Thursday, June 14, 2012

Changing Perspective

Once upon a time, I decided to write a fantasy novel.  And lo, it was anime.

Wait, let's fast forward. 

Once upon a time, I realized that the vaguely-defined, sanitary-generic medieval setting for my fantasy novel was as boring as a packet of unflavored oatmeal on a flat gray pillow, and deleted it.

"Everybody since Tolkien has been doing Euromedieval fantasy," thought I.  "What'll I do instead?"

By and by, I hit on the idea of setting it in something like the American West.  A stunning leap forward for fiction?  No.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I actually had something to say about a setting like that. 

You know, so much fantasy is about Our Heroes rallying together to beat the Dark Lord, and for me, growing up in America has basically been the act of cracking open the family album and realizing that the Dark Lord was dear old great-great-granddad, and he WON.  And that most of the privileges I grew up with are the spoils of unimaginably brutal conquests, and that their consequences are still falling like dominoes through five hundred years of history and right through the present - right into the future! - and that even though *I* didn't do any of those horrible things, I'm still a product of them, and all I have to do to help keep my ancestors' monstrous legacy alive is to complacently mind my own business and accept things the way they are.

It's some galling shit, y'all.

So I decided, "right, if I'm going to do this, I gotta get it RIGHT."  No noble savages, magic Negroes, whitewashing, tokenism, and most especially no heroic white-folks leading a bunch of good-hearted helpless brown people to salvation. 

Anyway, I've been reading up on some of these ways that reasonably well-intentioned writers Get It Wrong, and am still continually amazed at how often I am just bowled over in the process.  At some point, you understand why the stereotypes in Twilight are so immensely awful, have read all about the enormous cringeworthy problems with The Help, are actively unpacking your invisible knapsack, and reckon you're levelling up your cultural awareness.  "Man!" you start thinking.  "I am so enlightened, I should move to Seattle and start ordering my free-trade coffee in Gujarati!"

Then somebody tells you that To Kill A Mockingbird is racist, and your mind is blown.

Well, mine was, anyway.  It was an astonishing reminder of how much I STILL don't know, how readily I STILL make all kinds of sick cultural assumptions, and how much I am STILL a product of my programming. 

Not gonna lie, it's a bummer.

But it's all right, because I'm still going to educate myself.  In Paper Mario terms, my goal is to go from this:

To this:

(Granted, Mr. Mario himself is kinda symbolic: he's white, powerful, heroic, and those hapless wacky fungus-folks in the Mushroom Kingdom never can keep their shit straight without him.)

So what I'm saying is, learning to see in eye-popping cultural 3D is almost certainly a lifelong and imperfect project.  The prospect of Getting It Wrong is intimidating, because the only thing I dread more than getting savaged by critics is actually, seriously hurting somebody through my own blundering ignorance.

But it's also tremendously exciting.  In many ways, trying to write fiction for a living is kind of a selfish pursuit.  You're not curing cancer or saving the rainforest or teaching orphaned kittens to read - mostly you're just trying to pursue your passion profitably enough to quit working second shift at WeenieWorld. 

This part, though - this isn't about quitting the day job or getting famous or book-slapping the naysayers in your life with a hardcover copy of the novel they said you'd never write.  This is about helping to fill in the gaps on the shelves, giving readers of all backgrounds more characters and stories worthy of them, and making your (tiny, individual) contribution towards the raising of the literary bar.

No, changing perspective isn't as easy as pushing a button - but the view is so, so worth it.

And we'll call them... 'goombas'.


  1. I still want to book slap the naysayers with a hard cover (heck, even soft cover) copy of my book. :D

  2. And THAT is why e-publishing will never take over the world - you can't chin-check somebody with a Kindle! (Or maybe you can, but it definitely invalidates the warranty.)

  3. Imagine the horror I go through writing about real people. I want to do their story justice, but I have a responsibility to also show them how they are. Granted, their "reality" is filtered through my mind and put on paper. So, I guess what I'm saying is that truth isn't ever really the truth. It all depends on the perspective of the person writing it. Okay, my brain hurts:)

  4. Dudette, I don't even know how you handle it on the non-fiction side. Do you change all the names? Do they get to sign off on the final draft? Even if you're not Linda Tripp, that is still mighty intimidating.