In addition to 19 personal and powerful essays about representation in science fiction and fantasy, this also includes an introduction by award-winning author Aliette de Bodard, as well as a list of all the suggested books and stories from the comments and conversations online. Plus cover art by Mark Ferrari.
Among other things, the authors talk about the portrayal of asexuality, the intersection of different aspects of identity, the treatment of Native Americans in fiction, myths and assumptions about military life, Princess Leia as an assault survivor, the power of fiction to open your eyes to other experiences, as well as representation of disability, religion, race, and so much more.
Just like last year, Invisible 2 is available as an e-book for $2.99, and all proceeds will go to Con or Bust.
(It should eventually show up on iBooks as well, but I’m still waiting for that to happen through Smashwords.)
Reviewers are welcome to contact me for a review copy.
My thanks to everyone who contributed to this project. Compared to last year, there were far more interested authors, and we ended up with significantly more content as well, which is wonderful! I once again learned a great deal, and I’ve found myself thinking about various essays both as I’m writing, and as I’m reading other stories and books.
My thanks to everyone who contributed to this year’s series of guest posts about representation in SF/F — both the authors of the essays and the commenters who joined the conversation. Between the seventeen posts and two bonus reprints I’ll be announcing later, it looks like Invisible 2 will have significantly more content than its predecessor, which is sweet. I’ve got contracts back from almost everyone involved, and I’m still hoping for a mid-May release.
In the meantime, here’s a roundup of all the guest posts from this year:
I received more than 60 pitches this year, which means I had to turn down a lot of good and important potential essays. Here are links to several of those essays that people went ahead and posted on their own sites.
Welcome to what I believe will be the final guest blog post on representation in SF/F. In addition to working on Invisible 2, I also plan to put together a round-up of links to all of the guest articles, and if I can make the time, to pull together a reading list as well, based on comments and conversation around the posts.
In the meantime, my thanks to Kat Tanaka Okopnik for bringing us to a close with her personal and powerful piece about seeing your own children shaped by problematic tropes and stereotypes, and the urgent need to do better.
Before you read further, indulge me please. Picture, if you will, a young (East) Asian American protagonist. If you can, do a color drawing, or write down your description. If you feel ambitious, please do the same with White, Black, Latin@ friends for them.
What made that character seem plausibly East Asian to you?
Was it the golden skin, and the tilted eyes?
Where do they live? What do they eat? Where did their parents grow up?
I hate writing this essay.
I wish there wasn’t such urgent need to write it.
I wish I were writing about it in the past tense, rather than as a pressing need that I’m finding exhausting. I have two young children who are surrounded by media that are leading them to perform the very same problematic tropes about (East) Asians that I grew up around. It’s 2015. Aren’t we supposed to be done with this?
I wish all the blithe pronouncements of our colorblind, postracial society were real. I wish there were actually enough mention, by other people, of the issues facing Asian America so that I could write sense of wonder stories instead—but my child has said to me, “Mommy, my skin is ugly!” Further discussion reveals that he’s come to think of lighter and darker skin than his own as beautiful, but his light olive is unacceptable in his mind. I spend months working even harder to make sure that people who look like him are presented as attractive, too.
It’s a rare week when I don’t see yet another case of yellowface and exoticization of East Asians dismissed as a non-issue. The excuses are predictable: it’s historic, it’s satirical, it’s humorous, it’s tribute, it’s realistic, why do we complain when there’s representation? it’s not just East Asians! actually it’s punching up, hey my Asian friend said it was okay, oh it’s someone East Asian doing it.
I’m known to have an interest in finding non-problematic media, and so I’m offered a pretty steady stream of recommendations. The majority of “diverse” stories and shows that are offered to my children come in two categories: East Asian kid as a member of the tokenized team of sidekicks to the white protagonist, or stories of East Asia or the recent diaspora. Often, the indicators of East Asian identity for the team player are an East Asian-language name and “golden skin and straight black hair and slanted eyes.” There’s a parent or grandmother who speaks in fortune cookie Wise Oriental proverbs. Unfamiliar words are dropped into the conversation, with an echoed translation into English immediately afterward.
The rest of the stories happen long ago or far away. They’re just as much unreal fantasy as dragons or turtle ninjas. Actually, my son seems to want to become a ninja partly because that’s the expected pipeline for “an Asian kid”. (His peers mostly want to be turtle ninjas because that would be cool.)
They’ve been taught by the culture around them that “Chinesey” is a performance based on wearing cultural artifacts, and that East Asians are defined by accents and tinkly background music. There’s a continuum from Tikki Tikki Tembo through The Runaway Wok and The Mikado that portrays Asia as a place of silly sounding names and illogical people. And yet these are the things that well-meaning educators are presenting to them and their peers.
My children don’t see themselves in these stories. They know that people from all sorts of backgrounds have small or slanted or “slitty” eyes, because they’ve grown up in a diverse community—they’ve seen living examples in peers whose family heritage is from Africa, or Europe, or more southern parts of Asia. They see the range of skin color in the families around them, including the ones they are most closely tied to by genetics and history. But they are getting a persistent message that’s showing through in their expectations and in the behavior of their peers: skinny blonde girls are the heroes, except when the hero is some sort of white boy. Asians speak funny and are from far away. Sometimes there’s a character who’s black, and the world is divided into black and white. My children have no context for Asian American protagonists. They resort to identifying themselves as white, and my daughter wants her hair to be “yellow.”
I can work hard to give my children a healthy sense of belonging and potential, but I can’t change the world they’re interacting with on my own. It’s their peers’ sense that Asianness is defined by otherness that causes me the greatest concern.
