Untitled.

I have a little boy. He likes math and sciences. He likes stories. He likes Beyblades. And he likes wearing hoodies.

Right now, he’s seven years old. Right now, he’s adorable. And right now, I’m terrified.

I’m terrified because right now, he’s going through a major growth spurt. He’ll continue growing. He’ll get taller than me. He’ll get as tall as his dad. Maybe he’ll even go over. Who knows. But at some point, he’ll get big.

And he’ll stop being adorable.

Girls at school would still think him cute. Friends, even the extended "acquaintances" on Facebook, will think he’s cute. But let’s say he’s walking down the street, and a woman is on the same side of the street, and she looks at him, and crosses over to the other side. Or say a police car slows down just a little, just a little, to watch him.

He would’ve crossed that line into being…suspicious.

A few years ago, on his first day of school, the teachers mistook him for another kid with the same first name. So they put him on a different bus, and sent that kid to me. A frightened, teary-eyed Mexican kid.

"How," I railed at the bus driver, "could you think my son is Mexican?"

But you know what? He does. Curly brown hair. Big brown eyes. Light brown skin. If you never met my son before, or never seen who his parents looked like, you’d be hard-pressed to say he doesn’t look Mexican. Or Hispanic. He will have to deal with this. As a family, we all will have to deal with this.

And it still makes him a person of color, which in this world, will be a strike against him.

I suppose this is where I write that being Christian, I am to trust in God for his safety. That I am to pray every day and night for God to send his angels to protect him, and to keep him out of harm’s way. This, I have been told by countless pastors and Bible study leaders, is all one can hope to do when one feels helpless and powerless.

But it is not enough. It is never enough. After all, Trayvon still died, didn’t he?

So right now, I’m terrified. I want to lock my son up. I want to put bricks on top of his head to keep him from growing. I want to shield him from all the weirdos and freaks and police who feel they need to slow down to check him out and people who take a look at him and instantly see "Other". I want to hide him from all the well meaning folk who’ll say, "Oh don’t worry, he’s mixed. He won’t have as much trouble as say darker-skinned boys…"

Because that’s not right. That’s not right at all. No one should have to worry about their kids walking down the street and being counted as suspicious. It shouldn’t matter what color of skin they are. It shouldn’t.

We say that, over and over. And then another kid gets shot.

I have seen too much death these past few weeks. Not family members or close friends. People I barely knew deaths. Celebrities who have been part of my life growing up deaths. Deaths I hear in the news. Ongoing wars.  Probably would be better if I shut off the internet for a while.

I feel helpless. Powerless. Terrified.

And you know what? All the chatter about reproductive rights, about freedom of religion, politics, gay marriage, Romney says this, Obama says that. It’s all so much noise. So much fucking noise. I could give a rat’s ass about it. Really. Because right now, while everyone yells and blabbers and screams and push each other, all I’m going to do is go into the other room and make sure my son is covered up, because he’s been feeling a little sick. And I’m going to look for another book to read after Wind in the Willows, because he enjoys it when we cuddle together and read at bedtime. And I have to return the Muppet Show DVDs to the library, because they’re overdue, because my son loves to watch them, and I like sharing my childhood with him.

And I have to figure out how to talk to him about being black, and how that might be a detriment to him. But also, how that is the greatest thing in the world.

And I’m going to pray every day and night for God to send his angels to protect him. Because I’m his mother. That’s what I do.

I have a son. And he will always be adorable.

Book Review: "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" and Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD (or how I moderated for the very first time a race panel with the longest name ever at Wiscon)

(Scene: a meeting room filled with people. At the front stands an empty podium. LaShawn soon enters from the back and makes her way to the podium, setting a briefcase on the floor beside it. She squats to open the briefcase, rifles through it for a moment, then nods in satisfaction and stands. She adjusts the microphone to her level and coughs. The room goes silent.)

LS: Hello and welcome to the book review with the longest title ever presented at The Cafe.

(Polite laughter and applause)

LS: Thank you all for coming. I wanted to do this book review in an interview format because, as you know, the reason I read the book was because I had been "chosen" (she makes quotation marks with her fingers) to moderate a panel based on this book at Wiscon. Despite the fact, you know, I’d never actually BEEN to a Wiscon panel. (glares at a table towards the back–then switches back to her enthusiastic expression). Luckily, I was able to rise up to the challenge.

(Woman in audience): I understand that you had a wacko who emailed you a 10-page document comparing atheists with people of color?

LS: (wincing) Wacko is such a strong word. Let’s just say he didn’t get why people of color needed to have a safe place to meet at Wiscon. But yeah, that email was sent to our panel two weeks ago. I didn’t exactly read it through. But the other panel members knew who he was and had a plan just in case he showed up and tried to disrupt the panel.

(woman): And did he come?

LS: Actually, he did.

(The audience gasps.)

LS: yes, but he didn’t disrupt the panel  like I thought he would. In fact, he said that he really appreciated hearing what we had to say and he thinks having safe spots for people of color is a good idea.

(The audience ahhs. Another woman raises her hand.)

Woman: How did you change his mind? Did you discuss some of Tatum’s arguments in your panel?

LS: (scratching head) Ummm…to be honest…we didn’t exactly talk about her book much. What we did was talk about our backgrounds, how we felt like we didn’t fit in to our respective race groups, how when we got to Wiscon, we met others of our race who could also be considered "weirdos", "nerds", "geeks" and "oreos", and just how, for the first time, we felt like we’ve belonged, that ‘we’ had a black table of our own now, and we wanted to explore that to the fullest.

