Tag Archives: Writing

Orphan Black

Back to more pleasant topics today, at least to the extent that saying farewell to a wonderful TV program is pleasant. This past weekend we said goodbye to Orphan Black, which ended its story after a 5 season run.

The first two seasons of the show I would put up against any other TV show in terms of the quality of the story being told as well as the level of the performance. I thought the plot wobbled a bit in this last season, which maybe shows the difficulty of maintaining a level of quality throughout the run of any serialized story, and it’s true that in the finale, the ‘plot’ part of the show was finished before the halfway mark.

But it didn’t matter. The reason it didn’t was that we got to indulge in a nice long wrap-up with the characters we’ve followed around for the past seasons, and as much as I did enjoy Orphan Black‘s plotlines and the issues of autonomy and identity that it raised, I think it was characters that I will remember most about the show. This is perhaps particularly remarkable because so many of the main characters are all played by the same actor, the remarkable Tatiana Maslany.

I could not be more impressed with how she made each of the Leda clones entirely unique in terms of their mannerisms and speech patterns (the writers obviously their share of the credit here too), so that you could easily forget that they really were all the same person. Even when one ‘sestra’ would try to disguise herself as one of the others, instead of just slipping into that character, we got an entirely new thing of ‘this person pretending to be another person’ where watchers of the show could easily still recognize the ‘real’ personality of the clone peeking through the act they were putting on.

I’m not doing justice to how amazing it was to watch. You’ve kind of got to see it.

Even leaving Maslany’s performance aside (although please give her all the awards), Orphan Black had amazing characters. I was so impressed, both as a fan and a writer, at how they took a character who we first met as (apparently) a vicious, genuinely disturbing antagonist and gradually showed you more of her story, and more parts of her personality, taking us through having sympathy for her, and then by the end of the show we (or at least I) were very much on her side. Helena was easily my favourite of all the Ledas, and if you had told me that would be the case early in Season 1 I would not have believed you. (I could not have been happier that we got one final sting of the ‘Helena kills things’ theme in that last episode. Kudos to the music composer, by the way, in creating such a distinctive theme that is basically two sounds and that’s it, but if I hear them 15 years from now I’ll still know exactly what they are)

That’s immensely hard to do as a writer; to create a character that has enough genuine depth that it’s possible for your audience to completely reassess them in the course of the story and not feel cheated either by how they first reacted to them, or at where you asked them to be at the end. The writers of Orphan Black did it just right, and I like to think I learned something from watching them do it.

I think the wrap-up of the show, and why it felt so good to me (and, judging by the bulk of the comments I’ve seen online, to a lot of others) is that we got a satisfying ending to all the stories of the women we’ve followed around for 5 years. None of it was plot-necessary, but the show asks you to get invested in these imaginary people, so I think having something that felt like a proper farewell was also warranted. Whenever I see people’s reactions to characters in books, movies, or TV shows, or feel my own, I’m reminded of how much writers can affect people with the things we create. Every time, I am also reminded that that influence isn’t something we can or should use lightly. We ask audiences to give us a lot, we need to be careful with that trust. Orphan Black did right by its audience.

So it was a wonderful farewell to Orphan Black, even if it was inevitably slightly bittersweet because we’re not going to see these characters again. I felt that the writers have told all the story that they really have to tell, though, so it’s a good place to stop. Especially for a show that I only really checked out on a whim (I really didn’t know what the heck it was about), Orphan Black is one of my very favourite TV shows of all time. If you’re reading this blog, I would suggest checking it out if you haven’t. It was really good SF and really good entertainment, and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

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La Machine

There were monsters in my city last weekend. Seriously.

Ottawa just finished playing host to La Machine, a street performance collective from France, and they brought a 3 day long battle between a Horse Dragon and a a giant spider to the streets. The monsters were enormous robotic creations, with (fascinatingly to me) wood making up a significant part of the construction. Long Ma (the dragon) and Kumo (the spider) were both tremendously impressive to see, whether in pictures or video or (more impactfully to me) glimpsed rather more imperfectly looming over the huge crowds that turned out to watch. Maybe my favorite image of the whole weekend was when I looked up Sussex, packed with people, and towering above it all, in the middle of the street (just like in a monster movie) was this huge creature.

LongMA

Ok, so the monsters were amazing. Long Ma roared and breathed smoke and flames. It also snored charmingly when ‘asleep’ between shows. Kumo climbed down the front of a building and shot presumably venomous water. Just seeing these things tool around the city was pretty incredible, and kind of right in my wheelhouse as someone who writes stories in which the supernatural intersects with the world with which we’re familiar. This was that idea, done on a huge scale, and so it was very fun to watch.

There was also a story to it all. Long Ma is supposed to be a cosmic force from the ninth level of heaven, watching over all humanity. Its wings are stolen and its temple robbed by a sinister force in the form of a giant spider. Long Ma tracked the spider down in Ottawa (amusingly described as ‘the mother-city of all spiders, which will resonate with anyone cynical about Canadian politics) and here they had their confrontation. Long Ma (of course?) ends up retrieving the wings and restoring things to rights.

Kumo.jpg

Pretty good, legendary-style story. I only found out about it by doing some research on the internet, though. I’m not sure it would be possible to come up with all that just watching the monsters and what they did. Obviously the two creatures were not friends – the roaring, flames and water jets when they crossed paths would tell you that – but the rest is certainly not immediately obvious.

I started to think about that from a storytelling perspective, and whether it was a problem. On one level, clearly not, because you could enjoy the spectacle of the city’s titanic visitors without knowing any of it. They were just fun to watch. It’s also possible that La Machine expected you to do the (fairly minimal) amount of research that I engaged in before going down to see the show, if you cared about the story. That’s quite possibly fair enough.

The more I think about it, though, the more I think that maybe you weren’t exactly expected to have the whole story down. Watching the show and figuring out what you thought was going on may have been the plan. There were probably parts of the ‘official’ narrative a lot of the audience would pick up on: Long Ma is clearly designed to be charming. It has big expressive eyes with long lashes, a sort of pleasantly deep rumbling voice, and an elegant stride. The giant spider – given our usual associations with spiders – seems more obviously an antagonist. When Long Ma was snoring cheerily in front of City Hall, Kumo loomed ominously from the top of a building. All of which to say, identifying the ‘good monster’ and the ‘bad monster’ from the pairing is probably fairly easy.

Fight.jpg

From there, most people could probably write their own story. One of my friends, in posting their La Machine photos, also presented their own narrative, which I really enjoyed. Their theory was that Kumo was angry with Long Ma because the dragon woke it up (which it did, on Friday afternoon), the fight and the day’s long chase through the ByWard Market proceeding from there. Suddenly, there’s a version of events where I have a lot more sympathy for the spider.