Now that they are reading fluently, I wish I could just hand them an age-appropriate book. Where’s the “Heather Has Two Mommies” of cultural etiquette for the single digit set? It may be out there, but it’s buried under the pile I review and reject for my children. I know we can do better as a society.
Kat Tanaka Okopnik started writing about Japanese American history at age 13 and has gone on to write about geek culture, food, parenting, social justice, and stepping outside the confines of narrow social expectations.
She’s pleased to note that she has an essay forthcoming in WisCon Chronicles 9. Her current big project is the Dictionary of Social Justice.
She’s available as an editor, copy editor, and writer, and offers private consultations and group encounters on facilitating difficult discussions on social justice topics. She also does cultural consultation for writers, editors, and others on East Asian representation, with a focus on Japanese diaspora history and contemporary issues as well as for general social justice pitfalls.
As we get to the last few of these guest blog posts, I’m trying to look ahead to the process of pulling everything together for Invisible 2. Like last year, my plan is to do an electronic anthology, and to donate any profits to a relevant cause (which I’ll be discussing with contributors.) The anthology will probably have the same $2.99 price point. I don’t have a release date yet, but I’ll share more info as things progress.
For today, I’m happy to welcome Bogi Takács to the blog to talk about migration/migrants in SFF, and in eir life. It’s educational and eye-opening, to say the least.
I’m an autistic trans person from a non-Western country where I also belong to an ethnic minority. I could write about many, many intersections, and how my lived experience is or is not represented in SF. Yet for this essay I chose to talk about something people might not consider about me: the experience of being a migrant.
Before we begin, a terminological note: I really do prefer the term “migrants” to “immigrants”. First, “immigrants” assumes that your destination is more important than your origin. (It is, not surprisingly, common in US-centric discourse.) Second, “immigrant” often has a precise legal definition that many migrants are literally not able to claim.
With that in mind, people migrate all the time: they immigrate, from one perspective, they emigrate, from another. I’ve lived in Hungary (where I was born), in Austria, in Norway, and I’ve recently moved to the United States. I have experienced a bewildering range of reactions and treatment, some of which I would not even describe here, because I developed quite an amount of self-censorship in the process.
As a migrant academic, I often find myself in curious legal categories where I can’t even claim the legal protections afforded to people with immigrant status, with many if not most of the downsides. Right now, I cannot earn any money outside campus – I even had to turn down the $10 Jim offered to include this essay in Invisible 2.
On the online SFF scene, I am usually seen as the ethnic, religious, gender, sexual minority person – take your pick! People don’t see me as a migrant, and yet this is possibly what defines my day to day experience the most. I now live in a small liberal town where I can literally go around being draped in a Pride flag and random strangers will cheer me on. (For the record, I tried this. I also tried this in Hungary. DO NOT TRY THIS IN HUNGARY.) People are sometimes perplexed by my gender, but unlike in my country of origin, I haven’t experienced physical violence. Americans also have trouble believing that I have ever been the target of physically violent racism, because they categorize and treat me as white.
Warning: self-exoticization follows!
By contrast, what I experience all the time is being the strange foreigner [sic], being from somewhere else with exotic customs [sic] – and often not being taken at face value when I talk of my experience having lived there. I have a weird accent [sic]. (Actually I have a “weird accent” in any language due to being autistic, but most Americans don’t know this.)
People try to be nice: “I have been to your country as a tourist, it’s such an amazing place!” …Umm, yeah, guess why I’m not there.
To see where migration fits into my experience of SFF in particular, and why I feel invisible as a migrant, we need to start quite far, both in space and in time. As a multiply marginalized person, I discovered thanks to the Vienna Public Library that there was a vast amount of literature beyond the Western literary canon that really resonated with me. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s work – both fiction and nonfiction – in particular was eye-opening to me, especially Matigari and Decolonising the Mind. I discovered the solidarity of the marginalized that had up till that moment been nothing more than a dated Communist slogan from my childhood.
This was before I got summarily thrown out of the Vienna Public Library and my account cancelled because as a migrant I didn’t have just the right legal document! (Even though I was in Austria perfectly legally.) …My life was changed regardless.
I had been a voracious SFF reader since early childhood – my parents were both agricultural engineers at that time and heavily into SFF. In Hungary this is not a particularly subcultural activity, SFF is much more a part of mainstream literature and a lot of people read SFF who would not be considered part of core fandom in the US. The definitive Hungarian print SFF magazine, Galaktika, has a print circulation similar to the big three print American SFF magazines, while Hungary has a population half the size of the New York City metropolitan area!
As a child I read many, many Soviet and other Eastern bloc SF works where people of different cultures and races worked together – this was a trope of Communist propaganda, the “friendship of the peoples” (népek barátsága in Hungarian, druzhba narodovin Russian). But these works were written by ethnic majority people, and from a position of power – in the case of ethnic Russian authors, even a position of colonizing power.
The friendship of the peoples was, in practice, very limited. It could not include Jews. It could not include Romani or Beás people. It could not include queer people. Trans people could only be aliens – oddly, they could be aliens. Religious people were obviously out – religion was the opiate of the peoples, as Marx had put.
When I started to read in English, what could I obtain in Hungary? Novels from the Asimov-Bradbury-Clarke triumvirate, some William Gibson, and precious little else… basically the same American authors that I could already read in Hungarian translation. While I greatly admired Bradbury, his semi-autobiographic Dandelion Wine was so different from my own childhood experience that I literally cried from frustration. (Gibson was different, but that’s a topic for another time.) I came to understand why Dandelion Wine was never published in Hungary!
