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Zer Netmouse
April 7th, 2009
10:55 pm

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Pam Noles: Shame
One of the best quotes I saw in RaceFail '09 turns out to come from a 2006 Essay by Pam Noles, published in InfiniteMatrix:

  • Shame

    I remember Dad saying, how come you never see anybody like that in the stories you like? And I remember answering, maybe they didn't have black people back then. He said there's always been black people. I said but black people can't be wizards and space people and they can't fight evil, so they can't be in the story. When he didn't say anything back I turned around. He was in full recline mode in his chair and he was very still, looking at me. He didn't say anything else.


    At the time, Nalo Hopkinson wrote a response indicating her own experience was similar

    I've struggled to try to put my similar experience growing up into words, but I often end up circling around it, because it just hurts too much. Thanks for digging deeper. (And the first time I found a black science fiction writer, I burst into tears, too. I was twenty-two.)


    Pam wrote a followup re: The Shame of Earthsea a couple weeks after the essay was published, which included a link to that comment by Nalo. She came back two years later to point out that This is related - a response to the cultural appropriation discussion at Wiscon that year, where, she said,

    What I'm seeing in many of these discussions rolling around is a lot of basic artist chest thumping, folks standing on the mountaintop proclaiming their right to explore the whole of the world in their works, and irritation that anyone suggest otherwise. I'm seeing lots of yeah man, right on in response and can't help but to notice that a lot of these folks are so busy celebrating themselves that they've cheered right past the root problem. This issue of cultural appropriation and representation is not about validating you as One Of The Good Guys, nor is it about denying an artist the right to harvest from many fields during the Quest.

    It's about the fact that for all your proclaiming of I Can, nine times out of ten? You Don't.

    [...]

    Bonus question! Cast your eye upon the creations of our geek tribe and explain why it is as a whole so very monotone; compare that to the acts of Missing The Point on display throughout the current dust-up, and justify. Your answer to this one will comprise 98% of your grade.


    If you didn't go read the whole Shame essay linked to at the top, I suggest you aim to do so when you have time. Yes, it's long, but it's worthwhile.

    So. That was 3 years ago.

    Pam Noles has been active in the Carl Brandon Society, which was founded at WisCon in 1999, partly due to a response to an article written by Samuel R. Delany, "Racism in Science Fiction," published in The New York Review of Science Fiction the year before (Vol. 10, Issue 12, Aug. 1998).

    That article was reprinted in Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, edited by Sheree R. Thomas in 2000. If you want to read it, why not get the book? It's a good book.

    That was all roughly ten years ago.

    I have been oblivious, for those ten years, of the fact that the society exists. This feels strange to me, given how many conversations I have had over the years about the paucity of POC in the genre. I have been talking, but I have not been looking for other people who were also talking about it, or for ways to institute change.

    Now I am looking, and I am listening, and I am reading (history, and racism research and discussion in and out of the genre, and SF by POC). I'm also planning to attend WisCon this year. Because if ten years of active work on this topic only got this genre as far as it is today, we're not trying hard enough. I don't know who all "we" is, but I have decided it includes me. At least, I'm going to try harder, and see if that achieves anything.
  • (9 comments | Leave a comment)

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    [User Picture]
    From:dd_b
    Date:April 8th, 2009 02:20 pm (UTC)
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    So is Ms. Hopkinson actually saying she didn't discover Delany until 1982? Yikes; I wonder how one could manage that. He was really major in the field long before that.

    I believe the first black and gay and transgender authors I read, and quite a number of the women, were in science fiction; the field didn't, to my eye, seem to much care "what" an author was, just what they wrote. And neither did any of the fans I knew and know.
    [User Picture]
    From:netmouse
    Date:April 8th, 2009 06:33 pm (UTC)
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    I don't believe I read any books by Delany until this year. I started with his autobiography. Now I have also read The Jewels of Aptor. There is nothing on that vintage Ace cover (a pale blond woman hovering over a pile of skulls) to suggest to me that a) the book is hard SF and not fantasy, b) one of the main characters is brown, and another is black, or c) the author is black.

    (the Gollancz (2000) edition isn't much better. At least the person on the cover is not pale-skinned, and it comes across as hard SF, but the scene on the cover never happens in the postapocalyptic novel.)

    I don't know why I'd never read any Delany novels before. I certainly knew the name. I'd read some of his short stories. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand has been recommended to me multiple times. But I also don't know if I could have told you before fairly recently that he is african-american. I'm just saying, I don't think that "read something by Samuel R. Delany" and "found a black science fiction writer" are necessarily synonymous so far as personal experience.
    [User Picture]
    From:dd_b
    Date:April 8th, 2009 07:16 pm (UTC)
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    Closer to the time of publication, SF was the default, fantasy hardly existed, so that wasn't going to be confusing to people reading that edition new.

    I probably didn't know Delany was black when I first read him. At some point I learned it, and it didn't much matter in a lot of ways, hence I don't remember exactly when :-). Maybe an author photo, or something somebody mentioned in an introduction (Ellison or Asimov most likely), or maybe a photo in Locus (I don't remember when they started running photos at all often).

