September 15, 2014

I write fantasy and I'm worried white privilege will infiltrate my books. Part Two.

Esmeralda from Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame pretty much cemented my love for gypsies. 
This was before I knew anything about the Romani or cultural appropriation. Source
Please take a moment to read part one if you haven't already. Thanks.

Once upon a time, I fell in love with a stereotype.

I was ten years old and learned of gypsies the same way I learned about magic--through fiction. But the fiction I read tied magic and gypsies inextricably together, as though one could not function without the other. I branched out into nonfiction and realized with delight that gypsies were real (!!) and that their magic was real, too.

Of course, I picked the wrong nonfiction books to read when I made this discovery. Fortunetelling for Fun and Profit was my gypsy-magic bible at the tender age of 10. When I was 11, I took it a step further and dressed up as a "gypsy" for Halloween. At age 12, I saw Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the movie theater, and BAM! My heart was forever lost.

Holy crap, Esmerelda!  She was the first Disney character I wanted to be. This was a different level of infatuation compared to what I held for other Disney ladies. I wanted to be pretty like Princess Aurora and Princess Jasmine, all the while possessing the sex appeal of Jessica Rabbit (I know, I was too young to be thinking about such things)...but as soon as I saw Esmeralda, she seemed to encompass all of it. I wanted to be her. She was a gypsy, and I loved gypsies; she was a dancer (I was a dancer!); and she was beautiful, brave, sexy, just, and kind.

I was so taken by her that shortly after I saw Hunchback I wrote my own musical with gypsies. *sighs* I took it very seriously, too. My musical A Gypsy's Tale was going to be the best thing I ever wrote, better than all my earlier plays, and I would do the research and spend hours composing music and lyrics with MIDI software. And then the show would sell out in seconds to audiences who gave unending standing ovations. Forgive me, I was twelve.

I abruptly hit reality during research. I was looking for books besides Fortunetelling for Fun and Profit to learn more about gypsies, and my local library had a huge, old hardcover photobook about them. I borrowed it to research costume ideas and instead of seeing laughing bohemians in colorful clothes running around with violins and tambourines--

--I learned that "gypsy" is an offensive word. I learned that "gypped" came from gypsy, and that it is also a really offensive wordI learned gypsies weren't descended from Egypt, but India. I saw photos of vardos pulled by vanner horses. I saw images of happy families, and I did see my many-skirted dancers and violinists, but I also saw poverty, exclusion, and expulsion. I saw the words porajmos and gadje for the first time.  I saw the Romani.

Croatian Sinti and Roma with their children in 1941.
CC-licensed from the Deutsches Bundesarchiv.
Bundesarchiv Bild 183-2004-0203-502,
Bei Agram, kroatische Sinti und Roma-Frauen und Kinder 
It was a true moment of cognitive dissonance, and I couldn't handle it.  Because once upon a time, I fell in love with a stereotype, and when you fall deeply in love, it's hard to move on. I'm glad I was smart enough to shelve my gypsy musical so it could never see the light of day (it would've been the most unintentionally offensive thing on the planet). And then I walked away from gypsies for a long time...until fifteen years later, when I enrolled in Seton Hill's Writing Popular Fiction program.

All of a sudden I was tasked to write a novel. I always wanted to write novels, but I was "the playwright," and novels were a completely different thing altogether. I never really attempted one before. I didn't even know what I wanted to write when I started the program, so I reflected on why I wanted to be a writer in the first place. And it had to do with the very first things I ever read--fairy tales, fantasy, magic, and...gypsies.

I didn't overtly plan to write a story with a gypsy-like/Romani-like culture. It was one of those whimsical things that pop up out of nowhere right when you're drafting; the moment when you surprise yourself with something wonderful. Somehow it appeared when I started writing the first chapter of The Name and the Key, and it stuck. The majority of my characters would be from this culture--including the leading characters.

All the while I became very nervous about my somewhat-like-reality-but-not-really-real fantasy culture. First of all, I was a white person writing non-white characters. Second, I couldn't call these characters gypsies, because I didn't want to write gypsies. I loved Esmeralda, but I didn't want an Esmeralda and a gypsy Court of Miracles to pop up in my fiction. I also didn't want to write anything that would be considered offensive by real Romani. I know I'm gadje, but I didn't want to be that kind of gadje: the white, privileged, ignorant author who contributes to the unending cycle of cultural appropriation. I wanted to do the Romani justice and make these characters seem like actual Romani...

But then an entirely different issue cropped up. There were things I wanted the characters to do that the Romani simply would never do, because it violated Romanipen and very strict codes of purity. For example, my lead characters, Lily Camlo and Andresh Camomescro, would not be allowed to be alone together, or express physical love (even in the awkward early stages of first kisses and holding hands) unless they were married, period. Except they would hardly be allowed to marry in the first place.

Andresh and Lily are meant to be together.
The Name and the Key (c) Spikie
Lily has a Romani father, but a gadje mother, and in an already extraordinary circumstance, the family would be considered polluted because gadje do not possess Romanipen. Lily would therefore also be gadje, and Andresh would simply not be allowed to have anything to do with her, unless he faces total expulsion. That means cutting himself off from his family and especially his father, whom he loves deeply and would never want to leave. This sort of thing--running off with an outsider--just didn't happen in the past.

