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?