This strikes me as – potentially – a really cool way of telling a story, or causing a story to be told. Most people who saw La Machine didn’t see the whole thing; they went to one or two encounters with the creatures (although some did apparently follow them throughout), saw part of the weekend’s events, and came away with their own part of the story, their own interpretation of what it all meant, whether cosmic battle between good and evil, grumpy, sleep-deprived spider, or something entirely different.

This is, of course, the mode in which most of us learn about the real world. We almost never have all the facts and the full story about anything, at least not when events are in motion. We encounter what we encounter, experience what we experience, and construct our narratives about what it all signifies about the world, society, other people, and ourselves, from there. There are piles of studies with witness testimony to show that basically no two people are likely to come away from even the same experience with the same story about what happened, never mind each person with their own unique experiences to build from. We all write our own stories, all the time.

I’m not sure if that was really the intent of La Machine, but I think it’s both an inevitable consequence of a big, publicly performed, lengthy spectacle like their story was, and a pretty cool idea. Everyone who saw Long Ma and Kumo (and who didn’t then go and look up the ‘real story’ like I did) came away with their own version of what had happened, what was important, and what (if anything) it meant.

Fight2

This isn’t (I think) a form of storytelling that translates very well to books, although I guess some of the collected interview and diary style books along the lines of World War Z nudge somewhat into the territory. They still take all those different points of view and weave them into a ‘big picture’ for the reader, though. I’m not sure you could really recreate the La Machine experience with a written story unless maybe electronically, with the reader being presented with selected scenes from an overall whole and then having to put them together into a narrative, or not.

It probably doesn’t matter if you could do it in writing, though. One of the great things about storytelling is that it’s possible to do it in all sorts of different ways, with different techniques and technologies, and each has special possibilities. La Machine was the oft-cited “rule” of ‘show, don’t tell’ taken to its extreme extent, where you were told nothing and had to interpret the experience yourself, and (depending on how much time you wanted to spend navigating crowds on Ottawa’s streets, where summer had finally arrived) probably from a partial sample of the whole experience.

It was pretty great.

I really enjoyed the little sliver of La Machine that I got to see in person, and it’s been almost as much fun to see all the different pictures of the monsters taken by other people and to hear about what their experiences were like in different places and at different points of the weekend.

I’m really pleased that for a weekend, a fantastic, amazing story took over the city, and I hope maybe we’ll see something like it again.

This entry now includes some wonderful photos taken by my friend, Rohit Saxena.  Check out other examples of his work here and the rest of his La Machine shots here.

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Ramblings in the Halfway House

I struggled a bit to find a topic for this week. I’m somewhere past the half-way point – somewhat behind my notional ‘schedule’ of where I wanted to be at this time, but not bad – of the WIP (now tentatively titled Heretic Blood) and I’ve sent a chunk of it out to the Eager Volunteers for a check through, but ‘still writing’ doesn’t do much for a blog topic. Overall I think it’s going fine, although I’ve already done a couple of reasonably major rewrites as I come to understand the story a bit better.

One of the rewrites was deciding/discovering that a character who I had originally planned on surviving the book should probably get killed. This really wasn’t a fit of bloodthirstiness (well, not only), it was sort of the most logical or plausible conclusion to an accumulation of actions in the story that all seemed reasonably incidental at the time. Then, all of a sudden they added up to the character being quite different than I originally thought they would be, and their death became the most natural conclusion to their art.

It was one of those times when I feel like I’m discovering things about my plot and my characters rather than creating them, although I know on some level that that isn’t true. However, I’m convinced that there are subconscious processes at work and as much as I find it mildly frustrating at times – it would be wonderful to not have to make these ‘discoveries’ which require significant rewrites and just write the damn story

Maybe that’s what you get from more extensive planning than I do. I know some writers have really detailed and extensive plans of their work before they ever begin to write, either in electronic form or big charts with strings and things going on. I have honestly tried it, but there are two problems. One is that (I guess because I’m somewhat disorganized by nature) my plans tend to be kind of a disaster area, and thus more confusing than helpful about 48 hours after I’m done making them.

The other is that I find making plans boring. Writing is interesting, especially at the start of the project when I think everything about the idea is super rad. If I’m excited, I basically want to stop making the plan and start getting some of the ideas on the page. Maybe this a moment where a more professional writer would be disciplined and do the damn plan and then not have to do as much major surgery on their work once they start writing it.

I kind of suspect, though, that this is one of those cases where everyone has to find whatever process they need to Get Stuff Written and then do that. The more I learn about my own writing, talk to other writers about their writing, and read different people’s ideas about how writing works, the more convinced I become that there is no one correct and proper way to do it. There are basically no rules. There may not even be guidelines. There’s just what works for an individual artist, and you gotta figure out what that is and then do it unapologetically.

Which leaves me with my rather arcane and confusing process where I sometimes feel like I’m in a somewhat uneasy state of detente with my own brain, but it works, or at least works better than anything I’ve yet tried, and thus I continue. I do feel ever so slightly bad for my imaginary person who got flipped from survivor to horribly mangled corpse in the course of a morning writing session, though.

Hmmm. I honestly thought this was just going to be a preamble to another topic, but I should probably get back to Heretic Blood and this feels like enough to call an entry now.

I am looking forward to sharing Heretic Blood with you, since it’s really quite different from either of the books I’ve done so far, and even at this point where I’ve been working on it for quite some time, I’m not hearing too much from Statler and Waldorf yet. Which tells me that yes, somewhat incomprehensible process or not, I should keep at it while that continues to be the case.

Thanks for reading.

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Doctor 13

I was going to try to take a bit of a break from Doctor Who posts, and then they went and revealed who the Thirteenth Doctor is going to be, and it’s enough of a big deal that I felt like I should probably write a bit about it.

If you haven’t seen the news (an unlikely happenstance), with the departure of Peter Capaldi from the lead role, the BBC has cast a woman to play the Doctor for the first time, and selected Jodie Whittaker for the role. There was, I suppose predictably, A Fuss.

My first reaction, I have to admit, was to be a bit perplexed, only because I had only seen her in Broadchurch and her character there was not what I would have thought of being particularly Doctor-y. But my brain gradually lurched into action, realized that they didn’t cast Beth Latimer as the Doctor, they cast the actor, and her performance was (to the extent that I’m really qualified to judge) was really good. I’m given to understand that she’s similarly good in the other things that she’s done, so at that point I figured they’d done a good job and started trying to figure out when we’d get new episodes.

Then I started to see the reactions people were having, and I don’t mean the people having meltdowns for various reasons. I mean the reactions from people (primarily, but not only, girls and women) for whom having a woman as the Doctor clearly meant so much. People were moved to tears. People were overwhelmed with joy. It was like a tidal wave of happiness that you didn’t have to look very hard to find. I read people (former Doctor Colin Baker among them) writing about how much this meant to their daughters.

