Tuesday, January 31, 2006


So, in what is, I assure you, pure coincidence (considering our recent discussions), I've just finished reading Richard Price's novel Freedomland -- a book about, among other things, racial tensions centered around a housing project which abuts a more affluent, white community. This conflict is touched off when a white woman claims her car, with her four-year-old child still in the back seat, was stolen by a black man. The book chronicles the detective work on the case, the extreme pressures exerted both on and by the black community, and the tightrope a black detective must walk as he balances the need to save a child with the righteous outrage of a people who know an abducted black child would not have elicited the same massive police response.

Of note, considering my earlier post: Richard Price is a white author, who dives into the challenge of writing from a black perspective without the slightest hesitation, and with resounding success. (This is nothing new for him, as a quick perusal of his other books will indicate: among them, Clockers and The Samaritan.)

It's an incredible book; the felicitous characterization of Brenda Martin, the mother of the lost child, which is sustained over 500 pages, is nothing short of a marvel. Not to mention, Price has the sharpest ear for dialogue I've encountered from any writer.

Apparently there's a movie coming out. I don't know much about it, but I highly recommend you read the book first.

Another recommendation for you: a French film, circa 1952, by Rene Clement called Forbidden Games. It's about a little girl whose parents are killed during an airstrike while fleeing Paris. She is taken in by a rural family, and befriends their youngest son. The two of them become obsessed with the trappings of death and mourning, and take to stealing crucifixes and constructing their own little cemetery in a nearby barn. Heartbreaking; the girl is nothing short of remarkable. The last scene literally had me crying.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Friday's Fun Link

I've tried three times to set this up, but nothing I write can do it justice. Just trust me and follow the link. If this doesn't convince you the world is worth saving, I'm going to have to re-evaluate our relationship.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Don't Move That Rock! You'll Kill the Fairies!

This is the best news story I've read in a long time. It was called to my attention by my friend, John McNichol: according to the Times Online, a development project in St. Fillans, Perthshire, has been scuttled due to the presence of fairies. Just as they were set to move a large rock, developers were stopped by a villager who called out, "Don't move that rock. You'll kill the fairies."

Complaints began to pour into the developers' offices, and the matter was taken to the city council, in which the chairman said, "I do believe in fairies but I can't be sure they live under that rock."

Apparently the council decided to err on the side of caution. The development company was forced to find a new site.

Read it here!

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Pam Noles, Ursula LeGuin, and Science Fiction's Dirty Secret

Pam Noles has an essay on Infinite Matrix that you should read -- now -- if you haven't already. It's called "Shame", and it's about, in part, the failure of the science fiction/fantasy genre to adequately represent -- in most cases even to acknowledge -- any race other than the white one. (She expands upon it a little bit on Nalo Hopkinson's blog here). The essay pivots on the hatchet job the SciFi Channel did on Ursula K. LeGuin's astonishing Earthsea books. In those books, almost none of the characters were white; instead they ranged from a reddish-brown to onyx. Pam writes that coming across those books as a girl marked the first time that she really felt included in the genre she already loved. The SciFi Channel, of course, cast nearly every role with a white actor, with the lonely exception of Danny Glover (fulfilling the role of the Wise, Non-Threatening Black Man, the one usually played by Morgan Freeman). LeGuin herself has written about the offensiveness of this decision on Slate.com, in an essay entitled "A Whitewashed Earthsea."

It seems Pam's essay has sparked a bit of controversy. Rather than post links here, I'll refer you to her own post about it here. Behind one of the links that she lists you'll find someone lamenting the difficulty of writing a black character because he lacks identification. On a superficial level, I can sympathize with this fear. It's easy to worry about getting it wrong, and of being offensive or looking foolish, or both. I remember back in Clarion, one of the students wrote a story which featured a black character. Harlan Ellison, offering critiques via speakerphone (another story for another day), asked the writer if she was black. "No," she said, "but I grew up in a black neighborhood." Ellison shot back, "Yeah, I had a black guy carry my bags for me once. Nothing like identification."

