Writing

The most disturbing thing about the new Joker film: it's treatment of Women of Color and what that says about us.

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MAJOR SPOILERS FOR JOKER AHEAD 

While Zazie Beetz’s character, Sophie Dumond, is certainly real in Todd Philips’ Joker, the filmmakers still try to pull a Fight Club-esque turn two thirds of the way into the film, “revealing” to the audience that, aside from Arthur’s (Joaquin Phoenix) encounter with Sophie on the elevator, all the scenes of romance between Arthur and Sophie have been figments of his imagination. 

If this build up and reveal was supposed to have a powerful payoff (and I believe that was what was intended) I wonder how many of us believed it? And for those who were genuinely surprised by the “twist,” because we bought the notion that a woman like Sophie would see something in budding supervillain like Arthur, what does that say about the filmmakers’ and our perceptions of black women? 

I can hear readers raising objections that I’m even bringing race into it, especially because Sophie is the film’s love interest and that, in turn, elevates her character. But I think as writers and storytellers we need to push ourselves beyond a surface-level reading of these roles. We need to analyze their function in the overall story. We need to consider how the plots and characters we present align with positive and negative trends throughout society and the entertainment industry.  

I say this because I know I left Joker unsettled by what Zazie Beetz’s character has in common with the two other women-of-color characters in the film and my further observation that all of them do little more than serve as plot devices. Their characters essentially cater to the emotional needs of a white man (in this case a despicable man) only then to be dispatched by the story when they have served their purpose.  

Alone, this might not be terribly significant. But it’s not unique to Joker, and that is a problem. 

For the Sophie “turn” to work in Joker, we have to believe that this warm, intelligent, strikingly attractive single mother (with a job and plenty of social capital) would see Arthur as a viable partner with something to offer. Does he? The film tells us “No,” portraying him as an unattractive, creepy older man. He is struggling with a chronic mental illness and is living with his mentally ill mother.[1] If that is not enough baggage, Arthur is failing at his job, his side hustle, and life in general. Yet, the narrative invites us—at least a little—to suspend our disbelief that a “10” like Sophie would consider dating a “2” like Arthur. 

Unless Sophie is not a 10. But given her personal warmth, her physical attractiveness, and her employment status, what is left that would make us consider her anything other than a 10? She already has a kid? Well, for many, that’s not a problem at all. You already know she is a good mother.

And come on, can Arthur really afford to be choosy?  

So what is left? Which one of Sophie’s attributes as a woman are left that might, in some people’s view, bring down her social capital enough that we might entertain, even for just a few beats, that this relationship is a viable possibility? 

What leaves me so uncomfortable is that, intentionally or not, I feel that the undervaluing of Sophie rests on her status as a black woman and the overvaluing of Arthur essentially relies on the fact that he is a white man. 

I’m not saying that the filmmakers did this purposefully. That is actually the deeper problem. Skin color doing the “work” of undervaluing Sophie and signaling her diminished social capital makes intuitive sense—to all of us. That is the nature of implicit bias. We don’t even consciously think about it because the associations are so deeply ingrained. And we don’t like to admit why.  

A defense I already can hear in my mind is this: “You liberals are impossible to please. If the part was given to a white woman, you would complain that the casting wasn’t diverse enough.” That is possible! But let’s consider if the role was played by a white actress. If Sophie’s character was identical in all ways but skin color (perhaps played by Gal Gadot or Brie Larson—who like Beetz have also recently played formidable superheroines), might viewers pause a bit sooner in the story? Might they wonder, “What is a woman like Sophie doing with a guy like Arthur . . . what is she doing in a rundown apartment building at all?” thus jeopardizing the payoff of the reveal?  

I think we owe it to women of color, and to our own growth as individuals and society, to ask ourselves: why is it that placing a black woman in such an impoverished setting and using her skin color as shorthand for desperation seem so . . . natural . . . automatic . . . even authentic? What does that say about us viewers? Our society?  

I’m not even necessarily saying the casting was a mistake . . . but if we storytellers are going to write stories with characters different from ourselves and if we are going to put these images out into the world, then we have an obligation to go deeper in our analysis. We have to ask what pre-existing and harmful narratives we are leaning into for our stories to work? What toxic tropes, stereotypes, and trends are we perpetuating? Do we recognize our responsibility to question and challenge them? 

Sophie’s casting could be dismissed as a one off, if not for the other roles for women of color in Joker (or Hollywood more broadly). The two other significant women of color in the film are both Arthur’s counselors. The first is his social worker. The second is his psychiatrist. Like Sophie, these women serve Arthur’s emotional needs. In as visual a medium as film, I imagine the choice on the part of the producers to make the counselors resemble one another had to be intentional. The visual call back to the first counselor when we meet the second is obvious. We meet this psychiatrist in the penultimate scene of the film, in Arkham Asylum, just before Arthur brutally murders her.

As we watch Arthur saunter down the hall in the closing image of the film, his feet leaving footprints in shocking red on the white floor, I was left wondering: while the studio execs who produced Joker were congratulating themselves on the diverse cast, did anyone stop to consider the overall optics of these roles? 

I suspect the answer is no and that is problematic because diversity placeholders and tokens, when it’s almost 2020, are insufficient. And they can get us into dangerous waters.  

Like I said, this isn’t isolated to Joker. 