A man: So you didn’t mention the book at all?

LS: Oh, on the contrary. We referred to the book a lot when describing our experiences. Take me, for instance. Up until last year, I would have looked at Tatum’s book and said, "Well that book doesn’t describe me. I never sat at the black table when I was a kid." But Tatum describes goes on to explain how black kids deal with their identity, how some kids live in both worlds where they see themselves as emissaries, and when I read that, I thought, holy cow, that’s me. So we did a lot of referral’s to the book. But the panel was more personal in that we were sharing our stories. I didn’t intend it to happen that way. I had planned for us to share a bit about ourselves, then I had some questions for the panel that I made when I read the book, then have the rest of the time opened to the audience for Q&A.  I did get to a couple of questions on my list, but we on the panel shared so much, I just sat back and let the stories flow. It hardly felt like I was moderating at all.

Another man: So the audience actually just sat there and listened?

LS: I was surprised they actually seemed interested in what we had to say. I didn’t think they would care all that much, but you could see it—they really wanted to listen to us and our stories. That was pretty nice. Of course, it helped that it was a small audience—about ten people, so it made for a nice intimate setting. And we did open it to comments towards the end.

Man: Sounds like you had a good time.

LS: Yeah, no drama either. (laughs) I lucked out in that regard.

Woman: But you still haven’t told us what you thought of the book.

LS: Oh yeah, the book. Awesome book. I think it should be required reading  for all colleges, heck, even high school. The beginning had a lot of psychological jargon that swam before my eyes, but once you get past the foreword and first chapter, it starts getting interesting. I especially appreciated Tatum’s advice in introducing children to the concepts of race, and starting them early in learning about advocacy. I have a six-year-old who received a picture book for a present that made me feel uncomfortable in that it showed several Mexican stereotypes. My response would be either downplay the stereotypes (for instance, read straightforward as opposed to reading the "dialect") or avoid the book altogether ("why don’t we get another book instead?") Tatum’s suggestions challenged me enough so that the next time my son brought the book, I told him okay, I’ll read it, but then I told him how it made me uncomfortable. We had a small talk about race, very simple, very short, but still effective in the long run. I like the fact that I’m no longer ignoring it, but opening a dialogue with my son that I hope will continue well after he becomes an adult.

Man: So you enjoyed the book.

LS: For the most part. (she crouches and rummages through the briefcase until she finds the book and pulls it out). I made a few notes in it. (turns the book so the audience sees all the post-it notes sticking from it) The only quibble I had with it was that since the book was written in 1999, I wondered how the internet influenced identity. Now, the version I read was the 1999 version. I understand there’s been a 2003 version, but I don’t know if it talks about the internet at all. I’d be curious to hear a panel on that, (frowns) but don’t ask me to moderate it. Please…

(The audience laughs. The woman who spoke first raises her hand.)

Woman: So how would you rate the book?

LS: Definitely five tables out of five. As for the panel, four tables out of five. But that’s only because halfway through the panel, all the coffee and tea I drunk out of nervousness and caffeine caught up with me, and I really, really had to pee, but because I was moderating, it would’ve looked stupid if I got up from my own panel and went to the bathroom, so I had to sit there in agony, while…hey…where’s everyone going? What? What I say? Oh come on…when Ellen Klages left, y’all were in hysterics…

And now, a word about John Mayer, because enough hasn’t been said about him. Seriously.

Before you say anything, yes, I know.

I know the whole John Mayer thing has been done to death. I know he’s a total idiot. I know that we shouldn’t take seriously anything what he says.

I know there are thousands upon thousands of blogs out there saying exactly what I’m going to say here. I know that what I say here won’t add anything new to the outcry, that there’s a good chance it will get lost among all the comments and the mocking and the boycotts and the suck-it-ups.

But it’s been a long time since I had a good rant at the Cafe,  and I need to get this out of my system so I can move on with my life. Because frankly, it’s bugging me.

Personal life detail rant to follow. Standby. Standby…

+++

A long time ago, I realized I was attracted to white guys.

How I came to that realization will have to be the subject of an different post. Suffice it to say, by the time I reached college, I was open to the thought that I would most likely date and marry a white guy.

Most of the family advice I got at the time was along the lines of "you’re setting yourself up to get hurt". And it was true—my heart got broken over and over again by guys who weren’t interested . My least favorite were those who were open to interracial relationships, but only wanted to date Asian girls. The worst? Those who were open to interracial dating, and then would proceed to point out—to me—girls they would like to date. "She’s cute," they would say, pointing to a girl walking by. Or they would talk and talk about some girl they met, how pretty she was, etc., etc.,

And really, all I heard was, "This girl is so much prettier than you, LaShawn. This girl is far more attractive than you. You’re a nothing, LaShawn. You don’t have long hair and you don’t have porcelain skin and you’re not slender. You’re not pretty, so let me just say you’re a friend and hey, let me tell you more about this girl that you’ll never, ever will be—"

And now, years and years later, here’s John Mayer. I already knew he was a jerk, but prior to the Playboy article (or the Rolling Stone article), I didn’t really care all that much, because I liked Room for Squares. But that article dredged up those same emotions of self-doubt and low self-esteem. Part of this could be that my church is doing a sermon series on freeing oneself from the past, so the past has been on my mind a lot.

