Something is going on in the media and the blogosphere that as a native man I have to comment on. We’re talking about an author who has had tremendous success (and rightfully so – this post does not debate that) who has written a new work in the much beloved Potterverse world.
A recent letter from an academic, a Native American woman, has written, what I believe to be, a rather important letter to JK Rowling about the responsibility as an author to “get it right” when writing about a cultural/societal community.
You can read the initial letter to her here.
This has been picked up by the media – of which the Guardian in the UK has had an uproar from Potter fans coming to Jo’s defense. Yet, I say to you, they are woefully off the mark as to what is really in play here. They are blindly defending her (by and large) and attempting to obviate her from any culpability in writing about a specific Native American nation (yes, NATION – we still have some modicum of sovereignty in play here, folks). There is a growing concern from within the Native populace that something is sadly amiss here. Now, no one has seen the work, so it’s speculation at this point. But even so, the letter to Jo wasn’t accusatory (to my mind) but rather a – please tread carefully and consider what you, and your powerful writers voice, are saying to the world about any indigenous population.
For I’ll grant you, no matter where they are – what continent they exist on, ALL native populations are watching this.
Here is my two cents on the matter as a member of that community – I find I can’t sit by and NOT say something (this was my response at the Guardian UK website to those who were blindly defending Jo without considering what was really at play here):
Sorry I disagree with those that think writing fiction is some sort of “get out of jail free card” – the tone of the “letter” to Jo was not in a accusatory manner at all, rather a plea to be sensitive to another culture. How can anyone state that she did NOT do anything to misrepresent Native Americans or their culture? Just the broad use of Native Americans carries a disingenuous tone as we are a collective of various sovereign nations each with our own beliefs and societal mores. Are you from that culture to speak to what is offensive or not? As a native man, I interact with my community (both from my own nation/confederacy and others from abroad). I see the signs of continued oppression from within.
Authors are in the business of communication. Even Jo acknowledges this point herself in that documentary that was about her. When she was writing something new the documentary filmmaker prods her about it. She doesn’t want to say much under the point of “it’s still my world.” She knows the moment it is released it is no longer hers. The world’s readership has the right to absorb and reject what the work as to say. It’s all about communication.
I grant you as an author you can write whatever you want BUT be prepared for how others will perceive and respond. That is THEIR right to take in the works and respond to them. If there is a legitimate concern as to representation then that community has every right to say so. Authors are not immune to responsibility in what they write. They can surely stand by it, but at what cost? Alienating a community who feels misrepresented? Breaking down trust that an author sees them with disrespect?
When it comes to my community remember that #whitepriviledge has been the edict that has oppressed us and misrepresented us in all manner of writings – not just “academically” but in fictional literature (Hiawatha, much?).
Case in point: I am writing a story that involves my own native community. It is a story that on the surface looks like it is magic/witchcraft but it in reality is quantum mechanics in play. Yet because of the witchcraft metaphor, I am off-worlding it to an alternate universe because I am fully cognizant of how my people view witchcraft. To be respectful, I am alt-history and alt-universing it in a LIKE universe to divorce myself from our own reality. That is respectful of my own nation and its core beliefs. EVEN THOUGH IT IS FICTION. I wanted to represent the community and give them heroes that they could see beyond the trappings and identify with the characters.
Just because an author writes fiction, it does not obviate that the community you are writing about doesn’t have the right to say “hold on, wait a minute …” because while even Americans (and I realize I am giving them far too much credit here) may know the barest whispers about individual cultural systems in play with each nation, a kid in Romania may think that what’s there is an extrapolation of how it truly is. Why? Because Jo has rooted whatever she’s concocted in the real world (muggle vs. wizard). Therefore, the reality does play a factor (reality is a “character” in the stories she creates) so the “letter” to Jo from this community is merely reminding her that as a people we still are here, and we watch what’s being written about us (whether in fictional form or not).
Until Next Time …
Writing is a funny business. And by funny, I mean peculiar.
The reason I say this is that what any given writer writes about has to come from a place of either economics (wanting to survive by your writings), passion (a story that just won’t let its author go), or as a means of vindication (having your opinion heard on a given topic – a reasoning and establishing your point of view in a debate).
But therein is where it gets peculiar (at least to my way of thinking). I am solidly in the middle camp. I write from passion. I don’t give a fuck if it’s embraced. I’d like it to be, but it is not a requirement. I’ve said this before. I am a successful writer because I complete a project. I see it through. It may not find its audience until I am well and truly gone. But it’s out there – my voice among the collective. For all time, as they say, because nothing in the internet really goes away (save a cataclysmic alien invasion that wipes out our tech in favor of their own). Right?
