Monday, April 9, 2018

You’re Bound to Piss Somebody Off #Appropriation #PoliticalCorrectness #Humanity

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By Lisabet Sarai

Our Grip title for the next two weeks is “Appropriation”.

If you’re an author, appropriation isn’t something you do. It’s something other people accuse you of doing. And frankly, most of the time those accusations ring hollow, at least to me.

I’m sorry, but I don’t intend to apologize for writing stories that feature black characters, even though I’m white. Nor do I feel any sort of reticence in imagining and capturing the experiences of men, either gay or straight, despite the fact that I don’t have a penis. Or creating a character who’s a Catholic nun, when I was brought up Jewish.

Sure, it’s quite possible that I will not get everything “right” (although I’d argue that human beings are so diverse and multifaceted that the concept of accuracy might not make a lot of sense). If someone objects to the way I’ve portrayed a gay man, an Asian woman, a Native American, a Catholic, a transgender woman, or whatever, because I’ve made some factual errors, I welcome the correction. However, I categorically reject the suggestion that I’m not qualified to write about groups to which I don’t belong, or that my doing so somehow inflicts damage on the members of that group.

Remember Black Lace, the groundbreaking erotica imprint that would not accept submissions from male writers? Of course they were free to make their own rules, and I suppose that in some sense “erotica for women by women” was their marketing gimmick. Still, I found it annoying, and I know many male colleagues who felt the same way. I would be willing to bet there are quite a few male authors out there who could convince an editor they were female.

Part of the magic of writing is spinning truth out of the imagination. Experience may be important, but our stories transcend experience.

The concept of appropriation is closely tied, for me, to the notion of political correctness. Please believe me when I say that I try to respect every human being on the planet. Compassion, civility, human rights for all —these are among my most cherished values. Paradoxically, political correctness often erodes these values. Wars about the appropriate terminology for a marginalized group don’t help build trust and cooperation, they tear it down.

I’m an author. I’d never claim that words are not important. However, actions still speak much louder, for me at least.

Immediately after the 2016 presidential election in the U.S., I wrote a story (Divided We Fall) about a possible dystopia I saw arising from the outcomes. The two young protagonists, one black, one Vietnamese, live in adjoining ghettos in Los Angeles. They’ve been taught to hate and distrust one another, because the powers that be understand that a divided resistance will never be effective.

The story includes some harsh language, including racial slurs. When I asked my fellow authors to help share my blurb and excerpt, some of them objected because of the language. I found this deeply frustrating. The language was the whole point, after all. It’s a deliberate attempt on my part to show how they have dehumanized one another. If I were to remove the references to “nigger” and “gook”, the story would lose some of its impact.

Finally, I just have to shrug. You’ve got to have a thick skin and a philosophical attitude, because you’re always going to piss someone off.

Meanwhile, here’s a politically incorrect excerpt from Divided We Fall. If you want more—well, all sales benefit Planned Parenthood.

Freeze, bitch.”

I’m expecting the challenge, but still, my stomach does a queasy flip. I remain motionless, as instructed, keeping both hands visible. A tall, lean figure steps out from behind some pollution-rusted shrubbery in front of a ruined apartment building. He carries his Kalashnikov like it’s another limb, one which he points directly at me. Funny how there’s never enough food, but no problem getting guns.

What you doin’ here? This ain’t your territory. You get your gook ass back ‘cross the street before I kick it back!”

Though the guard talks tough, I can see he’s young, maybe younger than I am. He fixes me with a belligerent glare and brandishes his weapon like he’d just as soon shoot me as not, but there’s a softness to his mouth that lets me imagine him smiling. Using his left hand to draw an ugly blade from his belt, he strides in my direction.

He wears threadbare jeans and a faded camouflage shirt, open to the waist. The inky skin on his bare chest gleams with sweat, despite the brisk wind. The paler flesh of a scar slashes across his chest, just above his left nipple. That must have been a dire wound, close to fatal. He might be young, but he’s no stranger to battle. None of us is, these days.

You hear me, bitch?” he growls and jabs at me with his knife.

Instinct taking over, I shrink backward, then recover. He mustn’t think I’m afraid. Straightening my spine, I raise my flag a bit higher.

I claim the right of truce.” I make my voice low, even, and respectful. But not subservient. “I’m looking for my three-year old brother. He wandered out of our territory earlier today. Someone said he might be in Niggertown.”

You better hope he’s not.” The guard gives me an evil grin. “Me and my boys just love a bit of barbecue.”

I ignore his jibe. He’s just trying to pull my chain. I hope. “Can I have a look around? Please?”

Any gooks enterin’ Niggertown got to pay the toll.” His leer widens, his white teeth a shocking contrast to his soot-dark complexion.