What surprised me, though, was how upset I got over the interview. Upset and angry. At first, I was so upset that I considered tossing out all my John Mayer CDs. Then I posted a link from Salon that I thought adequately summed up my feelings. After I posted the link, though, I did a little more thinking about it, and realized, no it didn’t.

With all the images that are bombarding around us on what’s considered "standards of beauty", I’ve gone throughout my life ignoring those standards. They didn’t apply to me, and I soon learned that those who searched for those high standards weren’t worth my time. It took me a long time to figure out the beauty standard for myself.

I’d forgotten that in my past, while I knew guys who broke my heart, I also knew guys who really, genuinely liked me. And I did date. The past has a tendency to do that—dredge up all the worst parts of itself, but not the best. And one of those guys I dated liked me so much, he asked me to marry him. For the past eleven years, he tells me every day how beautiful I am. He ogles me, treats me like a queen, and does everything he can to seduce me into his arms.

Thinking about that makes me feel sort of sad for John Mayer.

He’s living the rock and roll life, and predictable, it’s turned him into a douche. Or maybe he was like that beforehand, I don’t know.  But he’s pretty much closed himself off to any black female relationship. Oh well. Maybe it’s for the best. Shame really. He don’t know what he’s missing.

As for me, I can honestly say that at age 38-soon-to-be-39, I have never felt more beautiful. Part of it is my hubby telling me so, yes. Part of it is also the locs, which, if you allow me for pure indulgence, I absolute rock in. But most of it, I think, stems from the fact that I’m a writer. I’ve claimed that as an essential part of myself, and it has given me confidence that I never had before. Or maybe it’s because I’m older. I don’t know. But I don’t need John Mayer, or any celebrity, or anyone in media, or anyone period, to dictate to me what standard of beauty I need to rise to. I find that in the gifts God’s given me, in my personality, in my health, in the way I take care of myself, in my laughter, and my love.

Oh, and my locs. Because I have to stress it again: I rock the locs.

+++

Personal rant over. Returning to regular blog.

Well, I had a post all set for updating things on Willow and my other writing projects, but that will have to wait until next time. Thanks for letting me rant. I think I’m going to give my hubby a big hug…and other things that cannot be mentioned here…

A response to Avatar and other Messiah-complex stories (or, come on, LaShawn, it’s been several weeks since you wrote on your blog. Post something already!)

I had the pleasure of watching Avatar a couple of weeks ago. You don’t need to know the details on how I got there (it did involve sneaking into an Enterprise cargo van, but that’s beside the point).  But suffice it to say, I went in knowing full well that the storyline would be utter crap and to turn my brain off and enjoy the eye candy. And it would’ve worked, too, except we had snuck away from a conference, and I was bone tired, which made my eyes watery, which mucked up the 3-D glasses I wore, which made me take my glasses off, which made me not see the gorgeous visuals, which made me wonder why the heck Jake Sully was the only one to figure out to jump on the big bird dragon beastie by flying above it. I mean really. He was the only one? Really? Was the Na’Vi that dumb they couldn’t figure something as simple as that on their own—? And even if they were that dumb, if Jake wanted to get on their good side, why not tell the Na’Vi girl’s rival and let him do it instead, and in doing so save face, gain the ally the right way–

No, no. I told myself I was not going to write a review. See, there are tons of reviews out there describing all the problems of Avatar. There are also lots of websites that mock the movie, and deservedly so. In fact, I’m finding all the dialogue about Avatar to be more intriguing than the movie itself.

And it got me to thinking. Sure, I can whine and moan along with everyone else about the white-man-as-savior themes in Avatar. But that’s just all talk. What can I do, as a black woman, to actively respond to stories like Avatar?

1. Don’t see the movie

Obviously, I failed this one, but it’s okay. When I first heard about Avatar’s plot, I didn’t really care to see it. Then I heard all the different takes on it and thought, well, maybe it would be worth seeing. And I don’t regret it…even though I had my watering eyes shut and predicting the story 15 scenes out, the scenery was pretty…at least, what I saw of it. And in all honesty, I would go see it again so I can look at it with a sufficiently shut-down mind. And Zoe Saldana is also in it. I didn’t know that the first time.

But I can say with all honesty that I won’t see The Blind Side. Whereas I knew Avatar and looked forward to its science fiction-ness, I have seen the Blind Side in so many other plots and movies that, well, I’m pretty sick of it. I really don’t have the desire to see another poor black athlete get ‘adopted’ by a white family. It’s also because I’m mainly turned off by "poor athlete gets a leg up in life" in general. It’s okay. No big deal. If I don’t want to watch a movie, I don’t watch it. Unless my hubby’s watching it on cable…but then again all we got is basic channels, so that’s all right too…

2. Make an effort to go outside the box

I’m currently reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin. It’s an awesome book in that it’s probably the first ever epic fantasy I’ve ever read that’s done by a black woman. And it is good. Real good. So good I’ve been shilling it out to whoever I meet.

That what rocks about the state the fantasy genre is in now. There are tons, literally tons, of stories out there that are being published by black writers like Jemisin and Nisi Shawl and Nalo Hopkinson and Nnedi Okorafor (and one day, yours truly 😉 ) And it’s not just black writers, but also Latino, Asian, Indian, Filipino. Now has never been a more awesome time to read and see culturally diverse stories. They are out there, waiting to be heard, to be read, to shown their own point of view. Check out these writers, or places like Verb Noire, who aim to put out culturally diverse stories.

