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.

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More thoughts on the closing of Realms of Fantasy & Year’s Best…

So I’ve been doing some thinking. Serious thinking. And I’ve come to a startling revelation.

Realms of Fantasy closing and The Years Best Fantasy & Horror Anthologies no longer being printed? Their ending don’t affect me at all.

It’s startling because I consider them the highest levels a writer can get in writing. When both of them folded, I was devastated, yes, in learning I won’t be getting any more stories from them. Which is sad, because from those venues I learned about Kelly Link, Theodora Goss, Nalo Hopkinson and other writers who inspired me to write.

But the startling part that got me was this: when was the last time I read either of those?

The Year’s Best Anthologies I haven’t picked up for a while because, well, I’ve been pretty busy; not to mention that my local library doesn’t have them on hand (actually, they do, but I’ll probably have to get it on loan from another neighborhood library, which could take a couple of days—not exactly self-gratifying if I have to put in an order for it instead of just taking it off the shelf I used to do in Chicago. Then again, I could always drive to another library that’s better stocked, but geez, that means that I wouldn’t be able to gripe about here…). And the last time I bought a copy of Realms of Fantasy was…ummm…hmmm…

Nowadays, I’m getting my short story fix online. There are a dozen of websites I go to on a monthly basis, and several more that I download to my mp3 player. (I swear, I will update my blog sidebar to show them) And these are all really good stories; perhaps not as the same caliber as what was in Realms of Fantasy, but I would’ve nominated them in a heartbeat for Year’s Best.

Yes, I’m still bummed that these venues are gone. But there are other markets out there. Markets that are easy to access. Markets that you don’t have to pay unless you want to. Markets that allow everyone to read, yet still have editors to filter out the really good stuff from just your average mediocre story.

This got nailed home to me this Sunday when my short story “The Liberation of Roscoe White” got put up at The Town Drunk. (What do you mean you haven’t read it yet? Stop what you’re doing and go read it! Go! Go now!). Some very good stories are on that sight (besides mine, of course). It’s nice that that I can give people a website and they can go and read my story for free, but it’s extra nice when an editor who runs a ezine tells me, “I like your story so much, I’ll pay for it to put it on my site.” That is nice.

The publishing world is changing. What does that mean to me? Well, it just means that I keep on writing and keep on submitting. I keep my eye on what markets are considered the best and send my best stories to them. And then I’ll keep writing. Granted, I’ll have to look to a new market to set my high standard bar to–

Then again, maybe I’ve already done that.

I just finished reading the Writers of the Future XXII Anthology. The first story was so-so, but there were other stories in there that blew me away.

One of these days, I’m going to get a story in there. Just you wait…

Speaking of which, congratulations to all the winners of the 4th quarter contest. You can find the winners on the WOTF website. The next contest deadline is April 1. All you writers better get writing.

Book Review: "Air" by Geoff Ryman

So I’ve been attending a Wiscon book club ever since we moved to Madison. It’s nice–I’ve never been in a face-to-face book group before. They mostly read works that are connect with Wiscon, like Tiptree Award Winners, so this is also my first time being in a fantasy/sci-fi book group.

Air by Geoff Ryman was the first book I actually finished for the group, and I gotta say, it blew my mind. It’s the story of Chung Mae, a ‘fashion expert’ in the fictional Asian village of Karzistan, who learns about ‘Air’–a new version of the Internet that works through minds rather than computers. Being in a remote area, the village is unprepared when Air has its first test. Mae’s elderly neighbor, Mrs. Tung, dies as a result, and somehow her mind gets interlinked with Mae’s as she tries to make adjust to the strangeness in her own head. When the test ends, Mae is shaken, realizing that the advent of Air will mean death for the village–it’s culture, it’s way of life, even her own status. What use is a ‘fashion expert’ if everyone will be able to access fashion in their heads.

