13 Jan

Douglas Blaine on Shame

Douglas Blaine has a response to Pam Noles’ essay Shame.

He writes: So I (have) nearly nothing in the way of a frame of reference for my thoughts of opinions on this and lists the experiences he has had. Compelling:

For a brief time in the third grade of the Catholic school I went to in Kansas (from what I hear not the same as Catholic school back east) there was a girl named Rochelle Ramsey that I was good friends with the left as mysteriously as she arrived. Maybe her family couldn’t afford the tuition”“mine couldn’t 3 years later”“maybe “˜the powers that be’ encourage the only family of color that school had ever seen to find a better place to integrate. All I knew was that my friend was gone.

He then, after summarizing, goes on to say:

So one thing come out of all that: where in all my experience am I supposed to reliably concoct a speculative fiction story that involves people of other (real) races?

Oh sure, you hear folks bather about doing research for a book, but I seriously doubt that they intend for one to “˜go live among the black people and learn their ways’. If I chose to write a story containing a more multicultural cast I would be at best able to call someone black at the onset, maybe a remark about brown eyes or crinkly hair and then I would be done. Every word out of his (sexist post later) mouth would be either as white as I don’t know how not to be or ridiculously contrived. I don’t (can’t) do this for the same reason I don’t write legal thrillers or romance or business books: I know nothing about the true subject.

Sorry Doug, you don’t get off so easy. I hate being confrontational, but this is a cop out. I appreciate your thoughts on this, but I really think you’re wrong and would encourage you to read on here, realizing that I’m not yelling or criticizing, but trying to explain.

Let’s extrapolate your argument a little. What if I were to say the following:

Oh sure, you hear folks blather about doing research for a book, but how am I supposed to reliably concoct a story that involves a scientist, I have, after all, never even been in a lab or met a scientist. How can I even begin to imagine what someone who does math for a living thinks like.


Oh sure, you hear folks blather about doing research for a book, but how am I supposed to reliably concoct a story about being an astronaut, I’ve never even been a test pilot, I can’t even begin to imagine the stress of flying a craft into the upper atmosphere or what it is like being weightless.


Oh sure, you hear folks blather about doing research for a book, but how am I ever supposed to write a story with a woman character. I’ve never had a period or breasts, what the fuck do I know about being a woman?


Oh sure, you hear folks blather about doing research for a book, but how am I supposed to know what a white man thinks like? I’m multiracial and grew up outside the US, I can never get into an American’s head

The argument, when other elements are swapped in instead of minorities, becomes ridiculous.

This is how you do it.

You give it your best, honest, empathetic, attempt. And you’ll probably screw it up. The first time, the second time, the third time, just like anything new element you try to add to your fiction. You’ll research, and talk, and ask questions, and just like any other character that you are not (which is most), if you are committed to it, you just might nail it and you will certainly be a stronger writer for it.


If we can’t bring diversity and get into the eyes of someone other than us in a story, what’s the point of writing about dwarves and aliens. Doug says

I submit this is one of the underlying motives of authors for creating new races. We can invent elves and dwarves and the like and say they like fried chicken and watermelon without coming off as totally inept asses.

but that’s just the point, if we can’t get behind the minds of other humans what’s the point of even badly portraying aliens or fantastic creatures if its just going to be a way for us to lazily discuss ‘otherness?’ The using creatures as a short hand for otherness becomes 1) laziness, and 2) insulting. Why are weird looking creatures always going to be the stand in for otherness, and good looking white people the heros? That adds up to a bizarre mass, don’t you think?

Don’t get me wrong, using aliens as a shorthand is great, just ask anyone who was so struck by the black/white white/black episode of Star Trek, but having Uhura on the bridge and treated as part of the crew is just as damn important. Having a green monster as a stand in for the other is just, simply, not enough.

You’re going to have to try harder.

I don’t (can’t) do this for the same reason I don’t write legal thrillers or romance or business books…

Maybe, but are you saying you can never have love in your SF story, or a world with a functioning economy? Come on…

For those who feel similarly, and want more pointers or to dig into this further, you need to read Nisi Shawl’s trans-racial writing for the sincere. Here is a relevant snip from here opening about all the same arguments used above:

I wonder sometimes what kind of career I’d have if I followed suit with tales of stalwart Space Negroes and an unexplained absence of whites.

But of course I don’t. I boldly write about people from other backgrounds, just as many of the field’s best authors do. Suzy McKee Charnas, Bruce Sterling, and Sarah Zettel have all produced wonderful transracial characters, as I show in examples below. Before getting into their work, though, let’s discuss how to prepare for your own.

If you want to go beyond the level of just assigning different skin tones and heritages to random characters, you’re going to have to do some research. Because yes, all people are the same, but they’re also quite different. For now, we’ll set aside the argument that race is an artificial construct, and concentrate on how someone outside a minority group can gain enough knowledge of the group’s common traits to realistically represent one of its members.

Reading’s a very non-confrontational way to do this. Be sure, though, if you choose this route, to use as many primary sources as possible. If researching a story about first contact between a stranded explorer from Aldeberan and a runaway slave, for example, you’d do much better to read The Life & Times of Frederick Douglass than Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The latter is an important and moving book. But not only is it a work of fiction, it was also written by a non-slave; therefore it’s a step further removed from the authentic experience you need.

Websites on minority culture abound. Any half-decent search engine will bring up a freighter’s worth of URLs on African-Americans, for instance, and at least a line or two on lesser-known groups.

She even does workshops on this.

We’re writers. It’s our job to get into other people’s heads. There is no excuse not to.

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