Racism in publishing: if you believe Riptide is the outlier, you’d be wrong
Another scandal in the LGBT publishing sector. After cat-phishing, it’s sexual harassment and racism. Make no mistake, the LGBT community ain’t no different than the rest of the world. We are as guilty as every other community of white-washing, racism, and all those other inherently human flaws. Why? Believe it or not, we are human, too (despite what Mikey Pence and his cronies will have you believe.) The problem with racism in publishing isn’t that it is so common, that it is as institutionalized, as structural as it is in the rest of society. No. The problem is that we, as intellectuals, as artists, who are supposed to see through this shit, expected to lead the way, to be that painful stick-up society’s ass, aren’t more aware of this. We should be mirrors to society, not of it.
The typical reaction
The statement from Sarah Lyons on POC on Riptide covers. She clearly indicates the financial reasons for it. No excuse, but sadly a valid explanation. From Xen’s post.
When Xen’s rightfully angry blog post hit the air-waves, Riptide almost instantly pulled the plug on the editor which had made those racist remarks on their behalf, and later issued statement after statement after statement about how sorry they were and that they would do better, somehow, someday. I for one don’t really believe they’ve really thought about the underlying issues, but are scrambling to save a business, anyway they can. That’s fine of course, I just hope they ‘really’ do their homework. But the comments I’ve read online about Sarah being a racist and that she’s to blame for all this? NO, that’s making it too easy. It’s letting Riptide off the hook and it’s assigning way too much blame to an employee.
An editor doesn’t get to make decisions about a publisher’s corporate policy about what goes on a cover (or not). She merely informs authors of her boss’s rules. Ms. Lyons transgressions in the department of sexual harassment are an entirely different thing…
I challenged myself to go through Riptide’s covers, to see how many POC they actually have on their covers today. The e-mail to Xen was three years ago. Do the same, and you’ll see that very little has changed since. I found five “diverse” covers before I got bored, five out of maybe 100? Now go do the same for other publishers, from the big five to M/M romance behemoth DSP or any other publisher. Just for fun (I haven’t.) You’ll see a very similar thing, everywhere. Minorities are grossly underrepresented everywhere.
It’s not just Riptide…
The problem with structural racism or white privilege (two sides of the same coin) is how it is affecting every aspect of society. When a character in a book isn’t described in terms of ethnicity, we automatically (subconsciously) assume them to be white. If we don’t say they’re gay, they’re assumed to be straight. If we don’t mention they’re Jewish, they’re assumed to be Christian. Even minority readers fall into that trap because that’s what they always see, read, watch. There’s that nasty thing called socialization. It takes a conscious effort on behalf of every individual to overcome that bias, it’s a lot of hard work, and you’re never done. It sits so deep within us that it’s become invisible, like muscle memory.
I could say the same about homophobia. Even as a gay man, more than halfway through my life, I am a homophobe, subconsciously. I still react negatively (instinctively) at seeing a camp man, I find feminine behavior in men (and vice versa) difficult to reconcile at first, and I really, really have to consciously make an effort to keep my mouth shut and to smile and treat that human being with dignity. I’ve been raised a homophobe, and it’s difficult to get that shit out of your system (which makes coming out so fucking difficult for so many of us.) By now I think I’ve got my brain under control and people don’t see/notice, but I still do, every time, and it’s painful.
I’ve seen racism at play, and it’s utterly disgusting. I tend to forgive though because most people aren’t hopeless. I want people to have a second chance. They’re not evil. They’ve been raised that way by society. I’ve come to understand why we are the way we are, and I’d much rather have a conversation to show that person their erroneous ways than to shout from the rooftop just what an amazing person I am (not really), compared to the rest. On Twitter and Facebook people scream, yell and are all high and mighty. They pretend to be holier than thou, but yeah, that’s easy, because there’s no one to point a mirror at them, point to what they really feel, deep down. How they act. Nobody to force them to look at their own privilege.
White privilege is almost invisible to those who have it
Sometimes white people will ask you “how am I privileged? I’m poor, I have less money, fame, and success than a lot of [insert minority rep of your choice]” Privilege is hard to pin down when you’re inside the bubble. Money is a sort of privilege, of course, so is education. A rich white person is obviously more privileged than a poor white person. But they’re still both white. Just as I pointed out in the blog post linked above, white privilege is only visible to POC. To a white person, seeing six Star Wars episodes with only white actors in the lead doesn’t raise any eyebrows. It’s natural. Normal. But boy did those same people raise hell when one of two lead humans in episode seven suddenly wasn’t white. That would be racism. The former is white privilege.
