Writing Experimental Science Fiction: Experimenting with Time, Space, and Trust

Writing Experimental Science Fiction: Experimenting with Time, Space, and Trust

Experimental fiction is pretty self-explanatory in theory…except when it is not, and that is where I’ve found myself as I’ve begun a short piece that is totally unlike my usual fair. In the world of self-publishing being able to categorize and understand the possible audience for your story is key to unlocking marketing practices that most benefit you. Outside of that world being able to explain you story whether to potential readers, to workshops, to agents, or to yourself can be incredibly important in coming to understand what your fiction gives in terms of knowledge, entertainment, or even just understanding how it’s experimental. So not knowing what to call your story can be a real kick in the nards. So how do we come to begin unlocking what your story is? We start with a story. I’ll use my current work as an example, not because I am the authority but because you need to understand where I’m coming from first.

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The core elements of fiction are plot, character, and point of view. Often, experimental fiction takes a radical approach to these. Ex: A story titled After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned by Dave Eggers utilizes first-person point of view, but the first-person point of view belongs to a dog!

I didn’t intend to write the story, but somehow it spilled out of me when I had been experimenting with Written Kitten a site you can type stories into and assign certain goal posts to reward you with images of kittens or puppies (and one scantily clad 3D rendering of a lady someone accidentally tagged into the photo album the site uses)

Three hours later I had written the key components of a story that blurred science fiction with fantasy, and engaged in metaphysical visionary fiction. At the time I didn’t know if the last genre existed for certain, but apparently it does. It has it’s own wiki page and everything. I don’t know exactly where this story came from but as we speak I’ve taken a break from editing my CampNaNo novel to work on this book by writing this post. How does this help me? Well it’s more like how this conversation can help you?

How do we begin understanding our experimental fiction in order to begin learning how to describe it?

I tend to look at stories as integrated parts.

The Heart (the characters)

The Brain (the plot)

The Muscle (the obstacles surrounding those things)

The Skin (The set dressing/mood)

All of these come together in unique ways to tell your story, and how you begin to understand how they fit makes a difference in continuing to write your story, improve through edits, and enticing people. It is what you put down and how those things come together that define your story best.

The Heart of my story, Mind and Frost, are Daniella and Kenda, two Mentalists in a world were those with telepathic and psychic powers are viewed as suspicious especially Kenda whose powers have caused incredible heartache in the past. Their desires are mutual in one respect because they desire to be together, but what that means and how are constrained by the muscle and brain of the book. This aspect of the heart gives it a sweeter and more romantic edge…but how Kenda and Daniella interact is what has pushed me away from categorizing the book as a straight romance.

51ljfrbb4dl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Now here is the critical part, and something I think people often forget in talking about genre, which is there are aspects of every genre in most fiction. People I know who say “I can’t stand romances” often still like romances in fiction, but they don’t like the manifestation of romance in the romance genre. A good friend of mine has told me he can’t stand science fiction books that lean towards the space opera genre, but he absolutely adores the use of technology and plot in The Windup Girl.    The story is certainly not a space opera, but it has many of the same elements from warring factions to questions of humanity and survival. Yet for him the differences make all the difference just within that genre, and separate the two. How you use an element like romance and how the relationship is conducted should be useful in determining what your story is.

In my story, Mind and Frost, the couple has many theoretical conversations about the nature of existence, as well as, their own semi-imprisoned state and relationship to their doctors/caretakers. This goes beyond what is normally within the romance genre that readers have come to expect.Even in terms of language their interactions differ in basic ways. What is real to them is something outside of what you and I have been taught to conceive of. Time itself is different for them as in their dreams capes they struggle to differentiate between present and past.

While I’ll be sure to highlight the love story as a key component of the book I’ll avoid using the word romance to describe what Mind and Frost is for kindle marketing purposes. However, the key nature of their relationship is what drives the book, so I may in this blog and elsewhere describe the book as “Metaphysical romance” or “Romantic Science Fantasy”.

So what of the brain and muscle? By the time we meet them they’re in love, but Kenda is in a medically induced coma and their doctor fears her interacting with his dreams will cause him to wake up in a traumatic and destructive way. This forms the Muscle, and this muscle can be flexed melodramatically with Daniella weeping over their being apart; dramatically with her screaming at their doctor to have a heart and free him; or as I’ve chosen to handle it with a dry cynicism on her part. Kenda, not accepting of his fate now that he’s found love and finally realizing regardless the stories he’d told about freedom were lies, ceases to expect much but remains hopeful towards something else. How the heart responds to the muscle is what drives the actions of the brain. Random nerves fire between all these organs and the brain regulates it all by giving structure and guidelines.

In my work I have begun using questions to help guide thematic development once I’m past chapter two, which ultimately helps me understand what I am writing. The questions themselves can sit beside the short explanations of the plot as quick ways to tell you what your book should be about.

images (3)In Mind and Frost the brain is concerned with the question of both “what will you do to be free, and can you be free while bound by the customs and norms around you?” and “Can you be devoted to someone or something and still claim to free?” More simplified the brain is Freedom with a capital F. It isn’t in the context of just love or just a relationship. Because the relationship merely functions as a way to better understand those questions, I won’t call it’s genre primarily romance. Instead this makes it drift towards speculative fiction.

For your story the brain may be concerned with coming of age in a hostile environment, “Can we live a good life and still say we want to change”, or the meaning of privacy. It could simply be that you have two factions warring over territory and what it means to survive. All of this comprises the brain as you tie each scene together, coincidentally it also drives the heart and develops it thus forcing the other muscles–barriers, obstacles, incentives, and wants– to move as well.

