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March 7th, 2009


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02:10 am - Operating in hostile territory.
I give up. They win.

I've been sitting here through the resurgence of RaceFail 2009, trying to figure out what to say. Feeling guilty because I haven't said anything thus far. And when I've tried, I've found myself watering down what I really want to say more and more, because I am afraid.


I have no day job right now. When I do, I work in academia; reputation is the most important currency there. But for the time being I'm a full time writer. I'd like to stay one, so it's my hope that my book will sell well when it comes out. Whether it does is dependent on a number of factors that have nothing to do with my skill as a writer. The number and location of reviews I get. Awards I get nominated for. Blurbs. Word of mouth. All factors which rely on one thing: how much people with power and influence in this field like me.

I've spoken out against incidental racism in SF, and against the ongoing racism of exclusion and misappropriation that so few in this field seem willing to acknowledge, let alone correct. I've done this through both of my online "personas" -- N. K. Jemisin and nojojojo. I've spoken about this stuff at cons and in writing groups. I've offered myself up as a guinea pig and a comforting listener to all manner of stupidity. Not because I want to help all the white writers out there who are wrestling with this issue, but for my own sanity. This is what I need to do to write in this genre and still respect myself in the morning.

Lately I've come to realize that I cannot continue to do this without serious, possibly fatal, risk to my livelihood -- writing career and day job too.

Throughout this conversation I have seen insults, dismissals, threats of retaliation, and actual retaliation from people with a great deal of power and influence in this field. That's what makes this RaceFail, IMO, even though I think a number of people have taken away good things from this discussion. If any of those are also people with power/influence in the SF genre, I have no idea, because most of them haven't said anything about it. So as a result, I'm left with the overwhelming impression that SF fandom contains a lot of intelligent, courageous people who are willing to talk about their issues, sometimes painfully. While the SF establishment -- editors, authors -- needs to be collectively taken out and shot.

This impression is false, I know. There are many, many editors and authors out there who care about this stuff because it's good for them, and good for the field, not because they're trying to score PC brownie points. I've met and worked with lots of them. But it's really hard to remember they're out there when the people talking loudest are the ones denying, obfuscating, supporting, and inflicting the very same racism I've spent years trying to fight.

I have always known that it would be difficult to write in this genre as a black woman. SF/F has so firmly established itself as the genre of white male power fantasies that in I'm often ashamed to admit my involvement with it to other PoC, and many of them look at me with pity when I do. The dearth of industry folk like me, of characters like me who aren't caricatures, of stories that derive from my experiences, was a warning sign -- but until recently, I assumed it was primarily a sign of benign neglect. Most authors in this field are white, most editors publishing are white, most readers are white; naturally they want to see stories by and for themselves, I thought. I took to heart the age-old response of the racist to complaints about the pallor of the genre: so write something yourself. I did.

But what I've lately come to realize is that the absence of writers, editors, and characters of color in this genre is not benign neglect. It is a purposeful and very malignant thing. This is hostile, unsafe territory for me, and a disturbingly large number of people think that's just hunky dory. There are people in this genre who are perfectly happy with the way it's been, and who do not want it to change. Those people have fought hard in this debate to maintain the status quo. And they have lately proven that they're willing to use more than words in the fight. Some anti-racists I respect have been threatened with physical harm and verbal abuse; they've been outed, lied to, served with cease & desist letters, and threatened with lawsuits. They've had minions sicced on them, and sockpuppets harass them, and bits of their private lives -- some real, some conjured out of the aether -- used against them as weapons.

Why? Because they saw behavior, writing, or speech they thought was racist, and they complained about it. That's all.

I've done some of that. If my writing career is successful I'll do more: I will write characters of color and other underrepresented groups who aren't stereotypes or tokens; I will prove by example that it is possible to write inclusively and still be entertaining; I will imagine futures full of brown folk, and pasts too, and write them; I will encourage young writers of color through workshops and mentoring so that there can be more of us; I will join other efforts that have the same goals.

