Lizard Brain is a shared blog about Science Fiction and Fantasy from Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

An Old Meme Resurrected and Reappropriated

by Daniel Abraham

Larry at OF Blog of the Fallen had an old post when RaceFail ’09 was still generating a lot of heat.  I didn’t come across it at the time, but I’ve hit it now, and reading it over, it had me thinking about some things.  I’ll just post and play:

1. Name the last book by a female author that you’ve read.

You know, the hardest thing about this is remembering the order in which I’ve read things.  They all seem to clump up in a “recently” folder in my head.  I’m pretty sure it was Catherynne Valente’s The Habitation of the Blessed.  I am, however, expecting an MS from Carrie Vaughn pretty soon here.

2. Name the last book by an African or African-American author that you’ve read.

Easy.  The Jewel-Hinged Jaw by Samuel Delaney (as assigned me by David Hartwell).  About which more when I’ve sat with it for a bit.

3. Name one from a Latino/a author.

Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking Glass World by Eduardo Galeano.  But my *favorite* South American author is Enrique Anderson Imbert.

Argentine fantasist or Daniel's grandpa?

4. How about one from an Asian country or Asian-American?

Hmm.  Well, Ted Chiang’s The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, I guess.  Before that Maximum City by Suketu Mehta.  But I can’t think of two books I’ve read in recent memory that have less in common than those two.

And oddly, I feel very uncomfortable characterizing Ted by his genetics.  He’s a friend of mine.  I admire him no end.  I’m pretty sure his ancestors spent some of the Pleistocene in Asia.  So . . . all right.  Sure.
5. What about a GLBT writer?

Jeanette Winterson.  The Passion.  I read it again every few years.  Gorgeous book.  The Darling Wife also got me David Sedaris’ Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk which I’ve grazed a little.  For non-fiction, I’m a real fan of Nora Vincent’s Self-Made Man.
6. Why not name an Israeli/Arab/Turk/Persian writer, if you’re feeling lucky?

Saladin Ahmed is going to be the first one that comes to mind because I need to get back to his book and finish it.  Soon.  Probably instead of doing this, actually.  It’s a good one, and it’s got to be going into production soon here.  But if the question is about an Arab who doesn’t live in New York, it’ll be Edward Said’s Reflections on Exile.  And that was a few years back.

As for Israeli authors, I’ve got a bunch of Jews on the shelf, but none that I’m sure live in Israel.

7. Any other “marginalized” authors you’ve read lately?

You see, there’s where I get confused.  I’ve done the exercise — I can indeed name a bunch of authors who I’ve read and enjoyed and have here on my shelf where I can see them — and I think I haven’t actually proven anything.  Or even given anything very strong evidence.  I am perfectly willing to believe that someone could read all the books I have and come away just as racist and sexist as they went in.  It’s fun to remember these particular books by these particular writers, and I hope folks who are interested go out and read ’em themselves because they’re good.  But I don’t think my reading list can give me any kind of free pass or authority on matters of privilege.  I think the impulse to demonstrate my political awareness and empathy is itself suspect.

Marginalized author or Daniel's grandpa?

But that’s not the only thing about this particular exercise that’s interesting to me.  And by interesting, I mean troubling.

When I think of marginalized authors — marginalized —  I don’t find myself thinking about people of a certain race or sexuality or political class.  By the time I pop over to or wander through my local Barnes and Noble, the folks nearest the margin have already been weeded out.  Everyone I’ve mentioned in this post has a book deal.  Has distribution.  Has a pulpit from which to declaim their point of view.  I like Junot Diaz.  By which I mean I like his writing and I enjoyed his company the one time we hung out.  He writes from a perspective and with a voice that is both deeply familiar (role-playing game geek) and very much outside my experience (Dominican-American).  But the guy’s won a Pulitzer, he’s on the Pulitzer committee, and he’s teaching at an ivy league college.  If he, as an individual, is marginalized, I have misunderstood the term.  At a guess, I’d say that the most utterly outside voice I’ve mentioned was Galeano, and he’s got nine or ten books in print here in the United States.

We live in a racist, sexist, homophobic culture.  We as individuals are racist and sexist and homophobic, myself included.  And in addition to that (not but but and)  the voiceless are voiceless.  By the time I’ve heard them, they aren’t anymore.  The thing I’ve read most recently by a genuinely marginalized author probably read something like: Homeless Veteran.  Anything will help.  God Bless!


