On Appropriation vs. Representation

This past weekend I was asked to be on a podcast that’s a little outside my usual scene.

I go to an art club called Drink and Draw every month, and many of the people there are more “serious” artists than I am (or at least more talented). Anyway, my friend Eric is the club’s host, and he usually picks me up on his way there so we talk about stuff. This time, we ended up talking about the comic book The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks, which I hadn’t read.

It turned out that Eric had seen a Twitter discussion about whether The Nameless City was appropriative, because it has a cast and setting clearly based on ancient China, but it’s written by a white woman. An Asian artist on Twitter was saying books like this and television shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender (which clearly influenced Hicks) are disappointing in a way because it feels like mainstream culture is capitalizing on “diversity” while still not making way for people to make art about themselves.

This is a good point, and Eric and I had a spirited discussion about it. He invited me to come on his podcast the next day to talk about the same thing with his friend Robbie (who I also know but he’s mainly just an acquaintance of mine–we hang out with the same people and he’s been in my house but we don’t really talk much). Of course, first I had to read the book. So I read it at Drink and Draw before doing my art. 😉

The podcast episode I was on is here: Handsome Boys #142.

A review I did of the book is here: The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks (review).

Here’s the thing: We all know we would like more diversity of all kinds in fiction, and we all know the only way it can happen is if people make it on purpose. The problems are many, though, and one of the most insidious is that mainstream audiences often think a piece of media is not “for them” if it primarily contains people who are not like them. When we “mark” a piece of media, usually the people who are described by that mark will flock to read it, but it will remain less circulated, undervalued, probably written off as niche, and rarely reaching the broader world. But if the mainstream media actively solicits media featuring characters, settings, and messages less commonly featured, will that help?

Some say it’s really not going to help that much if the creators filtering the message into the mainstream are not telling their own stories. If they’re telling underrepresented populations’ stories through their own lenses, does it really serve the purpose of bringing those stories to light, or is it just people from the mainstream culture wanting to pat themselves on the back for being so inclusive now that diversity is a buzzword?

So what do the underrepresented populations in question have to say about this? Well, as usual, it’s a mixed bag. Some want to know why mainstream authors with plenty of connections want to hijack their narratives and give them to the outside world so they can gawk. Some want to know why they’re not being solicited to contribute work if it’s their perspective that’s supposedly so valuable. And some believe one of the things that actually does help pave the road for that to happen is getting mainstream audiences to understand that work about “the other” can be for them.

Avatar: The Last Airbender managed to get a cartoon onto mainstream television that did not contain a single solitary white person, and it’s definitely got a large cast, too. The names and concepts definitely have Asian inspiration of various sorts, but it is still Fantasy Asia, so the creators get a bit of a pass if something isn’t “accurate.” And its creators are two white guys. They have a ton of Asian consultants and people working on the show, but it’s still a mainstream Nickelodeon show by Mike and Bryan. Perhaps this sends a message to big media companies that audiences can and do accept and enjoy these stories. Will this prompt them to actively solicit shows with actual Asian creators at the helm? Too early to tell.

But it’s clear from most of the dialogue that underrepresented people do not want to build a fence and say “you should not write about us.” There’s a very good reason why those folks are wary of mainstream creators (why do they want to do it? what are they going to screw up?), and they also have good reason to expect well-meaning mainstream creators to do their research extensively. That research can include bringing in test audiences from the population they’re trying to portray, including creators from that background as co-creators or permanent contributors, and consuming media and commentary by those populations.

I want men to be able to write about women, for instance–and I want men who are making creative works about women to help combat the notion that works about us are marked for only our consumption, irrelevant to people who aren’t women–but I’m not going to appreciate it if the way the male creator makes his woman character feel “authentic” is to graft in his assumptions about what women think about. I have seen a male author praised extensively for wow it’s so hard to believe a man wrote this book about a woman, it feels so feminine but I was shocked that the supposed authenticity was literally her worrying about being fat and being obsessed with shoes. I also once read a very popular male author’s book that was from a teenage girl’s point of view and I cringed every time he tried to make her say/do something that reminded us of her gender (“ugh why do boys make us watch their movies? we’re not interested lol because ladies!”). I would ask these men to read books that are by women, to try to understand why we write what we write, and then don’t appoint yourself to tell a Feminine Story About Being Female. You don’t need to tell that story, but yes, please, put female characters in your book.

