Snow Blindness: A Follow-Up To Nicola Griffith’s Analysis of Book Award Demographics

I think I’ve mentioned it here before, but by training I’m a statistician. I don’t live off my writing, and in my day job, I work as an analyst for a large urban school district crunching numbers. Back in grad school, I taught stats to undergrads who would really rather be anywhere else, bu I like stats. Always have. So I read Nicola Griffith’s post “Books About Women Don’t Win Big Awards: Some Data” with great interest. The first thing I thought of when I read is was I bet this replicates with other marginalized identities. I bet it’s not just gender; I bet it’s race and sexuality and class and everything else, too.

I had some time this weekend. Not much, but enough to do a little digging. I did what she did–mostly–but for race. I looked at four out of the the six prizes she looked at* for the same time span she looked at (2000-2015) and coded whether the author was White or a Person of Color. I dug up what I could on the book in question to try and figure out, if I hadn’t read it (and I hadn’t read most of them), if the protagonist(s) was White or a Person of Color**. And then I crunched some numbers. Here’s what I found:

  • Lit awards are exactly what you would guess: blindingly White, White as the purest arctic snow. Generally, over 80% of Pulitzer, Man Booker, National Book Award or NBCC prizes went to White writers.
    • Also, unsurprisingly, intersectionality matters. When you look at both race and gender, that arctic snow is full of dicks. Big, pasty dicks. Women of color and men of color made up 9% of the award winners apiece. White men were five times more likely to win an award than people of color. White women were three times more likely to win an award than people of color.
  • Griffith found that even when women writers do manage to win a prestigious award, they tend to do so when they’ve writer about men. Race in writing seems to be of a more peculiar character:
    • Writers of Color, the ones who won these awards at least, wrote exclusively about People of Color. Who knows; maybe they were bored of the absolute blinding whiteness of the narratives they see day in and day out and felt no compunction to contribute to that.
    • White writers mostly wrote about other white people, but a few broke the mold and wrote about People of Color and were awarded (probably by a panel of White people) for it.

That’s the high-level TL;DR summary, there. I’m going to roll up my sleeves now and dig into the data now. Stick around if you’d like! To start, here are the four awards I looked at:

POC=People of Color WP=White people

POC=People of Color
WP=White people

You can see that the trends are remarkably consistent across the awards. The NBCC is the only one coming close to bucking that trend–NBCC was more likely to give the award to POC authors and to books featuring POC protagonists written by White authors. The Man Booker Prize, on the other hand, was the most blindingly White of the bunch. This mirrors quite closely what Griffith found with regard to gender: Man Booker had the highest number of awards given to men who wrote about men, and NBCC gave a relatively wider spread of awards to men and women writing about men and women.

pie1

The pie chart above collapses all the awards I surveyed across the award giving body to get an aggregate sense of race trends. There are two main points of interest here: first, that over 80% of awards for the last 15 years of these four major awards have gone to White writers. 80%–FOUR FIFTHS.

The second point of interest is that the flexibility of writing gender that Griffith found–men writing women, women writing men–isn’t present to the same extent here. Some White people are writing People of Color, but People of Color are interested in writing their own narratives, not adding to the already bloated collection of White narratives. And yet, the preponderance of awards are still going to White narratives written by White people–or narratives of color written by White people.

note that the women author's pie graph is smaller. That's on purpose: men (regardless of race) won 60% of the awards in the time span looked at.

note that the women author’s pie graph is smaller. That’s on purpose: men (regardless of race) won 60% of the awards in the time span looked at.

For my final trick, I overlayed Griffith’s analysis and my own. I coded my set of data for both race and gender of both the author and the book’s protagonist to see how the two pieces of demographic data interacted (because, you know, intersectionality matters).

The graphs above split out the combination of the author’s race and gender and their book’s protagonists’s race and gender. The graph on the left shows the proportions for the men winners (60% of the dataset). The graph on the right shows the proportions for the women winners (40% of the dataset). What the above data tells me is that White men write about anything and everything and get awards for it. Mostly they write about other White men, yes, but they are the ones crossing gender and race lines most in their writing and get awarded for it.

