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Luc to Be Interviewed on Vermont Public Radio Today

Society and culture

vteditionThis is nothing to do with writing or habits, but at about 12:45 Eastern today, I’ll be on VPR’s Vermont Edition talking to host Jane Lindholm about the new CSA Matchmaker on our Web site, which helps Champlain Valley residents find the perfect CSA. In case you’re not familiar with the term, a CSA (“Community Supported Agriculture”) is an arrangement with a farmer to pre-pay for a season’s worth of food, often picked up weekly. The CSA member gets a good deal on great local food, and the farmer gets financial stability and regular customers. If you know anyone in the area who might benefit from joining a CSA, please send them over to the site. We’re coming up on 1,000 visits so far based on word of mouth, an article in the Free Press, and other exposure, so I think it’s working.

Anyway, I’ll be talking a little bit about the CSA Matchmaker and Localsourcers. In future we plan to expand the CSA Matchmaker to many other areas, and on May 1st we’ll be launching the Localsourcers Online Forum, a community for anyone anywhere interested in sharing information and connecting about local resources, local food, sustainability, and resilience. Come join Localsourcers (free) if you’re interested in taking part.

Later addition: here’s the link to the segment.

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Fight Climate Change With a Grocery Basket

Society and culture

I’ve launched a new community-based nonprofit called Localsource, with a Web site to help people connect around getting food and other necessities locally, and a local chapter called Champlain Valley Localsource that will hold its first meeting in Burlington, Vermont on February 6th.

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Inclusivity and Exclusivity in Fiction: Pamela Rentz on People Running Off to Have a Vision Quest

Society and culture

This is the ninth interview and the eleventh post in my series on inclusivity and exclusivity in fiction. You can find a full list of other posts so far at the end of this piece.

In today’s interview we talk with author Pamela Rentz, a member of the Karuk Tribe.

Red TapeLUC: As both a member of a California tribe and a SF writer who writes Indian characters, what needs do you see in SF–or in literature in general–for growth or change? What’s broken right now in regard to Indian characters in fiction?

PAM: When Indian characters show up in stories, too often it’s to act out a narrowly defined role that’s about being Indian. They have to have names with hawk or eagle or bear in them. Some sort of personal spiritual quest is involved. In spec fiction they have to be shapeshifters. To be fair, I remember reading a great story, I think in F&SF, that featured a terrific Indian character and I’ve just spent about fifteen minutes trying to track down the author and title with no luck. But I still see a lot of the magical indigenous person, the spiritual wise one, the romanticized historical Indian. Or, who would have predicted this would develop in my lifetime: the casino Indian. Even in journalism I see the same tired narrative: a non-Indian person has managed to secure the trust of a group of Indians and via this special access is able to share his non-Indian perspective of what “real” Indians are like. The resulting story generally shows terrible poverty and/or something spiritual and exotic.

Where are the Indian detectives and librarians and space mission leaders and zombie hunters?

I’ve been asking myself what needs to happen to bring out more variety and depth to Indian characters and I’ve love to see more Indian writers telling their stories. I’m not suggesting that non-Indians can’t write Indian characters and especially the speculative fiction community tends to be better informed and more likely to do their homework. But, unless you’ve spent some time around Indian people it’s going to be difficult to capture the depth of characterization and unique Indian perspective I feel is missing.

I’m definitely seeing more Indian kids in social media and showing off great talent merging the traditional with the contemporary in fashion, music and art. I’m not aware of much fiction but I’m hoping it’s happening out there somewhere.

LUC: Why do you think that so many writers fall into the trap of Indians as keepers of some kind of secret knowledge or experience that reflects “real” Indians when, ironically, by doing that they’re ignoring the experiences of real real Indians?

PAM: That’s a terrific question. I wonder that myself.

I think part of it is that, not just writers, but most people don’t spend a lot of time with Indian people. I’m trying to figure out the best way to clarify this. Indian identity can be a touchy subject and I’m not trying to pick any fights here. What I’m talking about is spending time with Indians in connection with their Indian communities. Its one thing to have a friend or colleague who’s Indian and another thing to spend time in Indian Country.

Indian communities tend to be isolated and often not especially welcoming to outsiders. It’s tough to get an idea of the culture without seeing the tribal connections. I don’t feel like I really got it until I began working in Indian Country and seeing people from different tribes interacting and similarities in behavior. Things that I saw in my family but never connected to a bigger picture. As a writer, how can you give the Indian an authentic role without observing it yourself?

But then, why not see Indians like everyone else? There are Indian lawyers and school teachers and insurance adjusters. I don’t watch Law & Order but I understand that when Adam Beach (Saulteaux First Nations) was brought on the show his character was a detective who happened to be Indian not they needed an Indian character so they hired him. I saw Wes Studi (Cherokee) in a role once that wasn’t specifically Indian. In movies it seems like Indians show up because they need an Indian, but rarely because the appropriate actor happened to be an Indian. Of course, if you have a character and you cast them as Indian for no reason other than to be diverse, I guess that fails, too.

I think writers fall into traps with Indians for the same reason we often fall into traps when we’re inventing any kind of character. It’s an easy shortcut. The stereotype is universally understood. Why go through the trouble of inventing an Indian character if she’s just going to be turned into a zombie or be the guy on the space ship who says, “Yes, Captain”? You have a noble hero or a badass elder, why not have them save the day with some mystical Indian knowledge?

Every once in awhile I’ll see a description or discussion of something that is “typical Native American.” For example, Native American religion or Native American food. That’s like referring to European religion or European food. It might have value as a general shorthand, but really it’s meaningless. There are over 500 tribes and Alaska Native villages recognized by the US government. There are even more entities that don’t have federal recognition. They’re all unique and most of them don’t conform to stereotype.

LUC: I hope you’ll excuse me for referring to the vampire elephant in the room, but what’s your reaction to the Quileutes in the Twilight books and movies? I can’t help but notice they check off the “shapeshifter” point handily.