At the time, I silently cheered Ellison for squashing what I took to be this woman's pretentious claim to understand the black experience sufficiently to write about it. Now, I think it was an unfair criticism, because it leads to this fear that we, as white writers -- or, in my case, a white male writer -- cannot write from the viewpoint of a member of another ethnicity or gender. I'll fine tune that point: the more alienated that culture, paradoxically, the lesser the crime. One could write comfortably about a sixteenth century Chinese soldier and not fear criticism; but write from the perspective of a black person, or of a woman, and the fear of judgement balloons like a tumor.

Serious writers have an obligation to empathize. If you can't do that -- if you can't make an effort to feel the experience of another person, no matter how cosmetically and culturally different, then who exactly are you writing about? Are you writing the same set of characters over and over again, only with different names and in different settings? Am I?

Recoiling for fear of fucking it up is unhealthy for the writer, unhealthy for the genre, and unfair to people who find themselves either under-represented or all-but excluded from the genre. It is also downright criminal for a category of fiction which styles itself as forward-thinking, and culturally literate. It's easy to make up another world and fill it with all manner of aliens or critters; less easy, I think, to write well and convincingly of the failures in our own culture. And don't tell me it's all done with metaphor. When I hear that the aliens are symbolic of black Americans, or Native Americans, or gay Americans, or even impoverished Americans, I feel a twinge of disgust. Step up and write about people.

Maybe this gets down to a longstanding problem I've had with genre; I think I've always been, and may always be, a closet realist.

Why do I have to read Nalo Hopkinson, Samuel Delany, or Walter Mosley to read about black people in the genre? Why do I have to read Douglas Clegg or Clive Barker to read about gays?

Pam's essay has me examing my own work all over again. If you're a writer, it should have you examing yours. If you're a reader, look at what you're being offered. They say that the appeal of SF/F is the constant newness it offers, the renewable sense of being off-kilter. How about really getting something new for a change?

Saturday, January 14, 2006

In Which I Discover That My Child Is a Disney Character

Mia had her cute-engine cranked up pretty high tonight. She was singing a phrase from some song I've never heard, but I could tell she heard it on the radio because she faithfully reproduced a British accent when she got to the word "heart."

"It's my favorite song in the world," she said. "When I hear it my ears have a party!"

Also, she's been learning about Martin Luther King in kindergarten. While I was tucking her in tonight, after storytime, she said she gave "twenty prayers" for "Martin Leather King." When I said that was sweet, she told me about the birthday cake she planned to make for him, which would come with a giant frosting heart. I smiled and said that sounded really yummy.

Then she got her sad face and said, "I wish he didn't die."

"Me too," I said, rubbing the hair from her forehead.

"I would tell him, thanks for changing all those laws."

It's the kind of thing that if I saw on a movie screen I'd choke on the schmaltz. If I read it in a book I'd hurl it away and cry out, "Why do you assault me with your saccharine fantasies!?"

But it's my kid, and I'm just a sappy old dad. It's beautiful.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Why I Wrote "S.S."

One thing you come to take for granted living in New Orleans is how readily it forgives eccentricity. I never thought of myself as other than a fairly normal person. Sure, I have this predeliction for writing dark stories, and I like watching dark movies, and sometimes my humor runs to the morbid, but . . . hey, that's normal, right?

For many of us in the genre, of course, it is. By New Orleans standards, it was certainly too tame a character trait to qualify as weird, or even interesting.

But standards are different in Asheville. When people I work with found out that I write and have published a few stories, a few were eager to read some. So I circulated a copy of "You Go Where It Takes You," and the reaction has been largely one of dismay. One person has asked me why I have custody of my daughter if I hate her that much. Another has stopped talking to me altogether.

At first I was stunned by this reaction, although now I see I shouldn't have been taken by surprise. Of course you always know that there are going to be people who can't separate the author from the characters, but it's strange to actually encounter it for the first time. It certainly convinces me that I'll never give any of them a copy of "S.S."

"S.S." was published in March of 2005 by The 3rd Alternative. That probably mean that the few of you who come over here have not read it. It's about Nick, a fifteen year old boy, living at home with a mother rapidly descending into insanity, who is seduced by the white nationalist movement. Since the story is told from Nick's point of view, it is also a sympathetic portrayal. Obviously, any confusion between character and author could lead to some trouble.