It’s not always easy to realize how significant something may be to another person who has a far different perspective on the world than you do. We can say a lot of bad things about the internet, but it was great to have this easy insight into what the casting meant to others, and I got progressively more excited about it as the reaction became clearer. It seems pretty inarguable to me that the show has done a very good thing by casting Whittaker in the role if only for the sheer amount of joy that one act created. Hopefully this will be followed up on by a really strong series of stories that can reinforce all the positives that came just from seeing a woman in the role – seeing a woman actively be the Doctor, saving worlds and thwarting Daleks and generally doing the impossible.

I do hope the stories are good. I mean, selfishly I do, because I love the show and I love good stories. I also think that the writers are under an unfair kind of pressure here, one that I don’t envy them at all. Because if the reaction to the new series is not good, there will be all too many people who will quickly say that it is because of having a female lead, just as movies with female leads have tended to carry some extra pressure with them – if it bombs, we’ll never get to make another one. (Hopefully this is a situation that is starting to change) Never mind the number of projects with male leads that get made and are terrible, with a zillion similar projects still getting greenlit. Mostly I hope that Jodie Whittaker is able to enjoy her time in the role and the writers are just able to do what they do and that it all goes very well.

I guess I have one other thought. I’ve seen several people say that they hope that the issue of the Doctor being female isn’t part of the stories, and I can kind of see what they mean. Certainly, a bunch of lame jokes about the situation won’t help anything. However, thinking about this from a writing perspective, this is a character who has been alive for centuries, and – in most interpretations of things – this is the first time they’ve ever been female. It feels like there’s got to be really good stories to tell about that.

In any case, I’m really looking forward to seeing what they come up with. It’s always fun seeing a new actor’s take on the Doctor, and the more I think about the idea of a female Doctor, the more I think that there are really exciting stories to be told, and I’m very enthusiastic to see what ideas they’ve got. Hopefully by the time the series is ready to go, most of the Fuss will have died down and people will just be ready to enjoy what they’ve done.

Part of the interesting question here is why people care so much. Part of it, no doubt, is simply that Doctor Who is one of the most famous SF franchises of all time, and so people would like to see it continue to embrace more diversity in the characters it creates, actors it employs, and stories it tells. It’s also true that because of the in-built ‘regeneration’ mechanic, it was (or arguably, should have been) really easy to diversify the lead role. The Doctor completely redoes their body on a reasonably regular basis to begin with.*

Personally, the reason I spend as much time as I do thinking about Doctor Who is that it is one of the foundation stones of my love of SFF. I’ve spent a lot of time with all these characters and stories and so, yeah, I probably think a bit more about what it all means than is probably necessary, and I want the series to continue to do awesome stuff in the same way I want my favourite sports teams to pile up winning seasons.

That’s it. Thanks for reading. Something other than Doctor Who next week, I promise.

*-In my private version of things, the other Time Lords look on the Doctor with a kind of horror at the number of bodies they’ve run through, due to the crazy lifestyle they’ve chosen to follow. So the Doctor has regenerated a lot more than most Time Lords ever do. Except the Master, of course.

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Companions

I have a couple not-really-related things for this week. It’s inelegant, but I’m sure we’ll cope.

First, although things have been a little Doctor Who heavy of late, I’m going there again; Orphan Black hasn’t thrilled me so far and I am not the right person to write about Handmaid’s Tale. The series just wrapped up giving us our next-to-last Capaldi story and (one assumes) the last to feature a companion who we really just met, Bill Potts.

The story with Bill’s exit was, I thought, pretty darned well done. The original flavour Cybermen were back and were genuinely disturbing. (Vastly superior to their newer reimaginings, but maybe that’s a whole ‘nother blog) We finally had a story with more than one incarnation of the Master in it, and it went exactly as it should, with the Masters stabbing each other in the back. I’m not sure the resolution really made a great deal of sense if you really think about it, but it’s not hard SF and you probably just shouldn’t.

Bill herself, though, went through quite the ordeal. First shot through the chest, then isolated from the Doctor for like ten years in a creepy alien hospital, then betrayed by the one friend she thought she had and horrifically transformed into a Cyberman. Oh, and then she died. There’s been some criticism of this (probably not unjustifiably so) because we had a lesbian POC character and she meets a grisly end; this seems to fit into the ‘Kill Your Gays’ trope that many writers are criticized for.

I’m not the right person to write about that either, and I’m not sure how much of a difference it makes that Bill’s consciousness survives, apparently off to explore the universe with the mind of her girlfriend from the series premiere. However that may be, the whole thing is in line with the exits of recent Doctor Who companions, who have of late ended their journeys in spectacular fashion. Clara died, or will, and the Doctor loses his memories of her. The Ponds are banished through time and stranded there. Donna gets her memories of her time with the Doctor wiped out. Rose gets sent to an alternate universe. Of revival-era companions, only Martha leaves on her own terms. Usually, the only way someone stops traveling with the Doctor is if there is some kind of traumatic, cataclysmic severing of the relationship.

It didn’t use to be this way. Ian and Barbara, the original companions, just decided they’d really like to go home. Liz Shaw got tired of being a sidekick and quit. Jo Grant decided to get married. Sarah Jane breaks the pattern a bit – the Doctor isn’t allowed to take her to Gallifrey – but then my favourite companion, Leela, starts it again. She leaves (also to get married, which is a bit ugh), and on Gallifrey, which is a great example of why you shouldn’t worry overmuch about Doctor Who continuity. On it goes: Nyssa leaves to help the sick on Terminus, Tegan just reaches a point where she can’t stand the terrors she has to face, Turlough just goes home.

Adric, of course, dies, but the point is this – it didn’t use to require a cataclysm for a companion to stop traveling with the Doctor. A lot of them just decided to do something else. As I thought about this, I wondered what the reason for the change could be, and I wonder if at least part of it has to do with how we, in the audience see things. We watch Doctor Who and think: ‘If I could travel with the Doctor, I’d never want to stop. Look how amazing!’ It’s fun and attractive to think about in the same way that a lot of fantastic scenarios are fun to think about: selling all your stuff and moving to a cabin in the woods, or an RV, joining the merchant marine, whatever. I wonder if, at least a little, the writers of the current show are putting that essentially fan-born mindset into the characters they’re creating, so that they also can’t imagine wanting to stop wandering around in the TARDIS.

I’m not sure if the older series did a better job conveying the down side of being, essentially, space vagrants, if this is a consequence of the revival show having a (generally? arguably?) lighter tone or (I think inarguably) deifying the Doctor more, or what the reason may be, but it interests me as a fan and it interests me as a writer.

As a writer, the main thing is that as much as we often need our characters to go on perilous, exciting adventures and do nerve-wracking things (that kind of thrilling, escapist experience being a big part of what fiction is for), I think it’s also important to show some of the difficulties with these things. It’s not all a fantastic adventure; it’s difficult to leave the comfortable and familiar to go do something dangerous, and most people can only take so much tension and alarm before they simply can’t do it anymore, as happened with Tegan. People also often just decide that they’re ready to Stop Doing A Thing now, no matter how much they loved the thing to begin with. Time to move on. I think that’s a useful lesson too.

