I can find characters that represent aspects of me or facets of my being, but not something that comes close to the ‘whole’. I suppose that’s true for everyone to some degree, yet for me – and I guess people a bit like me – it’s as if we don’t exist, and if we do, it’s as if we’re there to be made into victims or just portrayed in manner which involves negativity.


Katie is a fan of genre fiction, gaming and animation, and she can be found on Twitter as @Loerwyn. She occasionally posts on her own blog, and that’s basically about it, really. She’s not particularly interesting.* But don’t worry, Jim didn’t write this. She did, so it’s okay.

*Editorial note: Jim would like to state for the record that he strongly disagrees with this statement!

Autism, Representation, Success – Ada Hoffmann

I don’t remember when I started following Ada Hoffman’s blog. I know it was after my son was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. I believe I had come across some of her reviews of books & stories with autistic characters. Through Ada’s blog, I found a number of other autistic bloggers, and I’ve come away with a great deal to think about. My thanks to her for taking the time to write this guest post.

Tomorrow, we’ll wrap up the week with a post from Katie about gender in genre.


I get a lot of praise, from certain corners, for being a “successful” autistic person. It’s weird for me. I don’t think of myself as an overachiever – frankly, most days I look at myself and only see the things I haven’t done yet. But it is increasingly clear that overachieving is what I do.

I’m only recently starting to unpack how this relates to the way I read and write autism.

There is a curious duality to the way we think of autism and success. It’s always one extreme or the other. “Cure” stories, which show up all over speculative fiction, typify this in the worst way. Here’s a line from a fictional doctor in Nancy Fulda’s awful short story “Movement”:

Without treatment, some children like Hannah develop into extraordinary individuals. They become famous, change the world, learn to integrate their abilities into the structures of society. But only a very few are that lucky. The others never learn to make friends, hold a job, or live outside of institutions.

Be amazing, say the doctors. If you’re not amazing all the time, if you slip up and let yourself look or act disabled, if you have a problem that inconveniences other people in any way – you’ll be one of them. The people with no future. The people who are only ever a burden to others.

This is ableist talk, of course. Horrifically so. “Low-functioning” autistic people get the ableism thrown directly at them, like there’s no possibility they could ever be anything else. “High-functioning” autistic people get it brandished at us from a distance. It’s the stick that’s used to drive us forward. Stop moving, and this is what we will think of you; this is what we will say about you; this is what you will be.

And “forward”, of course, means whatever the doctors want it to mean. It has a lot more to do with pretending to be NT [neurotypical] than it does with real achievement.

This is why I sometimes respond well to stories that don’t show autistic people at our best.

Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory”, for instance, is a horrible character. He is one absurd stereotype piled on another. From an “objective” standpoint – from the standpoint of NTs evaluating the show in terms of things they can understand, like stereotypes and “depth”, and “realism”, and whether or not the characters are “sympathetic” – there is nothing good to say about him.

But Sheldon doesn’t have to pretend to be NT.

Sheldon is totally unapologetic about who he is. He follows his routines, pursues his own interests, and gives no fucks at all about whether his friends are annoyed. He behaves like this constantly. And the world doesn’t end. No matter how outrageous Sheldon is or how much his friends profess to hate him, at the end of the day, he’s still a part of the group. He has friends. He has a job doing something he loves and is good at. He has money. He has, in later seasons, an autistic girlfriend. He is utterly unsympathetic to the NT characters. Yet he has all the things that doctors tell us we will never have, unless we work constantly, and without fail, at being sympathetic.

To a certain kind of autistic viewer, this is powerful.

Of course, as authors, we can and should do better than Sheldon. We can create much more nuanced portrayals. We can do much more with intersectionality and with the diversity that exists within autism. We can do much more to show that there are midpoints on the spectrum of sucess: that there are, for example, autistic people who do ordinary jobs instead of being a famous physicist, or who rely on support people to a degree while retaining their autonomy, or who live on disability cheques because the job market hates them, but find fulfillment in other activities. That all of this is okay, too. That our worth as humans is not dependent on anyone’s definition of success.

We also need to remember that people who are labeled “high-functioning”, and who have this neurotic relationship with our own success, are not the only autistic people whose feelings matter. That the other end of the spectrum matters too, and that there is not really much of a divide between us at all, except in the way we are treated.

My instinct is an author is to show people like me being happy, and good, and successful – and never too weird, because that would be a stereotype, and never too unsympathetic. And, let’s be fair. I like it when I see autistic people portrayed this way. It makes me feel happy and confident. It’s a valuable thing, and I want to see more of it.

But if this kind of portrayal is where we stop, we are doing ourselves an incredible disservice.