So when I discovered online short SFF in English, I was amazed. There were so many people, from all over the world, who were writing from their own perspective, about their own experience, and I could obtain vast amounts of this stuff free of charge! I could actually talk to the authors and they responded! At the risk of sounding trite: this was, in effect, the friendship of the peoples.
Yet almost immediately thereafter I discovered a curious gap: a lot of the American SFF discourse, even very “progressive” and left-wing discourse, seemed to ignore that migrants existed. Again, the friendship of the peoples didn’t seem to extend very far… For instance, I was baffled when Ekaterina Sedia was dismissed by Wiscon organizers who tried to shoehorn the American immigrant experience into, at best, an “ESL workshop”. (Because professionally published writers like her need an ESL workshop – how patronizing is that?)
The first anthology of immigration-themed SFF, How to Live on Other Planets (ed. Joanne Merriam) is coming out just now, and it’s reprints-only and had a royalties-only payrate. (Not that I can get paid, anyway!) Despite that, the lineup is stellar, because many, many writers are migrants themselves, or the children of migrants, and are eager for their words being heard. It is also striking that a lot of the best migrant writing seems to come from semi-pro SFF or literary fiction markets, not the core pro SFF venues.
Full disclosure: I have a poem in How to Live on Other Planets. It’s about my country of origin, so might be a bit out of place, but it does examine Hungary from the PoV of an outsider – an alien.
I am, right now, literally an alien – probably the most annoying kind, the “non-resident alien”. (This is the actual legal term.) I have to pay taxes, yet I cannot vote.
For further American legal terms to baffle and entertain, I also recommend you look up “alien of extraordinary ability”. I’m not an alien of extraordinary ability. I’m just a quirky and mild-mannered everyday person who sometimes writes poetry. I’m also very loud and paste myself all over the internet, so if I remain invisible, that’s not on me.
Part of my loudness consists of providing story recommendations to every passerby on Twitter who just as much asks an idle question. Therefore, I close this essay with an amount of free, online SFF story recommendations on the theme of migration!
Zen Cho, originally from Malaysia and living in the UK, has recently had a short story collection published, Spirits Abroad. I loved it to bits. Not all stories are available online, but for example you can read 起狮，行礼 (Rising Lion—The Lion Bows), with an all-migrant cast of protagonists, or The Four Generations of Chang E.
Arab-Canadian author Amal El-Mohtar has a powerful story about immigrating as a child: The Truth about Owls, originally published in Kaleidoscope (ed. Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein).
Three Immigrations is a long poem by Rose Lemberg that’s one of the best poetic treatments of the topic I’ve come across.
Bogi Takács is a neutrally gendered Hungarian Jewish person who’s recently moved to the US. E works in a lab and writes speculative fiction and poetry in eir spare time. Eir writing has been published in venues like Strange Horizons, Apex, Scigentasy, GigaNotoSaurus and other places. You can follow em on Twitter, where e tweets as @bogiperson, with semi-daily recommendations of #diversestories and #diversepoems that are regularly collected on eir website.
I remember being a child and getting bags full of plastic Cowboys and Indians–similar to green plastic soldiers, but these came in all colors. The Indians all had bows and arrows and feathered headdresses and buckskins. I never thought much about it, but looking back, my sense was that Cowboys and Indians were something out of history. Almost a mythical thing, from hundreds of years ago.
In Boy Scouts, I was a member of the Order of the Arrow. It was an honor to be voted into this group by my troop, and I remember thinking how cool the Native American lore and ceremonies were. I spent several years as a part of our ceremonies team. Eventually, I remember starting to feel uncomfortable, and asking if we weren’t being disrespectful. I was told that our lodge had worked to research historically accurate regalia, and that we’d worked with local tribes to make sure we were being respectful. At the time, I was satisfied. Looking back, I find it interesting that we never actually spoke to or interacted with anyone with native heritage during our time in OA.
My thanks to Jessica McDonald for sharing her story and perspective here. There’s so much here and in the other guest posts that I wish I’d learned as a kid…
In 1889, the US government opened up Indian Territory for white settlers in an event called the Oklahoma Land Rush. Fifty thousand settlers homesteaded on over two million acres of Unassigned Lands. Unassigned, of course, meant appropriated from Native tribes.
A hundred years after the Land Rush, I was a second grader at Carney Elementary School in central Oklahoma. Carney is the kind of town that small doesn’t begin to describe. We didn’t even have a stoplight to brag about. Farms, baseball, and ubiquitous red soil were about the extent of Carney. For the Land Rush celebration, my school did a re-enactment. White kids played settlers, triumphantly surging over the territory line to claim their homestead—a mark of prosperity and hope.
Native kids played dead Indians, lying prone on the ground.
I stood there, unsure of what to do. You see, I’m mixed race—Cherokee and white. I didn’t know where to go. My teacher asked me which side I’d like to be on.
I told her the settlers.
And as an eight-year-old, why wouldn’t I choose the settlers? They were pioneers, exploring and shaping history. Of course I wanted to be part of the victors. Of course I wanted to be white. I knew my family, but when I looked to the culture around me, the media I consumed, all my heroes were white (and male). That was my reference point for greatness.
I’m way past second grade now, but not much as changed. Sci-fi and fantasy—still my favorite genres—seldom offer more than tropes for Native characters. Let’s take a look at James Cameron’s Avatar. Set on a futuristic death planet where everyone is still inexplicably white, the Na’vi are clearly based on indigenous people and presented as the Noble Savage. They are held up as the ideal, “pure”, and quite literally connected to their planet. And yet, it takes a white dreamwalker to save them, because at the end of the day, they are still savages; they do not possess the sophistication to fight the invaders alone.
