The Internet is Also Real Life

The distinction between Real Life and the internet is frequently made. Particularly by people for whom the internet is not a big, or in some cases any, part of their social lives. But the internet is not on a different planet. It’s right here on Earth it was created by people and is made up of people just like Sydney or New York City or Timbuktu.

The internet is a huge part of my life, and has been since the early 1990s, when I was first introduced to the weird and wonderful World Wide Web. Oh, the glory of it.

I remember my very first email address. Hard to believe now, but back then email was a wonder. I could stay in touch with friends and family all around the world without stamps or envelopes or treks to the post office and without the insanely long waits.1

In those early days I spent a lot of time reading through various different rec.arts news groups. People exchanging opinions! As if they were in the same room! Except they weren’t! Woah! I joined loads of different listservs. I discovered weird and wonderful blogs and would lose days reading back through the archives. I even commented on some of them. By 2003 I had my own blog. Er, this one. In the last few years twitter has become a large part of my life and through it I have met many amazingly smart and witty an inspiring people.

Online I have found people who care about the same things as me. I’ve found communities I feel at home in. I loved it then and I still love it.

For twenty years now I’ve had many people in my life I think of as my friends whom I’ve never met in *cough* real life. But I know them. Not the way I know the people I’ve lived with. Not the way I know my closest friends. But in some cases I know my online friends better than some of my offline friends and acquaintances.

These online friends are not imaginary. We who spend big chunks of our lives online are real. We make each other laugh. We make each other cry. We annoy each other. We talk to each other several times a week. We fight bullies together. We share experiences. We care about each other.

When one of us dies it hurts.

Social media is not an abstraction. It’s real. It’s made up of real people, who live and die. Their deaths are real and painful.

  1. Okay, obviously, not entirely true. As with snail mail it all depends on how good a correspondent a person is. But in the first days of email we were all so excited we were amazing correspondents. Until the novelty wore off . . . []

Who is My Audience?

On Twitter ages ago N. K. Jemisin asked “*do* white writers want only white readers?”

The immediate, obvious answer for me is: No, I don’t want only white readers. And I’m really glad I don’t have only white readers.

But I’ve not been able to stop thinking about that question. And the shadow question which is “do white writers only write for white readers” regardless of what kind of audience they might want?

In order to respond I need to break it down:

Whiteness

I’m white. That fact has shaped everything about me. I know the moment when I first realised I was white. I was three or four and had just returned from living on an Aboriginal settlement in the Northern Territory. My parents were anthropologists. I was on a bus with my mum in inner-city Sydney when I pointed to a man of possibly Indian heritage and said loudly, “Mummy, look it’s a black man.” My mother was embarrassed, apologised to the man, who was very gracious, and later tried to talk to me about race and racism in terms a littlie could understand.

What happened in that moment was me realising that some people were black and some people were white and that it made a difference to the lives they lived. I’d just spent many months living in the Northern Territory as the only white kid. The fact that I wasn’t black had not been made an issue.1 We played and fought and did all the things that kids do despite my difference. So much so that tiny me had not noticed there was a difference. Despite seeing many instances of that difference being a great deal I wasn’t able to make sense of it till I was living somewhere that was majority white, majority people with my skin colour, and then the penny dropped.

Many white Australians never have a moment of realising that they’re white. That makes sense. Whiteness is everywhere. White Australians see themselves everywhere. Our media is overwhelmingly white, our books are overwhelmingly white. In Australia whiteness is not other; it just is. Whiteness doesn’t have to be explained because it is assumed.

Because whiteness just is, like many other white people, I don’t identify as white. For me whiteness is the box I have to tick off when I fill out certain forms. While it shapes every single day of my life it doesn’t feel like it does. Because what whiteness gives me is largely positive, not negative. My whiteness is not borne home on me every single day. I don’t need to identify as white because, yes, whiteness is a privilege.

When I see a white person talking about “their people” and they mean “white people” I assume they are white supremacists. Anyone talking about saving the white race from extinction is not my people.

For many different reasons I do not think of white people as my people. As a white writer I do not write for white people.

I admit that I have used the phrase “my people.” I’ve used it jokingly to refer to other Australians. Particularly when homesick. Or when someone Australian has done something awesome like Jessica Mauboy singing at Eurovision at which point I will yell: “I love my people!” Or an Australian has done something embarrassing on the world stage: “Oh, my people, why do you fill me with such shame?”

I’ve used “my people” to refer to other passionate readers, to YA writers, to fans of women’s basketball, to Australian cricket fans who like to mock the Australian men’s cricket team and care about women’s cricket, to people who hate chocolate and coffee as much as I do etc.

All of that comes from a place of privilege. I can’t think of a single time in my life when I have been referred to as “you people.” I’ve gotten “you women” or “you feminists” or “you commies”2 or “you wankers” but never “you people.”

White people are rarely asked to speak for their entire race. N. K. Jemisin’s question about white writers writing for white readers is not something that gets asked very often. Meanwhile writers of colour are asked questions like that all the time. They are always assumed to have a people that they’re writing for.

Audience

When I sold my first novel3 I was not thinking about who would read those books. I wasn’t thinking about it when I wrote those books either.4 Frankly I was still over-the-moon ecstatic that they’d sold, that there were going to be novels out there that I wrote! I didn’t get as far as imagining who would read them.

I’ve written stories ever since I was able to write and before then I would tell them to whoever would listen. My first audience was my sister. And, yes, I tailored some of those stories to suit her tastes, adding lots of poo jokes. But, come on, I like(d) poo jokes too. It’s more that I got lucky that my sister liked what I liked.

All my novels are books that, if I hadn’t written them, I would want to read them. I write for myself. I am my main audience.

However.

That all changed when I was published, when my stories found distribution beyond my sister, my parents, friends, teachers.

When I, at last, had an audience and that audience was responding to my novels is when I started thinking about that audience.

When members of my audience started writing to me and I met members of my audience is when I really started thinking about who my audience was and how they would respond to what I had written.

That’s how I know my audience isn’t all white. It’s how I know my audience isn’t all teens. How I know they’re not all women. Not all straight. Not all middle class.

As my books started to be translated I found myself with an audience that isn’t all English speaking.

Discovering how diverse my audience was changed the way I wrote which I have discussed here.

Addressing a White Audience

There is one place where I am addressing a mostly white audience. And that’s on this blog and on Twitter when I’m trying to explain these kinds of complex issues of race to people who haven’t thought much about them before. White people tend to be the people who think the least about race because it affects them the least. So sometimes that’s who I’m consciously addressing.

Writing to an Audience

But white people who are ignorant about racism are never the audience I’m consciously addressing when I write my novels.

Even now when I have a better idea of who my audience is I don’t consciously write for them. When I’m writing the first draft of a novel all I’m thinking about is the characters and the story and getting it to work. If I start thinking about what other people will think of it I come to a grinding halt. So I have learned not to do that.

It is only in rewriting that I start thinking about how other people will respond to my words. That’s because when I rewrite I’m literally responding to other people’s thoughts on what I’ve written: comments from my first readers, from my agent, and editors.

My first readers are not always the same people. If I’m writing a book that touches on people/places/genres I have not written before I’ll send the novel to some folks who are knowledgeable about those in the hope that they will call me on my missteps.

Any remaining missteps are entirely my lookout. There are always remaining missteps. I then do what I can to avoid making the same mistakes in the next books I write. And so it goes.

I hope this goes a little of the way towards answering N. K. Jemisin’s question. At least from this one white writer. Thank you for asking it, Nora.

  1. When we returned when I was 8-9 my whiteness made a huge difference. []
  2. Many USians think anyone to the left of Genghis Khan is a communist. []
  3. First three, actually. The Magic or Madness trilogy was sold on proposal as a three-book deal way back in 2003. []
  4. Well not the first two, which were written before the first one was published. []

BWFBC: Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt/Carol (1952)

Welcome to July’s Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club in which we discuss Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt/Carol. It’s original title was The Price of Salt and that’s what some editions in the US still call it. In Australia and the UK it’s called Carol. That’s how I think of it because that’s the edition I first read and fell in love with in my early twenties.

This is the first book we’ve discussed that one of us knows really well. I’m a huge Highsmith fan. Have read everything she’s published as well as all the biographies and memoirs of her I can find. So this discussion is a little different from the previous ones.

Because the book was originally published as a hardcover but did not take off until the paperback edition came out1 I thought it would be fun for you to see the different covers. Quite the difference, eh? From what I’ve been able to figure out it was that second version that sold the most copies. At least one of the dates in the image bleow is wrong. The hardcover version of Price of Salt was first published in 1952, not 1951.



Note: in the discussion below my information about the original publication of the book and how many copies it sold comes from Patricia Highsmith’s 1989 afterword which is now included in most reprints of the book. She says almost a million copies. As you can see some of the paperback covers above claim only half a million.

One last thing: apparently Todd Haynes is currently directing Cate Blanchett in a movie version to be called Carol. Yes, I’m excited.

For the discussion on Twitter we’ll be using the hashtag #BWFBC. You can also join the conversation in the comments below.

If you haven’t read Price of Salt/Carol yet there are many spoilers below.

And here at last is our take on this bloody brilliant book:

JL: This is my third or fourth read so I’d really like to hear your take on it first. Very curious to know what you thought.

KE: I’m about a third through.

I think it is quite well written. And I’m really impressed by how she captures Therese’s stunned attraction. Also, something about Highsmith’s point of view is so interesting to me and I’m not sure I can put my finger on it. Maybe because the situation doesn’t feel as desperate as some of the other books where we can tell from the subject matter and the tone that a dire fate awaits the women characters. This isn’t precisely a comedy, but it is a book in which there is a fragile sense that a woman can contribute to her own destiny? That she has a hope of happiness and success of a kind? Does that make sense?

I’m enjoying it. The initial phone call exchange where Carol rings up and realizes who it is who called her is brilliant.

JL: Yes to all of that. Except that I think Highsmith is a genius and her writing perfect.

The pov is deeply strange. It verges on omniscient.

The description of Therese’s desire, love, obsession is remarkable. Every time I read it I’m absolutely desperate for them to kiss already. WHY AREN’T YOU BOTH KISSING ALREADY?! And I do mean kissing. They barely so much as hold hands for most of the book. Sexual tension = this book.

I can’t help thinking how disappointed the 1950s straight men who read lesbian pulps for the titilation must’ve been with this book and how beyond delighted the lesbians must have been to discover it. No wonder it was an underground hit.

Have you finished yet? Didn’t want to write more of my thought until you’ve finished.

I will say this one thing since it’s clear that Richard is like this early on. I’m struck by how in every single novel we’ve looked at there’s a guy who will not take no for an answer and who pathologises the woman for her refusal to marry him/be with him.

KE: Yes. Richard doesn’t seem bad at first but then it turns out he’s awful. Dannie is better because of he isn’t bothered (seemingly) by the revelation that Therese has had an affair with Carol, and because he genuinely does seem like a person who will not demand.

The man who won’t take no for an answer is a familiar and comfortable trope, still present today in guises that make such a man seem worthy and attractive, but in all these novels the writers simply skewer that notion.

JL: It’s lovely to see that revulsion at that guy is not a recent development. He’s been loathed for much longer than either of us has been alive. And yay for that! Now if only we could get him to go away forever.

I just reread Malinda Lo’s review of the book. I was really struck by how weird I found it that she saw it as a love at first sight novel. I didn’t read it that way at all. I mean Carol doesn’t even realise that it was Therese at first she thought it was some guy who served her that day. Carol pretty clearly isn’t immediately attracted to Therese it’s more of a slow burn. The falling in love is even a slower burn. I feel like Carole doesn’t even take Therese seriously until she realises that she’s a set designer.

Therese is very much attracted straight away. But that’s not love at first sight that’s lust at first sight which I’ve never found hard to buy at all.

Your thoughts?

KE: I absolutely read it as Therese falling in love at first sight. Carol feels the attraction but, I think, is mature and experienced enough to be amused by it because she knows what it is.

But I simply can’t agree that it is lust at first sight.

JL: Wow. I think I have a totally different understanding of what love at first sight as a narrative device is compared to you and Malinda. Because I really disagree. I’ve always seen it at as something that happens to both in the pairing—a la Twilight or Tristan and Isolde. They might struggle against it but they both feel it. A narrative in which only one person is into the other is not a love at first sight narrative.

Carol definitely does not feel it. She doesn’t even remember who Therese is at first and if Therese hadn’t contacted her Carol would never have thought of her again.

Therese feels an attraction—I think it’s lust—that she doesn’t quite make sense of until she sees Carol a few more times. But, yeah, I think her immediate attraction to Carol is physical. And that she lets herself understand it as something more romantic because she doesn’t quite have the means to understand being attracted to a woman. It’s part of what she tries to talk to idiot Richard about when she asks him if he’s ever been attracted to a man. So, yeah, I definitely feel the attraction is instant but the love comes later.

I don’t read Therese as truly being in love with Carol or even truly understanding Carol until the very end of the novel when she’s wowed by Carol’s bravery in deciding to be with Therese even though it means she’s going to lose her daughter.

One of the many things I adore about this novel is that it shows the reader Therese and Carol getting to know each other fairly slowly and falling in love fairly slowly. Therese learns that Carol is not, in fact, who she thought she was.

KE: Therese is so sure of herself and how these feelings permeate her. I think it’s beautifully written in capturing the sense of floating and surety. Besides the really good writing I think what I love most about this book is that Therese never questions herself, never hates herself for having what most people at that time (and too many even now) considered “unnatural” feelings. The power of the emotion that hits her is so strong that she simply accepts it in a way that might typically be written in a heterosexual romance of the time (and still today). There’s no agonizing forr her, it’s Cupid’s arrow straight between the eyes. I love that. Although over the course of the novel Therese slowly comes to realize what it means for her and Carol in terms of society’s disapprobation and the real threat it poses to both of them for different reasons.

JL: Here we can agree. (Though I think Cupid fires lust darts, not love.) I adored Therese’s surety about her own desires too. And it’s a huge part of why it sold almost a million copies in paperback and caused so many lesbians and gay men to write to Highsmith about the novel. Here was a story where a woman falls in love with another woman without believing that she’s deranged or infantile or any of the things that awful Richard acuses her of being. Here’s a story in which the lovers get to be together at the end.

KE: So, yes, put me firmly in the love at first sight camp.

Carol’s is a slower burn but I read that in part as caution and, as you say, in part that at first she seems to find Therese more amusing (and maybe a little flattering) than anything.

(Very true about Cupid. My bad.)

JL: If she’s a slow burner than how on earth is it love at first sight?! That makes no sense! I read it as Carol being depressed. Her ex is awful, she’s just broken up with her best friend, her daughter’s with her awful ex, she has a housekeeper she doesn’t trust, she has no job to distract her. So, yes, as you say she’s enjoying the flattery of Therese’s crush on her but doesn’t take it seriously beyond that. She’s certainly not imagining them living together. Pretty much until they go on the road trip Carol tries to encourage Therese to stick with her odious boyfriend.

KE: The set design does change Carol’s view of her. I wonder if you have any thoughts in how Carol reacts (with the negative criticism)? It could be seen as a compliment (I’m being honest) or as a little more passive aggressive. Or some other option. It’s interesting though.

JL: For me that’s the first moment Carol starts to really see Therese and not just the flattery of this pretty young thing having a crush on her.

I read her criticism as part of Carol’s general discomfort. Carol’s up against so much that she’s not talking about. Two break ups in a row. She’s constantly kind of on edge and irritable and I see the picking at Therese’s designs as another part of that. She spends a lot of time trying to push Therese away. And there’s a lot of weirdness around her break up with Abby and Abby’s interaction with Therese. I also think she’s a bit freaked out by her growing feelings for Therese and the ramifications for Carol. She is, as you say, much more aware of the consequences of being a lesbian in the 1950s in the USA than Therese is.

I’m coming out of YA where there’s a metric tonne of love at first sight in the sense I mean it. In the fairy tale sense. And YA is where Malinda is from as well which is how I read her as responding to the book: “Oh, God, not that awful trope again.” Whereas I think this novel is SO not that trope.

However, I still don’t see Therese as instantly in love. Intrigued and crushing, yes. Full of desire, yes. In love? No. I also see a very slight amount of omniscience in the narrator. Through those eyes I feel like the novel is very lightly mocking—mocking is too strong a word—Therese’s growing obsession with Carol. But there’s a definite feel of someone much older telling the tale of this nineteen year old’s first real experience with love.

KE: If you are defining “love at first sight” as necessarily mutual, then no it isn’t. But I’ve never defined it as having to be mutual.

In Carol’s case, she even says toward the end that she went over to Therese in the department store because she was the least busy, and not wearing a smock.

JL: I don’t think either of them really start to fall all the way in love with each other until the road trip when they get to know each other and discover they have great chemistry in bed.

KE: Nah. I just disagree. Therese is in love from the get-go, although I should specify that I think of it as infatuation-love rather than love-love, if that makes sense. But it is not just lust. The emotion made Therese stronger and more sure of herself. Lust (to my mind) doesn’t create the same grounding.

JL: It’s lust with romantic longings. That ain’t what I call love. I do not call infatuation love. I call love what you’re calling love-love. So I think we’re agreeing but we have definitional disagreements. Frankly I don’t believe in love at first sight. I believe in lust at first sight, infatuation at first sight, but not love. Love takes time. You can’t love someone if you don’t know them.

KE: I should note that I myself am skeptical about the idea of love at first sight. On a personal note I actually have a statement about “love at first sight” in my forthcoming YA fantasy novel, in which a father tells his daughter about the first time he saw her mother. He emphatically does not believe in “love at first sight” and then describes what pretty much what in any book would be “love at first sight.”

I should also note that from my own experience I know that “instant attraction” (sometimes sexual but often a more intangible quality that is an instinctive “connection” between two people) does exist but I have experienced it with both men and women. It always startles me when I instantly like and feel drawn to someone (even as I know I don’t really know them, but something sparks that connection and I am sure I have no idea what it is).

JL: Yes to all of that.

KE: I’m enjoying your analysis of Carol. I think in this case that is a perspective that can’t be gained from a single reading of the novel but only from a re-read.

JL: It is true *cough* that this is at least my fourth read of this novel. It fascinated me because it is so not like Highsmith’s other books yet at the same I can see so many places where it could take a turn into Highsmith territory. Like when awful ex, Harge, shows up, there’s a moment where either Therese or Carol could plausibly have killed him. The fact that Carol brings a gun on the road trip and it never goes off! If this were a regular Highsmith Carol could have wound up killing that detective.

KE: Yes, I recognized the business with the gun and felt it was, perhaps, a tip of the hat to her thrillers? I was pretty sure it would not go off because the tone of the story wasn’t right for it, but it was a reminder that the entire narrative could have taken a far darker turn.

JL: Oh, I like that interpretation. Hadn’t occurred to me. It’s just the sort of thing Highsmith would do too.

KE: What’s interesting is that I think the story may have been far more important to readers because it did not take that dark turn.

JL: Absolutely!

KE: The ending is brilliant and adorable, and the cinematic romantic in me is just beaming because it is so sweet and yet somehow Highsmith pulls it off without making it saccharine; she makes you want it.

JL: The first time I read it I cried. Sobbed my heart out with joy. Not just because it’s a (relatively) happy ending but because they’re both now in a place and the novel takes place over at least a year and a half where they’re right for each other, mature enough for each other, and brave enough for each other. *sniff*

KE: I must say that I did feel a pinch of anger at Therese for that business of “she choose Rindy over me” because I’m a mother and so I entirely empathize with Carol’s situation. Having said that, Highsmith has carefully set up that Therese has no reason to understand “motherly love” as she never got any and, in fact, was herself discarded when her mother chose her second husband over Therese. So it makes psychological sense.

JL: Oh, sure. I also think it’s meant to be a bit appalling. Even without her awful background Therese is still very young. It’s a very young person’s selfish thought.

KE: So while Therese’s story ends well, Carol’s remains filled with a combination of triumph and heartbreak, very bittersweet. In my fanfic, Rindy will start writing secret letters to her mother and then, as 16, will start seeing her mother secretly and, at 18, tell her father where to go.

JL: That’s hilarious. I was going to tell you that I imagine Rindy constantly running away from her dad until he finally gives in and lets her go live with Carol and Therese. He won’t mind because he’s found himself another trophy wife and had more children. And Rindy’s proven herself to be too much trouble.

But, yes, my heart breaks for Carol.

One of the lovely things at the end of the book is that we finally get to see Carol without all those weights on her. She knows, at last, where she stands with her ex, she’s lost custody of her daughter. She doesn’t have to hide. She doesn’t have to pretend anymore. That brittleness about her is gone.

KE: The only thing that mitigates my annoyance with the plot device of Carol having to lose her child in order to be “free” (very dicey plot device, that one) is that I know that legally it would and could have happened in that way. But in this particular case the plot line of a mother losing her child always comes across to me as traumatic.

JL: It happened to a close family friend in the 1970s. Lesbian mothers didn’t start winning custody battles til later in that decade. At least not in Australia and I bet it was just as bad in the US. So I never thought of that as a plot device but rather as absolutely what would have happened. Because that’s what did happen. Sometimes still does happen.

I also think is clear Carol doesn’t see losing Rindy as making her free. She’s clearly heartbroken. But in the choice between denying who she is to people who hate her and won’t to keep her from her daughter and will use any excuse to do so she chooses love with Therese.

KE: I’ve thought a bit more about this and I realize that in fact Carol doesn’t read to me as heartbroken and in fact her relationship with Rindy never felt true to me; it is the one thing in the book that doesn’t ring true to me. It feels obligatory but not emotionally authentic. So it isn’t the plot device that didn’t work for me — the legal aspect — it’s that I never quite believed in the mother/daughter relationship as depicted between them so that it came across as a plot device rather than something I truly cared about because I never (as a reader) invested in the Carol/Rindy relationship. All the other relationships felt true to me, even the minor ones like Mrs Robichek.

JL: Again I disagree. One of the things I’ve noticed on rereads is that Therese is not a reliable narrator though she absolutely strives to be one (which is a key distinction between kinds of unreliable narrators). but everything about Carol is filtered through her gaze. Therese does not give a shit about Rindy. She doesn’t much ask about Rindy except in a pro forma way. So Carol doesn’t much talk about Rindy with Therese. Yet even so she’s there haunting the entire book and a huge part of Carol’s grief and brittleness. When letters arrive Carol always reads Rindy’s first. And Therese is puzzled by that. To me that was a huge tell that Therese just doesn’t get Carol’s love for her daughter.

KE: If that is the case, and I think you make a compelling argument about something that might not be as obvious EXCEPT on a re-read, then there’s a second layer to all this in that Therese essentially acts as did the second husband for whom her mother discarded her. It would be interesting to think about how and what it means that, as an abandoned child, she can’t (yet) empathize with a girl about to be separated from her mother.

I wanted to make a brief mention of how brilliantly Highsmith uses excerpts from letters. She’s such a skilled writer, and it’s interesting to see how the narrative voice differs from the voices displayed in the letters (naturally, but it’s not easy to do).

JL: As I have now mentioned multiple times I am a huge fan. Can I admit now that you’re initial comment that Highsmith writes “quite well” had me fuming? Yay, that you saw the light. :-)

KE: Justine, “quite well” is a huge compliment from me. I don’t gush much. If I say, “that was a good book” it is strong praise.

JL: Weirdo.

KE: Probably!

There is a period of several chapters where Therese does a cascade of “growing up” that turns her into a person of budding maturity and—quite the most interesting to me—a woman with determined goals and a sense of herself. She is a woman who will succeed and also be true to herself (in many different facets of her life). Wow. What a fabulous emotion to leave the reader with.

JL: Yes to all of this. I too think that was beautifully done, which I guess is pretty obvious given how many times I’ve read it.

KE: I would like to hear more about the context of this book’s bestsellerdom because I confess it surprised me that a book with this content would have been a bestseller in 1952. I’m not surprised people wrote to Highsmith. Again, I can’t express enough how unusual it is EVEN TODAY but especially then to read a lovely story like this in which her sexual coming out (if I may use that term) is depicted so positively, and sexily. And without any need to ever have Therese question, doubt, dislike, or try to “change” herself.

JL: It may not be technically a bestseller. But it did sell close to a million copies and it was one of the bestselling lesbian pulp paperbacks of the 1950s. It did not do well in its original printing in hardcover though it got some nice reviews including from the NYT. But it’s real impact was in paperback.

Those lesbian pulps were mainly aimed at titilating straight male readers but many lesbians also read them and I’m pretty sure this novel would have stood out like a sore thumb. It became a novel that was passed around by lesbians and by which they could recognise each other. Marijane Meaker (M. E. Kerr) was one of Highsmith’s lovers and talks about the book’s impact in her 2003 memoir about her relationship with Highsmith:

Pat was revered [in the lesbian community] for her pseudonymous novel, The Price of Salt, which had been published in 1952 by Coward McCann. It was for many years the only lesbian novel, in either hard or soft cover, with a happy ending.

It stood on every lesbian bookshelf along with classics like The Well of Loneliness; We, Too, Are Drifting; Diana; and Olivia.

KE: The book dragged for me a little in the middle, mostly because I was waiting for dragons or ninjas to appear and they never did. But the ending is really masterfully written.

JL: You do realise that there will be no dragons or ninjas in any of the books we’re looking at, right?

KE: WHAT?!?!?

So glad you had us read this one! I’d never even heard of it. But then again, because of the lack of dragons and ninjas and sword fighting, I tend not to have heard of a lot of mainstream fiction.

Our Next Book: Winifred Holtby’s South Riding (1936) Join us at the end of August to discuss the first English book we’re looking at. You can see the whole year’s schedule here.

  1. Pun intentional. []

Next on BWFBC: Patricia Highsmith’s Carol/Price of Salt (1952) (updated)

The next book for Kate Elliott and mine’s Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club is Patricia Highsmith’s Carol.

The book was originally published under the title Price of Salt and under the pseudonym Claire Morgan as a Bantam paperback original in 1952. Although it did not sell well as a hardcover it sold nearly a million copies as a Bantam paperback and become a lesbian classic. Highsmith didn’t publicly admit the book was hers until the 1980s. This lovely article by Terry Castle at Slate gives some more context for the book.

It’s one of my favourite Highsmith novels and the one least like her other books. No one’s murdered, there are no psychopaths,1 and the ending does not fill your heart with despair.

You can join in the conversation by commenting on the post where Kate and I share our thoughts which will go up next Monday/Tuesday and/or by joining in the twitter discussion with #BWFBC

Kate and I look forward to discussing it with you on on Monday 28 Jul at 10 pm ET (USA)/ 7 pm PT (USA)/ 4 pm Hawaii Time and on Tuesday 29 July noon Eastern Standard Australian time.2

Update: I got some facts wrong about the book and corrected them. My source is the note that Highsmith wrote for a reprint of the book in 1989.

  1. No, obvious ones anyways. I think Carol’s husband could be one. []
  2. Yes, different timezones make for chaos. []

BWFBC: Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club

Kate Elliott and I have started a book club to talk about bestselling women’s fiction. First book we’ll discuss is Jacqueline Susann’s The Valley of the Dolls. A post with both our takes on it will go up here on 12 March (in the USA) 13 March (in Australia). We’d love to hear your thoughts on it too.

We’re both curious about the whole idea of the publishing category of “women’s fiction.” Particularly how and when that label started. And, of course, we also wanted to see how well the bestselling and most long lasting of the books with that label stand up. Because usually books like Valley of the Dolls (1966) and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything (1958) and Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place (1958) are considered to be, at best, middle brow. Yet now some of these books are being taught in university and they’re all back in print or have remained in print.

But we’ll be pretty broad in what we consider as women’s fiction. Some of it will be bestselling fiction written by women that may not have been categorised as “women’s fiction” when published or even now.

At the moment we’re not considering any books published later than the early 1990s because we want at least twenty years distance from what we read. We definitely want to look at Flowers in the Attic (1979) for no other reason than Kate has never read it. It’s past time she experiences the joys of overthetop writing and crazy plotting that is V. C. Andrews’ first published novel.

