22 Aug

Paneling while light, but not white

I just got back from London, and would love to be uploading pictures and talking about two weeks spent in Europe, but I’m catching up on bills and getting into the swing of work. And my kids start Kindergarten. And the dogs need picked up. So I’ll be a little late.

However, a few people have pinged me about a couple of blog posts that reacted to the panel “Imagining Fantasy Lands: The Status Quo Does Not Need Worldbuilding.”

London Worldcon had a fascinating vein of programming with an openness to discussion about diversity, challenging status quo, and world viewpoints. Noticeably more so than past Worldcons. It’s a far cry from the first time I attended a worldcon, and there was just a sole obligatory ‘race in SF’ panel and that was the one (maybe only, outside corridor meet ups) place to find this discussion.

This panel was another one of London Worldcon’s varied pieces of interesting programming. It featured Mary Anne Mohanraj, me, Kate Elliott, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Victoria Donnelly, and Ellen Kushner. The panel description goes thusly:

Fantasy world-building sometimes comes under fire for its pedantic attention to detail at the expense of pacing or prose style. Do descriptive passages clog up the narrative needlessly, when reader imagination should be filling in the gaps? Where does that leave the landscapes and cultures that are less well represented in the Western genre: can world-building be a tool in subverting reader expectations that would otherwise default to pseudo-medieval Euro-esque? If fantasy is about defamiliarising the familiar, how important is material culture – buildings, furnishings, tools, the organisation of social and commercial space – in creating a fantasy world?

Two people in the audience were a bit taken aback. Blogger Not By Its Cover (I’m not sure of their name) was upset when I demurred talking about being ‘light but not white’ for the panel and was pressed by panelists to keep on the subject:

He repeatedly said in his response that he doesn’t usually like to talk about his experiences of race, that people outside the Caribbean find his presence in discussions of race disturbing and confusing, that he doesn’t have the energy to deal with that, and that he does not want to be an educator. What enraged me was that, in response to his saying this, a couple of his fellow panelists exclaimed that he absolutely should participate in discussions of race precisely because people found it so problematic and that even if he didn’t wish to participate…

Kate Nepveu also noticed this and commented on it in her panel notes.

So on this panel, I talked about the fact that looking white but not identifying as such due to my bi-racial background complicated discussions. I’m happy to engage in this in some situations and in certain contexts where I known I don’t have an audience that’s still struggling with race 101 level stuff, but for the panel itself I didn’t come prepared and wasn’t expecting to become a focus of the panel. Partly because I came a bit more prepared to talk about what went into creating a fantasy world and how it’s done more deeply, and because I wanted to interrogate and poke at pseudo-medieval constructs.

So, the panel swerved to a bit more of ‘how we authors’ try to deepen work and use our backgrounds to do it. Panels swerve quite often, but I was unprepared for this and tried to demur. I was tired, as I’d just come out of three weeks of travel (promoting Hurricane Fever, teaching a workshop, then a week in Spain, and finally London Worldcon). My ability to switch tracks wasn’t there, I was very exhausted. I was also trying to monitor the panel’s conversational flow and make sure the sole non-writer on the panel, our archeologist Victoria Donnelly, who was making her first appearance at a science fiction panel, was not overrun by us authors and our opinions (even though I was sure Mary Anne wouldn’t do that, I wanted to make sure, as I thought Victoria had a very interesting background we could gain a lot from).

So I demurred, and the panel thought that I might have interested things to say and they…

…keep in mind Mary Anne and Kate and have known me a while…

…pulled a bit at me.

On the panel itself the fact that the audience felt my reticence and responded was not surprising. I didn’t want to talk about the complications of being light not white as a working writer right there because sometimes I have to carefully consider the impacts of my words. And I was tired. So I was worried about making mistakes.

But we muddle our way through. I wasn’t upset with Mary Anne or any of my panelists at the time, just momentarily trying to change the entire set of ‘stories’ and conversations I had arrived with loaded into my mental ready-state.

So why was I reticent?