I would have liked to do more. I wanted to add sexuality into the mix, but it was very hard to determine author’s LGBTQ status with just a cursory internet search. Only two of the winning books, Middlesex and The Line of Beauty, were book that I knew dealt with LGBTQ themes. I would expect similar patterns to emerge should that data become available, though.

*Griffith also looked at the Hugo Award and the Newberry Medal. I excluded these from my analysis due to time constraints which is a fancy way of saying ‘then I had to give my kid a bath.’

**There were some cases, like The Road, where movie adaptations of an arguably non-race-identified protagonist was cast as White, which I then used as essentially canon evidence of Whiteness.

Why A Woman Writing As a Man is Different Than A Man Writing As A Woman

A few weeks ago, Writer’s Digest published an article by James Ziskin titled “Writing Across Gender: How I Learned to Write From a Female POV”. I let this article simmer in my saved folder in Feedly for awhile. I knew I wanted to read it, but I also knew I would Have Words To Say after I’d read it, and I wanted to be in the right headspace to clearly articulate said Words.

James Ziskin has written a novel which features a young woman as its protagonist. “I write like a girl,” he says. “More precisely, I write as a girl.” I have not read Styx and Stone, so I can’t say one way or another if he succeeded in my eyes.

What I can say pretty definitively is that I have a huge amount of skepticism that he truly succeeded. The thing is that it is inherently harder for a man to successfully and authentically write a woman character than for a woman to write a man. This is a product of living in a socially stratified and hierarchical society. My background and training is as a psychological researcher, and much of my research focus on the exploration of power dynamics. There’s a robust finding in social psychology that social status and interpersonal attention are inversely related; that is, the higher up you are on the totem pole, the less you pay attention to other people. Especially those people lower than you on the totem pole.

12032013_statusattentiongraphic

Susan Fiske (1993) looked at this specifically in work contexts: an employee pays a whole lot of attention to their manager, but their manager typically pays little attention to them. We’ve all been there, right? You know how your boss takes their coffee, what it means when they get fidgety. You can predict how that meeting will go simply by the way they walk over to your cubicle. But your manager probably knows little about you—they don’t even know if you drink coffee, period, much less how you take it.

This finding has been extended to look at how the use of social power changes the way people attend to others and whether those using power can take people’s perspective. Guess what? The use of power tends to turn people away from thinking about how those around them feel, or how their actions might affect others (Galinsky et al., 2006).

What does all this have to do with Ziskin’s article? Well, the thing is that power is not only used in the workplace. Power is ubiquitous and nebulous. It’s a chameleon that manifests differently in the various domains in which we live—we experience, submit to and use power in our personal lives, with strangers, in schools, etc. It’s no stretch to map these findings onto society writ large; if we think of social status as markers of privileged identities, then the reasons why I am so skeptical of Ziskin start to get clearer.

I am a Female Assigned At Birth genderqueer person, which means that I was born what the medical establishment considered female and was raised as a girl. I am read by virtually everyone I meet as a woman; I am not physically androgynous though my gender presentation is all over the map. I have an authentic, if atypical, insight into what it is to be a woman in modern American society. I will posit that Ziskin does not.

12032013_attentionlines

A really big part of being a woman is learning to pay lots and lots of attention to the men around you. You learn that very early on—men are more likely than you to have wealth and opportunities and as such are usually the gatekeepers to you yourself getting access to those opportunities. Men are potentially dangerous (if you have not already, please read Schrodinger’s Rapist ). As a woman you have to learn to read men’s moods and be able to predict their actions with a fairly high level of accuracy. It’s not all that different than an underling knowing what kind of coffee their boss likes—in each case, noticing all the little things that can predict the bigger actions is important. Knowing how someone who has power over you is going to use that power is a necessary skill. It can, quite literally, be a matter of survival.

I should say here that I think this framing of social dynamics is an inherent part of the tension between marginalization and privilege. It is, in fact, a mechanism that helps to create and reproduce marginalization and privilege. What I mean to say that I think this dynamic where the marginalized has to know and understand the privileged better than the privileged ever know the marginalized is a common element of oppression. We have a lot of different ways of coding this: code-switching, being stealth, staying in the closet are all examples of marginalized people learning the way the privileged act and mimicking that in order to stay afloat.