    Delany was one of the seriously hot young SF authors; Driftglass probably summarizes that period best (collection, and one of my favorites). He kind of moved on out of the SF mainstream, and I suspect he's far less read in SF now than he was then.

    It's certainly possible to know of an author for a long time, and even read them for a long time, and not know much about them; one could easily not know race or even sex (I understand there were people who thought Andre Norton was male, in fact that may be why she wrote SF under that name; but it never occurred to me, I pegged the name as female at first glance).

    On the other hand, if one cared a lot about it, the information was out there to be found; I found it even without caring a lot, just stumbled over it (but I was very interested in SF in general, and in authors in general, so the bits of information did stick when I hit them). And Nalo Hopkinson says she did care a lot about it.

    People who care a lot about the race of people in books should have learned by now not to rely on the cover illustrations for information!


    [User Picture]
    From:nnaloh
    Date:April 13th, 2009 02:45 pm (UTC)
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    dd_b, I feel a need to speak up for myself. If you're implying that I hadn't been reading very widely in the field as a child and a teenager, of course I wasn't. Recall that I only moved to North America in 1977, at the age of 16. Before that I was living in the Caribbean, where 1) it was difficult to find science fiction and fantasy, 2) I was a minor, and 3) my parents' income was modest. There was limited access for researching and purchasing my own reading material. My parents did not restrict my reading and I read quite widely, but circumstances of age, income and availability limited what I could get my hands on. I was 16 and still living in the Caribbean before I first encountered another science fiction reader like myself. Seven years later, I was living in Canada and working in a public library, so I had much greater access and my science fiction reading increased quite a bit. I knew lots of black Caribbean and American writers. What I didn't know was how racism played out in North America. I probably encountered Dhalgren in Canada in my late teens, but not until I saw a photo of him in a library copy of Stars in My Pockets Like Grains of Sand 5 years later and realised he was black did it occur to me that there was a mysterious and uneasy silence in the genre around writers of colour. And no, even though I'd been reading Chip's work for a few years before that, I hadn't been able to tell that he was black. If it pleases you to see that as a lack of perception on the part of the teenaged me, so be it. I wasn't born politicized. Racism comes at you as a series of accumulated epiphany moments. Seeing Chip's photo was an early one of mine.
    [User Picture]
    From:dd_b
    Date:April 14th, 2009 12:40 am (UTC)
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    I wasn't giving enough consideration to cultural / economic issues affecting access to SF (and hadn't researched your background, though I knew you were Caribbean and Canadian; but I didn't know when you moved).

    I'm pretty sure I must have read Delany for a while before I noticed (or had the chance to notice) that he was black, too. And he was probably the first black SF writer I knew about, and probably the only one for a while. Still, the concept that a black person could be an SF writer wasn't surprising or shocking to me.
    [User Picture]
    From:nnaloh
    Date:April 14th, 2009 01:35 am (UTC)
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    My surprise at a black science fiction writer wasn't that I hadn't thought it was possible; I grew up surrounded by black poets, playwrights, fiction writers (my dad was a writer, as were many of his friends). What was unusual was why I'd never heard of a black science fiction writer before. Or an Asian one, or a South Asian one, or a First Nations one, etc. That was more than my not paying attention.
    [User Picture]
    From:cherylmmorgan
    Date:April 8th, 2009 02:24 pm (UTC)
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    It is amazing what comes and goes from the mind. In 2004 we ran a report on the Liverpool conference on post-Colonial SF, which mentioned cultural appropriation. We mentioned the 2006 Carl Brandon Awards in Emcit #129 and #131, and I remember the award ceremony at WisCon very clearly, but it looks like whatever I said about it was only on the blog as there's no con report for WisCon #30. I remember that Pam Noles article too. I'm pretty sure I blogged about it. But it takes something like RaceFail make bring such issues to the forefront of our minds.
    [User Picture]
    From:netmouse
    Date:April 8th, 2009 06:13 pm (UTC)
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    Yeah, I noticed that Neil blogged about the Carl Brandon Awards in 2006 too, and I had started reading his blog by then.

    I guess this just marks the difference in my mind between hearing about something (and perhaps thinking, "oh good, that sounds positive", and moving on), and really being aware of it.

    Like, I know I was aware of the Earthsea casting thing at the time, but like the Avatar casting, it was kind of outside my particular focus since I don't watch TV.

    I remember appreciating how you highlighted the work of all kinds of people I hadn't heard of before in Emerald City, but my memory for who they were and what you mentioned about them is less clear. :(
    [User Picture]
    From:cherylmmorgan
    Date:April 8th, 2009 06:37 pm (UTC)
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    That's the way life is these days. We live in a world of information overload. Also to a certain extent of outrage overload. I don't think there's any real solution to this. Sometimes it helps if people get angry; other times getting angry just makes you enemies. So mostly I just keep dropping ideas into the conversation flow and hoping someone notices.
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