Looking for clues

Fen of Color - shatter the silence

Fen of Color

This is adapted from a speech I originally gave at Wiscon in the year that I was one of the guests of honour. The speech was subsequently published in Foundation journal, and I gave an adapted version of it recently at the Williamson Lectureship in Portales, New Mexico.

When people ask me questions about my writing process, I find it difficult to claim that my answers are the truth. I have no absolutes, but perhaps some shifting, context-dependent truths.

I was born in Jamaica, and have lived in Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana, the U.S. and Canada. My family moved to Canada permanently when I was sixteen. I’ve lived in Toronto, Canada ever since. I’m forty-eight now.

My father was a writer, actor, poet and a teacher. My mother is a library technician. She catalogues books for a living, which is a much more entrancing occupation than it may sound.

So I always had books around me. And I always liked the weird ones; the ones with otherworldly creatures, or magic, or spaceships. The ones with talking animals.

There’s a thing that often happens at some point when I’m being interviewed about my writing. The interviewer, whatever part of the world or whatever subculture they come from, will put on a curious look and say, "And why do you write science fiction?" the implication being, "Why are you, a black woman from the Caribbean, interested in a literature that still is largely by and about white people, largely men, using technology largely made by the dominant cultures, to turn the world and the people in it to their desires?"

It’s a good question. My answer is a partial truth. So of course it’s also a partial untruth.

There was a book I read when I was little; it was a story in which a group of children had to endure a number of dangers and travails. At the end, they reached a fantasy land where they would live happily ever after and they were each rewarded with their heart’s desire. The white children asked for horses, castles, jewels; in other words, property, title and money. And what words did the writer put in the mouth of the one black child to make the journey safely? He asked for a small everbearing watermelon patch and all the watermelon he could eat. And he got it. He spent the eternity of Paradise lying outdoors in a watermelon patch with a huge smile on his face, devouring slice after slice of watermelon the size of his head. The writer intimated that this was quaint and charming and oh so culturally specific and appropriate. My child’s brain understood it as the best to which I would be able to aspire.

Black, gay SF writer Samuel R. Delany once said, "We need visions of the future, and our people need them more than most." In other words, we black people need to be able to define and explore our futures. I grew up in the days of Star Trek, old school, and I do not fancy a career as Intergalactic Receptionist, no matter how cute the outfit or how well it shows off my thighs. "We need visions of the future, and our people need them more than most." And how.

I mean, don’t get me wrong: I love watermelon, even though it took me a few years once I'd emigrated to North America to let white people see me eating it. But it seems to me, since that kid was savvy enough to get to paradise, he would have wished for a bank account that was never empty and a good accountant, so he could buy all the damned watermelon he wanted, and maybe a roof over his head too, you know?

So one of the reasons for writing in this genre is high dudgeon. Palm a measly old watermelon patch off on me, will you? Well, I can write myself a better ending than that!

But really, the simplest answer to why I write this literature is because I love it. It has taught me lessons about life that I didn’t realise I was learning, because the stories themselves were so unexpected and compelling that I kept turning the page to see what was going to happen next, and before I knew it, I was a smarter person. It has brought me hours and days of magic when my life seemed bleak. It’s probably pure arrogance for us who are writers to hope that we might be able to have those effects on someone else, but I think that that is one of the reasons many of us do it.

My family moved every few years to a different country. When you enter a new school midway through, everyone in your class already knows everyone else, because they’ve grown up alongside them. Even when the other kids are friendly, you don't exactly belong. In my life, the people outside my immediate family never stayed the same, but the books sure did. I could go to my parents’ bookshelves any time and pull down Homer and read about rosy-fingered Dawn lighting up the morning sky, or read about Gulliver riding on the nipple of a giantess in Swift's Gulliver’s Travels. As a child, I even managed to run across some copies of Playboy Magazine from the early 60s. I loved Little Annie Fanny. I formed my idea of womanhood from Varga paintings. In Playboy in those days, they airbrushed out nipples and pubic hair. All the women looked like Barbie. I was nine; I thought that’s how ladies looked! At the back of my mind, I probably figured that’s how I’d look, too, when I grew up. Boy, was it a shock when I hit puberty. So now some of my fiction talks about body image.

