So Tell Me ... What's The Weather Like on YOUR Planet?

16 March, 2009

Writing the Real

My mind has been full of wanting to comment on the RaceFail thing in more substance for a while, and I haven't been able to articulate much of anything. So I will start out by pointing at things that were part of what I wanted to try to respond to, because they're worth noting at least, and then get on to what I have capacity to articulate.

For context on RaceFail, rydra_wong is collecting a complete set of links.

Wordweaverlynn writes Shame and Racefail. Queenofhell writes I am not the moderator. Miriam_Heddy writes Some thoughts on the impossibility of opting out of the economy of privilege. Inalasahl writes Because there aren't enough spoons on the planet.

Then the stuff that congeals some of the things in my head right now into something semi-comprehensible:
Let Me Tell You A Story
Mary Anne Mohanraj Gets You Up to Speed, Part I
Mary Anne Mohanraj Gets You Up to Speed, Part II
Taking One for the Team

A few years ago I realised that the characters in my stories defaulted to white. In some cases there was reason for this - such as the books set in a largely European-ish climate in which there was very little long-distance travel and no colonial history. But even so, I recognised it as a flaw in writing, and started thinking about how to address that.

In that European-like world, I thought about what I knew about it. I knew that one group of people in the area I was writing about travelled, and that they were more ethnically mixed than the rest of the population as a result; that had been in the bits I'd already written. I thought about people in the places they might have travelled to, and whether, say, a group of people displaced from their home might buy passage to another area and try to build a new way of life there.

That group of people happened to be black. They took up residence in one of the poor areas of the city the story was set in, as that was where they could afford the space, and settled in. They get their food the way the locals do; their family customs are not that different from the customs of the poor of the city, so the blend there is smooth; they trade like the locals do, too, and do reasonably well for themselves because they know techniques that the locals do not. There is some level of intermarriage. And, because this is genre fiction, they maintain their traditions of how to teach and work with psionics, which are very different than the local ways.

Which gives rise to the most story-significant character from that culture: half-immigrant, half-local in heritage, trained in her enclave's techniques in psionics, and adopted, as per local tradition, by one of the local psionic families and trained their way. She is sixteen, twists her hair into dredlocks, and quite certain that she's not old enough or knowledgeable enough to be a bridge between worlds.

Not that she really has a choice in the matter: her mixed heritage means that she will always be needing to navigate the question of where she came from. I wrote a little from her perspective on that state of dubiousness, of uncertainty, of not knowing how to make the synthesis between her heritage and her home, because that is the nature of her story. (I shared it with Little Light the other day, who simply said, "Yes.")

When I was working on constructing this character, as I wrote before, I had lunch with a friend who had written extensively about the spiritual nature of her hair and how she takes care of her dreds. Even though my character was not from an Earthly culture, I knew that she was going to be seen and read by people who were, and so I wanted to be sure that I was treating her well. She lives in a city where people with psionic power mark their affiliations with coloured hair ribbons; she comes from a culture where people with psionic power have dreds. She takes care of her hair carefully, quietly, in a place where nobody knows what it means, where the only person who comments is a child she saved from predators who has developed a juvenile crush.

She gets asked by a little girl - of similar mixed heritage - to teach her the things that go with having "the hair". And despite her self-doubt, she starts to do so - coming into mild conflict with a young man of the dominant culture who is well-steeped in young adult arrogance and certainty of complete knowledge (who spends most of the book being taken down a peg every so often). Her story is not a major part of the book (if I write a third book in that universe, her story will be central, and the bereaved gay man I mentioned in the discussion at Scalzi's will find love again too), but it's a part of the themes that I'm constantly exploring: stuck between worlds, the outsider looking in, the alien trying to make sense of the world.

Another story I had been thinking about on and off for a while was an expansion of a short story I wrote in college. And I thought about it, and figured that what I had was a fine short story, but for an expanded thing, it needed more depth and exploration of what was really a trio of generoteenagers, two boys and a girl.

I spent a while exploring the ethnic origins of the spirits that the boys wound up associated with, thinking about what backgrounds would lead to their affiliations, and so on. (The boys are shapechanged, she is not, so what sort of thing they were was pretty well set in the story.)

I wound up getting a multicultural dictionary of fairy creatures and reading it straight through, taking notes on things to look into, trying to find a humanoid supernatural creature to affiliate her with. When I found something promising - from Peru - I decided her name, Jule, was short for Julianna.

Dealing with a Latina main character gave me a whole lot more resarch to do. I bought a book of Quechua folktales; I listened to my collection of Andean music; I bought a Spanish slang dictionary to supplement my somewhat faded school-based knowledge of the language. I wrote to a Californian educator of my acquaintance asking her for tips, not only about the Latina character, but the white boy who lived in the barrio, and wound up with some understanding of things that I would need to rewrite for depth.

And because this was set in something resembling the Real World, I wound up dealing with Real World racism. An accidental friend's WASP mother was blatant about it; the friend herself had a more incidental flavor and immediately noticed that she'd made a misstep. Julianna, more overtly than either of the other two main characters, has to navigate between the worlds - not only the mundane world and the faery world that they have been caught in, but between her Hispanic heritage and her American desires. Her friends wrestle with poverty and dreams, with middle-class white "culturelessness" and deeply closeted bisexuality.

The themes of the book - finding oneself and coming to an understanding of identity, and as always the between-worlds and outsider-looking-in, were profoundly enriched by the introduction of Julianna's "new" (I hadn't thought about it before, so she was generically whiteish) ethnicity.

And it caused me to add a snide cat-shaped storm demon of Peruvian origin, who rapidly became one of my favorite minor characters ever.

A shorter note on the space opera I'm not working on at the moment - in a fit of aggravation at the stereotypical post-ethnic space opera, I spent a while pondering colonisation efforts and wound up having a large chunk of novel set on a planet settled primarily by Caribbean-origin Francophones. Which gives my Catholic narrator a sense of almost, but not quite, having a sense of the religious rhythms of the place.

I don't expect that my writing will be perfect, or anything near it. But I know that I have gotten more wealth of exploration and more depth in the themes that I was already working with, as well as just more interesting stories, from trying.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting!

When I came up with the settings for my novel, I was determined to have various inspirations for the cultures and not just European ones. And go figure, it ends up taking place in one of the "European" countries. (Which really is a bit more complex, given that it's a culture formed from the intermarriage of two cultures, one of which is decidedly not "European". Not to mention that it contains an incredibly diverse city state that's both center and circumference to the "mainstream" culture.

Yeah. It's definitely worth poking at, and I hope I'm doing it alright.