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cosmic coz 51 kba: The Left Hand of Darkness Protagonists

Dr. Cohen-Sloane, Kenda and Daniella’s doctor and perhaps antagonist, function in ways deeply tied to questions of both spiritual and scientific importance. He questions his ethics, and so do his patients. The world is turning on Mentalists and he is responding to it while still trying to preserving his life and late-wife’s work, which forces this couple to respond. The brain, questions of spirituality/love/freedom, happen in the context of that plot. They get the muscles moving.

Much of the story’s design evokes some of what I loved about Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness in that the science fiction elements are grounded not with marvelous wonder or trepidation, but with the practical eyes of people we would recognize in our lives. In fact Le Guin, somewhat of an experimental via speculative fiction, manages to provide insight in a society without true gender and uses elements of psychology and social understanding to create not just science fiction, but truly speculative and feminist science fiction. The brain of Left Hand is distinctive, challenging gender and cultural absolutism within the context of this complex and rich relationship that is in this conflict ridden world where trust is hard to come by. The government officials using Genly Air and Estraven as pawns in a greater game are muscles, pulling and constraining, as much as the differences arising out of the heart(the character’s backgrounds and existences) are.

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And let’s wrap it up with one of the hardest and easiest aspects of figuring out just what the hell you’re creating…the set dressing and mood, which make up the skin in this analogy. The skin is an organ, binding everything inside like a nice package. For literature, this isn’t just the cover, but time period, the world you’ve chosen, the class/ethnicity/etc of the world’s characters, and also the style you’ve chosen to write with. Very few true romances begin with the same set up as a grisly murder in a romance novel. You can easily experiment with that, but that’s the general rule of thumb. What sort of skin does your story have?

Are the characters prone to brooding and the atmosphere echoes that? Do scenes often feature cramped corridors or evoke a sense of being trapped? Do you go into detail describing cotton fields and hot southern Louisiana summer days in the year 1910? How you construct the world of your story and the type of world you construct work with all those other parts to more clearly define what your story is even if it is experimental or an unconventional book or unconventional short story.
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So often people will say that figuring out genre is the easiest thing in the world, but non-traditional or genre blurring stories don’t have it so easy. I’ve even been told by an experienced author that if a person doesn’t have a set genre they may as well put the book aside or publish it under an alternative pen name. Yet I think we can find a happy medium between saying “just experimental” and perhaps misnaming our book’s genres, but taking the time to dissect the body of our work. Ironically that may just give it the most life.

Disagreements? Questions? Comments? I’d truly love to hear your thoughts below.!

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Finding a Friend for After the End of the World: Short Fiction

Finding a Friend for After the End of the World: Short Fiction

She ravaged the remains of the run down 7/11, ignoring the moths fluttering around her head and hand. The flashlight brought them to her, but for some reason it reminded her of death. Maybe it was all the moths she’d see on the boxes of VHS tapes in Blockbuster as a kid, or maybe it was the moth wings brought to mind images of the dance macabre. She suspected it went deeper, but she tried to ignore the thought as she sifted through a pile of half rotten and mashed packaged snacks. It smelled like maggots and rot. She felt crawling against and between her fingers, but her fears couldn’t survive in a dead world. So she buried them. She was so tired of potatoes and tomatoes. They grew so easily and could be so yummy.

She used to love them, but then again she loved a lot of things. Now she couldn’t keep the texture of tomatoes down. Her partner said her eyes looked sunken and urged her to eat. Last night she had her ration, four tomato slices with stale potato crackers. She didn’t make it  past the smell before her mouth filled with bile. They took her plate, and told her man not to waste food. Even at the memory of sourness on her tongue her stomach growled. She’d tasted something that day and though it proved foul it’d been something. Hunger gnawed at her being. She wished they’d ration her more meat or that her man would have better luck fishing the rivers. He came home that afternoon with nothing but foraged mushrooms. She was allergic, but he tried to trade them. It’d been pointless, but a good man always tried. They wouldn’t ever give him what they were worth, and what they wanted to give was a quarter ration of potato.
Bottom line was waste, and she’d been waste. They did not like to feed her much and they only fed her man because he proved large and helpful. He knew science;medicine and botany. Once he planted a magnificent garden and they had so much basil they fried it and put it on top of pasta, pasta salad, grilled fish….

Drool escaped the side of her mouth, she slurped. Everyone knew she couldn’t go on this way. Her “halfie” child would have no milk even if she survived that long. But no she found this gas station outside the sanctuary. They didn’t like her white boyfriend anymore than the south valley supremacists had liked her, but at the very least they let her forage in piece. She never found anything, but today had to be different. Today she’d have coffee and tea and chocolate. A Hershey’s Special Dark with an Almond Joy on the side. Another string of drool escaped her, but she didn’t bother to pull it back.

Food. She needed real food.

Her hand plunged into the heart of the pile and then a sinking sharpness forced her to gasp and pull back. A squeak. A scurrying flash towards a corner. Rabbis. “Oh god”. She looked at her large belly, and felt a kick somewhere near her kidney. She swallowed, and followed the scurrying.

Orange. She raised a brow, peering through her smudged glasses. It was a large hamster covered in long angora like fur. Probably, she thought, the poor thing had once been a prize winning pet. She saw the small mound of dirt out back near the little house, and the tombstone marked with a crudely carved Islamic star and moon above “Mel”. Had it been a little boy or girl or? Did it matter?

Her arm stung, and she held up her light to see bright red drops forming perfectly circular pools between her index finger and thumb. She looked to the scared fur ball and remembered how she always wanted to try Peruvian style guinea pig. She flashed the light on the former pet and it squirmed. It’s hair fell revealing large brown eyes, like those of a plush toy. She swallowed. She used to like toys.

“Would you be my dinner?” she asked softly.

It stared back, eager as though it were waiting, wanting some big crescendo to their encounter. She felt the air thicken, an unspoken tension between two barely surviving beasts. She’d been a woman in her heart and in her mind and in her body. Now? They made her so weak she couldn’t be called anything vaguely human, but she smiled. To her surprise the little beast squeaked, and she jumped, which made it jump.

