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Writing about racism in Historical Fiction July 12, 2012

Filed under: Posts From the Internet — Micah Griffin @ 19:41
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There was a post here http://justinelarbalestier.com/blog/2012/07/13/writing-about-racism-in-the-past/

it’s about writing about racism in the past. The author brings up some questions, and I wrote a rambling response almost as long as their original post. Because that’s what I do.

The first thing I think about after reading this is why is it so important to tell this story? Why do we need another story revolving around racist white people? The reason I don’t read historical fiction is because a great majority of it either completely ignores how awful the time periods were (because most of these stories are written for white western audiences by white western people) for people of color (or any other marginalized group). The people who are so often the main focus of these stories are villains. They’re people who would want to see me killed for looking at them in the face. They don’t think I’m a person or deserving of any sort of equality or human rights. So they are bad guys. When you look at post reconstruction writings you’ll find that a great number of abolitionists regret ending slavery. A lot of “anti-racist” whites of the 1930s were actually extraordinarily racist. Paternalistic is putting it kindly. At the best, the biggest leaders in equality among white people were doing it for personal gain on their parts.
Going back and dealing with regency fiction, most writers don’t ever touch on imperialism and colonialization. Most of these books ignore the fact that anyone but white people even existed in England (or any other western European) countries at the time. It’s a big horrible mess that no one really deals with.
The thing is, historical fiction is most often by white people for white people and that’s where most of the problems come in. Writers of this type of fiction are not usually challenged to think about the implication of everything going on and push themselves to do more work. When they do research, most of the source materials are clearly things written by racist white folks. That’s the only reason we look at Queen Victoria and America’s founding fathers with any sort of fondness. That and we don’t actually care about racism.
So when it comes to writing historically, it seems most writers can’t help themselves but throw their own racism into the mix. This even happens when they catch themselves trying to be progressive. It’s not just in the depiction of characters of color, but in the depiction of the world itself. It’s how exclusionary the world is, or throw away lines about American Progress or the greatness of the Industrial Revolution where it is entirely obvious that the writer has forgotten about slavery, colonialization, genocide, convict leasing, sterilization programs, introducing diseases into populations, Native American relocation projects, and a host of other issues. People just don’t think about these things and it comes through.
White people should really avoid using the N-word at all costs. If historical accuracy is that important to you, cool, but I have to wonder about what kind of person you are. If that sort of historical accuracy is that important then it’s clear you don’t want me anywhere near your writings. There should be no conflict here. That was wrong of them. There better not have been a single historical inaccuracy in the rest of their book if that’s the length they’re going to go to.
What it comes down to is this, you have to ask yourself why you’re writing something and think about the impact that it has. What’s the point of doing what you’re doing. Why aren’t there people of color in this story? Why are there so many white people? What are these white people doing? When I talk about how cool these white people are why am I not mentioning the awful events that got them to the place they are. Stuff like this. Just general “does this actually need to be written?” stuff.


Doing it right (A quick note on historical fiction and not failing miserably) December 26, 2011

So I’m reading Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “Mists of Avalon” and I was struck by something very early on in this book. It doesn’t suck. (Editor’s note: I’m now 40% in and it’s still doing alright). The story is yet another telling of the King Arthur Legend, because there totally aren’t enough of those. The differentiating feature of this one is that it’s told through the eyes of the female characters in the legend. I don’t think I’ve ever read a version that did this so I was interested. The thing I didn’t know is if Marion Zimmer Bradley would be any better at dealing with historical sexism in her fictional book than anyone else did. You would think that someone focusing on having female leads would be better, but anyone who reads a lot of books absolutely knows that books with female leads can be just as sexist themselves.

Turns out, this book is pretty good. It firmly establishes itself in British History, and manages to show that , yes, this society was fucked up. Not good at all. What this doesn’t do is indulge in that stupidity. It’s not perfect (it has awesome cliches being held by characters like having a “monthly curse.”), but it’s better. So much better than some other books I’ve been reading lately. I really enjoy it. Basically what it does is look at the society of the time and works within it to tell the story without bowing down completely to it. Characters rebuke a lot of the sexist notions during their inner monologues. When some characters speak in private they openly mock societal positions for women. Some characters openly rebel against societal constraints against them.  Some characters go along with it and defend the patriarchy (just as a lot of people defend it now) and some people move along and just don’t question how things are.  It works for me. It’s just not terrible. It’s amazing how much easier sections of this book are to read than other books set in similar time frames, and mostly all just because I’m not pissed off at lazy writing.

Like I said, I’m just a quarter of the way though, but it’s just enjoyable to read a book without having to read hundreds of pages of “well, you know how women are. They just can’t help themselves but to be womens. lawl”