51 posts categorized "immigration"

March 13, 2011

The Apocalypse Artist on Stretcher

ShieldsSeeSaw

Hello everyone! A collaboration I worked on has just been posted on Stretcher, the local San Francisco arts webzine.

The feature is called See|Saw, and features works by artists and writers responding to each other. I was supposed to look at artist Christine Shields' work and respond to it, but she and I decided to get a little more complicated than that. She showed me a couple of her paintings, then I wrote a story responding to them. Then she read an early draft of my story and made a painting responding to that. (That's, of course, the painting you see above.)

Here's the post.

It was a really fun project and I look forward to seeing future See|Saw projects!

June 25, 2010

Reading Update

Shailja Patel Migritude

A. Lee Martinez The Automatic Detective

Talking about Shailja's book would break two rules: reviewing a friend's book and reviewing a book I'm publicizing professionally. But I will mention that it's a book made from a performance made from spoken word poetry. And that I've seen the performance twice (and loved it!) And that I was surprised at how well the book read on paper. That is all.

The Automatic Detective is a lot of fun. I dragged out the reading of it by only reading it on the BART, otherwise I would've gotten through much sooner. But keeping it to a BART reader gave me something to look forward to on the BART. I even chose BART over driving the other day so I could spend my travel time with this book.

The novel revolves around the protagonist robot, Mack Megaton, who has been acknowledged as having the free will glitch in his programming that confers sentience, and who is four years away from completing his probation -- at the end of which time he'll become a fully recognized citizen. Mack requires probation because he's actually a killer robot created by an evil genius -- a killer robot who then refused to serve his purpose. There are worries, not least in Mack's own conscience, that Mack may break one day and start killing people.

Anyhoo, Mack is a bit emotionally distant from the world, but he does have a few friends, chief among them the wife and daughter of the family next door. The wife ties his tie every morning (he doesn't have the manual dexterity to do it yet.) One day, he surprises a thug in the act of terrorizing the family, and in the confusion, the prescient (mutant) daughter is able to slip him a note telling him to look for them. Then the family disappears and someone blows up Mack's apartment.

From this point on, we're in a classic noir, except for the cartoony sci-fi world ... and the fact that the femme fatale isn't fatale. It's, as I said, a lot of fun, and seamlessly pulled off. Loved it and highly recommend it as pure entertainment. No redeeming social value.

February 16, 2010

Why Aren't Women and POC Submitting Their Work?

ETA 5/6/13: I'm re-reading this now because of a discussion I'm having with someone, and I'm realizing that some of the criticisms below in comments are more accurate than I could see at the time I wrote it. I wrote this post with the explicit intention of "validating" the perception that women/poc submissions "aren't as good" as white submissions as a rhetorical device. My intention was to validate that perception to draw the reader in, and then smack them over the head with the fact that too many terrific women/poc writers simply aren't submitting for the following reasons (etc.)

I'm realizing now that this was not a super-effective tactic. And I have to admit that I didn't think it through clearly. When I conceived of this piece, I had recently been fired from a paid gig at an online magazine that was all white (except for me) and mostly male. Although I got some legit-sounding excuses for being fired, I didn't think it was a coincidence that I was fired right after I intensified my campaign to diversify the artists and writers being covered in the magazine. These things are hard to prove, though. The editor in question had told me that: a) they didn't get enough submissions from writers-oc and b) the ones they got weren't good enough. I had also been trying to diversify another (paid) online magazine that some friends were involved with and that I read but didn't contribute to. They told me the same thing: not enough submissions, not good enough. The way the editors I knew said this reminded me of how editors in this online fight had been saying that they don't get enough woc subs, and I noticed (or thought I noticed) that there was an unspoken implication that the subs they did get weren't good enough.

The other thing was that I thought it might well be true that the editors I had talked to weren't getting good submissions from woc because the good woc weren't submitting to them. I had had that experience as an editor of a poc magazine -- one of not getting enough good submissions even though I was seeing terrific writers in the community all the time. That was something that no one would say in public, and I was struck with the idea of writing a piece that did say it, and then turned it around on its ear. And then I simply wrote it, without thinking of how off-putting or ultimately inaccurate that would be. Bait-and-switch is fundamentally dishonest, and even if my intention was always honesty, honest dishonesty is ... uh ... problematic? I should have been more straightforward, is what I'm saying.

Also, a writer below took me to task for saying that most women or poc "fail" to make the leap to mainstream mags. My intention was always to use the word "fail" to mean "didn't do," and my critic contended that my use of "fail" expressed actual failure in the not doing. I.e.: it sounded like I was criticizing women/poc for not making that leap, and calling them failures. Because this was never my intention, I dismissed the criticism at the time. In re-reading, I'm realizing that she was completely right. This is exactly how that sentence, and its contextualizing language, reads. I should have worded that much more carefully. My critic, understandably, didn't believe me when I wrote back that an accusation of "failure" wasn't my intention with that wording. All I can say about that is that when I wrote this post, I had just recently made a completely conscious decision to publish my first book with a diversity-focused feminist small press, and deliberately did not submit it anywhere else. I did NOT consider this "not doing" a "failure."

Now, on to the original post:

***

I'm about to post something more on the general topic area of literary diversity, but I realized that I've never actually written a more foundational post that I've been meaning to write for a couple of years now.

Basically, this is about the totally valid and justified complaints of white editors that writers of color and women aren't submitting enough work to them. This is absolutely true (as far as it goes.) If you teach (as I do) writing in community orgs, 90-99% of your students will be women and poc. If you've studied creative writing in universities, even or especially at the MFA level (as I have), you'll know that about 60-75% of students are women. But start reading slush for a major publisher or journal and you'll notice a sudden, steep drop in the percentages of women, and an even steeper drop in the percentages of poc submitting work. And look at what is actually published and you'll see the drop is even steeper: mostly men, mostly white.

ETA: Some of Those who read slush know will tell you (although it's not cool to talk about in these terms ETA: as evidenced by the heated comments below. Please note, this is my experience and that of many folks I've talked to or read stuff from, not a universal experience.) that the submissions from women and poc are often disproportionately sucky, which is sometimes why even the proportions of women and poc who submit aren't reflected in the proportions of women and poc actually published. (Sometimes. There's usually also a factor of white male editors not quite getting the culture or language of marginalized writers, so they don't fully appreciate the nuances of the work. But that's another discussion.) So when a white male editor says, "We only had one woman and one poc in the anthology because we were going for the best work," that could be true, or true-ish.

(ETA: with reference to comments below, let me just put in here that your percentages may vary. We're still working with more women (and a larger percentage of poc) attending writing classes, but more men and white writers actually submitting work. How radical your discrepancy is, like I said, varies, but the discrepancy exists.)

And yet, I know from teaching and learning in community and academic settings that there are metric tons of good poc and women writers out there, just waiting to be plucked from the vine.

What gives?

For someone like me, and many of you, who are in on every step in the long, slow process of literary accomplishment (looks like this: community writing classes, MFA courses, community readings, ethnic magazines, indy publishers, mainstream lit magazines, major publishers -- I am or have been involved in all of these except the last two) it's very easy to see that there's a huge chasm at one step in this process. And that chasm comes between writers developing their craft in the bosom of their communities, and writers taking a leap away from their local identity communities into the ether of the mainstream -- basically at the point where writers have to take a deep breath and submit their work to mainstream editors who don't know them and aren't familiar with the communities they come from.

Here's the problem:

MOST WOMEN AND POC WRITERS FAIL TO MAKE THAT LEAP.

Yeah, that's right: most of them. You know all the "ethnic" and women midlist writers at majors who will get dropped soon and move to indies because they get no attention? For every one of those, there are at least three who never bothered with the majors but stayed in indie and community publishing, and ten who never made the leap to publishers at all. Yes, it's true. It's not that most women and poc writers fail to become good enough to make that leap. It's that, of those that reach a point where they CAN make the leap, most either don't recognize that they've reached that point, or, for other reasons they never manage to make the leap.

I have a friend near my age who was taking community writing classes with me, started an MFA the year after I did, and has been writing just as long. When this friend finally got a story published, it was in an ethnic mag. Last time I checked, my friend still hadn't submitted any work to mainstream journals.

Why not? What are those reasons? Enlightened editors want to know. Well, I have some ideas, although I can't speak for all women/poc writers who don't make the leap (please feel free to add ideas in the comments.) These reasons are in order of frequency (in my opinion):

  • Many women/poc writers don't hang out in mainstream literary circles locally or online so they don't know what to expect or what's expected of them in this scene. They don't understand how to "break in" to mainstream markets, so they stick to the literary scene they know how to work.
  • They don't know about your publishing house/journal (see directly above).
  • They know about your publishing house or journal but don't think you take work from women/"ethnic" writers. (This impression usually comes from the actual dearth of women/poc writers in your mag or on your list.)
  • They know you'll technically read work from women/ethnic writers, but don't believe their work will be taken seriously or given a fair reading.
  • They know you'll read their work with an earnest intention of fair play, but don't believe you're equipped to understand it.
  • Those who do submit work often don't submit their best work, because they fear their best work will be considered "too ethnic" or "chicklit," so they submit more standard "literary" work that their hearts weren't really in.
  • They don't think that anyone like them READS your books or your magazine, and they want to reach their own audience.
  • They have a political agenda around their work and have decided that that agenda is best served by keeping their work within their communities.
  • ETA: Ide Cyan and Minal Hajratwala added another good point in the comments. As Minal put it: "A serious economic/class differential that means that many women of color who write are barely able to eke out the hours to write, let alone any extra hours to venture into a whole new & unwelcoming literary 'scene,' to network, attend conferences/ workshops, research publications, submit work, blog or read blogs, deal with rejection (in the face of a host of other societal rejections)... Some of the students in my community-based classes are writing mainly because it helps them survive, and the idea of publication is not a priority."

Most of those good writers who don't submit do it for the first two reasons. I know, it's hard for editors and publishers to remember a time when they didn't know the rules and the landscape. Many editors and publishers grew up in culturally savvy families or communities, so they don't even know how they learned the rules and the landscape. But the folks who aren't submitting either don't know the rules, or don't think they're considered important enough to engage the rules. They either don't have a map to the landscape, or simply think that it's a closed, privately-owned parcel of land. And far too often they're right.

And most of them aren't necessarily even aware that they think this way. I can't tell you how many writers I've encouraged to submit their work who had never done it before because it simply never occurred to them. They never signed up for a writers list-serv. They don't read lit blogs that post opportunities on them. They don't know about Writers Market or the Poets & Writers database. They don't know that you can (and sort of have to) look the various markets up and note down their guidelines and simply submit work according to the guidelines. (There's a big component in here of internalized racism, where the writer has been absorbing messages of her inferiority for her entire life, and is unwilling to risk being rejected on that basis, but that's another blog post.)

I have a good friend who has been writing for decades. My friend has a towering reputation in local and extended identity communities, is invited to read around 10 times a year in a variety of venues, has had work published in a number of anthologies, has edited an identity-based anthology published by an indy publisher, and has also been the editor of a literary journal. This friend had an offer of a book on the table from an indy before the economy went to shit and the publisher had to taper off publications for a while. This friend has never made an unsolicited submission. So when the indy publisher had to rescind the book offer, my friend didn't know what to do. When I suggested we get proactive and prepare a package of work to send out as an unsolicited submission, my friend was both surprised and relieved. And this is someone with a lot of publication and literary experience. This is someone even the most boneheaded white male publisher would be delighted to get a submission from.

So, the point of all of this is that editors have to go out and find good writers of color and women writers just like they have to go out and find good white male writers. The obvious first place to start is independent magazines and publishers, but editors will need to go deeper than that. (I won't go into it again here.) And the big issue is not just knowing where to look, but knowing how to approach.

A number of small gestures can make a huge difference. Make the whole experience as painless and welcoming as possible. For example:

  • Make sure your submission guidelines are easy to find on your website. Don't hide them. Add language to your guidelines that specifically welcomes women and writers of color. Something like "We are especially interested in innovative work by women, writers of color, and writers from historically marginalized groups. We love to discover new writers!" Don't beat around the bush. Be plain.
  • When you go through your back issues/backlist for the big names to list on your website, be sure to put the names of women writers and poc front and center. A publisher/magazine that has a lot of recognizable "minority" names on its website is basically putting out the welcome mat for "minority" writers. This is a subtle language you must learn to speak.
  • When you send a call for submissions out on a list-serv or send it to a website for a "minority" group, be sure to personalize it and express your strong desire to get submissions. Sign it with your name. Say something like, "I really want to encourage you all to submit work. Our submissions pile isn't nearly as diverse as it needs to be, and as a result, our publications aren't as diverse as they need to be. You can help change that. Please take a chance on us and send us your best work!"
  • Write up a brief primer (maybe a paragraph) on how to make an effective submission (including maybe a little something about what to put, and what not to put, in a cover letter.) Include this in your call for submissions. Make your expectations plain, and don't give anyone any excuses not to submit.
  • Be sure to ask them to tell you in their cover letter where they heard about your magazine or publishing house, so you can track where the submissions are coming from; and ask them to include a brief bio that talks about their origins, so you can get a sense of where your writers are coming from. Encourage them to talk to you about who they are and what their process is, so you can understand it all better.
  • If you're rejecting a promising submission from someone who's obviously a writer of color or who says they're coming from a poc website or list-serv, be sure you personalize the rejection with at least some minimal feedback, and an encouragement to submit again. Yes, I know you don't have time, but it's part of an editor's job to cultivate promising writers, and if you want a healthy field of diverse writers in ten years, you have to plant now. This is assuming that you actually DO send rejection letters out. Many journals don't reject in a timely or consistent manner, and there's nothing more off-putting to someone who already thinks they're not going to get a fair shot, than being utterly ignored. Basically, acknowledgment is key, even when you're rejecting.

That's all fairly easy, surface stuff. But if editors and publishers really want to become more diverse and reflective of 21st Century reality, they're going to have to change the way their organizations approach the work itself. Changes like:

  • Having some non-white, non-WASPy names on your masthead or staff list. Yes, we do read these. Yes, we are turned off when we don't see any names like ours. Yes, I'm much more likely to send a story to a market with an editor of color or a woman editor first (although there are so few of these that I've learned not be picky.) And if a market's guidelines don't say anything about multiculturalism, but do say stuff about "no genre" and "high quality" (both euphemisms for New Yorker-style Carverism,) all the masthead names sound white, and all the author names on the website are or sound white, I'm probably not going to bother to submit to you at all.
  • Having a diverse editorial board or a diverse set of guest editors. Aside from the above issue, they'll make an effort to reach out to their communities if they understand that that's their job (no, you can't just tokenize an editor and watch her go. If your mag isn't diverse, she'll often just assume you only want white male writers and do her job that way.)
  • If you're successful in all this, your volume of submissions should increase. Go to ethnic and gender studies departments at your local universities and pick up an extra, slush-reading intern there. Put the intern's name on the masthead. Let your intern know that their expertise in ethnic/gender studies is needed and they should point out any boneheadedness in editorial decisions if they see it.
  • Having an editorial mission statement and a strategic or business plan whose language fundamentally reflects a deep commitment to diversity.
  • Being advocated for in the community by a diverse set of respected writers. (Yes, when one of us has been published by a market, we DO immediately go out and tell our peeps to submit there. When one of our respected leaders tells us this stuff, we particularly prick up our ears. And when an editor buttonholes one of us and says "How do I get [your folks] to submit to [my magazine/house]?" without sticking their feet in their mouths, we do go straight to Facebook and post a link.)
  • Having a "usual round" of in-person visits to open mics, reading series, classrooms, etc that are in diverse communities, so you're "touching" minority writers all the time.
  • When you request work from big name writers, hit up women writers and poc as often as you can. This is not to fill out your minority quota with big names, but rather to use the big names to entice emerging marginalized writers to submit to you.
  • Be constantly reading marginalized writers. Duh.
  • This is whole 'nother blog post, but start actively (and savvily) marketing your books/magazines to marginalized communities. It's a cycle: if they're reading it, they'll want to submit to it. If they're being published in it, they'll want to read it. Rinse, repeat.
Yeah, as I've said before, it's a lot of work. And you do have to change the way you do that work in the first place. But if you want actual diversity and not just lip service and real frustration, this is where you start.

October 23, 2009

Octavia Butler Panel Podcast

Okay, so I did a piss-poor job of advertising my LitQuake Octavia Butler panel appearance here, so I'm trying to make up for it now.

The Agony Column podcast came to the panel, which was part of the SF in SF series hosted by Terry Bisson, and recorded both the panel discussion, and separate interviews with each of the panelists: awesome black-lesbian-vampire-novelist Jewelle Gomez, awesome Latina-chicklit-vampire-novelist Marta Acosta, and non-vampire-novelisting me (but wouldn't it be cool if I had written Asian vampires and was able to complete a trifecta?)

The reading and panel was a tribute to Octavia Butler and a fundraiser for the Butler Scholarship, which is administered by the Carl Brandon Society (which I'm on the Steering Committee of.)

The podcasts have been posted now and here they is:

Yee haw!

September 09, 2009

Reading Update

Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen by Marilyn Chin

Read it for a review I wrote for Hyphen. You'll have to buy Issue 19 to read my review. Short version: not a good book.

August 12, 2009

Reading Update

Read the first Buffy comics omnibus; not the season 8 series but the comic based on the original screenplay.

Then I read Waylaid by Ed Lin. It's a Kaya Press book. It's about a twelve year old Chi-Am boy growing up in a sleazy motel on the Jersey shore, where he and his parents live a really marginal existence. It reminded me of Hiromi Goto's The Kappa Child, in that there's a fascination with disgust and the disgusting. A lot of descriptions of gross food that makes people sick in gross ways, and details of pores, and hairs, and sweat and body odor.

Makes me wonder if the authors live their lives in disgust, since they've written books so interpenetrated by it. Depressing. A good book in many ways, but depressing.

August 11, 2009

Editorial Work Is HARD, Asshole!

Argh!

I wasn't gonna mix into this discussion (in fact, I've said pretty much all I thought I wanted to say before) but dude. Come on.

We're back to the stupid argument about whether editors just take what's coming in through the transom vs. what writers whom they've invited to submit have sent them vs. what they've read before. ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? Are those the only options? WHEN DID EDITORS BECOME SO FUCKING PASSIVE?

Okay, look, I come into fandom via "literary" fiction, not the other way around. And yes, a lot of lit fic editors are lazy fuckers, too. But the basic expectation over there is that you get work by:

  1. calling for submissions
  2. keeping up with your peers so that you know what other editors are publishing. This is so you know what's current in the field, but also so you know what's being overplayed, so that you DON'T publish that.
  3. research into new authors, works, and trends. That's what this post is about, so keep reading.
  4. inviting interesting writers to submit. You know who's interesting by keeping up with the field and doing your research.
  5. maintaining relationships with agents and writers and asking them to find or create specific types of work. This is more proactive than #4, which passively asks specific people to submit what they've already written or to submit what they want to write for your collection. #5 is about actively shaping what people write; and it gives you the opportunity to give writers new opportunities, and to push promising writers in new directions, if you are so inclined. This is a tactic used for books primarily, but can be used for themed anthologies as well (and is so used, frequently.)

What boggles my mind is not that SF readers are ignorant of the editorial process, but that the implication that has been coming out of this argument is that SF editors DON'T GO THROUGH ALL THOSE STEPS. Somebody please tell me I'm wrong about that!

Because "resting on the laurels of what you've already read" is not one of the above steps, and is not part of the editorial process. People who are experts in a field are chosen to, or permitted to, create anthologies because they have a strong background in the field that allows them to understand the new stuff that they're seeing, and NOT because they've already read everything they need to read to create an anthology. Anthologizing is hard work not because you have to read so much slush (get an intern to weed that shit out) but because of all that other work you have to do. And if you're not doing it, you're doing a piss-poor job.

So, to get down to the nitty gritty, as someone in Tempest's comments asked to do, how do you -- not "become a good editor" but -- change the way you do business so that your editing becomes more than an exercise in futility? Here are some steps:

  1. Go out an read diverse stuff. This is not hard. There is google. Go to google and look up "African American fiction anthology," "Asian American fiction anthology," "New Women Writers," "LGBT Fiction" etc. Check these books out of the library. Read them. Then pick the two or three writers whose stories you liked the most AND WHOSE STORIES YOU HATED THE MOST, and read a book each by them. Look them up on wikipedia and find out who their influences and mentors were and read a book each by them. Etc.
  2. Go to Wiscon, Diversicon, Gaylaxicon, whatever, and talk to people who don't look or talk like you. Ask them what they're reading and what they think you should be reading (the answer to these two questions will usually be different.) Take notes. Then GO READ some of what they told you to read.
  3. Send your calls for submissions out to all the people of color you know and ask them to forward it. Follow up with them a week later and ask them where they sent/posted it. Sign up for those lists/groups and follow up on those lists/groups a week later with a personal invitation from the editor to EVERYONE ON THE LIST to submit work. Also go here and send calls for subs to these folks and follow up. ALWAYS FOLLOW UP!
  4. If you are a real editor, then you live in a real city with real readings. Go to them. Ask around for the POC/LGBT/Women's/whatever readings and attend them. They will be mostly boring or painful. That's how it is. You have to dig for gold. Keep going. Every time you go, talk to two people you don't know, especially if they look like they're in charge or if they know a lot of people. Ask them to recommend other readings in the city you should see. Carry cards and call for subs fliers with you. EVERY SINGLE TIME you see writer you think is remotely good, hand them a flier. In fact, hand them to writers you don't think are that good either, and ask them to pass it around. Do this in every city you go to.
  5. Keep doing this. This is not a remedial course that will eventually finish, after which, you will now be diversified. This now how you do your job. Keep doing your job.

Yeah, sounds impossible doesn't it? Right? Right? I mean, who has time to do all that learning about writers and keeping up with writers when you have so much ... editing to do?

And before you ask, YES I HAVE DONE IT, not as an editor, but as a multidisciplinary arts curator. I did it for four years, spent four years going out almost every night to shows, talking to total strangers and asking them to send me stuff, designing and printing calls for submissions and handing them out everywhere, etc. etc. Yeah, it's a full-time job. That's why they call it "a full-time job".

As far as editing an anthology goes, I haven't done that, but it's akin to (but a lot more serious and long-term than) the work I put into creating a reading binder for a writing class. Class reading binders are about book-length, like a short anthology, and need to demonstrate a variety of writing techniques clearly. They also need to tell a variety of types of stories so the students have models of the types of stories they can tell, so that they aren't limited by the narrow scope of their current imagination (my writing assignments tend to focus on both content and form.) And, as a writer of color who generally teaches writing in the context of community antiracist organizations, I make it a point to make my binders diverse in terms of who is writing the stories, their point of view, and their content.

So, how do I do all of this? Dude. I read. A lot.