But to do that, I'm going to have to protect myself. Because if there's one thing RaceFail has taught me, it's that there are some crazy motherfuckers out there, and they do not behave in logical or ethical ways. I am afraid of them, as one should be of people who have proven themselves dangerous and irrational. If they're willing to do this much over a critique, how the hell will they react to someone doing what I'm doing? I've been involved in internet race debates often enough to see the possible consequences: blacklisting, phone calls to workplaces, stalking, frivolous lawsuits, worse. I don't have any money. I have no rich husband to fall back on; my family doesn't have much in the way of generational wealth. I have to write, and sell, to eat. Failing that, I have to find other work. Can I do that, if my efforts to blog against racism trigger a bunch of powerful, irrational people to declare vendetta against me? Or if it causes rational-but-dangerously-regressive people to actively impede my career?

I don't know. Maybe. But my life is hard enough; I'm not sure I can handle making it harder.

Then there's the example offered by other established writers of color in this field. They're very quiet; have you noticed that? They talk about this stuff too, but sparingly. They spend the bulk of their time doing what I'm trying to do -- writing inclusively, doing it well, teaching, leading by example. But they don't talk much in the blogosphere. I'm beginning to realize why not.

I'm going to have to become quieter too.

I am a coward for doing this, though; I'm very aware of that. By allowing myself to be silenced to any degree, I'm letting people down and probably losing some folks' respect. I sure as hell am losing some respect for myself. But the way I see it, I've got two choices: hate myself a little but keep writing and publishing, or respect myself and torpedo my career.

I am not safe right now. I will not be for a long time, if ever. So my choice is clear.

Either way, I have to say: I hate the whole of SF/Fdom quite a bit right now. Hopefully that feeling will fade one day.

ETA: I really, really appreciate all the comments being posted offering support and condolences and reassurance. Seriously, ya'll; it's nice to be loved. But I should be clearer; I'm not sad or in low spirits right now. I am angry. I'm withdrawing to protect myself from crazy people, but also because my rage has turned a familiar flavor of cold and I am feeling the beginnings of true hatred, and I need to protect myself from that too.

Again, this isn't to say that I don't want you posting supportive comments; they do help. (So do the promises to buy my book when it's out. ^_-) Just saying I don't need cheering up or anything. I'm OK, and will be more so as I metabolize this. Thanks, seriously.
Current Mood: coldcold

(146 comments | WTF?!)

Comments:


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[User Picture]
From:maevele
Date:March 7th, 2009 10:09 am (UTC)
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please dont feel a coward or hate yourself even a little, you’re doing the work, and then some, by getting your stories published.  There’s plenty of people out here who can blog, but few who can write stories like you do.

my computer is acting strange, so I have to stop here.
From:justinelavaworm
Date:March 7th, 2009 10:21 am (UTC)
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For what it's worth since you don't know me I'll be buying your book as soon as it's available. I've heard amazing things about it and I've been very impressed by your writing here. If your novel's half as good then I'm in for a wonderful read. I can't wait.

I do think sf'dom can be, and too often is, irredeemably toxic. The splutterings of WS, KC, TNH etc are ample proof of that. But there are really good people there as well. Like you and Tempest and many others. We can't leave the field to the racist bullies.
[User Picture]
From:nojojojo
Date:March 7th, 2009 05:04 pm (UTC)
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Thanks. It's helpful to see established writers like you speak out; I just wish more would. But I suppose they've got bills to pay too.

Irredeemably toxic. Yes. I'm trying to remember that it can be more than that, but I'm not there yet.
[User Picture]
From:upstart_crow
Date:March 7th, 2009 10:48 am (UTC)
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Oh nojojojo... :(

I am just filled with sorrow at what this very important discussion has turned into, and with sorrow at how it has hurt so many POC writers and readers. And I for one will be very happy to buy your book when it comes out.
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From:dsmoen
Date:March 7th, 2009 10:55 am (UTC)
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I wish I knew what to say, other than to say I'll be buying your stuff, for whatever few cents that adds to your bottom line.

I'll just offer this tidbit: Lt. Uhura was a breakout role, though it didn't seem to be one to Nichelle Nichols at the time. It inspired many future actors of color, and inspired women of color to reach out into other careers than their mothers had had.

There are many ways to forge ahead against racism.

