Reconciliation within the SFF genre, one writer at a time (or finally getting around to the SWFA kerfuffle)

My name is LaShawn M. Wanak, and I am a black female writer.

I’ve been making up stories since I was four years old. I’ve been reading fantasy and science fiction when kids were still in their primers. I fell in love with the whole genre and knew exactly what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a black writer, telling black stories, with characters who looked just like me.

I have been writing professionally now for about 9 years. I’ve garnered some sales. My name’s getting a little known. And most importantly, people are reading my stories and are being touched through them. I’m also learning a lot about the industry I’ve chosen. I’ve seen its wonders, and I’ve seen its darker bits.

I’ve been following what’s been happening in SWFA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America for my non-writer friends) and the hullaboo over an essay that was printed in its bulletin a couple of weeks ago. The internets exploded in reaction, most decrying the essay. I did not respond because a) I haven’t read the essay because b) I’m not a SWFA member. And because I’m not a member, I don’t feel that I have enough experience to adequately respond to the situation. Besides, there are many, many others who have done so, and done it very, very well.

One of those was Nora K. Jemisen, who referenced it in her GOH speech at a Continuum in Australia last week. If you haven’t read her speech, read it now. It’s brilliant. It’s honest. It’s hopeful. And best of all, it calls for reconciliation within the SFF community. Reconciliation. This is a word I would hug if I could. It’s a word I’m used to hearing since I work in a Christian ministry, but this is the first time I heard it used within the SFF community. To use Nora’s own words:

“I do not mean a simple removal of the barriers that currently exist within the genre and its fandom, though doing that’s certainly the first step. I mean we must now make an active, conscious effort to establish a literature of the imagination which truly belongs to everyone. – See more at: http://nkjemisin.com/2013/06/continuum-goh-speech/#sthash.XbLijUKw.dpuf

It got me fired up, because yeah, I can see it, writers using bridges of words to reach those who would never step foot in communities that don’t look like their own. Stories that stretch the imagination, that would represent all cultures, that would stretch minds, put them in other people’s shoes. This is totally what I would say is my calling as a writer.

And then this happened.

Sigh.

Right.

Common wisdom for such things is to ignore it, to let this guy spew his hate and not respond. But what this guy did was not only name Nora, but he then linked it to SFWAauthors Twitter feed. SWFA caught wind of it and took it down, but the damage is done.

This is more than just a troll. This is an attack. It goes completely against what Nora called for in her speech. It is used to tear down, to discount her as a writer, as a woman, as a black person, and as human.

And do you know what that post says to me?

This is what happens if you try to make a difference. We like our organization just the way it is. And we define how women are portrayed in SFF. We like our bikinis. We like our women stupid and dependent on us. And we like them all white, because their prettier and sexier than you—well, okay, we’ll allow Asian girls, because they’re nice and quiet and subservient.. And if you try to say anything about it, we will tear you down, rip your head off, drag your name through shit, because that’s what you deserve, you monkey you. So go ahead and write your stories, little little girl. You can even join. But keep your head down, don’t make waves, and most of all, keep your fat lips shut.

There are many writers, not just black writers, not just women writers, but all sorts of writers, who will not join because of this.

And this is why I am writing this post.

I’m writing this because I don’t know if I’m going to join SWFA. I don’t think I’m at the point of my writing career where it would be beneficial to me, at this point. (David Steffen wrote a post that sums up my feelings quite well.) But if I do decide to join in the future, it would be because there are writers like Nora and Mary Robinette Kowal and Jim C. Hines and Nisi Shawl and so many others who have paved the way before me, fighting to bring diversity to a genre that needs it so desperately. Because they refuse to be silent, because they call out bullshit when they see it. Sometimes they’re successful. Sometimes they’re not. And sometimes, people would viciously attack them.

I’m writing this not just to show my support to Nora (and did I tell you she’s going to be GOH at Wiscon in 2014?) but to support her vision of reconciliation that is so much bigger than any one of us. And the only way for that to happen is for us to write our stories, our own stories, and get them published, and write more stories and get those published.

I’m writing this because I am a black female writer, and this affects me deeply.

If you wish to show support for the vision of reconciliation in SFF as well, there are a couple of ways to do it.

1) If you are a member of SWFA, you can demand for the expulsion guy who wrote that damaging post. It’s true that he can say whatever he wants, but to use SWFA as a platform for such harmful threats is uncalled for.

2) If you’re an writer of color, or a woman writer, or genderqueer, keep writing. Don’t let this guy dissuade you from submitting. There are markets out there hungry for your stories. And if you’re an editor or publisher, please, make these voices heard.

3) If you’re a reader, expand your reading tastes. Don’t know where to start? The Carl Brandon Society Awards page has some good recommendations. This Tor post is also has an awesome list of POC and women authors in SFF.

It will take a while, but I do believe SFF can one day reflect true diversity. I’m doing my part, and tomorrow, you’ll see how. And if you can’t wait until tomorrow, here’s a sneak preview.

Review: The Help

(Note: here there be spoilers for the movie. Once I read the book, no doubt there’ll be spoilers for that as well.)

I’m really late on this.

When I first started seeing the movie posters, I thought, oh great, another civil rights era showing blacks in menial jobs. When I heard its main character was white, I already knew the plot: white girl sees black maids, white girl uses her resources to single-handedly help them, there’ll be some mayhem, and in the end, the white girl walks off feeling good. See, it’s a feel-good movie. Just like the Blind Side.