Maybe we, as autistic people, need to be shown warts and all sometimes. Maybe what we need most desperately to see is that we can be visibly disabled, and unsuccessful, and fail to meet NT expectations in all kinds of ways, and be treated with all sorts of horrible ableism, and still be human. And still be lovable and worth something, even if no one else sees it.

I’m not sure I entirely know how to do this. Meda Kahn does it very powerfully with a non-speaking protagonist in her story “Difference of Opinion”. I’m not sure if anyone else has ever done it quite that way. I act like some sort of big autism expert online, and that’s such a lie. There is a ton of this I still haven’t figured out, and I’m still looking and learning, like anyone.


Ada Hoffmann is a Canadian author with Asperger syndrome who blogs about autism in speculative fiction.

The Princess Problem – Charlotte Ashley

Charlotte Ashley’s story struck several nerves with me, both as an author and as a father. (So much so that I can’t even bring myself to joke about Canadians inserting an extra letter U into every third word.) It’s another story that leaves me just sitting here saying, Yes. That. That’s exactly why this conversation matters.

Tomorrow’s guest post comes from Ada Hoffman, and delves into the portrayal of autistic characters.

 


I have never spoken to my daughters about race because I thought I didn’t need to. At least not yet.

We live a fairly privileged existence despite being a low-income, mixed-race family. We’ve carved out a small space in the heart of one of the most multicultural cities in the world, and what we lack in money I like to think we make up in education and community involvement. This is a neighbourhood without an obvious dominant cultural group, and my girls – who are 2 and 5 – see people of every colour in every possible context. We manage “screen time” very closely, and so to date my kids haven’t watched much television beyond Miyazaki movies and nature documentaries. We invest in educational and creative toys rather than “brands.”

In short, we have tried, perhaps naively, to create a sort of post-racial utopia for these kids, in the hopes of delaying the baggage that will inevitably come from being poor, female and brown. I have never spoken to my daughters about race because I thought that the surroundings we have chosen would speak for themselves.

That’s my excuse. I tried, but I was wrong.

#

I realized my bubble of utopia had failed when the kids and I were colouring pictures from a Melissa & Doug princess colouring book, which was a gift. Maggie, my 5-year-old, started hunting for the peach marker because she was colouring the skin, but it was nowhere to be found. There were plenty of other valid skin colours, but she was adamant that princesses can only have peach skin.

“Maggie, give me a break. What colour is your skin?” I asked.

“Brown,” she grumbled.

“Then here. Use this nice light brown.”

She would not be moved. “But it has to be the RIGHT colour!”

5-year-olds are huge on order. They want things to be the way they “should” be. Tigers are orange and have black stripes. Farmers wear overalls. Houses are all single-family detached and nestled in wide, green fields; forget our cramped, urban reality. Kids are big on symbolic representation. The symbol for a princess is a blonde white girl in a pink dress. So it’s a costume, right? One anyone would have to put on to do it right?

“Don’t you want your princess to look realistic?” I tested her. “Real princesses don’t look like that.” She knows this because we’ve looked at pictures of historical “princesses” from all corners of the world, trying to head off this moment.

“Yes they do,” she insisted. “My girl is going to have blonde hair like B.” Her blonde, blue-eyed friend down the street.

So, not only do princesses have blonde hair, they have the same hair as the little white girl. This isn’t simply a symbol, she is mapping the symbol onto her real-life experiences. If B were to be a princess, that would be right. If Maggie were, it would be wrong. Because she’s the wrong colours.

I don’t need to ask how this happens. I know very well she gets this from school, and from our friends’ houses. My friends are concerned about representation too, but as mostly white, middle-class families, they haven’t felt the same urgency to represent diversity in their own houses. They see their daughters playing with their dolls in cool ways (Barbie and Ariel: Demon Hunters) and that convinces them that what the dolls show doesn’t matter because kids make their own messages. But it does matter.

There is an idea out there that brown dolls are for brown kids, so that they can “see themselves” in their playthings. The same attitude exists in media – that we need diverse characters for diverse audiences. But kids notice that their toys are different from their friends’. To them, the one token black princess is an outsider, like the one girl Smurf. Kids don’t relish being the singled-out one. They don’t think being different is quite as cool as we do.

In time my daughters will will learn that there are many ways to be, and some day they will find their places as a freaky but funky iconoclasts and learn how great it is to be different, but we’re not there yet. They are still learning the foundations of their identities, learning their limitations. They’re learning they can’t hit other kids, can’t fly (sadly), and can’t hold their pee forever.

And they’re learning they can’t be princesses.

Representing diversity matters. I’ve been told engineers say “the solution to pollution is dilution,” and they’re right. Next time you pick a toy or a costume or a book, think twice about how you’re contributing to the culture. Got white kids? Get them a black doll. Diversity is for everyone.