The weird Western novella Sheep’s Clothing by Elizabeth Einspanier utilizes another trope—the Mystical Indian. Half-Indian character Wolf Cowrie is a gunslinger and half-skinwalker that uses his shamanistic powers to fight vampires. The problem with this is that it reduces Native characters to one (false) aspect: their unequivocal badassed-ness, a nature derived from a history filled with war and mysterious magical abilities.
Westerns used the Drunk Indian and Red Devil tropes, but sci-fi and fantasy utilize stereotypes like the Noble Savage and Mystical Indian in a way that’s arguably worse. These tropes, which simultaneously glorify and erase Native identity, are what’s called positive discrimination, and it’s more insidious precisely because, on its face, it appears flattering. “Look at how honorable and incredible these Natives are! We should strive to be more like them.” Even Star Trek fell into this—in the episode “The Paradise Syndrome,” Kirk, Spock, and McCoy encounter an Earth-like planet… with Native people that are not only blends of completely different tribes, but also primitive and uncivilized, despite living in the twenty-third century. Oh, but these Natives are definitely in harmony with nature, and are romanticized for it.
All this does is add to the chasm of otherness; these tropes don’t seek to understand or accurately portray indigenous people, but only use us as one-dimensional morality points or exciting badasses. Sometimes we get to stretch the limits, and we’re hypersexualized instead (Tiger Lily, Pocahontas, any Indian Princess trope).
The proof is in the costuming. Rarely do we see even “positive” portrayals of Natives in anything other than buckskins, beads, and feathers. We are homogenized to the point that the Plains tribes, with headdresses and horsemanship, are the representatives of all indigenous people. Never mind that Algonquin tribes, who lived in lands dominated by forests, had no use for horses. Never mind that the Salish peoples wore outfits woven from cedar and spruce instead of long, feathered accouterments.
A Cree friend of mine encountered a woman in a critique group who had a Shawnee character that was a horse whisperer. When my friend pushed her on why this character was so connected to horses, the (white) woman responded that it was “in his heritage.” Because being Native clearly means you speak horse.
My brother has been asked if he can ride horses without a saddle and if he smokes peyote. During a particularly asinine line of questioning about whether he lived in “modern” accommodations, he shot back, “Yes, because I live in 2014, not 1865.” His tipi has a mortgage, folks.
I’ve read work by otherwise intelligent, compassionate authors who twist revered Native spirits into European-based demons bent on destruction just to fill a plot point and without any regard for the religious traditions behind those spirits.
I don’t speak to animals. I kill plants just by looking at them, and I don’t feel profoundly connected to the earth. I can’t tell the future and I don’t have some sort of sixth sense about otherworldly things. I sure as hell don’t speak in broken English. Relatable Native characters in sci-fi and fantasy are few in far between. Mostly, I see variations on tropey themes. What’s most painful about this in sci-fi and fantasy is that these are genres about the possible. SF/F is supposed to be the genre where the marginalized are heard. We get worlds where magic is real, where we travel to far-away galaxies, where miracles happen. But not where indigenous peoples can escape their stereotype boxes.
And why not? Sci-fi and fantasy are written by people in today’s world, and what we have today is a major football team using a racial slur as their name. We have white University of North Dakota students proudly proclaiming that they are “Siouxper Drunk”; Injun Joe from Tom Sawyer; Disney’s Pocahontas and Peter Pan; NDNs (played by Italian Americans) crying over pollution.
If you’re thinking, hey, man, it’s just comic books and movies, it’s not like it’s real life—consider the impact this has on young Native and mixed-race kids. Consider why I wanted to be on the white side as a child. I had no reference for modern Natives. I had no role models, no fictional characters to inspire me. All I had were people in revealing buckskins with tomahawks and bows.
Studies show that when Native kids see these harmful stereotypes, their self-esteem suffers, along with their belief in community and their own ability to achieve great things. There’s a danger when you don’t see yourself represented in your culture’s art; there’s an even greater danger when your only representation is fraught with negative messaging and teaches you that you do not belong in this world. You’re a thing of the past, a ghost, a myth.
We’ve got a few reasons to hope the tide is changing. Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock series and Patricia Briggs’s Mercy Thompson series turn the Mystical Indian trope on its head, with nuanced and dynamic Native heroines. Adam Beach, a Saulteaux actor famous for his roles in Smoke Signals, Flags of Our Fathers, and Windtalkers, refuses parts that perpetuate these stereotypes, and his work offers hope for better representation. Lakota rapper Frank Waln creates music that speaks to growing up Native, and advocates for indigenous voices to be heard. Last year, the Senate confirmed Diane Humetewa as the nation’s first Native American woman federal judge.
This year, we even have two sci-fi films that are breaking out of the Native trope mold. Sixth World, written and directed by Navajo woman Nanobah Becker, is based on the Navajo creation story. Legends of the Sky is written and directed by a white man, but is set in the Navajo Nation and features a mostly Native cast.
It’s not nearly enough, but it’s sure as hell better than playing dead on the ground.
Jessica McDonald lives in Denver and is a writer, technophile, gamer, and all-round geek. She serves as the marketing director for SparkFun Electronics in Boulder. She earned her Master’s degree from the University of Denver and holds undergraduate degrees from The Pennsylvania State University, and has worked for everything from political campaigns to game design companies. She has published original research on online user behavior, and writes about marketing, technology, women in STEM, and diversity in media. Her background in the technology and defense industries makes her an insightful critic of gender representation in fiction, film, video games, and comics. Growing up looking white but with Cherokee heritage, she also advocates for representation of people of color and mixed-race characters. Jessica has presented at SXSW Interactive, Shenzhen Maker Faire, American Public Health Association’s national conference, and Pikes Peak Writers Conference. She is the author of the urban fantasy novel BORN TO BE MAGIC and currently is writing a YA novel based on Navajo mythology. Find her on Twitter or on her website.