I would love for us to read Han Suyin’s A Many Splendored Thing (1952). Her novel, The Mountain is Young has always been a favourite of mine. Sadly, though, Splendored seems to be out of print. It’s certainly not available as an ebook. Unfortunately that seems to be a problem for many of the ye olde bestsellers. Being in print, even if a book sells a gazillion copies and is made into a movie, can be fleeting, indeed.1

If you have any suggestions for other books you think we should look at. We’d love it if you shares.

TL;DR: 12 March (US), 13 March (Oz) we’ll be discussing Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls here. It will be joyous fun just like the book.

  1. Though that will changing with ebooks. It’s still a prob for older books that have no digital files. []

Newsflash: Millennials Are No Worse Than Any Other Generation

There are an awful lot of articles right now that spend a lot of time bagging the Millennials, who are supposedly the generation after Generation X, who are supposedly the generation after the Baby Boomers. Even in articles about something completely unrelated to generations the Millennials get bagged. Take this evisceration of a poorly researched article about Mexican food which ends:

Of course, America doesn’t give a shit about actual facts: at last count, this pendejada had been shared over 40,000 times on Facebook and garnered nearly 600,000 page views. And that, Mr. and Mrs. Millennial, is why your generation is fucked.

Seriously? Poor research and shoddy journalism didn’t exist until the Millennials came along? Tell that to Mr Randolph Hearst and his tabloids of yesteryear that routinely made stuff up. I roll my eyes at you, sir.1

You may detect a hint of skepticism about generations. You’d be right. I do not believe in them. There is no way everyone born within a decade or so of each other have the same tastes and aspirations and experiences and shitty research skills.

For starters these generational labels don’t even apply to the vast majority of people born within their timespan. The way they are used in Australia and the USA, which is all I know about, they usually only include relatively affluent, able-bodied, white people. Because factoring in class and race and anything else is too complicated, isn’t it? Even amongst the anointed ones there are vast differences in politics and world view and how well off they are. It’s still absurd to think that all the affluent, able-bodied white people born within the same decade are all the same.

So what is the point of generational labels?

They’re mainly used: 1) to help advertisers figure out how to sell things to people, 2) to let previous generations bag on current generations.

When the Generation X tag first started being used many of us so-called Generation Xers would talk about how stupid it was. Actually, we do work really hard. We are, too, politically engaged. We are, too, feminists.2 Those of us still living with our parents did so because the rents were way higher than for previous generations and we couldn’t afford to move out. We are not a lazy generation. Nor are the Baby Boomers, nor are the Millennials.

But now I’m seeing plenty of the so-called Generation Xers bagging so-called Millennials in the exact same ways we were bagged. I’m also hearing them say, “Oh, it’s not like when we were bagged. These Millennials really are lazy and indulged and all about themselves. They really are the Me Generation.” Yes, there was even a Time magazine cover story about the Millennials being the Me Generation.

Sigh. Do you know who was first called the Me Generation? The Baby Boomers. Then it was applied to, you guessed it, Generation X. And so on and so on.

That Time article begins like this:

I am about to do what old people have done throughout history: call those younger than me lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow. But I have studies! I have statistics! I have quotes from respected academics! Unlike my parents, my grandparents and my great-grandparents, I have proof.

And I roll my eyes at you, too, sir. They always have proof. Every single time.

Am I saying there have been no changes in people in Australia the USA over the period in which we’ve been talking about these generations? Of course not.

A century ago in Australia and the USA the vast majority of people were living in extended family households. Far fewer people, back then, were left alone to raise their children. They were helped by grandparents, siblings, aunts etc. etc. Far fewer people lived alone. Far fewer people were ever alone. We were vastly more socially connected back then than we are now. This basic shift in how most of us live has caused a great many changes. Some good, some not so good.

We still don’t understand the extent of those changes. But some researchers believe that the rise in depression and other mental illnesses, including, yes, narcissistic personality disorder, is closely connected to these changes in our basic family unit.3

Those changes to the family unit did not happen over night and those changes didn’t all of a sudden manifest themselves in one single generation. The very idea is absurd. And yet generation after so-called generation we keep repeating that absurd notion.

I keep seeing people say that teenagers are addicted to social media. Yet when I go out you know who it’s hardest to get to put their damn phone away? The adults right up into their forties. When I see teenagers out together their phones are mostly in their pockets. Anecdotal evidence I know.

But if you don’t believe my observations about an extremely small sample size—and why should you—then read Danah Boyd’s It’s Complicated she’s got proof! Her basic thesis is that teens are not addicted to social media, they’re addicted to each other, to socialising and often, because of the tight controls of their parents, social media is the only way they can socialise.

You know what my generation was/is mostly addicted to? Socialising with our peers. As was the previous Baby Boomer generation.4 We humans we are very social creatures.

TL;DR: There is no such thing as a coherent generation who are all the same. Historical change happens much more slowly than that. Stop leaving out class and race and other important ways in which identity is determined. Also: GET OFF MY LAWN!5

  1. Though am very grateful to you for this particular corrective piece of journalism. One of the things I love best about the internet is that while, yes, false information spreads quickly; the corrections spread quickly too. And it’s much easier to find correct information than it was in the days before the internet. []
  2. Except for those of us who don’t and aren’t. []
  3. There are, of course, many other theories to do with our increasing dependence on technology etc. But I’m most persuaded by the research on these changes in how we live. []
  4. Before then you’re getting into a time when teenagers haven’t quite been invented yet. []
  5. The lawn I don’t have because I live in a flat. []

Utopia Now

I often think about how to make the world a better place. What would I do if I were world dictator? Other than ban coffee,1 I mean, and banish all the smokers to Bulgaria. Obviously, there are many, many, many things about this beautiful, broken world that need fixing. Clean water and food for everyone! Shelter and clothing! And like that.

My utopia would also highly prize education. Particularly Early Childhood Education.2 There would be well-trained, well-paid, early childhood teachers. And when I say well-paid early childhood teaching would be the highest paid job attracting the bestest and brightest.3 Some would be skilled at working with kids from a very early age, even newborns. They’d be available to all parents.

That’s right, no parents would be left alone to raise their kids without any support. So if you have kids and you live far from your family and closest friends, or if your family are the kind of people you wouldn’t let near your children, there would always be someone to help you. Multiple someones. I’m convinced that each child needs a minimum of three adult carers (though five is better). Yes, I truly believe that it takes a village to raise a child. And two adults—especially when one of them is in full-time employment so the family can eat and keep a roof over their head—is insufficient.

Here in Australia there are almost 20,000 children in foster care. There aren’t enough foster carers to take care of them. And every year that equation gets worse as there are more kids taken into care and fewer carers.

In my state, New South Wales, the government has responded to the crisis by throwing money at the foster care end of things which, obviously, does need more money. However, it’s even more crucial that families are helped before things get so bad their kids are taken away.4

If all new parents, no matter how poor or how rich, were given support and training and access to people and places to help them with their kids I reckon their chances of government intervention would go way down.

I’d also like us to completely revamp our education system from top to bottom so that it worked more like this experimental class in Mexico. The headline of that article puts the emphasis on finding geniuses but what I thought was coolest was that every student improved and learned and that they all seemed to really enjoy going to school. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if school was like that for everyone?

In case you think there’s no way any country could turn its education system around to that extent have a little squiz at what’s been going on in Finland for the last decade or so. Pretty impressive, eh?

Tragically, I am not dictator of the world, I am a novelist, which means I am dictator of those worlds I create. I think I’ll be writing a novel where everything is built around that kind of education from cradle to grave and see how it could go horribly wrong . . . (The problem with a fully functioning utopia is that they’re not great for generating plot. Unhappy people make more plot than happy people.)

What’s your utopia?

  1. Just kidding. I would never do that. Scott would die. So would my parents. []
  2. Sentence caps cause I am emphasising its importance. []
  3. I would reverse the way teachers are paid. In my world primary school teachers would be the next best paid after the early childhood educators. Then those who teach children 12 years and up to the end of high school. Then, lastly, university educators would be at the bottom of this extremely well-paid scale. In my world lawyers and advertising agents and CEOs would be paid way less than educators. []
  4. I’m not going to go into the total economic disparity in whose kids get taken away and whose don’t. Let’s just say rich folk no matter how vile their treatment of their offspring very rarely have their children taken away. And there are all too many cases of working class families have their kids taken away for no good reason. []

Online Conflict

There was conflict in the world before there was an internet. Shocking, I know. Yet this notion keeps arising that all this conflict online somehow never existed before the internet. Or that in the early days of the internet everything was lovely and conflict-free and rose petals fell from above. And then it all went horribly wrong. The trolls descended.

Even when people admit that, yes, there was conflict in the olden days they often go on to say but it’s so much worse now.

I spent several years of my life researching the science fiction community in the USA from the 1920s through to the 1990s. I read many, many, many, fanzines, and prozines and issues of the Science Fiction Writers of America’s Bulletin. There were fights. Oh, Lord, there were fights. And, yes, sometimes it got nasty.

I looked specifically at debates around sex, sexuality and gender. You can see some letters on the subject here including some from a very young Isaac Asimov valiantly fighting to keep women out of science fiction. He’d be pleased to know there are men still fighting that fight almost eighty years later. Bless.

Every generation of feminists have had fights and disagreements over a huge range of issues.1 But usually those issues boil down to who counts as a woman? When women were fighting for the vote many white women suffragettes excluded women of colour because they did not see them as women.

Have a read of Mikki Kendall (@karnythia) discussing these issues on Twitter. Start at the bottom and then scroll up. Here’s the storify that Daniel José Older (@djolder) put together.

I think many people feel like it’s worse now because the internet is faster and less mediated and reaches further than any previous means of mass communication. People who have not been able to speak publicly before can now be heard. That’s the key part: before the internet, before blogs and social media like Twitter, most people could not get their voices heard. The best they could do were letters to the editor. And it was extraordinarily hard to get your letter printed back then. Now all you have to do is push a button.

As Mikki Kendall points out what happened in publicly printed forums pre-internet was governed by “middle class social norms.” However, many online spaces like Twitter are not “the province of the middle class.” Different notions of what constitutes “polite” are clashing against each other.

More people are talking faster than ever before. They’re speaking from different places (in terms of geography and identity) and classes and different notions of what’s polite, what’s bullying, what should be discussed in public, and what shouldn’t. There is conflict and there will always be conflict. Some of it is exceedingly nasty and vicious and racist and sexist and homophobic and transphobic and etc.

I was online in the (relatively) early days. I have been a denizen of the internets since the 90s when I was a phd student. Back in the days when online social interaction took place on usenet newsgroups. There were trolls back then. There was conflict. The term “flame war” goes back to at least the late 1980s. According to the OED the first use of “troll” in its current sense goes back to 14 Dec 1992 when it was used on alt.folklore.urban.

But the biggest difference was there weren’t anywhere near as many people online back then and those who were online were overwhelmingly university educated–and mostly in the STEM fields, mostly white, male, and from the USA. The internet is not like that anymore. I am not at all nostalgic for those days because I truly was afraid to speak out back then. I knew that on most forums if I wanted to talked about racism or sexism I’d be ignored or the conversation would be swiftly changed. Sadly, there are still many corners of the internet that are like that. But there are plenty that aren’t.

Yes, there are more trolls now trying to shut down those conversations, but there also more allies, more people who want to talk about race and class and gender and so forth. I don’t feel nearly as alone as I did back then and I feel far more hopeful.2

Update: I really wish I’d read this wonderful article, “In Defense of Twitter Feminism,” by Suey Park (@suey_park) and Dr. David J. Leonard (@drdavidjleonard) before I wrote this post. Go read it: http://modelviewculture.com/pieces/in-defense-of-twitter-feminism

  1. In the 1970s a friend of my mother’s was once excluded from a women’s group because she’d had a male child and was thus harbouring the enemy. I hasten to add that was a fringe view back then. []
  2. I mean today I do. There are days when not so much. []

On Likeability

Since my first novel was published in 2005 I have seen more and more reviews, both professional and not, discuss the likeability of characters in novels.1

Here’s what I have noticed:2

I. Many writers rail at the very idea that their main characters must be “likeable”.

II. No one agrees on which characters are “likeable” and which aren’t.

III. Most of the characters deemed “unlikeable” are female. For some mysterious reason,3 the bar for “likeability” for female characters is way higher than it is for male characters.

IV. This seems to be more of a thing in YA than in other genres.4

V. Whenever one of us authors writes about how irritated we are by the “likeability” shenanigans there’s always someone who’ll go off on a But-Why-Would-I-Read-About-Characters-I-Don’t-Like rant.

VI: “Likeable” is a really ugly word and there seems to be no agreement about the spelling yet.5

I. Why do our characters have to be likeable?

I want my characters to evoke strong reactions. Love them? Awesome. But I’m perfectly happy with hatred too. As long as they don’t put readers to sleep.6 But the idea that a character’s likeability is the most important thing about them drives me spare. The lack of likeability of Patricia Highsmith’s characters hasn’t dented her sales, or literary reputation, and her protags are all psychopaths.7

Or as Claire Messud put it recently when asked by an interviewer at Publisher’s Weekly if Messud would want to be friends with one of her own characters:

For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble.

What she said. Whether readers are going to like my characters is basically the last thing I’m thinking about when I write them. And when I say “last” I mean I don’t think about it at all. What matters to me is, as Claire Messud goes on to say, whether they come alive on the page.8 Can I lull readers into believing my characters are real?

For what it’s worth I care about every character I write. Even the villains. Not that I write many villains. I know every character’s motivations and desires and fantasies and foibles. I can’t know all of that without caring, and conversely If I don’t give a shit about a character, I can’t write them.

As a writer I could not agree with Messud more strongly.

As a reader, well, I do occasionally wish some of my favourite literary characters were my friends. Not as much as I used to when I was a kid and desperately wished Anne of Green Gables and I were besties but, well, as I read Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah I strarted to feel like I was friends with Ifemelu. When I finished the book I was bummed we weren’t hanging out anymore.

II. No one agrees on which characters are “likeable” and which aren’t.

So much of this debate assumes that we’re all on the same page about who is likeable and who isn’t. What a ludicrous assumption. There are readers who hate, hate, hate Anne of Green Gables.9

In fact, no matter who your favourite character is someone somewhere hates them.

Rochester from Jane Eyre and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights are held up as romantic heroes. I can’t stand them. More than that I don’t see what is the slightest bit romantic about them. Rochester locked up his first wife and I’m pretty sure he was violent towards her. Meanwhile he’s wooing an employee and proposes marriage even though he’s already married. Violent, immoral and a bigamist. Ewww. Where’s the romance? Do not get me started on Heathcliff.

I also hear many people talking about [redacted] from that recent YA mega hit and how everyone loves [redacted]. I didn’t. I wanted [redacted] to die. Yes, I am a very bad person.

On the other hand, everyone seems to really hate [redacted] from recent YA mega hit and I kinda love [redacted]. Like, I really don’t understand how anyone could wish harm upon [redacted].

III. Most of the characters deemed “unlikeable” are female.

I’m not going to say much about this here. I feel like it’s been covered. Go read all these articles. I even wrote a blog post on the subject and there are many others out there. If you feel I’ve missed some excellent ones please mention them in the comments.

IV. This seems to be more of a thing in YA than in other genres.

I have no conclusive evidence to prove this, it’s more of a feeling. But one I’m not alone in having. As I mentioned in my recent post on writers’ intentions, we YA authors are often asked to write morally uplifting work. Many of us are resistant to that. As Malinda Lo said when we were discussing the idea of likeability on Twitter:

I think a lot of YA and kidlit is also expected to have likable protags. Sometimes for annoying lesson teaching reasons.

Jenny Thurman added:

There’s a lot of pressure from certain parents, teachers etc. for characters to act as models for behavior.

I have had parents ask me why I can’t write nicer characters. Which annoys me because many of the characters I’ve written are perfectly lovely. Any parent should be proud to have them as their teenagers. When I’m asked that question they’re always talking about Micah from Liar. No, she’s not particularly nice—whatever that means—but she sure is interesting.

Look, I don’t buy the whole you-can’t-write-an-interesting-book-about-a-nice-character argument. However, writing a character, who makes all the right decisions, and never make mistakes is really hard and does not generate much plot. Troubled characters, who make bad decisions, are easier to write about because they generate loads of conflict and conflict makes plot. And in my kind of novel writing plot is good.

Frankly, as a writer and as a human being, I am uninterested in perfection. Part of why I write about teenagers is that they’re still open to learning and changing and figuring out who they are in the world. I find flaws interesting so that’s what I write about.

The idea that the more perfect a character is the more likeable they are is, well, I have grave doubts.

If you were to propose a list of the most liked characters in literature I doubt you’d find many role models or much perfection on that list.

V. Why Would I Read About Characters I Don’t Like?

See II: No One Agrees On What’s Likeable. You might find the characters unpleasant and vile and have no desire to read about sulky Anne and her irritating uncle and aunt in their stupid green gabled house. Or her dolt of an admirer Gilbert. But some of us love them all dearly.

I am a huge Patricia Highsmith fan. I do not wish ever, under any circumstances, to spend time with any of her characters.10 They would probably kill me. I want to live.

So, yes, there are many books I love, which are about vile people. Or from the point of view of someone vile. Nabokov’s Lolita really is a brilliant book. I’ve read it many times and learned something more about writing with each reading. But Humbert Humbert likeable? EWWWW!!!! No, he is not.

Sometimes I enjoy reading about bad people doing bad things. Sometimes I do not. I’m not about to judge anyone else’s reading habits. You don’t want to read about characters you deem unlikeable? I support your decision.

VI: “Likeable” or “likable” is a really ugly word and there seems to be no agreement about the spelling yet.

What can I say? Spelling, like the notion of likeability, is very weird.

  1. This post was inspired by Twitter discussions of Roxane Gay’s article on the subject with folks like Malinda Lo. But I have talked about these issues over the years with too many YA writers to name. Some of whom, like Holly Black and Sarah Rees Brennan, have written very thoughtfully on the subject. []
  2. As noted it’s not just me noticing it. Here’s Seanan McGuire on the same subject. []
  3. Yes, I’m being sarcastic. There is no mystery. The answer is: because sexism. []
  4. Though that could just be because I’m in the YA field and thus that’s what I hear the most about. []
  5. It seems to be another the Commonwealth spells it one way and the USA the other thing. However, there also seems to be a lot variation within all those countries. Thank you Grammarist. []
  6. Which sadly they always will: every book bores someone somewhere. []
  7. There are many other writers this is true of. But Highsmith is my favourite example. []
  8. Not literally. That would be terrifying. []
  9. I know, right? What is wrong with them?! []
  10. Except for the lovers from her one and only upbeat book with a happy ending: Price of Salt aka Carol. []

Some Thoughts On A Writer’s Intentions

Recently some Twitter folk discussed fiction that has a moral. It started with Theri Pickens telling Daniel José Older that she’d love to see a story about people’s failure to apologise for racism or the “nopology” or “fauxpology” as it’s been dubbed. She said she could “teach the hell out of that”. I then asked Daniel Older if he ever writes “stories that way? Starting with a moral?”

I asked because I have tried to do so and I have always failed. I wanted to know how Daniel had managed to do it.

I also asked because I write YA, and like most of us who write children’s or YA, the request to produce moral, uplifting fiction is frequent.1 I often wonder how many authors of adult fiction are asked what the moral of their stories are and whether it teaches the “correct” lessons.2 My suspicion is that very few of them have to deal with that particular set of questions.3

The discussion on Twitter swiftly went off in the direction of political writing and how there’s some wonderful moral and political writing, that not all of it is didactic and dry. All very true.4 But it left behind the discussion about a writer’s intentions. Which was what I wanted to talk about because, as ever, the process of writing fascinates me. I continued that discussion with Tayari Jones as we both agreed that it’s impossible to deduce a writer’s intentions from the published text.5

Readers6 often assume that they know what a writer’s intentions were. But unless they’ve shared those intentions—In this book I intend to teach that one should only marry for love. Regards, Jane Austen7—do we really?

I recently finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant Americanah which is very much a book about race and how it plays out differently in the USA and Nigeria (and the UK). It is a profoundly political and moral book. However, I have no idea if that is what Adichie intended. It’s clear watching her wonderful TED talks and reading interviews with her, that she thinks about all of those issues a great deal, but that is not the same thing as sitting down, and intending to write a book about race and politics and justice.

When you publish a novel the question you are asked most often is some variant of “Where did your novel come from?” or “How did you get the idea?” In response we writers tell origin stories for our novels. Sometimes they are not entirely true.

The origin stories I give for mine change as I realise more about them from other people’s reactions. Sometimes I think I don’t understand my novels until after they’ve gone through multiple rewrites and been published and been read and reviewed and argued over. It’s only then that I understand the novel and get a better sense of where it came from.

However, that’s not the same thing as remembering what I was thinking at the moment I first sat down to write. The further I am from writing the novel, the harder it is to remember what I was thinking way back then. I’ve always assumed other writers are the same way, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing it’s that you can never assume that.

Here’s what I can tell you about my intentions: none of my published fiction began with the desire to teach a lesson, or make a political point. My stories almost always begin with the main character. With a line of dialogue, or a stray thought, that feels like it comes out of nowhere.8

But that’s not entirely true either.

The Magic or Madness trilogy came out of my desire to write a fantasy where magic had grave costs. I have been an avid reader of fantasy since I was first able to read. I was sick to death of magic being used as a get-out-of-gaol-free card. No muss no fuss, no consequences! Ugh. Way to make what should have been a complex, meaty, wonderful immersive reading experience into a big old yawn. When I started my trilogy I was definitely not going to do that. Likewise with Liar I’d had the idea of writing a novel from the point of view of a pathological (or possibly compulsive) liar for ages.

However, those books were nothing but a few scribbled notes until the main characters came along and breathed life into those static ideas and turned them into story. That is the magical part of writing fiction. I have no idea how it happens.

How To Ditch Your Fairy and my forthcoming novel, Razorhurst, began with the main character’s voice. In both cases I’d been hard at work on another novel when those characters came along and I had to stop work on the deadline novel and start the new out-of-nowhere one. I had no idea what those books were about or where they were going until I completed the first draft.9

With How To Ditch Your Fairy, I realised that I had written a world without racism or sexism. A utopia! No, of course not. Inequality still exists. One of the things I like about HTDYF is that it’s a corrupt world but that’s not what the book is about. In the main character’s, Charlie’s, world the best athletes are the elites and, yes, some of them abuse that power. But she barely blinks at that. It’s something she has to deal with like bad weather. Yes, some readers were annoyed that Charlie does not fight the power. But that’s not what the book is about. There are glimpses of other characters who are fighting the good fight but How To Ditch Your Fairy is not their story. I wanted to tell Charlie’s story.

I still think HTDYF is a political book. But it’s usually not read that way. Nor did I set out to write a political book. I think if I had decided to write a book about how people survive within a corrupt system, how the frog does not notice the water boiling, I would not have written the novel or any novel. I do not write fiction to teach lessons.

In my discussion with Tayari Jones she said “it’s about starting with moral questions. Not moral ANSWERS.” I agree wholeheartedly and think Tayari’s wonderful books are powerful exemplars of just that.10 It probably looks like what I said above contradicts Tayari but I don’t think it does.

Most of us, writers or not, are thinking about moral questions all the time. I have thought long and hard about about how inequality operates, and about how so many of us are complicit, how we turn a blind eye because it’s easier, and because, let’s be honest, all too often it’s safer to do so. I’ve written about why so many don’t report harassment/assault/rape. There are many reasons to stay silent and one of those reasons is being so used to evil that you stop seeing it. It’s the way the world is.

Anyone who is thinking about these kinds of questions is going to write political books whether they intend to or not. Everyone is informed by their politics, their religion—or lack of religion—by who they are, and how they exist in the world. In that sense we all write political books and live political lives.

To go back to what Tayari Jones said, these moral questions shape our writing, but often we don’t realise that until we’ve written them. Novels can be a way for us to figure out what we think about a moral question. To run through the various different angles on a problem and see what the consequences are. Even when we don’t realise that’s what we’re doing.

This is different from setting out to write a story that tells a specific moral. Or as Tayari says it’s the difference between beginning with an answer or beginning with a question. Writers like Tayari and me prefer to do the latter.

To go back to the beginning of this post that’s not something a reader is going to know. Let’s face it, the vast majority of readers don’t turn to author’s blogs and twitter feeds and interviews to try and figure out what the author’s intentions were in writing their books. Most of us are happy to enjoy the book without much more engagement than that.11 Nor should they. The author is dead, yo. A reader’s experience of a book is their own. They get to read a book any way they please.12

The question of what a writer intended is probably of far more interest to writers than it is to readers. That’s why I asked Daniel if he’d ever started writing a story with the moral he wanted that story to teach. I hadn’t succeeded in doing that so I wanted to know if he had and, more importantly how he had.

I’d still love to know how writers manage to do that. If you’ve written anything you’re proud of starting with the lesson you’re teaching, do please share!

In conclusion: I have no conclusions I’m just thinking out loud.

Tl;dr: No one knows what an author intended with their work; except that author and they can be wrong. Besides the author’s dead. Or something.

  1. As is the condemnation when our work is deemed to be immoral. []
  2. When people make that request of me I usually tell them that’s not how I write and suggest they try writing their own moral-teaching novels. I do it nicely. Honest. []
  3. But, on the other hand, their fans aren’t as lovely as our fans so it all evens out. []
  4. Lots of people read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the story, not for the condemnation of Stalinism. []
  5. I’m very grateful to Tayari, her conversation helped shape this post. []
  6. Yes, readers and writers are almost always one and the same. I don’t know any writers who don’t read. []
  7. No, I don’t think that’s what Jane Austen intended us to learn from her novels. Not even close. []
  8. That’s how it feels but obviously that’s not what happens. Everything comes from somewhere. []
  9. Which is not me saying that I wasn’t making all the choices that led to those novels becoming what they are. I’m a writer, not a taker of dictation. My characters are not real to me in any but a metaphorical sense. []
  10. Seriously if you haven’t read any of Tayari Jones’s novels you are missing out. Leaving Atlanta and The Silver Sparrow are my favourites but they’re all fabulous. []
  11. Which is plenty of engagement, by the way. []
  12. Upside down and suspended from a crane over the harbour if that’s what tickles their fancy. []

On Writing Characters

It’s a lot easier to write characters who are like us than it is to write characters who aren’t.1

Many writers, probably most writers, build whole careers on writing about their own milieu, their own people. That’s what F. Scott Fitzgerald, Federico García Lorca, and Virginia Woolf did, to name three famous examples.2

There is nothing at all wrong with writing what you know in the narrow sense of the place where you live and the people with whom you are most familiar. People are very complicated. There’s a lot to write about even with such a narrow lens. Think Jane Austen.

But if you look more closely you’ll see even those writers wrote characters unlike them. Lorca wrote heterosexual characters, Fitzgerald wrote women, and Woolf wrote men, not to mention creating Orlando who is both a woman and a man and also sort of immortal and all awesome.

Unless you’re going to write books that are populated by only people who are identical to you, called say, The Books of Clones, you’re going have to write someone who’s at least a different gender or age from you. And even if someone is the same class, race, gender, sexuality and age as you they’re still not you. There are still a vast amount of things about them that are different. I’m not just talking about the colour of their hair.

Think about it like this: you know many things about yourself that no one but you would know. For example, you always wear the same very low-key scent, sweetgrass hydrosol.3 because it smells how the rain you grew up with smelt, but very few people have ever noticed it, or asked you about it.

Or to give a different example, when you walk down a street, you have to alternate stepping on a crack, with not stepping on a crack, and you have to do this in such a way that no one notices that you’re walking oddly. You can’t break stride. Over the years that has meant you’ve developed a whole array of rules around what counts as a crack and what doesn’t. At this point those rules are almost canon law they’re so byzantine and detailed. But no one else has any idea of how much thought goes into every single step you take even as they walk beside you holding your hand.

Those are the kind of specific details that help characters come alive. And the kind of details that reveal how we are not all exactly like each other even when our fundamentals (gender, race, class etc) appear to be identical.

Some writers create characters by writing themselves but with some aspect of their life changed: if their parents had died, if they had been sent to boarding school, if their parents lost all their money. Invariably the resulting character is markedly different because those changes transform lives.