Charlotte Ashley is a writer, editor and independent bookseller from Toronto, Canada. Her bookish ramblings can be found at http://charlotteashley.wordpress.com/.

Clicking – Susan Jane Bigelow

Today, please welcome Susan Jane Bigelow, talking about the portrayal of gender and the click of recognition upon finding characters like you. As well as the pain of those characters being played as a source of laughter and disgust.

Tomorrow’s guest post will be by Charlotte Ashley, talking about “The Princess Problem.”


I remember the first time it happened: I was watching “Saturday Night Live” at some point during the early 1990s, long before I’d ever even thought about words like “transgender,” when a sketch came on called “Lyle: The Effeminate Heterosexual.” Dana Carvey played a straight guy whose effeminate mannerisms made everyone assume he was gay. In retrospect it’s incredibly offensive, and even at the time it wasn’t very funny. But at the time I thought to myself, ah! This is what I am!

Because I wasn’t gay. I was just … girlish? Effeminate? I didn’t have any interest in other boys, but I was decidedly un-masculine and sometimes I cross-dressed, so what was I? It was the early 90s in white, suburban America; there were just no other words. Something about Lyle clicked in my teenage mind, and that sketch stayed with me for a long, long time. I’m Lyle, I would think. The effeminate heterosexual!

It didn’t really fit, but at least it was a start. It took me forever to sort out what I was, and where I really wanted to be. My sense of my own gender evolved and changed over time; I wasn’t the sort of person who knew from the age of five and stuck with it. I’m wonderfully clueless in some ways. But I’d still feel that same click of recognition whenever I came across characters in fiction that I knew, somehow, were sort of like me.

For instance, Belize, a drag queen in Angels in America, gave me that sense. Angel in the musical “RENT,” which I was lucky enough to see on Broadway when it was still in previews, was another — here was a man who was very effeminate, and sometimes used female pronouns. Later, I discovered Bel Thorne in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, a hermaphrodite whose presentation wandered freely across gender lines. I felt that little shock of identification with the gender variance embodied by each of them.

There were a lot of negative portrayals, too. There’s a very obscene reveal of a transgender woman in both Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Naked Gun 33 1/3, both of which I saw in the theater. The main characters reacted with disgust; Leslie Nielson’s character runs and throws up in a tuba. The audiences laughed.

I laughed, too, but inside I cringed and pushed that gender variant piece of myself down a little further. I was lucky; I wasn’t really aware of where I was headed yet, or why I felt the way I did. If I’d been more aware, those movies would have crushed me.

After I finally figured it all out and transitioned I started actively looking around for more media, especially in my favorite genres of science fiction and fantasy, where people like me were portrayed positively. There wasn’t much, and there still isn’t — though that’s changing now.

Because of that, I decided to take a risk. My own books were finally coming out, published by the excellent and progressive small press Candlemark & Gleam, and I decided to make the protagonist of the second “Extrahumans” book, Fly Into Fire, a transgender woman. I didn’t put a flashing sign over Renna’s head, but it’s pretty clear in the text who she is.

I hesitated about doing that. I wondered if I was going to be pegged as “that transgender author,” and if I’d find it hard to break out of that mold. I worried about backlash. I also wondered that when I wrote the story “Ramona’s Demons,” an urban fantasy short for the Lambda Award-winning The Collection from Topside Press. But then I thought about how little there was out there, especially in genre fiction, and how important those few positive characters who were enough like me to click had been, and decided it was worth it.

Not every book or story I write has transgender people in it, though I almost always have queer people of one sort or another, and almost all of my protagonists identify as women. I also don’t sell a ton of books. That’s life in the long tail! But every once in a while I get a fan letter from someone saying Thank you for Renna or Thank you for Ramona, and that makes it all worth it.

A big thank you to Jim for hosting this piece, and to all his wonderful readers.


Susan Jane Bigelow is a librarian, SF/F author and political columnist, among other things. She started writing science fiction when she was little, but her first published novel was 2011′s BROKEN (Extrahumans #1). Since then, two more Extrahumans novels, FLY INTO FIRE and THE SPARK, have been published. The first book in a new series, THE DAUGHTER STAR, came out in May, 2013. She writes a weekly political column for the Connecticut political news website, CT News Junkie, where she focuses on politics inside and relevant to the Nutmeg State. She also likes biking, reading, walking, Doctor Who, My Little Pony and all kinds of other things.

