Thursday, October 29, 2015

Should the Privileged Write From the Marginalized's Perspective?

I got an email a while back from an author concerning a topic that has been quite prominent in writing circles today: Should white authors write people of color narratives?

I don't have the answer, mostly because I do not speak for anyone other than myself. I'm not going to give my opinion, either, because I know  people will assume I do speak for more people -- even if I say many times that I only speak for me. So, this is a discussion for you.

Here's the letter:
Hey there,

I found your blog through a Twitter rabbit hole that started with @tehawesomersace feed. She linked to some important pieces about the need for diverse writing but how we need to de-center whiteness in this discussion, which I get and agree with. Here's my problem though. I'm white, mostly (my father is mixed race with non-African American heritage, but I look white and benefit from its privileges.) I'm also a writer who has found that my passion for stories is two-fold; 1) YA characters and genre, and 2) Books that are based on real events that deal with heavy issues. My first novel is currently in the query process and was inspired by a story I read in the news about a religious fundamentalist family. And the idea I want to pursue for my 2nd book is based on this news story about a small town that of last year STILL had a segregated prom. 
So the reason I'm writing you is, before I start, I want to get the opinion from a few writers of color if me pursuing this novel is something a white writer can do well. I've been outlining/writing character profiles while I decide, and I plan to make the MC a black student who moves to the town from a bigger city, to help her father care for her ailing grandmother. She'll befriend a white student and convince her to help her fight to desegregate the prom. The "best friend" will be white, and the protagonist will be black. It will not be a white savior story. I also plan to be very, very careful and do a ton of research to make sure the MC isn't a) basically a white character that I claim is black or 2) a conglomeration of stereotypes. I'll also make sure to have as many POC beta readers as possible, prior to trying to get it published, should I get that far. 
I should also clarify that I'm not just a white writer who wants to tell a story with black characters because it's a good story, or because I want to be "inclusive." I'm someone who is extremely passionate about the Black Lives Matter movement, pretty much since it started, and has worked hard to educate myself on how to be a better ally to POC. I read POC, I follow activists on Twitter, I try to educate my white peers on ways their thinking/speaking is problematic, I'm a Ta-Nehisi Coates fan-girl, you get the idea. Black Lives very much matter to me and I want to honor them in my writing. 
Basically, I want this story told. If I knew that a black YA writer was already telling it or working on it, I'd drop it immediately, because I wouldn't want my work to overshadow theirs, as their perspective would almost certainly be superior. But if no writer of color (that I can find) is interested in telling this story, do you think it's possible for me to do it, in a respectful and powerful way? I've been ruminating on this question for about a week, and it's keeping me from starting it. I figured it couldn't hurt to ask someone else whose perspective I value. 
Anyways, thanks for your site, and for being open for questions and interactions. I'm glad you're a resource for writers like me. 
- Anonymous

Here are some points I have that hopefully lay a platform for the discussion (and please discuss in the comments).

  •  A fiction writer's job is inherently to express and convey realities outside their own realities.
  • But this gets troublesome when a person writes from a privileged position (for example, non-black people writing about black people).
  • Writers do not exist in a vacuum outside of society, and neither does their work. Writers' actions have an impact on society, whether for positive or negative.
  • I'd like to push back on the idea of "If we get a lot of beta readers of color!" If you have 16 people of color read your novel, it still doesn't guarantee that your book with a character of color is "okay". People of color are people, not magical "Not Racist" stamp-givers. The onus is on you to be responsible for your own book. 
  • Your beta readers of color are probably not going to share your royalties. There is very little you can give them in exchange for what they can give you. Seeking betas of color is a messy business. You don't exist outside a power vacuum.
  • A book concerning race written by a white person is almost guaranteed to be of lesser quality than a book on race written by a person of color. Yet, these books will be promoted, propped up, and celebrated more than books written by people of color.
  • People have written from the perspective of characters with marginalized identities well before. It is very rare, but it happens. (I am thinking of Jandy Nelson's I'll Give You the Sun.)
  • ^This is very rare.
  • Books concerning race written by white people are allowed to have a few mistakes because "how would they know otherwise?" Meanwhile, all books written by all people of color (and especially Black and Latinx people, and even more, women of color) are expected to reach a much. higher. standard and even then, will not get the praise they deserve.
  • Writing from a position of privilege about marginalized people is almost, by definition, cultural appropriation (since you will get the royalty money/fame/recognition). 
  • Can this be avoided/done justly? 
This is what I mean when I say writing and publishing doesn't exist in a vacuum outside the racist systems in the USA today. Things. get. complicated.

