Monday, April 14, 2014

Teaching readers (and characters) to perceive diversity in fictional worlds

Diversity has been lacking in our fiction for too long. This has been said many times, by many people, but it bears repeating. This history is what has created the white/straight/cisgendered/able defaults.

After all, where does a "default" come from? It's an expectation established by a long history of stories told without diversity - a long history where the stories told by other voices were marginalized or silenced. It's not just a conscious expectation, either - like many of the other patterns in our lives, it becomes so ingrained that we stop noticing when we see it.

Our psychological expectations are very powerful. Once we've learned a pattern, we learn to correct it. Take listening to language as an example. If we are on the telephone and have a bad connection, we can still understand a lot of the conversation because our knowledge of language will fill in the blanks. Or if we're speaking with someone and that person sneezes or makes a speech error or adds some other extraneous noise, we know how to filter it out and return to the fundamentals of the message.

When it comes to diversity in fiction, this psychological tendency is a real problem. People who are writing diverse worlds often have to fight their own unthinking smoothing of diverse patterns - smoothing which is born of their understanding of the pattern of the milquetoast past. Similarly, people who read in diverse worlds may not notice their diversity. The expectation of the default can cause readers to see the default in what they read, even when it is not there. In other words, we've been handed all-white, all-straight, all-cisgendered, all-able fiction for so long that when we're handed something different, some people will go so far as to subconsciously erase the descriptions that do exist in the text. Thus it can happen that when some readers see the actual diversity of the text represented visually, they cry out in surprise (and often enough, disappointment).

Right now, we're in an exciting time for fiction. Stories are starting to be diversified, and a great many people are working actively to achieve this. A lot of these people are members of the historically marginalized groups in question, but quite a number are members of traditionally more privileged groups. (Privilege is a complex concept because it exists simultaneously on so many different parameters.)

I've heard people say that it shouldn't be necessary to specify things like skin color, ethnicity, sexuality, etc. in some contexts. I disagree, particularly given the strength of the expectation we are fighting against. If we are not explicit in the ways we portray diversity, they are far more likely to be ignored or elided by readers.

Yes, it's possible that people who try to diversify their fiction will do it badly. That's why books like Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward are so important. Fortunately, the more people try, the more people are likely to start getting it right, and changing that expectation by creating a new pattern. And it's about time we started teaching people to see diversity in fiction, because it will help the cause of equity and empathy in our own societies.

Here are a couple of valuable questions to ask yourself if you are designing a fictional world:

1. How does diversity happen in a society?
What types of diversity are genetic and exist already within a given region? What types of diversity occur between and within cultural subgroups of this region? What other regions exist in this world for people of different backgrounds to come from, such as travelers or traders, or royalty who marry for alliances, or people of different nationalities come together for a major project (public works or space travel, etc.)?

2. How is diversity envisioned within a society?
Once you've answered the question of how to get readers to envision the diversity of your world, it's worth taking the extra step and asking how the different populations of your world envision the diversity around them. Some cultural groups (often insiders or the privileged) can be blind to the existence of others. Some can be more explicitly aware.

Take a look at your work and the diversity you are trying to portray with an eye for how integrated that diversity is into the world and the story - how *essential* it is to an understanding of the world works, so that readers will be less likely to miss it. Think of yourself not only as portraying diversity, but as teaching readers (and characters) how to perceive the diversity of this world.

It's something to think about.


Friday, April 11, 2014

Dive into Worldbuilding! - Disability and Accommodation (A Google+ hangout report with video)

We had a great discussion on this topic with today's group, including Lesley Smith, Lillian Csernica, Glenda Pfeiffer, and Reggie Lutz.

Disability is an issue that is often problematic in fiction - either avoided entirely, portrayed as a problem to fix, or portrayed as something that can only bring suffering (or leads to people wishing they were dead). People with disabilities are either marginalized by the work, or excluded altogether.

We listed some books we had enjoyed where people had disabilities. I mentioned Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick. Glenda mentioned Miles Vorkosigan from the Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold, who struggles to differentiate his disabilities, caused by poison, from mutants who are feared by society. We wondered whether Tyrion Lannister from A Game of Thrones would count as disabled (and someone mentioned the character who loses his hand). The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey is an amazing one. Participants also mentioned The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon, and Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold.