Many years ago, my brother spent some time in a white supremacist group. He has long since abandoned it, as well as the belief system that accompanied it (by the way, I asked him if I could write about this, and he's given me his blessing). At the time, though, it was scary for me and our mother; very likely for him, too. He wore the persona like a coat, and it seemed to change him completely. I remember him bringing friends over to the house: big guys, shaved heads, radiating hostility. I was never afraid of my brother -- he was, after all, my four years my junior, and a lifetime of exploiting that fact had deluded me into thinking that I would always be able to squash him into submission if I had to -- but I was afraid of his friends. They looked like they could hurt people if they wanted to. And they looked like they wanted to.

This was right around the time, too, when Geraldo Rivera had the neo-Nazis on his show, and one of them broke his nose with a chair. They were getting a lot of press -- at least it seemed so to me. And the public reaction was, of course, one of moral outrage. And that's the proper reaction to any belief system that inspires violence to a people based on ethnicity, religion, what have you. But that outrage is also a warping factor in and of itself, and all to often what happens is that the members of these groups are painted as two-dimensional monsters. There's no substance to them; no gray. (We're seeing this now with "evil," "death-worshiping" Islamic radicals.)

I probably would have leaped eagerly into that reductivist mindset if my brother hadn't been a part of that scene. And I saw the complexities: I heard the racism, saw the burgeoning urge to violence, watched the contempt grow like a cancer. But I saw that same kid (and many of them are just kids) come home at night and play with his G.I. Joe action figures in his bedroom. You know, voices, sound effects, everything. And that created such a dissonance; it was hard to get my mind around it. But it convinced me that he was still just a kid, and that there was hope for him. And that anyone who said he was evil was not making an effort to understand the roots of the problem. Calling it evil wasn't going to solve anything.

It's a liberal's disease, I know: try to understand the villain. Find his inner child. Discover why he is who he is. But I really believe in that. And because of my brother, I know there is a lot of validity to that approach.

So, years later, thinking back on all of that, I decided to write a story about a kid who gets caught up in the movement. It's not my brother's story. Our mother is not crazy, and our father did and continues to maintain an active presence in our lives. But there are cosmetic similarities: a growing sense of alienation and worthlessness; a feeling of abandonment; and a desperate need to fit somewhere.

A lot of people call horror fiction a moral fiction. You know, drugs and sex will get you decapitated. For a long time I scoffed at that notion, and when I wrote "You Go Where It Takes You" I thought I was rebelling against it. But I understand now, especially in light of "S.S.", that I am very much preoccupied with morality, and that those stories at least can fairly be called moral fictions. What I do rebel against, however, is the notion that horror fiction should be an instructive moral fiction. I think all good fiction should ask questions. Beware fiction that offers solutions; beware fiction that offers catharsis. You're being drugged.

I wrote "S.S." to get readers to see the world through Nick's eyes. It was an uncomfortable story to write, and I hope it's an uncomfortable story to read. There are no apologies offered for the epithets he uses, or the actions he takes, because he does not feel they're wrong. I don't celebrate Nick; I don't really like him, even. But I get the kid. I understand him.

If this story ever gets a wider circulation, and people confuse me with the protagonist, the way they sometimes do with Toni, I understand it might cause me some trouble. Especially if people find out about my brother's history and decide to leap to some handy conclusions. But I like fiction that digs into ugly places; I like fiction that places the world in an unusual and disturbing perspective. I think that if horror fiction is truly an exploration into morality, then this is one of its duties. Maybe its most important duty.

That's why I wrote "S.S."

But I'm still too chicken to bring it into work.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Andy Fox in New Orleans

As I mentioned sometime previously, my friend Andy Fox, author of Fat White Vampire Blues and Bride of the Fat White Vampire, is still living in New Orleans with his family, doing his part in helping it get back on its feet. He doesn't have his own blog to chronicle the city's struggle, unfortunately, but he does have a thread or two dedicated to the topic over at the Night Shade Discussion Boards. It's one of the best places to go on the web for a more personal approach to New Orleans than what you'll find in the papers.

I read Andy's books when I was living in New Orleans, and enjoyed them at the time; but recently I've gone back and reread long passages from them, and they resonate with me a lot more. He captures the place and its people so well that I can practically smell the place. Believe it or not, that's actually a good thing.

Here's another New Orleans-related site, dedicated to doing some good: Rebuild 504. It's a small effort, judging from the money they've raised so far, but a lot of small steps will take you a long way.