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…
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.
Korea is an interesting place to visit, particularly if you are interested in culture, colonial history, and geopolitical chess games
Having just returned from Korea, I’ve had the unusual opportunity to talk to Koreans, some young, some older, about the current tense situation between the two states on the peninsula. I talked to them about their views of a brighter future, without Donald’s bigger button or Jong-Un’s need for a nuclear arsenal.
As someone who’s been privileged to witness the extremely volatile and unexpectedly rapid German (re-)unification in 1989 and 1990 from up close, it was interesting to spend time to compare notes with my Korean counterparts on how they view the situation on the ground, mere fifty kilometers (thirty miles) from the border, or the DMZ, the demilitarized zone, as this heavily militarized (yeah, odd, right) area is called. Alex and I had traveled there during our last visit in 2012. We were able to visit the North Korean tunnels dug to infiltrate (and invade?) the South. We peeked through binoculars at the now-closed village of Kaesong, where North Korean labor produced goods for the Samsungs and LGs in the south. We also saw and shivered at the tall towers on both sides, proudly flying each country’s national flag. Eerie!
The entire border to North Korea is mined territory, literally. Violent incidents always a possibility.
A few weeks ago, a North Korean soldier fled to the south, bullets from his comrades accompanying him on his rabbit-like run across the border where he collapsed. Marked by malnutrition, riddled with worms and bullet holes, the man is expected to make a full recovery in a hospital in Seoul. We know little about life in the North, and even my friends in Seoul could shed little light, other than that there is a powerful elite who lives a very good life, while the rest… well, starve? We don’t really know.
Satellite images show that there is very little electric light at night in North Korea, almost nothing outside the capital of Pyongyang, and from the few accounts we have seen and read, the people north of the border live an existence that very much resembles that of pre-war Korea. But we can’t know for certain.
Korea is an interesting country. While originally Buddhist, Christianity has been playing a major role for over a century as primarily American missionaries have been very active on the peninsula. They still are, and many in the Korean diaspora are deeply religious evangelicals. In the south, that is still the case, and churches of different denominations from Roman Catholic to Mormon stand side-by-side with beautiful Buddhist temples (see photo.)
Colorfully lit prayer bags hanging from a tree in Seoul’s richest and biggest Buddhist temple.
Understanding the North…
As for the North, religion is frowned upon, as in all communist countries, although the Kim family is staging itself more in the tradition of the old Joseon Empire. God-like rulers, rather than simply chairmen of the ruling party. Jong-Un’s grandfather, Il-Sung, is still president, decades after his death. Only a god could really fill those shoes, right? So what if that all crumbled? What if the gods were killed? Or exiled? Japan, in 1945, might hold a clue to how it might affect a people…
When East Germany opened the wall, it was the wealthiest of the Warsaw pact countries. Despite the paper-maché cars with lawn-mower engines they were driving. They were Germans, after all: industrious, hard-working, with little sense of humor or appetite for “living the good life”. They saved their money in bank accounts for a better day, and the unification treaty sweetened (or at least didn’t sour) their dreams. The differences, after having been sundered and apart for forty years (1949-1989) were staggering, but still manageable. Yet only last year did East-Germans achieve full parity in their pensions, and the “Soli”, the extra tax levied to pay for the build-up of the East is still paid. Based on the discussions of the two major parties for a new government for Germany, that is not to change. Keep that in mind as we look at a unified Korea.
Korea was split in two, like Germany, at the end of the war, in an American controlled (taking over from colonial Japan) South and the Sino-Soviet controlled North. We are seventy plus years into that separation. Relations between the two neighbors, of one people, are as bad as ever, despite the current Olympia induced romance. It won’t last, or so my Korean friends tell me. South Korea, like Germany, is one of the wealthiest nations of the planet, having risen from the ashes of 1953 like Phoenix. Meanwhile, North Korea is worse off than ever before or so we are led to believe.