3. Make up your own story

Okay, true story. When I started reading the Narnia books, when I got to The Silver Chair, I read the book fantasizing that Jill was black. No lie. Her description was vague enough that I was able see her as black. Then they started doing the movies, and that pretty much depressed me. I don’t know if they will ever get to the Silver Chair part, but if they do, I’m guessing that a black girl won’t get cast in Jill’s role, and a little part of me will die a sad little death.

(And that’s my excuse for not watching the Narnia movies. Absolutely truth.)

But the thing is, the hunger to see fantasy stories with girls with skin and hair as brown as my own drove me to start writing. It wasn’t a response to all those people who say, "Oh, if you didn’t like it, go write your own." But you know what, it does need to be a response. Because all that is being put out there now isn’t really representing the diversity of our country. Writers can fix that by planting their butts into chairs and writing.

And on the same vein…

4. Students of color, stay in school!

We writers can only do so much. It is those within the publishing and the entertainment industry who give us the means to get our stories out into the public. But as long as the entertainment industry remains homogenous, they’ll keep putting out what they think is the stories the public will like.

The entertainment industry needs to be diversified.

We need more cultural diverse people in the entertainment industry. In film industry and in publishing. And not just on the lower levels. We need them in the higher levels as well, where decisions are made. A couple of posts ago, I wrote about the Racefail happening at Zondervan.  One of the blogs I mention, The Suburban Christian, wrote this on his post:

We need Asian Americans (and people of all ethnic and cultural backgrounds!) as authors, editors, marketers, designers, journalists, bloggers, publishing executives. It’s likely that this Deadly Viper incident would not have happened if Zondervan had had more Asian Americans on staff. So Asian American community, as Paul Tokunaga says in Invitation to Lead,it’s time to step up. Write books. Apply for jobs at Zondervan (and other Christian publishers). Get in the game.

Amen!

And finally:

5. For writers and anyone involved in making a story—WRITE THE BEST STORY YOU CAN

Do you know why I disliked Avatar? It wasn’t so much the white-Messiah trope. I accepted that part. No, what really bothered me was that the whole entire movie felt like Cameron wrote a first draft and said, eh, that’ll do. I mean, come on, Unobtainium. Seriously?! You couldn’t think of anything else? If it wasn’t a movie with aspirations, then yeah, okay, that would, in fact, be hilarious. But it didn’t work with the awe-inspiring graphics.  Either put a decent plotline with the great graphics or go all out and make the crassest, stupidest movie you can. YOU CAN’T BE A PIMP AND A PROSTITUTE TOO!!!

(Right. White Stripe Raving. That means it’s time to wind down.)

Look, if we as writers of color are meant to be taken seriously, that means our work needs to be good too. And that means being hard on ourselves, looking at our stories and thinking, is this clichéd? Does it work? Are there any plot holes? Is this a tired story or does it mean anything? Anyone can put out lame-ass work–Cameron sure as hell did. But that work reflects right back on us. And even when people comment and say that was a pretty bad story you wrote, you take your knocks, move on, and write a better story. Then, when you do get rich and famous, you can still put out lame-ass work, but if you wow them with graphics, dude, they’re sold.

Umm…okay…don’t know how this turned into a writing post, but that’s the magic of blogging past your bedtime. All sorts of rambling things come out of my head. There is one more thing I want to say. At some point, I’ll probably go to see Precious. I’ve heard really good reviews of it. Some say it’s the antithesis of The Blind Side, though I’m also guessing it’s the antithesis of Juno as well.

And the real nitpicking part of me is saying, Yeah, that’s great, another story about a fat black girl who lives in projects and gets abused…

Yeah, but Mo’Nique’s in it. Mo’Nique being evil even. I’d pay to see that.

Thoughts on Wiscon 33

It’s been a pretty eventful couple of weeks for me. Last week, we took a vacation to Cedar Campus and it was the first time that I actually had fun with Daniel there.  I mean, I’ve enjoyed my time up there before, but for the most part, Daniel didn’t seem to care too much about it until this year. Perhaps there is something about when a child turns five years old that suddenly, they become more interested in the world around them, instead of it always being me, Me, ME! So we had a nice vacation.

But before that, I got a chance to spend a single day at Wiscon. Well, technically, I started the night before, when I went to a reading by Ellen Klages and Geoff Ryman. But from that one single day, I could tell something right away:

This is a con I need to go to. Permanently.

I got to sit in the same room with several other black female authors who all write speculative fiction. And they run the gamut too…from vampire stories to epic fantasy. Epic Fantasy!!! It was so nice to find peers who are like me.

I got to participate in a writer’s workshop moderated by Alaya Dawn Johnson, who gave me some great advice regarding Willow (and finally convinced me to ditch the prologue. Sigh…but it will be worth it). Plus, I got to hear her read the best kick-ass zombie story ever that will never make me look at macaroni and cheese the same way again.

I got to chat a bit with K. Tempest Bradford while she was at a dealer’s table, and I got her to sign her short story she did in Sybil’s Garage #8, "Élan Vital".

I got to have dinner with Tiptree Award winner Nisi Shawl and N.K. Jemisin. The former I had nearly embarrassed myself over by having a fangirlish conniption fit when I first met her Friday night.  The latter has a book, "The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms" coming out next year (yayyyy!!! black female epic fantasy writer!!!). She also wrote a wonderful essay on RaceFail I raved about on a post a few weeks ago…

I got to hang out with my book club, Beer and Marmalade, which was cool because I don’t get a chance to do that often outside our meetings. I was bummed, though, that I wasn’t able to go to their party on Sunday to see Geoff Ryman <>.