Obviously different types of stories and genres will look at these issues to different extents and get into them more or less, but I think it makes things feel much more genuine if it’s at least a minor part of the story. Even The Hobbit, which is basically a lighthearted fantasy tale, has Bilbo fret about leaving home a little bit. We think as fans that if Gandalf showed up on our doorstep we’d be all ‘yes please’, but in practice if someone turned up and said it was time to Go and Do A Thing Immediately, my guess is that most of us would have at least some trepidations, and probably be glad when it was over, and we could go back to the world we understood just a little bit better.

This is not to say that I think the original series handled things better, exactly, although I think it’s less than ideal if the new series continues to have companions only leave for horrifying and/or spectacular reasons. I will also be interested to see what the writers do with the Doctor’s reaction to Bill’s departure, because (based on what we saw) as far as he knows, there was no happy ending for Bill and she’s either dead or stuck forever as a Cyberman. This, for me, is the main problem with always having companions leave mostly dead, kind of dead, or permanently damaged – the Doctor is fundamentally a decent person, and so you’d think after a good run of these he would simply say ‘no, not doing this any more. Can’t justify it.’

In any case, I await the Christmas special with interest and for what little it’s worth I’m sorry to see both Capaldi and Pearl Mackie leave. This season really worked well and I would have enjoyed more stories with the both of them. (Also, again, Michelle Gomez’ Missy.)

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Ok, other thing real quick. This is not (I swear) going to turn into a running analogy, but I really can’t escape the conclusion that similar to how you need to warm up before serious exercise if it’s going to go as well as it can, I sort of need to warm up to writing as well. When I first sit down to write it goes very slowly. I write, like, a sentence. Then I urgently need to go Do Another Thing. I come back. I probably erase the sentence. I try it again. Another Thing calls again. This goes on, sometimes, for some length of time.

Then, as I think I’ve mentioned before, there is very nearly an audible thunk from the mind-gears and abruptly, we are in Writing Mode and things flow much more easily. The whole process is a bit mysterious to me and vastly annoying if I have, say, two hours to get some writing in and the thunk doesn’t happen until an hour of Another Thing, but this is how it goes.

This is a consistent pattern to the point that I don’t think I can put it down to mood, state of mind, or the current project. It’s apparently just how my brain works (or fails to) and I’m sure I’m not the only person for whom this is true. No doubt there is, out there, a psychologist or similar brain science person who knows exactly what processes are going on, or failing to go on, in this situation.

I don’t mention this because I have any particular answer or method for improvement, or really any insight derived from it. I mention it because for a long while I definitely added to my stress by worrying over this whole warming-up process, and that it meant I was doing something wrong or not adequately prepared or motivated or whatever. I don’t think it does. I think it just means that your process is your process, and as much as possible you need to just not worry about whether it’s right or correct and just sort of do what works, do what gets words on the page in the end.

When I write, I gotta warm up to it. This is how it is.

This is also fearsomely close to advice, so I’ll call it here.

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Missy

I have been enjoying this latest season of Doctor Who quite a bit. I think they’ve finally given Peter Capaldi a good run of solidly-written episodes to really show off his take on the character, his companion Bill has been very well done, and as a fan of the classic series I’ve enjoyed the return of some of the classic antagonists.

(We’re going to get into spoilery territory here, if you’re not caught up on Doctor Who. Proceed on your own advice)

I’ve also been enjoying the storyline with Missy, and her (apparent) desire for atonement for their past crimes and (apparent) desire to be a better person now. I said on Twitter a couple week ago that I would very much like this apparent desire for redemption to be real, and although the latest episode (ending with Missy standing, apparently thoroughly content, next to her past incarnation and Bill who has been horribly converted into a Cyberman) makes it all look very doubtful. I still want it to be true, though.

In part this is because Michelle Gomez has, I think, given a really compelling performance throughout the storyline. I should take a moment to say that after a wee bit of initial scepticism I have adored her in the role overall. Gomez channels just enough of past Masters (she gets a certain facial expression that Anthony Ainley used to use exactly right) to remind you that this is the same character, but has till carved out something entirely unique with her casual contempt for the people around her and almost bored attitude towards death. It has, then, been interesting to see her playing this character apparently regretting all this villainy, and she’s sold it very, very well. The scene where she asks the Doctor if they can now be friends again was really touching, and for a moment at least you really believed Missy wants, very badly, to have her oldest (and probably only) friend back again. You can tell that the Doctor wants to believe her as much as I do in the audience, although he doesn’t quite trust it, and the audience knows that he is probably right.

I have always kind of been a sucker for villain-redemption stories in general, though. Done well, they can provide an entirely new life for a character; in this case, a redeemed (or at least kind-of-redeemed) Master would be an intriguing character to have around. In the X-Men comics I read growing up, Magneto became (to me) much more interesting once he moved from being a villain to (sometimes reluctant) ally.   Walter Skinner was a much better character once he was, somewhat exasperatedly, on Mulder and Scully’s side than when he was trying to shut them down.  Missy (or some version of the Master, as this is apparently Michelle Gomez’ last season in the role) as a similar figure for the Doctor would be interesting territory for writers to explore, I think.

Done well, the story of a villain’s redemption is immensely satisfying. To cherry-pick a really easy example, the eventual redemption of Anakin Skywalker at the conclusion of Return of the Jedi is a wonderful ending to the original Star Wars trilogy. Even the film’s most iconic villain can be brought back to the good side in the end. I think, personally, this is part of why I like villain-redemption stories; I think I probably would like to believe that even the very worst people can eventually be persuaded that they’ve been wrong and convinced to change their ways. I don’t think I’m alone in this; one of the most beloved Christmas stories is basically this happening to Ebenezer Scrooge.

However, there are problems. On Doctor Who, we know, if we know anything, that an appearance by the Master (Missy incarnation or not) isn’t an appearance by the Master until it ends with them cackling like a maniac and revealing their diabolical plot. This is, along with some kind of disguise, one of the essential elements of a Master story, and we’ve already had the disguise.

This is part of the wider problem with redeeming villains in general. For a writer, if you turn your villain away from being a baddie, you get one compelling story out of it, but if you’re continuing to write in that world, you’ve now deprived yourself of an engaging villain, and you’ve already got a hero. Missy the antagonist, the weaver of plots and architect of horrible schemes, is far more useful to the writer than a reformed ally is ever likely to be. This, I think, is why a lot of redemption stories in comics and ongoing series tend to be temporary: however good the reformation story was, in the end the character works better as a villain, and so back they go to the other side of the chess board.