Seoul, the capital of South Korea is a hyper-modern city with more tall buildings than I could count…
Sentiments in the South…
Official doctrine in Seoul is still the dream of unification. That is portrayed in many museums, from the Korean War Memorial to the National Museum or the City Museum. It’s enshrined in the national curriculum and it is the current minister of unification who is handling negotiations with his North Korean counterpart about their Olympic tête-à-tête. However, word on the street is a different one. Seventy years is a long time. Few people from the era are still alive. Even fewer have living relatives on the other side (despite the South’s insistence on always putting family reunions on the table.) The younger generations of Koreans enjoy the fruit of their parents’ and grandparents’ hard labor. South Korea is a wealthy country with good social services, a new smartphone every season, great K-pop music and in terms of fashion. Seoul is definitely the Milan of the East. Rarely have I seen a people so tastefully dressed! Who would give that up? Risk having to sacrifice the latest Samsung gadget to help complete strangers hundreds of miles away?
Also, and I think this is even more important: the younger generations in Korea suffer from similar problems our young do in the West: difficulties finding jobs, a real-estate market out of control. I’ve been told horror stories of thousands of people applying for ten internships where eventually only eight would be hired permanently, of hiring processes lasting months with up to four different aptitude tests. Employers scorning applicants with mere bachelor degrees. Korea has an excellent educational system, but given the stress of staying on top of the pyramid, it is also driving many students to the brink of exhaustion. Kids studying from six am to eleven pm, and some even commit suicide because of it. Tell me, why would they wish to risk competition from millions of people asking even lower wages?
Seoul, after the Korean War. Large parts destroyed after the initial attacks by North Korea in 1950. Replaced by a modern metropolis. The process was not without pain.
What the future might hold
Having finally rid itself of the Shanti towns of the post-war era, why would Seoul risk the prospect of hundreds of thousands, millions even, migrant workers coming to town to find their fortune in the brightly lit capital of the South? The prospect of it all frightens the younger generations. Few of them will pay more than lip-service to reunification in public, and will flat out rule that prospect out, for the time being, instead referring to “potentially”, in a “distant future”. They are a smart people, and I agree with that assessment, given what little I (and everyone else) knows about the state of things in the North. Besides, I highly doubt that China is as gullible and naïve as Russia was with regards to the GDR. I doubt that China will allow American troops on its borders. They’re quite thankful for that buffer zone that North Korea puts in between American ground troops and mainland China. I think Beijing is humiliated enough by the mere existence of Taiwan and the Japanese alliance with the U.S.
Oddly, as we’ve recently marked the twenty-seventh anniversary of German reunification, we’ve also seen just how Russia still feels about the de-facto abandonment of promises made as part of the unification process, primarily not making Eastern European countries NATO members or stationing U.S. troops there. Today, there are NATO troops stationed both in the Baltics and Poland, right under Putin’s nose. Mind you, I understand the need for those, given Putin’s saber-rattling of late and his war on Ukraine, but all of this would not have happened (or would it?) if the GDR had remained a separate country. We’ll never know, but the Russians feel betrayed. I doubt that China will make the same mistake.
This is what the Korean emperor would see, should he ever leave his palace. The ancient rule that no building shall be taller than his palace, long gone. And as the city has moved on, so have the younger generations of South Korea, no longer desperately clinging to the concept of a unified peninsula, one Korea.
In less than four weeks, the Olympic torch will arrive in Pyeongchang and the Olympic games will begin with the Koreans entering the stadium together, once again marching under a unified Korean flag (a picture of the peninsula on white background, as most recently in 2010.) I doubt Jong-Un will be there, and I doubt the unified ladies’ hockey team will play for very long. Many fear that the current romance is a veil to allow the North Koreans to further/finish their armed nuclear missiles. They’ve played the South and their need for political gains before. They need to be re-elected, Jong-Un doesn’t. I don’t think they’ll be successful this time, not like they were in the nineties, during the last era of “sunshine policy” of President Kim.