It’s an interesting exercise to try. Imagine for a moment how different your life would be if you were a different religion. Imagine being Mormon instead of Muslim. Or Buddhist rather than Baptist. How would your life differ if you had no religion? Or if you’re not religious how different would your life be if you were religious?

What about if you grew up in a different town? Or a different country? If you were a refugee? Or if your parents split up/stayed together? If you had siblings/no siblings. If you were a twin.

Can you see how incredibly different all those change would make your life? In some fundamental ways you wouldn’t be you.

Now imagine if you were a different class or race. For many that’s incredibly difficult to do. Particularly if you’re in the dominant category and have rarely been in a situation where you’ve had to think about your race or class because being you is the norm.

Being white and poor in NYC is a very different experience from being white and rich there. It’s also very different from being black and poor or rich and black in NYC. Or from being any of those things in Sydney. As would being rich and white or middle class and black. And so on.

But what kind of black? What kind of white? These are huge categories with many differences within them.

Leaving aside class, is your character an immigrant? Are they the child of immigrants? Are they or their parents from Nigeria or India or the UK or Cuba or Russia or Vietnam?4

Not to mention which part of those different countries are they from? There’s a lot of diversity within countries.5 Is English your character’s first language? Their second language? Third? Fourth? My Eastern European grandparents grew up speaking six different languages, which is very difficult for monolingual6 me to get my head around.

Not all black/white/Asian/European/etc people think the same, act the same, vote the same, or eat the same food. People are as diverse within racial/ethnic/class categories as they are across those categories. Often two people of different races, but of the same class, and working in the same industry, will have more in common with each other than with someone of the same race, but different class, working an entirely different job.

But then there are those moments of commonality that cut across those other differences. This has happened to me living overseas. Another Australian will instantly understand a reference to something back home despite us having only our Australian-ness in common.

This planet and the people who live on it are diverse and very complicated. We do our writing a disservice every time we forget that.

All novels are in some way about race and sexuality and class and gender, and all the other categories that make up who we are in the world, how able-bodied we are, how neurotypical, our height or weight, whether people we love have died or not. This is true even if we did not intend our book to be about any of those things. It makes our writing much more nuanced and convincing when we’ve thought about those categories and how they shape how we—and by extension our characters—exist in the world.

None of this is easy. But thinking about it, and reading as widely as you can, will make you a much better writer.

  1. Though, let’s be honest, it’s also hard to write convincing 3D living characters who are exactly like you. Writing is not easy. How many times have you put a book down because you didn’t believe in the characters? Doesn’t matter if the author is exactly the same as the character they’re written, down to them both being left-handed, if the author can’t bring the character to life. []
  2. Obviously Fitzgerald was the more narrowly focussed of those three writers. But Woolf and Lorca mostly wrote about their own countries: England and Spain. []
  3. Thanks to Alyssa Harad for that particular detail. She responded to a tweet of mine asking whether there are any perfumes that smell like rain. Turns out there are. Also turns out that rain smells different depending on what it lands on. I already knew that but it was something I knew that I didn’t realise I knew until Alyssa pointed it out. []
  4. I am making an assumption here that your character is living in Australia or the USA. But Australians and USians also migrate. I’ve come across them living all over the world. []
  5. Most Russians are not, despite what Hollywood will tell you, gangsters. []
  6. With a tiny bit of Spanish. []

(The Non-existence of) Perfection in Politics and Writing

One of the constant criticisms of politicians, or anyone, really, who steps up to speak against a common social ill, like misogyny, is that they themselves are flawed. How dare you get on your high horse, Julia Gillard, about sexism when members of your own party, like Mark Latham and Kevin Rudd, have been sexist, when you and your party are trying stop paying many single parents their benefit, when you don’t support marriage equality?

Yes, it’s true, Julia Gillard is not perfect. She’s not even close. But if only the perfect may speak out and criticise the status quo then, well, we will be living in a very silent world.

Julia Gillard had to make many deals and many compromises to become PM. Many deals and compromises were made for her to be deposed. Many were made for Tony Abbott to become our current prime minister.

It’s the nature of democracy. Every leader of every country anywhere in the world has done so. Perfect ideological purity—no matter what your ideology—does not allow you to be a leader in democratic societies. But good news: you can still be a dictator! Phew, eh?

If I was the world dictator, er, um, I mean, in my perfect world there would be no sexism or racism or homophobia or classism or any of the other ugly isms. There would be religious tolerance which includes the right to not be religious. There would be no smoking and no chocolate or coffee. Because a massive EWWWW to all three of those. Or grape fruit. No gin either. Gin is gross. Or tonic water. Uggh, I hate that stuff. Formal shorts would be gone as well as bubble skirts and crocs and safari suits and yacht shoes and pastel anything.

Now I’m going to take a bit of a punt here and guess: that’s not your perfect world, is it? You love chocolate or coffee or both and you think I’m crazy. You wear pastel formal shorts every day and want to know what the hell is wrong with me.

My extremely crudely made point is that no one’s perfect world is the same as anyone else’s, let alone everyone else’s. Even people who have many common beliefs, such as Christians, disagree on many issues: whether women can be priests, whether the Bible is the literal word of God, whether homosexuality is an abomination etc etc. Even within the various different kinds of Christianity . . . Well, you get my point.

I’m a feminist but there are many feminists I disagree with profoundly. And many who would never call themselves feminist who I am in strong agreement with.

Beyond all that I believe perfection is not attainable. There is nothing in this world without flaw.

I think that’s a good thing.

Which is not to say we shouldn’t strive for perfection, that we should all just give up. “Eh, I may be a raging egomaniac who breaks everyone’s heart and steals everything that isn’t nailed down and has no friends but at least I don’t kick puppies.” Um, no. We should all be striving to be the best people we can and to produce the best work we can.

But, wow, can striving for perfection get in the way. I know people who have been working on the one book for years and years and years without ever allowing anyone to see it because they don’t think it’s perfect yet.

Newsflash: no book is ever perfect.

They could all be better.1 You’ve got to stop some time and let other people look at your work. And move on to write other not-perfect things.

This is especially true of novels. My favourite definition of a novel is that it is a long piece of prose that has something wrong with it.2 Every novel ever published fits that definition.

Keep on writing, everyone, especially you NaNoWriMoers, do not let perfection get in your way!

  1. I adore Jane Austen but she rushed her endings. All her books end way too fast. []
  2. Can’t remember who first said that. Feel free to do my research for me. []

The Less Fun Side of Social Media

On the evening of 6 November 2012, while enjoying a pre-election party drink with Scott, we shared a laugh about all the right wingers who’d been claiming they’d move to Canada or Australia if Barack Obama was re-elected. I pulled out my phone and tweeted:1

For those saying “if Obama wins I’m going to Australia” our PM is a single atheist woman & we have universal health care & mandatory voting.

It took a bit of juggling to get it all to fit. Curse the 140 character limit! I had to change “living in sin” to “unmarried” and then to “single”. (Oh, how I wish I’d thought to say “unwed”. Even fewer characters! Though it would have been best if I’d found a way to get “living in sin” to fit.) I also had to delete the bit about Australia also having strict gun control as well as turning the “and”s into ampersands.

I then put the phone down and went back to chatting with Scott before heading to the election party. By the time we got there that tweet had already been retweeted several thousand times. It went on to be tweeted more than 12,000 times. My mentions were more crowded than they’ve ever been.

Exciting, huh? My previous biggest retweet had been a matter of hundreds, not thousands. I was thrilled. And so retweeted and answered many of the responses I got.

But as the next few days unfolded my mentions remained clogged with people responding. Most were polite saying things like “go you” and “this.” Some shared drop bear jokes and agreed that Australia is indeed awesome compared to the USA. But all too many others felt compelled to explain to me that Gillard has a partner and is not single. I know! Or to yell at me not to diss atheism/universal healthcare/mandatory voting/Australia/the USA/Christianity/puppies. Um, what?

Many people, mostly Australians, decided to school me on the many things that are wrong with Australia. Um, youse lot? I AM AUSTRALIAN. I am aware. I was also called “a sexist bitch.” What on Earth? And some much worse things.

This went on for an entire week. Making it really hard to respond to the usual folks in my mentions because they kept zipping by lost in the maelstrom of all those people responding to that one damn tweet. Yes, I was very tempted to delete it.

At least when one of my blog posts goes viral I can control the comments. It’s much harder with mentions. I wound up blocking many people. Which is not ideal and I suspect some of those people were not being particularly offensive. I was just over being yelled at by random strangers every few seconds.

A year later and I think I would have handled it differently. Possibly by staying off Twitter for a week.

It really makes me wonder how those with tens of thousands of followers cope. How on earth can you keep up with that many mentions flooding back at you from your gazillion followers? How is dialogue possible?

I follow several people who talk about how hard it is to deal with their mentions. Most of them have followers of 6,000 or more and most of them tweet about politics and social justice. Their mentions are frequently a sewer of sexist and racist hatred. I really don’t know how they cope.

The sad fact is that the more popular you are the more hated you are. As more people know who you are, more people have opinions, and not all those opinions are favourable. Compounding that is the sexist, racist world we live in. If you are female you attract more vitriol than if you are male. If you are a person of colour you attract more hatred that if you are white. And if you tweet about social justice while female and of colour you get the most hate of all.

My tiny little experience of the random hatred of strangers made me even more aware of how awful it is to deal with that bullshit every single day. It made me even more appreciative of the bravery and strength of those bloggers and tweeters who continue to speak out about social justice even while bands of trolls yell at them to shut up already.

It made me more determined to keep on tweeting and blogging and speaking out and supporting those who get attacked for doing the same. But also more understanding of those who delete their social media accounts and walk away.

I’ve also stopped tweeting at people I don’t know or who don’t follow me unless they tweet at me first, or it’s part of a conversation with other people that do follow me/I know personally. I now know what it feels like to have many strangers tweeting/yelling at me. I don’t want to add to that noise or be part of what makes good people walk away from social media.

We are in the very early days of negotiating these brand new ways of communicating. It’s fascinating and wonderful but pretty bloody scary too.

Would love to hear some of the wisdoms you’ve all learned about it.

  1. Julia Gillard is no longer Australia’s female, atheist, living in sin Prime Minister. But I remain proud that she once was and that Australia has universal health care (no matter how imperfect), strict gun control and mandatory voting. []

bell hooks

Today I was able to watch the live stream of bell hooks and Melissa Harris Perry in conversation. It was erudite, moving, and flat-out brilliant with many wonderful flashes of wit. Particularly from hooks who said at the beginning of the Q&A: “Ask your question quickly because with buddhist compassion I will tell you not to give that speech.” And the audience cheered!1

You can watch the whole thing here. Yes, it’s two hours. But they’re an awesome two hours. You can also read Trudy’s take on the extraordinary conversation here.

Here’s why bell hooks is important to me:

When I was an undergraduate studying literature and language and semiotics, and thinking about feminism, and being introduced to a wide-range of theory for the very time, bell hooks was one of a handful of theorists who spoke to me. I found her language clear and inspiring and meaningful.

That last part is important. Many of the other feminist theorists I was reading for the first time back then I struggled to make meaning from. I bounced off the likes of Kristeva so hard it hurt. It seemed to me that they were writing about women in the abstract, that they were writing as if all women were the same.

bell hooks did not do that. In her first book, Ain’t I a Woman?, she discussed the real, material effects on real women in the real world. She talked about how black women and poor white women had been left out of mainstream feminism, that who counted as a woman for feminism was far narrower than the totality of all women.

Even this middle class white women could see that was true. All I had to do was look around me.

If you’re interested in a much more encompassing feminism, in intersectionality, in social justice, in simply understanding how the world works you should read bell hooks. If you’ve not read her before you could start with hooks’ recent critique of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In

An even better place to start is the conversation with Melissa Harris Perry which covers a great deal of ground and shows how generous, thoughtful and really, really razor sharp smart those two women are. Warning though it could make you cry. There are some particularly powerful moments during the Q&A.

And then you should read all of bell hooks’ books.

  1. Though of course one question came from someone who would not be stopped in giving that speech. []

Zombie versus Unicorns Banned in Texas

It’s Banned Books Week and today I discovered via Texas ACLU’s annual banned book report that mine and Holly Black‘s Zombies versus Unicorns has been banned there. I immediately tweeted about it. Proudly because also on the list is one of the best writers of all time: Shirley Jackson. Also I have many Texas connections, including a husband, so I kind of feel like an honorary Texan. Not to mention: I adore Texan librarians. They are seriously the best.

The responses I got were divided between Woo hoos! and people worried that the people of Texas could no longer get hold of the books on the list. So here are my quick responses.

As far as I know states in the USA no longer ban books. Nor does the government of the USA. This list of the top ten banned books in Texas is of those removed from schools in Texas. It’s also not just a top ten list it’s the list of all books that were banned in Texas in 2012-13. That’s right only ten were banned. Book bannings are actually going down in Texas. ZvU was only banned from one school. See how misleading my headline for this post is?

Don’t get me wrong though even one book banned is one book too many.

Throughout the USA I have only had my books banned from a handful of schools and from a juvenile detention centre. That I know of.

The “that I know of” is the key part. Books are banned from schools all the time in the USA but often we never hear about it. I only know about ZvU being banned because of Texas ACLU’s report on it. It’s the reason we have Banned Books Week so that the fact that books are being banned in this day and age is known about, so that we can fight back.

There’s a common misapprehension that a book being banned is a license to print money. Au contraire. A book being banned is a loss of sales. It means that book is not being stocked in that school’s library or taught at that school. So there are no sales of that book to that school.

Mostly when a book is banned it quietly disappears from the shelves without so much as a murmur. And even when a book’s banning is widely publicised it doesn’t necessarily lead to increased sales. Many of my author friends have had books banned with loads of publicity and yet they all report the banning of their books had little or no impact on sales.

So while we authors joke about wishing we were banned the sad truth is all we get out of it is disappeared books and dubious bragging rights.

One of the best things you can do to fight back is to go out and buy or borrow one of those banned books. Talk about the banning of books with your friends. Kick up a stink when you hear about a book being banned from your school.

Let books roam free!

We Have Always Been Fighting this Fight

N K Jemisin recently gave a speech in response to the latest kerfuffle around sexism and racism in science fiction. It’s a very fine speech. Go read it.

One of the points she makes is this:

women have been in SFF from the very beginning. We might not always have been visible, hidden away behind initials and masculine-sounding pseudonyms, quietly running the conventions at which men ran around pinching women’s bottoms, but we were there.

I would go further than that. Not only have women always been in SFF1, there have always been women (and some men) critiquing the misogyny and sexism of the genre. We have always been fighting this fight. As Jemisin says “memories in SFF are short, and the misconceptions vast and deep.”

How do I know that we have always been fighting misogyny in our genre? Because I wrote a whole book about it: The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction.

As research for that book I spent years reading science fiction magazines from the 1920s through to the 1970s. I particularly paid close attention to the letter columns wherein I found gems like the ones featured here which argue about whether women have a place in science fiction. Here’s Mary Evelyn Byers in 1938 arguing against teenage sf fans, Isaac Asimov and David McIlwain (who went on to be the science fiction write Charles Eric Maine):

To [Asimov’s] plea for less hooey I give my whole-hearted support, but less hooey does not mean less women; it means a difference in the way they are introduced into the story and the part they play. Let Mr. Asimov turn the pages of a good history book and see how many times mankind has held progress back; let him also take notice that any changes wrought by women have been more or less permanent, and that these changes were usually made against the prejudice and illogical arguments of men, and feel himself chastened.

I found many such discussions and arguments. Arguing about the place of women and sex in science fiction turned out to be one of the continuing themes of science fiction, which is what Battle of the Sexes is about. We have always been having these arguments and fighting these fights. Our rebuttals have gotten a lot more inclusive and nuanced but those arguing for sexism and misogyny? They’re playing the same old song. Read Asimov and McIlwain’s 1938 letters if you don’t believe me.

The biggest difference is that in the 1930s women like Mary Evelyn Byers were far rarer than they are now. And the men supporting them were even rarer. There are more of us now and we have more allies than ever before. Things have gotten better.

N K Jemisin also observes:

[P]eople of color have been in SFF from the very beginning, hiding behind the racial anonymity of names and pseudonyms—and sometimes forcibly prevented from publishing our work by well-meaning editors, lest SFF audiences be troubled by the sight of a brown person in the protagonist’s role.

I have seen many, mostly white people, doubt it, saying things like “I never saw anyone who wasn’t white at a science fiction convention in the old days.” Yeah, I wonder why that was. Could it be the same reason so few white women dared show up? Why, to this day, women sf writers are avoiding the predominantly white male sf conventions?

The role call of sf writers of colour is a long one and almost all of them, like Samuel R. Delany, grew up reading and loving science fiction. In 2009 during RaceFail there was an outpouring of fans of colour talking about how long they and their families have loved SFF to prove that they were not, in fact, rarer than wild unicorns.

I did not find letters from people of colour, or many arguments about race in those letter columns,2 but a) I wasn’t looking for them, I was looking for arguments about sex and gender and b) how would I know? As Nora points out, in print racial anonymity is easy. Also, judging by the rude, patronising, idiotic responses brave letter writers such as Mary Evelyn Byers got to their arguments that women are human too, any such letter writer would have gotten an even worse response.

Those letter columns were hostile spaces for women who didn’t want to play the role of good girl fan. Hell, there are enough online spaces right now that are still hostile to women who speak out about pretty much anything. What would those letter columns of the 1930s, 40s, 50s, have been like for a person of colour wondering where all the sf stories about the civil rights movement are? It’s bad enough when similar questions are asked now.

Which is why I fully endorse N. K. Jemisin’s call for reconciliation:

It is time that we all recognized the real history of this genre, and acknowledged the breadth and diversity of its contributors. It’s time we acknowledged the debt we owe to those who got us here — all of them. It’s time we made note of what ground we’ve trodden upon, and the wrongs we’ve done to those who trod it first. And it’s time we took steps—some symbolic, some substantive—to try and correct those errors. I do not mean a simple removal of the barriers that currently exist within the genre and its fandom, though doing that’s certainly the first step. I mean we must now make an active, conscious effort to establish a literature of the imagination which truly belongs to everyone.

Jemisin is so very right that learning the history of this genre and acknowledging that we have always been fighting these fights is a crucial first step.

NB: I have not done any research in this area for more than a decade. Someone else may have found such letters and fanzines. If anyone knows of such research it would be lovely if you could share in the comments.

  1. The abbreviation is for science fiction and fantasy. []
  2. There were many stories in the old magazines dealing with questions of race. Almost all of which were very, very racist. One of the stories I discuss in Battle, “The Feminine Metamorphosis” by David H. Keller, is about uppity white women using Chinese gonads to turn themselves into men and rule the world. The gonads turn out to be syphilitic and the women all go mad as the hero lectures them on bucking God’s plan for them to be “loving wives and wonderful mothers.” No, I’m not making this up. The story was first published in 1929. []

Twitter Etiquette

So ages back @MalindaLo requested that I “blog about twitter etiquette: the good, the bad, the ugly.”

Best. Request. Ever. Especially as there are so many other people who are so much more qualified than I to impart such advice. Like, for example, the YA queen of Twitter, Maureen Johnson, who has about as many followers on Twitter as, like, a genuinely famous person, not a mere writer. Amazing, huh?

But I don’t care that I’m not qualified to dispense advice. I will do it anyway!

In my heart of hearts I have always longed to be an agony aunt. Yes, I wish I was Captain Awkward dispensing good advice and making the world a better place. But, you know, Captain Awkward is so amazing at it and her advice is such genius that I think I will leave the throne to her.

Besides which she never gives bad advice and I have a sick need to dole out hideous advice as well as good.1

NB: All my advice is for people with public not-anonymous twitter accounts who want to engage with people they don’t know. You private types chatting to your mates: as you were.

So, Twitter.

Here’s my main rule of Twitter etiquette:

Never tweet anything if you would freak out if your parent or grandmother or employer or publisher or agent or editor or spouse or partner or child or whoever-it-is-that-you-wish-to-continue-respecting-you read it.

And, really, that should be your rule for everything you put online even if it’s a comment on your friend’s locked blog. I have friends who won’t say anything in email or private IM chats that they would not stand by in public. That is very wise but much harder to stick to. Our online indiscretions will bite all of us in the arse eventually. It’s just a matter of when, and how far the teeth sink in, and whether the bite becomes infected.2

At the other end of the spectrum:

Twitter is not the place to be arranging a dinner date, or where to meet for a concert, or lunch, or whatever.3

Text each other already. No one who follows you both needs to know the minutiae of your social calendar. Either you’ll be boring those who aren’t involved—nothing is less interesting than being a witness to other people organising a get together—or you’ll be making them very cranky because they’re not invited too, you mean excluding poo head!

Or, worse still, you just told the stalker you didn’t know you had where you’re going to be. Paranoid, I know, but it could be TRUE and what if they have BAD INTENTIONS? Not all stalkers are the bumbling-but-sweet kind from romantic comedies.4

Do not start tweeting until you’ve hung out on Twitter for awhile and found some interesting people to follow

Obvious, I know. I had an account for ages before my first actual tweet. I lurked. And then when I started tweeting I still stuffed it up. I had no idea that if I tweeted directly at someone only they and the people who followed them AND me could see it.

This was a problem because I invited my followers to ask me writing questions and then responded to those questions directly. The result: hardly anyone was seeing my responses.

Rookie mistake! So. Embarrassing.

To make what I am saying clearer, in the following conversation the first tweet by Garth can be seen by all his followers. However, the two tweets after it can only be seen by people who follow both Garth AND me:

TwitterConvo

I was just teasing Garth so I saw no need to make it visible to more of my followers by putting a character like “.” in front of Garth’s twitter handle.

You don’t have to follow everyone who follows you

Though Meg Cabot seems to do that. Because she is all that is good and wise and generous and kind.

For starters quite a few of your precious followers are going to turn out to be bots. I know, I know. But these bots are not at all like the ones from Blade Runner.5

Follow who you want to follow. Unfollow if they annoy or bore you. On Twitter you are free as a bird!

Also the mute button is awesome. I frequently mute people when they are live tweeting shows I haven’t seen yet or are on a rant. Often I catch up on the rant later. But sometimes I just want Twitter niceness and silliness to float by and don’t want to know about all the bad things in the world.

I very frequently go on rants on Twitter. By all means mute me! You can also mute annoying and/or spoilery and/or upsetting #hashtags.

If you follow someone and they do not follow you back it does not mean they hate you

I have heaps of in real life friends who do not follow me on Twitter and vice versa. The reasons for this are varied. Some of my friends are not on Twitter. Shocking I know but there it is. Some tweet for work reasons and only follow people in their area. Or they really really hate anything to do with sport or Eurovision and know that to follow me is to be hit with tweets on those sacred subjects.

Sometimes they did follow me and I did follow them. But bloody Twitter for some random reason randomly unfollowed on our behalf. Grrr!

Sometimes I don’t follow friends because they only tweet about stuff I’m not interested in. Or I think they tweet too much or are too cranky. Or they only tweet about stuff that sends me into a spiral of despair.

It’s okay that we don’t follow each other. We’re friends. We’ll stay friends. Despite my propensity to tweet about cricket. And theirs to live tweet Glee.

If someone doesn’t respond to your tweeting them it doesn’t mean they hate you

I do not check my twitter feed every day. I tend to check it when I’m bored. I tweet a lot while waiting for stuff. Or while I’m procrastinating. I tweet not at all when I’m really busy. If I didn’t respond to your tweeting at me? I probably didn’t see it. I assume others are the same way.

Tweet what you care about

Other than that Twitter is whatever you want to make it. Personally I love to have long conversations with fellow women’s basketball and cricket and Olympics and sports obsessives.

It really is a wonderful way to find the people who love the same things that you love and then to bond over it. Is Seimone Augustus awesome? Why, yes, yes she is.

I also love to rant about ALL THE THINGS THAT ARE WRONG IN THE WORLD. OMG WHY IS THE WORLD SUCH TOTAL CRAP? I.e. ranting about issues around social justice and politics and shitty TV shows. It can be very cathartic to share your outrage and horror. Though it can also be super depressing. So be careful if you’re prone to that.

It’s also fun to crap on about all that is good and wonderful in the world, like, my fingerlime is flowering and tiny little fingerlimes are appearing on it and ISN’T THAT THE MOST AMAZING THING IN THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE?

Well, except that I wrote the above paragraph months ago and none of the tiny fingerlime fruits survived and ISN’T THAT THE WORST THING IN THE WORLD?6

IF YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW SOMETHING IS TRUE USE ALL CAPS

This is probably the only rule of Twitter that everyone follows. WHICH IS LOVELY BECAUSE FINALLY THERE’S A PLACE WHERE YOU CAN’T OVERUSE CAPS. PHEW, EH?!

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH IS OVERRATED. BUT, WOW, DOES HE HAVE THE BEST NAME EVER.

#hashtagsarefun

They allow you to take part in very important discussions such as:

#ComoComenzarUnaDiscusión That’s right people in the wonderful land that is Twitter start discussions in languages that aren’t always English. Why just last night the top ten trending topics world wide were in Spanish, Portuguese, English, and Turkish. Cool, huh?

#AusPol is the hashtag used in Australia for discussions of Australian politics. It frequently drives me to drink. Exercise caution when approaching it.

Then there’s lots of sporting ones for those of us who like to follow ball kicking, hitting, throwing, bouncing etc.

Then there’s ones for your favourite shows #TVD #Scandal #MKR #Nashville etc. These are best avoided if you are not watching in real time because, wow, does Twitter love to spoil the beginning, middle, ending, and all cool bits of every show ever.

Fortunately you can also make up your own hashtags. #thereis2anIinTeiam Actually, that’s probably not a good one.

I recently had a fun conversation about how books are evil with @LisaYee. Sadly we neglected to hashtag it as #booksareevil Thus our incredibly silly convo is now hard to track down. #weareslack

Hmmm, so this post turned out to not so much be about Twitter etiquette so much as it is about how much I love Twitter. Quite a lot really. #isfun AND EVERYTHING WRIT ON IT IS TRUE.

  1. Let it be noted that often what I consider to be the most awesomest advice ever can also be terrible advice. It’s all about context. Everyone is different. For some people adding zombies to all their stories does not work out. Go figure. []
  2. What? I can take the metaphor as far as I want to, thank you very much. []
  3. And this one really, really doesn’t apply to those private accounts. []
  4. I suspect that kind of stalker only exists in romantic comedies. []
  5. Um, actually, not sure I’d want them following me either. Scary! []
  6. Other than all the truly awful things in the world, I mean. []

Torment and Writing

One of the most insidious myths about writing is that of the Tormented Genius.1 I blame the Romantics: Byron, Wordsworth, Shelley, that lot. Who were all:

[i]f you have not suffered, if you have not had your soul embiggened by your torment and anguish and substance abuse—preferably opium, but, hey, alcohol will totally do in a pinch—then you cannot write a single soulful sentence! If you are neurotypical2 and have managed to live past forty? Totally not a proper writer!3

Obviously this is one hundred per cent true because think of all those famous writers: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton, etc. etc. Tormented, alcoholic, suicidal, didn’t live particularly long. It couldn’t be that we know their life stories better because they fit into our expectations of what a writer’s life should be, could it?

Yes, it totally could.

But you’d never know it given how pervasive the myth is. I’m frequently asked by young wannabe writers whether they have any chance at being a writer given that they’ve never had a breakdown or a substance abuse problem or suffered anything worse than the occasional unjust grade.

Yes, you can!

Anyone can write no matter how addiction free.4 And seriously don’t sweat not having suffered. Trust me, you will. Oh, yes, you will.

Here’s the thing, well, actually here’s several things:

The vast majority of professional writers, i.e. writers for whom writing is a big ole chunk of their income, if not all of it, have to meet deadlines. They have to write regularly, not just when the muse strikes, or when their soul is on fire, or they are in a manic phase. It’s their job, not a hobby. If they don’t do it or only do it under the right circumstances they could wind up not being paid and not being able to cover their rent or buy food.

The kind of life that the F. Scott Fitzgeralds of this world lived made writing harder. Old Scott was constantly broke and blowing the money and then having to write more despite being drunk and/or hungover. It was hellish. You do not want that life.