Only you can decide what your goals are and what tradeoffs you need to make to reach that goal, and I love you regardless.
[User Picture]
From:nojojojo
Date:March 7th, 2009 04:45 pm (UTC)
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Did you receive the email I sent you a few weeks ago?
[User Picture]
From:oyceter
Date:March 7th, 2009 11:11 am (UTC)
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*hugs* Keep yourself safe, and, as always, anticipating whatever you write next.
[User Picture]
From:ruric
Date:March 7th, 2009 11:54 am (UTC)
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There is no way you should think of youself as a coward. You are incredibly brave and you are the only person who should decide what it is safe for you to do or not do. And I am ashamed that people who bear the same skin colour as me are making you feel unsafe. Ashamed and angry.

Your posts (and those of other POCs who have, despite astonishing circumstances, continue to post) have taught me a hell of a lot. I only wish my learning had not come at such cost to you.

I will be buying your book, I will be following your blog, even if all you do is talk about the weather and what you've had for dinner.

SF fandom (book fandom) seems to an outsider like me be an incredibly toxic place to be but you are changing that. You and other POCs who are breaking in and writing from within. That change may not be immediate or as fast as you would like. But you are changing it, you're breaking the mould and that is the action of a brave person taking a risk and putting it on the line. Do not be ashamed even if that means you need to be silent to achieve your goal.

Your book sounds fascinating and I can't wait for it to come out. I wish you the very best, and more I wish you a safe space to (continue to) have these discussions.
[User Picture]
From:netmouse
Date:March 9th, 2009 11:06 am (UTC)
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SF book fandom (it is weird for me to think of it as separate - all fandoms overlap to greater or lesser degrees) is actually a wide range of things. Subsets of the community are some of the most amazing, magic-creating, mutually supportive people I know. Other subsets are complete or partial wack-jobs, and when things go toxic, they seem to go extremely toxic (and thanks to the internets, sometimes extremely fast).

A lot of us just stay quiet and keep our heads down too much of the time, but I hope when people are feeling angry, hurt, or full of hate about this incident, they will try (though I know it's hard) not to paint everyone in the industry/fandom with the same brush.

I was talking to a friend of mine who is an sf author about why he hadn't made a comment on RaceFail '09, and he said (and I quote) "Lots of people have asked me to weigh in on that, and my only thought has been 'Why would I want to stick my head into a bag full of angry cats?'" followed up by "I thought the whole thing was a bunch of people shouting past each other and I knew that the instant I got into it they would start shouting at me, because I am a self-admitted wildly over-privileged white male. No good could have possibly come out of it."

So... I guess I just wanted to say that there are people like him and myself who didn't support the toxic conversation but didn't want to wade in either, because it was clearly so toxic. I hope the community tries again, but I also hope the next conversation has a higher productivity to toxicity ratio.
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From:dichroic
Date:March 7th, 2009 12:12 pm (UTC)
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Not a coward. A human. You do what you can.

Moreover, don't you find those other writers of character - the ones who point their finite energies mostly to writing instead or arguing - to be inspiring contributors? Why would a young writer trying to break in, or a young reader trying to find people like herself, think any differently of you than you tink of them?
[User Picture]
From:luckykitty
Date:March 7th, 2009 12:30 pm (UTC)
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I don't feel that you are a coward. At all.

I'll spread the word about your book, because I want it to be bought and loved and for you to be a full time writer. I hope that you will be well established and able to raise your voice to a level that makes you happy.

I don't believe there is anything wrong with silent, leading by example; sometimes that is how things have to be done. Especially with an issue that gets so many backs up without even getting to the meat of the matter and rarely allows for rational discussion. I haven't been able to follow much of the discussion because my brain has been instantly going into RAEG mode and I haven't been able to see the issue clearly at all.

Change is slow, so much slower than we want to believe it to be :(
[User Picture]
From:jenwrites
Date:March 7th, 2009 12:32 pm (UTC)
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It's not cowardly to let your books do the talking for you. In fact, I strongly suspect that your novels will speak louder and reach more people than your blog ever will. And that's no slam on your blog -- it's wild confidence in your fiction.