“Should I kill myself?” she asked “If you won’t be my dinner then should I end this.”

It turned it’s head and began sniffing a dirty aluminum and paper chips package.

“Oh…I see.” She coughed, and felt another kick that resounded through her as though the whole of her were a great empty amphitheater.

Food. That’s all she needed.
She returned to digging, tossing trash and junk aside as unclean insects rubbed against her skin and dirty mushy packages.  Then she felt something slick and smooth, like a glossy mirror but bendy. She gently squished. It crinkled. She pulled back her hand and there she saw a 3 Mustketeers bar. The package almost glistened it looked so clean, as thought he gunk stuck to everything else. She examined it only to find it clean, and so she yanked off her gloves, tossing them aside. Then with gusto ripped it open. She devoured half, the overwhelming and once familiar sweetness made her eyes cross and her heard race. It tasted so perfect on her tongue. A movement caught her eye by her leg.

Orange. The creature squeaked and crawled over her legs and around her, over the garbage and then to her side. Big of goo were stuck in its fur, and now she saw how neglect had left its once beautiful fur unkempt and matted.  It must have been here alone for a good year if not months, scraping by on whatever the family left behind in the riots between the Self-Abolitionist Movement and the Northern White Brotherhood. That’d swept this neighborhood up until…Well, supplies got short. It must have been so alone. And it must have seen the clashes between the Brithouse Gang with their west coast hippy anarchy, at least they’d given her food, and the DPD, who had given her nothing except advice to be self-sufficient. Darwin or Die. Fuck that noise.

What did the hamster think about all this bullshit? What did it think about its ruined life? Did anyone care? Did she?. He must have been depressed, lost, and drowning in isolation.. She looked at the candy bar.  She slowly reached down her hand, and again her eyes met the hamster’s. It didn’t know humanity, but neither did she. She coughed. It jumped, but then it sniffed her chocolatey fingers and slowly extended its tongue. One lick, then two, then several. It climbed into her hand. Her stomach screamed at her, and she shoved the hamster deep into her pocket. She broke off a chunk of the chocolate bar and set it down beside the hamster.

Hunger was everything, but even in that hunger she could still give some form of kindness.

Why Does Blackness have to be Separated from Science Fiction?

Why Does Blackness have to be Separated from Science Fiction?

Why must black authored and black created science fiction so compelled to separate itself from race or be only about race? This question seems like one perfectly crafted in the minds of far too many otherwise smart and interesting people. I say otherwise because the dichotomy is a false one. A few years ago I came across Andre Seewood’s article Freeing (Black) Science Fiction from the Chains of Race , and it has taken me this long to put what bothers me about this perspective into words. My race doesn’t simply stop being because I’m coding, because I’m researching, because I’m cooking. Who I am and how I engage in both activities and relationships is related to my upbringing and education both formally and socially. My being a black author, a black artist, and a sci-fi fan fits together. So why then is my race, my gender, or something else about me so anti-thetical to the science fiction elements or the “story” I tell?

Because for some reason we’ve been taught that “whiteness”, and in America whiteness without the accent, is neutrality. As a result non-whiteness or ethnic displays are outside of neutrality. To be black, to write black, is to be examined for that blackness. This can be a serious problem. Seewood argues  in this essay that “placing the racial frame upon the science fiction/fantasy/or futurist work of African-Americans hastily discard[s] the genuine scientific, fantasy or futurist aspects of the work, which in turn, weakens and /or perverts the author’s original intent.”

While others have addressed the more technical problems of his analysis, I find Seewood takes this a step too far, and asks the wrong questions. The idea that we can just pull race out of experience is one that simply does not make sense and can only be supported by the notion that there are stories independent of race(gender, orientation, etc.) and then there are “racial (gender, orientation, etc) stories”. It relies on this assumption that race doesn’t effect stories in which race isn’t an overt concern, which relies on the assumption that white writers and creators who aren’t examined through a racial lense don’t tell racial stories or stories from a white perspective. That simply isn’t true. Everyone from everywhere has an ethnic perspective.

Lovecraft and Tolkien told “race” stories. Star Trek told “race” stories. Planet of the Apes has overt racial connotations due to the very history of its creation. Nothing is made in a vacuum, and the influences are there. But for some reason race is seen as an other type of analysis beneath the fantasy, the horror, the science, and the dystopia. The ethnic and racial elements of these stories are acknowledged, but they’re never called white science fiction. These stories aren’t chained to race, enslaved to it, or otherwise. While black science fiction and fantasy is somehow othered, as though every black centered story is categorically different and somehow of lesser interest than its white counterparts. Seewood reflects a very real irritation with the world of pop culture, anthropological, and literary analysis. He is right to question where a black centered story must be a race story. But it is the wrong question he is asking, and that has very real consequences to the conversation he tries to start.

6c123b022b82b6431b90fe07de2fab30With all that said I do understand why the question is being asked. The question is why are black stories somehow inherently more about race than other white films. The answer is because people have been defined as white(and primarily straight, anglo saxon, and attractive), and white is universal while anything else isn’t considered so. As a writer, I ask myself what will my story be viewed as? A black story? A race story? OR just a love story between a waitress and a stranger? The desire to have our stories just seen as stories is incredibly valid because often our stories are only filtered through a racial lens. But removing the black from a character’s experience won’t solve that.

Seewood offers a concept to film makers, saying

Alternately, if you do not want to carry racial inequities forward into the future of your story context you just simply have to cast an African-American in the lead role and concentrate on the dynamics of the central “scientific” themes within the story. “

Great.

Cool.