My family moved to Canada in 1977. I’d lived in urban environments all my life, whether in the U.S. or in the Caribbean, so moving to Toronto was more a matter of adapting to a different flavour of urban. But there was plenty to get used to, from Canadian accents to the fact of suddenly being in a racial and cultural minority. Though that’s changing; the city’s now 1/3 to 1/2 people of colour, depending on what part of it you're in. Toronto is beautiful, though I will never love the fact of having to wear a space suit 8 months of the year to go outside; to me, clothing should be decoration, not armour. But if you want to get on my last nerve very quickly, just you cheerfully tell me that I hate the winter because I come from the tropics and I should never have left. You’d be surprised how many people think that kind of biological determinism is a caring and appropriate thing to say. People ask, "Why did you come here? The weather’s so lovely where you come from!" Jamaican-Canadian writer Lillian Allen says, "I came here for the same reason your ancestors did." In the early half of the 20th century, it used to be Canadian immigration policy that people from warm countries could be denied residency on the grounds that they were unsuited for the climate of Canada and would suffer there. Conveniently, that thoughtful policy could be used to bar all kinds of dark-complected peoples, from Greek folks to black Africans.

But here in North America I am, as is much of my extended family. Deal with it. And I’ve become a writer, as my father was.

I once stumbled across a quotation attributed to the 19th Century French scientist Charles Richet. It goes, "I never said it was possible. I only said it was true." I love pithy quotations. Here's another of my favourites:

"Missy, life's nothin' but guts, muscle, nerve. All you gotta do is stay black and die." That's from black Nova Scotian Canadian George Elliott Clarke, in his poem "The Symposium".

And of course, that quotation by Samuel R. Delany, which comes from a speech he gave at the Studio Museum of Harlem: "We need visions of the future, and our people need them more than most."

And yet, that isn't really why I write science fiction and fantasy. It's more like the result, not the reason. Or like the air I'm breathing when I sit down to write.

I had an interesting discussion once with the owner of a comics store in another city. I was visiting the store with a friend and with a sweetheart of mine, both black men. The owner tried to convince us that comics were a colour-blind medium, and that's why we couldn't find the comics that were by artists of colour. He was convinced that we wouldn't be able to identify them, because he couldn't. He said, "Look at Frank Miller's Martha Washington comics. You wouldn't know that those were written by a white guy, would you?" My friends and I looked at each other and out of politeness, held back our uproarious laughter until we'd left the store. Because not only is it obvious that Martha Washington is written by a white American, it'd be pretty obvious to many a woman reader that it's written by a man. The markers scream loud and clear. A lot of writers in my chosen genre maintain the illusion that it is a good idea to blind oneself to culture, identity, history and current reality and how those things reverberate off a piece of fiction. That is a culture and gender-specific stance that one hears mostly from straight white men from "developed" nations. Art is about vision. How in the world can it be a good idea for an artist to limit his or her perceptions? Hear me well; I think that Frank Miller absolutely should create comics such as Martha Washington. His work helps to put us in the picture. I'm just glad that there are also comic artists out there such as Ho Che Anderson, Joe Quesada, and Alison Bechdel, to give readers a wide range of perceptions and experiences.

For a while when I was sixteen, I lived in Guyana with an aunt of mine. Her son, my cousin, had boxes full of Mad Magazines and Eerie and Barbarella and Plop!. I loved those comics. For years, Vampirella was my gold standard of what a large-breasted woman's breasts should do if she slapped a strip of leather four inches wide over each of them and ran and leapt and tumbled. But I'm getting over the body dysphoria now. My cousin let me play his David Bowie's "Diamond Dogs" album--which sounded mighty strange in the suburbs of Georgetown, Guyana, let me tell you. I would lie on his bed when he wasn't around and stare up at the Kiss poster he had taped to the ceiling, and try to imagine what in the world would induce those four white guys to get kitted out like that, and why in the world I found it so compelling.

