Anne Bean

I make delicious words. // I make words delicious.

Category: Writing (page 1 of 9)

Harvest

The last time I wrote on this blog was around Spring Equinox. Now it’s nearly Fall Equinox, which feels like a poetically appropriate fallow period.

It turns out I have a lot going on in the next few weeks. Seeds that I planted a long time ago are coming to harvest. I have three new comics coming out this fall! I’ll bring them to two shows! My goodness. Like suddenly finding myself overrun with gorgeous carrots, I am a bit surprised, even though I’ve been nurturing both the comics and the carrots along all summer. Raised beds helped with the carrots. A GAP grant from Artist Trust helped with the comics.

Here’s a sneak peek:

Coyote and Butterfly Woman // art by Noel Franklin

WA state ID for Coyote

This is a good example of Noel’s attention to detail.

Luminous artist Noel Franklin draws this tale of the Nez Perce Coyote coming to Seattle and encountering the murderous Butterfly Woman. A trickster tale for modern times. You can buy her other comics on her Etsy.

 

Shorbat Rumman // art by Ted Closson

A tale from The Arabian Nights, retold with Iraqi immigrants in Portland… Food trucks, family, and intrigue. Drawn by acclaimed artist Ted Closson. To check out Ted’s work, take a look at his website or pick up a copy of Beyond, the Queer Sci-Fi and Fantasy Anthology. Beyond won a Lambda Award and was nominated for an Ignatz Award.

Cover for Shorbat Rumman: title and two steaming bowls of soup with spoons

The Old Lady’s Skin // art by Ben Horak

comic panel by Ben Horak

Here’s a taste!

Ben Horak and I, who have collaborated in the past, are producing another comic. I like working with Ben because whenever I find a particularly bizarro tale (like this one, which has an old lady skin suit as a plot point), I know I can get Ben to draw it.

This comic is a retelling of one of the more bizarre tales from the already weird collection Italian Fairy Tales retold by Italo Calvino. This tale puts a…old lady flesh suit-y twist on the “I love you as much as salt” tale, which is also the plot of King Lear. Yep, Shakespeare retold fairy tales, too. Hoorah.

 

You can buy these comics from my at Short Run in Seattle on November 5, 2016.  You can also, if all goes well, buy all of these from me at New York Comic Con in October, where I’ll be tabling alongside Mikeatron! at table C7. Whichever coast you’re on, come say hi!

Also, this is my literal harvest. Those purple carrots are delish.

Also, this is my literal harvest. Those purple carrots are delish.

Learning From All the Genres

In honor of upcoming NaNoWriMo, I’m here as your friendly neighborhood multi-genre writer to remind you that your fiction can benefit greatly from studying multiple genres.

 

What can a fiction writer learn from poetry?

Why the beginnings and ends of things matter

How identity affects your voice, your expression, and your world

Meter, musicality, rhythm

How to use imagery like you would a scalpel, or a needle, or a broom

 

What can a fiction writer learn from screenwriting?

Story structure (mythic structure)

How to follow an image or symbolic prop through a story

Thematic through-lines, the “spine” of story

How to incorporate complex world building without excess exposition

 

What can a fiction writer learn from comics?

Story structure: manga in particular often uses kishotenketsu

How to manipulate time

Isolating the important moments of a story/doing scene breakdowns

Character design: how physicality of characters can connect to their personalities/arcs

Innovative idea generation

 

What can a fiction writer learn from nonfiction?

Figure out where the narrative structure is in a nonfiction book. There is one. That is why nonfiction books are interesting.

Then go read Mary Rufle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey and have some feelings. Okay? Okay.

 

It’s Not the Goddamn Batman, it’s the Goddamn Imagination

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the limits of creator’s imaginations, particularly when it comes to writing outside of your demographic.

Two panels of Black Canary watching somthing. Text is internal monologue about how Batman's beating up a lot of guys and she's like, totes in love with the goddamn Batman.

In Frank Miller’s imagination, everyone loves the goddamn Batman.

Lately, I’ve found the best examples of both success and failure in writing outside one’s demographic in the world of comics. Successes include books like Trees by Warren Ellis, and Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue Deconnick. Failures include Strange Fruit, written by Mark Waid and drawn by J.G. Ballard. As J.A. Micheline points out on Women Write About Comics, the book fails because it falls back on tired, racist tropes. Micheline notes that when white characters  say something racist, there is always someone there to contradict them or chide them for their racism, making it a magical fairy tale for white people. There is also a mute superman character, who is an alien, but looks like a black man, strong, silent, and animalistic. As Micheline says, there are real-world consequences to actual black humans when this type of trope persists: “This depiction of the superhuman black has led to dire consequences for a number of black youth in America, to name a few: Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice. White police feel so threatened by black men, fear their purported strength, aggression, and animalistic tendencies, that they believe themselves justified when gunning them down in cold blood.” Micheline’s suggestion that perhaps a story like this should involve one or more black creators seems awfully apt. You can read her plea to white comics creators to create responsibly at Comics Alliance.

