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!

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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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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, her blog, and on twitter.

Lili says:


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.

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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! []


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. []

New Year’s Resolution: Finding Balance

I know many people are all bah humbug about new year’s resolutions but I love them. This year I resolve to find a balance with my time online.

Let me explain: when I first became a published author of an actual novel I kind of went a little bit insane. I tracked down every teeny tiny reference to my book or me. I used every tool then available (and remember this was the long distant past of 2005) to stalk mentions online. At first there were few, very few, and I was convinced no one was ever going to read or review my baby Magic or Madness. Wah! Then there was what seemed a lot, which provided momentary flickers of joy—yay! good review!—and longer bouts of misery—boo! bad review.1 But then the mentions slowed down and lo there was despair again. No one is reading my book!

All of that slowed down my writing. Considerably. I was spending more time thinking about what people were saying about my book then, you know, actually writing the next one. Fortunately, for me I’d already finished my second book, Magic Lessons before my first appeared. But all the they-hate-me-they-love-me-they-think-I’m-meh-they’re-ignoring-me significantly affected the writing of the third book in the trilogy, Magic’s Child. I ran late, very late, because I was wasting so much time online googling myself and angsting about the results of those searches.

It got so bad I considered pulling the plug and not going online ever again, which, as you can imagine, is not possible. A large part of what I do online is directly related to my work: communicating with my agent and publisher, all the online promotery stuff my publisher likes me to do, research, keeping up with my field, blogging (my favourite thing ever!) etc. I can’t really let any of that slide for more than a week or so.

So instead I vowed to go cold turkey on self-stalking. I turned off my google alerts, unlearned the existence of technorati, icerocket, blogpulse etc etc and concentrated on finishing How to Ditch Your Fairy. It went well. I could go online without doing my head in. I was productive again! I learned that people would forward me any interesting reviews or commentary on my work.2 I did not need to seek out.

I also found that after several published books, bad reviews worry me far less than they used to. What I used to know only intellectually—that most reviews say far more about the reviewer than the reviewee—I now know all the way through me. Bad reviews rarely rile me now.

Thus I happily remained until 2009. Yes, I was still given to procrastinating. I would discover new blogs and be compelled to read through the entire archive. What? You can’t understand a blog until you’ve read the whole thing! And certain people still seem to think I spend an inordinate amount of time IMing with friends and family. What can I say? I don’t like phones. Plus some of those chats have led to Very Important Things. I’m just sayin’.

This year, however, for the first time in my online life, I was at the centre of a storm. People started saying things about me that were not true and were sometimes downright nasty. I’d become inured to people hating my books, but I’d never had strangers hating on me before. I’d seen many of my friends go through it. I’d even counselled these friends not to let it get to them, to make sure they took time away, that it’s not really as big a deal as it seems, and that those nasty, small-minded people don’t know them and what they say doesn’t matter. All of which is true.

But then it happened to me and I let it get to me. I fell off the wagon. I reinstated my google alerts. I used every search engine known to humanity to search out every single mention. I lost sleep. I lost days and weeks and months of work time.

I found some wonderful friends and allies during this time. However, I’m pretty certain I would have come across them regardless. Throughout this time, people were writing me wonderful supportive letters and sending me all sorts of wonderful links to amazing discussions. All I got from my self-stalking was misery and woe. My hard-fought-for balance shattered.

But here’s what I learned: it doesn’t matter what random strangers think of me. As long as I’m doing what I know is right and the people I trust and respect think so too, then I’m good. Sure, nasty shit said about you hurts. But some of the stuff that was said about me last year was so absurd that no one was taking it seriously. Literally no one. Except me. Spot the problem? So I stopped.

The even more important lesson I learned was that none of what happened was about me. It was about much bigger and much more important issues. I always knew that intellectually, but the lizard brain is very slow to learn. The lizard brain wanted to track down every slur, every insult. The lizard brain is an idiot.

I resolve this year to ignore the lizard brain and go back to the lovely balance I once had.

Here’s what gives me balance:

  • Writing
  • Making sure I get out of the house at least once a day and preferably go for a long walk, or to the gym, or for a bike ride—something physical daily that keeps me away from computer and phone.
  • Turning off google alerts
  • Not getting involved in flamewars. If someone is saying something offensive or appalling or wrong I no longer engage them. If the issue is important I blog about it here. I cut off flamewars in the comment threads here also.
  • Hanging out with my family and friends
  • Blogging
  • Cooking

And like that.

How do youse lot achieve balance?

  1. For some reason the bad ones lingered longer in the memory than the good. Funny that. []
  2. In my turn I started forwarding cool stuff I found about other people’s work to them. []

Hair Stories Redux

Thank you so much for all the wonderful, moving, scary, funny stories about hair.

I wanted to highlight this comment from Wonders of Maybe because it underlines how hair and fashion and politics and identity (self and imposed from the outside) co-exist:

Hmm — I’m multiracial (Black/Native American/White) and very, very light-skinned with extremely thick, curly hair. I’m talking spirals on “good” days and fluffy frizz on “bad” days! When I was young I wanted to straighten my hair because of how much I got hassled but once I turned 12, I was intent upon my hair staying natural. With such light skin, I feel it’s an honest indicator of what I am and who I am since I so often am mistaken for being Latino or Italian or Jewish or “something.”

Have you all heard of the “pencil test”? I learned about it as a child and it was, apparently, used in apartheid South Africa. If a pencil was stuck in your hair and it fell out, you could be counted as white (or coloured, if you were darker skinned). If it didn’t fall through, if the pencil simply stayed right in your hair, well, you were coloured or black. As a youngster, I was obsessed with learning about the various tests governments, leagues and clubs had through out history to determine someone’s background based on their hair. Interesting hobby, kid!

So for me, taking care of my natural hair is part a matter of respecting my history, as much as it is part of trying to look nice.

I remember my friend, the wonderful South African writer, Yvette Christianse, telling me about the pencil test. Like everything about Apartheid it was hard for me to get comprehend. A person’s race was reclassified, they were made to move, to lose their jobs—sometimes their lives—because of how a pencil sat in their hair.

Of course, as Susan, points out people are still being discriminated against because of their hair. Though, it’s hard not to wonder if it’s really only hair we’re talking about. How often in the US do racist commentators go after a black person’s hair and then claim they’re not being racist because they’re just talking about hair? Answer: too often.

The other thing Wonders of Maybe touches on is the “good” hair versus the “bad” hair debate. Frizz seems to be a key indication of badness. And as someone with straight hair, I can attest that sometimes the short, new, flyaway hair sticking up everywhere causes me despair. Lay flat, damn you.

So, why do we hate frizz? There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with frizz. I think we’re taught to see it as “bad” hair. I think years and years of ads and movies and tv shows full of women with “controllable” hair has shaped how we see hair and what we expect of it. It’s even worse now when the vast majority of hair product ads are photoshopped into shiny, unfrizzy, unmoving or moving-in-a-really-weird-way, impossible-to-achieve hair.

About ten years ago, an acquaintance with very tight curls left the house without doing anything to her hair as an experiment. It was a ball of frizzy fuzz haloing her head. It looked amazing. I wish I had photos to show you how great it looked. Many people commented. Most were very positive, but she abandoned the experiment because she couldn’t handle everyone staring at her and everyone commenting. Bad enough, she said, when it was in its usual state of curliness.

Her chief pleasure in straightening her hair is that, other than people who know her, it’s the only time her hair is what she thinks of as “neutral.” People don’t comment, people don’t ask to touch her hair. She isn’t seen through the lens of her hair in quite the same way.

To bring this back to writing,1 I think what goes wrong in many books is that writers give their characters traits to distinguish them, such as curly hair, without thinking about how that would shape who the character is and their experience of the world. Not to mention how long they spend doing their hair. So, you know, don’t do that.

Thanks again for all your responses.

  1. I’ve had a few complaints that I’m not devoting January to answering questions about writng like I did last year. []

Curly Versus Straight (updated)

I have always loved curly hair. I myself have straight hair so my preference for curly is usually ascribed to the fact that I don’t have it. My hairdresser says all the straight-haired girls want curly hair and all the curly-haired girls want straight hair. When I press him on this, however, he admits that it’s not entirely true. That many of his clients are quite happy with their hair. I, too, am quite happy with my hair. But I do get bored and I’m glad that I know how to make it wavy without too much effort. A change, they say, is as good as a holiday. To which I’d say depends on the change and depends on the holiday. I once went to [redacted] for a holiday and let me tell you . . . *heh hem* I digress.

I don’t actually think my love of non-straight hair—it’s not just curly hair, any kind of non-straight, textured hair fills my heart with joy: kinky, curly, wavy, nappy, twists, locs etc. all looks good to me—is because I don’t myself have such hair. I think it’s because I like curves. Aesthetically I always choose a curve over a straight line. I don’t like hard edges or Modernism, I love Art Noveau and Art Deco. I love Gaudi and Zaha Hadid.

I’m not saying straight hair is ugly. I’m just saying that when people rave about the beauty of, say, Megan Fox’s hair, I don’t see it. I mean it doesn’t look bad, it’s shiny and that, but I can’t get excited. It certainly doesn’t look beautiful to me the way that Nicole Kidman’s hair was before she straightened it and nuked it blonde, or Gina Torres’, or Tawny Cypress’. I could go on for a week listing women with gorgeous hair.

It could be that part of my curly hair love is from being a kid in the 1980s in Australia when curly was the thing. Yes, I had a disastrous perm when I was wee. I used to think all perms left you with fried hair that smelled bad for months, but then I met a rich girl in my first year of uni, who had gorgeous corkscrew hair down to the small of her back, that you would swear was natural. It was not. She got it done once a week. I had never met anyone who went to the hairdresser once a week before. Well, not other than the ladies with their weekly sets. But I’m betting those sets did not cost $200 a pop. I did mention she was rich, right?

So that might be part of my curly hair love, but I don’t think it accounts for all of it, because I have been a lover of curls and curves and waves and spirals and twists, not just in hair, but in art, in buildings, in plots, in nature, in pretty much everything my entire life. And, frankly, I’m not particularly convinced by the grass is greener argument. That’s too easy and it’s certainly not the main reason so many people with curly hair want straight hair. Most of the curly-haired women I know were taught to hate their hair. They endured a lifetime of being told that the way their hair grows out of their head is messy and out of control and somehow wrong. I have curly, kinky and nappy-haired friends who’ve been knocked back from jobs because of their hair.

Most of those women have grown to love their hair. And in their professions—writers, journalists, musicians, academics—they’re able to wear their hair however they please. But I still know plenty of women who keep their hair straight for a variety of reasons, including being taken seriously in the work place and looking “professional”. If Michelle Obama were to appear in public with natural hair many, many people would say, What has she done to her hair.1

My straight hair has never cost me anything. When I make my hair wavy it doesn’t cost me anything either.2 No one has ever commented on the professionalism of my hair.

I’ve never lost a job over my hair. I’ve never had to deal with the politics of hair per se. I’m white, with straight hair. I’m not a politician, neither is my husband. But even without those huge pressures, I have spent lots of time and money and angst (I found my first grey hair when I was fourteen & thought that was the beginning of The End) over this stuff that grows out of my head. It’s a multi-billion industry world-wide and I’m throwing my money at much product and hours-long visits to the hairdresser every four weeks. I have to admit that sometimes I do find myself wondering why?3

Care to share your hair stories?

Update: You can find some of my additional thoughts on this fascinating subject here.

  1. See the crazy responses to Malia Obama’s gorgeous twists. No, I’m not going to link, makes me too cranky. []
  2. Well, except for the product involved. []
  3. Other times I’m just giddy at the new colour and waviness of my salon hair. []

The Problem with Gone with the Wind

Sarah Rees Brennan pointed me to this article about Gone with the Wind by Elizabeth Meryment. It annoyed me. So prepare yourself for a rant. Basically Meryment argues that all criticism of Gone with the Wind (book and film) over the last few decades has been dreadfully unfair, especially from feminists, and why can’t we all just enjoy such a women-centric book with its array of fabulous strong female characters. Now, I happen to agree that Gone with the Wind features many wonderful strong women. However, that being true does not contradict any of the criticisms made of both book and film.

Why do people find it so hard to love something and accept that it’s flawed?

Gone with the Wind is at once a tale of strong women and appallingly racist. Just as there were women who campaigned long and hard for women’s suffrage who were also members of the Klu Klux Klan. Being a feminist does not mean you can’t be racist. Alas.

When I was wee I read the book multiple times and saw the movie almost as often. To this day I can quote the novel’s opening lines: “Scarlett OHara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.” (No, I didn’t have to google that.) Until my discovery of Flowers in the Attic1 there was no book I loved more than Gone with the Wind. I haven’t re-read it in more than a decade but I still know it better than any book other than Pride and Prejudice. I’m in a good position to unpick Meryment’s claims:

Scarlett O’Hara [is] a woman of substance. No cowering southern belle, here is a woman who is resourceful and resilient and does what she must to survive.

Yet critics and academics, in the seven decades since the film’s release, have been almost unanimous, and disapproving: Scarlett is no feminist but a damsel in distress who relies on feminine charms to get her way. She steals other women’s men, has an insatiable lust for Melanie’s dreary husband Ashley Wilkes and suffers from a chronic flirting problem. Worst of all, she allows Rhett to ravish her during a night of passion that she finds rather enjoyable.