But what does this mean for writers? It means that no one writes in a vacuum. It means that all of this happens through socialization and internalization of norms and perceptions that don’t disappear just because you’ve decided to tell a story. It means that no one writes from a place of objectivity; nor should they. It means when Ziskin sits down to write as Ellie Stone he does so having lived as a man in a society that privileges men over women. In essence, he is writing right into his own blind spots. Now, again, I haven’t read his book. But in the article he’s penned, he describes his heroine this way:

Ellie Stone is a self-described “modern girl” in 1960′s New York. In the days before feminism, she plays like a man, but make no mistake: she’s all woman. A Barnard graduate from a cultured family, she’s determined to have a career that doesn’t involve fetching coffee for a boss who pats her rear end when she’s done a good job. Or even when she hasn’t. She’s a realist, though, aware that a woman can go only so far in a man’s world, so she accepts a lowly position as a fledgling reporter for a small upstate daily. Her beat includes Knights of Columbus Ladies’ Auxiliary meetings and high school basketball games. But Ellie’s the smartest person in the room, a quick wit, and one of the fellas when it comes to holding her drink. She’d better be able to hold her drink, or be prepared to defend her honor.

If this is at all indicative of how Ziskin writes Ellie Stone in his novel than I would wager that he is not successful in his endeavor to “write as a girl.” This reads as a what a man thinks a woman thinks like. Over and over in this short block of text he asserts patriarchal dominance. He falls into the trap of going out of his way to assert her as beautiful. He mentions in an off-handed way that she deals with sexual harassment and possible sexual assault but the deep-bred visceral fear these interactions bring up in most of us who live as or are read as women is missing. I am also curious as to what he means by “she plays like a man…[but] she’s all woman.” The only way I can understand this is through gendered binaries of what women do and what women are like imposed by men—which are sometimes accurate due to patriarchal restrictions but often are just plain wrong. In short, Ellie Stone may very well end up a cipher; a set-back-then-when-men-were-men-and-women-were-women version of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl .

This isn’t entirely Ziskin’s fault, though I do think it’s an act of eyebrow-raising hubris that he feels so very comfortable writing women that he has proclaimed himself a master at it in a widely-read high-profile blog. The thing is that Ziskin can’t write Ellie Stone authentically because he literally does not know what would make her authentic. He hasn’t lived it. He doesn’t understand male privilege enough to know when to check himself in the writing and when to reassess his own writerly instincts.

I did some thinking after reading Ziskin’s article. I can name, easily, a number of women writers who I think have successfully captured a male voice—Ursula K. Le Guin comes immediately to mind, as does Susannah Clarke. Agatha Christie. J.K. Rowling. Margaret Atwood. Virginia Woolf. Flannery O’Connor. It is much harder for me to think of the reverse. Phillip Pullman does, for the most part, an excellent job with Sally Lockhart. I recently reread Mieville’s Embassytown, and I’m again impressed by his female lead. And that’s all I could think of on my own. I fielded the question to some of my women friends who are voracious readers, and I got Sally Lockhart again and Lyra from His Dark Materials. So, well done, Philip Pullman! Another suggested the lead in John C. Wright’s Orphans of Chaos, which I have not read, but which she says can still be read as problematic. A friend also cited Hopeful Monsters which I have not read and she says is pretty obscure. And that’s all we got. Five of us wracking our brains—brains that hold massive libraries—and that’s all we got. My point is not that it can’t be done, but that for a person with privilege to write a person marginalized along that same axis is extremely difficult. Mr. Pullman might as well be a unicorn.

And I don’t mean to vilify Ziskin. I am, I will admit, irked at the arrogance it takes to declare yourself successful at this, but, again, this isn’t really about him. It’s about how we don’t write anything in a vacuum and how every single word we write and choice we make as writers is informed by the lives we have led. A couple of months ago I had this wonderful idea for a book—the kind of idea that makes you feel high when it comes to you, truly inspired. The kind of idea that comes to you so perfectly and fully formed that it feels like you could write the whole damn novel in one go and you search desperately for the closest keyboard. I was about to launch in on it…

…and I stopped. Because the lead character was a black woman living in Baltimore just after the Civil War. And I just…I had to take a deep breath and put the idea on hold because I cannot speak to that character’s experience authentically. I can’t. I have some understanding of some of the issues facing the Black community in an intellectualized and abstracted academic way but I am in no way a part of that world. I am a well-meaning White person, and I had to check myself because the world does not need another well-meaning White person writing about the Black experience like they know anything about it. If I ever do write that book, it will be after a dissertation’s worth of research and even then it might never see the light of day. I have written about racial oppression before, but only in secondary fantasy contexts where the oppression doesn’t reflect the real histories of people whose voices are already silenced. And even then I get pangs of worry that I’ve overstepped my bounds, that I’ve been disrespectful and appropriative in presuming to know how that might feel to live through.