PAM: Well, I didn’t hate all of it.

What I liked is that the story had a small Pacific Northwest Tribe that is relatively unknown. It seems like Indians in stories are almost always from the same Tribes, usually Plains.

And in this story, Indians are introduced as regular people who are friends of Bella’s father. At least initially, their purpose isn’t to be Indian.

I also really liked that the tribal members were connected to their lands – the pact was made to protect the Indian lands.

I can’t remember every detail of the story but to the best of my recollection there was no stereotypical corny spiritual aspect such as a medicine man waving his eagle feathers around or people running off to have a vision quest.

On the other hand, Indians as shapeshifters cancels most of that out. It’s awful to see a Tribe’s origin story appropriated and rendered completely silly and then go on to make piles of money for all kinds of non-Native people. There was even Twilight inspired merchandise with “Quileute” designs.

I wonder if Stephenie Meyer had had any notion of how huge and far-reaching those books would end up, would she have done it differently? No way to know. Generally, I don’t think the dominant culture sees it that way. Urban Outfitters needed to be told that the Navajo Nation wasn’t honored to have their hipster panties named after the Tribe.

I’m not as outraged about Twilight as I might have been. The whole story is pretty dopey and doesn’t pretend to be anything other than entertainment. At least the Indians got to be on the winning side.


Pamela Rentz is an member of the Karuk Tribe of California and works as a paralegal specializing in Indian Affairs. She is a graduate of Clarion West 2008 and has been published in Asimov’s, Innsmouth Free Press and Yellow Medicine Review. She’s published a collection of short stories called Red Tape Stories from Indian Country available for Kindle and other eReader devices at Smashwords. She can be found online at: www.pamrentz.com.


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Inclusivity and Exclusivity in Fiction: Leah Bobet on Literature as a Conversation

Society and culture

This is the sixth interview and the eighth post in my series on inclusivity and exclusivity in fiction. You can find a full list of other posts so far at the end of this piece.

In today’s post, we get to finish the discussion we started some time back with writer Leah Bobet.

LUC: In our first round of questions, you mentioned Poppy Z. Brite’s book Drawing Blood, saying “Besides all the vampire sex and killing, what I took from that was that gay people are just people with relationships and problems and to do lists and lives to run and stories,” and you went on to describe how that has affected how you see and understand many kinds of people in the world. Are you consciously trying to create “aha” moments like this for your own readers? Are your goals for inclusivity in your writing explicit and specific?

LEAH: I’m not, no – and I’m not sure if one deliberately can create that moment.  Every reader’s set of experiences and stories and, well, their brains are different.  The “aha” moment is when the story being told combines with the rest of your life and data and experiences in a way that tips over a realization you’ve been on the verge of making.  It’s so very rooted in the reader that I’m not sure crafting it is possible.

What you can do, I think, is present the world as you see it, or the questions you’re sitting up nights asking yourself.  And people will either agree or disagree with what you show them, or go off asking all new questions that you never could have predicted.

As for goals for inclusivity, mostly the goal for me is to have it — which could be read as extremely explicit and specific, or not at all!  But to be clearer:  I don’t write to a moral point, or to proselytize in any way.  It didn’t take more than five minutes’ experience as an editor to learn that there’s a difference between a story and a piece written To Make A Point ™, and that the latter is very difficult to make into an interesting or engaging read.

What I do try to write is the kinds of stories I want to read as a reader, and those are stories that challenge me; stories that can both sweep up my heart and make me really and truly think; stories that examine social values without trying to sell them to the reader.  The stories I write are populated by all kinds of people because I want to read stories like that, and because that’s the world on my block, in my neighbourhood, in my city.

LUC: When a writer tackles a story that includes someone from a group they’re not a part of, what tests or steps or touchstones should be used, in your opinion, to do the job right?

LEAH: Youch – I am not at all qualified in any fashion to say how one can do the job right.  You can do all sorts of recommended things and still drop the ball on this sort of thing, or do none of them and do a really productive job.  It’s all situational, and it depends, also, on what job you’re trying to do.

I think there are two main factors to look at when you’re writing characters from a marginalized group, however you choose to tackle them.  The first: What’s the existing social and literary conversation around how that group is portrayed?  What are the in-person stereotypes about them, and what are the fiction stereotypes?  Because even if you’re not aware of or writing out of that stereotype, literature’s a conversation, and your comment (to stretch that metaphor!) will be taken as part of the larger conversation.  If it’s just reinforcing that, or not acknowledging in certain ways that there is a conversation going on, then it’s very easy to do harm.

I’ve tripped on that one myself: Thinking I knew the ground around how a minority is treated in fiction, and not in fact knowing it at all.  That particular piece of work hurt readers, and I can tell you unambiguously that causing harm with your work – using the trust a reader grants you carelessly, or using it ill – is a horrible feeling.  It’s not one I personally care to repeat.

The second factor?  Remember that your characters are people.

This sounds small, but it’s actually pretty big.  Remembering someone’s a person can mean remembering that someone from group X will have things that make them laugh and cry and roll their eyes just like someone from group Y will.  It can mean that they’ll be more or less attached to the culture and religion and society they grew up in, or in different ways, depending on their personality and experiences.  It can mean looking at their reactions as not something opaque and Other and strange, but as reactions to people around them being kind or cruel, or what has been expected of them, or what success and failure were laid out to mean when they were young.  It also means that they have a personality, and that there isn’t a standard, textbook way for people of group X to react to those things: anyone who’s ever had an argument with their siblings can pretty much back that one up.

In short, you are writing a human being.  Treat them as such: as someone complete.

This means, a lot of the time, learning not just to watch, and to see, but to empathize.  Which doesn’t mean to feel bad for someone; it means to, to the best of your ability, shift your own perspective.  What might your street look like to someone with mobility issues?  What would a character who grew up on a farm notice when they walk into a city park, and what would one who grew up in Manhattan notice?