The 2017 film, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, is a recent (and painful) example. Rhianna is plopped into this story playing a shape-shifting alien, Bubble. Bubble is held captive at a sort of futuristic cabaret/bordello. She is charmed by the eponymous lead, Major Valerian, played by a smirking Dane DeHaan, who needs her talents for his own quest. The major is portrayed as a selfish chauvinist who unabashedly sexually harasses his female subordinate, Sergeant Laureline, played by Cara Delevinge. One could argue that in the film’s opening scene, Valerian comes close to sexually assaulting Laureline. Considering the power dynamics (he is her commanding officer), it’s all very Harvey Weinstein. The film’s treatment of these interactions is uncomfortably light and playful. The characters eventually marry so . . . this is ok? (It’s all based on a French comic book from the seventies, so the mores are obviously terribly dated).  

While there is some, limited growth on Major Valerian’s part, when his blond-haired, blue-eyed Laureline is kidnapped, we the audience are asked to believe that his charm is able to convince Rhianna’s Bubble to risk her life to help him save Laureline. Bubble does and ends up sacrificing herself in the effort. As an isolated character arc and casting choice (as in Joker), this is not a big deal. Yes, maybe Bubble’s death raises the stakes for the story. And yes, Arthur’s murder of his psychiatrist cements his devolution into a monster/villain. But I’d venture, as socially responsible writers, we’re obligated to consider how these things read. Here is a take on the subplot in Valerian: 

  • Woman of color character risks life in service to white male so he can rescue his white female love interest.

  • Woman of color character dies helping unabashed chauvinist. Sad beat.

  • Woman of color character never mentioned in script again (forsaken) as white male hero continues (cue soaring march) in his pursuit of GOAL (cue ethereal ballad): the blond-haired, blue-eyed princess, I mean, sergeant.   

The good news is that the corrective to these unfortunate subtexts isn’t rocket science. The biggest obstacle is our own willingness or unwillingness to humbly self-examine and admit our implicit biases. Granted, Bubble is a shape-shifting alien. But do young kids of color appreciate that nuance? I’d argue no. They see another woman-of-color character castoff by the story as irrelevant (Rhianna no less!) after she has fulfilled the purpose of serving the “entitled” white male protagonist. It’s a shame and a loss. I would argue that Bubble’s character was a more interesting one than Valerian or Sergeant Laureline, but I’m not the one calling the shots in Hollywood (I’m a heterosexual, cis-gendered white guy working at his writing desk in his pajamas . . . so clearly not studio executive material).  

I’d argue that the course correction comes in two parts. First, it’s a matter of pausing for a moment, asking ourselves a few incisive questions and seeking feedback from others. A lot of these conversations are enriched by having more diversity in front and behind the camera. These issues won’t be solved by an individual white guy at his writing desk in his pjs, but rather, by teams of diverse creatives. That means writers’ rooms, studios, and publishing houses where intellectual property is crafted, marketed, and sold should better reflect the majority-minority country and world we are living in. 

The questions I’m suggesting we ask are simple and would do a lot to get us beyond tokenism. They would help us to break out of some of the toxic and harmful patterns we keep repeating for our kids to see and internalize. Questions like, what ARE the roles we’re writing for characters of color? Who is writing them? Whose stories are we telling? Who is sitting around the writers’ table, at the studios, in the publishing houses? Do the characters of color we present in film, TV, books reflect our own implicit biases in unseemly ways? How are those characters treated in the story? Are they plot devices, clichés, stereotypes? Are they given meaningful inner lives or are we substituting the questionably accurate shorthand society has already given us? What images do these characters offer to younger viewers looking for representations they can relate to? Are we even the best people to answer these questions? Whom should we consult for a perspective other than our own? Does our team of creatives and decision makers reflect the society we’re writing about/for? 

The second suggestion is to enhance our understanding (and curricula) around media literacy. We do this with literature. We know better than to read The Merchant of Venice or Othello innocently. Classes at the secondary and tertiary levels discuss the problematic nature of characters like Shylock and Othello. Just because it hasn’t been considered high art, doesn’t mean we should give what we see on our screens a pass. And that assignment is for everyone, not just creatives who manage IP, but fans who consume it.

But speaking as a writer (because that is my vocation and profession) we have an artistic imperative to do better. As humans, we have a moral one. We can and we should. It will produce better writing and—this is not hyperbole—a better world. After all, if anything is to be brought into existence, it has to be imagined first.

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[1] I intend no shame in pointing this out. I live with a chronic mental illness. And really, who doesn’t have some ongoing health issues, especially as we age. I think taking into account a potential partner’s ongoing health challenges—and more importantly how they are managing them—is a reasonable and even necessary consideration during courtship.

The Selah Branch. Love it or Hate it. But nobody Likes it. Part Two.

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In Part One of this two-part series, I focused on the positive feedback I’ve received for my Sci-Fi novel, The Selah Branch, A Novel of Time Travel and Race in America. You can read it here: https://www.tenebraypress.com/new-blog/2018/9/1/the-selah-branch-love-it-or-hate-it-but-nobody-likes-it

This post will focus on the criticism (much of it legitimate) of this same book. To recap, the story is focalized through its protagonist, Kenia Dezy, a Georgetown University undergrad studying public health. Many people of color have praised the book. They have expressed gratitude for the work I put into it. Others, even friends of mine, HATE The Selah Branch. Some don’t even consider themselves friends of mine any longer.

And I see their point. Stories about women of color BY women of color have never had the platform they deserve in this country—or in the world. Writing is a tough profession and it took a lot of capital (social and financial) for me to break into the industry. My privilege gave me access to resources to fall back on as I started down this road and copies of my first books were selling slowly. Publishing has given me a voice, but no one can argue that white males are historically underrepresented in the US—much less American Literature. (If you think you can, I’d like to know which planet you are living on and if Elon Musk colonized it yet.)

