Roundtable: Intersectionality, Part 1

N. K. Jemisin

I see intersectionality as essential to good characterization. But I’m always amazed at how often the need for good characterization is dismissed as unimportant in SFF, and how reluctant the genre is to examine its own flaws in this regard. Some of this reluctance is due to those unconscious factors Stefan mentioned, which include internalized bigotry and unquestioned social privilege. (Read a great essay recently on how we as readers tend to dismiss female power fantasy characters — Mary Sues — but not Gary Stus.)

But in addition, the genre has been downright backward about embracing (or not embracing) social science as well as “hard” science. There’s some intersectionality at work in this, too — the genre’s dominance by educated, economically privileged white men writing in patriarchial, post-colonial, capitalistic countries. They don’t need to learn about different people — even as they write about aliens — and they may not even see different people as equal in importance with themselves. But this kind of attitude makes for miserable characterization, and it’s one of the reasons SFF gets razzed for bad writing by the literary end of the continuum. Other genres of course have the same problem of pervasive unconscious privilege/bigotry, but in other genres I think writers are more likely to get called on it if they get character plausibility wrong. In our genre writers get more hate mail for botching brane theory than traumatic brain injury — especially if the injury sufferer is a poor Latina lesbian in Chile.

Jim Hines mentions an example in his recent “Writing About Rape” article at Apex —

I remember reading a book by a fairly popular author, one who had obviously done a tremendous amount of research into the science behind his SF story….And then it felt as if everything had changed, as if the author had exceeded his research quota, and so when it came time to write about rape, he produced an utterly cliché-ridden scene that crammed every conceivable rape myth into a two-page scene that made me give up on the whole damn series.

It was badly written and lazy. I don’t believe in “Write what you know,” but I’m a big believer in “Know what you write.”

So intersectionality can help writers know what, or who, they’re writing.

Cecelia Holland

Abstraction sounds good to the writer but is hell on the reader. The best fiction is concrete and immediate. The more abstract things get the harder they are to picture, the harder they are to understand, and when people are juggling totally abstract ideas they can mean anything. Cf politics.

Russell Letson

When I wrote that great art “takes everything you’ve got,” I was pulling my punch. I actually think that any art, even velvet Elvis paintings, calls on the whole critic, the whole armamentarium of

scholarship and history and rhetorical analysis and previous reading experience, along with personal history and self-awareness. Every column I write is the result of watching myself experience a book and trying to fit as much of that experience as possible into the thousand or so words that my audience might sit still long enough to read. And despite the decade I spent in grad school, I don’t use any particular brand-name theoretical system, nor do I consciously interrogate myself according to any particular examination-of-conscience/consciousness protocol. My literary toolkit is more like the literal one my father gave me when I left home in 1966: not a matched set of anything, but enough of the usual implements to get one through any situation that doesn’t require some exotic metric socket or Torx driver. Dad’s toolbox has since been added to, and the historical/New-Critical kit I assembled in grad school has a handful of newish widgets (mostly borrowed from my Marxist colleagues and never returned), but I don’t think much about who I am when I poke around inside a story–I just grab the tool that promises to do the job.

Kathleen Ann Goonan

My introduction to literature was an exercise in intersectionality, because I am a female, was born in 1952, and had to read whatever was at hand if I wanted to read at all.

My reading experience was proscribed by several lenses, chief of which were what my (wonderful and dedicated) Lockland, Ohio, Honolulu, and Fairfax County librarians deemed child-safe. From these libraries I checked out, when I was seven and eight, every fairy tale book that I could lay hands on, as well as hair-raising ghosts, Ghosts, GHOSTS and many anthologies of dog stories. They were also proscribed by the GEM store. I got a dollar to spend there every week–riches–and it was understood that I would probably buy a Bobbsey Twins or Hardy Boys books–standard white American stock. The fairy tales were probably the most culturally rich, but they were all European. My Bookhouse, a lost series which my mother passed on, enthralled me. I could do no magic, though I learned to believe that I could; I was not a king, a beggar, a witch, a big-eyed dog, a world explorer, a pirate, or the west wind. Yet I was all of these. I shape-shifted with ease, thanks to these lenses. I understood pluck and wit and lies and transcendence.