And finally, SHAPENOTE SINGING!!!

There was a distinct different feel to Wiscon than the Oddcon I attended last month. Oddcon was more laid back, more casual, more geared to science fiction and fantasy in general. With Wiscon, there were numerous deep topics being discussed that I would have loved to participate in. Not just feminist in nature, but some hard topics like discussing the whole RaceFail issue and religion in fiction. It was very cool to not be the only black person there–in fact, there were several black folk who seemed to show up just for the fun of it, rather than being on a panel or a writer or anything. I wished I had time to get to know them. But the same type of community that was present at Oddcon was also present at Wiscon. It was pretty easy to walk up and talk to anyone, and the authors I saw were very approachable and easy to talk to. I wish I had a chance to take Ellen Klages up on her offer to go out for a beer and talk about writing, but I just ran out of time. It will have to happen next year.

So sorry for the truncated report. I’ve only been able to scratch the surface of the deeply rooted tree that is Wiscon. But one thing is definite–I do plan to go next year. I may even find a way to finagle myself on a couple of panels.

Wiscon 34…ho!

Book Review: The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

I made the decision to start reading more scifi/fantasy books by people of color (i.e. black people) about a week before I learned anything about RaceFail. In February’s issue of Ebony Magazine, they listed some books to read. I usually skip over it their selections, since they usually have romance and/or memories–stuff I’m not interested in, but then I read a blurb about "The Intuitionist", a story about the first black female Elevator Inspector caught in a political war in her department. Elevator Inspector? Now that intrigued me.

Lila Mae Watson is an Intuitionist. She is part of a new breed of Inspectors who can go into any elevator and inspect it just by intuition. This pits them against the Empiricists, who inspect elevators the hands-on way, and who scoff at the Intuitionists, calling their methods voodoo, touchy feely.

Then an elevator falls and crashes, an elevator Lila Mae inspected and cleared. Lila Mae, who is never wrong, finds herself caught between the two factions’. It’s election time to vote in a new chair, and the two candidates, one Empiricist, one Intuitionist, push and pull Lila Mae to concede to their wishes. There is also much about the founder of Intuitionism, James Fulton, who hidden blueprints to the perfect elevator, and it is up for Lila Mae to find them so she can clear her name.

There’s a lot packed in this relatively short book. Whitehead (I love this guy’s last name–he’s black–did he take it into account when he decided to become a writer?) puts the setting of the book in an alternate, but close mirror of the 1930s, where mobs easily kidnapped journalists and break their fingers so they won’t print certain stories. The story has a vague steampunk feel to it with all the focus on how elevators work and the different factions of the Inspectors. It treads in the shadow of speculative fiction, though as I got towards the end, I became hard-pressed to find it.

Told from Lila Mae’s point of view, the whole subject of race is also pulled into it. We see Lila Mae breaking barriers by becoming the first colored female Inspector, but her path to get there is hard–at the school where she learns about Elevators, the only place for her to live on campus is in a janitor’s closet in an abandoned gym. And the barriers are still very much present–there is a dramatic scene where Lila Mae goes to the Elevator Follies disguised as a waitress, and she sees two of her white coworkers in blackface doing a routine. She then sees the only other colored person, who had been invited to the Follies, cracking up alongside the others. She returns to the kitchen, who are all black women, and ponder how they remain silent, doing their chores knowing full well what was happening in the other room.

When the story doesn’t linger on the intricacies of elevator philosophy, it puts us squarely in Lila Mae’s conformed-to-standard shoes. This is not a woman who stands out. What defines her is her uniformity. Her apartment is sparse, her lifestyle built on routine, until her world is shaken. We then see her life, through present time and flashback, as she begins to change from someone who follows directions, to someone who truly follows her intuition.

Whitehead’s writing is circuitous. Weaving between Lila Mae’s predicament to her past, dipping into Fulton’s long winded theories about the perfect "black box", an elevator that would transcend itself, jumping to other characters like the polite but apathetic thugs Jim and John–Whitehead’s style of writing takes a little getting used to. At times, the information on elevators get a bit much–having Lila Mae go through an oral exam was torture for me, and probably her as well. But Whitehead also surprises by showing us a slices of the 30s and 40s you wouldn’t normally see. For instance, when Lila Mae get chased by Jim and John, she escapes by ducking into a Dime-a-Dance in progress. I never knew such things existed back then. But the way he uses the venue is wonderful and touching.

The ending, for me, is ambiguous as we learn Fulton’s history and the meaning behind his invention. It feels like I need to read it over again, just to read between the lines of the whole story. But it would be something I’d would to read again, maybe even buy and keep on my bookshelf a while. Not bad for a debut book. Three 1/2 elevator cabs out of five. And watch that first step–it’s a doozy.

Celebrating Black Future Month

Remember Black History Month back in February? Yeah, I didn’t either. Sadly, my observance of the month has faded along with Kwanzaa, which my family never really celebrated anyway (in fact, it never even entered our heads to celebrate it). I do have fond memories of all the stuff we had to learn during Black History Month, and I’m a little sad that Daniel won’t have that same experience, not unless we send him to an all black school (and to be honest, I want him to be exposed to many different cultures, not just white and black).