When the median net worth for 40-49 year-old black women with a college education is only $6,000 (debt factored in against savings), as opposed to college educated white women of the same age whose median net worth is $25,000, there is no denying the disparities in privilege, opportunity, and capital that exist in our country as the result of racism.[1] The net worth of younger black women, even with a college degree, falls to an astonishing ZERO, while white women with an equivalent education are still very much in the net positive. See more at the link in the footnote. 

These economic disparities have fallen disproportionately in favor to white people, like me, giving me more access, more opportunities, and more resources. These advantages have enabled me to pursue further education and good jobs, to network professionally, to seek out mentors, and ultimately has helped me to publish. So when I roll up and write a Sci-Fi book, written from the point of view of a woman of color, let’s face it, this can mean shelf space taken away from a Sci-Fi book written about black women by black women. A book like An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon (one of the best books I’ve read this year). Suddenly, here I am, a white dude, taking up space (once again) from women writers of color, who historically have not had the same opportunities that have been granted, undeservedly, to me.

And that’s how erasure happens folks. That’s how structural racism persists.  

And I’m part of the problem. 

Sh**. 

But wait! Sadly, there is more. 

When we consider books by white authors or films by white writer/directors, we must consider the legitimate question of, how well do they depict characters of color? Are the men and women of color fully fleshed out, authentic people, or are they one dimensional caricatures that might just reinforce stereotypes? As a writer, it’s deeply uncomfortable for me to read that, on reflection, a luminary like Viola Davis wishes she had passed on her role in the 2011 film The Help—partly for this very reason https://thegrapevine.theroot.com/about-aibileen-viola-davis-says-she-regrets-playing-ma-1828998001.

Ms. Davis has a valuable point. The Help, as feel good of a movie as it was, failed to really explore the lives of the women of color or represent their voices in an authentic way. We are witness to the indignities they suffer, but in the end (like so many black characters before them in American cinema) they end up serving as props to highlight the moral development and moral victory of the white protagonist (played by Emma Stone) and her family. Despite a movie title that references the characters of color, The Help is, disappointingly, white centered. The harshest criticism for the film being that it is another example of a white artist(s) exploiting the stories and suffering of blacks, to promote their careers, fill their pockets. Nia Long has recently spoken out about this https://www.theroot.com/nia-long-i-ve-watched-a-lot-of-men-get-rich-off-of-the-1828664319. To quote the article: “The Love Jones actress has a point—the gender pay gap is real, and it impacts black women tremendously. In fact, black women make 38 percent less than white men and 21 percent less than white women.”  

But even more pernicious, not only does revenue from these films flow disproportionately to men (and white men at that), the storylines, white focused as they are, work to ameliorate the guilt white people might have regarding the legacy of racism in this country. Once again, we can pat ourselves on the back and tell ourselves, “Oh, it wasn’t that bad,” and, “It’s all going to be okay.” 

I won’t argue with any of Ms. Davis’ or Ms. Long’s points. I can’t, because they are right. 

So, what am I to do, as a writer? As a privileged white writer? 

To my frustration (crying fragile white tears here, I know), it’s impossible for me to disentangle myself from my own skin color and the privilege it gives me. I know many white writers try to highlight these issues; we try to call one another out when our work falls short of a higher standard (e.g., The Help). I do think white people need to participate in these conversations on race, art, and representation. We certainly need to do more listening than talking in these conversations, but we do need to add our voices to the mix. For no other reason than the sad fact that, as Dahleen Glanton recently wrote in the Chicago Tribune: Nothing is more powerful than privileged white people talking about white privilege.[2] (I keep finding myself referencing this excellent article in my blog posts. Check it out, link below!)

That sad truth, stated by Ms. Glanton, is uncomfortable to accept. But it rings true. And yet, there are further double standards and injustices we white people have to be aware of as we engage in these issues. Perhaps most important to acknowledge is that we white folks are rarely penalized for trying to address racial inequalities. If anything, we get patted on the back—by ourselves especially—for being “woke.” We give ourselves an A+ for just making the effort.  

But when black people make these same claims (as they have been longer than we have), they are punished. Case in point: Colin Kaepernick still does NOT have a QB job despite being a better quarterback than more than half the men playing in that position.  

But I also believe that doing nothing, for white artists/writers not to wrestle with these issues, to not participate in these conversations, would be a loss. I still feel that to NOT write and publish The Selah Branch would have been a missed opportunity. I think of the women in my life who inspired it and how, in many ways, the story was a declaration of my love for them. I also think of the woman who came up to me weeping, thanking me for writing it. Then there are the comments on Goodreads and Amazon from readers of color who appreciate the book. And frankly, I see The Selah Branch as an opportunity to appeal to white readers, who might not otherwise pick up such a book with a female black protagonist, but would pick it up if it was written by a white author.  

Sad but true. 

So I’ve tried to split the difference, and make up for any “harm” I’m doing with The Selah Branch. I won’t allow The Selah Branch to “compete” in any contests in the category of “African American Writing.” Without question, that would place it in competition with authors of color, possibly limiting their exposure and their opportunities for promotion and accolades. I won’t do that. Any awards The Selah Branch has been nominated for, I have made sure it is in categories such as Sci-Fi or Multicultural, not African American. 