When an innocent white person walks down Broadway toward Times Square and meets a police patrol, they feel safe. When an innocent black person is in the same situation they’re thinking about what might happen: will I be stopped, abused etc. When a white person walks into Macy’s to buy make-up, they don’t notice that all the models have fair skin. A black person looking for makeup will most likely have to frequent a specialty shop to find make-up for their skin tone. Same thing for hair products. Or even band-aids. Skin-colored band-aids are light beige. I’ve never seen anything that wouldn’t scream loudly on a person from South India or Africa. That’s white privilege. But most white people don’t think about this ever. It’s just normal to them. But it’s painfully obvious to everyone else.
Black Panther? Heard of that blockbuster movie from Marvel? That is so very much the exception to the rule that it is a slap in the face of the black populace of the world, just as Lando Calrissian was in Star Wars. From the first short Superman movie in 1941 to 2017, that’s seventy-six years without a black superhero in a major film. White privilege. There is a painfully well-written (and played) episode in Star Trek DS9, Far Beyond the Stars, where Captain Cisco is dreaming about being a black comic author, essentially inventing “Captain Cisco” and facing the ridicule of the time. If you haven’t seen that, watch it. It’s on Netflix. It explains this all so well.
So what can we do?
Willem is one of the very few whites left on Earth. Everybody else is black or brown. In this story, Willem is the POC.
First of all, forgive. Second, seek a conversation, a dialogue. I remember back in late 2014 after I had begun work on my novel Willem of the Tafel, only a chapter or two. I sent a message to my New York publicist, excited about my coming novel about a black man in an underground (literally!) culture in South Africa. The message back was a shock: “are you sure you want to do this? Nobody’s going to buy a book about a black hero…” Racist statement? One could also argue that said publicist (a POC!) was trying to warn me of the consequences of pursuing such a story. He simply pointed out that I sell most of my books in America and that most people buying books in America would not buy a book about a black hero. That’s also what’s at the core of the Riptide decision (at one time) not to feature POC on their covers. Most readers of LGBT books are white, they are economically privileged and have the money to buy books (another aspect of said white privilege.) And most of them are not interested in POC. Putting them on the cover would be an automatic signal to move on.
It’s also the reason why there are over 100,000 M/M novels out there and almost no F/F. Simply because most straight white women (who are the dominant reader base) don’t get moist when reading about two women forking. Publishers, editors, and authors are in the business of making money, and therefore follow the money. There’s money in M/M, but not in gay fiction. There’s money in beautiful, handsome, white men, but not in POC. There’s money in healthy characters, but none in disabled characters (my friend Tracy says “we’re invisible” about her condition. Sadly, she is right about it.)
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t
There is another complexity to all this. Writing about POC, minorities etc. is hard work. As an author, you need to do your research properly and get it right. And there are those out there who will still put you through the ringer no matter how hard you worked to get it right, even if you did get it right. It’s a thing, a dogmatic belief in some that only members of a minority should be allowed to write about that particular minority. I don’t subscribe to that, but it shows that even if you try to write diverse stories, you can’t please them all. Their main argument? Privilege; majority privilege. They don’t have the privilege to write those stories because they have to work, or because they don’t have the connections to publishers etc. They do have a point, of course, but forbidding others to write while basking in self-righteous pity only makes their minority more invisible. And thus deny their minority the chance to become popular in fiction.
Not everyone is in it for the money…
I make $500 bucks a year (give or take) in royalties. I don’t make a living off my writing. I get to write the important stories, the difficult ones, along with some other amazing authors who don’t (have to) care about money (or compromise their creativity to get it.) We care about the stories that need to be told. And we are lucky to have found a home with publishers who indulge us, who also don’t put money first. Or they increasingly self-publish, thanks to modern technology.
When I got the original feedback on Willem, I was scared. Scared of sales losses and what it might do to my reputation. I was still new to writing and quickly decided to change my approach, and I killed my intended main character in chapter two in an accident that gets Willem’s story rolling. I thought long and hard about how to tackle the subject. In the end, Willem of the Tafel turned out to be a big middle finger up white privilege’s ass, as Willem is literally white as white comes, but the rest of his future Earth is almost 100% POC. I reversed racism, thrust it in Willem’s innocent face to showcase how ugly racism really is. Hopefully some lily-white asses were appalled by how miserably Willem and the few remaining whites are treated, and hopefully, one or two realized that Willem is, in fact, a mirror of our world, set 500 years into the future. Willem is indeed a POC.