From a practical standpoint, I think it’s very important for mainstream audiences to start seeing people who are different from them in their everyday media. Without having to deliberately seek it out. Because people who aren’t like you are part of your world. Most media does not currently reflect that. We also need both “issue books” and “incidentally representative books.” The Nameless City was not about what it is to be any of the Asian populations it included, though it gave its own culture to the fantasy world (as it should). So it’s a nice thing if people from all backgrounds can go into a bookstore and see this and think “hmm that looks interesting” rather than thinking “welp, Asians on the front, must be some kind of niche media.”

I remember working at a bookstore and having a woman pestering me to make recommendations for “good books” and rejecting all the suggestions before I could even finish a sentence, and one of those attempts was me saying “You might like Life of Pi. It’s about a boy from India–” “NO.” She immediately wasn’t interested as soon as I said “India.” We also had an “African-American Fiction” section when I first started at the store. Many black readers would come in asking for the section, and other readers were scandalized by its existence–I heard black readers say it was gross to segregate it from the “regular” fiction, and I also heard non-black readers snot about it wanting to know where the white fiction was. (Clue phone: Pretty much the entire rest of the store.) Later it was integrated (along with several other categories) into one big mega-fiction section. Some people said that was the right choice. Some people were frustrated that they could no longer easily browse a section that was for them, and interpreted it as an attempt to take the entire thing away. Both sides are kind of right, but I think I’m personally more invested in my background and other people’s backgrounds all being presented as “for” anyone to be exposed to.

And here’s something interesting.

Wait, what’s that? Is it a children’s book with a same-sex couple on the front? Yeah it is.

This book is coming out later this year. It’s explicitly described in the book summary as a love story–depicted in the comfortable fairy-tale style children are used to seeing in all their other storybooks. There is no sticker on it proclaiming “LOOK, IT’S LESBIANS!!” or anything, but even though some people might interpret the red character as a boy because of how she’s dressed, a basic glance at the information will make it clear that their names are both feminine-coded names (Sapphire and Ruby) and they both use “she” pronouns. They’re in a clear casually intimate pose on the front cover. This is not being designated as a Special Interest book. It’s just going to be released as a storybook. For the regular storybooks section.

Recently in an interview, creator Rebecca Sugar said this about children’s media:

I think if you wait to tell kids, to tell queer youth that it matters how they feel or that they are even a person, then it’s going to be too late!

You have to talk about it–you have to let it be what it gets to be for everyone. I mean, like, I think about, a lot of times I think about sort of fairy tales and Disney movies and the way that love is something that is ALWAYS discussed with children. And I think also there’s this idea that’s like, oh, we should represent, you know, queer characters that are adults, because there are adults that are queer, and you should know that’s something that is happening in the adult world, but that’s not how those films or those stories are told to children. You’re told that YOU should dream about love, about this fulfilling love that YOU’RE going to have. […]

The Prince and Snow White are not like someone’s PARENTS. They’re something you want to be, that you are sort of dreaming of a future where you will find happiness. Why shouldn’t everyone have that? It’s really absurd to think that everyone shouldn’t get to have that!

Based on Rebecca Sugar’s history, it’s clear that she is very invested in portraying same-sex couples as natural, as an everyday part of life, as not worth batting an eyelash at in protest. She tends not to make her works “issue” works, and on her television show she’s included a large cast of non-white characters (as well as coding some of her aliens as having features typically associated with people of color), and she just presents that and lets it be without pointing at it and saying “look what I did.”

Rebecca’s romantic partner (and major contributor to her show) is Ian Jones-Quartey, who is a black man, and most of the voice cast and many of the writers are also people of color. But this is not written as a niche show. Rebecca Sugar hasn’t publicly identified as any stripe of queer as of this writing, and she’s partnered with a man, though I know better than to say that means we know anything–and ethnicity-wise she looks white, but she has demonstrated over and over that she believes racial diversity and queer representation belong in mainstream media, even for–ESPECIALLY for–children. Because, as she said above in the quote, we should all grow up knowing we can have that. That we’re people. That we don’t have to wait until our minds have formed around us being “other” before we’re gently coaxed “back” into society. In the interview, she also said some vague things about how she never watched Disney movies thinking that could be her, though I don’t know in what ways she was unable to relate. But I can certainly say I would have grown up feeling more like the world wasn’t someone else’s place I was just trying to live in if the media I consumed in my youth had hinted that people like me were real.