***

The comic I want to talk about today, though, doesn’t even touch on race. It’s entirely about white people. Which is a relief, because it still manages to be once of the worst comics I have read, and I don’t even want to contemplate what Frank Miller would have done if he’d tried to include people of color in this…well, as my podcast-mates put it during our review, this dumpster-fire of a comic.

What am I talking about?

Why, All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder, of course.

actual image: a dumpster fire

Pictured: All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder

This nine-ish issue series came out between 2005 and 2008. It’s written by Frank Miller, who was in the process of going from a creator of respected, if pulpy comics to a person who writes white supremacist America propaganda and other fringe, ridiculous projects. The tragedy of the series is that it’s drawn by Jim Lee, and the iconic comic artist does a fantastic job at bringing Miller’s bullshit script to life.

All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder is set in an alternate storyline to any of the main, canonical DC universes. Batman is young, and just now “adopting” (read: abducting and brainwashing) young Dick Grayson (Robin) after his parents are murdered. There are plenty of scenes with lots of first person internal monologue from a wide variety of characters.

But what this book is really about is Frank Miller imagining himself as the goddamn Batman.

Robin and Batman in the Batmobile. Robin: "Who the hell are you, giving out orders like this?" Batman: "Are you dense? Are you retarded or something? Who the hell do you think I am? I'm the goddamn Batman."

The panel that launched a thousand memes.

In the imagination of Frank Miller, the goddamn Batman is an unrepentant asshole who revels in the most toxic masculinity possible: he hates grief and loves beating the crap out of people. He gets all the ladies because they also love watching him beat the crap out of people. He makes Dick Grayson camp out in the Batcave and eat rats because it’s going to help him become “strong”. He tells people to shut up a lot. Heroic!

But the goddamn Batman is not the only character that Miller boldly ventures to explore: we get internal monologue from Dick Grayson, Vicky Vale, Wonder Woman, Jimmy Olsen, Superman, Batgirl, Black Canary, and more. All of it makes one thing painfully clear: Frank Miller cannot conceive of what might be going on the inside of an adult woman’s mind.

Vicky Vale in a revealing evening gown talking about how excited she is to go on a date with Bruce Wayne.

Vicky Vale does not get any deeper than this. She is not portrayed as a woman, but as Miller’s anima.

If you wanted insight into Miller’s train of thought when writing the Vicky Vale scenes, fear not:

From Miller's script, with accompanying panel: "Oh, Jim, I'm shameless. Let's go with an ASS SHOT. Panties detailed. Balloons from above. She's walking, restless as always. We can't take our eyes off her. Especially since she's got one fine ass."

This is not about Vicky Vale. This is about the men looking at Vicky Vale’s ass. The male gaze, ladies and gentlemen!

But wait! Not all women are pointless sexpots. Some are straw feminists:

Wonder Woman, with internal monologue about how this city stinks of men and how awful men are and men also men

Goddess help him, I think Frank Miller thinks that feminists are constantly angry and only think about men and how awful men are.

This is Frank Miller trying his best to write a character who’s really different than he is. Unfortunately, he has only managed to write a weird shadow-self, a woman who rants about men and how incompetent men are and men and awful awful men, but then later makes out with Superman and shuts up for a while.

The goddamn Batman, then, becomes Frank Miller’s power fantasy. Women like Vicky Vale and Black Canary become his admirers; Wonder Woman becomes a foil that only serves to reinforce the role of dominant masculinity in the story. The goddamn Batman uses words like “retarded” and “shut up” to try and assert dominance over the other characters. It’s little wonder that one of the few characters who rang true to me was Jimmy Olsen, the horny teenager:

Jimmy Olsen looks at Vicky Vale while she changes even as his internal monologue is denying this fact.So what’s my point? Why am I showcasing the wretched failings of Frank Miller’s imagination?

Because it’s easy to see. And if we start out by looking and the goddamn Batman as an example of the limits of one person’s imagination when trying to write a variety of characters, then we can slowly expand our critical lens. It’s easy to see when Frank Miller writes women like sexy lamps, but it’s much harder to think about your own writing, and where you have blind spots. Did you just write a woman who has no thoughts or desires outside of the male main character? Are you basing your characters on media stereotypes of their demographics? Did you write a silent black superman wrapped in a Confederate flag?