Of course.” I’d expected something like this. I jerk my thumb toward my backpack. “May I...? I’ve got veggies, from my mother’s garden. Cucumbers, green beans and kale. Chilies, too.” 
Money wasn’t much use in the barrios. Fresh vegetables, though—they were hard to come by, and I’d heard the soil in Niggertown was even more contaminated than ours.

He steps closer, until he’s looming over me. The point of his knife grazes my throat. Unflinching, I meet his eyes, brown as the muddy water of the Mekong in Mother’s old photos. His blade travels down my chest, pausing between my breasts. “I want something hot,” he murmurs. “But it ain’t chilies.”

You think you’ll rape me?” Amazed at my own daring, I grasp his wrist and drag it to one side, until the blade’s a safe distance from my flesh. He doesn’t resist. Dropping his hand, I give the little kick I’ve practiced so many times and flip the switchblade into my hand, already open. “I’ll kill you first, boy.”

Don’t you call me that, bitch!” I’m ready for him to hit me—I expect the toll to include some blood—but he holds back. “Anyway, I wouldn’t rape your skinny yellow ass. Nah, I’m gonna wait till you beg for it!”

I burst into laughter. I just can’t help it. “Right. That’ll happen the same day the pigs lay off the barrios and the Tower collapses.”

He tries to look fierce, but he can’t quite pull it off. “Just you wait,” he warns. “You gonna be on your knees. Beggin’ for me to put my big thing between your legs. An’ me, I’m just gonna leave you there!”


  1. Disclosure: I have written many female protagonists (including some lesbian protagonists)—with the enthusiastic encouragement of female editors. And I wrote one story with explicitly black characters—with the express encouragement of black editors (i.e., "We encourage white writers to submit to this African American erotica call too).

    However... speaking as a privileged straight white cis male, I personally feel it behooves me to be very careful in these areas—not because I'm afraid of "getting in trouble," but because I genuinely feel it's my responsibility to comprehend the concerns (and the reasons for the concerns), to listen and respect. I always feel that my attempt to be a good citizen must overrule whatever artistic agenda I might have as a writer, if the two seem to be at odds; and I'm inclined to err on the side of caution in these matters, when I'm in doubt—more so now even than a decade ago, because of everything we keep learning. This is why I'm a lot more comfortable when I'm taking my cues from an editor who's part of the marginalized group who's telling me they want my work.

    What other people call "political correctness," I call "avoiding language that's insensitive, noninclusive, or slurring." (Obviously, I'm not talking about putting such language in the mouths of characters who are supposed to come across as insensitive or ignorant—though if I were doing that I'd want to make damn sure my authorial attitude toward those characters was unmistakably clear).

    For my take on the Black Lace restrictions way back when, go here.

    1. Hi, Jeremy,

      (I convinced Google that I was me...)

      I don't disagree with you at all. I do think we need to be careful, to check with sources, to accept guidance from individuals who are closer to the groups we might be trying to portray. However, I just can't accept a blanket restriction that I'm unqualified or even automatically wrong when I try to create characters who aren't like me.

  2. I'm a white woman. My first series involves a Hispanic family. I've had people ask me why I wrote about Hispanics. I tell them that when Mom's mom(my Busia, who never learned English despite living in Chicago for over 50 years) was raising 10 kids during the Depression in the 30's, she took 2 buses and a street car to get out to the suburbs to pick produce. So her position was the position many Hispanics are in today: not knowing the language, they have to take the most menial of jobs to feed their kids. Mom had 4 sisters and 5 brothers. I loved having all of those relatives, along with my 22 cousins. So to me, imagining the life of an immigrant family, even 2nd generation, is a part of my life. But I'm married to a Polish guy. I want to write about "the other," which I find hotter. I also won't write about Highlanders, since me faither was from Glesga. But Hispanic people are the fastest growing group in the U.S. now, and I've seen some amazingly hot men among them! And gorgeous women. So even though I'm not Hispanic, I've lived the 2nd generation citizens life, and had a big, loving family, and I included part of that experience in my Reyes Romances.

    I've also written Asian, Arabic, bi-racial and black protagonists, both male and female. I've got friends of many races, and due to my propensity to talk about important issues of life, like race/religion, etc, with my closest friends, I feel I know a little about people of different colors, nationalities and religions.

    Like both of you pointed out, being respectful is key, but when characters are portrayed as bigots, I think it's okay to put bigoted language in their mouths, as long as your protagonists make it clear that's not okay. And no group of people are all the same...ever. There are many ways to be.

    And if I can write about vampires who've been alive for hundreds of years, and imagine what they think and feel, why can't I write about imaginary people who are totally different from me?