I guess to wrap up I would say this: not only is it inherently difficult to write about a person who is marginalized by privileges you hold, but I don’t think it’s appropriate, either. We have plenty of male writers writing women’s stories; we could use more women writing women’s stories. We have plenty of White people (like me) writing Black people’s stories; we would do better to shut up and hand the mic over to Black people, to step aside and let them tell their stories instead.

I don’t believe Ziskin can write as a girl. I don’t believe he should.

Cited:
Fiske, S. (1993). Controlling other people: The impact of power on stereotyping, American Psychologist, 48, 621-628.

Galinsky, A., Magee, J., Insei, M., & Gruenfeld, D. (2006). Power and perspectives not taken. Psychological Science, 17, 1068-1074.

NEW SHORT STORY FOR BETA READERS: Proof

Proof_wordle

Hey y’all! I just finished another short story. The description and info are below; I welcome any and everyone to read it!

When a friend turns up dead, Shandolin suspects her lover, an elvish assassin named Rivna, may be the reason why. Shandolin marshals all her skills to prove Rivna is the killer, while Rivna does all she can to convince Shandolin she’s innocent.

PROOF is a completed short story 5,650 words in length set in the world of Aerdh. PROOF is a glimpse into the chaotic political and personal lives of two strong-willed sharp-tongued young women that will leave you wanting more.

Interested? Let me know!

Writing Snippet: Shandolin

snippet_shandolin_4252013

This is from a brand new story I’m writing!

I don’t think I’ve mentioned it here, but I set a goal for myself that I would finish one piece of fiction every month for the next year. I like finishing things! I am on track to reach that goal — I finished “Crossing the Bridge” in January, Assassins in February, and “Blue Flowers” in March. But I’ve spent all of April mired in the black hole that is rewriting The Long Road.

Now, that’s not a bad thing, but I needed a little variety. My fingers get itchy when they’re not writing narrative pieces after awhile. And I’ve had an idea bouncing around in my head: a set of detective stories featuring two elvish women in an on-again-off-again relationship. One is an assassin. And the other, Shandolin, is a political firebrand.

This story’s about two-thirds of the way through, so stay tuned because I’ll be needing beta readers for it by May 1st!

Website update: Published Articles List

Hey all! While I have not formally published fiction yet, I do have a number of scholarly and nonfiction pieces floating around. I’ve compiled a list for any and all who are interested, which will be updated as things come out here. Below is the list of my work to date:

Sanders, B. “Pregnancy and Parenting While Genderqueer.” Hoax 7: Feminisms and Change. 2013. http://www.zinewiki.com/Hoax_Zine

Sanders, M. R. & Mahalingam, R. (2012). Under the radar: The role of invisible discourse in understanding class-based privilege. Journal of Social Issues, 68 (1), 112-217.

Sanders, M. R., & Mahalingam, R. (2012). Social dominance orientation and John Henryism at the intersection of race and class. Political Psychology, 33 (4), 553-573. 

Edelstein, R. S., Stanton, S. J., Henderson, M. M., & Sanders, M. R. (2010). Endogenous estradiol levels are associated with attachment avoidance and implicit intimacy motivation. Hormones and Behavior, 57, 230-236.

Sanders, Melissa. “Sexual Harassment in the Workplace.” Justice 20 March 2008. Print. http://rngton.socialistalternative.org/news/article16.php?id=790

Cheng, C., Sanders, M. R., Sanchez-Burks, J., Molina, K., Lee, F., Darling, E., & Zhao, Y. (2008). Reaping the rewards of diversity: The role of identity integration. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2, 1182-1198.