That all said, this past March has been interesting. It feels like I’ve spent the entire month not just discussing multi-ethnic matters, but reconciling on how that applies to me as a black writer.

In the past, I really struggled on what made me a black person other than just color. I didn’t act like a "typical" black person; in fact, as a kid, I caught a lot of flack from other black people because I "acted white". I spoke proper. Always had my head in a book. Wasn’t very interested in singing or dance groups. In high school and college, I got to hear all the fun names that goes along struggling with black identity—like oreo or zebra. Fun, fun times. See, this is why I don’t like thinking about high school days.

It got to the point where I felt more "black" among my white friends than I did with other blacks. So I hung out with whites more. It was where I felt the most comfortable. The way I figured it,

Now, fast forward to this past March. I’m attending our Wiscon Book Club, Beer and Marmalade, and one of the things we decide to talk about was a racism discussion that’s been happening on LiveJournal appropriately called "RaceFail 2009". I’m not going to spell out the whole history of that; clicking on the link would give you an idea, although you can get a more detailed history of the whole mess at Ann Somerville’s LiveJournal. But anyway—I didn’t really want to do it, as any discussion about race makes me highly uncomfortable. But I dutifully read some of the essays out there, and I came across this post "We worry about it Too".

That essay hit a strong nerve with me.

You see, when I started writing, I had prided myself on being a ‘black’ writer of speculative fantasy. I figured it would make me stand out more, especially since I was writing a fantasy novel that contained black characters in it. Heck, it had a black woman who was a main character. But when I first wrote Willow, she wasn’t the main protagonist. The young man she protects, the white male, he was the protagonist. Most of the book was written from his point of view, as well as several others who were white.

I once took a draft of Willow’s Synopsis to an agent at the Midwest Writer’s Conference a while back. One of the things she said was, "It looks like the female character is stronger than the male. Why isn’t this in her point of view?" And I just stared at her, because 1) it didn’t really occur to me to write in the black female’s point of view, and 2) deep down, it scared me. Who was I, a black woman, mind you, to know what an actual black woman felt like?

(And yes, I know most of my short stories have black characters as the main protagonist—but it’s different when you write sci/fi or plain speculative, because it’s easier to picture black people in the future. But in fantasy? Most are set within Eurocentric settings; any black people would be relegated to an African tribal status.)

My sister, who has a LiveJournal of her own, puts it down the best way when it comes to her writing fanfiction: "I write about white characters because that’s what I read when I grew up." I’m the exact same way. I’ve grown so used to seeing white males in fantasy that when I started writing a fantasy novel, it was easy to fall into that same line of thinking.

My realization about my main characters came before I read that essay by Nojojojo, of course. But the timing couldn’t have been better. Because I read it just when I started my second rewrite of Willow’s prologue. And it made me seriously think. Am I writing from this character’s POV because it’s what I’m used to, or should I write from this other character to give him/her more of a voice in the book?

It’s a hard thing to juggle, but I’ve rewritten the prologue and chapter 1 of Willow, and I think that so far, both have come out a lot stronger. I’m eager to see this novel through Coren’s eyes. It’s risky, but it’s also very exciting.

That’s how I feel about this whole RaceFail thing. Sure, a lot of people on both sides have vented and/or said very stupid things (I almost don’t read comments anymore), but some very insightful and deep discussion has come because of this. And there are attempts to further the conversation. Wiscon will be holding its first Cultural Appropriation Class (I mentioned this in my last post), and luckily, I’ll be able to attend that. There’s also been a great promotion to read more fantasy and sci/fi by people of color, which I highly, highly recommend (and I’ve started doing myself). There’s also a new small press in the works called Verb Noire who caters specifically to people of color in the scifi/fantasy community. Worth checking out.

This is probably the best time to be a black speculative fiction writer. We’re forging into new territory here. It’s scary, risky and it’s never really been done before. But it’s long overdue. And I think this whole experience is helping to strengthen my own identity as a black writer. For the first time, I can own up to that and really feel like I mean it, instead of feeling like some imposter.

Of course, my hubby would suggest that’s because inside of me there’s a Japanese girl perpetually stuck at age thirteen, but that’s not true. She’s sixteen. That’s a world of difference.

Book Review: Making Friends with Black People by Nick Adams

Yes, it’s another book review. Why so soon? Well, I was in Barnes and Noble the other day with a friend when I came across this book in the humor aisle. The title alone was enough for me to pick it up and flip through it, thinking, “What on earth could this be?” It immediately opened to Chapter 3, titled “To Ebonics and Beyond!!!!”

I bought the book for 14 bucks on Tuesday. Finished reading it on Thursday. It’s that hilarious.

making-friends.jpgIf you read my last Friday’s entry, I went off on this little thing called ‘dialect’ and ‘voice’, and the problems I’ve been having with it trying to get it down right, despite the fact that I’m a black woman. (It’s them book smarts. I got so much of them I never really boned up much on the street smarts.) So when I saw Adams’ book and flipped through it, what went through my head was “Oh, I must get this. Now.” Call it researching my own race, if you will. I figured for the slang along, it will be worth it.

And yes, Adams does go into the intricacies of human slang. But what really drew me into this book was how it went into what black people are as a whole.

First, some interesting things about Nick Adams. Obviously black man, living out in LA. He’s a comedian, but he’s also done some screenwriting and worked at NBC, BET and other media outlets. He’s also married to an Indian, and besides R&B, he also listens to a lot of rock music too. That last bit really impressed me–though I am not a huge Dire Straits fan. But any black man who talks about Dire Straits immediately gets points.