We live in our own heads, and it’s hard to get outside of them sometimes. Showing your work to a wide variety of people and listening humbly and honestly to criticism is one way to expand your brain-horizons. Working with creators other than yourself, including those outside of your demographic, is another. You can also consider if you’re writing for an audience of people just like you (the men looking at Vicky Vale’s ass; the white folks who want to be soothed about racism), or if you’re writing for a diverse audience.

Spot the Literature

I think my favorite types of literature are those not easily categorized.

I was at Powell’s in Portland recently, which is an overwhelming experience to begin with: it is called “City of Books” for a reason. I asked one of the many information stations where I might find fairy tales. “For adults or for kids?” the employee asked me. I wasn’t sure how to respond to that. Of course fairy tales are for adults and for kids. “Yes,” I said. “Both.” I didn’t end up visiting the kids’ section because I got far enough over my pre-appointed book limit that I knew I had to cut and run. (Powell’s is dangerous.) But in the section I checked out, the “mythology and folklore” section, I found a lot of great stuff. I picked up a copy of The Turnip Princess, that collection of German tales that was discovered a few years ago; a copy of Elijah’s Violin, one of Howard Schwartz’s excellent collections of Jewish tales, and a copy of Marina Warner’s Stranger Magic, a history of The Arabian Nights.

 

The books I got at Powells. Also some sai. What? Raphael likes to read, too.

The books I got at Powells. Also some sai. Um, because Raphael likes to read, too.

I’d found some relevant things in the Classics section–classical European, Indian, and Japanese texts were there. I picked up a collection of tales about the Emperor Vikramaditya, Some of them, to my mind, fall clearly into the Fairy Tale category: Reynard the Fox, for example. Other things like the Divine Comedy and The Tale of Genji, are not fairy tales but involve mythic and imaginary imagery such as spirit possession, ghosts, the afterlife, and the Devil. So are these fantasy? Are they horror? Can we paint a novel from 1600s Japan and an epic poem from 1300s Italy with the same broad strokes as we do the rest of literature?

A transparent woman stands against vines

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, The Ghost of Genji’s Lover. Woodblock print, 19th century.

One of my favorite games is “spot the genre literature.” Much of what is considered canonical (and we know how I feel about that) involves supernatural, surreal, magical, or uncanny elements that are the hallmarks of popular sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fiction. Kafka. Borges. Marquez. Bulgakov. Shelley. Stoker. And that’s just a smidgeon of the 19th century. In fact, stories about ordinary people are a relatively new invention; myth and tales of larger-than-life heroes have been the foundation of literature for a long time. Tales of Cuchulain, Gilgamesh, Hercules, and Brunhilda were around long before we got Jane Eyre, Leopold Bloom, Captain Ahab, or David Copperfield.

In part I think I defend the supernatural, uncanny, and mythic in literature so hard is because of my devotion to sci fi, fantasy, horror…and comics. Comics is the one form in which I see the strange as being default, and stories set in the “real world” about ordinary people just starting to trickle in. Comics are also something that have an entirely different publishing industry built around them, and are therefore often difficult for bookstores to categorize. I find it amusing to go into a bookstore and ask about comics. I’ve also asked about graphic novels. This was particularly hilarious when I was a teenager in the early 2000s; I had at least one bookstore employee think I was talking about porn.

I’ll admit that I tend to preach the Gospel of Comics According to Scott McCloud, i.e. that “comics” is an umbrella term which covers single-page or single-issue short comics, serialized comics in issues or in bound forms, and graphic novels. I use the term “graphic novel” to refer to a single, self-contained comics story that is published all in one go, such as MAUS, Fun Home, or Black Hole. I write short comics. The longest thing I’ve written is three standard issues long. And yet, here I am with an MFA degree in Graphic Novel (and Fiction).

My most cynical self says that people in academia we refer to “graphic novel” because it sounds more, well, academic than “comics.” Novels are now a thing that we can accept as a legit art form. But the genesis of the novel echoes the genesis of the comic book in terms of popular literature. In his book The Rise of the Novel, scholar Ian Watt discusses the English novel of the 18th century. While books were expensive and literacy was relatively rare, with the advent of industrialization came more leisure time and the beginnings of a middle class with disposable income. Newspapers, chapbooks, and small volumes called duodecimos often printed serialized novels. Most of Charles Dickens’ novels in the 19th century were published serially. Shakespeare’s plays were a popular art form at the time. So I find the 20th/21st century emphasis on Literary Fiction vs Popular Fiction to be a bit of a false dichotomy in the first place.