From Willem to Martin
My coming novel, Returning to the Land of the Morning Calm (sign up for the newsletter, top right, to be the first to partake of the cover reveal this Thursday), features a black, main character. Martin is amazing, and I am very proud of him and his life. I’m no longer afraid. So what if no one buys the book? The ones who do will like it, and they’ll like Martin. I’m sure because the story is a beautiful one. Martin has taught me a lot, particularly about the country he longs back to, Korea. The second main character is a Korean. I consciously try to paint my characters in different colors (pun intended.) I’ve included various aspects of disability, ethnicity, religion, and gender regularly, mind-fucking my readers (I once had a proofreader question why a man would take his wife’s last name, to just state one example!) As an author, I think this is my responsibility. Make people question their assumptions about what is (right) and what isn’t.
Publishers have a responsibility, too. Encourage diverse stories, from a diverse authorship, but even from the (existing) mainly white authors. Last not least, readers have a responsibility, too, to engage with diverse stories, just as those of us who are “diverse” have been forced to engage with mainstream stories in school, books, TV, the movies ever since our childhood. We need to talk about this. We need to have a discourse about racism, not attack each other on Twitter and pretend to be flawless. Because we’re not. None of us are. They who cast the first stone… Just saying! So let’s not judge Riptide too harshly. Yes, they fucked up, badly, but a) there are very good (as disgusting as this may sound) business reasons for them to have done so, and b) they’re not alone.
Author Hans M Hirschi, here with his oldest feline friend, is a member of multiple minorities and sadly all too familiar with racism and discrimination.
They just happened to be the first one caught in the cross-fire. Hopefully, they’ll learn their lesson and will find a way to combine making money with embracing diversity, fully, and honestly. Either that or quietly disappear into the darkness of oblivion.
Famous last words…
Let’s talk about this… I’m curious to hear your points of view. Mind you, I monitor all comments and if you’re not civil in tone, I won’t approve it. As always, if you like my blog, my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram.
Have a good week. And be forgiving.
Silent Terrorism – a book that is difficult to read, and a slap in the face of those who believe in the West’s moral superiority
I’ll admit it. I’ve read an early draft of this story, over a year ago. There were discussions about how the story might be perceived in the light of the U.S. elections, Brexit and the alarming increase of Islamophobia around the world. I’ve been allowed to read it again, in its final version. The book is published tomorrow. Silent Terrorism had the same effect on me as it did when I first read it: disgust (at some of the descriptions of violence and torture, and – frankly – some other scenes) but also a feeling of deep respect for the author and the publisher, for writing and putting this story out there. Some will not like it, neither in Saudi Arabia nor in Sweden (representing the western world, as the author states in her afterword), but this is a book that deserves being read.
The telling cover of Silent Terrorism.
In a way it’s sad the book was delayed by a year. We now have a crown prince in Saudi Arabia hell-bent on modernizing his country. Women get to unveil, drive cars and leave the house without a male guardian. What’s the country coming to? Civilization? Alas, even crown prince Mohammed doesn’t ever talk about LGBT rights, because, and this is expertly explained in Ms. Novak’s Silent Terrorism, Saudis believe that they don’t have any LGBT people in their midst. It’s supposedly a Western thing (odd given that we all descend from common African ancestors, but alas.) Against the backdrop of current events in Saudi Arabia (which includes both the secret police and the religious police forces), reading the novel showcased the research done by Ms. Novak. Impressive!
A fast-paced political thriller
The story as such is very high pace. There is hardly any downtime, the characters are chiseled out as they run, hide, leap, yell at each other or suffer torture. But they are, all of them, very much real-life human beings, very believable, credible. The only caricatures are the Swedish politicians portrayed in the novel, and I can only assume that to be purposely done, as they are indeed to act as stand-ins for much of the Western world and how we kowtow to black gold.
I haven’t read a thriller in a long time, and it was refreshing to indulge in the pace, the complexity of the plot and never really knowing how things end. Ms. Novak certainly does throw more than one curveball to make sure the reader stays on their toes and at one point I had accepted my fate and figured, “okay, this is it!”, but alas, I was wrong, again. Brilliant.