The idea that being off your face, or in pain, or can’t-roll-out-of-bed-depressed, is necessary to writing is absurd.

Frankly, it is so much harder to write when we’re in pain—physical or mental, when we’re drunk, or off our faces, or depressed. None of those states are helpful to the way most professionals write. It makes writing harder.

I have written while in physical pain because I had to. I have written while in mental pain for the same reason. That writing was not my best writing. Not even close.5 I flat out can’t write if I’ve imbibed so much as a glass of wine.6

The boring truth is that writers, on the whole, are a pretty happy bunch. Why, look here, writing even made it on to this list of the ten happiest jobs. Contrary to most people’s expectations we don’t feature on the lists of the most suicidal professions or the most alcoholic.

The idea that suffering is an intrinsic part of the writing life is crap.

Again, I am not saying that writers can’t and don’t suffer. Just that it’s not a requirement.

You don’t have to live in a garret to be a proper writer, you don’t have to have a mental illness, or a substance abuse problem. Yes, there are writers who are poor—many of us. Many of us have a mental illness. Which is hardly surprising given that mental illness is very, very common for everyone.

Aside: I would love to live in a world in which mental illness was normalised. I read somewhere that depression is almost as common as the common cold. That pretty much everyone has been depressed at some point in their life.7 I’ve certainly been depressed. And yet judging by our mainstream media you’d think mental illness was as rare as hen’s teeth. It’s hardly ever talked about except for when someone commits a terrible crime and then it’s blamed on their illness even when the perpetrator has no history of mental illness and no diagnosis other than the media’s speculations. The vast majority of mentally ill people are not violent. They’re way more likely to have violence committed against them than to commit it themselves.

You may have a mental illness. If you don’t you certainly know people who do. I have several friends who are bipolar. I had no idea until they trusted me enough—after years of friendship—to confide in me. Because mental illness? So much stigma. And, you know what? Most of the time my bipolar friends are indistinguishable from the people I know who aren’t bipolar. End of grumpy aside.

So, yes, there are writers who are bipolar, depressive, anorexic etc. I am sure their writing is fueled by their illness. How could it not be? I’m also sure it’s fuelled by countless other aspects of who they are and what they’ve experienced. Mine is fuelled by everything that has ever happened to me, including bouts of depression. It’s what writers do: take our experiences of being in the world and turn it into story.

But having a mental illness is not a prerequisite for being a writer. Nor is being poor.8

Nor is suffering. Sure, all the writers I know have suffered in one way or another. But, seriously, how many people do you know who haven’t suffered? It’s not essential for becoming a writer; it’s a by product of being alive.

At some point in your life, no matter how privileged your existence, or how sheltered you are from the worst the world can throw at you, someone you love will die, your heart will be broken, you will be in an accident, you will be ill.

Bad things happen to all of us.

I think part of the problem is the conflation between what fuels our writing and the writing itself.

My novel, Liar, was partly fuelled by the death of close friends. But I wrote the book many, many years after those deaths. In the depths of my grief I was incapable of coherent thought, let alone writing.

I wrote Liar during a happy time of my life. In fact, all my published novels have been written while I was happy.9 That’s because writing makes me happy. And the fact that I can make a living writing, and have been able to do so since 2003? That makes me ecstatic.

Does that mean those novels were easy to write from start to finish?

No.

But part of what makes me so happy about writing is that it’s not always easy. If it was easy all the time I’d be bored out of my mind.

Writing is challenging, and stimulating, and sometimes it makes me scream, and sometimes I think there is no way I’ll ever figure out how to finish/fix this novel. Sometimes I can’t. But mostly I can. And that gives me joy.

That’s why I think most writers are happy. Even when they’re screaming all over the intramanets about how hard writing is.

That’s why I think exercises like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) are so wonderful. NaNoWriMo demonstrates that anyone, yes, even all us non-tortured geniuses, can write a novel. The folks doing it tend to discover it’s not as easy as they thought it would be. But plenty also discover that it’s not as hard, that writing a novel can be a huge amount of fun, not to mention addictive.

Addictive in a most excellent not-going-to-kill-you way. Yay, writing!

To sum up: You don’t have to be tormented to be a writer. You just need to write.

  1. Which is a myth that applies to all creativity but I’ll focus on writing cause that’s what I know best. []
  2. They totally would too have used that word. Also I’m not sure I’ve met anyone who is neurotypical. []
  3. Not an actual quote. You’re shocked, right? []
  4. Hell, I write and I don’t even like coffee. []
  5. Yay for rewrites! []
  6. Lightweight. I know. Don’t care. []
  7. Wish I could find that reference. []
  8. Though sadly it can be a result of trying to make a living as a writer. Writing is also not on the list of the most lucrative professions. []
  9. Obviously, I do not mean that I was non-stop Pollyanna the Glad Girl. Who is? Just that there was more happiness than not. []

Training can be Better than Competing

When I was a littlie I hated PE1 with every fibre of my being. I hated the way the PE teachers yelled at us and made us do things we mostly didn’t want to do. I hated being made to compete against the other kids in my class. In PE I would almost always come last the second anything was turned into a race or a competition. I would make no effort because competing stressed me out. I would get out of PE as much as I could. I would conveniently have my period or a note from home explaining why I couldn’t take part.

I was also made to feel from a very early age that I was not good at sport. The kids who showed talent were immediately fallen upon with glee: “A future Aussie Olympic medalist! Let us get them to the Australian Institute of Sport, stat!”2 Those of us who did not show instant aptitude for throwing, kicking, catching or thwacking balls, for running or jumping, or lifting heavy things, or moving through the water quickly, learned that there was little point in us trying because we were crap.

It wasn’t until I left high school that I discovered I, in fact, love many different sports.3 And that while I would never have been professional or Olympic level at anything I was not, in fact, crap. I have decent hand eye co-ordination and I am quite good at picking up physical instruction.

I started with fencing, then there was rowing (briefly), climbing, swimming, tennis, and most recently, boxing, and through all of it weight training and working out in gyms. I discovered that I really enjoy learning how to do physical things and that I particularly enjoy learning technique. I love that I can progress from rubbish to competent with practice.

Dear Readers, I love practising, I love training. My first day on the speed ball I was total rubbish. Have you seen Girlfight?4 They do an excellent learning-the-speed ball montage. Like Michelle at first I could not get it to do anything I wanted it to do. The speed ball annoyed and frustrated me. I wanted to kill the speed ball. STUPID SPEED BALL. But then, lo and behold, with a little bit of practice I got better. I got so I could do it really, really fast in an I AM A FEARSOME WARRIOR kind of way. At which point my trainer taught me a different technique and I was back to square one—maybe square two—and had to learn all over again. Every time I get decent at a particular way of thwacking the speed ball she teaches me a different way and I go back to being arhythmic and rubbish. LOVE IT!

I became fit. I discovered that being fit not only feels physically fantastic but helps my mental health as well. I am a much happier person when I’m exercising regularly. It’s also the only time that I can turn my brain off. When I’m intensely focussed on learning and perfecting (ha!) a new technique that’s all I’m thinking about. I’m not angsting about fixing my book or anything else I’m. Just. Boxing. It’s AWESOME.

I really hope that PE is taught differently these days. That kids are not made to feel like failures if they cannot instantly throw a ball accurately or run fast. That they are no longer taught that competing and winning are the be all and all. That the emphasis is now on being fit and enjoying various different sports and physical activities and not just one competing and winning.

I hope that PE teachers around the world have finally abandoned the idea that only the naturally gifted will excel at sport.

Here’s why: There’s a town in the UK where they keep producing Olympic level badminton players.5 This happened because a top badminton coach lived there and taught at the local school and opened a badminton centre that was available to interested locals 24/7. Those keen kids played there A LOT. The town developed a badminton culture and lo and behold many badminton champions. Few of whom, if tested in childhood, would have demonstrated any particular aptitude for badminton.

Talent helps, obviously. Usain Bolt would not be where he is today were he not a naturally fast runner. But he would also not be where he is today if he was too lazy to practise and train, which he has done relentlessly since he was knee high to a grasshopper. There is no world class athlete in the world today who hasn’t spent the vast majority of their life training until they puked.6

We spend way too much time obsessing about talent and not nearly enough time about hard work, practice, and training. Talent is nothing without hard work.

And, yes, all of this applies to writing too. It applies to pretty much everything. I have known many talented writers who have never gotten around to finishing a book. And many less talented writers with successful careers.7

  1. Physical Education. []
  2. I may possibly be exaggerating. A little bit. []
  3. Doing them, I mean. I learned at a very early age that I loved watching other people doing them. []
  4. If not, why not? Oh, how I adore Michelle Rodriguez. It’s a truly wonderful film. Go see it! []
  5. I think it was badminton. Google is failing me right now. There’s a whole book about this. []
  6. I may be exaggerating about the puking thing. []
  7. I totally concede that “talent” is a much more nebulous thing when it comes to the arts. []

Baby Clothes

Pretty much everyone I know is having babies. Or has them. Or is about to have more. Anyways there are babies everywhere in my life right now and I am often buying presents for people with babies. This has turned out to be a problem.

I don’t know if you have noticed but the clothes available for babies and littlies are AWFUL. As one friend said, “If I see another onesie with yellow ducks or blue boats I will scream!” And they’re almost always pastel. I HATE PASTELS. Or white. Or grey. Grey? What are they? Little prisoners in a dystopia? (Maybe. Don’t answer that.) Then there’s the whole girl clothes are mostly pink and boy clothes mostly blue thing. SERIOUSLY? What century is this?

So I am begging you, my faithful readers, do you know of anywhere that sells bold coloured onesies/rompers/whatever you call those little suits for babies in your culture? Where do I find Goth baby clothes? Anarchist baby clothes? Surreal baby clothes? Fun baby clothes? Hip baby clothes? Cool baby clothes? NOT PASTEL baby clothes?

I will be eternally in your debt.

Thank you!

On Marriage

The last three weddings I attended were heterosexual. At each hopes for marriage equality were expressed and the audience applauded.

In Australia pro marriage equality sentiments are polling at more than 60%. In the USA it’s now over 50%. It’s all happening much faster than I thought it would and I’m glad. There are many places in the world where same-sex marriage is legal. I truly did not think I would see that in my lifetime.

I want everyone to be able to marry if they want to. And just as importantly if they think marriage is an antiquated institution of social control then they should be able to say, “Hell, no! I don’t need no stinking government or church to control my love life!” Without anyone rolling their eyes and saying, “Whatever. You’re not even allowed to get married.”

Everyone, gay, lesbian or straight should be free to marry and also free to defy the pressure to get married, have kids, and all that jazz.

Me, I love being married. But I never wanted to be married. I just happened to fall for a foreigner and it was the only way we could be together.

The amount of privilege marriage affords you is ridiculous. I had no idea. I have seen newly weds taken more seriously than a defacto couple who have been together for more than twenty years and have children. What now?

As a married woman I am treated as more of a grown up than I ever was before. Sadly, I don’t think being married has made me any more mature. Fart jokes remain very, very funny.

What marriage does is smooth our path. No one ever questions me and my husband being together in almost any situation. Just saying the words “my husband” can get things happening in ways that “my boyfriend” or “I” never did. Oh, sexist world. *sigh*

Being married makes life easier.

So, yes, I believe in marriage equality. But I also believe civil unions should carry the same weight as marriage and have the same privileges. I would love it if we had a system where best friends or siblings who live together could also be legally recognised when it comes to all the major decisions that are covered by marriage.

For many of us our most enduring important bonds are not romantic ones. I’d love for the law and society to recognise that too.

I’d love it if we had rituals and ceremonies to recognise BFFs as well as couples. I love weddings. But I bet I would love a BFFs twentieth anniversary ceremony too.

Every time I’m at a wedding I’m sad about the lack of ceremony in our lives. Let’s make more of them!

Femme Fatale Songs

At the moment I am loving this song, “Heart Killer”, by Gossling. A friend describes her voice as like P J Harvey on helium, which is about right. She has one of those very, very weird voices that people love or loathe. Kind of like Blossom Dearie, who I also adore. And, yet, Minnie Mouse singing does not make me happy.

Anyways, “Heart Killer” is a femme fatale song. A song from the point of view of the woman who is the breaker of hearts. The point of view bit is key because there are an ocean of songs about evil, mean, cold women1 who break poor innocent men’s hearts.2 So I find it very refreshing when a woman is singing with joy about scything also those hearts into tiny pieces.

Even though PRO TIP: setting out to break someone’s heart pretty much never goes well and will rebound on you and make your heart either explode or shrivel up into a tiny dry wizened husk.

I recently claimed that Femme Fatale songs were my favourite genre of pop song. I was then asked for a list of such songs and my brain froze. These are the only ones I could come up with.

Here’s Gossling’s “Heart Killer”:

Gershwin’s “Lorelei” sung by Ella Fitzgerald:

And lastly Blossom Dearie singing “Peel Me A Grape”. Okay, it’s not strictly a Femme Fatale song but, c’mon, anyone making these kinds of demands—Peel me a grape! French me a fry!—is clearly Up To No Good and would slink about in seductive manner.

I know there are other fabulous Femme Fatale songs but I’m deep in Sekrit Project rewrites and my brain will not cough up anything else. Do feel free to share some of your own suggestions. Ironically, Sekrit Project has a Femme Fatale in it. But for some reason this book wanted no music while I wrote.

Last thing: Yes, I know the vids don’t fit on my blog. Too much other work to do to figure out how to fix it now. Hopefully, the Mighty Mistress of All Things Digital who oversees this site will tell me what to do. She fixed it. Yay!

  1. Often called things like “Devil Woman” or “Devil in Disguise” or “Cold as Ice” etc etc. []
  2. Many of them written by Chris Isaak—what a whinger! []

On Humility

I know a tiny handful of people who have not the tiniest speck of humility or modesty and—this is the important part—are not obnoxious. They are good people.

What they have is a sense of their own worth and talents that is directly proportional to those talents and worth. They do not sell themselves short, nor do they overestimate their abilities. They have the self confidence and belief to neither indulge in false modesty nor to be crippled by doubt. They know they would not be where they are if those talents had not been nurtured by others or if they had not worked hard.

It is remarkably refreshing and I envy them.

Humility and modesty are possibly the most annoying virtues. Too often the truly modest are neurotic, self-doubters who don’t know their own worth and I want to shake them. YES, YOU ARE TALENTED AND AMAZING! STOP SAYING YOU’RE NOT!

Undervaluing yourself is not a virtue. At its worst self doubt keeps people from doing what they are talented at. I can’t tell you how many brilliant writers I’ve known over the years who’ve never finished a novel because of their lack of self belief, because they are humble, and do not recognise their own talent. That’s a loss to every one of us who would love to read their work. A huge loss.

At the other end of the scale is false modesty: those who live by the humble brag.1 Those who’ve been told they mustn’t talk of their achievements nor blow their own horn, they must be humble and modest but they’re not so they try to disguise their longing to boast by saying, “Oh, this little thing.” “Oh, I don’t know why they wanted me to be the support act for Prince.” Blah blah blah.

Don’t know about you but I’d much rather they were all: “Look at my new dress! I made it! Isn’t it the best thing ever? I love it to death!” Or “OMG! I’m the support act for Prince! This is something I’ve worked towards my ENTIRE LIFE. And now it’s happening! I am so happy! YAY!”

You achieved something amazing. You get to tell people. You get to be excited. You get to jump up and down. Only mean-spirited poo brains would begrudge you your joy. Who cares what they think?

So those confident—but not obnoxious—folk I mentioned at the beginning of this post? All but one are USians. All white. Mostly from loving, supportive families. Mostly male. Mostly not working class. The one non-USian is from a wealthy Australian family. It is amazing how much confidence growing up loved and without the slightest bit of want can give you. Growing up with money does not, of course, guarantee that you’ll be confident. The love part is essential. Sometimes I think the worst start in life anyone can suffer is growing up unloved.

Growing up in Australia I learned that talking positively about your own achievements was one of the worst sins ever.2 “Don’t write tickets on yourself,” should be our national motto. Getting too big for your bootstraps is a national crime and leads to all sorts of contortions as far too many people fall over themselves to seem less smart, talented, and interesting than they are. Not a pretty sight. On the other hand it does lead to some gorgeously self-deprecating wit.

Meanwhile in my other country of citizenship they’re mostly being taught to boast their arses off. Truly, I do enjoy US confidence. It’s so refreshing compared to Australia. But, oh my, when that confidence is married to ignorance and stupidity and blind self belief? Things get very ugly indeed.

These are, of course, caricatures that are mightily affected by intersections of race, class, gender etc and how loving the families we grew up in were. Both countries have folks hiding their lights under bushels.3 They both have less talented folks under the sad delusion that they are The Most Talented People in the Entire Universe.

What we need is a mix of the two cultures so we wind up with the happy medium I started this post with. Nations of people who know their own value and feel neither the urge to constantly boast about it: I AM NUMBER ONE AT EVERYTHING EVER! Or to pretend that their ability to whip up a divine, multilayered, delicate-as-air, intricately decorated cake out of almost nothing is no big thing.

So I’ll end this post telling you something I’m proud of: I’m proud of the book I’m almost finished rewriting. It feels like a big step forward and that makes me happy and proud.4

  1. Though quite a few of the tweets labelled “humble brags” aren’t. Many with big breasts do not find them so wonderful as the world imagines they do. I’ve known way too many big breasted women who’ve longed for smaller breasts. Not to mention several who’ve had breast reductions because the back and shoulder pain was unendurable. []
  2. Especially if you’re female or working class or not white—but the rule applies to everyone. []
  3. If I wasn’t out of keystrokes for the day I would so finally look that expression up. Where on earth does it come from? Lights? Bushels? So weird. []
  4. And this is me suppressing the urge to undercut that boast, er, I mean factual statement with a self-deprecating comment to indictate that I’m not really up myself and you shouldn’t hate me. Aargh. *sitting on my hands now* []

Racism in the Books We Write

It is almost impossible to avoid writing work that can be read as racist. If you’re writing about people, you’re writing about identity, and a huge part of identity is race.

We are all seen through the lens of race. We all see through the lens of race.1 Whether we’re conscious of it or not. If you’re a writer you really need to be conscious of it. Because if you don’t think you are writing about race, you can wind up writing things visible to your readers that are not visible to you.

Often that is a not good thing.

When our work is accused of racism we writers tend to curl up into foetal position and get defensive: I AM NOT RACIST. I AM A GOOD PERSON. HOW CAN THEY SAY THAT?

First of all—no matter what the actual wording—it’s our work that’s being called racist, not us. The reviewer does not know us—only what we have written.

Secondly, we live in a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, classist etc. world. The odds of none of that leaking in to our work is zero. No matter how good our intentions. Besides intentions don’t count for much. If it’s not there on the page how is any reader supposed to guess what was in your head? On the other hand, there is no way you can completely bulletproof your work against criticism. Nor should you want to. Criticism will make you a better writer.

Thirdly, it’s not about us. It’s about the reader/reviewer’s life and experiences, about what they bring to the text in order to make meaning. This is how we all read and this is why we all have such different views of the same texts. It’s why I think Moby Dick is the worst, most boring piece of crap I’ve ever endured and why many people, even some whose views I respect,2 think it is a work of genius.

We writers have to accept that despite due diligence, despite how careful we are, readers’ responses to our work are exactly that: their responses. They will not always read our carefully crafted, thoughtful words the way we want them to. Sometimes they will find meanings in our work we did not intend them to find.

What follows is a discussion of how I have dealt with having my last solo novel, Liar, criticised for racism and transphobia. If you have not read Liar there are spoilers, though I have kept them to a minimum. But here’s a cut anyway: Continue reading

  1. Yes, even if you think you don’t see a person’s race. []
  2. Hello, Megan! []

Taking No For an Answer

One of the things I have heard men say innumerable times over the years is that the only difference between a creeper and a regular guy is whether the woman calling the bloke a creeper finds him attractive or not.

I can’t speak for all women—well, okay, I could but that would be ridiculous cause last time I looked I was only one woman—a woman who has had the odd pass made at her, er, I mean me, over the years. And, you know what? The ones who take no for an answer? Not creepy. The ones who keep pursuing me, staring at me, talking to me when I’ve made it clear I don’t want to talk to them, the ones who call me a bitch behind my back while still pursuing me? The ones who follow me home?

Creepers.

Women have made passes but they’ve never engaged in creeper behaviour. When I said I was not interested that was the end of it. Now, that’s just my experience. I know there are women creepers out there, too, just not in any where near the same kinds of numbers. For one thing most women are much better socialised at taking no for an answer.

Let me repeat: what’s creepy is not that someone I’m not attracted to is attracted to me. That’s just life. It’s been the other way round often enough. Most of us have suffered from unrequited love/lust. It’s awful, but we all get over it, and move on to people who requite our feelings.

That’s not the creepy part. The creepy part is when the person who is attracted to you won’t take no for an answer.

Think of Pride and Prejudice and Mr Collins’ proposal to Lizzy. He doesn’t give a damn what she thinks or what she says. He wants what he wants. He’s appalling. Everything he says is about him not his object of desire.1 He doesn’t care about Lizzy. He can’t even see who Lizzy is. He repeatedly does not take no for an answer. It doesn’t fit with his narrative so it doesn’t compute.

That’s how I feel when some bloke won’t take my no for their answer. Like Mr Collins they can’t see me as an actual sentient human being with thoughts and feelings and desires of my own. They don’t care what I want. They only care about getting what they want.

So. Not. Sexy.

Also having to explain to a grown human being that they can’t always have what they desire? That just because they like someone doesn’t mean that someone is going to like them? Seriously? Aren’t we all supposed to understand that by the time we’re, like, three?

I would like to eat mangosteens every single day but I have learned to accept the fact that they are not in season every single day. That even when they are in season sometimes the weather means the crops are inadequate or destroyed. Sucks. And is clearly a major design flaw with how the world is. But, you know, that’s life. Full of disappointment.

Other things I want but cannot have: a sphynx cat,2, to be taller, to play WNBA-level basketball, everyone in the universe to read my books, world peace, a pony.3

In conclusion: Um, I forget. For some reason I have this overwhelming craving for a mangosteen . . .

  1. No matter how lukewarm that desire is. []
  2. We travel too much to have pets. []
  3. Oh, wait. I don’t want a pony. It’s John Scalzi who’s always going on about wanting a pony. []

We Can’t Control Anyone But Ourselves

The conversation about how to deal with harassment in the science fiction world continues apace.1 What’s fascinating is the complete inability of certain participants in the convo to take in a basic fact:

We cannot control how others perceive us.

The I’m-not-a-creeper crowd keeps going on about good intentions and how social awkwardness can be misunderstood and how people with Asperger’s struggle to learn social cues etc. etc. All of which is true but irrelevant.

Because, as Scalzi argued in detail, people are not always going to respond to you the way you want them to. No matter who you are. Even if you are Brad Pitt.2 Not everyone will like you. This has always been true and will always be true.3

And no matter how many times Genevieve Valentine and Veronica Schanoes and John Scalzi and others make that basic point there are still people arguing till they’re blue in the face, “Intentions do too matter!”

Newsflash: No, they don’t.

If we keep talking to someone when they don’t want us to, if we keep touching them when they don’t want us to, I guarantee you they don’t care what our intentions are: they just want us to stop.

You know what the argument reminds me of?

We authors who struggle to get it through our thick, thick skulls that our books will be read in ways we did not intend.

That our books will be hated by some readers, will be considered total crap, offensive, racist, sexist, or some other kind of evil, that readers do not owe us anything. They do not have to know our books exist, or read them, or finish them if they start them. They do not have to be polite when reviewing them.

We authors have zero control over how people respond to the words we have written.

Just as we people cannot control how others respond to us, to what we say, and what we wear.

What we do have control over is ourselves.

If we’re struggling to make friends, are constantly rebuffed in our attempts to make conversation with strangers, then it’s time to change ourselves, to do what we can to stop that happening.

Because, as I may have mentioned, we can’t change other people, but we can change ourselves.

Maybe it’s as basic as hygiene.

I have a friend, who has a terrible sense of smell, and grew up in the kind of household where they were not taught the basic hygiene most people are taught: to wash our underarms, between toes, belly button etc etc. To wash the not-obvious places as well as the obvious ones, to wash every single day. This friend did not know that clothes also need to be clean. So they went to school stinking. Until a teacher sat them down and gave them the instructions they weren’t getting at home. Plus soap.

Some people are unaware they smell really bad and never received any kind teacherly intervention.

Then there’s the harder stuff to fix. Many of us are socially awkward to varying degrees. How to interact with other people without freaking them out is something we’ve all had to learn. For some of us it is a lot more difficult than for others.

Fortunately, we now have the internet, which has lots of advice on how to learn those social skills. I am especially fond of Captain Awkward in this regard.

As for us authors:

If many readers are criticising our books for something that we didn’t intend—such as being sexist or racist—perhaps it’s time to listen. Maybe there’s something to what they’re saying?

Time to take a good look at the criticism. What exactly are they seeing in our books that we didn’t mean to be there? Read those bits again. Painful, I know. Is there anything to what they’re saying?

If you don’t really understand the criticisms maybe now is the time to research some of the terms that are being used. What is appropriation? How do you avoid it?

I know it’s hard to find yourself in the middle of a long-running conversation that you’d never heard of before. We’ve all been there. The only thing you can do is play catch up. Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s book Writing the Other and the Feminism 101 blog are great places to start.

It’s key that we start internalising that none of us can control what other people think of us. We can’t make them like our books, nor can we make them like us.

All we can control is our words and ourselves.

Honestly? That’s more than enough to be going on with.

  1. It’s also going on in other communities. But that’s where I’ve been following it. []
  2. The you-wouldn’t-mind-if-it-was-Brad-Pitt-harassing-you argument drives me nuts. Not everyone thinks Brad Pitt is hot. I don’t. Besides which if it’s harassment it is definitionally something you don’t want. And, yes, good looking people can harass. Because a) as noted not everyone agrees on what constitutes “good looking” b) being good-looking does not automatically mean the whole world finds you attractive c) being good-looking can also mean that you are not used to hearing the word “no” and kind of lose it when your advances are unwanted. []
  3. Yes, that’s a split infinitive. No, there’s no such thing in English. It’s a stupid grammar rule foisted on us by people who do not understand how English functions. []

“Legitimate Rape” and Other Craptastic Beliefs From the Olden Days

During the course of my PhD research for the book that became The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction I had to learn a lot about ye olden day beliefs about sex and sexuality, including conception. For instance I came across this in Thomas Laqueur’s book Making Sex:

Samuel Farr, in the first legal-medicine text to be written in English (1785), argued that “without an excitation of lust, or enjoyment in the venereal act, no conception can probably take place.” Whatever a woman might claim to have felt or whatever resistance she might have put up, conception in itself betrayed desire or at least a sufficient measure of acquiescence for her to enjoy the venereal act. This is a very old argument. Soranus had said in second-century Rome that “if some women who were forced to have intercourse conceived . . . the emotion of sexual appetite existed in them too, but was obscured by mental resolve,” and no one before the second half of the eighteenth century or early nineteenth century question the physiological basis of this judgement. The 1756 edition of Burn’s Justice of the Peace, the standard guide for English magistrates, cites authorities back to the Institutes of Justinian to the effect that “a woman can not conceive unless she doth consent.” It does, however, go on to point out that as matter of law, if not of biology, this doctrine is dubious. Another writer argued that pregnancy ought to be taken as proof of acquiescence since the fear, terror, and aversion that accompany a true rape would prevent an orgasm from occurring and thus make conception unlikely.

Thus the statement of Todd Akin, the Republican nominee for the Senate in Missouri, that

from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down

does not come out of nowhere. It comes out of long debunked pseudo-science dating back centuries to a time when it was also believed that women could give birth to rabbits.

I naively thought that it did not need saying but it seems that it does:

There is no such thing as “legitimate” rape. There is no “true” rape. There is no “rape rape.” There is only rape.

USA, time to stop this insane discourse that has no bearing on reality. Wow. I leave the country for a few months and it goes completely insane.

STOP IT.

Expats

I have been called an expat because I have lived in New York City on and off since 1999. The off time was spent living here in Sydney. I live in two countries and I am not an expat.