 

Boys’ Books – Katharine Kerr

Welcome to day two of the guest blogs. Today author Katharine Kerr talks about Girls’ Books vs. Boys’ Books. It was interesting to read her story and compare how books were segregated in the 1950s vs. the way they’re marketed today. And as she notes, it’s not just how the books were shelved, but the stories themselves that made clear who was and wasn’t welcome in the genre.

Come back tomorrow for a post from Susan Jane Bigelow.


I was lucky enough to grow up in a family of readers. Admittedly, on my mother’s side of the family, some of them mostly read the Bible or religious works. Others, like my mother and grandmother, loved the “sweet” Romances of the period. My uncles loved Westerns and police thrillers. My father’s parents, on the other hand, were serious Leftists and read serious Leftist books, like DAS KAPITAL in the original German. Both sides, however, believed in reading aloud to children. They also believed in public libraries.

From the time I was big enough to walk the ten blocks or so to our local branch, my grandmother and I made a weekly trip to the library. She loaded up on genre reading for her, and I loaded up on books from the children’s section, mostly animal stories, which I particularly loved. As soon as I could read, I read a lot, well beyond that illusory category, “grade level”. That’s when the trouble started. Not from my grandparents, I hasten to add, but from the other adults around me.

When I was an older child and young teenager, back in the 1950s, I began to hear entirely too often, “You shouldn’t be reading that book. It’s not for you.” No, I hadn’t picked out a book with too many big words or too much sex, nothing from the “Adult” section of our public library, no Leftist tracts, either. I had committed the sin of liking Boys’ Books.

It may be hard to imagine now, but there used to be fixed categories of Boys’ Books and Girls’ Books. Boys got science fiction, adventure stories, historical stories of battles and exploration. Girls got junior Romances, stories of girls helping others or setting up their own homes, horse stories, and . . . well, I never found much else in that section of the library. Some were well written, like the “Anne of Green Gables” books or the “Flicka” horse stories. Most struck me as utter crap, even at thirteen, particularly the junior Romances, such as the Rosamund de Jardin “Marcy” series. Oh yes, I can’t forget the forerunners of “self help” books. Those available for girls in the 1950s centered around “how to look pretty and get a boyfriend.” I never noticed any self help in the Boys’ section. They, apparently, didn’t need advice.

What I wanted were the adventures, the battles, and the science fiction. Among the Boys’ Books, I discovered Roy Chapman Andrews and Robert Heinlein’s YA novels, along with a lot of lesser writers whose names, alas, I have forgotten but whom I loved at the time. When I went to the library desk to check these books out, the voices started. “Are you getting those for your brother? No? Why do you want to read those? They’re for boys. You should look in the Girls’ section.” No librarian actually prevented me from taking the books home, mind. That was reserved for my mother. “Why are you reading that junk?” was one of her favorite phrases. “It’s not for girls. Take those back. Get some good books.”

I read most of Heinlein’s YA books while sitting in the library. Why risk taking them home and getting nagged? When as a teen, I graduated to SF for grown-ups, the disapproval escalated, too. My mother helpfully tried to get me to read proper female literature by checking out books for me. I dutifully read them — hell, I’d read anything at that age, from cereal boxes on up — but I never liked them. Finally she gave up.

But even the books I loved told me I shouldn’t be reading them. Some had no female characters at all. Some had a few females placed here and there, as servants or, back in the delicate ’50s, “love objects.” (Raw sex objects arrived in SF a bit later.) A few had horrible female villains, like THE STARS MY DESTINATION, where a bitter woman, trapped in a teleport-proof prison to protect her virtue, schemed against the hero. There were exceptions, like Jirel of Joiry. The librarian let me check those out without comment. But on the whole, the Boys’ Books had merely grown up — or grown older.

Reading a lot of SF did make me profoundly interested in science. I desperately wanted to be part of the space program. In high school I took all the science and math I could. I got the highest marks in those classes only to be told that no one would ever let me into an all-male space program. And back in 1960, it was most definitely all-male. One of my teachers even joked that maybe I could be a receptionist at JPL. I realized at some point that reading the “wrong” books had given me the “wrong” dreams. At 16, confused and vulnerable, I gave it all up. I took no more “hard” science courses. I left the math classes to the boys, just like the boys wanted. I read no science fiction at all for years, until I came across Ursula Le Guin in the late 1960s.

I have been known to snark at writers and editors who question the need for including a wide range of characters in their fiction. Why? I know first hand that it hurts. Had I been black or Asian or a member of some other minority group, it would have hurt even worse. People who read a lot of fiction form judgments based upon their reading about how the world works and should work. Books can give us dreams and ideals and goals. Saying to any group, “these dreams, these goals, are not for you” harms not just the individuals, but our culture. These days, the future needs all the help it can get. Let’s not turn anyone away who wants to be part of it.