It seems that I really had to understand what it was to be a boy, because few exciting characters were girls. I ran across few characters who were Chinese, African, or South American save in the Bookhouse, which preserved tales from many cultures.

Later, having exhausted the children’s section, I ventured into the adult stacks and checked out, without any problem, a wondrous book, The Drunken Boat, through which I absorbed a young male who fought with his mother, ran away from home, wrote torrents of wild poetry, and seemed a lot like me. A few years later I found the real book of poems in a bookstore, and the fact that this person was real rang through me like a bell. It gave me hope.

When Catch-22 came out in paperback in the early sixties I devoured it, along with Pynchon’s V and, indiscriminately, Mitchner’s Hawaii. I did not devour Rabbit, or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, or even Judith Merill’s anthologies (which I might have enjoyed more), though all of those were in the house too and completely available.

V and Catch-22 are, arguably, very weird. They are also vast, with many reflective glints, lots of information about what seemed the real world, for which I wanted to be armed. Their characters can be childlike. They have fun with the dark irony of the world and I could identify with that. I felt very much outside Dick’s worlds; found no entry into the Heinlein or any other SF I picked up: all not-me; all grown-up males. Males with a mission, males with no sense of humor, and I did love Three Men in a Boat, Thurber, S.J.Perelman, and anything that made me laugh myself silly. I also loved mysteries. Maybe I never gave science fiction a chance.

However, it seems likely to me that if there had been more science fiction written by women, I might have read more of it. I was primed by Le Guin’s Earthsea by the time The Dispossessed came out, along with a marvelous burst of SF and fantasy written by women in the early seventies–along with the Lin Carter’s great Ballentine re-issue series of authors such as George MacDonald and Lord Dunsany.

I learned to read as an outsider. Most of these books were not written with me in mind. Yet I was able to enjoy them. I stretched because I had to. I’m not saying that this is ideal; this was just my experience. Reading was a catholic experience. If a wider reach, with waves from farther shores, had been readily available with some link of accessibility, I would have devoured them as well.

It’s fine to read about ourselves, but I would argue that reading about others, if those others are true, is much more interesting.

I think that most writers are actors, and assume the guise of others more or less authentically, and, hence, successfully. But writing, criticism, and teaching science fiction to (or with) engineering students, as I do at Georgia Tech, are all different posts; this one is about learning to read and experience literature as an outsider child. I avoided very little except, paradoxically, science fiction. SF is much broader now, and richer.

Terry Bisson

What Goonan said. Reader as outsider. What drew me to SF (as a 12 yr old boy in the 50s) was that it was NOT written for me or about me. (Or so I thought.) I felt like I was sneaking into a real world, peeping under the curtain. What does it mean for young readers now that so many books are written “for” them, with teen protagonists, even girls! Is something lost?

Cecelia Holland

God help us. Girl protagonists! What’s the world coming to, Bisson?

Rachel Swirsky

Having the option to read about people like you does not foreclose the possibility that one can also read books about people who aren’t.

Ideally, people would read a mix of both, yes? At least, again, on an aggregate, social level (since presumably some people would have a preference for reading one or the other)?

Or, to turn the question around, if we’re losing things by making people not feel like outsiders, maybe we should mix up the novel protags a bit so that white, adult men can gain the extremely important advantage of never being able to see themselves represented in fiction? For the next twenty years, we’ll write only about poor, lesbian black teenagers. Yes, poor lesbian black teenagers will have to take a hit for the team, what with suffering all the disadvantages of being represented as the default, but at least we’ll be giving some different groups of people the exciting chance to always be outsiders.

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