What’s Making Me Happy: Thanksgiving 2017

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Curse of Chalion, Audiobook

It’s been more than a decade since I first read this novel in print, and while many of its details might have slipped my mind, I hadn’t forgotten its stirring effect on me. I seized the opportunity to revisit the story in audio form, and now I find I love it even more. It has so much to offer the fan of second-world fantasy: brisk and artful prose; a well-built world tinged with echoes of Old Spain; a detailed and fascinating religious system; nauseatingly evil villains, adept at deception and treachery and brutality; an indomitable young heroine; and a protagonist, Lupe dy Cazaril, who in many ways is the best of men — a man with a strong sense of responsibility, humility, and respect, a mature man rather than an entitled overgrown adolescent. The mentor/pupil bond between Cazaril and the spirited princess Iselle warms my heart; it’s a joy to watch him support and encourage her, step by step, to become her best and most powerful self.

I’ve written a great deal in this blog about the kinds of female characters I enjoy and would love to see more of, but lately I’ve come to see more clearly than ever how important it is to see good male characters (emphasis on good) as well. By this I mean male characters who behave like adults, who fight for something larger than themselves, who take responsibility for their actions, who treat others with honesty and kindness, and who show themselves capable of forging solid based-on-respect friendships with women. Fiction, not just fantasy fiction, needs more Lupe dy Cazarils.

Melissa Caruso, The Tethered Mage

I don’t want to say too much about this one, as I’m still only a little more than halfway through it, but I don’t doubt it will make my favorites-of-the-year list. It centers on two female characters, one a privileged heiress and another a scrappy street urchin blessed (or is it cursed?) with fire magic. Their prickly, difficult relationship forms the heart of the book, and I’m relishing watching it develop. Yet my favorite aspect of the novel is the world itself. It’s influenced by Renaissance Italy, with its political infighting between powerful families, but Caruso has made it refreshingly gender-egalitarian, with men and women occupying all roles and stations of life. Both Amalia the heiress and Zaira the urchin have daunting obstacles to face, but gender prejudice is not among them. Hallelujah! This is how it’s done, my friends.

Brandon Sanderson, Oathbringer

It’s finally out! I’ve been thirsting to get my hands on the third volume of Sanderson’s epic Stormlight Archive series, ever since I heard Sanderson read excerpts from it at DragonCon 2016. Now it is mine at last. I’ve just passed page 200, so all I can already say is that it’s huge and beautiful and I love it, and I’m thrilled to spend time once again with Kaladin, Syl, Dalinar, Shallan, and the brave, funny men of Bridge Four. Ah, to be in Roshar now that fall is here!

An Atlanta Christmas, to be performed by the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company at the Good Acting Studio in Marietta, GA on December 9 and 10.

More than a decade after Christmas Rose, I have finally written a new Christmas piece for ARTC! Set at the North Pole and called The Sleigh of Unspoken Dreams, it focuses on a trio of elves who are just plain sick of turning out corporate and licensed merchandise and flex their creative muscles by crafting toys that haven’t yet been, but should be, asked for. Its debut performance takes place in just three weeks. If you happen to be in the Atlanta area and want to take in a special festive activity, check out our show, which also includes scripts by gifted ARTC writers David Benedict, Rhetta Bodhaine, Ron Butler, Cyd Hoskinson, Dave Schroeder, Brad Strickland, and Jonathan Strickland.

 

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On Being a Social Justice Bard

I’m not a fighter. Direct confrontation tightens my chest and sours my stomach. I’m about as athletic as a dead sea slug. I’m not even all that great at the art of snarky put-downs. Whatever other qualities a person needs to be a satisfactory warrior, I’m pretty sure I don’t have them.

What am I good at? Stories. Writing stories, reading stories, watching stories, talking about stories, thinking about stories. So I call myself a Social Justice Bard. What that means, for me, is that I believe there is a wider variety of stories to be told, and perspectives to be shown, than we’ve seen so far. It means I’d like to see us, as creators and as consumers, expand our ideas of what a good protagonist can be or do. It does not mean that I feel stories should no longer have white male heroes, but rather that we should move away from the idea of white male as the default for hero, and particularly the notion that stories with white male heroes have universal appeal while those that depart from that template are written only to please a specific niche.

