Two Steps Forward, One Step Back
First off, some background. I’m a member of a local writer’s critique group, and full disclosure, I’ve been pretty much an absentee since joining it back for the 2016 NaNoWriMo. But, I had the framework of a story hammered out, I had a little over 1500 words put down, and the universe had ceased conspiring to keep me from attending. So, I submitted my work, then got down to the business of critiquing, making comments on, and then emailing back other people’s submissions. All’s well so far.
The email returns I got from the online part of the group were good. Lots of technical fixes and recommendations. I’m the first to admit I’m not the kind of person who can knock out an award-winning draft of something right off the hop, so it was good feedback. Then Saturday morning dawned. The missus said she’d be okay with our new baby for a few hours, so I grabbed my tablet and notepad, then headed to meet the critique group for coffee prior to heading into the local library branch for the actual critique session.
The session kicked off well enough. We stayed on task pretty well, and worked out way through several genres of work. It was a healthy mix of ideas and technical advice, and where I felt comfortable, I added my two cents into the discussion. Then came my turn, and things went sideways fast. The reason being that my work was not “conventional”. With that, it’s time to share about my next work, Crisis on Shēnhǎi 5.
My overall plan is to release short, enjoyable science fiction novelettes set in the post-post apocalypse earth setting that has been a thing in my head for about five years now. In it, a devastating conflict rendered the bulk of the global north uninhabitable or nearly so, causing massive changes to the world’s political power structures. The first of these is Crisis on Shēnhǎi 5, a bit of a sci-fi thriller based in a deep sea mining facility in the Indian Ocean. The “problem” that came up for a few members of the critique group was that the characters weren’t sufficiently “white”, or relatable enough for white readers. There it is. My work wasn’t sufficiently aimed at maintaining the white comfort zone.
The first problem raised was that the names weren’t familiar, could I change them? The characters are African and Chinese; no, I’m not changing their names. Could you make it so men’s names end with “o” and women’s with “a”? No, these are real names, not made up sci-fi names. It’s hard to remember these names, can they be clearer? The names are staying as is. After that, they dropped that “complaint”.
Next came that old chestnut, “who is my audience” followed up by “how can I expect to sell this”; this train of thought flared to life after one commented that they didn’t understand why I made it a point to show the characters weren’t always speaking English, and that they were speaking Mandarin or Swahili more often. But English is the world’s language, why point out that they aren’t using it? Now, at this point, some other members of the group who got what I was doing interjected, pointing out that it was part of the setting and a component of the characters. This didn’t satisfy the others though, who adamantly refused to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, people might to read about a pair of Africans and a Chinese dude with non-Western names having a sci-fi adventure 450 metres under the surface of the ocean who don’t speak English by default.
The final tick off was their dismissal of my work as me effectively pissing into the wind in a creative sense, and focusing on “story” instead of what would be marketable. Bearing in mind that their idea of marketability consists of western named, English speaking characters with easy to remember attributes that they could safely assume were white until or unless they were described as being otherwise. And yes, that actually came up as well. The phrase “I had assumed the characters were white.” was actually said in a completely un-ironic sense.
So how does this tie into being a POC, and specifically to being a Black content creator? Well, this is pretty much the non-stop process that POC writers who don’t write “conventional” (read: white oriented) material are subject to. Constant pressure to “white up” our work, to make it more palatable for the “mainstream” audience at the cost of its soul and flavour. It’s part and parcel of why POC produced material receives less support even while evidence mounts that people like it and want more of it. This bizarre, persistent, and pernicious idea that the only thing that people want to read about are white people (or things they can quickly relate to), and anything else is just not going to work.
Well, with all that said, I want to end on a positive note, and state categorically that the bulk of the critique group got what I was aiming for, and maintained my hope for humanity moving forward into the future. It was just a sobering reminder of our current world’s state and how even when N.K. Jeminsen can take another Hugo for best novel (2017, The Obelisk Gate), Nnedi Okorafor can win one for best novella (2016, Binti), or where a translated work by Hao Jingfang can take best novelette (2016, Folding Beijing), there are still proponents of the idea that writing should focus on and cater to the tastes of a borderline mythological “mainstream” of whites who can’t bear the idea of having to sympathize with or connect to non-white characters in settings that are culturally different.