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Let Me Tell You a Story
Not aloneGrass
Ok, I take it back. I am going to say something about RaceFail. Please, let's try to keep comments constructive and civil, I feel like the entire internet is playing a game called: I Say RaceFail, You Say FLAMEWAR! RaceFail! FLAMEWAR!

But I want to say this anyway, and it is delicate. It is odd. But I hope you will listen to this one voice among the many. It is a white voice, but it is also a female voice, and a queer one, and this is about those things, too.

Do you know why we get so upset about whether or not there are depictions of women, people of color, gays, lesbians, transgendered, and humans of all sizes and kinds in genre fiction? Because it seems a bit of a small issue, what SFF writers choose to write about as opposed to equal pay, equal rights, and protection from rape, right? Yet we all seem get so very upset when this subject is brought up, when Dollhouse makes rape so neat and pretty, when CSI punishes women for living every week, when space opera has blue and green but no black. The straight, white males of the internet get their hackles up, because it just isn't a big deal to them, and they can't understand why it's this big a deal to us. It sucks, sure, but why the rage? Why does this cut us so deeply? Why are we criticizing what they have poured blood and love into, the works of their lives?

I have a theory. The reason, I think, is subtle, and doesn't usually get brought to light.

Why do we need stories? In the greater human sense, not in the bestseller, ZOMG Alan Moore is awesome sense. Storytelling is an essential human activity, a paleolithic one, hardwired into us. It's the campfire and the tribal circle, the shaman and the nomad. And while you could argue many motivations for this ritual act, I want to focus on one. One especially applicable to folklore, fairy tales, mythology--and therefor to fantasy and science fiction.

Stories teach us how to survive
. They tell us that our lives can be transcendent, that we can overcome almost anything, no matter how strange, that we can go into the black wood and come out again, that the witch can be burned up in her own oven, that we can find someone who fits a shoe, that the youngest, unloved child will find their way in the world, that those who suffer can become strong, can escape, can find their way into comfort and joy again. That there are secrets, and they are always worth discovering, that there are more and different creatures in the world than we can ever imagine, and not all want to eat us. Stories teach us how to win through, how to perservere, how to live.

As a child of abuse, fairy tales kept me going when I was a girl. Because Gretel could kill the witch, because Snow White could come back from death, because Rapunzel could live even in the desert--then, well, I could too. I could dry my tears and clean up the blood and keep living. This is what stories do. They say: you are worthy of the world, no less than these heroes.

And when we see story after story that has no one like us in it, a book entirely without women, a TV show where white people speak Chinese but there are no Asians visible, a movie set in California without Hispanics, image after image of a world where everyone is straight, and when we are told that it's no big deal, really, there is no race in future societies, that it's not anyone's fault if all the characters are white, that's just how they are, in the pure authorial mind, that we have no sense of humor, that we are ganging up on people because we speak our minds, this is what we hear:

You do not have a right to live. There are no stories for you, to teach you how to survive, because the world would prefer you didn't. You don't get to be human, to understand your suffering or move beyond it. In the perfect future society, you do not exist. We who are colorblind, genderblind, sexualityblind would prefer not to see you even now. In the world we make in our heads, you have been obliterated--even better, you never were. You are incapable of transcendance. You are not worthy of the most essential of human behavior. If you are lucky, we will let you into our stories, and you can learn to be a whore, or someone's mother, or someone's slave, or someone's prey. That is all you are, so pay attention: this is what we want to teach you to be.

And when our protests are drowned out by a privileged few who insist that their stories are even more difficult than ours, even more hurtful, in fact just like ours but better because someone who looks like them is telling them, that their voices MUST be heard, that we are wrong to even bring up the subject, when they try to punish people for speaking out, when they tell us over and over that when they are done speaking, when they are done telling their stories to all the people who look just like them, so that people who look like them can learn to survive and be strong, maybe we can have the mic for a minute while the janitors who look like us are cleaning up, what they are saying is not literary theory.

It is eugenics.

That is what this is about. Evolution. Only those who look a certain way, act a certain way, fuck a certain way are allowed to have the blueprint, to have any guide on a path grace, peace, love in their lives. Everyone else can just lay down and die. It is almost never a virtue to silence another soul, by shouting them down, by shutting them out, by derision, by omission. Even the worst soul has the right to tell its tale. And we are not the worst souls.

Stories are important. Stories, in fact, are life. They are what is left of our unique experience in this world. They speak--no. They scream. And when an author sits down and constructs a completely imaginary world in their heads, if people like me, people like us, do not exist in it, or exist only to be ridden like animals or raped or murdered or humilated or destroyed so that an audience can acheive catharsis via symbolic annihilation of our lives, bodies, and souls, well, certainly, we can sit down and look at the floor and say: yes, you're right, that is what we deserve.