I’ve also been trying to make The Selah Branch a force for good. Not just by the content, but by donating all the proceeds from my sales to three organizations I know well. These are organizations that work to counter the effects of structural racism and racial injustice. In the final analysis, I felt I should not “profit” from writing a book like The Selah Branch. I have profited from racism enough living as a white man in America. But if other people of color, children, college students, or aspiring writers could benefit, well, then I might be able to sleep at night. More on those organizations here:  https://www.tenebraypress.com/the-selah-branch/

It’s not a perfect solution. But there are no perfect allies, only imperfect ones. I hope writers like Rivers Solomon, Jason Reynolds, Nnedi Okorafor, NK Jemisin, and Tomi Adeyemi would be all right with that. And I hope the Rivers Solomons, Jason Reynolds, Nnedi Okorafors, NK Jemisins, and Tomi Adeyemis of the future will be too. Maybe some of them are enrolling at Georgia State or in a head start program run by CURS or Atlantic Street Center right now.

I can only hope.

[1] http://www.insightcced.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/January2017_ResearchBriefSeries_WomenRaceWealth-Volume1-Pages-1.pdf

[2] http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/columnists/glanton/ct-met-dahleen-glanton-anne-hathaway-white-privilege-20180730-story.html

The Selah Branch. Love it or Hate it. But nobody Likes it. Part One.

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It’s been about a year since I published my book The Selah Branch, a Novel of Time Travel and Race in America.

People love it, (it’s won numerous awards).

People also hate it, (I’ve lost friends over it).

No one seems to take the middle ground and just say they “like” it.

This post is about the people who love it and why. Part Two will give equal time to those who hate it.

As I’ve had women of color come up to me and tearfully thank me for writing the book. I’ve also had friends, people of color, stop speaking to me because I wrote it.

I knew when I waded into this territory of race, gender, and politics it was a minefield.  All the more so because I was writing a fictional story from the perspective of a woman of color, and I’m a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, male author. I admit, there is an uncomfortable sense of misappropriation and lack of authenticity in that.

But first, at the risk of sounding defensive, a bit on the positive feedback and my original intentions regarding the story.

My book The Selah Branch features a fiercely intelligent, educated, African American college student, Kenia Dezy, as its protagonist. Kenia is the daughter of an African American woman—a physician—and a father who immigrated from Nigeria and became a surgeon. Kenia comes from a privileged background and has had opportunities to learn about her Nigerian roots, even travelling to West Africa to connect with her extended family. It’s been gratifying to see The Selah Branch receive generous reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. It’s also received numerous professional awards and accolades.

I’d never write a book from the perspective of a woman of color and claim that the protagonist somehow represented the voices of all oppressed women of color. I could never write such a character. To that end, I’d never even make such a claim for the characters I write who are white males like me. There is too much variety within that category alone for me to claim to represent all white males. That is an impossible task for any character, any writer, no matter their demographics, white, black, female, male, non-gendered, etc. . .  And it’s when we take the sample size of one character and extrapolate that representation to the greater whole that we are falling into the very old trap of stereotyping.

I would offer that part of the trick/illusion/talent of writing lies in the artist’s ability to step into the shoes, the skin, the lives of the characters we create. I believe this is similar for actors who portray characters who are perhaps very unlike their true selves.

Even though we authors must write from what we “know,” that is never enough. We still need to use our imaginations and we need to seek out new experiences to feed our imaginations. That way the range of what we know is ever expanding. This includes interacting with people, places, and perspectives that are novel to us. As my friend Rasheed Newson, a writer from television shows such as Narcos, The 100, and Army Wives has attested, “I’ve never been a drug dealer in Latin America, a teenager in space, or a wife of an enlisted soldier, but I write from those perspectives all the time. It’s part of the job and it’s the integral to the talent of being a writer.”

If writers, poets, playwrights, singer-songwriters, and/or actors were locked in to characters and voices that were only aligned with their given identities, it would be a poorer world indeed. Rasheed, as a gay black man would have a very narrow demographic to write about and write to. So narrow in fact, he would likely not have had as many writing opportunities as his career has actually afforded him. I would only be “allowed” to write protagonists who were white men. This would make my books City on a Hill, In the Darkness Visible, and Voyage of the Elawn—all featuring female leads—off limits to me.

Even now, I’m reading Earnest J. Gaines A Gathering of Old Men. Gaines switches chapter by chapter from the perspective of men and women, white and black, young and old. The novel is all the more powerful for it. If Gaines had been limited only to male characters because he was male, or black characters because he was black, this powerful piece of art—that stands as an indictment against racism and a persuasive argument for love and understanding—wouldn’t exist.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts (https://www.tenebraypress.com/new-blog/2018/6/28/writing-characters-of-color-when-you-are-a-cis-gender-white-heterosexual-male) I think the position that we should only write from the point of view of characters whom we share an identity with is highly problematic. Such narrow boundaries does more to contribute to division than to foster understanding.

That said, I’ll be the first to admit my own experience, that which I “know” and “see” the world, is limited. I have blind spots. A few I know, but most I don’t. For instance, I’ve traveled to 36 countries. I have friends from a variety of backgrounds—backgrounds and orientations very different from my own. But some of these backgrounds I am familiar enough with that I would be comfortable creating a character from such a place.

But I’ve never traveled in south or central America. I’m sad to say I don’t have a plethora of intimate friends who come from a Latinx background. As a result, I can’t say I’d be comfortable trying to write from the point of view of a Latinx character. I doubt the character would have an authentic feel. I’ve simply had to few experiences and not enough Latinx friends and family members who can speak into my life or check me when I get outside my lane.

In this respect, writers such as my friend Rasheed or my hero Earnest J. Gaines have an advantage over me. As members of minority/oppressed groups, to survive in mainstream society they have to understand the perspectives of the dominant culture.