Am I throwing the baby out with the bathwater here? Clearly, pulp sci-fi novels of the 60s are not the same as Phillip K. Dick novels of the 60s. If these distinctions important, why?

Tell us in the comments, eh?

The Bluebeard Variations No. 1

O May, month of nerdy holidays. I write this on May the Fourth, a.k.a. Star Wars Day. Two days ago, this past Saturday, was two tasty holidays: Independent Bookstore Day and Free Comic Book Day.

In honor of Free Comic Book Day, I drew (yes, me, using a Wacom tablet for the first time) the first in a series of comics that follow the trials and tribulations of that wacky fairy-tale wife murderer, Bluebeard.

Comic: The Bluebeard Variations #1

Poor Bluebeard; he just can’t catch a break. All he wants to do is find personal fulfillment by repeatedly murdering his wives. And yet. In this series, it just never goes right for him.

In part inspired by Blondie, in part inspired by David Ives’ play Variations on the Death of Trotsky, I have thirteen of these comics that I am, at this point, planning on drawing my damn self. Realizing how long it takes to draw stuff is a healthy exercise that every writer of comics should undergo at least once. 🙂

Anne’s Awesome, Synchronous, No-Rest, Very-Intense Two Weeks

For the last two weeks, I’ve been working pretty dang hard, y’all.

I attended AWP in Minneapolis and tabled with Minor Arcana Press, as mentioned last post.

What does that look like?

Interior of the Minneapolis Convention Center main hall.

The Thunderdome, apparently.
Photo credit: Laura Lucas

So our table was in the waay back of the hall. But still attractive and exciting!

Photo of a woman (Laura) sitting at the con table at AWP.

We survived on coffee and manic cheer.

“We” was me and the fiction writer/poet/all-round lovely human being Laura Lucas (above), who helped me table and kept me sane through the three days of 14,000 people circulating about the hall.

And then I flew home. On the flight I sat next to a woman who was a friend by the end of the flight: a writer on Whidbey Island. We processed our convention experiences, what we were working on, what it’s like to write both in and out of community. I think our three-hour conversation wins at Top Plane Conversations Ever. There’s something really beautiful about the liminal space of being on an airplane. This was a conversation that perhaps could not have reached such depth without the lovely in-between-ness of being suspended in a metal tube miles above earth for three hours.

This month has been synchronicity central. I was a Bad Pagan and ditched my Ostara (Spring Equinox) ritual, but dang if the Pagan Themes of Spring aren’t whacking me upside the head every other day. Those themes, for the record, include embodiment/germination/hatching of dreams…realizing that you have been occupying too small a space and getting out of your shell. Growth. Wing-stretching.

And nothing has helped me with that more than the Artist’s Trust EDGE program. Holy Business Boot Camp, Batman! For those of you unfamiliar with Artist’s Trust, they are a statewide Washington program that does many things including grants to individual artists of all stripes and professional development, like the EDGE program. The EDGE program is sometimes an intensive residency (one week with class 9-5 most days) and sometimes done as weekly workshops on the weekend or the evenings. My understanding is that next year’s visual artist EDGE program is going to be run both ways.

Alexander's Castle and madrona tree in field, Fort Worden State Park

Fort Worden is out by Port Townsend. It’s a State Park, a historical site, and a conference center. It’s real pretty, y’all.

I spent the week in the beautiful Fort Worden, chilling in a cabin, hanging out on the beach, and learning giant piles of information about topics like professional presentation, business plans, IP law and copyright issues, marketing, and more. This is the part of writing life that I think most MFA programs (particularly, bless their hearts, the low-res ones) fail to cover. So a fairly vital part of what was missing in my life as a writer has been filled in. Now to implement it all…

Incidentally, it was Laura is the one who originally encouraged me to do the EDGE program. See? Synchonicity abounds.

***

Next week: Less about me? More about writing? I might just rant about spreadsheets forever? Only the future knows.

 

 

The Problem of Authors

Dilbert cartoon "It says the opposite of that. I know because I wrote it this morning."As someone who writes, I am well aware of the need for an author to have a public persona. What I put out on this blog, on social media, at local readings and events–this defines me as a writer as much as what I publish.