Young South Korea is worldly, suave, ironic, and not as gullible as their elders were. I find that hopeful, even if it will make progress on the peninsula slow. Sometimes though, slow is better. It beats a Seoul once again ravaged by artillery batteries from the North. Do you have questions? Comments? My trip to Seoul was primarily to learn about locations and settings from my coming novel, but I couldn’t help but discuss the current political and geopolitical climate with the people I met. To them, my thanks and utmost gratitude for honest and meaningful debates.
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Fighting for equality is tiresome, fighting feminists is exhausting, yet I have no choice
The title of the post will probably be enough to rile feminists everywhere. That’s not really my intention. But I do admit the topic is a tad controversial. I’ve had an interesting online experience on Facebook the other day, and I just couldn’t get over my own reaction to it, nor how my friends handled it. So I figured the best way forward was to broaden the discussion, and see if indeed this is an issue or not. I think it is, even more so after this incident. I’ve always been a feminist, or at least for as long as I can remember. For very good reasons, so let me explain how and why first.
Male is the norm, female the deviation
The statement above alone is enough to get a feminist’s blood boiling, including my own. But simply because we hate a statement with every fiber of our being doesn’t make it any less true or valid. Yes, it’s “wrong” and awful that societies still see things this way, but it’s where we are:
- Women make less money than man, no matter what profession
- Traditionally “female” jobs (e.g. nursing) are paid less than comparable “male” jobs (e.g. engineering)
- Medical research still has the “male” as the norm, despite wide-spread proof that women respond differently to medications than men
- I could go on… and on, and on
These days, the #MeToo hashtag is shining a light on a different aspect of the plight of women around the globe, and I’ve yet to meet a single woman who hasn’t been able to use it. And it’s not just a western phenomenon, nor is this something we can blame “immigrants” or “refugees” for, as some white men try to do. It’s a male thing. Men asserting, exercising their power using sexual overtures and unwanted advances over women, and men. Yes, gay men can be swines, too, and even though cultural norms in the gay community are different, sexual harassment is still sexual harassment, as the recent revelations about Kevin Spacey show, even worse when the victim is a minor.
No, not drag, it’s a costume, big difference. Yet even this, being labeled a “queen” is a two-edged sort, it’s as much about ruling something as it is being a drama queen, a faggot, a poof. And while we in the gay community use this term on ourselves, to hear it from someone else is like the n-word. And remember, a queen, to this day, is never quite king.
As a gay man, I am acutely aware of this male norm thing, because being gay is all about being considered a traitor to my own gender, attributed all the characteristics society deems undesirable, or less worth: emotional, wimpy, femme, weak, submissive etc. Now I know that’s far from the truth for most gay men, not even the minority, but that’s the perception in society, which is what this is about. Perception, not reality. Because the gay men we see out there, the ones that everyone easily spots a mile away are the ones who fit the pattern.
Nobody bats an eyelash at the butch biker or garbage man because he “couldn’t be gay…” (too masculine, blah, blah, blah) Even in my own community, we discriminate against our own with BS labels such as “straight-acting” (and we all instinctively know what that means… sadly.) or asking for guys who aren’t effeminate. In Turkey, you’re not considered gay as long as you’re a top, because it’s the act of receiving which makes you a homosexual. #facepalm Do they even know that most gay couples never even have penetrative sex? Duh! But yeah, again, cultural norms. It’s the receiving, the submissive, perceived feminine aspect which is considered of a lesser value. In the broader LGBT community, there’s also this weird thing of gay men being “better” than lesbians or trans men being considered better than trans women. Makes you shake your head, but it’s all tied to the above: the male is valued higher at the stock exchange of life than the female.