In retrospect, it's very clear why a little middle class black Caribbean girl living in the tropical countries of Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana might be drawn to comics, to the likes of the Marvel and DC Universes. I mean, just look at the Sub-Mariner; comes from a warm place surrounded by water, speaks with an accent different from those of the other superheroes, has different features from them, darker skin; and he's fighting a revolutionary war against oppression. Obviously, this man comes from the Caribbean, right? I knew how to spot my people.

It got more complicated with Daredevil. I knew that when he took his red tights off, he was a white American. But while he was in Daredevil drag, I was subconsciously reading him as a black man, and for reasons I now find very troubling: the skin of his suit was coloured; he was all about physique and physical action; and he was a mischief-maker, caused trouble wherever he went. Had to be a black man, right? It was decades before I was able to identify the unconscious internalised racism of my childhood, and could understand that the 'blackness' I was reading as codified into Daredevil was a mythical conception of black maleness imposed from outside black realities.

Other types of representation caught my attention. Remember the Fantastic Four? Reed Richards, the stretchy, clever scientist guy; his brother-in-law Johnny, the Human Torch; Ben, the powerful, wise-cracking Thing, made out of what appeared to be red brick; and Mrs. Sue Richards, Reed's wife. Three cool guys who could do neat stuff, and a woman. And what was her super power? Why, she could disappear. What else would you expect a good fifties wife and mother to do? While the guys were flying around beating up and immobilizing the bad guys, she'd have literally disappeared. The guys would be going thwack and pow, and she'd be invisible, whimpering, "Oh, my. Oh, Reed, oh, oh." They've updated her super powers since. She can now raise a force field and suffocate people inside it. I wonder whether she ever feels suffocated herself.

I was a muscular, big child with a decided lack of aptitude for invisibility. I didn't have perfectly upturned blonde hair, and I wasn't anybody's Mrs. Like any kid, I wanted fantasies of personal power, not of disappearing. So naturally, I identified with the Thing. Many women and girls did and do this as we search the received wisdom of popular culture, looking to find ourselves. We fixate on Spiderman, not Mary Jane. On Superman, not Lois Lane.

At some point, Marvel created Ororo--Storm, the beautiful African woman who could command the weather. I love Ororo to bits, but she apparently straightens her nappy hair, as every good black woman is supposed to. And she has blue eyes. Pale, straight hair, blue eyes, and the ability to throw lightning around; hell, it'd be easy to mistake her for Thor! You can make the case that Ororo's straight white hair is meant to evoke lightning, and her blue eyes the sky. That's probably valid. And yet, on a gut level, the message this black woman gets is the same tired message that black female bodies – bodies like mine – cannot be considered beautiful unless they are altered to more closely approach a particular ideal of whiteness that even a lot of white women do not possess.

I suspect we've all done this, in one way or another; gone digging through the images of appropriate personhood with which we're presented--images which often exclude us completely--and looked for the clues that yes, people like us do in fact exist, and can in fact be seen as valuable, strong, sexy, beautiful. If one of me exists, then, unlikely as my experience of the world tells me it is, there must be others, musn't there? There must be people who find chunky women's bodies beautiful, mustn't there? After all, chunky women keep having kids, so someone must joining us in that endeavour. There must be more bookaholic, tomboy girls who climb trees with books clenched in their teeth so that they'd have something to do when they got up there? There must be more freaky people who find blue lipstick more interesting than the ubiquitous shades of red, who find sexy Annie Lennox even sexier when she's in Elvis drag, and the cave troll more appealing than the exiled prince. I can't be the only person in the world who finds Marilyn Manson hot, can I? (I always get a resounding 'Yes, you are!' when I ask that last question.) But if people like me exist, our lives must be just as worth telling stories about, right? Perhaps the stories just get buried and don't make it into the mainstream. But you eventually figure out that those stories don't get hidden entirely. You learn that people like you are out there; you just have to look. You learn to apply a different filter to the messages that the world gives you. You learn to look for clues. It's kind of like figuring out a bunch of hankie codes.