But why does race have to separate? Why do we create this incompatibility where writers and creatives have to choose between blackness and science? It simply feels a lot like when people called me an oreo in high school, as though blackness was separated from me. The thinking was that reading comics wasn’t racial…but it wasn’t something people thought black kids did. That sure as hell sounds racial to me. My race had nothing to do with my comics, but I was black while reading comics. So why do we keep using this language, as though race is only a factor or exists when the story is about race. I think Seewood’s suggestion is awesome, but the fact is the framing of this arguement is so often predicated on the wrong question.

400px-BrainCloud-and-scientist_mango_concept-art_04It isn’t why must this be about race. It’s why is my race so anti-thetical to just telling a story? It’s why is the story assumed to be “racial” for latinxs, asians, blacks, and others but not for (just guessing) 99.9% of whites? The Irish have very ethnic stories, but I’ve very rarely heard Irish centered works in science fiction only viewed or considered ethnically. Black and other POC need to stop letting this be gotten away with. Whites need to stop letting this be gotten away with and accept that they and their ancestors created and were supported by a world where they have been taught to be seen as neutral/universal/default without ethnicity except with convenient.

A few years ago the film The Best Man Holiday was called a “race” film  by USA Today and shocked people that it topped the box office. It’s a romantic comedy. Why was it a race film? Because it concerned the culture, lives, and experiences of black characters played by black actors. Alyssa Rosenberg had a brilliant response in this article If ‘The Best Man Holiday’ Is ‘Race-Themed,’ So Are These Ten Other Movies:

“[…] the idea that culture about characters of color is necessarily about race also creates the assumption that stories about white characters are inherently deracinated. Some white people, like Jews, are exempt from this, and the recent spike in Boston movies has put more Irish-American characters and Irish-American humor to the fore. But for the most part, the experiences of white characters are treated like they’re neutral, rather than representative of their whole race, or revealing in some ways of the pathologies and problems of various subsets of white America.

[…]
So with all of that in mind, if The Best Man Holiday is a “race-themed” movie, so are these ten other movies released in 2013:

1. Blue Jasmine: Woody Allen’s latest, which follows Cate Blanchett as the widow of a man she believed was a wealthy financier, but who actually turned out to be a Ponzi schemer, is a study in the ways in which the performance of whiteness are inflicted by class. […]

2. The Heat: Paul Feig’s buddy-cop comedy is set in Boston, and in Boston Police Department Detective Shannon Mullins (Melissa McCarthy) and her extended family, Feig has endless opportunities to riff on the very particular culture of Boston Irish-American families. It’s a milieu, in Feig’s reading, that demands a strong code of loyalty, even in the face of minor criminality, […]

3. The Bling Ring: Based on the real-life story of a group of California teenagers who began stealing clothes, handbags, and jewelry from celebrities’ often less-than-closely-guarded homes, Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring is substantially about the ways that white (and Asian) people view black culture as a symbol of affluence. […] Coppola lets their posing speak volumes about the intersections they perceive between race and class, and their attempts to appropriate cultural cachet that isn’t available to them as the children of middle-class and affluent Hollywood operators.

4. Don Jon: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s debut as a screenwriter and director follows the misadventures of Jon (Gordon-Levitt), who is simultaneously an Italian-American bartender, a regular Catholic church-goer, and a porn addict. […]one of the movie’s virtues is the way it demonstrates how Italian-American traditions persist and interact with the conventions of modern life. Like everything else in Don Jon, the glimpses of ethnic life are turned up to eleven, but that doesn’t mean the movie isn’t perceptive about the compromises young white people who want to honor their roots but enjoy the pleasures, sinful and otherwise, of contemporary life make all the time.

5. Pacific Rim:  […]

6. Star Trek: Into Darkness:[…]If Pacific Rim and Ender’s Game are about how quickly humans will put aside their animosities to destroy a species that doesn’t look like them, Star Trek: Into Darkness asks how far we’re willing to trust people just because they look like us, particularly when they look like privileged, physically perfected versions of us. […]

7. Pain and Gain: […]

8. Admission: […] Admission does some very funny things with the way race is both minimized and played up in the college admissions process.

9. The Great Gatsby: In its juxtaposition of old money to new money, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s linking of new money to Jewish criminality, The Great Gatsby is all about whiteness and status, and what kind of privilege and acceptance money can or can’t buy. […]

10. The East: The white guilt movie of the year. […]

I shortened this excerpt for length and really recommend you check out the article because overall it touches on how if black stories are “Racial” every story about white folk is too even if we choose not to recognize it.

The only reason a black author of science fiction’s rich worlds, gripping stories, and exciting characters would hindered by the racial elements is if the whole of those worlds, stories, and characters is ONLY analyzed through race. Blackness is considered so separate from simply existing. It may shock some people but…a person can be black and just exist. They can exist, be in a story entirely unrelated to their race, and still be black. Take the man from Seewood’s example, cast the movie just like that, and then don’t go around in interviews saying “It’s not a race story! It’s a story about humanity” as though somehow my race or ethnicity or anything isn’t part of humanity and the character’s experience with it.

The very premise of the idea of “Freeing” science fiction by black authors is that African Americans, and ultimately other POC, are stuck with their works being framed by race alone where it is simply not appropriate to do so. That requires comparatives to other work, the suggestion that other works can be viewed in isolation and that the viewer can simply turn off their racial and ethnic backgrounds. We cannot. Plenty have tried. What we can do is begin acknowledging that a story told by a white author featuring mainly (and far too often almost only) white charact

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ers isn’t some universal story.  I often explain to people, usually white friends, that I’m black but that’s not all that I am but don’t act color blind. Somehow they don’t get it a lot of the time. but it’s really not that hard.