Here’s the thing, all the above is true. Scarlett O’Hara is a woman of substance but throughout the course of the book she also relies on her feminine charms to get her way and has flirts with pretty much everyone who’s male and white. She is a multiple stealer of other women’s men—including her own sister’s—she does have an insatiable lust (which she confuses with true love) for the deadly dull Ashley Wilkes, and she does get ravished by Rhett in an extremely scary scene which (in the movie) cuts to her smiling and happy in the morning.2

All true.

As Meryment points out Scarlett O’Hara’s story begins when she’s sixteen and ends when she’s twenty-eight. During that time she lives through a war, sees many people she cares about die, loses two husbands, has three children, and goes from being a simpering southern belle to a shrewd business woman.

“Scarlett is a survivor,” says Toni Johnson-Woods, a professor of popular culture at the University of Queensland. “She’s the sort of person who would cut up the curtains to make a dress. She gets dirty. She works. She doesn’t actually do anything bad. She’s manipulative, but what person isn’t when they have to be?”

Johnson-Woods seems not to have read the same book I did. [Scarlett] doesn’t actually do anything bad. What now? Let’s leave aside all the lying and those two stolen husbands. I mean India Wilkes and Scarlett’s own sister, Suellen, clearly had it coming. Wanna keep your man? Then hold on to him tighter. Let’s put aside Scarlett’s multiple attempts to commit adultery with Ashley Wilkes.3 And let’s forget that Scarlett saw nothing wrong with slavery. She was sixteen when the war started and brought up to believe in such an evil system. But how about her using slave labour after the war is over in the form of convicts to work her saw mill and allowing her manager to beat them half to death? How’s that for an actually bad thing?

Now I happen to think that Scarlett O’Hara’s ethical impairment and selfishness is part of what makes her such a dynamic and believable literary creation. She lies, she cheats, she does pretty much whatever it takes to survive and save herself, her family and her land. But you don’t have to pretend that she never does anything bad to find her complex and three-dimensional. Many of my favourite literary creations—Mouse in Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins books, Highsmith’s Ripley, pretty much any character ever written by Jim Thompson—do many bad bad things. I don’t need to pretend that they’re good in order to enjoy reading about them.

Scarlett has many good qualities but she has plenty of bad ones too. Frankly I would not want her for a friend because she’s one of those women who only notices men. She doesn’t even realise what an amazing friend Melanie has been to her until Melanie’s on her death bed. Scarlett is not BFF material. And she’s not a feminist. She doesn’t care whether women get to vote or not, she doesn’t care about women as a group, only about herself and her family. She has no political consciousness at all.

Film critics also have been circumspect about Scarlett’s place as a feminist symbol, as well as horrified, in more enlightened times, by the glorification of the slave life on the southern plantations. As The Australian’s film critic Evan Williams noted in a 1981 review, published at the time of a re-release: “The film’s attitude to blacks (referred to constantly as ‘darkies’), to say nothing of its attitude to women, would scarcely find favour today. Slavery was glossed over; male authority taken for granted.”

Yet, for all its perceived flaws, the film and the novel are deeply loved, and remain the top-selling novel of all time (more than 30 million sales worldwide) and the highest grossing movie ($1,450,680,400 in box-office takings, adjusted for inflation). Now, in the US, where hardcore feminism has been decried for more than a decade, new perspectives about the film are emerging.

Evan Williams is spot on. Pointing out the film’s popularity does not change that. Lots of racist and sexist novels and films are deeply loved and do incredibly well. Success does not render a book or movie free of flaws.

Meryment writes “perceived flaws” as if to imply that Williams and other people who have criticised Gone with the Wind‘s racism are just imagining it. We’re not. None of the black characters in the book are fully-realised, three-dimensional characters. None of them have lives or dreams or aspirations outside of O’Hara and her family. They live in order to serve their masters. Before and after the Civil War. The book and the film are caught up in a poisonously romantic view of slavery wherein the slaves were happy to be slaves, were miserable when the South lost the war, and just wished their masters would keep looking after them. It’s only the bad negroes who make trouble. (The book and film’s language, not mine.)

In Gone with the Wind the Klu Klux Klan are the good guys.

Yeah, right, we’re imagining the racism.

Why just look at the character of Mammy, says Meryment, she’s a strong character! That proves the book isn’t racist:

Of all the strong females, perhaps Mammy is the most galling for ardent critics of the film. Black, enslaved and conforming to 1930s stereotype of the loyal, usually overweight, woman who offered cheerful servitude to her owners, McDaniel’s Mammy is nevertheless a complex and confronting creation. Indomitable and opinionated, she largely does as she likes, whether her masters like it or not. (“I said I was going to Atlanta with you and going with you I is,” she tells Scarlett at one point.)

Mammy is every bit the stereotype. With no life other than to look after Scarlett, which the quote above proves. The reason she’s disobeying Scarlett is in order to look after her. Not to do something for herself like find her own kin. The only reason so many argue that Mammy breaks with the stereotype is because Hattie McDaniel was a wonderful actor, who transcended the extremely limited and belittling role. There’s no such respite from the stereotype in the book. (Don’t get me started on the character of Prissy.)

To echo Meryment’s language, it is galling that a book first published in 1936, when the civil rights movement in the USA was already underway, and turned into a movie in 1939—the year that Billie Holiday first performed and recorded “Strange Fruit” about lynching in the South—could be so astonishingly blind to the evil that is slavery. That it could spend a gazillion pages and hours glorifying a system that was built on the kidnapping and enforced labour of hundreds of thousands of people appalls me. The glorious south that Margaret Mitchell is so nostalgic for was built out of exploitation, murder, and rape. But it’s even more galling that here in 2009 there are still people trying to pretend that Gone with the Wind isn’t profoundly racist so they can enjoy all its other aspects.

Yes, Gone with the Wind is an amazing book and film.4 Yes, it’s the tale of two extraordinarily strong women, Scarlett O’Hara and Melanie Wilkes, and their enduring friendship5. For many years I loved it. Feel free to continue loving it, but please don’t pretend that us critics are being unfair, or in some way misreading Gone with the Wind when we call it on its nostalgic longing for an era in which the white upper classes lived decadent useless lives dependent on the blood of black people.

We’re not.

  1. I was twelve! []
  2. It freaked me out as a kid—he says he’s going to crush her skull like a walnut!—it still freaks me out. []
  3. Let’s even forget that wanting him is a crime against good taste. []
  4. It’s stood the test of time way better than Flowers in the Attic. []
  5. Even while Scarlett doesn’t realise they’re friends. Another flaw of hers: not very observant. []

NaNo Tip No. 24: Writing While White

Lately many white writers have been asking me about writing characters who aren’t white. Quite a few are doing NaNoWriMo, so I decided I’d put my responses into the NaNo tips.

I’ve been asked the following questions: Why should I have non-white characters in my books? How do I write about non-white people if I’ve never known any? Should I write about non-white people at all?

I’ve already addressed some of these questions a number of times. I’m not sure if any of my responses are adequate. These are complicated questions that I wrestle with myself.

And, of course, I feel very weird being put in the position of giving people permission to write. No one can do that for you. Least of all me.

In a few cases, I’ve been tempted to tell these well-meaning askers, “No, don’t put non-white characters in your fiction.” Reviews like this one by the fabulous Doret Canton definitely make me feel that there are white writers for whom writing outside their social circle is a bad idea.

As a general rule you should never write about anything you are ignorant about. If you want to write about an African-American character living in NYC, say, and you don’t know any, and you’ve never been to NYC, odds are you’re going to do a bad job. Which is why Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk is so good. He’s drawing on his lived experiences.

Now, you may point out (if you know me at all well) that I have repeatedly written about things about which I know practically nothing. Mathematics in the Magic or Madness trilogy, as well as luge in How To Ditch Your Fairy and biology in Liar. I did a lot of research to be able to write about them but I was shockingly ignorant starting out.1

So what’s the difference?

Mathematics, luge, and biology are not people. They can’t be hurt.

What we all have to remember when we write about people—any people—is that the risks of reinforcing stereotypes and thus hurting people is very high. So the onus is on us to do the very best job we can. We also have to remember that even when we do a wonderful job, even if we are a member of the group we’re representing, there are still people who will be offended.

There will also be people who read your characters in stereotyped ways no matter what you do. For example, there’s been much discussion on this blog about representations of women and the way women characters are held to different standards. I recently saw a discussion of Sarah Rees Brennan’s wonderful debut novel Demon’s Lexicon where Mae was referred to by a commenter as a “whore,” which is, aside from everything else, factually incorrect. The much more sexually active character (also not a whore), Nick, was discussed in approving terms.

None of us want to perpetuate those attitudes about female sexuality but even when we’re writing strong2 3D female characters, like Mae, readers are still calling them whores. Which is to say it’s really hard bucking centuries of negative representations of women and particularly of their sexuality.

None of the white writers asking me these questions wants to hurt anyone or reproduce racist stereotypes. They’re asking because they’re concerned and they want to do the right thing and because they recognise that most of the novels being published in the USA are about white characters. Outside of bookstores like Hue-Man the shelves of most bookstores in the USA are groaning with books about white people.

However, when I ask them what they mean about not knowing any non-white people it usually turns out not to be true. Often white people start seeing their non-white friends as “white”3 and forget that they’re Hispanic or of Japanese or Korean or Indian ancestry. I strongly recommend writing about the people you know. But perhaps you need to open your eyes to notice that not everyone around you is the same race as you. Maybe you need to think about why you’ve started seeing them as white, and what that means.

Writing should challenge the way you perceive the world. You should look harder and longer than you ever have before. Notice that the sky at night is not black, that eyes are not one uniform colour and that car engines don’t “growl”. I would argue that thinking about how race and class and gender and sexuality and all the other aspects that make up who we are and how we treat each other is absolutely crucial to becoming, not just a better writer, but a better person.

  1. Sadly once the books are written all that I gleaned in order to write them drops out of my head. []
  2. By “strong” I do not mean “arsekicking”. See Diana Peterfreund’s comment for further explanation. []
  3. Which is a whole other problem. []


Certain things1 lately2 have been making me just a tiny bit tetchy and upset so I thought I would work out my feelings by watching Michelle Rodriguez as Diana Guzman in Girlfight.

I love this movie. Saw it first when it came out in 2000. Loved it even more on this second viewing. There aren’t many movies about female rage. There aren’t many movies about powerful, strong women outside of science fiction, where they’re all too often sexualised and trivialised.3 Guzman is a girl who wants to learn how to box and she’s really good at it.

So Girlfight is a sports movie. Outside of dance movies there’s nothing I love more than sports movies.4 I love that they all have the same basic elements:

  1. Protag with burning desire to be a dancer/athlete who convinces unwilling guru to take them on as a student.
  2. Family and/or financial obstacles.
  3. Lots of training.
  4. Romantic entanglement(s).
  5. Climatic contest/finals.

Girlfight has all of these, but never feels cliched. What keeps it fresh is how real the movie is: the script is excellent, particularly the dialogue, the casting spot on, and the location shooting and sets are so real you can smell the dank sweat and grime of the gym.

And Michelle Rodriguez seethes. But is also vulnerable and raw and, yes, real.5 She reminds me of Micah Wilkins, the protag of Liar. Not physically, but emotionally, and in the way she moves and navigates through life: her pain and her anger are very like Micah’s. I wonder if subconsciously I was thinking about Girlfight when I wrote Liar? Diana Guzman even has a younger brother (though he’s lovely) and lives in a tiny flat in New York City (though it’s Brooklyn not Manhattan).

The fights are totally convincing.6 It totally looks like punches are being given and received. Even her black eyes convinced me.7

The romance works. It doesn’t feel tacked on. I love seeing a male and female boxer negotiating what it means for them to fight each other in the ring. A female fighter is not perceived in the same way that a male one is. Most people see a fight between the two as no win for the guy. If he loses he’s a wuss, if he wins, well, der, of course, he’s the guy. Or he’s a thug.

I love that there are gentle, loving men in this movie who are able to show it. I love Hector, Diana’s trainer. I love her brother Tiny. And her romantic interest, Adrian.

And, yes, this movie passes the Bechdel test. Diana’s best friend doesn’t have a big role but she’s there and they talk about things other than boys. Could that be because it was written and directed and produced by women? Karyn Kusama’s brilliant writing and directing of this movie almost makes me want to see Jennifer’s Body which she also directed.

Did I mention that Girlfight is totally YA? Diana’s in her final year of high school.

The final fight is AWESOME. But the resolution is even better.

I guess what I’m saying is if you haven’t seen Girlfight then you really need to. Like NOW.

It makes me want to write a proper sports novel. I do have a kernel of an idea for a WNBA one . . .

  1. Like the people who responded to Rihanna’s moving interview about domestic violence by talking about her forehead being too big. WTF? 1) Her forehead is gorgeous 2) Way to attempt to change the subject. Talking about domestic violence makes you uncomfortable, doesn’t it? Poor baby. []
  2. I’m not going to link to any of the horrific events that have taken place over the last few days. Too upsetting. []
  3. You know what I mean. All those movies where the main response is: “Girls kicking butt is hawt!” []
  4. I am more and more convinced that any movie without a training montage is not worth seeing. []
  5. Sorry to overuse the word. []
  6. I adore Love and Basketball but the games are not convincing. I never believe that the two leads have real hops. Especially not the guy. []
  7. Though they could have had more swelling. Just sayin’. []

On Hating Female Characters

For a while now I’ve been thinking about how many readers seem to hate female characters more than they hate male. Or rather that the same behaviour from a male character is okay but someone inexcusable in a female. Sarah Rees Brennan has written about this phenomenon most eloquently:

Let us think of the Question of Harry Potter. I do not mean to bag on the character of Harry Potter: I am very fond of him.