The finer points
Did I like everything about the story? Yes. However, I’ll grant you that I thought there was too much swearing, cursing and yelling. I don’t think I can remember any conversation (except at the very, very end) that does not involve people upset, screaming at the top of their lungs. I’m not a big fan of that kind of language/discourse, but that is, of course, a question of taste, and to a degree certainly warranted given the situations the characters constantly find themselves in. But yeah, sometimes less is more.
Silent Terrorism is like Ms. Novak’s My Name is Ayla, an important book in today’s world. The LGBT community needs dissonant voices. We are grateful for stories with happy endings, stories with fluff and rosy cheeks. But we also need the world to know that yes, there are still 76 countries where being LGBT is illegal, 13 countries where being LGBT carries the death sentence, and the het majority needs to hear this side of the story, too, not just about out and proud gay athletes and actors marrying their sweethearts. We’re not home free yet. I’ve bought the book (after Ms. Novak provided me with a free ARC to facilitate this review) because Phetra pledges to donate 50% of the proceeds to a sadly much-needed LGBT organization.
Silent Terrorism is releasing tomorrow
Silent Terrorism is released tomorrow, March 17th, from Beaten Track Publishing as paperback and e-book and is available on Amazon (for pre-order) and your other favorite sales channels. If you enjoy a political thriller, like exotic places and would like to learn more about the plight of the LGBT community in a country like Saudi Arabia, give this book a chance. You will not regret it.
Feel free to contribute! As always, if you like my blog, my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great weekend. I’ll be back on Monday with a post about racism in the publishing industry and how racism is a red thread through much of my own writing…
Cat-phishing: will authors, will readers ever learn? The truth will always come out in the end
I woke up to another story of “cat-phishing”, “fraud”, identity mischief and then some. Not the first and most certainly not the last time. This seems to be a thing in (LGBT) author circles. But why? And why is it so frequent in the LGBT writing circles? I see several reasons: the economy and the stigma still associated with being (associated with) LGBT.
Who is stupid enough to voluntarily put on the LGBT hat?
Right. Right? I mean those of us who are gay, lesbian, bi, trans, queer etc. we can tell countless stories of discrimination, violence, people cutting their ties with us etc. Suicide & homeless rates, psychological ailments etc. are all much higher in the LGBT community than in the straight community. Hardly a surprise when you look at the way we’re being treated at the hands of others. Coming out the first time is life-changing, but we have to keep doing it, every day, for the rest of our lives. You might not believe that, but just telling a stranger about your husband is a coming out. You risk judgment (from a glare to a fist in your face), every time. And for a split second you have to make a decision: lie or be honest, is it worth potentially risking your life?
LGBT people have always written fiction, and some of us did so under a pseudonym or a pen name, maybe because we weren’t out, maybe because our employers didn’t know (reasons vary). When (mostly) straight women decided to start to write love stories about men (M/M romance), they did so under pen names, too. Some even chose male pen names (Some claim that readers prefer male writers; personally I couldn’t care less about the genitals, the gender of a writer. It’s their penmanship I care about.) But they did so because their families didn’t know they were writing “smut” (not my word!), writing about those despicable gays and their anal intercourse.
Many of these women live double lives, with a daytime existence in conservative churches with horribly conservative families, and a writer’s existence where they indulge in butt-fucking stories. Sorry to be blunt. I know that the vast majority of these writers are great human beings who support the LGBT community, some have even come out as LGBT themselves, as bi-, trans or genderqueer. But if your mother in law is a Southern Baptist, or your husband a Mormon, I totally understand why you’d write under a pen name…
It’s the economy, stupid!
Writing has changed, a lot, just in the past ten to fifteen years. With thousands of new novels published every day, readers making statements like “I don’t pay more than ¢99 for anything under 200 pages” etc., making a living as a writer has become virtually impossible. Most of us have day jobs where we work our asses off, dreaming of going home to write. We follow our muse, our passion in our free time, in the wee hours of the night.
Frequently occurring scandals in the LGBT writing community have scared away readers (and some writers), making it even more difficult to make a living. For me, my royalties peaked in 2015. After that, they’ve never recovered, after that first big blow-out on GollumReads. Several publishers have left the industry, too. Many authors are now self-publishing and prices have been slashed even more.
