I originally wrote this before the events in Dallas, Minnesota, and Baton Rouge unfolded on our screens. It’s leading me to rethink a lot of things, especially what is happening in Baton Rouge, where a good chunk of Metaphysical Graffiti takes place. Will I have to revise the book so what happens to Ieshia Evans becomes commonplace? Should I be telling this particular story, seeing as I’m a traveler to this world and not one who has to live in this reality every day? –
Thinking about how to process these events, my need to tell a story about them, and how they could be seen had me reflecting on an article I’d read earlier on about the novel Underground Airlines. Go ahead and visit, I’ll wait.
For a good summation of the response amongst many, I recommend this article from the Daily Dot. This quote in particular stood out:
Some found this positive coverage galling for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s demonstrably harder for authors of color to receive equal media attention alongside white writers. Secondly, the Times story plays into a long tradition of white artists being celebrated for tackling topics others have already covered with more personal expertise.
Now, from all accounts, this is a < href=”http://www.tor.com/2016/07/07/book-reviews-ben-h-winters-underground-airlines/”>good book. But as the reviewer says, “Movies, TV, and books have repeatedly sidelined PoC-penned narratives in favor of white creators.” And all the while, these white creators get heaped praise for work build on the backs of other authors, who never get the credit or voice they deserve.
Call it “Literary Colonialism” if you will, but you can apply it any number of cultural aspects, like music or history or just ideas. For now, we’ll focus on literature itself.
Imagine an author striding upon what he (and it’s usually a he) feels is virgin country. Chin out, he braves the “perils” of this untouched land of storytelling, mining it for golden ideas or tilling it until his crop of tales grows to harvest. He then returns to his native lands, arms overflowing with plunder, and is praised for his “bravery” in bringing civility to this barbarous new world.
Of course, our bold explorer never bothers to notice there are already people living in this “dark country.” They’ve been mining and growing and creating for ages before he stepped foot on their shores. But if they are acknowledged, it’s either as inferiors who didn’t realize what they had or obstacles to conquer.
In the end, the work of the original inhabitants were not worth noticing. That is, until the anger builds up and someone screams out “Enough!” That’s when revolutions begin.
Literary fiction often treats fiction by marginalized groups (or genre fiction) as little more than new grist for their mills.
There are exceptions, of course. I like to call them trading partners – people with a genuine love of the genre, or understanding of the culture – that wish to share that love, and facilitate travel between these lands. They use their inherent privilege to say, “We were not here first – you need to see and understand.”
But they’re few, and don’t have the influence of the grand conquerors. The establishments don’t support anyone trying to counter the grand default narratives.
So these literary colonizers take the stories of minority authors and recast them (figuratively and literally). They plunge into genres and literary traditions, rip loose stories told within and yell, “Look what I’ve created! ME! I’m the God! I’M THE GOD!”
What can we do? First, speak out when we see it. Don’t let it go unrecognized. But when speaking out the second thing we can do – and the most important – is to point out the others who have been there before us and were ignored. In the case of Underground Airlines, many are pointing out Octavia E. Butler’s groundbreaking novel Kindred as an alternate. But they’ve also mentioned Derrick Bell, Robert O’Hara, Sigrid Gilmer and others.
But most importantly we have to realize we need to step aside, to listen and to amplify the voices for whom these stories have deep, personal resonance. And if the people who should be, and are, telling these stories cannot be heard then it is incumbent upon us to help them be heard.
Co-opting a story is, in a lot of ways, worse than silencing it. It shuts down any real conversation and exchange. It demeans the original tellers and their experiences. And it makes it easier for us to not question uncomfortable narratives, or confront ugly truths about ourselves.
I’m still going to write about Baton Rouge, but I will do it with care. And I’ll likely write about everything that’s happened in the last few weeks as well. But I will try very hard not to pretend I’m the first, or best, voice on this subject. And when better voices need to speak up, I will step down and insist the mic be passed to them. That’s the least I can do.
And if I allow myself to be called “brave” or “daring” for it, may Huey Freeman strike me down with a folding chair.
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