Monday, May 22, 2017

Word Power

There's been a lot of talk in my Facebook feed over the past few weeks that's had a common underlying theme. It started with the latest 'cultural appropriation' brouhaha, which resulted in opinion after opinion after opinion after opinion after opinion about the subject, and this is a subject that's been discussed at length many times before.

One old commentary of note began:

A few months ago, I read “The Orphan’s Tales” by Catherynne Valente. The fantasy novel draws on myths and folklore from many cultures, including, to my delight, fairy tales from my Russian childhood. Curious about the author, I looked her up online and was startled to find several social-media discussions bashing her for “cultural appropriation.”
There was a post sneering at “how she totally gets a pass to write about Slavic cultures because her husband is Russian,” with a response noting that her spouse isn’t even a proper Russian, because he has lived in the United States since age 10.**
This article produced a multi-page thread on Snopes discussing the issue.

Welcome to the new war on cultural appropriation. At one time, such critiques were leveled against truly offensive art — work that trafficked in demeaning caricatures, such as blackface, 19th-century minstrel shows or ethnological expositions, which literally put indigenous people on display, often in cages. But these accusations have become a common attack against any artist or artwork that incorporates ideas from another culture, no matter how thoughtfully or positively.

A work can reinvent the material or even serve as a tribute, but no matter. If artists dabble outside their own cultural experiences, they’ve committed a creative sin.
And the recent brouhaha spawned a number of responses and dissections of the issues, but one of note comes from Jesse Wente, and others who are members of the First Nations community.

I respect the fact that there may be some within different ethnic communities who felt hurt by the original offending editorial. I'm not sure the editorial intended that. The writer may have had a genuinely good intent - to prompt writers to stop writing about mirror images of themselves and embrace minorities and other cultures in their writing - and conveyed it poorly. Or perhaps that's the intent I wanted him to have. Either way, the reality is that if we don't clearly convey our meaning then we're at fault for some of the interpretation and response that follows.

However, I have been bothered by the whole cultural appropriation discussion, because of how the subject becomes misinterpreted, twisted and perverted for - in some cases - personal reasons. In the course of discussion after discussion, I saw some people shifting the meaning towards the criticisms leveled at Valente referenced in the above quote from 2015. In other words, if you aren't from a specific ethnicity, you don't get to write about it.

That's an interpretation I take issue with. A writer's job is to step outside their frame of experience and present characters who are more than caricatures, who feel real. Would it be real for me to write about strictly white women in a white world? No. Why is is that we have no issue with women writing about male characters and men writing about female characters? Why do we have no issue with older people writing about younger people, and vice versa? As long as the author does their job of fleshing out the character and presenting them in a way that makes them real to the reader, what's the problem? Nobody flipped out over Shakespeare writing a Danish tragedy. I'm fairly certain that 99.9% of the population has had no interaction with aliens from outer space, and I don't protest ET. I mean, for all we know, on a planet far, far away, a bunch of aliens are sitting down with their version of popcorn, watching V and wondering about the batshit crazy Earthlings who've gotten aliens so wrong.

Part of the reason I'm bothered by the way that the discussion gets twisted is because nothing changes; the same points are recycled every few years, and we're no further ahead.

Another reason I'm concerned is because some writers may fear the backlash and actually shy away from incorporating ethnic minorities into their writing for fear of accusations.

And the subject makes me nervous because I worry about overstating our claims to content of any nature. One person's experience of growing up with a bipolar parent isn't necessarily the same as another person's experience of growing up with a bipolar parent. One person's experience at a private boarding school isn't necessarily the same as another's. And it may come as a shock to some, but one person's experience of being white isn't necessarily the same as another person's experience of being white. I mean, I'll be the first to tell you that when I hear some of the extreme feminists who seem to think that they're better than men, what goes through my mind is, "You don't speak for me."

I have Aboriginal characters. I spent a number of years living barely more than a stone's throw from the Penelakut First Nations reserve. (And even as I typed that, I questioned if we still use that term. Yes, I found an article today that referred to Canada's 'Indian' reserves and I'm perplexed. A few years ago, Aboriginal became the proper term... How can 'Indian' still be generally used?) I had friends who lived there. I had a lot of interaction with people from the tribe over the years.

I wanted to attack some of the stereotypes that are leveled against Aboriginals. I created an RCMP officer who was Aboriginal; one of the RCMP officers who helped me with research was part Aboriginal, part French. I gave Tain a terrible personal wound; his daughter had died after he failed to get custody of her, because he was a man and Aboriginal. The courts sided with the white mother, who was ultimately responsible for the abuse leading to their daughter's death. (You want to take about prejudice, don't even get me started on the blanket assumptions that all mothers know what's best for their kids and dads don't matter.)