Did I mention that the LGBT community is tiny? Our market share is so small that it hardly registers on the grand scale of the likes of Amazon et al. And as long as our straight allies will say this about my writing (“I can’t read this, it’s not for me. I’m not gay!”), we’ll never be able to really make a difference, financially.
It’s a fine line…
If you don’t make a living with your writing, and if you hide behind a mask (fake or just a pen name), it’s easy to cross a line, accidentally or purposely. These days, you can add a button from PayPal to your website (I’ve removed mine since I never got any donations), or create a Patreon account or a crowdfunding campaign. The latter seem to be particularly popular with authors. I’ve long considered creating a Patreon account myself, to supplement my family income. Right now we live off my husband’s income and a stipend I receive from my father. My annual royalties are less than $500, annually! I say this not because I want anyone to feel sorry for me, but because I have nothing to hide. As a writer of gay fiction, my potential readership is infinitely smaller than those who write M/M.
I’ve felt conflicted about Patreon, simply because the added work that is needed to provide patrons with extra content would be taxing, no matter if you have one or a thousand patrons. And I can see how some might use Patreon or GoFundMe to specifically finance a project. I was thinking about audiobooks. I’ve seen a narrator create a GoFundMe to finance a trip to Europe (he failed miserably), and I’ve seen more than one such campaign to finance everything from laptops to funerals and healthcare. Mind you, these are all American cases, where people generally don’t have healthcare insurance. In desperation, people go to desperate lengths.
Now combine a pen name/alias and a blog post asking about money and a tweet about your health and boom, you’re awfully close to crossing a line. Just saying. The result is nasty. Already I’ve had this huge discussion on Twitter where people were talking about “real gay men” writing… While I’m grateful that some thought my name to be worthy of being on the list, but yeah, I’m not thrilled, because women write as well as men (the irony of this blowing up on March 8?)
Let the witch hunt begin…
After each of these scandals, we lose readers. We lose writers. We all lose. But worse, many among us feel compelled to publicly state who we are, what we are. For me, that’s easy. What you see is pretty much what you get. But what about the wife of the Mormon? What about the daughter in law to that Southern Baptist? They won’t be able to, lest they risk their marriage, their families, their kids! Coming out has real-life implications, even for straight women who voluntarily associate with Dorothy’s friends… Still, to this date, marriage equality notwithstanding.
I for one will never start a Patreon. I was skeptical from the get-go, afraid that the extra work wouldn’t be worth the few dollars a month you get (if any.) But more importantly, I do not wish to become dependent on anyone else, not give anyone (besides my family) the power over me and how I live my life, what I do with my money. Some patrons will always think they can tell you what to do (or not) with their money…
How to support authors…
There used to be a time when authors made a living by selling books. Maybe I’m naïve, but I’d like us to return to that place. If you want to help an author, here’s what you can do:
- buy their books
- if you like a book, tell your friends. Tell strangers, tweet, post on Facebook, upload the cover to Instagram. Review.
- Follow our blogs, subscribe to newsletters, like posts etc. Every little helps.
- Stay away from pirate sites. This is a huge issue for all of us. I pay hundreds of dollars every year just to fight piracy and have been able to get Google to stop showing search results to over 4,000 (!!!) pirate sites. In less than two years.
- Leave us alone. We are human beings and we have a right to privacy. As a reader, you have no right to an author’s personal life, what they do, don’t do etc. So please, don’t pry, don’t stalk. If authors share their personal life, it has to be their choice. (This is, of course, by no means an endorsement of criminal activity by authors, just to make this perfectly clear!)
- Be careful with (or stay away from) crowd-funding campaigns. You will never have a guarantee that money will be used as advertised. Buy an extra book instead, the audio version, or maybe a paperback of your favorite title if you want to support an author a bit extra. Write a nice post about their writing. The more people who buy books, the better, for all of us.
“Fangirling” is fine…
…even for us boys. Of course, it’s okay to idolize someone. I remember meeting my favorite ski star, Ken Read, ages ago when I was just a teen. Had it not been for my Dad who was with me, I’d never been able to get that autograph. I was just too star-struck! And when I stood feet away from one of my great ABBA idols, Benny Andersson, for the first time in my life (aged above 35!), I was completely paralyzed. Ask my husband. He thought it was hilarious.
When you meet us authors, remember that we are human beings, too. We are flawed, imperfect. Authors have mood swings, good days, bad days. We get sick, we fight with our families and friends, and we don’t always weigh every word twice, despite making a living off writing. So give us the benefit of the doubt. Focus your fangirling on our writing, our work, not on us as human beings.
