Today, Twitter (or more specifically, a tweet from the SFWA) introduced me to Nalo Hopkinson. Her speech/blog entry “Looking for Clues” moved me profoundly and got me thinking about taking risks with my writing and not settling for the “status quo” in the racial/gender/sexual make-up of the practitioners of the genre I love.
In this brilliant piece, Hopkinson discusses what brought her, a black Caribbean woman, to the seemingly-incongruous world of science fiction authorship. The honesty of her account resonated deep within me and really got me to look a little closer at myself and my own attitudes regarding the “big” differences between us humans (race/gender/sexuality) and how to approach these differences in an honest and constructive way.
Hopkinson describes an incident at a con where the author Samuel R. Delany spoke. A young black gay man inquired about how someone such as himself can find a voice in this genre. A white woman responded that she doesn’t see race and that it doesn’t exist as an issue. I liked Mr. Delany’s response: “If you can’t see something that threatens my life daily, then you can’t help me fight it. You can’t be my ally.” Further, Hopkinson makes the following point that, for me, touched a nerve:
However, in today’s science fiction and fantasy, most of the writers are white, straight and male. If you’re not interested in changing that, then say so. But don’t try to claim that being content with the status quo somehow proves that you’re enlightened. All it proves is that you’re indifferent.
I am part of this white, straight, male majority. I do try to be “color blind” in the sense that I actively purge myself of stereotypes and assumptions in my thinking. I am human, so sometimes this is hard and I find unexpected thoughts coming into my consciousness that need examination. Nevertheless, I try to be aware and to make the effort. I know, down to my core, that a person’s pigmentation, ethnic background, religion, sexual orientation, or gender do not inherently lower the intrinsic worth of that person. I strive to view people of all types simply as people; we all have the same needs, desires, motivations, strengths, and weaknesses in abundantly diverse degrees. But what Hopkinson so brilliantly illustrates is that it is a false assumption that being “color blind” is the sole answer to solving our divisive problems. To blind oneself to one part of a person is to blind yourself to the truth of that person. Our differences, for good or for ill, define us. They affect our thinking. If my race doesn’t matter to me, chances are pretty good it mattered to someone else I encountered in my life. This encounter will affect my view of the world in some way; as it did theirs. It is true that race (or gender or sexuality or any other difference) doesn’t matter; it is equally true that it does.
So what does this mean to me as a writer? I am now more aware of the fact that I need to “seek out brave new worlds” in my reading. The sci-fi industry (and any industry for that matter) tends to play it safe. They don’t really branch out from the mainstream very often. So when they do, when they support an artist whose voice comes from a different set of experiences, I want to support that. I can do that by reading their blogs, buying/borrowing their books, and by honestly acknowledging what is interesting in those works and what isn’t. I don’t have to do this at the expense of the mainstream…which I love as well. The point is there is room enough for both in the industry and on my reading table. Mostly, I can try to be more aware…and cultivating this trait can only make me a better writer.
As a writer, I want to be able to write in a multitude of voices. This is very hard to pull off. No matter what you write, a bit of you spills into the page. Your experiences (or lack thereof), your likes and dislikes, your prejudices and presuppositions, inevitably show. To write in a different voice, to call upon experiences that are not your own, takes work. Some writers can be successful in completely masking themselves. Others, not so much. But as a writer, I’d like to someday be brave enough and good enough to make an honest effort. Could I write as a woman would? Could I write as a gay Latino man? Could I take on the work of accurately describing these characters’ lives even though I have not experienced what such a life would entail? Someday I would like to try.
Luckily, with sci-fi or fantasy, it is easy to practice in the context of alien worlds and strange races. You can touch upon the truths of our world while being armored in the “but this is pretend” aspect of the genre. It is a lot easier to talk about these issues in the context of mutants, witches, or elves than with more “realistic” people. But one of the great strengths of sci-fi and fantasy, a strength that is missed by those that dismiss it as pure escapism, is that it has that ability to explore not only possible technological futures or mystical pasts, but to illustrate fundamental and relevant human truths within these contexts. This isn’t to say that writers shouldn’t challenge assumptions directly through their work. Many do and do so very well. I just think that it is a gift that through this genre we can explore touchy subjects without touching the live wires that are firmly attached to our very human knees.
It has been said by many that writing, at its core, is a search for truth. This is true of every genre and in every culture. Some truths are more profound and earthshaking than others, but it is nevertheless the job of the author to illustrate these truths as purely as possible. Awareness is the means by which any author (in any genre) can touch upon these truths. With this awareness the writer can then strive to produce works that resonate with the very real people that experience them. If these truths are successfully shared, then both the author and the audience are changed.