This isn’t just a tool for writing characters different than you; it’s a tool for writing any characters well.  And it’s a tool that ends up bleeding, like all the best ones do, into your life: Because real people are complete and complex humans too, and once you’ve gotten into practice in taking other perspectives and not assuming your own is the only perspective?  You’re seeing people.  And that will reflect in your interactions; in how you treat your neighbours in the small things; and in how they notice, and treat you in return.

LUC: We’ve talked a little about Drawing Blood. Are there other books or stories that, for you, stand out in this regard? If so, what did they do right?

LEAH: Actually, this might appear to come a bit out of left field?  But: Anything by Sean Stewart.  Specifically Galveston, or Nobody’s Son.

If you subscribe to the theory that every author has a couple themes or problems they keep returning to, picking at around the edges, then one of Stewart’s is about realizing that you’re actually a complete asshole, and then what you do after that realization hits.  This is useful to everyone, I think, because I have not yet met a person of any identity makeup who hasn’t been an asshole to somebody.  In activism or just in daily living, the skill of what you do after you’ve been hurtful to someone else is a very useful one to practice, no matter who you are.  They’re flawed books about flawed people, and I’m not put off by either the books or the protagonists being flawed, because they’re also clear-eyed and kind.

So, what did those books do right for me, as a reader?  Aside from being quite well-made in a lot of ways – Stewart has a real skill with subtlety and nuance, especially when it comes to his characterization – the thing that affected me about them was that they’re so non-judgmental.  They let you in close to people who are wounded and recognize those wounds as valid and real, and then show how the behaviour that woundedness causes hurts other people, and how that pain is valid, too.  And I think that’s the key: That pain is valid too, not instead.  There’s an immense compassion in recognizing that we’re all capable of simultaneously being the people dealing the hurt and receiving it, or acting out of old hurt while acting well or badly.  Rendering that into fiction is a very tricky thing – almost as tricky as practising that kind of compassion in life.  And it’s just as worthwhile, I think.


Leah Bobet is the author of Above, a young adult urban fantasy novel (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2012), and an urbanist, linguist, bookseller, and activist. She is the editor and publisher of Ideomancer Speculative Fiction, a resident editor at the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, and a contributor to speculative web serial Shadow Unit.

She is also the author of a wide range of short fiction, which has been reprinted in several Year’s Best anthologies. Her poetry has been nominated for the Rhysling and Pushcart Prizes, and she is the recipient of the 2003 Lydia Langstaff Memorial Prize. Between all that she knits, collects fabulous hats, and contributes in the fields of food security and urban agriculture. Anything else she’s not plausibly denying can be found at leahbobet.com.


 

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Inclusivity and Exclusivity in Fiction: Anaea Lay on “An Element of Excitement”

Society and culture

This is the fifth interview and the seventh post in my series on inclusivity and exclusivity in fiction. You can find a full list of other posts so far at the end of this piece.

In today’s interview we talk with author Anaea Lay.

LUC: Modern fiction–and some might argue fiction throughout history–seems to have a much more limited cast of characters than real life does, often putting characters who are straight, Caucasian, fully able, neurotypical, relatively young, and otherwise a lot like the typical American CEO or politician center stage. From your point of view, what difference does it make? What, if anything, is there to be gained from having a more diverse range of people in the center of our novels and stories?

ANAEA: I’d specify that modern English-language fiction does that. You get a much broader cast if you branch out into fiction from other parts of the world.

That said, the biggest risk with limiting your cast is that you’ll be boring. There’s nothing wrong with writing about a straight white middle class American male in good health, but you better give me something that’s going to set that work apart from all the other stories about the same character. If you stretch out and write about somebody else, somebody I haven’t read about a thousand times already, you’re starting off on stronger ground.

It’s one of those truisms you hear all the time that there are only x number of plots and every story is just a variation on one of them. Expanding your cast of characters opens up your possibilities for variations. It lets you tackle new problems, see new obstacles, go to different places and play with new ideas. As a reader, I like to see different characters because finding new things is part the joy of reading. When I get bored, I start to nit-pick what I’m reading and everything falls apart for me.

There’s also an element of excitement when I run into a character who’s like me in a way that I’m not used to encountering. There really ought to be more child-hating polyamorous women in fiction, because I’m a sucker for them.

As a writer, creating interesting characters keeps me engaged. I’m not a planner, so I rely on my characters going interesting places and doing interesting things to find my plot and get me through it. “Unmarked” characters run a high risk of winding up invisible to me while I’m writing. But the characters who challenge me, who come at the world from a different angle or background, force me to be a better writer. World building matters so much more because they way they interact with the world and the world interacts with them is different.

Making sure your prose is spot on matters because you can’t rely on the assumptions of what everybody knows about your default character to do your work for you and you might be bumping up against expectations trained by those defaults.

LUC: So does a broader range of groups of people attract you when reading fiction, too? What do you look for in fiction you read? What kinds of novels or stories would you most love to find in this regard?

ANAEA: I’ll read most anything if its good, and some things even when they aren’t. Having a broad range of characters, or characters I haven’t already read umteen billion stories about definitely stands out when I’m looking for fiction. One of my favorite authors right now is Nora Jemison. A lot of that is her prose which is lush and gorgeous, but her characters are fascinating and complex and not people I’ve read tons of things about, which makes it really easy to wind up completely immersed in her story. I’m not mentally checking off tropes as I read, and I’m not switching into analytical-reader-mode just to find something interesting enough to stay engaged.

I don’t look for fiction with character diversity as an explicit criterion. That said, I hate reading things I can predict from early on because I know the shape of the tropes they’re using. Having non-standard characters is a signal that the author is doing something different, and that makes it much more likely that they’re doing something I’ll find interesting. Greek and Norse gods? It’ll take a lot to make those compelling again. Tlazolteatl, though? Do your research well enough to keep from hurting me, and I’m there. Whiny white guy who wants to get a girl? Meh. Whiny Chinese-American guy who’s lost his connection to his mother? I contemplated crying. That’s what I want to read.