As a reader, I am aware that I care about who the people are behind the words and stories. I won’t buy new Orson Scott Card books, and find myself much more critical of his work, because of his rampant homophobia and ties to the National Organization for Marriage, i.e. a hate group dedicated to making same-sex marriage illegal. (AIthough apparently he resigned from the board after getting professional fallout.) I am disturbed by news that Marion Zimmer Bradley was a child molester, and that makes me read the sexual excess of The Mists of Avalon in a different light. It’s awful. When news like this comes to light, I feel betrayed: how could someone whose work I admire be so horrible? (Perhaps I wonder what that says about me, that I liked a thing made by an awful person.)

Not every case is so dramatic. I still like Ryan Boundinot’s novel Blueprints of the Afterlife, even though Boudinot recently wrote a mean-spirited article that perpetuates some of the more inane myths about writing. It’s been commented on a lot, and I don’t feel the need to go on and on about it. I know I’ll think twice before buying a new Ryan Boudinot book, but I probably still will because I like his fiction. Nontheless, the ripples within the Seattle writing community are affecting him already: his board resigned for the project he started, which was getting Seattle recognized as a UNESCO City of Literature. Now that project is on hold.

On the flip side of the coin, I love it when authors (and other creators) do awesome stuff. Comics authors like Gail Simone and Kelly Sue Deconnick are vocal champions of women working in comics and diverse representation in comics. Jordie Bellaire (a colorist) spearheaded the Comics Are For Everybody campaign, which is about diverse fandom in comics. The late, great Terry Pratchett publicly championed his favorite causes, including preservation of orangutangs and research into curing Alzheimer’s. I have become interested in the works of authors like Saladin Ahmed because of their Twitter presences. I like authors who are interested in issues that I also care about.

But let me complicate the issue: many revered authors of the centuries were terrible people. Heck, my perennial favorite Dante Alighieri was a political panderer (putting his patrons in Paradiso and his enemies in Inferno) and a creeper towards Beatrice in his actual life. But it’s illogical and unfair of me to put modern morals on older writing or writers. I can’t expect Shakespeare to have the nuanced feminism of a modern writer. I can’t expect medieval writers to have any kind of a concept of homosexuality as an identity rather than a behavior. The context of history matters, and analyzing an author’s life is significant, but only one part of what to look at when it comes to their work.

Coming from a literary theory perspective, there are two things at play here: biography, and authorial intent. Looking at the biographical information of an author is one way to look at their work, but it’s limiting if that’s all you do. When an author writes something, that work exists outside of them, released into the world. How it fit into their life and what they intended to do with it are worth considering, but not the be-all and end-all of literary criticism. Because words are slippery creatures, there are layers of meaning in any “text” (words, images, film) that the authors may or may not have intended. And the thing is, it doesn’t really matter what the author meant, not on the reader end of things. One could argue that a measure of craft skill is how closely the author has transmitted their thoughts and feelings to the reader. But many, many schools of critical thought have moved past authorial intent as a particularly significant aspect of a work.

Venn diagram between "what the author meant" and "what your english teacher thinks the author meant."

Is one of these more valid than the other?

So what of it? What authors meant to do in a work, what they do with their lives: these both affect and don’t affect my reading of the text. My relationship as a reader to the author is not the same as my relationship as a reader to the text. I think it’s easier to separate the author from the work with time. In the now, real political forces are really affecting my personal writing career as well as the lives of writers and people around me. The political is often intertwined with the personal. I want to help writing communities I’m a part of become more just and equitable. I also don’t want to cause more harm than I fix, becoming quick to cry j’accuse and exclude anyone I don’t perceive to fit with my values, perpetuating Call-Out Culture. At the same time, some things that happen in the author communities I’m at least peripherally involved with are truly awful, and I won’t suffer that silently. So how an I affect positive change as an author? How can I deal with the barriers that are put in front of me? How can I reconcile authors and their texts?

I don’t write all this to give you The Answer to anything. I write this to ask questions, and to delve into the stickiness that comes up in my head when I think about this stuff. What do you think? Let’s chat.

Writing Outside Your Demographic: Resources

So what am I doing in this “writing outside your demographic” series? I realize that by “outside your demographic” I secretly mean “a demographic more socially marginalized than you.” So what’s my intention?

  1. I want authors to think about issues of representation, demographics, and Othering in the work that they read and write. This includes both critical engagement with what you’re reading/watching and critical engagement with your own work.
  2. In this series, I’m mostly focusing on writers of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction that has an element of world building. I think many of the topics covered are relevant for wider reasons, but if I’m being self-aware of my own secret agendas, that’s it.

