So. Since I had a thing to say about Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sharing Knife series and (oh dear) the RaceFail conversation, I thought perhaps I’d separate it out from the Book Report I keep meaning to write about the latest book and write it as its own note. This one won’t have spoilers for Book Four, nor will (imao) the plot spoilers for the series really spoil anyone’s enjoyment. On the other hand, while the plot spoilers shouldn’t spoil your enjoyment of the series, it’s possible that the discussion will. Because the reason why I wanted to write a bit about RaceFail and the Sharing Knife was because to a very limited extent, the RaceFail discussion did ruin my enjoyment of the series. Not ruin, but, let’s say, work to the detriment of…
I don’t know if Gentle Readers read Mary Ann Mohanraj over at John Scalzi’s Whatever on specfic (and other) writers and race and so on; it’s a fascinating document, right-headed if I can call it that, and persuasive, and all kindsa good stuff. And then there’s Benjamin Rosenbaum, who I linked to a day or two ago and who knocked me out again with a note on Identity and Othering in “The Ant King and Other Stories”, in which he took a quantitative look at his own stories and found things that he didn’t know. Just to be clear, because some responses I’ve seen have missed the point and thought he was seeking to impose a sort of quota on other writers, and that didn’t seem to be the point at all. He was showing (I thought effectively) how difficult it is for a writer to escape the water we are all swimming in, even when he is clearly attempting to do so. Anyway, if you haven’t read those two posts, I strongly advise reading or at least skimming them, as they are what ruined my enjoyment of The Sharing Knife. Well, not ruined. As I said.
Editing this note to add that realio trulio, if you are trying to seriously engage with this post without reading and referencing those essays, you are doing both me and yourself a disservice. I have been surprised by how pleasant it has been to be linked by Ms. Bujold and have new Gentle Readers who have all been great, but still: this is a note about how those essays affected my experience of reading The Sharing Knife, not so much about the series of books itself. End later editing (Last day of April, 2009)
See, here’s the thing: the world of The Sharing Knife is a fictionalized fantasy version of frontier America. The characters start in the north and follow the Mississippi down to New Orleans, and then come back to the North overland. It’s not the Alvin Maker world; the cities and rivers have different names and do not necessarily match up to our world. On the other hand, it’s clearly an American fantasy world, in the economy, the language (with suitable Fantasy modifications), the technology and the social structures. The elves (which are called Lakewalkers) are not only elves but a fantasy version of Native Americans. And there are no Black people. No Mexicans. No Cajuns. No French. No Dutch.
The travelers never run into a community where a different language is spoken. They do find that the food changes a bit from region to region, mostly because of the local game, but they don’t come across ethnic foods, nor is there any real disagreement about what is tasty and what isn’t. That’s generally true of cultures as well: there are regional cultures, which are dictated by natural features, but there aren’t ethnic cultures, dictated by tradition, taboo and taste. Or, rather, there are two cultures: farmer and Lakewalker, or human and elf, or White and Red.
I was reading the new book at around the same time as I was reading those notes I linked to, and when I went back to the Bujold, I couldn’t help noticing that it was, in many ways, utterly what they were talking about. I don’t mean to say that either would hold up the books as racist, necessarily, just that I think they would be willing to hold them up as examples of works that come out of a racist society and perpetuate not only the feeling among racial minorities in America that the specfic community is hostile to them, but to the ongoing actual exclusion of minority viewpoints in the worldview of specfic readers and publishers.
And as I read the book, an African-American in my imagination kept saying what happened to my people? Where’s my history? Ain’t I part of America? And I pointed out to that imaginary fellow that really, the book would not have been improved by a digression into the racial politics of the fantasy world. He wasn’t impressed. I don’t think he agreed with me, or rather, he seemed to think that improved might mean different things for him and me. And he seemed to think that asking him to sacrifice his entire culture, history and family to my idea of improved wasn’t altogether fair. I pointed out to him that my own culture, history and family weren’t really represented; there were no immigrants in the stories, nor religious minorities within the two main cultures. He shrugged, this imaginary fellow. If I were willing to give up the House of David, that was my choice, he implied, but that choice didn’t give me the right to choose for him, or it wouldn’t if he weren’t a figment of my imagination.