LUC: What other kinds of inclusivity, apart from race and ethnicity, connect particularly well for you or raise your interest in a story?

ANAEA: Women getting to play traditionally male tropes, and and bi or homosexual characters outside their standard boxes. See Alice from the BBC series Luther for a great example of the former, “Astrophilia” by Carrie Vaughn in Clarkesworld for the latter.

LUC: What do you hope to see happening among writers over, say, the next decade that’s different from what we’re seeing now, in terms of inclusivity?

ANAEA: I’d hope that going forward we continue to find the characters who’ve been neglected and tell their stories, and to keep talking to what’s going on. For example, I was having a conversation where somebody was lamenting the loss of the “Coming out” story as a compelling story. At this point, there have been so many stories about the difficulties of coming out, and coming out is so much easier than it was twenty or thirty years ago, that it’s hard to bring anything new to that particular story, even though it was hugely popular in the 90’s. I’d hope that we’d keep pressing the boundaries, keep making progress to the point where things that seem fraught now become normal. But I’d also hope that we don’t neglect where we are now or forget what it’s like to be breaking this ground and learning these lessons.

There’s an arc you can see over time as you look at fiction. If you look at some of the classics that try to paint a better future, or warn about a problematic future, they’re ridiculously simple and naive by today’s standards. Just compare Brave New World to The Windup Girl and you’ll see what I mean. I’d much rather have more fiction like The Windup Girl, and I’m excited about where that conversation will go from here because it’s going to have to break new ground, get more nuanced, richer. But it’s handy to have Brave New World as a yardstick to see how far we’ve come, or haven’t come.

You can do the same thing with looking at trends across time to include more characters. It’s still easy to run across cringe-inducing badly written women, but the good ones aren’t the exception anymore. There seems to be a movement toward non-white characters and pulling from non-western traditions and while a lot of that is creators deliberately making an effort to do that, audiences are getting savvy and starting to demand it, too. I’m not the only jaded and bored reader our there.

So I suppose I don’t have any specific desire for ten years from now, except that we keep doing what we are doing, and keep getting better. Though I will not complain if sparkly vampires have disappeared.


Anaea Lay lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where she sells Real Estate under a different name, writes, cooks, plays board games, spoils her cat, and plots to take over the world. The rumors that she never sleeps are not true. She has no comment on the rumors about the disconcerting noises emanating from her basement. You can find her fiction in Apex, Penumbra and Shock Totem. She blogs about just about anything at anaealay.com


 

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If You Think People Don’t Change, You Need to Get Out More

Society and culture

Recently I had the misfortune of seeing the movie Young Adult. It offers some interesting story elements, with very good acting and direction, and it does a great job of realistically depicting a writer’s job (something most movies about writers fail at miserably, despite presumably having been written by writers) but the storyline is appalling, and I can’t recommend the movie at all. The end of the movie actually had me shouting at the television with indignation and disgust … although really, I was shouting at the screenwriter, Diablo Cody.

Ms. Cody wrote one of my favorite movies of all time, Juno, so I don’t mean to suggest that she writes only bad movies. I got some insight into where she was coming from when I read this excerpt from a Huffington Post article about the movie:

“I feel like Facebook is, in a lot of ways, proof that people don’t change,” Cody said. “The fact that we can keep up with the people that we used to know and watch them progress or not progress — which is the case most of the time — it’s interesting and it’s a little sad.”

So in that framework, the movie makes sense. If you believe people don’t change, you might then write a movie about a person who is a mess and doesn’t change. However, writing a movie like that doesn’t make it a workable story–nor does it make it true.

People who think people don’t change need to spend time with more and different people.  Have you ever met a recovered alcoholic? Ever met someone who went back to school later in life and started a new career? Someone who lost a bunch of weight and got the fitness bug? I certainly do.

Facebook certainly isn’t proof that people don’t change: in fact, the primary reason I seek people out on Facebook is to find out how they have changed. What are their relationships like now? What kind of work do they do? What’s important to them? Where do they live? How are they spending their time? Are they happy? What happened later in the story of that person I used to know and have lost touch with?

It’s true, though, that we’re built to resist change. Our habitual behaviors are expressed in our brains as neural connections that strengthen over time, and it takes concerted effort or a stark change of circumstances to build new connections. However, this is worlds away from saying we don’t change. With the right influence or effort, virtually anything about us can change. Unskilled people can become masterful (see “Do You Have Enough Talent to Become Great at It?“); unhealthy people can become healthy (“Finding Exercise You Love: The Taekwondo Example“); and unhappy people can get used to having joy in their lives (see “The Best 40 Percent of Happiness“), for example.

The thing that most upsets me about the idea that people don’t change is that it tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. In a meta-study about willpower done a few years back, a key finding was that individuals who were trying to change their habits generally didn’t succeed unless they believed they could. This makes sense: how much effort will we realistically invest in something that we feel won’t pan out?

Trying to convince people wholesale that change isn’t possible hacks away at the foundation of confidence we need to be able to change, and that foundation is essential even when we fail at first. For example, consider that a smoker who has unsuccessfully tried to quit before has a better chance of quitting now, statistically, than a smoker who has never tried to quit before. In some cases, the mistaken belief that the smoker could quit on the first or second attempt allowed that person to get far enough along to successfully quit on a later attempt.

People accomplish real change every day, but it’s far more likely that change will happen when we understand and believe it’s possible in the first place.

 

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Inclusivity and Exclusivity in Fiction: Steve Bein on Alterity

Society and culture

This is the fourth interview and the sixth post in my series on inclusivity and exclusivity in fiction. You can find a full list of other posts so far at the end of this piece.

Today’s interview brings in Steve Bein, an award-winning writer of science fiction and fantasy whose new novel series from Roc, The Fated Blades, features a female police detective working in Tokyo.