Darling, E., Molina, K., Sanders, M. R., Lee, F., & Zhao, Y. (2008). Belonging and Achieving: The Role of Identity Integration. In M. Maehr, S. Karabenick, & T. Urdan (Eds.)Advances in Motivation and Achievement: Social Psychological Perspective on Motivation and Achievement, Volume 15. Elsevier Press: NY.

Sanders, Melissa. “A Military Mother Speaks Out Against the War — An Interview with Sara Rich.” Justice 23 May 2007. Print. http://www.socialistalternative.org/news/article13.php?id=548

Sanders, Melissa. “The Case of Suzanne Swift — U.S. Female Soldiers Doubly at Risk.” Justice 4 April 2007. Print. http://socialistalternative.org/news/article13.php?id=528

Seid, Jon & Sanders, Melissa. “Washington’s racist plan to divide U.S. & Mexican workers.” Justice 15 Nov 2006. Print. http://www.socialistalternative.org/news/article15.php?id=462

Sanders, Melissa. “Sexism in the Military — What the Army Brochures Wont Tell You.” Justice 1 July 2005. Print. http://www.socialistalternative.org/news/article16.php?id=70

Sanders, Melissa. “Stealing With the Rich to Pay for the War.” Justice 1 March 2005. Print. http://www.socialistalternative.org/news/article13.php?id=131

Sanders, Melissa. “Why I Am a Socialist.” Justice 1 Sept 2004. Print. https://socialistalternative.org/news/article22.php?id=1305

Gallup, John & Sanders, Melissa. “The Myth of American Democracy.” Justice 1 Sept 2004. Print. http://www.socialistalternative.org/news/article10.php?id=1297

#ThankAWriter Project: China Mieville

go read this book right now

go read this book right now

I saw the #ThankAWriter project over on Nathan Bransford’s blog. Writing letters like this to my favorite authors has actually been something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, so I’ve jumped right on the bandwagon. I’ll be double-posting these thank you letters here and on my gomighty blog.

Thank you, China Mieville, for validating my existence.

You don’t know me, and we’ll probably never meet, and you likely won’t even read this, but thank you anyway. I have been a fan of your work for some time, and when I heard you were writing a book referencing Moby Dick I nearly shat myself with excitement. Mieville! Melville! One of my favorite authors riffing on one of my other favorite others!! So, I pre-ordered Railsea and inhaled it as soon as it arrived on my doorstep.

I was expecting to love Railsea, but I wasn’t expecting to connect with it so deeply. I didn’t think aspects of myself I have spent so long grappling with, coming to terms with, would be mirrored so beautifully in this book. I’m genderqueer. I am a parent in a triad. Doc Fremlo’s effortless, almost unremarkable gender variance was a revelation. Fremlo was what I am, but utterly at peace with it in a world where what they were was perfectly acceptable. I can count on one hand the number of genderqueer or agender characters I’ve seen portrayed in books, and none of them have been written with such ease or such simple comfort in their own skins. Fremlo was living the life I want to live. Femlo was deeply resonant and deeply inspiring to me. So, thank you for Doc Fremlo. Thank you a million times.

That would have been enough to shoot Railsea up to the top of my list of most favorite books ever, and then I met the Shroakes, and Caldera and Caldero told me about their family. I have a kid — a wonderful, lively kid that I love more than anything in the world — and my kid has me, and her mom, and her dad. Inside our little family unit everything makes perfect sense, but to the rest of the world we don’t. Which one of us is the nanny? Which of the three of us are her ‘real’ parents? These are the questions we navigate everyday. To read about the configuration of the Shroake family (even after it’s been so irreparably broken) was like meeting Doc Fremlo all over again: an overwhelming sense of validation, and of being understood. So, thank you for the Shroakes, as well.

Again, I know we’ve never met and probably never will. I know I don’t know you. But I am immensely grateful for having brushed against you ever so slightly via your writing. I am glad you exist, and that you took the time to write these characters into your book, and I am glad I stumbled on your book and read it and felt less alone and bizarre for who and what I am.

Thank you.

B Sanders

NEW SHORT STORY FOR BETA READERS!!: Blue Flowers

blueflowerswordleHey y’all! I just finished another short story. The description and info are below; I welcome any and everyone to read it!