But I think people would be less fond of him if he was Harriet Potter. If he was a girl, and she’d had a sad childhood but risen above it, and she’d found fast friends, and been naturally talented at her school’s only important sport, and saved the day at least seven times. If she’d had most of the boys in the series fancy her, and mention made of boys following her around admiring her. If the only talent she didn’t have was dismissed by her guy friend who did have it. If she was often told by people of her numerous awesome qualities, and was in fact Chosen by Fate to be awesome.

Well, then she’d be just like Harry Potter, but a girl. But I don’t think people would like her as much.

To which I say, indeed. I am noticing this somewhat acutely right now because quite a few people are hating on Micah Wilkins the protagonist of Liar. Now, I will admit as how Micah has rather more flaws than HP. Even aside from being, you know, a liar. But I happen to love Micah, as I do all the characters in my books.1 I’m well aware that I’m not an impartial observer, but I have a sneaking suspicion that were Micah a boy even with all the same flaws s/he would not be attracting such hate. I suspect that there would be a fair few crushes on Micah-the-boy. That he would be considered hot.

As evidence I offer the fact that I’ve already been told by a few people that they have a crush on Zach, who a) is dead and b) is, um, perhaps not the most reliable boyfriend in literary history given that he had an official girlfriend and an unofficial girlfriend. I.e. there’s a strong argument that’s he’s a cheating dog. Yet there are crushes.

Now, what I want to know is how to go about being part of the process of changing this kind of thinking. I was talking about this with a friend and she said I should write books that unpack it. To which I umed and ahhed before realising hours later that I already do. I have worked very hard in all my novels to unpack assumptions about what girls and boys can and can’t do. I have written female jocks, boy fashion obsessives, laconic girls, garrulous boys. I have tried to work against stereotypes at all times.

So does pretty much every working writer that I love. Yet still readers call Isabelle (of Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments trilogy) a “slut” and have crushes on Jace who’s much more slutty than Isabelle. What can we do to shift such sexist assumptions when they’re so deeply ingrained in so many of us? Because even when we write books that challenge such stereotypes, readers put them back into the text by reading Isabelle as a slut and Jace as Hotty McHott Hero. I have done this myself both as a reader and a writer. Our prejudices are so unconscious that they leak out without our knowing it.

Hmmm, I find that I have no cheering conclusion. Feel free to provide one in the comments.

  1. Yes, even Jason Blake and Esmeralda Cansino in the trilogy and Dander Anders in How to Ditch Your Fairy. []

What’s Wrong with Hollywood? (updated)

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Roman Polanski case. I’ve read everything I can about it over the last few weeks including the original trial transcripts, which left me feeling sick to the stomach. But many people have already said what I feel about the case, including the most excellent Lauren McLaughlin and Jay Smooth.

What I’m really wondering is how all those Hollywood luminaries could have signed that petition. Do they really want the world at large to think they have no problem with the rape of a thirteen year old girl?

Did they sign because all their mates did and not know what they were signing? Perhaps, they thought, it’s another save the whales or end global warming petition. This is my most charitable option. Better they be stupid or careless than consider rape to be nothing.

Do they believe that because they know and like Polanski that he must be capable of no wrong? What a valueless friendship that is. I value my friends precisely because they call me on my wrong doing and mistakes. Stand by your friends absolutely, but own it when they do wrong and pressure them to make amends.

Do they believe that artists can do no wrong? That the talented can steal and rape and murder with impunity? I hate to break it to them but genius is not a moral quality. No amount of great art excuses rape.

Far too often powerful, privileged people forget that rules apply to them too. They do this because far too often people like them, like Polanski, get away with rape. They begin to think that this is their right. It’s our job to remind them that no one has that right. No matter how famous or how rich or how high up they are in government.

So, Tilda Swinton and the rest of you? Not getting more of my money any time soon.

Update: In the comments below Sarah points out that many of the people who signed that petition are not, in fact, part of Hollywood. Many are part of the European film industry. Woody Allen and others don’t make Hollywood films. Salman Rushdie and Paul Auster are writers.

There are many, many people who work in Hollywood who are appalled by the petition. The people who signed the petition are not representative.

The Advantages of Being a White Writer

Disclaimer: I am writing about YA publishing in the USA. Although I’m Australian I know much more about the publishing industry in the US than I do about Australia. Or anywhere else for that matter.

I know that the title of this post is going to lead to some comments insisting that it’s not true that white writers have any advantages and that many white people are just as oppressed as people of colour. I don’t want to have that conversation. So I’m going to oppress the white people who make those comments by deleting them. I don’t do it with any malice. I do it because I want to have a conversation about white privilege in publishing. We can have the discussion about class privilege and regional privilege and other kinds of privilege some other time. Those other privileges are very real. But I don’t want this discussion to turn into some kind of oppression Olympics.

Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t, Redux

There were some wonderful responses to my post attempting to debunk the “damned if you do/damned if you don’t” canard. But I got the impression that some people understood me as saying that it’s fine for white people to write about non-white people and that any criticism for doing so is no big deal. Writers get criticised for all sorts of different things. Whatcha gunna do?

I did not mean that at all. I’m very sorry that my sloppy writing led to such a misunderstanding. I think the criticism a white writer receives for writing characters who are a different race or ethnicity, especially by people of that race or ethnicity, is a very big deal. We white writers have to listen extremely carefully. Neesha Meminger wrote a whole post about why in which she talks about how hard it is for many non-white writers to get published:

I know how tiring it is to hear over and over from editors or agents (who are, in almost all cases, white) that they “just didn’t connect with,” or “just didn’t fall in love with” the characters of a mostly-multicultural book. And, while I know these can be standard industry responses to manuscripts, the fact of the matter is that white authors are getting published. White authors writing about PoC are getting published—sometimes to great acclaim—while authors of colour are still not (in any significant numbers).

Mayra Lazara Dole makes a similar point:

Many POC feel you are stealing their souls. We’ve never, ever had your same opportunities. As an africanam friend would say, “the times of white people painting their faces black in hollywood are over.” Why don’t you sit back and allow us to get our work published while you keep writing what you know until we catch up? Shouldn’t it be about equal opportunity? If so, please consider giving us a chance to make our mark (about 90 percent of all books are written by white authors).

Now before you get your back up and start spouting about how you have a right to write whatever you want. Neesha agrees:

So, to my white brothers and sisters: certainly, write your story. Populate it with a true reflection of the world you live in. Bring to life strong and powerful characters of all colours. Do so with the ferocity of an ally and the tenderness of family. But please don’t be so cavalier as to shrug and say, “I did my best, and frock you if you don’t like it—plenty of your people thought I did a great job.” Take the criticism in as well. After the urge to defend yourself has passed, pick through the feedback and see if there’s some learning there. Because the reality is that masses upon masses of “our people” have absorbed toxic levels of self-hatred from the images and messages (and *inaccurate representations*) that surround us. Many of us have learned to believe that we are less than, not worthy, undeserving—and are simply grateful to be allowed to exist among you without fear.

So does Mayra Lazara Dole:

On the other hand, having been born in a communist country with censorship, please, write what you want, but just know that even though you have every right to write whatever you wish, you’ll hurt some of us. Many POC’s won’t be as forgiving, but some will. To some POC’s it will feel as if you are stealing from them . . . Don’t you want POC to write our own books?

So do I. Hey, all my books so far have had non-white protags (follow the link for my reasons why). Neither Neesha nor Mayra want to censor white writers, they want us to be very careful of what we do, and they want us to own it.

That’s what I’ve tried to do, but I haven’t always succeeded. Writing, thinking beyond my privilege, these are things I struggle with every single day of my life. I was not standing here from on high saying, “Here’s how to do it.”1 I was saying, “Here’s what I’m wrestling with.”

What are the advantages that white writers writing about people of colour have that PoC writers don’t have?

First of all (assuming that you can actually write) your odds of getting published are better than theirs.2 No, I don’t have statistics to back me up, but I have a lot of anecdotal evidence. Of friends and acquaintances who were rejected by editors and agents who already had their one African or Asian author. If you’re the only brown writer on a list than you have to be a lot better than all the other brown writers competing for that one slot. The hurdles that many non-white writers have to jump to get published in the USA are higher than they are for white writers.3

Here’s another big advantage: If you, as a white writer, produce an excellent book about people who aren’t like you odds are high that your ability to do so will be seen as a sign of your virtuosity and writerly chops, which it is. However, non-white writers rarely get the same response, even though it’s just as hard for them. I say that not just because I think all good writing is hard to achieve, but because every time you write a nuanced character who isn’t white you’re writing against a long, long tradition of stereotyped characters in Western literature. That’s hard to do no matter what your skin colour. And if you’re a writer working within in a different writing tradition and trying to make it succeed within the English-language novel tradition you’re doing something even harder.

I want to make it clear that I’m not saying that we white writers should feel guilty about any of this. Guilt is a pointless emotion. White writers who’ve written about people of colour and won acclaim and awards don’t have to hand their prizes back. That would change nothing.

What I am saying is that we need to be aware of our privilege and listen to criticism and act upon it. We need to do what we can to change things. The more novels with a diversity of characters that are published and succeed in the marketplace the more space there will be. The more people who can find themselves in books, the more readers we’ll all have, and the more opportunities there’ll be for writers from every background. Of course, it’s not just the writers who need to be more diverse, but everyone in publishing, from the interns to agents to the folks in sales, marketing, publicity, and editorial, to the distributors and booksellers.

There are many wonderful books by writers of colour. Read them, talk about them, buy them for your friends. Point them out to your editors and agents. Be part of changing the culture and making space for lots of different voices. The problem is not so much what white people write; it’s that so few other voices are heard. If the publishing industry were representative of the population at large we wouldn’t need to have this conversation.

  1. And I’m very sorry if it came across that way. []
  2. Yes, it’s hard for all people to get published. I know. It took me twenty years to do so. But add to that the prevailing notion in the publishing industry that books about people of colour don’t sell and it becomes even harder. []
  3. The hurdles they have to jump to have the time and resources to write in the first place are typically also higher, but that’s a whole other story. Don’t get me started on the differences I’ve seen on tour in the USA between predominately black schools versus predominately white ones. []

Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t

Lately, I have heard several published white writers express their trepidation about the idea of writing non-white characters. Some of them have mentioned that they feel they’ll get in trouble if they continue to write only white characters, but that they also feel they’ll get into trouble if they write characters who aren’t white cause they’ll bugger it up.

Damned if you do, they say, damned if you don’t.

To which I can only say, and I mean this nicely, “Please!”

What exactly are you risking? Who exactly is damning you? Which of your previously published novels have attracted no criticisms and no damnation? Cause that’s amazing. You wrote a book no one critcised? Awesome. Please teach me that trick!

Every single book I’ve published has displeased someone. I’ve been accused of promoting teenage pregnancy, homosexuality, and underage drinking. Every single one of my books has caused at least a few people to tell me that I stuffed various things up: my descriptions of Sydney, of NYC, of mathematics (absolutely true), my Oz characters don’t speak like proper Aussies, and my USians don’t talk like proper Yanquis. My teenagers sound too young or too old and are too smart or too stupid. I did my best, but some think that was not good enough.

That’s the risk you take when you write a book.

If you do not have the knowledge, resources, research, or writing skills to write people who are different from you, then don’t. People may well criticise you for that. They’ll also criticise you for having some of your characters speak their notion of ungrammatical English1. And for not having enough vampires. Whatever.2 Write what you’re good at. Lots and lots of writers pretty much only write about themselves and their friends. F. Scott Fitzgerald is a famous example. There are many many others. That’s fine. Own it. And do it as well as you can.

If you, as a white writer, decide to write people of a different hue to yourself then you should do your damnedest to get it right. But know that no matter how well researched your book, no matter how well vetted by multiple knowledgeable readers it is, there will always be people who think you buggered it up and misrepresented them. All you can do is write the best, most thoroughly researched book you possibly can. After all, don’t you do that with every book you write? You don’t write your historicals with Wikipedia as your only source, do you? Right then.

What should you do when you are criticised?

Listen. Learn. Even if you think they’re insane and completely wrong.

Figure out how to avoid the same egregious mistakes in your next book. But remember that your next book will also be criticised. That’s how it goes.

Do not have a hissy fit and say you’ll never write about anyone who isn’t white again. Do not insult those criticising you.

Say you, as a white American, write a novel with many Thai-American characters and a Thai-American reader criticises you for getting something wrong yet another Thai-American reader praises you for getting the exact same thing right. Who do you believe?

What do you do when two white readers disagree about stuff in your books? Do you assume that all white people are the same? Perhaps it’s time to stop assuming that all Thai-Americans are the same and have the same opinions and experiences. Thailand’s a big country with a wide range of ethnicities, religions, cuisines and everything else. The experiences of the Thai diaspora in the USA is going to be just as varied. Some Thai Americans will think you got it right, some will think you got it wrong. That’s how it goes.

Keep in mind that Thai-Americans writing about Thai-Americans are also criticised and told they get it wrong. No one is immune from criticism. No one is immune from getting it wrong for at least some of their readers. We all do it.