LUC: In your novel Daughter of the Sword (due out from Roc October 2nd), your main character is a Japanese woman, and one who’s trying to make her way in what in her world is an extremely male-dominated profession. She’s hardly the first Japanese character to emerge from your pen, either. What brought you to write about a character so different from yourself? Was it something the story demanded, or did the story emerge from wanting to write about such a character?

STEVE: I’m very interested in questions of alterity and alienation, and so a lot of my protagonists don’t feel at home in their worlds.  Mariko is one such case.  I think one reason I’m so interested in this kind of character is that in many important respects I rarely feel at home myself.  Alienating and ostracizing my protagonists allows me to sympathize with them, and I think a lot of readers also sympathize with a character who feels out of place, especially when that character is cast out unfairly.

On the other question, the story demands a Mariko, or at least a protagonist that is Mariko-like.  She needs to be in a position to investigate crimes linked to a medieval sword (no spoiler there; the flap copy reveals as much) and she needs to be female (and to reveal why would be a spoiler, so I ain’t tellin’).  Once that much was clear, then I got to think a lot about how to sharpen her difficulties, to alienate her further, and what that would do to her character, and how that might initiate feedback loops (i.e. the ostracized reacts to being rejected and that reaction prompts greater rejection).  But of course the fact that she really had to be so different from me posed huge challenges in the writing itself.  She’s by far the hardest character for me to write.

LUC: What are the specific challenges of writing Mariko, and how did you try to address them?

STEVE: There are two big challenges with writing Mariko, the first having to do with story structure and the second having to do with the fact that she’s a Japanese woman and I’m not.

This novel follows three of the greatest swords ever forged as they exert their influence over about a thousand years of Japanese history.  Mariko gets about half of the book, and the other half takes us to different periods in Japanese history, where we see the swords in the hands of samurai warriors WWII officers (and ninja too, if you read the companion novella, Only a Shadow).  Each of those stories is a brick in the wall, and Mariko’s story is both brick and mortar: her story has to hold together on its own and it has to tie all the other stories together in one cohesive arc.  So one reason she’s tough to write is because her story has so much work to do.

The other big difficulty in writing her is the fact that she’s the only female protagonist in the book.   She’s the most important protagonist in the book, but all the rest are guys.  I’m sure the women in my life will be happy to tell you that I don’t really understand women.  Obviously it’s a mistake to speak of “women” as if they all think alike, feel alike, etc., but nevertheless I think male blindness is a reality and I think women perceive and react to and live with social realities that a lot of men never notice.  It takes a lot of thought, a lot of observation, and a lot of rewriting to get a female protagonist to feel female.

LUC: What are the dangers of getting a character of a different ethnicity, background, gender, and profession wrong?

STEVE: You don’t want to get Japanese culture wrong, out of respect for the culture and also because the anime rage is now twenty-odd years old, and that means there’s a huge number of Japanophiles out there who are very likely to catch any mistakes you make.  Japanese culture is easy to caricaturize–easier than most, I’d say–and so it’s all too easy to go from a thoughtful book to a chop-socky flick just by inattention to details and nuance.

I’ve lived in Japan, I’ve taken students there, and I’ve spent a lot of time indulging my fascination with Japanese culture, so all of that mitigates (and I say mitigates, not eliminates) the danger of getting the culture wrong.  Getting police culture wrong is a different story altogether.  The lingo is different, the attitudes are different, the political climate is different.  Of course you literally wrote the book on subculture slang, so you know about that aspect of it, but it’s more than language.  One of my closest friends became a cop, and it’s been very interesting to observe what it’s done to his psyche.  He just doesn’t look at society the same way anymore.  He’s seen the seamy underbelly, and I think trust and brotherly love just don’t come easily to a person after that.  I’ve interviewed a lot of cops for this book, especially female cops, to get other perspectives on the profession.  I think writers have to do that sort of thing if they really want to get the details right.

But that raises the other danger, which is getting so enmeshed in the details that no one but an expert can read your book.  I’m constantly thinking about the sorts of things you can say in English that you just can’t say in Japanese, and sometimes that can get in the way.  For example, in the next book I refer to a character’s face as “cherubic.”  Cherubs are of Mediterranean origin, so no Japanese guy in the 1500s could describe someone as cherubic.  But go too far down that road and you’ve got to write the book in Japanese.  Maybe I’ll change the cherub reference and maybe I won’t, but at the end of the day what flows best with the sentence is more important than what’s 100% authentic.

LUC: What approaches to inclusion and exclusion do you expect to take in your fiction going forward?

STEVE: I don’t really care for the language of “inclusion and exclusion.”  It’s not as if I deliberately exclude any particular category of people in my fiction.  There are lots of genres I have no interest in, but I can’t say the same of characters.

That said, I buy the old maxim that good fiction is interesting characters in difficulty, and the characters that interest me tend not to be straight white able-bodied men.  I have no idea why this is true.  I only look at my body of work so far, and my protagonists include a straight white cabbie, a straight white physics student, a Tibetan astronaut, a Kenyan astronaut, a Japanese secret agent, an intelligent computer, a teenager who lost her arm in an accident, a samurai boy born with a lame leg, a blind and elderly professor, and Mariko, a Japanese cop who spent a lot of her childhood in the States and is alienated because of it.

A couple of early readers of Daughter of the Sword have assumed Mariko is a lesbian.  I don’t give her a boyfriend or a girlfriend in the book — she’s far too busy to have a dating life — so I assume this must be people unconsciously applying the meme that tough female cops are lesbians.  You certainly see a lot of that in police stories, but I don’t like subscribing to tropes like that.  I would say that if I wanted to make Mariko a lesbian, I’d have to go through the manuscript again, examining all of her scenes, all of her internal monologue, and see what assumptions I should and shouldn’t be making about her view on the world.  I’d want to figure out what kind of women she’s attracted to, and revisit her relationship with her parents and her sister — all kinds of stuff.  The actual changes to the manuscript might be few and far between, but they’d be important

So going forward, I don’t anticipate much change in the types of characters I find interesting.  Whoever they are, I feel like the writer’s job is to get in their heads, figure out what they’re sensitive to, what they’re blind to, how the world looks different to them than it might have looked from another perspective.  It can be small stuff.  I’ve got two aging dogs and all of a sudden references to dying pets are cropping up all around me.  They were always there; I just wasn’t sensitive to them before.  Mariko has her own cues, her own pet peeves.  Every character will  have them if you explore deeply enough.