Or we can stand up. We can scream back. We can band together. We can demand our right to exist, to take part in humanity, to learn, to grow, to evolve, to self-examine. We can tell our stories, to anyone who will listen, to the campfire, to our lovers, to coffee shops, to strangers, to publishers' skyscrapers in New York, to the heavens, to the earth. Yes, you're fucking well right we can.

As an educator, it drives me nuts that something that could have been an incredible teaching/learning experience got turned into such a Cluster F.

OK, technically it IS a learning experience, but not a positive one.

Having seen this happen every year, like apple blossoms or something, cultural appropriation debates of various kinds, I knew it would. It's sad, but people really don't like to hear anyone else talk.

Your Name Here (Anonymous) Expand
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Thank you. ♥

There is so much in this, and what touched me the most was the way you asserted the importance of stories. Stories are how we remember who we are. And who we are is not just a white man who thinks he knows everything there is to know. Who we are is all of us. Every time a voice is silenced, we lose a part of ourselves.

I wish all the Fail elements of RaceFail could find this humility and learn. That is what RaceFail is largely missing: humility, and learning.

(I am halfway through Palimpsest and it is freaking blowing my mind with all of its amazing. I email scenes to my friends and then say BUY THIS DAMMIT.)

So glad you like Palimpsest. And see? White girl wrote Hispanic and Asian queer women. And even a few men.

It's so important to me in my own work to present a diverse world--I don't understand why it's not more important to others. Hell, it's just more interesting that way, even if it weren't the right thing to do.

Your Name Here (Anonymous) Expand
This is, simply put, the best response I've yet seen on this subject. Thank you for sharing it.

There's no font size big enough to describe how much WORD! and AMEN! I give this post.

Edit: Oh, and ... as a survivor of child abuse myself, I totally get the stories as escape and means of survival thing. The fantasy stories I read showed me that the world could be different; they showed me people who had gone through hellish trials remaining strong and good people with integrity and the ability to love.

Edited at 2009-03-13 08:27 pm (UTC)

Yeah...if Snow could get through her mother poisoning her and the predations of dwarves, I could get through a few beatings, easy.

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I think this is really what is at the heart of the debate, yes. Thanks for writing this!

Thank you for putting this into words for this POC. This is why you are a wordsmith :)

I've been reading SF since I was 10. I'm 36.

I remember, at 30, I read "Rendevous with Rama" by Arthur C. Clark.

I'm not crazy about his writing - but I remember bursting into tears when I realized that the protatgonist - the brilliant, the special, the CHOSEN ONE, was mixed race. Her name was my name even, and she was described like my secret self, and I turned to my husband and said, "He made a place for ME!"

I shouldn't have had to wait until I was 30.

THere should have been a place for me many other places in this great wide universe.


That is an amazing story. Not Clark's, yours. I'm sorry you had to wait so long, but wow, that must have been an amazing moment.

What you say is absolutely true.

But I've come to think, lately, that while stories can communicate, analysis can't, not on something like this. It seems that the more analysis there is, the less understanding. Is there something intrinsically polarizing about the expression of opinion?

Yes, I think so, because opinion comes from experience and everyone wants to believe they've made the right choices. I DO think analysis can help--else why have a blog? But hostility can't.

You said it. Thank you.

this is very related to the issues I'm dealing with in my thesis, except with SFF, and I love the passionate argument you have made. This truly moved me.

I have used fairytales in exactly the same way in my life (see username). They are so powerful. No matter what else he may have done to hurt me, I will always be grateful that my father read me the *real* grimmm's fairytales when I was young, not the "safe" ones which teach us nothing.

I wish you would release a book of essays. Like all great fiction writers, your insights into life are as powerful and beautifully put as your storytelling.

I REALLY want to, if I could find a small press that would do it.

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I just fell in love with you all over again.

Nothing to say here that probably hasn't already been dredged up a million times just this go 'round. However, I reserve the right to bring it up this weekend/next week. :-P

Absolutely the best post I've read on the subject. Thank you. ^_^

Thank you so much for this post. You manage to crystallize my half-formed thoughts on things while also revealing depths I hadn't guessed at.

(And thank you also for Palimpsest--I'm 80% of the way through and desperately wishing it wasn't about to be over.)