Writing is hard. No matter what you write about. You will be damned no matter what you do. But that has nothing to do with you being white, that has to do with you having the arrogance to be a writer, and publish what you write for other people to read. Your readers get to judge you. That’s just how it goes. Your job is to be a grown up about what you do and how people respond to you. That’s really hard too. Trust me, I know.

Thus endeth the rant.

  1. Trust me, I get that one all the time []
  2. I am SO over vampires. Except for the good ones. []

What’s Age Got to Do with It?

Why do so many people have an obsession with how old people are when they make art?

Hmmm. I think that sentence demands a bit more context. I keep seeing comments like, “OMG, Buffy is amazing and Joss Whedon was only in his early 30s when he first created it.” Or Arthur Rimbaud was one of the most influential French poets ever and he quit writing when he was 19!”

There must be something wrong with me cause I think, “So what?”

Either the art is good or it isn’t. Who cares how old the person was who created it? Doesn’t make it any better.

Not to mention that there’s an argument that the only reason people are still talking about Arthur Rimbaud is because he wrote all his poetry before he was nineteen. According to this argument his work was amazing for a teenager and that’s the only reason we remember him today. Well, that, and his truly crazy life, which makes for astonishingly entertaining biographies.1 And the fact that his lover, Paul Verlaine, was a one-man publicity campaign, who would not shut up about Rimbaud’s supposed genius.

*Heh hem* I digress. Is Buffy the Vampire Slayer amazing because Joss Whedon was only in his early thirties2 when he started working on it or is it amazing because it’s amazing?3 I say it’s simply amazing and Whedon’s age is irrelevant.4

If a book or a poem or a movie or a computer game or a painting or whatever blows you away why does it matter how old the person was when they made it?5 If they were 62 does it stop being amazing? How about 72? If they were only 20 does that make it more amazing? Why? Explain to me cause I don’t get it.

Some people write their best work when they’re young. Some when they’re old. Some when they’re middle aged. Some are pretty consistent throughout their career. Some, like Georgette Heyer, have mixed careers, dotted with marvellous and indifferent work throughout. No matter how old you are you can only do the best you can at that moment in time. Not to mention that no matter how old you are, what you think is your best work, others may think is your worst.6

I think what bothers me about this constant, “OMG this book is amazing! And the author was only 12!” is that it undercuts the idea that those of us who make a living writing (or creating other art) work really hard at and strive to improve. It feed into the myth of genius, of someone just producing great work full blown out of no where, without an apprenticeship, without any hard yakka, or learning, or improving. I happen not to believe in genius. I don’t believe art comes out of nowhere.

I do, however, understand the feeling of panic when you realise that, say, Georgette Heyer’s first novel was published when she was a teenager. By the time she was fifty years old she’d published close to 40 novels. Many of my favourite writers have prodigious and enviable outputs. Patricia Highsmith for one. I still haven’t read all her novels and short stories. Diana Wynne Jones has also published an astonishing number of wonderful books and they keep coming. Yay! On the other hand, Octavia Butler, Jean Rhys and Angela Carter have a relatively small volume of work. All of which I treasure and clutch to my chest. My favourite Jean Rhys novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, was published when she was in her seventies. If I can write half so well when I’m in my seventies, well, I’ll be very happy indeed.

I do envy writers like Wynne Jones and Heyer. I’ve published five novels, but my odds of writing another thirty-five before I turn fifty are, well, forget about it. Or even before I’m seventy. I’m not a super fast writer. I was able to keep up the one-novel-a-year pace for five years and in those years I was trying to write two a year. But next year there’ll be no new novel from me. I doubt I’ll ever write as fast as one a year again. But I have just as many ideas as I ever did. Sometimes I freak out realising that I may not live to write them all.7

But never for very long. Because, honestly, there are other things I’m more worried about not doing before I die. Like spending enough time with the people I love. Doing as much good as I can. Watching my friends’ children grow up. Eating more mangosteens. Stuff like that.

  1. I recommend the Edmund Wilson one. No, I haven’t read it. But, hey, Edmund Wilson. []
  2. And when did accomplishing something in your early thirties make you a prodigy? Please. []
  3. Except for those of who don’t think it was amazing. []
  4. Except for all of season seven, and too much of seasons four, five and six, which are the opposite of amazing. []
  5. For the purposes of this rant, I’m ignoring the fact that many works of art are not created by a single person—Whedon did not make Buffy alone—especially not movies or television or computer games. []
  6. I think the best novel I’ve written is the first novel I wrote. It’s unpublished. []
  7. You know when I’m not freaking out about this world I live in melting into the sea. []

Guest Blogger: Neesha Meminger

Today’s guest blogger is Neesha Meminger. She is the author of Shine, Coconut Moon (about which I’ve been hearing nothing but raves). She was born in India, raised in Canada, and now lives in New York City with her husband and two children. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and a BA in Film & Media Arts. She has a fascination with the moon, stars, planets and, strangely, coconuts. She can be found online at her website as well as her blog.

From Margin to Center: Writing Characters of Color

This essay was originally meant to be a short comment in response to Justine’s post on why her protags aren’t white. In one of the comments, someone brought up the old argument: if white people can only write white characters, then should people of color only write characters of color? Here is my response . . .

It’s a question of power and privilege. Most white people grow up thinking they have free range in everything from the political to the personal. People of color in Europe, Australia, and North America (and women everywhere), do not grow up learning these things. We learn to BE colonized. We learn, through history lessons from our colonizer’s textbooks, that we are not the invadERS, we are the invadED.

People of color know more about white people than we know about ourselves and one other because everything we are taught in the schools is by and about white people. Everything we see on television is by and about white people. Everything in magazines, on film, in books and on book covers is created by and about white people. Writers of color in the west almost always have white people in our books because that is what we know; it’s what is all around us.

Given this context, people of color writing *only* about people of color is an act of self-validation. It is an attempt at balancing something that is heavily skewed in one direction. (This reminds me a lot of the discussions and debates we used to have about why it is critical within a patriarchal/sexist context to have women-only spaces, and why in campuses all across the nation there are LGBTQ groups, etc.).

I create worlds in my books where people of color and women are at the center—not at the margins where we are habitually cast in the everyday world. This is a conscious decision. It is a political choice. Just as writing a book, film, or television series peopled ONLY with white folks is a political act, be it conscious or not.

On white authors writing characters of color: because the power imbalance leans so heavily to one side over the other, white authors absolutely must support the efforts of authors of color. White authors absolutely must people their stories with characters of color to reflect a reality they often have the privilege of ignoring, if they so choose.

I live in a fairly affluent part of New York City. We have a small apartment at the bottom of the neighborhood of course, but to the north of us are sprawling mansions with gorgeous, landscaped lawns and backyard pools. These mansions have their own security teams that patrol their streets to make sure no stranger ever gets lost and ends up roaming their quiet oasis. Down the hill from this neighborhood are the projects. It’s like two completely different nations living side by side. You’d be lucky to find a clump of trees huddled together in the projects—concrete as far as the eye can see. And the only nightly patrols are from the NYPD. Guess what the demographics of each of these neighborhoods is?

Gated communities, inner city projects, and massive wealth disparity allow white people the privilege of never having to come into any real contact with people of color and those nearer to the base of the socio-economic pyramid.

White folks, in general, need to turn *outward* and really see what’s outside of themselves and their immediate circles. And people of color must turn *inward*, to discover the true value within, then paint the world with it. 

This is how healing happens in any relationship where there is an abuse of power. Whether that relationship is parent-child, employer-employee, or whole groups, the resolution isn’t that both parties do exactly the same thing to make ammends. Both parties haven’t been giving the same thing and getting the same thing all along, so they have to get and give differently in order to mend.

This is why the whole idea of “if white people can only write white people, then PoC should only write PoC” simply does not hold water. It is DIFFERENT. It has been different all along. So the change—true, lasting change—has to be each party doing what THEY need to do to make that change happen for real. For the privileged, it means sharing privilege. For the non-privileged, it means valuing oneself enough to stand up, focus on their own self and say, “I am important. I deserve more. I will not put up with this any longer.”

Racism isn’t only an issue in “white” countries like those in Europe and North America—it is a global epidemic. And it is wiping out people of color in massive numbers. Women and children work in appalling conditions all over the globe, making clothes and playthings for wealthier Europeans and North Americans. Third world nations are on their knees in never-ending debt cycles to organizations run by a majority of European nations and the US. There is a widespread lack of clean water, adequate housing, access to hospitals and education everywhere outside of the US, Europe, North America, and Australia—though there is certainly some of that lacking within these areas, as well.

This, folks, is a HUGE power imbalance where those who are benefiting happen to be predominantly white, predominantly male, and almost always heterosexual.

So what do we do when there is such a tremendous power imbalance, and such a gross abuse/misuse of that power?

Well, let’s first look at it on a smaller, more personal scale. A child takes another child’s toy. What do you do? My guess is that you’d tell him to give the toy back. You’d tell him taking what’s not his is not okay and that he should apologize. If he wants to play with his friend, he has to share. And then you work on why sharing is far better than not if he wants friends, etc.

Okay, so now: what do you do if a child takes another child’s lunch and eats it? Not so easy. The child can’t give back what he took because it has been consumed.

This, in effect, is what racism does. The wealthiest of nations have taken resources from the (now) poorest of nations and consumed these resources. So how do we make it better?

Well, let’s go back to the children. Because, really, that’s where it all starts, isn’t it? I’m guessing that first, we’d likely have the child apologize for taking the other’s lunch. Next, we’d want to make sure the child who doesn’t have a lunch gets food. Third, we’d work with the child who took the food to find out why he’s taking the food and teach him to appreciate what he has and eat *his share*. Then, we’d work with the child whose food was taken to help him build up his sense of self-worth, learn to defend himself better, and ask for help if needed.

Different solutions for each party. The same is true in any situation where there is a power imbalance. In the case of domestic abuse, let’s say. If a woman is being beaten by her husband, you can’t simply tell her to hit him back or to walk away. There are deep issues at work and those need to be addressed. The abuser has a different path to recovery than the partner who is being abused. Different things to work on; different lessons to learn.

This also addresses (another of my pet peeves,) the “reverse” discrimination argument; an argument that doesn’t take into consideration the fact that oppression is about power imbalance—not just name-calling and hurt feelings.

In the case of a parent-child relationship, when a parent smacks a child with all his might, the effect is far different than when a child smacks a parent with all her might. The latter is not “reverse” abuse. The former results in lasting physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual scarring while the second leaves hardly an imprint. Why? Because there is a massive power imbalance on every level. The child is completely dependent on the parent for her very survival. And the parent is far stronger and bigger than she is.

In the context of racism, an insult—while it may sting for a moment—cannot leave lasting damage if there is no real power behind it. We do not have a mostly-black police force with mostly-black commissioners who are backed by a mostly-black team of judges and mostly-black politicians (please note that “mostly-black” could also be replaced here with “mostly-female” or “mostly-gay” and you’d get the same idea).

So when round after round of bullets is pumped into unarmed civilians in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Harlem, Chicago, Atlanta, or elsewhere, the result is a ripple of terror the likes of which most white people could never possibly relate to.

A racial slur flung from a white person to a person of color shames, humiliates, and inspires fear. It is designed to remind that person of color of all of the degradation s/he knows was inflicted upon people who looked like them throughout history at the hands of people who look just like the one who is insulting them now.

It is the equivalent of a parent yelling “I HATE YOU” to a child. Big difference in the impact that has over a child hurling the same statement at their parent.

Likewise, when people throw racial slurs like “Paki” toward South Asians, or derogatory terms toward women, or equally denigrating terms toward lesbians and gay men, anything these same groups hurl back cannot possibly have the same impact. It might hurt feelings, but that is NOT the same as the lasting shame, humiliation, and fear that hearing an insult from someone with power to follow it up with action, invokes.

As authors of literature for children and teens, these power imbalances are at the crux of what we explore. Some of the best books for children and teens that I’ve ever had the joy of reading were about feisty children questioning their world and challenging authority head on. The way we explore these issues as authors and resolve them in the worlds we create in our books is critical. And the ways we deal with the world around us—the context for our art—is just as critical.

The first step is understanding the complexity of the issues. Then, we move on to realizing that there isn’t ONE solution. We all have to do something, but it isn’t the same thing—this is NOT a level playing field. We must all work together to bring about a more equitable, just, and sane world for our children, and the children of others. But we must each recognize and own the privilege we have, and use that privilege to help us all move forward. It is a collaborative effort where we must each do our part, search deep within for answers, listen carefully to the quieter voices around us, raise the voices of the silenced, and remain stead fast in our commitment to the young people in our lives.

The New Cover (Updated)

As you’ve probably heard by now Liar is getting a new cover for its publication in October.1 First Bloomsbury considered going with the Australian jacket of Liar and specifically with the black and red version you can see here because that would be the easiest thing to do. The design already exists after all and the window to make the change was very narrow.

However, given the paucity of black faces on YA covers, and the intensity of the debate around the original Liar cover, Bloomsbury felt really strongly that a more representative approach was needed. Rather than using a stock photo, Bloomsbury went the whole hog and did a photo shoot. The gorgeous design is by Danielle Delaney (who’s also responsible for the fabulous paperback How To Ditch Your Fairy cover).