Katharine Kerr spent her childhood in a Great Lakes  industrial city and her adolescence in Southern California, from  whence she fled to the Bay Area just in time to join a number of the Revolutions then in progress. After fleeing those in turn, she became a professional story-teller and an amateur skeptic, who regards all True Believers with a jaundiced eye. An  inveterate loafer and rock and roll fan, she begrudgingly spares some time to write novels.

Parched – Mark Oshiro

Good morning, and welcome to the first in a series of guest blog posts about representation. My plan is to run a week of guest posts, take a break, and then do a second week. My thanks to everyone who offered to write something for this series.

Kicking things off is the Hugo-nominated Doer-of-Stuff Mark Oshiro. (I don’t know what the context was for Mark’s photo down below, but any class where you’re diagramming Harry Potter is a class I want to take!)

And make sure you come back for tomorrow’s essay by author Katharine Kerr.


The first time my brother and I saw a trailer for Aladdin in 1992, my brother became convinced that we were related to him.

We were eight years old, just about to leave our home in Boise, Idaho for a long trip down to Riverside, California, a relocation prompted by my dad’s job. We stopped at a Mexican diner off the 395 in Adelanto during a rain storm, and, sopping wet, my brother and I had our first taste of Mexican food in our entire lives. (Even at eight years old, we knew the Taco John’s in Boise wasn’t real Mexican food.) When one of the cooks came out of the kitchen to talk to our waitress, we stared at him, and my brother whispered to my mom, “Maybe that’s our father.”

She gave him a serious scowl and told him to keep eating, but she otherwise ignored what he said. We had been told early on that we were adopted; there was no hiding it, really, since our mother was pale and our father was a dark-skinned Hawaiian/Japanese man. When our mom dropped us off at school in her 1987 Ford Aerostar, always reminding us not to slam the door, it wouldn’t take long for the questions to start.

“Where are you from?”

“Why don’t you look like your mom?”

“If you’re Mexican, why don’t you speak Mexican?”

From other children, it mostly felt harmless. They were curious, and we were curious, too, since we didn’t exactly know much about where we’d come from. We just knew that our brown skin and jet black hair made us stand out. Everyone around us was white. It was just how it was.

My brother saw Aladdin and assumed that we were from Agrabah, that if we just traveled there we would find our real parents and we could fly anywhere we wanted on our carpets and we could go on adventures with our genies, and we would look like everyone else around us. My mom would try to shush my brother whenever he went through one of these “phases,” as she referred to it. His last phase?

Speedy Gonzales.

I admit that I, too, believed that the horrifically racist stereotype that was Speedy Gonzales was the quintessential representation for me when I was kid. It wasn’t hard for my brother and I to imitate his accent or to ask to dress up as him for Halloween. We never got to, despite that we tried to convince our mother that we looked just like him. We had the skin tone, the wavy black hair, the speed. No, she’d tell us, I don’t want my kids dressing up like Mexicans.

It took years for me to realize why those comments hurt so much.

Years later, as our family had comfortably set in to our obsession with The X-Files, my brother and I watched as, to our shock, actual Latin@ actors and actresses walked onto the screen. It was January 12, 1997, and and we were ecstatic over the fact that our favorite show in the world was finally addressing a cultural myth we were very familiar with: el chupacabra. And then, to our sheer disappointment, we were heartbroken to watch nearly every stereotype we’d ever heard about Mexicans play out on screen. They were lazy. They were overdramatic. They stole jobs away from good Americans. (But somehow were still lazy?) They were too sexual.

Our parents and our sister laughed at them. They called the men stupid, they made comments about how no one should care about these people because they were all just “illegals” anyway, and by the end, we just slunk off to our rooms, defeated.

I started my freshman year of high school the following year, and in English class, I was assigned to read a thin book called The House on Mango Street. “We didn’t always live on Mango Street,” it began, and Esperanza told me about moving. She told me about the hair in her family. She told me about Rosa Vargas and her “so many children.” She told me about feeling sad eating lunch, about waiting for someone to come change your life, and I realized that I had a desert within me. I realized I had never read a book full of people with the same color skin as me, who knew what it was like to be poor, who knew what it was like to feel jealous when you went to school and envied everything that the others had, and I let The House on Mango Street pour over me and drown me in its prose and heartbreak.

The truth is, science fiction and fantasy never made me feel better about myself growing up. I loved Star Wars, but when I told a classmate in third grade that I wanted to be Han Solo, he replied, “But you can’t. You have to be a jawa.” I believed him. When I was assigned to read 1984, I quietly fumed at the idea that an all-white, all-straight future is what terrified people. Meanwhile, I had been threatened with deportation, followed by the police, and was silently suffering in the conservative, homophobic environment I lived in every day. That dystopic world? I was already living in it.