It’s that if I get up and talk about my struggles, in some cases I can easily negate the even harder struggles others have. Look, I look and ‘read’ white to most people (including non-whites). I therefore complicate discussions about diversity due to living in a culture that takes race as binary. Look, I see the president of the US and see a bi-racial dude from a mixed family background. Most Americans are all like ‘dude’s black.’ And so are a lot of non-white Americans.

So I roll up and talk about how it’s personally annoying when people of all kinds don’t want to recognize me as bi-racial and that’s sometimes problematic. Here are writers struggling far more than I have who come from a legacy and background of far more vicious racism than can be even sometimes explained. So what if I’m left off most lists of diverse SF writers. Boo hoo, right? (And this has mostly been on my mind because I’ve been told by some that I’ve been taken out of articles or such for not being ‘properly diverse’ and just as someone who wants to be part of the tribe of diverse SF/F authors doing amazing things it pains to be excluded on a personal level, but on a larger societal level, shit, injustices against the people of diversity is vastly larger) People read me different than I read myself, I’ve been dealing with that for 35 years. It’s cool. But trying to talk about the complexities of it mean I can inadvertently suppress other narratives, right? I don’t get the *right* to say who gets on a list of diverse writers or how I’m considered at large, I can only keep conversing and trying to add to diversity and talk up good things. So when someone suddenly asks about the complicated nature of how I’m perceived or received in genre, or what my struggle has been, I freeze.

But even as that happens, I also get annoyed with narratives that try to require me to fit into a certain ‘type’ of diversity. It seems the white power structures like immigrant narratives and magical realism from brown-identifying folk. Man, is that ever true, and even allies can fit into this. There’s been a heavy pressure on me to drop doing the action and to write about magical immigrants. I’ve been offered book deals and better money, and it’s funny, I’ve had three editors in the last ten years point blank sketch out the outline of the same novel: immigrant from the Caribbean arrives in the US and does something magically realist.

So, you know, it’s complicated. I’m writing Caribbean Space Opera and have had historically black media *and* white editors tell me they’ll pay attention when I do a magical realist book and I want to keep doing what I’m doing and I’m slowly building this wide audience of people who are digging diverse characters in high octane adventures. Do I want to appear not grateful to make a living doing what I’m doing in public? No. I’m building something, and I’m trying to make sure I spend less time annoyed with people who don’t get what I’m up to and more time sharing excitement with those who totally get it!

So let’s end this positively. I’m all good. The panel was fascinating and was a sign of a fantastic convention (for me at least, I didn’t get to a ton of panels). I was delighted to be up there with amazing minds. And I’m impressed that the audience felt defensive on my part and thank them, but I bear no ill-will or negative feelings towards any of the panelists.

14 Apr

Georgia governor refuses to condemn segregated school prom

There’s some moral backbone for you (not) from the governor of Georgia refusing to condemn a segregated prom and called condemnation of it a ‘leftist’ ‘publicity stunt.’

“Gov. Nathan Deal won’t take sides in the controversy over some Wilcox County teens’ efforts to integrate their prom.

By email, his spokesman, Brian Robinson, said Deal would have no response to a liberal group’s call for state officials, including the governor to speak out.

He wrote, ‘This is a leftist front group for the state Democratic party and we’re not going to lend a hand to their silly publicity stunt.'”

(Via Spokesman: Gov. Deal Won’t Comment on Wilcox Prom | 13wmaz.com.)

28 Jul

Framing kids’ deviance by race

Two seven year old kids steal a car to go joyriding in separate incidences. One is white, one is black.

One will be tried as an adult and probably see juvenile prison, one will not.

One will be treated by the media as a god-fearing church goer who did something silly. The media host will laugh with the child about their actions and small punishment. One is the subject of a media expose of a criminal-in-the-making.

Guess who?

Unfortunately, Latarian says all the right things to make the narrative fit. He says he likes to do “bad” things, calls himself a “hoodrat,” and seems unremorseful, even defiant, for at least part of the interview (he looks a bit sheepish in the end when he finds out his grandmother is going to have to pay for the damage he did to other cars).

