The Problem with “Natural Diversity”

Today I read this opinion piece on why diversity in books is often poorly mishandled and encountered a quite familiar mantra that has never sat right with me, and that we’re gonna discuss today. I’d love to hear your opinions and urge you to read this piece for yourself.

Before you start throwing rotten mangoes at me, let me explain. I don’t think diversity in books is WRONG. NOT AT ALL. I just think that the way some authors and readers go about it is wrong. NOW THAT THAT’S CLEARED UP, hello! Welcome to yet another discussion in which I am more rambly and […]

 

via Diversity in Books // Why We Need it But Also How it’s “Wrong” (I’m Not Crazy, I Promise) — Forever and Everly

My first instinctive reaction to this piece as a #blackgirlnerd #blackauthor #femaleauthor #contrarianPOS was “What the hell is “natural” and how do we know what “natural” is?” It is often one of those I-know-it-when-I-see-it scenarios, but the whole concept of natural v.s unnatural diversity is laughable to me.

Let me tell you a little story, recently I was on twitter and came across a woman I’d been aware of before. She’s a white nationalist mommy blogger, who hopes to use her promotion of motherhood to prevent “white genocide” and she posted an image of the countries of the world. On this map were white figures to represent population density of white people and black figures to represent population density every other ethnic/racial group in the world. The captions basically were “Do you believe in white genocide now?”. When I first saw this image I wasn’t even upset or bothered by it. All I could think was “Did you…did you honestly think most of the world is white?” and instantly my mind was flooded by examples across my 25 years that confirmed that yes, a lot of people do.

And why shouldn’t they if they’re in the western world?

This isn’t exactly a common scene

screen-shot-2017-05-18-at-19-55-34
Flipped and Switched art exhibit.

Television, books, radio shows, newscasts, newspapers, and even the toys sections of children’s stores are dominated by the imagery of white people to an excessive degree. As a kid it was a struggle to find black media in North Carolina, and even when the X-Men movie came out I spent at least a half hour going through the action figure section, filled with Rogue and Jean Grey, until my mom asked a salesperson to go in the back and see if they had any Storm figures. That was a blockbuster film and still not all of the characters were available based on the perception of what people wanted and who could buy.

HumanaeDiversity as a concept is deeply influenced by individual perceptions of the world even if they are not accurate. As a result the whole concept of “natural diversity” is buggered. What is natural diversity in a world where writers of color are told their minority characters aren’t realistic for not conforming to stereotypes, when constantly imagery exists predicated on the belief that white is universal and in high quantity. It simply does not exist.

With that said authenticity does and it isn’t limited to people of a character’s background being the only ones to write it. The above piece makes an excellent point, and I’ve seen much of the same where people struggle with including minorities of any kind into their work. While I sympathize with trying to create a character and struggling this is an excuse. What is it an excuse for? Bad writing at best and someone’s unconscious biases at worst. Why do I say this? Because I’m a person who is also black, and while that impacts my perception of the world it doesn’t not negate that I’m a person. I talk a hell of a lot about race because it impacts my life, because of the rise of nationalism, and honestly because I’m in an interracial relationship and if he can’t take me at my Angela Davis he can’t take me Marcus Garvey. But I remain a person, and I have friends who are gay. They are not just my gay friends, but my friends who are gay. They are people.

If you have problems with a character because they are not like you then you need to do research, and if that’s too hard for you then you need to just write something else. Find beta readers like your characters, email other authors for advice, and don’t get upset if someone says “How you asked that question and wrote this character is fucked up”. That is a question of authenticity, of whether the character sounds natural. If it is easier for a person to write dragons than asians…something is wrong, and I extend that to white people as well (but that’s not as big of an issue because white is used as the universal story).
tumblr_mtjv7uxwh41sa9i8vo2_250
The idea of natural diversity is an admirable one, and yes I do believe it makes sense to reflect the realities of diversity in context. While I enjoyed the black victorian soldier in a recent Doctor Who episode, the unwillingness to acknowledge that he was a black victorian soldier and just make him a soldier is problematic. To me it signals avoidance, but it still was nice to see. It was a clunky aspect of that episode’s casting that did feel forced, and it felt forced because no one wanted to deal with it. When The Doctor brought black woman, Martha Jones, to meet Shakespeare she addresses it directly and part of what makes it work is…characters respond to her race. Even in being flirted with she’s treated as an exotic dark woman. It wasn’t just glossed over. That felt natural. Not every setting, character, etc. will address race, but pretending it doesn’t exist is unnatural. In fantasy settings, and Americans have trouble conceptualizing this sometimes, ethnicity matters too. Race is noted because physical differences are noted, toted, and demonized. Over that? Ethnicity. Historically we know that is natural to people. That is an issue of authenticity.

The problem has never been that there are all white settings. I’m from the south where in the 1990s and 200s my family was often stared at in restaurants.  Two years ago I was on vacation/research with my mother and a white woman did a fucking double take. She was tall like me, and she looked from my mom to me with utter confusion because two black women were in the nice part of down town because that usually doesn’t happen there. There are neighborhoods I know of that a white person gets stared at because they are so not common. At black BBQs I’ve been to a person’s white partner is accepted but also exceptionally rare. Majority asian, white, black, latin, etc. settings and places exist, but that isn’t an inherent problem. That is equally natural.