I spent most of my twenties reading fiction that reflected the real world because I was desperate for some sort of connection to other people. I’m sure being adopted and being queer played a large part in that, but when you’ve spent your whole life in the desert, it’s hard not to be used to being thirsty. For me, the science fiction and fantasy that I’ve grown to love doesn’t necessarily allow me to perfectly project myself in the narrative. No, it instead offers me a chance to believe that in the futures that we imagine, in the worlds that we create, there’s still room for a brown queer kid who is lost and parched.


Mark Oshiro runs the Hugo-nominated websites Mark Reads and Mark Watches. When he’s not crying on camera for other people’s amusement, he’s working on his first novel and trying to complete his quest to pet every dog in the world.

Q&A with LaShawn M. Wanak

Guest post time!

Please welcome author LaShawn Wanak, one of the contributors to the What Fates Impose anthology/kickstarter, being edited by Nayad Monroe. The anthology’s subtitle is “Tales of Divination,” and I was particularly curious about LaShawn’s thoughts on divination/prophesy and how that intersects with her faith.

#

1. What’s interesting to you about divination?

Growing up as a church girl, it’s been emphasized over and over to me that any type of divination was of the devil. Ouija boards, tarot cards, astrology, all of that was demonic and thus, I was to keep far away from those as possible. But I’m learning that Christianity itself has a fascinating history of divination.  King Saul visiting a fortune teller to talk to Samuel’s ghost.  Sailors caught in the storm casting lots to see who was responsible, and the lots pointed to Jonah. Jesus’s disciples cast lots to find out Judas’s replacement. I grew up in a church where people spoke in tongues and gave prophetic words. I never considered it weird. In fact, I go to a church now that doesn’t do any of those things, and I miss it. To me, it’s an important component of how God works today.

2. Have you ever had a reading (Tarot, palm, runes, or whatever)? If so, what did you think of the experience? Was it accurate, or at least useful?

A couple of years ago, I had my palm read at a Renaissance Faire. It was purely out of curiosity; I didn’t expect to learn anything useful. A lot of what the reader told me was general statements — you like to read, you have a kind and gentle spirit, you’ll will have moderate success in your job. It felt like more of a personality assessment than a fortune reading.

3. If you are against the idea of getting your fortune told, what are your reasons for that?

Trying to divine the future is a dangerous thing, especially if you don’t have the gift for it. Even in the church — no, especially in the church — it’s something to tread with care. When I was a kid, a minister who had a ‘prophetic word’ told my mother that when I marry, my husband would eventually become a deacon at whatever church we’re in. Well, I’m married, and my husband has absolutely zero interest in becoming a deacon. (No one asked me if I wanted to become a deacon, but for the record: no.) That’s just one of the tamer prophetic words I’ve received.

At the same time, though, I do believe in having the gift of foresight, which is very different from seeing the future. When I did research for my story in the What Fates Impose Anthology, I looked into fortune tellers, which is one of those taboo things at my church. I was surprised to see that many people who went to fortune tellers didn’t go to have their futures spelled out for them. Many just wanted advice, or they needed encouragement, or wanted to get a sense of themselves from an outsider’s point of view. Very similar to how prophetic ministry is used in most churches.

So I’m not against it. I’m just saying it needs to be done with care, because it can be easily, easily abused.

4. How did you get started on developing the idea for your story in What Fates Impose?

As Christians, man, do we love our personality tests. My friends pored over their Myers/Briggs results in the same way people pored over their horoscopes, which got me to thinking: how are the two related? What if you could predict the future using personality assessment? Then, last year, I took the StrengthFinders test, a Love Language quiz and a Spiritual Gifts questionnaire all in one month. All those questions I took gave me the idea for the format of the story, and it went on from there.

Also, some friends of mine just got the sweetest, the most adorable chocolate labrador ever. Once I saw Marti and her gorgeous golden eyes, I knew I had to have her in my story.

5. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Stretch yourself. Write about things you normally wouldn’t. When I was in college, I got an image in my head of walking down a hotel hallway and realizing that the patterns on the carpet were really the backs of playing cards. I tried to write a story around it, but it didn’t work out. I thought about changing the cards to tarot cards, but at the time, I wasn’t ready, because tarot cards = evil, etc, and so forth. When Nayad approached me about the anthology, that scene popped in my head. I decided I would use tarot cards. I did my research and talked to friends who showed me their decks. It demystified them enough that I was able to use them to flesh out my story better. I can now look at tarot decks and appreciate them for their beautiful art.  Which is more than I can say for the stack of Chick Tracts I have stashed in a locked box up in the furthest corner of my closet. Perhaps I’ll write a story about them…someday…when I’m sure they won’t give me horrible, apocalyptic nightmares…

6. Which subjects and themes do you write about often, and why?

Well, obviously, my faith plays a big role in the stories I write, but it’s not all happy yay-Jesus parables. Most of my stories deal with struggling with a lot of questions I have about my faith: is there a God, why do I believe there is a God, why doesn’t he make himself more visible…that sort of thing. Writing allows me to explore those questions. Sometimes, some pretty dark stuff come out, but I try to balance those out with stories that are more fun.