As a white male, sadly, I don’t. For me, I have to make a conscious, intentional effort to try to see past my own privilege. And I don’t always do it right.

That said, I did feel comfortable writing Kenia Dezy and crafting the members of her family in The Selah Branch. Mainly this is because I’ve been blessed to have friends like Kenia. One of my dearest and oldest friends, Chisara, a woman I’ve considered my “little sister,” and a friend who was so instrumental in encouraging my early writing career that I dedicated my first book to her—she served as the template for Kenia. Do I know enough college educated, upper middle-class black women with a Nigerian heritage to claim to represent all of them? Of course not.

But do I know my friend Chisara and her family. So I felt comfortable writing a story about someone like her.

As a result, the positive feedback I’ve received regarding The Selah Branch has been that women whose experiences align with Kenia LOVE The Selah Branch. They enjoyed a story centered on a character whose experience reflected their own. One woman who had attended a college in a small white town in Texas, where she was one of the few black people, told me that reading The Selah Branch made her feel “seen” and her own struggles validated.

Ultimately, to only identify with characters (or people!) who match our hyphenated identities, may leave us wanting. As a practice, the approach suffers from the same drawbacks that leaves identity politics open to criticism—mainly that is only leaves us more divided and more alienated from one another.

What I hoped to do with The Selah Branch and with Kenia’s character was what drove me to write it and her in the first place: I identify with Kenia. I firmly believe there are universal things that connect us, unite us, and draw us closer through bonds of humanity and compassion. These are things that transcend our long-tailed demographic labels. These are the desires of our hearts, the goals of our lives, the values we champion. I identify with Kenia, not because she is a black woman, but because she is a someone who is against racism, who loves her family and friends, who wants to live right in relationship with others, and who wants America to live up to its ideals.

These things bring us together, across color lines, ethnicity, educational background, and social economic status. My hope with The Selah Branch, was to show that.

Next post: why people hate The Selah Branch. Why they are right, and why I have been donating all the proceeds to causes that counter racial injustice.

To Write Well, Don't Write.

Life is Paradox. One of the most confounding but important things one of my writing mentors once said to me was: The time you spend NOT writing is just as important as the time you actually spend writing.

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Huh?

Said another way, every work of writing is a combination of the time spent writing and the time spent NOT writing. You need time to  think about the writing, whether consciously or not (but often unconsciously).

So here are my ten steps to writing a complete work, be it a novella, novel, short story, poem, screen play, or whatever. . .

1.       Write—Randomly. On scraps of paper, envelopes, increasingly I find myself taking notes on my phone. These moments of inspiration come at the WORST times. I find there is an inverse relationship between the ease of writing in the moment and the quality of the idea. For example, while merging into traffic, standing in the shower, or when I am about to fall to sleep at night. . .BAM I get walloped with a winner and the gearshift, bar of soap, or memory foam pillow are lousing writing instruments.

2.       Take Time—To Live your Life. Go and do the thing you were doing in the first place, driving to your destination, exercising, or getting a good night’s sleep. Go gather the experience that feeds your writer’s soul in the first place. You’ll thank yourself later.

3.       Write—Freely. I’m a person who likes structure so this part is REALLY hard for me. But I’ve learned that I need to take time to do character sketches, jot down scenes, scribble exchanges of dialogue. They might be out of order, they might just be background experiences of characters that never make it into a single draft. That's OK. This is an exploratory stage. Throw things at the wall and see what sticks. Don’t get in your own way. Let yourself enjoy the fun of it. Don’t stress if you don’t have a word or page count to look at yet. This step isn’t something measured that way. Remember what Einstein said: not everything that counts can be counted!

4.       Take Time—For your unconscious to work. This is also a hard part for me because I’m a recovering control freak. But I’ve found that this is where the most mysterious part of the process begins for me. Having sketched out scenes, and characters in step 3, I move on. I work on other things (See Step 2). I go for a hike, I read other books, watch movies, gently feeding images, experiences, the art and work of other artists, into my brain. It seeps into some weird place in my unconscious where the ideas germinate and grow.

5.       WriteAn Outline. I remember a business major roommate of mine in college asking me if I wrote my papers using an outline. I responded, “You mean you don’t?!” But I was an English major so I took the writing process a little more seriously. Here is where I (FINALLY) start adding some structure to the story, with scenes, character arcs, maybe even initial chapter headings. This is where the technical bit of craft comes in, techniques I’ve learned in writing classes, books on writing, and from mentors. I storyboard here, writing summaries of the chapters on 3X5 cards and lay them out on the floor, trying out different sequences. Throughout the process, even up to the final stages, be open to surprises your characters might throw at you or side plots that might pop up. I still do this all in long hand, it helps to remind me that this is still a draft and I can be free and flexible.

6.       Take TimeFor your idea to gestate. Congratulations, you are officially pregnant at this point. Once the outline is out, for me, the story is THERE. It’s a thing and its growing. But again, I find I can never hurry it. I just have to let it ripen at its own pace (although I wish I could force it, but when I do, it’s ALWAYS a disaster). Often, I find listening to music, reading other authors I like, watching movies, hiking and being in nature help, not to mention getting enough sleep—some of my best ideas come from REM sleep (See Step 2 . . .again). Sometimes, being a writer is like having a ghost as a business partner. You’re never quite sure when he or she is going to show up to actually do the damn work, but when they do, and the story feels ready, you know intuitively. The hairs on your arms stand up, the vibrations in your chest resonate and align. It’s inspiration. . .and you can’t not write.