Here’s the result:

I am extremely happy to have a North American cover that is true to the book I wrote. I hope you like it as much as I do. I also hope we can prove (again) that it’s simply not true that a YA cover with a black face on the cover won’t sell. But let’s also put it to the test with books written by people of color. You don’t have to wait to grab your copy of Coe Booth’s Kendra2 or any of the many fabulous books recommended by Color Online etc.

Update: I have turned comments off because there has been an uptick in people attempting to comment merely to berate others.

  1. No, it’s not actually out yet. []
  2. Have I mentioned that I really love this book? []

Cover Change

As you may have already discovered if you read Publisher’s Weekly‘s “Children’s Bookshelf,” Bloomsbury is rejacketing the hardcover edition of Liar. My wish came true much sooner than I expected. Thank you to everyone who expressed your concerns. Thank you to Bloomsbury for listening.

As soon as the jacket is final, which should be soon, I’ll be posting it here. Yes, I was involved in the cover design process.

I am delighted that my post about the original Liar jacket got some traction. But everything I said there had been said many times before by authors and bloggers of colour. Whitewashing of covers, ghettoising of books by people of colour, and low expectations (reflected in the lack of marketing push behind to the majority of those books) are not new things. The problem is industry-wide.

I’m seeing signs that publishers are talking about these issues, and I’m more hopeful for change than I have been in a long time. However, as many people have been saying, we consumers have to play our part too. If you’ve never bought a book with someone who isn’t white on the cover go do so now. Start buying and reading books by people of colour. There are so many wonderful books being published right now, such as Coe Booth’s Kendra and M. Sindy Felin’s Touching Snow. Color Online is a wonderful place to find more suggestions as are all the blogs linked to in this paragraph.

Happy reading.

PS If you’re too broke to be able to buy any new books right now don’t forget about your local library. Or you could enter this contest to win A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott.

Ari’s Guest Blog No. 2: Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone

Because I’m in transit,1 I asked Ari if she would step in for me, and she kindly said yes. Thanks, Ari!

I’m back! So yesterday I gave you a list of books about poc that I think you should read, although I’m sure I left off some great books by accident. If you want some more lists check out Susan’s at Color Online for specifically sci-fi check this out the Happy Nappy Bookseller’s list and for bi-racial, multi-racial poc go here.

Also I want to share some information with you on the Diversity Roll Call meme. Diversity Roll Call is hosted by Ali at worducopia and Susan at Color Online. Anyone can participate. It’s for two weeks and is basically like a challenge. The meme asks you to really evaluate your reading habits, how diverse are they (gender wise, religion wise, race-wise, economics-wise, sexual orientation).

The current assignment asks you to blog about a book that appeals to both genders, talk about gender in your writing (if you’re an author), or take a book that you love and change the gender of the protag. You can do all or either of these. I highly recommend everyone join in! More details when you follow the above link. If you don’t have a blog, just leave a comment answering the question. Have fun!

You may be wondering: why should I read books about people who aren’t like me? They’re not the same gender as me, the same sexual orientation, race, or religion. I’m uncomfortable reading about what I don’t know. I would never be able to understand them.

My response: No, no, no! Don’t think like that. First of, let me explain. I don’t only read books about poc. I’ve read (and loved) many books featuring white characters (I currently really want to read Eyes Like Stars, Deadline, Angry Management, Jessica’s Guide to Dating on the Dark Side, and Perfect Chemistry). But I don’t just want to read books about people who don’t look like me, so I can understand where the ‘I don’t wanna read about people I can’t relate to’ crowd is coming from.

Sometimes I don’t pick up a book because there’s a white person on the cover and I think ‘I can’t relate.’ But then I stop and think ‘I would hate to know someone else is doing this same thing to a book with a Latina on the cover’ (or any other race/religion/gender/sexual orientation), so I at least read the synopsis. Often I end up getting the book and enjoying it (like You Are So Undead to Me, the Mortal Instruments Trilogy, the Gemma Doyle Trilogy, Heat, Private series).

I think it’s important to expand your horizons. Reading books can really put you in someone else’s shoes. For example, Whale Talk is one of my favorite books in the world. I could totally relate to the male main character even though I’m not a guy. Or reading about a lesbian teen (Down to the Bone—on my tbr list!) even if you’re straight can help you experience and sympathize with the hate, ignorance and discrimination LGBT teens and adults often face. They can also make you see that the way LGBT teens feel about their loves and lives are pretty similar to those of a straight person, the only difference is liking their same gender (or both genders).

Also, often when you’re reading a book you may not even notice their ethnicity a whole lot (like in the Make Lemonade Trilogy), they just are what they are. You get so wrapped up in thinking ‘Yeah I’ve been through that’, or ‘I definitely would have said that too’, that you don’t notice a character’s race, religion, or gender or anything else, except that you can relate. That’s awesome. One of the most powerful things books can do is help tear down stereotypes (especially the negative ones). They educate, uplift and make us laugh. Read more books about poc, the opposite gender or sexual orientation, and/or religion and I bet you’ll not only learn something new, but you’ll really enjoy it (maybe not all, but I’m sure you won’t hate all books about guys, if you’re a girl, for example.)

In writing this blog post, I’ve stepped back and really looked at my diverse reading habits. I definitely need to read more books about LGBT teens, Native American teens, Asian teens, and teen guys. So if you have any suggestions do share!

I hope I haven’t bored or insulted anyone. I would love to hear your thoughts on my posts so leave a comment on Justine’s blog, my blog, or email me willbprez at aol dot com.

Thanks Justine for letting me guest blog! I hope you don’t regret it.

  1. These two guest posts are timed to post while I’m travelling. If your comments get stuck in moderation you’ll have to be patient. Sorry. []

Another Fabulous Blog + Reviewing Challenge

One more wonderful blog for you to add to your list:

Also Susan over at Color Online has issued the following reviewing challenge:

Read and review POC books through the month of August. We’ll have a random drawing for 3 reviewers at the end of the challenge. Drop us a link to your review to be eligible. +3 entries for any sidebar link/tweet or blog post about this challenge. Contest limited to US residents.

If you’re looking for suggestions for books to read and review these two blogs have lots of reviews as do the blogs I listed yesterday. I’d also like to suggest Touching Snow by M. Sindy Felin, which was shortlisted for the National Book Award in 2007. It’s one of the most moving, funny, sad and honest books I’ve ever read.

Fabulous Blogs You Should Be Reading

Because of my post about the US Liar cover I have discovered some wonderful blogs, which as someone who follows the YA blogosphere closely, I’m ashamed I didn’t know about already. I have added all of them to my blog roll:

I am still no where near working my way through all the mail the cover post generated. It may take me a few weeks. Sorry. But thank you everyone for your intense responses and for all the links and for continuing the conversation in so many different places. I’ve heard from several people that at least two YA publishing houses have been circulating my post to their staff. Awesome.

And extra special thanks to the people who emailed me with the typos they picked up in that post. As someone who’s not the world’s greatest speller, I really appreciate it! (Though am embarrassed that I still don’t know the difference between “effect” and “affect.” Aargh.)


The response to yesterday‘s post has been astonishing. I am overwhelmed. I received more mail in a single day than I normally do in a month. (I was already behind with my mail.) I’m going to try very hard to get to it all, but it may take some time and I have a novel to finish and leave the country in a couple of days. So bear with me.

Thanks so much for taking this conversation further. It’s crucial.

Ain’t That a Shame (updated)

In the last few weeks as people have started reading the US ARC of Liar they have also started asking why there is such a mismatch between how Micah describes herself and the cover image. Micah is black with nappy hair which she wears natural and short. As you can see that description does not match the US cover.

Many people have been asking me how I feel about the US cover, why I allowed such a cover to appear on a book of mine, and why I haven’t been speaking out about it.

Authors do not get final say on covers. Often they get no say at all.

As it happens I was consulted by Bloomsbury and let them know that I wanted a cover like the Australian cover, which I think is very true to the book.1 I was lucky that my Australian publisher, Allen & Unwin, agreed with my vision and that the wonderful Bruno Herfst came up with such a perfect cover image.

I never wanted a girl’s face on the cover. Micah’s identity is unstable. She spends the book telling different version of herself. I wanted readers to be free to imagine her as they wanted. I have always imagined her looking quite a bit like Alana Beard,2 which is why I was a bit offended by the reviewer, who in an otherwise lovely review, described Micah as ugly. She’s not!3

The US Liar cover went through many different versions. An early one, which I loved, had the word Liar written in human hair. Sales & Marketing did not think it would sell. Bloomsbury has had a lot of success with photos of girls on their covers and that’s what they wanted. Although not all of the early girl face covers were white, none showed girls who looked remotely like Micah.

I strongly objected to all of them. I lost.

I haven’t been speaking out publicly because to be the first person to do so would have been unprofessional. I have privately been campaigning for a different cover for the paperback. The response to the cover by those who haven’t read Liar has been overwhelmingly positive and I would have looked churlish if I started bagging it at every opportunity. I hoped that once people read Liar they would be as upset as I am with the cover. It would not have helped get the paperback changed if I was seen to be orchestrating that response. But now that this controversy has arisen I am much more optimistic about getting the cover changed. I am also starting to rethink what I want that cover to look like. I did want Bloomsbury to use the Australian cover, but I’m increasingly thinking that it’s important to have someone who looks like Micah on the front.

I want to make it clear that while I disagree with Bloomsbury about this cover I am otherwise very happy to be with them. They’ve given me space to write the books I want to write. My first book for them was a comic fairy book that crossed over into middle grade (How To Ditch Your Fairy). I followed that up with Liar, a dark psychological thriller that crosses over into adult. There are publishers who would freak. No one at Bloomsbury batted an eye. I have artistic freedom there, which is extraordinarily important to me. They are solidly behind my work and have promoted it at every level in ways I have never been promoted before.

Covers change how people read books

Liar is a book about a compulsive (possibly pathological) liar who is determined to stop lying but finds it much harder than she supposed. I worked very hard to make sure that the fundamentals of who Micah is were believable: that she’s a girl, that she’s a teenager, that she’s black, that she’s USian. One of the most upsetting impacts of the cover is that it’s led readers to question everything about Micah: If she doesn’t look anything like the girl on the cover maybe nothing she says is true. At which point the entire book, and all my hard work, crumbles.

No one in Australia has written to ask me if Micah is really black.

No one in Australia has said that they will not be buying Liar because “my teens would find the cover insulting.”

Both responses are heart breaking.

This cover did not happen in isolation.

Every year at every publishing house, intentionally and unintentionally, there are white-washed covers. Since I’ve told publishing friends how upset I am with my Liar cover, I have been hearing anecdotes from every single house about how hard it is to push through covers with people of colour on them. Editors have told me that their sales departments say black covers don’t sell. Sales reps have told me that many of their accounts won’t take books with black covers. Booksellers have told me that they can’t give away YAs with black covers. Authors have told me that their books with black covers are frequently not shelved in the same part of the library as other YA—they’re exiled to the Urban Fiction section—and many bookshops simply don’t stock them at all. How welcome is a black teen going to feel in the YA section when all the covers are white? Why would she pick up Liar when it has a cover that so explicitly excludes her?

The notion that “black books” don’t sell is pervasive at every level of publishing. Yet I have found few examples of books with a person of colour on the cover that have had the full weight of a publishing house behind them.4 Until that happens more often we can’t know if it’s true that white people won’t buy books about people of colour. All we can say is that poorly publicised books with “black covers” don’t sell. The same is usually true of poorly publicised books with “white covers.”

Are the big publishing houses really only in the business of selling books to white people? That’s not a very sustainable model if true. Certainly the music industry has found that to be the case. Walk into a music store, online or offline, and compare the number of black faces you see on the covers there as opposed to what you see in most book stores. Doesn’t seem to affect white people buying music. The music industry stopped insisting on white washing decades ago. Talented artists like Fats Domino no longer needs Pat Boone to cover genius songs like “Ain’t That a Shame” in order to break into the white hit parade. (And ain’t that song title ironic?)

There is, in fact, a large audience for “black books” but they weren’t discovered until African American authors started self-publishing and selling their books on the subway and on the street and directly into schools. And, yet, the publishing industry still doesn’t seem to get it. Perhaps the whole “black books don’t sell” thing is a self-fulfilling prophecy?

I hope that the debate that’s arisen because of this cover will widen to encompass the whole industry. I hope it gets every publishing house thinking about how incredibly important representation is and that they are in a position to break down these assumptions. Publishing companies can make change. I really hope that the outrage the US cover of Liar has generated will go a long way to bringing an end to white washing covers. Maybe even to publishing and promoting more writers of color.

But never forget that publishers are in the business of making money. Consumers need to do what they can. When was the last time you bought a book with a person of colour on the front cover or asked your library to order one for you? If you were upset by the US cover of Liar go buy one right now. I’d like to recommend Coe Booth’s Kendra which is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Waiting on my to be read pile is Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger, which has been strongly recommended to me by many people.

Clearly we do not live in a post-racist society. But I’d like to think that the publishing world is better than those many anecdotes I’ve been hearing. But for that to happen, all of us—writers, editors, designers, sales reps, booksellers, reviewers, readers, and parents of readers—will have to do better.

Update: Because some recent commenters haven’t heard that Bloomsbury have changed the cover here is a link to the new cover.