One way to interpret this is to say that Latarian IS a pre-criminal. That he DOES need to get into the system because he’s clearly a bad kid. Someone inclined to believe that black people were, in fact, more prone to criminal behavior could watch these two videos and feel confirmed in their view.

But there is good evidence that people, beginning as children, internalize the stereotypes that others have of them. As Ann Ferguson shows in her book, Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity, black children, especially boys, are stereotyped as pre-criminals; not adorably naughty, like white boys, but dangerously bad from the beginning.

01 Aug

What does it mean to be this Caribbean writer?

I hope it’s no secret to many reading here that I don’t consider myself wholly white. Some of you reading since 1998 may know a thing or two about me, but since I’ve become published in novel form more people are coming to the blog and reading and finding out about me online and express confusion about this point.

A number of people have emailed me or stopped me to ask me “what does ‘caribbean-born’ mean?” and others are curious as to why I constantly point out things about diversity in SF. What they may not know is what others around me know: I consider myself multi-racial.

I jokingly have been called ‘an undercover brother.’ Vin Diesel calls people like me ‘shadow people,’ neither one race nor the either due to circumstances and self-identity, and considers himself one, yet another reason for my close attention to his career.

Things came to a head a couple days ago with a few emails challenging me to prove that I was actually multi-racial and not just a ‘poser’ who wanted the ‘advantages’ of being hip and multi-racial.

For some people, any attempt to identify in ways that they can’t control are troublesome.

One reason I’m private about my past family life is that I had a complicated family life and my biological parents are radically split for reasons that are none of anyone’s business except those I choose to share that story with. Growing up was not all fun and smiles on the beach, as people assume.

But I was born on the island of Grenada, West Indies, and is one of the two Caribbean islands that shape what I think of as home. Grenada, with it’s spice and colorful flowers and deep jungles and people, that is my first home. No matter how split my parents are, my cousins and aunts and uncles are all Grenadian and that is the blood that runs through my veins because of my father. I can’t deny or wish to change that, it’s simply who I am. And I’m proud to have been born there and lived there for the first nine years of my life.

People want to know something for sure, then it’s easy as clicking this link here, to see my father’s business still in Grenada. He’s the brown-skinned man in both the pictures at the bottom of the page. He’s my father that I haven’t seen or talked to in almost 20 years. Judge for yourself whether I’m multi-racial, fine.

Even better, here to the right is a crop of the one of the rare pictures I have of my Caribbean side of the family. My grandmother, two cousins and me (with my mother and father cropped out) standing on the tallest hill of Carriacou.

And yet, I’m one white looking dude. Genetics is wild. Some 7 different genes code for skin color, and when parents get together it’s a crapshoot. In this case, my sister got tan looking skin tone and I got fairly white. But that doesn’t change the fact that my father is who he is, as are my cousins and aunts and uncles. It doesn’t change the fact that I grew up playing cricket on Lance Aux Pines beach, that most of my friends until I came to Ohio were usually not white, and that I often spoke with a patois when I needed it, or a British accent if I chose. It doesn’t change that I played football, the one where you actually kick the ball, and that I had textbooks with a full complement of races in them, or that my obvious skin color meant I was the one who was not normal, but yet, I never had any trouble maintaining I was mixed until I moved to the US. My childhood was Caribbean in its nature, essence, and impact on me. Most people from the Caribbean understand where I come from (with some rare exceptions of some assholes near Grand Anse who would always yell ‘yankee go home’ at me), most grant me this without my having to fight for this. I should merely have to state it.

So, as for my identity: I’m Caribbean. An English mother and a Grenadian father. By blood, by birth, and by spending 15 and half years of my life in the islands, I can’t imagine calling myself anything else but.

Why not pass? The idea of passing is an interesting concept that tells me more about the person who asks that of me. The implicit assumption for many is that passing as white confers the easiest route, their astonishment at my not choosing that is a often an interesting hangup.

So what is up with two Caribbean Science Fiction novels? My fiction plays with a wide variety of people and genre tropes. I don’t write exclusively “Caribbean SF” but I am a Caribbean-born SF/F writer. But some of my stories are rich with the Caribbean.