Pahvo loved Anu before they ever met. Pahvo is a scryer; he sees the future, the past, lives both in a fractured present. When Pahvo first notices Anu across the street, he sees their entire lives together. Anu sees a stranger.

BLUE FLOWERS is a completed short story 4,950 words in length set in the world of Aerdh. BLUE FLOWERS explores the nature of irrevocable and inescapable love.

Interested? Let me know!

Scattered Thoughts On Engels as a Framework for Worldbuilding

Engels: a man with a compelling beard

Engels: a man with a compelling beard

One reason I am drawn to speculative fiction — both reading what others have written and creating it myself — is its potential for radical what ifs. By that, I mean that speculative fiction is uniquely positioned to wonder about and critique the current world in which we live. It offers an alternative to and an escape from existing paradigms. Really good worldbuilding requires a kind of mind that understands how societies are currently structured, how they may be structured elsewhere, and what those structures may evolve into.

I believe I’ve said before that I write fantasy in large part because I love worldbuilding. I like the sandbox quality of spec fic, and specifically fantasy; the possibility of creating a universe from scratch is very exciting to me. But nothing happens in a vacuum. Nothing can ever truly be objective. I see the world through a particular lens, my choices are informed by my experiences and ideas which resonate with me. We all have what I think of as foundational texts — those narratives that define elements of the world to us and can become a lens through which we makes sense of life around us.

I first read Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (click through for full text) when I was 18 years old. Prior to that, I had been reading tons of Marx, tons of Trotsky and Lenin. And I’d been perturbed that Marxist theory never seemed to dig quite deep enough. All oppression is connected — so how do material conditions get elaborated into class structures? And I found this book, devoured it, and it became a primary lens through which I make sense of the world around me.

Engels’ work explores how ecological conditions (scarcity, surplus, the availability of resources) define the social relationships of a group. If there’s not enough to go around, when there’s no surplus, there’s no private property. And when there’s no private property, there’s no inheritance. But when a surplus happens and an inheritance becomes a thing, people want to make sure what they have gets passed to their kids. Now for the one doing the birthing, it’s pretty easy to keep track of who is and is not your kid. For the other parent — the one who supplied sperm and is not directly involved in the whole birth thing — there appears to them to be a reason to control the womb-haver’s body and to make sure their sexuality is kept in check lest all those scraped together resources get passed to kids who are not, in fact, the sperm-haver’s.

The thing that draws me to this line of thought most is how Engels deconstructs biological essentialism. No, women are not just naturally nurturing so they should stay at home with babies. Maybe we say that, but that’s not what’s going on. Engels would say instead perhaps we’re sequestering them so there’s little opportunity for men to be cuckolded. Maybe that’s what’s going on.

When I’m embarking on building a new world, I work actively to a) avoid essentialism and b) build a culture (literally) from the ground up.

Avoiding Essentialism
Essentialism — or the belief that differences between groups of people are fixed and unchanging — is a way to reify the boundaries of one group against another. Gender differences are often explained through biological essentialism (men and women do different things in society because they are just built different). Given that essentialism is so incredibly pervasive in our cultural understanding of the world, it’s not at all shocking that I see a lot of essentialism leak into speculative fiction.

The thing about essentialism, both in terms of fiction and real world thought, is that it is lazy. The human mind and the human experience are incredibly multi-faceted. We are enormously complex beings who live in nearly unimaginable complexity with each other. Nothing about us just is because it is. In worldbuilding especially, essentialism is a mark of an uncommitted writer. It signals to me that an author just checked out of that part of their world. “It just is, ok? Don’t look too close” is what they seem to say.

In my own worldbuilding, I am very much drawn to the margins. I like to write about those on the outskirts of respectability, of society, those who don’t quite fit. But in order to do that well I have to make the story about that individual’s positionality against a larger cultural framework. It’s not that this person is just an inherently amazing person, it’s that this person is forced to navigate choppy cultural waters with a sometimes incompetent boat. The drama is in the tension between that person and the context (or their boat and the ever-changing ocean). And contexts are dynamic. They are anything but stable. Why do they change? How do they change? Who changes them, and do they change back? These are the kinds of questions that often have unsatisfying answers if you are relying on essentialism to explicate your characters’ thoughts and feelings.