7. Where can people find other published work of yours?

You can find me in the anthology Dark Faith Invocations, edited by Maurice Broaddus and Jerry Gordon. I also have stories at EscapePod, Ideomancer, StoneTelling, and Expanded Horizons. You can find links to these stories and more at my blog, The Café in the Woods.

8. What else would you like to tell people about any subject?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the What Fates Impose Kickstarter, which is happening right now. One of the rewards is a 4X6 card from me with your personality type of your choice (Myers/Briggs or StrengthFinders) and its description written in calligraphy.  Also check out Nayad Monroe’s blog, where she has more interviews of contributors to the What Fates Impose anthology, such as Alasdair Stuart, Ferret Steinmetz, and Wendy Wagner, among others.

Patrick Weekes on Video Game Writing

Patrick Weekes’ first novel The Palace Job [Amazon | B&N | Mysterious Galaxy] came out two weeks ago. (And I would have had this post up then, if not for the fact that … um … okay, I got nothing. Apparently I just suck at getting things done on time lately.)

Anyway, not only does Weekes have both a novel and short fiction credits to his name, but he’s also done a lot of video game writing. I asked him if he would talk about how he got into video game writing, and the difference between writing a novel and writing a game.

Getting to hear about him being mauled by kobolds was just a bonus 🙂

You can read an excerpt of his new book at the Tyche Books website, or find him online at LiveJournal, the BioWare Blog, and Facebook.

#

I came to video games as a player first. Primarily, in fact, as a somewhat terrible player. In the very old Telengard, I was the one wandering down to level 57 and getting eaten by demons. In the marginally less-old Gold Box Pool of Radiance on the Commodore 64, I was the one whose characters, all named after the heroes from Dragonlance, got mauled by kobolds. In Wing Commander, I was relieved to discover that you got medals for at least the first couple of times you panic-ejected. And in Star Control 2, I learned to sit patiently in hyperspace and wait for the Melnorme to come rescue me after the third or fourth time I forgot to purchase fuel.

As I grew up, I ran Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, built worlds, argued over rules, and went through the trials and tribulations that every gaming group encounters. I also started writing my own fiction, starting out with dark literary fiction in college and then gradually moving to lighter and happier work as I found my voice. On the video-game front, I played everything I could by a video-game studio called BioWare — the Baldur’s Gate series, then Neverwinter Nights, and finally Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

I came to BioWare after the editor at Amazing Stories, Dave Gross, bought a couple of stories about a nameless hero and his talking magical sword, and then joined BioWare and asked if I was interested. That was back in 2005. Since then, I’ve written on three games and sold a few more stories, along with my first novel, which came out on September 26th. It’s been an amazing ride, and it’s taught me some interesting things about writing for both the reader and the player.

The first and most obvious point when thinking about writing in games and in novels is that in a game like the ones we make at BioWare, the player has some measure of control over which characters they interact with, and how they talk with and form relationships with those characters. You have to be careful about writing a scene assuming that the player feels a certain way. Writing a buddy scene with the player and a character chatting over drinks? Whoops, it turns out that the player might never have spoken to that character before, and all your familiar old-friend dialog falls flat. Writing a scene where the player intercedes in an argument between two furious characters? Oh, by the way, you might be romancing one of them, and you might or might not have betrayed the other one on a deeply personal mission fifteen minutes ago. Writing an epic sacrifice scene where a beloved character dies tragically? As it turns out, the player has spent the last few hours on Twitter telling all her friends how incredibly annoying this character is, and how they really hope there’s a way to kill him off in the last act.

I used to think of this as a major difference — when I write a novel, I control how well the reader knows the characters, so I’ve got the final say in how those emotional scenes play out, right? As it turns out, working on video games helped me realize how important the reader is. My favorite character in the novel I’m writing might be the one that some readers reluctantly put up with. As a reader, I’ve read clunky novels and hit a point where I was clearly supposed to sympathize with a character who’d come up against terrible misfortune, but my reaction as a reader was, “Well, what did you think was going to happen, dumbass?”