Disclaimer: the above letter discussed only race as a marginalized identity. I'd like to open up this conversation to writing about all marginalized identities, centered on people of color with intersecting marginalized identities (because, you know, there are queer, disabled, low-income, women, trans people of color too).

So this is a discussion for you. What's the point of this discussion? Not answers, because I doubt we'll come to an answer. The purpose is to centralize this discussion in one forum to make a resource for writers wanting to learn more about this. Ultimately, each writer by themselves will make their own decision about their books' substance.

Here's a list of things I'd like you to follow as you write and discuss:
  1. Take Space, Make Space. If you have lived experience with a marginalized identities, you are encouraged to take up space in this discussion thread. If you don't, you are encouraged to listen, ask questions (please do!), and not expect answers.
  2. What Do We Need From Allyship? Writers with marginalized identities: this is a space to make your demands. What do we expect out of allyship? What can writers with privileged identities do to help us out? (I think we can expect more than simply buying/promoting our books, which is literally the bare minimum to be considered "not racist". Because if they weren't buying/promoting our books in the first know what I mean?)
  3. Share Yourself, For Yourself. I'm talking to writers with marginalized identities: you are not obligated to partake in this discussion. I do hope you do (because I want to make this a space for our empowerment) but share yourself only for yourself, only if it empowers you. You can drop out any time, pick up any time.
  4. Use "I" Statements. We all speak only for ourselves. Make sure that is reflected in the way we discuss. For example, instead of saying, "Apple pie is awesome," say instead, "I think apple pie is awesome."
  5. Listen, ask respectful questions. This is for writers discussing marginalized identities they don't hold. Writers with these identities should take up the most space, and others should listen, ask for clarification, and not speak over them. This doesn't mean go silent - this is a discussion, and it'd be so so awesome to see a ton of comments being generated! Start off by asking questions (but please don't expect writers with marginalized identities to console or comfort you).
  6. Self-educate. The writers with marginalized identities that will partake in this discussion do not have to teach. First use Google with your questions. If you still are confused, feel free to ask, but don't expect an answer. These are tough issues. If they all had answers, we'd be in a much better place.
This is the first #WriteInclusively discussion. So please: Discuss! 

If you would like to stay updated on Write Inclusively (I'm in the process of building a platform from which we can do activist work), please subscribe. The subscription form is at the bottom of this link. I rarely ever email!

**I reserve the right to delete comments if they get hateful. It's up to my discretion (but honestly, I won't do it often).**

**this space is unapologetically centered on writers of color and writers with marginalized identities**

**like, it may seem like it, but I honestly don't have an answer/opinion that I believe in because this is a hard topic, please trust me**

Friday, October 23, 2015

B R Sanders: "My Stories Will Be Intersectional Or They Won’t Be Worth Writing"

We have another Write Inclusively guest post in store!!!!

I'm really excited by this one - it involves intersectionality. This is basically the idea that many people can/do have multiple marginalized identities. For example: a Black gay woman. These three types of oppression (racism, sexism, and heterosexism) can not be separated from each other to describe this woman's life; her sexism is informed by racism, vice versa, and including heterosexism.

Take it away!


When I pick up a book, I don’t expect to see myself reflected. I’ve been an avid reader literally as long as I can remember--I taught myself to read at three--but between being genderqueer and growing up poor and grappling with mental disabilities portrayals of people like me in literature are practically nonexistent. I see myself written in piecemeal: here is a character with a classed existence to which I can relate. Here is a genderqueer character with a fluidity like my own. Here is someone whose constellation of mental demons echoes mine. But they never come together.