I am reminded, as well, of one of the more ‘meta’ parts of Neil Gaiman’s 1602 comic, where an alternate-universe version of Reed Richards is musing on whether Ben Grimm can ever be cured of being the Thing. Reed concludes that they live in a universe of stories (very Gaiman there) and that this unfortunately means that any cure could only be temporary, because Ben is a much better story as the Thing. Likewise, Missy is probably a better story, or makes for better stories, as a villain, and so I’m fairly confident that she’ll end up there sooner rather than later.

There’s yet another problem with redeeming villains. There is a point at which it is reasonable to question whether or not they deserve to be redeemed, whether or not they can reasonably be forgiven, and whether we can ever see them as anything but monsters. In the case of Missy, this is a character who has done evil things on an immense scale. Never mind the sheer number of beings they’ve killed, either personally or through things they’ve done, this is a person who destroyed a significant chunk of the universe through one of their anti-Doctor schemes in Logopolis. Can you ever really say to such a person, ‘well, it’s ok, we’re all good?’

I kind of touched on this a while ago in the blog regarding the controversy over Marvel’s ‘Captain America as secret Nazi’ plotline. There are some things, I think, that your characters don’t get to come back from, or at least, that your audience isn’t required to accept villains coming back from. In my view, secret Nazi Cap is one of those. Michelle Gomez’ winning performance aside, it may be reasonable enough to say that the Master is another. And yet, Darth Vader, the brutal, terrorizing, torturing, arch-villain of Star Wars, for some reason I’m all right with. It is, for me, a difficult equation to try to balance. I’d like the villains to be redeemed in the end, but as an audience it’s probably not always possible to accept and as a writer you may be pushing your luck with what you’re asking of your readers.

I guess we ask ourselves this about real world people all the time. Can people who have committed terrible acts ever be forgiven for them? Are they condemned forever? I suppose in some ways it would be comforting to think that no matter what mis-steps we make, that we can always be forgiven if we’re truly sorry for what we’ve done (thus the selling point of at least one major religion), but can we practically believe it? Is society required to actually do it?

Now, Doctor Who hasn’t come out and explicitly addressed any of this territory, and nor did Star Wars, not really, but I think one final reason why villain-redemption stories are compelling is that, done well, they make you think of all these issues. Part of the power of fiction is to thrust these conundrums upon us and ask us to wrestle with them, and the question of Missy, whether she genuinely wants to atone or is just waiting to drop her latest bomb on the Doctor, and whether her atonement could ever be enough for us, are interesting puzzles for an audience to pick at.

I don’t really have answers for the sticky questions above. Except perhaps that yes, Anakin Skywalker is redeemed for everything he did as Darth Vader, but he gives his life to earn it.

—–

I also saw Wonder Woman. It was, I thought, a really good movie, for a variety of reasons. However, I’m not going to write blog post on it. After I got home from the film I made a Facebook post about how I had liked it and a very intelligent friend of mine posted back: “What did you like about it?” This took me me back to long-ago conversations when I was doing my MA. This friend is, I have to emphasize here, a thoroughly wonderful person and an amazing companion for both serious and light-hearted times, but every so often the conversation would wander around to scholarship, and sometimes even my research, and then they would ask something like ‘what did you think about it?’ or ‘and what did you conclude?’

In that moment I was (as I guess one is) intensely aware that this person is much cleverer than me and far more well read and that I mostly didn’t want to say something that was ignorant, ill-conceived, stupid, or all of the above. I also lack(ed) the conversational artistry to extract myself from such situations with clever nothingness. In my memory, I usually said something thick and waited for oblivion to come. (I should say, too, that I know my friend was either trying to be helpful, taking an interest, or both. I knew it then. I still never did well under those suddenly serious eyes.  Squirm squirm.)

All of which to say that there has already been a good deal written about why Wonder Woman is a good and probably important movie by people who have a better perspective on it than me and articulate the arguments better than I will. It’s not terribly important that the world has my perspective on Wonder Woman, beyond that I think it’s good and that you should go see it, and I don’t want to say anything ignorant, ill-conceived, or stupid.

I did answer my friend’s post though. I hope they didn’t think I was very thick.

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Grab Bag

As the title suggests, this is going to be a bit of a grab-bag of thoughts I’ve had while getting back to work on the current WIP. (Which still lacks an actual title. Hmm.) I was going to follow on from writing a bit about the TV adaptation of American Gods last week by writing about the TV Handmaid’s Tale this week, but I’m not the best person to talk about it and I’m not sure that I have anything especially noteworthy to say at this point anyway. Except I guess that if you haven’t been watching it, you should a) brace yourself and b) go watch it, because it’s quite well done.

I am, as summer reluctantly comes to my part of the world, trying to get back at working on my current project somewhat systematically, with the aim (still?) being to have a complete first draft done by the fall. Part of what I’m trying to figure out is how I can make writing a scheduled part of my routine. I do much better with a lot of stuff when I have a plan to always do it at X time on whatever days of the week than when I just try to figure out when it gets done on the fly. This isn’t just the case for writing, it’s how I get myself to the gym and get my running done and a lot of other stuff. If I leave the time for things vague, they live in an eternal ‘later’, never getting actually taken care of. If I have in my mind that I do this (say) every morning starting at 9, then something takes place.

I don’t at all suggest that this is some iron rule for how to Be an Effective Writer, because that would be advice, and mostly I think everyone needs to figure out their own methods and process that works for them anyway. Some people probably do need to write every day, some people work well with specific word targets per week, some people need to Go To A Place and Work There. Despite (although also in some part because of) all the earnestly written declarations on how to Do Authoring, I think there’s no universal formula and you just gotta figure out what leads to you getting words on the page and then unapologetically do that. Of course that’s not an easy thing to figure out, but neither is trying to contort yourself to fit someone else’s process. I think I have a ‘morning writing’ thing going on now and we’ll see how that works.

Part of what caused me some difficulty recently (along with all kinds of Real Life stuff, and then also just being very tired) was the disappearance of a deadline. I’ve mentioned before that I work very well when I have a deadline (I do not miss deadlines) and that part of the adjustment from being a student to being basically employed by me post-education is not having deadlines imposed on me. Again, that eternal ‘not now, but soon’ becomes very attractive. I’m getting better at working without deadlines but if I’m being honest what I also do is seize on things that I can use as a deadline to restore that familiar motivation.

For this WIP, I had decided that I wanted to have it ready to pitch to the agent Guest of Honour that will be coming to this year’s Can*Con SFF conference in Ottawa, which seemed a solid idea. (Brief aside – I am on the programming team for Can*Con, we’ve got some very exciting stuff planned for this October, and you should definitely come if you can. All the details are not ready to release yet, but you can check out a lot about us here.) Unfortunately, I did the required research and found that she doesn’t rep the kind of thing that I’m working on. Which is of course fine, and of course she’s still an amazing Guest of Honour for Can*Con to have, but her usefulness to me as a deadline suddenly dematerialized, and not a lot got written for a while.