Lesley told us about working with her service dog, Uni. She told us that dog behavior changes a lot between times when the dog is on duty and off duty. Apparently Uni accomplishes a "Red Sea thing," parting people on the street when Lesley is walking, as well as helping her cross streets. Uni also knows routes, and if Lesley says, "Let's go to Starbucks," will happily take her there.

Lillian told us about her two sons. Michael has cerebral palsy and seizure disorder. From her experience caring for him, she knows how to use a hospital bed, a lift, a wheelchair, a suction machine, and all kinds of medical equipment. John is on the autism spectrum and has language processing difficulties. Lillian says that they are an adaptive household, and are accustomed to doing whatever works.

I mentioned that adaptive technologies include such things as glasses, or ear horns. Every single one of us at the hangout was wearing glasses! Adaptive technologies have existed for a very long time. Lafcadio Hearn, who had bad eyesight, had a special table built for him that would hold his papers right up close to his eyes.

We spoke about the deaf community. Because their disability leads to them using a different form of language (sign language), this means that the deaf also become a language community, and thus also a unique cultural community. Therefore an accommodation like a cochlear implant, which would be a way to eliminate the disability, becomes problematic because it becomes a threat to that person's membership within the linguistic and cultural community of the deaf. There is no guarantee that an accommodation to disability, no matter how effective, will be automatically welcomed by those it is supposed to help - especially if cultural identity and group membership are at stake.

Lesley also emphasized that a disability described by an umbrella term like "blindness" can be caused by any number of different issues, and that this is why there are no miracle cures. Lillian remarked that "autism" is a similar umbrella term, which lumps together all kinds of different non-neurotypical issues. She emphasized that there is no "band aid" to deal with a phenomenon of such complexity.

Historically, disability in fiction has sometimes been an indicator of an evil character - but in this day and age, that approach has become (dreadfully) inappropriate and insulting to disabled people and communities.

We spoke a bit about accommodation of disabilities in Japan. Lesley shared that she had a great time traveling in Japan without her dog. I mentioned that the accommodation of wheelchairs has increased enormously since I first lived there, probably because of Japan's aging population. Lesley told us that service dogs are not allowed on escalators without training because of the risk of them catching their feet at the top of the escalator.

Glenda noted that the presence of accommodating devices and infrastructure says a lot about the culture that creates them, and about their understanding of disability.

We also spoke about invisible disabilities, such as autism, depression, heart conditions, cancer treatment, PTSD etc. People dealing with these disabilities also often have to deal with other people who won't accept the fact that they are disabled. Lesley asked, "Why should you have to justify your disability?" There are even hate crimes against the disabled (attacks on people with service dogs for example). Lillian mentioned an incident where she had to explain to someone why her son John was talking to himself in order to avoid a more serious altercation.

Lesley said that once you have a guide dog "you become public property." People always want to touch your dog, even when it is on duty. They also have opinions about how you should be treating it, and some people have even been known to be reported to the police for taking their service dogs out on very hot days. Are you abusing the dog under such circumstances? Is it reasonable to expect people who need service dogs never to go out when it's hot? We also spoke about pregnancy and how people often try to touch pregnant women.

It's important to acknowledge that disability exists - and to have characters and fictional societies recognize that it exists.

Reggie said (rightly) that we often represent the differences that exist in our world in the fictional context. Fiction is used as a metaphor for our own world, and fiction is ideal for exploring issues of difference, which is why it's important to have representation of different groups.  We should be careful to provide a model of society that has optimal relevance to our story plot.

Here are some links:
An anthology of diverse fantasy
An important article about how to handle representation well in your fiction

Thanks again to everyone who attended the hangout! And here is the video for those interested:

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Mikado, my socially aware kids, and Orientalist bias

This weekend we watched part of The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan. We only watched part of it because it happened to be a film of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company's 1939 production, and as it turned out, it was too excruciating to watch.