The problem has been that majority to all white settings have been unequivocally accepted as natural for centuries, creating a belief that white is the majority, which then feeds back into “It is natural to have majority white character settings as the relatable settings and cast”. The default is white, natural is white, in the west, to such a degree that people are uncomfortable with the modern reality of globalism as “white genocide” when what they’re experiencing is population reality. So this idea of natural v.s unnatural diversity is a big farce in the context of reality.

What is natural to write isn’t always actually natural, and the assumption that this would be the case or can be the case is one done with a lot of optimism, as the blogger of the piece reflects, or in more negative terms, as has been my experience.

Reblog: How NOT to start your novel

Reblog: How NOT to start your novel

This is the classic trap most new writers fall into. I know I did. We get into storyteller mode: “once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away, there was a____ who for many years….”

Great for fairy tales. Not so much for modern novels. In a contemporary novel the reader wants to be in the story, not outside telling or hearing about it.

If this is sci-fi or fantasy, your job is tougher, because you have world-building to do, and there’s going to be a huge amount of history to get across. But you don’t have to do it on page one. Slip in the world-building on a “need-to-know” basis.

Damn this article is both hilarious and thought provoking as a writer. No matter the genre some of these themes bring me back to my high school composition class, but many crop up again and again despite writer experience. This article captures both why they don’t work and is a damn funny take on the omnipresence of Disney princess sheets. Take a look over at:

Anne R. Allen’s Blog: How NOT to start your novel

Whose Genre is this Anyway?

Whose Genre is this Anyway?

Genres are probably the most useful and arbitrarily frustrating aspects of books, films, movies, podcasts, art, or anything you could possibly make creatively. No creator really wants to think about where their products will go. Most of us just want to create and put something we love out into the world. Yet we all know the frustration of the customer, searching and searching through the weeds for the product they want to spend money on. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said “Why can’t I find that kindle category. It was there yesterday and I wanted to find more books there! Damn you Amazon!” While Amazon, Kobo, and other search engines are constantly tinkering algorithms and site design unless something hits all the standards of a genre we can struggle to find it.

Example? I love romance in my fantasy and I love romance in general AND I love fantasy in general. If I want to find a book where the romance is a central, but not the central aspect of the plot in a unique fantasy world with a plot arising not from the romance, but something else…I have to weed through so many shifter romances and random books. The core of what I want is a fantasy book with a strong romantic through line. In fantasy I can click romance or non-romance, but both rarely find me what I want.

The books I’ve found? Generally came from fantasy sections, but outside of Kushiel’s Dart most were still buried.  This is most evident in ebook stores, but its always been a problem. As a self-published author, I have struggled with classifying my stories. However, my erotica/romances are relatively easy to categorize once I figured out how most readers did. The problem with Science Fiction or Fantasy is they’re loaded with useful sub-genres and then you have Science Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Contemporary Fantasy, Contemporary Science Fiction, Space Opera, Magical realism, etc. etc. When a story crosses genres you’re pretty much left saying a hail Mary and hoping things work out.

So how do you find books you like? Fellow authors, how do you classify your books so people  can find them, and know what they’re getting?

Poem: Glass

Poem: Glass

Bitter memories frolic across my mindscape,
Filling it to the mid point
And then threatening to raise the tide over full,
Overflow,
Love and love’s past explode between my ears,
With fears materializing into loneliness,

But hey the glass is half full,
Loving many means loving alone,
Because no one wants a beggar,
“Alms! Alms for the poor”
And love. Don’t forget love.
No one wants.
No one wants to look through the colored glass of your soul,
And see pity.
Pity
Pity
Pathetically crawling, scratching,
Spilling everywhere over all your insides,
On
to
Them.

Poem:Learning

Learning to love or weighing me down?
Quiet at night or just another sound?
How do we tell what we know from what we feel?
How do we learn to separate the right from the real?

Love comes along polluting our minds,

With joy,
Can’t tell if its the high or the boy,
But damn am I learning to love this,
Just as I loathe this feeling of uncontrol,
And watching him spiral two and fro,
And I’m learning myself as he’s finding himself

And I hope we both find unobtainable wealth,
And yet I’m learning…
That it comes with frustration and pain,
And bliss,
And kisses like this in rain,
And…I do not know what else to say
Because am I losing my way?
Am I finding me through the sway?
How do you make words or rhymes when nothing…
Makes…
I am learning…
Learning the difference between what I
Want,
And what I,
Want

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.

Play+with+Elements+of+Fiction
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.

the_left_hand_of_darkness_by_cosmiccoz-d51kba6
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.

tomorrowsf1

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.
specgenredefsimage
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.!

The Dancer’s Body

The Dancer’s Body

The Dancer’s body,

Is shaped by movement and desire,
Whether Skinny and swanlike,
Or fuller than the night’s sky and full,
Of stars,
The dancer is living movement captured,
In flesh,

The old dancer’s body,
Pinched and wrinkled like a well loved,
Muscle should be,
Never forgets its movements,
Their limbs still flow with the music,
Even as memory lapses into,
Glittering dust and atoms,

The dancer’s body,
When it is young is a hopping,
Jubilant thing,
It’s movements stronger than what any can sing,
Uncontained, svelt, large, spinning around,
Taking charge by simply being,
Round tummy or smooth,
Long or squat,
Comfortable with all movements,
Or just a few the body moves.

The body moves.

33b9834358e15f55221a3015e217d45c-just-dance-dance-dance-dance
Black men dancing, soaring like kings of the heavens.