I really need to break myself of this deadline habit.

As I’m writing at the moment, I’m also reading, of course, and right now I’m reading the John Le Carré autobiography I mentioned a while back, and re-reading some William Gibson. They are, I guess obviously, very different writers, but to me they are also similar in that I deeply admire the way they craft with words. They’re both (to me) quite demanding writers, in that their writing requires your attention. Both can get a lot out of a little, conveying things of tremendous importance with a perfectly-chosen word or two, so you really can’t miss anything.

If you’ve been reading the blog for a long time, you’ll remember that there was a time when I tried, very hard, to write like William Gibson, and that it didn’t go very well. I don’t do that any more, but I find reading both him and Le Carré inspirational in the sense of reminding me what is possible to do with words when you put them together right, and to try to push myself to achieve something at least somewhat similar. This isn’t to say that other styles of writing can’t also be effective, can’t also be fun to read, and can’t also be artistic. But I guess the arguably subtler or more intricate mode of operation twangs something inside me just that little bit more, and is the style that I would be most content if I could produce something like. I’m not sure that I’m anywhere in that quadrant of the galaxy, but (all my wittering about struggles with the WIP notwithstanding) I am enjoying the effort.

One of the decisions I made in writing this current WIP was to write it just as I wanted to, to just really let myself use exactly the words I wanted to. I was going to thoroughly ignore the questions of ‘is this the right voice?’ and ‘what kind of audience does this appeal to’? I was just going to write something that pleased me, do it as well as I could, and then see what people thought of it. The basic idea is/was kind of crazy anyway, so if it ended up something that appealed to no-one else but me it wouldn’t necessarily be the end of the world. Fortunately for me, what I’ve heard back from the Eager Volunteers and my writers’ circle has so far been very kind and very encouraging, which of course makes me more confident to go on doing things this way. Again, I’m not suggesting this is always the right way to do things, but at the moment it’s having good results for me.

Anyway. I’ve got a little over 30,000 words (much of it non-sequential, of course) written, and if I can get down to this over the summer I should be able to finish my story in time for the autumn. Then I will begin a whole new set of challenges, but that’s something to worry about another day. That’s what I’ve got for you this week. Thanks for reading.

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American Gods (kind of)

This is one of those weeks when I had an idea for what I was going to write about, had written a good chunk of the blog in my head at least, and then just before it was time to actually do the thing, something happened that required a change. To explain – I had decided last week to write about the TV adaptation of American Gods, a novel by Neil Gaiman that I enjoyed tremendously. Partly that was because we were 5 (now 6) episodes in which seemed a fair body of work to start to talk about the series on, but mostly because there was some controversy surrounding the opening of episode 5.

To explain (further), Episode 5 opens with a segment depicting a tribe that has just crossed the Bering Land Bridge*, entered North America, and what happens to them. It’s striking, but a lot of criticism emerged about the show’s portrayal of First Nations people, the decision to use CGI characters rather than employing First Nations actors, and the (apparent) lack of consultation with First Nations people in creating the segment. I happen to agree that a lot of this is problematic, and so that’s what I was going to write about today.

However. Late on the weekend I read a reminder that people in positions of privilege (such as myself) shouldn’t speak on behalf of those from marginalized groups. We should allow them to speak for themselves, and listen. So I’m not going to write what I was going to, although I will suggest you seek out some of the critiques of Episode 5 of American Gods and read them. They’re important, especially for writers, to think about. We all want to create something cool, but we need to be very thoughtful and cautious about how we do that, always.

I will say that I think it’s unfortunate that the show made this misstep, because overall I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how American Gods has gone. I tend to be sceptical about TV or movie adaptations of favourite books, because I know it will bother me if I feel like they haven’t been done well. The movie version of Johnny Mnemonic was horrifically bad, but it was even worse for me because I had read and loved William Gibson’s short story. (And then even worse beyond that because I had persuaded friends to go to the film based on my enthusiasm for the source material)

Overall American Gods has done well, I think, in portraying Gaiman’s story. Some parts have been basically straight depictions of parts of the book, some places have diverged a little from the original, and then there have been entirely new parts and changes in direction. I’m both a little glad to see that – because it makes me feel as though I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen – and a little worried – because the book was very good and so it’s maybe natural to suspect that any changes will be for the worse.

So far, though, although I haven’t loved all the new things, the overall experience has been fun to watch. Ian McShane is an excellent Mr. Wednesday, Ricky Lovett is good as Shadow Moon, and Gillian Anderson has been an absolute delight as Media. Gaiman’s strange, sprawling story cannot be easy to adapt to television and so far this is a good effort, even if the showrunners need to be a little more careful with some of what they’re doing.

——-

Somewhat along the same lines, I spent the weekend at a writing convention. I personally enjoyed myself; I took part in really interesting panel discussions, met and renewed acquaintances with wonderful and talented people, and generally got to spend two days feeling like a writer. Which was nice.

However, at the same time that was going on, some other people had a far more negative experience, coming from a panel (which I wasn’t at) that was meant to talk about the portrayal of disabled people in genre fiction. It didn’t go well, and people I know left very upset. Again, it’s better if they speak for themselves, so you can read about one person’s experience here.

I wanted to mention it here, though, because it reminded me that as important as it is to include people from marginalized groups in our fiction and our discussions about fiction, it is absolutely crucial to do it thoughtfully and carefully and well. When it’s done wrong, it causes genuine pain and anger, and that’s obviously unacceptable.

The impulse to include people from all sorts of backgrounds and parts of society is absolutely a good one, but it is only step one of the process. The further steps require a lot of listening to those people, and a lot of letting them speak and take the lead. A lot of the time it can feel like people in privileged spots (like me!) need to be the ones taking action, but I’m increasingly learning that what we need to do is get out of the way and let others Do The Things. They’ll probably ask if they want help.

Anyway, this didn’t turn out to be the blog that I thought I was going to write this week, but it’s what I’ve got for you. Thanks for reading.

* – If nothing else, this controversy around American Gods introduced me to another, wider controversy regarding the Bering Land Bridge and how it is used to talk about human arrival in the Americas, which is both interesting and important to know about.

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John Le Carré

When I started writing this blog one of the first things I did was talk about some of the writers I particularly admire or who I think have influenced me in my own writing. I haven’t done that in a while, but as I have just started reading The Pigeon Tunnel, John Le Carré’s autobiography, I thought I would do it again.

I admire Le Carré’s work for a couple of reasons. One is that his stories are just really good stories. Most of what he writes are contemporary spy stories, and no doubt due in part to his background as an intelligence officer, Le Carré writes them very well. I guess obviously I’m not in a position to comment on how accurate or realistic the books are, but they are to me thoroughly convincing and plausible portrayal of how the secret world is likely to work. Le Carré’s perspective on this contrasts very strongly with the many more romantic versions we are given, most famously in the James Bond stories.