I don't think there's anything to be done to fix the current generation in power, but you can help shape the next one.
[User Picture]
From:moondancerdrake
Date:March 7th, 2009 12:48 pm (UTC)
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HUGS! Keep yourself safe, write from your heart, and always know I got your back. :)
[User Picture]
From:veejane
Date:March 7th, 2009 01:00 pm (UTC)
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I hate that they have this power. Hate it. I hate that "professional" means "more at the mercy of shmucks than an amateur would be."

I support the decisions you have to make in order to feel safe(r). Dragging people unwilling into danger isn't any better, ethically, than ignoring that danger, is it?
[User Picture]
From:Avalon's Willow [blogspot.com]
Date:March 7th, 2009 01:07 pm (UTC)
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I haven't forgotten I owe you a critique on that novel. I'm disappointed that you feel a need to retreat but I understand. I'm rethinking 'published author' as a goal for myself. Do I want that to happen anymore? How do I want that to happen? I shall research alternatives.

That you still want to write and teach, even if you do so quietly, does take strength.
[User Picture]
From:nojojojo
Date:March 7th, 2009 04:47 pm (UTC)
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I think becoming a published author is still a good thing. I'm not sure SF/F is the best place to do it, though. If you can write another genre/demographic -- YA, for example -- some of those genres seem to have a less hostile establishment and a real interest in evolving the field. I don't know.
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From:deepad
Date:March 7th, 2009 01:18 pm (UTC)
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This post makes me angry, and heartsick, and sad. Because I always am wavering on the abyss of feeling the same way myself.

I still think of you as a brave and active person, and I respect you.
[User Picture]
From:flemmings
Date:March 7th, 2009 01:40 pm (UTC)
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Adding my voice, and a thought I had-- that this fight isn't winnable on the terms it's being fought. The establishment feels itself under attack, feels itself unfairly under attack, and reacts-- well, in the way we've seen it reacting. Batshit frothing suggestive of total brain disengagement. Frontal confrontation doesn't work in that state and with that kind of person. (Have been in group therapy. Have seen people literally not understand simple one word English sentences if the message was one they didn't want to hear. The words simply had no meaning to them.)

If storming the castle doesn't work and sending ambassadors to negotiate doesn't work, it may be time to try guerilla warfare. 'The guerilla lives among the people like the fish lives in the ocean.' Change the people who buy the books by providing the other kind of book, and the Establishment that edits the books will find themselves changing too. Slow but sure. No one has ever won a guerilla war that I can recall.
[User Picture]
From:nojojojo
Date:March 7th, 2009 04:56 pm (UTC)
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this fight isn't winnable on the terms it's being fought

Yes. That's the conclusion I'm coming to. Hell, half of SFdom doesn't even know the fight is being fought, because they're too Luddite/self-absorbed to know/care if the blogosphere exists. Or PoC for that matter. All they see are the books. So I suppose that's where I'll have to go.
[User Picture]
From:pickledherring
Date:March 7th, 2009 02:10 pm (UTC)
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I don't know you but damn if I don't want to buy several copies of your books. Keep writing. I hate that this happened.
[User Picture]
From:kate_nepveu
Date:March 7th, 2009 02:59 pm (UTC)
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I so wish I could tell you that you were wrong.

I'm so sorry.
[User Picture]
From:skywardprodigal
Date:March 7th, 2009 03:06 pm (UTC)
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I have been thinking about you, and your silences, since pnh posted on the matter.

I have been hoping that you will continue to sell, and be supported, and genre-burst out-- I am glad of you (as a writer) but I don't think sf&f deserve you.

We are not friends. But I feel like you're an Ali, or a Bonaly in this thing. I've seen what you're doing, and I've seen you take on our enemies and detractors by doing what you're here to do: write. Storytell. Breathe life into words.

Just... I wish you the best. And sales like JKR.
[User Picture]
From:nojojojo
Date:March 7th, 2009 05:02 pm (UTC)
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We could all wish for sales like JKR. =)

Had to look up Bonaly; cool. =) But I'm not like her or Ali. It takes a hell of a lot more strength to be a groundbreaker in any field than it does to be a followup. And I don't even have that much strength. Save praise like that for people like coffeeandink, who's been my teacher and my hero for the past few years in this stuff, and oyceter, who hasn't quit, and all the others who haven't quit.
[User Picture]
From:wild_irises
Date:March 7th, 2009 03:17 pm (UTC)
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*listening* and *caring* (though as a near-total stranger)
[User Picture]
From:bridgetmc
Date:March 7th, 2009 03:19 pm (UTC)
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I don't know you and you don't know me, but I certainly don't think you a coward for being a little quieter just to make it through the day. It's definitely a feeling I, and I can guess, other PoCs have felt before. Just the fact that you're here and continuing to write is an inspiration to me. Thank you.

