Monday, July 30, 2007

Writing with an Agenda

I woke up this morning thinking a lot about something Melissa Scott once told me in an interview. We were discussing GLBT/queer content in science fiction and she pointed out that, particularly in cyberpunk, GLBT elements are often used as scare tactics -- a way to show the seedier side of life. You know you're in the deep, dark place because Jo-Jo sitting at the bar is a transsexual cyborg. Oh look, honey, the gay male hustler is getting cruised at the space station by the Martians. We must be in the dark underbelly of the future.

Where are the non-threatening, happy gay couples in space?

Of course, as a writer I understand that happy = boring. There's not a lot of drama when everyone gets along famously. But, I'm wondering if science fiction as a genre still hasn't shaken that idea that Melissa suggested nearly a decade ago -- that queerness is inherently "scary."

Of course, another writer pointed out to me that an author who includes queer folks in the background runs the risk of seeming ham handed in their attempts at inclusion (or diversity or whatever you might want to call it.)

There's a lot of validity in her concern. I grew up in the era of television "tokenism," where every show seemed to have to include the hero (white guy), the sidekick (black or other color guy), and the girlfriend (not guy). It was annoying, if only because the formula wherein the person of color was still stuck on the sidelines was never, ever violated.

On the flipside, I find TV shows (and movies and books) where there's a homogony of color (or gender or sexual preference) to be deeply, deeply frightening. It's the whole "Friends" phenomenon. How is it that these people who lived in New York City never seemed to know anyone of color? Or gay? And what does it say about them that they don't?

And does it matter?

Sure, people live like that. I would be forced to admit that ninety-percent of my close friends are white and straight. The "Friends" phenomenon is its own kind of truth, but I've always felt that a writer's responsibility is to see the whole picture – beyond the assumptions. Like, for instance, before I worked at the University of Minnesota's Immigration History Research Center, I would have guessed that the majority of immigrants settling in Minnesota were Norwegian, and that Saint Paul’s (my home town) main settlers were Irish. Not true. Both of those are myths perpetrated by storytellers, like Garrison Keillor (and the later by our former governor Jesse Ventura.)

I'm not trying to imply that either of those men are racists, but my feeling is that sometimes by not going beyond what we *think* is true, we inadvertently paint a picture that's not complete.

So what? Fiction writing isn’t about the truth, is it?

I think it is.

I think, in particular, when writing about the future, we need to be awake and paying attention to our words on the page. Our silences -- the people we leave out -- speak volumes about what we think is true... and what we feel is valuable.

I say this as someone whose life was changed by reading science fiction. In 1953, Theodore Sturgeon wrote a short story called "The World Well Lost," and he taught me the power of thinking beyond our assumptions.


Jen at YouWouldThink said...

With respect to identities, I write my fictional worlds as I see my real one to large degrees. On the one hand, it's fortunate that I'm queer and have had a racially diverse set of close friends throughout my life because it shows up in my work (I think) as genuine representation rather than tokenism. But on the other hand, I fear my work will suffer in marketability (if I ever decide to go there) because the American book market is predominantly white and straight. I understand this can still be a substantive issue w/r/t gender, too -- it's the reason why JK Rowling's book covers don't say "Joanne", for instance.

I'd rather write what I love and believe than write to market, so that's the way I've written. Maybe someday I'll see what the market thinks of it.

(Incidentally, I'm not going to go to the mat for Friends or anything because they certainly could've been better about it, but the main characters most certainly did know people who were gay and not white. At least two of the guys had love interests who were poc and played similar types of recurring roles as Tom Selleck did when his character dated Monica, and Ross' first ex-wife was a lesbian. Fwiw, I think the show did a fair job of positively portraying Carol and Susan's marriage and the two of them as Ross' son's primary caregivers. That no main characters were of color or queer is a point that certainly stands, however.)

lydamorehouse said...

I know what you mean about fears about marketablity, but I think that SF/F is better about picking up books with GLBT hero/ines than other genres.

Of course, I've never done that, but there are books that have queer heroes that have done well.

jen at youwouldthink said...

While I've always loved to read it, I don't actually very write much SF/F. It really is encouraging to see that books with queer characters actually sell to non-queer people now, though, because that was quite a rarity 15 years ago.

Anonymous said...

What Jen said - on all counts.

I just finished reading M. Christian's The Very Bloody Marys - about a gay vampire cop in San Francisco. Good stuff! And not your usual vampire stuff either.