  1. I didn’t see the Australian cover until after the US cover was finalised. []
  2. Yes, another protag of mine who looks like a WNBA player. What can I say? I’m a fan. []
  3. If you’re interested, I imagine another character in the book, Sarah, as looking like a younger Rutina Wesley, who’s not a WNBA player. []
  4. And most of those were written by white people. []

Why My Protags Aren’t White

I’ve been asked a few times why none of my protags are white given that I am white. (So far that question has only come from white people.) I thought I’d answer the question at length so next time I get that particular email I can direct them here.

I don’t remember deciding that Reason, the protagonist of the Magic or Madness trilogy, would have a white Australian mother and an Indigenous Australian father. I don’t remember deciding that Tom would be white Australian or Jay-Tee Hispanic USian. But I made a conscious decision that none of the characters in How To Ditch Your Fairy would be white and that Liar would have a mixed race cast. Why?

Because a young Hispanic girl I met at a signing thanked me for writing an Hispanic character. Because when I did an appearance in Queens the entirely black and Hispanic teenage audience responded so warmly to my book with two non-white main characters. Because teens, both here and in Australia, have written thanking me for writing characters they could relate to. “Most books are so white,” one girl wrote me.

Because no white teen has ever complained about their lack of representation in those books. Or asked me why Reason and Jay-Tee aren’t white. They read and enjoyed the trilogy anyway. Despite the acres and acres of white books available to them.

Because I don’t live in an all-white world. Why on earth would I write books that are?

I’m not saying my books are perfect. They’re not. If I could go back and rewrite them I would be much more specific about Tom and Jay-Tee’s backgrounds. Tom is just white. I’m specific about his bit of Sydney and about his parents’ occupations, but not about their or his ethnicity. White is not just one flavour. Nor do I go into any kind of detail about what kind of Hispanic Jay-tee is. Is her family from Puerto Rico? Mexico? Venezuela? Dominican Republic? All/none of the above? I say she’s from the Bronx but not where in the Bronx. It’s a big place. (Please forgive me, all my Bronx friends! Especially you, Coe.) As a result I was much more specific about Micah’s background in Liar. All mistakes and oversights in that book will be worked out in the books I’m writing now. The things I get wrong in those books will be fixed in the books I write after them. And so it goes . . . (I hope.)

Questions of representation were not foremost in my mind when I was writing the Magic or Madness trilogy. I’m a white girl who grew up in a predominately white country. Thinking about race and representation is something I have to make myself do because my life is not governed negatively by it as others’ lives are, like, say Prof Henry Louis Gates Jr.

It was the response of my readers that got me thinking hard about representation. Now those questions are foremost when I write.

Thus when I sat down to write How To Ditch Your Fairy I already knew none of the characters would be white. I also knew that I was writing a somewhat utopian world1 in which race and gender were not the axes of oppression that they are in our world. Female athletes having as strong a prospect of making a living at their sport as a boy is clearly not true in our world, but it is in the world of HTDYF. Nor is there any discrimination on the basis of race. But there is on the basis of class and geography. (I was not writing a perfect world.)

Not many people noticed, or if they did, they didn’t mention it to me, but I was dead chuffed by those who did. Thank you.

  1. In some ways it’s very dystopian. []

Sonia Sotomayor Hearings

Before this past week I had never watched a congressional hearing. In the ten years I’ve been living back and forth between Sydney and NYC I never found time to spend a few hours watching this variety of Washington theatre. I’m glad I did. In the course of several hours of listening to senators question Sonia Sotomayor to find out if she’s qualified to be a Supreme Court justice I learned a bit more about the political process in the US and that Sotomayor is one of the calmest, most patient, smart and rational people on the planet. She was amazing.

But it turns out these hearings weren’t really about her.

The hearings were about a handful of white male senators grandstanding to the people they think are their constituents. And what were they grandstanding about? Frank Rich nails it:

The hearings were pure “Alice in Wonderland.” Reality was turned upside down. Southern senators who relate every question to race, ethnicity and gender just assumed that their unreconstructed obsessions are America’s and that the country would find them riveting. Instead the country yawned. The Sotomayor questioners also assumed a Hispanic woman, simply for being a Hispanic woman, could be portrayed as The Other and patronized like a greenhorn unfamiliar with How We Do Things Around Here. The senators seemed to have no idea they were describing themselves when they tried to caricature Sotomayor as an overemotional, biased ideologue.

If I put men like those in any of my novels I would be accused of stereotyping. Very few people would believe in characters who don’t listen to anything that’s said to them, who insist that anyone who isn’t exactly like them—white, male, old—is biased. That, in fact, being white, male and old renders them, not only neutral, but the only real people in the world.

All their attacks on Sotomayor, because they weren’t questions, were just an oft repeated refrain on how dare Sotomayor think that being a Latina qualified her for anything. (Um, hello, she doesn’t think that, she thinks her long and distinguished record qualifies her.) Pat Buchanan put it even more nakedly on Rachel Maddow’s show this week when he declared that white men made America.

To which you can only stare and gape. Buchanan does not know much about his own country’s history. He does not seem to know that the early white settlers would have starved without the help of the indigenous peoples. He does not know that slavery was the economic making of the country, that the White House was built by slaves, and the railroads were built by indentured Chinese labour and that without the contributions of people who weren’t white or male this country would not be what it is.

Why, does Buchanan feel the need to say something so preposterous in his analysis of Sotomayor’s qualifications for the Supreme Court? Because he and those senators see the inclusion of anyone who isn’t like them as an attack on them. When a Latina makes it onto the Supreme Court that is an attack on their white male power. Their “we” doesn’t even include all white men, just the ones who think like them, of which, mercifully, there are fewer and fewer.

I’ll give a white man, Stephen Colbert, the last word:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
The Word – Neutral Man’s Burden
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Jeff Goldblum

MySpace v FaceBook

Danah Boyd is an ethnographer who’s done a great deal of work on teenage use of the internet in the USA. Her work is absolutely fascinating and I think every writer of Young Adult books should be reading it.

She recently gave a talk about race and class in the MySpace v FaceBook divide. You all need to read it, like, NOW:

If you are trying to connect with the public, where you go online matters. If you choose to make Facebook your platform for civic activity, you are implicitly suggesting that a specific class of people is more worth your time and attention than others. Of course, splitting your attention can also be costly and doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be reaching everyone anyhow. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The key to developing a social media strategy is to understand who you’re reaching and who you’re not and make certain that your perspective is accounting for said choices. Understand your biases and work to counter them.

While on tour last year I was sent to a number of very poor schools. At those schools the vast majority of students did not have access to a computer at home, let alone a computer of their own. They were able to use computers at school and at the library. At the poorer schools I visited I was asked if I was on myspace; at the wealthier schools they wanted to know if I was on facebook. I know that’s a small samples size—a handful of schools in northern California, Ohio, and Michigan—but it’s right in line with Danah’s research. I told them that it was better to get in touch with me via my website because a) while I have a myspace account I don’t use it and b) I don’t have a facebook one. Very few students contacted me and those who did were from the wealthier schools.

This year when I go on tour I will be giving the teens who want to contact me a business card with my email address and website on it. I know I’d have a better shot at communicating with them if I used my myspace account and joined facebook. First though I’m going to see if giving them a card works better than just telling them how to contact me.

I did not enjoy being on myspace. The walls around myspace and facebook freak me out much like walled communities offline do. I like having my blog where anyone can read it without having to log into a different space.1 I do not want to maintain multiple blogs and moderate multiple sets of comments.

Yet I want to be able to stay in touch with the wonderful students I meet on tour.

I’ll see if giving them cards works. If not I suspect I’ll have to suck it up and deal with myspace again.

How do you other authors deal with this? How many of you are on myspace and/or facebook?

How many of you having read Danah’s research would reconsider myspace?

  1. Part of what I like about Twitter is that you don’t have to join Twitter in order to read it. You can directly link to an interesting Tweet from anywhere. However, there are very few teenagers on Twitter. []

RIP Charles N. Brown

Charles N. Brown was the publisher of Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field. He was well known throughout the SFF world for this love and support for the field and his enormous generosity.

I first met him at the 1993 World Fantasy Convention in Minneapolis1 when I was researching my PhD thesis. He was extremely enthusiastic about my research and gave me many leads and suggestions including inviting me to make use of his insanely extensive library in Oakland. His help was invaluable. He knew everyone and pretty much everything about SFF in the USA. We remained friends even after my defection to YA. My case is not unique. Over the years he has helped many young researchers and writers and editors and fans of the genre.

My thoughts go out to everyone at Locus and everyone who cared about Charles.

We’ll all miss him.

  1. I think. It was some time that year. []

You Helped Me

I just listened to a wonderful speech by Paul Gilding about how our current economic model—all obsessed with growth—is doomed. It’s a powerful and energising speech and you should all listen to it.

Gilding also talks a little bit about happiness, about how owning more stuff does not actually make us happy. Or not for very long:

We know that for example, what does make us happy is love, relationships, community and doing something meaningful with your life.

Doing something meaningful with your life. The part of my job that makes me happiest is the impact some of my books have on some of my readers. Every time I get a letter from a reader saying, you helped me I am moved. It makes what I do worthwhile.

I have heard dozens, if not hundreds, of other writers say the exact same thing. It’s what Maureen Johnson said about The Bermudez Triangle that no matter what the banners say the letters from readers talking about how Bermudez had helped them outweighed the banners a million, gazillion, quantaribillion to one.

We may worry about our careers: sales, reviews, prizes, blah blah blah. Why aren’t we bestsellers? And if we are bestsellers—will our next book be a bestseller? But those things are worries. If they do make us happy it rarely lasts long.

Every time a readers tells us that our book helped them deal with their problems, helped them realise that they’re not alone, helped get them through a really awful time in their life, every single time that happens it gives meaning to our work.

You helped me is a tremendously powerful statement. I have heard it more in the four years since my first novel was published than I’d heard it in my entire life prior to being published. It gives me great joy. It helps me get through when the writing is crap. It helps me.

When I was a teenager books were a very powerful force in my life. They helped me. It’s a long time since I was a teen but books are still helping me.

Lying About Who You Are (Updated)

Because my next book is Liar there has been much talk of lying on this blog lately. But for all that talk I haven’t yet touched on people who are forced to lie about who they are in order to survive. Libba Bray posted beautifully and movingly about her gay dad and the ways he was forced to lie:

My dad came of age in the 1940’s in the Deep South. Being gay was more than just not okay then; it was downright dangerous. When my father was involved with a man while stationed in Korea and it was discovered, he was given a dishonorable discharge from the Army, which in effect nullified his service to the country and haunted him the rest of his days. He was unable to buy a house using the G.I. bill and unable to explain to anyone why he couldn’t do so because it would expose his secret. Despite having a family, friends, accomplishments, my father also lived his whole life with a sense of self-loathing, of self-doubt that was painful to bear witness to. Understand—he had his faults. But one of his greatest strengths was his warmth, his fierce love. And it was a shame that he could not extend this love to himself, conditioned as he was over the years by a society that continually told him he was less than. In fact, it told him his very self was intolerable. Dangerous. He should keep himself hidden. And he did.

Throughout my life many of my friends and acquaintances have been homosexual. I have known people who were beaten up because of their sexuality, who lost custody of their kids, were sacked from jobs they were incredibly good at, who were denied access to long-term partners in hospital. All because they chose to love someone who has the same genitals as them and not to lie about it. To this day, even in Australia and the USA, there are costs to being out of the closet.

Right now the US military has a policy that forces people to lie about their sexuality or be thrown out of the armed forces. The policy is called Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. It is an absurd and destructive policy which as led to the US armed forces losing some of their most qualified and dedicated people.

It’s not just gay and lesbians who sometimes have to lie about who they are. I’ll never forget my parents telling me the story of a close friend of theirs, a Sri Lankan man. He was on a train when armed men went from carriage to carriage asking people if they were Tamil and beating them up if they said yes. My parents’ friend was Sinhalese. He stood up to the men and said he was Tamil1 refused to say what he was. They beat him badly. Many of the Tamils on the train that day said they were Sinhalese. I’m pretty sure I would have said the same.

All around the world right now there are people not being honest about who they are to protect their lives, their families, their livelihood. People who are homosexual, transsexual, atheist, Christian, Muslim, one of the many persecuted minority religions around the world. It’s a long list.

Every time I hear someone say that lying is always wrong I think of all the people around the world saving themselves and their families by lying and of the terrible consequences of having to live a lie like Libba’s father did.

I don’t blame their lack of courage in not telling the truth when to do so would mean losing their job/children/lives. I blame the world we live in for making such lies necessary.

  1. Turns out I misremembered the story. Thanks, Jan & John! I think the real version makes Chandra even braver. []

Writing Physical Pain

Pain is extraordinarily hard to write about. Chronic pain is hardest of all. How do you write about a character whose every day, every moment, is shaped around constant pain? And not wear out the reader’s sympathy.

It can be done. It has been done.

And when it is done convincingly; those are often difficult books to read.

Half the time we don’t want to know about the pain of people we know in real life. Part of us wants them to suffer in silence. We’re embarrassed by others’ suffering, bored by it, made to feel helpless in the face of our inability to do anything about it, afraid it might be contagious, upset by it, angered, and a gazillion other complicated feelings.