Now I’ve heard tell that Seanan McGuire has written a book with an asexual protagonist. (The book also contains a trans man who is, I believe, a romantic interest.) The author is bisexual (and as far as I know not asexual-spectrum), and this is one of the only novels out there that has not just an asexual character tucked in someone’s pocket somewhere but an asexual protagonist. This is also not a book about the character realizing she’s asexual, nor have I heard that it heavily features that revelation. It just is. As it should be. The question is, did she do it right?

I’ll have to see, by reading it. And even though I’m an asexual woman, obviously I’m not the decision-maker on whether Seanan McGuire has written an asexual character “wrong.” I would certainly be able to read it and say “I wish that hadn’t been there” or “I wish that had been phrased differently” or “just once I’d like to see an asexual character who isn’t also XYZ.” (I withhold judgment until I read it, obviously.) But I must admit that as an asexual woman knowing a bisexual author has included a character of my incredibly underrepresented background, my first thought was “ohhhhh jeez I hope it isn’t terrible.” I feel bad that this was my first thought, because though I’m passably familiar with Seanan McGuire, I’ve never read any of her long fiction. I have no reason not to trust her, and I trust her more than I’d trust a straight person to write aces. And yet that was my knee-jerk reaction. Because I’m used to mainstream fiction taking people I can relate to and framing them as broken, as cold or confused, as villainous, or as needing to learn more about being human. And it isn’t just hurtful to see yourself represented poorly in a story. It’s hurtful to know this is a mainstream presentation and other people are going to be even more likely to think about me that way. I’ve been taught to expect this when non-asexual people try to show the world who I am.

Right now we don’t have enough characters like us in the media to risk getting a large percentage of them wrong. Just like a straight white male character being an utter douchebag in a movie will not make people think differently about straight white men, there does need to be room for non-majority characters to not be perfect people, but since people are establishing lasting impressions of us based on how media portrays us, we need to ask creators to be sensitive to this when they plan their presentation. If you have no exposure to a group but you see them on TV, you generalize–even if someone else has chosen how that group is portrayed without being part of it. We cannot realistically arrange global exposure to every marginalized group, but we can be responsible with how that exposure comes through our media.

Article reprinted in anthology: Drunk Monkeys Volume 3

My short piece “Asexual, Aromantic, Partnerless, Childless – and Happy” which was originally published in Drunk Monkeys and run a second time in Everyday Feminism (as “Asexual, Aromantic, Partnerless, Child-Free… And (Yes!) Happy” is now available in the Drunk Monkeys anthology Drunk Monkeys Anthology Volume 3!

drunkmonkeys

It was put together by the publication’s editor and is sold through Amazon here if you’d like a copy.

 

Not Me

Despite all the excitement and busy stuff going on and my getting pretty unreasonably excited about cartoon things, I managed to calm down enough last night to do a little bit of writing (and, hopefully, will be able to do more this week), but I wanted to post a little ramble about an issue I’m running into.

My character is Not Me. She’s more divergent from being Me than most of my characters–not just in life circumstances (because all my characters have very different life circumstances from me), but in the way she speaks and thinks and IS. And because of that, I actually have to work really hard to stop my own inclinations from elbowing their way in when the flow clatters a little bit and I’m trying to keep going.

I have this wordiness problem, as y’all well know, and though it’s gotten a LOT better in recent years, I still have a tendency to wordify things. That includes feelings and thoughts and reactions and attempts to include other people. And I’m kinda used to having introspective, self-aware characters who revel in those words, composing significant dialogue and having a fair amount of running commentary in their heads.

That’s not what Megan is like. It’s kinda frustrating.

