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.

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