This summer, the New York Times was rightly called out for publishing a recommended reading list that was entirely penned by White people. This is, after all, an ecosphere in which the We Need Diverse Books campaign has gotten impressive media coverage. But it is still an ecosphere where the Sad and Rabid Puppies, feeling that diversity had gotten out of control, tried to stage a heist on the Hugo Awards in the name of setting things right for cishet White men everywhere. It is still an ecosphere where one particularly entitled white man appropriated his Asian classmates identity in order to give his poem what he perceives to be an extra edge.

Too often in writing social power (i.e. privilege) is presented as a zero-sum game. This is a side-effect of tokenism--oh, look, I included a Black character! There you go! My book is diverse! But this ticking-off-the-boxes diversity is not what makes a book good. That’s just surface diversity. Nowhere is there an acknowledgement of the sheer breadth of the multifaceted nature of the Black community: that Black men and Black women experience the world differently, that Black queer people exist, period, that Blackness may intersect with ability status in unique ways. When we, as writers, do not dig into these complexities we are failing our readers. We are not doing our homework.

It is key to realize that no one group is homogenous--not all genderqueers are like me. I don’t speak for all of us. Not everyone was poor the same way I was growing up. Life plays out at the intersections of identities. Drama occurs at the fractious tensions between our privileges and marginalities. It is easy to write a simplified character—one who is marginalized along just one axis—but to do so flattens the richness and tensions of most people’s real lives. To do so would be to flatten the richness and tension of my own life. As a writer, it’s important to me to push through that, to articulate characters who live and breathe and struggle at the intersections. To do otherwise would be a disservice to a reader who exists in this web of identities, some person who, like me, has long been rendered invisible by the general body of literature.

I write fantasy novels. That in itself has the potential to be a radical act, which is one reason why I write them. I love the radical potential of speculative fiction to portray the world as we would like it to be. As we could imagine it to be. What would it be like if we dismantled the oppressive structures we suffered under? How would we do that? What would we erect in their place, and how might they accidentally go awry? What would a society with a wildly inclusive understanding of gender look like—one where all gender expressions and identities are validated? How would that shape the way families form? How would that change the way children are raised? These are the kinds of questions fantasy and science fiction can tackle. But only if we are brave enough to ask these questions to begin with.

As I write my own stories, I strive to be as intersectional in crafting my characters as possible. There is no true diversity without intersectionality. There is no veracity without intersectional characters who inhabit (messily, simultaneously) spaces of both privilege and marginalization along different societal axes.

I hope that by writing with an intentional focus on intersections that readers at multiple points of marginality might pick up a book and feel, for once, seen. Acknowledged. Humanized instead of Othered. That’s the power that art and literature has--to be inclusive, to recognize others, to create community. My hope is to do that for someone, and one day, for someone to do that for me.

B R Sanders

Pronouns: they/them/their. B R Sanders is a white, genderqueer writer who lives and works in Denver, CO, with their family and two cats. B’s latest novel, Ariah, is about queer elves carving out lives of their own in a hostile culture. B’s previous novel, Resistance, is about lesbian elves overthrowing a city. They write about queer elves a lot. Stay in touch with B with their newsletter, their blog, or on twitter.

Thank you thank you so much!!! Make sure to Tweet them, share this post around, and comment in the section below.

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Monday, October 12, 2015

Indigenous Peoples' Day - Sign This Petition

It is October 12th, federally celebrated as "Columbus Day." But on this blog, in this sphere, it is going to be celebrated as "Indigenous Peoples' Day." Nine cities have already made the name change, and it's time to make it federal

This post will be long, but important. So buckle down, and get reading!

(The apostrophe placement in "Peoples'" is important to note. There is no one indigenous "people" because there are hundreds, if not thousands of individual tribes. It is more accurate to say "peoples" when describing them. Putting them into one group erases their distinct cultures and enacts violence through stereotyping and marginalization.)

Reconsider Columbus Day

*Trigger warning: facts of Native and indigenous peoples' genocide and the brutalities committed against them in the past, by Christopher Columbus specifically, and in the present*

I'm not going to spend much time in this section because this day is a celebration of Native and indigenous people. This day is also a celebration of their past and ongoing resistances. So: one must know why they resist.

Columbus should not be celebrated, and no day should be his namesake. He was, by all accounts (except of those who promote colonial and race-based oppression), a horrific man.