When someone in Australia calls me that they’re usually saying I don’t have the authority to comment on what’s happening here because I’ve been away too long. People like Germaine Greer1 and Clive James are called expats. Often with a sneer.

I am not an expat.

I am not an expat in the sense that Australians use it: “Someone who has abandoned Australia and has no clue about it anymore.”

I have never lived outside Australia for more than a year.

I am not an expat in the sense that many others use it either.

I have no Australian friends in NYC. I do not go to Australia clubs to hang out with the other Australians. I don’t eat at Australian restaurants. To me that is expat behaviour. To go to another country and try to live there as much as you can like you were still back home.

Now, part of my not seeking out other Australians in NYC is because I also live in Sydney and there are quite a few Australians here. When we’re in Sydney we’re with our Sydney friends, most of whom are Australian. In NYC we’re with our New Yorker friends, none of whom are originally Australian.

I admit I’m puzzled by people who want to live in another country but once there only hang out with people from their own country. Why not stay home?

Yet, that is what my grandparents did.

But they were refugees. They ran from the Nazis and landed in Australia.2 They did learn English, but it took a long time, and they were never comfortable speaking it.3 All their friends were East European refugees like them. They weren’t wild about Australian food. Sometimes I got the feeling they weren’t too impressed by Australians either.

But, you know what, they lost almost their entire families, almost everyone they’d ever known or loved. They were forced to leave their home. Refugees get a pass.

And their children and their children’s children are very much Australians.

Refugees can’t be expats. To be an expat you have to have chosen to leave your home country; not be fleeing certain persecution.

Those who move to another country to live, who engage with that country, rather than perch on top of it, are migrants, not expats.

I’m a migrant, not an expat. Some of us migrants go back home. A lot. Some of us live in more than one country.

Ever since I started living in two different countries I’ve met more and more people who do the same. I’ve met even more people who would love to do that but simply can’t afford it.4 The old path of migration meaning you left your country forever and ever amen is not the only path.

I have a friend in NYC, originally from Guatemala, who goes back there for a few months every year. I’ve met many Mexican-Americans who go back and forth between Mexico and the US. And Indonesian-Australians who go back and forth between Indonesia and Australia. The closer your country is to the other country you live in the easier it is. Not that I’m jealous . . .

I know loads of mixed national couples like me and Scott who alternate what country they live in. Even couples with kids who do that. Though they tend to do years-long chunks in each country. The Belgian/Australian couple I met recently have just spent five years here and now are moving there with their two children where the kids will be attending a trilingual school.

In conclusion: do not call me an expat! Or something . . .

  1. I don’t think I’ll ever understand why Germaine Greer is so hated here. Mostly by men. I love her. She’s hilarious and has been amazingly important to feminism. Yes, she can be wrong. Yes, I disagree with her as often as I agree. So? She’s a possum stirrer. Always has been. It’s a noble pursuit. Though it sure does seem to be more admired in men than women. []
  2. They would have preferred Argentina but the Australian visas came through first. []
  3. Mind you they had six other languages to use. []
  4. Living in two different countries is expensive. We’re very privileged that we can do it. []

How Great Britain Did Not Do As Well As Australia At The London Olympics

Sure, they came 3rd with 29 gold, 17 silver, 19 bronze and 65 overall. Given that they’re the 22nd most populous country in the world they are clearly performing well above expectations. They are also the 22nd richest country. So, again, well done Great Britain!

However, let us not forget the incredible boost that the home country advantage gives you in the Olympics.

At the Sydney Olympics in 2000 Australia came 4th overall with 16 gold medals, 25 silver, 17 bronze, 58 in total.

For Great Britain to have surpassed Australia’s efforts at our home olympics they needed to do three times as well as we did, given that they have three times our population. We are the 52nd most populous country in the world.

They needed 48 gold, 75 silver, and 51 bronze.

What did they get? 29 gold, 17 silver, 19 bronze.

I’m sorry, Great Britain. Great effort but not quite good enough. I feel quite sure that you’ll get much closer to that total at your next home Olympics.

Dear Scott,

You were right. Maths1 is lots of fun!

xox

Justine

In all seriousness: I think the true “victors” of the Olympics are all the countries who were able to have people compete despite having to get to London on the smell of an oily rag. And the women who competed despite insane pressures not to. Such as Wojdan Shaherkani and Sarah Attar of Saudia Arabia.

  1. Or arithmetic. Whatever. Numbers. I talked about numbers. []

Why Women Are Silent (Updated)

When I talk with women friends about sexual harassment it turns out that we’ve all experienced it at some point. But almost none of us have ever reported it. I have never been raped but I have friends who have been. None of them reported it.

The women who do report their rapes often say that it was like being raped all over. They were made to feel like they were the criminal, interrogated about what they wore, how they behaved, how they “provoked” the attack. Somehow the assault must have been their fault. Many say that if they could have a do over they would not report it.

Many of us no longer go to certain places—night clubs, friend’s places, science fiction conventions etc. etc., way too many places to list them all—because we don’t feel safe. Our best friend’s husband/brother/friend/nephew always finds a way to touch us in ways that creep us out. The bouncer at our favourite night club stands too close and won’t take no for an answer. The big name writer/fan/artist keeps following us around and no one will believe us when we complain. We’ve quit jobs to get away from harassers and stalkers.

Some of us have tried to report it and been silenced. “That’s not real harassment.” “You should learn to relax.” “He was just being friendly.” Or even worse, “Look, I know he’s an arsehole but he’s such a big name if we did something about him it would be disastrous.”

The punishment for women who report their harassers is ferocious. I know women who’ve lost their jobs, their health, their confidence, had to move cities. Who because they were brave enough to report the man who harassed them have suffered far more than the man they reported.

So most women don’t report it. We tell each other who the gropers and creepers are. For years women fans warned other fans to stay away from Isaac Asimov’s groping hands. Stories are still told about him. Humorous stories. Because ha ha that loveable Asimov and his wandering hands. What a silly duffer flirt! Harmless, of course. Didn’t mean anything by it.

Almost every job we’ve ever had we’ve been warned about someone. Almost every convention we’ve been to we’ve heard the rumours about who to avoid.

Bummer for the women who aren’t warned and don’t know who to stay away from.

If only these men were punished for making women’s lives a misery. Then we wouldn’t have to rely on gossip to stay safe. If only they were the ones who were fired and not invited back to conventions etc.

That’s why so few women report their harassers and rapists.

Because we live in a culture of apologists. We live in a culture that looks everywhere: at a woman’s clothes, body, behaviour, her being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as the reason for why harassment, abuse, rape take place. Everywhere, that is, except at the perpetrator and the culture that enables him.

The culture that teaches the harasser, the rapist, that women’s bodies are up for grabs. Look at how she’s dressed! She’s totally asking for it! Teaches him that a woman who says no to him doesn’t really mean it or is a lesbian or frigid or a bitch and thus deserves whatever happens to her. That a woman who says yes and changes her mind is a tease. That a woman who says yes is a whore and doesn’t deserve her wishes and desires respected beyond that yes. That sex workers can never say no and mean it and so can never be raped and always get what they deserve.

I have heard people make these arguments who I thought were my friends. Who I thought were smarter and better than that. Who I thought shared my values and politics. They did not get those ideas out of nowhere. They are in the air we breathe. Every bit of culture we consume.

How the hell do we change this shithouse world we live in? This world where women’s and children’s word on sexual harassment and abuse is ALWAYS doubted.

Every time we’re brave enough to report our harassers and stalkers and rapists we’re standing up to rape culture. We’re making the world a tiny bit safer. But it is UNBELIEVABLY HARD to do so. I’ve never been brave enough.

We need men to do the reporting too. Men witness their friends harassing women. They need to STOP THEM. They have to speak up when other men make rape jokes. They have to stop laughing when their mates tells a story about sleeping with an unconscious woman or otherwise coercing a woman into sex when she clearly didn’t want it.

I know men who do fight back against rape culture. There need to be more of them. So many more.

I have also seen men change their behaviour. I’ve seen them realise that what they’d been doing was not okay. Despite the fact that their mates and their bosses and their culture said it was. Who realise that the advice they’d been given that “women like to be pursued” that “they don’t mean it when they say no” was crap and making the women they went after’s lives a misery. Not to mention their own lives.

Overwhelmingly it is women and children who are sexually harassed and assaulted and raped. But it does happen to men. Particularly in gaol. And because we live in such a misogynist world, where for a man to be in anyway aligned with a woman is the worst thing ever, those men who are raped are also largely silent and not taken seriously. Because, the twisted logic goes, if they were real men it never would have happened. Clearly they are effeminate and thus were asking for it. Misogyny doing what it does best: making everyone’s life wretched.

This post was inspired by Genevieve Valentine bravely reporting her harasser at a recent science fiction convention. Read her post it’s amazing and I am in awe. Because of Valentine’s actions and of the active support she received from brave allies like Veronica Schanoes the conversation about sexual harassment in the science fiction world has been loud and vigorous and, most importantly, the inadequate initial response of the convention’s board looks to be overturned. (Update: it was overturned. Here’s Readercon’s statement.) Twenty years ago nothing would have happened. Things are getting better.

Yes, way too many people crawled out of the woodwork to explain away the harasser’s behaviour but far more people were moved to action. To support Genevieve and to demolish those stupid apologist arguments. Valentine has a couple of follow-ups on what’s been happening that are well worth reading.

I hate the world we live in. But I also love it. I do think things are getting better. But, oh, so very slowly. But at least we’re having this conversation. When my mother was a girl we weren’t. Hell, when I was a girl it wasn’t the loud and persistent conversation that it is now. That’s something. Not enough, but something.

Comments on this post: Any rape apologies, “harassers are misunderstood,” “why are you trying to ban flirting” etc. comments are going to be nuked. You’ve been warned.

July: Blogging A Lot Month (Updated)

I have decided to put this here voice recognition software to the test in the month of July by blogging every day.1 Yes, I will blog every single day of July 2012.

Tell Me What To Blog

If there’s anything you would like me to blog about please let me know! The comments are below in the manner of most blogs.2

I’ve had a few suggestions on Twitter:

@SirTessa wants me to write a complete post without correcting any of the voice recognition software mistakes. I WILL DEFINITELY DO THAT.

@WanderinDreamr wants me to write about Australian slang “the rest of the world is confused by”. My problem with that is, well, how am I supposed to know? Australian slang does not confuse me. Though I do love many of the words that are unique to these fine shores so I may just write about my favourite ones.

@ben_rosenbaum suggested I blog tongue twisters on account of the voice recognition software. I am ignoring him.

@nalohopkinson wanted me to “opine on bubble skirts”. How could I resist writing a horrors & joys of fashion post? Oh, bubble skirt, I shall SO opine about you.

I also recently got into a discussion on twitter—inspired by this Jennifer Crusie post—about the extent to which an editor can rewrite their authors. I think NOT AT ALL. Turns out that people mean different things by “rewriting”. I spluttered about on twitter in a way that I think was mostly confusing. A post is in order to clarify my thoughts. @pmattessi requested that I “mention things like whether eds should be credited? And also your thoughts on Carver’s editor.” He comes from the tv side of the writing world, which operates very differently from novel writing. I suspect my post will be about the writer/editor relationship with a little touch of the thankless work of the copyeditor.

Another interesting discussion concerned the way English-speaking cultures are so full of hatred for children & teenagers and how that is not the case in places like Spain, Italy, and Thailand.3

Many years ago I promised a post about writing dialogue. If any of you still want such a post I may attempt to finish it. It’s just that it’s hard because I’m not really sure how I write dialogue. You know, other than I type it and make sure there are quote marks around it. (And sometimes I use italics if it’s dialogue that’s not being directly said.)

Is challenging voice recognition software the only reason for blogging every day of July?

Nope. I really miss blogging. Not blogging hardly at all for such a long time has left me with many pent up THOUGHTS and FEELINGS that do not fit on twitter. I miss sharing them with you. But mostly I miss the wonderful crew of commenters who once hung out here. I miss your wit and your wisdom and your snark and your sincerity and your sarcasm and your silliness. I am hoping some of you will return. Even though blogs are so beginning-of-this-century and everyone’s on twitter and tumblr these days. I don’t care. I’m an old-fashioned girl. I still love them.

Also my newest book, Team Human, written with Sarah Rees Brennan, will be published on 2 July in Australia and New Zealand and 3 July in Canada and the USA. This means I will be doing a fair number of interviews and the like about said book all over the internets. But while I love TH dearly and am very proud of it and over the moon with joy that the early responses to the book have been so positive the idea of talking about it non-stop for a month makes me feel a bit tired. This will be my online respite.

A Digression

It’s a bit ironic, isn’t it, that by the time a book is published and it’s time to publicise it we authors have spent so much time with the book that it’s the last thing in the world we want to talk about. When I’m really itching to talk about my books is during the drive towards the finish of the first draft—when I know I’m going to finish it and talking about it won’t jinx it and the book becomes the only thing in the world I want to talk about. And—most of all—during the first few rewrites when it has become the only thing in the world I can talk about.

Unfortunately that is when very few people have read it and they’re all bored with me asking them questions about what they thought of the world building or the main characters and whether they think I should get rid of the gilded-wings subplot or expand the diabolic-exploding-hairclip subplot. They are so over my book and, by extension me, in fact, that if I ring them they no longer pick up. And my emails to them start to bounce. Waaaaaahhhh!!!!!!!

Fortunately there’s Scott and my lovely agent Jill and my editor who are always happy to talk endlessly about my book during these times. Bless them!

In Conclusion

In July I will blog a lot.

Update: @Marrije has also requested via Twitter that I “do a post on How To Find The Good Food In Any City? Isn’t this your superpower? Can you teach us?”

@MalindaLo has requested: “I blog about twitter etiquette: the good, the bad, the ugly.”

  1. Except weekends. Cause, come on, no one is on the intramanets on the weekend. Scientific fact. []
  2. I thought about having them above but my web designer said no. []
  3. And I’m sure in many other places I’ve not been to. []

Monsters I Have Loved

Since a few of you expressed mild interest in the speech I gave at Sirens in October last year I thought I would share it with you. The theme was monsters and my speech involved me showing many monstrous images. Yes, that’s my disclaimer, I wrote this to be spoken to a real life audience with funny pictures and the funny may not work so well without the kind and appreciative live audience. Or something. *cough*

Here it is:

Monsters I Have Loved

Ideas = Brain Monkeys According to Maureen Johnson

Like every other writer ever I get asked “where do you get your ideas” a lot. Today I thought instead of answering that question in the Q & A at the end, I’d show you.

Here’s how I got the idea for the speech I’m about to give, which is very similar to how I get ideas for the novels I write.

Excellently recursive, yes?

I knew I had to write a speech for Sirens more than a year ago. For many, many many months I didn’t think about it at all because, you know, other deadlines, basketball games to watch, old movies to pillage for info about the early 1930s, issues of Vampires & Rosario to read. But in the deepest darkest recesses of my brain those monkeys were juggling the nouns associated with this year’s Sirens: feminism, YA, monsters.

Then one day in July, or possibly August, I was walking around New York City with my headphones on listening to music. That’s unusual for me. Usually I walk around listening to podcasts from Australia when I wander about the city. But on this particular day I’d run out. So I was listening to one of my favourite playlists. And for some reason I started writing this speech in my head. When I got to my office I immediately wrote everything down. It flowed out of me like magic.

Nah, not really.

When I got to the office I gossiped with the doorman on the way in, and answered a phone call from my agent on the stairs on the way up (how fancy am I?), and then gossiped with the receptionist. By the time I took off my walking-around-the-city-listening-to-podcasts-and-sometimes-music headphones and donned my-talking-to-the-voice-recognition-software headset I’d forgotten everything I’d thought of on the walk over except this:

Feminism + Young Adult Literature + Monsters = Elvis

Am I right?

I can tell long-term readers of my blog—both of you—knew where I was going with that.

No?1

Hmmm, looks like I may have to explain myself a bit more.

Me and Elvis

My parents are anthropologists/sociologists. (I always understood the difference to be that anthropologists studied people with a different skin colour to them and sociologists study those with the same skin colour. That may perhaps be a tad unfair.) When I was little my family lived for a time on two different Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory: Ngukurr in Arnhem Land and Djemberra (now called Jilkminggan) not far from the predominately white town of Mataranka. It is the part of my childhood I remember most vividly. For many reasons.

The red dot up top is Jilkminggan. The purple dot is Sydney. For scale: Australia is roughly the same size as mainland USA.

I remember the hard red earth, the heat making everything in the distance shimmer, towering termite nests, brolgas, eating food that had been hunted or found that day: kangaroo, emu, goanna, crayfish, turtle eggs, wild honey, fruits and tubers I don’t remember the names of and have never seen or (more sadly) eaten since.

I remember being allowed to run wild with a pack of kids (and dogs) of assorted ages and skin colours (though none so pale as me), swimming in the Roper River, playing games like red rover for hours. I remember learning that I was white and what that could mean, and that the Aboriginal kinship system my family had been adopted into meant that I could have many more mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and cousines and grandparents than the bare handful I’d been born with. I became fluent in a whole other language, of which only two words remain: “baba” meaning brother or sister, and “gammon” meaning bullshit (sort of).

Yes, um, that is a smaller me. I am being extremely helpful getting the fire hot enough for them to brand cattle. EXTREMELY helpful! Thanks for the photo, Dad.

(I’m making it sound more romantic than it was. I’m forgetting the flies—more flies than I’ve ever seen before in my life. So many you soon stop waving them away because there’s no point. Many of those kids had cataracts. And, yeah, we kids ran together and the dogs were always underfoot, but they were so underfoot that when the numbers got too big—authorities—mostly white—would come in and shoot them.)

I was a city child. I knew nothing about the outback. I was alien to those kids and those kids were alien to me. Until, after a few weeks, we weren’t.

That year changed me completely. Especially my thinking about race. I want to be clear, however, that I’m not saying those experiences made me magically understand what it is to be “The Other.” (And, ugh, to that term, by the way.) To my horror, when I’ve told these stories of my childhood in the Territory too many people have understood me to be saying “I lived with people who weren’t white so I know what it is to be oppressed.”

A thousand times NO!2

What I learned was that I was white. I had not thought about the colour of my skin or what it signified. I had not been aware of whiteness or what it meant.

What I learned was that race and racism exist. Which was something I’d had the privilege of not learning earlier because I was white growing up in a predominantly white country in predominantly white bits of that country. Spending time in a predominately black part of Australia made me aware of my whiteness before the majority of my white peers back in urban southern Australia did.3

It was also the year I discovered Elvis Presley.

My first Elvis memory is of the juke box in one of the pubs in the white town of Mataranka. There were only two pubs which in Australia means that it was a very, very small town. The jukebox had records by Slim Dusty and Elvis Presley and no-one else. When Slim Dusty played it caused the child-me physical pain. As far as I was concerned it was noise, not music. But when Elvis played, well, that was heaven. The best music, the best voice I’d ever heard. For years I couldn’t stand Slim Dusty, but I’ve always loved Elvis.

I was not alone in this judgement, by the way, cause almost all the kids—and a fair number of the adults—of Jilkmingan liked Elvis too. Added bonus: my dad couldn’t stand him.

My second memory is of watching a 1968 Elvis movie, Stay Away Joe, on the outdoor basketball court at Ngukurr. The screen was hung over the hoop. We all crowded onto the court, restless (the last few movies had been total busts) and excited (there was always the hope this one wouldn’t suck), sitting in each others’ laps or on our haunches on the gravel. We’d pull each others’ hair, poke each other with fingers, elbows, feet and knees, throw handfuls of gravel at each other. The adults would laugh at us, or tell us to shut up or both.

From http://www.outbushpitchas.com

This time the rowdiness only lasted through the opening credits. We settled down quick because we loved it. Stay Away Joe is set on a Native American reservation. Elvis plays an Indian. Everyone on the basketball court recognised what they were seeing up on screen.

Like the movie reservation, Ngukurr was full of crap cars, there were dogs everywhere, houses fell apart, and there was high unemployment. There was also a tonne of singing and dancing.4

Some of us kids really thought Elvis was Native American.5 I’m sure my parents disabused me of that notion pretty quickly, but for a long time I wasn’t quite sure who or what Elvis was. When I returned to southern Australia none of my school friends liked Elvis (if they’d heard of him). They thought I was weird. I associated Elvis with indigenous Australia, with the Territory, with stockmen & rodeos & outdoor crappy movie projectors.

The way I discovered Elvis made him seem racially fluid.

I have always thought that one day I would write a novel about that Elvis.

Appropriation

I also thought Elvis wrote all his songs and that he was the first person to sing them. Frankly, until I was ten or so I’m pretty sure I thought Elvis invented rock’n’roll, if not all music.

Then someone played the original recording of Hound Dog by Big Mama Thornton for me.

Turned out the song had been written for her by Leiber & Stoller and she recorded it in 1952. Her original version was number one on the billboard R&B charts for six weeks in 1953. There followed multiple cover versions, mostly by white bands. Elvis discovered the song, not through Thornton’s version, but through a white band, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys’s live version that he heard in Vegas. Freddie Bell and the Bellboys? (I for one cannot think of a sexier or more dangerous name for a group, can you? Don’t answer that.)

They changed the lyrics because they were considered too dirty for a white audience. “Snoopin’ round my door” was replaced with “cryin’ all the time,” and “You can wag your tail, but I ain’t gonna feed you no more” was replaced by “You ain’t never caught a rabbit, and you ain’t no friend of mine.”

Elvis’s recorded the Bellboy’s lyrics. The original lyricist, Jerry Leiber, was appalled, pointing out that the new lyrics made “no sense.” Which they really don’t. In Elvis’ version I had no idea what the hound dog wanted or why it was a problem. Was the hound dog crying cause it couldn’t catch rabbits? Then why was Elvis so unsympathetic?

Here’s Elvis’ version for comparison:

I’ve never liked Elvis’ version as much since.

Listening to Big Mama Thornton’s version exploded the song for me. It didn’t mean what I thought it meant. It was bigger and sexier and BETTER.

Elvis was not an orginator. He was a borrower. He was a remaker of existing things. He didn’t write songs. Those lyric changes to “Hound Dog” weren’t even his changes—that was Freddie Bell & the Bellboys. At the time I decided that meant he was no good. He could wag his tail but I was done.6

Then not too much later I read Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Tanith Lee’s Red as Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer. Their retellings of the fairy tales I grew up with changed those stories utterly: made them bigger, sexier, better. Elvis had made “Hound Dog” worse. Was that the difference?

Had Elvis appropriated Big Mama Thornton’s Houng Dog?

Was it appropriation because Elvis was white and Mama Thornton black? Because his version went to no. 1 on all three Billboard charts of the time: pop, c&w, and r&b. Whereas her version was limited to the R&B chart only? Because to this day his version is more famous than hers as he is more famous than she is?

Elvis’s success was monstrous. Both in scale—it’s more than thirty years since he died—and he’s still one of the most famous people in the world. I have bonded with people over Elvis in Indonesia, Argentina, Turkey & Hawaii. He’s everywhere.

But there’s also an argument that his career is a testament to the monstrous power of racism. He was the first white kid to do what dozens—if not more—black performers had done before him. (Especially Little Richard.) His success was dependent on an appropriation of black music, black style, black dancing, black attitude. He become famous for bringing black music to a white audience. But if Elvis had actually been black then I would not be talking about him right now.

I have often thought of writing a novel about that black Elvis. The black female Elvis. It would probably turn out that she was Big Mama Thornton.

Given my track record as a white writer who has written multiple novels with non-white protags, appropriation is, naturally, something I think about a lot.

Originality

My initial reaction to discovering that Elvis, not only didn’t write his own songs, but that sometimes the original versions were better than his, was horror. I had, like, many of you, I’m sure, grown up with the notion that originality is the thing.

Before the 1960s a popular singer was not looked at askance if they did not write their own songs. They were singers! Why would they write their own songs? Then came the sixties and the singer-song writer revolution and suddenly if all you could do was sing then you better join a band with someone who could write songs for you or you were screwed. And song writers WHO COULD NOT SING AT ALL started singing. Yes, Bob Dylan, you are one of the worst. True fact: Dylan songs are way better when sung by Elvis.7

In English classes through high school & university the highest praise given to a writer was originality. I remember asking a lecturer why there were no women writers on his post-modernism course.

He gave me a disdainful look and asked, “Who would you suggest?”

“Angela Carter.”

“Angela Carter?” he sneered. “Light weight! Completely unoriginal!”

He then spent the rest of the course carefully delineating the antecedents of all the boy writers we’d been assigned. Astonishingly none of them had stepped fully formed from a clam shell either. No originality anywhere! But somehow magically their penises protected them from lightweightness. Maybe penises are really heavy or something?

It’s a moment that’s stayed with me. Not just because of his why-are-you-wasting-my-time dismissal but because of the way everyone else in the room looked at me. There was much rolling of eyes. But two of the women in the room smiled. We became friends.

At the time I thought about writing a novel in which a white middle-aged male lecturer writes a novel about seducing all his female students to ease his mid-life crisis, which every publishing house in the entire universe passes on, so that he ends his days in a padded cell with only Angela Carter to read. But the thought of staying in his point of view long enough to write a whole novel was too depressing so I wrote a 13th century Cambodian epic instead.8

And my point? Right, as you all know: all art comes from somewhere. Nothing is truly original. If it was we’d have no way of making sense of it.

Octavia Butler and Angela Carter and Tanith Lee are three of the biggest influences on my writing. I see traces of them in every novel I have written.

But so is Elvis and my childhood experience on Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory and a million and one other things. People who know me, and sometimes strangers, point to other influences I hadn’t even thought about. I find that scarily often they’re correct. My writing is the sum total of everything that has ever happened to me, everything I have ever seen, or read, or tasted, or heard, or felt, or smelled.9 That’s how writing works.

I am no more original than Elvis.

Can Feminists Love Elvis?

But how can a feminist love Elvis? How can someone who believes in social justice and racial equality love Elvis?

He starred in a movie sympathetic to the confederate lets-keep-slaves cause, Love Me Tender, there’s a tonne of Elvis memoribilia out there which juxtaposes his name and/or face and the confederate flag. Good ole boy Southerners often adore Elvis. Every single one of his movies is jaw droppingly sexist. In Elvis movies all a woman wants is a man. All a man want is a good woman, lots of bad women, and to be a racing car driver. Correction: a singing, dancing racing car driver.

How can we love any number of cultural figures and artefacts that are sexist, racist, homophobic etc? Can I remain untainted by my Elvis love? (Or by my love of Georgette Heyer’s anti-semitic, classist, sexist regency romances?)

In loving something that’s monstruous do we become monstrous? Which gives me another idea for a novel. What if a girl falls in love with someone who she’s always been taught to believe was a monster? And vice versa. Hmmm. I have a nagging feeling that’s been done.

No! Yes! Um, maybe.

Yes, your typical, sparkly jumpsuit wearing, monstruous-sideburned US male.

Here’s one of Elvis’s more egregiously sexist recordings, US Male, and not coincidentally one of his sillier songs. Written and first recorded by Jerry Reed, who plays guitar on the track. It is a dreadful and very wrong song. And pretty much impossible to take seriously. I do not for a second believe that it was written with a straight face.

I adore it.

SO MUCH.

US Male owns woman if she’s wearing his ring. If another man is interested in said woman US Male will do him in. Woman has no agency in any of this, the song isn’t addressed to her, it’s for the perceived rival. So far so cave man-esque10.

Yet it’s so over the top. So absurd. The terrible puns! “Male” as in a bloke plus “mail” as in letters. “Don’t tamper with the property of the U.S. Male” and “I catch you ’round my woman, champ, I’m gonna leave your head ’bout the shape of a stamp,” “Through the rain and the heat and the sleet and the snow the U.S. Male is on his toes.” And the half-spoken, half-sung tough guy-ese delivery! It makes me laugh. It’s so freaking camp.

I start to imagine the U.S. Male’s woman sitting there chewing gum and rolling her eyes. “Yeah, yeah. You done? No, the waiter was not looking at my rack. Gonna give the poor guy a tip already? A big one. Bigger. Okay. Now, sing me a song.” I suspect eventually she would set him on fire though that would probably qualify as tampering with the US male.

You all make up stories that go with songs, right?