I ask my list-servs (I've been on a few writers' and readers' list-servs) and I ask friends that I know are readers and experts. And then I go online and look up reading lists, and go to Amazon and look up anthologies and then get them out of the library.  And read them. And mark them up with those bookmark post-its, so that I have stacks of books around the house that look like they're wounded and bleeding (because if a book was wounded, wouldn't it bleed pink paper?) These are books with subtitles like "An anthology of fiction about 9/11" and "New African fiction," and "Poetry About War."

And, here's the thing: I START OUT with, not a quota system, but a food groups scheme: this meal has to have meat, veg, fruit, grain, dairy. And it has to fit into another of my diversity categories: one of the formal ones, and one of the content ones. So I can't just grab at random one story each by an Arab, African, Asian, Latino, and Native American about their families. One of these stories has to be science fiction, and one has to be about war, and one has to have a sex scene in it, and one has to be a coming-of-age. One of these stories has to be in first, one in second, and one in third person. One has to be minimalist, and one has to contain a lot of lists, and one has to be written in lush, lyrical prose. Etc.

Yes, I start out there, with the categories, but I don't end there. Because the most important thing I talk about with my writing students is LIFE, or that mysterious something in a story that makes the whole piece of writing come alive for the reader. So, just any contemporary fiction by any Arab or Latino won't do. It has to get under my collar, whisper to me, pop, or just make me uncomfortable. It has to be alive. I'm fine if it's going to make the students angry, as long as it makes them feel something.

I made a spec fic reader for high school students once that included Jaime Hernandez' first few pages of his Locas series, and a story by Ursula Le Guin. I chose both of these because they were both from genre-changing writers, and because I thought the pieces were cool. The Locas piece baffled them: comic books weren't about Latina punk rock chicks arguing about their waitressing jobs and then becoming rocketship mechanics! WTF? And the Le Guin story, "Darkrose and Diamond," pissed them off. It was a sort of YA-ish coming-of-age story about a kid who had magic but chose to pursue his gift for music instead. His choice angered them incredibly because they were led to believe this was a story about the acquisition of a superpower, and instead the protag chose to ignore the standard reader wish-fulfillment.

These discussions, about stories that I thought they would love, became incredibly rich discussions about reader expectations, and the rewards and dangers of subverting them. The kids actually learned more than I intended to teach them. And at the end of the class, those two stories were the ones they remembered the best.

If I hadn't made a point of making that SF reader diverse, if I had just gone by the white, male classics, I might not have thought to include Jaime Hernandez, or even Ursula Le Guin. The point here is that when you go for diversity -- by setting up food groups or quotas, by going for work that has challenged you or others in the past, by taking a chance with something slightly outside the mainstream -- you often get more even than you thought you were getting. You often get a challenge you didn't realize was there, a subversion that hadn't occurred to you, a lesson you didn't know needed to be made.

Yeah, it's a shitload of work. And this is just the reader for a class. It's not an anthology for the ages. It's not going into libraries and personal collections. It makes no claim to definitiveness. Imagine how much reading you would have to do for that.

But that's the job, Asshole. And if you're not willing to do that much work, then don't make anthologies. THAT'S why people are so pissed off at Mammoth Mike Ashley, not because he's a white male, but because he didn't do his job, and the rest of us marginalized folks are gonna suffer, as usual, for it.

June 16, 2009

Breakin' Up Iz Hard 2 Do, Part II

So what I wanted to do -- about a month ago now, in the weeks leading up to WisCon, when I was considering "breaking up" with the antiracist blogosphere as a result of RaceFail and MammothFail -- was write a series of posts about how antiracist action online actually works, and why I have problems with it.

But a number of things intervened.

*****First, right before WisCon, Al Robles, an elder in my Bay Area Asian American activist community, died suddenly. His family organized a memorial event and I was asked to help, so I took over volunteer coordination for the six-hour event. The event took place at the venue where we had staged the Asian American arts festival I ran for its first few years; being there as a coordinator reminded me of that work and of the atmosphere of common purpose and mutual help that can arise out of creating a "real world" racial community. It also reminded me that I had a real world community in the first place, that I had been neglecting, partly in favor of my online stuff.

Also, being at Manong Al's memorial really made me think a lot about Al. The sort of elder whose memorial event draws thousands of people, requires ten tables to hold all the food, and has trouble restricting the stories, poems, and testimonials to six hours, is a very particular person. Al was a leader, not in that he put himself and his agenda first, nor in that he had great managerial skills he used to organize people. Al was a leader by example. He was everywhere he needed to be to get the work done. He was physically there; he put his hand on your arm when he saw you. He knew everyone in the community because he talked to them, partied with them, and remembered them whenever he saw them next. He never lost his interest in individuals, never lost his excitement about the new (and old) things people were doing, never failed to connect the creative life (he was a poet) with the activist life, and the activist life with the good life.

The consideration that makes my eyes well up, both in love for Al and in shame for my own failures, is the memory of Al as someone who always gave respect, gave face, to everyone, from the most snot-nosed, fist-pumping teenager, to the oldest, out-of-commission elder.  He made you want to earn the respect that he gave you unconditionally. He loved whatever it was that you did. Thousands of people turned out to say goodbye to him because people like that are so rare.

It makes me really think about who is going to take over for Al. Less than two years ago we lost another elder, Manong Bill Sorro, who had a similar role in the community as Al Robles, had a similar way with people, although the two were very different. As I said, these people are rare. Manong Al and Manong Bill were my touchstones in the community and now that they're both gone, I'm all out of touchstones. They were it for their generation. Who will be it for my generation?

I'm not that kind of person, but I can try to be more of that kind of person. I don't have to be the Manong Al or Manong Bill of my generation, but I think we can split up those duties a little more evenly, especially if we believe in community and continuation. But to do that, I have to get off the fucking internet and get my butt down to where the community is.

***** Second, I went to WisCon. Given the atmosphere surrounding RaceFail and then MammothFail, I was expecting WisCon to be emotionally fraught, stress-filled, and conflict-ridden. Instead, what I found was that there were more POC there than ever before, and that the POC there were organizing, coming together, and also connecting outside the POC community with a confidence and interest and even joy that I hadn't seen at WisCon before.

I realized that the online fights that had stressed me out so much, make my stomach tie up in knots and feel like all was sick with the world, had energized a lot of other folks. I was forcibly reminded of how I felt eleven years ago, when I first joined battle -- in a very limited and constrained way -- with folks online on the multiracial list-serv and the Asian American writers list-serv I joined. It was energizing; it did make me want to do stuff. And, because I was in San Francisco, I just went right out and did stuff: joined orgs, started programs, etc. It was a wonderful cycle of discussion and action: I discussed ideas online, and then took those ideas out into the real world and acted on them.

Of course, the energizing aspect of the arguments and sometimes fights had a limited efficacy. They were only energizing as long as they were still new to me, and still had something to teach me about that particular way of viewing the issues. Once I had been through the cycle of argument once or twice (and had experienced intelligent, articulate opponents who just plain didn't listen to you) the argument stopped energizing me and started to stress me out. Eventually, I had to quit the two list-servs, and I didn't miss them much when I had. That was mainly because the people I "knew" on the list-servs were just usernames. I was also spending time with folks in meatspace and many of those folks are still my friends; I'm not still friends with a single person I interacted intensely with online at that time, even the people I met in person and tried to work with there. But what I got out of those discussions didn't go away. The results -- the ideas and ability to articulate arguments -- stayed with me.

***** Third, I went back to Berlin, where I spent much of my twenties, and saw a lot of my friends, ten and fifteen years later. I saw that my friends had taken one of three tracks: folks who hadn't quite gotten started on a career and were still struggling to figure out where to go and what to do; folks who had started a career, then started a family and were now negotiating the limitation on their career that a young family imposes; and folks who were well into a creative career, some simply moving forward and others wondering if they wanted to stay on this track or make an adjustment.

I'm with the last group. I've spent the last decade plowing ahead full steam in ethnic-specific arts and culture, and I've accomplished much that I'm proud of. But I've definitely reached a point where I'm trying to make an adjustment in my direction, and that's a difficult thing to do. While in Berlin, I got a rare perspective on where I am in life, by seeing my peers dealing with being in that same place. And I think I can take this adjustment more quietly -- be less manic and bewildered about it -- and focus in. I think that's the key: letting some options go, and focusing in on what's most important to me.

*

I came back to online antiracism a few years ago with my interest in speculative fiction, and with working with POC SF communities that I had connected with through Clarion West and WisCon. And the community here is wonderful, and vibrant, and full of energy and purpose. I've learned a lot from reading blogs, and getting into discussions ... and even from some of the less pleasant fights I've gotten into. Some things I've learned couldn't have been gotten at another way.

But there are also problems with it ... and it was my intention to tease out those problems in a series of posts, as I said above. But after Al's memorial, and after WisCon, and after my visit back to the site of my young adulthood, I think I'm realizing that I don't need to do that right now. What I'm feeling is particular to me and my situation. Maybe down the road I'll have some perspectives that will be useful to someone else, but I don't think I do right now.

I've been upset and angry at an argument that I've heard too many times before that doesn't have the power to inspire me anymore, but that doesn't mean that this discussion isn't inspiring anyone else to new and great things. I think I'm probably best off shutting up and getting out of the way.

*

One thing I do want to clarify: when I said in an earlier post that the best thing that came out of RaceFail was the smart posts published early in the incident, a few outraged people pointed to Verb Noire (which has just announced its first publication, which makes me want to pee with excitement) as a direct result of RaceFail. I was surprised by that perception. Having been involved in so many start-ups (APAture, Hyphen, the San Francisco Hapa Issues Forum chapter, the now-defunct Digital Horizon afterschool program) and seen so many from a peripheral viewpoint, it's second nature to me to assume that any start-up or initiative has its roots in longstanding dreams and long planning processes ... that then come together around a particular opportunity.

Yes, I believe that RaceFail brought on a convergence of a number of things that led to Verb Noire being launched right then, but I don't believe that without RaceFail there would have been no Verb Noire. (Please tell me if I'm completely wrong here; I have no telepathic connection to the publishers, and no idea what specifically got them going.) Furthermore, I'd be worried if I really thought that RaceFail was the only or main impulse to starting Verb Noire. Last straw, yes; main thrust, no. It's a terrific project, coming at the right time, but it's larger than just RaceFail. The language and direction of the project already seems larger -- seems to fill up a space that has to do with more than just a failure of the general SF community to understand cultural difference and appropriation.

Basically, until it was pointed out to me, I didn't connect Verb Noire directly with RaceFail. RaceFail to me is just an incident: an incident that got drawn out way too long and produced some good writing, some bad writing, and a lot of bad feeling ... but still just an incident. Verb Noire is ... an organization, a long-term program, an institution of new perspective in the making. The two are bound up together, certainly: all good organizations, programs, institutions have their roots in unacceptable circumstances, or ongoing failures, and series of incidents that demonstrate these circumstances and failures.

But the two are distinct. One is discussion; the other, activism. For me, there does come a time when the discussion that inspires activism starts to get in the way of activism, and I have to opt out of direct discussion for a while.

*

I don't know what this means for me on a practical level. I have an online presence that takes some work to maintain and that brings me a lot of pleasure, aside from other things. But it also, I have to admit, sucks too much time away from my writing and my working in my community. I might have to cut back on being present online for a while, but I'm not sure how or how much. I'm not making any quick decisions.

I have no conclusions yet, no declarations to make. I think I'm going to be reading less from blogs, and participating less in any sort of online discussions in this area for a while. But at this point, I'm just thinking out loud.

June 12, 2009

First Book Trailer!

Wow! I'm super proud of this book trailer we produced for Kaya Press (Sam Arbizo did the work.) After having a look at the field, it seemed there was a lot of room for improvement. What do you all think?

(By the way, I'm still working on some longer posts. Just recovering from jet lag and getting back into the swing.)

June 06, 2009

News from Asian America

Just a quick note to those interested in the broad trends of Asian America: Read this.

May 16, 2009

Outrage, Pullback, Punishment: The Structure of One Common Antiracist Post

ETA: Please note! This is my personal blog and, although I draw on my experience with the organizations I work for, I write on this blog as a private citizen, and not as a representative of any organization! In these posts it's especially important to remember that I'm not speaking for the Carl Brandon Society, but only for myself.

So, to kick off my out-loud consideration of if and how to "break up" with the antiracist blogosphere ...

I'm going to start with organizing some observations about how racism is talked about on the POC antiracist blogs I've been reading for the past six years and laying out the basic structure of one type of typical antiracist post.

First, most POC A/R blogs rarely take the bull by the horns, that is to say, they rarely take the initiative in introducing topics of discussion and setting the terms for the discussion. Instead, most POC A/R blogs are reactive, that is, they keep watch on what is happening in the world and especially in the media, and respond to incidents or discussions initiated by people out in the world, or by the media.

The way this works is what I call "Outrage, Pullback, Punishment" (and yes, it is a plus that it compresses to "OPP"). How it works is as follows:

Outrage: something racist happens in the world. A blogger or group of bloggers pick up on it. They note it in their blogs and express outrage at it. The item gets passed on from blog to blog.

Pullback: of the bloggers who post on this topic, less than half will express anything other than outrage. But a subset of these bloggers will spend a little time pulling back from the outrage to contextualize this incident of racism and explain why it's a problem. They will go into the history of these types of incidents, they'll go into academic theories of X, they'll give talking points on why this sort of thing is bad for people of color, bad for justice, and bad for the world in general.

Punishment: of the bloggers who pull back and contextualize, an even smaller subset will propose or initiate action. This action is dual: it proposes advocacy of a particular view, action (usually apology and some sort of remediation), and threatens punishment if this action isn't taken up immediately. I call this step "punishment" because punishment is advocated at two places: often the remedial action is punishment of the original offender (as in asking a radio station to fire a racist DJ), and the action threatened if this remedy isn't taken up is usually a punishment as well (official complaint up the chain of command, formal boycott, or bad publicity, and the hanging of the "racist" label on the totality of the offenders.) The action is then picked up by the other bloggers and passed around.

Lest anyone think I'm trying to hurl accusations from a glass house, I'll give an example from my own oeuvre. (I'm actually critiquing all of POC antiracist blogging, including my own, which is part of the whole and speaks the same language.) The recent example is the Avatar casting controversy:

You'll notice here that the structure not only makes the information easy to understand and assimilate, but it also makes the basic conveyance of the information easy to adapt to each blog. Each new blogger who picks the story up simply gives a spin to the same blog post and passes it on.

This structure of communication has been effective in the past for specific purposes. The best example would be the Jena 6 controversy in 2007 where a group of black teenagers were unfairly prosecuted for an assault on a white teenager that was provoked by a series of racist incidents. Originally ignored by the mainstream media, outrage in the POC blogosphere contributed heavily to the story being picked up nationally. Additionally, the "punishment" phase of this story advocated action that was less punitive and more justice-oriented, and resulted in large demonstrations in Jena and all over the country, that have succeeded in bringing about a more just resolution for many of the defendants than would have happened otherwise. Here's a post from the Angry Black Woman which demonstrates OPP and links to other posts you can check out as well.

An earlier example was the Abercrombie and Fitch controversy (2002/2004), which involved first a series of t-shirts with racist images of Asians on them, then a lawsuit (later settled) that alleged that A&F gave visible jobs to white employees and restricted POC to the stock rooms. The online campaign against the t-shirts -- organized with a speed that surprised even participants -- led to real-world protest outside the stores, which in turn caused the company to withdraw the shirt and issue an apology. The t-shirt protest was actually organized via email, list-servs, and discussion boards, more than via blogs. But if you look at the discussion boards link, you'll see one of the origins of OPP structure. The continuing online scrutiny of A&F's racial attitude helped keep pressure on them that contributed to the favorable settlement of the lawsuit.

As has been rightly said since the Jena 6 protests, online social networking has created a world in which effective protest can be organized quickly and nationally to address even local injustices. OPP is a great launching point for these kinds of effective protests: OPP informs and arouses a sense of outrage very quickly, and creates a sort of information tree or hierarchy which people can follow back to a source of organization if they wish to get involved. People are no longer dependent on being reached by recruiters, they can recruit themselves to act. And POC communities, if they know how to leverage the hinges of the Tipping Point, can control to a great extent the spread of their mobilization effort.

This structure of communication also makes it easy for the mainstream media to pick up on POC responses to national incidents. Reporters don't have to dig through a lot of discussion and process its implications to know what POC bloggers are thinking. They just aggregate the most popular bloggers and do a keyword search for the controversy du jour, and bingo, insta-quote. So in this way, POC can come closer to the mainstream media.

All this is great. But.

The negative result of this is that POC A/R blogs tend to accept, without thought or discussion, that the white-dominated media and mainstream culture gets to initiate action and discussion, and the POC A/R online media's role is merely to respond to this discourse, and not to control it or be a partner in shaping it.

This is fine when an injustice happens -- as in Jena -- and must be addressed quickly. These sorts of things happen all the time, so having a structure in place to deal with these things -- to remedy actual injustices as they happen -- is important. But it does not move the discourse on race forward. It unconsciously takes for granted that POC have no initiative in the world. In the call and response of the mainstream media discourse, POC have only a response, not a call. And as we all know, whoever calls, rules.

I say _________, you say "racist"

Mr. Patel!
Racist!
Airbender!
Racist!

If you look back on any effective movement of the 20th century (suffrage, civil rights, Vietnam) their communication structure all had these things in common:

  1. A clear, articulated overall goal towards which all participants were willing to work for years.
  2. A set, but evolving discourse and vocabulary, which the movement controlled.
  3. Media: alternative media organs (papers and magazines) dedicated to promoting this message and discourse; and, over time, allies in the mainstream media dedicated to promoting this message and discourse.
  4. The necessity of responding deliberately and thoughtfully, owing to the lack of instantaneous communications technology. Because everything written was printed and had to be edited and proofread, everything broadcast had to be accepted by media corporations and could be heavily controlled, the message and discourse were very polished, thoughtful, respectful, and carefully tailored to appeal to listeners who may have held a differing opinion.

If you think about it, OPP simply cannot exist in a movement in which the above conditions obtain. Chaos and Freedom are the twin faces of the same internet beast. The viral responsiveness and speed of protests like Jena 6 and A&F owes to the Freedom face. The lack of a goal, a message, a discourse, and deliberate or thoughtful response owes to the Chaos face. Although there's more than one argument to be made here, I would contend that the POC Antiracist blogosphere is not a movement, it is merely a community.

As such, it can facilitate the creation of temporary movements (like the Jena 6 protest movement), but it cannot change, or even affect, the national discourse on race. All it can do is respond to it.

In my next post, I'm going to talk about initiatives that do shape, or attempt to shape, national discourse on race, and how these work together with online OPP.

May 15, 2009

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do: How To Handle Antiracist POC Communities

ETA: Please note! This is my personal blog and, although I draw on my experience with the organizations I work for, I write on this blog as a private citizen, and not as a representative of any organization! In these posts it's especially important to remember that I'm not speaking for the Carl Brandon Society, but only for myself.

WisCon starts in a week, and, as a result of RaceFail and the more recent resurgence of controversy around race, I've been thinking a lot about the issue of how antiracist action is handled on the internet. I'm going to spend the next week on a series of posts about my thoughts on this topic. I need to clear my head and -- not knowing what to expect from WisCon this year -- prepare my thoughts for whatever comes.

(One quick caveat here: I despaired years ago of getting through to ignorant, privileged whites on the internet through argument, and haven't engaged in that sort of argument for a long time: because it kills me, and because it doesn't seem to do much good. The only thing that works, in my experience, is providing copious resources that someone, who wants to seek and understand, can find and use in his/her own way, so that they can choose to prepare themselves to join a discourse, rather than argue their way into knowledge.

So if I seem to be only criticizing the antiracist POC side here, it's because I am. No amount of tantrums, unprofessionalism, and bad behavior from the privileged side surprises me anymore, and I find it pointless to even criticize it. At the latest, after last year's Rachel-Moss-WisConFail, and the conscious delight privileged white males (and females) took in baiting feminists, people of color, differently abled, and transgendered people, I have refused to engage with such perspectives, which I consider a continuum. I only now engage with "our" responses to such perspectives, or more accurately, with a broader-based strategy to combat ignorance and prejudice in our media and in our society. Doubtless RaceFail blame falls much more heavily on the side of baiters and privileged idiots. But they can't bait those who won't be baited. They can't enrage those who won't be enraged.)

Back in February, around the time I thought that RaceFail was going to die down, I started writing a series of posts on this topic. But RaceFail didn't die down then, nor for another couple of months. The residue of a contentious and conflict-soaked election campaign, and of a devastating economic collapse, the impact of which we'll be unraveling for years, was like jetfuel to the usual flame. Whereas internet blowups usually only last a couple of weeks -- a flash flood -- the almost palpable panic and fear and weariness cracked open the levees we'd been ignoring for so long, and our little corner of the blogosphere was overwhelmed. What started as an initially salutary repeat of a discussion that had never quite been put to rest, soon turned into a community eating itself.

Not coincidentally, February was the time the Carl Brandon Society's Heritage Month book advocacy campaign kicked off. We'd chosen one recommended reading list in January -- immediately before RaceFail had started -- and were trying to put together a second list in February as the tone of the discussion got ugly. The difference was dramatic. In January our members were joyfully and actively participating, just like last year. By mid-February, our list-serv had fallen silent: everyone was too busy at work or in their lives to participate. For the first time since I joined the Carl Brandon Society Steering Committee, our members actually ignored direct requests for participation. And I have to say: I don't blame them one little bit.

Heartsick and anxiety-ridden over the tone the public discourse began to take on, I bowed out of the discussion and abandoned the posts I had started. I did save them, though, and, although I'm even more heart-sick and anxiety-ridden now, I have to talk this out, if only with myself. Essentially, I have to decide, in the next couple of weeks, if I'm going to "break up" with the antiracist blogosphere.

This is not the first time I've had to make such a decision. In the year 2000, I had to "break up" with the discussion list-servs I was on in 1998/99, that helped me learn and understand so much about my own identity and community, and that helped me formulate my own thinking about race and organizing and why these are important. Without those list-servs and those discussions, I could not have become an effective community organizer, teacher, and advocate. I would not have been able to articulate to myself or anyone else why building a community voice is essential to racial justice.

But the discussions on those list-servs stayed in one place and cycled around that place over and over again, like a ferris wheel. Staying in that discourse after I had completed a few cycles was not merely annoying, it actually militated against progressive action. It made me anxious and sick to my stomach, it made me angry, and -- whereas initially it had brought me closer to my fellow community members -- it began to drive a wedge between us, emphasizing small differences in opinion, and sucking energy and air away from broader-based action.