From the Ground Up
The other major thing I pay attention to is the ecological material conditions in which a culture exists. Cultures are fascinating because they are, in essence, both a tool to shape the environment around you in a collective way and a collective reaction to the environment. Whenever I am building something out and I’m not sure why/how it came to be, I take it back down to the material context. What is the food like? Is it scarce? How dense is the population? What are the resources available — stone, wood, minerals? Sorting that stuff out often gives me an insight into why a population may have moved from one part of the world to another, or what kind of relationship they have with the natural world down the line.

In the case of one of my cultural groups, it has been useful to understand how their culture and their understanding of their culture has changed due to a vicious and devastating war. With a literal fraction of their people remaining, having been disenfranchised and quite technically blown back to the stone age, how do they deal with, say, abortion? Is it possible that it could have been not a big thing before and is a Huge Deal now? The conditions are different, and cultures either evolve or they die.

Engels and Magic
I would advocate this materially grounded approach to understanding cultural development to basically any writer. Want to write characters from a different positionality than your own? Engels might be able to help. Want to explore a cultural context you did not grow up in? Do a lot of research and think about what questions Engels might ask you to push you deeper.

But I think his approach is especially fruitful in spec fic. In Aerdh, I have essentially a secondary earth but one in a universe where there is an additional natural force of magic. The fabric of reality is, essentially, just a little bit more malleable in certain places, which can be capitalized on by those with certain capabilities. Plugging Engels into this idea forced me to think through things like following:

  • what would make one culture approve of magic and another disapprove? how much of that approval/disapproval is related to the movement or access to resources?
  • how can magic be commodified (or not) as a resource?
  • how does the expression of magical abilities interact with other biological processes to create vulnerabilities for a population? (for example, if magic increases longevity, there may be a concordant reduction in fertility rates to keep populations from exploding. and if that happens, the comparatively smaller number of magical beings might be at risk for colonization by mundane beings).

Do you draw on a particular discourse or framework when you are elbow-deep in crafting a world? What thinkers do you return to again and again for insight? I’d love to here from you in the comments!

I am B, and I am a they (Not Melissa, and not a she)

Note: I don’t do these personal posts often as I try to keep this blog about my writing, but if you’re interested in my personal life/thoughts on things like gender check out my tumblr.

Some of you know this already, and some of you don’t, but just so we’re all on the same page, I am officially coming out as genderqueer. I am a trans* person. I’m also just plain queer (i.e. not straight) while I’m outing myself. If you end up bored and don’t read past this first paragraph what this means for you is that I prefer to be called B (not Melissa) and that I prefer singular ‘they’ pronouns to female pronouns (so don’t call me she). Also, please don’t call me a mother – Zadie calls me her baba.

For those of you remaining, know that I am about to vomit gender feelings all over the internet. First, I’m going to attempt to describe my current relationship to my body, how it’s gendered, how I experience gender, etc. And then, I’ll go into why I think of myself as a they and not a she.

Me, Myself & I: Gender Weirdness Extravaganza
Do you have any idea how often we are asked to disclose our gender? I have come to dread this. Buying plane tickets sucks. Signing up for websites sucks. Any form of intake sucks. They suck because I have to put down female, which is then taken to mean woman, which is increasingly uncomfortable to me.

Gender has always been complicated for me, but it’s grown much more so in the last few years. The other night while I was walking home from work I was struck by a realization that when I was kid, maybe like eleven or twelve, I used to think a lot about the directions my life could go. Maybe I’d be a courtoom lawyer (like Sam Waterston in Law & Order!!). Maybe I’d be a rabble-rousing politician. Or a scientist. Or a musician. And I remember imagining myself in these possible lives and invariably imagining myself as a man. A man, incidentally enough, who didn’t look all that different than I do these days. It was a simple thing, and it wasn’t the ache and yearning thing you see in a lot of culturally sanctioned trans* narratives. It was just…I knew I was going to grow up a woman, but I ended up with this vision of myself as a man anyway.

Note that I said in that first paragraph that I’m genderqueer, not a trans man. After years and years of grueling work coming to love my body, of living in it and being it, I am as much a woman as I am anything else. But that’s the kicker: womanhood is just part of it.