LUC: What kinds of inclusivity or alterity would you like to be able to find more of, as a reader?

STEVE: I like aliens that are actually alien.  I don’t mean anatomically, I mean psychologically, emotionally, relationally.   China Mieville’s Ariekei in Embassytown or the buggers in Card’s Ender’s Game novels are a lot more interesting to me than Star Trek aliens who are just like us apart from the little knobby things on their heads.

I’d like to see more fantasy stories that start from somewhere other than the generically European backdrop that’s almost universal these days.  (I shouldn’t even say “these days.”  I don’t know of a time when this wasn’t a basic assumption of the genre.)  As it is now, you’re almost required to write fantasy this way.  I had an editor reject a story because the protagonist had tan skin and a bow and wasn’t Native American.  She didn’t entertain the possibility that fantasy worlds could be populated with human beings that don’t fit neatly into any of our racial and cultural assumptions.  In fact, the opposite view is arguably the better one: those assumptions of ours are ours, and different histories would necessarily generate new sets of assumptions.


Steve Bein is a philosophy professor, martial artist, photographer, world traveler, and award-winning author.  His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’sInterzoneWriters of the Future, and in international translation.  His first novel, Daughter of the Sword, comes out this October and you can pre-order it on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.  The companion novella, Only a Shadow, comes out this September, and you can pre-order it for your Kindle or Nook.
Steve will be giving out samplers of Daughter of the Sword via Facebook while supplies last.  You can like him at www.facebook.com/philosofiction to get yours, or get there by visiting his web site, www.philosofiction.com.


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Inclusivity and Exclusivity in Fiction: James Beamon on Elf-Bashing

Society and culture

This is the third interview and the fifth post in my series on inclusivity and exclusivity in fiction. You can find a full list of other posts so far at the end of this piece.

Today’s interview is with James Beamon, a writer of fantasy and science fiction short stories that often tackle questions of race and economic class in the midst of humor and wonders.

LUC: In a blog post of yours last year, you asked a question I’ve been hearing more and more about science fiction lately, in your case especially SF movies and TV series: Where are all the black people? You answer this question in part with some of your own stories, but your characters span not only a variety of races, but also social and economic classes and other groups that are often missing from fiction. Two examples that spring to mind are a convict and a young man with a severe stutter. Your characters sometimes struggle with questions like how they’re going to eat or how they can get around disabilities and prejudices to do things other people take for granted. How conscious is the way you choose your characters and the groups to which they belong, and do you have any specific hopes for how your work will affect readers and/or other writers?

JAMES:  Sometimes I choose a character with the active intent to highlight racial issues and prejudices.  Such was the case in “Orc Legal,” the second story in my 7 Realms series, which was always the writing outlet I used to deal with preconceived notions latent in high fantasy.  Honestly, I’m not sure if Tolkien understood what he was doing with Middle Earth, I’m not going to sit here speaking on his intent, but if anything comes close to a master race, it’s his damned elves.  They’re all tall and lithe and have 2% body fat and are acne free and will never ever age … what they wear is always in fashion, plus the clothes are enchanted with their elvish magic to glow at night and really highlight their angular sex appeal.  Meanwhile, the brownest dudes around are either the mud-covered orcs or the human mercenaries working for the greatest evil the world has ever known. Oh, and the elves are all white.  Sure, there are dark elves in high fantasy, but they stereotypically live in caves and plot murder and make poisons and other dastardly crap befitting a dark race.

I make it a point in the 7 Realms stories to see the world through the disenfranchised races … goblins and orcs and trolls.  And while I don’t profess to make them noble (after all, the orc in “Orc Legal” is a career criminal in prison) I make them engaging, believable entities, with goals and desires that make them transcend one dimension. More importantly, I strive to have my audience laugh at the absurdities inherent in racial disparity while destroying preconceived notions.  If I can break preconceived racist notions in high fantasy (e.g. … all orcs are dumb, all elves are beautifully perfect) then I believe it’s a step to realigning how people view the world around them.  That’s what stories do … highlight the human condition.  Besides, it’s extremely therapeutic for me to make fun of those stupid elves.

Again, sometimes I choose the character with my intent active and known.  Sometimes the character chooses me to tell the story.  That was the case with Mums in “The Homeless Man of Greater Zimbabwe.”  I was completely swept up with notions of this lost and rediscovered city in the highlands of Africa, I saw it as a trade hub, a multicultural place where anyone could come.  And while I wish I could claim genius or some sort of insight to why Mums came with a disability, he showed up at my door as he was … the homeless man.  Ironically, he always spoke to me with a severe stutter.  His problem arose out of that.  This story was a chance to show readers a forgotten world with characters they could invest in who are active members of this lost culture.  If the reader comes away feeling like it was possible, or with a deeper appreciation for what could have been, I will feel like I gave the place a decent tribute.

LUC: Come to think of it, that was one the things I found most startling and thought-provoking in “Orc Legal”: the elf-busting. I honestly hadn’t thought much about it before, but it’s true that elves seem to symbolize a version of white people that is especially pure and pretty and shiny. I know there are examples of stories and media that handle elves differently, but I’m talking mainly about the elf stereotype in and after The Lord of the Rings. In “Orc Legal,” you raise a topic that I haven’t come across so much in discussions of inclusivity and fiction, namely bringing some kinds of characters down out of the stratosphere. Inclusion is one thing, but how important is it to break down or redefine some of the groups that have tended to dominate Western, English-language fiction?