I thought I would miss it too much. I said I'd "take a break" for three months and then see if I could go back and take part in a more rational manner. What happened instead was that, within a few weeks, I had nearly forgotten about the list-servs, and had discovered a pocket of free hours that I could now dedicate to more real-world action.

But those were purely discussion list-servs; not only were they not intended for action, but calls for action and event announcements weren't allowed on those lists. Breaking up with the antracist POC blogosphere is a much more complex proposition, because it exists not just for discussion, but also for discourse, not just for expression of outrage, but also for action and organizing. And there are people in this community who are so geographically far away, I can't access them any other way.

So this consideration is not just a "in or out" proposition. Being on the CBS Steering Committee requires me to use online organizing and keep up with what's going on in the communities. Writing for Hyphen blog requires me to participate in POC bloggery. I'm not quitting these organizations, so the question is: how to tailor my participation in online POC antiracist action so as to curtail the negative influence of discussion loops, while keeping me in the loop?

This is what I'll be considering over the next few posts. I probably won't respond to comments until I'm through, since this is a longer thought process than usual, and I don't want to break it off or argue until I've gotten through it. Be advised that anything that smacks to me of attack (in comments) may well be deleted. (That's another tactic I'm going to be considering.)

May 13, 2009

Al Robles Memorial On Sunday

For those of you who knew -- or knew of -- Al Robles, and who are in the Bay Area, please come down to his memorial event this Sunday:

WHEN: Sunday, May 17; 12 - 5 PM

WHERE: SomArts Cultural Center, 934 Brannan Street (btw. 8th & 9th) in San Francisco

WHAT: A community memorial for poet and activist Al Robles. There will be readings, performances, and testimonials from folks from all eras of his life. Plus food and drink.

VOLUNTEERS: We'll need a lot of people to help out. If you'd like to volunteer, please contact me at claire at the domain of hyphenmagazine with a dot com.

May 11, 2009

Can We NOT Do Racefail Again, Please?

I'm sticking my head out of its hole here (please note: my head is NOT wearing its CBS hat) to make a plea ... and realizing that I'll probably either get ignored, or get my head bitten off. This plea goes out to my fellow active and activist PoC and white antiracist SF/F fans. Anyone who doesn't fit this description, please refrain from commenting below (I will probably delete you.)

Apparently, Patricia Wrede has written an alternate history YA in which American Indians/Native Americans simply never existed, replaced by magical mammoths. If you don't immediately see what's wrong with this, read this list of links. (I also surfed through from this post and found a buncha stuff that wasn't on the links post above.) The posts linked often link to further reading, so go knock yourself out surfing.

Okay. I, for one, think this list of posts offers a perfect summation of what the problem with Wrede's premise is. What I'm asking for now is for PoC and white antiracists to take a REALLY DEEP BREATH ... and to fail to have a massive, collective, monthslong comment thread freakout like the one that happened this January/February/March/April (a.k.a. RaceFail '09.)

I know you guys are tired of it. We all are. I know the ignorant and vicious attempts to block and derail discussion are making you crazy. But responding to them in comments didn't do much good a few months ago ... and I think it'll do even less good now that the clueless are still smarting from the pileups at various whitepeople blogs which caused everyone to freak out and f-lock and delete their blogs and out each other's real identities and and and ...

What good did any of that do? What good will it do to go there again? The best thing that came out of RaceFail was a list of good, thoughtful posts about cultural appropriation that we can point out to people who want to be educated. Unfortunately, as much as people during RaceFail were linking to these great posts, they were ALSO engaging in increasingly angry comment threads with flamers and trolls who weren't interested in learning anything, and wouldn't have learned anything even if they were BECAUSE THEY WERE ON THE DEFENSIVE, AS EVERYONE IS IN A COMMENTS THREAD BATTLE.

So my suggestion -- my plea -- is to avoid engaging in comment threads as much as possible. You can't argue someone out of their ignorance. You can only lead them to water and WALK AWAY, hoping they'll drink after you've gone. There are some links pileups starting already. Let's contribute to them, and then make some private pledges to simply link to the links posts in comments and NOT COMMENT FURTHER.

WisCon is a week and a half away. I DO NOT want to walk into WisCon wondering who has put themselves in the wrong now. I DO NOT want to have to navigate sudden, new schisms having to do with random ignorant comments-thread comments. We DO NOT have to use this opportunity to excavate every ignorant corner of our fellow SF/F fans' racial consciousness. Let's put the info out there and let them do what they want to with it.

(A suggestion: those of you planning your own blogpost about this, please consider closing comments, so that anyone who wants to respond cannot do so anonymously, but MUST respond by posting something on their own blog. This will cut down on a lot of opportunities for people to enrage you from the safety of anonymity. I'm leaving comments on this post open because I'm hoping we can discuss ways and means of NOT engaging in a RaceFail 1.5.)

*****

In other news, (putting my CBS hat on): the Carl Brandon Society is sponsoring a "Cultural Appropriation 101" class at Wiscon (Friday afternoon during The Gathering -- it will only take up part of the Gathering time, so you can still attend.) The class will be taught by Nisi Shawl, Victor Raymond (both CBS Steering Committee members) and Cabell Gathman.

This will be a SAFE SPACE for anyone who suspects they may be missing some of the basics to come to and learn and discuss, and ask the questions you're afraid to ask for fear of being jumped on. We strongly recommend that anyone who feels a little shaky in the basics, or who doesn't agree with what a lot of PoC are saying about cultural appropriation, come and attend this class BEFORE going into any panels on race or cultural appropriation. Forearmed is forewarned.

May 08, 2009

Busy Today


Brian 1 color300dpiWofford2

Brian Castro and Jenifer Wofford in conversation tonight at SomArts.

Now I have to go pick up Brian from the airport. Will be a headless chicken today.

April 29, 2009

Traditional Immigrant Story

Shipping_routes_national_interest

Pacific shipping routes.

This is just one thread, but it's confusing, so pay attention.

Great-great-grandfather went to San Francisco to pluck duck feathers and carve candles. Great-grandfather didn't join him in the States. Why? It's possible that, returning to Zhong Shan, Great-great blew all the money he had saved on gifts and banquets and couldn't afford to bring his only son over. Another possibility is in the timing: Great-grandfather would have been only 14 in 1882, so perhaps it would have been impossible for him to go, son of a duck-plucker that he was.

Older Cousin, who was going to Costa Rica in 1885, got off the boat too soon and had to establish himself in Colon, Panama instead. Import/export/retail. Cousin offered to pay young Great-grandfather's way to Panama. Skip Ahead.

The year the Canal construction began, now rich enough to support two families, Great-grandfather got a new wife, Great-grandmother, and brought her out to Panama. With three children, and Grandfather on the way, the family moved to Macau, the Portuguese colony off of Hong Kong. Two years later they returned to Panama. Don't know why. Move on.

Great-grandfather and Co returned to Macau in 1922 following his retirement, then Grandfather:

  • studied engineering in Indiana,
  • taught math in Shanghai, where he met Grandmother (who was from Hong Kong, but that's a whole other thread,)
  • settled in Hong Kong until the Japanese invaded,
  • worked for the Chinese nationalist government in Chong Qing until the communists came down,
  • went back to Hong Kong,
  • retired to Vancouver, Canada, and died there.

Which brings us to Mom. She grew up entirely in Hong Kong and mainland China, went to the States to go to graduate school and married there. ... Or something like that.

So my question: if the family makes a good faith effort to return to country of origin, does it all reset? Does Mom get to be a traditional immigrant?

Familypicture

Grandfather is fourth from the far right, last row, holding Youngest Uncle. Mom is seventh from the far right, last row. Oldest Uncle is first on the far right, standing, Second Uncle is seated fourth from the right in front. Grandmother is second row from the top, second from the far left. The rest is family.

For the Joy Luck Hub blog carnival, which I'm running over at Hyphen blog. If you're of Asian diasporic extraction, please submit your 300-word immigrant story, which is NOT like The Joy Luck Club!

March 15, 2009

On "Hapa" And Cultural Appropriation

Fulbeckhapa

Image by Kip Fulbeck.

I'm not interested in participating in RaceFail '09 in any way, and I don't want to compound the folly by inscribing yet another diatribe about cultural appropriation when everyone is running around screaming, with their fingers stuck in their ears. But I do think that the Asian Women Blog Carnival is a good opportunity to kill a few birds: my thinking on a particular close-to-home topic, which will also offer a cautionary tale to the clueless, the allies, and the POC alike.

For those of you just joining us, "hapa" is a word currently used by many/most politically conscious Asian Americans to refer to mixed-race or multiracial Asians. The word is Hawai'an, and is actually part of the term "hapa haole," meaning literally "part foreigner," but connoting people who are half or part Hawai'ian and half or part white. Hawai'ians still use "haole" to refer to whites.

Sounds like a politically correct word, and it has been a "word of power," as Wei Ming Dariotis puts it (see below). But, it turns out, it's a strange example of cultural appropriation: cultural appropriation by Asian Americans, against native Hawai'ians, for the purpose of empowering Asian American multiracials in a context in which we have been historically disenfranchised. This isn't what we usually refer to as "cultural appropriation," but I think it's illuminating, and may help some white Americans who are resisting being labeled "appropriators" to understand what's at stake.

I want to talk about what the word means to people who use it -- especially to me -- and why the word might be problematic and ripe for retirement. This is about using words to express disadvantage and marginalization ... and it's about your words disadvantaging and marginalizing others. It's about walking your talk and why that isn't as easy as it sounds.

Before I discuss the word and its problems, here are some points of necessary information (I hope I don't need to say this, but these points are from my personal perspective and experience, and have to do with my own opinions and understanding, not universal truth):

  • Why multiracials need their own word: Multiracial organizing only really started in a big way in the late eighties, when Generation X was coming of age. Gen X is also known as the "multiracial baby boom," the result of a boomlet in interracial relationships following the Civil Rights Movement, related Chicano and Asian American movements, and the 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision, which reversed centuries of anti-race-mixing laws. On the Asian side, the multiracial boom also followed the Immigration Act of 1965, which substantially increased the flow of Asian immigrants into the US.

    Previous to the "multiracial baby boom," people understood as multiracials did not constitute a significant minority in the US. Although the African American community has always been multiracial, owing to the type of power dynamics that made black women sexually available to white men, due to the "one drop rule," anyone with African blood was considered black, and multiraciality was not recognized per se. (A similar situation is true of Native American communities, for somewhat different reasons.) So a great deal of the initial organizing around multiracial identities had to do with rejecting the one drop rule and reclaiming all identities, or constructing a third identity.

    Also, multiracial African Americans were a much larger group than multiracial Asian Americans, and the history and nature of their issues was and remains very different. During the first twenty years of constructing a "Multiracial Movement," a great deal of the work was simply sharing and discussion. Because As Am multiracials were numerically overwhelmed by Af Am multiracials in the organizations, and felt as if their issues were less urgent, they often felt that they didn't have enough space to talk about Asian-specific issues in general multiracial organizations. On the other side of the question, multiracial Asians were finding themselves under the gun in their Asian communities, being invalidated or outright told that they were a threat to the racial and cultural purity of their communities.

    For all of these reasons, multiracial Asian Americans needed, for a time, to differentiate themselves from other multiracials to discuss their particular issues, and to create a power base for themselves to use in their Asian communities to reclaim membership and a stake. A word for specifically Asian multiracials was essential to this effort.

  • Asian and Pacific Islander American organizing: In the eighties and nineties, Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans were grouped together officially, and so pan-Asian organizations were actually pan-API (Asian Pacific Islander) and made a greater or lesser point of reaching out to Pacific Islander communities and being inclusive in that way. In the 2000s, though, the two categories -- Asian and Pacific Islander -- have been split off from one another and the urgency in pan-Asian organizations around including Pacific Islanders has dropped off to a certain extent. (For example, Hyphen magazine, which I co-founded, was established in 2002 as specifically Asian American and not API, because the other founders felt that our entirely Asian staff couldn't do justice to Pacific Islander issues. I dissented but was overruled, and they were, as always in such cases, partially correct: we couldn't do Pacific Islander issues justice if we weren't going to do them justice ... and we didn't.)

    This is both good and bad. It's good because in the former scenario, the vast differences in cultures, experience, perception, and privilege between the two groups were often glossed over or outright ignored. It's bad because Pacific Islanders are a small group compared to Asians, and did have some access to a stronger power base and some public attention through being included in API organizing. Also, the inclusion was both a challenge and an opportunity for illumination to an Asian American organizing class that was often ignorant of what was going on in Pacific Islander American and recent immigrant communities. Splitting the two groups off from each other has not led to greater attention being paid to Pacific Islander-specific issues and many incoming young adult As Ams remain very ignorant. (Please note that some API orgs remain genuinely and sincerely API.)

    (An example: Last year the de Young Museum in San Francisco had a Pacific Islander artist from New Zealand in residence and produced a performance evening including two Pacific Islander artists from the Bay Area. Ten years ago, such an event could and did turn out substantial numbers from the Asian American arts-loving crowd. This event, though taking place at a major venue, didn't turn out any Asians that I saw, besides myself, and I only went to support my friends whom I hadn't seen in a while.)

  • How hapa got here: As I understand it, "hapa" as a general term for Asians and Pacific Islanders of mixed heritage was being used in Hawai'i before the Second World War, and might have made its way to the mainland as a result of Japanese Americans from both Hawai'i and the mainland fighting together in the war. In any case, on the continental US, the word was first used in the Japanese American community, and stayed there until the late eighties or early nineties when mixed race Asian Americans of all ethnicities started organizing around a mixed race identity together, and needed a general word that could refer to everybody, which had no bad connotations for Asian Americans.

    Previous terms used are:
    • "Eurasian": which arose in European colonies in Asia to refer to the children of mostly white European men and native Asian women through a variety of types of sexual liaisons, from rape and prostitution to marriage. The word has always had a disreputable cast, a negative connotation that suggests that the Asian mother is a prostitute or easy woman, and the child is a bastard. Eurasian women tend to be viewed by both whites and Asians as sexually available, and Eurasian men as untrustworthy. Tragic mulattism ensues.

      The word is also problematic because it declares the mixed race Asian to be part European, and nowadays in the US many multiracial Asians are Asian and African American, or Native American, or Latino, or Middle Eastern, etc. What to call them?

    • "Amerasian": arose to refer specifically to the children of soldiers in Asian wars of the latter half of the twentieth century. I'm not sure if it was being used post-Korean War, but it was definitely what the children of Vietnam War soldiers were called. The term has occasionally been applied to multiracial Asian Americans from some other context, but never really stuck or gained any mainstream recognition as such. It also has an unsavory, prostitute/GI connotation, and a tragic mulatto implication, given the dire political situation of Amerasian children in their country of origin at wars' ends. 

      Also problematic because it implies that the Asian parent is not American, and the non-Asian parent is.

    • "Multiracial": has no real negative political connotations, but is also not specific enough, as I explained above.

    • "Cablinasian," "Blackanese," "Korgentinian," and the like: There's definitely a value in the Multiracial Movement that holds personal descriptors -- i.e. personally invented descriptors -- in high esteem. Therefore: Tiger Woods' famous "Cablinasian," or the fairly common (among Black and Japanese multiracials) "Blackanese," or the very specific "Korgentinian," which I got from former Hapa Issues Forum Director Sheila Chung, who is Korean and Argentinian. However, unlike "multiracial," these are all too specific. They're great used on an individual basis, but you can't build a movement or group identity around them.

  • Do we need "hapa" now?: in 2007 Hapa Issues Forum, the main organization collecting hapa-centered clubs and associations together, officially closed its doors. It had been latent for three years. There were a number of reasons for this, the first being that the generation that started HIF, my generation, were now on the doorstep of middle age, marrying, having kids, and generally backing away mightily from nonprofit volunteerism. It happens. Another reason, though, was the the next generation of organizers, who always came up through student associations, were no longer organizing under "hapa"; they were now organizing under general multiraciality. This meant that they would transition (if at all) from general mixed race orgs in college to general mixed race orgs out in the world, of which there are many.

    What had happened in the interim was that mixed race Asians had radically increased in number, and our issues had become "mainstream" within the Multiracial Movement. Thanks to HIF and other hapa-based orgs, the materials (books, films, plays, artwork, music, performances, etc.) available to explain us had exploded. We were no longer ignored and marginalized. We had a seat at the table, at least, at the table of mixed race and Asian American organizing. Our advocacy had worked. The word "hapa" had worked.

Okay, do you feel caught up? I feel caught up.

So, I've just spent a lot of bullet points explaining why the word "hapa" has been so important -- to Asian America, to the Multiracial Movement, and to multiracial Asian American organizing. I've also hinted at how Asian American organizing may have gotten in the way of Pacific Islander organizing.

Okay, now read this article by Dr. Wei Ming Dariotis, a specialist in Asian Americans of mixed heritage. In it, she talks about how the word "hapa" has been her "word of power," how it freed her to identify herself in a powerful way, and also to find a community of free choice rather than a community of shame:

It has given us a space of our own, a place where we can be us, without having to explain ourselves. Anyone entering the space created by the word accepts our identity. In this way it works opposite from Bilbo and Frodo's ring of power, which makes the wearer invisible; the word “Hapa” makes my community visible, that is its power.

But:

power, as we all know, always creates the seeds of its own destruction.  The very success of the word “Hapa” has been in some ways its downfall.  What I mean to say that the word “Hapa” as it is used now can never go back to what it (or what “hapa”) once meant: a Native Hawaiian word meaning mixed or part or half, as in the phrase hapa haole.

... Increasingly, many Native Hawaiian people object not only to the way the word has been changed in its grammatical usage, but also to how it is applied to anyone of mixed Asian and or Pacific Islander heritage, when it implies Native Hawaiian mixed heritage.  This is not merely a question of trying to hold on to word that like many words encountered in the English language has been adopted, assimilated, or appropriated.  This is a question of power.  Who has the power or right to use language? 

She goes on to point out that Asians are not native to Hawai'i but rather settlers. Although they were exploited and mistreated on Hawai'i and the mainland, their settlement was a choice, and their subsequent success came through supporting and bolstering European/American hegemony on Hawai'i. Let me repeat that: Asian American success on Hawai'i came through Asian American collusion in the colonization of Hawai'i.

So this admittedly symbolic usage of "hapa" by Asian Americans feels to many native Hawai'ians like the appropriation of land and culture perpetrated by all Hawai'ian settlers and colonizers. Further, that mixed race Asian Americans appropriated a word to find their own power is an item of their own blissful ignorance ... and privilege. As Dariotis points out in her article, Asian Americans appropriated "hapa" because it had no negative connotations for Asian Americans. But that was because the word arose out of a colonizing situation between Europeans and native Hawai'ians. The fact that Asian Americans saw no negative connotations in the word had to do with the fact thatn in this colonizing situation, Asian Americans played a helping role on the side of the colonizers. That's about as ironic as it gets.

When I first read Wei Ming's article, I was just as resistant as she said she was to giving up the word "hapa." It had a similar meaning to me as it did to her. I had experienced some pretty bad bullying as a child based largely on my racial identity (if you want to get the flavor of it, read this; it's pretty much exactly my experience, except that I'm Chinese and my parents were both on the spot), and like many multiracial and monoracial As Ams, I grew up isolated from "people like me." Having a word that identified me accurately, and conferred power on me instead of taking it away was more important than I can explain to anyone who has always had the right to name themselves without question (ask me sometime about how bullies use names to take away your dignity and self esteem, how any word can be turned into something that hurts you.)

Wei Ming's article first appeared on Hyphen magazine's website (I can't find it there now) in late 2007 and I rejected the argument out of hand. "What do they expect us to use then, huh?" I thought. "We have no other word, and the meaning has already changed. It's too late. Besides, a lot of Hawai'ian words, and a lot of Asian words, too, have been incorporated into English without anyone's explicit permission. These words honor the contributions of Hawai'ian and Asian cultures in the American mainstream. Plus, this word is being used to give non-whites power. Don't these hysterical Hawai'ians get it?" At the time it seemed a pretty unanswerable argument. Yeah.

I didn't think too much about it over the next year or so. But then I got into an argument a couple weeks ago or so with a Korean American friend about US Americans' use of the word "American" to refer to ourselves. Don't get me wrong. I think the argument that all people in the Americas are "American" is pretty obvious and silly. If a Bolivian wanted to refer to herself as "American," she'd be totally within her rights, as far as I was concerned. Of course, that's ridiculous, though. She already has a country name, Bolivia, which she can use to refer to herself, whereas our country name IS "America." "the United States of" is a modifier, and it would be grammatically problematic to call us "Unitedians" or "Statesians" (then everyone else could argue that they're also united or they are also states.) And having other people assign to us the name "USians" is inappropriate and goes against all my principles; people name themselves, and people outside of the group don't get any say in it at all.

But then, on the other hand, the USA declared itself caretaker and patron of the entire Western Hemisphere nearly two centuries ago, without anyone else's say so, and has been running around like it's all agreed ever since: setting up murderous dictators, couping out popularly elected officials, and generally acting like anything in the Americas is ... well ... American, in the sense of "United States of." I don't believe that the original use of "American" to refer to British colonists in the American colonies was at all intended to claim hegemony over the entire hemisphere. No USA citizens intend that our use of the word "American" confers hegemony on us. Not even our government intends that. But the fact remains that we've wreaked might-makes-right havoc on the entire hemisphere, and that we dominate it in such a way that all other countries in the Americas must define themselves in alliance or opposition to us. I mean US.

So the jury is very much out on that issue. On the one hand, it would be ridiculous for me and other bleeding hearts to say "Hey, we'll stop calling ourselves 'American' because we don't want to offend our fellow Americas-ians," when nobody else wants to use the word to refer to themselves. On the other hand, maybe none of us should be using the word as a national signifier, since it belongs to all of us. And on the foot, what do we call ourselves then?

Which brings us back to "hapa," and that debate, which broke back over me in the past week as a result of the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival declaring a hapa theme this year. In this case, it's not a matter of us trying to share a word with Others that we all have equal right to, and that they don't particularly want to use for themselves. In this case, it's a matter of trying to get the power of a name by ignorantly taking the power of a name away from someone else.

See, the history of "hapa" is that it was a term specifically created to refer to the children produced by European/American hegemony in Hawai'i. Without the colonization, you don't need the term "hapa haole." And it's a specifically positive Hawai'ian word for mixed children, a word created to include mixed children into native Hawai'ian society, to find a place for them. You can't have power in a Hawai'ian word for multiracial Hawai'ians if it doesn't exist solely for multiracial Hawai'ians. Having this word appropriated by Asians who settled or were settled on Hawai'i only after it was literally stolen from the Hawai'ian people -- having this word stolen by Asians brought over to work the plantations that the haoles stole Hawai'i to create -- would be pretty damn hard to take, wouldn't it?