These days I have this instinct to get flippant when forms as my gender. Gender? Chimerical. In flux. Weird. Fuckery. Paradoxical. That’s what fits me.

The Reason For They
I know for a fact that some of the people who will read this are grammar nuts who are totally fine with gender variance, but not really that fine with the bastardly singular they. There are likely people reading this who could give a rat’s ass about pronouns because they will never respect the facts of my gender identity, but those people can go fuck themselves. This section is addressed to the grammar nuts (I love y’all!)

I like they. I am a they. I like the expansiveness of it; I like its encompassing nature. My gender contains fucking multitudes. It is an ensemble film. It is a moving target. ‘They’ captures that. ‘They’ articulates this dual and tripled and quadrupled sense of gender I have: that I am sometimes a woman and sometimes a man and always both and always neither.

‘They’ plays with and breaks the binary. A singular they, to me and in reference to me, is politicized: a rejection of the contraints of a language that has been influenced by binarism, coercive gender assignments, and cis privilege.

There is, to me, a sense of potential when one uses they to describe a person whose gender is not known. Could be either. Could be neither. I like this protean quality it has; in the morning when I wake I could be either, could be neither. They is an umbrella term for all the possibilities and iterations of me, grammar be damned.

So, call me B, and call me they. Call me Zadie’s Baba. I’m asking nicely once. I’m reminding you that it’s only decent to do this, and also stating for the record that I don’t much care how confusing this is for you or how hard it is for you. I am always willing to answer questions, but I reserve the right to ignore those questions if they bother me.

This is a huge scary thing for me, and I’m telling you all this because it’s important to me.

Gender-Neutral Pronouns: Pros and Cons of Their Use in Fantasy

I have a ethnic group in the Aerdhish universe that has little sense of gender. Certainly, they have an understanding of biological sex, but even that is substantially more murky that how we construe sex in modern Western society. Contact with heavily gendered societies has left them with an awareness of gender as a categorical identity, but it’s not something they understand particularly well. It makes sense, then, that their language (Droma) would lack gendered pronouns. Right? Right.

The last section of Ariah takes place in the Droma grasslands. Ariah is on their turf, lives with them at their mercy, and he understands them through their own eyes. It’s important, then, that the gender neutrality of their language (and culture) is made crystal clear in the text. But how, exactly, to do this is giving me pause. Given that this book is written in English, where gender-neutral pronouns are odd, to say the least, technical aspects of this are growing hard for me to navigate:

Pros:

  • Use of gender-neutral pronouns will make the meaninglessness of gender as a social category very clear to the reader.
  • This culture is a ethnic grouping of elves, who have social and biological differences from humans (both humans as represented in the writing and actual real-life humans like you and me). Use of gender-neutral pronouns can serve to highlight the otherness of elves.
  • I, personally, think gender-neutral pronouns are important to get out there.*

Cons:

  • Good writing, to some extent, is invisible. That is, the story should flow without the reader having to struggle to parse the way that story is written. To this point, the use of gender-neutral pronouns is awkward and stilted in English since we don’t use them. It will take the reader some getting used to for them to be able to easily and effortlessly parse the gender-neutral pronouns, which can turn readers off and break up the text.
  • Related to that, consistency is sometimes hard to keep straight with gender-neutral pronouns. I, as the writer, can’t always remember what one form vs. another is, so how can I expect the reader to remember?

For Ariah, I’m going to risk it. For this piece, for me where I am as a writer and worldbuilder, I think the pros outweigh the cons. I have to trust my readers to navigate the thorny issue of pronouns. Readers are smart people; they can handle it. But it is something I bear in mind while writing this section of the book. When I am reading through recent parts I’ve written, the gender-neutral pronouns are jarring. They stick out. Pronouns are a part of speech which are not supposed to stick out.

The hardest part, honestly, has been figuring out which set of gender-neutral pronouns to use. I’ve gone back and forth, adopting one, then abandoning it in favor of another. Right now, I’m using a set I invented. We’ll see how long that lasts.

As for the rest of you out there, I would LOVE LOVE to hear any thoughts you have on this!

*As I state in my bio, I’m genderqueer and prefer the use of singular they to refer to me, so this topic and all the knotty little intricacies of it is something I think a lot about on a day-to-day basis.