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.

It happens in the Christian world, too.

http://www.mlive.com/business/west-michigan/index.ssf/2009/12/zondervan_makes_critics_book_r.html

The above article gives an interesting coda to what’s been happening for the past month in the Christian publishing world. It shows that, yes, even in the Christian world, RaceFail lives. It also shows that while we still have far to go, changes can be made, both graciously and lovingly. Here’s another perspective. The writer, Al Hsu, was one of the main people who put together the Multiethnic publishing seminar at InterVarsity Press this past March.

At that seminar, I had the pleasure of meeting Professor Soong-Chan Rah. Great guy, reminded me a whole lot of the Angry Black Woman in that he is passionate about bringing racial injustices on Asians to light.  Of course, it’s interesting to read the comments on Rah’s letter to Zondervan asking them to remove the Ninja Viper materials. Lots of different perspectives, mostly support for Rah, but also those who felt that Rah was reading to much into it and to lighten up, in fact–an Asian could have written a same thing. My favorite rebuttal to that came from Irene Cho:

"The statement was meant to imply that most Asians who are familiar with their Asian culture/heritage/language, would not have mixed up the cultures like the authors did. In fact, it’s one of the grievances that’s high on the list. It’s insulting when you’re constantly asked, “Oh you’re Asian. So you’re Chinese? Ah so you know Karate?” Many of us have spent much of our lives answering these questions: Yes, I’m Asian. No I’m not Chinese. And no I don’t know Karate and Karate is Japanese by the way. So what I meant was that in my opinion, most Asians wouldn’t publish a book that treats Karate, Kung Fu, and Tae Kwon Do as if there’s no difference. A book would not have been published that doesn’t specify the difference between Chinese, Korean and Japanese writings. And most of all, most Asians wouldn’t have written that someone’s name sounds like a disease. AND even if they did, it’s one thing to make fun of yourself, it’s quite another to have someone else of a different ethnicity say that my language sounds funky or like a disease and mix everything up and treat all the cultures as if they were the same."

You tell it, sister.

So how do I feel about all this? I feel good that the creators of Ninja Viper and Zondervan did offer an apology and pulled back the books. I feel sad though for all of those who said that it was a shame because it was a legitimate leadership source. And that is true, it is. I just wished the creators researched it better. I do feel that we need more multiethnic people involved in publishing, which is why I support Verb Noire and black writers like Nisi Shawl and Nnedi Okorafor. And goodness knows I’m trying my hardest to add myself to the list. But I also feel what we do is a mere drop in the bucket—that nothing will change, and that those in the media will continue to put up what they like because, hey, they’re the majority and there’s more of them in the media industry than there are of us…

And then I read blog posts like this one which talks about getting minority teens to think about entering the publishing industry, and then I get the December issue of Parents Magazine, which has an article that strives to teach an even younger audience about race relations, and well, we’re trying. Most of us are working on it. It’s just a matter of time.

Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? …or Don’t be such a jackass in the comments section…

So ever since RaceFail, I’ve been keeping an eye on what people are buzzing about in the writing world. The latest is an anthology to be published by called The Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF. Take a look at the table of contents. Notice anything about them? Now take a look at the comments.

Mind-blowing indeed.

When I was doing the 31 days to Build a Better Blog, one of the things they suggest is to contribute to the comment section in blogs you like. But sometimes, when I look at what brews there, it’s like looking at shark-infested waters. Ain’t no way I’m sticking a toe in there, much less my opinion.

Part of that may be due to my own insecurities. When I was younger, I used to think that no one would value what I had to say. That’s why I wrote stories. Much easier to hide my opinions in them. But another part is that I dislike heated arguments. Especially when they stray from intellectual debate to name calling, F-bombs, slurs, nastiness, etc. It happened in RaceFail. It happened with the whole ROF cover thing (and for a great summary of what happened with that, check out this visual summation here. Hilarious!). It’s almost becoming a cliché: a post appears that makes a bunch of people comment, then an idiot makes a knee-jerk comment, people get up in arms, more commenters defend the slanderer, and soon we got FAIL this and FAIL that.

That’s the ease and the curse of the internet. It’s so easy to type something out and hit enter. You don’t think of consequences. The people you’re writing to are faceless. You don’t see them laugh. You don’t see them flinch. You don’t see the anger, or the hurt on their faces. They’re voiceless until they put their own fingers to the keyboard.

What really gets me in all of this is that, well, aside from those who contribute or read such things,  no one else really knows…or cares. I can go up to my mother, or my co-workers, or people at church and talk about RaceFail, and they’ll give me blank looks, or politely just nod their heads. For all the talk and hype and brouhaha we do in comments and LiveJournal, it’s all so insular.

And the real sad thing is, these are legitimate issues. They deserve to be discussed. For instance, someone asked a question on a reading list I’m on: "Should we, as consumers, make it mandatory that every SF anthology, no matter how small or archaic, include female and POC writers?" That is a very good question. And from what I’ve seen of the discussion so far, it’s been very insightful. So it is possible to express one’s view with intelligence and respect.

I know. There will always be jackasses who will say anything they want, flamers who just want to stir up controversy for the fun of it, and folks who say stuff that they’d wish they slept a night on instead of posting right off.  But I guess the best way to counter stupid comments is to take Mur Lafferty’s advice. Don’t be an ass. Be polite. Don’t say anything that will haunt you later on. If you disagree with someone, say so. But don’t slander. Don’t call names. It’s really not that big of a deal. If the greater world don’t care about it, it shouldn’t get our panties in a wad either.

And frankly, in regards to the all-white guy anthology, I don’t think it ever entered the editor’s head to include any females or POC, because, well, it didn’t really occur to him to do so. He just wanted to get some of his favorite authors together and print some stories of them. It’s what he considers the best science fiction. It reflects his tastes. Me? I looked at the table of contents, and the only author who looked interesting to me was Robert Silverberg, because I like his Valentine series. Everyone else…meh. But see, that reflects my tastes. I like to read stuff with more diversity.

Now…if you excuse me, I’m going to finish reading Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen so I can dive into my Dark Matter: Reading the Bones anthology. Not only has Link’s book blown my mind, it has smashed it to smithereens, then took all the mushy bits and mashed them together into a likeness of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Surreal, yet impressive.