Sarah Chorn is the host of the Special Needs in Strange Worlds column at SF Signal, and has become an important voice in the conversation about disability in genre. If you’ve been appreciating these guest blog posts, you should check out her column as well, where she’s hosted a wide range of authors talking about disability.
My brother Rob has a condition called Agenesis of the Corpus Callosum, as well as spina bifida. His life has been one very, very long struggle against himself, the world that doesn’t understand him, and sometimes his own family. Rob functions a lot like a person with Asperger’s. His spina bifida has relegated him to a wheelchair. Currently, due to seizures, he can’t read anymore.
Rob was the person who really got me into the genre. When I was a horrible teenager, it was Rob who got me to read The Wheel of Time, Dragonlance, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, and A Song of Ice and Fire. It was Rob who traded books with me, and spent hours talking to me about worlds, plots and characters.
We can all blame my brother for my enthusiasm for this genre.
It was also Rob who taught me that reading is more than just a hobby. For him, it’s a way for others to understand how he lives and interprets the world around him. It is also a way for him to sort of take a vacation from his body, and his problems for a time. Reading wasn’t just fun, but an exercise and an education for him, and for me.
It is important to remember that books aren’t just pretty words strung together in an entertaining fashion. They are windows into souls, and looking glasses into the world around us. These books tell stories about lives and conditions that we might not be able to understand or experience on our own. They educate us, teach us tolerance, aggravate us, anger us, enflame us. Books make us feel.
Special Needs in Strange Worlds, my column on SF Signal highlighting the importance of disabilities in the genre, has just gone to prove to me how important it is for everyone to have a voice, and a spot at the genre table. In so many ways, my column has turned out to be the highlight of my time in the genre. I get to talk to giants each week. I get email from people who humble and profoundly touch me, from the blind woman who uses computer software to keep up with my column, to the gentleman who spends so much time and effort advocating for the disabled and has taught me so much.
The world is full of magnificent people, and I’m beyond fortunate that I get to interact with some of them.
On the other hand, it breaks my heart to realize that in so many ways, the disabled are still a vastly overlooked part of the genre community, with hardly any visibility, and very few people actively working to get disabled voices heard. In matters of diversity in the genre, very rarely do the disabled get mentioned.
There is hope, however. Some authors have been more than willing to openly talk about their own depression, disabilities, or their efforts writing realistic and honest characters that face complicated emotional, physical, and/or mental struggles, and so much more. It’s a small light on a topic that deserves so much more than I’ll ever be able to do for it, but it’s something. The willingness for authors to open up about these sensitive topics has released a flood of readers and other authors who understand, sympathize, and empathize. The conversation is starting. It’s slow, but steady, and largely happening due to the bravery of authors who are willing to open up to the internet about personal matters.
And people are listening.
A few weeks ago I got to be part of my (very first) convention panel, called Disabilities in Genre Fiction. I wasn’t expecting much of a turnout (I have an inferiority complex), and was absolutely astounded when I saw that every seat in the room was full. The panel was one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had. It was wonderful to be able to actually talk about the issues and people I have been introduced to in my time working with the special needs community.
It was even more touching to hear the stories that so many shared, from the woman whose daughter has cerebral palsy, to the blind man who talked to me after about how hard it is for him to find books that are accessible to his needs, and the gentleman who came up to me with tears in his eyes, clasped my hands, and said, “don’t ever stop.” It was profoundly moving to realize that this was a room full of strangers all coming together to support something that means so very much to me.
It gave me real, profound hope that the disabled, while currently rather overlooked in the genre community, won’t always remain that way. There are giants all around us, inspirational individuals who are some of the strongest people I have ever met. These individuals show what strength of heart really is, and have taught me how to not just love the books I read, but appreciate the lessons and diversity that can be found in them.
Books aren’t just words on pages. They are lives, lessons, mysteries and passions unfolding before us.
My brother, Rob, told me years ago, “I wish people would realize that someone like me can be a hero, too.” That quote is the single reason why I started my column, and that’s a sentiment I will never forget. Heroes are all around us, often silent, lost in the margins—individuals with souls that shine with fire and willpowers of steel. These are the people who deserve to be in the books we read, and the books we write. They deserve to be part of our diversity discussions, and our fight for equality in the genre.
Sarah Chorn has been a compulsive reader her whole life. She’s a freelance writer and editor, a semi-pro nature photographer, world traveler, three-time cancer survivor, and mom to one rambunctious toddler. In her ideal world, she’d do nothing but drink lots of tea and read from a never ending pile of speculative fiction books.
Angelia Sparrow has done something in this essay I wouldn’t have thought possible — she made me want to go back and rewatch X-Men 3.
As I look ahead to the last batch of guest posts, I’m trying to decide whether to take another break before posting the rest. There’s a lot to process and think about in these things … what do you think?
Once upon a time—all the best stories start that way—once upon a time, there were no gay people on TV, except Billy Crystal on “Soap,” and certainly no lesbians. I joke that lesbians weren’t invented until the 1990s, and for all our pop-culture representation, we might as well not have been.
I grew up in the 70s and 80s, not a great time to be gay to start with. The world was starting to acknowledge we were real, but the plague lay sore upon the land, and “Unclean” was not an atypical reaction. Pastors were preaching against gay people with the same vigor they had recently discovered for abortion after school segregation became a toxic issue with their congregations.