However, here are things that I am not trying to do:

  1. Keep my focus solely on works written by or written about white folks, straight folks, male folks, able-bodied folks, etc.
  2. Neglect critical voices and theory by traditionally marginalized populations.
  3. Reduce creative works down to their creators or the creative intent behind them.

***

So with that in mind, I want to start featuring some resources that may help writers illuminate how demographics, power, and privilege function in literature.

A Book to Read

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination

by Toni Morrison

Cover to Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark This is a collection of three essays of Morrison’s that look at how race plays out in “canonical” U.S. literature written by white folks. It’s short, important, and revelatory. It was written in 1992, and I am sad that I didn’t discover it until this year, because it gets to the essence of some very important stuff.

[…] I have been thinking about the validity or vulnerability of a certain set of assumptions […] circulated as “knowledge.” This knowledge hold that traditional, canonical American literature is free of, uninformed, and unshaped by the four-hundred-year-old presence of, first, Africans and then African-Americans in the United States.

[…]

The contemplation of this black presence is central to any understanding of our national literature and should not be permitted to hover at the margins of the literary imagination.”

(from her essay “Black Matters”)

Morrison’s arguments are profound and subtle. She engages with race in American literature in a way that incorporates, yet is more than, literary theory. She looks at works by Poe, O’Connor, Melville, Hemingway, and more.

Morrison introduces the term “American Africanism”, which is a shorthand for “the denotative and connotative blackness that African peoples have come to signify [in the U.S.] as well as the entire range of views, assumptions, reading, and misreading that accompany Eurocentric learning about these people.” (also from “Black Matters”)

It’s only about a hundred pages long, and completely worth your time. Go forth and read it.

 

A Website to Explore

Racialicious

This site features essays by many authors on pop culture and race.

Here’s a sample:

The Hope of Just Representation in Entertainment by refresh_daemon

 

A Video to Watch

Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”

Avoiding Othering: They’re Doing It Right

Last week I talked about Othering, as in setting a demographic not your own as a Weird/Exotic “THEM” in contrast to your (and your assumed reader’s) “us.”

Thankfully, there are so many great examples of works that avoid Othering! Here are just a few:

Fiction: Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Cover of Gaiman's Anansi BoysWhat is it?

Gaiman’s 2005 novel follows Fat Charlie, one of two sons of a mysterious man who it turns out is literally the West African trickster god Anansi. Anansi/Mr. Nancy showed up briefly in Gaiman’s previous novel, American Gods. In Anansi Boys, Fat Charlie and his brother Spider have to sort out quite a lot of trouble following their father’s death. The action of the story bounces between London and Florida.

How does it avoid Othering?

Put it this way: a friend of mine, when reading this book, commented that about halfway through she realized to her delight that all the characters were black. There are actually two white characters, a side character and a villain. So on the one hand, Gaiman’s flipping the script on the usual racial demographic in your standard Tokeninzing, Othering text. On the other hand, Gaiman mostly doesn’t make a big, obvious deal about the race of the characters. There are enough context clues to figure out what all of the characters look like, but more so than that, the cultural context of the characters is really important to the plot.

Film: The Legend of Korra, created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Koniestzko

Pictured:  Korra displays earth, water and firebending in THE LEGEND OF KORRA on Nickelodeon.  Photo: Nickelodeon.  ©2012 Viacom, International, Inc.  All Rights Reserved

She is the chosen one who can bend all the elements.

What is it?

This is an animated TV show set in the same world as Avatar: The Last Airbender. It was intended as a sequel, following the chosen-one-style heroine Korra on her adventures across the four elemental nations of the world.

How does it avoid Othering?

Both Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra are set in a fantasy world that is loosely based on myths and legends of East Asia. They have a four-part magical martial arts system that is based in an exciting variety of real-world martial arts (mostly Chinese), with each element (fire, water, earth, air) having its own style and magical powers. The characters are a variety of shades, but look mostly asian…unlike the film, which got a lot of flak for being whitewashed. Korra has medium-brown skin and dark brown hair.

The Legend of Korra also recently received media attention because of its ending, a suggested coupling of Korra and her female friend, Asami. Those who liked this move liked it because it validated “in canon” a suspected relationship and a fan favorite couple. Those who did not criticized it because there were not enough moments or  passionate intimacy or sexual tension between the two women in the rest of the show, and then ending felt tacked-on. (I mean, I’m sure some criticized it because they couldn’t conceive of a same-sex relationship and/or reality, but we’re ignoring them.)

 

Comics: Bitch Planet, written by Kelly Sue DeConnick

Cover of Bitch Planet #1

Every time I read an issue I get the urge to tattoo “NON-COMPLIANT” on my forehead.