Nearly every time I write a full sentence for her I feel like it’s too much. She doesn’t talk a lot, and when she does talk, it’s usually pretty guarded. She doesn’t take extra steps to invite people to understand her; she doesn’t explain her thoughts; she doesn’t even fixate on what she’s thinking enough for me to nail it down in the text. I’m not used to a character like her who mostly speaks because others speak to her or because she can’t avoid it or to get them to STOP talking to her. (And I think this is going to make the times Megan DOES speak for other reasons far more significant, which will make my job easier down the line.)

It’s turning out to be pretty hard working with someone whose communication style is so different from mine. And I don’t want to just write it how I would write it and then edit it to be more like her because that will fundamentally change how I think about her. I’ll only really nail her voice if I practice with it as it’s developing in the story.

It’s pretty funny that I’m finally writing an asexual character and she’s the least like me of any character I’ve had. (We do seem to share an opinion when it comes to kissing, though.) I wonder how many of my readers are going to relate to her?

New book on the horizon

I think I’ve decided to start writing my next book after my Halloween party this year.

I’m making no promises about starting immediately on Sunday or anything (although I might), but I really want to start writing this. It is not going to be a NaNo novel. It is not going to be a thing I rush to get done at all costs, though if I write at my usual pace it’ll come out pretty damn fast. I have a vague goal of finishing it by the end of the year, but I’m not going to sacrifice quality if I just can’t do it.

Stuff I know about the book so far:

  • It is a contemporary YA book with very slight magical realism flavor.
  • The protagonist’s name is Megan.
  • Megan is asexual and homoromantic. She doesn’t know that at the beginning of the book.
  • Megan is a very serious artist. She likes to draw cities and buildings and inanimate objects, and prefers to draw in ink.
  • Megan is a senior in high school.
  • She is trying to get into art school based on the enthusiastic reception of some of her drawings at a show.
  • Megan lives with her older sister Dyane.
  • Megan is on the tall side of average, heavyset and curvy, half Hispanic/half white, and has brown hair and brown eyes. She doesn’t have much hair actually–it’s buzzed to peach fuzz. She has pierced ears and a pierced nose.
  • Megan sits behind a boy named Brady in homeroom. Brady is important.
  • Brady is attracted to Megan. Megan is not attracted to him.
  • Megan doesn’t talk very much and is externally kind of intimidating. That’s on purpose.
  • Megan’s sister Dyane is an aspiring actress and has a serious boyfriend. Megan has a loving but sort of disconnected relationship with her sister.
  • Megan had some very bad experiences with boys when she was in middle school because she hit puberty early. When she learns about asexuality, she struggles to decide whether it describes her or whether her bad experiences explain her lack of interest.
  • Megan joins a GSA during the course of the book and dates a girl for some of the time in the book.
  • Megan’s drawings operate on specific rules and go in a certain order that she feels conflicted about breaking when she’s called to diversify her portfolio.
  • Megan sees a school counselor about several things in the book. The counselor is a man, and he’s not useless.
  • Even though Megan learns she is an ace lesbian in the book, her most important relationship in the story is a friendship.

Stuff I don’t know yet:

  • A title. But for now I’m tagging my posts “ace of arts” because that’s funny.
  • What the deal is with Megan’s parents.
  • Megan’s last name.
  • The exact circumstances of her crisis with getting into art school.
  • Megan’s girlfriend’s name and what her “deal” is, except in my head she’s kind of a jerk and probably has cool hair that’s at least two colors.
  • How exactly Megan’s voice will come off in the book.
  • How exactly the sorta-magical-realism bit will go, though I suspect it will feel a little like lucid dreaming.

I’m excited to get started, but also worried it will fall on its face and just turn into a ramble-fest that eclipses the plot.

So, you know, the same thing I feel before starting every book. 😉

Published Paperback: The Invisible Orientation

The Invisible Orientation is now out in paperback.

You can get it at various sellers, some of which are listed on my Purchase Page!

The new edition has some updates, corrections, and a little bit of new content. It is not completely rewritten or revamped, but it is new and improved. (And comparatively inexpensive, wink wink.)