When I was younger I read a lot of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, due at least in part to a massive compendium volume of them being for sale at a church garage sale, a sale at which ‘fill a bag of books for a buck’ was advertised. It probably says nothing good about me that I spent a couple of extra dollars on a massive hockey bag, packed it with books (including the Fleming) and argued that there had been no limits placed on what constituted a ‘bag’. I left with my haul, my mother’s chagrin and, no doubt, my fate in the afterlife thoroughly imperilled.

Anyway I read the Bond stories and with the flashy spectacle of the movies it is easy to forget that Fleming’s books are actually pretty solid. There are a lot of problems; they are also racist, or at least portray a very racist society, and although there are reasons for Bond’s serial misogyny, it doesn’t really change the fact that women get an extremely raw deal both from the stories’ hero and their creator. Especially from a modern point of view, Bond is difficult to actually like, and I sometimes wonder how much we’re supposed to.

Nevertheless, they are well-crafted thriller tales and teenage me read them and enjoyed them and parts of them still stick with me. There is a part of Doctor No where a badly injured Bond is trying to climb up the inside of an air shaft (best not to think about why) and is trying not to think about how far it is, just focusing on each tiny step along the way. ‘Take the silver inches one by one, and conquer them’, is how Bond envisions his task, and from time to time when I am faced with some seemingly insurmountable and endless challenge, whether mental or physical, I will say that to myself as I try to get at it.

That’s pretty good. Overall, I mention all this because Fleming’s famous spy is I guess an idealized version of the British intelligence officer, larger than life and impressively heroic. Bond is smooth and cool and deadly. By contrast, most of Le Carré’s spies are not. His most famous creation, George Smiley, is short and pudgy and socially clumsy. It’s interesting – to me, anyway, that both Fleming and Le Carré had real world experience in the world of intelligence, yet portray it so differently. I’m not sure if that speaks to their backgrounds (Fleming from a wealthy family, Le Carré from a much more troubled one), their experiences with the espionage trade, or simply their aims as authors.

On the whole, though, I suspect Le Carré’s version of espionage, ‘delivering I knew not what to I knew not whom’ is rather nearer to the truth than Fleming’s, and his flawed characters rather more like most of the spymasters of the real world. Smiley is not a lethal weapon one-on-one, struggles with his personal relationships, but his mind is a machine of tremendous precision, and he is particularly acute at discerning people’s weaknesses and how to make use of them. Smiley is not really a hero in the conventional sense, I don’t think – he does his duty and does it well, but we don’t get a great sense of idealism out of him. We see his moral and ethical struggles through many of the books, eventually ending with his determination to do what is required to defeat his opposite number on the Soviet side; whether the personal cost that Smiley paid for all this is worth it or not is left for the reader to determine. A great deal of espionage in Le Carré’s books is at best uncomfortable, and often downright unpleasant manipulations of people who may or may not deserve their fates, in the interests of powerful men and nations who may or may not deserve their defeats, and their victories.

Le Carré’s fictional worlds are less clearly divided into the good and the bad than many other spy stories, and in many of them basically decent people (like George Smiley) end up doing inarguably ghastly things to achieve their aims, leaving both them and the audience wondering if it was worth it. To me, although the secret war of Le Carré’s agents and assets comes across as fairly thoroughly awful, making it difficult to really identify with any of the factions at work, his characters are intensely human, and it is extremely easy to identify with them, and to feel their triumphs, their struggles, and their failures.

Rather than monolithically heroic and villainous sides, Le Carré gives us a rather more murky picture where fighting the struggle in the shadows exacts a massive price on everyone who participates, and I wonder if that’s one of the points he is trying to make. It seems to me one of the consistent themes of Le Carré’s stories that he appears suspicious and cynical of large and powerful organizations and institutions (of whatever kind – his Constant Gardener takes a justifiably harsh view of drug companies) but he’s immensely sympathetic towards individual people, and the dilemmas they often find themselves in. That’s a point of view that I find myself increasingly identifying with.

So, I guess obviously, I like John Le Carre’s stories quite a lot. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a wonderful novel, and The Night Manager is another particular favourite, as is The Secret Pilgrim. In addition to just (?) enjoying the books, though, I also deeply admire Le Carré as a writer. He is a fantastically skilled craftsman with words, choosing each one with what seems to be unerring precision and creating prose that conveys intense feelings of mood and emotion. Because of this, I don’t find him an easy read by any standard; because each word means so much I find I have to pay very close attention to Le Carré as I read, and so late at night when I’m growing tired and my focus is slipping, I can’t quite keep up with him. Le Carré conveys important information in what seem to be fleeting phrases and word choices, so if you miss a ‘little thing’, you’ve missed a lot. It’s interesting (I think) that that attention to precise detail is also one of the skills that are most essential to his fictional spies.

I don’t really think of this as a flaw. Not all writing needs to be an easy, relaxed read, any more than everything we eat needs to taste the same. Le Carré’s stuff demands effort, demands your entire engagement (or at least it does from me), but if you’re able to give it you are richly rewarded. I suppose there is, for a writer, some sort of practical limit here – if you make your writing too difficult to engage with and appreciate, there will be too few readers willing to rise to the challenge. There is, perhaps, some ideal balance of artistry with words and ease of access for the reader, some perfect mastery of story there to be achieved.

In my view, John Le Carré is very close to it.

—–
Literally as I wrote this, I got a news alert that Roger Moore, probably most famous for his portrayal of James Bond, has died. Due to my age, Moore was the actor that I first knew as Bond, and I think his A View to a Kill was likely the first Bond movie that I watched in its entirety. As I’ve just written, I have a lot of problems with James Bond these days, but the Moore-era Bond with the Union Jack parachute and all the rest of it was undeniably fun and Mr. Moore’s performance gave me stories that I enjoyed.

For that I will always be grateful.

——-
We also draw very close to the Limestone Genre Expo in Kingston, which runs June 3-4 and will feature many fantastic discussions on how we create and consume fiction, as well as a chance to meet writers and people who love books. I will be there for the second time, and I’m looking forward to it very much. My publishers, Renaissance Press, will also be there with their growing range of titles, so you can get yourself a copy of The King in Darkness or Bonhomme Sept-Heures if you don’t have one, and I will be at the table at various times through the weekend if you would like to say hi or have me scrawl something in your book.

Limestone was a great weekend last year, and I’m really looking forward to it again. Hope to see many of you there. Details here.

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On Cultural Appropriation

I’ve been hesitant to write about this topic because, first, there’s been a great deal written about it already, much of it by wiser heads than me and in general, on any topic the world does not tend to need more white dude opinions, and second, I think it’s important to mostly hear the voices of people from cultures that are being appropriated on this issue. And yet, I am a writer and one who writes about things I imagine, so this seems like an subject I can’t easily avoid, and I have also seen people whose opinions I usually respect thoroughly not getting the problems here, and maybe if I can help a tiny little bit.