I have always enjoyed the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas as light and often silly pieces reflecting the culture of their time. I was in The Pirates of Penzance once, and it was incredible fun. I have some ideas about what took this particular production and turned it into "arrrrrgh!" Part of it was that the sets and costumes were so incredibly elaborate - it became much harder to think of it as light and silly. Part of it was that they had no clue about Japanese language and had fake kanji scrawled inexpertly all over the place. Part of it was that they mixed a lot of realistic things with a lot of totally ridiculous things. Part of it was of course that none of the actors were Asian (though to expect that of D'Oyly Carte in 1939 of course is a stretch to start with).

A few minutes in I started to realize that I probably should have treated the whole thing as an exercise in anthropology and history, a sort of teachable moment from the perspective of social justice and historical awareness.

And it was that. We just couldn't endure it for very long.

My son was offended. My daughter was, as she termed it, "embarrassed."

I can't say that I'm unhappy with their reactions. I totally agreed with their assessments, and I'm very happy, in fact, that they have developed a kind of social awareness that I never had until I was much older. I did feel disappointed, though, that this had been their first introduction to Gilbert and Sullivan.

At the breakfast table the following morning, my husband and I spoke with our kids about an experience we'd had - the experience, in fact, that had motivated us to suggest the movie. He and I had been to a performance of The Mikado in the town of Chichibu, Japan. Chichibu is in the outer suburbs of Tokyo and is hypothesized to be the town on which the "Town of Titipu" was originally based. After many years of being banned in Japan, this was the first time it was being staged there, and so he and I went out to see it. It was amazing, and we both really enjoyed it. For one thing, the costumes were done by a kabuki company, and let me tell you, they were incredible. For another thing, the audience was into the spirit of the thing. The song about the list of potential candidates for execution had even been revised to include "kids on cell phones." It was delightful.

It was utterly, utterly unlike what we saw in the movie.

At this point I'm pretty sure that The Mikado itself is so problematic in its ignorant portrayal of Japan that I may not ever be able to enjoy it again. In a sense this is a shame, since I have liked the songs a great deal in the past. I'm happy to continue enjoying The Pirates of Penzance or other goofy pieces that make fun of English society, of which Gilbert and Sullivan were a part. I feel very lucky that I got to see that production in Japan, which I see in a sense as Japanese people taking the opportunity to reclaim the piece and turn it into something that belonged to them. That is a memory that I will value, and share, but when I try to introduce my kids to operettas again, I'll be going in a different direction.

I feel good that we were able to talk about our feelings as a family, and reinforce my kids' sense that it's a complicated issue, but that they were entirely right to object.


Friday, April 4, 2014

Link: Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller speak!

I was blown away today by this rare footage from 1930 of Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller's teacher, talking about how she taught Helen how to speak with her mouth. Just fascinating, and an incredible accomplishment for both of them.

Here is the link.

Link: A tour of accents across the British Isles

I just had to share this fabulous link with you. It's a very short video, but this fellow is just amazing the way he can take you from one accent to the other all over the map in a single take!

A tour of accents across the British Isles...

Check it out!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Matching Culture and Character Motives - a Dive into Worldbuilding! Google+ Hangout report with VIDEO

We had a delightful hangout with quite a large group this week, including Deborah Ross, Reggie Lutz, Lesley Smith, Che Gilson, and Christian Stiehl. Our topic was the issue of making sure that the characters we write fit into the worlds we have created.

We started out talking about our pet peeves in this regard - especially kickass female characters appropriate to the modern era being plunked into alternate worlds or historical frames where their attitudes would make no sense. Che said (and generally we agreed) that she is really bothered by steampunk settings where kickass girls complain about their corsets, or wear them on the outside, or complain about hating balls and disliking tea. If we consider the inspiration for the steampunk environment to be the Victorian cultural milieu, then there is value in having the cultural values of the era match the clothing and other things that grew out of them. There was plenty of female rebellion during the time period, such as women breaking out to become doctors and writers. This can be stretched, too, if you have the right character, but sudden kung fu kicks stick out as anachronisms - and so do modern ideas about feminism.