But the book. It’s a very tongue-in-cheek, humorous look at the whole culture of blackness, from music to food to language. Adams writes in a very casual, loose with the expletives style, that is pretty much directed to white readers, but also gives shout outs to the black readers of his book as well. And yes, when I say loose with the expletives, I mean it’s chock full of them. Don’t let the kiddies read this. It could get quite graphic at times.

Of course, Adams starts off by jumping right into the most controversial topic–the ‘N’ word. You know it. I know it. Rhymes with Bigger. Adams goes into the conundrum of how young black people can say it to each other whereas older black people can’t stand it, and white people just can’t, shouldn’t, and really don’t want to even think of it. He’s got an interesting take on it–obviously, he’s right at home using it. He feels his use of it is taking it away from the hate groups. I don’t necessarily agree with that–personally, I hate the word. But it does bring up an interesting thought. As time advances, and younger generations of blacks start using the word with a more positive spin, will it get to the point where the original meaning is lost? It feels like Adams is arguing the case that it will, but he does it in a humorous way:

Since an end to the use of the word is nowhere in sight, I suggest we have fun with it…(lots of amusing N-word anecdotes here). It may seem harsh, but I just love the fact that black folks have taken ownership of the most powerful slur in the history of the English language. We can actually use (N-word–I want it to be family friendly at the Cafe) and other epithets to make white people uncomfortable now. Say it in front of them and you can see white people wince. I’m seriously considering changing my name to Jigaboo Pickaninny just to watch the receptionist squirm the next time I go to the dentist’s office. ‘Mr. Picka…umm..Jiga…umm. Yes, you. The black guy who’s laughing so hard. The doctor will see you now.'”

Adams gives white people a hard time in this book. He also gives black people a hard time in this book. In fact, nothing really escapes. He goes from what to call black people (African-American? Afro-American? Black? Huh?), to bashing black stereotypes (“Yes. We love soul food…all of that stuff is great. We’ve moved on. We eat sushi now.”) to rappers, black and white. He takes on Hollywood, movies, interracial dating, dancing, the media, basketball, crime, affirmative action, television, politics, George Bush, Elton John and Britney. Yes, that Britney–though it shows how such a book can become outdated within just a couple of months. When Adams wrote it, Britney had just started her wacky hijinks with her sudden marriage and annulment. (And for the record, I gotta love what he has to say about her: “Behind all the money, makeup and hair extensions, she’s just a white-trash girl from Louisiana. This is what they do, people. She’s not going crazy. She is fulfilling her destiny.” Yeee-ouch.)

As shown above, despite Adams saying (almost apologizing in some places) that this is a humorous book, underneath the humor there’s got some real biting commentary and harsh criticism, both on the white and black side. Some of the most interesting chapters come from him being semi-serious in discussing the media world, particularly in television and news. Having been behind the scenes in both areas, his strongest feelings come out in these areas. He really rips into BET, exposing their practices in putting their ‘content’ on the air (and in the process, making me release the guilt that I never was interested in watching it–their ‘content’ was worse than I thought). He tears into the news media, particularly the Jon Benet murder and the Columbine shootings, things he doesn’t feel newsworthy because such things have been happening in the black community for years, yet the news doesn’t even blink. This is where the angry-black-male part of him rears up, despite his still casual tone. (“The same people who cried crocodile tears over the dead bodies at Columbine turn a blind eye to these stories, and to the social problems that cause them, every single day. The message that is being sent here is loud and clear. Our children are more important than yours…But this isn’t new. White people have a long history of ignoring an issue until it smacks them right in the face.”)

Despite everything that gets called out in this book, there is one group that Adams conspicuously omitted. I kept waiting for it to show up, but it never did…and that was black women. Sure, he bashes people who listen to country music, the Jefferson theme song, God (I didn’t like that chapter as much, though he had a hilarious chapter afterwards on the pros and cons of other religions). And he does mention specific black women, Halle Berry, Jamaica Kincaid, But black women as a whole group? Not one word. Why? I don’t know. Maybe it’s because, it being a book that’s geared toward white people, he didn’t feel the need to black women out as a group to bash. Maybe it’s because he’s talking about race relations from a black man’s point of view and he didn’t feel the need to go into the black male/female relationships without confusing his white readers even more (and outraging his black readers even more). Maybe because it appears he only dated white women. Maybe because black men and black women just seem to be angry at each other and he didn’t want to touch it with a ten-foot pole.

(And before you start flaming me, check out this interesting CNN news article, which talks about black women getting tired of black men dating white women, so now they’re beginning to date white men. Oy, oy, oy, now there’s a nice read. Almost makes me want to write a book in answer to it. But you know what? Being married to a white man myself, I’m not going to touch this subject. Nope. Not gonna do it. If Adams didn’t want to touch it, then neither do I. It’s way out of my league. I’ll leave it for the Angry Black Woman to dissect.)