I trust I don’t really need to explain the concept of cultural appropriation itself; it seems hardly possible to spend any time at all thinking about the creative world without having run into the discussion. The issue really burst into flames in Canada last week when Write magazine published an editorial calling (not very seriously) for an ‘Appropriation Prize’ and declaring (much more seriously) that cultural appropriation doesn’t exist (or isn’t a problem) and that writers should write about whatever different cultures they choose and imagine the perspectives of as many different kinds of people as possible. A lot of people (unsurprisingly) got upset, a small(ish) number of white industry insiders made edgy comments in favour of the idea of an Appropriation Prize, and as I write this today the guy who wrote the editorial and at least one of the edgy commenters have resigned from their jobs.

Hopefully what the whole episode of the Write editorial will be is an opportunity for everyone to hear the voices of people from cultures that are exploited via appropriation, listen to their perspectives and their concerns, and do better as we all go forward. Fortunately, there seems to be a good deal of that going on, although it is striking to hear a common theme from many of these speakers: sadness that this is still an issue that we are grappling with, rather than a problem that had been solved long ago.

This is also an issue that I have been asked about. I (currently) write fantasy, so basically making up the points of view and perspectives of people who are not like me is more or less baked into the job. So, isn’t that a problem if I’m against cultural appropriation? The first answer (which I hope is obvious) is that there’s a big difference between making up an entirely fake culture and adopting the perspective of a real one lived by real people. There is rather more tricky territory with creating a culture based upon a real-world one, or imaginary cultures that appear to (intentionally or not) mirror the relationships between groups in our real society. The more fantastic and imaginary you make something, probably the less you need to worry about the problem of appropriation, but this is not the issue that most people have a problem with. Of course fiction writers make things up. That’s not a problem.

However, of course, in the case of the stuff I’ve had published, things weren’t quite that easy. Both King in Darkness and Bonhomme Sept-Heures are set in our world, or something very close to it. My cast of characters includes people who aren’t white, aren’t male, and aren’t straight, so aren’t I engaging in appropriation? It’s not a completely unfair question, and it’s one that I’ve asked myself a bunch of times as I’ve been sitting down to write.

The answer (I think) is that diversity in writing is important both in terms of the kind of characters that get written and who does the writing. So yes, if I’m going to write (and I am), it’s important for me to value the existence of people from a variety of backgrounds, and if I’m going to do that I need to do it as respectfully and well as I can. It is one of the most challenging parts of writing for me but I also feel it’s one of the most vital ones – while it might arguably be easier to exclude characters with experiences that don’t match my own a) it would be boring b) it wouldn’t be a very good portrayal of the world we really live in and c) imagining that different groups in society aren’t there is a harmful thing to do. So it’s essential that I continue to write characters from a whole bunch of different backgrounds in our society.

A key part of doing that, though, is to listen to the people from those backgrounds when they talk about something I wrote, or things other artists created, and how they were portrayed (or not portrayed) in those pieces. What was good. What was wrong. What was hurtful. Then I need to to better the next time. I don’t think anyone is seriously suggesting that an author like me should never include people who aren’t like me in my stories (and I sure hope not!) but that when I write those different people, I try to be mindful of the differences between their experiences and mine, value those differences and portray them as well as I can. When I learn that there are things that I need to do better, I acknowledge that, try to learn more, and try to keep improving.

It’s also important that I’m not going to pretend to be of those other cultures. I can tell a story with a First Nations person in it, but I’m not going to claim that culture as my own, or to say that I am telling the story of First Nations people. Which is a fine distinction, but an important one. There was another controversy recently with a white painter who says she was inspired by the art of First Nations people and started producing art in that style. First Nations people objected, strenuously, and other people objected just as strenuously that artists should be free to express themselves.

Isn’t it ok? Can’t we be inspired by whatever we’re inspired by, as artists? Isn’t copying (or modelling) the behaviour of others pretty deep in our genes? In an ideal world where all cultures were on an equal footing and we could ignore centuries of interaction between them, I guess the answer to those questions might be ‘yes’, but they’re not and we can’t and so the answer is no.

It is deeply not ok for a white person to decide that the art and stories and culture of a people that we, as a society, spent at least the past 150 years trying to eradicate is kind of fun and cool and to claim it for our own and try to make money off it. Doing so is a continuation of the plundering of the colonial era that got us to this deeply problematic place where we are today. What about when a non-white artist uses something from (say) European culture? Isn’t that the same problem? Again, no, of course it’s not – European culture has never been in danger of being eradicated by another one. It’s never been under threat. And, it’s never been a problem for European artists (as a group) to get the attention their work deserves.

The other part of this problem and why it’s not ok for white artists to identify with whatever they identify with and start telling the stories or using the art of other cultures is that it is still so hard for people from these different cultures to get their voices heard and to get their stories told. The demographic breakdown for fiction authors getting published is still overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. It is orders of magnitude harder for other voices to get heard.

It is, therefore, an incredible problem for white people to swoop in and start trying to tell those stories themselves. It’s super hard to get these stories in front of an audience to begin with, so to have the opportunity to tell them taken away from a person who’s actually from that culture and used by a person who is privileged in society anyway is really problematic, and (I am sure) incredibly frustrating and hurtful. People should be able to tell their own stories, because it’s theirs and they know it and know what it means and why its important. They have had their stories told for them, and stories told about them, for far too long already. They deserve a chance to be heard in their own right.

In sum, then, the problem with cultural appropriation is that it is people from a dominant culture taking advantage of and exploiting others in a variety of ways, and perpetuating their dominance of the market by sucking up the opportunities to be heard that might (and should) otherwise go to people from a more diverse backgrounds. So, I guess in some ideal situation where it wasn’t a problem for artists of different races and genders and cultures to get their voices heard, and where all the cultures of the world were on a level playing field where some hadn’t been historically oppressed and repressed and weren’t in danger of being lost, maybe cultural appropriation wouldn’t be a problem. In case it isn’t clear, that’s not where we are. It is, therefore, a big problem on a lot of levels.

Even so, it should surely just be basic human decency to listen when our fellow human beings speak up about something we did and say ‘hey, when you use that part of our culture in the way you just did, we find it disrespectful and hurtful, could you stop?’ to put aside our arrogance and self entitlement and give what has to be the only conceivable answer in my view: ‘I’m sorry, and of course I will’.

I’ve read a lot of people who seem to treat the entire issue of cultural appropriation as an intellectual exercise, as a sterile problem to pick over in an ethics or philosophy classroom. The problem with treating it that way is that there are real people in real pain involved. Those of us who occupy privileged positions in society need to, at last, stop justifying and start listening.

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