That said, I plan to still follow your blog and still purchase your book when it comes out. I'll spread that word of mouth because I've heard good things about it and I have been anxiously waiting for something good to buy at the bookstore.
[User Picture]
From:bplutchak
Date:March 7th, 2009 05:44 pm (UTC)
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You are not a coward!! Taking whatever steps necessary to protect yourself is never wrong. Making you feel like a coward if you are not daily on the front line of the battle is a strategy to make you personally vulnerable. I don't know who you really are, so I don't know if I know your work. But, I do believe that writing fiction is a politcal act. Keep yourself safe, and envision the future I want my grandchildren to be able to grow up in.
From:zillah975
Date:March 7th, 2009 04:03 pm (UTC)
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You're so very much not a coward. Wow, just a world of no. As dsmoen points out, there are many ways to forge ahead against racism, and in continuing to write and be published you are making sure that you are not silenced -- you're speaking in a different venue, to a larger audience, in a very positive and proactive way. Your writing will inspire your readers, and some of them will become writers, too, and inspire more readers.

And I'm really looking forward to buying your books.
[User Picture]
From:aelfgyfu_mead
Date:March 7th, 2009 04:11 pm (UTC)
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For what it's worth, I don't think becoming quieter at this point is cowardice at all. You've said your piece, more than once. The people who are going to hear you have already heard you, or they'll find their way to the posts you've made on the topic: you haven't hidden them, and rydra_wong's links are still finding more and more readers. Some people aren't listening, and no amount of posting will change that.

Your writing stands to make as much difference, maybe more. I hope you can do that and keep your self-respect. Don't let the bad stuff and the bad people drag you down. Your books can make a difference, and they can reach many people who never even heard of RaceFail.
[User Picture]
From:jamiam
Date:March 7th, 2009 04:23 pm (UTC)
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The last few years the women in my department have started a women in science forum, in which we give talks about our research, discuss gender issues in the field, and invite women from other universities to come give colloquia and have tea with us afterward. Quite a lot of the women I've met have done very well for themselves by becoming "quiet" years at a time while they pursue their research and careers... but then, having attained a bulletproof tenured position and no small measure of power in the scientific community--now that they are sitting on funding, job search, and conference organization committees--they have magically transformed into loud, powerful, well-reputed scientists who want to know why, exactly, there are no women candidates on the short list? Despite the fact that there were several whose proposals most of the committee members seemed to think very highly of? Etc.

I can't guarantee that you'll ever be in that position by being quiet about racial issues now, right? But there's also something to be said for clearing enough space to pursue what makes you happy in the long run. At least for a while.
[User Picture]
From:jamiam
Date:March 7th, 2009 04:26 pm (UTC)
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(That said, it makes me sick to my stomach to think that these assholes have managed to so thoroughly alienate so many PoC fans and writers with their petty intimidation tactics. And yeah, all because of a critique. What a bunch of professionals!)
[User Picture]
From:msdori
Date:March 7th, 2009 04:24 pm (UTC)
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I just in the last few days discovered your writing, something I might not have done had I not been reading the ongoing discussion. I really want to be reading more of it in the future, so I'm glad you're doing what you need to in order to keep working in the SF/F genre.

I think, though, that what you are doing is not leaving the field in defeat but making a strategic retreat to regroup. Change has to come from the inside, and I look forward to seeing your contributions to making that change.

[User Picture]
From:wordweaverlynn
Date:March 7th, 2009 04:30 pm (UTC)
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You've got to pick your battles. You've got to protect yourself. But it sickens me to see strong, eloquent voices silenced.
[User Picture]
From:sargent
Date:March 7th, 2009 04:39 pm (UTC)
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I'm so, so sorry.
Nora, World. World, Nora. - Operating in hostile territory.

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