I’m a middle-aged married byke now, with four kids, two of whom are bisexual. I had no clue when I was six why I wanted to be Batgirl, other than the motorcycle and long red hair and librarian and apartment of her own. Lesbians weren’t even mentioned, except Billie Jean King, and I couldn’t be an athlete. Add in a lot of the aforementioned bad religion, and my generation learned to hide.
My daughters got subtext and the occasional relationship, but they still didn’t see much of themselves in media. Willow and Tara on “Buffy” were one of the first lesbian couples on TV, and certainly the first we watched with the kids. Seeing my approval of that relationship helped my oldest daughter, Victoria, come out to me in 2005. But Willow went from “I’m with Oz” straight to “I’m with Tara” gay without even acknowledging the possibility of bisexuality. And that hurt. It felt like a glaring omission, a negation.
Victoria went through the same media I had, twenty years before. And the problem movies and “dead in the third reel” stuff depressed her and bored her. Xena and Gabrielle were the only characters she saw having relationships with both men and women. She wanted to know if she was going to have to die young.
About this time, George Takei came out. Victoria had a huge Sulu crush to start with, and seeing him as an old man, older than her grandfather, and knowing he was gay, reassured her she did not have to die before thirty. We started looking for other, older media figures who were out, and found a few. But again, almost all were gay. Bisexuality was not an obvious thing, and something very few admitted to.
My youngest, Olivia, saw subtext before she could read. She loved Smallville and would lie on my tummy on the couch and watch it. We watched season 3, episode 2, when Lex gives the deed to the Kent farm over. Her eyes got big and she watched Clark and Lex, and then announced, “Clark love him, Mommy!”
In 2006, we saw X-Men 3. The movie gets a lot of scorn, but for us, it was a real turning point. Remember, this was the year after the Summer of Zach. We had joined with the local community to protest Love In Action, a reparative therapy center, because of Zach Stark, a teenager who had been forced into its program and left a list of the rules on his MySpace, exposing it. Our local movie critic called X3’s mutant cure “Love in Action in a syringe.” We had figured out a long time ago that the X-Men franchise wasn’t really about mutants. So we went. Victoria and I came from the movie with different takeaways, but we both saw exactly what was happening in the real world on the screen.
The cure. The ordinary humans fighting us (this was the same year eight states passed anti-marriage amendments). The radicalization of more marginalized factions. It was all there, with more explosions than necessary. We started getting more involved in the community. I volunteered at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center. Victoria became active in the local youth group. And my fundamentalist husband joined PFLAG.
Now, almost a decade later, we still piece together the existence of bisexuals in the margins of our media. There are gay characters in almost every genre, and they’re no longer limited to minstrelry or villainy. But bisexuals are rarer and almost always female. Irene Adler on the BBC Sherlock is presented as bisexual, Sarah Lance on Arrow. The very pansexual Jack Harkness, Brittany on Glee. They do, however, exist.
There are out media personalities, and some identify as bisexual. And this, too helps. My youngest, now in her teens, dates boys and girls alike. She listens to Lady Gaga, enjoys Misha Collins on Supernatural (the first out poly star), and knows they’re bisexual. Her media world is very different from mine, and hopefully a more welcoming one.
Angelia Sparrow is the queer pagan liberal that Pat Robertson warned you about. She has been writing professionally since 2004, when she sold her first short story, “Prey,” to Torquere Press’ Monsters anthology. Since then she has published a dozen novels, with everyone from Ellora’s Cave to Storm Moon Press, and over eighty short stories. She writes SF/F/H, often with a queer bent.
Her work can be found at http://brooksandsparrow.com and she can be found at valarltd on livejournal, Pintrest and Tumblr and Angelia Sparrow on facebook.
I think Diana Pho’s post makes a good follow-up to Isabel Schechter’s post yesterday, though I’m having a little trouble getting the words right to explain why. (Low blood sugar incident last night means a very sleepy and brain-fuzzed Jim today.) Both Pho and Schechter talk about the difficulty they’ve had in finding themselves reflected in SF/F. Schechter described how important it was to finally find a good Puerto Rican character, and her fear and anger that Hollywood might take that away from her. Pho talks about finding herself by pulling different pieces from different stories.
Junot Diaz—rightly so—gets quoted often in the representation convo. One of his truth bombs stuck with me:
“You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all.”
But here’s another truth valid in my life: when I didn’t see myself in a mirror, I smashed it and saw myself in the pieces.
The libraries I frequented growing up sorted their children sections in alphabetical order. Often, I choose new authors based on the jacket cover. Two things on one particular cover caught my eye: a wolf pack and a girl who shared my brown almond-shaped eyes and olive skin. At nine-years old, I fell in love with Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George.
Mind you, I’m not Native American. But Julie was the first time I ever saw anyone who even looked remotely like me on a book and she got to befriend wolves. How cool was that?
I wanted Julie to be my friend to bond over specific things. She had two names like me—her American name and her Native one, Miyax (I also had an American name and Vietnamese name). She survived the Arctic tundra (I had New England winters!). She learned how to cook caribou stew that her lupine friends regurgitated for her after their kills (my mom’s curries could be made from caribou meat if I ate with my eyes closed).
But back then I pocketed a mirror shard to treasure: it wasn’t weird to live between two cultures. I wasn’t the only one who had to explain aspects of my family life to my white friends or have them make assumptions about who I was because of where my parents came from. I could be Diana and Tâm just as she was Julie and Miyax.
A couple years later I picked up a team of new book friends: the Animorphs, which was also my introduction to sci-fi and to fandom.
As scary as being child soldier fighting a secret alien invasion was, I wished to be an Animorph. I knew exactly who I’d be like: Cassie, the black girl whose parents were vets and had a whole barn full of animals. She was the compassionate, sensitive one, the group’s moral compass; I saw my own personality in her. But she was only my second favorite; my first was Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthill, the Andalite prince, the outsider from another world stuck on Earth.