What we've done here is stolen the power of the word. Period. This is not like the whole "American" thing where we didn't steal the word, and the power in it now is something that has accumulated with time. This was a straight-up decision that was made in living memory to use this word because there was nothing standing between us and it ... kinda like the decision made in recent times to simply take Hawai'i because there was nothing military standing between us and it.

This is no longer acceptable to me. Yes, it took me over a year of subconscious mulling to get here but I'm here now. I don't want to use the word anymore; its power is gone and its savor has soured for me.

And at the same time, multiracial Asian organizations have re-assimilated (word used advisedly) with general multiracial organizations; mixed race Asians now have an important seat at the table of both Asian America, and Multiracial America. We don't need the word "hapa" anymore, not to organize around, anyway. So maybe we're able to say "let it go" because we don't need it anymore.

But that doesn't make the letting go any less difficult, or any less necessary.

And what, if anything, do we call ourselves now?

January 15, 2009

Defining and Identifying Cultural Appropriation

Here's what's going on and why I'm doing this now.

First of all, I'm not gonna deal with global cultural appropriation, but rather focus on American appropriation of cultures brought into the US either by immigrants or by Americans who went abroad and brought stuff back. Okay, here's a brief and incomplete definition of "cultural appropriation" I wrote in this post a couple of years ago (you have to read the whole post to really get where I'm coming from.):

Cultural Appropriation: The unhealthy aspect of multiculti, where a more powerful culture raids a less powerful neighboring culture ... and appropriates aspects of that culture without proper acknowledgment of the "home culture" or understanding the cultural context from which these aspects spring. Examples: yoga, Buddhism, hip hop and ebonics-derived slang, graffiti art, etc.

I think that's adequate as a basis, but I DO think I need to distinguish between two concepts so that people get it. The two concepts are:

  • Cultural Appropriation
  • Cultural Syncretism

Syncretism generally refers to the process of reconciling or melding of differing views or beliefs or uses. This can happen intentionally, or by a natural, unconscious process.

More or less discrete cultures that come into contact with one another, either through geographical proximity, migration, conquest, trade and exploration, or in other ways, will start to syncretize aspects of each culture. This is inevitable, and neither undesirable nor preventable. Cultural items tend to get taken on in a new culture if they are useful, convenient, resolve a problem, or appeal to a value that already exists in the host culture. Examples of this would be:

  • the adoption of potatoes into the European diet after contact with the new world (the introduction of potatoes was more or less deliberate, but the spread of potatoes was a natural cultural movement)
  • Christianity becoming a cult (one of many) in ancient Rome, a culture that tolerated multiple gods from many cultural origins, and incorporated them into its pantheon
  • the partial adoption of Japanese corporate organizing practices in the US auto industry in the eighties, when Japanese auto companies began building factories in the States

And of course, small things like words and whole slang idioms, small gestures or sets of gestures, rituals and ceremonies, manners, clothing and accessories, music, visual design elements, etc. can get taken on deliberately or without thought.

This is just how we are. US mainstream culture is a mass of syncretism, from our political culture, to our language ("ketchup" is Chinese, "frankfurter" and "wiener" are German, "chili" is Nahuatl, "onion" is Latin, and "soda" is Arabic, so your standard chili dog and coke is about as syncretic -- and American -- as you can get), our religions, our design, our ... etc.

HOW syncretism happens is not defined under the term. It can be forced (Indian boarding schools, Catholic church incorporation of local gods as saints), it can be friendly, or it can happen unconsciously. Cultural appropriation is actually, therefore, a subset of cultural syncretism -- one way that syncretism happens.

It's a strange, post-colonial way of making syncretism happen, though. Whereas previous to modern decolonization, no one was truly uncomfortable with the idea that the Other was "barbaric" (it was only the argument over who constituted the Other, us or them), it's only since the 20th century that we've consciously moralized this position, and created an understanding of Otherness as having value and even virtue, simply because it is Other. This is the "noble savage" point of view, the exotifying point of view, the model minority point of view, that elevates Otherness rather than denigrating it. It's still a process of Othering, though.

It's also only since the 20th century that groups of people have accepted their identity as Other to the mainstream or dominant group, and turned it into a power position.

Today, in the United States, we have groups, tribes, cultures, of people whose primary identity is that of Other. Although we spend a lot of time saying "we are not Other," people of color ... African Americans, Asian Americans, etc. ... are people and Americans who must define themselves using a modifier. This is an Other identity, not a mainstream one. You can see the difference when you talk to my mom, who immigrated in her twenties and has been a US citizen for half her life: she'll tell you she's Chinese. Not Chinese American, Chinese. She has a mainstream identity from a different country. Here, she's a foreigner or immigrant, but there's a place where she is not an Other. I, on the Other hand, am Chinese American and multiracial. I was born an Other in the world, and have no home ground to go to where I'm not Other.

I make this point because accepting and claiming an Other identity, which has politically empowered a lot of people of color, has been largely misunderstood on the white side as meaning that "it's better to be colored than white." This is an unconscious understanding, but it feeds into the noble-savaging and Othering of POC. This comes about because it's accepted and empowering to be outspokenly proud to be "black," "Asian," "brown," "Latino," what have you, but it's not okay to use the same language to be outspokenly proud to be "white." So this gets translated into the following set of principles:

  1. whites have no 'ethnic' identity because being proud of one's whiteness is just racism
  2. people of color are the only ones with real ethnicity
  3. having an ethnicity is better than not having an ethnicity

Which brings us to cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is a method of cultural syncretism that is specific to our primary-Other-identity, post-colonial, identity-politics era. It arises when a dominant culture, as I said above, raids a subordinate culture for cultural items that it then pulls out of context. The dominant culture -- in our case, white Americans -- doesn't properly acknowledge the borrowing -- or else the dominant culture makes a complete hash of the borrowing and then tries to pass it off as authentic. This happens for three reasons:

  1. Whites want/need ethnicity, so they find or make up a nonwhite ancestor and go acquire aspects of that ancestor's culture (see "1/16th Cherokee" or "we're southern so we must have a black ancestor") which they weren't brought up in and haven't acquired in ways that people generally consider to be "authentic."
  2. Whites want/need ethnicity, so they decide to strongly identify with a nonwhite culture and then acquire aspects of that culture (see "I taught English in China for two years," or "I'm blacker than you are!")
  3. Whites of a particular class or position need to appear worldly and eclectic -- not to mention liberal -- so they spend a great deal of cultural time "broadening their horizons" in ethnic shops and exercise/dance classes. This last one is itself an item of a liberal white American subculture: the need to have a culturally eclectic affect.

The reason I made this distinction between cultural syncretism in general and cultural appropriation specifically is that -- you guessed it -- cultural appropriation is about an exploitive power dynamic, whereas not all forms of cultural sycretism are. We see cultural syncretism everywhere in our mainstream culture because the US is an immigrant country and we really do meld a lot more than we give ourselves credit for. The power dynamic lies in the fact that the genuinely syncretic and layered culture of the mainstream is dominated by whites. That broad river of culture is considered -- consciously by POC and unconsciously by whites -- to be the home ground and domain of whites, even though everyone has contributed to it.

So when a new cultural item is added to that mainstream, it is done by whites deliberately, and in a manner that doesn't acknowledge its debt to any subculture or alternate culture. That mainstream is powerful because it is the mainstream and because it is the homeground of the white power-majority. Likewise, whites are powerful because they are white and because they control the powerful mainstream, both. It's true cultural synergy.

The principle of the mainstream is inherently melting-pot-ish, so once something has joined the mainstream, it becomes very difficult to pick out its origin and path to the mainstream. This is an aspect of the cultural mainstream that shores up its power. Likewise, people of color rarely see their cultural product make it into the mainstream intact because of the melting pot principle; it's easier to not give up power if you dismantle a subculture and incorporate it piecemeal: for every Boyz 'n' the Hood there will be twenty Colors's; for every Better Luck Tomorrow there will be twenty Fast and Furious sequels. Dismantle, then control. This is why the live action Avatar can be cast all white. Avatar already began the process of dismantling the cultures by making them secondary cultures.

Cultural appropriation is also hard for whites to understand because it's hard to distinguish between melding and appropriation when we simply don't know where each individual got it from.

For example: generation after generation, African American slang gets incorporated into mainstream white slang. At one point in this process, it's straight up cultural appropriation. But there does come a moment when enough white people are using the slang, that other white people are picking it up from whites in their own communities, without necessarily knowing its origin. At that point, it's already fused into the mainstream culture and the less "cutting edge" whites really aren't appropriating it ... because it's already thoroughly appropriated.

I'll give you a funny example: I left the US (Tucson) in 1992 and came back (to San Francisco) in 1998. During that time, a new set of "urban" slang hit the mainstream. Not a lot of this reached us in Europe during that time. So when I came back to the States in 98/99, I was working at a number of Asian American arts orgs. A lot of the volunteers had gone to ivy league colleges (model minorities) and I noticed something: all the people I knew who had gone to Yale were using this slang expression "My bad." I'd never heard that before so I pointed it out to a Yalie friend and asked if it was a Yale thing. She found that very amusing. Of course, subsequently, I heard it all over the place and it became clear that it was part of a slang set that -- once again -- came from African America. But by the time it reached me, it was so thoroughly appropriated that I was able to think -- just for a moment -- that it was an ivy league thing.

Because cultural appropriation either succeeds or fails -- that is, items are either thoroughly appropriated or they aren't -- it can be hard to tell with successful appropriations where they've been appropriated from. So a LOT of whites, who get these things from their white communities, hear POC screaming about cultural appropriation and are genuinely confused. Aren't we a melting pot? I didn't steal this from anybody! Even my Mom says it for chrissake!

There's also a lot of unconscious disagreement about a statute of limitations on accusations of cultural appropriation. For example, I still hear some Af Ams complaining about how Elvis jacked Little Richard and others. It's true, but we're so many musical generations down the line from Elvis, and most Af Am musicians wouldn't touch rockabilly with a ten-foot pole now, so can we let go of that? I'd still be willing to talk about Vanilla Ice, but there are folks who think that's over, too. So that's another issue that no one can agree on: when does it stop being cultural appropriation and just become culture?

Sadly, I have no answers for you today. Because, of course, cultural syncretism and its various methods are a spectrum, not a clearly defined taxonomy. And where your own actions fall on that spectrum will depend on your point of view.

One thing I can say, and have said before, is that when it comes to creating fictional worlds and fictional characters, you do have the opportunity to control your cultural appropriation, to step back and err on the side of not appropriating. That is not the same thing as not writing the Other, but I happen to fall down on the side of don't write the Other if you can't do it right. Rather, make sure that enough People of Color are getting published and noticed.

But that's just me.

September 18, 2008

Reading Update and APAture LIVEBLOGGING!

Also, I just finished Maugham's The Painted Veil. Can't write about it right now. I'm reading it as material for an essay I'm trying to write about politics of narrative. Maybe I can work out some ideas here but not for the next couple of weeks because

I'M LIVEBLOGGING APATURE!

APAture is a festival I started with a group of people at Kearny Street Workshop ten years ago. This year is its first big anniversary and I've started a liveblog where I'll be documenting all the events. I've also put a feed to this blog in the upper left hand corner of the page you're reading now. Look over there! It says "APAture Live." That's it!

Please follow along with us, dudes and dudettes.

I gotta run now and start blogging. The gallery opening starts in 45 minutes.

September 15, 2008

Carl Brandon Society Hispanic Heritage Month Book List

Happy Hispanic Heritage Month y'all!

If this looks familiar to you, it's because you've seen this sort of thing before.

Every national heritage month, members of the Carl Brandon Society (an organization of writers of color working in the speculative fiction genres) create a list of ten speculative fiction books in print written by writers of that particular heritage. The 2008 Carl Brandon Society Hispanic Heritage Month Recommended Reading List (I know, it's long) is below.

Please forward and post everywhere, take to your bookstores and libraries, tell all your friends! These are books worth reading, and it would be great if you could read one of them between Sept 15 and Oct 15 and blog about it! Yes?

*****

The CARL BRANDON SOCIETY recommends

the following speculative fiction books by writers of Latin American heritage

for Hispanic Heritage Month:

  • COSMOS LATINOS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF SCIENCE FICTION FROM LATIN AMERICA AND SPAIN: a terrific, five-year-old anthology of early-to-contemporary SF stories from Spain and Latin America, showing the breadth of Latino social concerns and imagination.
  • Jorge Luis Borges LABYRINTHS: A short story collection very like FICCIONES, his other book. Am not sure which one has my two favorite Borges stories: A) the story about the man who is on a bus trip and who is fated to die 2) the story about Judas being the real savior because he was the one who was despised and rejected of men. Just turning the entire Jesus story around and saying Judas was the lamb who sacrificed himself.
  • Adolfo Bioy Casares THE INVENTION OF MOREL: Casares was an Argentine writer in the circle of Jorge Luis Borges. MOREL steps directly into the realm of science fiction, in the tradition of THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, dealing with unnamed technology and its very specific effects on human psychology.
  • Julio Cortazar HOPSCOTCH: Remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books where you get to choose your own endings, make your own timeline, and generally skip around and rearrange the chapters? This is the best of the best. It's a novel about philosophy and order and meaning and quite fun.
  • Carlos Fuentes DEATH OF ARTEMIO CRUZ: This is the first book (the only book?) I ever read where each chapter is written in a different person. First person, Second Person, Third Person. There is also the great f*ck chapter. An old revolutionary is dying and thinking about his life. We see a lot about the Mexican revolution and get tons of stuff about political corruption.
  • Angelica Gorodischer KALPA IMPERIAL: a quirky collection of stories about a fictional great empire that rises and falls and rises and falls. Translated by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Mario Vargas Llosa AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER: hilarious, mischievous, and masterful...a wonderfully comic novel almost unbelievably rich in character, place and event.
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE: Totally wonderful love story with folk-legend. It's like listening to one's hoo-doo believing grandmother telling you about events in her life. A lot of brothers, a lot of love, a lot of passion, a lot of spiritual cause and effect.
  • Guillermo Gomez-Peña THE NEW WORLD BORDER: the strangest book about performance art you've ever read, Gomez-Peña casts forward into, and writes news reports from a borderless future where whites are a minority and the language is Spanglish.
  • Juan Rulfo PEDRO PARAMO: A man goes back to his parents' village to try to find the father who abandoned him. Trapped there by ghosts, he learns the horrifying story of his father's evil deeds. One of the first "magical realist" novels from Latin America.
       

For more information, please visit www.carlbrandon.org.

June 04, 2008

I'm SOOOO Tired of This

First, Geraldine Ferraro says reverse racism, and Harriet Christian says "inadequate black male."

They get reamed, as is proper and right, with a thoroughness that you can google yourself.

Then, Joan Walsh says,

Beyond Christian's deplorable reference to Obama as an "inadequate black male" was a wail worth hearing. She also said, "I'm proud to be an older American woman!" I can feel her pain. Reading the sexist attacks on Clinton and her white female supporters, as well as on female journalists and bloggers who've occasionally tried to defend her or critique Obama, has been, well, consciousness-raising. Prejudice against older women, apparently, is one of the last non-taboo biases. I've been stunned by the extent to which trashing Clinton supporters as washed up old white women is acceptable. A writer whose work I respect submitted a piece addressed to "old white feminists," telling them to get out of Obama's way. I've found my own writing often dismissed not on its merits (or lack thereof) but because as a woman who will turn 50 in September, I'm supposed to be Clinton's demographic. Salon's letters pages, as well as the comments sections around the blogosphere, are studded with dismissive, derisive references to bitter old white women.

Then, Ta-Nehisi Coates says:

Once I heard Walsh invoking the words of two bigots to make her point, I checked out. Physician heal-thy-mutherfucking-self. Ferraro is the same woman who argued that "racial resentment" was OK. Walsh apparently thinks Harriet's description of Obama as an inadequate black male, "was a wail worth healing." I'm physically sick reading that. I never much agreed with Walsh's take on the Clinton's, but for my money, she just fell into Pat Buchanan territory. Anyone who thinks there's something to take from someone who says it's fine to resent black people racially, who claims that there's something worth hearing in describing the first black man to ever win a major party's nomination as "an inadequate black male" is the moral equivalent of a racist to me.

Oh, HELL NO. Walsh specifically said beyond the deplorable "inadequate black male" comment was a wail worth hearing. It is NOT OKAY to twist that into her saying that "inadequate black male" is a wail worth hearing. That's just plain stupid. Walsh was VERY CLEARLY saying that these women had a message about sexism that was obscured by their racism, and NOT that their racism was okay.

And pointing out that a woman who is a forty-year democratic party stalwart, as well as a woman who is the nation's first female vice presidential candidate, might have something apropos to say about sexism in elections despite their manifest racism, does NOT put Walsh into the lunatic fringe. There are few women out there being loud and passionate about the sexism in this campaign who aren't outright Clinton supporters and, racist or not, all white women Clinton supporters have been accused of implicit racism in this election at one time or another. To say that a woman who approves the gender message of a racist commenter is herself beyond the pale is tantamount to an attempt to silence the debate on sexism in this election.

I'm sooooo sick of hearing people say that racism puts people completely beyond the pale ... that the moment somebody says something racist, you simply don't have to listen to them anymore. People can be--and usually are--vastly ignorant about everybody else's oppression, but very clear and articulate about their own. The poor whites who blame undocumented immigrants for their own bad education and healthcare and underemployment are obnoxious not because their situation isn't truly bad, but because they're blaming it on the wrong people. And ignoring the whole complaint because of its racism is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

This is EXACTLY the attitude that led to Obama's stupid and arrogant bitter white people comment. This is exactly the attitude that puts educated, powerful blacks like Obama beyond the sympathy of poor and working class, less-educated whites. If Obama is going to win, not only does he have to stop making bitter white people comments, but his supporters have to stop ignoring the desires of people tainted with the racism brush, since they make up the majority of voters.

If a misogynistic black man can be both held to account for his misogyny, and also listened to for his experience of racism, then racist white women who have just been treated to the year-long public spectacle of a wealthy, powerful, and respected white politician publicly pilloried by men of all races because she is a woman can be both held to account for their racism, and MUTHERFUCKING LISTENED TO for their experience of sexism.

And just like non-blacks don't get to tell blacks when they've crossed the line in their frustration with racism, MEN DO NOT GET TO TELL WOMEN when they've crossed the line in their frustration with sexism. If Coates wants to analyze, instruct, or ream Ferraro and Christian for their racism, more power to him. And yes, it's time for them to shut up. But to dismiss the just protest against manifest and obvious sexism made by these women is not okay. And it's not okay to dismiss Walsh's argument because she jumps off of Ferraro's and Christian's comments.

Coates says further:

I want to see Barack Obama out there courting the vote of all women. I want to see him talking specifically about what his plans are. But I've got no interest in seeing him court those who would use feminism, as a cover for their own blackaphoic views. Later for them. Let them vote McCain, and go join the party where bigotry is part of the platform. The rest of us have a country to save.

HUNH? Does Coates really think that Ferraro's and Christian's public brainfarts were about how afraid they are of black men? Their feminism isn't anything but a cover for their racism? Wow, that's gotta be the most sexist thing I've heard all year.

DUDE, IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU. I know it's shocking, but sometimes, even in a world Obama inhabits, even in an election that includes your wannapund ass, race isn't the thing people are focused on. These women are angry about a woman NOT getting elected, they're not really angry about a black man GETTING elected. They're blaming it on a black man getting elected, because they need something to strike out at, and this is something new that they don't understand. But their passion is all about the wimminz. Shockingly enough, they're passionate about THEMSELVES, NOT YOU.

Of course it's not okay for them to be striking out in this racist manner. And yes, they need to be called out for it. And yes, Ferraro and Christian need to shut up, now. They've lost their right to the talking stick because they can't seem to hold it without being racist. But let's be clear: if the race had been between Clinton and Edwards and the same thing had happened, the same campaigns had been run minus the racial element, Ferraro and Christian, not to mention Gloria Steinem, would be making just as loud public statements about the sexism of the campaign, and would be just as angry. And rightfully so.

At the end of the day, a woman's racism will not buffer her from misogyny. DO NOT tell me or anyone else that racism somehow makes a woman's testimony about sexism worthless. And Walsh does get to point this out because SHE'S got the talking stick.

May 28, 2008

All Hail the Mighty Zuky

Racism is like a hellish mosaic whose imagery and meaning can only be seen from a certain distance and with a certain developed ability to discern the patterns at multiple levels of abstraction.

May 13, 2008

Register Your Bone Marrow!

Hey all, somebody else needs a bone marrow transplant.

Actually, a LOT of people need bone marrow transplants. Bone marrow is much harder to match than blood, and it's much likelier that someone will find a match with a donor from their own racial or ethnic group.

But people of color don't register as bone marrow donors in the same proportions as whites. So people of color with leukemia tend to get screwed. Mixed race people especially tend to get screwed.

I'd do it, but my diabetes prevents me from donating just about anything. So instead, I'm passing on the word, hoping that some of you will step up and do it for me.

If you're a person of color, you can get a free testing kit. Click here to register, no matter what color you are!

May 06, 2008

Starship & Haiku

51nq3cjherl_sl500_aa240_ What do you get when a burned-out, English-educated, Thai composer, who sometimes resides in the United States, and has read too much Mishima, starts to write science fiction?

Well, damn. You get something bizarre and almost beautiful. I say "almost" because S.P. Somtow tried to structure his 1981 novel Starship and Haiku like haiku--or at least, to make the experience of reading it recall the experience of reading haiku in macro. But it's a novel, which is sort of the anti-haiku form. So neither form--haiku, novel--quite succeeds, and neither quite fails, either. And there's a large admixture of pulpy prose in here, making the proceedings occasionally awkward.

The story: In the third decade of the 21st century, after a devastating nuclear war has left the Earth utterly moribund, politically-neutral Japan is the only country on Earth not left as a post-apocalyptic landscape. Two aging rivals--Ishida and Takahashi--form the powerful arms of a triumvirate that has taken over Japan. The faithless Ishida is the Minister of Survival and the superficial Takahashi is the Minister of Ending, charged with assisting the people to achieve perfect suicides to expiate humanity's crime of destroying the Earth.

Ishida has a secret project. Before the millenial war, the Russians (the book was written around 1980, remember) had completed a starship and left it orbiting the Earth. Ishida has a team of mostly western scientists building a rocket that will take a group of colonists to the Russian generational ship, which they will then aim at Tau Ceti, a four-thousand-year journey. The broader point is to ensure the survival of the human race in the face of its extinction through a devastating virus and debilitating mutations. The more specific point is to ensure the survival of Ishida's own daughter, Ryoko.

Knowing that Ryoko is particularly Japanese (I know, just go with it for a minute) and likely to wish for a beautiful death, Ishida sends her on a trip to Hawai'i to view the devastation firsthand. While there, she meets Josh Nakamura, a Japanese American man, and his younger brother Didi, a "strange" or mutant. Didi's mutation keeps him physically childlike and enables him to read minds and perform a certain amount of telekinesis. He keeps this secret from Josh, for some reason, and Josh thinks Didi is a cretin. Didi is all about joy and beauty and Josh doesn't get the whole Japanese thing.

