Sarah Avery (dr_pretentious) wrote,
Sarah Avery

Crowing, Eating Crow, Jim Crow

I've been a good teacher this week. I'm proud of the quotidian writing enrichment and test prep I do with the ADD Brothers, the Subjunctive Girls, Short Term Memory Kid, and the rest of my tutoring clients, but Beowulf Boy's mom has completely embraced his desire to be a writer, so he and I get to do very different work together. He writes like an eighth grader, sure, but he writes because he wants to.

On Monday, Beowulf Boy started brainstorming up a character for a new story. He thinks his zero drafts in bulleted lists, so his first-ever female protagonist manifested in a series of itemized attributes: name, age, gender, ethnicity, etc. He paused over "ethnicity," then wrote, "Elf."

In that moment, I was in serious danger of channeling the small-minded professors who hounded me out of genre fiction, ostensibly for my own good, because they could not stand to see a promising young writer squander her talents in the gutter. (Instead, I squandered them in academia, and it took me ten years to steal my own life back. Whether I am still promising is an open question.) I was in danger of saying something like, "It's really best if you start by writing realistic characters," or "That's so hard to do well. You should learn to write by the rules before you try breaking them." Bullshit. To fight down the demon, I pictured the worst professor of the bunch, my old senior thesis advisor from Vassar, and visualized beating the snot out of him with a truncheon. Take that, Frank!

When I opened my mouth to speak to Beowulf Boy, the words that came out were, "Good. Now what sensory details can you come up with to make that character feel real to your reader?"

So I'm entitled to crow a little. By my own perverse means, I broke the cycle of abuse in this one little part of the universe. Yay, me.

I got it right about the Elf's ethnicity, but I'm reexamining my efforts at worldbuilding in light of a discussion on race in speculative fiction here. (Thanks, matociquala and yhlee!)

In my secret heart of hearts, I'd been congratulating myself for months. For, lo! I was the Conscientious White Girl who was Doing the Right Thing. Writing epic fantasy out of my unapologetically American imagination, I'd accepted that race was an inevitable a part of my unconscious heritage, so I'd better try not to be stupid about it. Well, maybe I haven't exercised the full range of available stupidity yet, but I seem to have fallen into one of the classic blunders. When I unintentionally put a Magical Negro into one of the lesser plot threads, he appeared only (1) as the absent author of a letter to a more important character, (2) two years later, posthumously, in the more important character's dream, and (3) as the body in a tomb-robbing scene. In each of these moments, En Tangur Brei's main function is to serve the development of a character who would, in our America, probably be called white. Never mind that, in Beltresin society, Laurebes would be called by the N word, if they had an N word--the reader has seen Laurebes's blue eyes. I'm still trying to figure out how to fix this relationship.

I could have fallen further into the classic blunder. (As one of my characters likes to observe, there's always further to fall). Did I not take care to decouple blackness from subjugation? Yeah, I did that, check. The Efa have the only university in their world, the most enlightened monarch, the most stable and functional national institutions. It's only a tragic fluke of geography that makes it necessary for them to rely on their less civilized neighbors in the Beltresin aristocracy for anything at all. The underdogs, the Old Beltresin commoners who will need a few volumes of cataclysmic plot to reclaim their city, don't bear a physical resemblance to any racialized minority I'm aware of in our world--goodness knows, I tried to avoid that--but their social structure owes a lot to my efforts to listen to what people in various racialized and colonized groups have said about the way being ruled by Others warps one's existence.

I have to look much more closely at my surviving Efa characters, now that I've identified my mistake with the dead one. The university's power broker, the scholar who comes closest to understanding the mechanics of the Beltresin kin curse, said something I had to cut from Part 2. It's nothing I hadn't heard my anthropologist friends say: "I've been out of the field too long." But when I read that line in its context in Part 2 Chapter 7, it sounded like a reference to being a field laborer, and no way of rephrasing the comment made the problem go away until I cut the remark altogether.
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