Ax’s blatant missteps about American pop culture, his awkwardness, and his loneliness pulled at me viscerally. My first fanfics were about Ax and his honor-bound homeworld. My sister and I even drew a picture of Ax made of flexible wax sticks on our shared bedroom ceiling. Ax stayed there until my parents pulled it down last year when they were preparing to sell the house. At night, trotting among the glow-in-the-dark stars, Ax stood guard as I imagined stories about my alien friend, someone who could understand what it felt like not to fit into the rest of human society, even when he had the Andalite technology to look exactly like them.
Both of us had our human shells, Ax and I.
For one golden moment on American TV, I did see a character that surprised even me: Tina Nguyen from the PBS show Ghostwriter. She was the first Vietnamese girl I saw on TV that wasn’t a variety performer from one of my parents’ Paris by Night videocassettes or a barefoot villager running from/shooting at American soldiers in a sweltering jungle.
Her family’s story was not my family’s story. We had different hobbies (hers videography; mine writing and drawing), different home lives (she was from Brooklyn; her family owned a store; mine were suburban, my parents a nurse and an electrical engineer). She had a group of friends who all saw a ghost who traveled through the wires of the Internet and used the written word to communicate. Together, they solved mysteries around Brooklyn.
There were storylines that struck home. In one episode, Tina broke her mother’s favorite flower vase, and her mother was sad because those flowers reminded her of the village she left behind. Tina searched the city and found a branch of living blooms to give her in apology. I saw my own mother’s wistfulness and sadness in hers. But, like from all of the other characters I had corralled as a part of me, I took the pieces I needed. Seeing Tina there finally filled in that gap I knew I had been missing.
That was how I learned to survive; by seeing myself in the pieces I could, even if I didn’t exactly, see me. My list of favs I identified with one way or another grew over time. Demona from Gargoyles. Louis de Pointe du Lac of the Vampire Chronicles. Remus Lupin from Harry Potter. The loners and the outsiders. Bitter or resolute and loyal. Human to the core, despite the differences on the surface.
In the end, what did I do with these pieces? In one sense, I made a funhouse mirror to view myself—distorted, warped, imperfect, but nonetheless mine. On the other hand, funhouse mirrors are whole. A better word, perhaps, would be a mosaic. Or a stained glass window—one I needed that impacted my viewpoint of the world.
A common misconception about diverse representation is that its effects are, at best, liminal. Representation can only fit in the frameworks of “good” or “bad” examples. In reality, representation is more like constructing your fancy glass houses, then letting everyone else smash them apart and pick up bits to take home. Your art can easily cut others deeply, resulting in infection and scars. People may step around the broken fragments to protect themselves, or gather them carefully with padded gloves. And, on occasion, someone may pick out a shard from the dirt because it had sparkled like a jewel in their hand.
I want to see the landscape of science fiction and fantasy to become a city of reflections, blatant and elusive. I want so many examples that we can point to the variety and note the great and the terrible and the in-between without the fear of pointing out the fractures. The marginalized shouldn’t be feel like they are trapped inside the gilded frame of diversity nor should they be denied the ability of tell their own stories. Stories about the marginalized shouldn’t be lifted by the privileged to profit from that exposure, either.
The purpose of representation isn’t only about white, straight, cis folk relating to the “Other”. It is about me, a queer Asian-American woman, relating to you, who is black (and/or Muslim and/or trans and/or deaf and/or, and/or…). Representation should be a network of connections, not a single link between a minority exception and a standardized whole.
So let’s acknowledge what diverse storytelling actually is: building our own little stained-glass-mirrors out of other people’s stained-glass-mirrors. We hold up our respective mirrors between us. In that space glints refracted color and pure transparency and the glow of our faces—that is the impact of representation.
Diana M. Pho is an editor at Tor Books and blogs for Tor.com. She is also a published scholar, activist, performer, and general rabble-rouser. She is best-known for running Beyond Victoriana, an award-winning, US-based blog on multicultural steampunk under the moniker Ay-leen the Peacemaker. For several years, she has traveled the country as a professional convention speaker about social justice issues and fandom. Her most recent publications include the introduction to The Best of Spanish Steampunk, edited by James and Marian Womack and she has a forthcoming article in Like Clockwork, edited by Professors Brian Croxall and Rachel Bowser. You can follow her on Tumblr and Twitter.
I’ve heard people complain that calls for diversity are all about forcing quotas on stories, which strikes me as odd.
Isabel Schechter mentions the number of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. (almost five million), and in New York alone. I think back to things like Friends, which was ostensibly set in New York. And I don’t think we’re talking about clumsily or artificially inserting diversity into stories so much as we’re pointing out how so many of our stories have clumsily and artificially stripped that diversity away…
When I was young, I became obsessed with reading. I read everything I could find. I especially loved mythology, fantasy, and Choose Your Own Adventure books. They taught me that gods were blond, magicians were powerful, and boys could be astronauts. Oh, and everyone in the future was White.
When I was older, I read comics and novels. Women could now be superheroes, but everyone was still White. Except Storm from the X-Men. Storm was a beautiful Black woman in a flowing cape and tall boots. What was there not to love? It never occurred to me that my connection to her might have been rooted in the fact that neither of us was White. Until Storm, it had never occurred to me that I could be a superhero. I wasn’t White, blonde, or tall, and I wasn’t ever going to have boobs like that. Sadly, I never questioned why those were the criteria for being a superhero.