JAMES: Inclusivity really doesn’t mean much without equal footing.  Again, with Tolkien as an example, it doesn’t matter if there are a thousand black people in the novels if they’re all in dark armor working for the evil overlord.  Even if they chose different career options, in the Rings universe no matter what they strive for they will never attain the seemingly unassailable awesome inherent with being a fair elf.  Extending this to the real world, to people who like to imagine and cosplay, and to young readers, all a white person has to do to attain a seemingly ideal state is stick on some ears.  What’s that say for non-whites?  Because ears aren’t gonna cut it.  You get to be the orc or at best the dark elf.

That’s why I make it a point to elf bash, because it causes a re-evaluation.  Instead of seeing perfection you see human foibles … elvish disdain and discrimation towards other races, vanity, an empty pursuit of perfection, qualities that aren’t attractive.  If stories like Orc Legal, which makes an orc look smart and savvy and fun to be around while making elves petty and vain and pretentious, how much more does that idea of all races have something to offer permeate to the reader?

I think it’s a start if nothing else.  The alternative is the mono-race syndrome that’s prevalent in both fantasy and science fiction, where everyone in the culture is the exact same way.  When was the last time you saw a clean-shaven dwarf reading a book thoughtfully?  How about a Klingon holding a piece of chalk scratching out mathematical theorems on a chalkboard that left Data astounded? The problem with mono-culture is that eventually writers start associating known stereotypes onto their created races.

You remember Star Wars Episode I, and how the trading Neimoidians all talked with a funny accent, mispronounced their “l” and “r”, and wore Far Eastern inspired clothing … it wasn’t hard to associate them with a present day non-white culture based on stupid stereotypes.  I know I couldn’t stand that bastard Jar-Jar Binks … aka alien Stepinfetchit.  Again, including all races and cultures in fantasy and science fiction  is important, but not merely as extras, sword fodder for the white hero, thinly disguised stereotypes, or backup dancers.  Inclusivity means more than a medieval eurocentric experience in fantasy with the one black Moor or Eastern trader as a sidekick.  It means more than one non-white on the bridge of the starship.  It means the ability to see good things and bad in all races, even when those races aren’t human.

LUC: I don’t think I’m alone in saying I’m with you on the Jar-Jar thing especially. If only they would have left the stupid racial stereotypes out of those movies, we could have spent our attention in the more rewarding pursuit of deriding the terrible plot.

I guess that isn’t, properly speaking, a question, so let me change gears and ask you this: How do the issues change when we take up the issue of economic class? Poorer people are badly underrepresented in most fantasy and SF too–but not in your fiction. In some of your stories, getting something decent to eat not only shows up, but it’s central to the plot in the same way that it’s central to the lives of millions or billions of people in real life. Are the problems and solutions the same for economic class as they are for race?

JAMES:  I do believe racial and economic exclusion exists in fiction for some of the same reasons, predominately in that writers write what they relate to.  One of the reasons you see a huge glut of white protagonists having adventures in euro-centric worlds in science fiction and fantasy is because many of the writers of speculative fiction are white people with euro-centric upbringings.   I believe this same type of self-projection happens on an economic level as well … it’s kind of hard to write poverty when you’ve only seen it at a distance.  I’m like Steve Martin in The Jerk … I started life as a poor black child.  I know what government cheese tastes like.  I remember Christmases where the only presents came from Oasis (a kind of Salvation Army where richer people donated toys).  So while I can relate to the point where it appears convincingly in my writing, I don’t think this is a common thing for most writers.

 

Writing’s not necessarily expensive, like say golf or mountain biking, but it is an educated game.  I can’t speak for all poor kids, but I know I had to work against my conditions to become fairly proficient at writing.  A lot of it was self-education by reading voraciously and walking a lot to the library.  The rest was paying attention in school, wanting good grades and all.  People tend to flow like water and electricity … they take the path of least resistance, and in my hood this was definitely not a resistance free path …  There were a lot of single parents who was always away from home working where I grew up, either that or they weren’t very proactive in their kids’ lives, and few kids will pick up a book if left to their own devices unless parents spend those first formative years helping that child foster a love for books.  Luckily my mother helped foster that early love of fiction, so I was looking for books for an easy escape to places I couldn’t go.  That love of reading germinated and grew into a love of writing, something I think virtually all writers share.

So this long, auto-biographical answer relates to why you don’t see more poor folk in fiction, but that doesn’t provide any solutions, does it?   Given my stated cause for this lack of representation, a lack of author experience, I’m sure I don’t like the obvious answer… which seems to suggest having more writers who could relate to poverty.  I’d rather there’d be less poor people and writers in a post-modern world are forced to guess what it’s like to get that government ration of peanut butter that just has bold, black “PEANUT BUTTER” stamped across the packaging and loving that hard, poor-grade ration because you don’t really have any basis for comparison, this being the only peanut butter you’ve ever had.  Since quality fiction has a way of inspiring readers, and inspired readers grow to love writing themselves, I see a clever author who either had to unfortunately grow up poor or is awesome at extrapolating poverty being able to paint a realistic picture that inspires future writers to reach outside of their own experiences to write on both races they don’t belong to and socioeconomic conditions that they’ve never experienced.  That’s the ideal solution… because its not writing from experience unless that experience involves private jets and the playboy mansion.

LUC: Any comments, answers to questions I haven’t asked, or closing statements?

JAMES: I don’t have any particularly insightful parting words … no last inspired nuggets of profoundness for your readers.  Just like we all hail from different backgrounds and cultures to come together to live, work and play in today’s global village, I’m sure the issues you’ve put to all the writers you’ve interviewed will come together to make for a bigger, more profound understanding than I could ever state alone.  That’s what makes inclusion so awesome.

Wait … were those particularly insightful parting words?