As Native American Netroots asserts in "Christopher Columbus & His Crimes Against Humanity" (please click and read the entire article):
"Greed for gold, capitalistic greed through the potential of wealth through the slave trade, and the religious beliefs of Apocalyptic Christianity were three primary motivations Columbus had for setting sail...."
Christopher Columbus kidnapped Taino people, taking their kindness for weakness. He raped and murdered Native peoples and asked the governor of Hispaniola to cut off the noses and ears of Native peoples resisting slavery.

His journal reveals the satanity of his character, with lines such as: "They would make fine servants.... With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.” And: “As soon as I arrived in the Indies, on the first Island which I found, I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever there is in these parts."

Christopher Columbus, through his attempts at enslaving Native peoples, set up the preemptive framework for the African slave trade. Natives were used to gather gold and if they couldn't find enough, their hands would be cut off or they would be killed.

It is estimated that 100 million (yes, one hundred) Native and indigenous peoples in South, Central, and North America died at the hands of European invaders and diseases.

In modern times:

Brutalities against indigenous peoples have not ended. The stealing and desecrating of Native and indigenous land continues to this day.

These are the facts. I can go on, but I won't. Educate yourselves and understand the brutality that this man enacted upon millions and millions of peoples, being the catalyst for the largest genocide in all of human history, and being the catalyst for ongoing oppression.

*end trigger warning*

I want to take this next section to talk about Popé and how amazing he was, his iconic rope, and his legendary story. I get excited just hearing about him.

From Matthew Martinez and Ohkay Owingeh:
Popé is revered as the leader of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Pueblo scholars refer to him as the one who carried out the first successful American revolution against a foreign colonial power, Spain. Popé (Ripe Pumpkin) was from Ohkay Owingeh (known today as San Juan Pueblo) and, as best can be determined, was born around 1630. Little is known about the upbringing of Popé. Though, there is no reason to believe he did not grow up like any other Pueblo Indian boy of his time who strictly followed the customs of his community. Religion was inextricably woven into the pattern of pueblo life. Young Pueblo boys were taught the ways of being and becoming a young man both in a secular sense and through a religious understanding. 
Popé’s presence was first recorded in 1675 when he and 47 other Pueblo men were prosecuted and indicted in Santa Fe for the alleged practice of sorcery. As a result of the trial, four men were sentenced to hanging. The remaining men were rounded up and publicly condemned to lashings and imprisonment. The Pueblo villages sent a delegation to Santa Fe to protest this treatment and threaten war. Fearful for his life, Governor Juan Francisco de Treviño released the prisoners and allowed them to return home. Upon being released, the Pueblo captives were told to give up their idolatry and iniquitous ways. This was a time of intense hardship for Pueblo people under the Spanish regime. Popé grew up seeing his people forced into the Spanish repartimiento system. Under this system Pueblo people served as slave labor and were required to provide food and supplies to the Spaniards. 
Pueblo scholar Joe Sando writes that the Spaniards constantly harassed religious leaders and that a Tewa kiva was filled with sand so the people could not hold their nightly dances. In Pueblo thought and culture, when religion is suppressed, the natural order of life is disrupted. Suppression of religion, according to Pueblo worldview, means a threat to the livelihood of the people 
It was against this background that Popé and other Tewa war captains began discussing what might be done to rid the country side of the invaders. Several Pueblo leaders gathered in Taos Pueblo to plan the Revolt. Popé emerged as a key organizer. It is suggested that he was an important individual because he had access to the inner religious circles of Taos Pueblo. It took a unique individual to orchestrate the Revolt across two dozen communities who spoke six different languages and were sprawled over a distance of nearly 400 miles - from Taos at one end to Hopi villages at the other. Pueblo people were prohibited from using horses. Moreover, during Spanish rule they were not allowed to use guns of any kind. 
Pueblo people come from a running culture. It is no surprise that Popé and his followers agreed that runners would be sent to each of the pueblos. The runners carried a deerskin strip tied with knots. Each knot represented the number of days remaining before the campaign against the Spanish would begin. Each morning at every pueblo a knot would be untied. When all the knots were untied, the uprising was to begin in all of the pueblos. This plan almost failed because several sympathizers notified the Spanish of the plan. Thus, the revolt began two days early and, on August 10, 1680, the Spanish were caught
by surprise. They retreated to Santa Fe and were eventually overpowered by a large number of Pueblo warriors.