It wasn’t until I attended a feminist sf convention that I was exposed to strong, powerful women who were not all White. Some were Black, and every now and then, there was a Mexican. It was more representative of the world I lived in, but I never saw a Puerto Rican in sf. Given how many of us there are in the US, (hell, in New York alone!), I would think we could have at least one Puerto Rican character somewhere in the genre. If that character could have been a woman, too, that would have been even better, but hey, I was a desperate woman. I would settle for what I could get.
From that desperation came excitement when the TV show Heroes first started. A diverse cast! A Latino artist! Finally, a show that would include people of color as main characters and not just in the background, and they would even have superpowers! It turned out to be too good to be true. The list of fail in that show is far too long to go into detail, but my particular sore spot was the Latino representation. The Latino artist could only paint while high on heroin, and the brother and sister duo were illegal aliens. For bonus points, the sister happened to bring the plague with her, and of course, seduced one of the male Heroes in a particularly hot, passionate fashion. Because, you know, that’s how Latinas roll. Ugh.
In contrast to Heroes, The Sparrow, a novel by Mary Doria Russell, has as its protagonist Father Emilio Sandoz, a brilliant Puerto Rican linguist who is of Taino and Spanish background. The Sparrow is one of my all-time favorite books, and Emilio Sandoz is one of my favorite characters, and one with whom I identify closely. Not to take away from the novel, which I think tells an incredible story, but the fact that the portion of the novel that takes place on Earth takes place in Puerto Rico, and that the main character is Puerto Rican is part of why I love it so much. Finally, someone who looks like me. Someone who lived in the same place my mother grew up, where her parents came from, a place that I was connected to.
Puerto Rico is a place where people look like me, where we’re the majority, not the Other. When I went to Puerto Rico with my mother a few years ago, I saw the house she grew up in and I went to Arecibo to see the telescope there. Most people can understand why I would want to see my mother’s hometown, but wouldn’t have guessed that I went to Arecibo because the telescope plays an important part in The Sparrow. I even drove by La Perla, the slum where Emilio grew up, and which is an important part of what makes him who he is, because I wanted to see if it was as awful as he described, so I could understand him a little better.
When I found out that Brad Pitt’s production company had optioned the movie rights to The Sparrow, I was terrified. What if they got it wrong (as most adaptations do)? What if they cast someone who wasn’t Puerto Rican (let me guess—a Mexican)? Hold on, this was Hollywood, what if they cast a White guy? What am I talking about? This is Hollywood—of course they would cast a White guy. Because, you know, all the good guys and heroes are White guys. I mean, Jake Gyllenhall was the perfect actor to play the Prince of Persia, right? And changing the entire cast of Avatar: The Last Airbender (except for the villain, of course) to White people made total sense given the source material. And hey, Scarlett Johansen’s acting ability makes her the obvious choice for Ghost in the Shell, doncha think?
Sure enough, Brad wanted to cast himself as Emilio. Shocking, I know. Or not. But seriously, how could he possibly think he was the right actor for that role? Emilio Sandoz is the only character in sf I can think of who is Puerto Rican, and yet again, some White guy was going to whitewash a great POC character and erase that which made him who he was. Hollywood was going to take from me the only character I could identify with, the only Puerto Rican in all of sf. As if the real Emilio never existed. As if I never existed.
Rather than have that happen, I would have settled for any other Latino actor to play the part-Mexican, Columbian, Dominican, Guatemalan, Cuban, insert-any-Central-or-Southern-American-or-Caribbean country-here, just please, please, please, not a White guy! Thankfully, the film option expired and my beloved novel and only Puerto Rican character were safe, and I could stop living in fear. For now.
I know that given the dismal shortage of representation of any kind of people of color in sf, I should be grateful for any Latino characters, and I am, but it’s precisely because Emilio is the only Puerto Rican that it’s important to me that he stays Puerto Rican. It’s precisely because in the future everyone is some mysterious monolithic “Hispanic” that I want the world to know that “Hispanic” isn’t enough. It’s not enough in real life, and it shouldn’t be enough in our literature and media.
There are all kinds of Latinos in the real world, and there should be kinds of Latinos in sf. All of us should be represented, and faithfully so. We don’t all come from one country—no Virginia, Latin America is not one country. We don’t all look alike-yes, really, some of us are blonde. We don’t all dance salsa—some of us prefer Bachata. We don’t all eat tacos—pupusas are delicious, you should try them. We are not all Catholics—the oldest synagogues in the western hemisphere are in Latin America. I could go on, and on, and on, but my point is that each of our cultures is unique, and everyone should get to see that. Just as not all White people insert-stupid-stereotype-here, not all Latinos insert-stupid-stereotype-here.
The number of myths and misconceptions about “Hispanics” is both hurtful and depressing. For a genre that is supposed to explore the universe, yet somehow can’t manage to explore the people living right here, right now, science fiction fails, time and time again, to be forward thinking. I am tired of never seeing myself represented. I am tired of reading about or seeing characters who are one-dimensional stereotypes. I am tired of White people trying to make it seem like they’re the only ones that do anything, and none of the rest of us even exist except in the background or as villains. I am tired of it all. And I demand better. You want to write whitewashed, one-dimensional crap? Feel free, just don’t expect me to spend my time or money on helping you push your agenda.
Isabel has been a fan since childhood and active in fandom for almost 20 years. She is Latina by birth, Jewish by choice, vegetarian by conscience, and uppity as necessary. As an event manager for a science museum, she is free to reveal her geekiness at work and not suffer any consequences. Isabel and her husband recently relocated to sunny California and so far, she has resisted the urge to go on Facebook and post pictures of herself wearing summer clothing in February while her friends back in Chicago are experiencing the Polar Vortex.