James Beamon writes because he has to … and he can’t find anything worth watching on TV. But he doesn’t need TV when his wife is a muse and his son is amused by the stuff he makes up. And the cat–well, the cat’s not a fan of speculative fiction but has learned to attack on command. James calls Virginia home, but his IT work takes him all over the globe … Currently he’s in Afghanistan.  A quick peek into his mind and latest projects can be found at http://fictigristle.wordpress.com.

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Why Amazon Studios Will Succeed, Part 2: Customers and Distribution

Society and culture

Last week I began talking a bit about Amazon Studios, Amazon’s 20-month-old initiative to find and produce new movie and series scripts. In that post I posted on the advantages and opportunities of crowdsourced material. Today’s post looks at the business advantages Amazon brings to bear.

Customer comprehension
In most of their efforts, judging by sales, Amazon seems to get where their customers are coming from and what they really want. They came to dominate the book market because they presented customers with the buying experience and advantages they wanted (huge selection, simple and effective searching, lower prices, affordable shipping). They became a sell-anything behemoth by applying the same principles they used to sell books to, well, practically everything.

Their original Kindle succeeded extravagantly; the Kindle Fire, a very different device, also took off, and among authors their eBook store is close to the only one that matters. It seems to me that Amazon’s principles here are to focus on wide selection, good search tools, and an affordable price point, and that formula has delivered for them again and again. I have no reason to believe they’ll do anything differently–or need to–as they start bringing out movies and series.

Well-suited distribution channels
We tend to think of series as things we watch on television and of movies as things we watch in movie theaters, but increasingly we’re watching these things on our computers, tablets, Rokus, and other devices.  Can Amazon get movies in theaters and series on TV channels? Absolutely. Much smaller and less well-funded production companies do it all the time. Will Amazon need to do this? Maybe not.

I don’t feel I can predict how much our viewing habits might migrate away from movie theaters and TV stations. After all, both of these industries have survived massive changes in the last few decades, and I don’t know that further changes will necessarily swamp the boat for either one. For instance, even though I’ll eventually be able to watch virtually any movie I want on DVD and/or through streaming, I still see movies in theaters sometimes because of the big screen experience, and because sometimes I want to see the film as soon as it’s released.

However, it’s clear that people are ready and willing to watch movies and series through streaming, and Amazon already has a successful streaming service that it could expand or build on in a number of ways. It’s also clear that streaming is getting more and more popular compared to other modes of watching, and while this upward trend may eventually plateau, it’s likely streaming is here to stay, at least until the next game-changing paradigm comes along.

Familiar with success
So unlike literally every other movie and TV studio in the world, Amazon has a massive, successful, existing distribution channel, not to mention their own device, the Kindle Fire, out in the world to stream to (along with many other non-Amazon viewing devices, of course). None of this is any guarantee of success, and there are any number of companies that have dropped the ball on opportunities that were just as promising–but Amazon isn’t just any company.

Compare them to Google, for instance, which often seems to be just trying anything that looks popular. “How about a virtual world (Google Lively)? No, I guess that didn’t work. Now let’s make something called Google Wave and see if anyone can fully understand it! Huh, I guess not that either. Well, let’s try to out-Facebook Facebook! Hmm, hard to tell whether that’s going to survive or not. Well, good thing some of our other core offerings, like search and maps, are so excellent, and that we drive the software behind some of the world’s best smartphones.”

Amazon, on the other hand, seems to succeed with virtually every major effort they undertake. I have every reason to think they’ll succeed in this one too, even though it’s as much of a stretch as the Kindle was–and maybe more of one. If anyone can make that stretch, it’s Amazon.

In my next Amazon Studios post, I’ll offer a look at the possibility’s from the writer’s point of view. Is Amazon Studios a golden opportunity, a one-way ticket to tooldom, or a little of both?

Photo by evadedave

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Why Amazon Studios Will Succeed, Part 1: Crowdsourced Projects

Society and culture

Amazon Studios, in case you haven’t heard of it, is Amazon’s fairly recent foray into the areas we generally think of as “movies” and “television,” even though much of what we watch these days may not be on movie theater or television screens. I just uploaded a script to Amazon Studios myself. Will it vanish in the noise of thousands of other projects, or will it actually get some attention, possibly even be developed into a feature film?

Before we look at my own project, let’s take a look at Amazon Studios as a whole.

What’s so unusual about Amazon Studios? Well, one of the main things is that they crowdsource content. Writers upload scripts, filmmakers make test movies and trailers from popular uploaded content, and everyone can go around and pick out the projects they like most from the field of contenders. Amazon pays tens or in some cases hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop projects people upload, but most of the projects, of course, go nowhere and earn nothing.

This is not too different from the Kindle Store, where authors can upload books, but most of these books sell few or no copies, while a small number do spectacularly well.

Amazon Studios Will Succeed
I’ll go out on a limb right now and predict that Amazon Studios will make successful films and series that people will watch. Why am I confident of this? Three reasons: crowdsourced content, customer comprehension, and ideal distribution channels.

Crowdsourced content
Crowdsourcing, the process of having a large group of people choose from a field of options, is pretty much ideal (says me) for coming up with movies and video series, because a successfully crowdsourced project means a lot of people like it, and because the single key ingredient for success in a movie or series is that a lot of people like it. Successful crowdsourced products are ones that people talk about, are interested in, and will go out of their way to get to. If the crowd gets interested in a project and that picks it out of the slush, then it stands to reason there’s a very good chance that the larger crowd, which is to say a national or international audience, will also be interested in it and pick it out of other options to actually see, paying money somewhere along the way for the privilege.

Of course it’s true that the crowd that’s doing the picking might not have quite the same preferences as the larger potential audience, or that there might be things that would make a project attractive to project-choosers that wouldn’t make it as attractive to actual audiences, but I suspect these and other limitations are pretty minor, all things considered. I don’t believe that crowdsourced projects are necessarily better than non-crowdsourced ones, or that they should get wider exposure, but I do believe they will tend to be successful.

In my next post, I’ll talk about the other two reasons I believe Amazon will come out on top, the unique advantages they have as a business when it comes to making series and movies.

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