7.       WriteThe First Draft. I write mine in longhand on college rule loose leaf. It’s slower, but it makes me think through my sentences with greater care. It also allows me to be messy. I still liken this stage to sketching as opposed to working on what will be the final piece. That is why I avoid the computer screen, even at this stage. Typing makes me feel like it has to be overly polished.

8.       Take TimeTo Walk Away! Yes, walk away! AGAIN! (Picking up a pattern here?) Unlike REAL babies, this baby may benefit from a bit of neglect. I take a few days between completing that first draft and typing things up. Treat yourself!

9.       WriteOn a Keyboard. Finally, this is when I actually start typing. Note: there have been a whole lot of steps and time leading up to this. When non-writers picture you “working” this is what they picture. But that’s a disservice. The preceding steps, especially the even numbered ones, might NOT LOOK like writing but they REALLY ARE. They are just as critical an ingredient and it’s important to give yourself permission, space, and time for them. (I’m still learning how to do that).

10.   Take TimeTo Edit. Another writing mentor once told me that “There are no good writers. Just good re-writers.” So true. Get some distance from your work while someone you trust edits it and provides you some honest feedback. I can nveer eidt ym owen suftf adqetuaely eonugh 😊 Good writers need good editors.

Then repeat steps 9 and 10 until ready to publish!

Michelle Alexander, Author of The New Jim Crow, Columnist for New York Times, & SHERO for Our Times

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Shout out today to Michelle Alexander who will now be the only woman of color Op-Ed writer. Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow is a MUST READ for anyone who cares about recognizing, fighting racism. . .or just anyone who cares about the mistreatment of our fellow human beings (that should include all of us).

Alexander brings formidable scholarship and excellent writing to point out how slavery has been perpetuated since the end of the American Civil War through convict leasing, voting disenfranchisement, lynchings, Jim Crow, and most recently through the mass incarceration of people of color. Below are links you can cut and paste to learn more about her and to buy her book—which you absolutely should do.

http://newjimcrow.com/about-the-author

https://www.amazon.com/New-Jim-Crow-Incarceration-Colorblindness/dp/1595586431

 In recognition of her work, I am including some striking statistics which alone should wake us up to the injustices taking place in the US under the guise of “The War on Drugs” and how the prison industrial complex and the emerging detention industrial complex benefit from it—the financial gains accruing to white own corporations and providing jobs in rural towns that are predominantly white.

It’s also worth pointing out how in black/urban communities the drug problem has been historically viewed as a “criminal” problem while in white/rural communities is has been mainly identified as a public health issue. To this point, I also want to recognize the recent work my own home city and county, the City of Seattle and King county for taking a more enlightened approach and viewing juvenile justice issues through a lens of public health, connecting at risk and incarcerated youth with mental health, recovery, and job training services. Well Done.

https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/bold-step-king-county-to-look-at-youth-crime-as-public-health-risk/

This is not the case in most of the country. So here are the sad statistics—retrieved from https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/news/2015/05/28/113436/8-facts-you-should-know-about-the-criminal-justice-system-and-people-of-color/

  • People of color are significantly overrepresented in the U.S. prison population, making up more than 60 percent of the people behind bars. Though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately 32 percent of the US population, they comprised 56 percent of all incarcerated people in 2015.
  • 1 in 3 black men will go to prison at some point during their lifetimes; 1 in 6 Latino males will have the same fate. Only 1 out 17 white males are expected to go to prison.
  • 1 in 111 white women, 1 in 18 black women, and 1 in 45 Latina women will go to prison at some point.
  • If African Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40 percent.
  • African Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be arrested than whites and incarcerated at 5 times the rates of whites.
  • The so-called War on Drugs has disproportionately affected people of color. Despite using and selling drugs at rates similar to those of their white counterparts, African Americans and Latinos comprise 62 percent of those in state prisons for drug offenses and 72 percent of those sentenced for federal drug trafficking offenses, which generally carry extreme mandatory minimum sentences.
  •  Voting restrictions on the formerly incarcerated have disenfranchised millions of voters, particularly African Americans. Today, approximately 5.9 million people are not able to vote due to felony convictions. While laws vary from state to state—with some allowing for restoration of voting rights—1 in 13 blacks nationwide are disenfranchised due to felony convictions. In Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia, more than one in five black adults are denied the right to vote.

 

 

Writing Characters of Color when you are a Cis-Gender, White, Heterosexual Male

With the release of my latest young adult novel, Jamhuri, Njambi, & Fighting Zombies (the second novel I've written from the point of view of protagonists of color) I wanted to share here the Author's Note I've opened JN&FZ with which I wrote as an attempt to enter into dialogue with some of these challenging and complex issues. I definitely would never suggest I have all the answers on this, but I think the best we can do is to keep a dialogue going on it. Scroll down past the cover for the full essay.

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A Note on Cultural (Mis)appropriation

            I have not stayed in my lane, and my sense of social justice—not to mention my friends who identify as people of color—have called me out for it. Rightly so.

            At first glance, most readers might not see the trouble with a cisgender, heterosexual, white writer using imagery from African culture in a work of fiction. It’s a “celebration of African traditions ignored by sci-fi and fantasy writers for far too long,” or it’s “an overdue acknowledgement of rich African contributions to art and literature.” Maybe it’s even “a healthy, contemporary reaction to the overemphasis of white characters in sci-fi and fantasy.”

            It is, I hope, but it’s other things too—things that must be viewed in the context of colonialism and the social, political, economic, and military oppression of people of color.

