01 July 2018

Game Over. Would You Like to Restart?

These are thoughts a long time coming, and I think they grew out of two things; the climate in which we live, and the fact that I've gotten more mature as a thinker and writer as the years have passed. 

When I went to graduate school, I had to write a novel as my graduate thesis. From 2010-2013 I started and finished my first book (ever!) and people loved it, and I loved, it, and so... immediately upon graduating, I started querying agents in order to get the book published as an intended trilogy.  I got rejected - as expected - but the rejections were personalized and offered advice, so I took it as a fortuitous sign that I was close, but needed to rewrite the book per their recommendations. And the agents' advice made total sense, so I had no issue with making changes to the manuscript. I thought for certain this would take me maybe a year or so, and I'd be out querying once again, and voilĂ ! Book deal.

Obviously, it didn't turn out this way.

I started writing this book when I was 27. I finished just before turning 30. Until recently, I sat on it for years due to my teaching job and life getting in the way, but I never stopped thinking about how to change the book for the better. I'm 34 now, soon to be 35, and I've continued to mature and see the world in a different way, and I realize how glad I am that the book did not get published. 

I am grateful that I liked what I made, and so did many other people. But now, it's time to say goodbye. The novel is problematic in that despite what I thought were my best efforts to avoid this, I can only conclude that the book is culturally appropriative. The only solution is to tear what I have down and start completely from scratch. 

In a way, it's not entirely surprising it came to this. I've struggled with these problems over the course of rewriting the novel, as I've shared in the blog posts "I write fantasy and I'm worried white privilege will infiltrate my books" (Part One and Part Two). To recap: 
Source - "Cultural Appropriation: The New Trend"
at The Odyssey Online.

  • As I child, I fell in love with "gypsies" (coming from seeing Esmeralda in Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame), not realizing that the thing I adored was a harmful stereotype based on centuries of fear, bigotry, and ignorance.

  • I tried to reconcile fantasy with reality and learned as much as I could about the Romani  culture, but aspects of the literary stereotype stayed with me and it came up in my writing. The characters in The Name and the Key were inspired by the Romani, but in hindsight some of that stereotypical "gypsy" stuff leaked into the story anyway. 

  • At the time, I thought I was working very hard to not appropriate culture or write about it untruthfully, but in the end, it hit me - I would just be another white writer cherry-picking the elements of the culture that appealed to me, and leaving out the parts that didn't. I mean, isn't that the very definition of appropriation?  Anyway, I don't want to be this type of writer or this type of human being. 

How did I reach my conclusions about my writing? Through listening to the opinions of other people. 

  • The first epiphany came from a Facebook conversation over a year ago between science fiction and fantasy authors in response to this article. Initially I disagreed with the blog author's stance, but after listening to feedback from African American speculative fiction authors, I changed my mind. Because of the system of discrimination sewn into the fabric of our culture (in this instance, the publishing world), essentially when a person of privilege (a white person) tells the story of someone who is underprivileged (a person of color), we're taking an opportunity away from them to tell their own story. It's not an attack on authors who want to write diverse characters. It's more an attack on how the system favors white writers, and that system would rather publish a white author writing about diverse characters than diverse authors writing about diverse characters. Because the system functions this way (and is therefore broken), what white authors can do is step back and let the opportunities so easily given to us go to other authors. If you want an example of this in action, see Ed Skrein stepping down from Hellboy. 

    My realization: As a white fantasy author appropriating elements of Romani culture, I still have a likelier chance of getting published than a Romani writer writing about Romani culture...and this is bullshit. I need to step back and let a Rom write Romani.

  • The second epiphany came from Tumblr. Whatever you may think about this platform, Tumblr is a great resource because of its diversity of opinions and creative nuggets of wisdom. When I started rewriting The Name and the Key, I followed bloggers who identified as Romani to make sure I was always connected to their perspective. The first punch in the face were posts that tore apart books and authors misrepresenting Romani culture. While I think I'm capable of discerning sources that are problematic (and some on the list were obviously terrible), I was still shocked that some of these were sources I consulted when writing The Name and the Key. 

    My realization: some of my research was based on lies, and by using these resources, I was just continuing to perpetuate stereotypes in my work. 

  • The third epiphany also came from Tumblr in a simple post that I favorited but cannot locate (because I've favorited over a thousand things on Tumblr). A couple sentences, paraphrased here: "f--- you stupid gadje with your gypsy soul wanderlust fashion crap stealing my culture for your profit."

    My realization: as careful as I thought I was being when I wrote The Name and the Key, if I want to be honest with myself, I'm kind of doing the same thing the OP was complaining about. I'm writing a book that I want people to buy. There you go.
Yeah...this is problematic.
So much of my book's worldbuilding and fictional cultures came from the Romani, and so I have to rebuild the entire book from the ground up. Here's all the fun stuff I get to do (and I'm not being sarcastic, I think this will actually be fun):
  • Rename the characters (first names are OK; last names need to be changed)
  • Cut words and phrases that "borrow" from the Romani language or belief systems (such as "The Mullow,"  taken from mulo)
  • Completely redo the language I created in January  
  • Cut things in the book inspired by cultural beliefs (like romanipen
  • Invent a new origin story for this group of people - and don't make it about race
  • Tweak some of the magic systems
  • The book is mostly low fantasy, but I'd like to add more high fantasy elements to the novel (this will allow me to be more creative with my world and culture-building, I think)
All in all, while I am proud of the book I wrote in graduate school, I think the time and place for it is over. My friend described what I'm going through with the novel as an "amicable divorce" in that we were there for each other and great at the time, but now have irreconcilable differences and have reached a mutual understanding. 

There are still great characters and great ideas from The Name and the Key, and I'm not saying goodbye to them - I'm excited about putting them in new situations and storylines. I'm going forward with this restart and I can't wait to see how it turns out in the end.


A note about comments - This would be considered a sensitive post, given its themes and topics. If you want to comment on this post, be forewarned, I'm policing them a bit more.  In particular, 
  • Unsolicited advice will be deleted. 
  • Arguments that cultural appropriation or white privilege don't exist, or attempts to defend or rationalize it in any way will be deleted. 
  • Personal attacks will be deleted. 
  • Attempts to persuade me to reconsider any aspect of my position on this topic will be deleted. 
  • It's my website and I DO WHAT I WANT (lol but not really)