I recently had such an experience come to light with my works. I am writing to explore the institutionalized forms of homophobia in competitive sports – in the case of Angels of Mercy, American high school football. It’s done fairly well, given I don’t expect it to be the next Friday Night Lights or something of that sort. For one, I don’t concentrate on the hetero-centrist bullshit that permeates nearly all of literature and media out there. Jesus, how our straight counterparts are so weak that they have to have so many stories written about them. True, there is a burgeoning interest in our stories, but let’s be honest, it’s still small by comparison. Given the latest study on the GLBT impression in media – we are still in the single digits by way of exposure in the mainstream.
Part of that I lay fully at the feet of my own queer community. A large swath of queer men don’t partake of books, TV or movies that focus on our lives to really make their financial impact heard in the mainstream. And when we do have something that speaks to us, about our lives as we live them (*cough* LOOKING *cough*), it is bashed by its own community for not being representational of the whole.
“We don’t live like that. Not everyone is in the bushes looking for a hook-up.”
True on both counts. Yet, it was bashed so harshly by those of us in the queer community that now it’s gone. Now we’re relegated to tongue-in-cheek facades of Ryan Murphy’s worlds (Glee took a major leap off the cliff after the third season, American Horror Story, while great, is definitely over the top, and if AHS was out there, then Scream Queens left the planet for queer representation years before it aired). Yet with Looking gone, another of our voices became stamped out. And we did it to ourselves. Rather than engage the producers and creatives behind that show (a show I happened to have loved) it was torn apart at the seams.
What is HBO or Showtimes take away? Queer storytelling that focuses on the queer characters don’t sell. Even to our own community.
(Read that last part again, in case you missed just how cutting that is to our own stories.)
That’s beyond pathetic. It’s self-annihilation, or a fucked up internalized homophobia to the nth degree, if you ask me. Self-inflicted. How fucked up is that?
I just recently watched, with my husband, Andrew Haigh’s Weekend.
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It was a brilliant and intense queer story. It opened up so many reasons why I loved Looking as I did. It did NOT have a happy ending. It just ended – leaving you to ponder what happened next. Did the boy left behind pursue his lover to the US? Or did he just simply give up? I LOVED that. I loved the not knowing. Allowing me to decide for myself how it all ended.
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I also want to see Lilting.
Jesus, that one looks like it will emotively crush me. I live for those works. I recently watched Ben Whishaw in London Spy. That one also rattled me a great deal. It was queer storytelling that was epic in how brilliant it twist and turned on a dime. Ben Whishaw was brilliant in that work as well. I love my queer men and their simple complicated lives. I love talking to other queer men about their lives and loves and losses. They hold me spellbound. They truly do. Their stories are far more potent or powerful because they exist in the face of often monumental adversity. I admire them. They are my romance. Every single one of them. Even when we don’t agree. I still love and admire them. How could I not? They are from different mothers, but they are my brothers nonetheless.
This is partially why I rail at romance tropes. Not enough is being done to write about us as we are. It’s why I can’t write those things. Not when there is so much more to talk about. I get that it’s writing to “hope” – well, romance as a genre doesn’t have the lock on hope. It’s also why I can’t get all gushy about Disney fairy tales (though I will say I was pleasantly surprised by Maleficent). Because they’ve applied solid romantic tropes to stories that had none of that in it. Look at all the works those sweet retellings are based on – there’s none of that happy ever after in the original works. Mother Goose and Brothers Grim were outright scare monsters of fictional storytelling. Nothing short of it.
But I’m a bit off topic here.
What I wanted to get to with this post, is that the crossroads of queer fiction (or as I’d like to now call it – just plain literary fiction – because I am all about the equality) and romance. Somehow the works that take a solid look at our lives as they are get bashed because there is an automatic assumption that anything queer MUST have a HEA. Yes, there are genre and sub-genre works out there, but let’s be honest, their sales probably would do a helluva lot better if that HEA albatross wasn’t out there ready to sack any fictional work that has a queer protagonist/hero doing their damnedest to get to the last page of the story.
This came home to roost with a new reader who found my works and seemed to enjoy what I was writing. Or so I thought. I’ve since learned that no matter how much you put out there that the work is NOT romance, the prevailing winds are if it is queer then it MUST BE romance. Another reason why I rail at that genre. It’s poisoning the coffers of other works out there. I don’t fucking care if it sells. It still should not myopically mar the other stories that need to be told.