That’s how I feel about a lot of Georgette Heyer’s work not uncoincidentally. Makes me laugh it’s so freaking camp. And also witty and well written. (Pity about the anti-semitism.)

Heyer’s regencies have had a ridiculously big influence on YA today. You would not believe how many YA writers are also huge Georgette Heyer fans. It’s scary. Come to think of it most of her heroines are teenage girls . . . So they’re practically YA in the first place.

I have been meaning to write my own Heyereseque YA for ages. One in which the rake-ish hero is actually the villian and has syphillis from all that raking around.

But, Heyer kind of already did that with Cotillion in which the hero is a barely-in-the-closet gentleman, who is not in the petticoat line, but adores picking out excellent gowns for the heroine. (The villain is the bloke who in many of Heyer’s other books was the hero. His syphllis is clearly implied.) They get married. I imagine them having an awesome future of many shopping trips to Paris and fabulous dinner parties with assorted lovers and friends.

So now my Heyeresque YA is going to take place below stairs because I’m sick to death of the equivalence between the aristocracy and worthiness. I want a democratic regency romance! Where people earn what they get from hard work and not because of who their family is! Workers’ revolution! Solidarity forever!11

Recursively Speaking

As I mentioned way back at the beginning of this speech the germ of it came to me while I listened to music while walking to my office. That day it was my 1960s Elvis playlist with super campy songs like US Male and the scary stalker song Slowly But Surely, those songs set this whole chain of thoughts—and this speech—in motion.

And led me to wondering how I have come to adore such monstruously misogynist songs. I mean apart from them being AWESOME. I guess I manage to set aside the monstruous parts and revel in the campy deliciousness. But it’s not just that: I am lucky enough to be in a position where I can critique the bad, take the good, and add whatever I want. That is a pretty accurate description of my novel writing process. And of my reading (in the broadest sense) process.

My fond hope is that every time I do that—every time we do that—the power of those monsters is eroded.

So I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the worst monsters: the monsters of misogyny, of bigotry . . .

Most especially the monsters in my brain and under my bed because they are where I get my ideas.

Thank you!

  1. At the Sirens conference everyone in the audience looked at me like I was a crazy person and insisted that no one on the planet thinks that Feminism + Young Adult Literature + Monsters = Elvis. I remain unconvinced. Plus I am on this planet, am I not? Don’t answer that. []
  2. I was going to have NO appear a thousand times but I think I can trust you all to imagine it. []
  3. Check out these accounts of discovering you are black or white (though mostly black). They’re from Baratunde Thurston’s tumblr for his book How to be Black which you should all read because it’s smart and insightful and funny as. The book and the tumblr. []
  4. I recently re-watched Stay Away Joe and it turns out to be jaw-droppingly bad and not just because it is sexist and racist. There is, in fact, nothing good about that movie at all. []
  5. I was little! See photo above. []
  6. For about a week to be totally honest. []
  7. Dissenting comments will be deleted. []
  8. As you do. []
  9. Yes, including the farts. []
  10. By the way there’s increasing evidence that cave humanity was not as cavemanish as we think but I digress []
  11. Courtney Milan has written several historical novellas along these lines. They are delicious. []

Feel Free to Hate Antelopes

Why do so many people read any statement, no matter how innocuous, as being about them? For example, I have mentioned my dislike of chocolate and people have gotten cranky. As if my chocolate hatred will somehow deprive them of it. Huh?

Every time I talk about my love of fashion someone says, “I just want comfortable clothes! Give me jeans and t-shirts!” Which always strikes me as deeply bizarre because a) no one has said a word against jeans and t-shirts, b) t-shirts and jeans are items of fashion, c) having a desire for a ballgown does not mean that person doesn’t also wear jeans and t-shirts. (For the record I am wearing jeans and a New York Liberty t-shirt as I type this. Though I wish I were in my even-more-comfortable pjs, but guests are arriving shortly.)

Colour me puzzled.

I thought everyone understood that people are not all the same. We have different tastes and interests and desires. And hallelujah for that—if we were all the same the world would be a truly boring place.

Why do people keep being affronted by other people caring about something they don’t care about? If it doesn’t interest you, don’t engage. Why the need to tell the world that you hate and/or are bored by it? Why do people read a long post in which someone sets forth their love of antelopes as saying that everyone must like antelopes. You are free to hate antelopes! Go forth and hate antelopes!1 But, you know, don’t bore the person who just spent time and energy waxing eloquent about their love of antelopes. You can take it as read that their interest in your antelope hatred is zero.

I love a good ballgown. I would never make anyone else wear a ballgown.2 I truly loathe chocolate. I have given chocolate as a present to many people. I have even made chocolate cake for a friend. I don’t get why they like it since it tastes like death to me but, you know, it seems to make them happy so good for them.

I suspect that what I’m really asking is why do so many people think everything is about them? I know the ego is a powerful thing. Hey, I’ve got one too. And yet . . .

Let me put this in terms of writing: if you’re unable to empathise or understand people who are not like you, who have different tastes and aspirations, it’s going to be really hard for you to write about anyone but yourself. Only writing about yourself is going to limit the appeal of your writing considerably.3

Thus endeth the rant.

I’d be really interested to hear your theories on this perplexing matter.4

  1. Poor antelopes. []
  2. Except for John Scalzi and only because it would make me laugh. []
  3. Though it seems to have worked out really well for a handful of writers I won’t name out of fear. []
  4. Unless you’re one of those crazy chocolate loving people. Just kidding. Some of my best friends love chocolate. I even married a chocolate lover. []

Guest Post: Courtney Milan on Lying

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much for awhile. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

I first came across Courtney Milan when she very intelligently defended my honour on her blog. Turned out everything on her blog is witty and/or smart. Then Sarah Rees Brennan, my guide to romance, started raving about her writing. I commend both to you.1 You can also follow her on twitter.

– – –
Courtney Milan writes historical romances for adults. She has been lucky enough to hold two jobs she did not need to tell lies to get, and one job that she lied to get and then loved. Her website is at courtneymilan.com.

In Defense of Lying

The heroine of my debut novel, Proof by Seduction, is a liar. Not a compulsive liar like Justine’s Micah. No; Jenny Keeble (that’s her real name, although she never admits it) is a liar who pretends that she can tell the future, so that people will give her filthy lucre. And while this may seem a little dishonest, believe it or not, we all do it.

I happen to be thinking about lying because a friend of mine has an important job interview next week, and today I was helping her practice. Here’s the problem: She wants to get the job. She wants to get the job very badly, because as you may have noticed, the economy sucks, and at six months of unemployment, one starts to become antsy about things such as paychecks and the like. She does not, however, feel very excited about the prospect of actually doing the job. You understand how these things go. And so she has two options. She can go to the interview and tell the truth—and inevitably not get the job. Or she can lie.

This is actually a really common problem, whether the economy is good or bad. At some point in any job interview, someone will ask you this question: “Why do you want to work for us?” It doesn’t matter whether the job is flipping hamburgers at McDonalds or if you’re auditioning to be the next CEO of Proctor and Gamble. They’re going to ask the question. And they never want to hear the truth. The truth is something closer to this: “Because Burger King isn’t hiring, and my parents told me I had to get a job.” Or, the high-end version: “Your parachute is so golden that when you fire me in thirteen months, I won’t have to work for another two years.” No; nobody ever wants to hear the truth.

But, fickle and undependable as people are, they also don’t want to hear obvious lies. And so what you have to do, as an interviewee, is learn how to lie effectively. Why do you want to work for McDonalds? They don’t really want to know why you want to work for them, because the truth is too crass. The question they are really asking is this: “Why am I great? Please pay me several compliments, because I am feeling surprisingly needy and insecure.” So you think of all the reasons why McDonalds will think they are a good employer. And you then lie. “My friend Jill works for you, and I’ve heard you’re a really fair manager in dividing up shifts.” There you are. True. Believable. And also, a complete fabrication.

Good liars recognize that most people will only ask you three or four real questions. One of them, I’ve already told you—“please pay me several compliments.” But there are also questions that are like this: “I don’t have anything to say, and I’m afraid if I sit here in silence you will think I am an idiot, so can you please fill the time?” And: “Hey, does this question make me look smart?” And finally: “Do you think everything’s going to be okay?”

Good liars ignore the question that people actually ask, and answer the deep down question instead. “Hey, you’re pretty cool. No, you’re not an idiot. Dang, that question makes you look pretty smart.” And the best liars . . . they figure out how to answer that deep-down question, while still telling the truth. And that makes them very, very scary people.

  1. Courtney’s writing and her blog, I mean. Not SRB. Not that I’m not commending SRB to you—she is wonderful—just on this occasion I am saving my commendations for Courtney Milan. []

Guest Post: Alaya Johnson: “What My Dad Said”

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much for awhile. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

Alaya Dawn Johnson is a wonderful writer, whose short story in Zombies v Unicorns, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is jaw-droppingly good. Her next novel, Moonshine, out in May is my fave New York City vampire novel. I love it so much that it’s been killing me waiting for it to come out because I’ve been dying to rave about Moonshine to youse lot. Trust me, you want this book.

– – –

Alaya Dawn Johnson
dated a zombie once in high school, but it didn’t stick. Her first novel was Racing the Dark, the first in a trilogy she decided to call The Spirit Binders once her publisher told her trilogies needed names. The second book, The Burning City, is due out in June. She is also looking forward to the May 11 publication of Moonshine, her 1920s vampire novel set in the Lower East Side of New York City.

Alaya says:

What My Dad Said

When I first showed my dad the new paperback cover of Racing the Dark, I was pretty proud of it. I thought that it evoked the book and was fairly striking. I won’t lie, I pretty much expected him to pat me on the head and say, “Looks great, honey.”

Instead, he picked it up and turned it over a few times. His face took on that serious, thinking expression I recognized meant he was considering how to phrase something important.

“Alaya,” he said, “the art is lovely. The image and everything is great. But are you sure you want to limit yourself like that with this cover?”

“Limit myself?” I asked.

“White people are going to be way less likely to pick up a book with a cover featuring a brown person. That’s just the way the world works.”

I told my dad (with some annoyance) that I didn’t think that was true, and anyway, my book is about a brown person, so these hypothetical white people would just have to suck it up.

Cut to this past Christmas, when my Dad, my sister, my brother and I were all last-minute shopping at the local mall. Like we do every Christmas, we all tromped through the local Borders, looking for presents. This time I was especially excited, because the store claimed to have a copy of my book.

My dad and I searched all through the fantasy section, just so I could experience hasn’t-gotten-old-yet zing of seeing my own work in a bookstore. But Racing the Dark wasn’t there. Finally, we went back to the computers to look for it again.

And we saw what we had missed the first time: though Racing the Dark is clearly labeled “fantasy” on its spine, the powers that be at Borders, in their infinite wisdom, had decided to shelve me in the “African American” section.

At least I was in good company. On the shelves surrounding my book were works by Octavia Butler, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. I’ve looked through this peculiar hybrid section before, and I’ve always been bewildered by the mish-mash of genres and writers all sandwiched together on two narrow shelves. Would someone like to tell me what on earth Zane and Toni Morrison have to do with each other?

Dad and I stared at the book in dismay. “I can’t believe they did this,” I said.

“Honey, I told you,” he said. “You should have had a more generic cover.”

I couldn’t really disagree with him, at that point.

So Dad picked up the book and we physically marched it over to the Fantasy section, where we left it, cover side out.

“Alaya,” my Dad said, later that day, over dinner, “you have to understand that you live in the world. You can’t mess around with the way you wish things would be. You have to deal with the way that they are. A black woman writing a book with a cover like that is going to get shoved in a category you might not want to be in.”

Considering that we had just seen the physical evidence of my being shoved into that category, I just nodded and went back to my food.

It stuck with me, though. And I realized that my dad’s point of view hasn’t really been in much of the ongoing discussion about cover art and whitewashing.

In a lot of discussions about race, my Dad and I suffer from a pretty profound generational gap. My dad is of the Old School, which we could call “determined pragmatism.” As far as my dad is concerned, he grew up in a world where he couldn’t sit down at half the lunch counters in Richmond, where he had to sit in the balcony of the theater, drink from labeled water fountains and sit on the black side of the court house.

Now, in his sixties, my dad owns a business that actually works with the same governments that supported Jim Crow laws. He’s moved into that small percentage of the black upper-middle class, and as far as he’s concerned, race is something you deal with and move on. If you have to change something because white people don’t like overt blackness, then you do that. It’s not that my dad doesn’t understand my points about how frustrating and degrading it can be to always have non-whiteness relegated to this unwanted subcategory (or, even worse, an exoticized one). He does. He just feels that if the world works this way and if I’m just a writer struggling to make a living, then I ought to find a way to help myself within that existing power structure.

Now, I still don’t think he’s right. I still like my cover and I’m still very happy that it very clearly features my non-white main character.

But I will say that it felt like a gut punch to see Racing the Dark shelved—with such a contemptuous lack of care for its content or its audience—in the African American section of Borders.

Guest Post: Ron Bradfield Jnr: “It’s All English to Me”

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much for awhile. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

Ron Bradfield Jnr blogs as Belongum. I discovered his wonderful blog via Cellobella, another fabulous WA blogger, who I met at the Perth Writers Festival last year. See sometimes you can discover fabulous blogs via real life. Amazing, innit?

– – –

Ron Bradfield Jnr is a contemporary Bardi man because he has to be. His mob come for the tip of Cape Leveque, north of Broome, Western Australia. He was born and brought up, away from his Country and worked extensively through remote and rural communities all up and down WA. He works with visual artists (via Artsource) and it’s been said many times before in his presence, that herding cats would be a darn sight simpler! In his spare time, he writes. Mostly that consists of blogging, although he is also guilty of publishing in various related work-related magazines as well. It all depends on the two little people in his house and their fantastic mother. Family always gets squashed in there somewhere. All in all, Ron loves what a good yarn can do. Sharing our respective cultures in respectful and healthy ways is the key. Poking people in the eye with it—just makes for a bad experiences all-round and has us remembering them for all the wrong reasons. Our respective cultures make us the richest species on the planet—yet we don’t celebrate this in any way that helps us connect well to each other. Ron’s crossing his fingers in the vain hope that it’s all not too late and that we continue to share. You can find out more about the world he lives in on his blog.

It’s All English to Me

You’ve undoubtedly heard . . .

. . . the phrase ‘lost in translation’. It’s a phrase I see confirmed on many levels here in Australia. All irony aside, most Australians born and living in our English speaking country, probably don’t realise the trap that our familiarity with the English language brings: it leads us to assume certain things, based upon particular meanings. It fails to acknowledge other associated depths to a word—spoken or written—especially those relevant to other cultures. Most particularly—mine!

I am of two worlds. I have a foot in two culture camps here in Oz: that of the Aboriginal peoples (Bardi Mob in particular) of this country and that of the Irish who were brought, or settled here. I have lived a pretty varied life so far; it has seen me fail my early ‘schooling’; learn and work in my trade; sport two military uniforms for this country; work extensively with isolated and damaged young people; assist Aboriginal communities and now—I get to yarn with some of Western Australia’s most amazing visual artists.

My journey into the arts has allowed a fantasy of mine to come true: it’s given me a perfect excuse to write. I’ve always wanted to—I was just never allowed to explore this kind of opportunity as a kid. In general, our education system didn’t invest much in Aboriginal kids when I was young. It was just the way it was here in
Australia in the early 80’s. Thankfully though; at an early age, I discovered books.

They took me places my education couldn’t and allowed me sneak-peaks at worlds I didn’t believe existed. They showed me very early in life that words had an amazing power and they raised questions in me—I was reading of other people’s experiences—but none of them were mine.

Let me correct that some; none of them, were of my Mob. Not too many of these wonderful books brought me the Aboriginal meanings I had come to associate with certain English words. I recognized similar notions in other cultures that weren’t English based and only because the depth associated with the word was often accompanied by descriptions that took my mind along other paths to build the picture I needed. Rather than tell me a concept, my favourite writers showed me. In doing so, I was allowed the room to let MY cultural notion of the words exist without constraint. My understandings of these words were included and—as most people of another Culture in this country already knew—this was a rare experience indeed.

A simple example? Well, in my Mob (and for that of most Australian Aboriginal and Islander peoples) we call all our birth mother’s sisters, ‘Mum’. This is the translation in English of course, although each of the differing nations or language groups have their own term for this, but essentially—the notion of the word ‘Mum’ or ‘Mother’ in English—tends to fit. It’s not as limited in its use within our communities though. We don’t have only ONE Mum—we have many. Yep, I know, we’re just greedy that way.

The English word ‘Aunty’ just doesn’t fit here either and, should it be used (as it often is in other Aboriginal and Islander communities more impacted upon by our backward past policies of taking our children away), it’s used as the word’s actual meaning defines it—but the underlying cultural context—tells you a completely different thing entirely. Past government policies have managed to break our families apart, exterminate so many of our languages and cultures and almost rendered us lost to today’s Australian society—but it has NEVER squashed our own sense, of ourselves.

I know this to be true, simply because when I use the words Culture and Country—they take on a completely different meaning for us, than it does for the vast majority of those who live here. Please understand that I don’t say this to NOT include you dear readers; just to highlight a point. If anything I believe that if you call this Country your home – than you should understand these concepts as part of your own Australian heritage (despite what some people will tell you—you’re actually welcome to do so) and culture. Country is where I come from, what I’m
connected to and it defines who I am (to others). Culture is what connects me there; it feeds my centre and keeps me whole. I can’t explain it any simpler than that. It’s something I’d need to show you—as it can’t be captured completely in English.

English Dictionaries will tell you a completely different thing and that is an absolute shame. The English language is a tool. It shouldn’t govern the meaning you place upon your written words to the N’th degree—not like that. You—or should I say WE—as writers have a huge responsibility placed upon our shoulders. We have to convey actual meaning (real living and breathing meaning) to our readers and we have such a limited language with which to do it.

Think I’m exaggerating?

Ask those who have already contributed here their thoughts on how the English language constrains the notion of other people’s Culture. It’s a mark of their skill (and yours) as writers that they can bring their world into this one—the one you’re reading right now—the world of English.

My hat’s off to you all and I mean that sincerely, because achieving that, is no mean feat!

Coda: A Few Words on the Word ‘Mob’

Mob. There has been a tendency to use the word Tribe when describing each of the different language groups that exist in Aboriginal and Islander peoples cultures across Australia. This is actually incorrect. If anything we more closely represent family Clans (not all that different to Celtic and Gaelic ones). Language groups in distinct areas—broken further down to smaller family clans—better able to survive across harsh country—coming together at set times in the year—to trade goods and marry. Or at least this was the case a long time ago—when it was
necessary.

Instead of the word Clan, we tend to use the word Mob. Aboriginal and Islander people will say “Which Mob?” or “Who your Mob?” when trying to narrow down who you belong too. It’s an important question—it tells another Aboriginal or Islander person where you come from and who you’re likely to be related too. This determines how you should be addressed and who might be responsible for you—laying down the groundwork for a complex protocol system that nearly all Aboriginal and Islander children know backwards by the time they are 5 years old.

There are over a hundred language groups still surviving in our country. All of us have different cultural bases—yet all of us are similar in particular ways. This website doesn’t do a bad business of explaining this further—as my explanations are very simple.

And here is a map of how Aboriginal and Islander Language groups or nations looked (and to a degree still do) in it’s simplest form. Lastly some government statistics.

END of Message

(Sorry Military past intrudes haha—old habits!)

Guest Post: Carol Cooper on the Death of Print Media

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much for awhile. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

Today’s guest, Carol Cooper, is one of an increasingly rare breed, a working journalist. I have known her for many, many years now. I suspect since my first visit to NYC back in 1993.1 She’s a wonderful writer and friend and knows what she’s talking about on many, many, many topics, but most especially journalism. All heed what she has to say.

– – –

Carol Cooper is a NY born and based cultural critic, who also enjoys an active online presence at www.rocksbackpages.com and www.carolcooper.org.

Carol says:

So many possible topics, so little time!

As soon as our ever gracious host Justine offered me this guest spot, I started agonizing over how best to use it. I’m sure my concern is an occupational hazard, since the job of a freelance journalist is to pitch her editors the most compelling story of the moment . . . ideally before any other journalist has already written about it.

But . . . as you may have heard . . . rules and opportunities in the news game have, well, changed. Not long ago one of the papers I still sometimes work for ran a cover story they chose to illustrate with a little zombie paperboy dressed in Depression-era drag under the headline: “Print is Undead.” In a similar mood of gallows humor, the same publication also ran an education story which paraphrased the musical question: “I just graduated from J-school . . . what WAS I thinking?”

In the past few years the precipitous decline in print media advertising and circulation has forced even the most famous newspapers and magazines—like the New York Times and the Kirkus book review organ—to the brink of economic extinction. Established daily newspapers in big cities like Detroit, Chicago and San Francisco have already bitten the dust, and even online-only news and lifestyle publications continue to shrink and die due to staff cuts on a daily basis.

Now I don’t cover the war/politics/police-blotter/hard copy beats that normally put the “news” in newspapers . . . I’m a pop-culture reporter. And I’ve discovered it’s not really pop-culture reporting that suffers when printed publications vanish. What suffers—especially when online versions of respected newspapers fail to make any money by offering reportorial content on a daily basis, is a factual, archivable and informed analysis of economic and political events in real life as it happens.

Web-based information sources get plenty of traffic to sources of gossip, entertainment and opinion. But far fewer readers flock to .gov sites to read a thousand pages of a health care reform bill for pleasure. Even the less intimidating summary of such important information is harder to find and consume than the average Twitter feed or celebrity blog. The web makes it too easy to narrow our focus to only those subjects you already like or know about. And the web is a much greater time-gobbler than any print publication. What a good newspaper or magazine using a large diverse staff of writers is supposed to do is design a seductive, well-researched, and easily portable package of information providing insightful glimpses into every possible area of human interest.

The music, book, film, and nightlife reporting I like to do needs to be part of that larger package to have the kind of impact I want my work to have. Art, philosophy, and culture (to me) are innately political, and must be understood within the context of every other societal factor to be fully appreciated. When it comes to topical brain food, an all-candy diet is no better than an all-tuna or all-spinach diet if you want to live a long, healthy life.

So . . . while I continue to labor in an industry that appears to be burning down around me, I cling with giddy optimism to the fact that television didn’t kill radio; that YouTube hasn’t killed commercial TV; that video games have yet to replace the movies; and that old, seemingly obsolete media like vinyl singles and albums, remain collectible and are even being re-manufactured now as prestige items on the international scene. So—am I a paper chauvinist? I’d have to say ‘yes’ . . . even with one foot firmly planted on the other side of the digital divide!

I’ve been recruited to write for online sites since the early 1990s, and I still gotta say . . . paper is way better. Ever since some duplicitous staffer at the now defunct SonicNet e-zine put her own name on a great feature-review I wrote for them about Tupac Shakur, I don’t trust the online world to respect the integrity of my byline the same way “hard copy” does. Ah yes, the sweet sanctity of the byline. Honey, I’d go back to writing in cuniform on clay tablets if it would protect my byline!!!

Meanwhile, my being tempted to migrate into book-length fiction or historical biography in a world where the predictive quality of Orson Scott Card’s Ender series and the inspirational quality of Carolyn Burke’s bio of surrealist muse and photographer Lee Miller rival anything investigative journalism can do, is a strong possibility. If I resist the golden allure of series television,2 I might eventually abandon periodical literature to write those kinds of printed matter. But we’re still talking PRINTED matter here. And between recycled newsprint and paper made out of all kinds of sustainable non-arboreal sources (not to mention the sustainable soft-pine grown abundantly on my grandfather’s land in Texas) this NYC-based freelancer will defend the survival of print media until you pry her back-issues of The New Musical Express, The Negro Digest, and Locus from her cold, dead hands.

  1. Momentary pause while Justine contemplates the weirdness and fastness of time. It is, indeed, a peculiar item. []
  2. Bring back Gilmore Girls!! []

Guest Post: Malinda Lo on The Woman Warrior

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

Malinda Lo debuted in 2009 with Ash, which has made an enormous splash, getting shorlisted for gazillions of prizes and being loved by readers all over. I have heard wonderful things about it.1 I invited Malinda to be a guest blogger because I have become a big fan of her blog and I’d like to encourage more of you to read it. *hint* *hint* Also Aussie & Kiwi readers take note: Ash will be published here next week!

– – –

Malinda Lo is the author of Ash, a retelling of Cinderella with a lesbian twist. Published last fall in the U.S. and Canada, Ash comes out in the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand on 4 March. Ash was a finalist for the ALA’s 2010 William C. Morris Award and a Kirkus Best YA Book of 2009. Her next novel, Huntress, a companion to Ash, will be published in spring 2011. She lives in Northern California with her partner and their dog. Her website is www.malindalo.com.

Malinda says:

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about race and representation in young adult books. Justine’s blog has become one of the centers for that discussion, and because of that, when she asked me to guest blog I jumped at the chance to share one of my experiences of encountering race in the pages of a book.

Many of the posts about this subject have focused on the importance of publishing books about people of color so that people of color can see themselves represented in print. Reading these posts made me remember my junior year in high school, when my favorite English teacher gave me a book to read because she thought I might identify with it. I am Chinese American; the book was The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, an autobiography subtitled “Memoirs of a Childhood Among Ghosts.”

She meant well, but the book made me feel like a total foreigner. I hated it.

It made me wonder: Was this the way white Americans saw my family? Did they really think that I came from a family that believed in ghosts and treated their daughters like property?

I remember being distinctly disturbed by the book, and when I decided to write this post, I went back and re-read the first chapter. In retrospect, I’m stunned that my teacher gave it to me, because that chapter alone includes sex, rape, misogyny, and suicide.

I was probably 16 years old when I read it, and while I’d like to think that my teacher thought I might be mature enough to handle the content, I wonder if it was simply the only book she knew of that involved a female Chinese American main character. I have to give her points for attempting to find me a book that mirrored my life, but the fact is, The Woman Warrior made me cringe.

It’s not that the book is poorly written. Reading through it again, I find much to enjoy in Kingston’s prose. It’s that the book seemed to have nothing to do with me or my background, and the idea that my teacher thought it did shocked me. I thought: Was this what being Chinese American was supposed to be like?

(Notably, the book has been criticized as much as it has been praised, with some Asian American writers arguing that Kingston uses Orientalist stereotypes to present an exoticized vision of Chinese America for white readers. Kingston herself has asked why she should be required to represent anyone but herself.)

I was born in China, but I moved to the U.S. with my family in 1978 when I was 3 years old. I come from a long line of intellectuals, and some of my family were persecuted for their political backgrounds by the Communist Party. In addition, my paternal grandmother was white. She was one of the few Westerners to actually live in China during the Cultural Revolution, and when she returned to the U.S., she wrote a memoir about it (In the Eye of the Typhoon by Ruth Earnshaw Lo).

Because of all this, I grew up thinking my family was special. I’m pretty sure it made me (as a teen) a bit self-important and defensive about all things related to China.

On the other hand, I also grew up as one of only four Asian American kids in my high school class. The four of us knew each other and we had overlapping friends, but we did not group together out of any shared “Asian American” identity. There were too few of us. Instead, I think we all tried to blend in as much as possible. We didn’t advertise our different cultural traditions; we didn’t speak foreign languages at school even if we did at home; we did our best to be normal—to be white.

But Woman Warrior—and the fact that my teacher gave it to me specifically—forced me to acknowledge that I was not like everyone else, and it was an awful feeling.

In high school, we have a lot of chains on our feet. The way you dress; the street you live on; the group you belong to. I didn’t want another one. I was happier ignoring the fact that other people perceived me as different.

It took many years for me to accept that other people will see me through their own preconceptions, regardless of my wishes.

I joined (and left) Asian American student groups at college. I majored in Chinese Studies, then got a master’s in East Asian Studies. I went back to China. I dated Asian Americans. I attempted to become part of the Asian American community. But I never felt like I really fit in. The ghost of Woman Warrior, I admit, has been difficult to dodge.

And then there’s the fact that I’m a lesbian. Being queer and Asian can be problematic, because many Asian American families are quite homophobic. There wasn’t much room for queerness in the Asian American community when I was coming out, and I felt as though I had to choose between identities.