I had to come to terms with the idea that I couldn't write my characters as gypsies or Romani, because in the end they have essences of both. I couldn't call my characters gypsies because they were more than the stereotype, and possessed shades of actual Romani culture. But I couldn't call them Romani because they didn't truly possess Romanipen. And above all, my world is still fictional. It is a world like Earth, but isn't. Gypsies and Romani are of this Earth and have no business in my story.

The best resolution I could make, then, was to refuse to give them a name.

I've provided details for the reader to draw their own conclusions about the cultural basis for these characters, and when they are referred to at all, it's with general terms: wanderers, travelers, itinerants, rovers, tribes, clans, companies, and so forth.

There might have been a better way to handle this, but I'm not certain of what it could be, given my own limitations as a writer. Even if I drop hints or give allusions to what culture these characters belong to, readers are going to name it in their minds, anyway: "oh, these characters are gypsies!" ...although it's my greatest hope the reader will not default to the pejorative name white outsiders created, and think something more along the lines of, "oh, these characters are kind of like the Romani!"

I've written a trilogy where the vast majority of characters are Asian, with a sprinkling of Arabic, African, and European cultures mixed in. To be even more blunt about it, very few characters in this trilogy are white. And I want my fantasy novels to be like this, because the world is like this. Ultimately, I want my readers to pick up my novels and find something of themselves in them.

I hope that through my research and (continuing) education I will have the sense to recognize when my own cultural assumptions, borne of white privilege, have made their way into the writing. When I shared this discussion with some of my Seton Hill classmates, one of the issues that popped up was the idea of knowing who my audience is. And although part of me is writing for my own enjoyment, in the end, I'm writing for you.

Whoever you may be.

September 13, 2014

I write fantasy and I'm worried white privilege will infiltrate my books. Part One.

When you think of characters in the fantasy genre,
is this what you see?

From The Lord of the Rings,
The Fellowship of the Ring
This is a two-part post my brain's been struggling to put together for a while, because it's tricky subject matter and I have no easy answers for any of it.  You see, I write fantasy: the genre of the impossible, where there is potentially no limit for what the author can create and what the reader can envision.

I am a world-builder. I like to create characters and nations and cultures and throw them into a universe where magic is real, and the tangible and intangible coexist. The worlds I create, however, are simply variants of our own.

I use Earth-like worlds because my own imagination is limited when it comes to innovative world creation. I just don't have the capability to build a Middle Earth or an Arrakis. I grew up with stories that took place "Once upon a time in a far-off kingdom" or "Once upon a time, long ago." The world of fairy tales and myth didn't need to be more complicated than that. It was always easier for me to insert myself into the realm of "once upon a time" because it was familiar enough that I didn't feel unwelcome or uncomfortable with being a part of it. I still operate with this idea in mind as I write my own fantasy.

At its core, I am "writing what I know." But there are issues even with this. You see, I don't want to contribute to the line of fantasy authors who also wrote what they knew, which ended up being worlds with predominantly white characters based on European, feudalistic history. I don't want a world where non-white characters are packaged as stereotypes, or thrown in to add an "exotic" flavor to the otherwise same-old, same-old. But it's been like this in fantasy for a long time, even when there are exceptions to this rule.

I have to be honest and acknowledge this: I come from white privilege:
White privilege [...] is a term for societal privileges, [...] that benefit white people beyond what is commonly experienced by non-white[s...] in the same social, political, or economic circumstances. [note 1] The term denotes both obvious and less obvious unspoken advantages that white persons may not recognize they have, which distinguishes it from overt bias or prejudice.[1] These include cultural affirmations of one's own worth; presumed greater social status; and freedom to move, buy, work, play, and speak freely.[2] The concept of white privilege also implies the right to assume the universality of one's own experiences, marking others as different or exceptional while perceiving oneself as normal.[3][4
(Source: Wikipedia)
I emphasized in bold the sections of Wikipedia's definition that I think applies to not only real-life situations, but what also filters into fiction. This doesn't speak for all works of fiction, nor all authors, but I think it's safe to assume that even well-meaning white authors fall into the trap of "marking others as different or exceptional" when they write from their own "normal" worldviews. I personally make the mistake of assuming the universality of my experiences; I also am sometimes oblivious to the advantages I have, even when I try to be socially conscious.

I am worried that writing what I know--a world lived through the lens of white advantages--will negatively affect my writing. I want to write fantasy that includes major characters who are outside of my own personal experience and cultural history. I'm also worried when I create such characters, I'll unintentionally resort to cultural appropriation and stereotyping (which I think is another consequence of writing from privilege).

This has been on my mind since I started writing my thesis novel, The Name and the Key, in 2010. What started initially as a single-volume fantasy has morphed into a trilogy I've continued to work on when I've had the chance. This trilogy, The Worldwalker Chronicles, features main characters who are based off of the culture of the Romani, which are perhaps more famously (and pejoratively) known as gypsies.

Every time I've worked on the series I've had to pause and consider that I'm writing as both a gadje and a person of white privilege. How do I do justice to culture well outside my own experience, but also do justice to my own story?

This is a larger issue that I'll go into when I discuss Part Two. To tide you over until then, here are some great articles I recommend that defines these issues better than I've been able to:

Please feel free to leave comments; however, I reserve the right to delete anything I deem offensive or unproductive to the conversation. Thanks for reading!