As a reader, I seek out books that challenge the default, but also offer plotlines, characterization, and prose that can draw me into the books’ worlds and hold me there. An essay by Liz Bourke, recently published on Tor.com, deals with the notion some readers have absorbed that writers are being asked to sacrifice “quality” for diversity, as though stories that follow the default are somehow inherently better. Weak writers, to be sure, may shoehorn “diverse” characters into their stories and expect to be praised for such, but if any character feels shoehorned rather than organic to the story, that’s bad writing, pure and simple. I look for stories that do not ask me to make some mythical choice between quality and diversity, and I’ve had no trouble finding them. Anyone who thinks such a choice is necessary has never read the work of Octavia Butler, Nnedi Okorafor, N.K. Jemisin, Zen Cho, or Ken Liu, not to mention Kate Elliott, Elizabeth Bear, Django Wexler, Max Gladstone, or M.H. Boroson.

As a writer I’m just getting started, with only two published novels and six short stories to my credit, as well as my plays for the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company. When it comes to creating diverse casts of characters, I know I could do better. But I’ve noticed over the years I’ve been writing that my bent is toward tales about the kinds of characters we don’t often see. When people think of romantic heroines, they generally don’t picture were-rats or albino giants, but in Atterwald and Nightmare Lullaby respectively, that’s what they are. My male heroes, too, depart from the usual template; in Atterwald he is bedridden, and in Nightmare Lullaby, he is afflicted by a curse that gives him the appearance of old age. I can’t be sure where my inclination toward unexpected heroes will lead me in the future, but in my current work-in-progress I decided to give two of my major characters — one the male lead, another an important supporting female character — dark skin, because I saw no reason why they shouldn’t have it. Nothing in the plot or in their personalities forbids it. It’s a way of playing around with the default and the expectations it has wrought.

Issues of representation and inclusiveness are not always clear-cut. Are there certain kinds of characters that a heterosexual white woman writer like me should keep away from? This article from The Mary Sue highlights the dangers of “getting it wrong,” and the ease with which controversy is sparked in this Age of Twitter. What some readers view as representation can seem, in the eyes of others, more like appropriation. How can we be sure we’re on the right side? I’m afraid the closest I can come to an answer is to be certain our own hearts and minds are fully invested in the stories we tell and the individuals we write about, and that we’re not just putting ourselves through the motions. Any character we create should be for us, first and foremost, not a type or a token member of a group but a unique human being. While this is no guarantee against controversy, it increases the likelihood that our stories will be worth reading. White male M.H. Boroson may not seem like the ideal person to write about the adventures of a young Daoist priestess in Chinatown in 1898 San Francisco, but The Girl With Ghost Eyes has won praise for its detailed evocation of time and place and its flawed, brave, believable heroine, Li-lin. Her story was clearly in his heart and mind, and he told it well.

The Mary Sue article ends with an exhortation for writers to try moving away from the usual default settings for fantasy characters and worlds. The risk, it argues, is always worth taking. When my friend Sketch asked about the definition of “Social Justice Warrior,” one of his friends suggested that an SJW might be someone more concerned with trivialities than with important issues. I wonder how many people might see representation and inclusiveness in fiction as a trivial thing to worry about, not realizing the difference it can make.

The recent release of a new trailer for Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi ignited a fresh firestorm of rumor that Rey, heroine of The Force Awakens, was destined to turn to the Dark Side. I found myself less concerned that she might turn evil — I still have too much faith in the franchise to believe it would callously deprive us of its first live-action Force-sensitive heroine, considering how important she is to more fans than just me — and more troubled by the number of people who want her to turn evil. One commenter online suggested Rey had to become a villain because “girls aren’t strong enough to save the world.” When someone disputed him, he challenged him to “name one female Jedi.” There have been a few, but except for Ahkosa in Clone Wars, so far they haven’t been protagonists, and of course the Expanded Universe is no longer canon, so other posters were stymied.

If only he could have understood that the very reason he thought Rey bound to turn evil is also the reason she should not, must not, turn evil. We need him and other Star Wars fans to see that yes, girls are strong enough to save the world.

Representation could do this. It can do wonderful things. I still remember hearing Megan Follows, at this year’s DragonCon, tell of a prison inmate who, having learned misogyny at his abusive father’s knee, found in the Anne of Green Gables miniseries a new way of seeing and understanding women and wrote Follows a letter to thank her. And I remember how the young relative of a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan had his eyes opened to racial injustice, and his heart opened to empathy, when he went with his class on a field trip to see the musical Ragtime. Anecdotes like this give me hope at a time when nearly every news story makes it clear that as far as we may have come, we are still many, many miles away from where we should be, in terms of how we look at and think about each other.