What is it?

This comic is one part feminist fable, one part deconstruction of the women-in-prison genre of film, and one part bad-ass dystopian action tale. It’s set in a world where women can be imprisoned for any behavior deemed “non-compliant,” from murder to disobedience to obesity. They are then shipped off to a prison planet (known colloquially as “Bitch Planet”) to deal with an ever-shifting Pepito-bismol pink holographic warden and other lurking dangers. You can read me freaking out about how great it is at some length over at Girlslikecomics.com.

How does it avoid Othering?

Not only are there a lot of women of color in this prison story, but both in the comic and in each issue’s back-matter, DeConnick and team directly deal with race relations and how unfair the prison system is in this world as well as the world of Bitch Planet.

Also, I can’t say too much without spoilers, but let me just say that the protagonist of Bitch Planet is refreshing and revealed over the course of the first issue.

DeConnick also works with an awesome, diverse creative team, both in terms of the art (stunning work by Valentine DeLandro) & design and in terms of the series of rad feminists who write essays in the back of every issue.

Bonus Fiction: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin

Cover for A Wizard of Earthsea featuring an island castle and a dragon

It’s hard to find pictures of the cover that features Ged as he’s described in the book. Perhaps marketers decided dragons were easier to deal with than people of color.

What is it?

LeGuin’s classic 1968 fantasy novel, A Wizard of Earthsea, won both the Nebula and Hugo Awards. It’s set in a fantasy world that is comprised of a bunch of different nations on different islands of an archipelago. With a unique magic system and a excitingly non-“interminable Celtic bullshit” mythology, Earthsea arguably did the first interesting new thing with the fantasy genre since Tolkien.

How does it avoid Othering?

The main character, Ged, is described as having red-brown skin; in fact, nearly every character is described as non-white. Of course, this didn’t prevent the characters from being horribly white-washed on book covers and film. Ursula LeGuin has some harsh words for the producers of the 2004 Earthsea mini-series:

I realized the producers had no understanding of what the books are about and no interest in finding out. All they intended was to use the name Earthsea, and some of the scenes from the books, in a generic McMagic movie with a meaningless plot based on sex and violence.

She also speaks about her process in building the world of Earthsea:

My color scheme was conscious and deliberate from the start. I didn’t see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn’t see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had “violet eyes”). It didn’t even make sense. Whites are a minority on Earth now—why wouldn’t they still be either a minority, or just swallowed up in the larger colored gene pool, in the future?

The fantasy tradition I was writing in came from Northern Europe, which is why it was about white people. I’m white, but not European. My people could be any color I liked, and I like red and brown and black. I was a little wily about my color scheme. I figured some white kids (the books were published for “young adults”) might not identify straight off with a brown kid, so I kind of eased the information about skin color in by degrees—hoping that the reader would get “into Ged’s skin” and only then discover it wasn’t a white one.

 

Other examples? Thoughts? Tell us in the comments, eh?

 

Writing Outside Your Demographic: Let’s Talk About Othering

Writing Outside Your Demographic

Things to Avoid: Othering

Picture of otter with text "The power to put otters into discourse while remaining unspoken is a particularly effective form of power

This is ironic because I am talking about writing about people outside of your demographic. Am I full of crap? Maybe.
(quote from John Fiske; pic from Discourse on the Otter)

What is Othering?

Othering is a subtle concept that applies to a lot of stuff. It is related to, but not the same as, the literary theory concept of The Other as an opposite of The Self.  A basic breakdown of othering is this: A person breaks down people into two basic categories in their brain, People Like Me and People Not Like Me. When this is applied on a larger scale world-view level (Not Like Us), this becomes othering.

Othering is not just declaring you are not like me, it’s a you are not like me with an implied and I am better or more normal than you. That I am US and you are THEM.

Examples:

Othering is a game of assumptions, stereotypes, and microaggressions.

I’m thinking of a time when a I was playing a draft-style Magic: The Gathering tournament. (MtG is a card game produced by Wizards of the Coast, who also make Dungeons & Dragons, i.e. solid geek territory.) This was a fairly casual event in a game store. Folks would hang out and chat between rounds. A man I hadn’t played and didn’t know remarked to me, “Your boyfriend must have taught you a lot about Magic.” Now, Mike and I were both playing the tournament, and were clearly there together, although we’re not big on PDA. This man’s assumptions ran deep. He assumed: 1. Because I was female and there with a specific guy, we were dating. 2. Because I was female, I had been introduced to Magic by my male partner. Underlying this was the otheringest assumption of all: 3. Because I was female, I couldn’t have had the same kind of introduction to Magic that this dude had; I was essentially different than him. Of course he backpedaled pretty hard when I gave him a withering look and said, “Dude. I’ve been playing since I was twelve.” He got all sheepish, of course, and spouted some bullshit about how he knows lots of women who are in traditionally masculine jobs. Because that’s relevant to how I learned to play Magic. OTHER ME HARDER, BRO.