I am black.
I live a black life with black experiences.
Don’t pretend you don’t see race.
Don’t pretend you don’t see my race.
I am black, and just because I am in my role as a researcher or a scientist those aren’t categorically incompatible aspects of me or anyone.

telemmglpict000131613999-large_trans_nvbqzqnjv4bqpvlberwd9egfpztclimqfyf2a9a6i9ychsjmeadba08The worst that can happen with a black character just “being” is an insincere story that feels less like a thought experiment or just the character, but progressiveness that just chooses not to address race. It feels like bullshit color blindness. As forward thinking and refreshing as it can be to have a black soldier talk about his white sweetheart without it being a race thing in Doctor Who, removing the real world context can be both subversive and obscure reality. This character was just a soldier, but ignoring his race was impossible in the context of a Victorian army. But just as impossible to ignore was the that he was a prime example of a good soldier paying the consequences of terrible leadership. He had multiple aspects to him, but he felt like a check off box. Not because he was black, as some suggest, but because he was black and the reality of being a black Victorian  was ignored. He still could have been just a soldier, and his comrades could have treated him well…but he was a black man from the 1800s. I liked the character, but I just couldn’t fully get on bored with the way this was handled.

Somehow my existence as a African American author is one that both confirms and confuses the expectations of those around me, and I am not alone. When you’re a science fiction writer of any kind you always encounter two camps, one praising “hard” scientifically focused sci-fi and one praising the “soft” social commentary and aesthetic elements. But as a black woman in this genre and fantasy I encounter a very different cross sections of these camps both eager to regard and disregard racial elements in my work. Race plays a role, or we focus on the story. Somehow even other black folk have been taught this frame of thinking, and while the conversations about it are helpful and healthy for the black and science fiction communities in general…it is inherently problematic because it derails what the discussion needs to really be about. It asserts that science fiction, fantasy, etc. shouldn’t be viewed via race when the conversation should be about why the hell a story about black folk is somehow only about race.

So often I feel as though people like to make markers, separating blackness from anything perceived as neutral. No race should be neutral before others. No black centered story should be talked about like its a “Race film” or viewed as only racial when there are a thousand more complex science fiction elements happening. Of course  not all stories and experiences and interchangeable. It’d be inauthentic to say race, gender, etc. never mattered just as it would be inauthentic to say those were the only things that made black centered or authored science fiction intriguing. Yet it doesn’t matter either way so long as we keep saying white science fiction is just science fiction and black science fiction can’t just exist as science fiction. In the end we have to reconcile those facts to move forward in the genre and begin building new exciting worlds and stories, black or otherwise.

*****Check Out Works by Black authors here and here******

****Also check out my short science fiction The Bestiary and Life of SVX99: Part One ****

Dear White Authors: Here’s Why You Suck at Writing POC

Lately in my writer’s groups and circles I’ve been seeing a lot of white writers saying that they feel as though they can’t write POC, or it will be inherently seen as offensive. They bemoan POC as being controlling and over sensitive, or even rightfully concerned, but that it shouldn’t be that way. White authors, they posit, shouldn’t have to fear that their work will be taken the wrong way. They didn’t  mean it that way. They are really trying, or they’ll just only write white people then. The story I see is they’re told by friends, editors, etc. that they shouldn’t write POC as a white person. How goddamn un-American blah blah blah. The funny thing is if they looked around plenty of white folk are writing great and enjoyable POC characters that are praised on the page and screen. So what gives? Why can they write POC and be white, while other white authors can’t?

Well, I’m here to tell you why and that reasoning you think is correct can’t be your shield anymore. This one is gonna hurt, and it should.

The reason you are told this is because you talk about POC in a way the demonstrates to those people you can’t present POC without the loaded baggage of centuries old systemic racism and stereotyping. And you never want to listen to that being pointed out. It isn’t just POC trying to stop you from writing freely. We don’t care about that. We care about what you’re saying about us because we’re sick of the same bullshit being peddled as truth. It is POC hearing your words and hearing how you have internalized and attached race to certain stereotypes and beliefs.

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A prime example that is shameful. “some black girl” v.s “little blonde innocent” all implying those things are not what black girls are.

If a POC says you need to stop writing, and think about how you even asked them their opinion then you said something way off the mark. You demonstrated to them your incompetence on race and/or your ingrained prejudices. You say you don’t really like to write black characters, or you begin describing a character idea and it becomes increasingly clear you have tied stereotypes to race. When called out, and people point to this baggage the response is intense defensiveness. No one likes to be implied to be a racist. However, we live in a world of ethnic and racial baggage that crawls into our language and very concept of race.

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This isn’t a conspiracy this is a repeated trend with Blink as a minor exception because the comic character actually has hair that color. Either way the idea is that these are “cool” Asian girls, edgy Asian girls, perhaps even unique Asian girls because they aren’t stereotypically submissive/conformist. The result is the creation of a new stereotype. Even positive stereotyping and depictions are still stereotypes.

An example(not linking because of privacy) would be a recent role playing game forum online where someone asked if their black character would be a stereotype. The asker was thoughtful, but the question was still worded to be concerned with how they were seen, not the stereotyping. A responder asked “why did you make her black?”, and people were sincerely flummoxed that the question would be asked. It didn’t make sense. They didn’t see what was obvious to the black responder, and refused to. The character in question was a sex worker, a formerly teenage mother of two, from the ghetto; described as strong, courageous, and devoted to her kids with a smart mouth and street smarts. Things kind of rambled out from there and the question never got answered. People said don’t put on a “faux-black affect of speech” during the game, and then people started asking why not. To those people, these elements, stereotypes, were inseparable from black people. It can’t be wrong if it is the “truth” and that character was a “truth”. Yet  that character could have easily been any other race.

The question they couldn’t fathom asked why did those traits become attached to a black character, and no one understood that because the baggage is glued to race in their minds.

It’s part of why it is so common to hear nerdy POC be called coconuts, oreos, bananas, etc. The very concept of X race even in creative media is still loaded down, and if an author cannot transcend that it shows.

