Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Talking Shop

Op-ed • “Boldly Going Beyond,” by Guy Stewart •

I completely agree with Eric Dontigney’s assessment of the problems with “SF, Diversity, and This Author’s Dilemma.”

I’m pretty sure that if I agreed with his solution, I’d have to quit my job. After almost thirty years teaching science, I’m now a counselor at a predominantly black, semi-urban high school, and I am a big, old, fat, white guy. People tell me I’m effective at connecting with many of my students…
Rather than compliments, let me offer this anecdote: Shortly after I finished my degree, one of the counselors left. She was a Latina and led the Latin@ Culture Group at the school. As there were no spare bodies to slip into the role, it was mine. Even I could see the absurdity of that. The night of the weekly meeting arrived, I opened the room, and after the kids had gathered, I stood up and said, “It’s obvious what I am, but you’re stuck with me. The only way I can learn anything about you is if you teach me what I should know.”

They were so startled that they spent the next nine weeks working hard to help me understand what they thought was important and what issues they faced. I even learned enough to defuse a potential explosion when, on Cinco de Mayo, an administrator came to me to ask “my kids” to stop trying to hang the Mexican flag in the school foyer.

Whoa. Knowing by then what Cinco de Mayo meant to them, I went out and offered to hang the flag outside my office door for the rest of the day—in full view of anyone who came into, or even looked into the office. They were good with that.

I agree with Mr. Dontigney when he writes, “I don’t want to get it wrong, and it would be laughably easy to get it very wrong. Having access to information is not the same thing as understanding it. Facts and truth are not identical.”

However, the solution is not to avoid the issue. The solution is relationships. He writes, “We live in a diverse world.”

That’s it exactly!

Just as all of us “white, straight, male, and living in a developed country” people are not all the same (Bruce Bethke could probably tell us apart in a police lineup), you can find someone in every community with whom you can connect and work for understanding, caring, and truth about different cultures.

“Can I imagine anger at being pulled over for nothing, time and time again?” Sure, I can imagine it, but I can’t trust I imagined it the right way.

Tru dat. But you can talk to a friend who’s black and have them share the experience with you. You can take notes. You can ask them to read your story to see if you’ve captured the situation and emotion. You can revise. You can learn.

I’m going to segue into a subject Bruce asked me to consider. Boiled down, the question might be restated, “Would kids in your school read Robert A. Heinlein’s juvenile novels?”

The answer is plainly, “No.” But not because my kids are mostly urban black kids and Heinlein’s characters are mostly suburban white kids.

They wouldn’t read them because the situations in Heinlein’s imagined future didn’t grow out of a past my kids grew out of. Heinlein’s HAVE SPACESUIT, WILL TRAVEL grew out of his past. His past hadn’t even reached the Civil Rights Movement yet. Black kids in his past weren’t allowed to share bus seats with whites, let alone dream about going into space. It’s the past of the books that my kids wouldn’t believe.

But it’s abundantly clear that black kids will avidly read a stories with white characters when they see the world they know reflected in the story. J. K. Rowling hit that nail on the head—and black kids gobbled up the books as fast as white kids and old people. The story resonated deeply because the Dursley’s were apartheid incarnate to Harry’s magical orientation and birth. That’s what they represented: “a policy or system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race, or even segregation on grounds other than race.”

If I go back and read Heinlein’s books—and even McCaffery’s and Phillip Reeve’s—I can see that not only do they not include intentionally and unspectacularly non-white characters, they don’t appear to hint that there might be a history that includes them.

My guess is that Heinlein’s CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY might be the one to study, re-image, and market. Slavery is present here and now in both visible and invisible ways. I think today’s teens would resonate with it.

A second question Bruce asked me to answer made Mr. Dontigney’s words ring the same tone: “How does a [bofwhig] writer get beyond tokenism and pandering?” That is exactly what all of the best speculative fiction writers are supposed to do anyway: go beyond. Get past. “To boldly go where no one has gone before.”

Slavery and bullying—themes of the Harry Potter universe—are concepts that everyone can understand. I have Irish ancestry that includes slavery. Science fiction, fantasy, horror, and speculative fiction delves into the darkest corners of the Human psyche, touching fears and dreams we all have in common. But if we can go to those other places in a story that has relationships at its core—relationships that are trans-cultural, trans-orientational, and trans-racial—we can avoid tokenism and pandering, and tell True stories. If I have real relationships with diverse friends and colleagues, can look beyond simple story to foundational Human issues, and approach it with a humble heart, I can write meaningful stories that reach people much different than myself.

Guy Stewart is a husband supporting his wife, a breast cancer survivor; a father, father-in-law, grandfather, foster father, friend, writer, teacher, and counselor who maintains a SF/YA/Children’s writing blog called POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS; and more seriously, the author of GUY’S GOTTA TALK ABOUT BREAST CANCER AND ALZHEIMER’S. He has 66 publications to his credit, including a book that’s been available since 1997. In his spare time he keeps animals, a house, and loves to bike and camp. Guy has been a member of the Stupefying Stories crew since before the beginning, and his Amazon page is here: https://www.amazon.com/Guy-Stewart/e/B001KHE6U2.

If you enjoyed this column, you might also want to read his short story, “Bogfather,” which we published on this site back in December.