Wow. This is so damn good.
I understand.
I love the fact that stories help us survive--I had fairy tales, but also in a very dark time had Buffy and Firefly.(0)

Sometimes for me (and not just for these stories, but lots of ones I love) it is very hard to hear cultural criticism--I have a visceral feeling of wanting to protect them--granted, I know they don't quite need my protection. That's something I have to deal with --to be able to hold both states of mind together, to be able to have a story matter and yet consider the issues at hand.

I'm used to critical theory (and this may be my grad school and some other experiences) used to explain why what I or anyone else liked was wrong to like some story, some media. There was no art, no discussion, just Good and Bad.

I didn't want to tell the truth about things I read. I got used to silence and that really hurt. (I do know my own privilege to say this--I'm a white girl with the good fortune to have two MAs, an okay job and a laptop to write on and the time and energy to think about these things.)

(When I was teaching years ago one of the other writing teachers was a student in creative writing and many kinds of theory at a Boston school. We were talking about writing and I said what I was interested in writing--and she said "Oh. At my school we don't allow genre fiction" It was a gut punch. It hurt. It's not the same as others have experienced. It still hurt.(During that same time period, I also had it implied that I wasn't queer enough because I am bi and a femme. More ouch.)

It is so hard to balance that because I do care very much about race, class, gender, sexuality portrayals and seek it out and do care.Sometimes, I am afraid to talk about it because...I'll be told something that means a lot to me is wrong and I'm not an ally but suddenly an enemy.

This is really my fear (and yes, I'm in a privileged place to say so), perhaps it is informed by my experiences
(in English grad school and elsewhere)...where I did get told that regularly and often using theory what I thought was wrong. It was like scoring hits on your classmates, like you could knock them down by making them wrong with theory, explaing how what they liked was bad (even including from other students that studying 18th century material was bad.) I wish it hadn't been like this.

I do care. I do want to tell these kind of stories and listen to those who do. I don't think I realized how much fear I had around this (and again, it's a luxury that I can do this.)

I also hope this doesn't come off as a privileged white girl mope, because that's the last thing I want. I'm trying to untangle my feelings and fears.

This has made me really think.I feel like I may have something to contribute or say, that I can both love things and think about them. I hope it makes sense. Thank you.

(0) The whole identifying with Dr Manhattan thing can wait.

I'd certainly be interested re: Manhattan.

I'm also bi and somewhat femme, so I've dealt with that too. I think we all want to be allies, but not everyone wants to actually /do/ anything or, for example, change the way they write books. A few good things have come out of this debate and I'm glad of that. I think we all have to speak out, but we also have to listen, and that's where privilege comes in: someone who claims the right to speak, but not listen.

To me theory is a wonderful game, a delight, a playground for my brain. With swingsets. No points, just awesome, and thinking hard about what I love.

Well said.

I would say more but it would be in anger at the close minded people you talk against. No need for that hatred here.


Back in the ancient days when I was growing up, I loved fantasy and science fiction books and read them constantly, I devoured them.

And when I went to sleep afterwards, in my dreams I was always a boy, because that's who I had to become in order to be in the center of the stories. First-person "I" was for boys. It was that simple.

Thank you for writing this.

Me too. It took me a long time to realize both my femaleness and what I wanted to be in those stories.

Thanks for writing this. I write a lot about queer and/or gender queer characters and I've had to deal with my parents saying things like, "Why do you write so many stories about gay men? These stories are too similar to put together in one story collection". Now, I love my parents, but they live in a straight world. To them--and to the majority of the world, apparently--writing about straight characters is writing to the world as whole, whereas writing queer characters is writing to a specific tiny subset of people. I cannot tell you how much I hate this. If every story I were to write involved a man and woman falling in love no one would bat an eye. But a plethora of queer love stories, my god, it's just the same thing over and over again. WTF?

Much of what I write is probably going to be published as YA or children's lit. I think it's particularly damaging to the world's youth who are learning about who they are and the rest of the world to grow up surrounded by the same dominant cultures in the books they escape to. Hopefully, I can change the trend. Who says that art can't change the world?

Art is possibly the only thing that does, in the long term. War does, but it's short-lived.

abused, white, queer girl who survived by hiding in her suitcase's worth of library books a month from the ages of four until too busy with books required for her college coursework says a-fucking-men.

(and now, at twenty-eight, I'm no less into the genre fiction, I just buy stuff so weird the local library won't carry it)

Yes. This. A hundred times this. It's why I cling to even the mediocre examples, because at least they're not the bad examples.

And to think, just an hour ago I asked someone else on LJ what more could possibly be said on this subject...

And you come along with this (perhaps trite to label it such but true nontheless) Epic Post.

You are still made of awesome.



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