Humanae

So what of the white writers who can write POC? They listen, they learn, and they don’t just sympathize they do their damnedest to empathize. Because the truth is it ain’t all white people, and the white authors who say they can’t write POC because of POC responding to their works are lost, at best, and willfully delusional, at worst. In America blacks may be a smaller part of the population, but that smaller part still numbers in the millions. Same with latinxs, east Asians, and virtually all peoples. There are sources you can turn to conquer your “fear” of being perceived as racist.

1-b3gb4CL6R1NuqIzwgegU8wIn building this blog I’ve stumbled upon so many posts about people of color and how to describe them. At this point dozens if not hundreds of easily available blogs talk about describing POC like Writing with Color, Springhole ,  or words from reflective authors of color like N.K Jemsin . Yet it seems like there are more people wanting to complain or ask the same questions ad nauseum. And asking this question isn’t a problem, but one begins to wonder about how isolated white folk are when this comes up.

As a person of color in America, my life has been drowned in consuming white culture because white culture is mainstream culture. In a few days I’ll have a post that goes into more details on this, but the short version is POC in the west can’t escape learning everything about white culture as simply existing, neutral. White isn’t just white it is beige, khaki, and as a result I’ve learned a lot about it. I’ve worn it and studied how it’s shaped. Yet as a black person my culture has been whittled down to pockets based on kernels of truth filtered through white perceptions of my body, my life, who I am, and what blackness means. Even in the black community that filter has traces everywhere.

I have countless examples of not only white friends and lovers, but the whole of the film, television, and literary industries to inform my white characters. The depictions of black, brown, yellow, and everybody in between is historically and currently limited. But before you go saying “Well, D that’s why white authors shouldn’t be judged or penalized or critiqued,” that still isn’t an excuse in 2017.

There are authors of color online on every platform. There are Meetup.com groups, universities with POC students, and essays like this that can inform you. If you choose not to listen, to continuously defend yourself before listening to what POC are telling you– that your words are filled with old stereotypes– then the problem is you. You can choose to change, to learn, to be open to listening, and to know that it isn’t POC’s job to educate you all the damn time…or you could not, but you don’t get to use the same excuses anymore.

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Some choice descriptions of color that are wonderful.

I know tons of white writers who ask these questions about how to portray POC better. They seek out POC and POC writers and learn from them. These writers, if they can, travel and live with the people they wish to write about. If they can’t they find resources, meet people near them, and explore the many cultures of the world and how race impacts perceptions. They don’t come in with an attitude bemoaning POC telling them they need to learn better. Of course all humans can be defensive…but they still try to really listen. In the end they learn to listen to themselves because they begin to notice how odd it is they tend to use “savage” when talking about black folk or African inspired things not just as a colloquialism. They notice how odd it is that they keep writing Asian characters as though Asian cultures are interchangeable; or like all Asian parents are the same and not just of a particular cultural background. They notice how they keep making innocent characters white and light, and cast antagonists as darker from hair to eyes to skin.

The white authors who listen have the courage to actually challenge themselves, and learn how to navigate stereotypes and their own prejudice. They accept they will make mistakes, and listen enough to try to learn from them in order to become not only better writers but better people. They know they have baggage, picked up from society, that they may not even realize is racial baggage because it is their normal…and they realize it shouldn’t be normal, and it can’t be allowed to flourish unintentionally in their writing.

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POC, educated in literature by white influenced literary classes and texts also have to unlearn the standard food and object descriptions to reach beyond to something richer and less objectifying than always saying mocha or chocolate. We all have to work, and if you choose not to then that’s on you.

But second to all this is, you have to accept that POC can criticize you as much as we please. This may surprise you because you choose not to think about it, but I’ve meant hundreds of white folks in my short life who truly deeply are offended that POC would dare have negative opinions about them. They aren’t even aware of how differently they respond to, usually, immigrants and dark people. They don’t hear the patronizing or condescending attitude that accompanies their defensiveness. The insinuation that POC just don’t get it, isn’t racism…it’s just anger? But it usually ain’t and people of color, especially black people, have been forced to learn the difference over the centuries. POC aren’t stupid or hysterical. The critique of a POC, especially an immigrant or a dark person, has been coded in our society as doubly insulting, a diminishing of character or intellect. (And let us not forget that other POC engage in this behavior as well against black and dark people)

This attitude doesn’t just belong to the 90 year old grandmother whose racism is excused as “that’s just grandma”. It’s the 20 something year old white coworker who sees my critique of their plan as more insulting, who denies that they treat black coworkers differently when they have a tendency to try to report them to their boss for “unprofessionalism” or acting maliciously. So let me say this:

If you are more afraid or mortified by the thought of a POC saying your work is disrespectful or stereotypical than actually dealing with why you created a problematic and racist work then the problem above all things else is you.

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Speaking of undertones…

Repeatedly, the undertones of the defensive remarks from white writers frustrated at the responses their works– filled with passive veiled racism– is that they shouldn’t be critiqued this way. This in part goes back to the first problem of connecting a stereotypes being part of how different races are defined. They believe they shouldn’t be critiqued because they don’t see what’s wrong or erroneous about what they’ve made. There’s a voice going “But this is true!” or “But this is just how black folk are described” or “Well I think Asian guys who break dance are cool!”. They destroy the conversation by rendering POC into being inherently wrong, liars, or fascists opposing their creative freedom.