Your friends sometimes hand you clues, too. Writer Ashok Mathur put me on to this one; take a look at the television show Bewitched; Samantha the witch wants to marry Darren the mortal, but he's embarrassed that she's a witch. So she agrees to give up her witch heritage and live as a mortal woman in a no-name American suburb. Good thing she was pallid enough to pass, huh? When the mainstream doesn't address the issues overtly, they still seem to sneak out in coded, often unconscious ways. They are our world's guilty secrets, and they get blurted out. Children recognise pop culture images as a kind of stamp of approval from the powers that be, from the official storytellers of our world. I wanted to be visible. I wanted to be told that I could exist. Not understanding what I was doing, I collected and treasured those few, unconscious, accidental hints that I could. I was drawn to those covert, coded representations, even though I didn't recognise what was going on, or even really what I needed from them. I read whatever stories came my way, and I preferred the fantastical ones to the realistic ones, because so many of the realistic ones worked so hard at maintaining a fantasy of monolithic normalcy that had nothing to do with my actual life.

I was hooked on The Lone Ranger (I waited impatiently for the moments when Tonto would get in on the action). In Batman, the unmasking of Catwoman as the black Eartha Kitt was a bit of a watershed moment for me. There was someone who could be an auntie of mine, right there on the screen! I had never seen anything like it. If she could finesse and finagle her way into the magic box, well, I didn't know quite what, not then, but it made me feel very good. I devoured Star Trek old school with Japanese Sulu and Black Uhura and its mixed race magic man, Mr. Spock, and I devoured Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie (that hot-blooded, servile harem girl who was for some reason a blonde white woman). I don't say that everything I took in was good for the psyche of a developing mind, but me, I was looking for clues.

It was probably pretty inevitable that I would find the science fiction and fantasy shelves in the adult section of public library where my mother worked. And yes, you could call it escapism, that damning word. I thought I could kiss writer Walter Mosely when he wrote a few years ago that escapism was the wrong way to look at science fiction; that in order to make change, humans first had to imagine the directions in which we want to go. At last; vindication.

So there I was, using my mother's adult library card to borrow science fiction from the library where she worked. I discovered Harlan Ellison's "Shattered Like a Glass Goblin." If I had thought that the American suburbs of the Brady Bunch were alien, Ellison's version of Haight-Ashbury raised "alien" to a whole new level for a middle class black girl living in Kingston, Jamaica. Clearly, there were worlds I had never imagined. Pretty soon, I was reading only science fiction and fantasy. The stories introduced me to concepts that had never occurred to me before, and that sure as hell weren't being taught in school. I hoovered it all in, even when I hadn't the first clue what was going on in the stories; I'd learned that kind of forbearance while reading my father's classical European literature. All of SF was new to me. Even the hackneyed plot of the man and woman who crash on the desert planet and become the new Adam and Eve was fresh to me. A science fiction and fantasy reader was born.

And it pretty much stayed that way from my teens through my twenties, when I was working as a clerk in a public library. I had by then found the work of a brilliant writer named Samuel R. Delany. Chip Delany's Dhalgren hacked my mind, rewrote its programming. I was a different person when I was finished reading it. I managed to inveigle the library to purchase more of Chip's books, and I read those, too. Each one unfurled something new in my head. One day, leafing through a hardcover copy of Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand that I'd borrowed and brought home, I turned to the inside back cover. There was a photograph of Chip; the first I'd ever seen. For me, it was like that moment when Catwoman took off her mask to reveal the black woman underneath. With Chip, I had missed all the clues. Samuel R. Delany was a black man; the first black man I'd ever been aware of in this field. I stared and stared at the picture, incredulously, and then I began to cry. I wept for about half an hour. I kept asking myself, but why is it so important that he's black? It doesn't make any difference, does it? race doesn't matter, does it? I'd been taught that it didn't, no more than class, gender, physical ability, age or sexuality did. I'd been taught that no-one was worth more than anyone else, that I should ignore arbitrary differences. And yet, I looked at that photograph of Chip, and I bawled like a baby. It felt as though my universe had just doubled in size. It was a clue that I couldn't ignore, even if at the time I couldn't quite figure out the answer to why differences amongst people both did and didn't matter. Years later, I was at a con with Chip when a young man asked him a question. That young man, gay and black, as Chip is, had just attended a writing workshop where he'd found it very difficult to get recognition about why the things he was writing about were important. He asked Chip how a black gay man could find his voice in science fiction. Almost before the words were out of his mouth, a white woman overrode him with, "Well, I just don't see race in my life. I don't make it a problem. I don't see race. It just doesn't exist as an issue."