As a novel writer, I’m in control of what the reader sees and hears, but not what the reader feels. Any emotional engagement on the reader’s part, I have to earn. As a result, when writing for games, I put the most emotional dialog behind logic checks that require that the player previously put time into making a connection with that character. And when I’m writing novels, I leave enough emotional content up for inference that the readers who are emotionally engaged will appreciate the scene, while those who don’t care about the character don’t have the assumption of an emotion they don’t share rubbed in their faces.

There are a lot of other differences, of course — writing as part of a team instead of being the sole creator of the world, writing dialog that is spoken aloud by a voice actor instead of read directly by the reader, and working with artists instead of simply writing descriptions for whatever I can imagine — but those aren’t specific to games. Every shared-world contributor has dealt with a team, and every playwright and screenwriter has had to learn to write for ear instead of the eye and work with the artists and set designers to create a shared vision. Video-game writing is where I learned to think of the reader not as the passive recipient of my wit and wisdom, but as an active participant who comes to my stories with his or her own experience, assumptions, and biases… and whose reactions to the story are going to vary accordingly.

Hopefully, then, it’s helped me learn to write things that work for more people. Or at least don’t leave people feeling like they’ve been mauled by kobolds.

Darkbeast Guest Post and Giveaway

I’m off doing Guest of Honor stuff at Northern Michigan Anime Con this weekend, so I turned the blog over to my friend Morgan Keyes to talk about her new book, and how she transitioned from writing more adult books as Mindy Klasky to a middle-grade novelist with a spiffy new pseudonym.

Also, she’s giving away a free book, which is always cool.

You can read an excerpt from Darkbeast on her website.

#

Many thanks to Jim for allowing me to visit here and tell you about my middle grade fantasy novel, Darkbeast.  Due to the generosity of my publisher, Simon & Schuster, I will give away a copy of Darkbeast to one commenter, chosen at random from all the comments made to this post by 11:59 p.m. EDT tonight.

In Darkbeast, twelve-year-old Keara runs away from home rather than sacrifice Caw, the raven darkbeast that she has been magically bound to all her life.  Pursued by Inquisitors who would punish her for heresy, Keara joins a performing troupe of Travelers and tries to find a safe haven for herself and her companion.

Before writing Darkbeast, I published sixteen novels in a variety of genres, ranging from traditional fantasy for adults, supernatural chicklit, light paranormal romance, and traditional category romance.  (Those last couple of books – spicier than I was comfortable having my mother read – are the reason that Darkbeast is published under a pen name!)

For the past several years, though, I’d felt a pull from “The Darkbeast”, a short story that I wrote for the anthology Fantastic Companions, edited by Julie Czerneda.  In a couple of thousand words, I’d built a world that I longed to return to.  I wanted to learn more about darkbeasts, about how they worked as scapegoats for their people, about what happened to rebels who struck out on their own in a society controlled by religion.

The novel Darkbeast started out as a story for and about young adults, teenagers who had a fair degree of autonomy.  But as I wrote the novel, I realized that more interesting questions were posed when rights and power were taken away.  I wanted Keara to be most vulnerable, to be faced with tough decisions and even more difficult social restrictions.

And so, Darkbeast became a middle grade novel.

In many ways, that transition was destined from my first days as a speculative fiction writer.  As a child, I always enjoyed reading, but I hit my speculative stride in middle school.  I discovered A Wrinkle in Time and the Narnia series, The Hobbit and the Deryni.  I role-played my favorite characters (although I wouldn’t have known that term if you’d asked me), and I wrote my first fanfic (ditto).

Middle grade reading was magical for me, and now I wanted to share that magic with others.  I wanted to give young readers that feeling of escape, that urge to stay up late reading under the covers, that desire to create new stories that lived on in the light of day.

At the same time, I wasn’t willing to give up complex characters and difficult moral choices.  I definitely wasn’t willing to dumb down my vocabulary.  I learned about people and ethics and language from the reading I did in middle school; there’s no reason not to give today’s children the same keys to their world.

And so Keara became twelve.  And a pen name was chosen.  And Darkbeast has been released into the world.

When did you first discover a love of reading?  Do the plots and themes of those treasured books still inspire you?

Morgan can be found online at Facebook and her website.

Darkbeast is for sale in bricks-and-mortar and online bookstores, including:  Amazon | B & N | Indiebound

#

Morgan Keyes grew up in California, Texas, Georgia, and Minnesota, accompanied by parents, a brother, a dog, and a cat.  Also, there were books.  Lots and lots of books.  Morgan now lives near Washington, D.C.  In between trips to the Natural History Museum and the National Gallery of Art, she reads, travels, reads, writes, reads, cooks, reads, wrestles with cats, and reads.  Because there are still books.  Lots and lots of books.

Jim C. Hines