Don’t be disappointed if we don’t reciprocate your love. An author (artist) has tons of fans, and they know us very well, but we can’t keep tabs on our readers. Sure, we’ll get to know some of you better, but it’s impossible to know you all, to be “friends” with you all. And despite what Facebook will have you believe, just because we accept a friend request, we’re still strangers. You don’t know us, we don’t know you.
I’m of course aware that we live in “social media” times, and that there are expectations to be out there. Some of us find that more easily accomplished. Others hide behind avatars, pen names etc. As long as we respect each other, we’ll be fine. Deceit isn’t, ever.
What is your take? Agree, disagree?
These are my personal views, of course. I’m fully aware that taking sides in contentious issues puts the author at risk. Bad reviews, public persecution even. But that is a risk we must take, or so I think. Feel free to contribute! As always, if you like my blog, my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great weekend.
Writing and Politics are often on my mind: takes sides or stay quiet?
Elections in Germany, Italy, the ongoing Brexit-chaos in the UK, extremist governments in Poland and Hungary, not to mention the reality show called “The White House”… It seems the world is going nuts. Politicians seem to no longer care about lying in public, quickly having learned from the American President that you can get away with murder (or was that the Philippine President?) It makes it almost impossible for voters to make a sensible choice. Artists have always been right there, in the middle of the vortex, either applauding benefactors or criticizing power. Writing and Politics is something always on my mind. What is our responsibility?
Everything is politics…
I recall the above statement from my college days when we were asked by a professor what politics was. The ultimate answer was “everything” in life, because it is all somehow influenced by the state, by society, and thus, politics plays a role. Which of course makes it difficult to stay away from politics in writing. Even the fluffiest of romance novels is somehow political, as it will have a conundrum at its core, misunderstandings, hinders for the loving couple-to-be to overcome. That conundrum, those hinders are politics or could be. There is a reason to assume that not everyone will agree and that people could potentially take different sides. I’ve noted that in many cases, no matter the question, if taken to the public, people will have a tendency to split evenly, almost fifty-fifty, for and against.
I have no doubt: whatever we write about is politics. I was thinking about a line in my coming novel, where my Korean character openly laments the Japanese occupation in very strong words, while the MC tries to offer a different view. I’ve been thinking about that paragraph again, and again. Leave it there? Take out those two sentences to “diffuse” it? There are other similar examples. It’s difficult to avoid in a novel which plays out against the backdrop of a war that still affects our geopolitical situation.
What is a writer’s responsibility?
A question I often contemplate is this one: do I have a responsibility to take sides? Actively? Many famous authors and artists do, be it Stephen King (who was “blocked” by 45 on Twitter) or J. K. Rowling, who takes sides on a great many issues on her Twitter account. But what about our writing? I often think about this, not just in terms of politics. We have more than one character, and we can allow different characters take different sides. I specifically recall my novel Jonathan’s Promise, where I was exploring the limits of “for better or worse”. No answers, just the question. I wanted to let it play out, not having made up my mind on the issue. One character got to take one side and another the opposing, and I let them work it out.
Is this a workable theory for politics, too? It is the approach I’ve taken with the example above, re the Japanese occupation. Yet sometimes, it isn’t quite as simple. Some questions are more important to me, they are issues where I have a clear view. Let’s take women’s rights or civil rights. Or LGBT rights. In the new book, they’re all thematized. It’s impossible for me to mention e.g. comfort women and not condemn that. It’s impossible for me to not condemn the ongoing institutionalized racism in the U.S. I’d not be painting a very accurate picture of the lives of the African American people, would I? The same is true for the LGBT community suffering a horrendous backlash at the hands of the current regime in Washington.
Silence is being an accomplice
Here’s my take: if you stay quiet, you’re an accomplice. If you mention that a woman worked as a comfort woman under the Japanese occupation of Korea, as a fact, and you don’t say what a horrific practice that was, you’re an accomplice. If you mention how blacks are stopped on the streets by the police because they’re black, and you don’t mention that this is racist, you become an accomplice. I don’t believe that we as writers have the luxury to “not take sides”, not in the long run. At the end of Jonathan’s Promise, I had arrived at my personal POV, and it was instrumental in the resolution of the novel.