No equality for me without gender equality
So why is feminism so important to me? Why do I fight so hard and incessantly for gender equality? Why am I being such a nag about women’s equal rights? I mean, I stand to lose, right? Being a man and all? To a degree, I might, although, I’m gay, remember, so I’m already at the bottom of the ladder… I firmly believe that we can’t even begin to dream of equality for the LGBT community as long as we see the male valued higher than the female. As long as me being a stay at home dad is seen as a bigger disappointment than a woman declining a promotion, as long as my nag for caring for others is valued less than a mathematical mind, as long as emotions are worth less than computations, as long as women aren’t allowed to vote everywhere on the planet, granted equal pay for equal work, naturally fill about half of every position available in parliaments, government etc., for as long as anything male is seen as better, I’ll keep struggling and fighting, and sometimes brushing even feminists against the grain. Because only when we no longer bat an eyelash at a boy’s decision to become a nurse or a girl’s decision to forego childbearing (to just take two examples of a million), that’s when we can talk about equality of the sexes, and that’s when we, the LGBT community have a shot at the same. Because when being gay, with all those “female” attributes we apparently exhibit, is no longer seen as less valuable, less desirable, we will already have become equals. There’s an interesting TED talk which discusses why straight families have gay kids, and it has to do with nurturing (a very female trait, a great human trait IMHO). Without realizing it, this champion of LGBT rights slapped a ginormous female sign on all our foreheads. I wear mine with pride, but society at large?
So what happened with that Facebook thing?
The new Kindle logo. I really like it, visually. I just wish they would’ve included a girl, too.
Last week, Amazon launched a rebranded app for the Kindle. A boy sitting under a tree, reading a book. A beautiful image, peaceful. Yet it rubbed me the wrong way. As an author, I know that eight out of ten readers are girls/women. And once again, they were left sidelined to the male dominant. I pointed out as much in my Facebook post, asking Amazon what they were thinking.
I got responses, though not from Amazon, but from my feminist friends:
- How do you know it’s a boy?
- I looked like that when I was a pre-teen…
- Why do girls still have to wear long hair and skirts?
- We need to encourage boys to read… (to just name a few)
Not a single man engaged in the discussion, interestingly. My first reaction was disbelief. Why don’t they see what I see? Why aren’t they as infuriated by this as I am? Then I realized it had to do with the fact that many of the people responding were not only emancipated women, but several also members of the LGBT community themselves, and used to bend gender on a daily basis. I’m glad they have reached a stage in their lives when they no longer see this as a problem. But to me, the problem is much larger (see above) and I got so upset that I began to take it out on my family, and needed a forceful reminder from my husband (thank you) to calm down. Yes, I am a drama queen at times. I get to say that, you don’t. I am really passionate about these things, and as tiny a detail, as this may seem, it’s just another piece to the grand puzzle of the world order of gender inequality, another reminder of how much work we still have to do.
I wonder: what if the image instead had been a girl under the tree, and a man had made a dismissive remark about it. How would they have reacted then?
Our son is constantly misgendered due to his longish hair. Mind you, we try hard to keep his options open should he at some point realize that he isn’t male. This isn’t about that though.
I think about little girls in Riyadh, dressed in pink by their moms before having to hide under the niqab or one of the girls I saw at that disgusting kids’ beauty pageant in Denver at the same hotel where GRL was hosted last week. Will they be able to see themselves in that boy under the tree? I bet you they won’t. And how do I know that a child in short hair, a t-shirt and jeans is indeed a boy and not a girl? Because that’s how society at large “paints” boys, not girls, it’s still pink for girls and blue for boys. Don’t believe me? Go to Costco or Walmart any day of the week.
My son is constantly misgendered as a girl due to his relatively long hair. To believe Amazon to be a feminist company that intentionally portrays a girl in a stereotypical boy look is criminally negligent to the feminist cause. Yes, I understand the question being asked, and NO, there is nothing wrong (of course) with a boy looking like a girl (or vice versa), OF COURSE NOT, duh. But that’s me, that’s feminism, that’s how the LGBT community sees the world, that’s NOT how society at large looks like. That’s NOT how most boys and girls are raised today. That’s not what they pick up in the schoolyard, that’s not what they see on TV shows, not what they hear from the current president of the United States. Sadly. And so, sadly, most boys will never see that logo, as they’ll probably never pick up a Kindle in the first place (so no encouragement), and girls seeing that logo will only be reminded of the lesser value of their sex attributed to them by society. As if such a reminder was needed.