There's a bit of back and forth and stuff happens. Upshot is that Ryoko develops a relationship with a whale, who (here comes the really bizarre part) reveals to the ministers that (mild spoiler) whales are the parents of the Japanese, a human sub-species that is human-shaped and whale-minded. That's where the Japanese obsession with beauty and death comes from (I know, bear with me a moment.) The whale also outs Ishida's anti-suicide starship plan. This revelation causes the rivals Ishida and Takahashi to kick into high gear. Takahashi becomes a deathgod, hounding people into suicide to expiate their patricidal sin (killing whales) and Ishida sends Ryoko off to make the starship thing happen. And so on.

Like I said, bizarre. On the one hand, there's this insanely reductive view of the Japanese as monolithically suicide-crazy and beauty-obsessed. On the other, there's a fairly nuanced (for 1981) understanding of a Japanese American identity in the person of Josh Nakamura, who may look like he's sprung from whales, but holds no truck with killing yourself after seeing the perfect teabowl or some such shit.

(There's a bit of business about how Josh and Didi get to Japan through trading their dead grandmother's antique teabowl for passage to a Japanese ship's captain who seriously considers immediate suicide since he is unlikely to see anything that beautiful again. The captain tempers his disgust for Josh's inability to see the bowl's beauty with the reflection that Josh was not raised Japanese, so it's not his fault. I have no idea if this was intentionally or unintentionally comic.)

But you can also read this as a secondary world novel, in which the "Japanese" are not our Japanese, but rather what Japanese would be if they were descended from whales. Yeah. Because of all the interesting things about this book, the most interesting is that it's the first SF novel--or maybe even the first novel, period--that I've read that instinctively understands two things about Asian America: its pan-Asian ethic, and its cultural Japan-centeredness.

The pan-Asian ethic is implied rather than stated. The only character whose identity isn't reduced to utter silliness is the proto-JA Josh. While reading Josh's character, you can't help but be aware that the author is Thai, but of a privileged enough background to have been educated abroad and to consider himself among the international creative community. Maybe it's just me, but his presentation of Josh's JAness feels proprietary: the presentation of a hybrid identity that's shared by the author by virtue of being Asian--any Asian--and transnational.

The 80's Asian American Japan-centerness was partly external and partly internal. Japan in the early 80's was on the ascendant, economically speaking. SF was fascinated with it as the supposed culture of the future (see Blade Runner and Neuromancer), and mainstream America was both fascinated by its exotic cultural--and business--virtues (see Gung Ho and Die Hard), and angered by its smooth victory over Detroit (see Vincent Chin). So Asian Americans in the 80's were forced to deal with mainstream America's perceptions of Japan, both "positive" and negative.

On the other hand, the 80's was when the redress movement for WWII Japanese American internment really heated up. (Reparations were finally awarded in 1988.) The Asian American Movement of the 1970's, which created the notion of a pan-ethnic Asian American identity, put a lot of its energy towards redress, and as a result, many Asian Americans who are not of Japanese ancestry feel a strong identification with Japanese Americans.

So it's fascinating that this book was written during all this ferment--and written at a time when American-raised Asian Americans were struggling to find an idiom to tell their stories in. Somtow doesn't explicate this particular Japanocentric, pan-ethnic Asian American sensibility so much as embody it in the book. He might not even have been entirely aware of it.

On another track, the book is a lovely experiment that recalls for me--of all things--Ernest Hogan's High Aztech. They were written about ten years apart and share almost nothing, except--and this is important--length, and hybridity. Both are not so successful as novels, both better read as impressionistic essays on 21st Century cities, technology, and human understanding.

I loved this book, which is unusual for me. I don't often love books this close to failure. But this one has done things I never thought to do with writing: taken the Mishima-style core of beauty and suicide that I've also felt and tried to write about, and made a piece out of it that I would never have thought to make. (My solution to Mishima was to write an ugly autobiographical story about a girl who reads too much Mishima ... but the less said about that the better.)

May 04, 2008

YouTube/Asia Society API Heritage Month Project

Awesome.

The Asia Society and YouTube have gotten together to post a series of videos from Asian Americans for API Heritage Month. They've started by posting vids about "What does being Asian American mean to me?" from luminaries like Sandra Oh, Kal Penn, and Yul Kwon, but it's open to any ol' slob ... like me. And I might just do it if  I can figure out how.

Clicky here to submit a vid or just watch the other ones.

May 02, 2008

What I'm Reading for API Heritage Month

Okay, having posted the CBS API Heritage Month list, what am I gonna read for it?

Well, I've already read:

  • Ted Chiang STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS
  • Haruki Murakami HARDBOILED WONDERLAND AND THE END OF THE WORLD

Yes, it's sad. That's all I've read.

I'm going to read:

  • Sesshu Foster ATOMIK AZTEX: I've actually read about half of this book but got distracted and didn't finish. So I'm going to start over and finish it.
  • Cathy Park Hong DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION: I've got it, I've started it, and I'm going to finish it.
  • Bryan Thao Worra ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE EYE: I've got it, I've started it, and I'm going to finish it. By the way, go order this book! Bryan is a member of the CBS Steering committee and decorated the envelope he sent this to me in with a personal poem. Cool.

May 01, 2008

Carl Brandon Society API Heritage Month Book List

Hi Everybody!

It's not only MayDay, the day when everybody in the world except capitalist ol' USA celebrates labor, but it's also the start of the American ASIAN PACIFIC ISLANDER HERITAGE MONTH.

Yes, it's time once again to celebrate the Asian and Pacific Islander AMERICANS in your life. Don't hesitate also to celebrate the Asian and Pacific Islander whatever else's in your life as well, though.

The Carl Brandon Society
, per our new Heritage Month book program, has come up with a list of recommended speculative fiction books by writers of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage. (These writers are not all American.)

The idea is for you to copy this list and put it on your blog, email it to your friends, take it to your local bookstore and ask them to post it or make a display of these books, etc. We also want you to READ SOME OF THESE BOOKS THIS MONTH! They're terrific!

If you do end up reading one or more of these books, or have another API-heritage SF writer to discuss, please consider participating in the Carl Brandon Society's API Heritage Month blog carnival. A carnival is basically a "magazine" of blog posts on a particular topic. You just post something on the topic on your own blog, and then submit your post to the carnival by clicking the link and then clicking on the orange "submit your blog article" button.

Okay, without further ado,

The CARL BRANDON SOCIETY recommends the following books of speculative fiction for
ASIAN AND PACIFIC ISLANDER HERITAGE MONTH:

  • Ted Chiang STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS

A collection of stories from one of American speculative fiction's most precise and beautiful writers.

  • Sesshu Foster ATOMIK AZTEX

An Aztec prince or a Los Angeles meatpacker? The protagonist travels back and forth between two alternative realities, never sure which is real.

  • Hiromi Goto HOPEFUL MONSTERS

Wonderful stories by the author of The Kappa Child.

  • Cathy Park Hong DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION

The story of a Korean uprising told in pidgin poetry.

  • Kazuo Ishiguro NEVER LET ME GO

In a dystopian England, three children discover that they are clones produced to provide organs to the sick.

  • Amirthi Mohanraj (illustrated by Kat Beyer) THE POET'S JOURNEY

A young poet sets out into the wide world on a journey to find poetry; with the help of a few magical creatures, she finds more than she ever expected.

  • Haruki Murakami HARDBOILED WONDERLAND AND THE END OF THE WORLD

Mad experiments with the unleashed potential of the dreaming brain.

  • Vandana Singh OF LOVE AND OTHER MONSTERS

The main character wakes up from a fire and doesn't know who he is, but can sense and manipulate the minds of others. He is not alone in this ability. Singh takes us on a metamind ride.

  • Shaun Tan THE ARRIVAL

A wordless graphic novel about immigration and displacement.

  • Bryan Thao Worra ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE EYE

Speculative poems that take us from the secret wars of the CIA in Laos to the secret edges of the human soul and the universe.

April 30, 2008

Awesome

via Angry Asian Man.

April 27, 2008

Blogging Beats, Amanda Marcotte, and Seal Press

Even a personal blog like this one has a beat. Although I'm a feminist and have been known to blog about women's issues on occasion, I don't consider myself in any way knowledgeable about feminism as a field. I read what I need to get on with my life and try to listen to more smarter and reader feminists than I. So I don't usually engage in discussions in the feminist blogosphere and the women of color blogosphere on my blog since there are tons of women out there saying the things I would have said if I knew enough, and saying it better.

I'm also allergic to appearing to be jumping on bandwagons, so when a discussion that doesn't fall within my specific beat is raging, I tend not to post about it myself. But on the other hand, I think meme-ing information is essential for its spread; that's the whole point of using the internet for political discussion. So it's puzzling to me to figure out how to pass news on in a way that feels natural to the functioning of my particular blog.

I've been following the flap about Pandagon blogger Amanda Marcotte and Woman of Color blogger brownfemipower. I've also been following the flap about Seal Press and its ill-judged response to women of color wanting more representation in the press. And I hadn't found a way to blog about it when the two flaps intensified exponentially by meeting in the middle. At this point, this is a story that needs to be passed on, whether I have anything of substance to say about it myself or not. And I suspect that some of my friends who read this blog may not have heard about this so I'm by way of performing a service ... or something.

So this post is just a pass-along. I'll list the relevant links to the sources of information at the bottom. To avoid link stack-up, if you intend to blog about this you might want to just link directly to the secondary sources below. (They're secondary since the original sources of the first two flaps are inaccessible.)

THE STORY SO FAR ...

Feminist independent publisher Seal Press came under fire this month for a discussion on a closed blog that I can't access. Apparently, in the post a woman of color expressed frustration that Seal Press didn't publish more books by women of color. The Seal Press editors responded in the comments defensively, saying they didn't get enough submissions by women of color, that it wasn't really their job to do outreach, and they didn't have the bandwidth anyway. They also said books by woc don't sell and accused the blogger of "hating," also stating that they knew the "you all engage best through negative discourse."

They eventually issued an explanation on their blog which ended up being edited without strikethroughs.

Independently of this flap, Pandagon blogger Amanda Marcotte ... well her wikipedia page puts it succinctly:

In April, 2008, Marcotte posted an essay entitled "Sexual Abuse Fueled by Abusive Immigration Language" on Alternet. In it, she discussed the intersections of racism and sexism as experienced by female illegal immigrants to the United States "without one attribute to any blogger of color, male or female." This led to allegations of appropriation on Marcotte's part ...

Numerous feminist bloggers pointed to Marcotte's actions as symbolic of a wider process of cultural and racial appropriation, in which the words and work of feminists of color are both given less value than those of white feminists, and co-opted by them. Several bloggers accused Marcotte of directly plagiarizing the work of another well-known blogger, Brownfemipower, as much of Marcotte's article appeared to be derived from Brownfemipower's work. These bloggers pointed to Brownfemipower's extensive history of highlighting immigration as a feminist issue and Marcotte's lack of history dealing with immigration on her blog, as well as Marcotte's previous admissions that she read Brownfemipower's blog regularly. Marcotte denied these allegations, claiming instead that she was inspired by a speech on a related subject delivered by Nina Perales of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Blogger Problem Chylde did a smoking gun on her in a post that linked every line of Marcotte's article to a post on Brownfemipower's Woman of Color blog where the wording was similar.

As a direct result of this flap, Brownfemipower stopped blogging and took her blog down. Now even back posts are inaccessible.

Women of color bloggers were linking these two incidents already when a new scandal arose, involving both Amanda Marcotte and Seal Press. Again from Marcotte's wikipedia page:

In 2008, Marcotte published her first book, entitled It's a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments. In August of 2007, Marcotte [had] posted an image of the chosen book cover on her blog; the image "was a retro-Hollywood pulp cover of a gorilla carrying a scantily clad woman." The image immmediately came under fire for perpetuating racist tropes, and, consequently, Marcotte and Seal Press changed the cover image.

When the book was finally released, it again set off controversy in the feminist blogosphere for use of images that many saw as racist. To illustrate the volume, the publishers used images taken from the 1950s Joe Maneely comic, Lorna, the Jungle Girl, which was chosen for its retro comic art look. The illustrations used included stereotypical images of "savage" black Africans being beaten up by a white, blond, superhero. Marcotte immediately issued an apology, adding that a second printing of It's A Jungle Out There will not contain illustrations.

The latest news is that blogger Blackamazon, who was directly involved in the original Seal Press flap, has taken down her blog as well.

My only comments to this are as follows:

Although it's shocking that all three of these happened at once, I'm glad they did. If they had happened separately, at a distance of months or years from each other, it would have been easier to gloss them over, as many are trying to do now. But, unfortunately for Marcotte and Seal Press, each incident--which in itself is relatively easy for the ignorant to explain away--bolsters and amplifies the women of color bloggers' interpretation of the other events, until it becomes difficult for any reasonable person to not say, "wait a minute ..."

And I also wish that Brownfemipower and Blackamazon hadn't taken down their blogs. I understand them needing a break, or perhaps even deciding not to blog anymore. And I also understand them not wanting their work to be raided nor to hear the awful comments people were leaving.

But their blogs were important public resources, and although the blogcott is a strong statement, it's one that's felt most powerfully by those bloggers' allies and readers, and NOT by the bloggers' opponents. In making a statement of relatively small impact to Marcotte and Seal Press, the rest of us are being more powerfully deprived.

Perhaps more to the point, this flap has drawn a lot of more mainstream attention to Brownfemipower and Blackamazon and I wish all the new readers who are going online looking for their blogs could actually be met with the wealth of information and intelligent commentary that was there to be seen.

Here are the links:

A description of the Amanda Marcotte/Brownfemipower flap at Feministe.

A description of the Seal Press not publishing enough women of color flap on WOC PhD.

The offensive images from It's a Jungle Out There on Dear White Feminists.

Black Amazon's sign off on Problem Chylde blog.

 

*****Update

Seal Press announced on their blog a few days ago their publication of a book entitled Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey.

When commenters objected to the use of the word "harem," the editors responded:

The Turkish harem comes from the Arabic word Ḥarām, meaning "forbidden." It's a word that originally referred to the "women's quarters" and literally means "something forbidden or kept safe."

Tales from the Expat Harem is neither a sexist nor a racist title. Please, let's not look for the racially embedded wrong in every one of our books.

I left my opinion in the comments if you want to see it. I have only this to add: being criticized so heavily in public must be very hard, and the editors of  Seal Press must be smarting bad right now. I appreciate that.

But as another commenter pointed out, common sense would/should militate at this point against shooting back defensively. Probably the best thing for them to do is ride all this out with an occasional "thanks, we'll think about what you said." At least until the smarting goes away and they can breathe again.

February 26, 2008

Voting The Minority

Two interesting opinions up at Salon today.

Edward McClellan says in  "The Dude Vote" that a lot of men aren't copping to the fact that they won't vote for Hillary because she's a woman:

A recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that, among men, McCain beats Clinton by 9 points. Against Obama, he only ties. There are also plenty of guys who voted for Barack Obama in the primaries but will switch to John McCain if the lady gets the nomination -- even though they'll have to leap over a huge political divide to get there.

... I never said to myself, "I want a man for president." I said to myself, "I want a leader who can unite the country." Like a lot of guys who are about to furtively nod their heads, I think of leadership as a masculine quality, so Obama and McCain seemed like the strongest candidates. I was also leery of Clinton's association with the culture wars -- I don't want to go through that again -- but she was a polarizing first lady because she was given power over healthcare before the nation was ready to see a woman in that role. (In 1994, I walked into a religious bookstore and saw an anti-Clinton biography titled "Big Sister Is Watching You.") Ultimately, it was impossible to separate my reservations about Clinton from the fact that she's a woman.

I also told myself I wasn't dismissing Clinton because I disliked her. I was dismissing her because other people disliked her. That's a popular objection, apparently. According to a CBS-New York Times poll, 81 percent of Americans say they would vote for a woman president; only 56 percent think other people would. But it's also a convenient dodge. If I voted against Clinton because "too many people hate her," wouldn't I just be validating the haters? They are, after all, largely responsible for making her "divisive."

Gary Kamiya takes a nearly opposite position in "It's OK to vote for Obama because he's black," saying that a lot of whites won't cop to the fact that they're voting for Obama because he's black.

This reaction is understandable. It feels more racially enlightened. To baldly proclaim that you support Obama because he's black seems to diminish his real qualities and achievements -- his stellar academic career, his work in the urban trenches, his liberal voting record, his ability to inspire. Foregrounding Obama's ethnic heritage implies that you're unhealthily obsessed with race, and make artificial decisions based on it. It can be seen as patronizing, as a merely sentimental, pie-in-the-sky gesture.

... Some critics who directly acknowledge the racial nature of Obama's appeal have argued that the wave of white support for Obama bespeaks not a genuine desire to bridge the racial divide but a bad-faith attempt to escape into some post-racial never-never land.

... Obama's charisma, which is his unique political strength, is real, but it cannot be separated from the fact that he's black. When Obama speaks of change and hope and healing divisions, his words carry an electric charge because of who he is: He embodies his own message, the very definition of charisma. As a black man offering reconciliation, he is making a deeply personal connection with whites, not merely a rhetorical one.

Some observations:

  • It's easy to accuse white men of racism or sexism, when white men are rarely motivated so purely by an ism in such a situation. It's less easy to accuse poc of sexism or liberal women of racism, even when there's a healthy dose of those operating.
  • Regarding sexism vs. black/white racism in this election, I'm seeing that the sexism operating in this election is the view that men and women are two different types of technology with completely different capabilities, whereas the racism in this election is more the view that black (men) and white (men) are the same technology but at different states of the art. Men and women would be, respectively, cars and iPhones whereas white men and black men would be, respectively, Porsches and Yugos.

Hillary is an iPhone with wheels. Obama is a pimped out Yugo. The paradigm shift required to take each of these two candidates seriously is completely different.

  • This may be obvious, but people who are sexist, aren't always racist, and people who are racist, aren't always sexist. I'm sure there are plenty of Clinton supporters who truly believe that she's the best candidate, and that many women could be, and also aren't sure that a black man can get the job done under any circumstances.

And it wouldn't surprise me to find that there were voters, men and women, who believe in Obama for a plethora of reasons, but can't quite get their heads around a woman president.

  • The people who have most to lose from a more equitable distribution of power among women and racial minorities don't always put their racism or sexism first. We could safely assume that a lot of racist, sexist Republicans would vote for Elizabeth Dole, or Condoleeza Rice, or Colin Powell, before they'd vote for John Edwards. Likewise, a lot of racist, sexist Democrats, faced with a confusing choice, aren't necessarily subconsciously comparing their prejudices, but rather going with an emotional reaction to charisma, or to familiarity and nostalgia.
  • Obama's popularity among young liberals isn't questioned as possibly being motivated by sexism. Sure, there's been plenty of feminist punditry about how Gen X/Y women have sold out feminism for Obama's charisma because they're not really proper feminists. But I've seen little speculation about whether we might be looking at a generation that, lacking the strong, widespread female fiscal and political leadership second wave feminists were expecting right about now, some of the young 'uns might simply have no model of female leadership to place Hillary into. I.e. they might straight up not believe a woman can be a good president, but, lacking prefeminist language and knowing vaguely that such sentiments are not okay, might lack a language to talk about this.
  • And Hillary's popularity among older women isn't questioned as possibly being motivated by racism. It's cast entirely positively, as in: second wave feminist generation women are voting their feminism. It's never: older white women won't vote for a black president.
  • The recent nonsense about racist Latino or Asian American voters is cast entirely from a mainstream, basically white American perspective. This perspective assumes that Latino and Asian voters see themselves in a racially essentialist way--see themselves as a member of a racial group and articulate themselves as people of color--and view the American political landscape as one in which people of color have common cause.

So let's say this again, people: the majority of Latino and Asian Americans are immigrants. Most of these immigrants are coming from a position of being a racial or ethnic majority in their countries of origin, even if they are of lower class. Most of them have a majority identity in their past. Most of them are struggling toward a position of self-determination and some sort of tolerable integration into their new society, not towards the marginalization of being people of color. Yes, some might vote racism or sexism, but most will have more pressing needs. And which candidate they see meeting these needs will be at least somewhat unpredictable to a native-born American.

January 14, 2008

The "Missing Black Woman Formation"

Not to be down on Scott Westerfeld, whom I consider a friend on the skiffy side of the blanket, but his recent blog post about the "Missing Black Woman Formation" (hereafter referred to as MBWF) needs some complications added to it.

The MBWF concept is explained by one of the characters of Scott's YA novel So Yesterday thus:

“You know, the guy on the motorcycle was black. The guy on the bike was white. The woman was white. That’s the usual bunch, you know? Like everybody’s accounted for? Except not really. I call that the missing-black-woman formation. It kind of happens a lot.”

Scott then goes on to point out that we're living through a MBWF right now, posting a picture of our current Democratic presidential front runners (Edwards, Clinton, and Obama, natch). He underlines this by posting a photo of Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus from The Matrix.

Okay, but not really.

There are a number of problems with this, starting with how complaining about a missing black woman only works for commercials (which is mostly what the So Yesterday characters were talking about.) Commercials are 30-120-second gestures in the direction of a brand. You have time to say one simple thing, so that's what you say.

The black man inserted into a white couple says, "Our brand is diverse!" whatever that means. The missing black woman, if she were to appear, would say, "We're selling to blacks and whites equally!" which is not what most commercials want to say. Most want to say, "Hey, liberal white guilt dollars! Flow this way!"

When you get into broader pop culture, and especially when you get into the bizarre mix of current mainstream reality, branding, idealism, fearmongering, and passion play that is the contemporary presidential race, the MBWF has nothing interesting or true to say to the matter anymore.

Gloria Steinem proved this in the NYT op-ed that Scott (and everybody else) linked to. By Shakespeare's sistering Obama (dang, can't we get some new feminist tricks?) Steinem sought to prove that women have it worse than blacks, but only managed to give every reader a case of  SIWWTABIDKW (something is wrong with that argument but I don't know what), which is usually accompanied by a terminal case of the squirmies.

What was wrong with that argument, by the way, is that you can't compare apples and oranges (or sexism and racism), and you can't predict society's behavior towards the intersection of the two except by, as Steinem did, assuming that each must be overcome separately before the intersection will become penetrable (Frex: we needed an Albright, and a Powell, before we could have a Rice.)

So, a listing of problems with MBWF as applied by Scott:

Flip through a magazine and check out the ads. In any group of three or more models, one invariably will be black. (If there are six or more models, one will be Asian and one Hispanic.) Same on TV. In any commercial for beer or snack food, one of the guys on the sofa is always black. This probably misrepresents the incidence of interracial hanging out, but it isn't just tokenism. It's a harmony fantasy, buried deep in the collective conscience.