I don't see myself as stealing anyone's story, and I certainly don't think that I'm asserting I can tell it better. What I am doing is incorporating my own perspective, that Aboriginal people have faced discrimination in society that has been devastating, and that it is wrong to make determinations about people based solely on their gender, religion, skin color or heritage. In order to write a book that's authentically based in Canada, within the scope of what I write about and the settings for those particular books, I think that's very important. After all, how do you write about crime fiction in British Columbia without addressing the indifference shown to Aboriginal victims?

This morning, I did a silly Facebook quiz and it produced my sarcastic one-liner.

And it felt very timely, because words matter. Words can hurt. Words can move us to tears, and they can motivate us to act. They can impart understanding, and they can cut through us like a knife. We may have all sung the childhood verse sticks and stones can break my bones but names with never hurt me at one time or another, but the proof that it isn't true comes in the next line; call me this, call me that, call yourself a dirty rat.

Why would we respond to name calling with more name calling if we didn't think it would hurt someone? The truth is, it does.

The recent focus on words on Facebook that's been filling my feed started with cultural appropriation, and has moved on to discussions about political correctness and the use of disparaging terms. I don't want to say too much about that, though, because one thing I'm not going to do is try to figure out whose Facebook posts are full public and whose are private, and I don't want to violate anyone's preferences by citing them without permission.

The specifics aren't relevant. If you aren't concerned with the possibility of offending others, not much can be said to convey why some terms should be abolished from our speech. You won't get why I'm questioning the 'Indian reserve' term still being in use. And if you are a person of consideration, then you will likely already be aware of the power your words have, and choose your words carefully.

What writers draw from this discussion can shape their works in the future. One of my biggest fears as an editor is tied to some of the reaction I've seen to this discussion. Write what you know. Please don't 'write what you know' or feel you have to stay in your lane. Make sure you do appropriate research and treat the people you write about with respect and make them real to the reader. That's your job. Please don't retreat into a monochromatic mindset that conveys a world that doesn't exist.

You want to know what the fastest way to get a rejection letter from me is? It isn't a quirk in the formatting that needs to be corrected. It isn't a typo. It's boring me to tears. If you're going to limit yourself to 'write what you know' then you better have an extraordinary life. As I've been going through Spinetingler submissions I've identified what must be the common themes assigned to people of specific genders at specific ages. I'll say no more about what those are, but it's become my primary turn-off. By god, give me something original. Something with flavor. Something more than typical twenty-something or forty-something angst.

The words surrounding the discussion of cultural appropriation have power. Unfortunately, they've put the emphasis on appropriation in literature, while the real problem is with how people of different cultural groups are treated within society. If characters within stories can highlight those issues, isn't that a good thing?

Words matter. They have power. Use it wisely.

 Did Fargo get it right? Does Hanzee feel like a stereotype, or like an authentic character who'd been discriminated against because of his ethnicity and pushed to the point where he wasn't willing to take that kind of discrimination anymore?

**Included because in the course of discussion elsewhere, I was asked to provide sources to prove that people were connecting the idea that writers shouldn't write about people from different cultural groups as part of cultural appropriation discussion. I walked away from the discussion after that.  Beyond what's in your own Facebook feed, if you can't do a google search and establish that reality within 10-20 seconds, as I easily did, then to ask me for proof means either you're lazy or you think I'm a liar, and there didn't seem to be much point trying to have an intelligent conversation with anyone who falls into either category. There is a lot of material to read on this particular subject, if you really want to be an authority, and it doesn't take long to establish that there's a range of interpretations about the term and what it means for writers. To discuss it without clarifying your specific interpretation and position is the dangerous ground many walk on; I found that a lot of people were discussing the subject without having read the recent editorial, the articles and editorial responses to it, or the interviews related to the subject, so the discussion risked operating solely off presumptions. And I considered not writing my thoughts here, because it's hard to do this topic justice within a blog post, and even what I've written feels a little simplistic. However, the subsequent discussion about the 'r' word underscored how people were so willing to defend using a term to offensively define people of specific community... and left me wondering if those same people walk around using the 'n' word, too. All of that reiterated to me that our words do matter, and whatever our intent, which we can question on the part of the writer of the original editorial in this recent brouhaha, the response demonstrates that we must choose our words carefully, or risk facing an avalanche of criticism as a result.

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