I write what I like to read, and what I like to watch. To give you context, I like heightened drama – Downton Abbey, ANYTHING by Shondaland (How To Get Away With Murder, Scandal, etc), things of that nature. I like it when characters are pushed to their absolute limits of what they think they can handle. Then we get to see some real character development. Why? Because humans grow from adversity. It’s built into who we are. Whether we choose to collapse and withdraw (which is a choice) or to fight and press on. We evolve to one end of the human spectrum or another. THAT’S powerful storytelling. Safe stories with safe endings don’t provide that. They just provide the candy like feel good moment before it’s dropped and moved onto the next sweet morsel of storytelling. Police procedurals don’t interest me. Mostly because they are formulaic to a great degree. I have Sherlock (the Cumberbatch edition, if you please) that satisfies that far better than any NCIS or procedural out there. I’m a solid card carrying Cumberbitch, and proud of it!
I also come from the world of professional opera. I write operatic pieces set against the normality of life. I like watching my safe characters who, as its author, I want them to find happiness just as much as the next guy, struggle like hell to get there – whatever their HEA is (and it definitely doesn’t have to involve romance or a romantic theme). But in my worlds, as in life, none of it is guaranteed. I’ve said I am a pantser, in that I have tentpoles up that mark where I want the story to go, but I also let the characters drive the drama. Sometimes they’ve even surprised me. Actually, they surprise me a helluva lot.
So this new reader seemed to like what I was doing. But I thought, because I was careful to explain in ALL of my blurbs and marketing about the works, that they are NOT romance reads, that I was covered by that simple statement. I’ve never professed them to be romance in any stretch of the imagination. I don’t do romance. I can’t. I want to push my characters into very, VERY, uncomfortable places. I like watching them squirm and rationalize their own fucked up viewpoints, I want them to explore why they are doing what they are doing. I want my readers to see the dangers of their thinking. They are very, very specific works. Not for everyone.
But again, that is my passion. That’s what I write. Heavily influenced by my years in the opera world telling those types of stories to the masses.
I was once in the wings about to go on for the final tableau setting of Cavalleria Rusticana when one of my opera singing gay buddy besties came along side me. We loved to quietly crack jokes and goad one another backstage before we had to go on and be over the top dramatic. Keeping the balance, ya know? Humor before tragedy and all that rot. So I turned to him and said, just before the ear shattering scream one of our cast members was tasked with when the hero is killed in a duel:
“Why can’t we do a happy opera sometime?”
To which he replied:
“Who’d come to see it?”
He had a very valid point. His response is what’s guided my hand while I write what I write. I write opera. I write drama. No automatics in those works. In fact, it’s expected that shit won’t work out. That the ending will be cataclysmic and disastrous. If I can pull a rabbit out of my hat and give my characters a happy ending that works, then yay me. But I don’t do automatics. Hell, sometimes I only vaguely know how it’s going to end when I start. And even then, that ending is ALWAYS a moving target as I see it finally in my sight at the end of the work.
*Series Spoiler Alert*
Well, I asked this new reader to preview the next release – Angels of Mercy: Phoenix in the Fire. He said he’d love to read it and provide feedback. This book is dark. It’s not a happy book by any stretch of the imagination. How could it be? It is about being the victim of a very horrific beating by your boyfriend’s teammates. That is going to do a number on how you see your world, despite which avenue you choose to crawl out from that terrifying hole: to survive and become stronger (the hardest of the two) or to collapse inwardly and withdraw from everyone you know (sadly, the usual tract most take). I wanted to explore the former rather than the latter. It’s easier to implode from that sort of homophobic beat down. I wanted Elliot to climb out of that hole and find an inner strength to himself. Elliot struggles to accept the love that is freely given to him by many in his life. He thinks he’s not worth it. Many gay men have this struggle for one reason or another. I wanted to have that as part of his inner monologue.
Well, suffice to say that my new enthusiastic reader wasn’t very taken with the new book. In fact, when I asked him what he found that didn’t work (because I truly wanted to explore that) it became very clear to me he was reading it as a romance read. I tried to explain that I wasn’t writing that. It was too late. Phoenix had soured the work for him. I haven’t heard anything since my last email that tried to explain what the works truly are. Other betas advised me to leave it – to distance myself from that situation. But I’ve toiled with it in my head. It’s stuck in my craw, so to speak.
But it did point out why my ire at the romance trope exists. It is poisoning other works. The expectation that ALL stories must have romance tropic happy endings is destroying proper storytelling. It is also setting expectations out there for works that are nowhere near that form of writing.
I don’t do romance. I probably never will. I write us as we are.
There. I’ve stated it once again. Not that anyone is really paying any attention. Those tropic bullshit expectations will still be there. I’ll still rail against them and flip them the big ol’ bird and purposefully write darker works that put a magnifying glass on our community as we are just to spite those Disneyesque saccharine laden pieces of fiction.
I write drama. Operatic drama. Period. Deal with it, or move on. I’ll continue to write either way.
Until Next Time …