I.e. the MBWF, a white fantasy scenario, is leaving out a much more complicated, and truly diverse, group of people because that would complicate and diversify the white audience's social scene, rather than placating them for having a mostly white peer group. So it's a bit more complicated than just a missing black woman. If we're going to look at negative space, let's really look at it.

  • I'll take the last one second: Keanu Reeves isn't white. He specifically was chosen to play Neo in The  Matrix because he is obviously multiracial. Many people don't know that Keanu is multiracial--not because he doesn't look multiracial, but because he's been offered to us as white since the mid-eighties and most people have never thought to question that. In the mid-eighties, it was because the mainstream consciousness had no concept of multiraciality, especially not Asian multiraciality. But those same people who were incapable of noticing Keanu's halfiness in the mid-eighties have become, in the interim, so sensitized to it that they would notice it in an instant now if they were to encounter a second Keanu. But Keanu himself, name and all, is grandfathered in as a white dude.

It is for both these reasons--the obvious multiraciality and his acceptance by mainstream audiences--that Keanu was cast in the racially radical Matrix. Suitably millenial, the first Matrix suggested that a lot of race mixing had gone on among surviving humans after the apocalypse with its casting of actors of a variety of races and mixtures (including Marcus Chong, Tommy Chong's adopted son, whose ancestry isn't public, but is almost certainly multiracial.) This was deliberate.

Morpheus as the odd black man out in a MBWF is questionable, but his status as a magical negro? not so much. I said the first Matrix was radical, not perfect. (By the way, I distinguish between the first Matrix and subsequent Matrices because the Wachowskis got lazy in the race element, as well as everything else, and let a bunch of black actors stand in for diversity thereafter, i.e. losing grip on the multiracial aspect of the whole thing.)

  • Finally, with regard to our beloved Donkeys, can I just remind everyone that Obama is a biracial child of an immigrant. Far from being a quibble, this is absolutely essential to understanding how Obama has gotten as far as he has, and how he might even have a real chance at the presidency.

As I said, in our new millenium, our mainstream culture has become sensitized to multiraciality, so that we begin to recognize it when it appears in the public forum. But we're not so sophisticated as all that. We recognize it, but we still gawk at it. It's still unusual, exotic ... and not yet re-problematized, as all new, exotic things are.

Obama's clear and apparent multiraciality (one that left him with darkish skin and European features, which earn him the adjective "handsome" even though he's nothing of the sort) put him beyond our immediate racial hierarchy into a biracial status that is still fluid in the public consciousness. If he were just black, he wouldn't be here, but because we don't exactly know what he is, he might still be electable. So there, Gloria Steinem, my lass.

Furthermore, Obama is not the child of an African American descendant of slaves and a white American; i.e. he's not that difficult and problematic product of centuries of slavery and sexual stereotyping. Rather, he's the child of a white American and a black immigrant. A what? Exactly. We don't know what to do about it, because it's an exotic and new story: the black immigrant. But, dudes, immigrant. Undocumented labor issues aside, the American identity is an immigrant identity, and the American story is the triumphal story of immigration and assimilation.

In this context it's much easier to see why Obama, the child of a black man and a white woman, doesn't trip more people's black man/white woman wires. The white woman in this case is the agent of assimilation to an honorable immigrant. As copious recent immigration from the Caribbean and East Africa shows, it's a toss up whether such an immigrant will come down as black or as immigrant in their interlocutor's estimation, when the shit really hits. Clearly this question is decided by what is most beneficial to the interlocutor. If the black immigrant in question is threatening them, then they're black. If, however the interlocutor needs an ally and the black immigrant shows willing, then they're an immigrant.

White America needs an inspiring leader--an ally--to take us away from all this horrible Bush stuff, so Obama falls off on the immigrant side in our popular subconscious, even if the public debate has been hijacked by the word "black." I'll bet a lot of people have already forgotten the recent debate over whether or not Obama is really black or black enough. That fight had to be fought out to get detractors out of the way so that we could talk about Obama as a black candidate without digressions. What no one has noticed is that we're processing him simultaneously at both levels: as a surface black, and a crypto-immigrant.

By accepting Obama as our symbolic representative, even if only for a few months, we are essentially underlining and celebrating our existing core American values: immigration, assimilation, triumph, and pot-won't-melt-in-my-mouth virtue.

And via Racialicious, here's a little sumpin' sumpin' to make you think hard about the intersection between race and gender: a nice, long, fascinating article about transgender people of color.

October 13, 2007

In Other News: Race Activists Now Have Superpowers

I got into it with Angry Black Woman guest blogger Nora a couple of months ago in comments on a post she wrote where I accused her of avoiding the racist issues that exist between African and Asian Americans. I won't get into that whole thing right now, but I write this to offer a caveat: there might be some little bit of unresolved tension motivating me, and you might want to keep your salt shaker handy.

(I intend to write a series of long posts about the tension between Asians and blacks eventually, but it seemed at best graceless, not mention divisive, to post those during the Jena 6 controversy, especially when there has been near-silence from the Asian American community--and me--about it.)

*****

So today I read Nora's post from Friday in which she wonders if racism has suddenly surged:

Because it really does seem like there’s been a significant increase in blatant, obvious racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry these days. Is it just me? I’m not talking about the institutionalized stuff; that never seems to fade. But suddenly we’ve got nooses all over the place, racially-motivated rape/torture, and miscarriages of justice so incontestable that even the national media (eventually) comments on it.

Then she gives us a history lesson:

It’s been almost fifty years now since the start of the Civil Rights Movement. I count that time as the start of real, substantive US national dialogue about racial equality. For a brief few painful moments, the whole country talked about how to get along with each other: what not to say if you don’t want to piss people off, what not to do if you don’t want to get arrested or sued. During that time, blatant racism became societally frowned-upon. There was one immediate good result of this change: blatant racism diminished. There was also one very bad result: namely that a lot of people — not just white people — convinced themselves that racism had gone away.

That’s when things got weird. For one thing, the national dialogue all but stopped. With so many people declaring that racism was dead, it seemed strange to keep talking about it, so a lot of people went silent. For those who kept talking, a strange thing occurred: they became societally frowned-upon too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had friends, particularly friends of other races, apologize to me for mentioning race. Not for making racist remarks — for mentioning race. I bet it’s happened to you, too. WTF? Somehow, somewhere along the way, talking about race has become conflated with promoting racism.

The illogic between these two statements is boggling. First she says that we're talking about racism, nationally, all the time these days, then she says that we're not allowed to talk about racism. Why all this?:

of course, reports of racism’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. And lately, I’ve felt it getting worse.

I have no empirical evidence to back up this feeling — just my instincts, that sense of “race-dar” that most PoC develop somewhere in adolescence. My Spidey Senses are tingling more than usual.

Oh, I see. It's not because racist incidents are all over the news right now, it's because Nora's POC "race-dar" is going off. Because her "Spidey Senses" are tingling---those senses that only blacks have in full, but Indians and Latinos in part, Arabs and Asians a little bit, and white people not at all---she "knows" that there's more racism goin' on right now.

With this level of historical understanding, with this level of racial discourse, coming from someone who is promoted to us as a thought leader, is it any wonder that the racial discourse Nora engages in goes nowhere?

*****

First of all: Nora's understanding of the history of racial struggle in the United States (as presented here) is laughably simplistic. Since the mid-nineteenth century--and even before--there have been successive waves of liberation ideology, followed by the enlightenment of a few whites, the uplift of a few blacks, and then a serious backlash.

Anyone who has ever read the Emancipation Amendments to the US Constitution (13th, 14th and 15th), could have no doubt that full citizenship rights for African Americans was on the national table as early as 1865. This period, between 1865-1870 (the passage of the three amendments) and 1877 (the Hayes administration's withdrawal of troops from the South), saw unprecendented freedom in both northern and southern states for blacks, with the election of the country's first black politicians, and even interracial marriages.

The US wasn't ready, and our current stereotypical understanding of what "racism" is---Jim Crow laws, KKK, lynchings, voter restrictions, etc.---arose during the backlash that followed in the next quarter century (until the turn of the century.) A campaign of racial terrorism against blacks--not just in the south but in northern states as well--put a lid on black liberation for nearly thirty years.

Not coincidentally, this period also saw the passing of racist laws excluding the immigration, and restricting the citizenship, ownership, and labor opportunities of Asians, particularly in the west. During the latter half of the century, Mexican Americans in western states were lynched at rate of 473 per 100,000 of the population; gender was no protection. And Native Americans were, in this period, also finally defeated in the Indian Wars, restricted to reservations, and saw their children stolen and placed in Indian Boarding Schools, thus largely destroying their traditional cultures.

Of course that eased up again and in the first decade of the 20th century, a group of African American intellectuals, among them W.E.B. DuBois, started the Niagara Movement, which culminated in the foundation of the NAACP in 1909. The following thirty years saw a slow, steady (with many setbacks) development of black institutions in both the south and the north, as the Great Migration of southern rural blacks to northern cities spurred the Harlem Renaissance of the 20's, creating a second, larger generation of black intellectuals who not only articulated the race problem, but set the terms for a debate that still rages along the same lines today.

The 1920s and 30s also saw Asian and Mexican Americans joining the labor movement and gaining for themselves a measure of respect and power through that association. Native Americans won American citizenship. This period also saw many POC leaders first making the connection among the struggles of their various "races." Although no broad-based POC coalitions happened as a result, in the labor movement meaningful alliances were formed, for example in California between Mexican and Filipino field workers.

It's tempting to dismiss this period as a dark one, since the picture for most African Americans, not to mention other races, was one of poverty, limitation, and the constant potential for racial targeting. But racial issues hit the national discourse periodically, and the slow, upward creep of national racial consciousness never ceased between the turn of the century and the Civil Rights Movement.

The Civil Rights Movement was a breaking point, a climax in a tension that had been rising pretty much steadily until WWII, and then had been rising much more quickly throughout the fifties. Naturally, as after Reconstruction, this period of rapid acquistion of civil rights was followed by a serious backlash. Only this backlash was different, and much less successful. For one thing, much of the Movement had radicalized, and focused its energy on building up black instituations within the black communities.

For another, a lot of white liberal energy, as well as white conservative energy, was drawn off of Civil Rights into the antiwar movement. And, just as in WWII when black soldiers gained respect for their entire community, during Vietnam, white and black soldiers serving together did a great deal to change working class attitudes toward the black community.

Also, black civil rights inspired Asian Americans, Chicanos, and Native Americans to form their own pan-ethnic, racial liberation movements. The seventies, far from a conservative backlash, saw the success of the antiwar movement, and the establishment of national Asian American, Latino, and American Indian institutions, which solidified that national understanding of these groups as racial blocs, creating the basis for political power bases. A number of institutional battles for entitlements began during this decade that were ultimately won here or in the eighties: fights for affirmative action in the granting of government contracts, hiring practices, college acceptance, busing, nutrition and health entitlements for children, etc.

The eighties was when idiots like Ronald Reagan declared racism over, but that doesn't mean that racial discourse fell off the table: far from it. National identity-based institutions continued fighting for--and winning--entitlements based on race and ethnicity. This was the decade of "identity politics" and the "culture wars," which revolved not merely around whether or not Congress gets to decide what art is, but whether or not our national culture--both high and low--included the "subcultures" of women, queers, people of color, and immigrants. White artists like to say that we lost the culture wars, but POC and women resoundingly won the culture wars, as evidenced by the periodic grumblings of white men that there are too many unworthy women and blacks (and black queer women!) on reading lists, in magazine articles, in our fiction, nonfiction, national discourse, etc. etc.

The nineties was when Generation X, the first generation raised since the Civil Rights Movement, came of age and seized control of the national dialogue. This is part of the reason why racial discourse was driven, to a certain extent, underground. White GenXers both did and didn't believe Reagan when he said racism was over. They wanted to believe, but knew better than to trust politicians and media. Also, all the institutional entitlements won in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, although constantly embattled, had been so bound up with class, rather than race, entitlements, that--as Nora points out--the Clinton Administration was able to make racial entitlements a question of socialism vs. democracy.

(By the way, today, Bushies have taken advantage of this to shame race activists. It's really hard to argue that blacks, for example, should get more entitlements, when poor whites are losing theirs, too. And yet racial institutions are so used to calling the white man the devil--and I'm talking about all the racial institutions--that they're really hard pressed to form pan-racial coalitions of impoverished and working class. This is particularly hard when conservative working class whites insist on believing that the entitlements they're losing are "socialist.")

The nineties, however, particularly the late nineties, saw a coming of age of GenX POC, who have leveraged new media and the culture/media discussion of the eighties to create a media-savvy, national voice for themselves and each of their groups. Much of the discussion of the nineties was around representation in the media. Anyone who says that discussion of race went entirely underground just. wasn't. paying. attention.

The early "aughts" or "00s" of the 21st Century gave us two things: another racist war, and Katrina. Katrina brought race back into the national consciousness, and also consolidated a new way of leveraging opinions, funds, and action: the internet. And let's not forget moveon.org's move from the internet into face to face activism during the 2006 election, which resulted in a Democratic win. We talked a lot without doing much about race in the nineties because we didn't know how to close the gap between virtual and real communities. But we've learned how to do that recently.

Which brings us to today, black bloggers like ABW and Nora, and the thousands of others who made Jena a household word of shame, and to my second point.

*****

Secondly: it's loooong been a question whether the rape and child molestation rates have really risen over the few decades that they've been collected, or whether recent acquisitions of civil rights for women and children have allowed these crimes to be reported at levels more closely approximating their actual occurrence. This same question dogs every societal malaise and malady that becomes a trend: scientists are currently wondering if we're really having an autism epidemic, or if we've become so sensitized to autism spectrum conditions that people who never would have been diagnosed before are now being diagnosed.

Did it ever occur to Nora to wonder if racist incidents are all over the news right now not because suddenly racism is happening everywhere (it boggles my mind that Nora seems to think that this shit hasn't been happening quietly everywhere all along), but because suddenly race is on the national agenda again for a variety of reasons?

But you have to know history to understand--or even to see--these reasons:


  1. The 21st century is seeing an unprecedented "wiring" of American POC to the internet, and an unprecendented ability to leverage new communications to organize.

  2. The POC rehearsal of the nineties, in which internet-savvy POC practiced outrage by quibbling endlessly with media race portrayals has resulted in broad-based, loose national coalitions of opinion-creating POCs who can activate quickly.

  3. The current antiwar movement, the mobilization of funds and volunteers for Katrina through a blog-led racial outrage machine, and the realization, through moveon.org's successful 2006 election campaign, that online mobilization actually works, has finally culminated in racial groups actually using the internet to mobilize

  4. It's time, historically, for race to come back to the table, as it always does, sooner or later.

Far from it being a bad thing that Nora's supersenses are tingling, it's a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful thing.

Black voices of our and the next (Gen Y? Echo Boomers? Millennials?) generations are being unleashed on questions of socio-economic equity, and not just on media portrayals. This is why everyone is suddenly so angry and suddenly news of racist incidents is hitting us from everywhere. We have a new generation of POC discovering that racism isn't over. And they're, understandably, pissed. But that's when things get better, Nora, not worse, when people who should get angry, do, and start organizing mass demonstrations.

This is good for everybody, and especially for racial bloggers like Nora, who will suddenly become information portals for mobilized POC, exhilarated by their last---and looking for their next---battle. This is good for the bloggers who are prepared to look at both class and race, to sacrifice their egos and cherished points of view for the sake of a vitally important developing dialogue. Maybe not so good for bloggers who aren't capable of difficult change.

It's up to the bloggers themselves to make sure that they keep their audience ... if they can.

October 03, 2007

readin' update

Deep Wizardry by Diane Duane

Wonderful, again, like the first. And, again, like the first, a little bit of a disconnect between the hokey-jokiness of meeting whale wizards, and finding out dolphins' real, and very silly, names ... and the very serious and dark turn the book takes around the middle.

Beautifully written and heartfelt. But this tonal disconnect is starting to worry me. Don't know if it's just a personal limitation or if it's a problem with the book. I'll definitely keep reading, though. This stuff is too good not to.

The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Still digesting. But a few initial observations:

  1. after this, no one gets to use a "The ______, _______ Life of _______" title anymore. Oscar Wao finished that mini-trend, and anybody else will be overkill. I mean it. Francis MacComber will crawl out of his short, happy grave and eat your brains if you try it.

  2. Diaz also brings the geeked out, pop-cultured, genx hipster, muscle-voice to a point. Everybody's been trying it (including me) and it's taken care of now. Enough.

  3. I've been rebelling against the American Immigrant Story Structure for so long now, that everything stinks of it. I can't tell if this is regressive, or if this actually moves it forward. I don't think it moves the immigrant story out of its mid-century straightjacket, but, like I said, I'm still digesting.

  4. If you imitate the voice and outlook of a terminal macho asshole so well that your readers can't tell the difference between authorial and narrator's voice, then aren't you the terminal macho asshole? Just because you namecheck Los Bros and Luba, to get all meta and distance yourself from the fact that your one strong, alive female character is racked like a bowling alley, haven't you still showcased the breasts before the person?

I haven't decided on all this yet, and I finished the book a week ago. That's a good thing.

August 07, 2007

International Blog Against Racism Week 07

Yay!

Oyceter over at LJ is again hosting International Blog Against Racism Week.

Da rulez:


  1. Announce the week in your blog.

  2. Switch your default icon to either an official IBAR week icon, or one which you feel is appropriate. To get an official IBAR week icon, you may modify one of yours yourself or ask someone to do so. Here's a round up of IBARW icons.

  3. Post about race and/or racism: in media, in life, in the news, personal experiences, writing characters of a race that isn't yours, portrayals of race in fiction, review a book on the subject, etc. (Linking back here is highly appreciated!)

You KNOW ima participate. Howzabout you?

Here's Oyce's links roundup so far.

(Cross-posted on Other Magazine blog.)

August 05, 2007

How Do Editors Reach Out to Writers of Color?

Damn.

I wasn't gonna get drawn into this debate, because Tempy and Tobias were already doing such a good job and saying what I wanted to say, but then I went and read the comments in Tobias's post and now I'm annoyed.

People were--well, one person was--calling out ABW for placing the lion's share of blame on the editors' shoulders for needing to go and reach out to writers of color if they really wanted to diversify the stories in their rags. This someone asked when they were supposed to have the time to do all this outreach.

Are you fucking kidding me?

First of all, arguing that editors don't have time to do their jobs doesn't really excuse anything. It's an editor's job not merely to present the best writing that's sent to her, not merely to make a real, good faith effort to find the best writing that's out there, but to actually encourage writers to produce more and differently--to shape the kind of writing that gets made in the first place. Anyone who doesn't know this isn't really a professional in the field.

And the best editors of the most respected magazines do exactly that. They don't sit on their asses and wait for the transom to emit. They run around like madpeople to conferences and workshops and readings, they collect zines and spend time on the internet and ask their trusted writer/editor friends for recommendations. They talk to agents. They do rain dances, naked.

They also turn to writers and agents and proactively ask them if they have a story on X, or a story written like Y. They do this knowing that word will go around that Editor Z wants X and Y! And tons of hungry writers will step up.

So it's funny that X and Y are so rarely "stuff by writers of color" and "stuff about people of color." All an editor has to do is ask.

2) Given that editors have to do this and also that their time is limited, why don't we poc make things easier for them? I mean, let's start a list of places an editor should go to outreach to those ever-elusive good poc writers. I'll start and maybe members of other communities can pick this up. I'd be happy to host a mini-carnival on this topic, or simply to collect the responses and post them all together at some later date. Please feel free to add resources in the comments, especially if you have a blog that you know poc writers read.

These tips should include:


  1. list servs, forums, bulletin boards, etc. where poc writers are likely to be found

  2. blogs poc writers are likely to read

  3. print and online magazines and newspapers poc are likely to read

  4. real world organizations poc writers are likely to hang out in

  5. poc writers conferences, conferences, festivals (esp. literary festivals)

  6. reading series where poc are likely to participate

  7. undergraduate writing classes at poc-heavy campuses and poc student orgs (yes, they really should be thinking ahead. Someone will be much more likely to START writing if they know they'll be welcome there when they've FINISHED writing something.)

What follows here is a list of all the poc real world and online spaces I can think of to use to outreach to writers of color. NOTE: this goes for literary writing AND for SF/F:

General POC


  1. The Carl Brandon Society (poc speculative fiction writers) discussion list-serv and blog

  2. VONA Voices poc writers workshop, and their email.

  3. Mosaic, an African American and Latino literary magazine, whose lit editor is Sheree Renee Thomas


Asian American
  1. Kearny Street Workshop (Bay Area Asian American arts) opportunities list-serv

  2. Kearny Street Workshop's links page to other Asian American arts and literary orgs.

  3. Asian American Writers Workshop

  4. Hyphen Magazine (national Asian American magazine) blog

  5. Angry Asian Man blog

  6. dis*Orient Journalzine

  7. This listing of South Asian American (Indian subcontinent) journals also includes general As Am markets, some of which might be defunct.

  8. DesiPundit blog, Indian diaspora.

  9. Tiffinbox blog, Indian diaspora.

  10. Resources on South Asian lit.


Chicano/Latino
  1. Galeria de la Raza (Bay Area Latino multidisciplinary arts organization.)

  2. PALABRA A Magazine of Chicano & Latino Literary Art

  3. La Bloga, a Chicano/Latino literary blog

  4. Other Latino literary resources


African/Caribbean American
  1. African American bookstores in the USA.

  2. Black magazines and journals with open submissions.

  3. Publishers with a particular interest in Af/Af Am writers.


Arab American
  1. Links list of Arab writers writing in English.

  2. Mizna, Arab American Journal

  3. Al-Rawi, association of Arab American writers.

  4. Resources and links to Arab American writers.

  5. Angry Arab blog


Native American/American Indian
  1. Native American writers directory

  2. Native Blog, native American/American Indian blog.

  3. Native American/American Indian literary resources.


Academic

  1. Here's a links directory of all the accredited Asian American studies departments and courses in the USA. Many of them will have As Am-specific creative writing courses.

  2. Here's a links directory of African American studies departments and courses in the USA. Many of them will have Af Am-specific creative writing courses.

  3. Here's an incomplete links directory of Latin American/Caribbean studies departments and institution in the USA. Some weeding will need to be done.

  4. The University of Michigan's Arab American Studies Center. A bulletin board, newspage, and resources page are all under construction, but you can email them your call for submissions here.

  5. List of Native American Studies programs

May 02, 2007

Asian Pacific Islander American Heritage Munff

It's a mouff-ful so we just call it "API Heritage Munff" which makes us sound extra "in" as in "in the know".