On May 21, 2005, after a long struggle, the unveiling of the Popé statue for the National Statutory Hall took place at Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan Pueblo). This unveiling was in remembrance of the event that took place in 1680. Popé was the earliest individual to be honored in the collection of the U.S. Capitol. Cliff Fragua (Jemez Pueblo) was the first American Indian artist to sculpt a statue for the Statutory Hall. Popé joins the figure of the late Senator Dennis Chavez as New Mexico’s two contributions to the U.S. Capitol. The addition of Popé to the National Statutory Hall completes the group of 50 individuals chosen to represent the United States.

In the seven and a half foot marble rendition, Popé holds a knotted cord in his left hand, which was used to determine when the Pueblo revolt would begin. He holds a bear fetish in his right hand which symbolizes the center of the Pueblo world and religion. There is a pot behind Popé, which signifies Pueblo culture. The deerskin he is wearing is a symbol of his status. The shell necklace that he is wearing is a reminder of where life begins. Popé wears Pueblo moccasins and his hair is bound in a traditional Pueblo style. On his back are the scars that remain from the whipping he received for his participation and faith in Pueblo ceremonies and religion. Herman Agoyo, San Juan Pueblo, succinctly states the following about the importance of Popé:

“To the Pueblo people here, Popé is our hero. Tribes were on the verge of losing their cultural identity when the Pueblo Revolt brought everything back on track for our people.”
This is just one story. One person, from one tribe, amongst the hundreds and thousands of tribes and millions of Native and indigenous peoples. Queer Natives, women Natives, so many other Natives who haven't been in the spotlight (did you know some Native and indigenous peoples had a Two-Spirit term to identify non-binary peoples in their community? By non-binary, I mean people with genders that can't be described as either male or female). Please take this time and this day, especially, to learn about indigenous history, indigenous peoples, and their stories. Revolt against Columbus in your own minds.

If you are non-Native/indigenous and live on Native/indigenous land, consider what that means, and critically consider what part you (we) have to play in this oppression. How have we benefited? We play a role. Use this knowledge as an incentive for action.

Their stories, their existence, their fight, and their celebration exists to this day, from their protests of Pope Francis's canonization of a genocidal Catholic priest, to their fight for the sovereignty of their lands.

I haven't written about the individual cultures outside of resistance. It is not my place to "share" these cultures, given that I am not Native/indigenous, and given the violence of cultural appropriation that occurs to this day. Those "sexy Pocahontas" costumes you see perpetuate violence against Native peoples. According to Amnesty International:
Native American and Alaska Native women are more than 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than other women in the USA. Some Indigenous women interviewed by Amnesty International said they didn't know anyone in their community who had not experienced sexual violence. Though rape is always an act of violence, there is evidence that Indigenous women are more likely than other women to suffer additional violence at the hands of their attackers. According to the US Department of Justice, in at least 86 per cent of the reported cases of rape or sexual assault against American Indian and Alaska Native women, survivors report that the perpetrators are non-Native men. (emphasis, mine)
Yea. So if you see your child, your friend, of you wanting to dress up as a Native for Halloween, STOP YOURSELF, STOP THEM. Enact allyship: stop them, and make complaints to any store you see that sell these costumes. The costumes promote the rape of Native women (and Native men aren't doing most of the raping...the fetishization of Native culture and women lead to race-based violence).

That's why I don't want to talk about individual Native and indigenous cultures. These cultures are not mine to share, and sharing them might perpetuate cultural appropriation and violence.

Well, I can't say Happy Indigenous Peoples' Day - yet. Hopefully that day is coming soon. Sign on to this We the People petitionlet's get this name changed. Doing so will lead to educational initiatives in our schools, and in mass media, about Native and indigenous peoples, their histories, and their ongoing movements.

What are your thoughts? Share them in the comments below. And please, sign, share, and spread the petition! If we get 100,000 signatures, we are guaranteed a response from the federal government.