 

 

This I one of the most insidious legacies of racism because it seems so harmless. No one dies. No towns get fire bombed like parts of Tulsa. Generally no one gets denied usage of anything public. It simply relies on one socialization, one life lesson, one gift from the past to white descendents who can be as liberal or as nice as they want. That one thing is the belief that POC don’t know as much as white folk even when it comes to the experiences, the trends, and the linguistic/creative issues surrounding race or ethnicity. So they should not be questioned, and this thought isn’t necessarily conscious, but it is pervasive because of that very reason. If you don’t acknowledge it or disarm it then you won’t challenge it. Then when you encounter a black person saying, “It’s very odd and racist that you made this character black and then also have her be this series of walking stereotypes even if you perceive some nobility about those stereotypes” it becomes a personal attack deeper than a standard critique.

The result is half of ya’ll seem stuck here alternating between using ignorance, denial, and defensiveness as a shield. Sometimes using other POC as a shield because a handful agree with you as though we’re a monolith, and they come rolling out not realizing how you just used them as a tool or a dog to be summoned at your leisure. The other have are still having to explain this shit, and look at us POC like “I’m so sorry.” and experience an iota of what it’s like to be a POC because we get that fairly often(especially if you’re in the south in a “nice” part of town the other ethnic family acts up and all eyes fall on you. It is total bullshit). And it isn’t. It’s an observation, a critique, a perspective, and if a hell of a lot of people are explaining why and saying why your work is deeply flawed in a racist way then something is probably actually wrong.

But there is all this other shit in the way, bogging down your writing and your life. Being nice to a POC or even other POC doesn’t free you from prejudice. I grew up in the southern U.S, sweetheart, we bleed nice and that ain’t NEVAH stopped racism or prejudice. Plenty of people were nice to my kinfolk when they cleaned their houses and talked shit in the next sentence. Plenty of writers can create amazing innovative worlds loaded, unintentionally, with the stereotypes and associations of the real world. It doesn’t make a difference. A person can be nice and talented, and that has nothing to do with if they’re capable of showing people as people, or if they write hurtful, lazy, and incredibly problematic aspects to their imagined species, cultures, and real world races. Whether it is Earth or Nabu, a human colony or Vulcan, if your characters read like caricatures or have dubious elements you will be critiqued. POC , like anyone else, can critique you how ever the hell we like…and I can assure you POC know a lot more about racism than you. It is an entirely different experience to be white in the world, and in the U.S, than black or dark or yellow or what have you. The slights inflicted on others are taken for granted as truths, but they are not.

You can be more than wrong. You can create and incorporate out right racial lies and prejudices in your work. IF you’re called out on it you can either be a coward or not. You can listen and consider….or not. You can get an attitude….or not. But if you keep writing X race and it sounds eerily stereotypical you should question yourself. You shouldn’t get mad that people noticed.

But I doubt that many of you will. Instead you’ll do something else, something better writers don’t do…

You resent. You justify. You assert in a thousand different passive to overly aggressive ways that your work is correct, valid, and even reflective of POC. It can’t be racist or come from stereotypes, you say, because there are blacks like this. She just sort of happened to be black, right? You’re a good person, and a good writer, and all of those nasty POC don’t know what they’re talking about, right? They don’t get what you’re saying, and you just have to make them understand. Now you’ve tried, and they still don’t change their tune? Oh well they just don’t get you, right? Who cares what they think about your work! After all you have those two or four black people you know and they like you? They get you and the nasty ones are just not capable of understanding your genius and even if you did mess up it doesn’t matter because it wasn’t intentional maliciousness! You spout shit like that, and then wonder why POC don’t want to deal with your trifling ass writing anymore.

In short you don’t give a damn about POC. You only care about looking good, and anyone with a lick of sense can tell the difference.

Building Better Dystopias

Building Better Dystopias

Dystopian fiction is the artistic expression of our fascination with ruin, of our societal/political/economic fears, and in a way an exciting coping mechanism that allows us to peer back at our world and question it. From Animal Farm to Hunger Games, dystopian fiction is almost inescapable. These days it may be the realm of YA fiction, but dystopian worlds have always been in our minds. To some it comes on judgement day, and to others it looms nearer the more we deny climate change. One thing all dystopias have in common is this…the world is fucked. For characters and stories to make sense and thrive writers have to know how to build that world. That is hard.

For the last few months I’ve been going through my old files, and found an a story I wrote a few years ago set in a world where the U.S government had broken down, the U.S had been attacked, and in the chaos civil wars and gang fights became normalized. The story is honestly loosely based on a “what-if” involving a lot of personal struggles and fears. Maya the main character and her husband Tucker are an interracial couple who moved from the east coast further inward to avoid conflict. They’re free of literally all their burdens after being separated from family, and as Maya jokes “hey no student loans”. But the question becomes what do they do now. As time goes on Maya wants a baby, and unfortunately they realize that where once common medical practice may have helped they are at the will of nature even more than man. The mundane truly becomes the desired, as they struggle to stay alive in a world where it wouldn’t be abnormal for someone to call Tucker a race traitor or for someone to barter for band-aids. As I was rereading my work I noticed a few problems but two hit me in the face with a baseball bat.

  1. The vagueness of the world hurt the themes.
  2. The mundane aspects of the world were what set it apart.

These realizations prompted me to revise the story and include it in my short story anthology Reality Echoes, which I will be self-publishing by the end of the year. With that said I am basically rewriting 90% of the story because it was weak, slow, and at points became dull. Some writers have a nasty habit of becoming so invested in the inner lives of their characters, and then flopping with anything that makes those lives interesting in the context of the world. As a teenager I wrote so many stories without story because of that fact. How many did I write? Well there’s a large cardboard box in the middle of my room at my mother’s house filled to the top with only my notebooks from ages 12 to 18. None of those stories ever got done. Why? Because they sucked. Well, they didn’t suck(I think. I hope.), but they weren’t exactly fleshed out stories. Even the best writer has to be able to give a sense of story even if that story is utter nonsense, and if you’re writing genre then you better make it clear where that story sits in the world you make.Over the years I’ve begun a studious practice of expanding my work, focusing on plot and world building.