The same is my take on my writing in general. I may use my writing to weigh the pros and cons of complex issues, but once I arrive at a stance, I will make that known. Not in my own voice, but through my characters. I am a citizen of this world, and I have a responsibility to work for its betterment, to contribute to a world that is a better place. I understand that not everyone will agree with me. Others may take opposing sides. I may offend, I may hurt, but I may also embolden, strengthen! Each piece of art is part of a discourse.
What is your take? Agree, disagree?
Writing and politics; hese are my personal views, of course. I’m fully aware that taking sides in contentious issues puts the author at risk. Bad reviews, public persecution even. But that is a risk we must take, or so I think. Feel free to contribute! As always, if you like my blog, my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great week.
Ethnocentricity is primarily a western affliction, and it stinks to the high heavens
When you travel as much as I do, you get to visit a great many different cultures. If you keep your eyes open and don’t just eat at restaurants serving food from your own cuisine. If you avoid walking through streets blind-folded, you’ll note that there are often subtle, sometimes big, at times in your face, humongous, cultural differences. To be oblivious to that is called ethnocentricity, to put your own culture at the center of all things, and to value your own culture above all else.
Let me state this as clearly as I can: there is no culture that is “better” than any other. We are all just different. Sure, we may dislike aspects of one culture, but when we criticise another culture, or what a culture endorses, we need to be careful to understand what we do. Even more importantly, we need to understand what we do not! Last week, I’ve seen many of my friends on Facebook share an article about Olympian Gus Kenworthy sharing pictures with cute puppies, decrying the Korean tradition of eating dog. Having just written a book about Korea, and after having spent some time in the country, I’m well aware of the practice.
Here’s the thing:
- eating dog (or any animal for that matter) is completely fine and none of your fucking business! So is being a vegetarian or vegan.
- Focus instead on the treatment of the animals while they are being raised
In the reporting of Kenworthy’s visit, a small sentence of his often fell by the wayside:
“Yes, there is an argument to be made that eating dogs is a part of Korean culture. And, while don’t personally agree with it, I do agree that it’s not my place to impose western ideals on the people here.”
I could sign this sentence, too. I would not eat dog. But I could’ve also asked him: then why do you impose your western ideals?
On the other hand, ask a billion something Indian Hindus how they feel about the West eating veal and beef, or ask Jews and Muslims about our practice of eating pork… No, we would never listen, wouldn’t care. Even in the West, some of us eat some pretty ‘weird’ shit: In central Europe, eating horse is still a big thing, some eat cute baby goats, we eat cute little lambs, not to mention bunnies. We eat whale meat, seals, and don’t get me started on eating tongue, brain, penises or testicles. It’s a thing. I’m sure the majority of people on the planet strongly disagree with the practice of any of these. However, I’d never criticise anyone for eating that, as long as the animal is treated well while raised/hunted unless of course it is threatened by extinction (which sadly is the case in some whale cases.)
Wouldn’t it be nice if Mr. Kenworthy used his high profile to shine a light on how we treat our own animals, rather than shaming another culture? This is not to say that I do not agree that dogs aren’t to be treated well, but maybe we should let the Koreans deal with that themselves? Making them lose face in the eyes of the world is hardly going to go down well…
He who cast the first stone…
How do you feel about eating this? Image: PETA
What really had me riled though was this: did Gus ever criticise American poultry? Does he ever eat chicken nuggets or the colonel’s original recipe? Why does he have to travel to Sochi or PyongChang to find a worthy cause when there are thousands of poultry farms right in his own backyard? Farms where male chicklets (worthless to egg farmers) are ground to death alive (!!!) and where chickens are processed for meat in ways that even the Nazis couldn’t have come up with.
I love chicken, eat loads of it, but I make sure to eat organic products from farms where the animals lived a good life before helping me see the next day. If you decide that you want to eat meat, at least make sure the animals are treated well while alive. That’s hardly too much to ask for.
Ethnocentricity in writing
Sadly, ethnocentricity is a thing in writing, as well. We are quick to dismiss other people’s experiences, lives, cultures simply because they don’t conform to what we are comfortable with, what we know. I’ve just used one example, I could have made many others. Even people from others cultures living among “us” in the West are often judged and portrayed using broad brushes and from our own point of view. Not a good way to learn about the diversity in the world. And not a good way to create tolerance and cultural understanding.