It’s even hard to write about relatively minor injuries. There are gazillions of books out there where the character suffers an injury only for the writer to forget about it for the rest of the book or totally minimise it. I am guilty of this. Reason is injured in the first book of the Magic or Madness trilogy. Somehow telling the story kept getting in the way of showing Reason’s injury and how she dealt with it. (Since the book takes place over a short period of time the injury would not have healed entirely.) If I could go back and rewrite the trilogy that’s one of the many things I would fix.

Pain is something we all go through to a lesser or greater extent. It’s something we all know intimately. Yet it’s so hard to describe and write about. It’s hard to push beyond “it hurts” and not wallow in it and also hold your reader.

I’d be curious to hear about your experience writing characters in physical pain. (For some reason emotional pain is easy as pie.) And also your experiences reading characters in pain. Are there any writers or books you think handle it particularly well?

Library Stories

It is no secret that I am a huge fan of libraries. Why, I am currently learning to lindyhop—two lessons a week—in order to raise money for the New York Public Library System which is facing $57 million in budget cuts.1

This story of an Uzbekistan immigrant to the US who is now in charge of the Queens Library at Broadway made me teary:

My daughter didn’t know English well; I didn’t know English. I was trying to teach her myself. The library was my life at the time. We took out childrens books to hear that language. We learned 30 words a day. We memorized them, put them on the wall. The next day, another 30 words. After half a year she didn’t need English as a second language anymore. I learned with her. She just graduated from Vassar, Phi Beta Kappa. The library was everything for us. We were in the library every day, me and my husband.

My own library stories are not nearly so dramatic. I remember as a kid the excitement of being taken to the library by my parents and getting to pick out lots of picture books to take home. Much later as a uni student, the library at the University of Sydney, ugly, haunted2 monster that it is, was where I practically lived, studying, finding endless reams of articles, chapters, books and other material for my countless assignments, essays, and, later on, PhD thesis. The excellence of the Sydney Uni Library’s Rare Books departments made my doctoral research possible. Without them my first book, The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, would not have happened. My gratitude to all of them, especially Pauline Dickinson, remains huge.

So, yes, librarians and libraries, I love them.

What about youse lot? Do any of you have some library stories to tell? I’d love to hear them.

  1. Lindyhop progress report to be posted soon. []
  2. Don’t go above the fifith floor! []

Tall or Short. Doesn’t Matter.

Just read a very cool article by Arianne Cohen about being tall in which she shares the following extremely good advice:

I had never dated anyone shorter than me. I spent my time seeking out the 3% of men taller than me, who by definition made me not tall. I was alerted to the error of my ways while interviewing love and relationship expert Dr Betty Dodson. When I told her I only dated up, she exclaimed, “You’re prejudiced! I mean, come on! Develop a sense of humour! It will help. Look in the mirror and say, ‘God damn, we’re a weird-looking couple.’ And then shut it off.”

This was among the most life-changing advice I’ve ever received. Because she’s not talking about height. She’s talking about the way in which we all unwittingly corner ourselves by whittling down our options. Perhaps you only date or befriend people who are your ethnicity, or are overly educated, or in a certain field. And suddenly, just like that, 90% of your pool disappears.

This is so very true. Do not limit your options. Also there’s no correlation between height and moral probity or hygiene or good looks or smarts or anything else.1 So why worry about it? There’s nothing wrong with being short or tall.

Expanding your horizons is awesome advice. However, I have seen that idea expanded to mean you should have no horizons at all: “Don’t have a partner yet? Lower your standards. Don’t expect them to be clean or polite or interested in anything you’re interested in. Take what you can get!”

That’s the biggest pile of rubbish ever spoken. Never lower your standards!

But do let go of trivial reasons to knock people off your list. I once knew a woman who after a really lovely date with a guy she was attracted to decided not to see him again because he put his seat belt on in the cab on the way home. She considered that wussy. Which a) is stupid because it’s not wussy, and b) the dumbest reason ever for not seeing someone again.

I’ve also known folks not go out with someone cause they worry that other people won’t think they’re cool enough. Oh, hell, I mean me. There have been times in my life2 I didn’t go out with someone cause I was worried they weren’t cool enough. My loss. Fortunately for me I’d relaxed about that worry when I met Scott.3 Moral: If you like someone, are attracted to them, and you’re happy when you’re together then why do you care what other people think of them?4

Goes for friends too.

And thus ends my extremely obvious post advising you all not to do something none of you would ever do.

Have any of you not been friends with or dated someone for a really stupid reason? Confess!

Feel free to be anonymous.

  1. Okay, extremely tall people tend to be short lived than the rest of us but that’s about it. []
  2. When I was little. []
  3. I’m kidding. Scott is coolest man in universe. []
  4. You know, unless your friends have figured out that the love of your life is a serial killer or something. Then you should listen to them. []

Why Being a Writer is Better Than Being a Pro Sportsperson

At BEA there was much speculation about the end of publishing as we know it. How fewer books will be published and less money spent on them thus it will be harder for writers to make a living. I’m not actually convinced things are as bad as all that. Besides I don’t think it matters that much to most pro writers’ chances of making a living. It’s just as hard to make a living as a writer in good economic times as it is in bad. I know plenty of brilliant writers who make very little from their writing and only a handful who make anything close to a living wage.

But it’s not nearly as tenuous and fraught as being a pro sportsperson.

As some of you may know I’m a fan of the New York Liberty, New York’s Womens National Basketball Association team, and I follow the entire WNBA closely. This year there’s one less team than last so those players were dispersed to the remaining teams. At the same time all the teams have to reduce their roster to 11 players. That means that the transactions page looks like this:

    May 31
    The Seattle Storm waived La’Tangela Atkinson and Kasha Terry.
    The Atlanta Dream waived Chantelle Anderson.
    The Phoenix Mercury waived Murriel Page.
    The Chicago Sky waived Jennifer Risper.

    May 30
    The Minnesota Lynx waived Kamesha Hairston and Aisha Mohammed.

    May 29
    The Chicago Sky waived Liz Moeggenberg.
    The Atlanta Dream waived Marlies Gipson.
    The New York Liberty waived Abby Waner.

Those are all players being let go. They’ve had a couple of weeks in the pros and now it’s over.

There is a chance of being picked up by other WNBA teams. But there are fewer places—only 143—and more players than ever competing for them. Many talented amazing players are not going to make it. Some of them will find places on overseas teams, but most won’t.

Those are just the players who got picked up by a WNBA team in the first place. There are many many many college players who weren’t drafted in the first place. Some overseas players are also trying to break into those 143 spots available in the WNBA.

And if they do make it onto a team they can be traded at random to another team in another city. Often the press finds out that they’re now going to be living in San Antonio before they do.

Pro basketball players are lucky if their career lasts into their thirties and almost never into their forties. They rarely make it through without at least one serious injury resulting in surgery. When they’re older they wind up with arthritis.

I’m sure as with writing the rewards of doing what you love most for a living outweigh everything else, but, well it looks crazy hard to me and it makes me very glad I’m a writer not a basketball player.

That’s Just How Things are . . .

I just read a locked post about a meeting with executives in a particularly appalling industry in which completely appalling racist and sexist statements were said over and over while the non-executives explained that these statements were appalling and the executives could not comprehend that there was anything appalling about what they were saying. “It’s just the ways things are,” they said.

Which is true as far as it goes. There is an appalling amount of racism and sexism in the world. That’s no excuse for perpetuating it.

Then I read this article in The New York Times about segregated proms in Georgia:1

Students of both races say that interracial friendships are common at Montgomery County High School. Black and white students also date one another, though often out of sight of judgmental parents. “Most of the students do want to have a prom together,” says Terra Fountain, a white 18-year-old who graduated from Montgomery County High School last year and is now living with her black boyfriend. “But it’s the white parents who say no . . . They’re like, if you’re going with the black people, I’m not going to pay for it.”

. . .

[T]hey questioned their white friends’ professed helplessness in the face of their parents’ prejudice (“You’re 18 years old! You’re old enough to smoke, drive, do whatever else you want to. Why aren’t you able to step up and say, ‘I want to have my senior prom with the people I’m graduating with?’ ”).

The black prom is open to whoever wants to attend. The white one is not. So much for post-racist USA, eh?

The white students haven’t worked hard to change things because that means bucking their parents, which is a lot of bother. Who’d buy them their fancy prom clothes? Plus, segregated proms are just the way things are in their part of Georgia. Why rock the boat?

I get laziness. I’m typing this in my pjs. There are times in my life when I could have spoken up and didn’t, when I didn’t fight hard enough. Being white and coasting on your privilege is easy. Taking risks is hard.

But you know what’s harder?

Living with racism every day of your life.

I’ll wager that, like me, most of those white students aren’t forced to deal with racism on a daily basis. They can slide on by without thinking about it for days, weeks, in some cases, years.

There are so many reasons to rock the segregation boat. In this case, those white students would wind up with a prom that’s more fun, with way more of their friends, and more importantly, they’d be part of something they would be proud of for the rest of their lives.

  1. I noticed something about that article. Two white students were quoted with their full names. Two black students are mentioned by full name, one by her first name, and two of them is quoted, but there’s a series of quotes at the end of the article that are attributed to unnamed black students. I was wondering if that was because the students declined to be named. But there are photos of them here. Was it because the reporter failed to jot down their names? A decision of one of the editors of the piece? Whatever the reason it struck me as an odd note in an otherwise excellent article. []

Invisible Audiences? Invisible to Whom?

One of the discoveries I made while doing research for my PhD thesis, which ultimately became The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, was that women had always read and written science fiction. I found letters to science fiction magazines from women as early as the late 1920s, a short story contest winner in 1927.1 This was contrary to so many people’s views that there were no women engaged with science fiction until the 1950s. (Though some said not till the 1960s.) There were also a few women who attended science fiction conventions from the very beginning.

As I read through fanzines and science fiction magazines from the 1920s onwards, I found many article dismissing these women, which is largely what Battle of the Sexes is about:

The letters were from bored housewives with nothing else to do, the stories by women were crap and only published cause it was like a dog walking on its hind legs, and the women at conventions were only there because their boyfriend/husband dragged them along. And look how few in numbers! See? There are no women in science fiction!2

What those arguments have always failed to recognise is that the majority of readers/viewers of anything are not active in their engagement with a genre/show. Vastly more people were reading science fiction magazines than ever wrote a letter to the editor of an sf magazine or fanzine or went to a con. There are always huge numbers of people who are avid readers/viewers who are never counted by the people who are active in their engagement so those active fans start to assume that they are the centre of their genre and no one else exists.

Throughout my time as a doctoral student (which was pre-internet) I would meet people I never would have pegged as science fiction fans, who upon hearing of my research would start reminiscing about the sf magazines they read as a kid, of the Heinlein/Le Guin/McCaffrey books they adored, and their love affair with Star Trek/Doctor Who/Blake’s Seven. Most of these people had never heard of fandom, had no idea there were conventions etc. They just loved science fiction on their lonesome. I met others who had heard of it but there was no way they would have attended a con because back then it was all white boys and they knew they wouldn’t fit in.

Science fiction cons have been white and male for most of their existence. I remember the first con I went to more than a decade ago. I was terrified. It was mostly male. And, yes, I was sexually harassed. (A very common experience for women at cons.) But I also met many wonderful people who have remained friends to this day and before too long I discovered WisCon, the feminist convention, which was a much more hospitable place for me.3

There has long been speculation about why there are so few non-white fans of the genre. I have always been convinced, based on my research, that it’s hard to know how big that readership is. If as a woman in the 1990s I felt uncomfortable walking into a convention that was about 30% female how much more uncomfortable would someone not white feeling walking into a space that was 99% white?

Over at Deadbrowalking: the People of Color Deathwatch there’s a wild unicorn check in where people of colour who read/watch genre and love it are putting up their hands. So far there have been more than 900 comments. And many of the people talk about their parents’ love of science fiction and their grandparents too. Those 900 plus declarations are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more fans out there who don’t own computers, or if they do, have no idea that Deadbrowalking exists.

As I read through the pages and pages of comments over there I couldn’t help thinking about all the “Science Fiction is Dying” panels at cons I’ve seen over the years. I’ve always been bewildered by that claim and the prevalence of those panels. But it wasn’t until I read all the wild unicorn comments that I realised what those panels are really about. They’re talking about their brand of science fiction: the stuff that began in the late 1920s and and has been largely white, male, and all too frequently misogynist and racist. They’re not talking about the other streams that were growing up in Japan and China and Europe and, yes, the USA and elsewhere. They’re not talking about feminist science fiction or manga or anime or YA. None of that counts to them.

They’re saying that the white, male-dominated science fiction of boys with their hard science toys is dying.

And, you know what? I won’t weep if they’re right.

  1. Which is essentially when USian science fiction began. []
  2. Not an actual quote. Just my paraphrase. []
  3. Though I know of a few cases of women being harassed there too. []

Hurtful words

There are many words I like the sound of, really enjoy saying out loud, that offend and hurt people. I was once quite addicted to the word “spaz.” When it was pointed out to me (I was young) what it actually meant and how it could hurt other people I tried really hard not to use anymore.

I slip though.

I used to use “gay” to mean uncool. Despite having grown up with lots of gay and lesbian friends. I didn’t even make the connection till I started hearing people at school use “gay” in deliberately hateful, homophobic ways. I stopped using it pronto.

I have used the word “girlie” and told people not to behave like a girl. I am a girl.

“Spaz” and “lame” and “mongy” and “crip” and “gimp” are all words that say being able-bodied is in every way better than not being able bodied—that the non-abled bodied people aren’t as human.