6 Responses »

  1. I’m with you, Daniel. Although when I’m reading anything, I look at the author’s name and whether I like their work or not. If I like the author’s work, I’ll buy more. If I don’t, I won’t. I’ve learned to ignore whether it’s a male-sounding name or a female-sounding name because of plenty of history of men & women writing under pseudonyms. If it’s an Hispanic-sounding name, I can’t make any generalizations–my sister-in-law’s last name is Munoz but she’s completely of European origin, just married into it; another friend’s last name is Novicki, which isn’t hispanic, but she is; or how about all those Hawaiians out there with Irish last names? It wasn’t until many years after I’d read and loved stories by Octavia Butler and Steven Barnes that I learned that they were African-American. It has been rare to see actual photos of authors with their works, and even if there were a photo–probably black and white–what would it tell me? (E.g., look at Vanessa Williams, whom I had no clue was african-american until I was told, even after seeing photos.) In any event, I don’t think that most writer bios, even when they’re supplied, say “BTW, I’m gay/israeli/hispanic/african-american.” So in fact I’d have no accurate way to answer most of those questions unless I knew the author personally. And I certainly don’t pick my reading based on the ethnicity of the writer. THAT would be discriminatory.

  2. It’s a silly exercise because it proceeds from a flawed notion: that we pick books to read based on how closely the author of the book matches our own racial/socio economic/sexuality profile. If that’s true, I have yet to see a single study supporting that idea.

    In just a brief glance through my shelves, I would say that the authors I read are by race, in a general descending order, Jewish, White European, African (I too own a lot of Octavia Butler), and with Hispanic bringing up a distant fourth place.

    And yet, I am Hispanic enough that I can mark it on my federal forms.

    I read a fair number of gay and lesbian authors even though I’m straight, and most of the time I don’t know they are gay until after I’ve read a number of their books. At no point does the sexual orientation of the author factor into my buying choices.

    Daniel is spot on when he says that, if the point is that those writers are under represented, then that is happening long before the person in the bookstore makes a buying choice. I sit here and think about my sizable Octavia Butler collection, and I wonder, if no publisher had given her a shot (whatever the reason) would that make my book collection more racist because it would include fewer books by African American women?

  3. Excellent points in this article! I don’t think the ethnicity, gender, or sexuality of a person writing makes your reading about it less marginalizing of a group of people. I think what makes a reader less marginalizing of people is the choice in books that address or portray marginalization in a meaningful way regardless of who the author of the book is. I recently read Jhumpa Lahiri’s short fiction collection, “Unaccustomed Earth”. The characters in her stories are mostly college educated and upper middle class people who happen to be from India. No marginalization there. But I also recently read various poems (from various collections) by Forugh Farrokzhad and her work often deals with the marginalization of women in Iranian society, and more specifically with her own marginalization.

    You are absolutely right that the writers themselves are often not the marginalized people of whom we are speaking, but can an author not take on the task of trying to faithfully portray and give voice to people who cannot do it themselves? I think that should have been the question that was asked in the survey, perhaps.

    • You have to be careful with that, lest you be accused of ‘cultural appropriation.’

      There are plenty of people who will accuse the author of appropriating the poor Indian slum dwellers plight, unless the author also happens to BE a poor Indian slum dweller.

      • Good point. Well, I would expect that a person portraying “Indian Slum Dwellers” would at least be Indian and have some experience interacting with “Slum Dwellers” even if he or she is not an “Indian Slum Dweller” per se.

        We are supposed to write what we know, and I think that certain tropes can be expressed in a fictional setting that attempts to accurately/realistically portray certain situations whether or not the author has lived it day in and day out.

        Faulkner, for instance, writes from the perspective of a person with an intellectual disability in “The Sound and the Fury,” but clearly he is not a person with an intellectual disability.

        Besides accuracy, perhaps it is about the author’s intention? I know these things are tricky…

        • I am a bear of very little brain. Cultural appropriation confuses me. I can understand why someone would be upset to see the details of their own life and culture misrepresented. I can see why someone would feel lessened by having an education and internal mythology shaped entirely by a culture with which they don’t identify.

          Where I get lost is how exactly it cultural appropriation can be avoided. The guidance I’ve seen has been either common-sense (if you want to be accurate about a subculture, have some people from that subculture act as first readers) or too vague to be useful (be sensitive and aware). The first is fact checking, the second is hand-waving. Neither one leaves me feeling like I have a good strategy.

          Plus which, there’s a level at which the effort feels like shoveling let’s-call-it-sand against the tide. Cultures and subcultures are always in conversation, always in reaction, always in appropriating, and very nearly always doing it across a power gradient.

          I figure once I can understand and explain the acceptability or inappropriateness of Navajo hip-hop, I’ll have it figured. Until then…

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