But then an interesting thing happened. In my facebook stream, I started to see two polarizing opinions. The first was from mostly feminists who said pretty much what I wrote above–which included this statement from the Association of Black Women Historians. The other side was praise from Christians, mostly women, who saw the movie as uplifting and inspiring. What’s more, it was coming from black Christian women. That didn’t happen with the Blind Side.

I put the book in my to-read pile. I still had reservations about seeing the movie. My co-workers invited me to see with them, but I felt somewhat funny being the only black person in the group. My black writer friends were scattered over the country, but they ragged on the movie. So I figured I’d have to wait until it came out on Netflix, until Christmas, when my aunt pulled out the movie on blu-ray and asked, "Hey, look what I got." My grandma looked at it and said, "Well, nothing else is on. Put it in."

So I watched the Help with the womanfolk of my family (all the men, of course, vanished, because hey, chick flick). That really enhanced the movie, because, as I hoped, they did not keep quiet during the movie. My mom, my aunts, and especially my grandma, had a whole lot to say during the movie. And that helped enhance it as a whole.

My grandmother wasn’t a maid, but she did clean people’s houses during that era before she was able to become a nurse. She verified the rules that the black maids had to remember in how they interacted with white people. She also shared some interesting insights that the movie glossed over–for instance when Abilene gets kicked off the bus because a black guy got killed, and she goes home to learn that Medgar Evars was killed.  Grandma told us that not many people know about him, but he was instrumental in getting the civil rights movement off the ground. "You don’t hear much about him," she said, "but he did a lot of good work–him and Martin Luther King, Jr. Folks got angry when he got killed."

She also said that the black women loving the white children they raised was pretty much spot on. "Children are innocent. They don’t know any better." Afterwards Grandma and I talked black and white relations in general after the movie. "Wasn’t no big deal," she said. "You had the whole gamut of black folk who didn’t care a thing about the people they worked for, and then there were others who were treated like part of the family. You need to understand, down in the south, it was pretty much expected that way. Blacks and white lived side by side, kids played with each other–it was the norm. But it was also expected that the blacks got all the menial jobs, that they couldn’t rise up higher than their level. As long as they knew their place, they were fine."

Then she said:

In the south, you can live next to them; you just can’t be better than them.
In the north, you can be better than them; you just can’t live next to them.

She then told me about her aunt who lived in Arkansas (and taught my grandma to love books–which she passed down to me) who had a farm right across from a white couple. They were friendly to each other. Every so often, the white couple would send for my great aunt to come over and do something like kill a chicken, because that was what black folk did. And my great aunt did it because that was the norm. Didn’t matter what her mood was like, or if she did it out of charity or bitterness. It didn’t matter. No one questioned it, because it never entered into their heads to do so.

That wasn’t too long ago, either.

My grandma and mom and aunts loved the movie (which is interesting because my mom is the only professing Christian in the lot). As for me, I liked it, but probably not for the same reasons.

The beginning starts off just the way I figured it would–with Skeeter as the main character and the story being centered around her. We’re also introduced to Abilene, who could be considered the secondary main character. Minnie is definitely an antagonist of sorts, though it could have been the other white woman, but Minnie stands out far more to me.

As the movie went on, a very interesting thing happened. Although Skeeter was more the protagonist, there were less and less scenes of her and more of Abilene and Minnie. In fact, many of the strongest scenes had either Abilene or Minnie or both in them, but no Skeeter. (Case in point–the movie sets up this whole dating thing with Skeeter and that dude–can’t remember his name. But that gets gets glossed over with Minnie’s storyline with the pie (which my family found a hoot). You don’t even know Skeeter was dating him until he breaks up with her after the book comes out. You could cut that entire storyline out and it would’ve made no impact to the plot.)

That ending when Abilene enters the church to a standing ovation, and she gets the book with everyone names in it–dang if that didn’t make me tear up. And what does Skeeter get? Umm…an opportunity to go to New York, which she plans to turn down, but hey, the long-suffering maids urge her to go, because it’s not like nothing is keeping her there (and moreover, it’s not like her life will be in danger if she stays, not like the maids…sorry. I so hated that scene.) Luckily, Skeeter is written out goes to New York, and we get to the true ending, where Abilene confronts her employer.  It was as if the movie itself knew that the actual strength of the story came from the black characters, but it made Skeeter the main character because…well…it’s the norm.

It could have been bold. Make Abilene the main protagonist and ditch all the weak, stereotypical, "let’s show how white southern women go around acting like high faluting members of "Mama’s Family",  and put the focus on Abilene, Minnie, and Skeeter in that order, and this would’ve been such a powerful film, right up there with The Color Purple. But it didn’t. It went with the safe white protagonist. And that just made the movie good. Not great…but light and good. Shame.

As for all the naysayers about it, well, I can certainly see why you don’t want to see it. And that’s a shame as well, because this wasn’t a story about a white privileged female who wanted to become a journalist, so she writes a story about black maids. This was a story about a black woman who wanted to become a writer, so she uses a white journalist to get her story out to the country. You can see it as a privileged person taking advantage of her status to get ahead in life, or you can see it as black women taking a risk to empower themselves.

I asked my mom what she thought about the movie. "In those days, it was all about people taking risks, even though they knew it could kill them. It was those risks that got the civil rights movement rolling."

This gets the rating of 3 chocolate pies out of 5. I would rate it more, but I don’t know…after this movie, I’m going to look at chocolate pies with more suspicion than normal.