To control behavior is the work of legal systems. To open minds and change hearts is the work of stories and the Social Justice Bards who tell them.

Understanding “SJW”

I have a good, sweet, funny friend called “Sketch” who works as a freelance animator.  I first met him through the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, and ever after I’ve known him to be the sort of man that people are darned lucky to have in their lives. He has even helped me make my blog site look so good. In recent years I’ve come to think of him as “King of Facebook,” because he’s better than almost anyone else I know at starting funny and thought-provoking Facebook discussion threads. About a week ago he posted the question, “How would you define ‘Social Justice Warrior’?”

That’s intriguing, since a definition that everyone can agree upon has yet to be laid out in plain terms. It’s one of those mercurial phrases that means whatever the person using it wants it to mean, and even that person may not have the clearest idea of what it is. After all, it sounds like a positive thing. We all want a just society, don’t we? Even if we really didn’t, we’d say we did. Justice is an ideal to aim for, and those who fight for it, as warriors do, should earn our admiration, right? Yet the term “Social Justice Warrior,” or “SJW,” is nearly always used as a jibe or insult.

So, what did Sketch’s friends have to say?

Some responded with humor. Probably my favorite comment: “People who believe in social justice, but didn’t go cleric, mage, or rogue.” Another poster quipped, “I’m pretty sure that’s a superhero from the ’70s.” Another witty reply held an edge, a bite: “A phrase used to express that the user is an asshole.” The funny posts highlight the vagueness of the term’s meaning, and also the truth that it usually says as much, if not more, about the one using it as about the one it’s being used against.

Others suggested that the term as a negative might have some validity. One poster explained that when the phrase was first tossed about, it referred to a person who was, as it were, all talk and no walk, and/or was perpetually offended by anything and everything. Plenty of posts went with this meaning:

“I generally approve of social justice. HOWEVER there is such a thing as a person misconstruing everything as a slight against SOMEONE. These are the people that… I refer to as ‘social justice warriors.'”

“Similar to white knighting, it’s someone who is fighting for their own personal image more than the actual injustice.”

“They might . . . be very concerned about small issues while ignoring larger ones.”

Some posters took care to lay out distinctions between those sincere and sensible in their pursuit of social justice and those who took it to an illogical extreme:

“Someone who wants to censor free speech for simply disagreeing or finding speech offensive. Someone who is willing to debate and have an open dialogue is [a social justice] advocate.”

“I keep a very distinct line between ‘social justice warrior’ and ‘social justice bully.'”

Yet for some of the posters, the term has ceased to be a sound criticism. One post pointed out that it has been “co-opted by the alt-right as coded speech for ‘anybody that has a problem with me saying shitty things about women, people of color, homosexuals, and Jews.'” Another declared, “To be perfectly honest? Social justice warrior is exactly what it sounds like. Someone who fights for social justice. . . SJW is how hatemongers mark those who stand against hate.” Here it’s clear that an insult in the eyes of one person can be high praise to another.

When a post proclaimed, “Just substitute ‘Antifa Thug’ it’s the same thing,” I wasn’t sure quite how to take it. The poster might have meant that “SJW” has as little merit as “Antifa Thug,” but it’s difficult to tell from a Facebook post; while one can easily hear sarcasm, reading it may be trickier. Whatever the intent, I have to confess this one put a bad taste in my mouth, less because of the post itself than because I react more viscerally than sensibly to the word “Antifa.” I remember the very first time I encountered the word in print: in an article quoting the rants of a slobbering puke-monster (doubtless under the mistaken impression that he is human) who murdered two men on a Portland train because they stepped in to stop him from bullying a pair of young girls. I’ll have a hard time hearing or reading the term “antifa” without remembering that man and his crime, or the young men who lost their lives because they took a stand for basic decency. These young men, we might say, were “social justice warriors” in the purest sense of the phrase.

Then there were the posts that offered a more personal perspective on “SJW”:

“I think it means a person who calls others out on their bullshit. I say this because when I do that, I am called a social justice warrior.”

“Apparently I am one. I get called one several times a week by people who do not like the things I openly talk about.”

These posts got me thinking about where I come down on the “SJW” scale. What kind of social justice warrior am I? What kind do I want to be? Do I get offended too easily, and by too many things? Do I let my dislike of confrontation keep me from speaking out? What would I have done, had I been on that Portland train?

To be continued.