Since I was in sixth grade I’d been drawing spaceships taking off from island harbors, rather than gantries. I even used some early island settings, but a lot of my early SF aped the SF I was reading: galactic empires, etc. But somewhere in ’98 when I was in college, I decided to really focus on becoming a writer. And part of that involved what I was going to write about.

I began to add pieces of Caribbean background to roughly a third of my stories. A character, a place, and certainly inspiration from island history and anecdotes. But I was nervous about using it, aware of the fact that by Caribbean readers I may be thought of as stealing the exotic for my fiction, and by other readers as some sort of fraud.

It was later in that year, however, that I sat down to write my story ‘The Fish Merchant,’ feeling that I wanted to bring together the things that I wanted to write into a short piece: one ‘Steppin’ Razor’ like badass (Pepper), a non-Caribbean but non-Western locale (China), adventure genre action, and a twist on a traditional SF trope (first contact).

When I finished my first piece that drew this all together, it was a heady rush: this was the sort of thing I wished I’d been able to have to read on the shelf. And yet, as I got accepted to the prestigious Clarion workshop on the story and started submitting it, I kept on writing more ‘vanilla SF.’ One because I didn’t want to risk screwing up another Caribbean inspired piece of SF, and another, because there was a growing feeling that I’d lost the Caribbean. A white looking Caribbean multi-racial expat, who grew up on a boat, both identifying with, but in many ways, living on the edge of, Caribbean society, who was I to write this stuff? I had a huge impostor syndrome issue. And I was still worried that even though I adored ‘Fish Merchant,’ others would not find it interesting as I did.

That changed at Clarion, when not only did many students enjoy the story, but I met two instructors who really encouraged me to take the instincts I had with ‘Fish Merchant’ and go further. Authors Tim Powers and Mike Resnick both felt that the story was something interesting and that played to my strengths. So did Scott Edelman when he visited Clarion, and it was he who later purchased the story for Sci Fi Age shortly after Clarion and gave me my first professional short story sale.

The confidence given me there led to many more stories being written over the next six years that drew my interests, backgrounds, and love of genre together:

The Fish Merchant -Science Fiction Age
In Orbite Medievali – Writers of The Future
Spurn Babylon – Whispers From The Cotton Tree Root
Trinkets – The Book of All Flesh
Death’s Dreadlocks – Mojo: Conjure Stories
In The Heart of Kalikuata – Men Writing SF As Women
Four Eyes – New Voices in Science Fiction
Necahual – So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy
Anakoinosis – I Alien
Toy Planes – Nature Magazine
The Silver Streak – Space Cadets
The Duel – Electric Velocipede #11
Manumission – Baen’s Universe (upcoming)

This represents about half of my bibliography (not including the two novels).

When it came time to write my first novel, Crystal Rain, I considered all the concepts and ideas I had, and the most compelling ones drew from many of the same sources as these stories above. As in Toy Planes, I felt that Caribbean people had a place in the future, and that if humanity were to populate the stars, that Caribbean people would immigrate in that great diaspora, and that they should have stories as well. And yet, even as there is the Caribbean take, the Caribbean’s proximity to the cultural West means that a great deal of my influences are still very much recognizable to anyone.

The reason I read genre fiction is entirely different than any other literature. I find the action, high concepts, and sense of wonder the amazing element that separates it from anything else I encounter. I like to think, secretly and to myself, that literature is the soul of humanity, its dreams. Feverish, bizarre, reflections of its processing what has happened to it so far, and figuring out how to store that, remember it, and experience it.

But the genre I work in is something different, it’s the imagination of humanity, its daydreams, its nightmares, its pleasant fantasies, it’s hopes and its inventions. It’s not like the other literatures. And I want people like me to look into the imagination of humanity and see people like himself looking back at him. I may not be perfect, but I am excited that it is something that I’ve been managing to publish and gain a readership for.

Hi, my name is Tobias Buckell, and I am Caribbean. And I’m an SF/F writer. I’m proud of both the genre I write in, and my identity.