Just as the Kenworthy article is propagated through social media, so is our writing, black and white for generations. Books have a long shelf-life, keep that in mind. Reducing people to cultural stereotypes, attributing them a “certain way” of being, doing things etc., without really knowing them is a big danger and pitfall. Worse, to criticise them for their ways is damaging at best. Maybe we better look at our own ways before we judge others?
One of the best ways of dealing with potentially sensitive topics is to avoid them. I would not write about eating dog in my book about Korea. Not because I’m not aware of the practice, but because – to be perfectly honest – it doesn’t add value to my story. It would disgust the majority of my western readers, and it would be an insult to potential Korean readers. It just makes no sense to raise a topic for the sake of a sensation or a thrill. That’s my point of view.
How do you feel? How do you avoid ethnocentricity?
These are my personal views, of course. I’m sure others have different views, diverging ways of looking at things. Feel free to contribute!
As always, if you like my blog, my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great week.
I used to laugh at some writers who’d never finish their work, but my own writing process is evolving in that direction, if unchecked…
I’ve been sick. In fact, I still am. I’m writing these words rather than editing my latest novel Returning to the Land of the Morning Calm. After first catching this season’s flu, I ended up with a sinus infection the likes even I hadn’t seen before with a ruptured eardrum as a souvenir. I’m seeing a specialist today to have a look at it. Lying around for almost two weeks, with no energy to write or edit, I’ve had plenty of time to think about my work, my writing and how (and what) I’d like to change, without actually being able to change any of it. As part of that, I realized just how my own writing process continually develops (?), evolves and changes.
Evolving or developing?
I have no final answer. I’m not sure if the changes are for the better. I recall talking to more than one of my fellow writers out there, people who had been working on one and the same story for years, some decades even, but they’d never published any of their work, constantly changing, editing, rewriting, adding, subtracting from their work. The fear of failure debilitating, or is it the strive for perfection? I’m not sure.
After having written Disease, I know I had done something special. The reviews were raving, and even though it’s not a continuous bestseller, the book has done well for its kind, and I am particularly happy with all the praise. Kirkus reviews even included their review of the book in last Friday’s bi-weekly magazine to libraries and other professionals, and I’ve already seen a spike in sales on Amazon.
All the while, my own writing is changing. I’m not sure if it’s a change for the better, an evolution, or if I’m starting to become obsessed with quality if the fear of following up a great story with something of lesser quality is scaring me? Debilitatingly so?
Returning to the Land of the Morning Calm is very different from Disease
The new story is very different from Disease. Where the latter was dark and hopeful, with an almost given ending, considering that Alzheimer’s only has one known outcome, it was difficult for Her Majesty to strike a balance and keep things hopeful. I think I managed, to the best of my ability.
The story about Martin is different. Very different. And as so often with my writing, I might mention The Fallen Angels of Karnataka, the initial story changed into something else. In this case, it was my research trip to Korea which pre-empted the changes. I’ve mentioned those before. Returning to the Land of the Morning Calm is a much more light-hearted story, full of love, friendship, romance and hope. It is that without shying away from difficult topics, such as gay darlings like “coming out”, homophobia, HIV, but also racial issues, #MeToo, love and relationships across time, cultures and generations.
There is so much I still want to tweak…
Here’s the thing though: while I’m generally happy with the story, and the way it’s developing, there are still a million things (or so it seems at night) I want to change. Tighten a screw here, change something here etc. I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about the quality of the story if I’m doing the characters justice. Does Martin come across as the octogenarian he is? Is Ji-Hoon Korean enough? I currently have a friend in Korea reading the manuscript to make sure the Korean aspects are ‘real’ Korean. But it doesn’t just end there, and all of a sudden I find myself with a newfound understanding for those neverending writers out there, who keep polishing their manuscripts… Luckily, I have a deadline, so I know I’ll have to finish sooner rather than later.
A changing writing process is a good thing, isn’t it?
I comfort myself with the fact that it must be a good thing for my writing process to keep changing. It means I listen to my editors, take their advice to heart. It means I strive to better myself. Or am I simply paranoid? Or have I been “off” my game for too long and just worry, needlessly? One thing’s for sure: time will tell, and by May 21, when the new book is out, I’ll know if my stupid comparing of apples and pairs has resulted in anything…
Before I let you go, a quick question to my fellow authors: do you see your own writing process change or are you pretty much easy going? Curious to learn…
As always, if you like my blog, my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great week.