Sometimes, it’s still a struggle, especially when meeting new people who only know what they see on my face. They see Asianness, but they don’t see my white ancestors. They see a feminine woman; they don’t understand how I could be gay. As recently as last fall, I’ve gotten the comment, “You speak English so well.”

For those of us who occupy the spaces between identities—because of our personalities or because we have a foot in more than one subgroup—finding representation anywhere, in any form of media, can be extremely rare. It can be tempting to hand a person a book and say, “This is where you fit in,” but in many, many cases, that won’t be true. It may end up alienating the person more than making them feel welcome.

I want to make sure to state that I wholeheartedly believe that it’s important to publish books that incorporate diverse characters and stories. In my experience, every book, TV show or film that includes difference makes a difference—even if I personally disliked it. Woman Warrior did not mirror my life, but it gave me something to reject, and that played a valuable role in the continuing evolution of my own identity.

I have always identified much more with Jo March or Anne Shirley than any of the people in Woman Warrior. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t appreciate — eventually — my teacher’s suggestion that I read the book.

After all, twenty years later, I’m still thinking about it.

  1. Yup, Ash is on my to be read list. My reading for my 1930s book means it’s taking me a long time to get to more recent books. []

Guest Post: Baby Power Dyke on Ru Paul, John Mayer & Black History Month

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

Today’s guest blogger is Baby Power Dyke whose blog I discovered last year and instantly fell in love with. She’s rude, smart and funny. We have shared crushes on Rachel Maddow and Melissa Harris-Lacewell. So, clearly, she has excellent tase. She is my kind of a gal.

– – –

Baby Power Dyke is a smartass. She’s an actor in New York City who is terrible about auditions. She lives in Brooklyn with the love of her life, who is also an actor and is muchMUCH better about auditions. Nonprofitting supports her blogging and acting habits. She loves cheese. She was born on April Fool’s Day and thinks that because of that, she receives the best birthday presents ever. She’s terrible about mail. Her personal theme songs are “Voodoo Child” by Jimi Hendrix and “Don’t Rain on My Parade” by Barbra Streisand.

BPD says:

It is Black History Month and boy am I feeling the love.

Just yesterday Rush Limbaugh (or as I like to think of him, the Phantom Menace) derisively referred to the health care reform bill which is swimming its way upstream through Congress as a “civil rights bill” and “reparations.” To be clear, what he means by using “civil rights bill” and “reparations” as a pejorative is “this health care bill is another attempt by the lowly, lazy, complaining Black folk to take bread from the mouths of hard-working honest White Americans. First they took February, what’s next? March?.”

Last week the fine gentlemen of Pi Kappa Alpha decided to throw a party to “honor” Black History Month which included a very helpful how-to for the ladies so that they might properly comport themselves as “Ghetto chicks.”

Ghetto chicks usually have gold teeth, start fights and drama, and wear cheap clothes—they consider Baby Phat to be high class and expensive couture. They also have short, nappy hair, and usually wear cheap weave, usually in bad colors, such as purple or bright red. They look and act similar to Shenaynay, and speak very loudly, while rolling their neck, and waving their finger in your face. Ghetto chicks have a very limited vocabulary, and attempt to make up for it, by forming new words, such as “constipulated”, or simply cursing persistently, or using other types of vulgarities, and making noises, such as “hmmg!”, or smacking their lips, and making other angry noises,grunts, and faces.

But it was John Mayer (singer, songwriter, Poor Man’s Stevie Ray Vaughn) that got the month started off right with an interview that he did for Playboy where he proved that he doesn’t have the good sense (or graces) that God gave Kanye West.

    MAYER: Star magazine at one point said I was writing a tell-all book for $10 million. On Star’s cover it said what a rat! My entire life I’ve tried to be a nice guy.

    PLAYBOY: Do black women throw themselves at you?

    MAYER: I don’t think I open myself to it. My dick is sort of like a white supremacist. I’ve got a Benetton heart and a fuckin’ David Duke cock. I’m going to start dating separately from my dick.

    PLAYBOY: Let’s put some names out there. Let’s get specific.

    MAYER: I always thought Holly Robinson Peete was gorgeous. Every white dude loved Hilary from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. And Kerry Washington. She’s superhot, and she’s also white-girl crazy. Kerry Washington would break your heart like a white girl. Just all of a sudden she’d be like, “Yeah, I sucked his dick. Whatever.” And you’d be like, “What? We weren’t talking about that.”

That’s an official Nice Guy FAIL.

These harbingers of Black History Month can get a girl a little down.

But not me. I am thankful that I have a partner who loves and cherishes me for the supreme delight that I am.

I am also thankful for the amazing strong black women (SBW) that I have in my life as role-models.
 Without my mother, Oprah Winfrey and Barbra Streisand, my confidence in my smokingness (both intellectual and physical) might have been dimmed by that young-man whose mother must be really ashamed of him right now and who is actually making me sympathize with that Jennifer Aniston person.

But lately I realize that I’ve been leaving out one deserving woman in my SBW list of might: RuPaul.

Nownownow, I know what you’re saying, “But BPD, RuPaul’s been around since forever how come it’s taken you so long?” Really, I have no excuse.

From the revelatory, Super Model, with its clarion cry that got me through many a grueling show choir rehearsal (damn you mirrored gym) to the present RuPaul’s Drag Race—which is not about cars1 —RuPaul has given me the balls to get through the tough times. RuPaul has made me the man I am today. And by man, I mean small black lesbian gay-dandy.2

When I’m about to do something that seems super important, I think, “You better work, bitch!”
 I chant, “It’s time to lip-synch for your life!” when it’s time for me to move mountains.

Click here for vid.
. . . Minute 37 is where the real magic happens.

RuPaul is about knowing who you are and owning your fabulousness. RuPaul is about ripping people’s faces off with your fierceness and leaping in your stilettos over the shit. Most importantly RuPaul is not about some trifling mess of a boy that even Ghandi would slap.

With Ru and the other SBW in my life, I know my worth. I’m not even going to sweat it. Because I know, that despite how hurtful and how hateful what John Mayer said was, it’s not about me. It’s not about any other woman of color (or woman, frankly) in the world. It’s about him and the dick-shrivel that he is. I’m not waiting for the world to change. I am the change that I seek in the world. I am the light that I want to see. I am fabulous. I am fierce. I am magnificent.

Come for me, bitches.

  1. But just . . . can we all agree that if RuPaul hosted a muscle car show with, say, Joan Rivers or Tina Turner—that pair would be a mother-fucking wig-off—that show would be ridiculously awesome. []
  2. 2010 is the year of the bow-tie. Look out people! []

Guest Post: Lauren McLaughlin on Babies & Novels

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

Today’s blogger, Lauren McLaughlin, is a crazy talented YA writer, who has one of the more unusual backgrounds of all the YA novelists I know. She used to be a Hollywood producer. This means that she has more confidence than anyone else I know and is extraordinarily good at saying “no” and meaning it. She is also one of the most focussed and driven people I’ve known. I am all admiration and awe.

– – –

Lauren McLaughlin is the author of Cycler and (Re)Cycler, both YA novels about a teenage girl who turns into a boy for four days each month. She can be found all over the internet, but tends to materialize most frequently at her blog and
on Twitter. She strongly encourages people to read things for free whenever possible and has thusly provided the first three chapters of Cycler as a free download here.

Lauren says:

Greetings Larbalestians!

The wise and wonderful Justine herself has invited me to occupy some air time on her blog, which I am only too thrilled to do, being a friend, as well as a fan.

I’m still fairly new to the world of publishing, having only published my second novel, (Re)Cycler, in the fall of 2009. But I’m even newer at being a mother, so I thought I’d share some thoughts on what it’s like to be a rookie at these two endeavours.

Novels and babies can both be challenging, but if I had to crown one the Supreme High-Maintenance Pain In The Butt, I’d have to go with the novel. Babies spend the first three months in a semi-vegetative state and have no problem whatsoever about informing you, quite loudly, when they’re in need of something. Novels, on the other hand, never inform you of anything, but rather sit there dumbly while you work your tail off. And only after you’ve invested a week/month/year/lifetime in their progress do they casually scream that you’ve COMPLETELY FAILED AND HAVE TO START OVER!

You can’t start over with babies. They have to adjust.

Also, novels never look up at you in blind dumbstruck love then grab a fistful of your hair and suck it while nuzzling into your shoulder. (I know, it sounds gross. Trust me, it’s transporting.)

Because of deadline pressure, I had to work through the first four months of my daughter’s life. It was difficult at times, squeezing in writing sessions between the frequent feedings and changings, but luckily my husband was around to pick up the slack. And when I turned in that final draft, I took two whole months off, something I’d never done before. In fact, I’d never had more than two weeks in a row off in my life.

It was strange indeed to face each day without a gaping blank page staring back at me. The only thing staring back now was my daughter. And without the pressing need to squeeze four hours of writing into each day, life seemed to open up for us. I could truly focus on her and enjoy our time together without ever feeling crunched.

Alas, after two blissful months of full-time motherhood, my editor delivered her rewrite notes and it was time to be a writer again. But something had changed. My novel was a futuristic story about teenagers and surveillance, and all of a sudden I realized I wasn’t just writing about the future. I was writing about my daughter’s future. My editor, brutal genius that she is, had already done a bang up job of pointing out all the little ways I had failed. And now, I found myself adding to the list. The novel lacked seriousness. It lacked a clean persuasive connection to the current state of affairs. And worst of all, it lacked color. Everyone in it was white.

But my daughter is not. My daughter is mixed race. What kind of a literary heritage was I creating for her if I kept situating my novels in the thinly fictionalized version of the all-white New England suburb where I grew up? The world had changed. Even that suburb had changed. When I was there, it was all Stacy’s, Kristin’s, Jonathan’s, and Patrick’s. But now it was sprinkled with Rojit’s, Jayla’s, Shinya’s and Yuri’s. I had to stop being so lazy. I had to open my eyes. I had to learn how to write my daughter into my fiction.

I had tried this in the past. Tried and failed, unfortunately. In an early draft of (Re)Cycler, one of the main characters spent four months as a thirty-five year-old African American woman before I realized that, although she was a fantastic character, she was in the wrong novel. I give myself no extra credit for the try, incidentally. Both Cycler and (Re)Cycler are overwhelmingly white.

But my next novel will not be. The main character is mixed race. And I have a feeling my days of setting novels in the white-washed suburb of my past are over. Of course, I’m only at the beginning of this journey and I expect plenty of bumps along the way, but I’m committed to it nevertheless. I could have made this commitment at any time, of course. Perhaps I needed the confidence of completing two novels within my teenage comfort zone first. Perhaps, I needed to read other writers’ attempts at writing outside their race. Or maybe all it took was for my daughter to look up at me, a chunk of my hair in her tiny fist, then smile at me with that blind dumbstruck love.

Guest Post: Lili Wilkinson on Sex

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

I have known Lili Wilkinson for many years now. She’s one of the most talented, driven, organised people I have ever met. I am in awe of her. (Yes, even when I’m asleep.) She has had many wonderful books published in Australia as well as the UK and Germany. Her first novel to be published in the US is Pink which is one of her very best. It will be out in Fall of this year from Harper Collins. Trust me, USians, you want this book. Her post today is a wonderful follow up to Sarah Rees Brennan’s post on double standards in Hollywood.

– – –

Lili Wilkinson is the author of five books, including Scatterheart and Pink. She tends to write nerdy chick-lit for teens. She’s currently enjoying Battlestar Galactica and likes making monsters out of wool. You can find her at www.liliwilkinson.com, her blog, and on twitter.

Lili says:

SEX.

There, I said it. Lots of other people have been saying it lately as well, particularly in Australia. Because a couple of weeks ago the leader of our Opposition party, Tony Abbott, told the Women’s Weekly> that he hoped his daughters1 would wait until they were married until they had sex, and that a woman’s virginity is “the greatest gift you can give someone, the ultimate gift of giving.”

That was the beginning. Then 17 year old YA author Alexandra Adornetto weighed in in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper. She said some reasonably sensible things about self-value and the desire to have meaningful experiences. Then she said that “virginity is not highly valued among teenage boys” and that girls had to protect their reputations, which I kind of thought was a bit sexist and disrespectful to all the boys out there who are also looking for meaningful experiences.

Then 16 year old author Steph Bowe wrote a response on her (awesome) blog. I must restrain from quoting the whole thing here, but Steph’s basic opinion is, “if sex is legal, consensual, and there’s mutual respect, I really don’t see the issue.” I highly recommend her piece.

Reading the comments on these two articles are almost as enlightening as the pieces themselves. They cover both sides of the argument, and frankly both sides are offensively judgemental.

Anyway, I’ve got some opinions of my own on the matter, so I thought I’d take this particular forum to share them. So without further ado, here are the six things I’ve learned about sex.

We have to respect other people’s choices. If someone chooses to wait until they’re married, then good for them. If they don’t, please don’t inform them they’re going to burn in the fires of Hades.

There’s a lot of talk about people wanting their first time to be special and amazing and perfect. I totally respect that, but let me tell you from experience – there’s a strong chance it won’t be. You know how the first couple of pancakes are always a bit weird, until you get the consistency and heat just right? Well it’s a bit like that.

Virginity is not a gift. Losing your virginity is an important experience, but it doesn’t define you as a person. It’s like losing your baby teeth. Does anyone ever say “I want the first time I lose a tooth to be really special”?2

Sex is a gift. I don’t want to sound like someone’s slightly batty aunty here, but sex is something important that you should share with someone who you trust. It should be fun. It isn’t something that a girl sacrifices for a boy, never to have it back. It is, in fact, the gift that keeps on giving.3

People make mistakes. Some of them involve sex. I think if we didn’t place quite so much mystery and awe around the whole thing, this might not happen so much.

You are totally allowed to disagree with my opinions and my choices, just as much as I’m allowed to have them in the first place.

As a writer I’ve never included an actual sex scene in a book, because they’re REALLY hard to write. But there’s some implied sex. Some of it is good, some of it is bad. Some of it will be regretted. Some of it won’t. Because I think that reflects the reality of sex. There can’t be any blanket rules of you have to be THIS old or THIS mature. It just doesn’t work that way.

Anyway, for further reading I recommend you check out the comments on this matter on Insideadog, and Gayle Foreman’s excellent post on sex in YA books.

  1. One of these daughters referred to her dad last year as “a lame, gay, churchy loser”. I’m just saying. []
  2. This has led me to some peculiar thoughts about the Tooth Fairy and whether there is Another Kind of Fairy… actually, never mind. Bad thoughts. []
  3. I really just said that, didn’t I? Sigh. []

Guest Post: Zetta Elliott on Race & Reviews

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

Zetta Elliott’s A Wish After Midnight was one of my favourite YA novels of 2009. I still can’t believe no mainstream publisher picked it up and I am hoping the book’s re-realease by Amazon will get this wonderful book into many more hands. Zetta’s blog is also a must read. (And not just because it’s named for the great Octavia Butler’s last published novel.)

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Zetta Elliott is a Brooklyn-based writer and educator. She is the author of the award-winning picture book, Bird (Lee & Low); her self-published young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, was re-released by AmazonEncore in February 2010.

Some Preliminary Thoughts on Race and Reviews

I had insomnia last night and so for hours I lay awake wondering if I should stop writing reviews for my blog. I am an author, so I’m under no real obligation to review other people’s work. Generally I only write about books that I love, and have thus far refused occasional requests from authors who hope I’ll feature them on my blog. Trouble is, even though I was trained to “lead with what I like,” I do often mention the limitations I found in a book. And apparently, for some, this breaks an unspoken rule in the kidlit blogging community: never critique another author’s book. I have some friends who won’t write a review at all unless they can honestly admit they loved the book. Others insist that books by fellow authors must be praised (whether they deserve it or not) in order to preserve professional solidarity (and sales). And then, of course, there is the expectation that when the time comes, your book will be reviewed with equal enthusiasm, so “do unto others”—or else!

I’m new to this particular community and I only follow about a dozen blogs, so maybe I’ve got this wrong. But when I look at some reviews in the kidlit blogosphere I sometimes find a curious lack of rigor. To critique a book doesn’t mean you rip it to shreds. You start with its strengths and then move on to its flaws or areas that could use improvement. And, of course, as a reviewer you are only giving your opinion. So why not be honest about how you feel? Well, because there is a serious power imbalance in the children’s publishing industry, and publicly pointing out weaknesses in a book is, for some of us, like openly criticizing the President.

Right now I’m reading The Breakthrough by Gwen Ifill, and I’m struck by the similarities between the arena of politics and the arena of publishing. Both have unspoken codes of conduct, and there can be serious consequences when you go against the grain or dare to suggest a new paradigm. Both arenas also require people of color to navigate a sea of shifting alliances. Now, I am in no way comparing myself to President Obama (and he’s not the only black politician featured in Ifill’s book), but I think it’s interesting to consider the strengths and limitations of “groupthink” in the 21st century. Do black people owe this particular president their unconditional devotion? Do critiques of the President’s policies strengthen his administration, or bolster the opposition (which has done nothing to distance itself from far-right racists)? Ifill points out that candidate Obama walked a fine line when it came to the issue of race; he couldn’t win the confidence of white voters (and the election itself) by presenting himself as a black man—instead he needed to be viewed as a man who happened to be black. Candidate Obama had to assure white voters that he was neither angry nor bitter about the nation’s history of racial oppression, and no mention was ever made of the unearned advantages that come with being white. Fortunately, I’m not running for political office. And I assure you that at times I am angry and bitter, and I must insist that we talk about white privilege.

The practice of never criticizing another author’s book has particular ramifications for people of color. Since we are already marginalized as authors and seriously underrepresented on editorial boards, a negative review can be devastating—especially if that review comes from another person of color. This is due, in part, to complicated notions of authenticity. Many people (of all races) believe that being black automatically makes you an expert on all things relating to black history, culture, politics, etc. When a black author writes a book that features black characters, there is often an assumption that the story is “authentic” due to the author’s inherent, intuitive understanding of her subject. The same is not true when a white author chooses to write about people of color. Then the assumption is that the author completed exhaustive research in order to “capture the essence” of her black characters. There is one such book out right now that has been getting rave reviews from white bloggers, yet two of my black blogger friends think it’s one of the worst books they’ve ever read. A third black blogger quite enjoyed it. So who’s right? Or, more importantly, whose opinion carries the most weight?

I must confess that lately, the only white-authored books I read are those about people of color. I sometimes feel obligated to read these books in order to ascertain whether or not black people are being misrepresented by white authors who mean well, but don’t really have a clue. I generally expect white authors to get it wrong, but sometimes they do surprise me (Liar would be one example; Octavian Nothing Vol. 1 is another) so it’s important to keep an open mind. Mostly I just wish white authors would leave people of color alone. I appreciate their desire to be inclusive, but statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center show that there are more books about African Americans than by African Americans. This brings to mind a documentary I saw on PBS not too long ago about the white anthropologist Melville Herskovits. His contribution to the understanding of black culture and identity formation was significant and lasting, but this white Jewish man became “the” expert on black people at the expense of qualified black scholars who lacked the same privilege and access to resources. That said, I can imagine how desolate my childhood might have been without the picture books of Ezra Jack Keats. Yet it’s hard to fully appreciate the efforts of well-intending white authors when I know that authors from my own community are being shut out of the industry altogether. And, ultimately, being able to write about anyone from anywhere is a privilege reserved primarily for whites.

So what’s a black author to do? After a decade of rejection, I chose to self-publish some of my books. My young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, is being re-released this month by AmazonEncore. As an immigrant and a mixed-race woman, I often confront challenges to my own authenticity. How could I possibly know what it’s like to be a dark-skinned teenage girl growing up in a low-income area of Brooklyn? When I was pitching my novel to editors and agents, I stressed my years of experience teaching black children throughout NYC; I mentioned that I had a PhD in American Studies and that my research was on representations of racial violence in African American literature. Does that make me an expert on all things black? No. Does it bother me that editors who are outside my community and ignorant of my cultural history get the final say on whether or not my work deserves to be published and/or reviewed? YES. Developing competence in a culture not your own takes time, patience, and humility. I suspect that most white editors have little to no training in Asian, Native American, Latino, or African American literature. They are unlikely, therefore, to situate a manuscript within those particular storytelling traditions. And without a sense of various cultural standards, they wrongly assume their particular standard for what constitutes a good story is “universal.” The same might be said of some professional reviewers and award committee members—a point made brilliantly by Percival Everett in his satirical novel, Erasure.

Of course, you don’t need a PhD to review a book on your blog. And I certainly don’t want to vindicate those timid bloggers who only review white-authored books because they feel they’re not “qualified” to review books by people of color. It’s ok to step outside your comfort zone, and there are lots of great bloggers who can show you how it’s done—Jill over at Rhapsody in Books regularly provides historical and political context for the books she reviews. You can also check in with bloggers of color to see how their reception of a book might differ from yours. That doesn’t mean you can’t trust your own opinion—it means you can strengthen your own position by recognizing and engaging with other points of view.

I’m sorry to say I don’t really have a conclusion for this post. I want to be able to write openly and honestly about the books that I read, though this may not be advisable. I certainly don’t mean to sabotage other authors, and books I found to be flawed have gone on to win major awards so it’s not like my single opinion counts for much. I like to think I can accept fair critiques of my own work, and I feel that thoughtful, constructive critiques can enhance our ability to read, write, and review books. What I want most is excellence and equity in children’s literature, but I feel the current system and codes of conduct aren’t leading us in that direction. And I don’t believe that not talking about the problem will lead to a breakthrough . . .

Guest Post: Randa Abdel Fattah on Writing & Identity

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

Today we have Randa Abdel-Fattah and not just because she’s a Sydneysider like me. She’s one of those amazing writers who manages to produce novels while holding down a demanding job and looking after her kids. (Little known fact: the majority of novelists have day jobs.) Enjoy!

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Randa Abdel-Fattah is the award-winning author of young adult novels Does My Head Look Big in This?, Ten Things I Hate About Me and Where The Streets Had A Name. She is thirty and has her own identity hyphens to contend with (Australian-born-Muslim-Palestinian-Egyptian-choc-a-holic). Randa also works as a lawyer and lives in Sydney with her husband, Ibrahim, and their two children. Her books are published around the world. Randa is a member of the Coalition for Peace and Justice in Palestine. She writes on a freelance basis for various newspapers and has appeared on television programs such as the ABC’s First Tuesday Book Club, ABC’s Q and A and SBS’ Insight. You can find out more about Randa or contact her through her website.

Randa says:

A couple of the guest posts have discussed books and race/ethnicity and it’s a topic I feel very passionate about so I thought I’d add my two cent’s worth. I’ve presented some parts of my post below in various talks but have added some more to it as well (once I get started on this issue, it’s very hard for me to stop).

It sounds trite to say this (forgivable in a blog post?) but a love of books transcends race, culture, ethnicity, colour. To be uplifted by words, moved to tears of joy or sorrow by a story, travel through the past and present, knows no nationality or religion. Books have the ability to transform people. As writers we wield immense power and there is something at once magical and terrifying about this. About our power to create subjects and objects; judges and judged. We take our pens (okay, our keyboards) and purport to portray individuals, communities, cultures and races using a frame of reference that can sometimes do little justice to those we seek to portray.

Okay, so it’s no secret I’m Muslim so I’m going to offer my insight into this problem from my personal point of view. That kind of power represents one of the difficulties Muslims have faced in the sea of books that have sought to characterise, sermonise and describe them, as though we’re some kind of crude, monolithic bloc. I mean, how many times do you trawl through the shelves of bookstores only to see that Muslim women only ever feature as protagonists or characters in crude orientalist-type narratives in which women achieve ‘liberation’ because they have ‘escaped’ Islam or are victims of honour killings, domestic violence and oppression because of Islam? I have a habit (I can’t let it go) of checking out bookshelves just to annoy myself. You know the shelves, holding a list of unimaginative but prolific titles: Beneath the Veil, Under the Veil, Behind the Veil, The Hidden World of Islamic Women, Princess, Desert Royal, Sold, Forbidden Love, Not Without My Daughter , Infidel . . .

I’m conscious that the fact that I’m Australian-born, that I’m a Muslim, that I have a Palestinian father and an Egyptian mother who have both lived longer in Australia than they have in either Palestine or Egypt, has both closed and open doors for me in my life. I’m conscious that I’m neither part of Australia’s dominant culture nor part of a minority. I‘m conscious of the fluidity of my identity because it is an impossible demand of a country founded on immigration to expect a pure demarcation between citizenship and heritage, between minority and majority.

Despite the fact that I’m Aussie-born, I’m sometimes deemed to be part of a minority because of my Muslim faith and my Middle-Eastern heritage. Growing up, and sometimes even now, I have felt both marginalized and included. I have felt that I belong and I have felt like an outsider. But when it came to the books I read as a child and a teenager, and the movies I watched, I only ever felt that that part of my identity that was Muslim and Middle-Eastern was strictly slotted into a minority status, invariably represented in terms of crude stereotypes. I learned fairly quickly that I would not, as a Muslim of Arabic heritage, survive the country in which I was born and was being raised without choosing how I would define myself. Without demanding the right to self-definition I was a nappy head, a tea towel head, a wog, a terrorist, a camel jockey, a fundamentalist, an oppressed woman, a slave to Muslim men. The negative imagery of Islam and Muslims I saw saturating the arts pushed me to insist on my own self-definition and to take a proactive approach. I was motivated to provide readers of contemporary fiction with an alternative narrative and to give agency and a voice to a Muslim female character who defied the usual stereotypes.

When I wrote my first YA novel, Does My Head Look Big In This?, I wanted my readers to suspend their judgments and prejudices and engage at a very personal level with a Muslim teenager, Amal, and her journey of self-discovery. I wanted to invite my readers to challenge their preconceived notions about Islam and Muslims and encounter a story in which a Muslim teenager explores what it means to come of age in the sometimes stiflingly conformist world of the young.

Using humour to tell Amal’s story was strategic. When I wrote Does My Head Look Big In This? I was acutely conscious that given the breadth of stereotypes and misconceptions I wanted to confront, there was a real risk that I could sound boringly preachy. I therefore found that Amal’s self-deprecating, humorous outlook on life was the best way to humanise ‘the Other’ and avoid preaching to my readers. Humour enabled me to confront people’s misunderstanding of Islam and Muslims without plaguing my characters with a victim complex (oh, plus the fact it’s rare to think of ‘Muslim’ and ‘humour’).

But hang on a second. Let me make it clear that I’m no apologist and I certainly don’t seek to write novels which selectively present the ‘cream of the crop’ of Australian Muslims, denying the existence of Muslims who distort Islamic teachings to oppress women or who confuse culture with religion to exact an appalling abuse of Islamic teachings (plenty of examples of that happening around the world).

My second novel, Ten Things I Hate About Me, is a novel in which I sought to confront the reality of Muslim teenagers who experience great difficulty straddling between their Aussie, Muslim and Arabic identities and who withdraw to the safety of anonymity in order to achieve acceptance by their peers. The novel also addresses the sometimes sexist rules applied to brothers and sisters by their parents and the dishonest conflation between culture and religion (you know the kind, ‘the girl has a curfew but the guy has no limit to when he gets home’ etc). To write from a platform of legitimacy and to be taken seriously requires an honest insight into what is happening in Aussie Muslim communities (interestingly, I’ve received mail from around the world from teenagers of all different backgrounds, not just Muslim, who identify with Ten Things I Hate About Me).

I’ve always been concerned about identity issues for young people and as an Aussie-born Muslim I feel I am better ‘qualified’ to give expression to young people’s experiences than somebody of non-Muslim background who writes about Muslims through a prism of us/them, subject/object.

A critic once implored me to see the importance of writing about issues faced by all sorts of Australians, rather than limiting them to those of my culture. I reject this. Anglo writers do not attract that same instruction.

Australians of Anglo background are not defined as ‘Anglo writers’ (that applies to any westerner). It almost sounds absurd. And yet I am sometimes described as a ‘Muslim writer’. When I wrote Does My Head Look Big In This? and Ten Things I Hate About Me my objective was firmly set in my mind: I wanted to write about the lives of two Australian girls. I wanted to challenge the typical definition of the mainstream, of dominant culture, and show that these two girls, one who wears the veil, one who is of Lebanese descent, are a part of the mainstream, rather than interesting deviations from the norm. I wanted to normalize their experience, demonstrate that it is embedded in their Australian identity and life, rather than migrant or foreign identity.