Very gently, Chip replied, "If you can't see something that threatens my life daily, then you can't help me fight it. You can't be my ally."

Many of the readers of science fiction and fantasy are proud of the fact that they are ignorant of the races or genders of the writers whose works they read.  That would be fine if when you picked up a book, it was just as likely to be written by a woman, a man, someone Asian, someone disabled, someone queer, someone from Zambia, etc.  However, in today's science fiction and fantasy, most of the writers are white, straight and male.  If you're not interested in changing that, then say so.  But don't try to claim that being content with the status quo somehow proves that you're enlightened.  All it proves is that you're indifferent.  Science fiction and fantasy literature and science fiction and fantasy community are just as prejudiced as the rest of the world. How could we not be so? We are part of this world, not loftily separate from it. There is rampant systemic racism in SF community, and we people of colour in this community have no need to apologise for being pissed the hell off about it; the first time that someone tromps on your foot, you might politely ask them to stop doing it. By the thousandth time, you're just going to bellow at them, even if they didn't do it on purpose. Because by the thousandth time, "I didn't mean to do it" starts to look a whole lot like, "I don't care enough about you to pay attention". It's even more infuriating to be told, "You must be nuts. I didn't step on your foot, and you need to apologise to me for even daring to suggest that I did."

Again, hear me well; I am not advocating for fewer straight/white/male writers in this genre.  Why would I, especially since, as I'm saying here, so much of that work has meant the world to me?  And I'm a writer; I want to see writers get published, of all stripes!  I want to see more diverse representation, not less.  "Diverse" includes the writers who are already well represented in the bookstores.

I love science fiction and fantasy. They have given me, deliberately and by accident, many of the answers to dilemmas that were making my life very difficult to live. Don't get me wrong; often, just as much as the messages coming from the rest of the world, science fiction, fantasy and horror avoid talking about the troublesome--in other words, you know something is there because people are doing such weird contortions to avoid talking about it. My friend Ian Hagemann, a regular at Wiscon, once said on a panel that when he reads science fiction futures that are full of white people and no one else, he wonders when the race war happened that wiped out the majority of the human race, and why the writer hasn't mentioned such an important plot point. I will never forget hearing him say that.

It can be a matter of looking for clues. I treasure the writers who do talk explicitly about the elephants in the room: the stories about the women men don't see; the stories that imagine third and fourth and fifth genders; the Xenogeneses and the Wraetthhus. I treasure the writers who dare to imagine that black people and other people of colour will have a future. I treasure the works by writers who make me dare to think both inclusive of and beyond straight and gay, male and female, white and of colour.  I'm grateful for all the devoted readers of science fiction and fantasy.  The ones who cheerfully take up the challenge of finding and reading more works by people from marginalized groups make me especially happy.

I try to take it all on; sex and sexuality and history and race and culture and colonization and gender and power, and I don't know what all. I do so, not only in my fiction, but through my community work. I am exhausted, but stopping is no more an option than ceasing to breathe would be. Stopping would contribute to the world's attempts to disappear people like me, for many values of "like me". Stopping would make it impossible for me to continue reading and writing science fiction for the most important reason of all; because I enjoy it. Stopping is death. So I hope that some of what I have to say drops some clues, some hints to spark people's thinking. We – you – are real. And you have stories to tell. The clues are out there.

Why this particular post, and why today? Check out the Fen of Color community on Live Journal.