But somehow I dropped the ball with this dystopia.

It wasn’t the vagueness of how it came to be that hurt the story though it didn’t help. The reader would be left wondering, as the workshop I wrote it for was, what makes life so difficult…and what makes everyone play into the system, try to maintain the old way of life, not be able to maintain the old way of life, etc. in order to contextualize what Maya and Tucker were going through. And that workshop group didn’t want paragraphs. They knew they didn’t need them, but they needed more world building for me to be able to successfully tell a character story.

Let’s talk about how to build some dystopian visions…

When building a dystopia you have to be able to explain to yourself how that world came to be, and why people allowed it. If conditions become so intolerable that people feel they have nothing to lose then they will revolt. We see this in every nation and every culture. So if you’re writing a world similar to the Hunger Games you have to make it very clear. Why do the citizens do nothing? Why do they let their children be taken? Because until the first movie they feared those who had left their districts in shambles from a past war. When you, in your story, detail that you don’t have to give a detailed explanation, but you have to make that clear. They feared the awesome firepower of the wealthy and their forces. When *SPOILER* a particular character dies after trying to just stay alive, after the world sees a child die in the hands of another child when they were once strangers…the people begin to see their conditions as intolerable. There’s nothing to lose because what little they have can be taken in a heartbeat. The personal life of Katniss and Rue’s untimely death are personal character arches the propel the world forward. While Rue’s death certainly had troubling racial implications her death served as a catalyst (it also gave a rare example of a black character being pure and innocent without being infantile). The world was given full and undiluted context of the level of sadness and violence that existed within it in one powerful moment.

In Brave New World, the personal beliefs of that world are the reason for not revolting. People are built, and they are told they are valued without actually being truly valued as individuals. Everyone is given the same lie that life needs order only provided by a tyrannical system. In real world North Korea harsh generational punishments and constant propaganda about North Korea, about the U.S wanting to destroy the people, and misinformation keep the population in check. The revolting elements are seen as fruitless, but more so the alternative to dictatorship is an unknown with an enemy waiting for weakness outside the nation. Is that true? Not exactly, but it feels real. Dystopia isn’t the natural result of a society falling apart. Anarchy isn’t natural to humans. We build communities, families, hierarchies, and societies because that’s the best way for us to survive and find contentment. We come together to fight against that which threatens survival and that contentment both in our daily lives and as large groups.

So when you say your world is dystopian you need to understand and convey to your reader why it stays that way.

For worlds like in my story where society crumbles things can be more vague far more easily, but that doesn’t take the burden off. Truthfully, it is worse because you have to really dig into the darker impulses of humanity as a response to survival. That’s not saying every world should be gritty and dark. Ugh anything but. There can be marvelous diversity in environment. Yet you have to convey what people have done and will do to survive. What in this world makes your characters able to survive, or even thrive in a disorder wasteland?

In my world the country is messed up. In some places the government is still in some control, in other places militias have taken over, racial and ethnic hate groups aren’t in hiding, supplies aren’t able to cross country. This world is a result of spiraling events from a series of terrorist attacks, a surge in hate groups, a government whose heads of state and seat of government is left tattered, and coasts under threat from missile strikes. That is what takes a  suburban black woman and her white husband to the heart of America to live on a farm, to sleep with guns under their heads, and an RV constantly at the ready if they need to leave. The sudden entourage of events gave them opportunities, and they both saw that they needed to least the east coast even though in some ways they were safer from militias. People were in a panic and did obvious things in their panic, while (and here comes the character development) Maya and Tucker did not obvious things. They stole an RV, they searched garages where they knew people had mowers and gasoline. They raided plant nurseries, libraries, and even school cafeterias before risking their lives in a mass loot of the nearest Wal-Mart. Why were they able to do this? The world descended so quickly and people didn’t know what to do…so they did what they’d seen on television and movies.

Because of how I’m clarifying the world through this revision I am better able to convey my characters’ skills, interests, and needs. The actions that characters take demand to be reflected in how they view the wastelands around them. What can they expect? What would be the worst possible scenario for your characters in this horrible environment? Is this their normal? Is it so close to before everything fell apart that saying “Well this is normal now” makes them want to cry? If yes, do you demonstrate why to your readers? If not then you may want to consider that in your revisions.

Now, some stories rely on ambiguity for how the world came to be, and that can be some powerful story telling. For stories like that…you still need to answer those questions. How did this world come to be? Why/how do people cope with it? Etc. Etc. Answering those questions will better enable you to convey setting, which is what these stories tend to do in place of explanation. Desolate landscapes covered in ice like Snowpiercer give us story and context to the everything that happens. We don’t see the U.N fighting over climate change resolutions. We don’t see the train being drafted and made, or the people who called the idea insane. Not because those things are uninteresting, but because for the story they aren’t necessary and the environment of frozen buildings and toppled lights only held up by packed snow tells you so much more. Thematically, the contrast between the cold outside world and the various interiors of the train cars evoke various levels of disconnect. It’s not an accident the back car residents seem to wear both thick and thin clothing. The heat of abusive industrialism and being packed like sardines is paired with the cold of the outside. Visually you question if there is really any difference between the back cars and the frozen Earth. Its subtle but there.

It may sound like a lot of work when you just want to tell a story, but even if you don’t share everything with your readers you have to answer world building questions. I didn’t do enough that, so now its rewriting a story I rather like. The exciting thing is I am discovering new ways to tell the story and make it so much more than it once was. So maybe take the time to outline major events in that world and the impacts on different groups of people. Maybe write out a small world history starting as the dystopia begins to rise to its inevitable existence. If you take the time to put together your dystopian vision beyond the surface and explore the world deeply you can push your story farther into greatness.

Good luck.

Smooches,

P.S got opinions, feedback, or want to talk shop? Leave a comment. I only bite if you ask me to 😉