Now, let me say straight away that part of the problem of racism in society is people having imaginary conversations with imaginary people of other racial and ethnic groups, rather than having real conversations with real people. I could easily project my resentment against the imaginary unsympathetic fellow onto a real person whose only connection to the imaginary one is skin color. I know that my imaginary conversation is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
And furthermore, I really don’t think that the series would be improved by introducing racial and ethnic diversity. I am a fiend for narrative, as I have often said, and I have enough problems with the leisurely pace of this series; three more pages at every stop detailing the combination of geography and culture that produces the local color would have got so far up my nose I wouldn’t have been able to smell the daffodils that I got for Daffodil day and which are really lovely. Have I mentioned how much I love daffodils? They totally symbolize Spring to me. Particularly the ACS fund-raiser, which has become an important part of my yearly cycle.
Oh, right. Have you noticed how much easier it is to talk about flowers?
Anyway, when I read Ms. Mohanraj’s essay, I thought that it wasn’t just about combating racism in our society through writing and publishing, but also about producing more stories that suited her taste. Among the bits of advice she gives is this: Give your white characters an ethnic and cultural history, even if it ends up barely mentioned in your story. But be sure you do indicate it somehow — it’s not enough for you, the author, to know their history. She describes this as helping to make characters vivid as opposed to generic, which is in some sense true, but it’s not as if the terms vivid and generic are objective terms that exist independent of the reader’s taste. To stic with Ms. Bujold’s works, I can see how people might consider Miles Vorkosigan generic white: although there are elements of Russian culture in the Barrayaran ruling caste culture, on the whole there’s nothing very specifically ethnic either in that culture or in his place in it. There is a Greek-speaking minority, and we get a couple of references and representatives, but not much and easily forgotten. And so on. I don’t want to get bogged down in the details, but I think there’s a real sense in which, given the Vorkosigan universe, there are lots of characters including Miles himself who could come off as generic white. And yet, lots of people (including YHB) find Miles to be vivid. In my case, it’s because I’m a fiend for narrative, and he’s very… active.
What I’m saying is that while I largely agree with Ms. Mohanraj that it’s a good idea to imagine an ethnic identity when inventing a character, I also tend to (from my position of white privilege) like plenty of books just fine in which most characters are either generic white or unmarked. And I think that’s a matter of my own Sources of Reader Pleasure and Irritation, which are my own taste, and (what with people being different one to another, which is what makes the world interesting and fun, after all), I neither expect other people to cater to my taste nor do I want to give up my taste for other people’s expectations.
Which is where Mr. Rosenbaum’s note comes in. Although I found interesting the ways in which cultural stereotypes creep in on an author all unbeknownst like, the thing that really struck me was the way that the accumulation of choices, each of which are individually plausible or even good choices, can be detrimental to the—well, to the author’s vision of the work, to the condition of the field, to society at large, to the feelings of individual humans of a variety of backgrounds. I think that (nearly) each of the stories Mr. Rosenbaum wrote were the result of choices that not only seemed good at the time but actually were good choices viewed in themselves. The result, though, was those pie charts with all that pink.
Now. To go back to YHB and The Sharing Knife. Reading the essays I linked to did ruin the books for me (no, it didn’t ruin them, but you know) in an interesting way. I still maintain that the books would not have been improved by following Ms. Mohanraj’s advice. That is, I think that any attempt to impose the right-minded thinking that Ms. Mohanraj (and Mr. Rosenbaum) explicate would have worked to the disadvantage of the particular work in question. While, at the same time, having the book work in the way that it does, missing the ethnic and cultural diversity or even markers that are missing and that YHB didn’t notice were missing throughout the first three books, well, it adds to the cumulative effect. If it was a lousy series, and nobody read it, then it might not matter. But it isn’t. It’s a perfectly good series (altho’ I have other issues with it as well) and it’s selling just fine, and those things are true in part because it’s so much easier to erase minority viewpoints and just go on without them. In the short term. In fiction.
Anyway. I’d be curious to know the reactions of Gentle Readers to these angles; I am far from a deep thinking about race or fiction, and I suspect I’ve got hold of the wrong end of several different sticks here.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,