First of all, I’m no trailblazer. Other writers, such as Nnedi Okorafor and N.K. Jemisin, have been producing works that fuse sci-fi and fantasy with African themes for some time. Before them, Octavia Butler was doing the same. Acknowledging, celebrating, and profiting from a white male’s derivations from the art and images of people of color over those artists of color who have a more personal, historical claim is nothing new. It’s a long tradition, characterizing the careers of artists as diverse as Al Jolson, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Robin Thicke, Justin Timberlake, and so many others.[1]

            So, depending on the interpretation, Jamhuri, Njambi & Fighting Zombies is a celebration, an acknowledgement, or it’s just another form of exploitation and cultural (mis)appropriation.

            Truth is, it’s all these things.

            To simply see this work as a welcome and timely celebration, a “generous inclusion,” would be to patronize these traditions and ignore great artists of color. It also ignores the historical power imbalances that have benefited Western, white writers over communities of color, whether in Africa or in its diaspora, for hundreds of years. This has been due to quirks of geography, disease, and more insidious institutions and practices such as colonialism, white supremacy, and slavery (to name just a few). Blood, treasure, images, and ideas have been extracted from these communities for centuries, the benefits accruing to whites and the cost borne by people of color. It is a repeating pattern, called out with smoldering eloquence by Jesse Williams in his acceptance speech for the 2016 Black Entertainment Television Humanitarian Award:

 

This invention called whiteness uses and abuses us . . . extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil—black gold—ghettoizing and demeaning our creations and stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit.

 

            There is nothing to add to Mr. William’s words. They are complete, powerful, and persuasive on their own.

There is a counter argument. It goes something like this: that the cross-fertilization of cultures has always taken place and led to benefits in a variety of disciplines. The very characters these words are written with are “Roman,” influenced by Greek and Phoenician alphabets; the numbers in this text are “Arabic,” although really first codified by a Persian scholar (Muhammad al-Khwarizmi) who modeled them after a number system used by Hindu mathematicians.

Cross-fertilization indeed.

            The precedents for cultural exchange in fantasy literature are many fold. Take J.R.R. Tolkien, who borrowed heavily from Norse, Finnish, Germanic, as well as his own Anglo-Saxon traditions. Such fusions can create works of profound beauty and stand testament to the value of cultural diffusion. And it is often artists who are pioneers in reaching across cultural and social barriers, drawn by the universal experience of art and the appreciation of beauty. In the process we may blend influences, foster collaboration, and forge lifelong friendships despite ethnic, racial, or other social barriers. Sometimes amazing art is produced too.

But it is equally important to point out that Tolkien’s ancestors did not systematically oppress these other groups. Furthermore, Tolkien, in his own time, did not benefit disproportionately from historic or current oppression of Scandinavians or Germanic people in a way that denied these groups equal opportunity to flourish. The exchange of trade, ideas, and even violence among these peoples took place (more or less) among groups with equivalent levels of power—on an even playing field, if you will. The costs and benefits were equally shared.

No such moral or ethical neutrality can be ascribed to the exploitation of people of color by Europeans or their white descendants. White privilege is real. It has benefited me and still benefits me as a white man, a white writer, in the United States.

            There is no getting around this. But just because something looks like an unethical pattern in the past, does not mean it is the exact same thing today. In my heart of hearts, I would hope that Jamhuri, Njambi & Fighting Zombies is not exploitive. But intentions do not exculpate the artist. The art and work will stand for themselves and will rise or fall on the interpretation, opinions, the praise or condemnation, of others. I expect both and I have no answer other than my work.

            So why write Jamhuri, Njambi & Fighting Zombies? Can we escape these patterns of oppression, exploitation, and historical amnesia?

I hope so.

            Those who are not seized by the urge to create, to channel some idea from the world of the imagined to the real, might not understand the fierce insistence of an idea, a plot, or characters and their stories knocking around in an author’s head. Like the Greek muses, these imagined personalities and events seem to exist outside us, using the artist as a mere channel. Michelangelo described it best when he said the figures he sculpted had always already existed, trapped inside their blocks of marble. It was simply his role to chip away the excess to reveal them.

It is the same with the characters and stories that reside in a writer’s head. They feel, to us, as if they already do and have always existed—a bit like a law in physics, a pattern in number theory, or an undiscovered prime. We as artists reveal; we create, because we can’t not. These characters, Jamhuri, Njambi, Latia, Anastasia, Esmeralda, and their stories, although not completely aligned with my own background, wanted to be out in the world. They wouldn’t leave me alone until they were.

            The second reason was a personal promise. These stories were conceived in the early 2000s when I was living and working at an orphanage for HIV+ children in Nairobi, Kenya. At the time our resources for books were limited. Although we benefited from donations, the books I read to the kids had few characters that looked like them. As much as they enjoyed Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants (which did include a main character of color), they clamored for more characters that looked like them, characters from backgrounds and contexts they could relate to. As children who had been abandoned, abused, stigmatized, and generally not “seen” as individuals outside of their HIV status, this broke my heart.

At the time, writers such as Nnedi Okorafor and N.K. Jemisin were not on my own radar. So I set out to write a few stories of my own.

As a result, Jamhuri, Njambi & Fighting Zombies is laden with that personal history and meaning for me. If these stories never find an audience beyond the children I wrote them for, then I am at peace with that. The audience and stories deserve at least that much, if nothing else.

            But this all begs the question of whether a privileged, white, male writer can or even should write from the point of view of characters of color. The answer leads me to my third and final reason for writing and publishing these stories.

