Friday, August 4, 2017

Fiction in the First Degree

by Jean Roberta

Are there taboos in erotica? Apparently there are words, images, and acts that will get a book thrown into the “dungeon” at, but no one seems to know the rules, or why they vary.

Re childhood influence, I also grew up in a home where sex was never discussed except for “the talk.” I was warned that boys have sexual feelings, and therefore they would try to persuade me to do things that were not in my interests—and which, presumably, I wouldn’t like. When my parents became aware that I had had consensual sex, they were horrified. My role as the Family Madwoman dates from about that time. Like parents in the Victorian Age, they seemed to believe that girls who have sexual feelings are mentally ill.

In some sense, that freed me. Since a sex life of any kind was not something my parents approved of for me, I could do it with men, with women, or presumably with goats, all with the same results. If anything, non-heterosexual sex was both safer (it couldn’t lead to pregnancy) and kinder than sex with men, since most heterosexual men (in my experience) can’t believe that a fuckable woman has other talents and interests.

As an adult leftist, I’ve been exposed to various definitions of political correctness. Anti-porn feminists in the 1980s made me nervous about expressing desire in any direction, especially on paper. At about the same time, I was introduced to “cultural appropriation.”

Oy vey. (This is an appropriated Yiddish expression. My mother used it often, having been raised partly by her smart, bohemian Jewish friends in 1930s New York, but I could probably be criticized for using it. This is not my worst offense. Read on.)

Last week, the national Assembly of First Nations had its annual conference here in Regina, Saskatchewan. This was a big deal in a Canadian province where a large minority of the population is of indigenous or First Nations descent. (The taboo label, used in bar fights, is “fuckin’ Indians.”)

Spouse and I went to hear a panel discussion by four female indigenous artists on “cultural appropriation.” They each had a somewhat different approach, but as one of them said, “If you’re not sure whether to borrow something from a culture that isn’t yours, don’t do it.”

The problem is that fiction writers are always tempted to describe something they/we haven’t experienced, and write first-person narratives from a viewpoint that doesn’t match our social personae (e.g. White Anglo-Saxon professional). Therefore a lot of fiction could be considered politically incorrect, and not just the sexually-explicit stuff.

In fairness, I can see why the original practitioners of an ancient martial art or healing practice (kung fu, karate, capoeira, yoga, herbalism, sweat lodges) feel violated when foreigners turn it into something trendy and sell it to other white folks for big bucks while the folks who started it remain marginalized and poor. This situation requires honest discussion and fair trade.

To give another example, every form of popular music I know of in the U.S. was originated by folks of African descent, many of whom were kept out of segregated venues and paid tiny amounts for songs they had written by recording companies that made big profits from them. This subject requires a book, preferably with a soundtrack CD.

However, the boundaries between that kind of exploitation and simply taking on a fictional persona are always vague and subject to interpretation. So I’m never sure when I will run into an outraged reader who will “call me out” for something I’ve written, and not just because I got a few details wrong.

Being scolded by prudes for writing about sex doesn’t scare me nearly as much as it used to. The possibility of being called a totally unwoken bigot worries me more, since the accusation would probably come from someone I respect.

Let me recklessly provide some ammunition that could be used against me. Here is part of the introduction to Iridescence: Sensuous Shades of Lesbian Erotica (Alyson Publications, 2007) by the editor, Jolie du Pre:

“Literary erotica is a fascinating genre and there are some wonderful l stories to be found. But what I’ve also found is that a majority of those stories contain a white cast, which wouldn’t be a problem for me if it weren’t for the fact that lesbian sex isn’t just for white folks and not all lesbians are white. . . So, I had an idea: why not combine my love for lesbian erotica with my desire to see more characters of color?”

(Note: the editor is African-American.)

Here is a passage from my story, “For All My Relations,” in Iridescence:

“I thought of the myth of the Vanishing Indian as a kind of human dinosaur that had supposedly been dying off for at least two hundred years because he (she? it?) couldn’t survive the spread of civilization. But in the Canadian prairie town we lived in, which was civilized enough to have computers in every government office and crystal meth on the street, twenty percent of the population showed some native blood, some more (Amanda with her hair, skin, cheekbones, and shape) and some less (me with my pale face, wood-brown hair, hips, and ass).”

The story is about the sex trade, something I had first-hand knowledge of, and the narrator is not far from being me. However, that story got into the anthology on grounds that it is about “lesbians of color.” As I found out lately through DNA testing, I am as white as a sheet. So did I sneak into that book on false pretenses? I don’t really know. (But whatever you think, you should read the book. Some of the other contributors are fabulous writers.)

In an earlier story, “Sisters,” in my first single-author story collection, Secrets of the Invisible World (long out of print), I wrote about two Jewish sisters who could have invented the term “sibling rivalry.” The younger one has just come home from Israel, only to learn that the older one (the narrator) is a lesbian who had a baby boy by artificial insemination. Here is a passage:

“She [younger sister] surrounded herself with friends, and although she asserted her opinions against all opposition, she was always defending her right to take up space, because she felt that I’d been trying to crowd her out of the light ever since I was born seven years earlier. Ours was not the sisterhood of modern feminism. Ours was the tribal sisterhood of Leah and Rachel.”