Deborah talked about the problem with having a monolithic idea about cultures. No culture is entirely uniform; all have internal variations, sometimes wide ones. Within a time period or scenario, not everyone will have the same cultural reference.

1. Don't make everyone in a single culture the same.
2. Don't rely on Mary Sue characters, because the person you would ideally like to be probably won't fit well into a cultural environment that is not your own.

Christian mentioned liking the way that George R.R. Martin handles his female characters, because though most women wear gowns and dresses, some of these are powerful politically, and while most are not very physically active, Brienne is a notable exception with a backstory to fit. He took issue with Keira Knightley's character in Pirates of the Caribbean because he felt she was too waifish to be a good fighter (this ties into all kinds of issues with body image for women but we didn't follow that thread within the hangout).

There have been seriously kickass women in history, and it is worth looking them up and checking out how they came to their accomplishments within the context of their historical periods. This would include Joan of Arc, Boudicca and many othes. Deborah mentioned Doña Agracia Nasi, a member of Jewish family expelled from Portugal who became the head of the largest spice trading group in all Europe. Do your research, because strong women were all over the place! Also, things were not uniformly oppressive. There are always backcurrents against prevailing norms.

We want to create the sense that characters have "grown up" into their environments rather than being "dropped in." Don't have your characters declare "I am X, therefore I do this" or "You only say that because you are X."

Deborah described the three different peoples in her Seven-Petaled Shield series: nomadic horse people (like the Sarmatians or Mongols), city people (like the Romans), and a very educated people (like Judeans). Characters from each have their own distinct advantages within their own cultural contexts.

People typically have a relationship to their cultural values. Ask what culture-internal axes of privilege exist. Where do characters stand relative to these? Who gets marginalized, and why? In this world, what constitutes transgressive behavior?

Stereotyping is a great tool, but it is NOT a tool for laying out and defining the peoples of your world. It is instead a great tool for exploring the interrelations between those peoples, imagining how they would view one another, and thus what kinds of misunderstandings and plot points might arise.

Che encouraged us to look out for the default character of a rebel out to change the system. These are harder to find than you might believe. I told a story of how I'd gone back and changed a character completely so that instead of being the default rebel, readers could come to understand how he had arrived at his revolutionary ideas. Reggie talked about a scenario where the oppression visited on many built up into a group idea that change was necessary.

Deborah talked about how, in the director's commentary on the Hobbit movie, they spoke about the appeal of Bilbo Baggins. Tolkien portrayed virtue in small ordinary folk and their behaviors, not sword-swinging heroes. In a way, ordinary folk are easier to identify with. Bilbo starts with ordinary life and then undergoes a gradual journey of personal change that puts him always on the edge of being in over his head, allowing him to gain resources as he goes. In this way, we can have a stepwise development of a character who can then become powerful (even kickass!). This starkly contrasts with C.S. Lewis, where Peter is given a sword and instantly can use it (we theorized that it must have inherently magical properties of endowing skill upon its owner!).

You can have people start out as exceptional, but it's important to work on giving readers ways to relate to them (metaphorically at least). We always want to see the stakes raised in a story, but we don't want to top out. After you've beaten Grendel, will you have to go beat his mom? Or will you have to suddenly discover your kryptonite to level the playing field after the fact? It's fun when we can see characters who have great skills but are nevertheless always struggling in some way. If you are going to give characters skills, think through how they came about getting them. Were they educated in these skills? By whom, and how, and what did that education mean to them?

As you write, make sure to create links between how your world works, and the kinds of actions and thoughts your character can have within it. Keep asking "why."

Thank you to everyone who attended! This week's topic is Disability and Accommodation in worldbuilding. I hope to see you there!


Monday, March 31, 2014

Dive into Worldbuilding! Hangout topics for April

Get ready for April Worldbuilding hangouts!

April 3: Disability and Accommodation in Worldbuilding (glasses? wheelchairs? etc.)
April 10: Stina Leicht discusses the worldbuilding in her novels Of Blood and Honey and And Blue Skies from Pain

April 17: Supernatural Powers and their Origins in Worldbuilding

April 24: NO HANGOUT (I'm going camping!)

I hope to see you there.