I loved Mae, scheming woman that she is. Being the only one of the village who is still connected to Air, instead of giving up or fighting against this new technology, Mae embraces it. She starts using computers (“TVs” is what they’re called in the book) and her connection to Air to expand her business. She gets other women in the village involved in making tribal clothes to sell outside of Asia. She takes it upon herself to teach the villagers how to use the Internet, so when Air finally comes, the village will be ready. And she does this with several strikes against her:

1) She is illiterate.
2) Mrs. Tung is still alive inside her.
3) She’s having an affair with Mrs. Tung’s widowed son.
4) She’s pregnant in the most inconceivable of ways.

It’s hard to tell if this book is science fiction, science fantasy, or third world soap opera. At one point, I got echoes of the Matrix when Mae started using Air to manipulate space around her. But I loved how Mae learn to use Air and the Internet to save her village, even though she knows that it will no longer be the village she’s known all her life.

It’s interesting to read Ryman’s take on how the Third World can be changed by technology. It’s reflected through the frightened schoolteacher, for instance, whose children would rather see ‘Bay Toh Ven’ on the TV rather than learn their numbers. And it’s reflected through the occasional manifestation of Mrs. Tung who emerges as benign wisdom or screaming harbinger of doom, unable to move forward into the future because she is stuck in the past. And that, ultimately, is what the book about. The future and the past colliding with each other.

The only bone I have to pick is the ending. Mae suddenly switches focus from the coming of Air to an upcoming flood she recognizes from Mrs. Tung’s memories that will happen again. I suppose it’s a physical metaphor for Air sweeping through the village (and the book has a field day with metaphors), but still, it takes away much of the focus from Air itself. And it takes the focus away from Mae’s pregnancy, which I found really bizarre and cool–do you know of an actual pregnancy that happens in someone’s stomach (and don’t you dare ask how that happened–read the book). When the birth actually does takes place, that, plus the second coming of Air, seems like an afterthought.

Which is a shame. This was a truly wonderful book to immerse oneself in.  This gets 3 talking dogs out of 5, and get the poor thing a steak. It really, really wants one.

More links for your enjoyment (or I’m actually doing some writing for once so I’ll just cut and paste here…)

Too much to do lately, but I can say without a doubt, that this revision of “She’s All Light” will be the absolute, positive last revision. Doggone it.

In the meantime, enjoy these links:

A couple of good stories I’ve come across and decided to pass on: The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Barbara Gordon can be found at the Spring 2007 volume of Coyote Wild. I don’t remember how I came across it, but it has a feisty little black girl as one of the main characters, so I quite enjoyed it. The cool thing about online mags is that their content can stick around forever, so if you like a story, you can easily go into their back catalog to read their other stories.

Podcastle has been doing animal fable shorts from Peter S. Beagle. These bite-sized stories are fun to listen to. My particular favorite: The Fable of the Ostrich. It was a very nice African folktale-flavored read after Anansi Boys. For some more culture goodness, this time Japanese-flavored, check out the story that comes after: The Tanuki-Kettle. A very sweet tale indeed.

And speaking of podcasts, Adventures in SciFi Publishing has a good interview with Elizabeth Bear. Just from the sound of her laughter along, I would love to just hang out with her. The email they read after the interview is good, too. Just don’t pay attention to the person who wrote it, though.

Short story writer Benjamin Rosenbaum is holding a derivative works contest based of his new book The Ant King and Other Stories. You can download the entire book for free at his website, or you can buy it from Amazon. It’s an interesting way of promoting a book, especially one that’s for free. I’m actually thinking about sending something, but I have to read the book first. Either way, it sounds intriguing.

And finally, something non-writing related. I listen to Eric and Kathy on the Mix in the mornings (praise the Lord for web radio), and the friend of Eric’s daughter was elected President of her second grade class. She recorded a message to the President Elect Barack Obama, and it is very thought-provoking. I highly suggest listening to it (and hey, it’s cute!).

Alright, enough from me. I need to get back to writing!