when autobiography turns bad & shows your cottage-cheesy ass
This is the third in my series of posts about my e-book backlist from Orbit.
Double Vision and Sound Mind were experiments in autobiography using a cross-sectional view that addressed the more abstract undercurrents of what so-called ‘normal life.’
To a certain extent I used autobiography in these books in the same way I would have used found sound in composing music. I took pieces of my own life and dropped them as chunks into the SFnal narrative, observing the way they interacted with their new environment. (You could argue that all stories are built this way to some extent, and I wouldn’t disagree; but with these books I was intentionally cultivating this.) I made certain alterations to the autobiography so that I could work it into the story, but I stayed as close to my own personal recollection as I could. In this way I created parameters for my fictional experiment.
One of the problems with this approach lay in the loaded racial content I was working with, including massive environmental racism. It was in the air everywhere when I was growing up, and coupled with it there was an utter denial that it even existed. This fucked-upedness found its way into my fiction in various ways.
There is an episode where one of the minor characters in Double Vision has a dodgy sexual encounter with an Okinawan karate master who she naively believes is taking her aside out of interest in her martial arts ability. Something very similar actually happened to me when I was sixteen on a trip to Okinawa and Japan. In the novel some details are altered and some aspects are exaggerated, but the gist of it is out of my life and I lifted a good bit of the dialogue straight out of things that were actually said.
And here’s where the question comes: can you just drop stuff out of your life into a story and expect it to work as story? Well, in this case, not so much. Certainly as a white writer portraying non-white characters, I might have thought through the implications of what I was putting on the page much more carefully. When I read Requires Hate’s review where she quoted some of these passages, the bottom of my stomach dropped out. There were a lot of angles I hadn’t considered. I ended up parroting the racism of that time and place when I might have been unpacking it instead.
Guess what? I didn't see what I was doing. I'm not very happy with myself, because I should have seen it.
I was working out my personal issues with karate on the page. I had been with a group of Americans travelling to Okinawa to train, and while we were there I learned a little about the American presence on the island. It was only years later that I began to hear of the abusive behaviour of US soldiers toward the Okinawans—especially the women. But I didn’t think this through when I was writing. I’m ashamed of the fact that when I flipped the roles around in Double Vision and made the Okinawan masters visitors to the US (which I did for storytelling convenience) I completely failed to see the ways in which I was reversing the more typical scenario of US male sexual assault upon Okinawan females. I couldn’t see it at the time. I was too busy trying to deal with the way it felt to write about what had happened—the karate side of things more than the sexual side, to be honest—and so I didn’t look at the material properly.
The reviewer also flagged up a character’s use of the word ‘robotic’ in connection with karate. This is something where I think I can offer some partial explanation. I will show you three clips of Japanese martial arts so you can see what I’m talking about. This is judo: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SgVoMD1Rh
And you can see it’s free, natural movement which displays technical facility as well as athleticism. And this is sumo: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G72bQBMZm
Again: tremendous physical expression and use of the body for a deliberate purpose, to get the opponent out of the ring. Now by contrast this is karate, and here is what I meant by robotic, because the style of movement is unnatural and contrived. The better you are at karate, the more controlled and unreal your movement: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ky0tumrBK
It never occurred to me that in this choice of phrase I was playing into a slur against Japan associated with its technical industry, because there are lots of Japanese martial arts that are not robotic at all. When I read the passage in question I’m more embarrassed about the height thing and the broken English. I’m not even sure what I was trying to do with weight and food in that book. I honestly don’t even know. I will say that I’m working on my blind spots and my ignorance, and I expect to be doing so for the rest of my life.
The power gradients in the world flow in favour of white Americans getting to say whatever we want about anybody, not just in a freedom of speech kind of way but in a go-to-the-bank-and-collect-lots-of-money-a
In her thesis Technology and the Vulnerable Body in Feminist Post Cyberpunk SF Kathryn Allen pointed out a racial approach in Maul that I doubt I would use so blithely now. I used racial stereotypes like they were candy; I exaggerated everything I could find. When Maul works, one of the reasons it works is because I took the crappiest of crap that was in my head and let it come out in ways that were sometimes intentionally ugly.
The self-hate that Sun expresses in the book was intended as the kind of adolescent self-loathing and cynicism that I recognised in myself. But I am a white member of the dominant culture and Sun comes from a mixed background with more than one cultural allegiance. I was wrong to think I could just get into her head and substitute my experience for hers as if our perspectives were somehow interchangeable. And so, unlike my own white girl everything-sucks-in-a-generic-way mindset, Sun’s attitudes read as racial self-hate. Which is really squicky coming from me as a white author. At times I mangled Sun’s viewpoint because I was too quick to assume I knew how she would react; I don’t. Some of Maul is cringe-making to read, now, and I don’t attempt to excuse it. There are things I messed up about the non-binary nature of gender for sure. Gender-wise, I did what research I could with the resources I had, but the fact is I was in way over my head in more ways than I can count.
Similarly, writing about Cookie as a black woman—and a woman of size-- was a risk that I probably would not undertake quite so readily were I writing the book today. I went charging in with an entitled attitude: isn't it cool that I'm writing about people who aren't white and including them in my work? I was a little uncomfortable, a little bit conscious that I might be trespassing. But it didn't really hit home with me that I'd taken liberties--that what I was doing might be unwelcome by members of the groups I was writing about--until RaceFail.
I didn’t have beta-readers to help me with Cookie. I didn’t have Nisi Shawl’s and Cynthia Ward’s book Writing the Other, nor access to the wide range of online discussion now available for writers working cross-culturally. Because of my isolated circumstances, I didn’t have real people to talk to, either.
I did have a sincere desire to make Cookie a kind of hero—but most of my working material ended up coming from the weakest parts of myself. For my own reasons, I needed to work with those foibles and failings, and maybe by doing that in the context of a black character I created a negative impression of what it is to be a black woman—or for that matter a large woman—in America. That kind of association was never my intention.
As Cookie develops, she becomes more self-assured and she ends up as a mythic figure who assumes power in the symbolic world. But I was never sure if I did the right thing by her in the end. I couldn’t quite work it out. The truth is, when I was writing the books I didn’t have an answer for what might be possible for a being like Cookie, in this world or any other. Her eventual fate was more of a note scrawled on a Post-It sticker rather than a definitive statement carved in the stone of story. Knowing her spiritual trajectory, I doubt she would stay where she found herself at the end of Sound Mind.
I've been turning these issues over in my mind for a good few years now. The e-books coming out seemed like as good a time as any to set down a few words on the subject. Maybe this post comes across like I’m just trying to cover my ass. I’m sure that on some level that’s what I’m doing, because I don’t get a do-over with regard to the way I handled race and gender in these instances.
Sincerely, I need to get this out there and be honest about it. I was paid to write these books and I’ve received a certain amount of praise and attention for them, and I think it’s only fair to say that there were places where I messed up. Mea culpa.