Otter with quote: "Who is allowed to make representatives of this Otter and who has the authority to enforce these representations?

Quote by Jennifer Gonzalez, pic from Discourse on the Otter

Othering is a big deal. People are thinking about it in regards to multiple disciples: medicine, law, politics. In April 2015, there’s a large-scale conference and UC Berkeley about Othering and Belonging.

[Othering] is a process in which we marginalize people; we don’t recognize their full humanity. We make them feel invisible…noticed but not seen.

-John A. Powell, Director, Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley

 

 How does Othering show up in literature?

Othering shows up in books and films when the implied narrator or the camera treats a particular type of people as outsiders, abnormal, stereotypical…in other words, as THEM.

Examples

  • In The Tempest, Caliban is the Other to Prospero and Miranda. This is shown not only because he is very different than them, but also that he is specifically gross, dark, and undesirable. (Contrast him to Ariel, who is a magical being, but not set up as Other.)
  • Othering often comes up as gross stereotypes based on a sense of exoticism, such as “Indian” culture in the film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
  • In the March/April 2015 Writer’s Chronicle, Krista Humphrey discusses LGBTQ protagonists in mainstream literature. She points out that pre-Stonewall Riots, LGBTQ protagonists were often written as fundamentally unhappy as a result of their orientation. She cites Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar as an example, which ends with one man raping another after he is romantically rejected. This, Humphrey suggests, “echoed the current societal opinions of homosexuality of the time, that homosexuals were second-class, depraved, and in many ways sub-human.”
  • Early English translations of The Arabian Nights fell into some bizarre flavors of othering and exoticism. Modern translator Hussein Haddawy says, “From Galland to Burton, translators, scholars, and reader shared the belief that the Nights depicted a true picture of Arab life and culture at the time of the tales and, for some strange reason, at their own time. Time and again, Galland, Lane, or Burton claimed that theses tales were much more accurate than any travel account and took pains to translate them as such.” (from the introduction to Haddawy’s The Arabian Nights translation which is gorgeous go buy it)
Otter with text: "The Internet facilitates identity tourism, creating a new form of digital play and idealogical work that helped define an empowered and central self against an exotic and distant Otter."

Quote from Lisa Nakamura, pic from Discourse on the Otter

But wait, you cry. Sometimes othering is important! Sometimes characters are bigoted, and that’s important! Sometimes the story is all about one group meeting another that is Other to them. Yes. Those things are important. And yet you, the author, should be aware of how Othering is functioning in your work. Are your characters othering each other, or are you othering them?

I think understanding Othering helps me break down when characters in a work are being bigoted versus when the author of a work (or the implied narrator, or the implied world) is being bigoted.

To contradict myself a little bit here, let’s look at Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. In the novel, the aliens are intentionally Othered really hard up until the end, when Ender is able to connect with them and see their full, well, beingness if not “humanity.” This is a clever, good use of Othering in a novel. Aliens are a great way to talk about Othering in the genre of science fiction. Ender’s Game is a bit ironic as an example, of course, because the author is a notorious bigot who actively campaigns to deny LGBTQ folks equal rights. Awkward.

How to Avoid Othering Your Own Characters

Are you assuming that your reader or audience is a particular kind of person?

Have you fallen into stereotype? Are your characters fleshed out with an appropriate details that make them whole people? This also counts in terms of background characters: of course walk-ons don’t need to be three-dimensional characters with a back-story or anything, but neither should they be lazy shorthand stereotypes.

Are characters outside of your demographic set up as Others? If they are, is that something you wanted to do on purpose? Ask yourself: are you doing anything interesting with that? If this is an US & THEM situation, and the US is like you, and you and your protagonist are say both white heterosexual cisgendered males…well, does your character learn anything about encountering Others? Can you mirror your own growth, if learning how to not Other people is something you’ve learned to do?

Otter pic with text: "The ethical ideal is to increase one's ability to enter into modes of relation with multiple otters."

Quote by Rosi Braidotti, pic from Discourse on the Otter

What have y’all got? Ideas? Experiences of being Othered? Experiences of Othering someone else? Better examples of Othering at work in literature? Put ’em in the comments.

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