Despite some shakiness of style, I’m still proud of that story because I think it contains some raw truth from my life which might resonate with some readers. I just couldn’t resist the reference to Leah and Rachel in the Old Testament because it seemed to fit.

However, we’re not Jewish. None of us ever were. I can hear my Inner Critic shrieking: Do you really think you can compete with all the brilliant Jewish women writers currently writing in English? My only defense would be that I’m not trying to compete with anyone. I just wanted to write FICTION, and changing a few facts seemed like part of the game.

To round out the examples of my outrageous first-person claims to be what I’m not, here is the opening paragraph of my recently-published story, “Innsmouth Blues:”

“My Daddy would not like me to write about all the things that happened after I set out to be a schoolteacher. Not a bit. He always told me to keep my business to myself, and especially not tell white folks anything they could use against me. I loved Daddy when he was alive, and I still feel him with me, but it’s my story to tell. The colored have been keeping their mouths shut since the first Africans were brought to this country, and it hasn’t ever kept us safe.”

The narrator, Henrietta Baker of 1920s Boston, gets invited by a mysterious old woman to travel to Innsmouth to teach the town’s children, who are not fully human. This story appeared in Equal Opportunity Madness (Otter Libris Press), an anthology of stories based on H.P. Lovecraft’s “Mythos.”

So far, I haven’t been excommunicated from anywhere for writing any of the above, but my “politically correct” credentials are far from secure.

I probably won’t stop writing first-person stories—and sneakier third-person-limited stories in which the narrative voice jumps into a character’s head—about people I’m not. I just hope most readers forgive me, especially considering that I’m not making a fortune by exploiting imaginary people.


  1. I think your environment and history has made you super-sensitive to these issues of "appropriation". My take is that if you are not hurting anyone with your fiction, write whatever you like.

    Of course, it's perfectly legitimate for a member of a marginalized group to complain that your portrayal of the group is inaccurate, biased or degrading. However, I don't believe anyone has the right to censor your story ideas or police your characters.

    Meanwhile, as you point out, the question of belonging versus not belonging to a group is not nearly as cut-and-dried as critics would like to pretend.

  2. I've been thinking about this as I edit the preliminary proof for my next Best Lesbian Erotica. In the past I've often wished I got more diverse submissions, and sometimes wondered whether those I got were written by people who represented the culture written about. I was actually somewhat disappointed when a writer whose story had no hint of minority characters turned out to have every right--if there is such a thing--to write about such characters, but of course she had every right to write about characters with no indication of their ethnicity.

    One one hand, any good stories about minority characters can be valuable in increasing understanding. On the other hand, minority writers should have every chance to have their work represented. Lately, I'm finding that I can include more writers than previously whose names, at at least, as well as their bios, connect with their characters. A few years ago I used to hear about minority writers who hesitated to submit their work because of the assumption that it would be rejected, so I hope what I'm seeing reflects a positive change.

  3. Upon occasion, I've been criticized for dealing in ethnographic art. Some say art dealers steal a people's culture. But if that theory was pure, there would be no museums, no collections, no value in respecting achievements in art or technology. Becoming immersed in another culture is how we learn.

  4. Thanks for the comments, Lisabet, Sacchi, and Daddy. I've often wondered if "people of color" or members of "minority's groups" are writing more erotica now than formerly (before Jolie du Pre wrote her intro for a lesbian antho published in 2007). IMO, the more writers write about their own cultures and collective experience, the higher they raise the bar for what anyone can write about them.

  5. I find this whole discussion interesting. I once read a complaint by an author that said something like, if she could write about being a vampire or a werewolf, neither of which exist in actuality, why couldn't she write about being someone of a different race or culture than her own...or write in the personna of a man, if she wanted to? Much of the male/male romances I've read as a judge in the EPIC contest every year, have been written by women. The few I've read by men seem to have a different "flavor" (ahem), but that could be me reading into the words.

    But I've written about characters of many different cultures, and I hope I've been respectful. These days, everyone is so quick to take offense. I'm of Scottish and Polish ancestry, and I don't find it insulting when authors butcher the Scottish brogue, since they've never actually heard it. I lived with it in my house, in the guise of my dad, and I don't rail at authors for their inaccuracies. But I don't want to read their books either, since the kilt and the accent don't suggest "sexy man" to me...they announce, "Hi, Dad,"...most definitely NOT sexy! He was a prude who insisted that "boys do and girls don't." When I asked who the boys did it with, each other maybe? He got angry and shouted "with other people's daughters!" Sadly, he found out that was incorrect, and many times he removed my picture from his wallet, insisting he had no daughter. He'd always put it back in...eventually.

  6. Heh. Everything that's exotic to someone is everyday to someone else. A writer from NYC ( who shall be nameless here) wrote a chapter in an erotic novel about some rustic types from Saskatchewan, where I live. I didn't recognize their phonetically-written accent. I found it hilarious. When I met the writer, I offered reliable information if she ever wanted it.