This was not a book that had me nodding in agreement to everything he said. At some point, I think I even started to argue with the book–I think it was when he started talking about black books being relegated to the black section of the bookstore instead of in the normal literary section. “Untrue! There are stories who do that, but there are also stores who do put contemporary black authors in the literary section, you stupid N-$*@!” After a while, the constant N-words and F-words do get a bit overwhelming. Plus, there were times where he went off on a rambling diatribe, which were still hilarious, but way off-topic. But I do have to say, language aside, I really, really, really enjoyed this book. It made me think. It also gave me insight on black language as a whole, which helps me with my writing, so I think the $14 was completely worth it. And finally, it gave me great insight and confirmation into my own race–that I don’t need to be watching BET and those trashy black novels (you know the ones I’m talking about) to prove to myself I’m black. It gets 5 watermelons out of 5. Hey, if Adams gets to take the N-word back, I’m gonna take watermelon back. It’s good for you, healthy, full of fiber. Just don’t expect me to sit on my porch and eat it barefoot. I’ll use a knife and fork, thank you.

Finally, one more observation on just how cool Adams rights. Just before Adams launches into his BET diatribe, he writes, “…I won’t tell you any of those stories because that would be overkill. But, I will tell you one story that most accurately depicts their preposterously parsimonious ways.” Parsimonious. Where did I see that before…right! In Sideways! My last book review. It just goes to show how in one book, that word is used in a horrible, pompous and pretentious way that set my teeth on edge, while in another, that same word can be spun in a tongue-in-cheek, humorous way, with alliteration to boot. So tell you what, Nick. For using that word, I’ll forgive you for leaving out all us black sisters. That’s probably a book in itself anyway.

Doppeldangers on the Net

Yesterday, I was reading one of my email newsletters and came across an essay written by a black woman musing about the birth of her biracial son. Intrigued, I decided to click on her weblog to see any more of her writings. The first thing that popped up was a picture of the woman, her husband and her newborn son.

It was like looking into an alternate universe and seeing myself.

The woman was slimmer, true, but she had lovely long locs spilling down her shoulders and her back. Her white husband had the same brown hair as mine, but he was a musician, not a computer guru. Their son gazed out into the camera with shocking green eyes, something that’s not in Daniel, but the curls and cappuccino skin I immediately recognized on my own son.

Furthermore, this woman is also a writer mama and have already published several essays, stories, and poetry, though she’s more a literary writer while I work in fantasy. She’s traveled to India whereas I’ve traveled to Africa. We may have passed each other in Rio, though. She lives on the East Coast, I in the Midwest. But the grade school picture she posted, we look eerily alike, right down to the pigtails. It’s in the eyes.

The first thought that popped into my head was Whoa, she’s just like me! The second thought was, Eep! She’s just like me!

How do I respond to that type of thing? Do I respond? Should I go to her blog, post a comment: “Hey! We share the same interest! Let’s be friends!” Or do I continue reading her blog from afar, mentally comparing myself against her? She has all these essays published and I only have a measly couple. She got this award for a story. I haven’t gotten anything. So far, she’s doing this and this and this. Me? I haven’t done diddly-squat…

That’s the funny thing about being unique. You strive so hard to stand out of the crowd, to not conform to whatever is around you. But in making yourself unique, you also become lonely, because you don’t share the same interests as the people around you. At the same time, however, when you do come across someone who is like you, you fear of losing your uniqueness. Suddenly, you don’t seem all that special anymore. Worse, you start comparing yourself to that other person, seeing them not as an ally, but as a potential threat.

I’m currently reading The 2006 Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror (much better than 2005), and I see there’s a story in there from a black woman. Haven’t read it yet–I took one look at the woman’s credentials and felt incredibly small. I can’t attain to her level of expertise. I can’t…I can’t…I’m no longer excited to meet someone in the same field as me. Instead, I’m scared and feeling very insecure. I simultaneously stretch forward and shy away.

Deep female relationships are very hard to come by. I think it’s especially hard for black women. You want to stretch your hand out in friendship, but at the same time, you don’t want to make yourself vulnerable. You don’t want to be hurt. It shouldn’t be that way. As a black woman, I should be supporting other black woman writers. Not that we are such a rare breed…boy, am I finding that out…but to help sharpen each other, to be mentors and commiserators. I shouldn’t be worried about losing my unique status. Granted, there are many black women out there who have accomplished more than me, but on the other hand, there are others who have done less than me. There are women who share my same interests, true, but I have yet to meet anyone who has the same lifestyle, the same family, the same anything as me.

It’s dangerous to compare myself to someone else, especially if that someone has a presence on the Net. I don’t know anything about that other person other than what they’ve put out there. But it doesn’t help me any if I see that person as a rival. If anything, I should be excited in knowing that there are other black women out there who are also on the writing path, that I’m not alone in that regard.

To this day, there’s a part of me that yearns to meet another black woman who’s into writing and anime and has a white husband. We could visit each other houses and talk about the challenges of raising bi-racial children, of finding our identities, and the last episode of Full Metal Alchemist. I don’t know if that ever, ever will happen. But I think I’ll go to this one woman’s blog and post a comment. Something along the lines of “Hey…I know exactly what you mean…”

Video time!

A couple of videos for interest…

For you serious folk, a short 7-minute documentary on black teenage girls and the aspect of beauty, especially concerning natural (unpermed) hair. One of the girls actually does a recreation of a study involving dolls. The last question she asks really makes one think….

It’s called “A Girl Like Me” and you can find it here.

This video comes courtesy of India.Arie’s song: “I am not my Hair”. We need to change our idea of beauty, folks.

And for those you who needs something a little more on the light side, I bring to you, Kung Fu Baby!Thanks to my sister-in-law, Becca, for taking time to send me this, even though I already saw it on AFV.