There is no doubt that my first three novels have centered on my own personal world (my fourth novel to be released in Oz this year is a crime fiction/legal thriller for teenagers but that’s another topic, with its own issues, altogether).

So far I’ve been navigating identity struggles, family politics, community and relationships. Although works of fiction, I’ve drawn on my own religious identity and ethnic heritage, not because I seek to add another title to the ‘exotic Islamic/Middle Eastern’ bookshelf, but because I believe it is high time contemporary fiction recognised Muslims as human beings and dispensed with the one-dimensional Muslim caricature. For me, it’s about taking ownership over how my faith is represented and narrated.

Guest Post: Doselle Young on Everything (updated)

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

Today’s guest blogger, Doselle Young, is not only one of my favourite people on the planet, he’s also every bit as opinionated as me. (Though frequently wrong, like his love of Madmen and Henry Miller. Ewww.) I enjoy Do holding forth on any subject at all. He’s also a talented writer of comic books, stories, movies—anything he turns his hand to. Enjoy! And do argue with him. Do loves that. Maybe it will convince him to blog more often? I’d love to hear about the strange connection between Elvis and the superhero Captain Marvel Jr. Fingers crossed.

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Doselle Young is a writer who hates the whole cliché about how writers ‘lie for a living.’ He thinks it’s boring, pretentious, and only meant to promote the author’s self-image as some kind of beast stalking the edges of the literary establishment. Whatever. Get over yourselves, people! Please! We’ve all gotten exceptionally lucky and you know it! When the meds are working, Doselle writes film treatments for Hollywood directors, comics like THE MONARCHY: BULLETS OVER BABYLON, the upcoming PERILOUS, and short crime stories like ‘Housework’ in the anthology The Darker Mask available from Tor Books. Read it. It’s not bad. And, after all, how often do you get to see a black woman with a ray gun? If, on the other hand, the meds aren’t working he’s probably outside your house right now planting Easter Eggs in your garden. Bad rabbit. You can follow him on twitter. He’d rather be following you, though. It’s lots more fun that way.

Doselle says:

Before we begin, I feel there’s something I must make clear: while I write a lot, one thing I am not is a blogger.
Not that I have no respect for bloggers. Hell, some of my best friends are bloggers (and I mean that with a sincerity that borders on relentless). It’s for that reason I’ve lurked here on Justine blog pretty much since the day I met her.
This is a good place, this here blog o’ hers. A smart place and a place with personality, wit, snark, truth, and, when appropriate, outrage.

Wicked outrage.

Kind of like a good local pub without the hooligans, the gut expanding calories and that obnoxious bloke at the end of the bar who smells just like the sticky stuff on the floor just outside the men’s toilet; although, there may be analogues to all those things here. It’s not my place to judge.

What I’ve noticed when trolling though the blogs of authors I know is that, as far as I can, what people fall in love with aren’t so much the personality of the authors but the personality of the blogs, themselves; the gestalt created in that grey space between the author and the audience. An extension of what happens when you read an author’s book, maybe.

And so, as I’m currently sitting here beside a roaring fire in lodge somewhere in South Lake Tahoe and bumpin’ De La Soul though a pair of oversized headphones I paid waaay too much money for, I feel a responsibility to engage with the personality that is Justine Larbalestier’s blog; which is not Justine, but of Justine, if that makes any sense.

On the subject of sports:

I don’t know a lick about the sport of Cricket. Justine loves it (almost as much as she loves Scott, I suspect) so there must be something of high value in the poetry of the bat and the ball, the test match, the teams and the history; some inspiration and beauty to be found there.

The sport that makes my blood race, however, is boxing.

Yeah, that’s right, I said it: brutal and beautiful boxing. Corrupt, questionable, brain damaging, violent boxing.
Maybe it’s a cultural thing but growing up black and male in the 1970s here in the U.S. of A. meant that Muhummad Ali was practically a super hero. Hell, there was even a comic book where Ali fought freakin’ Superman and won (and, yes, I still got my copy, best believe.) Like most everyone, I loved Ali’s bravado, his braggadocio, and his genius with extemporaneous word play. All that, and Ali’s unmistakable style, in his prime it seemed that Ali’s neurons fired to the best of jazz rhythm and when he got older, jazz slowed down to the Louisiana blues tempo—a little sad and melancholy, sure, but nonetheless beautiful.


Update: Image supplied by Doselle in response to Diana’s question

In each of the best fights I’ve seen since, I’m always looking for a hint of those rhythms that make my skin tingle to this day.

On the subject of chocolate:

Not a big fan, myself. I love the taste of vanilla bean and the scent of cinnamon. I love bread pudding and oatmeal cookies and the unholy joy of a well-executed Pecan Pie, but beyond that, whatever.

Screw chocolate. Chocolate still owes me money, anyway.

On the subject of LIAR:

If you’re reading this, I prolly read it before you did, so, nah-nah nah-nah and half-a-bazillion raspberries to you and you and you over there in the corner with that absolutely awful Doctor Who t-shirt.

I loved Liar when I read it and loved it even more when I re-read it. I loved every question and every turn. I loved Micah and her nappy hair and would love to see her again and again. If LIAR were a woman in a bar, I would approach her slick and slow, and be proud be as hell when she took me out to the alley behind the bar and stabbed me through the heart.

In short, LIAR is a killer book and that’s all I have to say about that. Nuff said.

I think Patricia Highsmith, as awful a person as she was, would be proud of LIAR and hate Justine for being the one to have written it.

On the subject of RACE and IDENTITY:

There is no monoculture among people of color or people, in general. Sure, there are tribes, cliques, groups, social organizations, concerns, movements, etc. and I can speak for absolutely none of them.

I can only speak personally. Will only speak personally. Could never speak anything but personally on something so emotionally charged as race and identity.

Like Steve Martin in The Jerk, “I was born a poor black child.”

For the first eleven years of my life, my favorite TV shows were super hero cartoons, Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, My Favorite Martian, All in The Family, M.A.S.H. Sanford and Son, Good Times and The Jeffersons. Even if you’re not Usian (as Justine likes to say), the U.S. exports every piece of television we have so I’m sure most of you will be aware of some of those shows, if not all of them.

I listened to Rick James, Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers, Louis Jordan’s Jump Blues, Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones.
Most of my friends growing up were Jewish and the most horrible acts of racism I personally experienced growing up were perpetrated by other people of color.1

All of which should be considered prologue to finding myself at last year’s World Con in Montreal sitting on yet another panel about race (as an African American author I somehow find myself on race panels even when I haven’t requested them on the programming).

I’m sitting there, halfway through a sentence, when I have an epiphany, of sorts: one of those moments where everything comes into a different kind of focus.

The truth is: I don’t have anything to say about race that I can put in a short blog post. I don’t have anything to say about my experience with race and the perception of race that I can tweet. I don’t have anything to say about race on a sixty-minute panel at a science-fiction convention.

My personal thoughts on race and identity (ethnic or otherwise) are just that: personal, and as complicated, convoluted and tweaked as the catalog of experiences that shaped them.

How about yours?

On a related note, when I requested to NOT be put on the race panel at World Fantasy 2009, I ended up on the queer panel and had a blast.

Life’s funny that way.

On the subject of Buffy The Vampire Slayer:

The show’s over, homey! You really need to move on!

On the subject of writing:

Have a life that feeds you. Lead a life that challenges you. Write what you know. Write what you don’t know. Research. Steal. Invent. Be brave. Be honest about what terrifies you. Be honest about your regrets. It also helps if you can spell.

On the subject of God:

Sorry. I still can’t get that jerk to answer the phone.

On the subject of Zombies Versus Unicorns:

Honestly, I make it a rule to never discuss pornography in public.

On the subject of books:

I’m reading Megan Abbot’s QUEENPIN. The back of the paperback dubs Abbot “The Queen of Noir” and, honestly, I couldn’t agree more. Her books are violent explorations into the ruthless worlds of film noir and crime fiction, delving into the cold hearts of the grifter gals and femme fatales who, until now, have only existed at the grey edges of the genre.

If you like books like LIAR, I think you’ll like Abbott’s stuff, as well. Pick up QUEENPIN or BURY ME DEEP. You won’t be disappointed.

Another book I’m reading now is a biography: THE STRANGEST MAN – THE HIDDEN LIFE OF PAUL DIRAC, MYSTIC OF THE ATOM.

If you don’t know, Dirac was a theoretical physicist, one of Einstein’s most admired colleagues and, at the time, the youngest theoretician to win the Nobel Prize in physics. Dirac made numerous contributions to early work in quantum mechanics and was the first to predict the existence of anti-matter (the same stuff that makes The Enterprise’s engines go ‘Vroom.’) Dirac was, as you might expect, also a bit of an eccentric and a very private man who shared his tears with very few if any of the people closest to him. Written by Graham Farmelo, ‘The Strangest Man’ a meticulously researched piece that, nevertheless, maintains its focus on the often-enigmatic heart of its subject, Dirac. If you’re a science fiction fan, take a peep. After all, if a couple of social misfits hadn’t put chalk to chalkboard, we never have split that atom. Boom.

The last book on my nightstand, for the moment, is John Scalzi’s THE GOD ENGINES, published by Subterranean Press. Before I go any further, I should disclose that this book is dedicated to me but I didn’t know that until after I got a copy of the book. So, with that in mind, attend.

THE GOD ENGINES is a dramatic departure from both his Heinlein-inspired military SF and his more tongue-in-cheek material. While using SFnal tropes, the story is, at heart, a dark fantasy; one set in a world where an oppressive theocracy uses enslaved gods as the power source to drive their massive starships. Brutal, fierce and tightly laced with threads of Lovecraftian horror, 
this is Scalzi’s best book by leaps and bounds. I hope to see more of this kind of work from him—even if I have to beat it out of him, myself. I’m calling you out, John Scalzi. Remember, I’ve still got the whip!

Well, I guess that’s more than enough for now. Nine subjects. One post.

Guess that means the caffeine’s working.

As I said: I’m not a blogger. I have no idea how this stuff is supposed to work. I’m sure this post is way too long. I mean, I didn’t even get to address why the show Madmen doesn’t suck just cause Justine says it does; why Henry Miller looks cool standing beside a bicycle on Santa Monica Beach; The Terrible Jay-Z Problem or the strange connection between Elvis and the superhero Captain Marvel Jr.

Oh, well, maybe next time.

In the interim, let’s be careful out there and remember: just because its offensive doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Best wishes,

Doselle Young

P.S. Those boots look fabulous on you, Justine! Absolutely fabulous!

  1. Being called ‘The N-Word’ by another PoC felt just as crap as being called the same by a white man. That just how I felt and I can make no apologies. []

Guest Post: Ah Yuan on the Importance of Diversity

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

Today we have one of my favourite YA lit bloggers, Ah Yuan, whose blog, GAL Novelty, should be on your blogroll if it isn’t already. I love how no-holds-barred her reviews are. Thoughtful, smart and conversation provoking. If you want to know a bit more about Ah Yuan before you read this moving post check out this interview on Reading in Color.

– – –

Ah Yuan, also known as wingstodust, is your average Asian-Canadian female blogger tolling away as a liberal arts undergrad. When not being bogged down by school or work, she spends her spare time thinking, breathing and talking about fictional stories: anything from novels to manga to to movies to tv shows. The only thing she finds more enjoyable than a good yarn is to be able to talk about stories with others. She can be found on her book blog called GAL Novelty, her general/fandom blog on dreamwidth, and her twitter feed.

The Importance of Diversity

There’s been recent talk about race in fiction, and the predominance of a white-as-default cast in English-language novels. All in all, I’m pretty happy that we’re having this discussion because diversity in the stories I consume is very important to me. There’s the basic reason, because I believe stories that show worlds with diverse characters is just more honest, and then there’s the other reason, long-winded and messy and personal, which I tried to put into words for y’all today.

Growing up in a predominantly English-speaking part of Canada, I tried my best to seek out Asian representation in my novels. I would look for covers with East or South East Asian faces, squint at last names shown on the spine and trying to guess whether or not that this time, I’ll get lucky and find a story with a protagonist that had a physical resemblance to myself. Sometimes these methods would work, but more often than not I would turn up with absolutely nothing. The years went by and I mostly stopped trying to look for these novels. For a moment in my high school life, I ended up trying to replace my desire for East Asian faces in novels with East Asian movies and dramas, anime and manga. And I loved these shows, these comics—always will. But somewhere down the line this stopped being enough for me. I wanted more—but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, nor how am I to get what I couldn’t name.

You may find it bemusing then, wherein I hereby confess that I fail to buy into an argument I hear about ‘relate-ability’. The white audience won’t buy POC covers! White people are reluctant to read about a Protagonist of Colour because they’re afraid that they won’t be able to ‘relate’! In fact, if I must be perfectly honest, I find it quite laughable.

Because—no one would ever make the vice versa argument. No Person of Colour is ever going to go “Gee, I’m afraid I can’t read this novel because I don’t think I can relate with a white protagonist!” Relating to a white protagonist is expected, not just out for the white audience that the English-language publishers dominantly cater to, but to the rest of us POCs in the audience as well. POC are expected to relate to a white protagonist, but we can’t expect the same the other way around? Really?

At the same time, I do to a certain degree understand the whole ‘relating’ thing. As I’ve mentioned earlier on, I constantly searched and searched for a story that I can ‘relate’ to. Note that even while doing so, I was never averse to reading about characters who didn’t share my physical resemblance (If I was, the amount of novels I would have read would be an abysmally low count). Stories with non-Asian protagonists probably made up more than ¾ of what I read, even with my younger self’s dedication for Asian representation. What’s available on the library shelves influence and/or limited what I could read, after all, and I remember my elementary school shelves being predominantly whitewashed.

Then you may go, why aren’t you satisfied with your East Asian stories then? Look—Asian faces! You got what you wanted! Why are you still not happy?

See, those stories too, they don’t have room for someone like me either. My hyphenated background is as follows: Malaysian-Chinese Canadian. Tell me, can anyone think of a story with such a background for a protagonist? I’ve searched high and low and to this day I still only know one singular title (and I didn’t even enjoy that story. Representation doesn’t always equal reading enjoyment). In China my ancestors were too poor and low-class to make even a footnote in its history. In Malaysia my family is segregated by law for being ethnically Chinese. In Canada I am invisible. There is no voice for me, for my experiences.

The Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese shows I love so much, they still mean something to me. They showed me that you don’t need Awesomely Coloured Eyes and have Blond or Red Hair to be beautiful. They showed me that Asians can have adventures too and be awesome, the hero of the day. But they also showed me that I don’t quite fit with this picture. Being an ethnic Chinese is different from being Japanese or Korean, and in China there is no voice for the Diaspora population. Getting Malaysian media in general is extremely challenging for me and even when I do find ones that feature Chinese-Malaysians, they may come sans subtitles and I would only half-understand the story with my garbled, faint understanding of Cantonese and Mandarin, never mind other Chinese dialects or Malay itself. The day Canada uses a POC protagonists, never mind even just Chinese-Canadian protagonists, in their narratives, is the day hell freezes over and the dead decides to come back to the living. And even with stories that do have the hyphenate identity of being a Chinese-American doesn’t quite hold. A Chinese-American is similar but NOT the same as a Chinese-Canadian, and a Chinese immigrant who came from the Mainland is different from a Chinese immigrant who came from Hong Kong is different from a Chinese immigrant who came from Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnan . . .

I’ve stopped holding my breath for characters that will be representative of my heritage. In my entire lifetime I do not expect to come across any more such protagonists and/or stories than what I can count on one hand.

There is no voice for someone like me, but I thought and thought about it, and a few years back I realized that all I really wanted was a story that said it was okay to have a diverse population. That everyone around you didn’t have to come from the same monolith culture in order to have a story to tell. Stories in English language novels that have a white default, stories in Japanese/Korean/Chinese shows that show a monolith culture, all these stories don’t have room for me in them. But a story that features and even stars a character that isn’t part of the dominant race default, wherein minorities of the country have a voice, that’s a kind of world wherein I have a possibility of existing. I am not saying that I read diverse books in order to find a Malaysian-Chinese Canadian within it, because I’ve long since stopped believing in such a story. What I am saying is that in stories that show a world wherein marginal voices are given centre stage and deemed worthy of a story, I as a jumble of hyphenates, a marginal group in every country my family have ever been part of, can have room to dream. I, in this world, can only carve out a space for myself as myself in a world that acknowledges the existence of people that don’t fit in the dominant fold. A diverse population is the only place wherein I as a marginal voice can exist, and that is why stories that reflect such diversity is important to me.

And I guess, this is the closest I’ll ever get to understanding what it means to ‘relate’ to a world that is reflective of my own.

I Know You Mean Well

Every time I post about sexism, along come some men to make the conversation be about them. They usually start with a question about what they as a man can do, or how it applies to them. Before too long the entire comment thread becomes about them. Or even if the other commenters don’t take the bait, the blokes keep coming back with more related questions, all of which has the effect of not adressing the subject at hand, but trying to bring it back to its “proper” place: talking about men.

Often, these blokes are nice people and are asking genuine questions. Sometimes the post has caused an actual epiphany for them and the shutters of privilege are lifting and they really want to talk about that. I understand! Truly I do. I’m white. I’ve been having epiphany after epiphany about my own white privilege and what a blinkered view of the world it has given me. The shutters have been lifting. It’s a wonderful thing. But the time to talk about your privilege-epiphanies is not in a comment thread about sexism or racism. Because to do so has the effect of shutting down actual discussion of oppression. I.e., your privilege winds up derailing the conversation and making it all about the you when the point of it is that it’s not about you. Go share your epiphany and your struggles towards becoming a better person on your own blog. Better still, stick around and listen.

I’m sure I sound cranky. Oh, those humourless feminist harridans yelling at you again! As it happens, I’m not cranky, I’m just a wee bit bored. Such comments are as regular as clockwork. Every time one shows up I have to decide whether to delete it (so the conversation stays on track) or whether I’m in the mood to give an introduction to Feminism 101, or whether to simply ignore it, or to jump in with a gentle reminder to stay on subject. In my last post on mansplaining, I had to delete a record number of comments.1 I hate doing that. But they would have utterly derailed the conversation.

I understand the intense desire to talk about you. We all want to talk about us.2 The vast majority of people I’ve met, including me, will respond to any conversational topic with an anecdote about themselves. It’s how most of us process information. “How does this particular thing apply to me?”

Problem is that the world we live in centres on people like you; white men run it. So much so that when someone like Chris Matthews (a white male USian pundit) approves of something someone not like him—Barack Obama—says, Matthews literally forgets that Obama is black. Thereby making it impossible that anyone will ever forget that Chris Matthews is white. As if that were even a possibility . . .

If you’re a man and the conversation is about sexism and women are sharing stories of their oppresssion, think very carefully before you comment. Ask yourself, is my question on topic? Will an answer to my question be about women or about me? Am I about to point out that perhaps this behaviour, that all the other women in the thread have described as sexist, is just rude and that anyone can do it? Ask yourself what your motives are? What’s at stake for you in proving it’s not sexist? Are you trying to feel better about being a man? Prove that you’re the exception? That there are nice men who aren’t like that?3

If you’re not adding to the conversation, don’t comment. If your comment is all about you, don’t comment. And if you’re bent on proving something is not sexist, then really really really really don’t comment.

Let us take the example of mansplaining. I realise that my sidenote in that post was a red herring. I described some of my own past rudenesses. Explaining someone’s name to them.4 And someone else’s religion to them.5 That was very rude of me. But in both cases I was not speaking from a place of privilege. The Linda who I helpfully told her name means “beautiful” in Spanish was white middle class and female just like me. Ditto the Jewish friend.6

So, yes, I was being annoying and rude, but I was not disregarding what they said because of their gender, I was not using my position of power to deprive them of having a voice, and I was not speaking on high from my privilged position.

Note: While men do this all the time they rarely do it on purpose or even consciously. That’s part of the problem. If most men realised they were using their privilege in these ways it would be a lot easier to get them to change their behaviours. But, sadly, it’s not just a matter of bad behaviours. That’s the problem with systemic inequality, people don’t see it.

I have been in the position of wanting to explain to a black friend that the behaviour they saw as racist wasn’t. Why, I happened to know that that restaurant gives everyone crap service. They’re slow and rude and nasty to everyone. But how did I know that the bad service they’d experienced wasn’t different in kind from the bad service I’d experienced? That on top of that restaurant’s slowness and rudeness and nastiness was a layer of racism. Even if it was just bad service, the fact that it could just as easily have been racism speaks volumes to the kind of world we live in. When I eat out in my own country it never crosses my mind that the bad service could be because of racism. Why would it?

Understanding the effects of racism and sexism when you’re white and a man has to pretty much be theoretical. Even if you’re poor, gay and disabled you can only understand through the lens of a different kind of oppression, which is every bit as appalling, but remains different in kind. Which is to say that just because I have experienced sexism does not mean I understand what it is to experience racism.

So, yes, I do get why men want to take part in these conversations. I understand why you find them uncomfortable, why you want to be told that you’re the exception to all those bad nasty men. I mean, who wants to think of themselves as an oppressor? Who wants to realise that they’ve benefited from systemic oppression? We want to think that we are who we are and have what we have because of our own unique me-ness. Not because we had the luck to be born in one of the wealthy countries, with white parents, and XY chromosones.

I want you to take part in the conversations here on this blog. Truly, I love all my commenters. But I’ve had it with derailing. At this point I don’t care how nice you are, or how good your intentions, I will delete derailing comments and send the offender a link to this post.

Thus endeth the sermon.

  1. Most of them mansplaining to me that “mansplaining” isn’t mainsplaining at all. It’s just rudeness. Silly little girly me for not realising that! []
  2. Well, until we’ve done twenty interviews in a row then all we want to talk about is anything but us. “Can I be Alaya Johnson now? I’m sick of being me. What about Maureen Johnson? No? Oh, please, please don’t make me talk about where I get my ideas again! Aaaarggh!” []
  3. Guess what? We know that. Many of us are married to, best friends with, related to, live with, work with, hang out with perfectly lovely men. []
  4. Ironic, since I have lost count of how many times people have explained what Larbalestier means to me. Annoying? Oh, yes. Very. []
  5. Aargh. So embarrassed. Never happen again. []
  6. Yes, we’re still friends! []

Mansplaining

I am very proud to be friends with Karen Healey, who popularised the term “mansplaining,” which is now out and living a merry life of its own on the intramanets. Bless you, Karen!

Mansplaining according to Karen is

[w]hen a dude tells you, a woman, how to do something you already know how to do, or how you are wrong about something you are actually right about, or miscellaneous and inaccurate “facts” about something you know a hell of a lot more about than he does.

Bonus points if he is explaining how you are wrong about something being sexist!

Many have objected to this formulation as sexist claiming that women do it too. Nuh uh. SKM from Shakesville explains:

[M]en’s opinions and ideas are privileged over women’s, and men often receive positive feedback for holding forth, while women tend to be punished for doing the same. Anyone who has been chastised by a supervisor for being “too aggressive” while male coworkers were praised as “go-getters” for similar behavior knows what I’m talking about.

I saw this happen at a library conference at the bar, with only six men present (authors, not librarians), three of whom managed to ignore everything said by the women present. Including stuff that was then repeated by one of the men present and then applauded. I had to get up and leave I was so annoyed. So did several of the other women. But did we say anything at the time? No, because we’ve been so carefully trained not to call men on their sexism. It would have been rude and killjoy and just the kind of thing those no-fun feminists do. So, none of us did. Oh, and one of those men later noted to me that he couldn’t believe how much one of the women authors present (who had barely managed to get a word in) had talked. No, his head did not explode.

More from SKM:

Gender-neutral words for “mansplanation”-type behavior include great terms like “rule-crapping” and “info-dumping.” As much as I like these concepts, though, they remove reference to the male privilege that makes mansplaining what it is. Mansplaining is not just holding forth; it’s holding forth by someone who has the force of society behind him. A girl or woman can be a tiresome know-it-all, but she won’t be praised and supported in her efforts while those around her are discouraged from showing her up.

Seen and experienced this too many times to recount.

There is, of course, one situation where some women do engage in a similar behaviour. It’s called whitesplaining and often involves a white person explaining to a person of colour how they are wrong about something being racist. Often the whitesplainer will twist things around so much in the process of their whitesplaining that they wind up “demonstrating” to the person of colour how they are in fact racist for having brought up the subject of racism.

No, their heads don’t explode.

Side note: Just as a general rule if you ever find yourself in a position where you are explaining to someone who has lived experience on the subject at hand when you don’t, then perhaps you might want to, you know, shut up. Also listen. Examples run the gamut from telling someone whose name is Linda that their name means “beautiful” cause you just learned that in Spanish (you know, typically, people know what their own names mean)1 through to explaining Judaism to someone who is actually Jewish2.

In conclusion: Mansplaining and whitesplaining? Don’t do it.

Before someone says so in the comments:

No one is saying that all men mansplain. Many of my best friends are men who don’t. Hell, I even married a non-mansplaining man. Nor do all white people whitesplain. I sure as hell hope I never have. But my apologies if I ever have. I know better now.

  1. Um, yes, I did this. []
  2. Might have done this one too. Why am I alive? In my defence I was young. REALLY young. Also possibly drunk. I hope I was, anyways. This was before I became a YA writer and stopped drinking because YA writers don’t drink. []

This is just to say . . .

That spending any amount of time judging the ethical, moral or ideological purity of your allies in struggles to cause change derails those very efforts. Let’s focus on the struggle itself, shall we? And not get bogged down kneecapping people on the same side. It never ends well.

This applies to pretty much everything from baking a cake, to running a bookclub, a government or fomenting revolution.

Race & Representation

Because there has been another whitewashed cover, I am being asked for my response.1 I have one thing to say:2

This is not about the accuracy of covers on books.

It’s not about blonde when the character is brunette, it’s not about the wrong length hair, or the wrong colour dress, it’s not even about thin for fat. Yes, that is another damaging representation, but that is another conversation, which only serves to derail this conversation.

The one about race and representation.

Sticking a white girl on the cover of a book about a brown girl is not merely inaccurate, it is part of a long history of marginalisaton and misrepresentation. Publishers don’t randomly pick white models. It happens within a context of racism.

Back in the late 1960s, Nichelle Nichols was asked by Martin Luther King to stay on Star Trek, even though she was sick of the boring, constrained part of Uhura. She was one of the few black faces on network TV. She was inspiring thousands of young black girls all over the USA, possibly the world. Nichols playing Uhura was changing lives and so he asked her to stay and she did.

Ari of Reading in Color reminds us about those young black kids and why this is so incredibly important in her moving open letter to Bloomsbury:

I’m sure you can’t imagine what it’s like to wander through the teen section of a bookstore and only see one or two books with people of color on them. Do you know how much that hurts? Are we so worthless that the few books that do feature people of color don’t have covers with people of color? It’s upsetting, it makes me angry and it makes me sad. Can you imagine growing up as a little girl and wanting to be white because not only do you not see people who look like you on TV, you don’t see them in your favorite books either. You get discouraged and you want to be beautiful and be like the characters in the books you read and you start to believe that you can’t be that certain character because you don’t look like them. I love the books I grew up with, but none of them featured people of color. I found those later, when I was older and I started looking for them. Do you know how sad I feel when my middle school age sister tells me she would rather read a book about a white teen than a person of color because “we aren’t as pretty or interesting.” She doesn’t know the few books that do exist out there about people of color because publishing houses like yourself, don’t put people of color on the covers.

That is what this is about: pervasive racism in every aspect of our world so that young kids grow up thinking they are inferior because they see so few reflections of themselves.

This is not merely about book covers.

  1. Journalists would do better to interview the people most adversely affected by whitewashed covers—readers like Ari of Reading in Color. []
  2. Well, two. Stop blaming the author, Jaclyn Dolamore. This is her debut. Take it from me, she’d rather people were talking about her book than about her cover. Also I am very suspicious of this approach. It feels like derailing. “Let’s not talk about race, let’s talk about bad authors!” Hey, let’s not. []