And these are just the obvious words. There are so many ways in which assumptions about sexuality, gender, able -bodiedness, skin colour are woven into our everyday metaphors. “White” is good in a million different ways. The “white hats” are the good guys. (And all too often white actors are the good guys in movies. Don’t get me started on the casting of the Avatar movie.) White lies are less bad lies. “Are you blind?!” “Are you deaf?!” are often asked in situations where there is a moral failing in not seeing and not hearing. It’s not far off implying that there’s something morally wrong with being blind or deaf.

But I have gay friends who use “gay” to mean uncool. I used to fence with a paraplegic guy who called himself “mongy”, “para” and “crip”. If they use those words that then way why can’t I?

Because they have earned that right. Because they are the ones who are hurt by those words. Because they are mocking themselves, which is entirely different from being mocked by someone else who does not understand or care about them. Who is saying these words makes all the difference in the world. And, yes, white, straight, affluent men should be held to a different standard. They should be more careful about what they say. They have far more power to hurt and discriminate.

The problem with talking about hurtful words and language is that so often it’s contextual. There are times and places where you can deploy these words without causing offence. Although I am fond of swearing I don’t on my blog because I know it offends some of my readers. Of course, I still run into trouble over what constitutes swearing. I have offended people using words I don’t even think of as swearing. It’s tricky. All of this stuff is tricky. But just because it’s not easy doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all work hard not to offend people. Especially people who are in weaker positions than we are.

I have no problem with people calling me a honky or calling me an Aussie as though that’s a bad thing because there’s no long history of discrimination for being either of those things. Nor do I feel even slightly bad about referring to English people as “Poms”. That is not a word with a long history of oppression. English people are not being beaten up, kept out of jobs, and denied their civil rights because of their Englishness. And, yeah, I do think people who whinge about it should get over themselves. Besides, you pommy bastards, you know we Aussies say it with love and affection and no Colonial resentment whatsoever. Some of my best friends are Poms . . .

I still love the sound of “spazmatron”. I love how it feels exploding out of my mouth. But that pleasure pales compared to the pain it can cause. I wish “spaz” had a different origin so I could keep using it. But it doesn’t and it really does hurt people.

My real world policy on hurtful language is that I try to avoid using it. I try to avoid causing offense. Sometimes I fail. Probably often I fail. I don’t think that makes me a bad person. I don’t think anyone is a a bad person for saying thoughtless things.1 I think you’re a bad person if you don’t care that your words hurt people.

How does all of this translate into my fiction?

I have seen many authors attacked for deploying words in their fiction that people are offended by. Often there seems to be a confusion between the views of characters in a book and the author’s views. Many people seem to think that authors believe every single thing every character in their books say.

That view is absurd.

In Magic’s Child Jay-Tee and Tom have a debate about religion. Jay-Tee is a devout Catholic, Tom is an atheist. If authors’ views and characters’ views are identical then I must be a devout Catholic atheist. And my head must explode several times a day.

I have created teenage characters who use “lame” and “spaz” without thinking. Just as many do in the real world. They say and do things I don’t approve of. My foremost responsibility in writing stories is that they be true. That I avoid as many false notes as I possibly can. Sometimes my characters use hurtful words and behave badly. And frankly, if they were perfectly behaved at all times it would be a lot harder generating any plot, and the books would be extremely dull.

Although many of my books have fantastic elements I work very hard to ground them in the real. To accurately reflect the world I live in. Using words that some people find hurtful is part of that. Writing about the ways people hurt one another is also part of that.

You could almost say that’s what my job is.

  1. You can be thoughtless and hurtful and out and out vicious without using a single word one of these words. []

21st Century Etiquette

Me and a friend have been jokingly putting together a list of no-nos to go in our Guide Book to 21st Century Etiquette. Sadly, there are many things we disagree about. My friend seems to think there are places where monkeys should not be allowed to go. She’s also against burping. I am a monkey and burp lover.

However, there is one area where we are in total agreement: PDA and phone etiquette. Especially this one, which should be the number one LAW of 21st Century etiquette:

Do not text, email, tweet or make phone calls at your table at a restaurant. Your phone/PDA should remain out of sight throughout the meal. If the neeed to communicate with the outside world is urgent go outside or to the rest room.

Every time someone does that they’re basically saying to everyone else at the table: you do not interest me.

It’s extremely rude. Don’t do it.

Are we alone in being appalled by this particular behaviour?

Any of you want to contribute to our Guide Book? What etiquette breaches drive you crazy?

Management skills

As some of you know my next book is set in New York City in the early 1930s. I’ve been reading many accounts of the Great Depression, learning what happened. The why it happened is a lot harder to understand than the effects. But the current world-wide financial crisis means that there are many people speculating about what happened back then and how it relates to now. Great for my novel!

I was fascinated by Background Briefing’s recent documentary about the emergence of business schools and their effect on corporate culture and its relationship to the current crisis: “MBA: Mostly Bloody Awful“. This program is genius and you must all listen to it!

It’s always struck me as strange that someone could walk into an industry, like say publishing, armed with nothing but a degree in management and start managing people without knowing anything about that industry, or what it is the people in publishing do. Why, yes, I have seen this.

I came into the publishing industry knowing a lot about books and reading. I’d even hung out with authors and editors and other publishing folks for many years before I sold my first books. And, yet, I knew almost nothing about the industry. And frankly five years later I’m still learning. So colour me skeptical that a total newcomer to the industry can walk in and start running it. Selling books is not the same as selling sprockets.1

Ditto for any industry. In the olden days people used to start at the bottom and work their way up. It made for bosses who knew everything about their company and their industry. It made for good management. According to the doco bringing in people trained in “management” with no hands on experience has been a disaster.

Which is not surprising—most people in most industries learn how to do their job on the job. A friend of mine’s a doctor. She said she learned more in her first year as a resident than in the many years of her medical degree. And she’s learnt buckets more working in ER and as a GP over the last few years. So is some wet-behind-the-ears MBA type going to suddenly know how to manage a business in an industry they know nothing about?

How does all of this apply to my book? The 1930s is the beginning of the era when business schools such as Harvard’s were beginning to make inroads into general business culture. Okay, slightly tenuous. But, trust me, is all grist to my mill.

Or maybe I just like ragging on MBAs . . .

  1. That goes either way. Of course, now I’m wondering what a sprocket is. []

Friends make everything better

I have been saying for some time now that friendships are every bit as important as family and romantic partners. Now there’s scientific proof:

A 10-year Australian study found that older people with a large circle of friends were 22 percent less likely to die during the study period than those with fewer friends. A large 2007 study showed an increase of nearly 60 percent in the risk for obesity among people whose friends gained weight. And last year, Harvard researchers reported that strong social ties could promote brain health as we age.

“In general, the role of friendship in our lives isn’t terribly well appreciated,” said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. “There is just scads of stuff on families and marriage, but very little on friendship. It baffles me. Friendship has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships.”

What she said. It’s always puzzled me that there’s so much emphasis on romantic love and family and so little on friendship. Don’t get me wrong, I come from a very close knit family. I count my parents and my sister amongst my closest friends. And yet my non-family friends have been extraordinarily important to me over the years and helped get me through some really tough times. They’ve definitely been more important to me than any of my romantic partners (other than Scott who is my best friend).

I have friends I’ve been close to for more than twenty years. I’ve never been with any romantic partner that long. The worst breakup of my life was with a friend, not a romantic partner. I know I am not alone in this. When I’m miserable I IM or email my friends. “Tell me something happy!” I’ll demand and they do. When I have good news there are more than a dozen people that I simply HAVE TO TELL.

Last year, researchers studied 34 students at the University of Virginia, taking them to the base of a steep hill and fitting them with a weighted backpack. They were then asked to estimate the steepness of the hill. Some participants stood next to friends during the exercise, while others were alone.

The students who stood with friends gave lower estimates of the steepness of the hill. And the longer the friends had known each other, the less steep the hill appeared.

“People with stronger friendship networks feel like there is someone they can turn to,” said Karen A. Roberto, director of the center for gerontology at Virginia Tech. “Friendship is an undervalued resource. The consistent message of these studies is that friends make your life better.

Don’t you love that? Friends make mountains less steep. Mine have made my life immeasurably better. Bless you all!

One of the many reasons I love YA books so much is that many of them are about friendship. It’s no accident that the most important relationships in the Magic or Madness trilogy and How To Ditch Your Fairy are between the protags and their friends.

What are your favourite friendships in books?

A day in Surry Hills (Updated)

Last February, my friend Sarah Dollard visited us in Sydney on her way from Melbourne to Cardiff where she works on the tellie show, Merlin. Yes, she’s very cool.

Larks were had. Most especially on the 16th of Feb, which was a glorious sunny day unlike today in NYC which is cold and rainy. We went for a long walk around Surry Hills, the neighbourhood I live in. Sarah took many photographs. She is most excellenter taker of photos. Looking at them makes me very homesick indeed. *Sigh* Continue reading

Researching NYC in the early 1930s

The book I’m working on is set in New York City in the 1930s. It’s the biggest, most ambitious book I’ve ever undertaken because I’m trying to write a snapshot of the city in the early thirties. Not just rich white people but everyone: American-born, immigrant, black, white, Chinese, gay, straight, servants, bosses, employed, unemployed.

It’s an impossible goal. No one book can capture everything. Or even come close but I like having crazy, unattainable writing goals.

And as you can imagine the research is immense.

So far one of the hardest parts has been finding letters and diaries by people, black or white, who weren’t reasonably well-off. There are letters for earlier periods but by the 1930s people weren’t writing as much.

The reasons are varied. Those who had jobs worked such insane hours for such low pay that there was little time. Those who had access to a phone—and there’d usually be one per boarding house, for example—would call home once a month or so instead of writing because that would work out cheaper than using paper and pen and buying a stamp. But many didn’t have jobs. They could hardly afford food, let alone paper.

Though there is collection of letters that were written to Franklin Delano Roosevelt:

    Selma, Alabama
    Sept, 1935

    Dear Mr. President,
    Please, please, dont let our checks be stop they say that they have close up. We can’t even get by now, what shall we do.
    Please when they open Work for the Women let us have a fire. our legs are acking now where they work us all the cold Winter And we did not have a fire. Please send us some more good meat. for we Cant get any it is so high. School is open We haven’t got any clotheing for our children and our self. Some got dresses and some did not. What shall we do. it is getting cold And we havent got no Coal + no wood we just can get a little food. Please see about us and when you send Any cover to Any thing We hope all Will get Some, Some get and the other dont, some get a raise And some get a cut. We thank you for All your are doing. Thank you.
    The Colored

    Burlington, Iowa
    Nov. 4-36
    President + Mrs. Roosevelt
    Congratulating you first on your success in staying in the “White House” for which I am well pleased.
    I want to write just briefly about my work in the campaign.
    First let me say most everyone takes for granted “Coloured”1 voters are Republican. We owe that party a debt.
    I worked day and night proving to the U.S.A. voters that phrase is not true. I think this election will convince all, because the Negro of today are more educated. Of course when there are more in one locality it is easier for them to prove their ability to fill worth while positions.
    I wasn’t working in this campaign to fill an office. I was working for the betterment of this community in which I live, and the men I worked so hard for I feel are real men that will back me up and show a few of my race folks here a little consideration.
    I struggle here trying to educate my boy (19 yrs.) and girl (17yrs.) and trying to keep this locailty a haven for them so to speak.
    I worked without pay so as to prove to the people here I wasn’t working for a personal cause.
    I’m not on relief. My husband is a Railroad chef, I worked at odd jobs since where I live my vocation isn’t patronized very much. Would like to obtain Ia. licinse but do not feel I can afford spending that much right now right on the verge of winter.
    Hope that sometime during your future talks over the radio you will mention what the value of the coloured votes has been to you if you think they are worth it.
    Trust that this letter will reach your hands.
    Happiness and Success to Both of You.
    Mrs. I. H.

Both letters are from Down & Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the Forgotten Man edited by Robert S. McElvaine. It’s a treasure trove. As you no doubt noticed, neither letter is from New York City. So far, I’ve not found equivalent letters from black New Yorkers. But I’m still looking. Any tips from you, my faithful readers, would be most welcome.

I have however found a wonderful book by Cheryl Lynn Greenberg, Or Does It Explode? Black Harlem in the Great Depression which very succinctly spells out just how disproportionately black Americans were affected by the Great Depression. They were already being paid less than white workers, but pretty soon they were lucky to be paid at all, as they were usually the first to be laid off or as the saying went “first fired, last hired.” In 1931 the black male unemployment rate in Manhattan was 25.4%. For white men it was 19.4. Black women had an unemployment rate of 28.5%; white women 11.2%. (And Manhattan had one of the lower unemployment rates—in Chicago in the same year: black men 60.2%, white men 32.4%, black women 75.0%, white women 17.4%.) A large part of the reason there were so many unemployed black women was that white women could no longer afford help at home. Also there were far more white women who stayed at home and did not seek work at all.

As I work on this book I keep getting Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” stuck in my head:2

    Them that’s got shall have
    them that’s not shall lose

It’s a beautiful song but so very sad.

  1. The “u” in “coloured” is original to the letter. Not this Australian introducing an error. []
  2. Technically I shouldn’t be listening to it. Was written by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog in 1939 and not recorded till 1941. []