It's May, by the way, although some people I can mention, who work in an API nonprofit I could mention, seem to think it's April.

That's shameful.

Anyway, down Yay Area Way artsy things tend to center around SomArts Cultural Center (look it up yourdamnself, I just got home from work) where APICC (the "CC" stands for "cultural center") holds it annual munff-long festival. The kickoff's Thursday night, i.e. tomorrow, and I will be there, with silk on.

Sigh. I feel like some sort of effort is in order, a la Angry Black Woman's Black History Month thang, but I'm sodamntired right now. I even walked to lunch yesterday in the middle of a huge downtown Oakland MayDay immigration reform rally and couldn't, for the life of me, figure out why they were having such a rally on that day. I might need to post about this latah.

I was about to make all sorts of rash promises, but I'm going to go take a walk instead which, if it doesn't wake me up, will be followed by a nap that just might segue into tomorrow's breakfast.

April 17, 2007

Oh God

... the shooter was Asian, and a foreign national. I really don't wanna see the fallout from this one.

****update*****

Even worse: He's a 1.5. Here we go ...

****update 2*****

"1.5" is between first and second generation. Among European Americans, there's the immigrant generation, and then "first generation" means the first generation to be born in the U.S. Among Asians and Latinos, it's counted differently. First generation is the immigrants. Second generation is the first generation born in the States.

So 1.5's are kids born abroad, but raised mostly or partly in the U.S. I.e., not foreigners, but not born in the U.S.A., either.

This guy is gonna get the "foreigner" treatment for sure, even though he's culturally American--at least to great extent.

****update 3*****

Rebecca at Hyphen magazine rounds up the Asian American freak-out.

March 20, 2007

Checklist for Originality in Ethnic Writing

A moving portrait (check) of three generations (check) of the Chan(check) family (check) living (check) in Vancouver’s Chinatown (check)

Sammy (check) Chan was sure she’d escaped her family obligations(check) when she fled Vancouver(check) six years ago, but with her sister’s upcoming marriage(check) , her turn has come to care for their aging mother(check) (check) (check) . Abandoned by all four of her older sisters(check) , jobless (check) and stuck in a city she resents(check) , Sammy finds herself cobbling together a makeshift family history(check) (check) (check) (check) (check) and delving (check) into stories (check) that began in 1913(check) (check) , when her grandfather(check) (check) (check) , Seid Quan(check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) , then eighteen years old, first stepped on Canadian soil.(check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check)

The End of East (check) weaves in and out of the past (check) (check) and the present(check) , picking up the threads (check) f the Chan family’s stories(check) (check) : Seid Quan, whose loneliness (check) in this foreign country(check) is profound (check) (check) even as he joins the Chinatown(check) community(check) ; Shew Lin, whose hopes(check) for (check) her (check) family (check) (check) are threatened by her own misguided actions(check) ; Pon Man, who struggles with obligation and desire(check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) ; and Siu Sang, who tries to be the caregiver (check) everyone expects(check) (check) , even as she feels herself unravelling(check) (check) . And in the background, five little girls (check) (check) grow up (check) (check) (check) under the weight of family expectations(check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) . As the past unfolds around her(check) , Sammy finds herself embroiled(check) in a volatile (check) mixture (check) of a dangerous love affair(check) , a difficult and duty-filled relationship with her mother(check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) (check) , and the still-fresh memories of her father’s (check) long illness.(check) (check) (check)

An exquisite (check) and evocative(check) debut (check) from one of Canada’s bright (check) new(check) literary (check) stars(check) The End (check) of East (check) sets family (check) conflicts (check) against (check) the backdrop (check) of Vancouver’s Chinatown(check) – a city(check) within a city(check) where dreams are shattered a(check) s quickly as t(check) hey’r(check) e bu(check) ilt(check) , (check) an(check) d wher(check) history repeats itself(check) (check) (check) through(check) the generations(check) (check) (check) .

No, I did NOT make this up.

March 03, 2007

Octavia Butler Tribute Fundraiser!!!!

LAST CALL FOR BOOZE 'N' SCI-FI!

Yes, cows and cowboys, tomorrow's the big day. You DO NOT want to miss this one.

Nalo_1Nalo Hopkinson will be there, she of the interesting hybrid accent, straight from Toronto, author of two of my favorite books: Brown Girl in the Ring and Midnight Robber (wouldn't it be cool if she did a sequel to Brown Girl in the Ring and called it Tralalalala?)

Jewelle
Jewelle Gomez will be there, in all her former grantor glory! Four words: lesbian escaped slave vampires. I know that's enough.

Gomez_penaGuillermo Gomez-Peña will be there, mixing it up, literally, linguistically, futuristically, and poetically. A MacArthur Genius. Heh, like Octavia. Now how often do you get to see geniuses?

Susiebright_1 Susie Bright will be there, erotica'in like there's no tomorrow. Really, do you want to miss the woman who is the nation's true expert on sex fiction? I think not.

MartaacostaMarta Acosta will be there, and can someone please explain to me what could possibly be wrong with Latina vampire chicklit? Yeah, that's what I thought.

DeguzmanJennifer de Guzman will be there. Comix goddess, yes. That's "Woman of Color Comix Editor" to you, sucka, Ms. de Guzman if yer nasty.

So you see why you can't miss out.

Here's the info again:

The Carl Brandon Society presents an

Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Fundraiser

with readings by

Nalo Hopkinson
Jewelle Gomez
Susie Bright
Marta Acosta
Jennifer de Guzman
and
Guillermo Gomez-Peña

A fundraiser reading to benefit the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship.
Fabulous fabulists honor one of our great writers and raise funds for the next generation.

Sunday, March 4, 5 - 7 pm

The Starry Plough
3101 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, CA.
510-841-2082
http://www.starryploughpub.com/

$5-20 sliding scale.

The Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship will enable writers of color to attend one of the Clarion writing workshops, where Octavia got her start. It is meant to cement Octavia's legacy by providing the same experience/opportunity that Octavia had to future generations of new writers of color. In addition to her stint as a student at the original Clarion Writers Workshop in Pennsylvania in 1970, Octavia taught several times for Clarion West in Seattle, Washington, and Clarion in East Lansing, Michigan, giving generously of her time to a cause she believed in.

March 01, 2007

Black History Month Over

Black History Month ended five minutes ago by my clock and I didn't do what I said I was gonna do. So much for "it's our Black History Month, too!"

I have lots of excuses: exhaustion, being in the middle of a life-transition (no, not menopause, asshats), fighting off viruseses. But during May, API Heritage Month, I'd go out sick and blog something at least every other day, something cranky, no doubt. Bottom line: it's not our Black History Month. Not yet. All rhetoric aside, I still clearly think that it's their Black History Month, not mine, and not my responsibility.

And therein lies the conundrum.

I hinted at it here, when I posted that:

east asians are famous for being afraid of black people, but i steel myself when i see a black man headed my way because that purposeful walk means only one thing: he’s gonna get up into my shit for being asian. 99% of the time, i’m right, too. not all, not most, not even that many black men. just the ones who actually walk towards me that way.

do you know how long it’s been since i’ve taken shit from anyone but a black man for being asian? and yet, every single one of those black men who give me shit are wearing the aura of homelessness or some similar economic desperation on them, and they give me shit while i’m on my way to my fancy nonprofit, bleeding-heart job, or on my way to my mfa creative writing class, stinking of perfumed soap.

in response to Angry Black Woman's question about whether or not blacks can be "racist".

The tension between Asians and Blacks--and indeed between Blacks and all other minorities--exists, is constant, and just never gets talked about.

So how amazing is it that an extremely editorially ill-considered, blatantly racist "column" in an ethnic mag actually gets people talking about this very hidden tension? I'm talking (again) about the Kenneth Eng piece in AsianWeek, which I first saw in Hyphen's blog.

Go back to the article and read down into the comments. There's a lotta stupidity going on there, but it's also the most amazing discussion I've ever seen in Hyphen's comments. Almost every comment so far has said something new. The level of articulateness in these comments is well above par. Why does it take racist assholes to get people talking like this?

Some of the obvious things to say:


  1. Blacks are lowest on the racial totem pole, yet have the strongest racially-based social justice institutions; blacks have more cultural power to defy stereotyped images than all other ethnic minorities combined, yet are probably more judged and worked upon by those stereotypes in real life than all other minorities. This is complicated and difficult to comprehend, and no one who is angry about their lack of privilege will try to understand it.

  2. Fear of blacks nowadays is both the traditional fear of the rampaging negro savage, and the more postmodern fear of the incomprehensibly angry black tongue-lashing. The latter fear has become "racist" because it is so bound up with the former fear, but it is not, in itself, racist. It is the result of racism, where someone holds racist ideas and cannot free herself of them, and is therefore afraid to speak because every time she does, she is taken to task for her racist ideas. I want to separate these two fears because the latter fear is, in part, a fear of giving offense, and it is exactly that fear of giving offense that prevents many people from venturing a racist idea and then being corrected.

  3. I do not know to whom Black History Month belongs. I do not know what to do about it.

  4. Asians and blacks. Oh my gods. I can't even begin to touch that subject until you've listened to Ishle Park's amazing piece "Sa I Gu" on this CD. That's my cop out. There are so many individual crossovers, and so many individual clashes. What there has almost never been, except during the Rodney King riots, or "Sa I Gu", is groups of Asians and Blacks beating on each other, or, actually, talking to each other. I can't say anything.

  5. Except this: the Chinese are very, very racist against blacks, yes, it's true. It's culture-wide, and it's very different from how whites do it. The justifications are different, even here in the States. There's an imbibing of white cultural valus, certainly, but there's also a special Chinese brand of racism all its own, where "ghost/demons" are generally white, but there's a black version as well. Where everyone who isn't Chinese is a monkey, and not in a good way.

  6. And this: Chinese Americans led some of the early Asian American Movement groups and they modeled their protest consciously on the Civil Rights Movement ... for reasons that are obvious now--because they did it--but were not obvious then, when Chinese were considered foreigners, and not somehow "native" lessers, like blacks. It was the consciously taken lessons of the Civil Rights Movement, taken by the Asian American Movement, that enables discussions of parallels and differences, compare and contrast, between As Ams and Af Ams today. We chose to make blacks our model of activism and not whites. As Ams chose to model our Movement after Civil Rights and not the equally accessible and equally powerful white anti-war movement. Everybody needs to stop and think about that.

And here's the Black History Month conundrum:

Blacks don't get the spotlight often, so I should stay out of theirs in February.

But that doesn't mean that I should ignore Black History Month. That would be just as bad.

But it's weird to play an explicitly supportive role, for a whole month. Isn't that weird? And patronizing?

And I have all of this unresolved anger against blacks which is genuine, if vague. And did I mention unresolved?

And I'm angry at this specific black pundit for a stupid comment about Asians and I don't know where to put it to get it out of the way for February.

Plus: Black History Month: not really my deal, is it?

Ohmygod, if I say anything at all during Black History Month everyone will be looking at me and judging me and what if I say/do the wrong thing? It's not like anyone else who's not black is doing anything to take the heat off of me.

Am I really just an insufferable goody-goody?

Plus, now the month is over.

Yes, I'm being partly silly but I'm also deadly serious. I have not given up on My Black History Month. I just don't think it'll happen in February.

February 27, 2007

Embarassed 2 B Azn

I posted this over on Other Magazine's blog but I got quoted in the Chron today and there's new stuff out there and I have more to say on it here so I'm going to repost it so it's all together in one place.

There are times, yes, times when I'm embarrassed to be Asian.

Like, for example, whenever I see an AsianWeek distribution stand. This weekly tabloid---long brought to us by the same Fang family (even Asians pronounce "Fang" like tooth) that embarrassed the entire Bay Area with their transparently whorish version of the Examiner---is the adult equivalent of a midwestern suburban teenager's identity-angst zine, only without the freshness and honesty.

The writing is horrifyingly bad, their stories are six months behind the times---Hyphen, a tri-annual magazine, consistently scoops them---and their occasional shameful shows of community support---fobbed off on 18-year-old interns, or at least reading as if they were---do nothing to counteract their constant flow of vitriol toward Asian American writers, journalists, and cultural workers more savvy and successful than they.

When we started the self-same Hyphen magazine that kicks their ass every morning for breakfast (and twice on Sunday, for brunch) before it even prints a word, AsianWeek's first, and pretty much only, response was to sic on us Emil Guillermo (the only nominally competent staff writer, and that I say only because he manages to stick to the rules of grammar). In his column "Emil Amok", Guillermo, after admitting that he hadn't yet seen the magazine, proceeded to attempt to tear us a new asshole because our editor in chief, Melissa Hung, had said in an interview that Hyphen wasn't going to do Asian American Studies 101. Guillermo, naturally, didn't bother to call Hung and clarify, 'cause he's not really a journalist, and Hyphen remains of the single-asshole persuasion.

The middle-aged Guillermo took exception to that statement, presumably, because he works for a publication that phones it in, week after week, on that very syllabus. He hadn't moved past it, so why should we? That's when I stopped even attempting to read AsianWeek. Because either Guillermo's editors had read his column and supported his low journalistic standards and ignorant opinion, or because they didn't support it but were too lazy or chickenshit to say so, or because they hadn't bothered to read it in the first place. Whatever. None of those are publications I actually want to read.

So I guess it shouldn't surprise me that AsianWeek is now publishing some of the most blatantly racist, not to mention poorly executed, dingleberries passing for writing on the internet today. And that's saying a lot.

As Hyphen's staff blog reports today, they've acquired a new columnist recently named Kenneth Eng. He's been producing extremely short columns with titles such as "Why I Hate Asians," "Proof that Whites Inherently Hate Us," and, most recently, a savvy piece of marketing entitled "Why I Hate Blacks." Being an irony-steeped Gen-Xer, I hear titles like this and think, "What a great opportunity for Swiftian satire!" But alas, we're talking about AsianWeek, and if these buttcrusts were intended as satire, Eng is too shitty a writer to get that across.

I'd link to some examples of his excrescences, but I'm too damn lazy or something. Follow the links in the Hyphen article if you want it. There's also a petition, which is only a good idea because somebody needs to let teh blacks and teh whites know that most Asian Americans have never even heard of AsianWeek, much less agree with its "editorial" "decisionmaking". As for me, I can't even be bothered to sign it. Let AsianWeek sink into its own mire. It has proven again and again unworthy of Asian American support. Let it die. I'd rather have no As Am newspaper at all than this piece of shit.

February 07, 2007

Ching Chong, Mutherfrakker!

It's a poignant story, many times told. Immigrant family arrives in America, begins lifelong tug of war between assimilation and cultural identity, struggles to find a foothold on the economic ladder, establishes a flow of information, cash and visa sponsorships (and/or arranged marriages) between those left behind in the old country and those busily becoming citizens of the new.

Kids come home from school speaking English; parents answer in Spanish or Farsi or Cantonese. Parents eat menudo or lavash or jook for breakfast; kids slurp milk pinkened by Fruity Pebbles. Kids grow taller and more cynical than their parents, refuse to attend church or mosque or temple, leave home, marry or intermarry, serve as translators between their parents and their own kids during bilingual holiday dinners, and cobble together a patchwork culture, an often-uneasy union of their customs of origin with new, Americanized traditions of their own.

Arrrrrrggggggggggggggghhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!

Is there a book in the world I want to read less than this one that Salon.com describes above? Maybe the Newark, NJ phonebook? Naw, that'd have good names.

Sad thing is that this might actually be a good book ... no, wait, what am I saying? Even if it's well written, there's no possible way it could actually be good. How could you possibly retell a cliché to make it fresh?

So let's just amuse ourselves at the reviewer's expense:

In "The Eighth Promise: An American Son's Tribute to His Toisanese Mother," William Poy Lee lends his family's coming-to-America story a fresh twist by structuring the book in an unusual way. In alternating chapters, Lee lets his mother's story come through in her own voice; her memories, and perspectives, taped by the author during a series of interviews, are juxtaposed with his, rendering lush and surprising what might otherwise be a somewhat predictable tale. In the tradition of the blockbuster multigenerational epic -- "Roots," "'Tis" and "Cane River" come to mind -- "The Eighth Promise" describes William Poy Lee's upbringing in, rebellion against, and ultimate return to the bosom of his family, community and culture.

Does somebody else wanna say it? No? Okay, then, I'll say it again: read the mutherfuckin' Joy Luck Club, you philistine! Holy Mother of Quan Yin. Since when does alternating the "voices" of two different generations of Chinese Americans represent "a fresh twist"?

But maybe I shouldn't be so harsh. It is Salon.com, after all, the Soy Cluck Club. They don't phone it in, they email it in. They probably have an online intranet for contributors with vast files of review templates: cross-reference "Chinese immigrant" with "memoir" with "mother" and it'll come up with bookreview_unchallenging_diversity. Alternate phrasings will be listed at the bottom of the document where pullquotes would ordinarily be: "rendering lush and surprising," "richly drawn and evocative," "paints a picture of young green rice shoots waving in the PLACENAME breeze," "her pride in her heritage is palpable," etc.

Sadly for the author the book only seems to pick up on the second page of the review ... or maybe it's just that the reviewer, desperate and grabbing for straws, picked the only part of the book that interested her and ran with it ... for a whole page. Why not lead with the interesting stuff about the author's brother convicted for a Chinatown gangland murder? This is the meat! We've never read this stuff before!

This is how we do, this is how we are racist in our post-identity age: we refuse to call ethnic crap out, and we rehash the same tired, old tropes until the groove has worn through the floorboards. The reviewer herself says it early on, "a somewhat predictable tale." Only if "somewhat" synonymizes "screamingly" en Salonspeak. I bet this will be the only Asian American book reviewed between now and API Heritage Month --- that's in May, Salon, so you'd better start pitching those Jerry Yang and Yo Yo Ma profiles now. Hey, I heard that Maya Lin is giving interviews again! Better get on it before she changes her mind! And did you know that a buncha Japanese Americans fought in World War II? That would make an interesting, and potentially controversial, story!

(Cross-posted at Other Magazine Blog.)

January 28, 2007

Complex of Ishooz Redux

I proposed a Complex of Ishooz a while ago and then ignored it. Let's get into it again. Let's set 'em up and knock 'em down.

Here were the Ishooz again:

1. Why does hybridity necessarily dovetail with adolescent identity searches?
2. How would an adult or mature hybridity tale look? Are there any?
3. Why does contemporary urbanism necessitate hybridity (besides the obvious, and yes, we will detail the obvious)? What would a homogeneous city look like? (ooo! Zamyatin, here we come!)
4. Why are magic and technology always "other", and therefore a product of hybridity? Why are magic and technology never indigenous or immanent?
5. Why is technology of the city, and magic of nature?

Aaaaaand ... they'roff!

August 25, 2006

Reading Update

Now I'm reading Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Finally. Will keep you all apprised.

Have also read Adolfo Bioy Casares' The Invention of Morel, which his cronies called a perfect novel and all that. I wasn't terribly impressed. I'm glad he wrote science fictiony 'n' all, but I can't be relied upon to give a shit about any of the 5 million 20th Century novels that set unsympathetic protagonists to fall in love with beautiful, but unresponsive women, and show off how despicably they can behave. Why does modern and contemporary fiction have to be about malaise? Why can't it be about energy?

I've started Sesshu Foster's Atomik Aztex, which I'm sort of reading as a companion piece to Hogan's High Aztech. Both reference Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo, which rocked my world and blew my mind when I read it only about two years ago, but the details of which I've already mostly forgotten. I will have to read it again.

I'm thinking of Mumbo Jumbo and derivatives as a sort of descent line from the American "ethnic novel": one line of descent therefrom. There are, of course, others. I'm thinking of Delany as another descent line, but it could be that he's just unique. I mean, really, who writes like him? More on all this later.

July 23, 2006

An Asian American and Multiracial Reading List

I didn't get my understanding of the world and my knowledge of the racial/ethnic landscape of the US entirely by osmosis, but it often feels that way. I chose to enter into and live in activist poc spaces, and from this vantage point, it's sometimes hard to remember how I learned what I learned.

Most of it I got from being there in those spaces: having those discussions (ad nauseum) either in person or online, or seeing the discussion played out in writing (essays, stories, poems), art, performance, film. A lot of it I got just from watching dynamics and interpreting them from my vantage point.

Also, creating a voice for yourself necessitates having something to say. Writing articles for my friends' zines, creating online fora for discussion (which I've done many times), creating in-person fora for discussion (which I've also done a great deal of), and especially, starting a magazine, all meant that I had to go scrambling for content. That also forces you to open up your eyes, ears, and mind, and see what's going on. It forces you to go digging, to do research.

All of these are sources of my knowledge and understanding, sources of my vocabulary. But, of course, I've done some study and reading as well, and I should be able to share some print sources with you. And because it's amazing how difficult it is for a google search to occur to the ignorant (I'm complaining about myself as well; I'll go halfway around the world to ask a friend a question before I'll sit down and do a google search about something I'm ignorant of) here's a non-threatening reading list of things that might help you share the current common understandings that shape the activist Asian American and Hapa spaces in the US today. Basically, I'm providing this (as my last post for IBAR) so as to give no one who reads this an excuse for not knowing. These are my reading recommendations. You can start here and let the reading itself guide you on.

This is not any sort of definitive reading list. It's not even the list of books you should read for the best information. It is, instead, the books I've read that have helped me shape ideas. I've deliberately chosen things that are narrative and interesting to people who read novels and stories, and not heavy on the theory and dry academic language. So, of course, most of this is fiction or memoir. Some of this stuff is "radical" though, and holds its fists high, so you'll need to swallow your pride and sense of personal injury before partaking.

ASIAN AMERICAN

Aiiieeeee!: An Anthology of Asian American Writers
by Frank Chin, Jeffrey Paul Chan, Lawson Fusao Inada, Shawn Wong
This was the first Asian American literature anthology, published in 1974, and phenomenally important to the development of Asian American identity and thinking. The introductory essays will ground you quickly and brutally in the politics of the 60's and 70's Asian American Movement better than pretty much anything else can. The excerpts included in the anthology will give you an impression of how new the current monolithic As Am lit establishment really is. A warning: the editors' stance is pretty macho, and their attitude toward some of the influences that have shaped subsequent As Am lit (including Maxine Hong Kingston, David Henry Hwang, and Amy Tan) are at times positively sexist. Keep in mind while you read this that they're drawing their understanding of As Am history from the "bachelor" society that prevailed in American Asian enclaves since the gold rush, and that were intensified after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prevented men from bringing their wives and families over. These guys are the children of people who came over in that atmosphere; subsequent generations of writers are the children of post-Exclusion Act immigrants.