Yes, boys need to be encouraged to read, but why, WHY does that require a boy under a tree to get there? An image they won’t even see unless the encouragement’s already paid off? Why can’t a boy get to the point where he sees himself reflected in a girl sitting under a tree reading? And before you turn tables on me, I know girls can already do that, because they’re doing it every day, 24×7. Just like I, as a gay man, have been force-fed straight relationships, romance, and dramas from my birth (it still didn’t help though, didn’t turn me). I UNDERSTAND what it means to be het, I really do. I had to work really hard to get to the point where being het was no longer the desired state. It took me ten to fifteen years to accept, for myself, that being gay is as good as being something, anything else on the sexuality spectrum. I read posts on Facebook where mothers complain about a lack of role models for their boys, now that SuperWoman (is still a woman), and the leads in the latest two StarWars movies are strong women. And I’m exploding with rage: Superman, Batman, the Flash, and just about every other fucking movie still has strong male leads. And why is it expected of girls to see themselves in male role models, but boys are somehow deemed incapable of seeing themselves in a female role model? HUH? Ladies, are you underestimating your boys? Just look to sports, where to this day it’s “soccer”, but “women’s soccer”, “tennis” and “ladies’ tennis”. And why, why do my feminist friends perpetrate such standards by playing the gender bender card, which is irrelevant to the vast majority of people, a card which loses its trump value the minute we get to the desired state of “male = female” in terms of value attribution. All of a sudden, genderqueer, trans, genderfluid, intersex, gay, bi, lesbian et al will have become variations on a scale ranging from valued (male) to valued (female), rather than what it is today, valued (male) to “less desired” (female), being less desired the more on the female side of the scale you are, where trans women are at the bottom of the scale, because they can’t even pull that (i.e. a feminine look) off properly, as if the Stepford wife look is all women have to be proud of… #facepalm It kills me when I see my friends hurt, and I’ve seen pain to last me a lifetime and then some.
So what’s wrong with a boy on the Kindle logo? Nothing really. Except for everything it says about our society, our planet and gender equality. Why not a boy and a girl sitting next to each other, both reading in harmony? I’m so tired of having to fight for this. I’m tired of having to constantly correct the horrible notions my son keeps shlepping home, wondering where he gets them from, which friends are “bad” for him, not because I would ever blame a four or five-year-old, but the parents and family members behind them, who indoctrinate their sons and daughters with such awful values. I’m tired of having to fight for people who don’t want to be fought for, for people who no longer see just how underprivileged they still are. I’m “fortunate”. I still get daily reminders of just how “worthless” I am to society, from the Kremlin, the White House to the slaughters of gay men in the Caucasus and Africa, the rounding up of my kind in Egypt or Indonesia, or the man being jailed in Dubai for accidentally touching a man’s ass with his hand in a crowded bar. I may be married, but just as easily as I got that right, it could be taken away again (as could be the case in the U.S. if the conservatives get their way on the Supreme Court). I may have a son, but society may decide at any given point that I’m not a good enough parent and take him away, just look at Russia. I can never truly relax, there are so many countries I can never visit because of the death penalty on my head, currently ten. I don’t need constant reminders of why I need to keep fighting, no matter how tired I am. I’m just sad that not all my sisters get the point or seem to have lost sight of the greater goal over their personal accomplishments (of which I’m proud of course).
Either that, or it’s me, which would be easier for everybody else, of course. LOL, I don’t know. I’m tired and while I don’t mind fighting the bad guys, being cut off at the ankles by your own hurts… So what’s your take? I’ve had time to process this and I’m ready to engage in serious debate. So feel free to comment below.
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