            “Can a privileged, white, male writer write from the point of view of characters of color?” I will leave that for the readers to determine. I’d like to think these characters are authentic and well developed, but sales, comment sections, and reviews will bear that out as true or not.

            The question of should I have even tried to write in the point of view of these characters also looms large for me. I, for one, believe that art can transcend race (in some ways). As mentioned above, the common ground, the shared experience of being an artist, has united people from various backgrounds for the entire story of humankind. Moving from literature to music, I landed on the career and life of Benny Goodman as an example. Contemporary critics may be split over the legacy of figures such as Goodman, whose classical background and European ancestry “legitimized” jazz for white listeners, making jazz “safe” to bring into venues such as Carnegie Hall. His integration and promotion of this African American art form in his own performances undeniably contributed to his own stardom and the success of his career at a time when black musicians couldn’t drink from the same water fountains, much less perform in the same concert halls as he. So in that sense, perhaps Goodman’s choices were exploitive. But Goodman also launched the careers of many African American jazz artists and, during a time of racial segregation, defiantly toured the US in an integrated jazz band.

            So, as they say on Facebook, the relationship status here is “complicated.”

And that still does not answer the question of whether a white person can even write believable black characters?

It is not as straight forward as I once thought. For instance, my friends—writers of color in literature, television, and film—have had to write white characters throughout the course of their careers. It’s the reality of whiteness being associated with the mainstream, with “normality.” This is a consequence of our ridiculous default culture of white-centeredness and the unfortunate reality of the marketplace. The question of whether or not my friends of color “can” write white characters rarely comes up for them. After all, as people of color in the United States, they are bombarded with images of whiteness. They are forced (sadly) to move in a sea of pallor that is, arbitrarily, considered “the norm.” As people of color in a predominantly white society, they have to understand white culture—even better than we might understand ourselves (as James Baldwin once pointed out).

            Whites do not have the same need. As Jesse Williams reminds us, white society might extract black culture, treating it as a costume to put on, or a thing to demean, to make the “other.” But we have the choice. If we whites wanted, we could likely pass the day without encountering a person of color IRL (in real life). With effort, (and sometimes without) we can whitewash our social experiences and our media consumption, eliminating diverse images and voices and validating only our own. Living a life in an echo chamber like this, as so many white Americans do, eliminates the need to appreciate the perspective or point of view of someone different. It is a great loss, but it happens. I know this from teaching classes on race and reconciliation to white participants. One woman in her fifties in one of my classes recently had the epiphany that, “I worked as a trauma nurse in for thirty-two years and it’s dawning on me that I never worked with a black nurse. It didn’t even occur to me that that was even remarkable until 2017.”

            Baldwin has written that people of color are forced to “get” us whites, to understand us. Sometimes reading white people, living in a state of double consciousness (knowing yourself but also imagining how others misperceive your identity), is a matter of life or death. The tragic deaths of Philando Castile, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Charleena Lyles, and the murder of so many other black citizens by police can attest to this.

But to say that whites cannot do the same, that a white writer cannot and should not write from the point of view of black characters (as I have been told) is a conclusion I am unwilling to accept. Such a conclusion is flawed; it posits that we whites can never understand, much less endorse, the perspective of anyone but ourselves, even with effort, intentionality, and exposure. If this were true, it leaves me without hope. If understanding could only go in one direction: people of color learning to interpret and live with white people who are unable to do the same, progress would be impossible.

I don’t want to live in that world.

            It may take intentionality and no small amount of effort, humility, and discomfort, but I want—I need—to believe that members of a group of people who have been oppressors and a (rapidly diminishing) majority can come to understand and endorse, to love and accept the perspective of an oppressed minority. Perhaps it is the part of writers and artists, who try to see out of the eyes of others, to play a constructive role here. Again, to say otherwise—that artists, or even people in general, cannot do so—would be to suggest that people of color alone have this ability and whites do not. This seems like an overgeneralization, a dangerous assumption—in short, pure fallacy.

So yes, I believe that a white, privileged writer can and even should try to write from the perspective of others—with care, humility, and historical sensitivity. Must we be aware of harmful cultural legacies? Absolutely. We should also take care to consider whether or not our voices are taking up space that could be granted to writers of color who have not had the same opportunities to speak or to publish. The realities of the marketplace and the attention span of the modern human dictate that this is a genuine possibility. But to stop short of trying because of these risks handicaps us all.

The default flow of information, attention, experiences, and imagery might be in the direction of white people like myself—we the loud, obnoxious, blundering, self-absorbed, self-centered sibling of the US family, we who have historically been the referent. Thanks to demographics, this will not always be the case. But in the meantime, with intentionality, I believe this myopic vision amongst wypipo can be remedied. It takes exposure, dialogue, travel, reading, watching, and most of all, shutting up and listening.

            In that spirit, I think that is enough from me. People who look like me have had the spotlight on them and the microphone clutched in their hands a long time. Acknowledging that requires me to step aside, to let the characters take the stage—in this case Jamhuri, Latia, Njambi, Anastasia, and Esmeralda, who all have their own real-life counterparts—so they might tell their stories. I’ll be off to the side, sitting down and shutting up.

            Thanks for reading. Hope you enjoy. If you don’t, well, I’ll try to do better next time.

 

—Ted Neill, Seattle, 2018

 

[1] This even happens in social activism. One need look no further than the initial confusion about the origin of the “MeToo” campaign. Many Twitter followers attributed it to Alyssa Milano, when it was actually a campaign started in 2007 by Tarana Burke, a Harlem activist, as a way to support women and girls and women of color who had been victims of sexual abuse.