Sunday, 27 August 2017

Literary Activism - Racist Stereotypes

A while ago, I started working on a new story, a fantasy story of the fairy-tale type - beautiful princess locked in a tower, evil sorcerer seizing control of the kingdom, kind of thing. I wasn't planning on making any kind of political statement with this story; it was to be purely for entertainment.

The trouble came when I wanted to commission my cover. I'm keen enough on this story that I plan to publish it as a single, and I wanted to get my cover done early in the process, because this works well for me, as I talked about in Your Cover Designer and You, on 11 May this year.

My cover person likes to use stock images from a particular company where she has an account, and so I went there to find an image of a beautiful princess for her to use. So far so good - this company has thousands, tens of thousands of pictures of everything under the sun. Patti likes to use them because of the quality, and although I sometimes browbeat her into using pictures of my own animals, whenever it's about a human, I like to cut her a break.

So there I was, and I put in 'princess' or something, anyway up came thousands of pictures of girls and young women in full-on Disney princess kit. I paged and paged, so many of them were so lovely, and I was having trouble choosing one. Spoiled for choice, I know.

Something struck me, though, as I looked at page after page. There was a weird similarity to all the girls and women. I didn't twig at first, because I put it down to their outfits, but finally the penny dropped. They were all European types. Every single one. I don't know how many pages I went through, but I do know I was at it for a long time, and I did not find ONE traditional princess who didn't have pale skin. No brown people, no golden people, just page after page of what used to be called 'white people', but I don't like that terminology. And it reminded me of a sad little news item I'd seen, where a tiny little Aboriginal girl in a princess costume for some event was berated by an adult bigot because 'Princess Whatever isn't black', and told that a 'black' girl couldn't be a princess.

That got to me rather, and I decided that I would make my princess a brown girl. Just to stick it up the stereotype. There were some consequences for my story, because I wasn't able to source an image of a princess in what's regarded as typical princess gear. I found a beautiful young girl who also looked quite regal, but she was in a sleeveless dress and big hoop earrings. This meant that I needed to set my fairytale land in a hot climate. A good example of why I like to get my covers done early!

This is the cover I'm talking about.

Making the princess a brown girl actually worked really, really well for my plot. I'm not going to say exactly why, because that would be a spoiler, for a story I haven't even finished writing yet, but I love what that one change has done for it. So often in life when we go to do something good in a disinterested way, karma pays us back in unexpected ways. At least, that's been my experience.

So, to come back to my topic. Doing things like this is what's known as literary activism. Just as judicial activism in common-law countries changes the law to fit more civilised ideals, so can literary activism change the world, tiny drop by tiny drop.

Now I'm not talking here about people like Stephen King saying stuff in radio interviews, or anything like that. Valuable as this kind of thing may be, it is not literary activism; it is celebrity activism. When you do that, you are operating through your fame, not your writing. You have on your celebrity hat, not your writer hat. Literary activism is done by using our writing, and the good news is that it doesn't require any fame at all, although of course if you are a very well-known writer, your audience will be larger. 

How to do it

There are three ways of doing literary activism. 

1. Lecturing Your Reader.
The first, and most obvious, way, is to have one of your characters expound the point you wish to make. Robert Heinlein's work is full of examples of this technique, and if you like reading sleazy rubbish, so is that of John Norman. I have advised my readers in other posts not to keep stopping in your narrative to deliver a lecture, so I don't feel I need to say more about it here, other than to reiterate that it isn't a good idea, and that Heinlein and Norman have been successful in spite of, not because of, this nasty habit.

2. Showing Your Reader The Bad Thing.
In this technique, all we need to do is to portray the thing we are against; to hold it up to the reader in all its ugly stupidity. An example from my own work is Goebbels, in Dance of Chaos. I write him being a vicious bigot to his Aboriginal employee, and I don't make any comment on it at all.

3. Showing Your Reader a Better Way.
This is what I'm planning to do in the story I talked about above. I'll be showing the reader a classic fairytale princess, with brown skin and Africanesque features, and I will not be making any comment about it. I will actually be going a little farther than that, but 'spoilers,' as River Song says.

The thing about literary activism is that, as with all fiction writing, you are allowing your reader to supply, to fill in the blanks you have left. You're giving him something to think about. You're not telling him what to think. See, this is what I meant when I said 'tiny drop by tiny drop'. All you are doing is showing your reader something that implicitly invites him to think about it. And if you've done well, some reader may change his belief or attitude about something. Don't underestimate the power of that. It took only one experience to make me discard the racism I'd been taught in primary school. You change one person's mind about something, you do not know how far-reaching the consequences may be. For example, in my story The Real Winner, I used a combination of (2) and (3) to show the rights and wrongs of bringing up a puppy. One reader contacted me to tell me that as a result of reading it, he'd re-evaluated his situation with his problem dog, and would not be returning her to the shelter after all, but was hiring a training consultant to address the dog's problems. That dog is now a happy and well-behaved dog, bringing joy and comfort to a widowed man. And that is just the one I know about. Do you see? My story saved a life. A small thing in the context of the world, but a very big thing to that dog, and to her human, too. Because of this, I will always regard myself as a successful writer.

This is the story that saved a life.
You can get it at Amazon.

A good example of a popular writer using a combination of techniques (2) and (3) is the work of Sheri Tepper. Her activism was directed to the saving of the planet and our ecology, and it was very well done; she never spoiled the readability of her books by lecturing, and they are real page-turners. Sadly, Ms Tepper is now deceased, but her work lives on, and I'm sure it has educated many people. 

The point I'm trying to make here is that there need not be any overall cost to literary activism, when it's done well. The extra dimension can work for your story; it is not an extra load holding you back, but a power cell boosting you on. If it's done well.

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