Bulletproof Buddhists
by Frank Chin
Chin is one of the "Aiiieeeee! boys" and most definitely the most controversial. He has no problem attacking people in print (his public feud with Maxine Hong Kingston is legendary; she wrote Tripmaster Monkey about him) and burns bridges right and left. His critque of Kingston and other As Am writers of her generation is unjust and blind at best. On the other hand, he's one damned smart cookie, and the essay "Pidgin Contest on the I-5" is the best defense of politically correct speech I've ever read ... and also an interesting take on the Rodney King riots.

No-no Boy
John Okada
One of the novels excerpted in Aiiieeeee!, this tells the story of a "no-no boy" (Japanese American man who answered "no" to the two most important questions in a loyalty questionnaire administered to JAs in the internment camps--which meant he refused to be drafted) and his rejection by his JA community after returning home from prison (for refusing the draft) after the war.

Eat a Bowl of Tea
Louis Chu
Another novel excerpted in Aiiieeeee!. A funny and weird portrait of 50's New York City Chinatown tells the story of a young Chinese immigrant who begins to have problems with impotence when his father arranges a marriage for him and all of bachelor Chinatown begins watching his wife for signs of pregnancy.

America is in the Heart: A Personal History
Carlos Bulosan
Yet another novel excerpted in Aiiieeeee!. This one is more of a memoir of a Filipino American migrant laborer. Also a portrait of a life we only know a little bit of through Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, part of an oeuvre that whitewashed California labor dynamics.

The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts
Maxine Hong Kingston
Read what Frank Chin fulminates about. This book is groundbreaking in a number of ways: Kingston introduces and simultaneously remakes Chinese legend in a fantasy sequence that expands the meaning of memoir. She also created the context and set the scene for the Asian American lit genre popularized by Amy Tan in The Joy Luck Club.

Farewell to Manzanar: A True Story of Japanese American Experience During and After the World War II Internment
by Jeanne Houston, James D. Houston
A memoir. The title pretty much says it all, but this is the classic memoir of internment.

Darkness
Bharati Mukherjee
A collection of stories that opened my eyes to some of the dynamics happening right under my nose in middle-class immigrant communities, both in Canada and the US. Just plain good writing.

The City in Which I Love You
Li-Young Lee
Poetry, but reads something like a narrative. An excellent introduction to the issues and experiences of the "one point five" or the "1.5" generation immigrant, who was born abroad but raised partly in the United States, a very common demographic in postwar Asian American immigrants. Also, Lee's family is just interesting in itself and he spends his first two books obsessing on it.

Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction
ed. Jessica Hagedorn
The first such fiction anthology, came at just the right time to collect exemplars from writers of both the pre-Aiiieeeee!, the Aiiieeeee!, and the Amy Tan generation as well as those shut out of the mainstream acceptance offered to the Amy Tan generation (like R. Zamora Linmark.)

Charlie Chan Is Dead 2: At Home in the World
ed. Jessica Hagedorn
The sequel, published a decade later, that demonstrates loudly and viscerally how much As Am lit, and the As Am self-conception, has changed.

Dust and Conscience
Truong Tran
Also poetry, this is an idiosyncratic, as well as archetypal take on the experiences of a Vietnamese American who fled as a refugee at the end of the war and returned to his "home country" as an adult. This was inspired by an actual trip Tran took. Don't expect your common identity/finding yourself narrative here. Among other things, the narrator falls in love with his traveling companion (another Vietnamese American man), and embodies his ideas in the shape of the creatures of fable, which then verbally entice and abuse him.

Hyphen magazine
The only current national Asian American news and culture magazine. This one is expressly progressive and represents the prevailing progressive pan-Asian American viewpoint. Yes, I co-founded it. That doesn't mean what I said about it is incorrect.

HAPA

The Multiracial Experience: Racial Borders As the New Frontier
edited by Maria P. P. Root
Root is the preeminent scholar of multiraciality. Yeah, it's academic stuff, but her introductory essay, including the Bill of Rights for Racially Mixed People, rocked my world when I first read it.

My Year of Meats
Ruth Ozeki
First of all, a terrific novel about a Japanese/American hapa tv producer traveling the United States producing a show to promote beef consumption in Japan. Secondly, this book tackles so many turn-of-the-millenium demographic issues, I can't even list them all: 1.5, multiraciality, internationalism, transracial adoption, queer adoption, bilingual/bicultural, third culture kids, etc. etc.

Mavin Magazine
The multiracial magazine, based out of Seattle. Publishes irregularly and is of uneven quality, but is completely earnest, heartfelt, and open to a variety of understandings of race (as a multiracial magazine should be.) (By the way, whatever you read, do not take "Interracial Voice" seriously.)

That's all for now. I might update as things occur to me.

***
update for the hapa list:

Paper Bullets
Kip Fulbeck
I was wracking my brain trying to come up with hapa narratives that are representative, or that offer ideas and "philosophies" ... but I guess that's part of the point of hapa narratives is that they are all necessarily idiosyncratic, since The Mix is always particular, if not peculiar. Kip Fulbeck's book is probably the closest I can come to "representative", and that because Fulbeck's entire oeuvre (of videos, artwork, performance, etc.) is geared toward examining the East Asian/white hapa male experience. It's a "fictional autobiography" that uses Fulbeck's life experiences as object lessons in understanding the intersection of racial and gender issues. It's deliberately, slyly, (and probably also less than deliberately) self-indulgent, as well as underhand macho (acknowledging feminism as a way of making yourself seem more of a man.) An eye-opening read.

The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee: Observations on Not Fitting In
Paisley Rekdal
A collection of personal essays that will give you an excellent view of the contortions hapas of my generation went through to find an identity that would stick internally and make sense externally. And yes, her mother really does meet Bruce Lee.

July 20, 2006

Hybridity vs. Colorblindness and Cultural Appropriation

See? For my main International Blog Against Racism Week (IBARW) post I'm bringing aaaaalllllll the catchphrases into my title.

First, some definitions (caveat: these terms have been used in many different ways in many different contexts. I'm just defining these for me, and for this blog post. You may disagree and use them otherwise.):

Race: 1) biologically based group status denoted by phenotype; i.e. the idea that people who all bear the same or similar phenotype markers (physical size and shape, skin and hair color and texture, shape and size of facial features) all belong to a particular group (and the phenotype markers, such as skin color, can be so faint or conceptually-based as to be nearly imaginary). 2) the idea that people from the same region (usually a continent or half-continental region) bear the same phenotypical markers. 3) this is different from "ethnicity" since race bases itself on biological realities (yes, people from sub-Saharan Africa do tend to have darker skin), although in practice these realities are stretched so thin as to become transparent. 4) this also differentiates from "ethnicity" in that a taxonomy is created where race is a more general grouping and ethnicity more specific. E.g.: "Asian" is the race and "Chinese" is the ethnicity; "African" or "black" is the race and "Bantu" the ethnicity; "Latino" is the race and "Colombian" the ethnicity.

Ethnicity: 1) culturally based group status denoted by common cultural markers and often by racial characteristics; i.e. the idea that people from the same region or culture will behave distinctively, including language, dress, gesture, values and uses. 2) ethnicity tends to be more specific than race (although not always) and gets much nitty-grittier about specific cultural uses and how these differentiate one group from another, even in the same region. 3) usually used to refer to cultural groups who are in the minority in a certain culture; i.e. the idea that a non-dominant culture is "ethnic", or has a special cultural quality that the dominant or mainstream culture or ethnicity does not; the idea that dominant or mainstream ethnicities are not "ethnic" at all.

Nationality: although usually used interchangeably with race or ethnicity (many people think it's a nicer or more pc term than race or ethnicity), I actually use it only to refer to a person's national status, i.e. what country you are a citizen of. This has more cultural and ethnic relevance than Americans like to think.

EXAMPLE: In terms of race I am multiracial Asian and white; In terms of ethnicity I am multiethnic Chinese and white; my nationality is American.

Melting Pot: This is an American concept from the first half of the century that has all racial/ethnic identities melting together like a metallic alloy, each losing its distinctive characteristics and becoming a new whole that everyone shares from equally. This is debunked and continues to become more problematic with each passing year. Why? The melting pot ignores the integrity of culture as well as how cultures actually mix. It ignores the importance of identity to "minorities" and ignores the impossibility of equally mixing privileged and non-privileged identities (because privilege would have to be given up to achieve this.) Ignores the human fear of losing one's identity. The Borg are the ultimate melting pot type. 'Nuff said.

Multiculturalism: This is a concept from the 70s and 80s that has races and ethnicities mixing not like a soup in the melting pot, under heat and pressure, but like a salad, cold and easy, where each identity maintains its cultural integrity but exists, piece by piece, side by side with all the others. A patchwork quilt. A mosaic. This concept ignores that to maintain absolute cultural integrity, cultures must be isolated from one another, because cultures inevitably syncretize when they come into contact. Multiculti assumes that "respect", "understanding" and "celebration" of other cultures will result in the integrity of each and the happy forward motion of all. It doesn't take into account that the inequality of cultures will result in the dominant culture raiding and exploiting the minority cultures, which then lose integrity without gaining validity in the process. It ignores that minority cultures will either adopt aspects of the dominant culture for the sake of the privileges it offers, or harden their borders with the dominant culture to express their displeasure at the lack of privilege. The display of integral cultures on the bridge of the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Next Generation is the perfect example of what multiculit looks like. But have you ever seen this in real life?

EXAMPLE: Under the melting pot regime, I am to ignore particularities of both of my heritages and assimilate to American mainstream culture. Also, I am a salutary step toward the full melding of all cultures (and races). I am to be viewed as an undifferentiated "American", and not to claim any ethnic identity at all. Under multiculti I'm a bit problematic. I am simultaneously evidence that multiculti works (my parents living harmoniously side by side) and a threat to cultural cohesion. Under multiculti I'm either a third category, multiracial, or two things simultaneously (at all times) Asian and white.

Colorblindness: Refusal to acknowledge racial (and by extension, ethnic) difference. Runs against both melting pot and multiculti. It is a fear of noticing color/racial/ethnic-based differences because in noticing them you might notice 1) that things are not as they should be and 2) that you are occupying a privileged position. Colorblindness is in itself a privilege. You never hear people of color claiming color blindness unless they have been raised in mostly white communities or now inhabit and wish to continue to inhabit mostly white spaces.

Cultural Appropriation: The unhealthy aspect of multiculti, where a more powerful culture raids a less powerful neighboring culture (neighboring in the salad sense), and appropriates aspects of that culture without proper acknowledgment of the "home culture" or understanding the cultural context from which these aspects spring. Examples: yoga, Buddhism, hip hop and ebonics-derived slang, graffiti art, etc.

***

All of which brings us, finally, to "hybridity". It's not yet a term being used with any sort of common consciousness, with any consciousness of it's being a term for a new idea about race or ethnicity. So it's still free, still amorphous, still ambiguous in meaning and value. Which is exactly what it means to me and exactly the way I like it.

I present "hybridity" as an anodyne, an antidote, and antithesis and synthesis and thesis, against and after all of the previous ones. Hybridity is none of the above and partakes of none of the above. It is about neither melting together and losing all sense of original differences, nor existing side-by-side without cultural "bleed".

It is, instead, a way of proceeding in knowledge, thoughtfulness, and awareness. It is a combination of knowing the history of all of your cultural sources, understanding the dynamics among different groups, accepting and honoring both your disadvantages and privileges, and -- and here's the most important part -- allowing cultural mixing and progress then to happen the way it happens, without prescription, and with understanding of the mechanics, aesthetics and feel of it.

Hybridity is about fascination with culture, about studying people and how they become themselves, and how this becoming changes when they come into contact with other people. It's about the joy of being human and how we express this in our various ways, and how we take joy in others' expressions and let those influence us. It's about being open to others and also letting yourself flow outwards to them.

Hybridity requires flexibility in the observer. It requires, more than anything, comfort with ambiguity. You must be able to recognize that human identity is ultimately mysterious and that you can only grasp a small corner of anyone's identity at any given moment. You have to let go of your need for hard-lined categories.

You also have to recognize the ambiguity in yourself. This is more difficult for whites than for anyone else. Whites like to try to understand hybridity in ethnic terms ("Well, I'm Swedish, Dutch, and French, so I'm hybrid, too!"), which is false and misleading. White America was a hybrid identity before mid-century. Now it's monolithic in its self-conception. Also, if you're white, your ethnic integrity is not affected by the minor appropriation of small cultural objects from "other" identities, becuase "white" is a culturally absorptive identity, not an orthodox one.

If you're white, your hybridity can be best understood in terms of gender, sexuality, familial roles and social/professional roles. You are both daughter and lover, mother and employee. You are both volunteer and boss, annoyance and hero, father and brother. To different people at different times and in different situations, of course.

There are times when your love for your best friend takes on the intensity of romance. There are times when you choose to walk like a man, or listen like a woman, and secretly enjoy it. There are times you masturbate to the thought that you are of the opposite sex, receiving from someone like yourself. Every time you get bored with life, you do something that surprises you about yourself, and usually it is something that scares you. You didn't know you could drink that much. You didn't know you could behave that recklessly around the kids. You didn't know you were such an asshole. You didn't know you thought that way. You didn't know you'd leap so quickly into action. You didn't know it would be so easy to say no. You didn't know it would be so hard to be happy.

That's what it's like.

EXAMPLE: Hybridity simply acknowledges that I am what I am when I am it. It's the simplest concept for identity because it has no problem with complexity and does not try to organize complexity into something simpler and easier to grasp. It just lets things be and become. If one week I talk about being multiracial, another week I can emphasize being biracial, and the next day I can speak for all Asians, and later that day be specifically Chinese, and then wake up the next morning white and privileged --- and all these things are consistent and coherent with who I am and require no accounting or schema.

I just made this all up, but we need a new way to think about race, so here's mine.

July 04, 2006

My country, 'tis of thee ...

... sweet land of hybridity
of thee Time Magazine this week sings in its article about why there is no novelist Voice of a Generation right now.

The world has changed, and the novel has changed with it. Fictional characters just can't get away with being generically white and middle class and male anymore, the way they used to. Not and still be the object of mass identification and adoration the way the Voice has traditionally been. We just don't think about people that way anymore: we're interested in the specifics of their racial and ethnic and historical circumstances, where they came from and who made them that way. If the novelists under 40 have a shared preoccupation, it is--to put it as dryly as possible--immigration. They write about characters who cross borders, from East to West, from Old World to New and back again, and the many and varied tolls they pay along the way. Their shared project, to the extent that they have one, is the revision of the good old American immigrant narrative, bringing it up to code with the realities of our multicultural, transcontinental, hyphenated identities and our globalized, displaced, deracinated lives. It's a literature of multiplicity and diversity, not one of unanimity, and it makes the idea of a unifying voice of a generation seem rather quaint and 20th century. I may love and empathize with the transplanted Bengalis who populate Lahiri's fiction, or Shteyngart's semi-Americanized Russians, or Foer's uprooted Old Worlders or Smith's international extended families. But I would never be so foolish as to mistake any of them for myself.

Yeah. What he said.

June 16, 2006

Sin Fronteras

My friend, radio producer and sound artist Robynn Takayama reveals the hidden cultural connection between Yugoslavia and Mexican music in her podcast on Latino American punk rock band La Plebe.

La Plebe turned down an opportunity to tour Western Europe so that they could go to the Balkans and spread friendship (and also investigate Yu Mex music, the result of Yugoslavian communist dictator Tito's break with the USSR, which necessitated Yugoslavia importing culture from elsewhere -- primarily the Mexico of "permanent revolution" rhetoric.)

Robynn's podcast is good listening for its own sake and for the interest of the story. It's also a perfect example of hopelessly tangled 21st century hybridity, with its Mexican Americans (calling their tour "Sin Fronteras") playing gigs with Balkan "Gypsy" Americans before heading off to Bulgaria to practice their bribing skills at the border.

You can get a little bit more of the story from La Plebe's as yet minimal tour blog. (I'm hoping they'll happen upon some better writing skills as they go along, but if not, the blog also offers some more free samples of their music.)

June 12, 2006

The Long Overdue Cultural Approprittymatationing Post

Pam, who was at Wiscon but I dint get to (finally!) meet, says almost everything about cultural approap that I would want to say, but better, as usual.

Therefore I will neglect to control myself and add a few items:

1. One thing no one wants to say, so let me be the first: yes, having been marginalized does give me privileges in this question. So there!

No I'm not gonna play duelling discomforts. Any white American man with a stutter or an empty bank account probably had a worse childhood than I, granted easily. But any white American man growing up on American soil got to see himself reflected a million-fold in the forms of family, language, and uses around him, in media, in school, and most especially in precious, precious fiction. And I, quite simply, did not. The first media creature that anyone in my neighborhood ever compared me to was the bleached blonde Chinese girlfriend in George Michael's "I Want Your Sex" video (I was fifteen). I always felt a great yearning toward David Carradine's character in "Kung Fu", because, until the last ten years or so, he was the only Eurasian media character I ever saw. They wouldn't even let me have him, though: I was too foreign, and waaay too uncool.

Some of the best storybooks I read as a child -- Mulan and bandit stories, bilingual comic book versions of "Journey to the West" -- were things I couldn't share with friends. They wouldn't have been interested in an immortal monkey when there's a superman around. Plus, I didn't need to be distinguishing myself even more. I was too busy perfecting my ability to memorize song lyrics after three hearings, an ability I developed to make up for my inability to pick out slang and idioms from the rock-star-slurred lyrics, a skill that is pretty much the last thing you pick up when learning a second language. I was too busy consciously regulating the rhythms of my speech, something my friends did without thinking; too busy covering my embarrassment when I blurted out the wrong expression and everyone, once again, laughed at me; too busy scrabbling at the gates my friends didn't even know they were keeping.

So no, you don't get to have Mulan now. Don't even try it with Monkey King. Don't show me your tai chi moves, mofo. I don't care how many semesters of Mandarin you took in college, or how many years you taught English in a little village a hundred li west of Guangzhou. I don't care that your Chinese is better than mine, or that my "familiarity" with the muddercountry is less recent than the building of skyscrapers in Shanghai. And go scrub that stupid tattoo off your arm, here's some steel wool. Yes, I am the fucking arbiter of all things Chinese, as far as you're concerned, and if I don't give you a pass, you're a fraud.

You don't get to have the whole world and my little piece of it, too.

2. Pam says:

To me, writing is three things:

Empathy
Research
Effort

and to that I'd have to add: talent

In our relentlessly middle-class way, we want everything to seem egalitarian. But everything is not equal. The one thing the Art-screamers (those who celebrate Art with great passion and ignore Responsibility) love to avoid is the thing that sheparates most of 'em from the goats. People can try, with great willingness and honesty, to be respectful of another culture in their writing, and simply fail because they don't have the talent.

Geoff Ryman creates a fictional, third-world, "other" country in Air, which succeeds because it's so damned alive, because we can almost hear the characters breathing in the next room. Someone of lesser talent could try almost the same thing and offend nearly everybody simply because their world-building and characterizations fall flat through choplessness. (And no, I ain't gonna name names.)

The POC (people of color) in this current debate are busy trying to reassure the Majority Types (lessay, "MT's"?) that no one is trying to bar anyone from the field permanently. So let me take an utterly sober moment to say that people who suck at writing should be barred from the field permanently. If you've got your little elven-sword-Bombaday formula down and you're serving the 13-year-olds and no one's getting hurt, then stick to it. If your planet-hopera has no people of tint, but you're also straight-to-mass-market and not getting reviewed, be my guest. No one cares. Find your level.

Writing the Other takes skill, sensitivity, perfect pitch, oh, and talent, and -- just as I would not entrust my tumor-riddled brain to a mediocre surgeon to learn on -- I will not entrust my precious few reading hours to a lesser talent to mangle an "other" culture. I want Geoff Ryman, Maureen McHugh, Ursula Ursula Ursula, and oG help me, before all others, I want my Octavia, Nalo and Chip.

Yes yes, everyone should have to take a Writing the Other class early on in their writing development so that they learn early that it's okay and yes there are ways to do it. Then the ones with the inner tuning forks should be petted and kicked by turns, and the ones with the tin ears ruthlessly culled. Licenses should be issued ... and denied.

3. All hair-splitting triumphalism aside, those who write without Responsibility are just plain bad writers. The best writers -- both the ones who really turn me out, and the ones consistently rewarded with Appropriate Prizes -- spend a great deal of time and skill in their works cultivating and developing their audience. They use their books to teach you how to read their books, to teach you the language they wish to use, and to bone you up on the terms of their discourse. Their books end, leaving you, not sated, but full of intelligent, knowledgeable questions, full of Things To Talk About. The best writers do not write to please -- either themselves or their audience. The best writers serve their audience -- and themselves.

Such writers can certainly be, and often are, huge, squirming assholes in person: arrogant, faithless, vindictive. On the page, though, they hold to their duty like it's sacred. Truly good writers may in interviews spout arrant hooey about the Muse and Sacred Art, but they are workhorses, yolked and patient and, between the lines, even humble for the exigencies of making their work what it needs to be. Good writers will not, just now, because of the shrieking of bloggers recently returned from Wiscon, be waking up to the problems of cultural appropriation. Because of their acknowledged and already engaged responsibility toward their work and towards their readers, they will have spent a great deal of time already working through these questions.

And it'll come out in the work, quietly, loudly ... somehow. And I will read their work with quiet satisfaction, feel my intelligence shuffle forward immeasurably ... and then turn screaming back to the cult approap debate, leaving them out of it.

May 11, 2006

Hybridity V

"Obediently, she went to it, stood close to it so that the tips of what looked like moss-covered outer twigs and branches touched her bare skin. She wore only shorts and a halter top. The Communities would have preferred her to be naked, and for the long years of her captivity, she had had no choice. She had been naked. Now she was no longer a captive, and she insisted on wearing at least the basics. Her employer had come to accept this and now refused to lend her to subcontractors who would refuse her the right to wear clothing.

This subcontractor enfolded her immediately, drawing her upward and in among its many selves, first hauling her up with its various organisms of manipulation, then grasping her securely with what appeared to be moss. The Communities were not plants, but it was easiest to think of them in those terms since most of the time, most of them looked so plantlike.

Enfolded within the Community, she couldn't see at all. She closed her eyes to avoid the distraction of trying to see or imagining that she saw. She felt herself surrounded by what felt like long, dry fibers, fronds, rounded fruits of various sizes, and other things that produced less identifiable sensations. She was at once touched, stroked, messaged, compressed in the strangely comfortable, peaceful way that she had come to look forward to whenever she was employed. She was turned and handled as though she weighed nothing. In fact, after a few moments, she felt weightless. She had lost all sense of direction, yet she felt totally secure, clasped by entities that had nothing resembling human limbs. Why this was pleasurable, she never understood, but for twelve years of captivity, it had been her only dependable comfort. It had happened often enough to enable her to endure everything else that was done to her.

Fortunately, the Communities also found it comforting—even more than she did."

-- Octavia Butler "Amnesty"

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