    1. Amen, Fiona!

      Of course, if there were vampire authors, they might complain about all the appropriation they have to deal with. Might be a fun premise for a story, in fact.

    2. In my first vampire novel, Prophecy of the Undead, I have the heroine, "waking up" as a vampire, asking the hero if vampires can have sex. He laughs and say, "Of course. Don't you read any romance novels? We're all the rage now. Besides, what fun is eternity if you can't get off?"

  3. I aways wince at the term "political correctness." Whose politics? The so-called ruling party? Back when the term was first bandied about I knew that it was meant as derogatory toward what were admittedly some excesses of liberal values, but that didn't seem to have much to do with politics. These days it seems more as though being "politically correct" should mean adhering to our current President's "frank" use of derogatory terms for pretty much everyone besides white middle-aged men, so I absolutely cringe when I hear him claim that he rejects being "politically correct.".

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I first heard the term used by my fellow progressives in college in the early 1980s, in a semi-self-mocking way. I.e., our positions were "politically correct," said with implied quotation marks and a smile. Though my experience could be skewed, I've thus always assumed that it originated in that spirit among progressives and only later was used against them by those pushing back against progressive initiatives (or, in a "having it both ways" fashion, by liberals who want to say iffy things and seek to excuse it by apologetically acknowledging that they're not "politically correct"—and then saying them anyway). No offense to Lisabet, but I loathe the term. In effect, it gathers up all the enlightened practices that have evolved regarding language and much more into a box of mockery, which is then labeled and dismissed as "political correctness" and easily shoved aside by people who want to resist the integration of these practices into our society.

    3. I don't like the term either. However, I don't think all the discourse labeled as politically correct represents "enlightened practices that have evolved regarding language". Actions are more important that words. Meanwhile, some supposedly "enlightened" locutions strike me as just plain ridiculous.

  4. I tend to not write these ethnic characters just to avoid being misunderstood. Political correctness seems to be a moving target. When I was a kid, 'negro' was the kind and sensitive term for a black person. That soon fell out of favor. Back in the Haight, I knew a guy who went by "Spade Dan".

    Then it became 'black', which I usually still use even though it doesn't really describe a race that can have as many variations in skin shade as so-called' whites'. Now, it seems 'African-American' is the accepted term. Ghaaaaahhh! So damn complicated.

    So I simply write poor white trash. :>)

    1. And you do it so very well... Though your Russian spies are brilliant also!

  5. The limitation of "African American," of course, is that not all black people are Americans. Perhaps that's one reason that "black" has returned to prominence.

    1. And not all "black" people are black, either... sigh.

  6. I feel conflicted about the whole cultural appropriation thing. Maybe Taco Bell isn't what Mexican folks really eat at home, but if it makes Mexican culture cool, I'm in favor of it. And so on. Sooner or later cultures are going to blue more and more.

    1. You're right -- keeping distinctive cultures alive is a battle. I would like to think that stories which feature non-Caucasian, non-hetero, non-middle-class etc. characters have a role to play in maintaining these positive distinctions.

    2. When Taco Bell entered the market in Mexico, I read that they marketed themselves as "American food." I have a scene in "Analysis of Love," one of my Reyes novels, where the heroine is going through a Taco Bell drive-through because she's in such a hurry, and she says to herself aloud, "I know, Mama, it's not real Mexican food. But it's quick!" I wanted to show that she feels guilty about supporting faux food, but that sometimes even fast food has a purpose.

      BTW, if you've ever eaten store-bought Polish kolackis, you might have had a "Meh," reaction. But I guarantee if you tried my homemade kolackis, you'd offer me your first-born to make more for you! ;-D

  7. That's a gripping excerpt, Lisabet. Now I want to know the outcome.

    1. I hope you'll buy the book... every 99 cents for Planned Parenthood helps...

  8. I feel like this way of describing appropriation sets up a bit of a straw man. When people are talking genuinely about appropriation, I don't think they're saying that white authors can't write black characters. I think they're talking more about a way of moving through the world that has been an ugly look for colonial actors for quite some time. Denigrate Hawaiian culture, kill the language, then try to dance the hula. That sort of thing. Appropriation is best seen in that sort of context. I don't doubt that there are people slinging the term around on the Internet in all sorts of ways, but I don't think the idea at its heart is about forbidding imagination or cultural appreciation. It's about a sort of insult to injury action that's happened throughout history, and I'm very sympathetic to those who are bothered by this. That said, it's a great excerpt, Lisabet!

    1. I'm not sure I agree, Annabeth. If you read Jean's post, she talks about the flack authors were getting simply for daring to write First Nations characters when that wasn't their background.

      What you describe goes beyond appropriation to oppression.


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