Review (Novellum): The Invisible Orientation

Ian Wood of Novellum has posted an entirely negative review of The Invisible Orientation. In part, it reads as follows:

I am completely open to the possibility that this is an orientation rather than a condition. The problem for me was that this author comprehensively failed to make her case. I started in on this book hoping to learn something about his topic and I finished it (well, finished half of it before I gave up on it!) precisely as uninformed at the end as I had been at the beginning – or perhaps more accurately, no more informed than I was before I read it, and worse, no more convinced.

One problem with it was that is was one of the driest tomes I have ever laid eyes on. It was like reading a scientific paper, but without any science in it, leaving only stilted semi-scientific language, but with no vigorously beating heart of solid science underlying it. There were quotations, and references, and definitions galore, but nothing from scientific research. Almost worse than that for a book of this nature, it had absolutely no personal accounts whatsoever, not even that of the author! Not in the portion I read anyway. I think I would have learned a lot more, and empathized a lot more if I could have heard from people who experience this phenomenon/condition/orientation, and been able to read their input.

Though I don’t think it’s dignified or professional to argue with reviews, I do think it’s irresponsible for folks like this to claim “the book has absolutely no [x] whatsoever” while admitting to having read only parts of it. Especially since the book opens with personal content; the introduction is the only explicitly autobiographical section, though. I didn’t want the book to seem like a personal account; there are plenty of those on the Internet on asexuality blogs, so I only included a little bit of autobiographical info for context. The aforementioned “quotations” are also all other people’s personal content through box-quote anecdotes, which many other readers said they found really relatable and humanizing.

This fellow also mocked some data tables’ failure to total 100% of people surveyed, so it looks like he didn’t quite grasp what they were measuring. The tables were labeled to indicate that survey participants were allowed to pick more than one answer, which of course means numbers aren’t being represented as mutually exclusive parts of the whole. He asserts that this is confusing and contradictory, but I haven’t run across any other reviewers who were confused and said so. Hopefully that wasn’t the impression other readers got.

For the record, I don’t mind negative reviews at all. If someone doesn’t like a book or finds it too boring to read all of, that just means I didn’t satisfy that person’s taste; I know not everyone will find my tone engaging. And I know some people will complain that it’s not what they wanted (for example, some people’s reviews have said they wanted more personal content, while others said they wanted it to be more academic). But I do find it disappointing when someone misrepresents my book as failing to contain information it does contain, suggests that its numbers not adding up makes its message laughable or questionable, or throws out various “zinger” questions that they present as unanswered/unanswerable (“If a person is asexual, why are they identifying with any sexually-oriented group? The author doesn’t tackle this”), even though they are explicitly addressed (perhaps in the parts that the reviewer readily admits to not reading).

Folks who wonder if this reviewer is right about my total lack of scientific support are welcome to read any of the slightly more than two dozen scientific and academic papers I quoted (with footnotes) and listed in the bibliography. It is admittedly not a “scientific” or “academic” book; those exist already, while a layperson’s guide did not.

For anyone who mistook my book as universally beloved, you should know that this fellow and a small but not insignificant group of one-star reviewers do exist. 🙂

Please read the full review on Novellum.

Speaking at the 2015 North American Asexuality Conference

I attended the 2015 North American Asexuality Conference in Toronto this year and gave a workshop called “Handling Detractors.”

detractorsMy workshop was very low-key; I just passed out index cards, got people to write down a comment that had been said to them about their asexual-spectrum or aromantic-spectrum identity, and collected them in an envelope, then pulled them out one by one to talk about them with the attendees. I had a pretty big audience and everyone was very responsive; I was only talking maybe half the time. I enjoyed hearing everyone’s perspectives and trying to give some advice on how to handle these comments. It went very well.

Besides my workshop, I had a table for my book.

booksignI collected names to give away two hardcovers and two audio copies of the book. Quite a few people already owned the book and had brought it with them, and they got me to sign it. It was pretty amazing.

Besides those two things, I went to several other workshops: Explaining Asexuality to Non-Aces, Ace-Friendly LGBTQ Organizations, Asexuality and Social Media, and Asexuality and Feminism. Plus I got to make some new friends, hang out at restaurants, collect some great items from other aces, and have some wonderful conversations. Asexual Outreach did a great thing here and I hope they continue to get the message out there.